Monday, December 28, 2009

It seems to me teachers spend a great deal of time and effort whining about how terrible a deal we've been shuffled:

  • parents who not only are not supportive of their children's education, but seem to go out of their way to be difficult and make our teaching more difficulty

  • students who are unmotivated, discipline problems, behind academically, or just downright rotten

  • adminstrators who seemingly don't have a clue what it is like to be in the classroom, who are unsupportive of our efforts

  • policy that says a bubble sheet score says more than true measures of growth

  • ever-shrinking budgets that cause us to fork over more and more of our own paycheck to keep our classrooms running smoothly

All legitimate complaints, sure, but interestingly enough, according to this latest Gallup poll, teachers score higher than other professionals in well-being.

We consistently rank ourselves as healthier, happier, and more emotionally happy, than other professionals. However, we rank our wenvironments as less satisfying than others. We don't feel like our bosses treat us as equals, we don't our work environment is "open and trusting" but 91% of us say we get to use our strengths at work.

Seems a little contradictory to me! It sounds as if we have it pretty darn good in most aspects of our jobs. I think maybe we need to take a long look at our jobs from the outside and appreciate the fact we do have it made!

We work long hours, without overtime, in circumstances often beyond our control, with students who do not fit into round bubbles. Our pay not equate with our educational opportunties if we chose to work in the private sector.

But really, our job is the best in the world. Kids make it interesting, unpredictable, and never a dull moment. We get to make a difference in their lives. What more could we ask for??

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The snowflakes are hung round the classrom with care,

The teachers are gone from the building and scarce,


Santa, all I really want is some sleep :)

When I posted my Facebook status above, I was still on the high from the exuberance of my 7th graders on the last day before Christmas break. Now, awake before 6 am on the first Saturday of our 2 week break which will fly by like a short weekend, I am more reflective on our day yesterday.

Wanting something fun, but remotely educational, and slightly purposeful for our last day, I found this cool activity on making perfectly symmetrical snowflakes from National Council of Teachers of Mathematics to do with my math classes.

The rest of my day was already planned since the entire 7th grade was watching Pictures of Hollis Woods together during our 2nd hour and homeroom periods.

I copied the directions, and lots of backup just holiday coloring activities, word searches, and crossword puzzles, just in case the snowflake making was not successful.

Too often it seems we never let our middle schoolers be kids anymore. When I first started teaching here, we had so many fun things we did with them. For the holidays, each homeroom decorated their classroom door in a huge competition. We had other fun days with games, and challenges and other kid-friendly stuff. Part of the reason we have gotten away from these activities is simply too much curriculum and not enough time, but the main reason is honestly, our staff just isn't into it anymore.

But yesterday in my classroom WAS all about being a kid again with scissors and paper and tape and crayons. We had so much fun! After realizing first hour how difficult the instructions were to follow, I walked the other hours through the step by step snowflake folding process. We folded and creased, then snipped and snipped, waiting to unfold our magical creations. Paper snips flew everywhere and the room got more and more beautiful.

The premier location to get to hang your snowflake was the window, of course. The best part? To access my window, you have to stand up on the heater register, looking out the snowy window, down 2 floors to the ground below. But my little elves were NOT intimidated and soon 3 Santa hat clad kids were dancing up there, using double sided tape to fill the window with perfectly symmetrical flakes.

They laughed and they smiled and acted like 12 year olds SHOULD act, instead the more typical sullen texting adult-wannabe's who usually are in my room.

Happy Holidays, 7th graders!! See you next year!!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I will admit to loving Christmas gifts from my students. Not so much the perfumes, the candles, and the mugs, as the true gifts, the ones you remember years later.

Handwritten cards are among my favorite. I save them all but some are especially touching. On the bulletin board in my bedroom hangs the envelope from one young man, who had his 'moments' in my class. The envelope is wonderful though: From: Mike To: Mrs. Goerge, AKK the world's best math teacher. What more could I have wanted for a gift??

The week before Christmas, gifts start trickling in. Today, one student handed me a diet mountatin dew, the fuel for my day. Another gave me a Green Bay Packer Christmas ornament, knowing I am a HUGE Packer fan. Yet another young lady handed me this round red wrapped gift, complete with a green ribbon. I unwrapped it to find a roll of duct tape! (See previous post if you don't understand the significance of this gift.)

See... it really isn't about how much money a parent spends, or the actual gift itself, as it is about the thought that went into the gift. Middle schoolers have such a great sense of humor and I love when that shows in their thinking about what to gift. Over the years, I have gotten everything imaginable: the cute, the odd, the inappropriate, the thoughtful, the handmade, the expensive.... but it touches me to realize I am appreciated for my efforts. It isn't about the cost, it's about the thought.

So, go gift a teacher something meaningful this year!

Friday, December 11, 2009

101 Reasons to Love Middle Schoolers:

1. Funny names they give each other and you
Over the years, I have been called a variety of names, some I would not care to repeat, but some are endearing, some funny, and some just odd. My favorites? Gorgeous George, Georgie, Grandma G. Part of the allure of a nickname comes from the community building aspects of the experience, the feelings of comfort among those giving the names, and the acceptance of those being called them.
Today, one of my girls got a cute new nickname : Bri - tiny. Her name is Britini, with that unusual spelling. When she wrote it on the board for a library pass, someone caught the alternative pronunciation of Bri - tiny, which is one of those names that will stick. It is cute, with no respect issues. It serves to make her feel special though, and gives students in my homeroom as sense of community that only they get to use it, kind of an inside joke syndrome.

2. Twisted sense of HUMOR
The best part of teaching middle school is their laughter at the oddest of things. Humor can be used to deflect a mouthy student, get an unmotivated one on task, or even to stop the adolescent female teary eared outburst.
When I catch a student staring into outer space instead of focusing on the task at hand, I often tease them about staring at MY beauty. I tell them how flattered I am that they find me SO breathtaking they can't HELP but stare. This gets their attention, with a smile and giggle, and refocuses their mind at the task at hand.
When a student is being particularly annoying, I often tell them to strangle themselves so I don't have to. The best actors get it, and do a fantastic job of reaching their hand around their necks, pretending to strangle themselves. Again, laughter ensues, order is restored, and back to work for all.
Other funny sayings become part of our routine. This age group loves the twisted logic of sayings like, "Silence is golden, duct tape is silver" and learn quickly to respond the the first part of the quote with the second, refocusing themselves to a quieter work tone. Another favorite of mine is, "Don't be sorry, be quiet."
The key to success is knowing your audience. Some students respond extremely well to this kind of humor, but others do not get it, and are even offended by it. You must be able to read your students, and know how to deal with each individual personality.

3. Their sense of fairness and right & wrong in everything
You will never meet a group more in tune with fairness. Dare to give another student 1 tiny extra point on a graph, or one extra day on an assignment, and you will experience wrath like no other. Even if it means they must personally suffer, they want everything, everyone treated exactly the same at all times. They are quick to point out the shortcomings of each other and themselves as well, just to make sure the balance is maintained.

4. Magic and wonder are still part of their daily routine.
Whether it is the first snowfall of the season, an ambulance shrieking past the window, or a video on knights in shining armor, they love every unique detail that passes their way. Middle schoolers still have that little kid lust for learning. They CRAVE new information, especially if you can show them how it relates to them, how it touches their world, how they can personally interact with that knowledge.
In particular, they love new tech tools. This generation has grown up making powerpoints, typing papers, and instant messaging and texting each other. But give them a new tool to explore and watch the magic dust fly! My social studies class is making mundane powerpoints on a European country. Once I showed them some new fun things like Tuxpi and even the 4 square google search page, their excitement peaked again. Just exploring in a new way gives them the added ummph they need to tackle the next part of their challenge at hand.

5. Middle Schoolers LOVE to share their joy with you.
Sometimes it is a new shirt or shoes; other times they got a puppy or horse or a baby brother or sister; it might even be that amazing touch screen phone or iPod. Whatever it is, they LOVE to show their 'things' to you, explaining all the details in great detail. It is their way of sharing their world with you, bringing a personal touch to their school world.
Nothing makes a middle schooler happier than to see you in the bleachers at their basketball game, or cheering from the fence at a track meet. They know you are there for THEM, and they LOVE that special attention.

