Monday, September 14, 2009

Glue + Feathers + First Graders = Epic Disaster

my darling/demonic little first graders, this is the second go round with the plate project, one that did NOT include any glue or feathers, and oh yeah don't they look insanely creepy, as I was taking this picture I was frightened

The other day while teaching I had one of these moments I like to refer to as “gonna cry in the bathroom” moments. I had a lot of these back in May, in the first couple of weeks of the semester. I would walk into a class and proceed to get emotionally and mentally pummeled for fifty minutes by a group of children. The classroom would be so loud and so chaotic and my lesson plan would be such an unmitigated disaster that I would barely hold it together until the end of the period. Then, biting back tears, I would collect my things, walk quickly to the teacher’s bathroom, close myself in a stall, and let the tears flow. These were not thoughtful tears or lasting tears. An hour later I would be tired yes, but able to look at the experience calmly, usually even with humor. No these tears were pure, reactionary release, my body and mind’s response to a figurative sucker punch, courtesy of about forty rampaging nine year olds. I wasn’t sad or depressed. I wouldn’t wallow. But in these circumstances the only thing I could do was cry for a few moments, just to have some way of release, some way of dealing with the sensation of being completely overwhelmed.

These moments have become fewer and farther between as the semester has gone on. I don’t get overwhelmed as much because I’ve gotten better at dealing with things. I’ve learned to not get angry, to have fun with my kids, to not stress out if things fall apart in the middle of a class. I use the teacher’s bathroom for its intended purpose, not as my secret glass case of emotion. I don’t shout anymore or waste minutes trying to get kids to put their little tushes in their seats. I realized that my time here was limited and I might as well enjoy myself. And the second I started doing that it all got easier. Teaching became more natural, more spontaneous, less of a lesson in self torture.

All of this being said, I did have one of my “gonna cry in the bathroom” moments this past week. And I did indeed cry in the bathroom seconds after the class ended. But this time it took me completely by surprise. Here I was, sure of my new and improved teaching abilities, a little cocky to be completely honest. I had gone weeks without turning into scary Liz in one of my classes. I was coming up with new ideas for class every day, games and activities and projects. I was Liz 2.0, fun and relaxed and easygoing. So what if the kids got a little rowdy. I would engage them with my charm and teacherly charisma! We were having fun, rollicking good times that could have easily been set to a musical montage. Cue the up-tempo pop music and zany shenanigans.

Or so I thought. You see, I mentioned that I had grown a tad bit cocky. And cockiness is not a trait that a good foreign English teacher should have. My overconfidence in my abilities had led me to forget the golden rule of teaching English to non-English speaking children. This rule is so sacred, so fundamental to any success I have had that it shames me to admit that I discarded it. The rule is to keep it simple. My first few weeks I mapped out complex lesson plans with complex games with complex rules. And then seconds into any class all of these complex plans would come crashing down on top of my head like a giant cartoon anvil. Nothing complex works. The only things that work are simple, simple, simple. Simon Says is too complex (trust me I have tried many times). Crossword puzzles are too complex (even with picture clues). Frankly the Old McDonald song is a bit too much. I never realized this before but that song has a lot going on, not only do you have to teach animal vocab, you have to teach animal sounds, and you know what I learned from my kids, animals do not say the same things in Thailand as they do in the USA, pigs here for example make a noise that sounds like OOT. Any game with more than three rules is too complicated. Any project with more than three components is too complicated. My best and most successful classroom activity is a game that requires children to run and smack taped up flashcards with fly swatters. Duck, duck goose is a model of what the perfect primary school ESL game should be. Tossing a ball around works miracles. And I had finally gotten this. I had finally come to understand that all of those fancy and cool sounding ESL games online with ten bulleted rules would NEVER work in a primary school classroom and that to try was complete and total teacher suicide.

