Saturday, March 27, 2010

Quote of the Week #2

Student walks in, reaches into his pocket and says, in a decent Scarface impression:

"Say 'allo to my little... "

Student pulls out a pen.


Student smiles.

Note: It has been pointed out to me that this little quote could be seen as threatening--at least considering the Scarface reference and the fact that the movie character does pull out a gun instead of a pen.  I did share this concern with the student just so he would know that in a typical classroom setting, he might want to keep references to violent movie scenes to his social conversations. Mostly, this just reminds me that our students today walk a social minefield.  This student truly did make up a funny joke, but MANY people pointed out to me that it could be violent.  Violence never crossed his mind, but the student could easily have been disciplined for this kind of joke.  Crazy world, huh?

Tar Beach

For Spirit Day yesterday, I used a project inspired by the book Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold. In this story a girl imagines she is flying above the night skies of New York and claiming it for herself. She reclaims the union building that won't let her father join due to the color of his skin and she decides to have ice cream for dessert every night. I read it aloud and  explained that according to this girl you can have whatever dreams you want--both big and little. You just have to be willing to shut your eyes and fly.

Cheesy, right? They loved it. One boy had his eyes shut when I finished (and wasn't sleeping).

In the back is a photo of a quilt that copies the style of the book illustrations.  This was the design for our project.

I had each student make a square for the border with their own dreams on it, and a group worked on a large size picture in the style of the book illustrations using our city as the background.  Then they made small flying versions of themselves like the author did in the book, and we hung them on the large picture as if they were flying over the city It looks pretty cool! 

I'll post pictures when I get back in the classroom.  Oh yeah, did I mention?  This caped teacher is flying off for Spring Break!!!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Bait and Switch

Earlier this year our little program was in the depths of student misbehavior. A couple of strong role models were pretty much running the place with chronic defiance and bullying. We had tried everything we could think of to change the tide and were at a loss. By this point students had lost nearly every privilege we offered and were running amok.  We had nothing to take away from them and decided to try to start rebuilding anyway.  Basically, we tried the "bait and switch," and held our very first Spirit Day.  

We spent the day working on projects--both group and individual--that focused on goal setting and team building. We hid the serious messages by using lots of crafty supplies, playing their favorite radio station, and letting some of the casually inappropriate conversations slide.

Oddly enough, they liked it! Our students could be considered "disenfranchised" to say the least, and likely spent school activity time in detention, at home, or smoking behind the utility sheds. They may not have had the chance to be a part of a school before.

This month they started asking when the next Spirit Day would be. We were surprised, but we scheduled it for the last Friday before Spring Break (today--hurrah!). Many students asked us on a daily basis about the upcoming Spirit Day, seemed excited for it, and were even willing to call it a name like "Spirit Day." It was hard not to giggle at conversations like:
"I hate this f-in' place. I want to be suspended."
"Fool chill. Tomorrow is Spirit Day."

Today was Spirit Day #2.  We had only one absence.  One student, who is chronically absent, missed the bus.  We assumed we would not see her.  She walked in an hour later, having found a ride to school.  She was happily wearing her school shirt and matching bracelets.  Score one for the attendance books!

The message here?  If you have run out of things to take away from your students for their misbehavior, it just might be time to give them something worth having.  Schools inadvertently take away so much from kids that have so little to begin with.  Caped teachers are just as guilty of forgetting this, but we are also just as able to remember and do something about it.

Yeay! for Spirit Day (and for Spring Break!)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Is There an Emergency?

As an attention-getting device the yodeling emergency button is barely passable. The yodel is quiet, and the students either giggle or yodel loudly when it is played. As a community-building device, however, it has come in handy. I put it up one day, and no one noticed until I began to run around asking if there was an emergency.
"Is there an emergency? Wait? Is this an emergency? I think we have an emergency!" Each time playing the yodel and often trying to sing along.
Now, whenever we have a guest or a new student, the students teach them to ask me if there is an emergency. And, of course, there always is. Yo-del-ay-e-hoo!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I Heart NPR

Many caped teachers listen to NPR.  On the way to work this morning, this caped teacher heard this news story about a bullying program our district elementary schools have been using.  In the story a middle school is using it, and many of the comments by the principal and the students reminded me of my day-to-day conversations, so I deemed it worth sharing:

 Hit Back At Bullies? Not At This School

Monday, March 22, 2010


Okay, I wasn't going to do this. I wasn't going to post this on the blog. It crosses the boundary, I know.

Here is the quandary... if I don't share this masterpiece of an issue, the masses will not have the correct image of what cape-wearing truly entails. If I do share it, I will have crossed the line of decorum. I know this.

But you must know!

