Monday, August 30, 2010

As I plan what lessons to start the school year with, I am intrepid about the skill levels of my students. Knowing the class is a resource room/pull-out class, I know the average child in this class will be below grade level, and require remediation, both of skills and strategies, to become competent in math.

However, I also know that due to the state of Michigan's graduation requirements, these same students must be ready for Algebra 1 when they enter high school 1 year from now. Herein lies the balancing act. How much remediation CAN I do, and how much fast can I forget forward into new territory without losing them?

Luckily, I know a couple of the names on my roster and have had them in class before. Others though, are just a face in the hall that I have nothing concrete to attach their skills to in my own mind. I know for some, it is a matter of lack of personal motivation and parental support that place them into the resource room setting. For others, it is a true math disability.

Another balancing act - trying to find ways to motivate the uninspired, while working the shore up the missing foundation pieces for all of them, while working individually with the true math disabled students to create new learning paths to overcome their weaknesses.

Looking at my teacher's guide, looking at the grade level content expectations for 8th graders, I wonder how far back in instruction I need to go before we head into new material. How many days will it take realistically to get to the real nitty gritty of 8th grade material?

Digging deeply for fun, motivating activities to review concepts, I hope we can glide through the first few weeks, me trying to herd them into the realm of grade level material, before too much of the school year has gone by. Sketching out lesson plans, hitting the high spots, not knowing what to expect, I know to write these in pencil!

As my room comes together, starting to look and feel more like home, as I plan for these first few days/weeks with my students, I feel the excitement building, knowing that THE KIDS ARE COMING!! THE KIDS ARE COMING! and knowing that once they walk in the building next Tuesday, everything somehow just falls into place, and I am looking forward to another school year :)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

I've spent a lot of time with my granddaughter this summer. Rylie turned 16 months old yesterday and is no doubt the light of my life. As I watch her grow and learn, celebrating every new word, every milestone, I am reminded that each child that walks through my classroom door has people in his/her life who feel that same way about them.

It is easy to get bogged down in the rigors of 'educating' the child and lose sight of the actual child. That is my goal for this school year: Find ways to celebrate each student, their personal successes/gains throughout the year, and share those with their families so they may also celebrate.

Schools have become more about test scores and standards lately, and less about the child. I think until we regain our focus in the individual student, we will continue to flounder trying to boost our scores by shoving more and more curriculum down their throats. We need to take a step back, look at our students as individuals, and focus our efforts on where they are, and where they need to be, as well as how we can bring that child along the educational continuum effectively, as an individual. Then, and only then, will we meet our 'benchmarks'.

In the meantime, I have one week left with Rylie this summer. One more week of cooking pretend food and feeding it to monkeys, one more week of playing in the sandbox and swimming pool, one more week of picking flowers and tossing rocks, one more week of reading and rereading about silly monkeys and itsy bitsy spiders....hoping that someday, when she goes to school, her teachers make her feel just as special as I think she is.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Someone on a listserve I was on once made the comment, "We are but part of their journey." I wish I knew who made the comment, but the name has long since escaped me, though the quote lingers in my psyche.

When we work with adolescents, we truly are one small step in their long journey of life. It is easy to get frustrated with them, their immaturity, their irresponsible nature, or their impulsivity, taking those things personally. As adults, we've often forgotten what we were like at that age, and are certain we ourselves never acted like that.

Remembering that quote helps me put their behaviors in perspective, knowing that in that given moment, that exact time and place, what that young person is doing is simply one tiny blip on their radar of life. They are most likely not trying to be annoying, not intentionally trying to make my life miserable, but are acting/reacting in the here and now.

Years later, students remember us for how we treated them, how we made them feel about themselves, long after the lessons we taught them have been forgotten or replaced with new knowledge. We run into them in the oddest of places, and find out they turned out just fine, in spite of us, in spite of the terrible adolescent things they may have said or done. They look at us and smile, simply remembering the good we gave them.

So as you begin this school year, this part of your journey in the journey that is your students' lives, remember to make a positive blip in their memory. Be one of the places they enjoyed visiting, one they want to see again.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The school year is closing in on us quickly and with my upcoming new position, I have been thinking about what makes some students successful, while others struggle. Being a special ed inclusion teacher puts me in the position to try to find ways to help some of those strugglers overcome the obstacles to their success.

