Monday, January 26, 2009

Diversity Book Review: Saving the World

I was drawn to this book, written by Julia Alvarez, when I read the blurb on the back cover.

While Alma Huebner is researching a new novel, she finds her real story - and her salvation - in a little-known but staggering historical footnote: the Royal Expedition of the Vaccine. In 1803, Don Francisco Balmis embarked on a two-year sea voyage to rescue the New World from smallpox. Accompanying him were twenty-two orphan boys, acting as live carriers, and their guardian, Isabel Sendales y Gomez. As Alma digs deeper into Isabel's life, she finds her own power to commit an act as life-changing as Isabel's.

I was intrigued by the author's descriptions of the orphan boys and their long ocean voyage, as well as the story of Isabel, who accompanied and mothered them all. I suppose I made a personal connection with this character; I could relate to her enormous sense of responsibility and concern. It was also interesting to gain some insight into medical and health practices of that era and recognize the strides that have been made since.

In "Saving the World", Alma is supposed to be writing a book, but becomes depressed, cynical, and disinterested in her craft, and her life. She is pulled in by the Isabel and vaccine story while she researches it, and seems to see herself in Isabel. Alma then makes an aggressive, uncharacteristic gesture later in the story. Is she inspired by Isabel? Or has she finally found herself?

There is supposed to be some sort of parallel between the Alma and Isabel characters, but it seems somewhat forced. While I enjoyed the Isabel in the 1800s side of the story, I was not all that in to Alma. Her character did not feel developed enough and I had a hard time following her.

Julia Alvarez is Dominican. She was born in the U.S., returned to DR with her parents when she was three months old, then came back to New York City when she was ten. Her book How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is one of my all-time favorite Latina novels.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Gung Hei Fat Choy!

It's Chinese New Year!!! and the Year of the Ox!

I've prepared a week of exciting lessons that incorporate China. We'll be reading Yeh-Shen - A Cinderella Story from China, retold by Ai-Ling Louie, and The Greatest Treasure, retold by Demi. I'll be able to use both stories for lessons on story elements, character traits, and for a compare/contrast study. There is also plenty of rich vocabulary in these stories for my ELLs to experiment with and add to their word wall.

During writing, we'll use these stories to talk about similes and metaphors, and later to examine descriptive language. I want my students to write a reflective piece about why and how they are like their animal in the Chinese zodiac. We'll also read Chinese Proverbs, collected by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. I'll then invite the students to select their favorite proverb to paraphrase and illustrate.

Since we're already into geometry, we'll use tangrams and work on visual/spatial skills, symmetry, and patterns. We'll review geography skills using maps of China and Asia. I've prepared science lessons on Chinese inventions and phases of the moon. We'll also take a look at the Chinese zodiac; kids (and adults!) like to figure out what animal they are.

I'm also hoping to assign a couple of art activities, which they'll end up having to do at home anyway. One is a fan; the design on the fan tells a story. I'll use this as a follow-up to the stories we read, but I'll also give the option to create an original story. After they look at art depicting dragons, and examine a Chinese Dragon website, they'll also get to design their own dragon, including its name, special features, and qualities.

I know I've over planned, as usual. I know it's wishful thinking that we'll get to all of it, considering interruptions, fire drills, and the reality of having to clarify and facilitate language for my ELLs every step of the way. But I'm hopeful. My kids are enthusiastic, and they're making great strides in so many ways. Besides, I know where they're at and I go with it. I'm helping and pushing them along gently, backing off when I know I must.

As the Chinese proverb says - You cannot help shoots grow by pulling them up.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Canciones que calman

Certain songs and sounds reach me in a way that is difficult to put in words. I've found that, were my life a movie or a play, specific melodies would have to be in the background. When I replay the events of my life, they come accompanied by songs.

While I was having one of those weeks at school, I discovered Fleet Foxes, thanks to "Ms. Cornelius" at A Shrewdness of Apes. I'm finding an indescribable kind of comfort in songs like "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song", "Mykonos", "Blue Ridge Mountains", and "White Winter Hymnal".

You can see Fleet Foxes' January 17 performance on Saturday Night Live here. And here is a short but beautiful video for "White Winter Hymnal". I loved it the first time I heard it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Feelin' good and cozy about tests

Today and tomorrow, my school will be in "testing mode". Instead of teaching reading and writing during the customary uninterrupted Literacy Block from 10:30 -12:00, we will all have a "simulation test".

This test is actually a district benchmark math assessment which someone thought could also serve as a simulation for the actual state test. (Brilliant!) In other words, all students from Kindergarten through fourth grade will be tested today.

The "Quiet, TESTING" signs will be up on all of the doors, there will be silence in the halls, proctors will be assigned to every room, and an announcement from the principal will call for the testing to begin and end at the prescribed times. Those of you who are familiar with testing may also know that since my students are ELLs, they have certain accommodations, such as time and a half. Where the general program might have 45 minutes for a particular section, mine have 67. Some students use the time, some don't. Most get frustrated.

