Trial and Error – The Story of my Life

So lots of people have been asking me: How’s your new job?  My one-word response: busy.  (I may have substituted this with different, tiring, or weeeelllll… depending on who you are, how much time we have, or whether you’re showing signs of really wanting to listen to me or not.)  Maybe you want a more detailed response.  Maybe you don’t.  You can decide if you want to keep reading.

I really do enjoy my new job.  It’s constantly working my brain to develop new ways to meet the individual needs of my students.  I have  small class sizes AND these wonderful ladies called “interventionists” who work with me to have kids in small groups.  However, I feel this enormous pressure to succeed.  Maybe it’s because we don’t have a contract in our district and if I’m not doing a satisfactory job then it’s not too difficult to get rid of me.  Or it could just be me being my typical perfectionist self.  Or it could be that I don’t have a curriculum.  Yes, teacher friends, you read it right.  No curriculum.  Literacy standards, yes, but no defined curriculum.  Guess that’s my job to figure out.

My day is constant movement.  I’m never bored.  Ever.  So’s here is the gist of my day:

1) Prep time from 7:05-9:21.  This seems like a long time.  Do not be fooled.  During this time, I have meetings about 2 times per week.  I also have to make 15 trips to the copier because of my absent-mindedness and the copier is a 90 second walk from my classroom… one way.  Also, I have to make copies of my lesson plans and assignments for 10 people.  Not an exaggeration.  ELL teacher (who co-teaches with me and already knows the plans, but it’s good to make certain we’re on the same page), 2 interventionists (these have to be detailed because they teach with me), and 7 special ed teachers.  Lesson plans also get posted to my classroom website.  Also during this time: data entry and organization, individualized planning for classes (3 different classes x 2 groups in each class = 6 different lessons per day), coffee drinking, breakfast eating, email checking, and room organizing. Oh yea.  And Friday AM bus duty, which I’m still struggling to remember.  Have to bring my allen wrenches with me to make sure I don’t get locked out at bus duty.  Fun.

2) 6th Grade Classes: 9:24-11:01.  These kids are ANGELIC, but I’m still struggling to meet the needs of all members in this group, who are reading 2-6 grade levels below where they should be.

3) 8th Grade Classes: 11:04-12:41.  The group I thought would be the easiest has proven to be the most challenging.  (Does this have to do with Murphy’s Law?  I think it should be a new law if it doesn’t.  Goodger’s Law?)  We have an excellent strategy-based workbook to use in this class, but it has now been proverbially thrown out the window in favor of a more thematic approach centered around different essential questions and novels (including “The Skin I’m In” by Sharon Flake, “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, and “We Beat the Streets”).  Here’s to hoping that these units will make the kids feel smarter than the workbooks did…

4) Lunch: 12:41-1:11.  I think this is mathematically a half-hour chunk. It certainly doesn’t feel that long.

5) 7th Grade Classes: 1:14-2:53.  They’re trying to kill me.  Honest-to-goodness.

6) After School: 2:53-4:00. Have bus duty on Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays (again, still struggling to remember to go).  Cross country (for the rest of the month) is on every day but Friday.  The other days, I rush into my room, clear out anything I think I might need to do at night, and book it out of there to pick up the munchkin.


More updates to follow if exciting things occur (or if I just need to ramble on to an inanimate object such as my computer).


Mice in the Car and My New School Year Goal

Well, friends, another school year has begun.  Mine has been, let’s just say, eventful.  But I believe that my feeble brain has conceived yet another teaching analogy inspired by an unrelated part of my life.  Here it goes.

So I’m getting Mason in his car seat, trying to get a move on to attend day #5 of professional inservices when I see them: mouse poopies.  In my car.  On Mason’s seat, in my cup holders, on the dashboard, everywhere.  Do I have time to clean them out?  Of course not.  So I cringe, wipe them off of Mason’s seat, strap him in, and call my husband crying on the way to work.  Got home, vacuumed the car, Clorox wiped everything possible, and yet, later that night, more poopies.

Luckily, my husband is not cheap when it comes to things such as this. He got the pricey traps.  You know, the “no see, no touch” kind that are little pods which lure the dastardly creatures in and kill instantly?  Lo and behold, the little beast was no longer living the next morning. He had a hasty funeral that ended in the garbage can.

