Shooting Star Or Falling Star?

The traffic moved steadily down the highway yesterday morning as the sun made its ascent from behind the Sierra Nevadas.  It’s a dramatic sight to see the rugged silhouette edging above the mist-laden countryside.  The sky lightened into its pinks, oranges, and periwinkles.  The scene allows for quiet reflection of how lucky I am to witness dawn’s arrival– it’s a time to embrace a new beginning.  Yet, I was not embracing new beginninings; I wondered instead if maybe I should have called in a sub and stayed home.   Did I really have the energy to make it through another day?  Fatigue and exhaustion creaked in my bones.  News of my friends’ personal tragedies, setbacks, and questioning weighed on my mind and heart.  In the past two weeks I shared tears with three friends and colleagues, and many of my students were also on the verge of tears.  Many of us, it seemed, were barely hanging on.  In that moment on my drive a meteor shot across the sky.

Meteors are also known by the more fanciful names of shooting stars or falling stars.  After watching its bright light pierce the sky, I wondered if it was an auspicious sign of fortune– was it something I wished on?  A sign of hope and potential of shooting towards goals and destinations?  Or was it an omen? A sign of falling , burning out, extinguishing from shining so bright for so long?  It symbolized the crossroads that many of us are in.

A broken clock greeted me as I walked into my room.  My failing LCD projector that I need to use my clickers and document reader, to show film versions of Othello and Pride and Prejudice, and to have my students present their power point presentations, said “Hi ya!” from its defunct perch on my ceiling.  My sluggish computer groaned its greeting as it half-heartedly opened my grade book.  The stack of essays panted like a hyperactive Pomeranian jumping at my heels, “Read me! Read me!”  As always I restrained my impulse to kick them.  My whiteboard petulantly demanded the opening activity, and I resisted throwing my dry-erase markers at it.  My overhead projector gloated over the fact that it was the only piece of technology that actually worked correctly; we all know how riveting overhead transparencies marred with my messy handwriting are.  I won’t even go into  the mechanizations that are happening outside my classroom and campus that are working to change our school.  Do I sound bitter and burned out?

There’s one factor that can save teachers from burn out: students. Teachers can list all of the things that suck about their job: lack of technology, aggressive/indifferent parents, poor morale, testing, grading, etc.  There is always one big BUT that saves us: the “but my students are great.”  Yesterday it was my students who carried me through.  They have been working hard for me all year, but yesterday was just one of those special days.  My history students embraced the Spanish-American War news-cast assignment.  They excitedly planned their roles, asked if they could bring in props (including a fog machine), one group wanted to borrow my swords that I use for Othello, and one student, who is the most disengaged, proudly told me that she was going to be Commodore Dewey.   They wrote me nice notes in their self-assessments.  My TAs made me a nice poster and hung it on my cupboard doors as a surprise.

My seniors used their time to review for their exam by reading their notes quietly.  One came up to me and verbally told me all that he had learned (which turned out to be everything).  As some began to finish early, I wrote a quote from Othello, which we will begin next week, on the board and asked them to write a reflection on it.  They quietly got our their pens and paper and uncomplainingly responded to: “Oh, monstrous world!  Take note! Take note!/ O world, to be direct and honest is dangerous!”.  I walked around the room, read some of their responses, wrote my response and questions to their thoughts, and they continued writing to answer those questions.  The amazing thing about this is that I said not a word– all of this happened in silence as we all showed respect to those still taking the exam.  Those who used the entire class time for the test scribbled down the quote to respond to it over the weekend.  It was a teacher’s dream.

Their actions showed me that while I was tired and worn-out, I was not yet burned out.  How could I burn out when my students still burn brightly for knowledge and thought? When they still strive for improvement?  It was one of those days where I saw myself and my students as a meteor shower of shooting stars– reaching, striving, ready to make our mark on the world.

Balancing Act

“Ms. L, are you on your feet all day long?  I swear, I’ve never seen you sit down.  Do you even know how to use a chair?” asked one of my students as they did their self-assessments– a written reflection of their participation, preparedness, and how they felt in class.  I wondered how he would respond if he learned that I often snuck away or a mile-long walk during my prep period.

