Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Zhenya's 80th Thanksgiving Potluck Party

A very young Zhenya, already thinking about gettin' straight and gettin' together...


Come one, come all and celebrate two big events together with us- Zhenya's 80th birthday and Thanksgiving. I know this is an odd place to post a personal family reunion event, but we are a little bit of an odd family. Zhenya's upcoming birthday has been on my mind for a while now. I wanted to recognize it in a way that helped bring the family together in a joyful spirit, and what better way to accomplish this than by pairing it with Thanksgiving? Asheville, NC has a typically mild temperature in November, so don't delay, buy your airline ticket today and mark your calendar for this event that will satisfy your cravings for delicious food, warm, lively company, good live music, and the opportunity to build new family connections with the next generations. I am looking forward to seeing everyone November 24th or sooner! Please leave a comment letting us know if you're planning on coming, or email me directly: tsenyak@gmail.com    With love, Tamar


Thursday, July 07, 2016

Building Community with First Graders

I am one week into teaching summer school, and I already feel like this is my best teaching experience ever. Have I finally arrived? Is this that moment when new manual shift drivers know they can let out the clutch without stalling? Wow, it took a lot more effort than I could have imagined. It’s a good thing no one told me how laborious this new career path would be, because I doubt I’d stick around for the fruits. As a grandmother who volunteered in my first grade class once said, ‘It’s like squeezing blood from a turnip.’ Sometimes, it’s just like that. But not this summer. I have 8 precious little lambs that are with me for the next three weeks. Yes, it’s a very small number of students for public school; and the fact that it’s just half a day doesn’t hurt either- but something is different this time. I am getting immediate feedback on how useful the strategies I’m sharing with my charges are in helping their literacy skills. We played ‘The Paper Bag Game,’ in which one student feels an object hidden from the other students, and he describes what it feels like and what it’s used for. I had another student act as scribe and list the descriptions on chart paper. All the kids were really engaged, and when it was time to write their own poems, they incorporated pieces of the lesson into their writing. I also am excited that they are receptive to The B.F.G. as a read aloud experience. I thought they might be more likely to enjoy the story since the new film version just came out. I wondered if the vocabulary and cultural references might go over their heads, and thus make them lose interest. When I first started reading it, I gave Sophie a nice cockney accent, and somehow turned the B.F.G. into a drunken Russian. My kids can handle two chapters at a time, and that’s about the limit of my strained vocal chords, so it works out well. I wanted to highlight some of the creative vocabulary Mr. Dahl used, so I reviewed a few words prior to reading the chapter containing them. I asked my students what they thought ‘scrumplet’ could mean. Lele questioned in the faintest voice in the world, ‘delicious?’ During math, Nester told me he still needs to find his backpack. Just then, Diego, a middle school student who is helping in my classroom, told me he needed to tell me something important. Diego took me aside and confided that Nester told him if he doesn’t find his backpack his mother is going to give him a beating. Nester just started summer school yesterday, and from the first time he came into the class, he just does exactly what he’s supposed to do without effort. I was rattling on about the B.F.G. on the carpet, and I look over at him, and he’s staring at me attentively with these huge sad eyes. The idea of a grown up hitting him is horrifying to me. I also understand that I can’t change someone else’s parenting or culture, and I want to be careful not to pass judgment, but rather try to understand- and more importantly, find that back pack! After asking the class assistant to mind the students, I dart in and out of rooms hunting for this back pack. When I come back empty handed, Nester, with his big sad eyes starts crying silently. Big tears falling out of his eyes onto his desk. I try to comfort him. His poetry partner Michael takes it a step further. ‘Maybe you left it on the bus.’ Nester: ‘No I left it in the classroom, I didn’t bring it on the bus.’ Pretty soon all the grown-ups (there were 5 of us!) were talking about how we would find this back pack. As I brought the kids to the carpet for our final B.F.G. reading, Diego said he would check next door since Nester had after-care there. Nester seemed more relaxed. I’m guessing that, although a potential spanking was still on the table, knowing he had a whole classroom full of peers and teachers that were routing for him must have felt comforting. ‘Where’s Diego?’ Keely asked. ‘He went to look for Nester’s back pack.’ Keely looked pensive and said, ‘We don’t want Nester to cry again.’ Diego walked in with the little black backpack with the green skeleton on it. Everyone was smiling and visibly relieved. When they talk about building community in classrooms to prevent misbehaviors, I feel like we’ve accomplished this on the highest level. I felt so much love for these Lovely Lion Cubs. They fully earned the dried figs and strawbumples I bought for them for our Friday read aloud of the B.F.G.
Nester and Michael's poem: Driftwood It's hard It's wiggley It smells like nothing. When I blow it [it] makes me cough. Drift wood

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Whiskey or Rye?