OK, not 101, but 5 that make my day, every day!!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Today starts one of my favorite math projects of the year, the infamous Tootie Fruite Project. Each student gets a scoop of the cereal (which costs me about $10 for 70 students). Then then data collection begins. Students total their own cereal, how many of each color. The ensuing debates about how to count partial pieces are always interesting. This morning, we had the most unusual cereal piece ever though: it was 2 toned. The student decided eating it was his best option :)
Once individual totals are counted, then we must compile class data. Whew... this always tries MY patience the most, with students who can't speak loudly (inevitably the LOUDEST kid in the hallway can't speak above a whisper to say "12")
Then students settle in to work, creating bar graphs and circle graphs of their individual as well as class data. The projects are colorful, fun and a light activity I try to do the last week before Christmas break. It meets a Michigan Grade Level Content Expectation, D.RE. 07.01 Read and interpret data using circle graphs.
Final projects are displayed as posters, which liven up my normally dull classroom.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

There's nothing quite the like the forecast of a winter storm to get middle schoolers excited. (OK, middle school teachers as well!) Living in Michigan's Upper Peninsula makes winter travel interesting to say the least. We average about 200 inches of snow per year. Snow days, though, are few and far between. Our bus drivers are known for their ability to make it through the worst conditions, down back winding unplowed roads picking up children before daybreak and delivering them back safely long after the sun has gone down. If we had a snowday every time we got several inches of snow, we'd truly be a year-round school.

There is a long standing middle school superstititon that if students wear their pajamas inside out the night before the storm is forecast, there will be a snow day. I don't know how accurate this is, probably right up there with walking under a ladder causing bad luck and finding a penny head up bringing good luck, but who knows!

  • All day, I have been prepping my students of the rest of the week's schedule in the event of one or two days off.

    Map quiz is STILL on Friday, no matter what, yes, even if I have to come to your houses to give to you individually :)

    State graph for math class is due the first day back in
    Yes, I will adjust the due date for PowerPoints.

With tonight and tomorrow's forecast predicting 2 feet + of snow, I know **I** will be sleeping with MY jammies inside out! If you wouldn't mind doing the same... who knows!!

Monday, December 07, 2009

Sometimes I am organized, and know exactly what I am going to do in class, and follow that protocol carefully. Other times, I feel like I am flying by the seat of my pants, as suddenly ideas pop into my mind as the lesson unfolds.

Such was today in social studies. We are reading, YES, reading... Chapter 5 Section 1 from our books on the history of Europe. bahhumbug.... yes, that was about the enthusiasm generated from my students. I was sticking to my guns, pushing forward despite the snoring noises emitting from various locations. We just needed to get through a few pages of the chronological events that formed Europe and for the life of me, there really is no quicker way to breeze over all those years than with this reading from our textbook.

Sanity seeped in at some point, thankfully, and I suddenly remembered this cool video clip from United Streaming we watched once on Life in Medieval Times. I quickly opened it and showed the 22 minutes of knights and castles and serfs. How COOL! The impromptu writing assignment of what would you like and dislike had you lived in that time period was even better! Students wrote and wrote about how great life could be, and how terrible it likely was. I felt redeemed for my meager start to the hour.

Planning is great, but more often, plans should be just guides, with time allotted for the spontaneous and the different.... to wake the sleeping troops and recharge their batteries.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Substitute teachers, school secretaries and bus drivers are the most underappreciated and underpaid people on the planet. I have not had the terrifying last 2 position in my life, so I can only imagine how difficult they must actually be. I do know when our secretary is out of the office and somehow, I manage to walk in at that exact moment, it is HORRIFYING. All those kids, all those parents, the phone, the disasters.... how can she juggle it all ALL DAY every day. I am trembling before my 90 second tour of duty is over!

I HAVE been a substitute teacher though so when I am gone, I try to assure that their day will be as peaceful as possible. I leave detailed sub plans, almost minute by minute, with always a contingency plan in case something goes awry, which often it does. Computers don't work, kids refuse to cooperate, paper airplanes materialize.....

Having someone in your room when you are gone that you trust, know and respect makes all the difference in the world. Sometimes, it is the luck of the draw, and you get that kindly old retiree who means well, but has not a clue how to deal with middle schoolers so when you return to your room, spitwads adorn the ceiling, the whiteboards are full of caricatures, and the lesson was not even assigned. Other times, you get the young, gorgeous fresh out of college chick who again, means well, but doesn't understand that subbing means a frowny face MAY be appropriate, and saying, "NO" definitely is.

Personally, I love our new system that allows us to choose our favorite 5 subs electronically, giving them first preference for our scheduled dates. How COOL!!! Today, I had a planned day off, and got my top choice of subs. She is a regular, who only subs on Mondays and Friday because she teaches adult ed Tuesday through Friday. This gives her that extra umph needed to align middle school attitudes to accomplish the tasks in front of them. She has a great sense of humor, is intelligent and honest. I know she will not create more chaos than she can handle. It made my day off one of pleasure rather than one of intrepidness. I didn't even feel the need to race to school to read her notes this afternoon! I KNOW things went well :)

Hats off to all the subs out there... you are ALL appreciated but to the really GREAT subs, were it up to me, I would pay you 10 times what you make now, and you would still be underpaid!!

(special smugs to Barb!!)

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

New Year's Resolutions
Striving for excellence and improvement is a constant uphill battle in all pursuits. Ahead of the dawning of the new year, I want to start contemplating my resolutions for the upcoming year. What are my goals for improving my own teaching, and ultimately the learning of students in my classroom and beyond?
Before I even consider my own classroom, I want to explore more opportunities to share with other teachers, helping them perfect the craft of teaching. It isn't about being better at something than others are, it is about the collective power of sharing and growing together that makes this goal such an important one. Teachers too often teach and learn in isolation, when we need to be constantly exploring how to collaborate and grow together. As we grow as collective learners, we will be better equipped to guide as students in similar pursuits.
In my own classroom, I resolve to strive to teach "like first snow falling" (Taylor Mali) every day, every lesson. Unless I am geeked about the lesson, how do I expect students to get fired up and excited about what they are learning? I need to rejuvenate my own enthusiasm for learning and teaching, finding those key components that made me excited about these topics.
With my students, I must seek out their strengths as if each child were MY child, seeing blindly beyond their faults, to the inner glow, and capitalize on this, making each child feel unique and capable and extraordinary. For some children, this task will be difficult, almost monumental for me, but I must resolve to make this a priority.
I resolve to focus more on the learning, and less on the grades, more on the growth, and less on missing the mark of perfection. By learning more about formative assessment, and actually implementing this learning into my teaching, I can help students become a part of their own growth process, taking individual responsibility for growth and achievement.
Parents are a critical part of school success so I resolve to involve them more and more and more, impressing upon them the integral role of home and school, supporting them in supporting my teaching and school in general. Reaching out to parents of struggling students, giving them tools to support their child, encouraging and praising their efforts, will empower both of us to empower that child to experience success.
On a larger scale, I resolve to be active in the larger scale of education reform, helping the voices of teachers be heard in Washington, forcing policy makers to hear our reasons and our concerns. I will reach beyond the local, into the national arena, speaking loudly myself, supporting others' voices, and make those decision makers realize the crisis in education today is real and must be addressed.
I resolve for 2010 to be a better year in education, in my classroom, in my building, in my district and more importantly, across this nation. I resolve to make a difference.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

As a teacher, I am thankful for many things, the most obvious being a relatively stable source of employment, where while I am not getting rich, I do have a steady paycheck with an impressive benefits package. These are things to not be taken lightly in today's economy.

However, my list of thankful-fors is much longer when I consider the non-monetary benefits of my job.

First of all, I am thankful for my students. Teaching middle schoolers comes with its ups and down, certainly, but as a whole, I enjoy their sense of humor, their enthusiasm for life, and their quizzical natures. Nothing makes my day more than when my students come in smiling, eager for whatever the day holds. Little notes of kind words left on my desk go farther than the adolescent hand that scribbles them could ever know. The times they "get it", with bolt of lightning and a rumble of thunder, make all the days they don't get it, worthwhile.

