James Monroe’s Highland

President’s Day means a day off from school! In typical teacher fashion, I decided to take an educational day trip. My mom and grandparents took the trip with me to Charlottesville, VA. We started out with a delicious colonial buffet at Michie’s Tavern. They have a very simple menu, but the food is excellent and the atmosphere of the building and even the clothing of the servers sets the stage well for the meal. I had already been to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (and loved it!) so we decided to visit James Monroe’s Highland. He purchased the property to be neighbors with Jefferson. Even though the original home burned down more than a century ago, we were able to tour the guest house furnished mostly using his original furniture.

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The original guest house

Of course, I learned some new things. Monroe is the president who has served in the most public offices. He was the only president other than George Washington to see active military duty during the Revolutionary War and he is pictured right behind Washington in the famous Crossing of the Delaware. He was also the only president other than Washington to run without opposition. He was the U.S. delegate to France at the time of the Louisiana Purchase and was very influential in this transaction.

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Statue originally commissioned by the country of Venezuela

Aside from the historical information I learned, I also enjoyed the grounds very much. The winding road in is flanked with tall ash trees on either side. It creates a lovely old plantation feel. The gardens included some trees that were in existence during Monroe’s residence there. Monroe had raised sheep for their wool and there is a small flock there currently. The sheep (including a lamb in the picture below) were panting in their thick wool coats on this unusually warm February day. On the other side of the property, there were cattle including a bull, several cows, and a few calves.

Later in the afternoon, we took some time to enjoy downtown Charlottesville. I found a charming used book shop called Blue Whale Books that also sold old prints, maps, and music in addition to a good variety of books. I was also thrilled to find Low – Vintage Clothing, Vinyl, and Antiques. I was impressed by the wide variety of vintage clothes (some truly antique as well as a huge selection from the 50 though 80s).

On our way out, I noticed the statue of Robert E. Lee. I have heard it is going to be taken down soon (article here). It makes me sad, though I can understand why Confederate symbols may cause deep hurt to some. Lee was a great man, a true Virginia gentleman. I like this picture with the setting sun behind him.

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Photos are my own.

Poetry is Good for the Soul

A marbled black and white composition book that I got at the beginning of third grade is one of my most treasured possessions. It is full of hand-copied poems in the neatest handwriting I could muster. Poetry became special to me in first grade. I attended a small classical school and one of the key events of the year was a poetry competition. Every student (from kindergartners to seniors in high school) would memorize a poem to recite to their class. Finalists would be selected from each classroom for a poetry evening. I still remember the poems I learned in 1st and 2nd grade and how hard I worked on presenting them and how fun it was to wear a costume and have props.

In 3rd grade, when my mom began to homeschool me and my sister, we each received a notebook for poetry. We would practice penmanship while copying, talk about vocabulary, meaning, sometimes historical context, and then memorize the poem. We memorized about one a month. I kept it up through high school, memorizing everything from childhood poems by A.A. Milne, fairy tales by J.R.R. Tolkien, and brief poems by Emily Dickinson, to sonnets by Shakespeare and classics by Longfellow, Poe, and both the Brownings. I would sit down and read A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson from cover to cover. Though I have not done much memorizing since graduation, I keep my composition book out and handy. In college and after, I have added poems to it when I read or hear a new one that strikes a chord with me. Recent additions include Afternoon on a Hill by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Human Family by Maya Angelou.

This year, I had the privilege of helping my 1st grade students get ready for the same  poetry competition I was in so many years ago. This year’s selection of poems was written before 1840. My students memorized Mother Goose, Eliza Lee Follen, and even John Bunyan. They tackled some challenging words and abstract concepts and, for some, faced their fears by presenting in front of a large crowd of parents and grandparents.

Why should students have to interact with and even memorize poetry? How does it benefit them? Memorization is often discounted today because it is possible to memorize without understanding. It is true that understanding is the goal. However, it is also true that sometimes understanding follows memorization more easily than it follows explanation. This particular form of memory (poetry) has incredible benefits. Poetry uses an economy of words, often expresses emotions vividly, and trains children to listen to the sounds in spoken words (an important skill for reading). Memorizing poetry for presentation further impacts children. It teaches presentation skills, the use of clear diction, and creative expression. Reading and memorizing poems also helps students build up a stock of good examples of literature (from their own memory and those they have heard performed by their classmates) that they can enjoy and apply later on.

I have enjoyed some reading on classical education this month and found this quote by T.S. Eliot. “No one can become really educated without having pursued some study in which he took no interest-for it is part of education to learn to interest ourselves in subjects for which we have no aptitude.” Even if poetry is difficult or seems boring to some children, it still has a valuable part in education.

 

 

Photo is my own.

Advent: Christ is Coming!

