Recently while writing emails in Spanish, I found a humorous examples of what a big difference a little letter makes. For the three years I worked with a teaching partner in a two way bilingual immersion program, he and I would proofread one another’s’ writing. However, now that I am working in a new school, I do not have human editor available. I try to compensate for that loss, I compose my emails in Spanish and then use an online translation service to check my Spanish grammar and syntax before sending them off.
In a report to someone about an unfinished project, I wrote what I hoped was “I wanted to let you know” However, when I plugged the text in for translation, I found that instead I had written “I wanted to bury you.” Not exactly what I wanted to communicate. Just goes to show what a big difference a little letter makes.
Recently, I was invited to a free movie event in Pasadena and although it was a school night, I decided to attend. Sitting home or working late every day is a not the ideal way to meet people and to settle into a new area. So I hurried from work to the event, without stopping for dinner or even time to stop and buy popcorn before slipping into my seat before the movie began.
The charming and poignant film captured my attention staving off hunger pangs for the duration. However, on the way out the tantalizing smell of freshly popped buttery popcorn teased out my appetite and I found myself queueing up for an individual-sized portion without extra butter to go. Popping savory kernels into my mouth as I ambled along famed Colorado Boulevard toward my car, a small flying object with green and red lights flew down the street and landed on the sidewalk of a busy street corner diagonally from where I was crossing the street.
Although it was a school night, my puzzlement got the better of me and I loitered on the street corner watching to see if the craft would take to the air again or remain at rest on the wide cement walkway outside a local, upscale eatery. Munching contentedly from my vantage point under the glowing street light across the intersection, my mind flipped through its virtual Rolodex attempting to identify this curiosity. I simply found myself without any frame of reference for identifying this flying object, except for those colored lights. Could it be a drone I had heard so much buzz about? Did drones even have lights? What was it doing in this trendy section of Pasadena at this time of the evening. And, why had it come to rest on the sidewalk?
Still caught up in crunchy rumination, a 45-ish man in t-shirt and cargo shorts approached asking in an orator’s voice, “Did you see my helicopter?”
Pointing it out in its resting place just across the street, although it was a school night, I started across the street because he couldn’t see it across the street where I pointed to it resting on the sidewalk. Second-guessing my role as good Samaritan, I breathed a sigh of relief when my serendipitous companion suddenly spied his craft.
Accepting his thanks as I spun around and headed back toward the corner I recently had occupied, I continued on my way to the parking structure, munching my buttered snack and thankful I had made the effort to go out–although it was a school night.
After several years teaching first grade, I find myself a little out of touch with kindergarten celebrations.
To me, one of the most important aspects of teaching kindergarten is cultivating the wonder and excitement in learning. Years ago a first grade colleague spoke of “romancing them (first graders) into the system.” That notion stuck with me and has great meaning and motivation for me, which often causes a lot of stress in these days of data and standards driven instruction. It seems that often the data and standards have little to do with what the little people within the four walls of the classroom actually need and are ready to learn. To quote Sabrina, played by Julia Ormond, speaking to the character played by Harrison Ford, in the 1995 classic of the 1954 classic starring Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and William Holden, “More isn’t better, Linus. Sometimes it’s just more.”
Having been out of a kindergarten classroom for several years, my cute meter had gotten slightly rusty. When my grade level colleagues were doing all kinds of cutesy things for various themes and days of note, I was teaching letters, writing (or wribbling, as Kelly Boswell calls it), and math.
So when we finished working our way through the alphabet just before Thanksgiving, I realized it was the perfect time for a standards based celebration that we could have in lieu of a party. It would be festive, but also commemorate this momentous undertaking of learning the letters and their sounds. As if I had planned it, we wrapped up the letters and were ready to celebrate on the minimum day before Thanksgiving break. Naturally, the obvious way of celebrating would be by making alphabet soup to celebrate our milestone on the road to literacy.
Parents generously contributed their time and ingredients to make our tasty treat. Students had fun with the alphabet activities, combining ingredients to make alphabet soup, and then eating our savory alphabet concoction. The excitement surrounding our milestone was heartwarming. We ran so late that we ended up having lunch in our room so that I didn’t have to try to have students lined up and out the door for lunch. Many of them had little appetite for a midday meal. In fact, one student boasted he had eaten three bowls of alphabet soup.
