Analog Girl vs. The Technology Monster

Last year, for my teaching certification, I took a class on technology in the classroom. My biggest problem with this was that I felt all the assignments were written in such a way that were forced to respond, “yes! this technology is awesome, and I can think of a thousand and one ways to use it in my class!” Unfortunately, the number of software that we looked at which I actually felt that way about was… well, pitifully low. I might be able to count them on the fingers of one hand. And this is my problem with technology in education.

I’ll be the first to admit, I am not much of a techie. I got nicknamed “Analog Girl” a long time ago because I usually prefer to do things in the non-technological way. Even when I started learning Italian, using the system laid out by Gabriel Wyner in Fluent Forever, I chose to use a leitner box of index cards rather than the computer software he recommends called Anki, which keeps track of everything for you. I sometimes choose the harder path just because it does not have a computer attached to it. Even during nanowrimo, I often hand-write. Two separate years, I did my entire novel my hand. My entire novel. That’s 50,000 words. By hand. The hand-writers during nano sometimes get dubbed as being extra hard core because it’s a lot of writing, but I just prefer the motion of the pen across the paper. I am a tactile learner.

So, I worry sometimes that I will get unfairly (or worse, fairly) grouped in with the people who are anti-technology because they want to keep doing everything the way we’ve always done it. I think that if we really can reinvent the classroom with technology… for the better… then we should be doing it. But I feel that the way we approach technology in education currently means that we ask people to use it for the sake of using it. Technology exists, so we should use it everywhere. There is not enough discussion about what is actually useful for whom and when, which defeats the purpose. I think this attitude has the potential to leave kids behind, and none more so than those who, like me, are tactile learners. I remember first hearing about “virtual manipulatives,” and thinking “that’s an oxymoron. The whole point of manipulatives is that you can manipulate them. With your hands. They’re tactile tools.” In truth, there are things that I would think of as… perhaps virtual is not the right word… but technological manipulatives–things like the Makey Makey, which allows you hook up a computer to random objects and do things like make a video game controller out of Play dough or a drum kit out of a bunch of vegetables, and Little Bits, which are magnetic pieces of circuits so you can create various electronic things without having to know a lot about how electronics work. But these are not things we talked about in my technology class. These are things I found by accident, and unfortunately, I seem to like the things I find by accident more.


Tactile Matching Alphabet Books: The Beginning

I’ve been teaching kindergarten again this year, and this means hours on tend teaching letter sounds, names, and matching upper and lower case letters. Right now, it’s mostly the latter. I’ve been all over the internet in search of activities to learn/teach the alphabet, but I have yet to run across something like this.

I got the idea several years ago due to a book that I bought in Pegasus Knygas (Pegasus Books) in Lithuania. It was called “My First Color Book” (only in Lithuanian) and was created by Eric Carle. When you opened, it, you realized there were two sets of large cardboard pages. The top pages each have a block of color and the name of the color written on the back. The bottom has pictures of different objects, each of a different color. At first, the book is confusing because you open the cover and see blue on the top and yellow baby chicks on the bottom. The colors don’t match. But when I discovered the pages turn independently of one another, I realized that’s the point. You are supposed to match the color to the picture.

Thus I had an idea–what if my students had such books in which they matched the upper and lower case letters? Of course, these don’t exist, which is fine by me because that means my students get to make them, and I love hands on projects. Again, there don’t appear to be any instructions online for these, so here I am presenting the instructions:

What you need:

–26 sheets of cardstock per child (any kind of paper is fine, be we’re going to be using glue and waxy things which will lower the structural integrity of the paper, so I figured it was best to start with something as study as possible. Yes, 26 sheets per student is a lot. If you like you can use 26 half sheets, but if you get much smaller than that, it will be difficult to make top and bottom pages which move independently

–1 manila folder per student. This is what I am going to use as the cover of my students’ books, but you can use paper, cardboard, fabric, whatever you want.

