Thursday, May 27, 2010

As the end of the year hurtles towards me, I try to remain focused. There are many lessons yet to impart to my 7th graders before that final bell rings.

Some are obvious, math concepts we’ve not yet covered, simply assignments left to be completed.

Others are more important in the scheme of life.

I want them to see me working until that last bells rings, not giving up because there are only a few days left, or because I am too tired to think, or because what’s done at the end of school doesn’t matter anyway because their brains are fried.

There seems to be a pervading mentality in some classrooms that at a certain point, school is done, despite what the calendar says. Textbooks are collected early. Vaguely connected videos are popped in. Game days and free time are rampant.

While I may be a little more lax the last week or so, learning still echoes within my classroom walls. I remind myself as I am planning of all the things we need to review one more time, or little topics we barely brushed on, or things we simply never got to in the grand plan. I try to make these lessons as relevant and hands on as possible, trying to keep them engaged and interested, until the last bell rings, the last locker is emptied, and the bus pulls out of the lot.

I think students need us, almost want us, to keep them focused. They are experiencing a breaking away phenomenon, knowing they are headed onto the next grade. For some students, this is a scary transition, with new teacher, new expectations, and a curriculum they feel unprepared to tackle. For others, their this-year’s teachers have become a safe haven, someone they trust, someone they can turn to, and they are reluctant to let go of that relationship. They need and crave the established routine to keep them from focusing on the inevitable ending of this time.

I also think we need to be role models, showing that we are indeed still in school, still expected to complete certain tasks each day. It is easy as adults to become lackadaisical about our responsibilities, but by doing just that, we set a poor example for our students, telling them slacking off at the end of the race is acceptable. We need to help them be in the here, in the now, 100%.

All this is easier written than done for certain. I long to drift aimlessly these last few days, telling tales of days gone by, filling the hours with meaningless drivel.
I refuse to succumb completely, but that doesn’t mean I can’t sing a little song, serve a little ice cream, and make those last days leave a bit of nostalgia on their minds as they depart.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

It has been incredibly hot and sticky here this week. When I got to school at 7 this morning, the thermometer in my classroom read 82 degrees, despite the fact I left my window open all night with a fan pulling cooler air inside.
Trying to teach when it is this warm and muggy is virtually impossible. The kids are like limp stinky dishclothes, sitting there, emitting nothing more than a musty smell. They cannot be bothered to even pretend to be engaged in whatever we are doing.
I will admit I am not much better. Even the heat from the projector or my laptop seem unbearable. I just want to melt into a puddle and be done with it all.
I remember growing up in Mississippi in the 60's and 7o's. Temperatures like this were the norm in the fall and spring. Classrooms were never air conditioned, until I was in high school at least. We sat in our chairs, in puddle of sweat, and roasted. When air conditioning was finally welcomed at our school with the addition of the new wing my freshman year, it was almost worse to be in those rooms, knowing you would have to leave the cool crisp air to go back into the humidity and heat. I often wonder how teachers drew the lucky straw to have classrooms in that wing, with the comforts not only of new rooms, but the air conditioning.
Are kids today not as tough as we were? Did we just have lower expectations? Did we endure it just because it was the way it was? My students whine and complain and groan and moan, almost as if they don't think *I* realize how hot it is! Like I am not sweating along side them. I would have never dared whine about the heat to a teacher. I just sat there, in my puddle of sweat, filling out endless columns of multiplication problems, copying spelling words over and over, reading boring history texts, never daring to imply my discomfort was of their causing.
I think the attitudes of my students are indicative of a larger issue entirely: the degradation of respect for teachers and the sublimal message that students should be able to "run the show", expecting US to fix everything for them, make it all right, make them comfortable at all cost. We're creating a generation who expect everyone around them to bend over backwards to make their world perfect, without teaching them to create their own solutions. Teachers are often viewed, by parents and teachers, as just another part of the structure of the school itself, without consideration for our own-ness. We are expected to be available to parents and students at their beck and call. We are supposed to find ways, above and beyond the call of duty, to MAKE sure every child succeeds. Society demands we forget our own lives at the expense of our students, financially, academically and emotionally.
I wonder if all those legislators in Lansing and Washington right now are sweating. Oh, wait.. their offices are air conditioned!! As they sit in the comfort of their cushy chair, in their air conditioned office, slashing programs and funding, here I sit, in my classroom, as the temperature creeps closer and closer to the 90 degree mark, trying to figure out why I went into education, knowing my pay will be docked 3% next year, my supply allowance will dwindle to $100, and most likely, I will be paying 20% of my insurance premiums. I will have another class to prep for. I will have more students on my load. Somehow, running for office seems like the way to go.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Camp is done and over with for another year, likely the last year. With all the staff reductions in the middle school over the past years, it becomes more and more difficult to put together the camp experience each year. Even now that we've gone to 2 days instead of 3, the planning and prep work is overwhelming. Add to that an aging staff, the reality that 7th grade camp is a thing of the past is quickly setting in.