His perceptive question led me to my own self-assessment. I was on my feet all day long– walking, running, pacing that follows the staccato rhythm of go go go. Sit down?  Who sits down?  My participation last week was one of a grouchy teacher; my preparedness was defined by the seat my pants; and how did I feel? Tired, emotional, worn-out.  Granted, I had a busy week that began with an upsetting real-life episode of The Twilight Zone right in my classroom.  But I knew it wasn’t just the busy week; it was also the two busy weekend before grading essays and doing other work; it was the lack of time to prepare; it was my new biological clock that decided to pare down my hours of sleep every night to six; it was me not having the motivation to eat prepared healthy meals, but eat Twix instead.  But I also know that every week is going to be busy– there will be the same amount of students, classes, and clubs, and I am the same, too. I am the one who, like many others, struggles to balance the rigors of work with the rigors of having a life.  Last week I was resentful because I didn’t have any of my own time, but it is ultimately my own fault because I didn’t make any time for me. My students deserve better than to have a grouchy teacher, and I deserve better than to feel that at any moment my emotional dam will burst.

My goal this weekend was to do the things I enjoy, plan for next week to avoid the mad scramble, and reflect on everything that went well.  So I read, baked a cake (a Thai inspired Pineapple Upside-Down Cake that uses coconut milk), made three small appetizers, had dinner with friends, spent time with my hubs watching our new favorite show The Newsroom, practiced yoga and kick-boxing, and went for my morning walks.  Right now I am blogging.

One of the books I read is Carol Jago’s With Rigor For All: Meeting Common Core Standards for Reading Literature.  Jago asserts why it is so important to teach the “classics” to our students and how we need creative ways to get them “into” those stories.  Her methods of teaching, dislike of objective tests, and reasons for unconventional assessment reaffirmed my teaching values and gave me the impetus to teach Othello the way that I want.  My current curriculum involves analysis of plot, character traits and motivation, theme, blah, blah, blah. This knowledge is important, but my students have spent the last 11 years of their school career identifying and analyzing the literary elements.  None of my seniors are planning on majoring in English in college (at least none have publicly admitted to it).  I chose Othello because it connects to their lives: cultural conflicts, bi-racial relationships, haters, rumors, jealousy, loyalty.  If this doesn’t connect to high schoolers, then I don’t know what does.  So why, then, if I want them to connect to this wonderfully juicy and tragic story, do I implement lessons that strategically disconnect them from it?

My students will still discuss and analyze plot, characters, and theme, but this time much of their knowledge will be shown through creative writing (a process that is rarely touched on in school).  For example, borrowing an exercise from Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, my students will write “What’s Behind the Door of Room 101?”.  This prompt will make them think about what’s behind the door, which is the thing that a character most fears, but they cannot write about the fear in abstract terms.  They have to write a scene in which the character watches his/her worst fear acted out and how he/she responds to it.  This requires a detailed understanding of the characters in the play, their motivations, and the themes.  My students can be creative and apply their understanding, and I can have (hopefully) entertaining student work to read.  It will be very easy to see who gets Othello and who does not– plus it prevents the cheating often found on worksheets.  My students will also have a compilation of creative stories that are a reflection of themselves.

My point– before I went all “teacher” on you– is that I gave myself time to explore my interests, and now I am energized to begin the next unit with my seniors.  Just so you do not think that I lie on my couch reading trade books, I am also reading Natsume Soseki’s turn-of-the-century novel, Kusamakura, a story of a nameless narrator on the romantic quest to find beauty and simplicity in nature and rise above the “vulgarity” of the common world.  Dense and quietly funny, it’s definitely a book to read with a pencil in hand.

Ultimately, the trick is how do I make sure that every weekend allows me the time to do this?  Right now, it’s a mandate: have fun or go nuts.  How do I make balance a habit?

Readers: What do you do to maintain balance in your life?

Green Converse

Converse (or Chuck Taylor’s, if you will) have been an important part of my life for a long time.  Steve and I were both wearing Converse when we met, and everyone knew that when they saw a little pair of Converse walking their direction that it was me.  Recently in London I bought myself a new black pair as a souvenir and brought them home to join my white, blue, and grays.  But it’s my green pair that mean the most to me.

