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Monday, October 19, 2015

Substitute Swear Words

The scene of the crime
When Gigi and three of her 2nd grade friends got in my minivan to go home from a party yesterday, I was excited to tell them my big news: I have taken a long term substituting job at their school!

I told them the name of the teacher I would be substituting for (for six weeks!) and one of the kids started laughing maniacally.

"What?" I said, my joy dampened for a moment. What could be so funny?

"It sounded like you said you were substituting for Mrs., uh, haha... Mrs... H-word."

I should have left it there. You would think I have been around enough seven year olds to leave it there.

But I said, "What if her name was Mrs. Hell!?"

Hahahahaha. The car erupted in gales of laughter. Everyone had a round of saying, "Mrs. Hell!" and bouncing around in their seats.

The laughter died and the car eventually grew silent. Eerily contemplative.

And I couldn't tell you who said it, because it suddenly came from all directions.

"Mrs. Shit."

"Mrs. Ass."



"Don't say it," I said, warningly. "Please don't say it."


"Dooooooon't say it."

Then a tiny voice from the far back piped up... "Mrs. Fuck."


But it was too late, the Mrs. Fuck horse was completely out of the barn and rampaging around the meadows.

At this rate I'm going to be a great long term substitute. Better than Mrs. Shit anyway.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Beth Harbison's Driving with the Top Down is just the thing...

Life sometimes calls for a book that doesn't suck you in and spit you out.

"Driving with the Top Down" was, for me, that perfect blend of darkness and light. I needed a book that wasn't too heavy (no war, please), and something that wouldn't make me think too hard (Brene Brown is on hold). But I also do not want to read a book that's dumb, trite, or under-edited.

Beth Harbison certainly got my currently scattered attention with "Driving with the Top Down," and I feel rewarded from the effort. It is the story of an interrupted road trip from Maryland to Florida, starring three insecure and hilarious ladies and several bottles of alcoholic whipped cream.

This book is good, real fun. The entire thing feels plausible, filled with events that could potentially happen in my own life and to those around me. Harbison gives her characters brains and humor, but not hyperbolic looks. The whole thing is relatable, down to the damaged hair and wrinkles.

Thanks, I needed that, Ms. Harbison!

Friday, October 09, 2015

Loving 20 kids I didn't know last week

There's your regular teacher, in France...
Maybe we can keep her there so I never have to leave you?
I've been with the same 20 third graders for the last six school days, which is just enough time to say two things:

(A) I love teaching, like crazy.

(B) I dislike the current format of school.

Having been with them for 42 hours over the last week, I now think about these kids all of the time and how I would hypothetically homeschool every last one of them.

One girl I would send to the Berkeley Math Circle. Another boy I'd unschool, with a heavy dose of Parkour classes. The girl who has scheming glint in her eye would do beautifully in a British boarding school. And another boy needs to be in a co-op program solely for quiet gifted boys.

Who would I leave in a public school classroom, after sending the others off with new curricula designed just for them? I might leave the kids who are struggling with the curriculum. Those kids, who are my unofficial favorites, are receiving several kinds of special attention from the school that helps them blossom. And someone has to be in the classroom for me to teach.

I have had numerous breakthroughs with students throughout the last week, and none of these breakthroughs occurred in a group.

Each time I really reached a student's mind was when I could somehow isolate him from his peers and talk with him frankly. But separating a child for special instruction is a herculean feat: if I'm meeting quietly with one student, someone else is, inevitably, lighting a fart in the other corner of the classroom.

One boy couldn't write an assigned "Personal Narrative" because he truly felt like nothing happened to him. "All I ever do is play videogames with my brothers," he told me, sadly. This bugged me, because I knew he was not telling the truth.

It took me four days to crack that nut, but finally, yesterday, I started writing down the ideas for him, anything that came out of his mouth, even small things like how his mom makes "eggy and noodles" for him. Then, as surprising as an earthquake, came this young man's story about chasing a dog through a lightning storm in Australia. From that moment on, this boy has clutched the paper with my notes on it everywhere he goes. He carries it to every class assignment, wondering if it might be relevant. Lord, I wish I could sit and write stories with him for the next month.

Another boy couldn't figure out how to multiply by four. Along with the rest of the class, he kept yowling, "I DON'T GET IT!" until I put a huge note up on the board: "I don't get it YET," and I forced them all to add "yet" to their protestations of ignorance. Finally I sat next to his desk and we puzzled through the times four tables together. He was tackling 4 times 8, which can be hard when you're eight years old. Then a bright light bulb flicked on over his head -- "I multiply it by two, then multiply THAT by two!" and he wrapped his arms around me in a huge hug. "I got it, Mrs. Kain! I got it!"