Today, I was assigned "Dookie Duty" in my classroom. The school custodian and the teacher next door agreed that due to an issue we have been having in the bathroom, "someone" needed to check the bathroom after each use for... dookie. No joke.

It appears an unidentified student has been putting their... dookie... in the garbage can instead of the toilet. The unisex bathroom is in my classroom (let's not discuss why this is problematic in middle school). The issue has not remedied itself, nor have the reminders to use the toilet and the provided toilet tissue had the desired impact. For this reason, the solution of "dookie detection" was devised. I must add here that the while I have zero brilliant ideas as to what else could have been done, it still irks that this particular solution was created by people that knew darn well they would never have to take part in it.

So how did this caped teacher handle it? Oh, with the utmost class and decorum, of course. I pulled out my old fashioned welders goggles (a must in this profession) and announced that I had been tasked with checking the bathroom garbage after each use. I explained that while they might feel that this new procedure "sucked," they may want to take a minute and remember it from my perspective. I reminded them that I, as their faithful teacher, respected their right to use the bathroom and, even, to go "number 2" if needed, but that I felt strongly that I should not have to deal quite so directly with it. I said I would do what was needed, but that they should take pity on me, again as their faithful teacher, and make it so that I no longer had to be quite so abused. I then reminded them of their age, their ability to take good care of themselves, the fact that employers frown on such behaviors, and of basic bathroom guidelines (like... wipe and flush). I reiterated the very lameness of this state of affairs, and continued on with the doo-ty (sorry--had to say it just once).

For those who are also cape-wearers, you are most likely not as startled by this story. You know that bodily functions come with the job. For those who have not been graced with this knowledge, let me attempt to explain. No--there is too much. I will sum up: I understand that there is, quite possibly, an underlying issue here. A teenage person is messing around with his or her... mess. I know this is problematic. First, though, we had to deal with the fact that it needed to stop. Neither the assumption of tact, nor the sly messages, nor the counselors pleas were working. So we have to go to the source, as it were.

Now I will shock you. I will tell you that I might know who it is that is doing this dreadful deed, and I might even be able to forgive this child for the behavior. Why? Because while this is a disgusting problem for me to have, a loathsome duty to be given, and even, dare I say it, "not on my contract," it is still real and present, is it not? Bottom line (no pun, see?), there is a child who is having some sort of issue and needs something. I have not a clue as to what that something is, but I will attempt to take care of it once my "dookie duty" has stopped and my caped-ness can resume.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Detention Conversation

Warning--This conversation would be rated PG-13.  It would be, if folks rated this kind of thing.

E. is a very bright, very oppositional 7th grader.  He is truly quite funny and entertaining, but he gets the class so riled up, he has to be tempered a bit.  One of his skills is to weasel out of situations with word play.   In this conversation, E. is in detention for the repeated use of the phrase "cup check" in the classroom while I was out.   I take the word he has not actually used and apply it a little indelicately.  Typically, arguing with a 7th grader, especially an oppositional one, is not worth a single second of time.  In this case, it still may not have been.  Nevertheless, it has provided me with giggles ever since.

E: Why am I in here?
(defiance wrapped with an air of innocence)
Ms. M: From what I understand, you were having an inappropriate conversation.
E: No I wasn't.  You don't know. I didn't say anything inappropriate.
(challenging look--daring me to say it)
Ms. M: You're right.  I wasn't here for the full conversation, but from what I understand, you were talking about BALLS. Are you going to try to convince me that talking about BALLS is appropriate?  I don't want to listen to conversations about BALLS.
E:  I didn't say... balls.
Ms. M: No, I'm sure you didn't say the word BALLS, but you did talk about BALLS and that is why you are in here.
E: I didn't talk about balls.
Ms. M:  I believe that you did.
E: I said "cup check." Is that about... balls?
(Again--defiant stare.  He's pretty sure I don't know what a cup check is.)
Ms. M: Yes.  "Cup check" is about BALLS.  If you would like to discuss how "cup check" is about BALLS, we can do that.
E: Nevermind....

Final Score:
Ms. M: 1     Balls: 10

Friday, March 19, 2010


J. showed up in my room today with a note from the teacher next door that said "Please keep him busy as long as you can."  This means that his constant stream of chatter (most of it inappropriate) had reached its peak and needed a reset.  I reached in to the canyons of my Super Teacher mind for a way to keep him busy and found... nothing.  
Me: Tell me a story.
J: Balloons can be round and they float in the air.
Me: Okay.  Umm... what are you doing?
J: Spinning.  I like spinning.
Me: Well then!  Try spinning on one foot on the linoleum.
J: I might slip.  But I can balance on one foot.
Me: Great!  I'll time you.  How long can you balance on one foot?
J: (balancing)
Me: (timing... 27 seconds passes)
J: Now what?

