Monday, April 27, 2015

Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters First Grade Puppet Show

              Memphis City Schools used to do something called a "Thinkshow." It was a major project each semester that was on display for members of the community to come and view. My second year teaching, I decided to do a puppet show. 
I set the puppet show stage up on my library's bookshelf
              I don't know why I suddenly became obsessed with puppets that year. My husband bought me a monkey puppet for Christmas. I named her Esmé and talked to her like she was real. And after that I've just loved all things involving puppetry.
              So I started out by making these paper bag puppets with the kids to teach them what a puppet is:
Aren't they adorable?

              I have a whole lesson plan involving that which I'll share later.
              Anyway, after that I asked them what kind of puppet they wanted to make. Many were very inventive.
              My school had decided to use the continent of Africa as a topic that year, so we had to pick a country in Africa to make a project about. We picked Zimbabwe, because they have a great storytelling tradition. I actually got pretty obsessed with Zimbabwe, reading all about the history, reading fiction about it, Lessing and another African author. Online I found some Zimbabwe stories. I memorized some of them to retell the kids. I also found lots of great videos of African storytellers and showed them to the kids in lieu of story time.
We did research on African storytellers as we worked on the project

              I also found this amazing video of a Punch and Judy puppet show. The kids couldn't stop laughing at it.

              Then we picked one of the stories to make a show out of. It was the African Cinderella Story, Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters.

After I read this story to them, I let them read it again as much as they liked

              I wrote the script out on a big piece of paper by asking them what I should write. And I assigned characters by letting them draw straws for the parts they wanted.
You can see in the script that Kacee is holding how I have color-coded the parts to make it easier for kids to know when it's their cue

              Next, we had to come up with a name for our puppet show troupe. We came up with several names and voted for the one to use. "Mrs. Vaziri's Best Class Puppet Show" was the winner (although it didn't make a lot of sense to me...). So after that I used a child's drawing of how this should look and painted it onto the cardboard stage I had made.
I made the curtains out of velvet and satin and the scenery from a pillowcase.

              So then we got to work making the puppets and practicing the script.
This kid was carefully making his crown- he was the king

              Practicing the script was very important, because it showed the children how useful being able to read is. One boy, who played Mufaro, would sometimes refuse to read, and I told him we needed him. I think it really helped him to feel needed.

In the video, at the very end, he almost makes his crown fall out by nodding the puppet head so hard! I always laugh at that part

              We recorded the children saying the script into the voice recorder.

This, the reading of the script into the recorder, was the hardest part of the process for some children.

              Then we acted out the script, nodding the puppets' heads to the words they were saying. This was an easier way of doing it than actually saying the words while manipulating the puppets, but it was still very difficult for first graders. 

This is a behind-the-scenes shot of the narrator, the owl, introducing the show

              We went through three or four recordings before we got it right.

Kacee is checking her script to make sure she knows when to come in

              On Thinkshow day, which was March 1, I had set everything up in the hall, with a TV playing our performance, and members of the community came by to see how we had done. It was a great day, and the kids felt so proud of themselves (and they had learned a lot, too).

They were very attentive to my volunteer because they wanted their puppet show to be great

I guess the part the kids enjoyed most was having people come and see their project

Here you can see the hallway filled with people looking at the projects.

She was very excited for her dad to come to see what she had made

My lovely students with their puppets

This "Firebird" was my favorite puppet because it actually moved its wings - it was a marionette

I was very lucky to have a volunteer to help the children make their puppets.

The stars and their puppeteers

These were the "Laughing Trees" of the story, so it's appropriate that they are having fun!

Here's the puppet show!

Sunday, April 26, 2015


               I had a very chatty class my first year teaching first grade. As someone who had been a very quiet student, I was taken aback by how much they could find to say to each other and how they constantly felt the need to be talking.
               At the same time, I was charged with teaching them how to read and write. So I came up with an idea.
               I obtained a classroom "mailbox" with a slot for each student. I wrote a personal letter to each student and placed it in their mailbox. I also set out some letter writing paper on each desk. At the beginning of the year, these had the date and the words "Dear" and "Sincerely" pre-written on them in the right places. Also, on the outside were written the words "To:" and "From:"

At first they would just copy what I had written to them

               In the morning when they came in, I impressed upon them that this was a quiet time. First, they were to put away their things in the cloakroom. Next, get their letter. Then, write a letter of their own - to anyone, about anything.