I bought my green pair when I first started teaching, because they were the school colors (white, black, and green).  Even though they were on clearance, I debated buying them.  There were numerous doubts in my head: Should I spend the money when I didn’t know how long I’d be at my school?  What if this was my last year?  What if I wasn’t asked back?  Would I be stuck with a green pair of Converse– a color I normally don’t wear?Would these shoes be ridiculous?  Would I be trying to hard to have school spirit?  Would the kids laugh at me?  It’s weird what we remember, but I remember being in that shoe store pondering them.  Purchasing those shoes seemed too hopeful, and I didn’t want to toy with hope only to get its evil twin, disappointment.

Feeling like a girl going to school the first day of wearing a training bra, I wore my green shoes.  One of the assistant principals waxed nostalgic when she saw them and later on dug up an old pair and wore them to school.  The kids began showing me their Converse when they wore them to school, and a couple of years later, another teacher purchased her green pair.  That year I was not let go, but  wasn’t officially invited back either.  Instead it was an assumption that I would just return.  Driving away for summer break I felt odd– I had worked so hard to make that transition from sales to teaching in such a short amount of time (for example, I decided to become a teacher in March, got accepted into a credentialing program in April, quit my sales job on July 4th, and began teaching on July 26th).  Now all I had to do was enjoy myself for nine weeks and then go back and show up.

It’s always a new day at school.

But it’s weeks like this one that makes me realize how far I’ve come from being that doubting, anxiety-ridden teacher (though I am still both, but about other things).  Here are some things that occurred this week:

Observations: This week I had two observations.  One was by my vice principal and the other by a leadership team.  Before I would have been on-edge and nervous, trying to make my class as perfect as could be.  Now, I’m not bothered by it.  My vice principal and I shot the breeze while my kids did pair-shares.  While the leadership team observed my students, my kids just went about their business like they weren’t even there.  Everyone did what they were supposed to do, and they made me very proud.

Maintaining my temper: I can have a very bad temper, and I don’t mince words when I’m angry.  In the past, I have gotten emotional and let my feelings overtake me.  It doesn’t do much except freak out the kids. The biggest struggle has been to rein in my feelings.  There were times this week when I had to quietly and calmly reassert my authority.  There is much more power in staying calm.  There is also much more power in getting angry less, so when it does happen, it packs a punch.

Letting my kids out: My seniors have been working on media analysis all week by studying rhetorical appeals and advertising techniques.  Yesterday and today they’ve been working on creating a PSA power about how to be a successful student using the appeals and techniques.  Normally I have my students post their work around school, but this time they are presenting their posters to freshman and sophomore classes.  On Monday they will break up into small teams and each team will visit a specific classroom.  There are eight teachers who are allowing my students to present to their class.  Once my students heard they were presenting, my students stepped up their work, created scripts, and are planning to dress professionally (this is extra credit, but I don’t mind giving it since they look so cute dressed up).  Before I would have never let my students out of my sight, and now I’m letting them go present elsewhere.

Clubs:  Advising a club used to give me anxiety.  I advised the Red Cross Club one year, and while we had some fun, the experience was just negative. There was a lot of needless drama, and I don’t do drama.  The last couple of years I have advised clubs that are more my speed: Book Club and Academic Decathlon.  In Book Club, I was the co-advisor.  The main advisor was quite mothering and took care of a lot of their needs as a club; she is now retired.  Through her doting, the leadership team did not have to do much.  The club has mostly been filled with wishy-washy kids.  They can’t make up their minds to save themselves (they’d have to decide if they want to be saved first).  Now that the club is mine, this drives me bonkers, and I want the leadership to do more…. leading.  I suggested this as an area of improvement, and they agreed.  They are slowly gaining more leadership and making decisions.

In the meantime, my Academic Decathlon club has a new president, who is by far, way smarter than I am.  I have also heard stories about how she can take charge of classes, push the teacher aside, and teach the students herself.  So, I assumed my role would be relegated to pushing the power point button.  I am, quite frankly, in awe of her.  This past week they practiced algebraic equations on my whiteboards, while I stayed safely on the sidelines, unnerved at all of the numbers, lines and symbols appearing before me.  The only chart my board has ever know is a plot diagram.  She was in charge the entire time, and I felt superfluous walking around making sure everyone was signed in.  She blew my role as benevolent host after the meeting as she debriefed me on the meeting and asked for my feedback on how I thought it went.  It was nice to know that she cares about what I thought.

