The Conversations We Have

Year: 2

My favorite part of teaching are the conversations.

Sometimes I forget this. Sometimes, I get so caught up in the minute-by-minute monitoring of “are we going to complete this handout?” or “are we going to stay on schedule?” that I forget the conversations I have with my students are the best part of my job. So far, this week has been a reminder that I should be having more conversations.

Yesterday, I taught the essential question for Quarter 2. Every quarter, the classes follow an essential question – one big, open-ended question – that should be, hopefully, answered by the end of the quarter. This time, we’re asking the following: why is culture important? So much of my lessons yesterday were soaked up by conversations of students sharing about their cultures, asking questions about cultures with which they’re unfamiliar, wanting to know more about different holidays or traditions. It allowed for funny stories, students opening up about their personal lives, and a level of interest that carried me through each lesson.

Today, the tone was very different, even if the interest felt the same. I introduced the Holocaust and a brief understanding of World War II, so that tomorrow, when we begin reading the new class text, students will be prepared to read. This is a difficult lesson not only because of the content, but because, for many middle school students, this is the very first time they’re learning about the war or the genocide. I asked students at the start of every class to raise their hands if they’ve heard of the word ‘holocaust,’ and only about five or so raised a hand every class. It took a lot of emotional energy to be the first person to tell them what a concentration camp functioned as, or what the term Nazi truly means. Yet – despite that – at the end of every single class, a few students would hang around my desk, risking the possibility of a tardy to their next class, to ask me a few more questions about that time period.

The conversations I have with my students, especially ones like today’s and yesterday’s, are so impactful because they’re conversations about issues that matter. These conversations encourage real reflection and curiosity on the part of my students, and that is a sign that my students are growing into critically thinking young adults. Aside from the fact that it is so damn important to be a critically thinking adult, it just so impresses and inspires me to see kids like this so interested in difficult topics that matter in society. It reminds me of a something John Green said, after someone criticized his work for being too mature: “I’m tired of adults telling teenagers that they aren’t smart, that they can’t read critically, that they aren’t thoughtful.” Conversations like these in the classroom offer a safe opportunity for kids to explore difficult, complex, new ideas and issues in a way that encourages them to be more thoughtful of the world around them.

It’s No Hogwarts, But…

It’s little secret that I am a giant Harry Potter nerd. I grew up with the series, and in many ways consider it to be one of the most important pieces of literature to come out of the last thirty years. As a teacher, I’ve brought in a lot of my magical obsession into the classroom. There are so many different ways to incorporate this series into the classroom, but for my fellow magical teachers, here are just a few!

The House Competition:

This is one of my favorite aspects of the classroom culture I’ve built so far. I’ve named all of my classes after Hogwarts Houses; conveniently, I only have four classes, but this could be adapted easily to another classroom by sorting classes into Houses by grade level or different subject (ex. combining two classes because they’re both 10th grade). Each class competes for the House Cup every quarter, and at the end of each quarterly competition, I throw the winning class a party. I have only a few ways that each class can earn points: classes can win daily points based on good behavior, and weekly points based on who has the cleanest classroom, fewest tardies, and highest percentage of assignments turned in. Practical benefits: This allows a positive incentive for students to focus and behave in daily lessons, as well as something positive to anticipate at the end of each quarter. There’s no limit to how many times a class can win, which allows for that anticipation to continue each quarter for classes who have already won.

Wizard and Witch of the Week:

A lot of teachers have Student of the Week or Student of the Month, and this is simply a magical take on things. Every Friday, I choose two students from all of my classes, and I pick a specific reason why that student was chosen. Most of the time, those reasons are small (coming to study hall, arriving on time every day, going out of their way to ask me about assignments, etc.) because I like reminding students how little things matter in the grand scheme of becoming successful at whatever you’re doing. The entire class cheers when I call their name, and I tell them in front of the class why I felt so impressed with them that week. For the entire week following, until the next two students I choose, their names hang in frames labeled “Wizard of the Week” or “Witch of the Week.” Next to the current wizards and witches, I have a giant frame with the names of all previous wizards and witches that will stay up all year. Practical benefits: This allows for a regular, and relatively simple, way for me to reward students who are doing well. Social recognition may be a really great motivator for some kids, or really important validation for others who don’t necessarily recognize their own hard work.

The Daily Prophet

This is my student work board. I have a homemade frame (black construction paper with real newspaper underneath) for each piece of student work. Oftentimes, I highlight specific paragraphs that my students wrote, but sometimes I throw in a list of creative titles from five or six students on one board. I’ll keep those up until we turn in our next major writing assignment. Practical benefits: This is another, more prolonged, form of social recognition for students. For so much of my time in class, it feels like I focus most heavily on constructive criticism so that my students improve their writing and reading skills, so this is a fun way for me to just appreciate students’ for where they are.

 

October: the month that lasts two years

Year: 2

It’s six in the morning, and as I’m making lunch for today, I’m listening to a Spanish playlist and wishing I were back in Chile. This week, I’m teaching an argumentative essay for the second time. I feel as though I’m moving through mud. It’s October, and I am feeling this month in every part of my day.