I am also thankful for parents who honestly care about their students and want to support the school and its efforts to educate their child. Often, we, as educators, become irritated when the 'helicopter" parent keeps too close of tabs on our students, insisting on frequent updates, or extra help for their child, or questioning our curriculum or pedagogy. But in reality, I know I personally prefer a parent who cares, who wants the best for their child, who is involved and insistent, even to a fault, to those who do not have any interest in what the student does at school. There is nothing more disheartening than a phone call home that ends with the parent's comments making it crystal clear that this child is MINE from 8:00 until 3:08 each day, and nothing that happens during that timeframe is of concern to the parent. These parents not only do not encourage homework completion or support the school in discipline issues, they often make matters worse by their animosity towards school, adminstrators, and teachers. These parents make the helicopter ones seem much more pleasant!

I am thankful for supportive adminstrators during my career, the ones who promote and encourage teacher leadership and autonomy. Teaching is not a top down business, and adminstrators who understand empowering teachers to lead, learn and create for and with other teachers is powerful, make teaching more rewarding.

Last but not least, I am thankful for supportive professional learning communities which I am a part of. Teacher Leaders Network provides me a group of educators with whom I can share, grow and lead. This experience has enriched me in countless ways. I am thankful for the Center for Teaching Quality for their belief in and their support of this group. Another professional group for which I am especially thankful is the MiddleTalk listserve supported by National Middle School Association. This group of amazing middle level educators provides me with constant inspiration to grow in my teaching of adolescents. Lastly, I am thankful for the National Writing Project which gives voices to teachers to share with students. While other groups have helped me become the teacher I am, these three in particular shine like beacons in my professional journey.

Thankfulness is an ongoing experience, one we should visit often. But this November, I take the to time to publicly thank all the members of these groups who have helped me along my way.

Wordle: thankful created at

Saturday, November 21, 2009

There is no cruder humor than middle school humor, so I will make no apologies for today's post. If you are going to be offended, then move on down your RSS feed!

Friday was one of THOSE days in 7th grade. It could have been partially because it was Friday... I don't know... but the troops were wild and crazy.

It started out 2nd hour when we had to go to the high school to get vision testing done. Of course, when we got to the room for testing, the class of 3rd graders ahead of us were nowhere even close to being done, so here I am with a group of 7th graders, trying to entertain them in the high school hallway until our turn to enter the room. Things started out ok, but quickly progressed to chaos, despite my attempts to corral the troops. We were sitting on the benches in the long hallway outside the gym and library when someone suggested Simon Says. Always game for adventure, we tried it, but somehow it just wasn't working. Students peeped in the gym windows watching the high schoolers play badmiton and basketball, until finally, the 3rd graders were on the move. Unfortunately, the kindergarteners were also headed by, coming from play practice in the auditorium. One of my exuberants raised his hand as they walked by, saying, "HIGH 5!" to which the little kids all excited did as they walked by him. Until... the teacher caught wind of the excitement and reprimanded MY young man, glaring at me, explaining how difficult it is to teach 'kinders' to keep their hands to themselves.

I thought to myself, "Good thing you don't teach middle school then, because it is IMPOSSIBLE to teach THEM to do that!"

Finally, we are all in the small conference room, waiting to get our vision screening done. Kids are seated in small hard plastic chairs, lined against the perimeter of the wall, with nothing to do, bored from waiting in the hall for 15 minutes, already. The first few to be tested are some of the most active of my group. Finished and bored, they start looking for mischief, so I send 2 of the most miscreant of the group on an errand, back to the middle school to get my diet Mountain Dew. While they are gone, the other boys start this strange exhibit of seeing how much they flab on the bottom of their arms will jiggle. They were laughing and giggling and oogling each other, and somehow at one point, I got sucked into the fracas and lifted my arms to shake my ample old lady flaps, which caused such an eruption of laughter, the slight previous control of the situation I appeared to have dissolved into utter pandemonium. I started laughing and we were making joked about the earthquakes and tsunamis we were causing in China and around the world from the jiggling. The more we carried on, the harder I laughed, causing me to start crying, which made my mascara run, which made the boys laugh more, which made me laugh more, which made the woman doing the vision testing look at us like we were escaped mental patients, which made us laugh more, which made her glare LOUDER, which made us laugh more, which finally led me to leave the room to get a tissue and ahold of myself. FINALLY, all the visions were checked and we were dismissed.....

The rest of the day was moving along normally, until last hour. It was quiet, so very quiet, in prealgebra. It is never dead silent in my classroom. It just isn't. But Friday, it was. In the silence, I hear this slight hint of a squeak of a release of gas from one of them. And, suddenly, it is over, the silence broken by laughter and squeals and embarassing comments and excuses from the gas passer.

Normally, this is where it would have ended, but not Friday, not today when the giggle planets were aligned in perfect symphony..... this day, these boys must share EVERY fart story they know... about each and every one of them, until they start in on the teacher stories. Teachers in their past who have shockingly FARTED in front of them. Despite my best efforts to gain control, the stories started flying.... Apparently, in 5th grade, Mrs. W did it once at the board when she was writing, and it was loud, and such a HUGE one, HER SKIRT MOVED.

And from there on out... it was hopeless......

As it can only be with 7th grade boys.....

and yet, another reason, I love them.....

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Acceptance is the most difficult part of being a teacher. It was the most shocking thing about my job when I first started. I never realized I would have students unconcerned about their assignments and success in school, parents who didn't insist in the best from their children, or most shockingly of all, I didn't understand I would work with teachers satisfied with the status quo for themselves as educators.

Accepting those realities was harsh, and still is, even after nearly 2 decades in this business.

As a student myself, I came from a home where education was valued; school was my job while I was there, and I was expected to do whatever it took to be successful. Many of my students, however, come from very different situations. Their parents are under-educated themselves, and do not either see the importance of education, or are unable to adequately impart that critical measure to their children. Homework, right or wrong, is a part of success in school. It doesn't have to be curriculum driven, but the simple valuing of reading, quest of knowledge, and honorable pursuits of time after school go a long way in student success. Homes without newspapers, internet, magazines, or books, send a subliminal message to children. Homes where parents do not interact with their children, never asking "what did you learn today?" or "how was school?" or "let me look over your homework" create a divide between the home environment and the school establishment. Homes where television and video games are the dinner time norm do not create relationships and conversations.

Students learn to accept less than their personal best, learn to take the easy way out, when parents accept less from them. Some students respond to intense teacher intervention or peer pressure to be successful at school. Others find internal motivation from deep within. Unfortunately though, others are unreachable, choosing to coast through school, never striving for a higher rung on the ladder, never doing beyond what they are forced to do. Despite the best efforts of every person in contact with that child, the inner forces that drive that student are not there.

Parents and students are but a small part of the equation though. The most disturbing to me are other educators who take the easy way out. Certainly, we all do this on occasion. I am not talking about those excusable indiscretions of human laziness. I am talking about the teachers who constantly show students they are not THE priority in the classroom. Teachers who are unprepared for class... teachers who do not return papers promptly corrected.... teachers who do not want to learn and grow in their profession.... teachers who coast their way from the teachers' lounge to their room as the bell rings, lingering for a longer lunch or break, instead of interacting with students in the hallways... teachers who never make a parent phone call, insisting it won't help anyway....

I wonder why WE in our profession, the dedicated teachers, allow THEM to taint our schools? Are we backed into a corner by an outdated system that does not encourage excellence? Or are we simply lazy, unwilling to make those confrontational conversations?

