MONDAY, SEPT. 3 -- Tomorrow I begin my 13th year as a teacher. Naturally, I have a general idea of the direction this year will take, but until I meet my students my plans remain tentative. Every student is unique. Every class develops its own personality as the year progresses. What works one year often proves a total flop the next.
I will not be allowed the luxury of choosing the children I would like to work with, or with whom I think I could work best. Whoever walks in the door of my first-grade classroom tomorrow will be mine for the year. I will have 184 days in which I will be expected to teach each of them the "critical objectives for their grade level," as the D.C. teacher jargon describes it. But the jargon does not begin to describe the many unstated tasks that meeting those objectives will entail.
My school is James F. Oyster Bilingual Elementary School, a District of Columbia Public School located at 29th and Calvert streets NW. Our boundaries include Woodley Park and the west side of Adams-Morgan. We are the only truly bilingual school in the area. Every child in our school receives instruction every day in Spanish and in English -- the rich and the poor, the over-achievers and the under-achievers, the good students and the not-so-good students, the model students and the behavior problems, the language-majority students and the language-minority students, the blacks, the Anglos, the Hispanics, and the occasional Japanese and Soviet students as well.
I am an ESL teacher. First and foremost to me is the acquisition of English by students for whom it is not their first language. I truly believe that if they do not learn English, they will remain second-class citizens. But I also believe they are capable of continued development in their first language. And while we're at it, why not make the English speakers bilingual at the same time? It seems like an efficient approach to two desirable objectives to me, and that is why I consider myself lucky to be at Oyster instead of in a traditional ESL program.
For the opportunity to work at Oyster, I left the suburban schools of Virginia. It meant moving to the District (to fulfill the residency requirement) and putting up with all the trials and tribulations that are part of any urban school district. Tuesday, Sept. 4
At 8:45 a.m., I go to the two kindergartens (located in "demountables," or trailers, on the blacktop) to meet my students, who have assembled in last year's classrooms to await my arrival. Some are eager and friendly, a few recognize me from last year. Others cling to their mothers. This year there are no tears. I line them up and march them to the auditorium, where all the students gather for an opening assembly. Many mothers tag along.
First grade is a whole new world for these 27 students. How strange this new environment must seem to them! They're in "the big kids' school" now; they have their own desks, instead of tables, a hook in a closet instead of a locker to share.
At 11:30 a.m. (kindergarten lunch time), many complain that they are hungry. Noon seems a long way off to them. After lunch they are exhausted, and a few actually ask for nap time. The burning question (and the greatest disappointment) of their day revolves around homework -- they want it, I don't give it. Wednesday, September 5
Diana is absent. Later I learn that her mother had to keep her home because she had no one to pick Diana up after school year's kindergarten teacher, who is out on maternity leave, takes Diana's mother downtown and guides her through the process of getting her name on a waiting list for a city before- and after-school care program. In the meantime, she arranges for Diana to be dropped off at 7 a.m. at Javier's house; Javier's mother will bring Diana to school at 8:45 a.m. and keep her after school until the mother can pick her up at 5 p.m.
Tonight is Parents' Night. We meet the parents, give an overview of our curriculum, textbooks, etc.; explain the class discipline policy; discuss the transition from kindergarten; and ask for volunteers to help with class trips. Monday, Sept. 10
Nibbles, the hamster, is dead. A faintly unpleasant odor greets me as I open the door to my classroom, and I find Nibbles, piteously stretched out in a very unnatural position, right under his water bottle. He must have overheated in the closed classroom over the weekend, and ventured out of his litle plastic house too late to refresh himself.
I can't deal with this, this bright and early Monday morning. I toss Nibbles, cage and all, in the dumpster out back before any children arrive. To those that inquire, I evasively answer that Nibbles had to go away. Tuesday, Sept. 11
At 8:15 a.m. I am paged for a phone call -- a concerned mother. "Daniel wouldn't get out of the car this morning. He was screaming and crying that he didn't want to go to school. He's never done this before, and I hated to leave him, but I had to go to work. Please find him and make sure he's OK."
I locate Daniel on the blacktop outside, where the children line up for the 8:45 a.m. bell. He's still crying. I bring him inside and he tells me his older brother is going on a field trip today. I show him the calendar and the two field trips we are going on later this month. "And both of those days," I say, "your brother is going to be stuck here at school, while we go and have a great time."
Later, when he is calmer, I call him to my desk and ask him if there is anything else about first grade that bothers him. He's not sure. I tell him to sit down and think about it for a few minutes. Thirty seconds later he returns to my desk.
"The journals," he says.
"What about them?"
"I don't like them."
"Didn't you write in your journals every morning in kindergarten?"
