Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Spontaneous Hug

Last Tuesday my shadow sneezed on me while the group sat at the table preparing for snack. Three days later, the most common incubation period for strep throat, I had the symptoms. The next day I was in the ER, thinking about that sneeze. It's not that I blame my shadow for an illness that incapacitated me for two and a half days, but I can't ignore the coincidence. When it happened, my mentor teacher joked that I would swig an Airborne and all would be ok. I did take Airborne. My new warning label for the box:

WARNING: Not effective against streptococci bacteria.

I haven't been this sick in decades.  Welcome to the world of teaching preschool.

Thursday, before I knew what my weekend would hold, I received my first spontaneous hug from a preschooler. She came from nowhere into my lap, her arms around me, her face full of smile. It took me off guard. It brought a tear to my eye. This girl gave me three hugs that day and called me by name at dismissal. Though I have been warmed by the reactions of the children in the preschool, for the first time, I felt truly loved by a young student. 

I have seen these kinds of interactions between students and my mentor teachers throughout my stay in the preschool.  Each time a child threw his or her arms around the teachers legs, I smiled.  Each time the same child said, "I love you Mrs. L," my heart secretly hoped that someday a student would feel that way about me.  In those moments, I was envious of the simplicity of the relationship between preschool teacher and student.   The teacher loved: the child loved back.  

Spontaneous hugs do not exist in high school, at least not in the way I have witnessed them in preschool.  High school students guard their feelings; many resent their teachers (or any authority figure); and often showing emotion earns labels of "uncool."  In addition, in many schools "no touching" policies discourage any sort of physical contact between student and teacher, and a hug would certainly cross boundaries.

I have hugged students, girls who cried in my classroom before school, students who needed a pick-me-up during a particularly difficult time, kids who were leaving my class at the end of the year, but nearly every one of these hugs was purposeful, and it was initiated by me after careful thought about the consequences.  I cannot remember a spontaneous hug from a student who just wanted to say "I love you."  I cannot imagine it happening.

Perhaps it was fitting that I received this gift from a "Lamb" on my last day at the preschool for a while.  My university responsibilities will be keeping me in the city and away from the little ones for the time being.  I will return before the end of the semester, and maybe in the meantime I will seek out the one graduate student I know who gives spontaneous hugs.  She is a preschool teacher, after all, and I think maybe her hugs mean more than I once thought.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Confidence Shattered

Last week I had the opportunity to work with a group of teenagers during a symposium coordinated by Operation Breaking Stereotypes.  It was the first time in a long time that I planned and delivered a lesson for adolescents where the goals and pedagogy were completely my own.  It felt good.  At the end of the session, as I was riding a teaching high, the event coordinator said to me, “You still have it in front of teenagers.”  He was right, and I knew it.  I felt entirely comfortable in my role as teacher.  I knew how to “work the crowd.”  I knew how to bring rowdiness to focus.  I knew when to extend and when to transition.  In short, I knew how to teach this group of high schoolers.

Yesterday, the preschoolers shredded that confidence.  During the morning as the lead teacher worked individually with the children to complete their projects, I interacted on the rug with the remaining group.  At one point, the second teacher in the class took three of the children to the bathroom (when one has to go, the potty train chugs out of the room), leaving me with one of the more challenging children and a pile of stackable “Os” in various colors.  I had noticed the teacher helping the child make his stack, and so I shifted into place to become that support for him.  At first the game went well; he picked up an O, I helped him maneuver it onto the pile, and he pushed it into place.  After we had four in a row, I pointed out the pattern of color and suggested the next color O in the pattern.  He caught onto the game, and we continued for two more levels before my shadow joined our game.

My shadow, as I’ve come to think of her, is a cute-as-a-button blondie who caught my eye the first day I entered the 2.5 class and who consistently finds her way to my side, no matter what the activity.  I was not surprised to see her slide onto the rug next to me as I worked with this other child.  Unfortunately, her presence disrupted his focus, and it upset him.  As his angst became more vocal, I tried desperately to refocus him on the task at hand.  I held the stack of Os up to him, pointed to the next color in the pattern, and said his name clearly, asking him to find the next color.  I used techniques I use with my own son when he gets upset; I mimicked techniques I had used with the rowdy teens the week before.