All Aboard!: Last summer for the first time I took students to London and Paris.  We had a blast.  It inspired me to put together another trip for next summer to Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales.  If you told me when I first began teaching that I would take kids overseas, I probably would have said, “Yeah, right,” and cited Liam Neeson’s film Taken as a reason to not to do so.  Neeson, shmeeson.  The kids and I are itching for our next take-off.

Drawing my Chinese, Cambodian, Vietnamese “twin” did of the five of us in Europe. Stewart’s in there, too.

Throughout all of my changes and growing pains, my green converse have been right there with me.  They remind me of where I started, where I am now, and how many paths I have yet to walk.

The Meanest Teacher In All The World

“Man!  Why you gotta hate?!”

“I’m not hating.  You’re missing a period,” I calmly replied.

“It’s just one period!  Can’t you accept it?”

“No. Plus your headers not the right size.  It’s supposed to be 12 point font.”  My student looked like he was for sure going to clobber me now, which he could have easily done since he towered over me.

“It IS 12 point font!”

“No.  No, it’s not.  Once you fix both of the problems, I’ll accept your essay.”  He let out a cross between a growl and a groan.  He was so pleased that he was going to turn in his essay early, but that’s one thing that was in his favor.  Since I caught those errors, he was able to fix them (and conceded that  his header was in 11 point font) and became one of the five students out of my 33 whose essay I accepted the day it was due.

Essay due dates are stressful for both me and my students.  My students want to unload this essay that they’ve been spending their time on, but first it has to pass inspection of its MLA format, font, overall formatting, and works cited page.  If it is not perfect, I don’t accept it until they fix it.  The thing is, I warn them.  I tell them exactly what I’m going to do on the day they turn it in.  In addition to this, I also give them the resources they need to do it correctly.  I provide tutoring, feedback, and often spend my prep helping a student with his or her essay.  They have everything they need to do it correctly.

They, however, do not believe me.  They do not believe I will reject their essay.  They do not believe my resources and opt to use impostors that lead them astray. They do not believe me when I say, “Do it just like this one,” nor do they believe me when I walk them through it. They do believe that I will “let it slide” or capitulate at their sob story or story of heroics that they “tried”.  They always have a rude awakening.  Their response to my refusal of their “best effort” is anger and frustration– while I believe it’s often at themselves, it’s taken out on me: The Meanest Teacher In All The World.  One boy refused to believe me when I said his works cited page was wrong and implied that my version of the 7th edition MLA handbook was wrong, while his computer generated works cited was correct.  He would not budge from his position, and it nearly escalated into a shouting match until I remembered that I was the grown up.  One girl made snide remarks to me about how much money it was costing her to print out numerous copies of her essay until I replied, “Do it right the first time and then you don’t have to spend so much money.”  Some students, to avoid my wrath, started double-checking their work (what a concept!), and were prepared for me, “Ms. L, I put the wrong date, my works cited is not in alphabetical order, and I messed up on the punctuation.”  Acknowledging their mistakes left them a bit more unscathed.

The problems with formatting and the works cited page reflects a greater problem of students: not using resources, not paying attention to detail, and using short-cuts.  This is bolstered by students who toe the line of acceptance and/or are used to just turning in “effort”.  Many students think they can do the bare minimum and get away with it; they don’t realize that they need to be an advocate for themselves when it comes to knowledge and learning.  One boy today didn’t advocate for himself at all when I totally forgot to check his paper yesterday.  What did he do?  He left class with his essay and went home.  Today, he turned it in late for half credit blaming me.  I apologized for over-looking him, but then asked him whose responsibility it is to make sure his essay’s turned in. Did he ever call my name so I could look at his essay?  Did he stay after class to make sure it got done?  Nope. He went home.  Today he stayed after class and fixed his mistakes.