Writing anything about teaching during October, November, or December runs the risk of just being a string of tired (very tired) complaints. It is a very particularly difficult time of the school year because, as students get more comfortable and begin to act out, teachers are just wearing down their energy. We’re entering a part of the year when I have to become much more strict (I am already very strict) and I enjoy this job much less because of it.

My school’s fall break ended yesterday, and rather than feeling refreshed and ready to teach, I felt as though I were dragging myself through each class. After this week, the quarter should be much easier to get through, as writing lessons are typically less enjoyable for me than other lessons. The days following any break, but especially a break in the fall, are rough, and it will get better as I get back into the routine of teaching.  I’m trying to focus on that as I go into today. I probably sound like a broken record, having said this so many times, but self care is going to be even more important for me this week: to all the other teachers out there, I hope you’re taking care of yourselves, too.

On Being Mean

Year: 2

Some weeks in teaching seem to have themes of a sort. This week, I’ve been reminded multiple times of how mean kids can be to each other.

One of my students has been suspended for getting in a fight, and when I saw him in the front office, he told me that he was defending himself. Another kid limped past my classroom because someone shoved him into a basketball pole during lunch. Another student said something so terribly mean about one of his classmates that I had no choice but to send him up to the front office; and this kid, I’ve already had a very recent conversation about respect and being kind to others.

I heard once that everything a person does is an echo. If a person is behaving kindly, they are echoing the kindness that has been shown to them in the past. If a person is behaving unkindly, that person is echoing the pain that has been shown to them. I’ve always thought this to be a powerful analogy to explain general behavior: you react to the people around you, often unconsciously, and it is often a mirrored behavior.

Kids can be mean. It’s so easy to forget until you come into contact with that kind of malevolence. It feels like a kick to the gut, to me, when I see viciousness, like in the behavior I’ve seen done to my kids this week.  I’m never not bothered by it. Kids echo the behavior they see around them, and when they are shown pain, they throw pain back. It’s really difficult to be a witness to that process. As someone who spends their life trying to teach children, and care about them, you just want to protect them as best as you can, but there won’t always be an opportunity to do that.

I wonder if we’re doing something wrong, something that we could be teaching our young ones and aren’t, or if this is a natural part of human behavior that can’t be rerouted. We could teach kids to think about their actions and emotions more, teach kids to reflect more. I don’t really have an answer or opinion. I just can’t help but ask that question when I see a week like this.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the teaching of things, because that’s our job description, that it’s easy to forget that kids have so much to deal with only a daily basis. It is that same lesson I have learned, and will learn, again and again, in teaching: kids are just kids, and you should have compassion above all else.

 

October: Or, Mile 5 of the Marathon

Year: 2

Last year, when I first began teaching, I didn’t understand why everyone kept hinting at October like it was a monster lurking around the corner. August and September felt pretty considerably difficult to me already, so I didn’t understand how October could be much worse. After my first October, I understood why teachers spoke about October the way they did. It is the first truly difficult month of teaching.

October came, and cleared my head of all doubts.

It is the month that first tests your mental endurance as a teacher. You’ve finished two months of teaching, and you won’t get a full break to rest until the end of December; while the first two months may be overwhelming, you complete them quickly (and largely on adrenaline). I’ve been told this is the honeymoon period, when you’re still getting to know your students and you’re still mentally adjusting to the school year that it doesn’t quite feel like it’s really happening yet. That feeling vanishes in October. When October rolls around, you become unavoidably aware of how long there is before you’re able to take a break. Consider this mile 5 or 6 of a marathon that you’re running: you’re not tired yet, but you just finished the first few miles – which went by so smoothly and quickly that it didn’t even really feel like you’ve been running – and, although you’re not to the exhaustion phase yet, now you’re very aware of how many miles you have to run before you finish.

It is also around the time of the school year that you begin to see students feel comfortable in their classes. This means that you know your students better, which can be great, but it also means that your students feel comfortable enough to act out. So, at the same time that you’re beginning to understand the mental endurance you’ll need to reach even the halfway point of your year, you’re just now reaching the difficult stage of teaching.

This was my first week of October, and I felt the shift immediately. I spent the week pulling a student or two aside with every class of almost every day to discuss their behavior. Nothing terrible happened – it’s still been notably easier than last year, partly, I think, because my students this year are just a calmer bunch – but it felt like a more tiring week than what I’ve seen so far. I’ve had to micromanage just a little bit more. I’ve had to shift to be just a little more strict. In a job like this, when it requires such energy and such attention just to do the bare minimum, small shifts like this can feel significant.

Going into this year’s second quarter and some of the more difficult months of teaching, I’m making it a goal to focus on self-care. I’m meditating regularly, exercising several times a week and (hopefully) sticking to a serious training schedule, balancing my time with friends and my time with myself. It’s so shockingly easy to forget to take care of yourself as a teacher, and I don’t want to forget this year.

Weekly Review: the Unpredictability

Year: 2

Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes not so funny, but it’s never a boring day. These are a few of the most memorable moments from my week.