–hole punch

–ribbon or yarn for binding book together

–pencils and crayons

–26 different materials to make letters out of

Okay, you don’t actually need 26 different materials, but I’m a tactile learner, and I have at least one student this year who has sensory needs, so using lots of different materials keeps them engaged by meeting those sensory needs, but it will also help them match the letters because each letter will feel different. This could be especially useful for easily mixed up letters like d and b. Students will know if they matched the correct lowercase letter with the uppercase if they feel the same. For this reason I tried my best to pick 26 materials that feel different (which is hard because some materials change when they get wet/dry/come into contact with paper or glue), as well as trying to find materials that match each letter (and you would be surprised how many craft materials start with w)

In the past, I’ve incorporated a sort of flashcard game into this. I cut the pages in half in advance and mixed up the lowercase letters. Then I showed my students each letter before we made it and asked them what the letter was. This year, I have at least one student who only knows about three letters, so it’s important to me that they build the upper and lowercase letters together, hearing the name of the letter as they glue on the material and trace the letter. Hopefully later, they’ll associate the name of the letter with the way each one feels. They can also practice tracing the letters to learn their shapes, etc. Therefore, I kept the lower and uppercase letters all on one sheet and we made them together. This will also make them easy to store. At the end of the project, when we bind the books, I’ll cut them apart from each other so we can mix up the lower case.

It’s a long project, and I only see these students about 30 mins. a day, so I’ve decided to do one or two letters each day for several weeks. This way, we might have time some days to work on other letter activities, and I only have to worry about 1 or 2 materials at a time. I think this way, I’m less likely to get to school and realize I totally forgot the feathers and now we can’t make F, or whatever the issue might be. It also means students won’t get as behind if they miss a day of school or are working with another teacher at the time I normally take them (sometimes you have to vie for kids in this world.)

Today we did A and B. I wrote the uppercase letter on the top half of a sheet of cardstock and the lowercase letter on the bottom. I also already put students’ names on the back of each piece of cardstock, which means I had to give the right sheet to the right student, but I didn’t have to worry about mixing them up later.

We made A out of aluminum foil. I cut the strips of aluminum foil in advance so it was easy for students to measure and glue. I gave them scissors so they could cut the strips to the right size, but one of my students realized he could just tear them. In the past, I have scrunched up the aluminum foil. but I find it sticks better if you glue it in flat strips. For the lowercase a, I cut the foil into smaller strips and made a blocky letter. My students, however, were determined to give the a its natural curve, and with some help, they learned how to fold the foil in on itself in order to achieve less blocky a.

For B, we used Bendaroos, which I’m pretty sure is actually the brand name, so if you want to, you could argue that I cheated, but I had to get a little creative with things. Bendaroos (or Wikki Stix if you prefer the other brand) are basically wax covered strings, which make them flexible, but also sticky. I know there are lots of materials out there that begin with B–buttons, beads, burlap–but I had a bunch of Bendaroos on hand and they are relatively flat, which may be somewhat important for creating a 26 page book. They also give students the chance to kind of customize their books with different colors. Sometimes they pick all one color, like I did, Other times, they mix colors.

What I like about the Bendaroos is how easy they are to work with. They’re flexible, you can cut them to size, and you don’t have to use glue. You can actually just smush them down and stick them directly to the paper. Of course, whatever the coating on them is has some kind of oil which will eventually leech out and discolor the paper, so they do have their downsides, but I went with them anyway.

I love watching them create their letters because they all come out so different. For example when working with the Bendaroos, one of my students cut his, and so ended up with letters smaller than the ones I drew (I erased the lines because he seemed upset that he had “messed up,” as it were) and another one didn’t even consider cutting them and just bent them to fit, resulting in letters bigger than my outline. It also seems to give them some critical thinking practice. So far, students have had to figure out how to measure their materials to cut them to the right size, what to do with pieces they’ve cut too short, and how to bend materials to create curvy letters.

I also love watching them handling the different materials. It definitely seems to be helping my sensory student. And I’m such a tactile learner, that it’s really no surprise that this is one of my favorite projects. Cutting and gluing also seems to make time fly by. We spent the better part of our periods together working on the letters A and B, and the kiddoes loved it the whole time. I’ve got my materials for C, and I’m already excited about preparing some mock-ups to show the students!

Letters in Clay

Today, my students decided to get the clay out of the sensory cupboard. It was interesting to me in retrospect that my sensory boy could stay focused on rolling the biggest clay snake he could, while I calmly made letters with the clay and asked him “what is this letter? What is this letter?” I didn’t really have to ask more than once. It was as if his mind could focus better once his hands were occupied. Here’s the catch to this discovery: I already knew that. I already knew that a lot of students can focus better when they are doing something with their hands. Heck, I am one of those students. But I find myself more and more becoming one of those teachers who assumes that if the kid is not looking or is occupied by something else that they are not paying attention. Of course, this is not necessarily true, and I am trying to remind myself that they may actually be focusing better when they are doing this. This was a good reminder!