For many students, the road to success simply requires a different attitude towards school in general, realizing that right now, school is their job, their real purpose. In elementary school, and sometimes even middle school, it is possible to coast along, doing little or no homework, just scraping though in classes, learning only what was forced upon you. But high school opens a new door of responsibility for students. Suddenly, classes matter, grades count, and the shift for accountability falls on the shoulders of students more than ever before. For the 'coasters', this is often a rude awakening, a realization that failure means repeating a class, and too many repeats means no graduation, or at best, a delayed walk in cap and gown.

Simple changes can make success more likely for these students:

  • Show up every day. Don't let a little cough, or headache, or belly ache keep you home. Be there unless you are truly desperately sick.
  • Show up on time, every day, for every class. The first 5 minutes of class are often the most critical. If you miss those first 5 minutes, you've wasted the entire hour.
  • Listen, pay attention, even if it is boring. Take notes, draw pictures to help you remember what the lecture was about. Be actively engaged with what the teacher is doing. ASK QUESTIONS, make comments, draw conclusions.
  • Smile, be friendly, be respectful, be polite - to the teachers, other students, everyone you encounter. If you need help, you will have established yourself as likable, which goes a long way in getting people to go the extra mile for you.
  • Study a little all along. Don't wait until the night before a big test to try and cram 2 weeks or more) worth of material into your brain. Set aside a few minutes each day to review in each class. If you have questions, ask the next day. When test times comes, you will only need a short study session to remind you of all the things you already know.
  • Determine how you learn best. Do you need to write and rewrite your notes until you remember them? Does saying them aloud help? How about recording them and playing the notes back for yourself? Find a strategy or two that work best for you and practice them religously.
  • Come to class with what you need. It sounds obvious... I know! but when you don't have a pencil to take notes with, you don't have your book or yesterday's handout, you are spinning your wheels trying to scramble to be ready to learn. Make it easy on yourself to be engaged.
  • Find a mentor who will help you study. It might be a friend, or just someone in your class who also needs a boost. Bounce questions back and forth until the material is second nature.
  • Save television, computers, video games for AFTER homework. Right now, your most important job is school. Reward yourself for a job well done with time spent on your other pursuits.
  • Remember: your teachers want you to be successful. Really, honestly... we didn't go through all those years of school just to torture you. Do your part to be successful and we will bend over backwards to help you. But don't break all the above rules, and expect us to cut you slack when you fail your final. If you are doing your best to pass our class and still struggling, we will find a way for you to be successful.

School is such a big part of a student's life. Making it a successful journey can be easy :)

Friday, August 20, 2010

It is official. My old room is no longer *my* room anymore. All of my things are out of there, the cupboards are the cleanest they've been in 10 years with labeled boxes of materials awaiting the new teacher's arrival.

My *new* room is just that... new... with piles of stuff, not sure of where it belongs, not sure what the overall plan is to be. I've gone from tables to individual desks, from classes of near 30 to a class size of 12, and from needing everything, to mostly needing nothing, but hesitant to let go of anything.

Without a window to park my desk in front of, I have it by the door, out of the way of students, easily accessible should I need to pop in and grab something.

I have student tables, scrounged from here and there, a mix-matched hodgepodge of old heavy wooden, to newer laminate tops, perched around the room's perimeter for easy power access for laptops. No more power cords twisted and tangled, duct taped to the floor and tables, in an effort to provide constant power for a class set of computers.

The cupboards are shoved with supplies, the few items I took with me to my new position. The tables are piled high with assorted items, not sure yet where they will land permanently. In my old room, I had finally 'perfected' my floor plan, everything had a place, the perfect spot for whatever, from library books, to hall passes, to paper for students to grab, to the pencil sharpener... all those locations had been tested and tried over the years until the best one was found.

It is like moving into a new house: full of promise, a clean slate... but a little scary at the same time. I know it won't be long and it will feel like home. But for now... it seems like I am squatting in someone else's space, longing to go back home.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The time is here.