This year was AWESOMELY amazing from my standpoint. We took such a small group of students - 39 middle schoolers, along with 8 junior counselors. Just the crowd control of such a small group made everything seem easier. Thursday was hot and sunny and miserable to be doing anything outside so we ditched our last 2 class sessions and let them all swim instead. The water was freezing cold so early in the year, but they loved it anyway, swimming for a while, then warming up on the grassy bank or under the pavillion.

They ran and played, fished and laughed, ate and told stories, sang at the top of their lungs, roasted marshmallows, soaking up every moment of the camp experience. I watched and laughed along, saddened, knowing this would be that last group to experience this after 33 years of camp tradition.

Education seems to be headed down a scary road to me. One where kids don't matter as much as policy. One where high stakes tests matter more than character building. One where it's about the end result instead of the process.

The powers that be seem to have forgotten that kids matter, that we are creating futures in our schools, futures we want to be strong, with compassion and empathy, not just bubbleable knowledge. It's no longer about what's best for kids, but what looks good on paper.....

Monday, May 17, 2010

I love 7th grade camp, most of it, anyway.

I don't like the planning part, the making sure everything is ready part, the making sure we have everything we need part....

I love the excitement of the kids before we go. I love the excitement of the kids once we are there. I love being there with the kids in a different settings, learning about each other in an entirely new way.

I don't like the deciding who can and can't go, though the longer I do this job, the more I realize how important it truly is to leave behind those who will struggle there. I've come to realize the worth of the show of actions have consequences, sometimes, even months after the event. I've come to realize that the 'good' kids deserve things just theirs, without the difficulties associated with bringing 'everyone'.

I do feel badly for some of those left behind, the gray area kids, the ones who did something dumb, an isolated event, but still got their name on the dreaded list. I try to look at it as a learning experience for them, and often, their parents.

But the part I hate the MOST, the very VERY MOST???? The week of camp, those days at school before we leave.... the kids going are excited beyond belief. The kids not going are surly, rude, bristly. While I understand their disappointment and even anger, that does not excuse their disrespectfulness.

2 more days... 2 more days... then camp for 2 days!! YYYYIIIIPPPPEEEEE!!!!!!!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

In education, we give a lot of lip service to what's best for kids. We bemoan new initiatives saying they aren't what's best for kids. We stick with the tried and true, what we've always done because after all, we know what's best for kids.

How often do we really mean what's easiest for us?

Education today is driven by two often opposing forces: data and money.

Data driven instruction is at the forefront of what all teachers should be doing. Professional development on how to is common place. The web is full of suggestions of Creating a Framework to Make Data-Driven Instruction a Reality, and 'affordable' programs that make this possible. Data Driven Classrooms, Data Director, and Scantron all tout their services as the best, the greatest, the latest.

Is data driven instruction really what's best for kids though? Can data tell us everything we need to know about what our students need to learn, what they already know, and where we need to go next in the process? Is data better than our gut instinct? My opinion? That depends entirely on how we analyze the data, what we do with the data, and ultimately, how does our instruction change, really change, based on the data, and how does that eventually trickle down to impacting student learning/achievement. If the only 'follow through' on the data will be one lame PD day set aside for teachers to look at the data, with no additional provisions for time to redesign lessons and remediation strategies, it is unlikely the data driven instruction will ever actually occur. If teachers are expected to carve out time from their already packed schedule to do this data desegregating on their own, likely, it will never happen. If teachers are not given the tools to change their instruction, ways/ideas to provide the remediation, likely, it will not happen. If we are not going to change the bigger educational arena to make data driven instruction achievable in the average classroom, going back to the good ole gut instinct of the teacher makes a lot more sense, is less expensive, less time intensive, and probably just as effective in the long run.

If we truly believe that data driven instruction is what's best for kids, schools would provide teachers with time to work with other teachers to really look at data, and make sound instructional decisions based on their findings. Time would be set aside regularly during the school year for collaborative planning to develop remediation plans, to talk about kids and data and strategies.