In the grand scheme of things, I don’t know how exciting this was for students or if they will remember it later in life. And hopefully, my cute meter will kick back in soon. But for now, I find myself much more willing to promote kindergarten celebrations that support and highlight learning than any other kind of celebration. We’ll see how this works out as we approach our next break!
I hope that small acts like pebbles in the pond have greater impact than apparent at first glance.
At the beginning of the year, one of my small students brought pictures he had made for me. In loco parentis, I gratefully received his artwork and wondered what to do with it since I don’t have a refrigerator in my room. After several weeks of holding onto my treasures, I finally pinned them to the wall near my desk, where they would be easily seen by only me. When we had our run, hide, and defend drill a few weeks ago, he didn’t notice his artwork hanging on the wall. But, last week as he peeked around the fourth grade tall bookcase, he noticed his pictures on the wall and said, “You still have my picture.” I simply replied, “Of course.” And, we went on with our day.
I have heard it said that psychologists believe the only thing my young students will remember about me is how I made them feel. I hope that when he, and all of my students, think back on kindergarten that they will remember it was a place where they felt good and they knew their teacher cared about them.
This time of the year I find myself unpacking a mixed bag of memories. My teaching schedule brings a much needed break right around my mother’s birthday. Last year, my mom, two of my sisters, and I made it a weekend based at my house and it was loads of fun.
In addition to celebrating our mom’s life, my sisters kindly helped me rearrange my living room furniture, haul my Christmas tree out of the basement, assemble it, and wind it with festive ribbon. (Kind Reader, please remember I lived in Ecuador for years and the custom is to begin decorating in October.)
Unique to last year was the additional preparations of my spare room and other shared areas of the house for my mom to spend most of every other week with me during the months I had chemo. It made for some truly mixed-up emotions during that span of time. On the one hand, it was lovely to be together with family. On the other hand, it was surreal to be preparing to be off of work for six months (turned out to be seven months) while having chemotherapy.
Happily, this past weekend I made the trip to my mom and dad’s to spend Mom’s birthday with her. Again, surrounded by family, I enjoyed celebrating Mom and thanked God for another year we shared. Without Mom’s help and support, I cannot imagine how I would have made it through chemotherapy! She took over all of my ongoing chores like grocery shopping, cooking, doing dishes and sometimes even dragged laundry down to the basement to be washed and dried before bringing it back up! Naturally, I was glad to be among the loved ones celebrating her special day. Being healthy was icing on the cake!
Naturally after traveling back home, yesterday I found myself again rearranging living room furniture and then heading down to the basement to unearth the box containing my seven-and-a-half foot tree. Then, I made multiple trips to carry up each of the four sections of tree and multiple storage containers filled with Christmas ornaments and décor. It amazes me how much time and energy is required to clean the basement grime off of the storage containers before I can stack them nearby for the monumental task of decorating the tree and decking the halls. A feeling of satisfaction and anticipation overcomes me as I look at the rearranged living room furniture and the assembled, although still unlit, tree. If nothing else, I have something to anticipate, a new goal, a task to complete, and that means another reason to live and to live well.
Although my memories are mixed, I am grateful. Having cancer was not my plan, but the cancer was successfully removed. I have scars that remind me each day of this reality. Having chemotherapy was not in my plan either, but chemotherapy successfully eradicated all traces of the disease (we think) and significantly reduced (according to relevant medical statistics) the chance of a recurrence of cancer.
Even as I am unpacking a mixed bag of memories of my own, I am grieved knowing that those I care about are facing their own cancer detour and struggling through the rigors of treatment. Others are facing the failure of treatment and with it the unflinching reality that without a miracle, the disease will continue to advance. When I think of the challenges faced by so many others, I pray, I grieve, and I feel small and self-centered for having mixed emotions when in reality I am doing so well. So, I’ll keep a mixed bag of memories and emotions that go with it and I will remember to pray for my friends and to be thankful for each new day.
The Road to Happiness Truly is Continually Under Construction
I agree with Linda Gray that the road to happiness truly is continually under construction. Although I have not read her similarly entitled memoir, I immediately identified with the sentiment. Over the course of the past twelve months of the cancer and chemo detour, I have gained a simpler perspective on happiness and joy.
