Monday, March 30, 2009

An Immature Post About How Immature I Am

I didn't blog when I was working as an elementary school teacher. Now, I sort of wish that I had — I'm sure I've forgotten 1,000 wonderful stories. I try not to blame myself, though — I know that I was working 18-hour days between teaching, prepping, and taking night classes, and that if I had tried to write about teaching during my precious sleeping time, I would never have made it through.

Today, a post on Failblog made me realize that I should write down some of my teaching stories before I forget them all. What follows is an account of my immaturity as a 21-year-old in that unexpected minefield of double-entendres: a 2nd grade classroom. Possibly NSFW.

The picture on Failblog could have been taken at L********* Elementary. In fact, I did a double-take and took a good, long look at that potted plant, trying to determine whether it was L*********. But no — I remember now — our "Cum" files were in the kind of cabinet with the very wide drawers and the files hanging sideways. For those of you not in the know, "Cum" is short for "Cumulative File" (aka "your permanent record") and is pronounced "kyoom." This file holds all of a student's most important school-related paperwork: end-of-year report cards, major disciplinary reports, promotion/retention paperwork, initial registration card, etc. As the end of the schoolyear approaches, teachers will be bombarded with increasingly shrill memos imploring them, "PLEASE update your Cums!" "All Cums must be filed by June 11th at 4:00!!!"

By the time I had to file my Cums, I was a pro at sucking in my cheeks to avoid wildly inappropriate laughter during school hours. I was 21, just a few months out of college, and had been instructed by my TFA supervisors that I must remain strictly professional in appearance and behavior at all times, lest I bring shame on myself, may family, my alma mater, the United States in general, and TFA in particular. I wore skirts and addressed other teachers as "Mrs. So-and-so" and was generally very businesslike, but I had one weakness: unintentional sexual slang used by straight-faced teachers/administrators. You'd be surprised by how often this is a problem at an elementary school.

My first major test was in October at my very first IEP meeting. An IEP is an Individualized Education Plan, a legally binding document detailing the interventions a school will provide for a student with special needs. It's a Very Official document requiring a Very Official meeting. (Side note: no matter how Official a meeting is, its seriousness is invariably undermined when the adult participants are forced to sit in tiny chairs.)

I arrived at the meeting early* and arranged all my Official-looking folders containing the Official diagnostic tests and observation notes I had collected to assess Tasha's** progress. I was soon joined by the district psychologist, the principal, the reading specialist, Tasha's 1st-grade teacher, and Tasha's grandmother. Pleasant hellos all around. First item: let's look at some diagnostic results to see how much progress Tasha has made since the last IEP meeting. First diagnostic test: the Woodcock-Johnson.

I might have snorted. No, I definitely snorted. I reached for a tissue to cover my face and managed not to go into full-on cackle, but let me tell you, it was a struggle. To this day, I have no idea how Tasha performed on her Woodcock-Johnson — all I could hear was a little voice screaming in my ear, "Don't laugh! Don't laugh!"

I'm not proud of myself, I'm just telling you what happened.

At least there were no students in the room. When I told one of my TFA buddies this story, she countered with one of her own:

Our district used a scripted reading curriculum called Open Court — all the 2nd grade classes across the whole 20-school district read the same story during the same week and are supposed to do the exact same activities, etc. If you have a hardass principal, it can be awful, but parts of it aren't that bad. The 2nd grade curriculum has some really great units (Fossils, Camouflage) and some terrible units (Kindness).

The people who developed Open Court were never children. They have no children of their own and have never met any children. Proof of this: the very first lesson in the 4th grade Open Court curriculum, week 1, day 1, is a vocabulary lesson including the words "cockpit" and "abreast." All fourth graders think this is amazingly hilarious. First year teachers who've spent all summer working on ulcers and reading about "classroom management" do not.

I had my own run-ins with Open Court vocab lessons. Fortunately, 2nd graders are a teeny bit too young to think twice about "cockpit," but that doesn't mean that Open Court didn't throw me a few curveballs over the course of the year.