Accepting less than your own personal best is not an option, whether you are the parent, student or teacher. Strive for excellence in all you do. Not only will you be rewarded for your efforts, but you might just inspire someone else.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Unbridled enthusiasm for soaking up new knowledge.... It seems every day my granddaughter, now 6 1/2 months old, learns something new, a new skill, and a new talent. Everything to her is magical, exciting, and something to be pursued. She wants to learn, to grasp, to take it all in, soaking up everything like a sponge.
What happens to cause some students to lose that incredibly insatiable need to learn new things? Is it because what we are teaching in school is not exciting to them? Is it because they have experienced failure so often they refuse to even try? Is it because learning is not cool in their circle of friends?
As adults, many of us are driven to learn new things, taking classes, learning skills, reading, exploring. These pursuits may be work related, helping us climb the ladder rungs of our profession, or simply things which interest us, excite us, drive us, in our private lives. But we choose to learn and grow continuously.
How can we make school a place of unbridled enthusiasm for learning? Inevitably, much of what we must teach our students does not peak their interest, making them crave its pursuit. Is there are way to reach their inner love of learning with any subject matter? Is there a way to keep that wide open mouth grin, loving everything that comes their way there?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Teaching is one of those occupations with little immediate tangible result. My husband is a builder. He can step back when the job is done and say, "There, I built that school. I rocked that fireplace. See what I did."
At the end of my day, there isn't much to show for my efforts except a messy desk of tasks yet to be completed. My rewards come from the little things, those few and far between moments when the twinkle shows in a student's eye, those quick hugs or comments, that occasional note from a student or parent.
We wonder why the retention rate for new teachers is low. We wonder why the best and brightest of our graduates do not choose to become teachers. We wonder why once in a classroom, the toils of the job chase them looking for other positions quickly.
I wonder if we found ways to show teachers their worth, the impact they are making, and that they are valued by society in general, I wonder if we could change that problem? How could we make the rewards more tangible and immediate??

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My friend and colleague, Anthony Cody, has started a movement to get the attention of President Obama through a letter writing campaign among educators and others concerned about the future of public education in the United States, how the decisions about education are being made, and the impact those decisions have on students.

Please consider joining this effort on Facebook at: The power in this effort comes from the volume of members and the variety of voices. Please help our voices be heard! Join this group, post your letter or thoughts. If you are not on FB, please add your letter here and I will see that is added. You may also email me your letter at

Below is my own letter to President Obama:
Dear President Obama,
On behalf of my 7th grade students, and all students in our country, I ask you to carefully consider your decisions regarding education. Our country’s future depends upon the future of these children.
No Child Left Behind set the stage for educational reform, but has veered from its initial intent which was to truly leave no child behind, to one of bureaucracy, unrealistic expectations of teachers and students, and a push to make all children fit the same mold.
As a teacher, I agree I should be held accountable for my actions in my classroom. Teachers are public servants in the purest sense of the words. However, I also know there is more to creating an educated child than filling in bubbles on a standardized test can measure.
Each child that walks into my door comes with a different skill set, in both social skills and curricular knowledge. Some of them are bright and capable, soaking up new knowledge like sponges, excited by each new topic, exploring independently. Others struggle despite their best efforts. Learning is tough for them, for a variety of reasons, from natural ability to lack of prior knowledge, to some sort of learning disability. Still others come to school begrudgingly, fighting every attempt to engage them. These students deal with issues beyond my ability to touch them. They are often in trouble with the law, even at the young age of 12. They have issues with drug and alcohol abuse. They have mental health issues. Some of these students do respond to my efforts; others, simply come to school because it is court ordered.
Expecting that all of these students will walk out of my classroom with the exact same skill set at the end of the year is unrealistic. These are not pieces of wood to be carved, or clay lumps to be molded. They are children, human beings, with different needs, wants and desires, and perhaps most importantly, different starting points. I can teach them, I can expose them to new knowledge, I can give the opportunities to learn and grow, but I cannot force this process. Despite my best efforts, some of them will simply refuse to learn.
Funding for education is another issue which concerns me. My students deserve to have the same opportunities as students in more affluent school districts. While I realize that technology is simply a tool for teachers to use, more equitable distribution of technology resources needs to be a priority. Students at other schools are engaged with SmartBoards, new laptops with exciting software, and other gadgets that spark their imagination and creativity. My students are using laptops that are so old, most are missing multiple keys; their processing speeds are so slow working on them takes longer than handwriting a paper would; they have no cool software and won’t even run online programs such as Google Earth. We cannot use our laptops to collaborate and communicate with students in other places. We cannot link to famous authors, mathematicians and scientists. We cannot use GIS software to analyze data. We are living and learning with 20th Century technology in a 21st Century world.
We are a rich nation, with many resources. Yet, too often our spending priorities are not aligned with what we say our priorities are. If our children are our priority, if we truly believe that education is the key to our future, then we need to fund education adequately. Educational opportunities should not be equitable to socioeconomic status. Our current educational system locks children of poverty into the same cycle as their parents. Until education is funded equitably and adequately, our students will not leave school prepared for their adult lives.
I love being a teacher. It truly defines who I am and all I believe. However, I am becoming disenchanted with the lack of support financially and professionally to allow me to create the learning environment I know my students need and deserve. I spend too much valuable time pushing them forward in a curriculum they are not prepared to learn, one that will not serve their adult needs, and one that was designed by people unknowledgeable about the learning styles and needs of young adolescents. I am forced to prepare them to take a one day test which will supposedly measure 181 days of all their worth as students, and my worth as a teacher. I am forced to dip into my own pockets to fund classroom activities, and even to provide simple materials such as paper and pencils. I work long hours, with often little support from parents or administration, trying to create a conducive learning environment for my students. I do all this because I love my students, I believe in their potential, and I want them to succeed. Please show your belief in their potential by making education a priority in your administration, listening to real teachers, in real classrooms, and allowing us to help you mold public education.
Cossondra George
Newberry Middle School
Newberry, MI

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Helicopter parents.... those who hover over their children, trying to rescue them, instead of encouraging and teaching responsibilty......are often more complex to deal with than parents who simply do not care.
Yesterday morning, I was met at my door as students were arriving by stepmom to one of my students. In her hand was a completed math homework assignment. She went on to explain that Student X had INDEED completed this when it was due, but had forgotten to bring it to class. It seems he was upset I did not believe him when he told me it was completed at home.
She went on to say she didn't care if he got credit or not, and she had told him the same, she just wanted me to know it WAS done.
Student X does very little work, in class, or on his own. Almost every day, he tells me some tale of woe: his paper is in his locker completed, it is at home under his bed completed, it was sucked into a parallel universe by Martians (OK, I made that one up!!). But when pressed to dig in the locker, the paper emerges incomplete, or later falls out of his book, incomplete. Therefore, when he told me AGAIN that his paper was done, just left at home, I had no sympathy for him.
Backing up to stepmom now, our conversation about Student X continued as she explained the story again to me, that he is back and forth between her house and mom's house. He lies to her about most everything from school work to anything else. She explains the resources he has available to get extra help while with her and his dad, sounding nearly as frustrated as I am.
Rewind for a minute. Since the begining of the school year, I have been in contact with both sets of parents on more than one occasion, explaining the young X wastes time, doodles instead of working, etc... Each conversation results in a day of improvement which quickly fades to the previous state of accomplishment.
So this afternoon, I get an email from 'real' mom. She is upset because X came home and told her he has a test this Friday but had only one worksheet to study for it. She wants to know what resources I can send her to help him so he can "bring his grade up before the end of the marking period". X currently has a D-. Even a 100% on Friday's map quiz will only bring his grade up to a D.
I go on to explain AGAIN to her how social studies class is organized. We have 1 set of social studies books to share among all 7th graders. We use these occasionally in class, but never do I give an assignment students would need the book to complete. When we do have a test covering readings from the book, we read it together in class, I give them notes, make foldables, have students make vocabulary cards, etc... to make studying for the test easier than if they actually used the book. I post a powerpoint of the notes online so students can use it to review. I review with them in class repeatedly, including giving test taking strategies.
I also explain to her again, that ALL my assignments are posted online at my website - the link for which went home the first day of school and is also included in my email signature. I also point out that assignments can be viewed in PowerSchool (online grading program) as well.
My biggest gripe of the situation... Mom seems not concerned with the poor study habits X has developed at all. She does not seem concerned about his lack of understanding the material. She does not ask for anything except for a way to bring his grade up!
Wouldn't it have made more sense to have considered that sooner instead of waiting until the end of the marking period??
I have suggested X attend afterschool tutoring, but it seems, "that doesn't work for him". I have suggested X come see me before school, during seminar or at lunch, but as of yet, I have not seen him.
The mom, as well as the stepmom, seem frustrated with X, granted. However, all parties seem to want ME to accept more responsibility for his success than he is willing to accept. One of the past emails actually requested I email them when he is missing an assignment. I pointed out that I record grades EVERY day in PowerSchool which they can easily access.
Sometimes, I think parents forget that we teach more than just their child. While I agree that teachers should try to make parents part of the school equation, students must be expected to be responsible for their own learning as well.
Student X was given a planner to use, but he never brings it to class, never writes in it, and parents never check it. Where does the responsibility fall??
The deafening sound of helicopter blades make me head spin........

