Saturday, February 26, 2011

Cain and Abel?

I listen to audiobooks and podcasts every chance I get. Sometimes, I fall several days behind in the news because I'm catching up on my TED talks or my "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." These days, the book I'm listening to on my ipod is "Kane and Abel" by Jeffrey Archer. It occurred to me that I don't have a good understanding of the biblical story, so I looked it up in my Children's Illustrated Bible. While I was reading that, my children walked into the room and wondered what on earth I was doing, (I was stretching and exercising on the floor at the same time, so it was a valid question.) Curious, they actually invited me to read the King James' version of that story to them over lunch.

It was helpful to read it together; the girls raised further questions I couldn't answer, but I could ponder with them. We wondered:
Why didn't the Lord like Cain's offering? Was he offering inferior grains and fruits? Was he the less favored child?
Why did Cain murder Abel? What are we to learn from that?
Was banishing him, but not allowing him to be harmed, a more terrible punishment for Cain than death would have been?
If, as it seemed, Cain and Abel were the first and for a while only people on the earth besides Adam and Eve, who were the masses of people that Cain feared might want to kill him for his crime? Other children of Adam and Eve? Then they'd be his siblings. . .
Why is the first murder in the bible between siblings?
Did Cain repent?
What does this story tell us about the people telling it to us?

I don't want to offend anyone who reads the bible as a religious text. I have no ax to grind or religious affiliation of any kind. My interest in the bible is primarily as a piece of important literature which contains the origins of most of our modern literature. I have barely scratched the surface of the bible's literary gifts, but I enjoy reading portions and trying to understand them whenever obvious references show up in my novels. In my quick look through blogs on the topic of Cain and Abel, I saw many different and interesting interpretations, but nothing that really satisfied me. Maybe you have ideas you'd like to share!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Did you drip salad dressing on my homework?

I love teaching and I even love reading the student's work. But occasionally, it can get overwhelming. The pile of papers to read and respond to is never-ending, like the dishes in the sink. I can get them all in the dishwasher (not the papers, the dishes!) and even Ajax the sink, but if I look away for a few hours, there it is again.

Well, that's how the pile of papers is as well. I empty my "Hand In" box and sort the papers before I take them home. Got the spelling packets, got the social studies packets, and seventeen - - - oh, no, they're not all here. Okay, who didn't hand in the reading cloze? I stop, put the papers in alphabetical order, see who's is missing, go look in some backpacks, cubbies, folders. Got them! And seventeen clozes.

By now, I'm late for a faculty meeting or I'm scrambling to a parent conference, or maybe it's Monday, the one day I must leave by 3:20 to get my daughter to her dance class an hour away. Anyway, I pile the papers all in my bag, pack up my computer and dash. Is the classroom tidied? Oops. Suddenly it's 7 or 8 or it could be 9 at night by the time meetings or dance classes or puppy training classes, dog walking, dinner preparation, working with my own children if they need something and even the dishes are momentarily done, so now it's time to tackle the pile.

I make it valiantly through seventeen spelling packets, seventeen responses to the social studies reading about bull jumping in Crete (Was it a primarily religious rite or a source of entertainment?) Of course, many of these papers need further attention from the students, so they go back into the "Work to Look At" folders. After the next independent work period, these papers will jam up the "Hand in" box along with any new work the students have done.

"Have the students correct their own work" some kind souls have said to me. Well, that can work for certain tasks, but not for the vast majority of what we do in school. In theory, it would work for the clozes, as there is only rarely more than one right answer. Occasionally, we read the cloze all together and kids correct their own papers as they go. But then, I don't see how they've responded and I don't have a clearer picture of what types of comprehension difficulties certain students may face. So, accomplishing the task takes away most of the value of the assignment on my end.

It certainly is no help to have the students correct their own spelling packets. Let's say one group has just done their best to learn the rule about doubling the final consonant before adding a suffix that starts with a vowel, and they may have correctly written betting, stopping and skipped, but then along comes sailing and a few kids wrote sailling. If I don't catch that and circle it, are those kids going to go through life over-applying the rule? (Cue to gasp or start up the argument that spell check will do away the need for anyone to learn any rules! So I'll just say right now that unless the student can recognize the correctly spelled word that spell check offers her, she can't use a word processor effectively.I'm not ready to throw away spelling instruction for those kids who need it.)

And most importantly, I want to know how the students presented their answers to the question about the bull leaping in Crete. We've been working hard on persuasive writing. I want to read topic sentences and reasons supported by information from their various readings. I want to see clear, comprehensible and complete sentences. I want to know what kind of work we still need to do to help the students present their thinking in a well structured and convincing manner, whatever their opinions were.