This phenomena of not advocating for oneself and taking short cuts played out in my history class on a recent exam.  The exam was very fair, and I was quite sure they’d do well on it.  Their study guide also covered the material on the exam. The result?  My highest score was an 80% and it went down, down, downhill from there.  The results befuddled me.  How could my bright, engaged students do so poorly?  There were no trick questions.  Their scores were unacceptable, and I allowed (demanded is probably the correct term) them to retake it.  In preparation for the retake, they started to study and make flash cards and quiz each other. One of my girls reviewed her failing test and asked about one of the questions; she thought she knew the answer, but it wasn’t in the glossary.  This stopped me in my tracks, “Did you just use the glossary to study?”  She nodded her head.  I called out to the rest of my class, “Did you all use the glossary to study the first time?”  Everyone nodded their heads.  Everything made sense.  My test questions asked them to apply their knowledge and the glossary just provides the who, what, when, and where.  It neglects the hows and whys.  Their short cuts lead to failing grades and having to retake the test.  Fortunately, fourteen of them came in to retake it and all did much better.

I remember being a high school student and studying fervently for exams.  When it came to history exams, I re-read the chapters and quizzed myself. No one taught me how to create a works cited page; I had to use a handbook to figure it out.  I followed the directions and double-checked my work against the examples. My student population is more diverse and mostly impoverished, so I understand that they don’t have the resources at home, but where is the disconnect?  Where is the initiative?  Do teachers (including me) with all of their scaffolding and second chances take away the motivation for kids to learn how to do things on their own?  Is this a result of No Child Left Behind that passed failing kids along?  When is the onus taken from teachers and given to the students?  What’s frustrating is that they can all do it.  If they sat down and took their time, each and every one of them can do it.  So how do we get them there?

The White Girl

“Hey, Ms. L!  Did you hear what he called me?  He called  me the n-word!” said one of my African-American boys about another African-American boy (who also happens to be his best friend).  I stared at him.  This was another game of lets make the white girl squeamish about race.  “Oh,” I replied, not taking the bait, “he called you nice?  No wonder you’re shocked.”  It was his turn to stare.  He tried to engage me again in the “n-word”, but after my “Really?!” look, he quieted down.

There’s a lot of discussion about creating “teachable” moments about race in the classroom, but in my classroom, it’s mostly joking about one’s own race.  My students are very diverse and probably know more about other’s races than the average kid.  It’s quite often that I’m the only white person in the room.  It often seems to me that all my kids need is acknowledgement from me that I’m white.  Once a student noticed my blue rose tattoo and immediately asked if I was a Crip to which I responded with a curtsey, “I’m just a little white girl from the suburbs.”    Evidently, though, it’s not always clear.  One student  once pointed out how there were no white people in class, and some others pointed at me.  What followed was a heated debate about what color I was, because according to some, I was not “white”.   Years later, I’m still not sure how that discussion came about or why it was debated.

When I worked on my credential, one the classes I most anticipated was the one on the mullti-cultural classroom.  This was information I needed!  Unfortunately it was the worst class I ever had.  The professor had our first meeting be a three hour discussion of multi-cultural awareness: do we do it or do we live it?  I still don’t know what it means, and the question was so poorly worded with abysmal grammar, that I will never know.  He asked me, “Who is the minority in your classroom?”  He didn’t believe me when I said, “I am.”  How could I be the minority?  I’m white.  He also didn’t believe my peer– a Japanese-American teaching at an affluent school with a predominantly white population.  She was the minority in her classroom.  All we learned in that class was how not to teach.

To make up for my noodle-salad up bringing, I went to the source. My first year was spent pumping my kids for information.  We did projects about heritage and family. They brought in their traditional foods.   One girl taught me island dances. They explained what quincineras and debuts are. We looked on the map to see where they were from.  I shared my stories about growing up white (they’re amazed that I am only child and have only five cousins who do not even live in my state).  They tell  me about Fiji, Pakistan, India, Samoa, Vietnam, and Cambodia.  I tell them about far off places like Michigan.

Learning how to deal with race had it’s tough moments. One class of freshmen went through a phase of saying that everything was “racist”.  I was racist for asking them to open their books, turn in their homework, or answer a question.  I really wanted to tell them that they were really racist: they didn’t do their homework because I was white.   I didn’t say that, but it would have been nice for the shoe to be on the other foot, so they could see that racism wasn’t just something only white people do.  Instead I tried to tell them that calling a non-racist person racist degraded any valid claims they had to real racism.  It also didn’t honor the work of those who had worked tirelessly for equality, sometimes giving up their lives.  Those crusaders didn’t make the strides they did so some kids could call the wind racist for blowing.

