The Heartbreak of Middle School

Oh, the pain. The pain. The absolute pain of teaching on Valentine’s Day. There is no place in the world that feels more of an emotional whirlwind for this holiday than the halls of a middle school.

Kids can feel. Strongly.

As Valentine’s Days go, this was a pretty laid-back one for me. By accident, I planned for my students to be silently writing the final drafts of their essays today, so most of the chaos happened in the beginning and ending minutes of class. As a joke, my department created a “middle school bingo” with boxes that said among the following: huge balloons, crying, kids complaining that you didn’t give them candy, kids asking you too personal questions about what you’re doing this Valentine’s day, BIG TEDDY BEARS, etc. I scored over half of them.

There were so many funny moments today, and a few aggravating ones, but it was largely yet another reminder for me that kids feel so, so strongly. That’s always something that I need to recognize every once in a while, because it is surprisingly easy to forget; kids have so much emotion, and it can be really exhausting to be a kid. That can make it difficult to function in school. Hopefully tomorrow will be a little easier on the heart (and less balloon-filled) than today was for some of my students.

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.

Weekly Review

Year: 2

This week was funky.

I’d been gone for about half of the week (family wedding! yay!), so I only taught two days today. Yesterday was… bumpy. My students did not do any of the work that I’d assigned them while I’d be away, so I basically threw out the lesson I’d planned and made them redo assignments. That’s never fun; it’s boring for students, but it’s mainly a punishment for teachers, honestly. Not a great time. Today, I gave my students the choice between working on the reading individually (silent, calm, largely put together) or partner reading (see: absolute chaos), and most chose partner reading. In multiple classes, I had a “I’m Disappointed in You Mom Tone” discussion about discipline and good work habits.

Some of my kids were pretty bratty: defiant, mean, or lazy. Probably because I’d been gone long enough they somehow forgot that they have an English teacher with high expectations for them? One of my colleagues, who teaches eighth grade, walked out of class in tears because she realized a kid was actively bullying another kid in her class – and absolutely nobody would tell her who was the bully.

There were a few shining highlights, however. Students are put on an improvement plan if they failed the previous quarter, and several of my students on that plan chose me as their ‘trusted teacher’ for helping them succeed. One of my students came running up to me during lunch, tried to teach me a handshake, then patted me on the head before running away. (So middle school.) Another student dance/hopped/snake-charmer-impressioned? away from me after class today, and, while doing so, told me that he would teach me his smooth moves next week. Another student told me that it felt like “a gift from god” that I was back and she no longer had to deal with substitute teachers.

My first impression is that it felt like a funky week, but really, it wasn’t so funky. Basically, this was just another week of teaching. High moments and low moments, with my choice on what to focus on. I’m going to focus on the weird dancing and handshakes – it’s far more fun that way.

Kicking Off the Quarter

I try to create routines in my classroom. Although not every day can or should be the same, I think it is helpful for most students know what to expect – or, at least, have a few parts of the class they can grow to expect. One of these routines are my students’ quarterly goals.

The assignment is simple: write down two sentences. One sentence should be your goal to reach by the end of the quarter, and one sentence should be how you will reach that goal.

A wall in the back of my classroom is decorated with these goals. I want them displayed so that my students see them when they walk into class every day. To prep for this activity beforehand, I make sure to create paper cutouts before the quarter begins. Sometimes I make these paper slips in the shape of a book or an apple, but oftentimes, it’s just a circle another easy shape. I hand these out during bell work on one of the first days of school, and give them until the end of their bell work to have their goal written down.

This is a simple way to begin the discussion of forming goals with my students, how those goals need structure, and how we can work to get there. (Also, it looks super cool at the back of my classroom.)

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.

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.