It’s now been a little more than a week since I returned home to Charleston from five weeks in the Mississippi Delta (the town of Cleveland, to be exact) participating in Institute – a fancy word for Teach for America’s summer teacher training program. I lived on the campus of Delta State University and was bussed each weekday morning to a nearby school where I taught Kindergarten, with an emphasis on math and literacy. Before leaving for Institute, I did my research (like a good, former journalist) and I thought I know what to expect. But, despite my best attempts to follow the daily schedule I crafted after scouring Institute-prep blogs, my days looked a little something more like this…
5:30 a.m.: Hit snooze on first alarm, thus beginning the daily internal struggle – “Can I go another day with a ponytail and sleep 15 more minutes?” (Sorry, Mom).
5:45: Finally get motivated. Spritz up outfit with my new favorite invention – Downy wrinkle release. Don name tag and the 15 or so paperclips that always seem to accumulate there. Practice “teacher face” in the mirror. (Just kidding…I’ve already got that down flat.)
6:20: Head to the dining hall, saggy green DSU lunch box in hand, and silently pray there’s more left than the gray – yes, gray – PB&J sandwiches. Being on one of the latest buses to leave does have its disadvantages.
6:30: Get to the bus early to get the good seat that – fingers crossed! – will be occupied by only me for the twenty minute bus ride to my school in Rosedale, the next town over.
7:20: Arrive at the cafeteria, attendance sheet in hand, to greet students and usher them through the breakfast line. Mentally prepare for the onslaught of milk spills, sticky, syrupy high-fives, and admonitions of “Please don’t talk with your mouth full!”
8-9:20: For the first two weeks of institute, I attended teacher prep sessions during this time, while my co-teachers taught literacy. The last two weeks, I took over the reigns of leading morning reading sessions, much to my enjoyment. We kicked off each day with our welcome song (“Hickety Pickety Bumble Bee“), a morning message, and opening activity before plunging into our book of the day. My kiddos’ favorite? Froggy Gets Dressed, by Jonathan London, about a frog who forgets his underwear while preparing for a day playing in the snow. Their howls of laughter could be heard in the classroom across the hall, so I’ve been told!
9:30-11:10: For the first two weeks, I and a co-teacher taught one math lesson each during this time. This was the first time many of our students were introduced to basic mathematical concepts, such as counting, writing numbers, and determining more/less. While numeric order and value seem like basic knowledge that is easy to grasp, they are hard concepts to teach to 5 year olds! Try to think of a simple definition for “number” or “more” or “count”. Remember these must be definitions they can not only comprehend, but will also remember a week or month or year from now. It’s more complicated than you think! The experience of teaching math strengthened my appreciation for teachers, especially those at the elementary level. It’s so easy to forget that these basic, foundational skills are not innate but must be taught and reinforced and sometimes taught again, with healthy doses of perseverance, creativity, and, of course, patience.
11:10-12:10 p.m.: This block was known as Academic Intervention Time (AIT), when my co-teachers and I worked with our students in small groups to reinforce math and literacy skills. As much as I enjoy large group instruction, my real passion lies in working with students at the small group or individual level (one of the many reasons I am so excited to be teaching SpEd). By the end of the summer, I knew exactly which numerals the students in my math group could write independently, and which five sight words my reading students could identify, making my instruction and assessment personalized to meet the students academic needs. I don’t think anything will ever compare to the moment one of my students read a page in a book by himself, looked up to me with joy in his eyes, and immediately wanted to finish reading the book on his own.
12:25-1: Lunch time…by far the messiest part of the day! If we were lucky enough to have all of our children make it to the lunch table without dropping their tray, we were then bombarded with seemingly endless requests to open ketchup packets or cries that a fork or apple was left behind in the lunch line.
1-4:30: After the kids departed, the rest of our afternoons were generally devoted to what I fondly refer to as “teacher training.” It was during this time that we perfected lesson planning, practiced behavior management, and participated in numerous discussions about best practices. As much as I enjoyed the resources and ideas presented during this time, but, as someone who learns best by doing, it was the mornings spent in the classroom that best prepared me.
5—: Evenings at Institute were a blur of quick meals, sprints to the copy room, and preparing books and math manipulatives for the next day. I’ve never before been surrounded by more paperwork and school supplies, but I can truly say I loved every minute of it.
Despite the long days, messy hair, and, let’s just say, unsavory meals, there are moments I will never forget and I would not trade for the world.
Such as the first time a student held a pencil correctly in his hand. And the many times since that he used the strategy I taught him to grip his pencil or crayon.
Or when another insisted he would never, ever like reading but then read a book all by himself and asked me to bring him more the next day and said he wanted to make his daddy and teacher proud.
Or when one of my math AIT students, on his own accord, began reciting our math goals chant (complete with hand motions): “Math is for everyone. We can do it, yes we can!”
Or the laughs we’ve shared as class when we read in “Froggy Gets Dressed.” Or when one of my girls had the class rolling for a few minutes after offering up this charming sentence : “The cat is…stinkin’ in the butt.”
Or the class’ dance parties – a reward for 10 class points – to Beyonce and Taylor Swift.
Though I only knew and worked with these beautiful children for four weeks, I grew to understand them as individual learners and individual people. I know one will always throw up her hand before I’ve even finished asking a question. I know another will sit quietly the entire lesson, but then master every objective. I know yet another will get pouty if he doesn’t get the chance to participate. As much as they taught me about education, they taught me so much more about building relationships and truly loving the students who enter your classroom.
It was a great summer spent in the Delta. During my time there, I also…