It has been a long time since I have enjoyed the Christmas season so much. Even though I have been home for Christmas the last two years, I have missed the lead up to Christmas that starts with Thanksgiving. It was so fun to be here for Thanksgiving, get to help with decorating the house, attend Christmas parties, and take part in the Christmas traditions that I have missed. I think the other reason I am enjoying it so much is that I get to teach my 1st grade class about Christmas. Our public schools are no longer allowed to celebrate Christmas (they are allowed to teach about it academically if they teach about other religious holidays equally). This means most schools did not decorate for Christmas, have a Christmas performance, or otherwise celebrate.

It is such a privilege to teach at a private Christian school where I am encouraged to celebrate and teach about Christmas in a meaningful, religious way. Having ties to the Reformed Episcopal church, our school made the distinction between the Advent and Christmas season. While advent begins four Sundays before Christmas, the Christmas season starts with Christmas day and continues until January 5th, the day before Epiphany. If you were wondering, Christmas season is 12 days. That’s right, the song is talking about the 12 days after Christmas, not before.

For 6-year-olds, waiting is hard. For that matter, waiting is hard for adults too. I am constantly catching myself wishing I could get this sooner and get through that quicker. Advent is all about waiting. Advent reminds us of the overarching story of the Bible and how the Israelites (and really the Gentiles unknowingly and even creation) waited for thousands of years for the coming of the Messiah. We talked about how many of the prophecies about the Messiah were written during some of the darkest days of Israel’s history, when their princes and priests were both corrupt and the nation was about to be destroyed. God gave them reminders of the hope to come, though it was still far off. As we think of the Israelites waiting and hoping, we remember that we are also waiting and hoping for Jesus. We are waiting for his second coming when he will come as the reigning king, bringing justice and destroying the curse.

I have also been teaching about the traditions that come out of Europe as they were passed on to the U.S. (though I was excited to devote a day to Mexico and talk about Las Posadas and the Poinsettia). We started out learning about St. Nicholas, who was from modern day Turkey, noted for his generosity, and who argued for the divinity of Christ in the Council of Nicaea. We talked about various traditions and legends associated with St. Nicholas in different countries, made some traditional ornaments and crafts, and thought about gift giving as a way to show generosity and kindness in remembrance of Christ’s selfless giving. I even got to wear my amazing vintage Polish dress that I got this fall. I can’t resist an opportunity to dress up, even at school!

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I love having our beautiful Victorian home decorated for Christmas for the first time. I have enjoyed making and buying gifts, singing so much Christmas music, and…eating Christmas cookies! The waiting time before Christmas is so sweet. I will be sad when it is over, but looking forward to what the New Year holds.

Photo by Laura Barnwell

A New Room

I made it through the first three days! I’ve already made one of my 1st graders cry, been asked frequently when they can go home to see their mommy, celebrated a birthday, and rearranged the seating chart multiple times. I’ve also received sweetly written notes, lots of hugs, and seen a lot of excitement to learn.

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The biggest surprise to me was how frustrating bathroom breaks are. We’ve been spending nearly an hour on group bathroom breaks every day. There has to be a better way! Let me know if you have solutions. I am also doing some investigating.

Other than that, things have gone well as I have learned all 20 of my students’  names, gotten into a few Saxon math and Spalding reading lessons, and enjoyed reading and telling stories. It is so refreshing to be back to the age when even Peter Rabbit is exciting.

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The school really encourages whole group instructions, but I am trying to get a little time each day at the end of the day to learn more about the students individually. I have been having a few students each day share with me from a little booklet they made about themselves. Those few minutes have been some of my favorite parts so far.

 

Photos are my own.

New Expectations

In the last month that I have been home in the U.S., I have had a fairly smooth transition. Fortunately, I was able to start working almost immediately. I was hired to teach first grade at a private school in my home town. I had a week of training and then spent the last several weeks going through the files and materials left in the classroom to see what I have to work with and what I might need to purchase. Having a lot of work to do has helped me stay busy and not dwell too much on missing Guadalajara.

Even though I have just met my coworkers and have not met my students, I can already tell this is going to be a very different experience. Going into my new classroom was definitely a shock to me. It is a nice size, with wonderful built-in cabinets, bookshelves, lockers, etc. I am already enjoying the space and looking forward to being able to walk around student desks without bumping into them all of the time. I am also very blessed by all the resources that were purchased by previous teachers with school money and I have a yearly allowance for materials for my classroom.

The contrast is so great it almost seems excessive. Lincoln kept a tight control on copies and resources. Many pre-made materials for classroom decoration, posters, etc. were not available at all unless someone brought them from the United States. On the one hand, it is exciting to have access to so much and I hope that I will be able to take advantage of these new resources. The environmentalist side of me is also a little sad because I can already see from what was left in my classroom that these resources are much easier to waste when there are barely limits.