"Have them type their work and then spell check will take care of everything." Clearly, that kind soul has never seen much work done by a group of 9 to 11 year old students. Spell check catches if they write "teh" instead of "the", but not if they write "stake" instead of "steak" or "I write my mother" instead of "I wrote my mother." And while some children do have access to computers and have worked hard to learn enough typing skills so that doing homework on a keyboard is a reasonable alternative to writing it in a journal or on a piece of paper, not all have that access or that dexterity.

I can't see any alternative to constantly keeping up with the never-ending pile of work. Yes, I read their work while I jam a meal down my throat; yes, there might be a few drops of salad dressing on a spelling packet because I'm correcting it while jamming said meal down my throat; yes, I am still bringing work home every day and spending my evening reading student work and preparing for the next day's lessons; yes, I was mistaken when I declared that there would be a way to leave school by 4 or 5 o'clock, empty handed; and no, I don't think there's a way to get around it. I won't leave the pile of dishes untended in my sink for days on end and I won't leave the pile of papers unread for days on end. I'll just try to eat my salad more neatly!

I would love to hear how other teaching moms manage to write their own curriculum and read their students' work and take care of their children and household chores!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Do you share my concerns?

I worry about the direction that schools are heading with regard to technology. This summer, at the urging of my school, in order to improve my ability to use the technology that my colleagues and students were using, I completed an on-line course in Web 2.0. I learned about Delicious, Voice Thread, Blogs, Wikis, embedding and linking, and Google Docs, among other new toys. It was really interesting, but I found only a few things that I thought were directly or immediately applicable to my life as a teacher of fourth and fifth grade. As the year progresses, I am finding ways to share those helpful tools with the class, but only after we've spent the early months developing a sense of community and practicing the skills that will make our time on the internet valuable. I worry that in our rush to embrace the new technologies, we'll skimp on the important community building time and the equally important pencil and paper time, book time, blocks corner time, board games time, discussion time, scissors and markers time, read aloud time, drama and movement time. (There, I said it. Now you can jump on me and tell me what a backwards thinking teacher I really am!)

I worry about how long are our children spend in front of a screen. As a teacher and as a mother, I have strong feelings about how much time kids spend using what types of technology. It could seem ironic that I am using technology to write about my concerns about technology, except that I feel fairly confident of my ability to balance my time and use my judgment about what types of sites I visit and what influence they have on me. I have already put in plenty of time with the developmental tools that allow me to use this technology and not be used by it. On the other hand, I know that many children and teens (and adults) do not yet have the self-control to have a computer screen in front of them and maintain focus on their teacher or homework assignment or group project (or job). How many young kids spend less time creating projects out of cardboard scraps and toilet paper tubes or less time building shelters or fairy homes in their backyards because the screen is more compelling to them? How many teens spend less time bicycling or hiking or joining a club or babysitting or building a shed because they are on facebook or absorbed by computer games?

I am the kind of parent who offered cookies on a limited basis while my children were young. As fit and healthy teens, they now have the self control to eat cookies on a limited basis and they can choose wisely from the cupboards, unsupervised. As a teacher, I would like to proceed similarly with screen time. Offer limited access to safe and healthy sites, used with direct teacher supervision at school and direct parental supervision at home, with the clear goal that when it's all available as an unsupervised smorgasbord, it won't be as challenging to maintain balance and self-control.

I worry about the types of on-line activities which can gobble my own children's and my students' time. Are they activities to which the on-line world is uniquely suited and which improves their ability to grow up and interact and problem solve in a world of unique and multifaceted people and ever growing environmental challenges? Or are they learning to lie to get facebook accounts before they're old enough, inappropriately learning about adult products while watching family television on hulu, learning to contain their thoughts to a posting of 140 characters or less, learning to hide their bullying behind layers of on-line gossip or you-tube postings, learning that all emotions should be able to be expressed by a l.o.l, :) or :( or forgetting how to engage in meaningful conversation or correspondence because a facebook status is as deep as it gets?

I'm not anti-computer and I'm not anti-progress. I just want to be thoughtful about all of it. I want the students to experience the opportunities of connecting to people in new and meaningful ways; I don't think there's any hurry, and in fact, in hurry, I think there are major drawbacks. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Let me introduce myself

I am a mother of two girls and the teacher of seventeen fourth and fifth grade children. I love both my jobs, and sometimes want to cry or tear my hair out about one or the other or both! I hope to use this blog to process some of what goes on in trying to balance my jobs and maybe to connect with others who run into some of the same questions or have figured things out and want to share their thoughts with me. I am new to blogging, so please excuse my mistakes. For example, this giant video! This was meant to be a practice at embedding, and it looked like a cool video, so I thought I'd use it to launch my blog. But, something went wrong on the way to the publishers, and now it's huge! Ah well, a huge video is not worth pulling out my hair! Enjoy the video and let's keep in touch!