Thursday, November 29, 2012

Best Day of School

We went on a field trip to a wetland area near our school. We've gone on this trip each year that I've been at this school, because I organize it. It is the greatest field trip in our area, in my humble opinion. Why? It is outdoors. There are no gadgets or games or playground or interactive video or anything except the natural environment. For so many of our students, it is a rare experience.

I do a number of activities before we go on this field trip because I want them to be aware of where we're going, and the subtleties of this environment. It is probably the complete opposite of the rest of the Vegas experience. We just walk around on the trails there, led by a volunteer, who points out the various types of plants that live in each of the environments there: wetlands, riparian, alkali meadows. We also keep a sharp watch for evidence of animal life--footprints or scat. We've rarely seen more than the occasional rabbit or lizard. There are several types of birds, both flying about and swimming. So, it's not flashy.

But, did we have some cool experiences! I went with a group of nine boys because we only had one parent who had accompanied this set of boys. I had a great turn-out: eight parents! But they were all walking with the other groups. It was a gorgeous day, partly cloudy, around 72 degrees, a slight breeze. The air was clear and you could smell the scent of the grass and the resinous plants. When we got closer to the water treatment plant we could also smell the icky odor of the newly released water from there that flows through this large wetland that actually helps cleans it as it travels toward the Colorado River.

The students in my group were so thrilled to be there. They are the type of boys for whom school is a relentless torture chamber. None of them is that excited about writing and reading. They are cheerful, and each has a fun sense of humor. But, the pesky things that we teachers hassle them with all day--sitting still, writing paragraphs, not talking to their friends just because they feel like---these are not their best thing. They're gregarious, outspoken, enthusiastic. Just the opposite of studious, quiet, bookish--those qualities that elementary incarceration school teachers crave for order and control.

So, being able to talk all day, stop and investigate the weird-looking plants, call out "Hey look at this!" was just the kind of day they needed. We found coyote tracks, bobcat tracks, raccoon tracks and even saw great blue heron footprints in the mud through the shallow water in a calm pond. We identified scat from coyotes and rabbits. We poked at it with sticks and looked at the seeds and rabbit fur that the coyote had consumed. WE SAW A DEAD BIRD!!  It was quite dramatic, too. It was a fresh kill, laying there trailside, with its head missing, leaving behind the red, fleshy neck bones. We spent a bit of time poking it, and wondering who had killed it. There wasn't much evidence around--it hadn't been eaten--just the missing head, with the exposed neck bones. Cool...

We just walked our legs off, talking, admiring the plants, learning about how the Indians used them, seeing butterflies and dragon flies and turtles sunning on a rock. It was an awesome day! I wish we could learn like that every day. I know that they'll never forget it. Maybe they'll be inspired to go outside and do some looking like that more often.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Nightmare Before Thanksgiving

All this week we held parent conferences. There are no students during the regular school hours. We use all the time to allow our parents to come in for a thirty minute conference. We plan it so that, if a family has students in several grades, then the conferences are all back to back. It also gives us a little free time to write our report card comments, and to correct papers. I love that about my school. Our normal school days are slightly extended to get in all our required hours of instruction each trimester, so that we can use the three days before Thanksgiving to hold these conferences. We also stay till 7:00 P.M.on Tuesday for the people who cannot come during the day. This is a shift-work city, so we manage to get a time for nearly everyone.

However, this year, I had several No-shows. This is unusual in my experience at this school, because we have such terrific parents, generally, too. For one student who didn't come in, I was feeling a little suspicious that perhaps he didn't actually give his confirmation notice to mom. He has a tendency to feign disbelief and declare his innocence a little too enthusiastically when busted for failure to turn in homework, etc. So, I just looked up his address, and at the end of my day, I gathered up all his paper work and headed over to his house.

