Sunday, September 16, 2007

Autumnal equinox and home visits

Every year at this time leaves begin to turn back to their hidden bright colors and fall. That whole photosynthesis process bugs me a little. As good for the leaves as it is, it masks the brilliance of the leaves' born with color. Why should we only get to see those colors when days become shorter and the angles of sunlight change? The bright autumnal colors also signal another favorite season for me...home visit season.

Just past the first quarter's halfway point I begin to build a new bridge. My student's parents make appointments with me to share and conference about their child's progress in third grade. Instead of meeting in our classroom we meet in their homes. We meet after work in the evenings, before or after dance practice on Thursday, after soccer practice on Friday, before or after church on Sunday, during dinner, and sometimes before breakfast on Saturday. It is the chance for parents to talk about their precious children, at their convenience, in their space, with the whole family present, in the comfort of their own home.

It started 27 years ago in my first year of full-time teaching. I was in a second grade classroom in a diversely populated Title I school in northern California. Included in the majority of our school population were families who had precariously immigrated from southeast Asia escaping communism or dictatorships, families living in poverty, families with little to no English speaking skills, single parent families who had become single parents due to abuse or other crimes, and a few middle class families living in small pockets of our boundary enclosures.

A blink moment: Intuitively I felt the more I knew about my student's whole life, the more I could respond to the life we shared between 8am and 3pm. I thought if moms and dads had a chance to tell me about their children in their own words, those words would more naturally flow if they were surrounded by the things that made them naturally think of their children. That had to happen in their homes. My revered principal, a retired career Air Force aviator drawn to the service of teaching after his 20+ years of military service reluctantly gave me his blessing. So I started out finding my students' homes on maps, plotting a schedule, making calls, often using my seven year old students as interpreters for their parents to set up our meetings.

My first home visit was with Destiny and her mom. Destiny was a dark-haired, verbal, socially confident little girl. She was also mature...too far beyond her 7 years and that was reflected in her words, actions, and style of dress. Mom spoke only Spanish and Destiny often served as her interpreter between home and school communications. I arrived at 7pm in a dimly lit apartment neighborhood that paralleled highway 101, a major freeway. The apartment had the thinnest front door I'd ever seen and I had grown up in very modest homes. The noise from the highway was overpowering. Note to self...quiet reading time is impossible at home.

The one bedroom apartment was small, modestly furnished, and dominated by a large television. The television was turned on during the whole visit and the commercials sometimes drowned out the conversation. I learned Destiny and her mother lived together alone, but sometimes aunts and uncles would come by and stay. I wondered where they slept. Destiny told me at one point her mom was shacked up with her boyfriend Lou, (I wondered where Destiny slept then) but he was in jail now. They visited him once in awhile. I tried to look cool and matter of fact when I heard this language coming out of a seven year old's mouth. I'm sure I shared information about Destiny's progress in reading and how she needed to read every night, and that she was reading below grade level. I remember mom nodding as if she understood between translation, but knew she wouldn't be supervising a quiet 30 minutes of reading each night, reading to her, or taking her to the library on a regular basis. She was busy barely making a living.

I didn't get what I thought I'd get out of those first home visits. In fact, I got more. I thought I'd be sharing great educational practices I'd learned about in college with parents and they'd be drinking it all in with wide eyes and open ears. It was a little like seeing the true colors of a leaf in the fall. Instead I built relationships. I bridged cultures a tiny, tiny bit. I laid a foundation that often wouldn't get built on until much later in the year but, at least it was a foundation. I opened some communication between home and school even when the spoken language wasn't the same. I tasted incredible Vietnamese, Samoan, Filipino, Mexican, and American foods. I experienced gracious, generous hospitality when I knew material possessions were few. I had a chance to walk across a bridge in both directions.
I love autumn and all its color!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

What will they remember?