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

As the snowflakes fall outside the window, I am reminded of Taylor Mali's poem, Undivided Attention:
Undivided attention By Taylor Mali

A grand piano wrapped in quilted pads by movers, tied up with canvas straps - like classical music's birthday gift to the insane - is gently nudged without its legs out an eighth-floor window on 62nd street.
It dangles in April air from the neck of the movers' crane, Chopin-shiny black lacquer squares and dirty white crisscross patterns hanging like the second-to-last note of a concerto played on the edge of the seat, the edge of tears, the edge of eight stories up going over, and I'm trying to teach math in the building across the street.
Who can teach when there are such lessons to be learned? All the greatest common factors are delivered by long-necked cranes and flatbed trucks or come through everything, even air. Like snow.
See, snow falls for the first time every year, and every year my students rush to the window as if snow were more interesting than math, which, of course, it is.
So please.
Let me teach like a Steinway, spinning slowly in April air, so almost-falling, so hinderingly dangling from the neck of the movers' crane. So on the edge of losing everything.
Let me teach like the first snow, falling.
While this is not our first snowfall of the season, students still find it distracting, engaging, and much more interesting than the simplifying algebraic expressions lesson or social studies test I have planned for today. They look longingly at the window, to the point I finally put down the shade.
Mali is right....
Let me teach like the first snow, falling...............
White and soft
Falling gently
Tugging at heartstrings
My students
And mine
Like my students
And me

Monday, November 02, 2009

Back to school today, and it seems for the most part, we've dodged the proverbial bullet. Most students are back in class, relatively healthy. This makes me wonder if our preemptive strike against the flu bugs was successful, or unnecessary. A quick poll of my classes showed only a couple of students in each hour who were 'sick' while on our little mini-vacation.
The kids are full of tales of what they did with their time off. Vivid descriptions of trick or treating, their costumes, and the haunted house at the teen center excitedly flow freely. I wonder if there is a way to capture that enthusiasm and turn it into learning at school.
All the educational research says make learning meaningful and relevant, and kids will buy into it. I agree wholeheartedly! HOWEVER, I struggle with the day to day application of that principle.
In math in particular, it seems not every lesson warrants some fun and exciting project to tie these algorithms to real life. Those ties are so often far-fetched and trivial anyway. Can't we sometimes just learn a new skill for the sake of learning? Just because we will need it for the next lesson, or for 'someday'? In math, skills are so sequential and specific, and not always directly connected to something else, I struggle with making 7th graders excited about learning the distributive property or multiplying mixed numbers or inverse relationships. I can come up with relevant examples, but often times, these mean less to my students than the book's word problems.
When I was a kid, school was school. We learned because we were supposed to. We did our homework because if we didn't, the consequences at home were dire. Now it seems, kids question and want to be entertained much more. The age of electronics has overpowered their sense of being able to learn, unstimulated.
We can argue the need to teach creativity and problem solving skills, touting the need in the 'real world' for this knowledge. Truth is, kids who go through traditional educational programs ARE successful in the business world. My oldest daughter's education was much skill and drill, learning for the sake of learning, little high level thinking, no project based learning, little technology. But now, at 25, she is lucratively employed, able to lead teams to success as they collaborate and work on problems we had yet to imagine when she walked the hallowed halls of this school. Obviously, her traditional schooling worked our for her.
I think if we teach students a consistently viable curriculum, teach them to learn, teach them to be responsible, teach them to value education, we will create contributing members of society. We don't need to worry so much about the path to get there, as much as getting them there.
More students attempt college now than ever before, for better or worse. We are generating more high school graduates than in generations past. Literate adults are being created. We just need to let go of our expectations for every student to become a college graduate, and realize success is measured in ways beyond a diploma.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tuesday I wrote about the flu starting to sweep through our school. By the 3:08 bell, it had made its way through enough students to bring our school to close for the remainder of the week. While 3 days off is enjoyable in some ways, I worry about many things with this closure.

Of course, the most obvious is the well-being of students and staff who become ill. While the H1N1 flu seems to be not as serious as once thought, it has the potential to take young lives. On a personal note, I worry about my own 6 month old granddaughter. With me bringing home germs from students at school I am in constant contact with, I fear she is exposed to more than her share of germies.

Another facet of worry is how will we continue to meet the needs of students who are gone for extended periods of time. Retention of material taught is always a concern but with large unplanned gaps such as this, I know my students will struggle picking up where we left off without some back tracking. It isn't so much that I mind the review of skills and material as it all becomes a time game.

With President Obama's decree of the flu being a national emergency, speculation over whether or not we will have to make up time missed is still being bounced around. We have 30 hours built in for snowdays so assuming these 3 days are all we miss, with minimal true snow days, we will still meet our annual attendance requirements. That all seems unlikely with this wave of flu hitting so early, and the weather service predicted a wetter than average winter.

If we make the days up, covering the material is simple in theory. However, if we do not make the days up, we will be forced to choose between not covering as much material or zooming through it quicker to get to everything in the time span alloted. Neither is a perfect solution. I find it difficult to adequately cover everything as it is! Given the choice between depth and breadth of curriculum, I always choose depth, even at the risk of not getting to everything.

Monday will find us back in the classroom, hopefully. Sniffling, coughing, sneezing students all grouped back together, sharing germs, waiting for the next tsunami of illness to hit shore!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Today's posts will be random ramblings, so be forewarned!

Sunday afternoons invariably find me at school, prepping for the week. With 3 academic classes to prepare for and one hour of prep time during the day, I simply do not have enough time to get everything taken care of - lesson plans written, website and PowerSchool updated, assignments corrected and recorded, etc. I could take things home at night, but I choose to do that very rarely. Instead of hauling things, I find it much easier to come in early each morning, and then on the weekends to keep caught up. I am one of many teachers in my district here on the weekends doing the exact same thing. Winter has kicked in here in the Upper Peninsula. Our building has a terrible, old heating system. It is now being shut off on Friday afternoons and turned back on Monday mornings. When I was in school this weekend, it was 54 degrees in my room! Just a tad chilly for working. To me, this is treating teachers as un-professionals. I can guarantee if central office personnel had to work on weekends, they would certainly not expect them to sit there in the cold! It just irritates the heck out of me that because we are "just teachers" it doesn't matter if we have heat or not!

Onto other ramblings now...

Each year, when my social studies class begins its study of world religions, I invite our district's transportation director into my classroom to talk about Native American spirituality. Because we have a significant Native population in our area, most students are somewhat familiar with powwows, various medicines such as tobacco and sweet grass, as well some of the tribal contributions to our area. He does a great job of explaining how most world religions actually have much more in common than they have differences. His overarching talk sets the tone for our more indepth look at religions which often seem foreign to my almost entirely Christian students. What a great way to utilize a school employee in a new way!

The homework saga continues..... I gave my math class 7 problems multiplying fractions for homework yesterday. They had about 10 minutes in class to get started, enough time that several students finished the work. Those were kids who know their multiplication facts, and who came to me fairly well prepared for 7th grade math. Keep in mind that multiplying fractions is actually NOT 7th grade material, but we review it quickly before moving on to other things. However, even with this short assignment, I have students who did not take it home, who do not care, who refuse to work unless I am standing over them. I have made parent phone calls, to no avail. The one young man just sat in my homeroom during seminar, the half hour class period each day, much like a study hall, where students can get extra help with assignments. He came with part of the first problem done from yesterday. The entire half hour found him having completed that one problem and one more. Unless I was standing over him, he will not work. I cannot stand over him! I have 25 other students, more concerned, and wanting and accepting help. It is unbelievable to me that as a 12 year old, a person has already ingrained these sluggish habits into himself. It is almost as if breathing is too much of a bother for him.