So here’s my analogy between the little crapper who lived in my car and teaching.  No, readers, I will not be referring to my students as “little crappers”.  Rather, I compare the unwelcome mouse to those unexpected things that come up in the classroom on a daily basis: random farting noises spread by giggling 8th grade boys who know better, a frantic secretary who calls looking for a missing student, the fourteenth message over the PA system in the last hour, the comment “but we did this last year” from students upon receiving an assignment, etc.

Are these things frustrating? ABSOLUTELY!  You’re trying so hard to keep students focused and give them the best opportunity to succeed in life through the skills they learn in your class, yet your efforts are thwarted at every turn.  But what I learned from the little mousie who thought he could conquer my car is that you can either complain about it or do something about it.  You can either become frustrated at your noisemaking students or you can make every effort to show them how to behave in a classroom and why it’s an important lesson to learn. You can either become frustrated about the calls you get or understand the importance of having secretaries so you don’t have to do all of this.  You can take your students’ complaining about already having done an activity and use it as an opportunity to teach them the value of rereading.

My goal this school year, besides the always-present goal of being SuperMom, is to take these inconveniences and DO something about them.  I spend a lot of time whining and complaining about things, but I don’t have time to do that anymore.  I HAVE to be efficient with my time and find solutions to my problems that make whatever curse I face into a blessing.

That is my rant for today.  It is time to make cookies, exercise, and shower in the next 45 minutes.  Can I do it?  YES I CAN!  Bless your weekends!

My August Ritual

This will be my 6th year of teacher (if you count student teaching).  The list below has become my August Ritual in preparation for the impending school year.

1) Watch sale ads at Walgreens, Office Max, Target, and JoAnn Fabric for really cheap school supplies (because students NEVER have pencils and lose or draw inappropriate graffiti on their folders).  Once a sale is discovered, run to store immediately and buy items in immense quantities.   If there is a limit on number of items you can purchase in a single transaction, ask cashier if you really have to have 6 separate transactions for the 60 folders you want to buy.  (Usually they’ll just ring it up in one transaction if you haven’t carried the entire shelf over.)

2) Go into classroom and start moving furniture, posters, books, and materials around, knowing full well that you’ll probably hate the arrangement within a week.  Bring child with to school, avoid newly waxed floors, and keep child occupied with newly purchased school supplies, snacks, climbing toys (aka desks), and songs.  (Bringing toys to school is not necessary as they will not actually be touched.)

3) Begin lesson planning during nap times.  Create fancy shmancy calendar marked with days off, early releases, and marking periods.  Write preliminary plans WITH PENCIL because they will need to be modified within the first week anyway as students are absent, pulled out of class, or frankly don’t get what you’re talking about (forcing a reteaching day or two).

4) Make plans to meet with other teachers to plan curriculum and generally shoot-the-breeze.  End up altering or canceling plans due to family emergencies, lack of childcare, or behavior of child if he was brought along to the meeting.

5) If any time is left, sort through the massive pile of materials you accumulated over the last couple of years (including the entire filing cabinet filled with stuff the LAST teacher left you) and sort/throw items.  Alternative A: Find a new teacher who is anxious for classroom materials and pawn stuff off on him/her.  Alternative B: leave it for next year, making the goal to sort/throw materials even more lofty.

Custodians: A Note to New Teachers Everywhere

So today, I’m innocently sorting boxes of books in my new classroom (and examining Mason’s head because he had been using a student desk as a jungle gym and fallen off) when one of the custodians came running into my room yelling, “You can’t just walk anywhere!  There was wet wax on the floor!  You teachers!  I could block off hallways and you’d still walk through them!”  I thought he was joking at first, but then I realized he was serious.

After apologizing profusely, I explained that one of the other custodians had directed me down the newly waxed hallway because, I was told, the more direct route to my classroom was currently being waxed.  I explained that of course, if the hallway had been blocked off and I hadn’t been DIRECTED to go that way, I would not have walked down it.  The custodian calmed down, saying it was okay because I had been told to go that way and he apologized for yelling at me.  I apologized again, hurriedly grabbed Mason and his million toys (which never got played with anyway), and left so he could fix the wax and finish the part outside my room.  I’ll bake him some cookies and all (hopefully) will be forgiven.