Well, here I am, back in my old stomping grounds. Has anyone missed me? Did anyone notice my extended absence? My world these days and since August 18 has revolved mostly around the education of my new class of first graders at my new school in San Pablo. There are some notable differences in the habits of this group as compared with my last class, which was located in the more affluent El Sobrante. Many of my new kids have a loose definition of attendance. Some are regularly 1 or 2 hours late. A couple of kids haven't showed up for two weeks. Are they following cultural mores? Do they dislike their new teacher? Yesterday Diego casually entered the classroom with the rest of the class at 8:30 when I ushered them in from the playground. He had not been to class in over two weeks. He quietly sat in his seat, a nervous look on his face. He is a larger child, looking more like a 10 year old than a 6 year old. The first day he cried when his mother left him. Despite his nervousness, he seems oblivious to classroom norms, and is often talking to his tablemates when I'm trying to give a lesson. He appears to be devastated when I remind him. So many things happen before 9:00, I wanted to make sure I acknowledged his return. During attendance I asked him where he had been this whole time. He said his grandpa was really sick, and then he died. The class and I took a moment to digest what he'd said. I told him I was really sorry, and asked him if he'd like us to make cards for his family. He did. I asked him what kinds of things his grandpa liked, so we could maybe include them in our cards. He said, 'Well, when we buried him, we put a drink in there.' Me: 'Oh- you put a drink in his coffin? A cup of coffee?' Diego smiled, and said no. 'A glass of wine?' He nodded. Later that day in the lunch room I shared the story with Ms. Pena, another first grade teacher. She said that one year she celebrated the day of the dead with her class, and explained to them that families who are mourning their loved ones will offer their spirits foods, and then enjoy the food themselves. The kids went home and told their parents that they ate the food that dead people didn't want. Ms. Pena had a lot of parents calling in concerned about this, and that was the last time she celebrated the holiday in class. I still wanted to have my class create sympathy cards, but I was cautious in the sentiments being included. When we were all seated on the carpet and brainstorming what to write, I gave a sentence starter: 'I am sorry..' I paused, not sure myself how to complete the thought. One boy called out earnestly, 'I am sorry you died.' Time to take over. 'Let's write, 'I am sorry for your loss.' The kids agreed, and off they went. They created some amazing cards! One little girl made a manga-like rendition of herself crying, holding a card that said 'Love Tina' on it. Diego wrote a card that did make me cry: Mom, I know you loved grandpa. I loved him too. Love Diego'. Today Diego came back again to school. He said his mom thanked the class for the cards. When I dismissed the class at the end of the day, he gave me a big hug. It is a huge challenge as a teacher when kids are persistently tardy or absent. My class this year is particularly distracted and off-task, and it feels disrespectful to have a student knock on the door an hour after class has begun, and go through all the routines of preparing for the day. What if I did that when I took classes over this summer at UC Berkeley? I am pretty sure my professor would have had a big problem with it. And this is part of the reason teaching is so challenging- there exists a mental/moral/philosophical struggle within most every decision a teacher has to make with regards to her students' well-being. At the core of this internal debate is the belief that students are individuals, and as such, need their needs addressed within that framework, and not exclusively through the lense of the class as a whole. So I am glad I took a moment to jump off my high horse of attendance norms, and probe Diego's absence as a caring adult figure in his life. My whole class grew as a result, though they likely would have probed Diego's circumstances without hesitation.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Leann, the hairdresser