My focus tricks did not work, however, and the director of the preschool, who was also in the room, came behind the child to rub his back and soothe him.  I noted the contrast between her approach and mine.  “Was I doing it wrong?” I thought to myself. “Should I be more nurturing, less demanding?”  At that moment, my confidence left me.  I had no idea how to teach this child.

Ultimately, the boy came back to the task, but it was neither me nor the director that brought him there.  Rather, it was my shadow, the young girl whose presence had set her peer into a frenzy.  Gently, more gently than I thought would be possible for a not quite 3-year-old, she handed him the next color in the pattern.  He took it from her, put it on the stack, and with my help, snapped it into place.  Though his cries hadn’t subsided, we repeated the process – my asking for the next color in the pattern, the girl’s handing the O to the boy, and his placing it on the stack – four more times, and as we did so, he quieted.  Amazed by the transformation that had occurred in front of me, I moved back from the tall tower, and invited the two children to knock it down.  They giggled together as they collapsed the structure and then moved on to other play. 

In hindsight, I should have known how to bring the child back to the task.  I was humbled by a young girl who knew instinctively that he just needed a little help and a little patience to get back on track.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Best Gift I Gave Myself - NWP

I think often about Mitch Albom’s story The Five People You Meet in Heaven. For me the book’s message focuses on turning points in life, on the interactions between people, and on the importance of recognizing how one individual can affect another. Albom invites me to think about the five people who have most impacted me, who have altered my life in meaningful ways. Though not an individual person, NWP is one of my five.

In 2002 as I studied for a doctorate in literacy education, my supervisor dropped a yellow brochure on my desk with a sticky note that said, “This sounds like you.” I read about the Summer Institute, a four week program where teachers would come together as a community of writers and reflective researchers, and I immediately called my advisor at the university to see if I could add the SI to my course plan that summer. He agreed, my application was accepted, and I began a journey that has changed me professionally and personally.

Attending that SI and becoming conncected to NWP is the best thing I have ever done for myself. Though I earned my MA at an ivy league college and my PhD at a Research I institution, studying for neither of these degrees has shaped who I am as a teacher more than the NWP. The four weeks that I spent during the summer of 2002 gave me a community of educators who care deeply about their students. My NWP community has grown  over the last decade from local, like-minded educators into a national network of teachers and researchers who I can call on to help me think hard about issues of literacy. When I go to a conference and I learn that the person next to me is an NWPer, we immediately bond, and we immediately begin discussing practice. The NWP has given me colleagues in arms; it has given me friends who foster my personal growth.

The NWP fights every year for its federal funding, support that allows the 200+ non-profit sites to do the kinds of work that support K-16 teachers of literacy in ways that rejuvenate them. Without these funds, NWP sites will cut programs, and the effects of the organization, which are research proven, will be minimized. More importantly, I’m afraid, is that teachers who see NWP as a professional home, a community that revitalizes their teaching year after year, will lose heart.

NWP has changed me professionally and personally. The teachers I have met through NWP continue to impact me and my practice. I hope that we, as a nationally supported organization, can continue to affect other teachers, to alter their lives in truly meaningful ways. I hope that young teachers throughout the nation will have the opportunity to add NWP to their Five.

To read more about teachers like me who want to save NWP, see this intitiative.

The Patience of a Wrangler

The JV and varsity basketball players in my high school were expected to serve as coaches for the 5 – 8 grade intramural program. It was one of my first experiences as a teacher, and after coaching both the 5/6 graders, many of whom had never held a basketball before the session, and the 7/8 graders, most of whom had played in the 5/6 porgram, I knew that being a high school teacher was the route for me. “I want to refine skills,” I told my mom, my teachers, and my counselors. “I have no patience for teaching the basics.”

Spending time in preschool this semester has changed my thinking. I think I could, in fact, work with 3- and 4-year-olds on a regular basis without losing my grip on sanity, guiding them as they develop basic skills that will help them to succeed in school and in life. The persona I’ve developed as a preschool teacher has helped me talk to children; it has made me comfortable in situations where I wasn’t before; and it has increased my patience – both with my teaching and with my own children at home. In the last two months, I’ve grown to believe I could actually do this: I could be a preschool teacher.

