Encouraging Change, Seeing Hope

Year: 2

In class, my students are currently reading a book about workers’ rights and the history of protest. Honestly, a big part of why we are reading this book is due to the pressure in education right now to read nonfiction, informational text (I have very strong opinions on why only English teachers are feeling that pressure but that’s a different conversation for a different day). The really cool aspect of this book are the conversations I get to have with students, and I saw that today in a surprising way.

This morning, I began grading assignments that my students had completed while reading part of the book; it was the section that explained the origin of this particular workers’ strike. One question I put on the handout, due more to personal curiosity than anything else, was the following: “What do you feel strongly about in the ‘real world’ that you want to change or support? How would you go about making that change, or making it stronger?”

The answers were incredible.

Now, there were a few silly ones. It is middle school, after all, and middle school is an odd place. One such answer said “I would make a strike that unicorns be real and I’d glue horns to horses.” (I still don’t know if that’s genuine or not.)

Most answers, though, were so powerful and heartwarming. Students wrote about fighting animal testing, finding a cure for cancer, lowering costs of healthy food for impoverished families, fighting climate change, lowering pollution, gun control regulation, teacher pay, deportation policies, government shut downs, tax laws (!!!), and more. These kids are seventh graders.

It should not surprise me that my students are capable of this type of answer. I see their curiosity and awareness in our class discussions. More than anything else, I found it incredibly heartwarming and endearing to read these answers. These kids care about the world around them. They are aware – with the internet, more aware, perhaps, than we were at their age – of the issues our society has, and they are concerned.

I need more conversations like this with my students. I want to encourage their curiosity, but I also find it filled with so much hope to see my students this focused on making the world a better place.

The Notebook

Year: 2

I am not about to discuss Nicholas Sparks, I promise.

We are deep into the season of stress and disappearing motivation. Although this year is (genuinely unbelievably) so much better than last year, it is still a time of the school year that is stressful. Students are behaving particularly rebelliously at the moment, and teachers are reaching a level of exhaustion. About a month ago, I began looking for new methods of stress-relief and techniques for maintaining a positive mentality.

There is now a notepad in my desk drawer. It’s not fancy, but it sits in my desk drawer, easily accessible. Every day, I write the date; after every class, I write at least one good part of the class. Most entries are silly or small (ex. “A student wrote “BUTTS” at the bottom of my class sign-in sheet). I’m not writing down life-changing teaching moments. I’m writing down the tiny moments that are so often forgotten in the turbulence of November and December.

I try to write down as much as I can for each class, but some days, I only scribble down one note per period. That’s okay. I’m not trying to get to a specific number of notes every day. I’m trying to remind myself how many good, funny, sweet, positive moments exist in a day of teaching.

It is such an incredible reminder, when I sit at the end of the day and glance at this notebook, how good days can feel like bad days simply because of stress. I’m stressed, yes – but, in reality, my days are pretty good. This notebook is just one small way to help keep a healthy perspective in mind.

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.