Not Working Bell to Bell

I’m also working this year with students who are in high school–ESL nonspeakers who are behind in math. I’m working with them in their math class on subjects like order of operations and finding a variable. It’s not easy. It’s especially not easy because they are not native English speakers and haven’t had the opportunity to pick up a lot of their second language yet. People say that math doesn’t have a lot of language, but it really does. As evidence, I’ve been working through Khan Academy in Spanish. I’m only on about a fourth grade level, and there are a lot of problems that I do which would be easy if only I knew what the instructions are asking me. Do I need to add? subtract? are you asking what’s the same? Different? Do I need to find the sum or difference or a missing addend? If only I knew all these words, I would know how to solve it. My students are experiencing the same problems… except that the math is also new to them. Whew!

As a result, my students can get burned out fairly quickly. There’s also the problem that… well, it’s math. And math can get kind of redundant. I need to do more looking around for hands-on type activities they can do to perhaps make it more interesting, but even when you find things like that, it pretty much boils down to: you need to solve a bunch of math problems, just like the ones we did yesterday… and the day before… and the day before… And we’re learning about negative numbers (hard!) and adding and subtracting fractions (hard!) and converting fractions into decimals (actually, that’s not so hard, but still… it’s a lot to keep track of!) So usually, 5-15 minutes before the bell rings, my students push the work away and they say “No, Miss Molly, no. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, please!” And what can I do?

Well, I can say “no, in this school, we work bell to bell, and so you must keep working. Keep working! Keep! Working! And sometimes I do, only I understand the burn-out and the frustration, and quite honestly, I read through my high school math classes, so even when I encourage them to keep working, I can usually only do it half-heartedly. As you can guess, this is not entirely effective. And I know that if the wrong person walked in the door and found the students not working, they would be very upset with me. But I don’t want to kill them mentally, or discourage them. In general, hard things are best dealt in small amounts. That way, you can get through it in pieces, rather than looking at it like a wall that is impossible to scale. Which leads me to my second option… which is what I usually do.

I say “Okay.” And the students put away the math and we agree to work on it the next day. But here’s the trick: we still have five to fifteen minutes of class left, and I don’t want them just spending that time on their phones. But as I said, these are ESL students. Part of the reason they struggle in math is because they have such a small English vocabulary. So I give them the option: work on math. Or talk to me. In English. Speaking in English is hard for them, though harder for some than others. But they usually pick the second option. I try to talk to them about what they did over the weekend (or what they are going to do). I’ve asked them about books they read, movies they watch, foods they eat… I’m running out of ideas, actually :/ But it works miracles. First of all, I usually can get the students to talk to me. Sometimes we actually all end up having a conversation together, and we’re laughing and telling stories, and learning to communicate, even though they aren’t fluent in my first language and I’m not fluent in theirs. In addition, I get to know them better, and to them, I become a person, not just a cold and blank teacher. They get a break from the math that’s burning them out, but they’re still learning. Honestly, I think it’s part of what keeps them coming back. I mean, yes, they would be in class even if we didn’t do that, but I think it makes the class more enjoyable for them. Because they know they’re going to have to work at something hard, but they also know I’m on their side.

In conclusion, this isn’t really about not working bell to bell or why we shouldn’t. It’s about finding something else to do with the last few minutes of class to give your students a break. We all know that younger students get antsy from doing the same thing for too long a period of time. We forget that older students can have the same experience. So if your students are getting frustrated or burned out, I encourage you to find something else to do–have a conversation with them. This can useful even for students who are not ESL. Or talk to them about what you’ve done in class and what they liked about it or didn’t like about it. Maybe you can break out an easy to play game. (I’ll soon be putting up a lot of stuff about games useful in the classroom. I’m a big gamer, so I’ve got a lot of those.) We can’t just command our students, we’ve got to work with them. And if that person who will be upset with me ever walks in, maybe I’ll just have to tell them that… and hope for the best.