Tomorrow, I move out of my classroom I have been in for the past 10 years. The books, professional readings, student novels, books from here and there; boxes of manipulatives from math series I never taught; folders reused year after year, with names of students of years past; posters, math & motivational, maps and student made; parent and student letters and postcards collected and saved/savored; markers, crayons, colored pencils. All of it must be sorted and boxed, moved, tossed or left for the person taking my position.

The first few years I taught here, I shuffled from room to room year after year, never settling too long anywhere, certainly not long enough to hoard. But once I moved into this room, Room 204, the middle room in the middle school, I planned on staying there until they chased me out or I retired. It was the perfect room, despite its flaws. Its location is convenient, right across from the office. It has a window, a sink, and even double cupboards for storage. It isn't huge, but is just one of the normal sized rooms. But I loved it, I longed for it before it was mine. It was destined to be MY ROOM.

But with decisions, with choices, come consequences. And.. with my move to special ed, one consequence is giving up my room. The room I am headed into has the exact same dimensions, but no window or sink. It has a white board, a HUGE bulletin board, and is still close to the office. But somehow, it won't be the same. It won't feel like home.

Oddly enough, the room I will now occupy was the very first room I was assigned when I started teaching here. I moved out almost as soon as I was unpacked, but a year later, I made my way back spent several years in there, some years sharing with other teachers, others, having it all to myself.

I cannot imagine going through all my stuff. I am the world's worst packrat. Throwing teaching materials away is like a sin to me. Who knows when you might need that last drop of glue, or those scraps of construction paper, the last of that roll of brown paper, or those strange 3-D shapes I never did figure out what were meant for. The deciding of what to take, what to leave, and the letting go of an era will be difficult I know.

But even as I dread the move and the packing process, I look forward to the fall, the excitement of a new position, the chance to see students I had years ago in a new setting, and a challenge of making waves in the still waters of our high school. I don't intend to tread water in my new position. While the journey may be upstream and often without a navigation system, I plan to arrive at my destination :) Wish me luck.....

Monday, August 09, 2010

Every teacher started their career wanting to be a great teacher. Sometimes, it works out; other times unfortunately, the stress of the job, the politics of the position, less than supportive adminstrators/colleagues, all those factors can taint even the purest soul in education.

A great article on cuts to the core of what it takes to be a great teacher. Opinion: What Makes a Great Teacher lists the top traits students feel it takes to be a great teacher.

The list seems obvious:
-Know us personally, our interests and strengths -Let us know who they are as individuals -Smile at us -Encourage us to participate in school activities -Spend time beyond class time to help us be successful in their class -Give us descriptive feedback on assignments -Tell us why -Share how what we learn is connected to real life -Apologize when they make mistakes -Give meaningful work -Are energetic, enthusiastic and enjoy their job

One of my favorite books is Todd Whitaker's What Great Teachers Do Differently . I revisit this book each fall before school begins and keep it on my desk as a daily reminder throughout the year. (See a previous blog post about the book) When I saw this list on, I was anxious to compare the student list to Whitaker's. It was no surprise to me to find many similarities between what students want from us as their teachers, and what Whitaker suggests makes us great.

In a nutshell, both lists want teachers who love their job, care about their students, and take their job seriously, giving work that is meaningful, relevant and appropriate, and planning intentionally to help students experience success with that work.

It was no surprise to me that the two lists have much overlap. Simple enough strategies, simple enough ideas.... But both the article and the book serve as a boost reminder as the new school year approaches. Kids will be kids, but deep inside, all they want is us to love and respect them, every day, no matter what. Then, and only then, will they give 100% in our classrooms.
I tend to be a black and white kind of person, making decisions rather easily and accepting the outcome and consequences in stride. When faced with a choice, I make my pro con list and forge forward. My most recent decision has proven to be more complex.

When I started teaching, I was a special education teacher. I worked with primarily learning disabled students in an inclusion setting. I loved what I did for the most part but parts of my job left me feeling out of control and needing a challenge. When my principal called me and asked if I was interested in teaching 8th grade history the next year, I jumped at the chance. Then one year later, a 7th grade math position opened, and again, I made the change, never looking back.

My new position was tougher than special ed in many ways. I found myself constantly bogged down in grades and lesson plans, parent contacts and designing new projects. When social studies was added to my list of responsibilities, the To Do list grew. I didn't mind. I love/d my job. I love/d the kids. I love the challenge. I loved sharing my love of math and the world with my kids.