I never could get this child to say "she" instead of "her"

               I "delivered" these letters to the right mail slots the next letter-writing day (we did this Monday - Wednesday - Friday). I told them I would scan in the letters before I delivered them to the person they were addressed to. And I did this, too, although it took a very long time when I got home at night. It was wonderful to look at the progress they had made over the school year - from very simple letters that basically copied the letter I had written to them, to, by May, complex letters that were addressed to their friends and asked very relevant questions or said insightful things. But I did deliver the letters, and the kids were always pleased to see letters from their friends in their mailboxes. Those who did not get letters from a friend always could be sure of getting a letter from me.

You can see what they usually have their mind on - playing at each others' houses

               I was surprised to find that, especially at first, a lot of kids copied my letter word-for-word, even though it didn't make sense out of context, and my use of check boxes (Do you like candy? Check Yes or No) really caught on. I would go from student to student, encouraging them to ask and tell about things they were interested in and helping them sound out the words (or just draw a picture).

I would let them draw a picture if they couldn't spell a word. So here, the child is saying "I love stars"

               This was a great part of my pedagogy because it taught the children that reading and writing can also be social things, something I don't think they would have otherwise understood at that age.

"Why do you don't want come over my house no more? Why do you don't go to the mall with me."

               And at the end of a long school day, it really pleased me to sit down and read what the children had written to each other (again- I did warn them I would do this!), and marvel at the great strides in writing that they were making, at their creativity and the interests they would reveal in their letters. And of course I got a lot of sweet letters written to me.

This girl was very gifted and insisted I teach her cursive - she signed her name in cursive.

Steps for Implementing Letter-writing
  1. Get a mailbox or document holder with enough slots for all of your students.
  2. Number or name the slots.
  3. Write a letter to each of your students and file them in the slots.
  4. Provide letter-writing paper (perhaps with fields filled-out).
  5. Have the children write letters silently in the morning.
  6. Take up the letters and scan them at home right after writing time.
  7. Deliver the letters, plus ones you have written to fill gaps, to the slots the next letter-writing day.
If you use this activity, you can see what your kids are thinking. This was a troubled child.

               I would recommend this activity to any educator, but I want to warn you that it is a lot of work. One of my major duties every weekend was to write up to three personal letters to 24 different children- I often included sketches or doodles, since I can draw, and I was trying to hold their interest in the written word. It was important to me that I not duplicate the letters, because I can assure you that the children were comparing the letter they had gotten with their friends'. When you get tired, of course you can just make sure to write to the ones whose classmates are not writing to them, but you want everyone to get a letter from their teacher at least once a week. I would say it took at least five hours a week to write the letters, but to me, it was well worth it. It did take several more hours a week to scan all of the children's letters in, but I don't think this is necessary (it was just very important to me and assisted me in making a portfolio of each child's work).

"Do you like to read"!

You can see my use of check boxes became very popular

               If you are a teacher and you decide to adapt this activity to your classroom, I would love to hear how it turns out. I can tell you, it did not cause these chatty children to be any quieter, as a rule- but I like to think it gave them a new appreciation for what writing can do.

This was from letters I had them write before they went out of school for Christmas Break. I was very surprised to read this!

Sunday, April 12, 2015


I haven't yet written about my coworkers, but the teachers I worked with at Georgian Hills Elementary were the very best people.

As a first year teacher there, I had a lot to learn (which is an understatement) and I needed a lot of help. The teachers there had plenty of their own challenges to face, but they always had time to help me and guide me, and never seemed to lose patience with me despite all I had to learn.

When I first started teaching there, there was one other teacher in my grade level (first). I love her endlessly. A former social worker, she got into teaching because she wanted to help children become good people. This was evident in everything she did - I most remember her classroom rules. We were required to post not only the rules of our classroom, but the the rewards for following the rules and the consequences for breaking the rules. Under rewards, I put things like stickers, positive notes home, extra privileges. The first reward she put down was "A great education." And that is what she intended to provide.

She always worked late. I worked late myself, but she was usually still puttering around in her classroom when I left around 5 or 6. I would go in sometimes to see what she was working on - it was always some fun new activity she had come up with from reading teaching blogs, or some educational game she had purchased with her own limited funds that she was setting up for the kids to use the next day. Of course, it was also often data entry, which the public schools require in endless streams. She was not fast at data entry because she was having problems with her eyes, and had to visit a doctor regularly about them. I offered to help a few times, but she knew I had enough to do and would never let me.

