A Sense Of Place

I write less and take fewer photos here in California than I did in Michigan. Maybe because any energy or time for communication or artistic expression is already monopolized in other parts of my life. Maybe it’s because I don’t need to work as hard to find beauty as I did in those long, grey winters. One sunny afternoon feels like the next, and my sense of time isn’t as rooted in fireflies / changing leaves / numb extremities / slushy roads / crocus buds.

This year I have been teaching a photography club after school. Maybe “teaching” is the wrong word because mostly I’m just handing cameras to kids and leading them rambling explorations. They climb trees, lie on the sidewalk, climb up into trees, and cluster around any available tiny leaves, unique garbage, cute dogs, and interesting patterns.

Their perspectives on the world make me more aware about my own, as I sift through the digital residue of the last few months. I’ve been in San Diego for almost three years – long enough to have routines and connections, but not to outgrow a feeling of being a newcomer. Pulling up roots can be so fast, and regrowing them so slow.

I love reading novels with a strong sense of place, and after 3 years in this place I have more senses than I have fully formed thoughts.

Cloudy May mornings.
Radio telling me about the texture of the ocean.
The bend of pelican wings above me (not quite echoed on my shoulder blade.)
Jacaranda purple pooling on sidewalks.
Palm trees bending and crackling under jet paths.
Smoke creeping over dry hills.

I can recognize the songs of humming birds & the scent of jasmine.
I am waiting for my lemon tree to produce fruit.

A Pause, and a Teacher Update

Back in the Fall I started a blog post, because I was going to write More Thoughts While My Students Were Taking Standardized Tests, things I contemplated in the mind-numbing boredom (and other angst) of watching them click buttons and fill in spaces… but then I didn’t finish any more than a sentence, much less an entire post, because there was still too much to do. Peripheral chatting to stare down. Passes to sign. Attendance to enter. Papers to grade.

I wrote a lot during my first years of teaching, because I had so much to say about this difficult, inspiring, complicated, hilarious, and exhausting job. It is no less difficult, inspiring, complicated, hilarious, or exhausting now, but  I am probably busier than I ever have been. It is all rewarding but it turns out that after being engaged all day long, and then driving home (sometimes for several hours in our crazy winter weather) my brain is a puddle of slime unable to orchestrate anything more than putting food into my mouth and watching mindless TV (at best) or dragging myself directly from my car to my bed (at worst.)

However, this year’s holiday break stretched into several weeks without school (due to extreme winter weather) followed by more weeks punctuated by snow days. We haven’t worked a 5 day week since December. After many snow days spent holed up in bed recovering from frigid commutes, I am trying to take time to reflect.

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A 1st grader’s depiction of how I spend most of my day. That is me with my teacher cart, and an objective on the board in Spanish…

This year I’m doing some new stuff and expanding on things I’ve tried before.

Intentional Professional Growth

Even as I am finishing my Masters in TESOL (opening up the possibility of shifting my career in that direction) I’m trying to be a more involved and proactive in my profession. I’m a mentor teacher for the first time this year, in charge of my school’s website and online content, part of the tech team, and most recently on a PLC task force. Sometimes it feels like a lot, but what I’ve discovered (particularly during this year’s early-winter, pre-break, end-of-the-quarter slump) is that being engaged and involved in improving myself as a teacher is way better than just slogging through… because as a teacher, even just slogging through is exhausting and overwhelming. I might as well be striving for something. I’ve been trying to spend set time every week browsing teacher blogs and websites, and getting resources and inspiration from other teachers via Edmodo. I’m signed up for EdCamp Detroit this Spring, and am pretty excited about the possibilities.

Technology Integration

Technology is a fairly intuitive part of how I connect with the world, and I’ve always tried to incorporate it in my teaching. This year I’ve been trying some new things, inspired by workshops at MIWLA. I am using Edmodo with my middle schoolers, and experimenting this semester with BYOD (Bring Your Own Device.)

Culture Journals

One of my goals for this school year (as part of my school community’s push to boost those all important test scores) is to incorporate writing in my curriculum a bit more, so I’ve been doing “Culture Journals” with grades 1 and up. It has been good for me to see what kind of support and guidance each grade needs with their English writing development. (It helps that I share an office with our fabulous writing teacher.) When we learn about new cultural traditions, artifacts, or celebrations, the youngest students write about it using guided sentences and word banks, and the older students use a writing checklist and some peer editing.