The real lesson about race is to not hide from it.  I used to be afraid to acknowledge my students’ race– I felt like I might “out” someone.  I was also afraid to share my stories, that I would have nothing to offer them, that my past was not relevant.  However, To hide the fact or not acknowledge the fact that a student is black, Cambodian, Hmong, Russian, or whoever they are, is to deny them that part of their identity.  Being open and honest about their experiences is one way that we find our similarities.  I also have to be upfront about who I am, where I come from, and the experiences that  shaped me into this little white girl at the front of the class.

The Kids Are All Right

The dark cloud of doubt hung over me as I drove to work.  It was only the second week of school and I had been gone for two days laid up with a cold.  My voice was slowly coming back to life, but it still lingered in the ICU.  The cough, the sniffles, and the sinus pressure still hung on.  Yet at work, the homework piled up and my curriculum materials lay dormant on my desk; if I didn’t want to walk into a total mess on Monday, I needed to go in and get everything and prevent my classes from falling behind.

Then there was the thought of the subs and my students.  I knew my students were good, but I had made some parent phone calls before I left, and sometimes there’s the fall-out of an angry student.  I’ve also seen my “angelic” students who would do anything I asked, turn on a sub they didn’t like.  Then there’s the case of the seasoned sub who lost his cool with one of my more rowdy (but good-natured) classes.  Had he waited five minutes, they would have calmed down and got to work.  Instead he flipped out, got ridicuously angry, which caused my kids to lose it some more, and then got into an altercation with one of my students.  I spent a lot of time trying to figure out exactly what happened in order to determine my next steps.  While my students didn’t have model Dick and Jane behavior, they weren’t being bad or doing anything out of character.  It was the sub who flipped.

I had no idea what I would find waiting for me, nor did I know how my kids would respond to me not having a voice. What I found was both good and disheartening.  The good: two nice notes from both subs telling me how good my kids were (WHEW!).  The disheartening: the second sub was brand new and thought my detailed lesson plan (that allocated specific amounts of time to each activity) was arbitrary and proceeded to do things his way.  One of my TAs, who has a better understanding of how my class runs than I do, tried to steer him onto the correct course.  He brushed her off and said, “I got it!  It’s all good!” (which is code for “something’s going to hit the shitter”).  The warm-up he put on the board were not either of my warm-ups and had nothing to do with either of my classes.  Because of his actions, we’re all a day behind.

What made me feel better was my kids’ kindness and support.  They were all respectful, did their work and many offered to “speak” for me. When the class got to chatty, they corrected themselves.  One student said, “This activity doesn’t require talking!”. One of my students whose parents I called earlier in the week went out of his way to be helpful. Everyone worked together and got along. Two boys created a rap about my illness; one rapped that I was “fakin’ it” while the other rapped about how I was really sick.  They had me and the class in stitches. Another student showed me an app for short stories she thought I would like.   It was an amazing day.

It’s really easy to become negative about today’s youth.  It’s easy to say that they’re lazy and they don’t care and they have a grand sense of entitlement– it’s easy to say this about them because often it’s true (and I’ve had my share of them).  But kids are good, too. Most kids want an opportunity to be good and be recognized for good behaviors.  My kids reminded me of that.

The “B” Word

Today after one of my classes, a student approached me to ask when I was going to make a new seating chart because the boys in her group talk too much.  After dropping this tidbit that I was already aware of, she lowered her voice and said, “And they call you the b-word.”  If she was shocked by their behavior, she was equally shocked by my response, which boiled down to, “Hm. Really?”.  Her eyes widened, “I would cry if someone called me the b-word.  I’m a cry-baby.  Aren’t you upset?”

Six years ago I would have been upset, or if it came from a great student whose opinion I particularly valued, I would have been upset.  Except it’s never those students who call their teacher a bitch; it’s the student like the one today. It’s the one who does the bare minimum and that minimum could be classified as crappy.  It’s the one who tries to text in class and gets mad when he gets caught.It’s the one who tries to sleep, cop attitude, and toe the line.  The fact that he calls his teacher a bitch is rather par for the course (I’m not trying to stereotype students, but the ones who have called me a bitch or said “Fuck you” to me were consistent problems in all of their classes).

