Circle and Stars

I don’t remember when I first came across this game — I suspect it was during a Math Solutions Summer workshop week. For certain, it is included in several of the multiplication resources Math Solutions publishes, including the Third Grade Month-by-Month resource.

It is empowering to find a game that children can just pick up and play. Circle and Star uses only a dice and a piece of scrap paper. Sometimes I get creative/fancy and use some wooden cubes that I have numbered from 5 to 10 so when the children play the game they’ll have some larger numbers to work with.

So here’s what we do:

1.  Roll the die once. The number that comes up is the number of circles you need to draw on your scrap paper.

2. Roll the die a second time (or alternatively, roll the 5-10 die). The number that comes up is the number of stars to be drawn in  each circle.

3. Write the resulting multiplication fact as number of circles times number of stars in each circle.  Compute the product.

When we begin playing this game, I have students write the resulting multiplication fact 3 different ways:

NOTE: C = number of circles, S = number of stars

C groups of S equals Product
C S’s = product (use the number words)
C x S = Product

The students always are looking for this game on our Daily Five Math board. We both like it – the kids because it’s fun, and I like it as a way to keep students practicing those important multiplication facts.

More faces, more poverty

First of all, I want to be clear that I understand poverty crosses over into many, many lives.  I live in an affluent town. A town with a food pantry that is routinely emptied.  People in this town are foreclosed upon, bankrupt, lose homes to tax liens.

But what I know is the environment in which I work. Last week we had to serve lunch in the classroom because the cafe-gym-atorium was being used for a play.  I had 22 students in attendance that day. Twenty-one qualified for free lunch.  One child qualified for reduced lunch. Zero pay full cost. What’s the poverty percentage for that 21 of 22? Ninety-five percent. If you’ve never seen the income requirements for free and reduced lunch click here.

Poverty and the trauma that results in families is a complicated thing. I am not an expert, I am an observer. And from what I observe some very vulnerable beings, 9 year olds, thrive – or try to thrive – under some very appalling conditions.

Ruby Payne has written an exemplary book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty. I read it over and over to try to get a handle on the cultural differences, the hidden rules of poverty, of the middle-class, of wealthy people. Each time I do, I uncover something more to think about, some way I can be more effective, more understanding of the challenges facing my students – 95 percent of whom are well below the poverty level.

It is a book I recommend to educational colleagues. Understanding is power.

Faces of Poverty

If you look, if you don’t avert your eyes, you can see the effects of poverty and trauma on a person.

One of “my” parents happened to come to the classroom this week so I could confirm she was indeed the parent of one of my students. This was so that the student could be released early to her; the parent was not carrying a picture id.

On first glance, she looks older than me. Her shoulders and body frame seem stooped, she shuffles somewhat. This day, however, as we chatted, I noticed her face. Her skin does not sag as mine does now, her eyes lack wrinkles; those wrinkles are reserved for worry spots – the brow, her forehead.

She carries the weight of her family’s problems: her husband has been in a nasty public hospital since before Christmas. Her children are her world, all four of them – she lost a fifth child a few years ago to illness. The family’s new apartment, an apartment they recently found after living in a shelter, was recently the scene of a Keystone Cops-style criminal gun chase. To hear my student tell the story the police chased a suspect right through the front door and out the back with guns drawn.

Honestly, I don’t know how this woman holds herself together. The daily barrage of trying to survive in such a hostile environment would do more than make me look older. She must be one of the most resilient of spirits that I have ever met!

And she is a face to remember. A face of poverty in our land of plenty.

It’s the Vocabulary, Part 2

I marvel at the quickness with which second language learners pick up on the structure of English. Most of my kids give new constructs a try without too much fear of seeming like they don’t know what they’re doing.  As an aside — and as an Italian/French language” studier”, I wish I could be more like them. Maybe then I would actually start to learn another language.

Putting the constructs aside, however, the great big deterrent for kids is vocabulary and idiomatic expressions. Even in children’s literature. Case in point, this month’s Response to Literature was based on the story “City Green” by Dyanne DiSalvo-Ryan. One of the major characters, Old Man Hammer,  transforms throughout the course of the story and we ask the students to respond to how that character changed.

Problem number 1: the character’s name. Most of my kids were familiar with the term “Hammer” but had absolutely no idea that Hammer could be someone’s last name. And why would they? Once we finally got past the fact that a hammer could be a tool and someone’s name, we had to deal with the expression “hard as nails”. Wait a minute! Nails are things you glue on to your fingers, right? Or something you hammer to hang up a picture? What does being as hard as a nail have to do with some old guy?