It looked dark when I pulled up, but I could see a light on upstairs, so I rang the doorbell. I rang it again. Just as I prepared to knock on the door, it opened. I introduced myself, and asked if she was his mom. She was, and she invited me in. She, too, had an excellent reaction to the failure to know about the conference. Maybe it was real, didn't matter. We could have the conference now.

We looked at his progress report. We reviewed his pre and post tests. We discussed a few things that could help boost his pretty dismal grades, and I was showing her what we'd be teaching in the second trimester that is starting in a week, when he burst through the front door, with his friend in tow. The look on his face!

How would you feel if you were just finishing the third day in a row of NO SCHOOL (!!!) and you came bounding through your front door only to find your teacher (!!!) sitting with your mom, talking about you and how you're doing in school??? Well, just imagine that face for a minute. He was flabbergasted. SHE KNOWS WHERE I LIVE...

Plus, then he had to sit down with us and go over the progress report and get grilled by Mom about why he didn't have all his assignments turned in, and why he had such crummy scores on the ones he did manage to turn in, etc. etc. So, I encouraged him to bring in that report next Monday, and I'd go with him to the reading classroom and we'd try to find some of those missing worksheets and see if we couldn't resolve some of these problems. I assured Mom that he was usually respectful to me, and always charming and polite (which is true) and I walked out to my truck on that note.

I bet he is still shuddering a little, thinking about me being in his house. A kid isn't safe anywhere these days.

Monday, November 05, 2012


Today I am grateful that I made it home without committing a felony. It was a close call. This morning started out well, I arrived at school prepared! I had stayed late on Friday and copied all the homework. I had all my materials ready for the day and even the materials ready for after-school tutoring. I felt ready and rested and we were going to knock out some writing today!

Then, at 9:20, the loudspeaker came on. This is such a rare occasion. They NEVER make announcements during our school day....except to declare some type of emergency, or practice of an emergency response system. I figured it was just a practice. But, no...It was an actual "soft lock-down." This means that we should make sure that all of our students are in our room, and no one can enter or leave without an adult. About 15 minutes later, we had another announcement that we should log onto our school e-mail to see the details of the problem, and check there for further directions.

Bees. That was the problem. There was a huge bee nest attached to the edge of the portable classroom in which the P.E. teacher resides. This building is positioned in the very center of our playground areas. one was to go outside until the Bee People came and took care of it. (Which I assume meant remove it and all the bees.)  I don't know if it was a wasp nest or regular honey bees, either. The Bee People were on their way. Stand-by for further news concerning recess. Oh no.

That's right! No recess!! At least none outside anyway. So, 62 students crammed themselves into my classroom to draw, color, put together puzzles, talk, use the restroom, etc. etc. for 15 minutes.( My partner eats her lunch and then takes over in the cafeteria and picks them up to bring back to class while I eat.) Then, I was to take them to the cafeteria (through inside hallways) and drop them off. And you KNOW that it was insanity. They didn't know how to line up correctly, they couldn't pass their lunch cards out nicely. THEY RAN DOWN THE HALL when they were around the corner from where I was standing. YIKES! It was dreadful. I sat and gulped down my salad and then they were back!!!

It was time for the afternoon classes. Everyone was just flitting all over (figuratively and literally) because they had not been able to go to recess and run and scream. Plus! Bees!! Sigh. We got very little done. I raised my voice too many times. I continually paused and just glared stared at them till they'd settle down and get really quiet. It was a long two and a half hours.

Then, if that wasn't enough!  About 2:30, someone from the office arrived with a typed paper outlining the dismissal procedures we had to follow in about an hour. EVERY SINGLE STUDENT had to exit via the front doors of the school, in order to avoid the bee nest that was still being dealt with on the playground. On a normal day, most of our over 500 students go up the stairs, onto the playground and meet their parents out of our back gate....where there is lots of parking...and several streets they can drive away into....without causing too much of a traffic jam.

Yeah. It was insane. But, the Parent-Link robo-caller had informed parents that we were altering our dismissal. We put up signs on the back gates and fences. It really went rather smoothly. For a completely chaotic event.