When I was younger, I anticipated a different path than the one I have found myself taking. Among other things, I envisioned enjoying the joy and fulfillment of marriage and children. Over time, that dream gradually slipped away and the reality dawned that time had somehow marched to a faster tempo than I had realized. I had been busy with important, fulfilling pursuits that led me to places and situations that made my childhood dream less and less likely. But, they were worthwhile ways to spend my days, so I cannot say I would make different decisions should I have the impossible option of going back in time.
Then, there was cancer and for months the only pleasures were small ones. Happiness became the stuff of a moment, not a monumental event.
Even now, my focus remains on the small moments I enjoy during the day. To be happy, I try to focus on the present and the people and activities that bring me joy, even if it is simply smiling as I walk around campus to start the day on a positive note, greeting my students by name and shaking their hands as they enter the classroom, singing “Good Morning to You” to these young pupils, or watching as one who has struggled slowly begins to write his name without my help.
Maybe when I have more energy I will aspire to grander schemes of happiness, but for right now I will focus on the small moments that make up life and I have to concede that the road to happiness truly is continually under construction.
In kindergarten tragedy and drama abound. When you are five, tragedy takes on a much different meaning than for most of the rest of the world. Yesterday afternoon, one of the tragedies faced by a young learner in my class was not being called on to share at exactly the moment the child wanted to share. The student was so upset I was shocked. Talk about wailing and gnashing of teeth! But, we were all just a little bit on edge after back to back days of emergency drills. My students performed pretty flawlessly for their first fire drill of the school year on Wednesday. For many of them, it was their first ever! They walked and remained quiet as we had practiced. I was impressed with how they followed directions during the exercise.
Yesterday, we had probably the scariest of all drills required in California public schools: run, hide, and defend. In this simulation, we practice what measures we would take in the event of an active shooter on campus. In some ways, students enjoy the exercise because we hunker down in the dark behind a fort that I singlehandedly improvise in the few moments between the beginning of the drill and when the administration comes to the door to check on my engineering skill, as well as the children’s ability to mute themselves and remain out of sight.
As with the fire drill, my students did a pretty amazing job, considering they are all of five or six years old and we were sitting in tight quarters on a tile floor for about 20 minutes. When students considered the purpose behind the simulation and the what would be at stake, a couple of them became afraid. But, I reassured them it was only a practice, although I was careful to not assure them they would never have to do this for real. Nevertheless, most of the students overcame their fear quickly and when the exercise was over, were immediately distracted by the novelty of inspecting fascinating things found on my desk, which they are never allowed to approach and for good reason–my desk is a catch-all shielded behind a fourth grader high bookcase. The students cannot easily see my unremarkable, metal teacher desk since it is surrounded by play kitchen furniture and the taller-than-them bookcase.
In addition to my lunch bag, travel mug, and school district issued laptop, anything that I can’t remember where it should be kept or that I have never seen before ends up on top of my desk until I can deal with it. Consequently, my desk is a virtual treasure trove of miscellany, including various magnetized objects. I imagine they are doing their best to figure out the tall person in the room and somehow to feel more comfortable with this newfound student-teacher relationship.
However, I cannot read their minds and I am not a psychologist, so it could just be that they are still learning about their environment through a hands-on approach similar to when they were crawling and would pop everything into their mouths. Literally and figuratively, I am simply the biggest thing in the school environment, which they are still trying figure out. I will probably never understand the mystery my students constantly strive to unravel because I do not remember experiencing this kind of mystique surrounding any of my teachers. But, throughout my teaching experience, I have come to expect the curious and sometimes uncomfortable scrutiny of these small ones and I try to remember not to laugh or startle them with my reactions to their questions or observations. Sometimes, without much success because kindergarten tragedy and drama abounds!
Falling in Love after cancer, or how I have fallen in love with life again. One of the rekindled loves in my life is teaching kindergarten. The past couple of weeks have brought an enormous learning curve. Who would have thought teaching five year olds could be such a challenge and joy? or so comical?
The first few weeks of kinder are grueling because almost all school behaviors are utterly unknown to these five year old people. Their well-developed sense of justice consumes an enormous amount of time with just listening to complaints about who said or did what unkind thing. However, now that we have a few weeks of experience with one another, I have begun to know them as individuals and that has made all the difference in the world in how we relate to one another. I know, amazingly, they sound just like big people!