She was from a small town in Tennessee, and her parents, she said, although poor, had really impressed upon them the value of education and hard work. Her mom would come home from cleaning houses (or maybe it was factory work) at 9:00, and her children had to have all their homework finished and ready to show her before they all went to bed. She was exhausted, but never failed to check that the homework was done. Ms. Evans (not her real name) lamented that parents were not like that anymore.

I remember when we were talking about what we liked to do, before school started and before I was really aware of the deep implications of the task ahead (the school year). I told her I like to bicycle, and she said, "Outside? You like the outside?" Taken aback, I said yes. "I don't like the outside."

She had an old car that we took a ride in to go to Knowledge Tree (I think she spent most of her paycheck at that educational goods store).

I had trouble keeping discipline my first year teaching, and whenever I needed to send a child out of the room (which is called the "Buddy Teacher" technique), she would always take them to let them simmer down and shape up in her room. But she had a very large class size herself - 26 first graders, which in a school like ours, high poverty, is far too many.

She had been working at the school for eight years, and it was the first place she had taught in Memphis as well. I remember lots of things about her, but mostly how kind she was to me and to her students, and how full of honesty and integrity.

Exhausted after a long day teaching, after school one day she said she was going over to help the music teacher set up for a program the next day. I was falling-down tired, and I knew she must be more exhausted than me, and I couldn't really believe she was doing this, so I said I would help, too. We went in the music teacher's car to pick up supplies and decorate the middle school cafeteria, where the Holiday Program was being held. I couldn't figure out why she was making such a huge sacrifice (and until you have taught you do not know what a huge sacrifice it was) to help the music teacher, but it must have been just selfless love for the school, for the students (and I did it to help her). We were the only two teachers who turned up to help, I think.

I miss her a lot. I still talk to her sometimes, but there's just nothing like the relationship you get when you work side by side with someone.

There were other teachers there just as amazing as this one. I really could not believe it when I got there, what a sanctuary this was of kind, loving, human beings working incredibly hard to educate children.

There was a kindergarten teacher there, my first year, who I would have sworn was using mind-control on the children. Kids who would not act right for me under any circumstances, would do just as she said and do it sweetly and kindly when they were in her room. It took me a while to really understand what was happening: she was a master at developing relationships with children. It wasn't that they loved her, exactly, although they did love her. It was that she understood them, their motivations, everything about them, and they knew she wanted what was best for them, and they trusted her. She had also been at that school a long time. I can't say enough good things about this teacher, who helped me immensely: to understand kids, to develop teaching techniques, and to help with individual troubled children who she gave me advice about and counseled one-on-one.
I will write more about her later, because she taught me so much.

I didn't have a lot of contact with "Ms. Kaye" my first year when she taught kindergarten (except of course she was always willing to participate in the "Buddy Teacher" method and help me with discipline), but my second year when she, I, and Ms. Evans all taught first grade together, I was always in her room after school, venting. What she helped me most with was dealing with the bureaucratic nonsense that seems to go hand in hand with public school teaching. When my principal said, "Do it this way," Ms. Kaye was always on hand, that very afternoon, to show me how I could prove to administration that I was doing it that way. More importantly, she gave me an attitude to take, both to defend myself, and to survive in a "data-driven" bureaucracy - make time for yourself, and keep your students' needs first. She showed me what a confident professional looked like, and I'm happy to say I was able to help her in small ways as well - mostly computer areas. I found lots of ways to enter data quickly.

My third year teaching, I had a new colleague, who had come from a school that had been "taken over." I was amazed at the ability of this woman to work. She literally stayed at school every night until 7:00 (after arriving before 7:00) working on manipulatives, activities, and things to post in her room. She was incredibly intelligent, honest, and kind - but not a push-over, either. She helped me in innumerable ways.

These are just the people I worked most closely with, because they were teaching my grade level, or close to it. Almost every teacher there was just as selfless, smart, hardworking, and good, as these people I am describing.

