Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Friendly Letter

One of the most powerful things we do in my fourth grade classroom is correspond through a dialog journal. The year starts with me writing a letter to my incoming class over the summer telling a little bit about me and what’s to come in our year together. The children then have an assignment, due on the first day of school, to write back to me relating what they’ve been up to over the long break.

For the next ten months we write back and forth, usually once a week. The children can ask me anything they want and I will answer. These written conversations are private and confidential. The students can tell me anything that’s bothering them. They tell me when a classmate is preventing them from getting their work done, a pet dies, or a sibling is annoying them. I try to give them strategies to deal with these sorts of things. They also tell me about their accomplishments, what sports they’re playing, or what dances they’re preparing for an upcoming recital.

The best thing about the dialog journal is the personal attention I can give each student. This is important to me because I want my students to know I care about them as individuals, something I didn’t have when I was in school. I felt invisible throughout my formative years; as if my teachers didn’t even know I existed. I certainly never felt like a teacher’s pet.  As a result, I didn’t feel important or valued. When I became a teacher I vowed that would never happen to any of my students, if I could help it.

As another school year comes to a close, I enjoy flipping through the dialog journals as a way to revisit our journey together. I know more about the lives of my students outside of school and they know more about mine due to our written conversations. They make me laugh! Some bring tears to my eyes. Soon it will be our last day together and as we celebrate our achievements I will hand back the journals one final time for the children to take home. Some children, I’m told, hang onto them for years to come, treasured memories of our time together.

Did this trigger any memories for you? Please leave me a comment. I’d love to hear from you!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Bronx Zoo Trip 2011

For the “big kids,” the fourth graders at our school, the most exciting thing they look forward to is the Annual Fourth Grade Bronx Zoo Trip. Parents start asking if they can chaperone for this special excursion in September. I was glad this year that I could invite all parents who had volunteered as chaperones! I was also fortunate to be able to invite my husband along.

This trip is a big deal. After lots of planning and fundraising, the big day arrived. With an iffy weather forecast, we left Southwick on four King Ward buses—over 200 students and chaperones! The one change we did make was our goal to leave fifteen minutes earlier—6:45 AM rather than 7:00 AM. Success! This put our actual departure at 7 AM whereas in the past we left closer to 7:15 AM.

Fifteen minutes may not seem like a big deal but it made a huge difference in our arrival time at the zoo. We got into the parking lot around 9:50 AM and zipped right into the zoo as the gates opened at 10:00 AM.

We headed straight to the Congo to view the gorillas. They did not disappoint. These creatures seem so human-like! One female was reclining casually on a log, watching us. The highlight for many children was the regurgitation habits of one particular gorilla—ew! Then we headed on down to the Wild Asia Monorail and JungleWorld.

Because it was a threatening, overcast day with a forecast of thunderstorms, there were hardly any people besides us at the zoo. It was great! The animals were more active and the lines were very short and quick moving.

While meandering along shady paths we watched animals and people, too. Why teenagers felt the need to screech like the peacocks or roar like lions, we didn’t know but we found it amusing and video worthy.

Animal babies are always cute and the babies at the Bronx Zoo are no exception. Maggie the giraffe, now a year old is getting big but still loves to play tag. She bonked the ostrich on its head and it got a bit agitated! We especially enjoyed watching the newly hatched crane baby and its parents being fed by a zoo keeper. It was so fuzzy!

Enrichment activities equal excitement! There’s primate training at the Monkey House, penguin feedings at the Sea Bird Aviary, sea lion checkups at Astor Court, and the Bee-eater Buffet at the World of Birds. The tiger enrichment was suspended this year. The sign said it was due to the presence of the cubs in the enclosure.

The Bronx Zoo is one of my favorite zoos, comparable to the San Diego Zoo, the Cincinnati Zoo, Busch Gardens Zoo, and the Lowry Park Zoo (Latter two zoos Tampa, FL). In general, the animals at the Bronx Zoo seemed happy and well cared for. The smelliest building was the Carter Giraffe Building. The air reeked so badly that it made my eyes water.

By 3 PM the zoo was almost deserted as the local schools bused backed home. Soon it was time to get back on our buses for the three hour return trip. The chaperones did a great job! We didn’t lose anyone and the students were very well behaved. I’m already looking forward to next year’s trip. I love to go wild!

What is your favorite zoo? Leave me a comment. I’d love to hear from you!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Death is a Part of Life

Contrary to popular belief, clowning is not always about being silly. There is often a serious side to being a clown. One time I was invited to clown at a party after a funeral. A young man had died suddenly in a car accident. He was a fun loving guy who left behind a wife, two young children, and many devastated friends and relatives. His mom thought it appropriate to invite me to her house and make an attempt at cheering up the guests. She felt her jokester of a son would have approved.

When I arrived, most of the guests were in the back yard. There were a few crying grownups in the house and when I walked through, they angrily demanded to know what I was doing there. Nervously I explained that I was invited to distract the children, excused myself, and continued to the back deck.

I sat very quietly on the steps and got out my skunk puppet, Jr. Mint. Slowly the children came closer and soon I was able to engage them in a little magic, face painting, and balloon animals. Little by little the adults relaxed and enjoyed the interactions between the children and myself. I could feel the tension in the air dissipate. Before long it was time for me to go.

As I passed through the house on my way out to my car, I encountered the same “welcoming committee” that had confronted me a short hour before. This time they hugged me and said thanks. I had lightened their spirits and helped them remember all the fun times they had with their loved one.

I sat in the car for a moment before driving away. It’s not easy driving with tears in your eyes.

Have you ever been in a situation where you did not feel welcome? Please leave me a comment. I’d love to hear from you.