And then yesterday I entered the 2.5 year old class, where I was reminded of basketball intramurals and why I preferred working with the older kids.

The morning began with green play dough, but unlike in the older classes, where children played freely with self-selected toys, the “Lambs” all gathered together around their classroom table. The children obediently smashed and rolled, cut and tore the dough with the teachers encouraging them to “use those muscles.” My realization last week that play dough serves as an important tool in fine motor development helped me understand this morning routine.

I noticed immediately, however, that even though there were two teachers and only eight students, the smallest ratio I had yet seen, the adults had their hands full. In fact, as the morning progressed, my mentors never stopped moving, constantly and physically guiding the children to stay focused, stay in line, and stay on task. As we worked collaboratively to create a large rainbow, gluing colored squares on a 4-ft-wide arch, the children helped eagerly. The teachers kept the project moving with quick hands and focused directions. As we selected colored pom poms to throw into the parachute during the “what color do we have” song, the teachers moved with lightning speed to keep small fingers from taking too many pom poms. As she read the story during circle time, the lead teacher called attention back to the book on nearly every page, using her voice and her hands to settle the children whose attention started to roam.

On the play yard, I noted the differences between recess with this group and the older group. When I have watched the older children on the playground, I chat with the teachers, who only occasionally intervene in the children’s play. At this age the children need much more attention, and for a good portion of the recess, one of the teachers engaged them in a 2.5 year old version of tag.

Though independence is encouraged and supported, the tots have trouble controlling their id and following the rules. “You are a wrangler!” I joked with my mentor as she expertly steered three children, one right after the other, back into the line in the hallway. She laughed, obviously at ease with her role. I thought of the 5th grade basketball players, moving without plan or skill in packs or independently across the court, and I knew that the teachers of the 2.5 year old class had more patience than I would ever be able to muster.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Props to My Husband and the Envy in Me

My husband and I have been working on, though we have not mastered, the division of labor between two career parents. On occasion, when I know he has had a particularly long day or rough week, I take out the garbage or recycling, but as a routine, that’s his job. Similarly, when the laundry has piled to the point of empty sock drawers, he will throw in a load and even fold it, but only after I have separated the colors. We have our roles, and for the most part, we accept them.

As the kids grow, the routine inevitably changes, and currently we are still working out the kinks of car-share. We have two cars with car seats, one of which is reserved for the babysitter to use while we are both at work. When I have to go to the city after dropping the kids at school, I drive my husband’s car, the second with car seats, so that the SUV remains at home for our babysitter to collect the kids. On these days my husband takes my car, which doesn’t have car seats. Neither of us has perfected the ability to think ahead, to be considerate, and to routinely park a car with a filled gas tank in the garage. Somehow the empty gas light in my husband's car always seems to taunt me on days when I don’t have time to stop at a gas station before dropping the kids at school, which is every day I drive them, and there is not a convenient station on my way to the city. Last week my DH left my car on empty, and the dreaded orange light evoked curse words as I climbed behind the wheel before dawn, realizing that no gas station would be open that early in the morning.

So we have bumps in the road as two working parents, but I feel lucky that I have a man who is willing to shoulder some of the burden. My friend recently blogged her frustration about her husband who does not understand the work of being a mom. She posted a list of things she does each Thursday morning in order to get her preschooler out the door and suggested that she take a mini-vacation so that her husband could empathize with the stresses of being a mom. Understanding these stresses completely, I couldn’t help but feel grateful that my own husband does know what it takes to get the kids ready and out the door. He does it at least once, and sometimes twice, a week, managing to get himself showered, shaved, and dressed in his suit as well! In fact, I am currently away at a conference, trusting my husband to take care of the kids and get them to school two days in a row. I have no doubt that he will succeed.

Even so, I can’t help but feel jealous that my husband gets, and deserves, props for being Mr. Mom when the work is simply expected of me. I felt utterly ashamed when my daughter’s teacher did not find her library book in her backpack and when I forgot to grab her stuffed bear for hibernation day. I apologized in advance to both sets of teachers for anything that my husband forgot while I was away. I made sure to RSVP for the Father’s Day program before I left, knowing my husband would not read the invitation that asked us to do so. In short, if something does not get done for school, if my children are not dressed appropriately, I know it will reflect on me, the mother. Dads get more breaks in life, I think.  The expectations simply aren't as high for them.

