Thursday, December 13, 2012

Good things come to those who wait

One of the best things about living on the fringes of my school's neighborhood has been bumping into students outside of the building. I, for one, was one of the few children who did not believe Rebecca's story in first grade about "What Teacher's Do When We're Not Around" (aka the teachers go crazy partying at school and sleep there) because I was the child of a teacher. Granted, sometimes it feels as though I live at school. Also, I am guilty of fooling some gullible kiddos at Saturday tutoring that I do in fact sleep at school.

In the last 3 weeks,  I've bumped into 3 different students from my first class. All of them go to the kick-ass charter school that opened last year in the neighborhood. I've kept tabs on some of them through fellow TFA people, but there's something different about actually seeing them in person.

The first one was at the local Redbox. In all honesty, I recognized his little brother before I recognized him. The awkward, shy kid with the goody smile who showed up 6 weeks into the school year with enough English to get him reading kindergarten level texts? Almost missed him as this teenager stood before me, talking fluently about how he liked school and how he was doing well. 

Today, I bumped into one of my fiesty girls from that first class -- she was the first one to get into a fight in the school year (not under my supervision) and was heavily involved in girl drama. You think girl drama emerges in middle school? False. Ask me sometime about her one day relationship. She loved to write, but has serious phonological gaps. She enjoyed math alot because numbers put together made sense, but letters didn't always. 

As we walked through the grocery aisles, I asked her about how life and school was going. I asked her first about math -- she's had the same teacher for two years and every student I've had go one there has loved him and subsequently math in a way that warms my heart. In the same breath that she reaffirmed her love for math, she said "but I just got 100 percent in writing, so I'm starting to really like that too."

This time of year, this final push, is always hard. There's report cards to finalize, testing, testing, testing, projects to finish, and lots of loose ties to finish up. In essence, you feel like your routine is out of whack and that you don't spend as much time actually teaching. You are so focused on the short term, it makes you forget the long term.

I've walked away from each of these interactions feeling inspired. I may not have been the best teacher that these kids ever had. Most of them walked away only a little less angry, and while showing some solid growth (or even impressive), still behind most of their peers. But I do remember conversations with these kids and their parents/guardians about their options for middle school and what it would mean to go to a charter school, especially one that was just opening. When I talk to these former students, I know that they are on the path to college. I see that somewhere along the way, they've let go of some of the anger that they clung to like a comfortable sweatshirt -- you hold onto it for way to long and for no reason other than it's comfortable and familiar. 

When I think of what it will be like to bump into them down the road, I can't wait to hear about what high school classes they're taking and ultimately what college they plan on attending. Because unlike their classmates who went to their zoned school, whose high school has produced a shockingly low number of college ready graduates, I don't worry about them being ready for college. I know that they will be ready, academically and socially, when college comes around. 

And that feeling is what's going to get my tired, sick behind into work tomorrow. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Meet My Honey Boo Boo

That girl? She ain’t got nothing on my Honey Boo Boo.

While I do admit to my fair share of junk television watching, my knowledge of Honey Boo Boo is limited to snippets and clips that I catch online. One of my favorite clips, however, has been watching her catchphrase “A dolla make me holla”

Holla? A dolla doesn’t just make him holla. It makes him kick, scream, cry, and threaten others. BOOM – more bang for your buck, right?

My Honey Boo Boo is also famous. Well, at least at my school. Like Honey Boo Boo, he loooves attention and it really doesn’t seem to matter how he acquires it. For a while, he got it by simply not talking. That method only worked for so long. Then, he turned to theatrics.

My Honey Boo Boo loves him some sugar. Yes he does. He brings a snack or dollar to buy a treat essentially every day. The last few days, it’s been a dollar to get a snack at lunch. Except he drops it at our morning meeting and doesn’t retrieve it. I do. I’ve taken to retrieving it myself and making him earn it back. We’re still working on determining how frequently he needs rewards. Friday, without the support of my beloved co-teacher and without his parent coming to fetch him from school, it was a pretty immediate 1-1 ratio of following a direction to a treat. At this rate, he’ll be as lard-a-licious as the real Honey Boo Boo by Christmas.

So why was he supposed to be picked up?

Honey Boo Boo was in fine form. We even had a visit from unannounced observers (that’s another post in itself) and he managed to call attention to himself. He pulled every trick out of the book it felt like: picking fights, rifling through supplies, jumping off desks. I called for assistance and a member of the school leadership team came in. I appreciate it – that rarely happened in previous years. But she had places to go and work to do and left after a while.

I’ve been trying to train my students to ignore Honey Boo Boo. As if that’s really possible. Regardless, it can cause Honey Boo Boo to try even harder to get more attention.  In this case, he stands on the desk and yells “You’re gay!” right at me.