One thing that teaching has taught me is that when students do this, it’s not about me.  If I were a mean, unaccommodating teacher that strived to make students feel bad, then I would deserve the title, but I don’t.  It’s about them, and the fact that on some level they’re not getting what they want.  One kid called me a bitch after I helped him on a LATE project (I bent my rules so he could turn it in to pass the class), and he basically wanted me to do it for him.  He was upset when I wouldn’t.  Another told me “Fuck you” on the same day I threw celebration for the class for doing well on the high school exit exam.  What offensive thing did I say?  “Remember, your homework tonight is read pages….”  In both those cases I took disciplinary action.  In this case, I only have student hearsay.  Instead, as I create my new seating chart, I will put the ring-leader right in front of me.  He’s not going to like it very much, and there’s a chance I won’t like it very much either.

However, he and other students like him are the ones I need to work with on building a connection, and I can’t do that if he’s in the back with his back toward me.  Right now he’s fairly isolated in the room and far away, and it’s only because of my concerned student that I know the full extent of his behaviors.  If he’s in front of me, I can see everything he’s doing.  I can ask him more questions or engage him in conversation– he’s a Steeler’s fan and football season is starting soon; he will be a good resource as I pick my fantasy team.  He is currently building a wall against me, and since I have him for the rest of the term, it’s my responsibility to try and break it down.  It’s often the students who rebel who need us the most, and I’ve seen “bad” students turn good, or at least tolerable.  It’s possible. On the flip side, if he calls me a bitch again, he’s right where I can hear him.

Teachers: What strategies do you use with students who are defiant or have poor attitudes?

A Good Start

It’s Friday evening.  I’ve had some pizza.  I’ve had half a glass of wine (it never takes much).  I’m feeling pretty good.  Overall, I’m pretty amazed at how smooth this first week back at school has been.

Normally, there is always a class that makes me go, “ugh.”  It’s either full of underperformers or has some special “gems” that love to challenge me. This week I didn’t have any of that.  All of my classes are good and have positive energy.  I do have some students who like to toe the line, but they are easy to rein in with little effort.  There were a few that I had to have a “chat” with about not turning in work, but they turned it in the next day (half credit, of course) and there was one sacrificial lamb (but he quickly redeemed himself and has been wonderfully well-mannered ever since).

What I am most amazed by is my growth as a teacher.  This is my sixth year, and every year it gets better, but I am still amazed by my confidence.  I can convey to the students that this is “my classroom.”  I don’t have to worry or be sarcastic; I can be firm and matter-of-fact.  Last term I didn’t lose my temper once (a record, really), and I feel like I can do it again.  Because of this confidence, they are less likely to challenge or question me. A teacher’s confidence breeds good behavior (not always, but mostly), and kids need to know that someone’s in charge and has their best interest at heart.

I am looking forward to this term and discovering what new things it will bring. I am looking forward to knowing where these kids are now and seeing how far they can go.  I am looking forward to the challenges I can bring them and the challenges they, inevitably, will bring me.

Microfiber Never Felt So Good

Driving home this afternoon I was pretty pleased with myself.  I left school at a decent hour and would have time to get the things I needed to get done– you know those things: lesson plan, score work and respond to student letters.  I may even have enough time to write a blog post.  It would be so productive.  I already felt proud of myself for accomplishing so much even before I began.

Here’s what really happened.  I walked in the door escaping the 102 degree heat outside.  My living room was quiet and cool as Toby lazily woke from his nap to greet me.  His wake-up yawn triggered my fatigue, and I thought, “I can be Toby. Just for a moment.”  I lied on the couch wrapping my body around his.  Not much of cuddler, he stood and stretched, yawning again to give me a good whiff of his kitty breath.  That was the last thing I remember.

Forty minutes later I became aware of the microfiber material of our sofa.  It was soft as it cradled my skin, and I didn’t want to move.  It provided the comfort that such things can only provide for the very tired.  After a summer of taking fruitless naps on the couch, this was heaven.  And I was pretty resentful of the work that lay ahead of me.  This is not good as it is only the third day of school.  I haven’t even gotten into the full swing of things yet.