Seriously, Open Court, what is it with you and woodcocks? Yes, I know, they are adorable little birds. But must they appear in every story? I never knew so many children's stories had woodcocks in them — did you seek these stories out? Did you commission special books just so you could shoehorn another woodcock reference into the 2nd grade reader? It was excessive.

I could have gotten through the woodcocks ok if it were not for that typo. The end-of-week quiz for Unit 3, Week 3 asks a question about the "woodchuck" in that week's story. There is no woodchuck in the story, just another woodcock (of course). I (first-year teacher!) did not notice this error until after I spent an hour coaxing the student copies out of our tempermental photocopier. It's not like the kids won't notice.

I have a plan: at the beginning of the quiz, I will calmly direct everyone's attention to the bottom of page one. Then I will direct them to cross out "woodchuck" and write "woodcock" in its place. I will demonstrate this on the board. It's foolproof. Just, please, nobody laugh.

I'm at the board, calmly crossing out "woodchuck" and calmly writing in "woodcock." From the back of the room, know-it-all Nasreen** pipes up, "Well, we should really just write 'cock'" instead of crossing out the whole thing." Ok, Nasreen, you do that. Lizbet**: "Yeah, me too, I'm just writing 'cock.'"

Keep it together, nobody's laughing, they're just being logical. Just focus on writing "woodcock" so the others have a model to follow.

A moment of silence, and then I hear it, "huh, huh, huh" — a low, staccato, grunting laugh. Oh no, it's Ramon,** one of the most mature kids, one of the ones I feared might make something of this. "Huh, huh, huh." I suck in my cheeks — if this snowballs out of control, it will not be because I started it. "Huh, huh, huh." I sneak a glance over at Ramon — he's got a big grin on his face:

"Huh, huh, huh. Woodchuck is a funny word."

Laughter bubbles up from every corner of the classroom. "Ha. Woodchuck. Good one, Ramon." "Tee hee, woodchuck." "Huh, huh, huh."

Immense relief. They're just little kids. So am I, apparently.

*TFA motto: "Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable!"

**All names have been changed.


Tiara said...

Thank you, 4th grade OCR, for giving me something to contribute to this blog.

I had completely forgotten about the woodchuck story - one of my favorites. I just read it aloud to Ian and we are both weeping from laughter. I bet when you're a GSI none of your students' papers will give you quite the same glee that the 2nd grade "favorite animal" reports did.

I miss our carpools!

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

I've started writing down some of these stories so I won't forget them. If I ever turn them into a book, I will certainly steal some tidbits from your stories and Lesley's. Suzanne would make a great fictional principal because no one would believe she was real. Maybe we could do a Sideways Stories from Wayside School type thing, but with more swearing.

Ian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tiara said...

I've been thinking about this. I don't have as many great stories as those of you who taught 2nd grade do, but I do have that one about Mario wanting to befriend the bees and smearing pollen all over his face and body. Also, Sophie had a couple of amazing ones about the kids who peed on each other and the one who stuck his pencil up his nose.

Summer project? I don't think we could count on TFA to sponsor it....

Sorry about that last comment - I was accidentally logged in as Ian.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Sophie's pencil story is still among the most horrifying stories I have ever heard. I'm not sure how to tell it in print, though — her cupping her hands around her face to simulate holding handfuls of blood is really a key aspect of that tale.

Also, do you remember Ingrid's first kindergarten mentor teacher — the one that used to keep giant knives on her countertops? That might make it in too . . .

We have to create a fictional school — San Jose Elementary — and just create composite characters to tell the best stories from everyone.

We could have a whole chapter on peeing stories. Sophie's wins, but I did have a student pee on the floor during my very first videotaped lesson observation.

I'm just now writing up a piece on the horror that was the Code Red drill.

Tiara said...

Yes, I remember that teacher. She justified the knives by saying she was a diabetic and needed to be able to slice up oranges during class.

Remember Lesley's student who threw a fit when he didn't get his McDonald's lunch?

I'm coming to Cambridge May 31-June 3. Will you and Pete be around sometime in there for Agricola and elementary school horror story brainstorming? We miss you guys lots. Also I'm coming back for a few days in mid-August for my friend's wedding.