Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Earth Daze

Yesterday was Earth Day. April 22, 2008. It was the 38th Annual Earth Day, starting in 1970. Even though there has been tons of media coverage on "Going Green", "Global Warming" etc. there was not much mention of it. The school I was "guest teaching" at had no posters or signs or activities that I could detect. Oh, pardon me, at P.E. time I did see two 5th grade classes playing "Cooperative Games". When I went over to inquire if they were "Earth Day Games" they looked at me quizzically and said, "What? Is it Earth Day today? Are these considered Earth Games?"
"Yes," I said, " they are cooperative and not competitive. Several groups of 4 or 5 students each had ropes attached to buckets filled with small plastic balls that they were to transport, without spilling to a bin. Other groups had ropes attached to beams for four students to stand and walk with using only the ropes to shuffle along. It was quite amusing to see the frustration and lack of cooperation they had.

When I mentioned it in the staff room at lunch time I got the same response. i.e. no knowledge and little care. One teacher thought they should plant a tree and one suggested they do it in combo with May 5th, "Cinco de Mayo". Gone are the days, I guess, when it was a big unit of interest and fun at the elementary level. In my experience, and I remember the first Earth Days, it was something to do and look forward to for fun activities, field trips etc. I was at a school that had an owl for a mascot so "Give a hoot, don't pollute." (Hootie, the owl with glasses) really meant something to us. A few years later I had a class who wanted to do a school project to recycle. We entered our efforts in the KCET Contest and won. The presentation was on TV from the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens. We devised a daily system for recyling the styrofoam lunch trays all schools used at that time. The company our district bought them from agreed to take them back in the original bags after use if they were cleaned off. We had daily rotated kids who volunteered to do that job from the trash cans with a hose. It got messy and they loved it...for awhile. It got the district to thinking about recyling other things too. Now I notice that most schools have a big jar of soda pop can top rings they are collecting.

When I asked the kids, yesterday what they did to "help the earth" I got some interesting responses and some non-responses. Some didn't know what I was talking about. I guess they were too busy at school practicing for all the state tests. A few mentioned grocery bags and newsprint/paper recycling. That was about it. They love to "Mind each other's business" and tattle etc. How about minding the business of our earth and it's ecology? How about seeking out the positive instead of the negative about each other and our small planet? How about taking an example from our flowers? A haiku? RRR

Phototropic blooms

Turn toward light naturally

Conserving their joy!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Lights! Camera! Action! (X7)

Ah, yes. The familiar 3-word exclamation to signal the start of "Dramatic Performance". I used to love it. In my former career, whenever I announced it, "fun" was in store for me and the students. That chance to perform, make believe, be creative, take a bow usually always had the same effect/affect: great concentration, focus, intensity, and mostly teamwork. Former students would come back years later and confess to me that "our plays" were what they remembered and enjoyed the most.

Well, now days, school has changed for the most part. Rarely do I see in any lesson plans at any level the suggestions to "role play" or act it out, a kinetic kind of learning that really sticks with some kids, especially if they are in middle or intermediate school. It was my rare "treat" this last week to spend a day, yes, all 7 periods (45 mins. each) with fifth graders. They were cycled to me as the "Art/Music/P.E. teacher". I signed up to try this because of my past memories of fun with this age kid. Was I surprised. Getting 33 plus, darkly-clad, preteens every forty-five minutes to do the same lesson over and over again for seven times was enervating and challenging. After the third time I started to get a bit "testy" with their rude and disrespectful behavior to me and each other. I guess that is just par for the course now.

Anyway, as part of physical education, this teacher was assigned by her peer 5th grade teachers to teach a unit on "Drug Abuse" and this lesson in particular was very cogent: "Dangers of Tobacco Abuse and Truth in Advertising". Yes, they were right at the age when peer pressure (#1) and pop culture ads (#2) would have the most pervasive effect. What was planned was a two-page skit with the characters: "Coach" "Cigar" "Cigarette" "Chewing Tobacco" and "Dip". The plot: Coach had to pick a new team and he was being influenced by "ads". Each principal was trying to convince him that they would be the best for the team...pick them. As you can see, it was ripe for the usual jokes and sight-gags. Since I didn't know the kids, after the first period run I let them pick and choose the cast. That took longer but was more successful. They wanted to do it again. So I promised we would at the end of the period if we could get through the material, workbook page assigned etc. without the usual interruptions and disruptions. Most of the 7 classes were able to achieve this goal with one or two exceptions due more to slow and incompetent reading skills. This was even after they had heard it read once. One group couldn't finish in time, the bell buzzed, and they were out the door. Nothing interrupts the schedule at one of these "passing type schools" They spend most of their time in two core classes of Lang. Arts and Math/Sci. and then the electives are chosen for them. They are lined up and escorted to them with great reminstrance.