So, new teachers or ones moving to new schools, here are a few things you should know about custodians.  This is not meant to insult or degrade those people who are custodial engineers; rather, this is to inform those of us who work with you how to work symbiotically.
1) Get to know your custodians in your school BEFORE you need something.  Like the secretaries, custodians are valuable allies to have in a school.
2) Custodians are extremely important people in a school. They do a lot more for you than you probably realize: clean up vomit, empty garbage cans, fix pencil sharpeners, wax floors, clean lockers, etc.
3) There are many (avoidable) ways to make a custodian angry: step on newly waxed floors, drag desks across floors and scrape wax, fail to at least complete a cursory sweep after a messy art project, fail to put up chairs (if applicable).  ASK for help in a timely manner and be courteous!
4) Always double check before you change something or do something to your classroom.  It’s much easier to avoid a big mistake (like ripping off paint with your posters or walking on wet wax) than to clean up the pieces (literally or figuratively).

So that is my musing on school custodians.

A Lesson I Learned about Teaching Writing

Before I explain the lesson I learned, I have an anecdote to share. (It may seem unrelated, but trust me, it makes sense.)

At a family birthday party last night, my nephew received a present.  There were free backpacks in the house donated to my mother-in-law by somebody or other, so my resourceful sister-in-law took one and wrapped my nephew’s present in it.  As she handed my nephew his backpack-encased Legos, she said jokingly, “Look!  A bookbag! Isn’t it just what you always wanted?”  Not realizing there were Legos inside the bag, he replied forlornly,  “Well, not exactly.”

Lately, I’ve been cramming in a lot of teacher books that I should have read a while ago but didn’t make the time to read.  Now that I’m supposed to be an expert on all this stuff, I figured I should make the time.  I picked up the book Teaching Adolescent Writers by Kelly Gallagher first because I get extremely tired of students coming up to me with essays asking, “Is this good?”  To which, like my nephew, I want to reply, “Not exactly.”  (Actually, there are occasions where I would like to say, “Um, no, this is not good. What the frick were you thinking?” but decide it would be hurtful to my students.)

From Gallagher’s book, I picked up a few key points.  I STRONGLY encourage you to read (or at least skim) this book if you teach writing because it’s got some great ideas, suggestions, and honesty. Here are the key points I got:
1) Don’t prepare samples ahead of time.  Kids need to see your writing and thinking process.  Otherwise, they think an essay should magically be good in one draft.
2) Don’t grade an essay the first time you read it.  Skim it and pick less than 10 areas on which to comment, then return to students so they can edit/revise before grading.
3) Keep track of common errors while you read first drafts. Do mini-lessons with whole or small groups on areas in need of reinforcement, then allow them to seek you out for conferences individually.
4) Create the rubric WITH your students.  Pick a few areas on which to focus for the essay (and do your mini-lessons on those during the initial pre-writing/drafting process) and show them good and great examples.  Fill in the areas of the rubric with them, then allow them to choose 1-2 additional areas that they’ve been working on with their personal essays. (You approve these, of course.)
5) For goodness’ sake, DON’T PEER EDIT!  Peer REVISING is okay when you assign specific goals for the revising, but kids tend to ignore errors or “correct” non-mistakes when peer editing, so pick a few kids who are the “grammar police” in your class and point them out as resources for kids while editing.

Well, this is my insight. I see a professional development session forming in my brain…

I would love to hear your suggestions for additional teacher reads. I’m going to be re-skimming I Read It, But I Don’t Get It by Cris Tovani and Strategies that Work by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis.  I will also be taking a 3 day workshop on CRISS (can’t remember what it stands for, but it’s reading/writing/learning strategies that my new district swears by).  More on those later…



Things I Borrowed from Other People

Several of you have asked for some recipes.  They are all ones that I’ve borrowed from other people, so I will give them credit here!

Homemade Yogurt:
From Things I Did Right (friend’s blog)!  It is delicious and less than half the price of buying the little containers of yogurt.  Plus, you can pick your flavors depending on your mood of the day and avoid fake sweeteners.  Here’s what I’ve tried – Banana Chocolate Chip, Honey Almond, Blueberry, and Peach. All highly recommended!

