Monday, November 25, 2013

Saying Thanks

As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday here in the USA, I was reading a Facebook post suggesting that parents give a handwritten note of thanks to their children's teachers.  I was feeling a bit morose about the fact that I won't get such a handwritten note, from the parents of the children I have taught, from the teachers, or from the administrators.  But, then I also got to thinking that many of them do not see the work I do and I would probably feel that their thanks was nice, but a bit generic.  They don't know how hard I work.

But there is one group of people who do:  the students I work with.  And I am reminded of the young 4th grade boy who thanked me on his way out of the classroom.  And the older boy, who asked me if their class was the worst class I had ever taught.  He knew how hard he had just made that class (he was one of the ringleaders), but, in a way, his acknowledgement that I had survived the class, with some of his respect was validation, too.

Little girls sometimes give me handwritten pictures of rainbows and hearts.  And there is the occasional, "I hope you come back!" 

Not all days are good.  Subbing is hard and often thankless, in every sense of the word.  I am thankful for the kids who acknowledge somehow that I helped make their day a good one. 

Friday, November 22, 2013


I have a favorite water bottle - or I should say I have four of them.  I think the brand is Contigo.  It has a wide enough mouth that I can fill it with ice, then water, directly from the refrigerator's ice maker.  It doesn't leak when it is turned sideways or upside down.  So now, rather than freeze plastic bottles partway and fill the rest with water, I just take one or two of my Contigo bottles with me on subbing jobs.  They keep the water and ice cold for at least 24 hours - I have tried it.  And I like my water very cold. 

The fact that these bottles are so convenient meant that, when I accidentally left one on the teacher's desk at a job, I was anxious enough to get it back that I actually turned around to go back and get it.  But, alas, the door to the school was already locked and there was no one there to let me back in.

Fortunately, a few days later, I was called for a job at that school again.  So, I went to the teacher in whose room I had been.  I told her that I had subbed for her a few days before (and got a blank stare) and I asked if she had found my water bottle.  She said they had found a water bottle, but that no one claimed it.  Maybe I should look in Lost and Found.  I did, and it was there!  I was happy.

And then, I got to thinking:  the water bottle was left on her desk.  Why, when she asked the students, did no one even think that possibly it was The Sub to whom the water bottle belonged.  She had my contact information - I leave that with the teachers I sub for.  But no one thought about The Sub, that the water bottle might possibly be hers.

And that is because The Sub isn't a real person.  She is just a place holder.  Someone who goes through the motions of being the teacher for the day, but someone easily replaced and - anonymous.  Yes, they know my name.  And sometimes they even remember my face, or that I have been in the school before.  But I am not someone they think about.

I once introduced myself to a teacher for whom I had substituted for 8 days.  He showed absolutely no interest in talking to me.  I have, at various times, also mentioned to other teachers that I subbed for them - again, no interest, no positive response - just like the blank stare I got when I asked about the water bottle.  I am a non-entity.

I understand how busy teachers are, how much they have on their minds, and how much they need to care about the students in their charge.  I know they don't have much left over for The Sub.  But a smile of recognition would be nice.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

No Keys

Once again, I didn't get keys to the school room for the job I had today.  The room was unlocked when I got there, but when I needed to go to the bathroom at lunch time, I couldn't get into the teachers' rest rooms, since the doors were locked.  I tried to use the kids rest rooms, but there were only two stalls and both were busy.  So, I waited outside the adult rest room, until a kind teacher let me in.

I also had to escort the class I had just before lunch to the playground for their recess.  Since I didn't have a building key, I had to take the long way back to my classroom - and was a bit late getting to my next class, not to mention the fact that I had had to leave my purse in the room while I took the class to the playground.  I suppose I could have taken my purse with me, but it is awkward carrying your purse around, when no one else does.

And, finally, I was in a computer lab, into which you are not supposed to bring food or drink, but where else was I supposed to store or eat my lunch?  I suppose I could have taken my things to the teachers' lounge on the other side of the building, but I wouldn't feel comfortable leaving my purse there.

There is too much to do about the teaching part of the job to spend all my time worrying about petty things like rest room keys and where to put my lunch.


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Geographic Knowledge

I taught a math lesson this past week for fifth grade students.  It was evidently a lesson that the teacher had skipped over and planned for me to teach the day she was gone, as the students remarked that they were going backwards in the book.