Our district is shrinking. When I came here in 1995, there were nearly 1300 students, K-12. Now, we are just under 800. There are no jobs. People come, people go. But few stay. It is still a great place to live, a terrific place to raise a family, and has become home to me. But the reality of the smallness means that each year, teaching positions are cut, shuffling occurs, and people end up teaching out of their comfort zone.

When a special ed position opened up for the fall, I was torn. I really love what I do. But the thought of someday getting shuffled to elementary, where I might be assigned a different grade each year, is terrifying. I really do NOT like little kids! I cannot imagine teaching kindergarten. The new position would be all inclusion hours, mostly inthe high school. But in the future, I could have more control over where I was put, helping carve out my own schedule. I would not be subjected to the constant shuffling that is sometimes the case in the elementary. I would have some security in what I would do each upcoming school year.

This job would mean less time at school, more time to spend with my granddaughter. It would be an opportunity to work with kids who need me, need that extra oomph to make it to graduation. It would give me a chance to work with other teachers, some of whom I would be excited to share that responsibility with, others, not so much. It could lead to designing the middle school math special ed program to what I think would work best for those struggling students who seem to get lost in the shuffle.

It would mean leaving a job I love, a job where I have every 7th grader who comes to our school, where I know them all, good, bad or ugly, and they know me, good, bad or ugly. It would mean letting go of the 7th grade math program I have worked so hard to design, and letting go of the 7th grade social studies curriculum I have grown to have an intense love/hate relationship with.

Taking the job would most likely mean packing and moving from the classroom I've been in for nearly 10 years. It would mean playing 2nd fiddle in classrooms, sometimes just a figure head of a teacher, no real teaching, just a secondary role player, trying to help my kids as I could.

But... I applied for the position, and now.. I wait. There are some politics going on that may help or hinder my decision, things out of my control, that leave me hanging in limbo as the school year presses ever closer..... and here I sit, still not knowing what the right decision is, what I really want to happen. All I want it to know, a decision made, so I can move forward and get on with my teaching life.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Today is one of those muggy rainy dreary summer days. I decided to tackle more of the Algebra curriculum I will be teaching this fall. I usually don't mind teaching a new class, and actually, find the challenge exciting, but the prospect of THIS class gives me butterflies in my stomach.

It has been so long since I even thought about some of these concepts - weighted averages, quadratic equations, the boundary line of an inequality.... I am sure the information is all up there somewhere, but it's pretty rusty, dusty and cobweb covered. And.. I have NEVER taught any of these concepts.

I feel a strong sense of obligation to the particular group of students I will have as well. While having students for 2 years in a row will be fun, I know that this is the cream of the crop group, the upper cut, the college prep type kids. They will progress onto higher math classes both in high school as well as college, and this Algebra 1 class will be their foundation. I want to be sure I am giving them as solid a foundation as possible.

In high school, I LOVED algebra. I had Mrs. Carter for both Algebra 1 and 2 and loved her as well as the subject matter. Algebra was easy, straight-forward, black and white, pure and simple. I enjoyed all my classes, but algebra required no thought, nothing like reading and interpeting The Canterbury Tales, or memorizing the body parts of the frog we were to disect. Mrs. Carter showed us how to do it, I did it, and I aced the tests. I remember in particular the final exam in her Algebra 2 class. I had a perfect 100% going into the exam. I finished the exam in record time, breezing through the problems, wondering as always what was taking everyone else so long. Mrs. Carter smiled when I turned the paper in upside down on her desk, asking me if I wanted her to grade it right away. I shrugged and told her sure, but I was completely confident in my perfect paper. She poured over it, checking not only the answers but the steps of each problem, looking with her microscope eyes for errors. As she wrote the 100% on top, her smile told me she was as confident as I had been in my perfection.

Now, I am the teacher. I want to ask her how she did it. How did she make Algebra so easy, so simple, so straightforward? Can she give me her magic wand? Would she be surprised to find me at the front of an Algebra 1 classroom? Would she be proud?

But for now... back to the book, back to solving inequalities and creating graphs. I have to polish my memory so be ready for this group of young minds headed my way in a month!