I have a few free days before school starts again. I have no idea how to use free time. I have had a groundbreaking year for myself, gainfully employed at a job I adore. This is the first time I really loved my job since scooping Frusen Glädjé ice-cream in Manhattan when I was a kid. Wait- I also loved my waitressing stint two years ago- but both of those jobs were temporary pathways to the Studs Terkel kind of work that defines a modern person. After eight momentous months of being the kindergarten teacher to 26 beautiful children, guiding their emergent reading and math skills, assisting them navigate through the social ineptitudes of their peers, adapting to vastly different child-rearing methods of these students’ families, two whole trimesters of report card entries and accompanying individualized comments that have the power to become a recurring mantra for years to come in the ill-adjusted- all this data available to remind me that I have become a properly functioning adult- and yet- I am clueless, still, as to what to do with my free time. My pre-kindergarten teacher days would find me in search of events that would demand my immediate exit from my apartment, abandoning all quotidian chores in favor of some exotic adventure that would reinforce my goals of living a culturally rich life. These usually take place in the public library. I know, it doesn't sound very glamorous, does it? I have not yet been disappointed or failed to learn something new and useful at these meetings. Today however, my plan was to take a bus to Barnes and Noble to get some math materials for my class. I knew I had a long wait, so I popped into this tiny deli next to the bus stop. The clerk had a funny little voice, and looked Ethiopian. No, he is definitely Somali. It felt improper to ask him so I asked about the coffee instead. 'Do you have coffee?' 'No,' he smiled, without offering a reason to go with the answer. 'Do you ever have coffee?' I asked, quite surprised at his nonchallance at this shocking news. 'No,' he replied, again with a little smile that suggested it was a pretty amusing conundrum I had fallen into. 'OK, thanks,' I said as I walked back to the bus stop, feeling like there was a lot more to say on the topic. As I stood waiting for the bus, the smiling Somali swept some garbage out of his store. He looked at me and (as expected) smiled and apologized shyly. 'Oh, that's fine,' I said, thinking, is he just going to leave that garbage there? A few seconds later he came out and continued sweeping the area in front of his store, and then scooped the collection of goods into a dustpan. Then he came over to where I was standing and continued sweeping (he was being quite thorough, I thought.) He bent down and picked up a black bodied pencil, and as he examined it, asked me if I didn't want it. He spoke quickly and with a heavy accent, so I needed him to repeat the question a few more times before I understood what he was asking. He didn't become impatient as my little sister would have. She hates when people don't hear her. Apparently this didn't bother the sweeping Somali at all. After a few minutes of small talk, I asked him where he was from. 'Eritrea. Do you know where that is?' I did in fact. I was pleased that I hadn't been too far off with my original guess. He didn't seem very impressed that I knew who Meb Keflezhigi was, until I mentioned that he was quite short in stature, and I knew this because when we took a photo together, he only came up to my shoulder. (Specificity leads to believability, as my resume writing coach loved to say.) My new friend was notably excited when I revealed this information about his fellow Eritrean. So I was actually set to write about Leann the lady who cut my hair today at Supercuts. I really liked the way she did exactly what I asked her to do, she didn't berate my hair in order to sell me a product, and she was a really great listener. We had a really nice conversation about the challenges of being a kindergarten teacher, and she shared that people she knew tended to try and get lots of free haircuts out of her. She had really long black hair, and I felt like I could trust that she wouldn’t cut off more than I wanted. Sure enough, when she was done snipping, I had a hard time finding any evidence of a haircut on the floor. Yet I loved my new haircut! Even though hair is essentially dead, I think it's a little like a plant in that it will respond to proper emotional nurturing. Leann put a dab of some beachy smelling leave-in conditioner, and told me it would even-out my hair color. When I pressed her for a translation of what that really meant, she said it would get rid of the brassiness. (It really was quite brassy, and was in dire need of a brass ass-kicking.) So I can't believe this is my first blog entry in eight months! But I guess that's what happens when you are suddenly the caregiver to children- they completely take over, as well they should.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Not as Bad as Woolsack Racing