Why I Didn’t Vote for Donald Trump

Alright, I had intended to say this back around election week and never got to it. But considering my recent post about MLK Day, which suggested that having school on this holiday makes our district “look like a bunch of racist redneck confederate-flag wielding Trump-supporters,” I feel like it’s time I mentioned this. The simple fact is that that I don’t know who you voted for, and my statement may have offended you. So in case it did, I would like to explain myself and why I find it so disheartening that this man is not president.

I know, in my heart, that not everyone who voted for Donald Trump is a horrible racist person who thinks we should go back to segregation or put Muslims in concentration camps or something like that. And if you voted for him, and you have met people accusing you of being such a person, I am sorry. I am sorry on behalf of the hypocrites who are grouping every one together. I am trying very hard not to do that, but I admit, I sometimes find it difficult.

The truth is, a lot of people voted for President Trump for different reasons–healthcare, job security, beliefs on abortion or gun control, whatever. Heck, there may have been things that he said that I agreed with. (Actually, I’m pretty sure there were–because our education system is totally messed up.) But for me, this election came down to rhetoric, and President Trump could have agreed with me on every other topic. He could have said he plans to completely re-vamp education by all but eliminating standardized tests, making test companies more accountable for proving validity, and significantly raising teacher slaries in an attempt to follow the European models which have worked so well. But I still wouldn’t have voted for him. Because of his rhetoric. Because I’m an ESL teacher.

Every day, I walk in to work and I teach students who are immigrants, students who are the children of immigrants, students are migrants and the children of migrants, students whose families fled their homes because they were in danger, students whose families came to the United States in the hope of finding a good education and a living wage, students who are constantly faced with the simple fact that they don’t fit in. It is my job to help them fit in, to help them belong. And I do. And I care about these students. Immigration is not just job security for me. For many of my students, our town is the only place they know. Others are scared to return home because they lost family members in violence. Others come and go but are working toward attaining citizenship, or have already attained it. These are kids just like all the others, and they are scared.

I teach five grade levels, and my students range in age from 6 to 16. These are some things my students have to say about Donald Trump and the election:

“I don’t like Donald Trump. He’s mean.”

“He wants to kill us.”

“And enslave us.”

“We won’t get to see ______ again.”

“Does this mean I’ll have to go back to Mexico? I don’t want to go to school in Mexico. The school there is not good.”

And the ever present, “Who did you vote for?” Their eyes beg me to tell them that I think they belong.

And I tell them honestly, I did not vote for Donald Trump. And by doing this, I tell them that I have heard their fears. I tell them I am on their side, that I do not want anything bad to happen to them. I do not want them to have to abandon the lives they have grown used to living, leave behind their neighbors and friends and go to a world they may not remember or may not even know because they look different or speak different than I do. I tell them that I will do what I can to stand up for them because they are important to me.

If you voted for Trump, you probably didn’t do it because you think immigrants should be killed or enslaved. You may not have even done it because you think we need strong restrictions on immigrants. Maybe you did it because you think he’ll bring back jobs, or you’re afraid Clinton would take away your hunting rifle, or because you just wanted a change. But if you voted for him, you did nothing to stop the rhetoric.

These are the fears of American children. And you may say, “well he’s not going to do that,” but if you remember being a young person, you might remember that no matter how many times your parents told there was no monster under the bed or in the closet, you were still afraid. Your fear was still real. Well, this is their monster, and their fears are very real. So if you voted for Donald Trump, not because of, but despite his rhetoric, then you have to find a way to stand against it. And if, like me, you voted against him because of his rhetoric, you still have to find a way to still stand against it. If we don’t, we send a message that this rhetoric is perfectly acceptable, and those kids’ fears just might become realities.

Sensory Cupboard

I have a kindergarten student who has not been diagnosed with anything involving particular sensory needs, but seems to have them. This student is constantly in need of touching things, and he hates wearing headphones when working on a computer program. He’s learning English as a second language, so communication is difficult sometimes, but whenever I hand him headphones, he points to his ear and says something about “hurting.” Or he just unplugs the headphones from the computer. I’ve argued with him about it several times. I don’t want the sound from the computer bothering other people working in the room, and it’s not really fair that the other students have to wear them. Then again, if the headphones truly bother him, whether because of physical discomfort or sensory needs, it’s not really fair to make him wear them, is it? I’ve stopped bothering. He has a tendency to focus better on a computer when he doesn’t have to wear headphones.