"You were supposed to. Sorry, can't change that. Sit down and think some more."
Thirty seconds later he's back.
"What about it?"
"We don't have it."
"Sure we do, it's just different than kindergarten. And a little less of it too. We're in first grade now."
Amazingly, no one spills his milk at lunch. Wednesday, Sept. 12
We read a story about dogs and cats. I ask the children what dogs and cats use their tails for. Thalia gives me a condescending look, and then puts me in my place by informing me that she thinks they are just for decoration. She also tells me I should wear a darker shade of nail polish.
First faculty meeting. We are still short classroom teachers; art and library begin next week, computer lab in October; we're still fighting downtown to have our P.E. position restored; our parttime music position is funded by the Community Council; they are hoping to hire someone by Nov. 1.
I call Daniel's mom: The crisis has passed, Daniel now likes first grade and has decided to stay. Friday, Sept. 14
My class brought in far and away the most Giant and Safeway receipts for computers last year, and I have been lobbying hard for a second computer in our classroom as a reward. Today we receive a dusty old reject from the fifth grade. Still, my request has been satisfied; beginning Monday I will hand over my class's collection of new receipts, which I have been withholding as a bargaining chip. Tuesday, Sept. 18
Amelia's mom tells me that Amelia has been singing at home about "Oh beautiful, for spaceships skies."
We have a new lunch service this year and many of my students have never eaten a baked potato before. They don't know what to do with it. I show them how to slice it open, insert the pat of butter, and scrunch it back up to melt the butter. They are amazed when I tell them that this is what french fries come from. Wednesday, Sept. 19
My class informs me that women cannot be scientists or astronauts. They are quite adamant about this, especially the girls.
"Why?" I ask.
"Because girls are afraid of things. They're afraid of the dark, and it's dark in space. And sometimes there's a baby inside of them, and they don't know it, and they can't have the baby in space."
"Are any of you afraid of the dark?"
"Then why do you think other girls are?"
"Besides, when your mommies are going to have babies, they usually know about it for a long time."
We discuss the Hubble telescope, and the scandal of shoddy craftsmanship. I tell my class that the problem with the Hubble telescope began when its inventors were in the first grade, and their teachers let them be lazy, and do things like write their names in all capital letters. The class concludes that the makers of the Hubble telescope should give back the money they got paid.
After school the security guard informs me that one of my students is crying downstairs. It's Diana. Javier is not coming to school for a few days; he had some teeth pulled. Diana's mother told her to wait on the couch outside the office for her. Diana explains to me -- in Spanish, through tears -- that she's not sure if her mother said she would come to get her at 4 p.m. or at 6 p.m. or at 7 p.m. And now the security guard has told her that school closes at 6.
I tell her it's only 3:30, I'm sure her mother will be along soon. At 4:20 p.m. I'm about to leave for the first session of a class I am taking. But Diana is still on the couch, and crying again. She gives me the number of her "tia." I call this woman, and she says to bring Diana by her house on my way to class. While I write a note explaining all of this, Diana's mother arrives. Thursday, Sept. 20
Stella writes a great little story in her journal:
Won opon a taemi soe currblr
i sol sov Dom i pad with dom
Bot woDa i navr so Dam oGan
Bot wrmz. (Once upon a time I saw a caterpillar. I saw some of them, I played with them. But one day I never saw them again. But worms.)
I praise her, and casually suggest that she leave a little more space between her words when she writes.
After school I meet the last of my parents who were unable to attend the Open House the first week of school. That night a mother calls to give me the name of the specialist at George Washington University who works with her daughter, who has some major developmental lags.
Beginning next Tuesday I am planning to work one hour each week after school with the five or six students in my class who I feel need extra help right away. Aides and tutors have not yet been assigned or scheduled, and I don't want to wait for what might never be. If the girl with developmental lags is to be included in this group, I want to make sure I am not working against whatever the specialist is doing with her at GW. I touch base with him; I think I am a little more optimistic than he about her potential. But then I've worked in clinics before myself. The isolation of a clinic forces comparison to theoretical norms; "in the trenches" I am comparing her to the actual achievement of her classmates. I am far from giving up at this point. Friday, Sept. 21
The school's one and only copy machine is broken. The fact that the office staff has rented a small machine for themselves does not bode well for the classroom teachers. It looks like Monday morning we will be cranking up the old purple ditto machine.
We have a surprise assembly today, to kick off Hispanic Heritage month. A former student who is now a professional musician performs a musical tour of Latin America for the student body, with traditional songs from many countries. His nephew, in my class, joins him on stage at the end.
