Thursday, October 28, 2010

Thoughts on the coming holiday season...

In a recent post, I mentioned that the time between Halloween and the second or third day of the new year is exciting times for many children.  From the pre-schoolers to the sophisticated high school crowd, their hearts beat a little faster and excitement is in the air.  Sometimes the teacher has to remind the students that they still have to study and learn.

At the intermediate grades life for the teacher becomes very difficult at times.  First, is there a Halloween celebration at the school?  On the school day before Halloween, kids got to dress up in their costumes and come to school.  And some schools have "parades" where one class will go from room to room showing off the individual costumes.  Parties (cupcakes and koolaid) just before the kids went home for the day.  Big relief for the teachers.  Some schools have voted to ignore Halloween but it is hard to do.  I always worried about some kids with little or no costumes.  

The holiday stress continues however for many teachers.  I use to buy a box of pencils with each student's name embossed on them.  Although you could get a classroom deal from the company it still was costly to my wallet.  And you HAD to buy several boxes extra with "My Special Student" embossed on it for sure as you would know, just before the winter break I would get one or two new students.

Also, I made it a rule that the kids could not give me a present.  "School Policy" I would intone but sometimes that didn't always work.  I'd find a package in my car as I would head home some days from some family.  Mostly a tie--and yes, you HAD to wear it to school.  We wore ties in those days--mandatory. Women teachers quite often received some sort of perfume which they HAD to wear.  Much teasing in the teacher's room at noon.

I've already wrote about the Gingerbread Boys and Girls that my wife and I made along with a number of my neighbors.  Each gingerbread item had the child's name in icing on the top.  That was overall the kids' favorite gift.  

But I also had the boys and girls make gifts to take home.  We weren't the richest of neighborhoods around this school and I knew many of the kids would have little money to buy something for the mom or dad.  

My best attempt was to buy sheets of beeswax from a local hobby shop.  It comes in green, red and white and after the first year I picked the color.  The kids each got a sheet of wax--it comes in a kinkly style and you measure it in half, fold and break it into two parts.  Then you lay the wick along one edge and carefully roll the wax sheet softly along that edge.  If done well, it looks pretty good, burns well and is a success with mothers.  The key words here are "carefully" and "softly", both are not commonplace with fourth or fifth graders.  At the end of the project each child was to have two candles to take home.  By and large it worked and I would receive a few nice notes from Moms thanking me in getting her child to make something.  I still remember some of my kids saying that they burned the candles at the Christmas dinner--the look on their faces said it all.

But there were dangers involved.  The candles were fragile and if you held them in your hands, they would melt and all you could do is start over with a fresh sheet of wax.  More then once I had to dry some tears and tell them, no problem, we can do it again.  Also taking them home on the school bus was sometimes a hazard.  But by and large it was a success.  Better yet, it only took one afternoon from our studies to do them, wrap and make a card.  It was time effective.

My other holiday project was not that time effective but I could work it in all during the day.  What I did one year was to take 35mm slide pictures of EACH of my kids playing on the playground....around the tetherball, foursquare, kickball, whatever they were doing.  I got each child individually photographed.  

What I liked about this project was that it had some learning involved.  Each child had to be measure in height.  It was "back up against the wall and tape, and someone had to use a triangle to mark and record the height.  A little bit of science here.  Then in a corner of the room, we'd tape butcher paper up and project the slide of each child using an old push-pull slide projector that nobody used.  The job was to get the picture the right height by moving the projector back or forward.  Then the kids were to outline and color in the picture of themselves.  Some used crayons and some used colored chalk.  I learned quickly to get a spray to fix the chalk or it would smug.  My kids could go back to the corner and work on their "picture" when they got their school work done.  Amazing how improved their work got done.  

But the project was deemed a success.  It was clean, easily rolled up to wrap and a number of parents told me it was one of the best things their child had done.  It wasn't hard and I think the kids learned from it.  Several got into shading, a few tried different styles.  It was cool.  Unfortunately it was the last year that I taught grade school and never tried it again.

In todays world you could take pictures using a digital camera and then project the images using a video projector.  

There are some schools who have banned holiday activities for a variety of reasons.  My personal feelings is that it is a part of society no matter what religion or group you belong to.  It is in the stores, on TV and on the radio.  You can't ignore the elephant in the room, can you? So make it into a learning lesson and discuss, study, and enjoy how children around the world celebrate their holiday.  

The holidays, they are a cummin.  If you are a new teacher, find out what is required or traditionally done or not allowed so you are on top of things.  

Did you ever thank one of your teachers during the holiday season for helping you learn?  Select a teacher today and thank them for all they do with our kids.

Friday, October 22, 2010

How to Touch a Child...or a Student

I'm back from my holiday--it has been a number of weeks since I last posted a blog.  I will admit that where we were (San Juan Islands, Washington State), we had poor to non-existant wifi service.  It was so slow that at times I gave up trying to make contact.  I do appreciate the higher speed of a cable system.