Last Friday, I thought there was a gas leak in my class. The smell was overpowering, gagging, and I was genuinely worried there would be a problem for the other teachers in classes nearby. My classes were learning about types of narrator that day; basically, it was a note-taking day. I removed all of my students from the classroom, took them to a nearby sitting area outside, and tried (probably ineffectively) to teach them for the remainder of the period. Turns out, it was one of my student’s highlighters. They just smelled super bad.

On Monday, I tried partner reading for the first time: one partner reads while another takes notes. Practically speaking, what does this mean? A lot of voices, a lot of me staring around at kids to make sure they’re working, a lot of me trying to help kids correctly pronounce words like “utensils.” During this, one of my students stopped writing to tell me he wanted to tattoo peace, love, positivity on his arms. (His partner was still reading, of course.) He informed me that he’s a rapper and he wanted to be a different type of rapper and because so many rappers are negative, he wanted to be the positive rapper. He also happens to be the student that is causing problems in every teacher’s class, and is offering me personal information he has offered no other teacher, so I had to decide whether to encourage a conversation that might keep him invested in my class or encourage him to stay focused on the actual work within my class. The result: at some point, I’m going to read a rap he wrote.

On Tuesday, I reminded one of my classes that they were in the lead for the inter-class competition and that, if they kept the cleanest classroom, they would remain in the lead and may possibly one. One boy jumped up while everyone put away their materials, pointing his finger, and shouted, “PENCIL!” at another student. Casual comment to a classmate. So that the class would be clean, you know?

During one of my study halls, a former student came into my classroom to do some work. When I chided her for talking too much, she said she would work because she hated when I stared at her: “Miss, your eyes stare into my soul.”

In the same study hall, a very polite, quiet seventh grader (not my student) asked me if I had any water bottles. He told me he walks three miles to get home, and was so respectful, I walked him up to the front office to see if we had any water bottles. The assistant principal happened to be there, and I told her that the student walks home that long of a distance, to which she replied, “He probably shouldn’t have called the bus driver a ‘fucking cunt,’ then.”

On Thursday, one of my students arrived to class with his mom. She chose to follow him around from class to class, and sit in each class, to watch his behavior. Apparently he’s been disruptive in his other classes (he’s all right in mine). She pulled a chair up right next to his desk and followed along with the lesson, asking him questions and prodding him when he slacked a bit. BRUTAL.

I won a thumb-war competition with one of my students. It was the highlight of my day. I bragged to the class.

Today, I pulled a student aside while he walked into my classroom to ask him why “y’all like butts?” was written on his paper, and to remind him that unless he wants to have another butt-related conversation with his teacher, he should probably remember to use his eraser.

Standardized Tests

Year: 2

I’m not saying I hate standardized tests, but I’m not not saying it.

As a student, I struggled to motivate myself or put forth effort on standardized tests. I was the type of student who would put in more effort depending on how much or little I cared about the teacher administering the test. I just didn’t care. I didn’t see the purpose to it. However, I also don’t remember any of my teachers telling me the purpose of standardized tests, which may have helped. This (not not said) dislike of standardized tests runs deep.

As a teacher, I struggle to motivate my students. It is not a good measurement of their skills. It is certainly, doubtlessly, not a measure of their character or their ability to grow and learn. I don’t believe in the purpose of standardized tests. I don’t believe it will make my students, or my classroom, better. Of course, as a teacher, I have to give them, so I do, but I struggle to get my kids to buy into the idea of standardized tests because don’t buy into them.

For many students, particularly in a generation that is increasingly anxious and self-critical, this test is yet another obstacle in between them and a normal level of confidence in a certain subject. It is a beast of a test. It often takes the entire class period, which is 75 minutes long, and sometimes longer for certain students. It is a difficult test, one that I’m not even confident I would necessarily pass myself. The wording of questions is tricky, manipulative. The texts they read are dense and uninteresting. The expectations are high. For students with anxiety, this test is basically a bomb dropped in their lap.

For many more students, it is a boring test that their teacher made them do and that they don’t care about. So why try? They don’t have a reason to do well. (This is where my theoretical motivational skills would come in.) They understand it doesn’t affect their grades. Should I tell my students that some standardized tests affect the amount of funding that goes into their school? That seems like an awful pressure to put on 7th graders.

Now consider  my students. My students come from impoverished homes, difficult personal lives, and a serious academic disadvantage. Within the same year, I teach them the basic structure of a sentence (and sometimes what a noun is) and I attempt to teach them developed analytical skills. These are kids who were not read to when they were younger, who often do not have food at home, who do not often speak English as their first language. It is not fair to use the same test to measure their skills and their level of understanding in a topic that you use to measure the skills of a student who has every possible advantage. It is not fair to use a test that assume everyone has begun at the same point of the race. It is not fair.

Today is a day that I have to administer a standardized test. I’ll encourage my students to do their best, even if I don’t particularly agree with it, and I’ll make sure that the rest of the week is fun for them. After today, they’ll have earned it.