Weekly Review

Monday: Day off!

Tuesday: Today, after class, a former student came in to say hello to me and found out I was hosting study hall. He called home to ask if he could stay and I overheard him say, “yeah, I wasn’t planning to stay, but my favorite teacher’s hosting study hall, so I can just take the bus after if that’s okay.”

Wednesday: Halfway through class, one of my students raised his hand and asked for a pencil. I asked him what happened to the pencil he’d been using. With a look of pure, painful confusion, he replied “Um. It went…. under the wall.” (I have not told them one of the walls can fold back between classrooms.)

Thursday: The highlight of my day today was discovering a student wrote “BUTTS” on the class sign-in sheet. I looked at it and, calmly, silently, tore off the bottom of the sign-in sheet before turning around. As soon as I faced the class, a boy in the back turned bright red and began hysterically giggling in his hand. Naturally, the only appropriate response I found was to take a photo of the culprit – him – holding the paper.

Friday: Today, I told one of my more rowdy students that he should be in theatre (because of how dramatic he was being in our conversation). He threw his hand to his chest, dropped his jaw, and – genuinely, I think – said, “thank you, Miss!”

Weekly Review: Halfway

Monday: Before school started, I left my classroom to put in copies for later this week. Immediately, I saw a student lying on the ground. He was fine. He just wanted to lie down and stare at the sky (at 7:20am). You know. Chillin’.

Tuesday: One of my former students brought a “book of puns” that he drew. My favorite was a picture of a grandma skateboarding. The caption was Insta-Gram.

Wednesday: During my planning period, I walked across the empty campus and spotted a kid dancing to his own reflection in the window of the library. I called out to him and reminded him that it was a window, not a mirror, and that people could see him. He genuinely didn’t seem to know that.

Thursday/Friday: I’ve taken some rare time off to go to a wedding out of town, and just gotten back into town.

Finding the Balance

Year: 2

Today is a Wednesday. We’re officially halfway through the week.

Within the last week, there have been seven fights in the high school of my district. In my school, there have been two or three fights. One student has been hit by a car. Two of my students have been sitting through in-school suspension. I’ve given four lunch detentions for behavioral disruptive. Generally, students have been highly fidgety, emotional, and disruptive.

Today is a Wednesday. We’re halfway through the week.

This is not normal for my school district, but if you were to spread out all of these incidents throughout a school year, this would not be normal for the average school district’s full year. I work in a district that is in an area of town with high poverty, high trauma, and all the cyclical symptoms of high poverty and trauma within families. This, of course, drastically affects students’ health and behavior.

One of the difficulties of teaching in a school like this is that, in addition to the normal difficulties of teaching generally, you’re confronted regularly with two problems: the problem of incessant worrying and the problem of normalizing. Last year, I had the problem of incessant worrying; I’d go home, thinking about the trauma my students held, feeling guilty about my safe apartment and my healthy diet and all the things I had that my students did not.

This year, I have the problem of normalizing all of these terrible traumas. I still worry about my students and still think about how I can help them, but I have stood close to some extraordinary pain. I have seen students wait for their mothers to be possibly deported. I have seen students under the stress of extreme poverty. I have a seen a student die. I am embedded in this world, this environment, every day, and I cannot help these students to the extent that I want to help them. I regularly have to remind myself, this year, that my students’ behavior is due to these terrible traumas. I have to remind myself that not every school would see this level of trauma in children.

It feels to me that these are two ends of the same spectrum. To worry constantly, and fixate on the pain my students endure, is to drain myself of the energy I need to function well on a daily basis. To normalize it is to dull the natural emotional reactions to witnessing such a trauma. I don’t know what the healthy balance is between these two ends. I don’t know where I should be in the spectrum, or how long it will take me to get there.

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.

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.

Friday Fun Reads

I love bell-work. I’m not being sarcastic. I do love bell-work. Giving students a quick, easy, low-pressure activity to focus them helps lessen my stress as a teacher quite a bit; I do also really, genuinely think it helps kids settle into the lesson and mentally shift from one idea to the other.

“Bell to bell” work, though, is different. This is a new term floating (correction: flying) around the education world right now. The idea is basically that, from the time the bell rings to start class until the time the bell rings to end class, students should be consistently working on subject-related content. I think the general idea is good: keep students engaged, keep them focused on your content, have meaningful lessons that continue for the length of the class.

That being said, screw “bell to bell” teaching in the last 20 minutes of every Friday class, because I’m going to keep reading to my kids for fun.

I started this at the beginning of this school year for the first time. I wanted to encourage my students to see reading as a form of entertainment, relaxation, comfort – I wanted them to see reading as a form of a reward, not just something they had to do. I figured that I’d offer them a choice: they could vote for me to read to them, or they could read their own library books. (Every two weeks, we go to the library, and they check out a book of their own choosing and are required to keep it with them in all classes.) Every Friday, I’d let them vote.

In an overwhelming vote, one truly surprising to me, they have voted for me to read to them. Every single Friday.