There are some other major differences. The year I arrived at Lincoln, there was still no curriculum in place and it was every teacher for herself to decide how she was going to meet the standards. We had freedom to do almost anything, but I didn’t know what to do so I really struggled. The second year, it was nice to have the freedom, because I wrote the curriculum and found a method that really worked for me. At my new school, everything is regulated pretty tightly and I do not have the same freedom. I am glad they have clearly outlaid their expectations and provided training, but am a little nervous about meeting the high standard.

At Lincoln, people were always talking about leaving things ready for “the next teacher” because they assume a high turnover. At my new school, many of the teachers have been there for years (two of the four teachers on my hall have been here over ten) and they talk about “after you’ve been here a few years”. That is a big change in mindset as well.

So here we go. I will update about the first week of school pretty soon and put up some pictures of my classroom too!

B (be) F (friendly) F (forever)

This past week went pretty smoothly (as far as end-of-the-grading-periods go). However, I had to deal with two instances of girls telling me that they didn’t have ANY friends in my class. I also found a rather nasty note in the trashcan that had gone back and forth between two of the girls about whose best friend a third girl really was. Time for intervention.

Today, during the last twenty minutes of school, all the boys got to go play soccer outside with the disciplinarian at our school. Is that even a position other schools have? I am very thankful for him. He is an incredibly gentle, yet consistent man who does an excellent job enforcing the rules and getting to the heart of behavior problems. Though he was really just there so I could have time with the girls, I was thankful for the added bonus of the boys getting to spend some very positive time with him.

The six girls stayed inside with me and we sat on the floor and had a chat. First I asked the girls to raise their hand if someone in the room had been unkind to them recently. If someone had lied to them recently? If they thought someone had talked about them in a mean way? If someone had been bossy to them? If they had felt left out? At least half of the girls raised their hand for each question and everyone raised their hand at least once. We agreed we needed to do something to change this.

I encouraged them to stop worrying about who was their best friend and start trying to be the best friend they could be. We talked about how the Bible tells us to love each other, but if we focus on one person or our favorite group of people, then we are not loving others who feel left out. I encouraged them to look for ways they could be a good friend to someone who needs a friend. I also reminded them that a few of them might need to ask for forgiveness or give forgiveness to someone. I know that this is a really important topic because I was still getting ripped to shreds over “best friends” even a few years ago, not because of people being mean to me, but because I took things so personally and felt them so deeply. I am praying that this talk will stick, even if it just helps them take one small step in maturity.

To end our conversation on a positive note, we played a game with a ball of yarn, giving each girl a few chances to pass the ball to another girl and say something positive about her, while holding on to the end of the yarn. We created a fun star shape. I was very proud to hear the things they had observed in each other, such as “being there when I’m sad”, “coming to play with me when I am alone”, “making me laugh”, “standing up for me”, etc. We talked about how they are the qualities we should try to have for those around us.

After praying, I was so happy to hear my Indian student open up and share with the other girls how sometimes she feels left out when they all speak Spanish together at lunch. I know they will still mostly speak Spanish at lunch, but I am happy that she felt comfortable enough to express her feelings (she normally stays to herself) and that the girls were made aware of her feelings and can look for opportunities to include her. We’ll see how this goes!

Photo is my own from the recent 2nd and 3rd grade camp we had. I love those colors!

Extreme Field Trips: México Edition

If the regular school day was not enough to remind me that I am outside of the U.S. of A., a field trip will definitely do it. Reminder 1: On the bus, students are told to sit three together in two seats to make space while some of the teachers sit on the floor. We enjoyed a pirated movie on the hour long trip to Guachimontones, the excavation of a pre-Columbian village, including circular pyramids. It is a really fun site to visit! We first went through the mini-museum and then hiked up to the site, doing activities along the way, like playing a ball game in the ancient court used for ceremonial games.

After the morning at the pyramids, we drove ten minutes away to the lovely Hacienda de Carmen, which was a Spanish hacienda built in the 1500s. It reminded me a lot of Thomas Jefferson’s plantations in Virginia and the types of field trips we took when I was in elementary school. The main house was built around a lovely courtyard and there were lots of big open spaces, and the land included orchards, stables, and a tequila distillery.

Reminder 2: Students are divided into groups and given a map of the hacienda for a scavenger hunt. The teachers are told to relax and enjoy the courtyard while they wait for the students to get back. Okay then, I’ll go take some pictures. Reminder 3: Unsupervised students wander around a field of rubble with large machinery looking for their next flag.

The hacienda restaurant provided delicious hamburgers; however, it took about an hour for everyone to be served. The last four boys were flagging the waiter down like they had been stranded on a deserted island. Reminder 4: The teachers enjoy their meal around a table while fifty kids run crazy behind them since they finished their food more than a half hour ago and are going stir crazy.

On the whole it was a great day and I loved the chance to go somewhere new and enjoy time with my sweet students.

Photos are my own.