Here’s just one place where students with another language background struggle. Now layer on a high-stakes reading test which uses grade level texts similar to “City Green”. And take away the vocabulary and language support provided by the teacher. Seems to me that the playing field is already seriously unlevelled. My students will have to jump over the hurdle of vocabulary before they can even show that they can respond to a text with the same level of finesse that their native English-speaking counterparts do.

I’m thinking of this as I prepared another grade level mentor text that I want to use to revisit inferencing this coming week.  The book’s title alone, “Tight Times” will probably cause some confusion. The vocabulary support, the explanations of idiomatics will be there so that we can focus on inferencing a plot with which most of these students will have copious familiarity: losing jobs and living frugally.

The students will be able to access the comprehension skill, they will be able to apply it to another similar text (“Gettin’ Through Thursday”). And we will troubleshoot the vocabulary and idiomatic expressions to assist them. Test scores don’t tell the whole story, particularly when so much vocabulary presents such a significant impediment.

There is nothing like a snow day!

Okay, while I don’t like to have to make them up, we needed this snow day. Every school year needs one.  And this one is a lollapolloza. The weather dudes predicted it way in advance. And while no one believed them (the last 2 snowstorms were duds), they stuck to their forecasts.

Our current superintendent of schools comes from the Canadian Maritimes. It snows there. Lots. So over the last couple of years, we have come to expect to have to go to school when it’s snowing. Because it’s New England. It snows. Get over it.

You can imagine my delight – and surprise – when the school department’s communication system robo-called last night with the new that there would be no school today. Even though over 500 eastern MA school systems had already called school, I didn’t expect to learn whether or not I’d be going in until the morning. Whoo-hoo! Bring out the french toast!

And the actual snow fall? I’m looking at about 24 inches on my patio table right now. This time the weather dudes were correct. Good for them! No matter how much of a pain in the behind the clean up will be, there is nothing like a snow day to make us all feel like kids again.

Responding to bullies

I don’t like being blindsided any more than anyone else. So this week when our school social worker relayed to me that one of my student’s parents said her child was being bullied, I was taken aback. As a Responsive Classroom, we continually work on appropriate social interactions. As part of the Making Meaning program, a large piece of instructional time goes in to socially acceptable ways to agree or disagree, to dialogue with peers.

Nevertheless, the parent’s concern was laid out and, as is required by law in Massachusetts, we address such concerns seriously. We are revisiting bullying this week.

I usually begin discussions of bullying by trying to figure out if students can define what bullying is and what it is not. It was amazing to me that sometimes kids think when a peer tells them to “shut up” that they feel they have been bullied. In the past, I’ve handled such events in the classroom with discussion between the involved students which ends with a plan the students themselves concoct for more polite interaction. But now, once the student or parent of the victim has raised the topic of bullying, there are formal procedures and documentation that need completion. What was at one time simple, has become complex. Which is what happens when we try to legislate every aspect of human behavior, isn’t it?

So this coming week, I will once again assist my students in defining what bullying is (for my third graders: repeated times that someone (or a group) makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable). We will read age-appropriate literature like The Recess Queen as a jumping off point. We will role model. We will talk. And we will write, because sometimes my kids feel safer when they don’t have to say the words out loud.

I was thinking of all of this as I watched the shootings in Tuscon, Arizona unfold yesterday afternoon. Are we, the adults in our society modeling socially acceptable ways to agree or disagree when we get so incensed about another point of view that we can no longer listen to what is being said? What kind of a model for civilized discourse is in our own adult interaction – political or otherwise – when we can’t even  agree to disagree without threatening? Frankly, the Sheriff in Pima County, Clarence Dupnik, has it right.

It is something to ponder.

Overheard in the hallway

They make me laugh some times.

In all seriousness, one of my students asked me “Mrs. Bisson, is a hellno bad?”

What? And my little friend repeated the question patiently.

Now this student who came to us last year from Gambia, speaks with a heavily African influenced accent.

Perhaps I’m not hearing her? So I asked her to repeat and she did. Verbatim.

Still no comprehension on my part. I looked at her peers who were equally serious and intent on finding the answer: “Is a hellno bad?”

Exasperated and in all sincerity, one of them looked right at me and spoke slowly and clearly enunciating each syllable (for the aged and decrepit?):

“You know, a hell no. Is that a bad word?”

And then it dawned on me. I confessed I had heard some people use those words (guilty) and while the words are not “bad”, polite people don’t use them in polite company — like a school.

Oh, they make me laugh some times.