So then why, WHY, did I decide to embark on such an ill fated art project with my first graders. It started out simply enough. Last week we did animals for our lesson. And the classes went off without a hitch because, say it with me people, it was SIMPLE. I taught animal vocab. Then we played said, aforementioned fly swatting game (nothing spices up a straightforward vocab drill than letting children hit things with fly swatters, trust me). Then I let them draw animals on the board for their classmates to guess (another teacher rule, anything where kids get to draw on the white board will always be a crowd pleaser). Then I tossed a ball to kids and had them tell me what their favorite animal was. Then we played a little Hang Man in the last five or ten minutes. Side note, if any game proves the simplicity golden rule it is Hang Man. Simplest game ever, no explanation required, even Kindergartners get it, and no matter how many times they play it these kids love it, they will run to the front of the room and literally bounce up and down to get me to call on them so they can guess a letter. So anyways, that was last week. This week I decided to do an art project. I had done coloring sheets before but no full scale arts and crafts project so I thought what the hey, let’s do it. So I decided to have the kids make paper plate animal masks, the kind we all made when we were little. Sounds easy right? Well it could have been if not for my one fatal mistake. I decided it would be “fun” for them to glue things on to their masks, cotton balls for sheep, feathers for chickens. So I spent a good deal of money and time last weekend collecting my supplies. And because I can’t just drive to Ben Franklin (an arts and crafts superstore for all you non-Richmonders) I had to improvise. From what I can tell there are no Popsicle sticks in Thailand (to tape to the plates so the kids can hold them up to their faces). So I bought place mats made of bamboo sticks (just like chopsticks), then cut the threads holding the sticks together, and voila, we have paper plate animal mask holders. I also could not for the life of me locate feathers, so in what I thought at the time was a stroke of genius, I bought four feather dusters, took them home, and then plucked them (yeah the remnants of my feather carnage are still floating around my room). I bought several glue sticks (the kids don’t have their own). I spent hours cutting out eye holes in the masks (the kids also don’t have scissors, which judging from how aggressive they are, probably a good thing). I made three animal masks for examples. Everything was set and ready to go. I imagined the joy on the kids faces as I floated around the classroom, admiring their masks and praising them for their artistic talent. It would be a calm and non-stressful fifty minute period. I would be like a kindly elementary school art teacher, making corrections here and there, helping out but mainly standing back and letting my little geniuses get to their work.

And then I walked into my first first grade class of the day. I handed out the paper plates and all seemed to be going well (except for the fact that immediately five of the boys started using the plates as Frisbees). I told them to color first and then we would attach the cotton balls or feathers one by one. I figured in fifty minutes I’d have time to walk around the room, dab a little glue on the masks, hand them the cotton balls and feathers to attach themselves, and that would be that. The first child finished coloring and I applied the glue and handed them the cotton balls. Delusions of grandeur were still dancing in my head at this point. The kids would take their masks home to their parents, pronounce the English name of the animal and the parents would exclaim in delight, “what a wonderful foreign English teacher you have, how creative and thoughtful she is!”

And that’s when it all came crashing down. As soon as the kids got wind of me giving glue and cotton balls to one kid, I was done for. You see I’d forgotten what happens to these children when they get into a mob mentality. Sure on their own they might be delightful little six or seven year olds. But put them with thirty-nine other children and they are suddenly these rampaging, destructive, tornadoes of energy. Suddenly I was mobbed. As much as I tried to get them to go to their desks and wait patiently for me to get to them, it wasn’t happening. Paper plates were shoved in my face. Bleating cries of “KLU ELIZABETH” rang out again and again, so loud that I could barely be heard above it. Kids yelled at each other. I was literally moved off my feet as they surged around me. The second I managed to disentangle myself they would surround me again. Somehow I managed to get to the kids who were sitting down patiently. But I was finding that the combo of glue and cotton and feathers was not such a good one. I tried to put the cotton balls on their desks but they clung to my glue covered hands. Then add feathers to that and my hands were just gobs of cottony, feathery, gluey grossness. I tried to clean them off but nothing was working, so I attempted to keep going. But the second I got to a new kid, a kid I had already seen was right at my elbow, tugging at my arm and pointing to their plate, demanding one more cotton ball to fill in an empty space, because apparently if they didn’t get that right that second the world as we know it would end. I weaved around the class, trying to get to kids sitting down while always, a mob of about ten students clamored around me. Feathers were flying through the air. Plates used as Frisbees whizzed past me. And then suddenly I realized that a kid I had already glued and cotton balled suddenly had a chicken mask and now wanted feathers. But that was impossible because each kid only got one plate. I only had enough plates for each first grader to get one. I had only bought a certain amount and they had been surprisingly expensive and what the what!?