The president of Community Council calls me at home. She has contacted City Councilman Jim Nathanson, who has discovered there is room for 9 students in the after-school program at Oyster after all. Monday morning we can check, and we hope Diana will be one of the first nine on the waiting list. Monday, Sept. 24
Thalia learned to read today. It was the story about "Bingo the Naughty Dog." I was fascinated as I sat there and watched her make the most important discovery of her life. You could see the flash in her eyes, the sense of wonderment, when in an instant she realized that underneath the pictures in the book were words, and that those words told a story that went with the pictures; and you could actually figure out what those words said, if you used your knowledge of the sounds of some of those letters. (And, English being as it is, made a few educated guesses based on the context.)
"Come here, Bingo. Come here you naughty dog." She stopped. She stared up at me with a wide-open look of surprise. She looked around at her classmates, who were waiting expectantly for her to continue with the saga of Bingo. "Come and find me. Look for me. Here I am." At this point she stopped, and I watched her move her finger back and forth, between the words "come" and "here," at the top of the page, in the words of the man, and at the bottom of the page, in the words of Bingo. She needed a minute of private retrospection, while she contemplated the implications of her discovery.
There was no stopping Thalia now. She read the story of Bingo to anyone who would listen that day -- her older sister, last year's kindergarten teacher -- all were accosted that day by Thalia, carrying her little book about Bingo. Tuesday, Sept. 25
Five children stay after school for an hour for their first tutoring session. I am encouraged by how much I am able to accomplish when I can focus all of my attention on these five, without having to juggle countless other responsibilities and distractions simultaneously. Thursday, Sept. 27
We prepare for our field trip tomorrow by getting out the floor map and giving a quick synopsis of the history of Mexico: the Aztec and Mayan societies that flourished before the arrival of the Spanish, the subsequent "imbalance of trade," with so much gold being taken back to Spain; the eventual war for independence. The children ask me if the Mexicans ever asked the King of Spain to give back all the gold, after their independence was won. My simple explanation of the history of Mexico has put me in some very turbulent waters; I quickly put away the map and change the subject. Friday, Sept. 28
Ivan's mother works for the Mexican embassy, and has arranged for us to visit the Mexican Cultural Institute, located in the old embassy building on 16th Street. I am proud of the knowledge the children impart to their guide as they view the murals inside. They know all about "Mr. Columbus"; they can even name his three ships if she would like. They know about the Aztecs; they recognize the recurring appearance of corn in the murals, and its importance in the development of that society. Then they surprise even me by informing her that the Aztec men in the mural wore their hair long "because they didn't have any barber shops." I wish the world could remain this logical for them always. Wednesday, Oct. 3
I'm worried about Judy. Letters and their sounds still seem to make no sense to her at all, despite the after-school tutoring sessions. And without this basic knowledge, the idea of invented spelling in her journal entries is beyond her.
I sit down to help her during journal time this morning. So far she has written "the," a word she recognizes from a card in her "word box." The next word she wants to write is "girl." I begin to help her sound it out: "G-g-g . . . What letter says that?" Judy stares at me for a moment and tells me, "But I already know how to write 'girl.' "
"Mmm-mm," and she calmly proceeds to print the letters g-i-r-l on her page.
"How did you learn that?" I ask increduously.
"I learned it by looking at the 'word wall'." (The "word wall" has little cards with the most commonly requested journal words displayed as pictures with the words printed beside them.)
Now everything about Judy falls into place and makes sense -- the beautiful handwriting, the drawings and artwork so advanced for her age, yet meanwhile her failure to keep up with her peers in their correlation between letters and sounds. Judy is a strong visual learner, and phonics will never be her strong point. She has shown me that she will learn to read and write by learning whole words, presented in a context that makes sense to her. Thursday, Oct. 4
After school I muse that I am not doing enough for the top end of my class, those who are already reading. I resolve to begin a program of outside reading. I'll have them make little "reading logs," in which they will make entries for reading done on their own. I can monitor this in various ways; they can choose a favorite page at random to read to me aloud; they can draw a picture of their favorite part. I'll need to send home a letter to their parents explaining my plan, and enlisting their help.
Five weeks of school have passed. Two teeth have been lost, and many first words have been read. Sometimes I see teaching metaphorically -- one is assigned the task of providing sustenance to these children. Some teachers devote all of their time to the preparation of the meal. Some stay with tried and true recipes. Some are always experimenting. Many are perennially in quest of the one magic recipe that will nourish everyone. I don't believe that such a magic recipe exists. Nor do I believe that my job is finished when I place the meal on the table, no matter how attractively I present it. I won't rest easy until I see that each person in my charge has gotten what he or she needs, not just for maintenance, but in order to grow and thrive.
Kathy Davin teaches at Oyster Elementary School.