Now, calling someone gay is a hard limit in my classroom. It isn’t done. Period. Unfortunately, it’s happened every year that I’ve been in the classroom. Sometimes the word chosen is different. Regardless of the word choice, the students don’t really understand what it means.  In all honesty, that’s the approach that I take with them in the conversation. With my 4th graders, we talked about the history and meaning of the word faggot. With my first graders, it’s more about how it’s not a bad word but when you say it in a certain way, your tone tells people that it’s an insult.

So here’s Honey Boo Boo, standing on top of the desk for the second time today, yelling repeatedly, “you’re gay! You’re gay” Breathing deep, I addressed the class and said “it’s really sad that he doesn’t remember our conversation about what that word means.” Most of the class just smiled at me, nodded in agreement, and went back to work.

Well Honey Boo Boo was NOT having that. Not one bit. He squinted his eyes and yelled, “I know what it means. It means you SUCK DICK.”

Uh, say what? I decided this was one of those rare “non-teaching” moments. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Attraction and Seduction in First Grade

You'd think that 1st grade math would be easy. It should be, but when you haven't actually mastered kindergarten math, well then it can get tricky. Over the course of the past few weeks of school, my schedule of students in my math class has changed a few times as we figure out resource hours. One thing that is strikingly clear is that my math class is divided into students who have solid working knowledge of numbers and students who just don't seem to "get it" yet.

Working primarily in small groups has really let me get to know my students, their personalities and their abilities. My primary take away has been that they are ridiculously cute -- but that being cute has gotten some of them out of actually doing anything. Instead of attempting to do any work on their own, they just look up and stare at you with those wide eyes and wait for the answer.

Now, I've only played poker once and by some miracle I won so I've never played again, but I do have a pretty good poker face. When kids look to me to give them the answer, they get nothing. It is very confusing initially, but they get used to it. The past week, we've been working on vocabulary related to addition and subtraction. It's amazing how confusing it all is when you can't actually count up past about 7.

I was working with my low group the other day and feeling really out of it. I'm having trouble keeping all of them focused -- some of them have definitely not been taking their doctor ordered Wheaties in the morning. Our objective the other day was to identify addition and subtraction. Simply look at the symbol and say what it was.

I sat with Orlando and Belle* with the review sheet. The rest of the group had sort of caught on but not Orlando and Belle. I pointed to one of the problems.

"Addiction!" Belle cried out. Orlando smiled and nodded at her.

"Addiction?" I asked.

"No, no sedition" Orlando said. Belle looked over at him confused, back at me, and then started to smile.

"Yeah" she said.

"Which one was it Belle?" I questioned her. I like making sure students feel confident to stand behind their answer. One of those teacher tricks I HATED as a student, but find quite useful as a teacher.

"Seduction?" she said.

I looked at the two in front of me and knew I needed to give some more support. "Okay, guys, your choices are addition (repeated back) or subtraction (repeated back). Which one do we see in the problem 2+5?"

Belle just sat there, smiling back at me. Orlando's lips were pursed, as though he were deep in thought. Finally, he started nodding his head and smiling. "Attraction!" he said confidently.

We've got a lot of work to do.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Life Update: Moving to Fiji

There have been a lot of changes this summer to the point where I have no idea what I've told to different people. I feel like I've spent all summer packing boxes, unpacking boxes, moving furniture, getting on tiny plane after tiny plane. Last summer I took graduate classes and completed a practicum for my master's degree and I think I had more energy than I do now.

If you'd asked me in April what life would look like, I couldn't have told you. I was miserable at my current job, not having any luck finding another one, and it wasn't going to matter anyway because my lease was going to be up this summer and did not have a place to live in Nashville. Needless to say, those few weeks between the standardized tests and the end of the school year were crazy. I do not know how I would have been able to pack up my apartment and my classroom without my mom flying down to help me out.

After a lot of thought, discussion, hesitation, reconsideration, and anxiety, I chose to stay at my placement school for the coming school year. We have a new principal that I had the chance to meet at the end of the year who is changing things up. Based on the failing scores, the school was moved into the "Innovation Zone" No one really has been able to describe it consistently, but the best way to think of it is the district allowing failing schools to actually make changes to what their schools and teachers can provide without having to go through all the red tape (and the extra money to back those efforts). After talking with the new principal in June, I came back for training a few weeks ago ready to make the switch to 3rd grade Reading. Instead, I found myself listed as teaching 2nd grade...

...AND 1st grade.

