Tuesday, February 24, 2009

the good, the bad, and the caffeine

Is it possible that there's just something enlivening about a poorly behaved class? Today got started on a very bad note. Eight grade science in a rather rough middle school. The whole group of them came in with attitude, ready to take on the sub. Maybe I hadn't finished my coffee, maybe there were just more of them than there was me, maybe I just wasn't ready to be taken on. I started off firm and clear, still there were a couple of boys who simply wouldn't be quiet, one boy in particular who consistently called back to his friends in another language. I had only just taken roll, but I had to give these kids a test and no way was it going to happen with this boy in the room. So I referred him to the school's discipline office. Disrupting class, incessant talking, profanity, defiance. You could have heard a pin drop for the rest of the test.

The rest of the day the classes gradually got better, and the effects of too many late nights began to get me going on the yawns. By the time my best class sat down in their seats working diligently and silently I thought I was going to have to scream to stay awake. How could I be so bored when only a couple hours earlier I was working to play at the top of my game not to loose control of an entire classroom? Fortunately the final class of the day hit the perfect mark. A few testy kids who needed a little wrangling to get focused on learning science. I was surprised to feel almost grateful for their misbehaving -- anything to ease the boredom of too many students doing exactly what they were supposed to! There's something to be said for a little attitude.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The third most spoken language in the world...

I was at a Los Angeles area middle school teaching Spanish to a group of 7th graders just learning about the language. We read that Spanish was the third most spoken language in the world. So I asked them what they thought number 1 and 2 were. We agreed English probably had to be one of those, but the other was a stumper for them. Several students raised their hands. "Armenian" was their response. I asked one of them why Armenian. "Because everyone I know who speaks English also speaks Armenian."
I told her she needed to consider the whole world, not just where she lives.
Another student tried something else. "Persian?" he asked, a little more hesitant.
"No," I said, "I'm sure it isn't Persian. Do you know a lot of people who speak Persian?" He nodded. I called on a third student.
"Russian?" There was a community of people in this neighborhood who had immigrated from Russia. But at least this was a closer guess, Russia being a country with a huge landmass, although not a huge population. I was amazed at the students inability to think about languages outside of their own experience. So although I also did not know what the two most spoken languages were, I tried to help them think about the large world, about what they knew of populations and country size, and we eventually all agreed it was probably English and Chinese (Mandarin) or maybe a language from India.

Everyone talks about how small the world has become with the advent of the Internet, still, when it came down to engaging that world a group of 7th grade students couldn't evaluate their own place in it. It worries me, but I'm not going to solve it in one day of subbing. It's a problem as old as time, being unable to imagine a universe that doesn't revolve around your place in it.

What's your guess? You might be more right than you think:

About.com geography lists these most spoken languages from 2007
1. Mandarin Chinese - 882 million
2. Spanish - 325 million
3. English - 312-380 million
4. Arabic - 206-422 million
5. Hindi - 181 million
6. Portuguese - 178 million
7. Bengali - 173 million
8. Russian - 146 million
9. Japanese - 128 million
10. German - 96 million

But here's another site that explains the complications of coming up with any real data and offers a list of interpretations: http://www2.ignatius.edu/faculty/turner/languages.htm

Friday, February 13, 2009

Starting Kindergarten

Last week I had subbed in the kindergarten classroom of the teacher who had taught both Maia and Chongo for kindergarten. It was fun to be reminded of Ms. B's teaching style and the ideas she brought to the classroom. And it took me back to Chongo's first day of kindergarten. I couldn't help but remember the trepidation I felt watching that beloved boy climb the stairs into her classroom chanting under his breath, "I'm scared, I'm scared, I'm scared."

I didn't worry about his ability to succeed at learning. What I feared was what might be lost of him in the process. If he really did get along, if he really did do as he was told who would he become? Would anyone recognize the hidden beauty of him? The Chongo-ness that sometimes required special glasses to appreciate. It may be a generalization, but there is some truth to the fact that only your mother can really appreciate who you are. Everyone else just wants you to follow the rules and not raise a ruckus. This can be especially true in school, and I woke at night terrified that sending him into the school "system" might be wrong.

But, Chongo was fortunate. Ms. B. was not that sort of teacher, and I suppose it helped that Chongo's being fully Chongo did not include disrupting the class. Yes, there were a few paintings that looked like every other kindergartners, but there were also these wonderful, imaginative books that Ms. B. put together for students to practice their writing. Based on the book "If You Give a Mouse a Muffin," they went through almost the entire alphabet with five pages of open ended statements such as "If you give a turtle a ticket he might...." Chongo became her best writer (or so she told me) not for his ability to spell or write neatly, but because of his confidence. He had an answer for every jaguar, girl, mouse, or baboon and every possible thing they could be given. The last page was always blank, and the students had to fill in the object. Chongo never wavered. Whatever happened in all the rest of the centers, cutting and pasting words that began with letters and circling the number of fish in the bowl, every week, in these books, Chongo had his imagination set free.

It wasn't long before I learned that it would take a lot of system to get the Chongo-ness out of Chongo. Now that he's a teenager, I sometimes wish Ms. B. had been the kind of teacher that whipped kids into shape. As I sat at her workstation last week and collated the "If you give an Elephant a..." books and thought about the variety of five-year olds who still came to her every day to learn, I was happy she was still setting students imaginations free.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


I am continually amazed at the ability of kindergarten teachers to get 20 just-out-of-preschool kids moving in the same educational direction. Making all the right things happen at the right time is just about the most difficult thing in Kindergarten.

I'd had a very bad time of it one day with a new class of kindergartners. Inadvertently I'd gotten an hour off on my time. I raced the kids through centers started hurrying them out the door to snack when the teacher next door stopped us. "Isn't it snack time?" I asked
"Not for another hour," she said. "Have you already finished centers?"
The truth was we'd hardly finished centers, and certainly not with any quality. But now we were all moving towards snack and I had to bring them back into the world of cutting out words that started with the letter "p." I brought the kids back to the carpet and told them I was sorry I had made a mistake, but we would work it out. And we did. They were very forgiving, but very hungry they told me. I told myself kindergartners can learn that even a day with mistakes can be salvaged for something good.

Two weeks later I was back in the same class. As we settled in for the morning calendar routine. I reminded the students I had been there two weeks before. "And we had a little mistake," the boy in the front row reminded me. I grimaced. How is it that a five year old can remember your mistake from two weeks before but can't remember the directions you gave him five minutes ago. "Yes," I admitted in my calm, pleasant kindergarten voice. "we did have a little mistake. But I think things will go better to day." He nodded with what I hoped was confidence.

Fortunately for my confidence, and in rather a lovely gesture, the teacher who caught me in the middle of the snafu, asked if I would sub for her kindergarten class the following week. One thing you learn in kindergarten is that mistakes can offer you another chance to suceed.