Wednesday, January 28, 2009

They Can Smell Your Fear

These past two weeks I have been pushed into the abyss of teaching. One of my assistant principals announced firmly that I would be covering classes for teachers conducting individual student assessments outside the classroom. I glanced at the schedule she handed me. Uh-oh, there were 4th and 5th graders on this list! I was not used to big kids or big kid lessons. Even second graders had an air of smugness to them that made me miss the unjaded little kindergartners. Suck it up, Tamar. Sooner or later you're going to have to start dealing with the adult world again, and upper elementary kids were as good a place to start as any. I walk into Jordan's class, and she hands me a perfectly laid out substitute teacher's lesson plan for the two hours I am to be with her 4th graders. Things look easy enough, until I get a glimpse of a two page lesson plan on Deforestation. She tells me this will be easy, just go over it with them on the rug, take as much time as I want to explain anything. I nod and smile as she heads out the door to start her first assessment. There's a slight problem. I don't really have any idea how to talk about Deforestation. I feel like a Seinfeld character. Yeah, I know that I can write-off many expenses when filing taxes, but what exactly am I writing-off? (OK, I have been doing my own taxes forever now, so this is just an analogy.. for other people, who really don't know about their write-offs. Not that it's an indication of great intelligence, just to illustrate that we do some things as adults for too many years without really questioning what it means, and then it's too late or embarrassing to ask.) No real time to panic about looking like a fool in front of twenty 9-year-olds, (no doubt, there will be plenty of opportunities to accomplish this task properly),as it is attendance time. I actually have had this bunch of kids before, and they are not particularly obedient with substitute teachers. I decide to have them tell what one food they would choose to eat for the rest of their lives if they had no other choice, as they answered to their name being called for attendance. They seemed interested in this challenge, and had fun with it. Somehow, it still took three times as long as it should have to complete this daily task. The future of the rainforest was going to be discussed after library. I lined up the troops and marched them upstairs. I decided to stop every time they became disorderly, to establish authority. I wanted to ensure that they would be listening attentively when it came time for me to bluff my way through an environmental discussion. Yes I recycled, yes I conserved water, electricity and paper- but those important facts and connections explaining the benefits of saving the rainforest were just not at the forefront of my mind. Surprising, really, given the amount of rainforest saving coffee I've drunken in my lifetime. Yes, I know, time to widen my horizons and put down my Bob Glover book for a moment. So in the library, I notice something remarkable. Tessa and Jean are sitting together and laughing! (Quietly). Two months ago, when I subbed for their class, Tessa was crying her eyes out over Jean and another girl excluding her. She even had me go over and speak with them, because she was positive that they were talking about her. When I agreed, Jean defiantly informed me that Tessa is the one who starts the trouble, as she is constantly telling lies about her, and that she has no intention of ever talking to her again. I learned then that regardless of how hurt a child appears to be, that it is entirely possible that they brought it on themselves. It is amazing how blind we can become to our own undoing in social situations. Seeing the two of them together getting along was uplifting. Not enough to power me through my upcoming social studies test, but a slight push in that direction. So after I gathered the troops again, we trotted down to the classroom. I didn't give them a minute to start taking over the class with their potential for social debauchery. I called them directly to the rug. My game plan was this: a certain astrophysicist involved in demoting Pluto from planet status, was recently quoted as saying he received a lot of hate mail from third graders over this reclassification of a beloved planet. Yes, they have strong opinions, and are eager to voice their concerns over causes. (Even if those opinions are the result of educators prodding them to think persuasively). So after reading a few dismal statistics on the rate of deforestation, I mustered up my best Greenpeace canvassing voice, and asked the troops: 'If I told you there was a way for you to make a difference in our future environment, would you want to help?' The troops were ready and willing. That meant that they would listen to the lesson for another eight minutes without trying to beat each other up and get me off topic. It turned out more than half the class already is actively recycling. We had an interesting discussion about the hypocrisy of saving paper by reading the news online, as electricity is then generated. Not knowing which was more damaging to our cause, I said in my best teacher voice, 'Excellent point, let's continue.' OK, I didn't really let that one slide. I admitted ignorance, and suggested they investigate this further. I am not too sure what this group learned from my presence that day, but I certainly learned from them. I left their classroom with a reinforced view of the power of enthusiasm. I got excited talking about a global catastrophe that they can help reverse. Not to mention saving my dear little friend the Pygmy Marmoset from falling into extinction.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Person is a Person No Matter How Small

It's my last class of the day, and the hardest one to keep motivated. It's Saturday, and before they enter my classroom, they've already had music, Chinese, and English classes. Now they have Ms. Tamar for their third grade reading and writing class. Jeffrey told me one day his Chinese teacher is mean. I'm much nicer than she is. I notice he feels very comfortable interrupting the class with questions completely off topic. I imagine the Chinese teacher not putting up with that at all. I'd love to watch her in action, maybe pick up a few pointers. I must admit, English intimidates me. The grammar, the syntax..literacy in general instills a subtle fear in my heart, so I totally understand when these kids need to digress a little, and I often indulge them. When I ask them to turn to page 18 of their Essential English workbooks, Jeffrey asks me what year I was born. Clever tactic. I have discovered all kids are fascinated with discovering their teacher's age. I just don't feel that they need this information. But Jeffrey's question leads me to want to test his mathematical abilities, so I tell him. 'You're that old and you're not married?!' he asks incredulously. I laugh. The other kids are shocked as well. Susan tells me, 'You have to be married!' 'Why?' I question, quite curious as to where this will lead. 'Well', I can tell she's just made something up on the spot, as she often does when answering questions, 'the government says if you're not married, you have to sleep alone.' My mind races for an appropriate response to this interesting logic. 'Well, that's good, because then I don't have to hear anyone's snoring.' And with that, we start reviewing the homework from the previous week. The kids were tired, and Jeffrey keeps interrupting with questions, and he was starting to wear me down. Near the end of this one and a half hour class, I ask Alice, one of the quieter students, a question. Jeffrey blurts out the answer. I yell at him a little too harshly to let her give me the answer. That was the first time I yelled at any child this year. I feel guilty, and hope he isn't insulted. Immediately he and several other students say in unison, 'Her brain will shrink if you don't let her answer!' I was surprised they were quoting me so readily- that was something I had told them three weeks ago, and they still remembered it. I guess there were no hard feelings with Jeffrey. He had several more questions about Barak Obama, the crash landing of the disabled plane in the Hudson last week, and if the KKK was still in existence. I told him if we have time at the end of class, we can discuss all that, in addition to his questions about my time spent in Israel. When it was time to leave, I was taken with how small this boy was as he exited the room. He probably has more opinions about our current economy crisis than half the people I ride the subway with everyday, and yet he couldn't be more than four feet tall. I am really lucky to be here, I think to myself as I turn off the light and head out into the frigid night on a small street in Chinatown.