This surprised me for a few reasons. The first is that, this year, I have quite a few students who enjoy reading, and I expected them to want to read their own books. The second – the main reason – is that middle school students care about what others think of them, and I expected them to pretend it was too cool to want their teacher to read to them. I thought, regardless of how they really felt, that they would choose to read their own books, just to not have their teacher talking for a precious fifteen or twenty minutes of class.

I learned, again, the same lesson that I have learned with every new experience in teaching: they’re just kids. They want to be kids and they want to remain kids. Regardless of how they act, or what they say, or what they pretend to feel in front of their friends, there’s going to remain that kid-part of them that really enjoys someone reading out loud.

It’s not part of the curriculum. It doesn’t align to the standards. It doesn’t fit with “bell to bell” lessons. But it’s been enormously helpful in my attempt to build a classroom atmosphere that is comfortable and safe, and it’s done wonders in helping students feel comfortable with me. So I’ll keep reading.

The Positive Focus

It’s really easy, probably too easy, to focus on the frustrating parts of teaching. During my first year teaching, I struggled with realistic and fair consequences for students who were behaving poorly in class; far more, though, I really struggled with rewarding kids who were doing well. When I tried looking for ways to reward kids, my search basically ended with stickers or pizza. I am not a sticker person. I cannot afford pizza all the time for kids. (Hello, teacher in Arizona…) So, through a series of painful mistakes and changes and tinkering last year, I came up with a few consistent rewards for my kids.

I don’t feel like I particularly need to point this out, but I am a big nerd. I particularly nerd out with Harry Potter (don’t ask me why because I will talk about it for hours), so I’ve organized my classes Harry Potter-style. But for the teachers who, for a reason unbeknownst to me, don’t want to shove Harry Potter on as many people as possible, all of these rewards can be renamed and slightly changed.

Quarterly Reward: House Cup Competition. All of my classes are named after Hogwarts Houses. All of my classes compete to win a class party (the House Cup) at the end of each quarter; to keep classes motivated, I allow previous winners to win again. There are daily points and weekly points that can be given. A class can win +10 daily points for good behavior, focus in class, participation in class, and following teacher expectations. These are the weekly points: +20 for the highest percent of homework turned compared to other classes, +15 for the cleanest classroom throughout the week, and +20 for the fewest tardies throughout the week. Only one class can win one category of the weekly points for the week. By doing this, I’m attempting to motivate students who respond to daily awards, students who respond to weekly awards, super competitive students, and the classes who don’t do so well with daily behavior but can be brought up by weekly points (to keep motivated for the entire quarter). If you want to change from Harry Potter: just keep the class periods as the names. Or give them team names if you want to be more creative.

Individual Weekly Reward: Wizard and Witch of the Week. Some of my students are more motivated to do better if they get social recognition for doing well in class. I personally also like more frequent rewards because, let’s be honest, sometimes the end of the quarter feels five light years away. Out of all of my classes, I choose two students (I deliberately choose two from different classes) who did an awesome job that week. Some of the reasons are big – you turned in an excellent essay after coming to both study halls to make sure you did an excellent job – and some of them are smaller, like getting to class on time every day. Then, on Friday, I announce that week’s wizard and witch, cheer with the class and explain why they won that week, and call home to brag about them to their family. This gives social recognition in the classroom and an excuse to call home for a good reason. Since it’s the start of the school year, I’m also getting an opportunity to pinpoint my students who may possibly be challenging later in the school year as well-behaved now, so that there’s a chance I can wrangle them onto my side earlier on. If you want to change from Harry Potter: just say student of the week! You could even do it on a class-by-class basis if you really want to focus in on certain classes every week and get to more students.

Class Weekly Reward: Free Reading Friday. This is not Harry Potter (not without trying), but it’s still a reward that may be really useful for other teachers. Last year, I was stuck on the idea that I had to give something to a student for it to be a reward, and only recently realized that I could take something away and still have it be a reward. Every week, if my students show good behavior in class, I will end Friday’s class about 15 minutes early. They’ll have a choice: either I will read to them for 15 minutes, and they can sit on the floor and hang out while I read, or we’ll go outside as a class and read independently for those 15 minutes. They’ll have that vote every week. They still have to work towards that reward, and it has to be reading, but they’ll have that opportunity to reach that every week. If you don’t want reading to be the reward and/or are not an English teacher: you can have a weekly game or activity related to your subject. Ex. if you’re an art teacher, have free drawing or painting time at the end of class, or if you’re a math teacher, have a class puzzle to work through for fun. It’s also an opportunity to show your kids that your subject isn’t something they just have to do, but something that can be fun as well.

General Rewards Tips For Your Classroom:

  • Mix it up: some rewards that will work for some students won’t work for others. Have a physical reward (sticker, pizza, pencils, etc.) and a social reward (time to talk at the end of class, reading time).
  • Vary time length. Some kids can definitely see the goal of a quarterly reward, but there are some kids that live in the moment (literally, minute by minute) and need daily rewards. Having a variety increases your chances of getting to every student.
  • Don’t overdo it. At the end of the day, your expectations in class still need to be followed. You shouldn’t have to bribe kids to do every single activity. But, rewards should be there – after all, you’re expecting a lot from students and it’s hard work. Find the balance.