Perhaps this is why I felt such a stab when I helped my son’s class prepare for the Father’s Day program. Each year the preschool holds a Mother’s Day program during a school day close to the holiday. To be fair to dads, whose holiday comes after the end of the school year, the preschool plans a Father’s Day celebration in March. They hold this celebration on a Saturday, perhaps because they assume that dads who work during the week would not be able to attend a weekday event.

As I interviewed children in the three-year-old class for the Father’s Day program, documenting their ideas about their dads, I smiled time and again at their responses, and I wondered if they would do a similar activity for the Mother’s Day program. I would love to see how my own children answered these questions about me! While my thoughts were on the joy of the Mother's Day program, a time when all the expectations would be worth the honor bestowed by the children, a terrible thought filled me. What if I had to work? What if I had to miss the Mother’s Day program? I had already missed the Halloween celebration and had to take a day off to see the Christmas program. Missing the Mother’s Day program would depress me – big time.  I want that honor.  I want that special day.  My envy threatened to suffocate my heart.

I know I am not the only mom at the preschool that works, and I wondered about those other moms whose jobs might be even less flexible than mine. Why were dads given the opportunity to visit on the weekend? Why couldn’t Mother’s Day be held on a Saturday too? It seems an inconsistency considering moms shoulder the majority of the parenting responsibilities. Wouldn’t it be nice to allow all moms, even moms who work, the chance to attend this special program without having to take a day's vacation?

I applaud my husband, and those like him, who work stressful jobs and still play Mr. Mom when they are called on to do so. I am glad that the preschool honors dads by holding a program on a Saturday so that they can attend with their kids. Yet I wonder if there are working moms, like me, who would like the same recognition. Or should we be content that “having it all” requires this kind of sacrifice?

Age, what a concept!

Last week I spent Tuesday and Thursday in my son's class, my final days with those 3-year-old friends. I asssited during station time at the play dough table, helping two boys construct a train to run on their self-created train tracks, and suggesting to another boy that he cut small, medium, and big hearts. As he pushed his cookie cutter into the dough, we recalled the Goldilocks story from the week before. I learned that play dough, which I have eschewed as a parent, actually helps build fine motor skills and that tasks like rolling balls and flattening a pancake thin enough for a cookie cutter to break are not easy for little muscles.

My mentor teachers asked me to take charge of interviewing the children in preparation for the upcoming Father's Day program, which, in order to accomodate dads' work schedules and the end of the school year in early June, before the actual holiday, will be held this coming Saturday. Confident in my ability to talk to preschoolers, a skill I have been working on during my apprenticeship, I enthusiastically agreed. I love filling in blanks, and I thought the job would give me insight into how 3 and 4 year olds think. Looking over the questions on the sheet, which included items such as "My daddy is ____ years old," and "My daddy weighs ___ pounds," I thought the interviews would be easy, that I would finish them quickly and certainly within the 45 minutes allotted. I was wrong.

I realized early in my conversations that not all of the children possessed the conceptual understandings needed to respond to my questions. Some children easily answered "How old is your daddy?" with numbers ranging from 5 to 72. These answers amused me, though the answers that ranged in the 42-47 range, which were probably accurate, amazed me. I imagined in those cases, daddy's age had been mentioned or discussed at home. I wondered, however, if some of these children were guessing a number that fell within an appropriate age range because they understood numerical values. My son was one of the children who answered my query with "I don't know." For these children I had to guide them to a numerical response by asking their own ages and then asking them to guess how old their daddy was. Nearly all of these cases put their daddy's age at "5."

I had to work hard to understand and translate some of the children’s responses, and I was only able to finish 10 interviews the first day. Having missed Wednesday for university obligations, I returned to the preschool on Thursday determined to finish my task and to enjoy my last day with these friends. While I sat at the play dough station, one girl said to me, “Where were you last time?” I was touched that she noticed my absence, and I realized that I had been accepted quickly into the classroom community by these children. Just as I had been with my four-year-old friends in January, I was sad to say goodbye and amazed at how quickly the students adapted to my presence and trusted me as a teacher.