Another thing I think I should mention, since I know there are a lot of racist people in Memphis, TN, is that every one of these teachers is African-American. There are a lot of companies and private schools in our area that really need to improve their diversity, but the Memphis City Schools had already done it, and as a result already had a workforce of competent, dedicated professionals twenty years (at least) ago. Now I'm afraid this diverse and competent workforce is getting destroyed with charter school takeovers and the demeaning of the teaching profession. We must fight this, and we will.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Big Words for an Early Childhood Classroom

            When I taught kindergarten, I made a print-rich environment by making these enormous sight words.

             Below, see "she" on the wall. These two girls were really the sweetest, by the way.

            They are about the size of a poster board.

Here's how:

            Get a lot of very large construction paper, the size of a poster board. I ordered this through the school district.

           Write the words you want, two to a page, and draw bubble letters around them. Then, cut out. Be sure to cut neatly, shown above, to get to the word, and to save the middles of the o's, a's, b's, etc

For words like this you have to leave little strips of paper to hold the letters together.

              You have to make sure the letters touch each other. Make them touch enough to keep the word together in the laminator, but not too much to be unreadable. It's an art.

         Then laminate! Very important step. Be careful that the word doesn't go awry as you feed it into the machine.

         I went a little overboard and used the paper I had cut it out from as well. This is why I said to save the insides of the e's, etc. Back it with another sheet of large paper. Paste those inner circles on and run it through the laminator.

  I probably didn't need to have two of every word, but it didn't hurt! I offered these to the other kindergarten teacher, because she said she could not draw bubble letters but really liked my big words. She said she felt bad taking them, though, since they were so much work for me. Maybe you could give yours away, but I had such a large room that they really didn't make the room look crowded in any way. I just put them way up high, near the ceiling.

              This is "Martin," and behind him you can see the words "white" and "we" by the door - reversals of words up top. I let the kids decorate the room with the words as I finished them each day, so they put them in all sorts of places.
            Look on the wall in the photo above to see where words are in my classroom - everywhere!    These are really useful, too, because when I would describe locations in my classroom it helped them learn words.

Teacher: "Karri, get me the dry erase marker."
Child: "Where is it?"
Teacher: "Under 'do'."         

            And if they didn't know how to read "do," I'd say, "Under 'do' by the door" - and every time I did this it was one more exposure to that word.

            It's really helpful to teach young kids color words by doing them in the correct color. My students would ask me, how do you write "green"? And I would say, look for the green word!

                I put these up all over my classroom. The kids loved them. When I was reviewing a particular word, I would take it off of the wall and show it to them, ask them to trace it with their fingers. You do have to be careful, because unless you laminate them twice (and I didn't) they can tear easily.

            When teachers were out at my school and no sub would come (which was frequent), three or four kids from the upper grades were sent to my class, and the other teachers' classes. So once when I had a third grader in my room, I asked her what some of the words were. She was delighted to tell me what they were, and she loved the way my room looked. This girl didn't usually like reading or practicing sight words, so I think coming in my room was a positive experience for her. She didn't know all of the words, I'm afraid, so I think having words up even in a higher grade classroom would be helpful for students like her. It's really important to meet kids where they are, and not frighten them by making them feel like they are failing at reading - because that's usually a self-fulfilling prophecy.

           At the end of the school year, at kindergarten graduation, I sat in the midst of my students trying to keep them still while the others' names were called. Martin kept reading the words I had put up on the windows of the cafeteria to decorate, and I said, "Shhh, your mom's right there." So, while he wasn't being quiet, this did show that he loved to practice reading the big words. His desire to impress me by how many he knew was greater than his desire to impress his mom by being quiet. It was a really nice way to end the year. Teaching can be so much fun.

Kindergarten Graduation decorations - check out the windows!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

How to Grow Plants at School

       A few years ago, when I was teaching first grade, I started out the first week by telling the children stories. It's very difficult and very important at the beginning of school to get the full attention of every child in the class. I found that telling stories, rather than reading them, helped me to maintain the students' attention at the beginning of the school year. Of course, later I read them hundreds of stories.
        So the first week of school, I told them the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. This took more than one day. The kids were excited to hear the next part of the story, and they especially enjoyed my giant voice (which I put a lot of effort into!). The trick to telling stories is that you really have to memorize them, and know a lot of details. So I would spend an hour the night before reviewing the story and practicing. It was worth it.
        After I finished the story, I asked them if they thought beans were magic? What would happen if we planted them in a bag?
        They mostly said that beans were not magic and that nothing would happen to these pinto beans I showed them if we put them in a bag with a wet paper towel. So I suggested that we color some of them and sing to them to make them magic, and see if that would work.
         I made up a silly chant: Circle circle, Green green, Now you are a magic bean! I told them to say this chant to the beans as they colored. 