Obviously, with this brief set up, there were no "Lights or Cameras".(not in the shrinking budget) And there was very little time for dramatic action. It was more like "Reader's Theater" all lined up taking turns, being prompted every other line when they had lost their place in the script. Several had a hard time standing in front of the class for that long (10 mins. max.) Forget any characterization conveyed in the voice or inflexion. Just get through it with lots of laughs from the impolite "audience". It was plain to see they had had little experience at this sort of "learning" and it's cooperation and cohesiveness. Not taught, I guess, anymore.

Did they learn something about the "evils" of tobacco addiction etc.? Probably yes. Like: one out of four are still addicted to some form of tobacco. The difference between pouch tobacco (chew) and dip in the round tin. The "tar" from the glue on the cigarette paper. The mouth, tongue, lips, etc. damage/cancer with chewing. We talked about baseball players' habits and their outdoor work environment which permits spitting. One girl out of the approx. 230 kids admitted she had tried smoking and didn't like it. I think many more had and just wouldn't admit it. They were respectful listeners when I told them about my own loved one and his on-going battle with addiction. Nicotine addiction is much stronger than alcohol.

"Too Good For Drugs" is the title of the pre-packaged program. I taught "Dare" for many years at this level and younger. Before that, another colleague/teacher and I created the first "Drug Abuse" curriculum for a local school system and went to every elementary in the district with week series of lessons. These included local authorities like police and even a judge. I kept doing it three more years a a private school until some of the "cocktail drinking" parents got irritated with my remarks to the kids about "social drinking and smoking". My contract was not renewed. I also used a bit of drama/role playing in my lessons. They were enjoyable if not a bit scary to the kids.

At least this is one area of the curriculum that "administrators" have not been able to test and report to the voters. Tragically the tests are "real life" and in some cases final tests and fatal. RRR

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Platform 9 3/4

If you are at all familiar with the wildly popular "Harry Potter Series" of seven books and now, 5 or 6 blockbuster movies, you are probably familiar with the title of this post -"Platform 9 3/4". This is the "stepping off point" for J.K Rowling's literary vehicle that transports so many millions into her fantasy land of Wizards and Witches. It is an imaginary train depot platform between #'s 9 and 10 in a ficticious English city. The express train boarded there each year at the semester'start transpots aspiring students to "Hogwarts Wizarding School". What a creative idea for a whole book series. I read that she got the idea while riding on a real English train to Edinburough,(?)where she wrote the first books in a coffee house. She was also proposed to and married on that train. Trains in our culture are by and large gone as an icon or means of transport for people.

It strikes a chord with me because so much of my childhood and college days were spent on cross country trains. My dad worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad as a "Time-keeper" (payroll) and so we, as a family,got passes to ride across out beautiful country. It was a much slower pace of travel for time to sight see and to develop the art of conversation with fellow passengers and the hired "help". I went to Chicago to my first two years of college on a train by myself. I packed a box lunch of fried chicken that lasted for most of the trip and only ate in the diner cars for breakfast. I'd get off at short stops for drinks and fresh fruit. It was a great adventure.

But I digress again. My purpose in writing about this is that last week I worked in a classroom that had the "9 3/4" sign over it's door. I was intrigued and fascinated with the concept. It would've have been something I would've done as a teacher. When I retired I was reading the second book to my class aloud. (Chamber of Secrets, I think) They were spellbinding back then to me and the class. They reminded me of reading "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" to my class when it first came out. Theirclass was all decorated and "themed" around the "Harry Potter Series". The bulletin boards were gray, stoney castle walls with parapets. There were "cubbies" for "Owl Mail" and several owl sculpture around the room. There were monster pencil sharpeners. I counted at least three that made a scary monster noise at the end of the sharpening. There was a pyramid of "Wizard's Chess" for an on-going tournament/club. Of course that class was almost wall to wall desks with 34 fourth and fifth graders and their smelly bodies cramming every cranny. Yes, it was a combination class. This had not stymied the obviously creative teacher at all. She had two lessons going on at all times and her retired Husband/Science teacher took turns with her teaching Science and Math. She also had a volunteer, German-Speaking Aide who came in weekly and taught German phrases to these, mostly Hispanic kids. What I was most impressed with was the extra attention paid to writing and reading skills. I could see the results of her effort post on the wall and in their attention to detail. There were on-going "hands-on" craft-type projects around the room also. There was great attention to detail and evidence of alot of "after-hours" work and loving care.
The kids seemed to enjoy the whole experience: i.e. the room, the suspension of "reality" and the teachers. This was the kind of teaching I was "into" and still am. You see very little of it anymore. Sure there was "test-prep" but it wasn't taking center stage...ideas and imagination were.

They had pictures and models of the heroic house elf "Dobie" from the Series. He was leading them through their American History/Exploration/Discovery Timeline. (the Gold Rush, Pioneers etc.) Little did they know, yet that this little house elf was one of the key characters in the series who helped save Harry on several occasions. He is an ugly little thing but loyal to the end. I'm invited back in a week so I can continue to update you on the progress of this classroom and teacher. Maybe there is some hope out there still. RRR

Saturday, April 5, 2008

What!? No Music allowed?!