That problem taken care of, it doesn’t change the fact that he runs his hand down the wall whenever he walks down the hall (I’ve also stopped bothering with this. It’s just not worth the battle) or that he loves cutting and gluing and playing with interestingly textured objects, but as soon as the art supplies are put away, he’s wandering around the room, going through all my cupboards. It seems that he needs to touch things. And he’s one of those kids that will actually shut down in structured environments. Like with the headphones, if I say, “we’re going to this now,” I often spend half my time arguing with him or chasing him around the room. But if I give him options, I can incorporate the content I need to teach him, and he remains interested and focused on the task at hand. For example, he built a tower of Legos as tall as he is, and we counted how many Legos were in the tower. So I’ve determined that I need to create a less structured environment, preferably filled with as many tactile-sensory objects as possible. So today, I started.

I went through all my materials and filled a single cupboard with anything I think my students can play with while letting me still cover content. There are several sensory objects in there–clay, Bendaroos, buttons, beads, cords for lacing, etc. But there can be a lot more. He really likes to play with Legos and building blocks, so I want to see if I can find some of those to put in there. And I need to keep the cupboard looking as enticing as possible. But my mother made a point–I’m going to have change out what’s available in it a lot. And it’s true, this kid gets bored fast. I think I may also have to develop a portable sensory box that I can use with him when I’m not bringing him to my classroom. But we used it for the first time today. The kids decided to get out the magnetic numbers and letters, so we put them up on the white board and practiced IDing them. The kids stayed interested and focused while I asked them to identify letters or figure out if they had them upside down. I think teaching content may take longer in a less shaped environment, but it’s always faster when you don’t have to spend so much time arguing.


Why We Should Have MLK Day Off

Monday, January 16, 2017: Martin Luther King Jr. Day

I am typing this from work. That’s right. I’m a teacher, and I have to be at work on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And I am not happy about it. I am so not happy about it, that in reference to every student who is absent today, I find myself thinking “good for them!” Why do I not want to work today? Well, because I have friends that teach at other schools and they have today off and it’s just not fair! I want to sleep in tooooo!!! (Yeah, and my RMA boyfriend is probably laughing at me right now because he is probably working too.) But in all honesty, what is the big deal? Why do I think I should not be working today, and not just because I want a three day weekend. I’ll tell you why. Because the kids notice.

At our elementary school today, students will be completing MLK Day related projects. They will be talking about Martin Luther King Jr. and what he did, and why he’s important. They will be reading books and writing paragraphs. They will be drawing and coloring pictures. And their teachers will be telling them that he’s so important in the history of our country that today is a holiday, and that’s why the post office and the banks and some other places are closed today. And then the kids will ask, “but why don’t we have today off? Why isn’t school closed?” And the only answer that we teachers can give is, “I don’t know,” which is the truth.

Okay, maybe you don’t believe the elementary students will notice. Maybe they won’t. But whether or not they do, the high school students will. Two years ago, a high school student asked me why our district takes off for Presidents Day, but not for MLK day. And, not surprisingly, this was one of our ESL students. In response, I suggested that it was possible the district decided to give only one Monday off, so our schedule didn’t get too wonky, and decided Presidents Day made more sense because it was several weeks deeper into the semester, rather than about the second week out. I said this not in an attempt to defend the school, but in an attempt to see the best in everybody (and, I suppose, because it does throw me off when the second week of school is only four days.)

But the fact is holding school on MLK Day makes our non-white students wonder if they are valued in our district. It undermines our message to the students about its importance (especially when we honor Presidents Day by canceling), and whether or not there is a logical reason behind it, it makes us look like a bunch of racist redneck confederate-flag wielding, Trump-supporters. We’re already a Southern state, so people already make that assumption and color us in black and white. We don’t need to give them more reasons.

So, to those who wish we had today off, I’m with with you. To those who have made the decision not to cancel, I would recommend that we cancel in the future. I think our reputation, both with our students, and with outsiders is improved by it. And to those who noticed, I don’t know. I don’t know why we don’t honor the day by canceling school, but I will honestly tell you that I don’t think it’s because we value white people more. I honestly think it’s a lot less political than that. Or maybe a long time ago, the school didn’t celebrate out of protest, and now we don’t because we never did before. Or maybe the calendar does make more sense this way. And yes, this time, I am saying it to defend my school. I love my school, and that’s why I believe every word of my defense.