I turn around and a group of children has infiltrated the plastic bag I carried my supplies in. My once plentiful plate supply has been reduced to almost nothing. I look around the haze of feathers and childrens’ arms and hands and see that some of these freaking kids have three or four plates on their desks! Kids have taken glue sticks and have dumped out half of the feathers all over the desk and floor (which is not my desk by the way, it belongs to the Thai teacher whose classroom it is and who would not be happy at all to come in at the end of the period and have her desk look like I just slaughtered a goose there). And I can’t even get a second to process all of this because the mob follows me, chanting my name. The mob has become an entity of its own, one multi-limbed, multi-headed thing that will not let me go, that is clinging to me as if these paper animal masks are their only hope of survival. Time has rushed by and there are only a few minutes left of class. How in the hell am I going to tape the sticks onto their masks in time. How am I going to locate the good, little children who only have one mask and who I haven’t been able to reach with glue and cotton balls and feathers? I am filled with anger and frustration. This wasn’t supposed to go this way. My supplies are gone. The three enormous bags of cotton balls I thought would last me at least six classes are gone. The glue sticks are in disarray, having either been stolen by the children or used up. The feathers are all over the floor and a massive mistake anyway because of how messy they are. And the plates are almost gone because these little sneaks have decided one animal face mask just isn’t enough, and that why not go into teacher’s bag and take however many they want (I mean really! Oh you have no idea how mad this made me, and I couldn’t even get across to them what I was mad about). I was covered in sweat from the exertion of trying to get through the fray. My head was pounding. I’m pretty sure I had inhaled a good amount of feathers into my lungs. My hands were unrecognizable so covered were they in glue and cotton ball remnants.

And all this time about three Thai teachers stood outside the room (there are giant glass windows that look out onto the hallway so they got a very good view of my epic teaching disaster/meltdown). Every once in a while I’d glance their way and see a mixture of bemusement and curiosity (and probably just plain annoyance in the case of the teacher whose room I was presently tarring and feathering). I couldn’t believe how stupid I’d been to think this would work, to think that the combination of glue and feathers, GLUE AND FEATHERS for crying out loud, would somehow be anything but an enormous disaster when combined with a class full of six year olds who destroy everything in their path. Time rushed by and suddenly it was the end of the period but everything was still in complete disarray. I had to clean up but every time I tried to do this I was blocked by the Mob, shoving their plates at me, shouting in Thai, wanting more glue, more feathers, more cotton balls. I had no broom, no dust pan, so I was reduced to kneeling and picking up feathers one by one, all this made tricky by the fact that my hands were still covered in a thick layer of feathers and glue. Ten minutes after class was supposed to end one of my students took pity on me and picked up my things to carry back to my office (I was still on my hands and knees at this point trying to salvage the absolute mess I’d created). I limped out of the room, trying to smile and wave goodbye. I made it to my office, dumped my stuff, and almost ran to the bathroom.

I thrust my hands in the sink to wash off the sticky mess, then rushed to the stall, closed the door and let the tears come. Like I said before these weren’t thoughtful tears or pent up tears or any other kind of tears other than visceral, reactive ones, the same kind of tears that spring to your eyes if the wind is knocked out of you. As with every other time I’ve cried this way, an hour later I started to see the humor in the situation. A good day later I could even laugh about it. Because really I’d just been such an ass to think it would work. After all this time how could I have let myself forget the golden rule, how could I have come up with such a convoluted, involved game plan when the only plans I should ever have should be simple, easy, and basic. How could I have brought feathers and glue into a classroom of Tasmanian devils? Children in a mob are destructive and aggressive and devious (ugh, still angry they took those plates), and the last thing you want is to equip them with feathers! You want to take away their means of destruction, not supplement it with more creative supplies.

But I did let myself. Because you know what, as much as I think I’ve turned into a pro, as much as I feel like I’ve improved, this is the kind of job where you’re never perfect at what you do. And the good thing about teaching is that there’s no delay in finding out what works and what doesn’t. You don’t have to wait for a performance review. You see instantly if something is a hit or a massive failure. And if you want to be good at teaching you have to be willing to change something that fails. And I do want to be good at this. I’ve wanted that all along. So I adapted. I threw out the rest of the feathers (oh to think of the wasted time I spent plucking those dusters). I threw out the mangled glues (none of which still had their tops). I chucked the rest of the cotton balls and I came up with a new game plan. My remaining first graders would still make masks, but there would be no gluing involved. Coloring would be the only form of decoration. It may not be the kind of art project you read about online. It may not be the fancy, intricate operation I imagined in my head, with the kids bringing home their snazzy, feathered masks to their delighted and impressed parents. But you know what, it would be simple.

And shock of shocks, it worked. The kids loved it. I didn’t lose my mind. So yes, after four months, I still realize I am capable of making completely amateur mistakes. “Gonna cry in the bathroom” moments can still pop up on me, especially if I start to over-think things or over-plan. I have learned a lot this semester but I realize it would take a lifetime to learn it all. But for now at least I can add one more golden rule to my list. Never, and I mean, never, introduce glue and feathers into a room full of first graders.
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