And as I start to read all the articles for the past several weeks I see that much has been said about the educational systems in the United States.  I haven't read them all but I am trying to view them in the coming week.  I sense a slight trend is seeing the titles of some articles starting to support teachers and for that I am glad.  "My favorite teacher" by this celebrity or that celebrity.  There are several titles saying something about charter schools not being any better then public schools.  I'll see what that is all about.  If anything has come out in the last few weeks it has been a focus on "what do we want our schools to be."  Let's hope there will be more positive dialog.

But let me review a bit about what I think this blog is and should be about.  I want it to be about teachers of all types; high school, middle school, grade school, yes, even pre-school teachers.  I want to include public school teachers, private school teachers and religious school teachers.  But let us not forget community college instructors and the technical school teachers.  I haven't written much about the colleges and university instructors and professors.  It is an incredible trove of fascinating stories of those who inspirer college students.  There is also a large amount of material dealing with home schooling; moms, dads and grandparents teaching the children the culture, the mores of a family.  I would be remiss however if I skipped over the large number of teachers in industry.  Several of my students have had careers teaching positions in businesses and industry, primarily Boeings and Microsoft.  

Teaching has changed over the years and yet it has not changed.  We still need to impart societies knowledge to our young or we are limited in what we can do.  My history colleagues continually preach that "...we need to read our history or we will be forced to repeat it"  I tend to like to mess with their brains by asking which history do you want me to learn?  

But there was a time I had to be very cautious about calling a parent at home and suggesting some improvement for their son or daughter.  A call from the teacher could mean grounding or some other punishment that in my estimation might be too extreme.  My community was composed of Italian second and third generation families and the teacher's word was law. My parents believed in education.  But there was a humorous side to all this.  At the end of the year my parents liked to have an end of the year party for the kids and the teacher, that would be me.  There would be at that time at least eight beautiful cakes that these mother's had made....and I had to have a piece of each of them. Oh my what a sugar overload....  But wonderful parents.  Today I see more single parents with children (both moms and dads).  

My parents were very important to me.  I wanted to do a good job with their children.  They had entrusted a very important treasure to my safe keeping and asked me to teach their child.  It was and remains to this day an important responsibility.  And I had good kids.  Yes, we had problems but they were day to day problems always changing.  

One technique of reaching children in the sixties and seventies was that I could hug them at times.  An especially good assignment--big time hug.  Or a child falls while out on recess and hurt themselves.  On numerous such occasions I would ask the child, "Did you hurt the cement?"  And through tears  they would get angry with me for such a stupid remark but a smile might emerge.   And I would hug them until some of the hurt went away.

Not today.  A male teacher cannot touch a child in today's schools.  It is sad but even if you know the family well, you can't touch the student.  Even a hand to the shoulder to indicate closeness on a subject cannot be tolerated.  Pity.  

As I have said previously in an earlier blog, I would probably initiate some different methods of high fives, or hand slaps or even knuckle bumps.  We didn't have them in those days of hugs but I think they could work almost as well.  Children want adults in their lives and they want positive interaction.  This could be one way to achieve that status.  It is a strange situation as I see more and more adults hugging on television these days and yet...  no, not in the classroom.

I had a young boy the first year of my teaching fifth grade.  He had been held back by the previous teacher (along with five or six other children) for "...not learning."  When I first started working with Tom he couldn't read.  But he had learned to read earlier. Hmmmm.   It turned out the previous year he had been playing catch with his dad when his dad had a heart attack and died in his son's lap.  Tom quit reading at that point.  When I heard this story from Tom's mother I just wanted to hug the kid.  But he wasn't ready for me yet.  Very quiet and polite in class he just wouldn't read anything.  So I took to reading for him.  He had a quick mind and good memory and kept up with the class.  Pretty soon I had someone else read to him but he liked me to read to him most of all.

One day I was giving some sort of a social studies test and Tom just sat there in his seat.  So I had him come back to my desk and I read the questions to him.  Then he wrote (I know, I know, if he couldn't read, how could he write?) answers down in the right places.  When I corrected the papers he had a perfect score but I subtracted the fact that I had to read the questions to him so gave him a "C" instead.  Since he had been getting "F's" with his previous teacher he came to me and said how come he got a "C"?  I explained had he read the questions he would have gotten an "A".  By the way I had called Tom's mother and explained what I was doing.  She and I were a team on all of this.  I remember Tom just looking at his paper and you could see the wheels going around.  

Later on, I was reading some material to Tom (as usual) and I misread something by accident.  Not intentionally, I just read it wrong.  And Tom corrected me.  I thought for a second and decided to just keep going.  But after that incident I would sometimes make a mistake and Tom would correct me.  Interesting moment in teaching.  What to do......  However, one day, Tom came to me and said, I can read now.  And then he gave me a hug.  Talk about keeping my tears in check it was hard going for a moment.  But Tom never asked me to read again to him.  He had gotten through his hard times.  I remember going down to the office and calling his mother at work and telling her the news.  I think we both shed a tear or two.  That was one of the best hugs I ever got...and I got hundreds in those days.  

But not in today's world.  Don't touch the child physically but touch them mentally.  What a challenge.

Be sure to thank a teacher when you can.  Especially the grade school teacher--they are entering some tough times called the holidays.  It starts with Halloween.

And for those who have written, thanks to you too.  You are my teachers.