The last time I participated in any official running group was close to ten years ago. Even though this said group was meeting at the nearly still-slumbering hour of 7:00 a.m. on a frigid upstate New York winter Sunday morning, I distinctly remember feeling very excited to join the ranks of runners in the 'Brian Baker 10 mile run' group. An invisible badge of pride cloaked my tired body as I trotted slightly behind this speedy group of athletes that morning. There were a few rules to contend with: 1)You don't stop running. For any reason. Despite the commonly understood definition of 'group run', connoting a run involving more than one runner, there was an understanding amongst regular participants that basically, every man was for himself on these group runs. A mutual friend relayed the story of a time when he arrived at Brian's house to discover the mercury had not quite reached the 1 degree mark yet. He had to tap on Brian's bedroom window to stir him out of bed. On this occasion, the run (always timed, naturally) started at a tardy 7:32. As the miles ticked on, my friend noticed his shoe became untied, and so he stopped to retie it. When he looked up, Mr. Baker's form could be seen far ahead in the distance. He had to sprint to catch up.(His pride has yet to recover.) Fast forward ten years to Albany, California. I have found an enjoyable group run that meets Sunday mornings at 8:00 a.m. There's a good mix of runners possessing a wide range of paces. This morning I chose to do the 8 mile run. The organizers had mini maps printed for each of the 3 different course distances. Though each group had a designated leader, I grabbed a map. Not that it would do much good, since the font was rather small, thus making the prospect of actually being able to read the street names while trying to hold the little map steady as I ran, a highly unlikely prospect. None of this deterred me from clinging to the little paper square of directives, possibly dreaming of the remote possibility of serving as the hero understudy should our fearless leader Ricardo have any unexpected mishaps along his course of duty. Since he started his tour running up Solano avenue backwards while monitoring his charges, this seemed like a real possibility. What began as a slight incline up Solano turned into a more serious uphill grade ascending Los Angeles Avenue. My breathing quickly became labored while lactic acid flooded my quads. At that precise crossroad of discomfort, a smiling fresh-faced young woman neatly trotted beside me. 'Is this the 5 mile run?' she asked cheerfully. I let her know I was doing the 8 mile run, and wasn't sure about the other courses. I tried to convey this information using as few words as possible, due to my compromised state of oxygen-deprivation. Oblivious to my plight, she instantly abandoned her plan to run the shorter distance in favor of joining me. 'This will be fine', she said with a toothy smile, 'I'm just going to take it easy today.' Hadn't Bill Rodgers used that trick as he passed his foes during the Boston Marathon? She proceeded to pick up the pace. We turned onto Spruce street and the course got steeper. It baffled me that her smile had not faded in the slightest. If anything, it intensified. It seemed to increase in direct proportion to the gradation increase. So did my grimace. Spruce street was an endless road which kept climbing higher. Tiny sprinkles of fog condensation misted my bare shoulders. I failed to appreciate their refreshing qualities. When we turned onto Grizzly Peak Boulevard and the course finally leveled out, I uncrumpled the map to check for our turnaround point. I was very impressed with how well the ink from the map was holding up- so different from my own printer's cheap ink copies. We arrived at our check-in spot, and started heading back down the hill. Life instantly improved. Breezing back down Grizzly Peak, I was able to hold a normal conversation with smiley. I discovered that she's a scientist who recently moved to the Bay Area. She gushed about how young and enthusiastic all the people she worked with were. As opposed to all of us old, resentful job-seekers, I thought. She asked what field I was in. I told her I recently went back to school for Early Childhood Education, and I was exploring classroom teaching and alternative curriculum with the goal of incorporating genuine (as opposed to theoretic) differentiated instruction which seeks to build on students' interests. 'So which end are you working in then, the schools or the design end?' 'I'm in the unemployed end', I replied, with a nervous giggle to break the awkward silence that followed. Just then another runner joined us and I decided to pick up the pace. I like downhills. I think my new running partners did too, as they quickly caught up to me and somehow we were all chatting together like it was second nature. So this story reminds me of an old Jewish folkloric tale. A man lamented to his rabbi one day that his house was too small and he asked for guidance. The rabbi told him to bring all of his farm animals into the house one by one. The man did so. His feelings of being cramped in his modest home increased. He lamented again to his rabbi, and the rabbi had him remove all the animals. The man was then content with his modest house. Sometimes you need a big hill to run up to appreciate how much you love running down hill.

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Poet Grows in Texas

On a cold and windy morning while trying to sell some old books at a group yard sale, my 5th grade student and I started talking about poetry. As an experiment, we composed a poem together based on the events of the otherwise calm day. The poem was recently published in the quarterly poetry and arts magazine, 'Voices de la Luna'.


How to Sell Your Junk

The pink metal glistened from inside the sagging cardboard box
We grabbed the swords and started fighting
My opponent blocked my first jab, grinning shyly
Her expression remained til the end of the war
A small crowd gathered to watch
The fight stopped, the crowd disappeared
‘We should fight,’ said smiley, ‘people come when we fight’
After all, it was a garage sale

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

I Don't Have a Favorite

This short piece was written in five minutes as an exercise in a poetry workshop. We were asked to respond to a featured poem, with the theme of recognizing a diamond in the rough. "I'm from Gre-nah-da. Do you know where that is?" "Yes. There's a girl in Ms. Rondeau's class from Gre-nay-da." "It's Gre-nah-da! Why did you say 'Gre-nay-da?" "Oh, I don't know. I always say it that way. I'm sorry. Gre-nah-da." Samoa was my favorite second grader. When I asked my reading group, 'Who knows what jazz is?' She pulled out her air-trumpet and started playing. When she was being reminded not to talk during the lesson, she said, 'You're ugly, Samoa!' But she was not. One winter day after school as I walked to the subway I saw her wolf hat ears bobbing up and down. She was holding her mother's hand. "Hi Samoa!" "Hi Ms.S.! This is my mom." We exchanged shy hellos. This was wrong. Samoa took my hand and her mother's hand and made us shake. Maybe it was time to hand over my teacher's hat to this seven year old.