All this so our students will feel "comfortable" with the testing environment and time constraints.

My fourth graders are looking at two days of 46 pages containing 50 multiple choice and open-ended questions. A lot of the material on it has not yet been "covered". How can it be? We're always testing!

There's a district reading benchmark test which is supposed to take place "some time" next week; administration is not sure when. We'll also have a district writing benchmark assessment the first week in February.

You know, to make the students feel comfortable with testing.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A wordly compliment

This afternoon we watched some of CNN's coverage of Obama's Train Tour. I got all choked up and cheered when the train slowed down, passing through a crowd-filled station in Maryland.

Waving, searching, trying to see in the windows, all kinds of people waited for that last train car, where Obama and Biden stood and waved. Obama's smile said so much. The people were cold, but they were jubilant, excited, fulfilled. I saw all the things I hope for in their faces.

And my son said, "Mom's Hispanic, Black, White, Indian, Chinese, everything."

You so get it, kid.

Diversity Book Review: Nadia's Song

I read Nadia’s Song by Soheir Khashoggi for the Diversity Rocks! Challenge.

Khashoggi moves back and forth on the timeline of Egyptian history, from the 1940s to the 1980s. Two story lines unfold while 50 years of Middle Eastern conflict play out in the background. This story was interesting to me, as I had not fully understood the reasons for turbulent current events.

Karima, a servant girl in 1940s Egypt, falls in love with her English employer’s son. Though the love story is doomed, Karima holds on to two treasures – a child, and her exquisite voice. Both bring her joy and sadness, as predicted by a midwife. Karima becomes a famous singer, adored by her country. Further in the story, Karima’s daughter lives a privileged life in Europe. She grapples with identity issues however, and makes certain discoveries that lead her to her lost past.

This was a fairly quick read and enjoyable. I liked the way Khashoggi started some of the chapters with what I considered an “update” on Egyptian events. This information placed the story in perspective for me, anchoring it in a certain point in time; I was able to relate historic events to those in the story.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Wax, wick, and will

This week was horrible.

She went back to school on Monday after almost two glorious weeks of winter vacation. Knowing she had loads of work to hand in, plus the cold, and the pains that had been increasing lately, all week she felt like she was walking in a fog.

Work is doing her in. She’s a teacher. She works with fourth graders. After 18 years at this, she expected things to get easier. The total opposite has happened.

It’s not the kids. They’re a pleasure. She still believes in this profession. Teaching fills her, it satisfies, it’s her mark on tomorrow.

But give her a break, please!

This teacher is no good to anyone when they take advantage of her, when they overload her day with so many wasteful, silly, insignificant things to do, when they don’t give her a chance to use the ladies’ room, when she can’t eat a sorry piece of sandwich on her lunch break, when they expect her to write lesson plans and correct papers and fill out reports until 11 at night and during the entire weekend.

This teacher has stopped sleeping for all of the thousands of things she thinks about in the dark.

This week she accepted that the flame is flickering, barely holding on.


Esta semana la pasó fatal.

El lunes regresó a clases después de dos semanas gloriosas de vacaciones invernales. Sabiendo que había un montón de trabajos que entregar, más el frío, más los dolores que se habían estado multiplicando ultimamente, toda la semana sintió que estaba caminando por una neblina.

El trabajo la tiene mal. Es una maestra. Enseña a niños de cuarto grado. Después de 18 años en este trabajo, esperaba que las cosas se harían más fáciles. Pués, lo contrario.

No se queja de los alumnos. Son un placer. Y no ha dejado de amar la profesión; este trabajo le llena, le satisface, es su contribución al futuro.

Pero… déjenla en paz, ¡porfavor!

La maestra no sirve para nada si la abusan, si la cargan con demasiadas responsabilidades, si no la dejan ir al baño, si no le dan tiempo por comer un miserable pedazo de sándwich en la hora de almorzar, si esperan que escriba lecciones y corrija papeles y complete reportes hasta las 11 de la noche y durante todo el fin de semana.

La maestra ha dejado de dormir porque no puede dejar de pensar en miles de cosas en las horas oscuras.

Esta semana ha tenido que aceptar que a veces la llamita se quiere apagar, apenas se mantiene.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Binge reading

Because books are like bread, and because I love a challenge, I've committed to the Chunkster Challenge 2009! "Chunksters" are books that are 450 pages or more. I signed up at the Do These Books Make my Butt Look Big? level; that means I'll read 3 - 5 chunksters by November 15.

Thanks, Think Pink Dana, at Feelin' Chunky, for setting this up!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Sunday Evening Sadness

A trabajar mañana, m’ijito
y tu a la escuela.
A levantarse temprano
ducharse a la rápida
vestirse calentito y
desayunar, aunque no tengas ganas.

