Sunday, April 19, 2009

As the end of the school year fast approaches, it becomes a race towards the finish line, many topics left to teach, lots of activites I want to share, as well as other disturbances creating havoc in the classroom. We are gearing up for 7th grade camp, my first granddaughter is on the way, any day, and spring is in the air melting the last of the snowbanks and causing 7th grade minds to wander randomly.

It is also the time of year I truly feel the most reflective about my own personal growth as a teacher. Looking back over the year I wonder what have I learned?

Today's post will be that: What I Have Learned in Middle School

Patience: Middle school kids simply have NO patience, none for trivialities in lessons, none for boring mundane assignments, not even a twinkling for each other and their mistakes. However, built into their own vast empty vat for patience is an insatiable need for the adults around them to be brimming with the same trait. They want and need for us to be tolerant of their actions, even when our patience has run out. They need us to explain one more time, ask them to stop doing something one more time, they want and crave our approval, one more time.

Humor: Nothing is more important the ability to laugh at yourself. Nothing will take you further successfully in a group of adolescents than being able to genuinely make fun of your own mistakes. Not only do they see the humor in most any situation, your ability to laugh at your own mistakes shores up their own insecurities about themselves. When they realize you are not perfect either, it makes them more confident that their own shortcomings, the ones they feel are so obvious to everyone around them, are less important.

Honesty: Never, ever lie to a middle school student about anything. In the first place, they are wonderful at picking up signals from you. In the second place, if they ever suspect you are lying, or worse, catch you in a lie, they will likely never give you another chance.

Forgiveness: While they are holding you to the highest possible standards, middle schools need to know you will always love them, always forgive them their indiscretions, and most of all, always wipe the slate clean. Once they feel you are holding their past actions,against them, they give up, refusing to try to please you because they feel it is too late, the damage is done, irreparable, so why bother. Even when you do not feel like being forgiving, you must.

Spontaneity: Middle schoolers crave routine, and feed off knowing what to expect from you, but once in a while, let you guard down. Tell a story that pops into your head because of what you are studying; take the class outside to taste the first snowflakes of the season, or to enjoy the first 60 degree day of the spring; bring in cookies just because. Everything during the school day does not have to be curriculum related. Show your humaness as well.

Unconditional Love: If you give it, you will get it. Students need to know you love them for who they are, in spite of who they are. If they do, the love you get back will make anything else thrown you way irrelevant.

I've also learned many other things this year, some of which would change the PG rating of my blog to XXX rated, but those don't matter nearly as much as the ones above :)

Middle schoolers are the most magical people on the planet. If you don't believe me, walk into my classroom and watch the fairy dust generated by their smiles.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

I've been thinking a lot about student success, learning and how the responsibility of those two things seems to rest solely with the school in the eyes of the public. Not for one minute I am saying all schools and all teachers do absolutely everything they can to ensure each child has the ultimate opportunities afforded him/her in the classroom. I am not even saying that I personally make every possible attempt to ensure the success of each child I teach.

However, I think we need to look beyond the classroom as well. There are students I have who no matter what I do, simply refuse to be successful in my classroom. While in the room, they are without the necessary materials for learning, despite the fact these are provided for them - simple things: textbook, paper, writing utensil. Daily, they are seated in their chair when the bell rings, with nothing in front of them. These students refuse to participate in the even the most engaging and relevant of lessons. They would rather use their time to sleep or talk to those around them, draw ink tatoos on their arms, or write notes to others. I can pull out all my tricks of the trade to no avail. I can call home, to talk to parents, some of whom talk a good talk, telling me they will have a chat when the student gets home, but in reality, that chat either never happens, or no consequences are attached, so the conversation falls on deaf ears. Other parents make is crystal clear: when that student is in my room, s/he is MY problem, not theirs. Not only will they not in any way be supportive, they don't want to hear about it.

I have students writing notes about having sex, graphic descriptions of their requests of the opposite sex. Those students are certainly not thinking about linear equations!

Forget homework..... these are students who will not carry ANYTHING home with them. I can try as I might to create learning opportunities within the classroom, but reality is that sometimes, students need to practice or think outside the 60 minutes I have them with me.

Perhaps the worst cases are the chronic absences. I have students who, at this point in the year, the 29th week of school, have missed over 40 days of school. I have called, emailed, talked to these parents, but to no avail. It is always some "family emergency" or "allergies" or some other excuse. Those might be plausible excuses if I didn't see the same kid walking downtown in the evening, hear them talking about hunting and ice fishing with grandpa while out of school, or look in the file and see that this is a chronic year after year problem.

Granted, there are students who are struggling in my content I could make a greater effort to reach. I could offer more after-school help, seek them out more often during the day, make more effort during class to sit with and work one-on-one with them. These are the reachable ones.

The ones above, I do not know what to do... I wish I did.

I wish whoever wrote the 100% of students WILL be proficient would come visit my classroom and watch these kids and explain it to me. I want them to all be successful, and I work very hard to try and make that happen. It just seems to me, more and more often, that goal is lofty and out of my control.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

On the Teacher Leader Network forum, I have been co-facilitating a book chat around Failure is Not an Option. The conversation has been rich and engaging among this group of educators who have chosen to participate. Some of the ideas there are worth sharing on a larger scale though.

The book, written by Alan Blankstein, is a simply written explanation of a plan to change schools to ensure success by all students. Some of his principles are so basic and obvious I am forced to wonder why schools do not follow his sage advice.

Central to his success plan, collaboration among stakeholders in education. Not forced, contrived collaboration, but true, down and dirty, working together, how can we get this RIGHT work. I wonder though, are schools really ready for this type of model?

What about the holdouts who refuse to buy-in? What about time and money? Are we in public education ready for change? Are we willing to stand strong against outside forces fighting us at every juncture?

Often, teachers use the phrase, "Whatever is best for kids... I'll do it!" Do they mean it??

I am not fingerpointing at all. I question my own intentions as well as those of others. How much time and energy AM I really willing to devote to making sure every single one of my students WILL learn?

Some teachers choose to be a part of the larger educational community, becoming active in professional learning networks. For example, I am a member of National Middle School Association's MiddleTalk listserve, where daily conversations surrounding every aspect of teaching and learning with middle schoolers are carried on by teachers around the globe. I find answers to my pedagogical questions, ideas for lessons, support when the daily routine is rocky, and a sounding board for my own ideas. However, this membership is a choice I personally make.

Having been a part of lesson study groups that were contrived by higher powers, I have been a part of the "great job" detail, as many others have been. No real learning took place in those meetings, no give and take of ideas, no growth, professional or otherwise was seen.

Is the answer then, voluntary membership in these groups? Is that enough?

How can we create learning communities among teachers which are real, viable and continue to build and grow without indictments from above?