The flu is making its way through our school, though we have not been hit as hard as some areas. Yesterday, there were over 200 schools closed in the state of Michigan. Some of them have closed for a solid week in an attempt to slow the spread of H1N1 among their students. I applaud their efforts. It is difficult for students to keep up with assignments when they are gone for extended periods of time. While all my work is posted online, math concepts often require students more help than they can get from the book alone. They need that adult coaching to grasp the process of the new concepts. It becomes a balancing game of how slowly can we move with the students who are here, while trying to not leave behind those who are absent.

Whew.. enough of a rant for today :)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

OH MY!!!

We could toss in the Vikings and Patriots, but I digress :)

My kids have been working on one of my favorite things all year: Cartesian Cartoons. When I student taught, back when we had rocks to write in the dirt, instead of laptops and projectors, my supervising teacher had this great book of pictures students could draw from a set of cartesian coordinates. The kids had a blast, it was great graphing practice, and best of all, cool stuff to hang on the classroom walls, which doesn't happen an awful lot in math class.

When I started teaching math, I bought the book she had, along with a couple others I found. I had my high school cadet make copies and laminate them to use. It has become a perennial favorite assignment.

6th graders should become proficient at coordinate graphs, but unfortunately, each year I find students in general struggle with the process. These graphs provide a fun way, a quick way, to brush up on those skills.

I load my Easiteach program with a coordinate grid, choose a dozen or so random points, combining all possibilities, all 4 quadrants, as well as points on both the x and y axis. We practice on the whiteboard (oh wouldn't a Smartboard be amazing....) and then, I turn them loose on their graphs.

Soon, lions and tigers and bears, along with Indian heads (our mascot), mice, mountains, and other assorted pictures adorn my bulletin boards and wall.

Somewhere down through the years, my original books have been loaned to another teacher and not returned. I am thinking I deserve a new set!!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

It's been a long, tough 2 weeks. My biggest challenge has been trying to keep both of my prealgebra classes together despite the weird schedule. Part of me thinks I should have just pushed forward with the group not missing class due to testing. Part of me knows it is easier for me, and the kids to have those 2 groups together. However, the logistics of 'entertaining' them for the extra time drive me bonkers. We have played games, drawn Cartesian Cartoons, played online math games, board games, etc... But my patience is drawing to an end. One more day, one more day....

It is enormously easier for me as far as planning, to have both prealgebra classes together. I already prep for 3 different subjects, so having those 2 classes together keeps that prep from growing to 4. It makes things like writing the day's work on the board easier - which sounds petty- but in all reality, I don't have room to write 4 subjects!! The classes being in the same place also means the kids can help each other, regardless of which class they are in. And last but not least, I am so scatterbrained I am not sure I could remember which class has done what, who has what homework due, and manage to keep it all straight in my head! Just juggling the 3 different classes already pushes my mental capacities to their limits.

After tomorrow, it will be an irrelevant issue thank goodness. The last of the MEAP's are finished in the morning, and life can get back to normal, FINALLY!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sitting here quietly, watcing my students plodding their way through their math MEAP tests, I wonder how seriously some of them are taking this. Granted, the group I have in here is fairly motivated to be successful, being one of my 2 prealgebra sections. However, I see the glazed over looks on faces, the boredom setting in, on this Day Three of testing.

Some teachers are completely against high stakes tests, period. I am not one of those. I see the purpose in these events, and support increased accountability in schools and on the part of teachers. I am just not sure this is the most accurate way to get feedback on those.

Score comparisions are usually done on a year to year basis, comparing one group of students to another, this year's 7th graders to next year's 7th graders. To me, that makes little sense. I prefer to look at scores longitudinally, looking at one group's growth over a period of years. Are we increasing the number of students we have proficient within THAT group of students?

Anyone who has been a teacher knows the variations you see between groups. Some groups are smaller, with few problem students. Some are large, with high percentages of special needs students, or behavioral issues. To compare these seems counter-intuitive to me.

NCLB strives to have 100% of students proficent. Great, wonderful, but EUTOPIA! I do not see any possible way to have all of our students proficient, ever, in any subject. That is like saying all students will become professional basketball players, or nuclear physicists.

Public education DOES have a responsibility to educate all students. For too long, we have shirked that responsibility in too many instances. We have teachers who are ineffective, unmotivated, and without pedalogical skills necessary to connect with students. THAT must be addressed.

However, often times, factors beyond our control impact student achievement. Until our societal paradigms swing back to making education our #1 priority in the home and community, many students simply will refuse to be active participants in their own learning.

But in the meantime, bubble away my little sweets, bubble away! I have answer sheets to collect, test booklets to secure, and #2 pencils to sharpen for the afternoon session!

Wordle: 0ct20blgo

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I am struggling this year with getting kids to complete assignments. Teaching math means kids need to practice skills on their own in order to cement in their brains, the processes learned. We usually spend the first day/s on a topic, working together, usually using small whiteboards, practicing the process, the steps, the how-to of our new skill set. But at some point, students must work independently to make those skills stick with them in long term memory.

I try to give time in class to work on the problems assigned. There is a two-fold reason for this - #1, I want students to have me or others as a resource should they run into problems. I want to be able to look over their shoulders, sit next to strugglers, help them through the rough parts. #2, Students often do not complete work once they leave my room.

Hence, my struggle. I try to give a reasonable amount of independent work, what I think it will take the average 7th grader to complete in the alloted time in class.

Unfortunately, there are students who work slowly and need more time. That might be because they process slowly, needing more time to think about what they are doing. Those are the kids who work steadily, determined to be successful. They are using class time wisely, asking for help, using the resources made available to them. They will plod their way through, step by step by step.

Others that do not finish are the ones I struggle the most with. These are the intentional dawdlers. They just simply waste time. Regardless of the task in front of them, they tackle it with as much enthusiasm as a snail slithering across a cold sidewalk.

Unfortunately, just cutting an assignment in half for either of these groups is probably not the answer. The first group, the slow processors, need more problems than the average student to grasp what is being taught. They need practice, practice, practice to get it right, to make it automatic in their minds. Much like the star basketball player who spends hours to master those shooting and dribbling skills, these kids should be spending MORE time instead less time, if they ever want to be math stars.

In the second group, the pokey group, some of these kids could probably grasp the concepts with fewer problems, and for those, I do not mind adjusting an assignment. However, usually, it is so difficult to assess whether or not they know what is going on or not, I am reluctant to do that!

What's the answer?? I am not sure.. I can sit with the individual students, trying to prod them to work faster, but with some of them, that is like torture, for them as well as me.

There has to be a solution...

.....parents forcing kids to do homework? Maybe... but often times, there are legitimate reasons kids don't do schoolwork outside of school.

....more time in the school day to work on math skills? sure, but what is going to be taken from their schedule to make time for this?

..... some other option I have yet to discover? probably....

Saturday, October 10, 2009

It was a week in middle school, no doubt. Highs and lows and everything in between.

The little red headed girl who was so adament that a negative plus a negative was a positive a couple of week ago, and was just going to go home and ask Dad, do you remember her? She is a remarkable student and we have met in the middle together. She is an avid reader, taking an AR test each day, devouring books like other students eat Skittles. In PreAlgebra, she has started asking questions, learning, questioning and participating. Yesterday, on her way out the door, she said casually, "Mrs. George, you might be the best teacher I ever had! You actually explain stuff instead of just expecting us to learn it." Coming from her, I was simply teary eyed to think how far we've come together this year.

My 6th hour class is THE CLASS. The kids come back from electives, in a rush, loud, wired, and having run all the way from the high school to make it in time. Couple that energy burst with this group being my 'low' group, and a high percentage of boys, and it makes for a rough hour. Many of the students in there have such low math skills, I am not sure what to do with them. Trying to help the one little guy, we finally got the equation to the last step, 40-36. He had no clue what to do, even when I suggested counting up from 36 to 40 on his fingers. He started counting, looking at me the entire time with his huge blue eyes, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42... "WHOA! Stop, where are you going?" I asked him.