If I knew celebrating the number 50 (as in years old) would be so much fun I would have done it earlier. The 50s Museum is now officially open. I'm proud and overwhelmed to be its curator. The artifacts are evidence of a fortunate past and foretell a promising future. Can a national museum of something be anymore important? Included in the finds for view are poems, posters, a joke book, multitudes of cards with original artwork and text, dark is there any other kind? chocolate in various chunks of 50, bags of 50 coffee beans, delicious, fresh nuts, flowers, including roses, a beautiful plant that I swear to keep alive, fine paper (no other description needed), 50, yes I repeat, 50 helium balloons, good tea, good coffee, stirrers for the bistro.
What doesn't appear in the gallery but stays in my artifacts of thought are the singing, the wishes of happy birthday from five and six year old voices, the wishes from near strangers in the hall, and the 119 guests who came by to visit on this opening day of the museum. One student couldn't help herself... she had to keep a running tally. She predicted 50 people would come by. That many friends would fill many a void. Did I mention that practically every adult pinned the number "50" somewhere in view on their clothing? You can imagine the fullness of heart I feel after all those numbers!
The items of great anthropologic interest to this curator however, were the endearing, funny bits of text published in several books by students I swore would remember nothing of their year with me. The bits are poignant reminders of what students deem important in their school year. There are a few reminders of specific academic stuff, such as learning about butterflies and natural disasters. Only a kid would enjoy that range of studies. But the majority of notes were about the treats, the jokes, the help with a problem, the challenge mixed with fun, the dum dums for smart smarts, the indoor recess games, how I listened, helped, taught manners, greeted, made embarrassing moments fun (those were probably my own!). So... over 25 years of working on my instructional practices and content and it all comes down to really just being a mom!
Is this a sign that I need to work on maintaining a better focus on rich, research based instructional practices as I teach this year? Well, maybe. It does however, answer the perrenial question posed to me by the teachers in the next grade level, "Did they learn anything last year...they don't remember any content!"

Monday, September 3, 2007

No Problem, No Thanks

I woke to the sounds of a voice saying "Hey Char, there's a problem with the car," (no rhyme intended) and the "...thump, thump, thump, thump" of a tire rhythmically making its way to shredsville. Yes, a blowout on I-95 at 1:20 am. That in itself is exciting enough, but the bigger issue was my surprise less than 12 hours later at being on the receiving end of a long lost customary response when one says, "Thank you." The young, hip clerk at the tire dealer offered, "You're welcome" after I profusely thanked him for the good service and the great price for the new tire. I did a double take and almost wanted him to repeat what he had said. I walked away smiling.

It probably doesn't bother anyone else, but I admit I have a pet peeve about the response, "No problem" when one says "Thanks" or "Thank you" or "I really appreciate it" or "Many thanks." You get the idea. It sounds like my appreciative comment for the gift I received, a guest's prompt arrival, the great food I ate, the compliment about my longer hair, or the help I got," started out as a problem. I want people to say, "YOU'RE WELCOME." Okay, so the word welcome doesn't exactly translate literally to anything as magnaminous as "It was my great pleasure," but, it does sound sincere and positive. Not like something was an issue. Am I behind the times? Anyone who would use the phrase, "behind the times" probably shouldn't ask that question. As I heard more and more people of all ages say, "No problem," it got me thinking about whether it was me who had an issue.

I was somewhat vindicated to read Wikipedia offering the following: The phrase "no problem" is a stock phrase that carries a variety of meanings. Some people associate it with the British Empire and certain former colonies, e.g. Jamaica, Nigeria. It is typically used to mean "I've taken care of it" or in place of "You're welcome", in response to "Thank you". (i.e. "No thanks are necessary; my effort was no problem for me.") It has no real meaning outside of the context in which it is used. A phrase or idiom dictionary translation of "no problem" might read "I'll take care of it" or "there's nothing to worry about". However, it effectively means "I'm not going to give you any other assurances", and thus ends a conversation about whatever risk is about to be incurred. Some think it means roughly the same thing as "shut up".

Okay...did you read the part that says, effectively means...? Negative! It's used so much there's even an abbreviation for it (NP) when IMing (still not convinced that's a verb). We frequently use it in what Wikipedia calls fake Spanish..."no problemo." Should I just accept it?

Thank goodness Wikipedia finishes the entry with: “No problem” implies that the speaker was not inconvenienced. However, “my pleasure” implies not just that the speaker was not inconvenienced, but also that the speaker was pleased to provide the help. “Glad to do it” is a less formal version of "my pleasure."

I'm still not sure how I feel about this phrase but, when I sincerely thanked the emergency road service technicians for putting the spare on the car after working for 30 minutes a foot away from 65 mile an hour traffic that streaked by like a Bullet train, I was relieved to hear him offer "No problem."