Sweet, sweet teacher summertime. I remember it well. I work a twelve-month calendar now. It’s fine, it’s fine. I have a little cry in my coffee every single morning for eight straight weeks and then get right over it. Back when I first had teacher summertime, it was the late 1990s and early 2000s. Teaching was a lot different back then. Who remembers?
I spent a lot of time on my classroom in the summer. We all did. We had to. We had to make everything. I was given a whopping $25 to spend for supplies. That did not go very far, even in 1998. Even if it had, there really was not much to buy. The internet was not used for shopping. We had catalogs. The catalogs had construction paper, markers, and glue. That’s what we ordered. If we had extra money, we ordered learning games and books of clip art that we could cut out and tape onto the newsletters that we hand-wrote.
So what did we make? Treasures, let me tell you. Real treasures. Here is a sample of what my shopping list might look like:
Assorted types of pasta
Dried butter beans
Dried blackeyed peas
Fine point markers
75 reams of cardstock
These were my major learning materials for first grade that I had to replenish every year. Let’s start at the beginning of the list. The pasta was used for a variety of purposes, but its main use was for patterning. Littles could sort the pasta according to color and type. Therefore, we had to make assorted colors. This was accomplished by dumping dry pasta into a Ziploc bag with food coloring. I found that adding a little bit of rubbing alcohol to the bag made the colors more vibrant. I prided myself on having some of the most brightly hued pasta in the entire hallway. I did not skimp on the food coloring. I squirted a generous amount in those bags and gave them a good shaking. Then, I dumped the wet pasta onto newspapers covered in wax paper spread all over my yard. This process required a sunny, warm day with no wind. Throughout the day, I would have to go out and stir the pasta around to ensure even drying. It was an entire day’s work. Even as I type this, it sounds like the dumbest thing ever. But I swear, I did it EVERY summer and it was serious business. I hauled that pretty pasta into my room every August and I was just tickled with myself! My students would sort it, graph it, make necklaces out of it, weigh it- the list goes on. And yes, every year at least one student ate it. He/she would eat dry, alcohol-soaked pasta that had been touched by 987 other six year-olds.
Next, I needed to work on some counters. I see you all now. You have your teddy bear counters, your race car counters, your magnetic counters that stick to your magnetic ten frames, your fancy drag and drop counters on the iPads. I had Unifix cubes. That was all. But we made counters. Again, we needed a dry, sunny, windless day. My method was to lay out newspapers with wax paper on top. The wax paper is key to all of these projects. I learned that the hard way. If you just did newspaper, the ink would bleed onto your materials. The wax paper was a good buffer. Anyway, on top of the wax paper, I would spread out a layer of dried butter beans. The nice, big ones. I had to pick through and dispose of any bad beans. I only wanted the good, solid ones. Butter beans have a tendency to split apart. When you have about 725,000 (which is how many you will need to make it through a year), it’s time to get out the spray paint. Think long and hard about your colors. I did. One color was always red, because it was one of our school colors. Our other color was black. I felt that black was too harsh for a butter bean. I literally stood in the paint aisle of Walmart and contemplated the harshness of a black butter bean. This is teacher life. I went with gold for my other color. I would spay the butter beans with a nice, even coat of one color and let it dry. Now if I were not such a bougie teacher, I could have stopped there. My goal was to make counters with two colors. I had that- one painted side and one bean-colored side. But I did not stop there, oh no. I individually turned over each of the 725,000 beans for a coat of paint on their other side. I would lose about 54,000 beans in the process. As I mentioned previously, they tend to fall apart. My butter beans got a second side of shiny gold paint. They were FaBuLoUs! We used them for all kinds of math. Did students try to eat the beans? Of course they did! Did they break apart? Yes. We lost about half of the beans we got out each time we used them.
My next favorite resource bean was the blackeyed pea. It was used for place value. We did not have fancy place value manipulatives. For ones, we used blackeyes peas. To represent a ten, I would take a craft stick and glue ten blackeyed peas onto it. Voila! This worked really well conceptually. Physically, not as much. Blackeyed peas, glue, and wood do not form good long-term relationships. I had to keep a glue gun handy to do emergency bonding. If a pea was missing from a craft stick, six year-olds were unable to move forward with any mathematical thinking whatsoever. The current availability of place value manipulatives is life changing, let me tell you.
If you are wondering how I gained my wealth of knowledge about such practical solutions to math dilemmata, back in the day we attended math workshops where we learned about such things. We also were taught how to accumulate little boxes of everyday objects that could be used to teach children math concepts. This required us to collect what would be considered trash to most other living beings. If you happened to have a relative who was a hoarder, you were really lucky. If not, the start up was a real pain in the butt. The collected items were then stored in these special little cardboard boxes. Your possession of the actual boxes was evidence that you had indeed attended the training and were not just pretending. The pretenders put their collections in pencil boxes. Don’t think we didn’t notice! The boxes were rather plain, so teachers normally purchased contact paper to cover the lids of their boxes in order to make them more decorative. Is contact paper still a thing? Can you still buy it? YES! I just checked Amazon. It is much more attractive than it was in 1998.
My entire summer was not consumed by math; I also worked on literacy. I primarily focused on adding to my collection of file folder games. Who remembers file folder games?? The only bigger waste of my time than painting butter beans was making file folder games. I had entire books of file folder games. I would make black and white copies of the games I wanted. I wanted them all, of course, so I made LOTS of copies. There were no colored copiers in schools at that time, so step 2 was to color the games. You cannot laminate crayon, so I had to use fine tip markers. I spent hours and hours coloring pages and pages of games, game pieces, and directions. Then, because I was bougie, I added in an extra step, I glued the colored pages onto pieces of cardstock. I wanted my file folder games to last forever, and our copier wouldn’t run cardstock. Next, I cut out the pieces of each game and glued them onto the file folder. Last was laminating and more cutting. This was a long process. Most games had lots and lots of game pieces- word cards or tokens. The file folder games took weeks. I was so tickled with them when they were finished. I can remember when I first introduced them to my students. I would explain each game so carefully, and model how to play it. That was where the good times ended for me. Apparently keeping all of those little paper (albeit cardstock) pieces with the correct file folder game was not a priority to my little six year-olds. Following the rules on the games was not as much fun as building forts out of the file folders. I gave it a good try for a couple of years before I ultimately realized that the only one who was actually doing any work on these literacy centers was me. Tough lesson for me.
Things sure have changed. Did my students learn what they needed to learn in 1998? Yes, I think they did. Would what I did work in 2022? No way. I enjoyed what I did back then, and I enjoy what I do now, even though it looks totally different. I spend most of my summer days now in schools, helping teachers write curriculum for their courses. No pasta or contact paper is involved. It’s all virtual. I do miss getting a classroom ready though. I can’t wait for Emily to become a teacher. Maybe I should start collecting bottle caps and keys for her? I could get a head start on some mostaccioli….