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My Spanish bulletin board is right next to the lunch line, so kids can get some cultural education while waiting in line for lunch.

caga tio

“Caga Tio,” Catalunya’s Christmas log that poops out presents, is always a popular topic.

Creating Monsters

I’ve seen other teachers using “Create Your Own Monster” as Spanish lessons (to teach parts of the body and describing adjectives.) I tried it out myself with my English students in Spain, and this year I did it with my Spanish students for the first time, and it was a hit. I also have a nice collection of student-created monsters that I can use for “Guess Who?” style listening comprehension activities, because the kids love monsters and love the monsters they have created more than anything.

(We also created a guessing game on our Spanish board using three monsters to be matched to the descriptions the 3rd graders wrote in Spanish.)

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Raps (& Differentiation)

Ever since attending a great workshop with Señorita K of Escuelatón (formerly Magia Escolar) I’ve been teaching my 4th through 8th graders describing adjectives and the “ser” verb by having them write “Yo Soy” poems or raps about themselves. This year it was especially successful with one particular class of fifth graders. I had them for the first two quarters, and it was a rough start. They were the “lowest” fifth graders in the school, with many of them lacking basic reading and writing comprehension, but with an excess of interpersonal drama. Many of the structured activities that have been successful with other groups fell flat because of a lack of literacy, motivation, or both. The poems and raps allowed these kids to focus on oral language, and they ran with it. Some kids who hadn’t been willing to (or able to) write a coherent sentence in English during the two years I’ve worked with them had enough confidence and interest to write paragraphs in a new language and put it to a beat. I put aside the majority of the reading and writing that I usually introduce in upper elementary grades, and returned to oral language. I’m so proud of what these kids achieved.

(Accidental) Jokes

New language learners know that humor is tricky to understand and to use. My first graders this year – at an age where they soak up language like sponges – learned some jokes despite me. While learning parts of the body, many children were mispronouncing el pelo (hair) as el pedo (fart) and I mentioned the difference between the two. Of course, the kids decided that el pedo was just as important to learn and use… with gusto.

pedo

The rest of the semester was punctuated by fart jokes in Spanish. Oops.

  • Me: ¿Puedes describir a tu monstruo? ¿Tiene ojos? ¿Tiene pelo?
    (Can you describe your monster? Does it have eyes? Does it have hair?)
  • First grader: Tiene… pedo. (giggle giggle giggle)
    (It has… a fart.)

Spanish Club

I finally ran a Spanish club this year, and it was so much fun. With about 16 members, we made sugar skulls, papel picado, Mexican tin art, Ojos de Dios, sock puppets for conversation practice, and other crafty cultural things that are harder with larger groups and limited time during normal Spanish classes. Unfortunately, this semester I have graduate classes on Wednesday nights, so finishing my last class of my M.A. (!) has trumped a second round of Spanish Club.

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Grading things

With 9 different classes across all grade levels (Pre-Kindergarten through 8th grade) and only limited time for planning and grading, I have to choose which classes to plan meticulously for, and which assignments to grade. Until this year, I have spent most of my grading and planning time for the upper grades, and taught the K-2 classes from what I know works, with a focus on oral language and group activities. This year is really the first time I’ve graded individual assignments and tracked individual master in the lower grades. I tried to focus in on one or two projects in each class (for example, the monsters we made) to assess several different objectives at once. As it turns out, that is a LOT of grading, and that is with only a few separate assignments to enter for each class. In an ideal world I would assess every one of my hundreds of students every week… but as of now I haven’t entirely figured out how to go without sleep or food, so I am still figuring out where to fit it all in.

I’ve also found that when choosing what assignments I should focus on grading, I get better results when I choose the things that are fun (for me and for the students.) Students put in more genuine effort if they are engaged, and I am more likely to power through the weekend pile of grades if it includes something fun to grade (like comics and monsters.)

comics

Staying Organized

I am still planning and teaching over 30 individual lessons per week, but I’ve been doing this for a few years now and it is less overwhelming. (Remind me of that, because in a few weeks I’m going to be faced by end of the quarter grades again.) I would like to think that I have my life a little more organized. I have realized that to keep track of everything I need really meticulous organization of both my teacher cart and my teacher bag. I have three separate folders for each class – one for assignments turned in, one for assignments graded to return, and one for materials to pass out. I stack up the outgoing folders every morning in the order that I will teach them, and shuffle them to the bottom of the stack as I go.