It turns out this was not a Super Teacher moment, after all.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Cup of Tea

M. has a cough.  It is an obnoxious cough and quite distracting.  M. comes to school anyway and does not have a ride home if he is sick.

On such occasions it might be appropriate to serve hot tea.  This caped teacher found some organic lime tea that comes, amazingly, in the form of a dehydrated lime.  She bought it for herself, but the coughing M. is finding it quite soothing and is now able to focus on his work. 

**Note: Lest you feel that all is daisies and rainbows here, M. left his dirty cup on the counter once finished, coughed up a good-size phlegm ball the next day as well, and the caped teacher fell ill with the same cough within 24 hours.  Two sides... coin....

Monday, March 15, 2010

Egyptian-Japanese Cats

Teachers are like camels.  We can hold our water all day if we need to.   It is quite a hassle to orchestrate a trip to the ladies room, so some of us wait as long as possible.  When I need to leave, I have to let the aide know, or I have to call someone to come over and watch the kids if she is out.  The kids pretty much have it figured out--a few times a day their teacher has to get a babysitter and "skip to the loo" across the campus.

In an attempt to add some bit of tact to the whole process, I began to refer to the trip as "a meeting with an Egyptian cat" or having to "see a man about about an Egyptian cat."  The link here is vague at best.  Someone in my life once said something about having to use the restroom "like an Egyptian cat" and it stuck. No other reason I can think of.

These days if I ready myself to leave the room I get comments from the students like,
"Got a meeting?"
"Gonna go see a cat?"
"Meeting someone about that Egyptian cat?"

This week, the 7th Grade Humanities class is studying ancient Japanese art.  In my research I found that the Japanese cat has quite a history and is a symbol of good luck and prosperity.  I have started to thread the Japanese Cat, or Maneki Neko, into my repertoire, but it has been slow-going.  They are quite taken with the idea of my daily visits to see the Egyptian cat, and not so willing to add the Japanese cat to the mix.

I suppose the lesson here is similar to the collection of blue things.  Community builds in strange ways.  Perhaps my references to feline urination aren't exactly classy, but I think the camaraderie this has built might be worth a little low-class humor.

Here is my proof:
Today I was working with my small English Language Learners group during PE.  One of the students in my group suffers from selective mutism.  M. is quite a sassy little thing, but very rarely speaks.  While I respect her strength of character in controlling her life in this manner, you may well imagine that the required language development curriculum leaves little room for a student that doesn't speak. For those of you who have not observed a lesson using typical Level A English Language Development curriculum, you will want to picture a very verbal, language and print-rich environment with a lot of TALKING, CONVERSING, DISCUSSING  of various topics in day-to-day life.

Anyhoo, a few minutes into class today, I realized I needed to use the loo.  This is only problematic because all staff members were out at PE, and I knew there would be the added hassle of the students having to sit outside and wait for me while I "held my meeting."  I muttered to myself, "Oh no.  I need to see an Egyptian cat."  M.  smiled slyly, sighed dramatically, shut her computer and stood up.  Showing that she a). knew the joke and b). knew the nuance of the issue that included her sitting outside to wait for me.

If you add this to R.'s recognition of Egyptian cats living far away (see the Man on the Horse entry a couple of weeks ago), I have taught two students two things using this little euphemism.  For this reason, I am counting this as a success.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Collection of Blue Things

I've read, reviewed, and discussed a wide variety of books and curricula on community building, the teaching of pro-social skills in at-risk teens, developing a classroom management system through  the development of a community.  What I've learned though, can be summarized by this photo.

When I was putting together my classroom on the first days of school this year, I put my tape dispenser on the window sill behind my desk.  Then my sticky-note holder.  They were cluttering up the area while I was planning.  When the students came in they noticed the various changes in the room, commented on them, and paid an odd amount of attention to the tape dispenser and sticky-note holder.  They asked why it was there.  I said, "I guess that's my collection of blue things." I knew many of the students from the previous year, so this bit of random didn't faze* them.  They nodded, studied the collection, and moved on.

A few days later I was given a blue pen cap found on the floor and told it was for the collection.  Then a small blue stuffed dog found in the "Fidgets Bin" (more on that later).  Later,  a piece of blue tape, a blue string, and a blue piece of candy (wrapped, of course), blue modeling clay, a blue monster ball, a blue birthday card, a blue slinky.  They just keep coming. 

When new students come in and assess the room, they often end up asking about the odd assortment on the window sill.  Other students answer, "It's our collection of blue things. We just do that kind of thing."   