He shook his head downward and said, "I don't know what you mean by count up."

Sure I can give him a calcutor to use, but honestly, with that little number sense, he is going to struggle all year with the algebraic concepts we cover. How can we change our paradigm in lower grades to insist students know, grasp, and have those basic facts down? It is frustrating to try and teach them strategies such as estimating the answer, checking to see if it a logical answer, etc... all of which require number sense. On a regular basis, I see students who don't see how 40 is an illogical choice of an answer for 100-96.

But back to 6th hour....

Working with this group is a challenge, period. But Friday, I had a small epiphany. There are 2 young men in there who are bright, very bright. While we are doing the first examples on the board of each lesson, they GET it. As I plod my way through with other students, over and over trying to get them to grasp the smallest hint of what we are doing, these 2 are off on their own planets, looking for trouble. THey are not the kind to pursue something independently enriching on their own. They are the type to build paper airplanes and organize a flight school :) I keep trying to come up with things for them to do, differentiate the lesson to their level. Then, I realized the solution - I suggested the boys move to prealgebra!

This will solve a couple of problems. The boys will be more challenged in my class so managing their off-task behaviors will become easier (in theory!!). It will make my 6th hour have 2 fewer students, making it more manageable, discipline wise as well as behaviorally. It will also shuffle schedules separating some of the major trouble makers all day.

Add to all that, the boys were FLYING HIGH, so proud and excited to have the chance to be moved into the higher class!

Next week starts MEAP testing, so we will see how things go with the move, their new schedules, hoping everything falls into place as it does in my mind.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

I am struggling with some logic here today. Once a student takes the final assessment (i.e. chapter test) is there a reason for that student to complete the work associated with that assessment? For example, in social studies, once the chapter test is completed, why on EARTH would you have a student take notes, write vocab words, answer section questions, or complete worksheets on that material?

It seems to me, in education, too often we focus on the quantity of work given, not the quality of the work. If an assignment has merit, by all means assign it, require it, assess it, grade it, talk about it, share it,whatever it takes to get that knowledge bouncing around in the students' heads and stick there for the long term, as well as on the assessment.

On the other hand, if the assignment is busy work, or just practice for the assessment, why force them to do it if they can prove mastery in another way?

We had a speaker recently who wanted to completely banish worksheets, likening them to the devil himself. In some instances I agree. Worksheets promote very little in the way of higher order thinking skills, for the most part. They tend to be predictable and rote.

However, in math, I do use worksheets for practice. I believe students need to practice math skills in order to become proficient.

In social studies, I also use worksheets, though more sparingly. For some students, these provide a safe, consistent, predictability they do not experience in the more creative assignments. I find them a valuable tool for basic things, like vocabulary words, or understanding the nitty gritty parts of what we are learning.

Do worksheets take the place of deep thinking writing assignments, class discussions, open ended projects? No! Absolutely not! But that does not mean they are without merit or purpose.

But backing up to the initial concern, if whatever final purpose those worksheets were preparing students to be proficient at has come and gone, why have them complete them after the fact?? That DOES seem like busy work to me, with no purpose or relevance.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The routine of the school year has fallen into place, expectations known, procedures down. We've gotten used to the early morning arrivals, and the long days shuffling through the schedule. I know my students and they know me. The honeymoon is over.

While I have yet to have any marked discipline issues with the "just wait until you get this group" group, I am begining to see their true colors. The boys who would rather draw than listen and participate. The girls who are caught in the boy drama. The ones who don't get enough sleep each night and tend to nod in class. The readers when they ought not to be reading. The non-readers who find every excuse not to read. The bathroom wanderers. The "I don't have a pencil" chronics.

So begins my own training of how to best meet all those diverse needs in an ever changing classroom. I have to capture the attention of those who are determined not to be caught, engage them long enough to hook them, and then drag them along the lesson until the message sinks in. I have to be ever vigilant, wandering, hovering, noticing, redirecting, and complimenting. To me, that is the most difficult part of my job.

In my mind, in my own school experience, the teacher shouldn't have to be the redirector so constantly as some of these kiddos demand. School IS their job, their task at hand, and they should be sticking with it until they meet success. My job is to be their guide, suggesting the direction they should take and remaining close to offer guidance along the way. For many of my students though, I feel as if I am steering a large barge down a narrow canyon of rushing whitewater rapids, unable to waiver even for a moment least I lose them, crashing violently into the craggy rock walls.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Suddenly, it seems like we are cruising at warp speed through the new school year, routines in place, personalities becoming evident, work patterns being established. The start has been remarkably uneventful for all the hoopla surrounding this group of students. I know we are still in the testing the waters stage but I have been impressed at how willing they are, as a whole, to work, to learn, and to try new things. They have their moments, no doubt, but I've yet to encounter a single discipline issue other than missing work.

I sense that this group needs success more than most. They need to feel loved and appreciated and accepted by the adults in front of them. They want to know their teachers want them there, and want them to be successful. I have tried to establish a relationship with each and every one of those characters I recognize from last year, those "hall sitters" who were constantly put out last year because of behavior. By stroking their egos frequently, by talking to them about things they enjoy outside of school, by teasing them and laughing with them, sharing stories and jokes, I hope I am building a bond which will weather the academic trials throughout the year.

The enthusiasm of the group is amazing overall. They are willing to contribute and answer, take a risk of being wrong. I LOVE that in classes. It is so much easier to take them further when they just participate. I have worked to establish the "I don't care if your hand is up or not" law. They are learning to look engaged and put that hand up to avoid being called on. The amazing thing is, when they concentrate on looking engaged and raising their hands, they ARE engaged! I love the comraderie of them as a group when someone gets caught off guard. They have learned to just be honest and say, "I wasn't listening. What number are we on?" instead of hemming and hawing around.

My 8th graders, my group from last year, are still in the visiting stage, coming by every day, telling me how much they miss me, transitioning to their new teachers and their new routine. I love that they are close, that they miss me as much as I miss them.... I don't ever want to teach 8th grade again. I cannot bear them going away to high school. I need them being in 8th grade, breaking away from me, so I can break away from them too!

The routine of the school year is falling into place, and I know, soon, it will be June and I will be sending another group on their way to 8th grade with tears in my eyes. It is a never ending cycle of kids.... each unique in their own way...

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

THE KIDS ARE COMING!! THE KIDS ARE COMING!! Today is the first day of school and somehow, I managed to sleep last night. Usually I am tossing and turning, thinking of all the little things I should have done, could have done. Maybe I have been at it long enough now I feel more organized, or perhaps, I have just learned that most of those things don't really matter the first day anyway?

Now, here I sit, alone in my classroom, enjoying the last of the clean shiny-ness of the order. Textbooks stacked neatly, students named etched in the front, notebooks waiting for students to write their own names on the cover, a permanent black Sharpie sitting at attention atop each stack, the tables all lined up perfectly, the computer cords all place, the laptops lights glowing green, handouts stacked with schedules, and parent letters, enrollment forms, first assignments. The room is smells right.

In less than an hour, all that will change. Kids will start trickling up the stairs as the buses arrive, one by one behind the school, exploding with students, laughing, decked out in their finest new duds, holding a backpack, some with name brands splattered across their shirts, and rears, others sporting the donated goods from Project Backpack. Today, they are excited, eager, ready to make their mark, thinking, "This is the year EVERYTHING will be wonderful! I am going to make it great year!"

My job is to meet them at the door, and keep that smile on their face for 36 weeks, keep that enthusiasm as fresh in January as it is today, make sure their goal to make this a wonderful year becomes their self-fullfilling prophesy. I hope I am up to the challenge.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Someone on my Facebook friend list said they were having a bumpy day and hoped it would get better. Jokingly, I responded, keep running over bumps in the road, they get smoother eventually. Another friend turned and posted this message as their status. I just laughed and went on with my day.

Later, the message started resonating in my mind, and as often happens, I started thinking how this might apply to teaching, my students, and how I can work to become a more effective teacher.

