Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tears and Tape

“I started trying to write when I was in second or third grade.”

- Margaret Haddox

I received a call last night to sub where I normally get called for middle school, but this time it was for “Third-Grade Support”, which meant… I don’t know what it meant. I’ve been called for "support" a number of times, and it’s always been something different, so I think it means they don’t know exactly what they’re doing with me or which teacher is out. Not reassuring.

Since my children’s school was on the way, I told the kids that I could drop them off. The first time I agreed to it was a mistake because getting three people out of the house, with various shoes, coats, and bags takes a longer than just me, which I hadn’t taken into account.

That commute felt more like a race, with each red light or pedestrian crossing testing my patience. I arrived at their school about eight minutes before I had to be at mine, which would be fine if I didn’t have to take Massachusetts Avenue (Known by locals as Mass Ave). There was a study regarding this street during rush hour a number of years ago, which figured out that bicycling was the best mode of transportation to get from one location to another within Cambridge. Busses hog the right lane, while cars making left turns block the left.

But even with all the potential pitfalls, I made it to the school with five minutes to spare, reminding myself for the millionth time that I needed to stop panicking about being late. I blame this “quirk” on my father and his side of the family, along with our obsession with weather.

Since then, I make sure to leave with plenty of time to spare so I don’t get myself in a tizzy. Besides, I wanted to arrive even earlier today to find out just what this "support" job entailed. It turns out I was to run a third-grade classroom. This fact made me trepidatious because I hadn’t run a classroom alone with young students since last spring. When I work at the Inclusion school, there are always three teachers in the room, so I’m more of an assistant, but today, at this school, I’d be in charge.

The teacher left me detailed plans, but I still had a few minor questions. A teacher conveying information in a letter to a substitute is much like a writer giving her manuscript to an editor – it makes sense to the author until the reader explains what isn’t clear. For example, I was given the name of the person who would run morning meeting, but I didn’t know what type of teacher she was or when she’d arrive (Before morning meeting, I hoped). Where was the attendance? For Reader’s workshop, after I read the picture book aloud, what were the students doing for the rest of the period? Writing a reflection? Reading quietly? Where were the other stacks of math cards?

Luckily, the third-grade teacher next door answered all of my questions and the students were good at guiding me (Ms. M, you’re supposed to stamp our homework binders), though it wasn’t until 11AM that anyone mentioned using the electric sharpener wasn’t allowed after 9AM.

For some reason, the day was filled with scotch tape. It began when a student came over to me with a torn page in a picture book, which I quickly repaired. Next, came a student, holding a book that had pages coming apart because the binder was loose. That required A LOT more tape. Just before lunch, one student passed a shelf and tore a page in his small book, which I fixed. While the students were at lunch, I looked through a book I’d read aloud later and found… guess what? A ripped page. And then another. What were these kids doing to these poor books, and why? During Math, another student inexplicably created a tear through three-quarters of her worksheet.

Although I was in charge, I wasn’t completely alone. The woman who ran morning meeting wound up being an assistant through the Office of Special Education, helping one student in particular. But she wound up helping all the students and me. I had worked with her at my old school when she spent much of her time with an autistic student in my class. I’ve always found her tongue piercing distracting, and can’t help but notice it when she talks to me, especially because it affects her speech. There was also a student working on her Master’s degree, who spent time in the class, and I was glad to have her help as well.

It was a busy day, with Reading and Writing Workshops, Math, and Social Studies, but I enjoyed them. Third graders need a lot of reminding about everything, there are a lot of words they don’t know that come up when reading, and some like to annoy each other. I was prepared for all of that. By fourth grade they get much easier. When I’ve asked adults which school year was their favorite, I almost always hear, “Fourth-grade.” I had Mr. Worosz that year, and I loved him and his class. One of my favorite times of the day was after lunch when he’d read from a chapter book, and we wound up listening to many fabulous stories that year. What is it about that grade? Is it the age of the students? It can’t be the curriculum, which varies from place to place and over the years.

I believe that it’s the first year that most students can really sit still, and enough maturity kicks in that a teacher can begin teaching some interesting things, and they’re still young enough that they love to be read to. Fourth-graders stop tattling every five minutes. I bet they tear fewer papers. They’re still wholesome. It’s another couple of years before they hit middle school, where they become gangly, while their brains seem to lose some of that hard-earned maturity obtained during third through fifth-grades.

At the end of the day, the students cleaned and packed up, and waited on the rug for their busses to be called, and to be released to parents and after school. One student came over to the desk, where I was finishing grading Social Studies handouts, and took some tape. I didn’t think much of it. Then he came back, pulling a ruler-sized piece. “That’s too much tape. What do you need it for?” I asked. He used it to fasten a poster. Where the poster came from, I had no idea. His bus was called, and the rest of the students left. The tape dispenser would get a break until the next day.

“I'd love to go back and teach primary school. I used to teach fourth grade and fifth grade. I'd love to spend several years teaching kindergarten or maybe third grade.”

- Jonathan Kozol


  1. This is a great post. I’m glad it was bumped. Otherwise I would’ve missed these very useful information.


  2. Hi

    What a day!

    How old are third graders? And did you ever find out why they seem to tear pages off books and things? They sound like really lovely kids anyway.

    Having a pierced tongue - that just looks so painful to have done!

    Take care

  3. Thanks, Mobile. I'm glad you found it.

    Old Kitty, Third-graders are between eight and nine-years-old. I think they're too quick with their movements and they drop things - thus the tears. I'm subbing another group of third-graders today.

  4. At least it wasn't rubber glue. He, he. Tape hogs are more manageable than glue sniffers.

    I'm loving Indigo, BTW!

  5. Thanks, Jackee!

    I have comments done on yours, but I haven't sent it back because I want to look through it again. I'm running out of time!