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 http://www.wordle.net/

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: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=166176941518. 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 cossondra@gmail.com.

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 http://www.taylormali.com/

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.