Fueron lindos y largos estos días
pasamos horas haciendo nada
gozamos mucho
disfrutamos nuestra casita,
las sopas ricas que hizo tu padre,
y las delicias de dormir hasta tarde.

Mañana, regresamos a la rutina.
No tengas pena, m’ijo,
sentirás esta melancolía el resto de la vida.
Los lunes cuestan.

Back to work tomorrow, my son
and you to school.
Wake up early
shower quickly
dress warmly
have breakfast, though you don't feel like it.

These days were lovely and long
we spent hours doing nothing
we had fun
we enjoyed our little home
the savory soups your dad made
and the delights of sleeping in.

Tomorrow, we'll return to the routine.
Don't let it bother you my boy,
you'll feel this sadness the rest of your life.
Mondays are difficult.

Diversity Book Review: Stealing Buddha's Dinner

The book title, along with the cover’s image of a little girl contemplating a pink snoball, called my attention. Bich Minh Nguyen (first name pronounced Bit) writes a memoir interweaving food as a symbol of belonging. SpaghettiOs, Pringles, and fast food were the stuff of becoming American, of fitting in. Green sticky rice cakes, pho, cha gio, and fresh fruits, were the tastes of family, of home.

Nguyen and her family escaped from Saigon in 1975 and settled in Michigan. Growing up in the 80s, in the Midwest, Nguyen’s immigrant experience was similar to that of so many deemed “different” from the host culture. She struggled to fit in, longing to be like her classmates and neighbors; she fantasized about macaroni & cheese dinners and “homemade” Toll House cookies. Nguyen, however, is comforted by the foods her grandmother continues to prepare, shrimp soups, noodles, and meticulously chopped-up vegetables. She treasures even more the fresh fruits her grandmother lovingly peels and cuts for her; solace is often found in the familiar, the natural. Throughout the story, food seems to satiate different kinds of hunger. As a girl, Nguyen needs attention and encouragement. She appeases these needs in a closet with a candy bar or a ripe pear, stolen from her grandmother’s altar to Buddha.

The foods, music, and clothing styles mentioned in Nguyen’s book were familiar to me, as I was a teen in the 80s. I could connect to the childhood desire to “eat what they eat”, the shunning of that which is familiar, and the happy return to the foods that your mom makes (or grandmother, as in Nguyen’s story). It was also interesting to note that certain foods, considered “delicacies” for some, become everyday fare for others. This is especially true now, when we can regularly enjoy exotic foods in just about any American city, and savor Cheetos, tater-tots, Cozy Shack pudding, and a can of Chef Boyardee any day in the comfort of home.

I highly recommend this book. If you connect food with life's experiences (like me!) you will especially appreciate this story. You may find that you suddenly have a craving for a Pop-Tart, or you may want to try something new and visit any one of the many Asian restaurants in your area.

Personally, I need to find me some cha gio! Looks delicious!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Teachers/Writers Book Review: Teacher Man

Several years ago, I read Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and then his Tis. Both were excellent memoirs, difficult to put down. McCourt’s stories of an impoverished childhood in 1930s Ireland and eventual return to America at the age of 19 were gut-wrenching and frustrating, yet fascinating. It is amazing how much a soul can put up with, and still come out fighting.

I purchased Teacher Man some time ago, and let it sit on my shelf for quite a while. I picked it up a couple of days after Christmas, and was hooked by a line in the Prologue; “There should be a medal for people who survive miserable childhoods and become teachers.” Recalling the first two books, I figured McCourt’s journey as a teacher would be a challenge as well.

While reading Teacher Man, I reflected on the habits and styles of teachers I've had, as well as my own. I could certainly relate with McCourt’s inner struggle with curriculum, with being expected to teach it in a certain way and time frame. I also understood the tiredness, the endless piles of paperwork, the conflicts in and out of the classroom, the perfect and difficult students and parents. I recognized the tremendous loneliness that often takes hold in this profession.

I felt even more kinship with the writer as he told of the occasional joys of conversations with kids, the ways in which students surprise us, reminding us they are people with their own stories. I felt the triumph McCourt must have sensed when he strayed (often) from prescribed material and improvised his lessons, frequently winging it. The results were beautiful, exciting, authentic, artistic, and empowering for both students and teacher. Equally humbling were the lessons that did not call the students' attention, or that just plain fell apart.

I did not have the pleasure of being in one of McCourt’s classes, but after reading this book, I feel as if he is one of my best-loved teachers. He moved me in the last chapter, which is comprised of just two words. At the moment I read them, I felt they fit somewhere in my life but wasn’t quite sure.

I realize today, at the start of a New Year, I will not specify resolutions. In everything, simply, “I’ll try.”