The lesson had to do with using map scales to find the straight line distance between two places on a map.  Interestingly, using the scale and even the rulers was not really a problem for the students.  The biggest problem was trying to find the cities in the U.S. that were to be used for the measurements.  The students mostly had no idea what the letters MS, KS, CT, or IL stood for.  They also didn't know where most of the notable cities were located.  I was asked more than once if Chicago was a city or a state.  They needed help to find San Francisco.  I knew that kids' knowledge of geography, even US geography, was not great, but I was a bit surprised that it was this bad.

I frequently play a game with kids if we have extra time before going somewhere.  I have the students name a country in the world that is NOT the United States.  I get all sorts of interesting answers - Chicago, Texas, and, it never fails, Africa.

I love maps and I cannot quite fathom that kids are so lacking in knowledge about basic world geography.  I wonder if it is just Americans, or if children (and adults) from other countries are also lacking in this knowledge.  Even the kids I taught in Alaska, many of whom were children of military personnel, were really unsure about whether Alaska was a different country from the US.  They kind of knew that Germany was a foreign country.  And, even though many of their parents were stationed in Iraq at the time, I don't think many of them could find Iraq on a map. 

This is discouraging to me.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Talking and Attention

This is a somewhat rambling post, where I am thinking about kids' talking and issues regarding attention. 

The class I subbed for yesterday had book buddies, so I had a chance to talk to another teacher while the older kids ( my class) read to and with the younger ones (her class).  Somewhere in our conversation, the topic turned to the differences over the years in the kids in classes.  Both of us observed that kids now seem to have tremendous difficulty really LISTENING.  She said that they seem to feel the need for constant noise around them - music, activity, talking to themselves.  I hadn't noticed it in this way, but I do notice that kids seem to talk nearly continuously.  And, although I have posted on this topic before, I am still wondering WHY.  Why do kids feel the need to talk so much at school?  Is it something we are doing - or not doing - as teachers?  Is it the nature of school?  Is it natural and only now becoming so much in evidence, because there are so many students in the classroom or because the consequences of constant chatter aren't enough to deter it?

First of all, let me say that even the students seem to be aware that they cannot do some of their work well when people around them are talking all of the time.  This seems to be more apparent in subjects where the nature of the work is completely independent effort, e.g., writing.  But even knowing this, kids who feel the desire to talk don't or can't inhibit their talking if they themselves feel the desire to do so.  They know that if someone else talks, they get distracted, but if they talk, they seem to feel it is needed or justifiable. 

Further interesting examples of this are often seen in the computer labs.  Kids are working independently on projects or simply different choices of math games.  They are chattering constantly.  In spite of the fact that each student is most interested in their own activity, they are talking to other students all of the time.  And the other students sometimes are listening.  I know there have been many studies that show that people can't actually multi-task - that they are actually just switching focus back and forth, but students seem to be faster at it than the studies would seem to point out.  Are kids better/faster at switching focus?  Does it depend on the level of focus necessary? 

I know I can think of other things when I am swimming.  I know that I can do fractions in different number bases while I swim.  But, one thing I can't do when I swim is focus on a word-intensive task at the same time that I am swimming.  I can think about topics using words, but I can't create word-related things while swimming, i.e., I can't work on the lyrics to a song that I am writing.  So the depth of focus does matter - at least to me. 

The other part of the problem is hearing what is said.  I have noticed that many students require multiple repetition of simple directions, e.g., "Open your books to page 81."  Some, like me, are very visually oriented and will not need further assistance if the page number is also posted on the board.  Others seem to ignore both verbal and visual presentations and need multiple references to them both before they can complete the task.  It is as though they have to go through several layers of attention.  First they have to be aware that they are being asked to stop whatever they are currently doing.  That takes several attempts.  Then they have to be aware that they are being asked to do something else.  Then they need to shift their attention to thinking about what they are being asked to do.  But then the attention seems to shift back to their previous task and they have to think about what they were doing and what they need to do to end that.  They have now completely forgotten about p. 81 in the book and need several more reminders in order to get back to that.  This sequence seems to be repeated for some students every time there is a new directive given.  And, all of the while, some of them are still talking. 

Quite a while ago, I read an article telling college professors not to lecture so much and to break up lectures into smaller chunks.  I can't actually imaging lecturing to students the way I was lectured to when I was in college.   Most of the classes I had were around 50 or 60 minutes and the teacher would lecture for a large part of the time.  In recent years, lectures have gotten much shorter and have been augmented with discussions, demonstrations, working of problems, etc.  Even the MOOCs (online courses) that I have taken have been broken up into videos that last between 6 and 18 minutes (at most).  Most are around 10 to 12 minutes long. 

What has happened to our attention spans?  What has happened to the depth of our attention? 

Many things to think about.