The quietest girl in the class was my hardest case. She had finished every assignment handily and waited in silence for further instruction. What was up with this girl? What's going on in her head? It's so much easier to figure out the boys who are flailing around in frustration than the silent child, who is almost always a girl.

It was pure luck that I happened upon the thing that made her light up. On a whim, during her math lesson, I knelt by her desk and asked her, "Do you know about negative numbers?"

"Yes," she said quietly. Then there was a pause, "I mean, no."

So I grabbed a piece of paper and made her a number line in which "0" is in the middle and the two sides go running off into infinity and negative infinity. Then I taught her how to fiddle around with negative numbers to make fun equations out of the relatively boring equations she had to solve. After a long pause, she began blurting the right answers to my kooky equations.

When I put up the chairs that night, I discovered that she had taken the special number line I had drawn for her, and she had decorated it and folded it just so. She had taped it down over her name plate on her desk, along with the new equations she had solved.

Yesterday a girl dragged her father into the classroom just to meet me, and today another girl told me that she never wants her regular teacher to come back (I secretly loved hearing that, but I reminded her of how fabulous her teacher is.). I have also received a cascade of gifts, from a fake piece of "cheese" formed out of an eraser, some Sculpy beads and a drawing of purple flowers. The love is flowing in both directions.

I wonder, if I'm a classroom teacher, if I'll figure out a way to give kids the individual attention they so clearly need. I dislike spending time on crowd control when we have so many cool things to learn and important topics to talk about.

Or do I need to find a school where I have fewer students, and a greater opportunity to cater to each child's unique mind?

One thing is certain, I'm going to miss this group of kids, who have taught me far more than I've taught them, although learning how to paste tissue paper with liquid starch is a life skill I hope they will never forget!

Friday, October 02, 2015

Mrs. Kain's Banned Book List

I taught third grade today, and the teacher left me a lesson plan that included reading "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" on it.

I left her a note (that I hope was gracious) that basically said: "NO! It is TOO SAD and I will cry and traumatize them!"

How could a story about a pampered china rabbit like Edward Tulane go wrong? SO MANY WAYS. When I told the kids I would not read it to them, one girl approached me privately and said, "I'm so glad, because the part is coming up where the girl starts coughing blood."

For GOODNESS' SAKE, isn't childhood hard enough without fictional sad toys and sick children?

Some books are just WAY TOO MUCH for my sensitive soul, and I'm not sure how anyone likes them, or learns something important from them.

Other books that I will not, under any circumstances, read to a class of children include:
* The Velveteen Rabbit
* A Day No Pigs Would Die
* Charlotte's Web
* Misty of Chicoteague
* Because of Winn-Dixie
* The Bridge to Terabithia
* Shiloh

My own children have learned not to ask me to read certain stories, and Gigi in particular gets a kick out of requesting the last chapter of "Misty..." Because sometimes I THINK I can get through it without crying, and I'm always wrong.

So no, I'm not reading "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane," and instead we moved on to a story with NO ANIMALS OR TOYS!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Sugar is the best part of school

Because of fun.
Recently, my girls' school district voted to ban food from the kids' birthday celebrations.

Although I respect the intention behind the ban on bringing in sweets to celebrate birthdays, I think it's a mistake to ban sugary celebrations altogether.

Sugar. Bad.
I have no delusions about sugar. It's not good for you. It may be responsible for many of society's woes. It would probably be ideal for all of us to adhere to the vegan raw diet that can change children's lives for the better, apparently.

But sugar tastes good, and it never tastes as good as it does when you're a child. And sugar never, ever tastes as good as when you're handed a cupcake in school to celebrate a classmate's birthday.

Our tribal ways
From an anthropological perspective, sugar has become an important substance through which human beings celebrate transitions. From birthday cakes to wedding cakes, we all gather 'round, lured by our collective desire to ingest processed sugar together, and we sing and blow out candles and get icing on our faces to demarcate new beginnings.

Since our children spend so many hours, some of them dreary, together with a class of children, it makes sense to mark birthday transitions together. Furthermore, I feel this should be celebrated, not with a brief "dance party," not by distributing pencils [eye roll], not by having your mom come in and read a book...

But in the way that Birdy celebrated her birthday when she turned six: Her classmates gathered in a ceremonial circle and I handed out a Krispy Kreme donut to each child (10 grams of sugar/donut), and they sang "Happy Birthday" to her while she blushed, then everyone ate and got sprinkles all over the playground pavement.

Are you crazy?
I'm not pro-sugar all of the time. My kids are educated about the empty calories of sugar, and they are limited to 9 grams of sugar per serving in their breakfast cereal.

"Don't bring us, we are 'too fun' erasers!"
When I told Chebbles about the outright ban on birthday sweets at school ("But you can distribute erasers, as long as they aren't FUN erasers."... I'm not making this up...), she said, "But having birthday treats is the best part of school."