After some serious soul searching and consulting with my favorite lower elementary teachers, I'm coming around to teaching the wee ones. There wasn't a confusion on the staff list -- I'll be teaching a combined 1st and 2nd grade classroom. Talk about a shift! I'm still wrapping my head around what that will actually look like. I've taught the past 2 years with about 30 percent of my class being English Language Learners (ELL/ESL). This year, about 30-40 percent of my class received Exceptional Education services -- a whole different department of people, paperwork, and range of teaching strategies. Luckily, I've got a wonderful co-teacher from the EE department.

So Fiji?

Part of the changes at the school have included rearranging classroom assignments. My new classroom is one of 4 classrooms ( mine, a 2/3 combined class, Special Education, Pre-K and Speech services) located in a wing of the building that is about a 5 minute walk to any other classroom. 4 classes. That's it. Most of the new hires didn't even realize there were classrooms in that wing. While I like not having to go upstairs anymore, it's been a bit isolated. For the last few years, it's been referred to as the "Special Education Hall". With all the changes, I figured we needed some rebranding. So here goes.

My new classroom is in Fiji -- like Fiji, we are a far-off island that everyone wants to go to because it is that amazing.

Tomorrow is our first day of school. Wish me luck!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Evolution of a Teacher

It's Sunday night before the last full week of school. I can't remember the last time I felt this mentally and physically exhausted. What with getting ready to move and preparing for the end of school, there have been a lot of really un-fun real-people things to deal with.

So here's to thinking about the FUN things that have been going on recently. We took our state tests a few weeks ago and fingers crossed, we did well. That left a chunk of time where we needed to create a project for our final Open House. I took the chance to do a version of a project I've been thinking about doing all year, but wasn't sure how to implement.

We made a lapbook about slavery in Tennessee. Here is the outside

Flip it open and you'll see three parts. On the left, students got to pick a primary document and write about it. I was impressed that most of my kids actually picked the documents with text, rather than the image. In the middle is our state divided into the three geopolitical parts. On the right hand side is the vocabulary used in the unit (overseer, abolitionist, conductors, patrollers)

Not only did we include basic information, but we were able to incorporate foldables (that worked!) into the book. The vocabulary words flip to reveal the definition. The geopolitical folds share information about how the areas perceived slavery and the number of slaves used in those areas.

Surprise! The middle flips open as well. We used a timeline to look at the events that led up to the Emancipation Proclamation. We actually started further back, but it wasn't going to fit. Each of the main dates is actually a foldable as well. When you flip it up, you can see the population in the state for free blacks compared to slaves. We actually talked about population trends in math class, looking at the differences between years, various states, and between free/enslaved.

I could not have imagined doing a project like this last year. Simply put, my brain was not ready for it. I didn't think my kids could handle some of it and I certainly didn't have all the procedures in place for fun things with materials (a kid was sent to the hospital for sticking his fingers in another kid's scissors, so that is somewhat justified). I also was really limited in how my kids used color and finding ways for them to be expressive while meeting more basic expectations. I also prepared for this in advance, creating a mockup that the kids could reference AND I built it up along with them.

How much did they learn? Worlds more than they did last year on the same topic. They actually enjoyed the project and were begging to work on it. They have more pride in these projects than almost any of the other projects that we've done all year. THIS is the kind of teaching I want to be doing.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Oh hey, remember me?

It’s been awhile, I know. Every now and again I thought about writing, but after slugging through the day, the last things I wanted to do was spend more time in my head thinking about school. Also, I’m trying to follow more of the “If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all” motto.

Which explains the 3-month absence.

After Thanksgiving, I got a student moved into my classroom from a teammate. In what was ruled not a case of zero-tolerance, this student (let’s call him Jump) hit his teacher and moving classrooms was an intervention. While I guess it’s encouraging that my principal thought my classroom culture was healthy enough to sustain this new member, I was terrified at the prospect.

In the first week, he got into a fight every single day. In the second week, he ended up being taken to juvenile for conduct. Each day came the critical decision: do I let him sleep and let the other students learn or do I wake him up and try to get him involved in the class culture? Talk about survival mode.

Winter break could not come fast enough. I recharged some of my batteries and felt really inspired by a TFA alum who’d led a session on classroom turnaround at one of our Saturday Sessions.  Still, I wasn’t sure what would happen. Initially, it went ok. I worked with one of the counselors to get him some basic supplies. That helped a little, but not enough.

The long and short is that after going almost a week without major incidents, he escalated rapidly during math stations to hit 3 students. When I went to the phone to call for assistance, he began hitting me. 

Needless to say, school hasn’t been the same. The weeks immediately following were a blur. I got to school close to when it started and then was leaving right after for physical therapy for several weeks. I don’t know how well my students have gotten any of the gotten in the last few weeks, but we’ve worked our butts off to get our classroom feeling safe. My students haven’t physically threatened anyone in class since, although we’re still working on taking responsibility for verbal aggression.

We’ve got 8 weeks to TCAP and 12 left in the year. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…