"O Freunde, nicht diese Tone!
Sondern lafst uns angenehmere
anstimmen und freudenvollere
Freude! Freude!"
"Oh friends, not these tones!
Rather let us sing more
cheerful and more joyful ones.
Joy! Joy!
(from the Chorus of Bethoven's 9th)
Joy to the World
"...singing joy to the world
All the boys and girls now
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me."
It's A Small World
"It's a world of laughter, a world of tears
It's a world of hopes and a world of fears.
There's so much that we share that it's time
We're aware, it's a small world after all."

Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'

"Oh, what a beautiful mornin' Oh, what a beautiful day

I've got a beautiful feelin' everything's goin' my way"

Some Folks

"Some folks like to sigh,

Some folks do, some folks do;

Some folks long to die, But that's not me nor you.

*Long live the merry, merry heart that laughs by night and day,

Like the king of mirth, No matter what some folks say.

Some folks fear to smile,

Some folks do, some folks do;

Other's laugh through guile; but that's not me nor you.*

Some folks fret and scold,

Some folks do, some folks do;

They'll soon be dead and cold, but that's not me nor you.*

This has been a busy week for this "guest teacher". Yes, I taught everyday in a different school from Kindergarten to Sixth Grade. I had a wide variety of experiences from very positive and fulfilling to rather negative and limited. It also was April Fool's Day at a Intermediate School...that was fun! They were fake chewing gum and I told them about the great Swedish Scientist "Loop Lirpa". I'd call it a draw.

What was most shocking to me was the one school where the principal told me, "No music allowed here. Follow the detailed lesson plan exactly. We are having State Tests coming up soon and they need to practice them." Wow! I was appalled. Usually when teachers and administrators see me coming on campus with my baritone uke case they smile or comment favorably. One has called me the "wandering troubadore". Ha! This one was quick to assume that I took up time playing and singing songs with the kids and not following the lesson plans. I felt like telling him that I usually just used my music as a "sponge" or time filler for an in-between time or just before recess as they were cleaning up. But no, I said, "Yes, sir."

That's when it all seemed to fall into place about this particular school. I had been there before and noticed how drab, bare and dim the halls were. Every other light was out. Little of the colorful, joyous work was displayed. It was mostly a "ghost town" too, not many teachers in the staff lounge at lunch or even walking in the halls. The kids, out on the playground were the usual kids, loud and boistrous. But at "line up time" things got very serious and controlled. It was very safe and secure that was sure.

We all filed in, a third grade, and got busy on tables memorization and speed drills while we waited for the inter-com announcements for the day and the flag salute from "the principal". He started with a very sweet and sarcastic deriding of a 5th grade class who got caught yesteday "not listening quietly" "There could've been an emergency and then who knows what would happen?" They were told to sit out lunch recess on the tables and benches. All in a very sacarinely sweet way. (kids this age don't get/understand satire) Then he went on to exhort the teacher to teach and reinforce the "character curriculum goals challenge". Then the salute was led by two girls and everyone was told to, "Have a good day of learning."

Well, I had hidden my musical instrument case and had told them I would be following the teacher's lesson plan completely and exactly. There wasn't even a groan. These were amazing kids, and look/acted older for their 3rd grade age. They were attempting multiplication and division drills in 5 mins. or less and were practicing cursive. They got "table points" for being good and "on task". There were no "class clowns" as per usual, and the real academically needy ones were very quiet or shipped off to other classrooms for remedial help. We spent quite some time on our "practice test" on reading and writing and did it together. I was instructed to show them how "distractors" worked and how they can "trick" you if you aren't careful. I also showed them how to look back at the text if in doubt about an answer after narrowing it down to a 50-50 choice. I showed them how to keep their place on the scan-tron answer sheet with one hand (the pencil hand) and also keep their matching place in the test booklet and question stem. (they should alway match) I told them that when I went to U.S.C. I took a course for teacher on "How to write test destrators" with four or five choices. (A, B, C, D etc.) Yes, it is a science and you can learn it.

This is what many of our schools are teaching now. They are under the gun so to speak. This one is a very new and modern school with a lower attendance. I'm wondering if it may be closed next year for lack of funds or for "low test scores". I'd close it for "killing the joy of learning and living" just by not allowing any music, singing etc. This district has a roving Recorder Teacher that goes from 3rd grade to 3rd grade and she mainly teaches how to read music because of it's positive influence on reading and comprehension of math. There's not much joy there either. She is testy and quick to "pouce" on any and all "joyous outbursts" of tooting. Little humor is allowed either. I was playing along with the class and had my recorder sticking sideways out of my mouth. She looked at me and I said, "I'm pretending to be Kenny G." She momentarily smiled. The kids didn't get it. They are so innocent and open "tabala raza"? What are we thinking? What are we doing to them? What are we doing to our future as a nation? Can't we learn and sing about it? RRR