I also have a lot of little minions to help me out. Without my classroom jobs, I would never get anything done. The kids put attendance in, keep track of behavior reminders, remind me what objective we worked on yesterday, make sure I bring my clipboards and coffee cup with me when I leave each room, and even check to make sure I’m not taking the homeroom teacher’s markers on accident.

teaching 3

teaching 1

Having a life outside of school

There are still some things that I haven’t figured out. During our most recent snow day I took some time to reflect on how I spend my time, and being the visual person I am I mapped out my (ideal) work day with different colored pens: time for work, homework, driving, sleeping, cooking and eating, exercise, even writing… and then I realized that I had no more colors (and no more minutes) left for people other than myself and my students: my husband, family or friends

I am working on it.

maps

Abstract Interpretation of a Wednesday

One of many interpretations of Las Meninas by Picasso

In sixth grade plásticas we are looking at Picasso’s works from across the wide swathe of his career – pale blue faces, Guernica’s newsprint cartoon horror, smug mustachioed smiles against a backdrop of sensual curves. The kids worked on their own interpretations, where Picasso went blonde or Las Meninas became Una Menina, with vague features and very detailed shoes. One boy worked on a robot, built of solid geometric shapes, including a little rectangular wang, square balls… and a rectangular tie. (Que profesional – pero, ¿dónde están sus pantalones?)

Blank papers, lips bitten, tapping pencils, ideas waiting to happen. I listen to the teacher’s instructions in Valencian, to kids questions in Spanish, and answer in English. They meticulously outline reproductions, or trace jagged lines across the page.
In third grade we learn the meaning of silly along with the parts of the body. We collaborate on very silly drawings using the parts of the body. One small boy doesn’t understand the directions, and almost falls over with laughter when he finds that the torso of his drawing has become part of the (very long) neck. ¡Ese hombre tiene tetas en su cuello! Other kids are concerned because these are not quite careful enough, and how will they take their work home or receive a grade if there have been four (often sloppy) artists involved with each portrait? I remind them of the meaning of silly, and we decide that we have met our objective.
In fourth grade there are cross-curricular connections – lessons about the parts of a flower and classification of leaves – leaves carried in backpacks, strewn across the table and floor, and finally splayed out onto posterboard in neat categories. I do some quick internet research to brush up on my botanical terms, and explain them English. We find the faint blue lines on our wrists, and the green raised veins on the leaves.
Abstract pieces of language litter our mouths. Fingers on throats to find the voice of vowels. Feeling the puff of air of the bilabial stops.
At lunch time I sink down inside myself again. Concentrate on peeling an orange into a citrus spiral, submerged in an oasis of silence between loud Valencian and more jokes I can’t understand. I understand only the most simple and physical humor – the principal yelling ¡joder! as he races for the last ice cream, or the cross-culturally unintelligible yelp of surprise as water is tipped across the table. But words are surfacing from the trainwreck of my comprehension.
Fulles.

Tardor.

Llapis.

Tot el mon. 

Menjador.

Xiquets i xiquetas.
After lunch two other teachers and I intend to find “un poquito de relax.” In the music classroom, with the door locked against the students doing homework in the hallway, we lay out yoga mats, turn on quiet music, and nos tumbamos.
Tumbarse – If you tumbar someone else, this is violent. You knock them down. If you do it yourself, you lie down – generally for a nap. Positive connotations. But inanimate objects can knock you down, too – me tumbaron en matemáticas. (I failed math. Math knocked me down.)
So on Wednesday afternoons we knock ourselves down for a while. Slip out of the vertical world of speech and sight. Let the classroom rearrange itself – cool tile, vertical silver of table legs, yellow window frames filled with squares of blue from a Mediterranean November. I am reminded of my three o’clock exhaustions, where I locked the door, hid in an invisible corner, and slept with my face on a table for a while, before beginning the long drive home under a sky spitting snow.
After school I have a language exchange. We are making our way through the museums of Alicante – free contemporary art galleries. Submissions of comics by local youth. A distressingly extensive history of postage. A room full of silver geometric sculptures that wink and glitter as they are set in motion by an employee – whose job is to sit in the gallery reading a novel, and set the sculptures in motion every few minutes. We talk – in English and in Spanish – but we also stand in silence, looking at broad brush strokes, earth and bricks jumbled onto canvas, and the dizzying movement of stationary canvasses.

Tierra de Campos – Juana Francés (an artist from Alicante)

Closing Chapter Two

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My second year of teaching is officially over. Read more of this post

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