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.

Weekly Review

Monday: One of my former students came by to tell me that she misses me. It’s not a funny story, or something odd, or even particularly noteworthy, but it was the highlight of my day.

Tuesday:  In my last class today, I’d just begun reading an article to my students when my door opened and my student from another class walked in the room. She had cupcakes (I have no idea why) and was coming into my classroom (who knows why she was leaving the class she should’ve been in) to give me one. They were Halloween-themed, and the whole class groaned in jealousy when I picked out a cupcake. They asked to split it. The whole cupcake, split 30 ways.

Wednesday: Today was Halloween, which is always an odd day to teach. It’s difficult to discipline when you’re dressed as a fictional character and have a box of Eggo Waffles on your desk as an accessory.

Thursday: I read a poem to one of my classes, and because I want them to be interested, I tried to read it with as much emotion as I could. One of my students reacted to that by saying, “Miss, you should be a preacher.”

Friday:  Today we had class in the library. Halfway through the day, a student asked me at the end of class, “Miss, do you let all of your classes come to the library, or are we the only ones who go?” …. Nah, just you guys.

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.


Weekly Update: The One-Liners

Year: 2

It seems to me that, if I have to look for examples of how teaching can be such an overload of information and human interactions, the clearest example is of how much I forget. There are so many tiny interactions between my students and I that are either hilarious, strained, bizarre, or otherwise noteworthy, that by the time I reach the end of the day, I’ve forgotten most of them; in another job, any one of those interactions would become the highlight of the day, but in teaching, it’s so common that it’s almost not worth remarking upon. These are some of my favorite student one-liners of the week.

On Monday, when I gave directions on an assignment, I specifically asked students to not answer the multiple-choice questions. I repeated it several times. Too many times, really. While walking around later in the lesson, I saw that a student had finished the multiple-choice questions. I asked him why they were finished. He flipped the paper upside down, wiggled his fingers at me, and said, “You didn’t see anythiiiinng. Your glasses need cleaniiiinnng.”

In one of my classes, an eighth grader teacher walked silently in my room as I was teaching my class, and she put a post-it note on my desk. When I went over to read the note, I saw that it was from two former students: We see you while we’re in our class! We miss you! Hope you’re doing okay with your new troublemakers!

On Wednesday, a kid asked me if my necklace – a stone with a carving in it from my travels to Chile – was a “pirate necklace.”

On Thursday, I hosted study hall. Every time one of my students goofed off or got a little rowdy, I’d turn to the nearest student and joke, “do you see what I’ve got to deal with here?” By the end, I let it fall apart, and allowed my former students to draw all over my white board. It was loud. It was rowdy. Nothing was productive. A nice, polite student turned to me, and very quietly says, “Miss, you do have a lot to deal with.”

Today, in my last class, I saw a former student doing work outside of another teacher’s classroom. I snuck over to her and gave her a lollipop, then returned to my class. Ten minutes later, I glanced over at the window of my classroom and saw a sign propped up to face me: “Can her teacher have a lollipop, too, please?”

It’s the little things, really.


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.

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.