I still marvel that a small piece of lint or tiny insect could utterly derail a lesson by capturing the attention of a third of the class in a matter of seconds, but I am also learning to use that short attention span to my advantage. It is amazing how an upset and inconsolable child can be readily redirected to examine a new project or something fun that might be more important than the current tragedy, (known to most of the rest of the world as a tempest in a teapot.)
Their joy in the simple everyday things never grows old. The excitement over a new pair of shoes or joy in learning to hold a pencil by pinching the pencil and resting it on the third finger. Today, the excitement of a student’s success with “pinch and rest” was only momentarily eclipsed by the sight of the pencil tip pointing away from the writing surface. A quick intervention and reteach righted the pencil and the student moved on to the task of learning to write his name. Since the first day of school, this student has told me he doesn’t know how to write his name. So, a couple of days ago, we began learning a letter that appeared in his name twice and he had already learned a third letter. That meant only two letters were unknown.
With great pride and enthusiasm, this student quickly learned the remaining two letters, wrote his name on a practice sheet, and proudly told me when he was done. Recognizing his excitement in the nice job he had done, I dashed off a note to the parents at the top of his name page explaining him learning the “pinch and rest” and then writing his name. Needless to say, it was an exciting moment. Heady stuff for the person teaching him to do it!
There are some little things about kindergarten that are equally satisfying. Even though most of my students are emerging literates, they love to draw a picture and write, (or wribble – scribble write) to communicate information or a story. Happily, not one of the students thinks she is unable to write. They are using the letter and sounds I have taught them to write unknown “words.” One student showed a string of letters on a page. As I reviewed the student’s writing with a fellow teacher, I noticed that all but one of the letters were letters I had taught in class. Again, I was ecstatic to see that my actions had direct, positive impact on my young student’s life. This could become addicting!
Whether teaching someone to hold a pencil and write a first name or watching the excitement on the face of someone who just learned the sounds we say can be represented by written symbols and communicated to others, it is gratifying to be part of such a miraculous process!
Falling in love after cancer is kind of like being a kindergartner all over again: it’s the seemingly small things that grab me!
This week I tried to understand the new, new normal, or how life was before chemo. For such a long time, chemo affected how my body functioned, either slowing down or completely stopping things like hair growth. Now that my body is rebounding, remembering what a fuller head of hair is like to style, or any number of pre-chemo norms, became necessary. It seems strange to have to force myself to remember and readjust to how life used to be before chemo, but thank goodness it is my current necessity. And, I still have hope that the peripheral neuropathy, which seems to almost disappear for a week or so, only to return a little more unpleasantly at some later point, will completely disappear.
Another adjustment to the new, new normal, or how life was before chemo, is starting up a new school year. Last year, the cancer detour interrupted getting back into the swing of the new school year. Because I had been so fatigued, I didn’t get the classroom fully set up and hadn’t thoroughly taught my customary classroom routines and procedures.
Thankfully, this year I had lots of hands to help me set up before school started and have had help from my new grade level peers to understand the new school culture and grade level expectations. And, this year I have enjoyed the challenge of teaching my new students the routines and procedures they need to know to be successful in school. However, since I moved to kindergarten this year, the process has been completely different.
Although this is my fifth year teaching kindergarteners, I forgot that I had always taught a multiage or combination class where there were older students who understood the words, “Line up” or “Raise your hand.” So, this is my first experience teaching a class full of nothing but kindergarteners. And, boy, are they adorable and sweet and truly interested in almost everything about life, except what I am supposed to teach them. They are interested in each other, in their new shoes, in making friends, in asking a question (which is really telling you something they are simply dying to say), in asking what the bumps on my feet are (prominent veins that I also have on my hands and for which I am thankful when I remember the many IVs and blood draws I have had), in being the line leader or the door helper, in telling you their nose has boogers (true story), and an infinite number of quotidian things to ponder.