It seemed obvious: the bumps in the road of teaching are those difficult students, the ones who I struggle to meet the needs of, both academically and emotionally. Would the same strategy work with those students? If I just keep running over them, over and over again, would eventually they get "smoother"?

Perhaps.... therefore, what I need are strategies for running over them, over and over, smoothing those students rough edges. Realistically, though, these students are not the rolling hills, easily smoothed surfaces. They are rough terrain, left too long, neglected at home and even more, by a system they have come to mistrust.

My incoming group of 7th graders is one of "those" groups of students the teachers of previous years take great pleasure in warning the new teachers about. "Just wait until you get THESE kids!" they laugh. I have seen them in the hall, these bumps in the road headed my way, put there by teachers unsure how else to deal with their disruptive behaviors. I have seen them in the office, professing their innocence, as yet again, they are waiting to be suspended. I have spoken with them, warning them, "7th graders don't sit in the hall during class" I admonish them. I have already set them up to be a problem with me, a bump in my road. I need to change that the first day of school, I know.

Working with these "bumps" in the road, requires a different skill set, a different mind set, than working with the average student.

That skill set first off, must have a large bucket of patience on my part, for me as well as for them. I must go into the experience treating them as I always treat my new classes, with excitement over all the things we will learn together and a wonder about what kinds of experiences we will together explore. I must give them space to be themselves, but set strict parameters for their actions, and use logical, patient, predictable consequences when they do not meet my expectations. But I must always assume good intentions on their parts, planning for them to behave appropriately, instead of assuming they will not be able to handle certain activities. I need to go into this treating them as I would any other group of students, with high expectation, academically and socially.

I think maybe I need to develop a clearer view of the road without bumps or roadblocks, but just winding curves and surprises around the bend. I need to view the upcoming year not in terms of potential obstacles, but with excitement and anticipation of what can be accomplished with this group!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Becoming a Great Teacher

One of my favorite books is What Great Teachers Do Differently by Todd Whitaker. I blogged about it last fall and how I hoped to use the books ideals to set the course for my school year. This summer, with school looming near on the horizon, I am writing my own steps to Becoming a Great Teacher, with Whitaker as my inspiration.

1. Forget about whose job it is and just do it. I personally often catch myself thinking.... hmmm.. I don't need to THAT, it's the secretary's job, or the principal's, or the custodian's, or another teacher's... I think I have enough to do to fulfill my own job requirements, why would I step outside that box to help someone else. This year, I will strive to help others as much as possible, weighing the cost to me carefully, and if that cost is minimal, things like answering the phone, putting the next person's copies on to run, or grabbing a kid to sweep the hallway when there is a mess. All those take a minute amount of MY time but can make the other party's day run smoother.

2. Focus on the students I do not connect with or particularly like. I know, I know...... you have never had a student YOU didn't like! I confess, I have, usually one or two each year out of the 70 students I teach. There is no real reason I don't like that particular young lady or man, they have done nothing undeserving of my attentions, but for whatever reason, I find myself detached from them. My goal this year is to make the extra effort TO CONNECT ON A PERSONAL LEVEL with those kids. I want them to feel worthy in my classroom, to avoid any chance they sense my dislike for them. I will strive to truly find characteristics in them I appreciate and dwell upon these.

3. Be supportive of other teachers in their goals, their curriculum and their personal lives. I tend to be all business at school, rarely socializing in the lounger, or working with other teachers to coordinate our curriculums. This year, I want to reach outside my own classroom to work more openly with others, encouraging their projects, and finding ways to support what they are doing in their classrooms. Perhaps this will be a way to help those teachers who struggle with classroom management and meeting their curriculum goals?
4. Be a stronger advocate for our students. I am non-confrontational as a general rule, but as the years go by, I have become more and more certain that we as teachers must be the protector of all that is right for our students. We cannot stand by and allow others to slight children when it comes to education. While it may not be "my place" to tell others what to do in their classrooms, that does not mean I cannot be more proactive in making suggestions about teaching, curriculum or classroom management. I can offer articles and books to share, engage in conversations, as well as just gently point out how their decisions may be impacting students and their learning.
If I can attack those 4 goals with gusto and finesse, I think my year will be off to a great start. I will know I am making a positive impact on students, other teachers, and ultimately my own classroom!
I sat today writing our school's Targeted Assistance Plan for our new certification as a Title 1 funded school. It was interesting writing this plan certainly. There is no form to fill in, no template to follow, simply a rubric of what the end product must contain. It gave me a glimpse into what students must sometimes feel like when we give them an assignment without adequate direction.

As my colleague and I sat writing, and thinking, and talking, writing, rewriting, reworking the words, until they flowed the way we thought they ought, it struck me over and over how we were more concerned about the document passing muster with the powers who be who will be doling out the monies, than how our program will actually look and function once school starts. Even when we had a clear vision of how we wanted things to progress, we were cautious to use the right buzzwords, word phrases carefully using 'may' instead of 'will' and 'to include strategies such as...' instead of 'using '.

The document became just that, a document, instead of a living progress towards true improvement of student growth and success, it is a piece of paper with the i's all dotted and the t's all crossed. We made sure we used criteria and criterion correctly (we hope...), that we didn't repeat the same phrases repeatedly, and that our pieces and parts were all copacetic, flowing elegantly with and into each other.

It became a "how many more steps do we have left" document instead of a "how can we best meet the needs of these kids, and best use the funds allocated to us" document.

Often in schools it seems this is the way these projects turn out. Writing school improvement plans, and even lesson plans, the initial goal, the intent coming out of the starting gate, was good, with potential. However, somewhere in the red tape and bureaucracy of the document itself, all the true worth was lost.

These documents, unfortunately, not only become a waste of time for those writing them, but then go on to become doorstop material rather than working breathing pieces of learning. No one reads them except the person checking it off to say, "JOB DONE...check!"

Wouldn't it make more sense to have a document in a 3 ring binder, with many marks of highlighters, and red pens, and green pens, and arrows, and smiles, and sticky notes, and addendums, article clippings and work samples...... showing what worked and what didn't, how we are changing the later, and improving upon the first? Shouldn't we be writing in pencil and changing in pen to show we have grown and learned from our mistakes, that we are ready to move on and up in our quest for educational excellence for all?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

When I first became a teacher, I had all these idealistic plans of how perfectly my classroom would always run, how the lessons would always be engaging and active and open-ended, how my students would be perfect learners, always motivated to push themselves to that next level, wanting and craving more, more, more.

After all these years, I have become less idealistic, and much more realistic when planning. I know that interruptions will happen, technology will glitch, and heaven forbid, the occasional student just might not be 100% engaged, 100% of the time.

That knowledge, however, does not prevent me from dreaming this time of the year, as I start thinking about new lessons and units for the upcoming school year. This summer, in particular, I am trying to think about social studies lessons for the upcoming year. This is my 3rd year in a row teaching Eastern Hemisphere 7th grade social studies. The grade level content expectations outlined by the State of Michigan are horrendous, covering enough material to keep college seniors busy for an entire school year, and certainly over the top for 7th graders. This makes teaching the class an additional challenge as I try to hit as many topics as possible from the list created by the state, but still give my students what I consider to be worthwhile, deep thinking activities to provoke them to really become involved in a topic and think how they can use their newfound knowledge to make a difference.

One of my goals is to use video clips more effectively. It is easy to pop in a video and discuss during the scenes, or after the entirety of the movie. I want to become more efficient at using just short clips however. With the help of United Streaming from Discovery Education, I want to find shorter clips that enhance exactly what we are learning about, and use them more often, instead of the long videos that are more overarching for a topic. I think my students will be more engaged with shorter clips, and I will be able to provide more stimulating discussion and writing prompts.

I know how I want this to look in my classroom, and have used in some in the past. Time is the one factor which makes this process intimidating. How do I ever find time to search, preview and think through video clips for each lesson, or even several lessons a week?

Isn't that how it is in teaching..... time, time, time.... If I had more time for planning, I would be able to create more engaging and meaningful lessons!

But enough blogging about what I want the lessons to look like, and back to planning the lessons, including how my students will blog their own reflections!