This year my window sill became a part of our community.  I didn't plan it or study it in a book. I just accepted the offerings when they came and the community took ownership of the collection.  They like knowing what their surroundings hold and taking part in those surroundings.  Of course I post their work, assign them classroom jobs, do activities to promote community, but this collection of blue things has had just as much impact on them this year.

This caped teacher's advice is to let the magic happen.  Accept the blue pen cap when it comes your way.

* Even caped teachers have Dads.  This caped teacher's dad reminded her of the difference between phase and faze.  Thanks Pops!  Link for your own edification here: Phase vs. Faze.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Man on the Horse Rides Again

My school is in the middle of a pretty dicey part of town--next to the street names you hear most often on the police news.  While the kids were getting on the bus after school, a man on a horse came by.   That was odd, to say the least.  But, joy-upon-joys,the students all said excitedly--"It's your man on the horse!  The one you always talk about!" I know it isn't a white horse, exactly, but, really, with all that talk about gift horses and the mouth-looking, I figured I take it.

And for bonus points, after Mrs. H. said, "Now all we need is to see an Egyptian Cat walk by."  One of the girls said , "I don't think they'll come all that way."  Which, in caped teacher language, means she knows that Egypt is far away from here, and that someone has been doing their job in teaching Geography (okay, that would be me).  

More on the Egyptian Cat coming soon....

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Reading Cards

Today's story is not a silly one, it's a method I use in class that is successful more often than it is not.

A key to the success of any caped teacher is giving the students choices--enough choice to feel they are in control of their learning. I use these reading project cards to do that when we read a class novel, individual novel or stories.

Each color is a different kind of project or question:

Blue:  Writing Forms
Blue cards give directions for writing assignments. These are typically between one and three pages, and have the requirements listed on each.  Some of the most popular blue cards are 
  • Write a Character Simile Poem.
  • Prepare a list of questions to determine whether or not someone has read this book carefully.
  • Write a letter to the main character of the book asking questions, showing support, or making complaints about situations in the book.
Red: Grammar Tools
Red cards practice grammar exercises.   They are short and relatively simple.  These card are an attempt to get the students to interact with the words on the page.  Favorites are:
  • Find three examples of figurative language in the book, list them, and tell what kind of figurative language they are.
  • Find five double-consonant words in the book.
  • Alphabetize the words from your two favorite sentences in the book.

Green: Thinking
Green cards are questions that will encourage deeper thinking skills about the book or story.  The answers are typically written in a paragraph. For example:
  • Write a new title for your book and explain why this is your choice.
  • What was the most exciting or interesting part of the book?  Why?
  • If you had enough money, what one object, thing, or place would you buy from the book and why?
  • If you had written this book, what one part would you write differently?  Why?
Yellow: Projects
These are the most popular cards.  The students have grand ideas about what they will do, and, hopefully, they are successful!
  • Create a set of maps from your story.  They can be 3-D, topographic, road maps, trail maps, or something else. 
  • Make a comic book version or an animated version (using or stop-motion animation) of your book.
  • Make a travel brochure for your book.
When I use these cards, I assign the students a particular number of cards.  The 8th graders are reading Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell.  I assigned them 2 Red cards, a green card, and a choice between a yellow and blue card.  They shuffled through the decks and picked their cards.   This takes some organization, and some pre-teaching, but watching them work on the different pieces, and hearing their conversations about the books is proof that learning is happening.

Projects from Island of the Blue Dolphins--a pastel of the cover of the book and a clay model of the boat the white men used:

Projects from Because of Winn Dixie--a small replica of the guitar Otis plays to calm the animals made from cardboard and duct tape, a cardboard and clay replica of the WInn-Dixie store and the scene where Winn-Dixie knocks over the fruit.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


When she was told her daughter had been acting disrespectfully in school, being sassy, and not following the agreements we had made at conferences, the parent said, "Oh.  Well, you know, she HAS been eating a lot of chips lately."

This Super Teacher has no response to that.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Teachable Moment #497

Student--"Ms M.--how's this?"  
(holds up what appears to be a pencil outline of California)
Me: "Looks good!" (gives thumbs up sign) 
...a few minutes pass...
Student: "Ms. M--how's this?
(holds what appears to be same pencil outline of California)
Me: "Looks good! Is there anything on there you are showing me?"
Student: "Nope!"
...a few minutes pass...
Student: "Ms M.!"
(holds up what appears to be the same pencil outline of California)
Me: "It's nice, D.  I have a question, though.  It seems that you have shown me the same pencil outline of CA three times now.  Is that what it is?"
Student:  "Um Yes."
Me: "Well then, how about if we don't do that anymore?"
D: "Okay!"  (all smiles and happy)