          Coloring so many beans kept them busy for a few minutes, giving me time to get the bags ready. (Hey, it also helped them develop their fine-motor skills!). After we put them into baggies labeled with each child's class number, we drew pictures predicting what would happen to them. Some thought that the beans would look like this the next day:

The kids were very interested to see the seedlings the next time we checked on them:

When we had a lot of viable seedlings, we put them into cups.

             Those labels say what we were going to do with them: put them in the dark or sunlight, water or no water.

              These beans did really well! One plant even survived long enough to make a few beans of its own, right there in my classroom. We concluded that beans were magic.

             One thing I was really surprised by was when I asked the kids to tell what we had done for the bulletin board. I asked, what was the first thing that happened? And Jamarrion (not his real name) said that the first thing that happened was that I told them about Jack and the Beanstalk. He didn't say that I told them a story or read them a book about Jack and the Beanstalk, but that I "told them about Jack," implying that the story had really happened. That was my favorite part of this whole lesson.

Later, we planted these sunflowers:
          It was incredibly fun, and the kids learned a lot.

Here's how to start:
          Before spring break, I told the class to predict what would happen to the sunflower seeds if we planted them in cups. The kids drew pictures of what they thought might happen. Then I got out the potting soil and we planted two seeds each (in different cups). 

           Note to Teacher: Be sure you plant extra for the ones that the kids will break later... you don't want anyone to be without a sunflower.

           Over spring break, I took the plants home to keep them watered. When we returned to school, we went to the front and planted them in the small flower bed by the school sign - a place with lots of sunlight. I kept telling the kids how important it was for our flowers to get lots of light (reminding them of our bean experiment earlier in the year, where the darkened seedlings were spindly and unhealthy).

           So kids love to play around with seedlings. They broke most of them and I was glad I had planted my own batch of sunflowers at home at the same time. 

           We also neglected to think of the landscaping people who come to the public schools once a month and cut grass. They cut down our flowers! I had to bring more of my own, and also we were reduced to one sunflower for every two students (they had to share). After that, I had them make the signs you see below, which say "Please don't cut our sunflowers!" They wanted to just write the words, but I told them to draw pictures too, because maybe some of the grass-mowers couldn't read. They were shocked that I thought there might be adults who couldn't read and said, "Why don't they just get their moms to read it to them?" In any case, they thought of innovative ways to express their idea visually. (And I hope it made them decide to be readers when they grew up!)

             The major problem with growing these was there was not a water hose. According to the building engineer, there was not even a faucet in the front of the building that I could bring my own hose and attach to. This area was on the other side of the driveway. Here's an aerial:

              So not only did I have to fill up several milk jugs everyday, I also had to teach the kids how to cross the street (which is what I called it, even though it was only a driveway). Luckily, that's an important skill to learn (we used the "hold your partner's hand" method). 

              The kids helped immensely by filling up the milk jugs in the water fountain (school sinks are too shallow to use for this purpose it turns out) and carrying them out. To save time, we went to the restroom after lunch, and those who finished first were assigned to fill up jugs (this took quite a while with the measly stream from the water fountain). And then we went directly out the front door to water our flowers before walking along the side of the building to go to recess. (I hate wasting children's time walking through hallways).

               So we had to do this every single day. Sunflowers are very thirsty. We also took out clipboards with graph paper on them, measuring tape, and pencils, and measured our sunflowers at least once a week. They grew very quickly, as you can see below!

             The only problem was that they did not get this big by the time school ended. In fact, I had to go out to the school every other day over the summer and water them myself (I had asked kids to sign up to do it, but I was extremely protective of these flowers...). I made it into a good experience for me by not driving (I hate driving) but bicycling out there -- so that's why you have the nice image of my bike leaning on the sunflower to give a sense of scale. 

             The next year my principal asked me not to plant sunflowers in this flower bed for aesthetic reasons, and since there was no other place that would be safe from grass mowers and in full sunlight, I didn't do this again. (But when we were cleaning up the flower bed with some volunteers the next spring, I did find one sunflower growing wild and left it alone!)