The first week of school is one of the most challenging and tiring weeks of the school year– rivaled only by the last week of school.  For me, returning to work is a dramatic shift in the schedule.  I wake up super early, I go to bed super early, I have to plan my lunches and work clothes, prepare everything the night before, commute, not see my husband as much, and give up my morning walks.  Then at work I have to be “on”, prepared, organized, calm, kind, firm, enthusiastic as I meet new students and try to filter through their myriad personalities.  It’s all about vigilance, setting expectations, and establishing routine.  As much as I love teaching and meeting new students, it’s exhausting.

But my kids are full of surprises.  One of my meanest looking and stonily silent boys is actually a sweetheart.  Another who begged me in his letter to not make him read or present on account of his stutter and struggles with speaking English volunteered to go first in presenting his poster about himself today.  One of my goth kids spoke with sensitivity about his view on life and how if you “judge a book by its cover without even being willing to glance at its table of contents, you lose on the whole story.”  This made all of the girls go “ahhhh!”  Another quiet boy recited his poetry…. again eliciting “ahhhhs!” from the girls.  My history students are enthusiastic, even as I taught them note-taking strategies.  One of them also quickly grasped how the early British colonies in America laid the foundation for the American Dream.  Overall, besides my really loud and obnoxious boys, everything’s been going well.  It is however, quite tiring, but it sure does make the microfiber feel so good.


Contextualizing The American Dream

School starts tomorrow, and one of the exciting things I have to look forward to is the opportunity to teach American History.  Even though I only one class for the whole year, I feel like I’ve come full circle in my education.  It was in my junior year of high school, sitting in my American History class, that I determined that I wanted to teach that subject.  My teacher does deserve some credit for this decision, mostly because I thought I could do it better than he could.  Throughout my life my parents and family fostered a love of history.  My mom made sure I had a well-stocked library of historical biographies from Margaret Mead, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Nellie Bly.  My dad took a four-month job in D.C., so my mom and I could come out and visit for three weeks.  We saw Gettysburg, Williamsburg, Yorktown, Monticello, Mount Vernon, Independence Hall, Harper’s Ferry, Ford’s Theater, and all of the sights D.C. has to offer.  History was real.  My granny showed me slides of her trip to Boston during the Bicentennial; Gramps showed me where Al Capone lived in Chicago; my grandparents took me all over Michigan and Indiana to see historical homes.  History turned out to be everything I love: ideas, stories, personalities, innovations, geography, and struggle.  This propelled my college studies.  Even though I followed my bachelor’s in history with a master’s in English (literature is people’s responses to their history), my interest in history has never waned.

The challenge of teaching history is that it can become very chronological: this happened and then that happened, then this general said this and caused that over there to happen….  Snooze.  Compound this with the breadth of information, the class could feel like it’s just skipping across the surface.  The students might get the who, what, and where, maybe the why, but not the “so what?”.   So my big idea this year is to incorporate theme-based learning, and to make it easier on myself, there will be only one theme: the American Dream.

Since it’s called the American Dream, is an American phenomena, and is still talked about today– mostly whether or not it still exists, everything in our history connects to it.  It is also still how Americans define themselves; they believe in it and it is a source of identity.  We are resourceful, innovative, adventurous, and daring because we have the national resources to be that way.  We have that innate belief that we can ourselves up by our boot straps and better ourselves. To understand how the dream came to be, the students can explore how the early settlers’ motivations and beliefs contributed to the foundation of the American Dream and examine how the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution support it, to how the Westward Movement and influx of immigration solidified it.  In addition to looking at it’s growth, students can also analyze the shortcomings and challenges to the American Dream: slavery, the Civil War, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement.  At the end of the class we can debate if the American Dream is still relevant to our times.

To begin this study my students will write a reflection about the American Dream, what they think it means in general, and what it means specifically to them.  They’ll discuss their responses in small groups and create a list of their common ideas to share with the rest of the class.  During that discussion we will create a master list and I will give each group an idea from it.  They will have to think of how that idea came to be and which aspects of America lead to that idea. This info will be added to the master list.  The list will be posted in the classroom for the students to refer to.  During each unit I will use reflections, HOTS questions, creative writing, and small projects to have the students connect the concepts and facts to our theme.  My goal is for them to see how history is connected and how our life today is a reflection and extension of our past.

Readers: I want to hear from you– what did you really enjoy/not enjoy about your history class?  What do you wish you did in your history class?  Do you have any suggestions or resources I should be aware of? Please share.