Homemade Quaker Granola Bars:
From The Color of Contentment (friend’s blog)! I would say these are even better than the Homemade NutriGrain bars from a couple weeks ago.  She’s got some great suggestions for flavors you can make.  The first batch, I decided on a Smore flavor (mini marshmallows, chocolate chips, crunched up graham crackers).  It was amazing, but a little too sweet and squishy because I chose honey as my “liquid sugar”.  Second batch (which I brought to Bible study and came home with none) was peanut butter chocolate chip.  I used light corn syrup as my “liquid sugar”, half butter and half peanut butter for my “fat”, and some extra oats with crushed peanuts and chocolate chips for my “bulk”.  Yum!  Next batch will be an attempt at “Blueberry Muffin” flavor (cinnamon, dried blueberries, not sure what else…)

No-Bake Cookies (AKA Cow Pie Cookies):
This is from my wonderful mother and was a favorite at my house growing up.  It is now a favorite of my gluten-free friends and I have a friend who is going to try subbing in a non-peanut peanut butter for her peanut-allergic child.  Here’s the recipe!
2 C. white sugar
1/2 C. cocoa
1 stick margarine (butter works fine too)
1/2 C. milk
1/2 C. peanut butter (I use chunky)
3 C. instant oatmeal
1 tsp. vanilla

Add the first 4 ingredients together.  Boil for one minute. (This is very important to melt the sugar.  Otherwise, the cookies are grainy and not as good.)  Remove from heat.  Add peanut butter, vanilla, oatmeal and nuts.  Drop by spoonsfuls on wax paper. Let sit for at least an hour or until cool and solidified.


Blue Cheese Leek Tarts (Success) and Spinach Pancakes (Fail)

Well, friends, I warned you.  When you experiment, there are successes and failures.  I’ve been working my way through this book I checked out from the library called “Fuss Free Foods for Babies and Toddlers”.  Maybe I’ll get Mason to eat a veggie other than peas and corn.  That was the thought.

The Success: Blue Cheese Leek Tarts

1 1/2 cups flour (I used whole wheat, but it calls for all-purpose)
6 T butter
pinch of salt
6-7 T water
1) Put flour and salt in a bowl. Cut in butter with a pastry cutter until flour resembles breadcrumbs.
2) Mix in water 1 T at a time until dough becomes smooth.
3) Knead lightly and dump onto floured surface.  Roll out with a floured rolling pin until very thin.
4) Use some sort of round object (large coffee cup works well) to cut out circles.  Place circles into cups of a muffin tin (regular size… none of those ginormous or mini ones).  Press dough down and onto sides as shown below.

Tart Crusts

1/2  cup ham, diced
2 T butter
1/2 cup leek, washed and cut into small squares
1/3 cup blue cheese
3 eggs
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese
pinch of paprika
salt and pepper, to taste
1) Preheat oven to 375.  Melt butter in a small frying pan.  Cook leek in butter until soft (not brown and mushy).
2) Dump fried leek into a bowl. Add in blue cheese and ham; mix.  Spoon into prepared crusts.
3) In a bowl, beat eggs and milk.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Pour on top of mix from #2 in crusts.
4) Top each tart with cheddar cheese and paprika (if desired).
5) Bake at 375 for 15-20 minutes or until brown on top.

Completed Tarts

12 tarts fed my family 2 meals.  They freeze well, so it’s a nice thing to have in case you get home an hour late and have a starving child.  Even Mason liked it! I think you could substitute your own fillers too (broccoli and cheddar, sausage and mushroom, etc.). Highly recommended!

Failure: Spinach Pancakes.
I’ll spare you the recipe.  No idea why I thought that “Spinach Pancakes” would be good.  They ended  up being another “meat plop incident” (a phrase my dear husband uses to refer to the time early in our marriage when I attempted to make meatballs and they ended up looking like piles of meat).  Except, unlike meat plops, this didn’t taste good either.  To us.  Mason enjoyed it thoroughly, so I froze the remainder of the meal for him and made Mark and I a frozen pizza.  Only look at the pictures below if you have a strong stomach.

Gross. (That stuff on top was supposed to be inside, but the pancake was more of a panplop.)

Well, at least Mason liked it. (Thumbs up in picture is intentional.)