Childhood

Cutting Class in Fifth Grade

I think I’ve gotten what I need from elementary school and am ready to move on. When I started fifth grade on Monday morning, I felt restless. I hadn’t slept enough, as usual, and I was feeling kind of spacey, with a lot on my mind (I’ll post about that topic soon). I was disappointed in my lack of focus, because I had the privilege of finally being in Mr. Neubacher’s fifth grade class. He taught sixth when I was in school, back when elementary schools were K-6. It was just my luck that my sixth grade year was the year that the junior high became a middle school. So I never got a chance to have Mr. Neubacher, who was beloved by the kids. I appreciate the brief time I spent in his class this week, and here are some highlights:

- Doing a cool science experiment.

The Exploratorium, San Francisco’s hands-on science museum, is piloting a program at my elementary school (the first in the country to try it), and from what I’ve seen, the kids love it. This week’s unit is Magnets, so my “lab partner” and I made a compass by magnetizing a sewing needle, pushing it through a styrofoam peanut, and floating it in a bowl of water. Pop Quiz: In what direction did the needle point? (See end of post for the answer.)

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Around the World in 30 Desks

If I had to name one classroom activity that used to make my adrenaline levels skyrocket, it would be Around the World.

Here’s how it works. One student begins the game by standing next to the desk of a classmate who will be the first challenger. The two competitors face the teacher, who has a stack of flash cards with simple math equations on them. The teacher quickly pulls out a card and holds it up in front of the competing pair. The student who does the mental math and shouts out the correct answer first moves to the next desk, taking on a new challenger. The objective is to travel “around the world,” beating every classmate with quick-draw math skillz.

I’m not gonna lie — back in my day, I was kind of a big deal at this game, drawing grumbles from the other kids when it was their turn to challenge me. I don’t think I exactly looked forward to competing, since the threat of losing in front of everyone made me anxious. I remember my heart racing with each new round, feeling pressure to perform and relief when the game finally ended.

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Fourth Graders: Pre-Preteens

I first worked with fourth graders through the I Have a Dream after-school program in East Palo Alto. I taught Creative Writing/California History to a small group of low-income African American kids, and they were quite a handful. Later that year, I substituted in a fourth grade class of wealthy white kids at a private school in Menlo Park. I found that the kids were just as off the wall as they were in East Palo Alto, and in the same ways. It seems that across socioeconomic lines, fourth graders are a unique breed. They’re right on the border of puberty, no longer children but not yet preteens. As those infamous hormones are beginning to circulate, “tweens” enjoy testing their limits.

This is what I’ve noticed about my fourth grade classmates so far:

1. They stink.

After recess, there’s a slight, foul odor that hovers around the room, drawn from a collection of sweaty feet and armpits. I was in fourth grade myself when my mom gently suggested that I start wearing deodorant. At the time, I felt offended and probably left the room in a huff. In retrospect, however, I’m glad that I got the news from my mom at home than from a classmate in front of my peers. I found one of my first Teen Spirit sticks (pictured above) buried in one of the bathroom cabinets. It’s a weird artifact, but it makes me nostalgic all the same.

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Not So Little Miss Popular

I never thought I’d get the chance to say it, but it’s true. I’m the most popular girl in my class. This is the first time I’ve ever had that experience, and you better believe that I’m loving it.

I wish that I could have known 20 years ago, when I was in 3rd grade, that one day I’d get a chance to be the girl that everyone paid attention to. At age 8, I was more teacher’s pet than social butterfly.  I was exceptionally tall for my age and had straight brown hair down to my waist. I wore headbands with little teeth that dug into my scalp, and I had to put on thick pink-framed glasses during class so I could see the blackboard. (We had actual blackboards, not white boards like the classrooms do now.) In one class photo — the kind with the futuristic “lasers” in the background — the huge puffed sleeves of my dress are uneven in height. (FYI, those are tack-marks on the photo, not pockmarks on my face.) In another photo, my bangs are slicked into what appears to be a cowlick combined with a comb-over, which is just about as attractive as it sounds.

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A Colorful Cast of Young Characters

Turns out that my hand is twice the size of a first grader's.

Turns out that my hand is twice the size of a first grader's.

It’s been one week since I kicked off the classroom phase of Reschool Yourself, and I have so much to share. The challenge lies, as always, in time. I’ve been busy adding features to the site and will post more writing this weekend.

As I mentioned in the video log, I finished up in the kindergarten on Monday morning and began rotating through the five first grade classrooms. I prefer staying in one class, to build relationships with the kids, but the first grade teachers each needed my help. There are a few benefits of rotating, such as observing different teaching styles for the same age group, getting to know all the teachers — they’re a cool bunch of women — and meeting a variety of kids.

I do miss my kindergarteners! Since I was part of their very first school experience, they seemed to get as attached to me as I did to them. On Friday, due to another meeting, I came late to school (no, I didn’t need a pink tardy slip). When I walked into the kindergarten, several kids bombarded me with hugs around my waist and exclamations like “Where were you?” and “You’re heeere!” With those long eyelashes and baby-toothed grins, those kids turn me into putty in their hands.