And I totally agree with her. Now that I spend many of my days teaching in our local schools, I heartily concur that birthday treat distribution is absolutely the best part of school.

Sure, we have lots of fun reading together and doing spelling bees and collaborating as to how to solve Common Core math problems in the classroom, but when a parent shows up in the doorway with a box of treats for the class, there is nothing better that happens at school.

The new society
The school secretaries, who already have more than enough to do, are now also tasked with stopping sugar treats from reaching the classrooms. And teachers are scrambling to create meaningful celebrations to mark birthdays without the treats that usually marked these important transitions.

But most importantly, my own three kids are crestfallen. I'm not super-strict about sugar at home, in fact, when someone brings us chocolate chip cookies (which happens too often), I tell them to PLEASE eat as many as they can because I am powerless before a plate of chocolate chip cookies.

It just bums my kids out that the best part of school is now transformed into "non-fun" eraser distribution.

I just want us to be normal people about food. I want my kids to enjoy everything in moderation. And while their taste buds are young, I want them to enjoy sugary treats, at school, during birthday celebrations. Because that, my friends, is fun.

Monday, September 14, 2015

A Visit from the Goon Squad is Carver-esque poetry

I listened to the audiobook of "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan and I found it to be beautiful, labyrinthine tale of life in and around New York City (with a few visits to California).

It would detract from your experience of the book if I told you anything more about the structure or the characters, as it does best when it unfolds from nothing in front of you.

If you liked the movie "Short Cuts" and especially the Raymond Carver stories that inspired them, then "A Visit from the Goon Squad" is exactly up your alley.

This book is compelling, sad, and miraculous, and Jennifer Egan is an inspired writer. I'm glad to have found her!

Sunday, September 06, 2015

In which Billy Joel waves a flyswatter, and I swoon

Note: I am only sporadically posting to Shaken Mama right now as I'm working on an article for during my "writing time!"

I went to the Billy Joel concert in San Francisco last night.

Sure, he's 66, and he has no hair, and he can't jump around the stage like when I saw him during the Innocent Man tour.... and The Bridge tour... and the... anyway, you get the picture.

But he still brings his wonderful songs to life, and I enjoyed every single minute of the concert, singing along and soaking in the greatness of my musical idol.

Here are some highlights:

* He waved around a flyswatter when he was talking to the audience. Why? There are no bugs in San Francisco. Did someone hand it to him when he was walking on? I felt like we all should have been given Billy Joel-branded flyswatters to wave in the air along with him.

This is the playlist from the concert. He had a great time riffing on every San Francisco song he could think of. I wondered, idly, if he only played a minute of each of these songs because the lawyers for Jefferson Airplane, would come after him for royalties otherwise?

She not only NEVER AGES but she also plays the sax.
* Crystal Taliefero is an extremely talented musician. I've seen her perform with Billy Joel several times since 1989 and she HAS NOT AGED. We were laughing about how she was an essential, amazing part of every song. And just when you thought she couldn't do anything else amazing -- with her voice, with percussion, with her energy -- she would suddenly whip out an alto sax and create a trio of saxophones on the stage. This woman is incredible.

* The man seated next to us asked me and my friend, A., how we could possibly know all the words to Billy Joel's songs because "You are both TOO young!" And it was true, we were among the youngest people in the huge crowd packed into AT&T park, but I pride myself on knowing every damn word and nuance to every Billy Joel song (except River of Dreams, sorry), and A. said: "We learned it all from our dad."

* Billy Joel made a big deal out of being able to hit the high notes on "Innocent Man" (complete with a dramatic application of throat spray) last night but A. and I both noticed that he now sings it in a lower key. He used to sing it in a higher key, and bring along a vocalist to hit the "Innocent Man" high notes. This is evident, for example, on his USSR "Concert" album.

* His "from the archives" songs last night were "Vienna" and "Zanzibar." I like that he's just performing whatever the heck he wants, but I wish he would sing more obscure songs. If only so I could wow the people around me with my appropriately timed "air sax" along with Crystal Taliefero.

* He sang "Downeaster Alexa," a song which inappropriately cracks me up. It's also the song that played in the bar in Costa Rica at the moment I was making my friends listen to my synopsis of the Definitive Biography.

* Ultimately, each one of these songs still has the power to transport me. I just adore Billy Joel, his repertoire, his unstoppable band, and how real he is. SURE he still populates the first few rows with beautiful women, and I will forgive his roadies for not plucking me and my gorgeous friend A. from the gates and giving us front row tickets. THIS TIME. (The mildly attractive women they DID choose didn't know the lyrics anyway. THERE SHOULD BE A TEST.)

* I think I need to move to an apartment by Madison Square Garden so I can do this every month for the rest of either mine, Billy Joel's, or Crystal Taliefero's lives!