I have a magnet that says, "It was a good day if you didn't hit or bite anyone." signed (some 4 year old). Well, I had a good day. Just barely. I'm thankful that it is over. Tomorrow, we have no students because of voting in our multi-purpose room, so hopefully the Bee People will complete their task, and we will be Bee-Free on Wednesday morning. I'm not sure I'll survive another day of lock-down without biting or hitting.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

I Love Technology...

Hopefully, that title has caused you to be humming the song from "Napoleon Dynamite."  Today, I'm grateful for technology. Actually, every day, I'm grateful for technology. It makes so many things better in my life. I'm specifically referring to the electronic types---computers, etc. As a teacher, the computer has added limitless dimensions to my lesson preparation. I can write my own quizzes, I can make my own worksheets. So many good ideas are out there from which to share and borrow. However, I recognize that all sorts of technological advances have existed since the first people figured out that they could use a rock to crack open a nutshell to get to the tasty kernel inside.

I remember reading an anecdote about a grandmother asking her adult granddaughter if she could keep only one of her modern kitchen conveniences the woman had, which would she choose. The granddaughter thought about it for a moment, and then decided that the refrigerator would be the one. The grandmother smiled and said, "I'd keep the running water." See? We don't even think of that as a modern convenience. To most of us, that is something we would consider as basic as a front door, or a house with a roof. Our water pipes used to freeze in the winter, when I was a child. My dad would build bonfires to defrost them. Once, they broke and couldn't be repaired till summer, so we hauled water into our house for at least eight months. I was only nine and vaguely remember the inconvenience. I can't even imagine my mother's burden during all that.

One reason I appreciated technology this week was the convenience with which I was able to plan, then un-plan my trip to the east coast. With a few strokes of computer keys, I'd made the reservations, and then, I was able to keep current on the hour-by-hour conditions of the airports, and, ultimately, cancel the whole trip. But, as I went to pick up my students from the library on Wednesday, I realized that I'd forgotten about the rental car reservation that was awaiting my arrival at 11:30 that night in Providence, RI. I was carrying my iPhone, so I stepped into the patio of the school, right across from the library, and logged onto the internet to the Budget site. I tapped the blue phone number under "contact us" and after the phone connected,  a computerized voice said, "Welcome [EarthSignMama] to Budget. Do you wish to confirm or cancel your reservation?" I replied, "Cancel" and heard the computer thank me, and express its desire that I use their services again when I needed a car, and --- voila!  Thirty seconds and it was done! I walked back into the building as my students were lining up at the library door, and we all marched down the hall to our classroom.

Sometimes, that inter-webs connection thing can be a little creepy. I'm sure you've noticed on your computer that, if you do a search for something, then the next time you're logged into Facebook or your main page, that the advertisements will mysteriously appear for whatever product or service you were looking for last time. Once, I had been writing a blog about farm jobs I'd done as a teenager, and I wanted to include a photo of a piece of machinery I'd driven around the fields, helping my dad prepare the plowed ground for planting. Then, the next day, when I logged into my main internet site, I was greeted by photos of harrows and discs and advertisements for tractor and farm implement stores. Weird.

Nevertheless--I still love technology and all the wonderful conveniences it provides me. I love that I can find just the right photo to explain something to my students. I love that I can keep connected with the many friends I've made as I moved around the country. I love that I can instantly see photos of my grandchildren without having to wait for developing and mailing. I love that I can find a recipe for anything that I'd like to make. Etc. Etc. Etc. Thank you to all the people who have made the internet possible and to all you geeks who invented computers. Bless you.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

I Love to See the Temple

I went there yesterday. It is what I am grateful for today.  I love going to the temple. I love that, while I'm there, my brain completely relaxes. I don't mean that I'm not thinking. Au contraire, I often find my mind racing along as I think of a number of different problems that are vexing me. However, when I am contemplating these concerns there in the temple, inevitably, I get new ideas that often result in solutions. Sometimes, I gain the insight that allows me to relax and give up trying to "fix" a problem over which I actually have no power. Sometimes, I think of a counter-intutitive solution. When that happens, I pay very close attention. I consider those moments pure revelation. I'm always trying to do it My Way, but in the temple I often come to realize that His Way is much more effective. Usually, it isn't what I'd have chosen at all, but always turns out to be the Best Way.