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Things Have Changed Since ’85

And I’m not just talking about Tom Cruise moving to Crazytown, USA.

In returning to my elementary school, I never expected to “step into the same river twice.” I knew that the school had changed quite a bit since I attended it from 1985-1991. Over the years, I’d taken occasional walks around the campus and seen new jungle gyms (or “big-toys” as we used to call them) installed and the paint accents go from red to green. I’d seen the library and office move locations, and new portables installed.

So far, I’ve observed these other major changes:

  • Demographic shift. My 1985-1986 kindergarten class of 29 kids was composed of 27 white kids, one Latino kid, and me (I alone composed a good chunk the school’s Asian population — and I’m only half). Barbara’s 2008-2009 kindergarten class of 20 kids has 5 white kids and 15 Latino kids. This reflects the overall demographic shift in Sonoma County. Between 2000 and 2007, the county’s Latino population grew 30 percent, and the white population declined by 7.2 percent. The trend continues, making it challenging for the school to raise its test scores when many of the kids are English Language Learners.
  • Uniforms. The majority of kids in the kindergarten class wear tiny khaki or blue bottoms and solid colored shirts. Apparently, a few years ago the school adopted a policy where students would wear uniforms by default, but parents can sign a waiver opting out. That way kids can still choose their clothing if they wish, but the standard of uniforms evens the playing field for low-income kids. That way, there’s no pressure to wear the latest Hannah Montana watch or Gap Kids hoodie, and gang-related clothing is a non-issue.
  • Extended kindergarten day. Kindergarten used to be divided into morning and afternoon sessions. Now, with the exception of early release days, it keeps the same hours as the older grades, from 8:30 to 2:30. I’ve heard that the kindergarteners, even at age 5, now follow a curriculum based on state standards.
  • Lunchroom practices. Hot lunch used to be served on washable trays, but today it’s unfortunately packaged in disposable styrofoam containers. I’m curious about the reasons for this, and the difference in cost. On the upside, chocolate milk used to be available only on Wednesdays, but now it’s a delicious permanent fixture.

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Reschooling Reason #2: Be a Grown-Up with No Regrets

WitchesI have a confession to make: Like a fairy tale witch, I secretly long to steal the youth of innocent children. When I see kids running about, carefree and laughing, I don’t think, “How wonderful, to be young!” Instead, I’m wildly jealous. These kids don’t have any debt, or much emotional baggage; they’re able to enjoy whatever they’re doing at the moment without dwelling on what happened yesterday or what will happen five years from today. They speak and act freely without concern for what others will think. Their instincts are intact, and their futures are wide open.

We grown-ups, on the other hand, have often made choices that limited our options. We may have mismanaged our money, failed to reach our potential in our schooling or career, or had kids of our own before we’d had enough time to be kids ourselves. These choices may have made us less playful and imaginative, and more stymied and fearful.

I expect that I’d be less jealous of kids if I could have a completely fresh start, putting any limiting experiences behind me and reconnecting with the optimism and self-assurance that I had as a child. I would like to return to square one and begin again, living my life completely on my terms without regrets or complaints. If I succeed in doing this, maybe I’ll become content with the grown-up life I’ve chosen. At the least, I hope to avoid becoming Old Lady Dicker, the resentful hag who throws rocks at the children who pass by her rundown shack.

This post is part of the series “Why Reschool?”

All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten

“All I really need to know, I learned in kindergarten” was just a cutesy saying for me until I actually spent a day with kindergarteners. Now I understand.

I visited the kindergarten class in order to generate ideas for the first phase of Reschool Yourself, to decide  what I’d like to do in my old classrooms. I spent the day observing and interacting with the kids, ages five and six. I cut a cardboard box into a stage for a puppet show, listened to a story, and watched the kids practice movement and dance. I agreed to play tag at recess, and only then was informed that I was “always it.” As I chased the kids around the jungle gym, they joyfully teased me by sticking out their tongues and taunting me with singsongs of “Nanny nanny, foo foo.”

The day’s activities began with Kid Writing, a time for students to draw pictures in their personal journals and practice writing about them.

Max 2“Do you have a kid journal?” a boy named Max asked me. I told him that I didn’t.

“I’ll make you one,” he said.

He disappeared and then returned within a few minutes, presenting me with a paper booklet neatly stapled down the side. He had trimmed the side of the page “to make it look nice” and had printed the words, “Melia AND THE” on the fluorescent pink cover.

“Melia and the what?” I asked him.

“That’s up to you,” he said.

I raised my eyebrows, impressed by this 6-year-old sage. “Hmm, I’m not sure how to finish that,” I said. “I’ll have to think about it.”

Max looked me straight in the eye. “Sometimes it’s good to just do what you want to do,” he told me. “Sometimes that’s the best thing.”

I told Max that this was such great advice that I would write it down. I printed his words in oil pastel inside my new journal, on the paper with dotted lines for handwriting practice. When I showed him his own words on the page, he said, “This will be on the first page to remind you, for life.” This kid was a regular Yoda. I wished I could shrink him down to pocket-size and carry him around with me—my own insightful little Pez dispenser.

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