More than once, I have heard the beginning of kindergarten likened to herding cats, but I think it might be more like herding gnats because they are simply all over the place, including sometimes in a swarm. The initial effort to teach students how to line up, walk around campus in a somewhat orderly fashion while looking forward and following the person ahead without bumping into, touching, or lagging far behind that person and keeping the noise to a minimum. This might conjure up visions of silence for some, but with my exuberant young students means less than a sixth of them yelling or talking loudly as we move along.
Wednesday a flood of emotions, including a momentary feeling of utter failure overwhelmed me after a morning of constantly reminding, cajoling, and commending kindergarten students for sitting criss cross applesauce on the carpet with their hands in their laps for a short lesson before taking a singing break or moving to sit at desks for independent practice of a letter or a number we had learned. At snack recess, only two hours into our day, a dam of emotion broke. Then, after a reassuring conversation with a colleague, I pulled myself together, ate a banana, and went back to my darling kinder kids again when the bell rang. Oddly enough, my students and I were all in a better frame of mind. They settled and followed directions much more successfully and I was able to think of many routines they already had adapted to and the progress they were making toward internalizing the remaining routines and procedures introduced since the first day of school.
After receiving the uplifting pep talk and bracing hug offered by my colleague, she sent me a link to an article about what teaching kindergarten is like. The description of the world that is kindergarten was so spot on that I decided I had to share the link to the article. It humorously paints the picture that has become my everyday life. While sometimes it can be frustrating to work so arduously to gain the attention of the class for a well thought out lesson only to have some little thing sidetrack the flow, I envy the wonder at simple things in life that my students experience moment by moment. The world where politics, international relations, natural disasters, and tragedies claim center stage is irrelevant in my kinder world because the simple joy of learning to tie shoes or write one’s first name is much more momentous.
Thankfully, getting used to the new, new normal, or how life was before chemo, is something like being in kindergarten; It isn’t anything a hug or eating a healthy snack can’t fix.
Nearly through my first year of cancer anniversaries and thrilled to be moving on with life! For me, the most difficult dates fell on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday this year. Saturday marked the day of my admittance to the hospital for blood transfusions and diagnostic testing, Sunday, the cancer diagnosis, and Monday surgery to remove the tumor.
As I look back, I am grateful for doctors who detected the cancer early, allowing for successful treatment with the goal of avoiding a recurrence. I am also thankful for family and friends who surrounded me during that time, and for all of you, the army of friends and family who loved, encouraged, grieved with, and faithfully prayed for me. I will always be thankful for your companionship on the cancer detour.
Going Back to Kindergarten
After being assigned to first grade for three years and a kindergarten/first grade combination the year before, I am excited to be back in kindergarten at a new school site. Although the learning curve is fairly steep as I attempt to assimilate into a new staff and ready everything for a grade level I haven’t taught in three years, I am glad for a new challenge and surroundings.
This week, I met with my new staff, parents, and my students. It was wonderfully exhilarating, but oh, so tiring! I forgot the amount of teaching about how school works goes into the early weeks of kindergarten. It is very important work that will pay enormous dividends throughout the school career. The time spent kindling the romance with the educational system for my students is a worthwhile investment. However, it is not without its challenges!
After my first day of teaching kindergarten for just five hours, I felt exactly as I did when I was an intern teacher: overwhelmed. The little I had accomplished with the class discouraged me until I met with my grade level colleagues, looked at their faces, and realized they felt the same way I did. Their similar reactions comforted me and I remembered that showing these novice students how school works is an enormous task!
For my young charges, this may be the first experience of not being the one special person in a group. Instead they find themselves among a host of individuals who are every bit as special. Making the discovery that they have to take turns, listen, and follow directions, raise hands to ask a question and walk in a line behind a leader drives home the concept that they are all equally valued and unique. No one is more important or esteemed. Consequently, the day was not without a few challenges and disappointments for a couple of students.
Nevertheless, we took the first few tiny steps on the journey of learning all of the skills necessary to get along in a class of twenty-something in an urban elementary school. As I learn to know each student and what motivates them, and they adjust to our schedule and being just one special person amidst twenty-two special people, I know we will be humming along smoothly before much longer.
Until then, I will focus on what we did well and build on those skills until my students become experts in the business of school.
The nice thing about my new teaching position being so challenging is that I do not have much time to reflect on the fact that I am nearly through my first year of cancer anniversaries–and for me, that is a good thing!