As I sat in the session, I realized that it was Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, and I thought it was entirely appropriate to be seated there, doing that, on this particular holiday. Every year in school, we have the same discussion about Halloween with my students. About two thirds of them are Hispanic. But, culturally, they range from very traditionally Mexican, to just as American as Kentucky Fried Chicken. (Which is the favorite fast-food of Japan, I recently, what exactly is American???) (But I digress...)  The conversation about Halloween: many of them LOVE those icky slasher movies, and that is Halloween to them. Others come from a more evangelical religious tradition, and their families don't celebrate "The Devil's Day." So, it is always tricky to navigate through the month. Those who celebrate all share the love of Free Candy day, for sure.

I end up tip-toeing through the various debates of whether or not the Devil is part of Halloween, or if it is just for fun, or if I believe in Bloody Mary or La Llorona, or would I ever go to the Fright Dome at Circus Circus?  But, I usually steer the conversation into history and explain that "Halloween" is a contraction of the words "All Hallow's Eve" and I tell them about All Saint's Day and compare it to Dia de los Muertos, and suddenly light bulbs coming popping on over their heads. Oh! They get it! And then I tell them how my daughter lived in Madrid, Spain, and saw the beautiful tradition of visiting the cemetery on November 1 to have a meal and celebrate the memory of loved ones gone to heaven. Then, there is a flurry of stories about their grandmother doing this, or of a time they went to a cemetery with their family. We're no longer arguing about the devil, we're no longer divided into camps about the value or evilness of Halloween. We've moved on to something that everyone can relate to, and the room is filled with an entirely different atmosphere.

The temple is like that, too. I drive up the hill after a day of frenzy with the students. The view alone is worth the visit. The entire valley is spread out before you and the temple itself is a vivid refuge from the hedonistic playground glittering off in the distance. Serenity reigns inside. I'm entirely removed from frivolous conversations. No one is clamoring for my attention. There is an entire absence of clamoring, in fact. It's the best thing ever on a school night that followed the frenzy of Halloween. Sitting calmly, surrounded by the beautiful colors of the desert that decorate the interior of our temple here, being of service to a woman who was born in Italy almost two hundred years ago, was a perfect way for me to spend All Saint's Day---Dia de los Muertos--Thursday, November 1st.

(BTW: I intended this to be posted on Nov. 2nd, but I started too late, so that's why it says "Nov.3rd." Guess I've already messed up my plan to post everyday, huh?)

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Being Thankful

I decided to write a post each day (well, try for each day) in November to express gratitude. I need to develop the habit of searching for something specific each day in order to boost my spirits and to become more aware of all the great blessings with which I am endowed. Some of these posts might be a little weird...but so am I, so it'll be appropriate, huh?

For instance: today I am grateful for my co-workers. I have several excellent ones, and this is one in particular who is talented, reliable and hilarious. His sense of humor is very dry, so this Halloween costume was especially epic because it was right out there. He is my fifth grade counter-part---the writing teacher.

I didn't expect him to wear a costume for Halloween. I don't recall him wearing one ever before. But this year he had the Best Costume Ever--especially for a writing teacher.

He had a pencil "stuck" in his forehead. And, it looked very realistic! 

Close-up--This lighting kind of messes up the effect one experienced in-person. His make-up artist had done an exceptional job. It looked quite gory.
The nametag completes the effect.

And he isn't the only great person at my school. We have very little turn-over because it is such a great place to work, with really terrific teachers, aides, and staff. I'm blessed to work there.