Instead, we give data driven instruction lip service because it's what's in the educational news blurbs. We don't really believe in its power enough to make it a true priority in our schools and in our schedules.

Teachers, in particular, spend a lot of time talking about money being the reason they cannot be successful teaching students. They point out that if they only had smaller classes, they could give more one on one attention to their charges, which would lead to higher achievement. Research to support this theory is sketchy at best. Others beg for more technology, more money for supplies for their classrooms, and for more funding for extracurricular programming. Granted, all these things make a teacher's life easier, the educational experience of the students richer, but does that mean without all of them, that experience cannot still be worthwhile?

Often what educators mean is If it isn't worth it for the powers to be to fund it, it is no longer worth it to me either. When funding for after-school programs is cut, suddenly, no one is available to supervise them. When funding for field trips and other fun items is cut, teachers suddenly make do without, rather than seeking other solutions. If we truly believed these were what's best for kids, and we were really all about what's best for kids, wouldn't we find a way, volunteer our time, step up to the plate?

Society does not seem to place the value on public education it once did. Bond requests are often voted down. Fewer parents seem to be available for volunteering. Students often do not have the basic supplies needed for success at school. Teachers are berated in the news, by legislators, parents, and the media. Blame is tossed around willy nilly, onto all the stakeholders.

If we were ALL in it for what's best for kids, wouldn't we stop looking for people to blame and start creating solutions?

It really isn't about the data driving us or the funding we lack. Those aren't what are truly the driving forces in education today. The key driving force is the people: the teachers, the support staff, and the adminstration that deal with students day in and day out. Those are the keys to success or failure. Until we circle our wagons, rally the troops, call in the cavalry, and take responsibility for our own actions and their subsequent consequences, all the data and money in the world won't make a difference in the futures of our students. We've lost sight of what's best for kids, in our ever forward pressing quest for what's right for us.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

THE worst part of teaching middle school is the girl drama. One of my more 'dramatic' young ladies came into first hour with that attitude written all over her face. She came up to me and pointedly said, "I'm just telling you because I think you are the only teacher here who cares, but if somebody don't do something about Gertrude(names changed to protect the innocent, the guilty, and me!), I'm gonna slap her face."

"Whoa, wait just a second," I said as Broomhilda walked away with a toss of her hair and a jaunt in her step.

"What's going on?" I knew that Gertrude and Broomhilda had JUST been BFF'S4EVER yesterday.

"She's just got to stop running her fat pie hole is all," Broomhilda elaborated as I wished she'd thought ANYONE else cared.

Wanting nothing but to start class and pretend this whole incident hadn't happened, I pushed further. "Gertrude is telling EVERYONE I am calling people fat wh*res. and, I didn't. You going to talk to her or what?"

"Yes, I will talk to her," I replied with a disenchanted sigh.

Tracking down Gertrude later, of course, there was an entirely different story. Apparently, what REALLY happened was Eustice said that Helga said that Flavia said that Broomhilda told Fiona, that Gertrude said that Broomhilda said that Helga said that Flavia told Eustice that Broomhilda might have thought about telling Gertrude that she was a fat wh*re but really Inga told Gertrude that Helga told Flavia that Broomhilda was ugly and that Gertrude was a poser.
Well, that clears EVERYTHING up, now doesn't it???

So... I drag Broomhilda and Gertrude into my room on my break and try to get them to talk it out. As the plot thickens, with Esmarelda and Trixie spreading rumors about Marcela and Malva to Broomhilda AND to Gertrude, I kind of lost my patience with the whole thing. Here sits Broomhilda with her pouty look, sitting sideways so she doesn't have to LOOK at Gertrude, shaking her teased pile of hair on top of her head, above her thick eyeliner lined eyes, saying she doesn't care WHAT happened, she AIN'T going to be any part of any of this anymore. She is just going to SLAP this next person who says something. And, if I don't believe her that she will slap somebody just call her mom.

And even as I try to get them to talk to each other, and even as Gertrude admits her role in the entire incident and confesses she want to be friends with Broomhilda again, Broomhilda sits there, with that rotten smirky grin pasted across her face.

Finally... I just gave up and sent them both to their classes.

I didn't sign up to be a counselor for a reason!! Girl drama... girl drama....

I almost hope they duke it out so they get suspended so they don't get to go to 7th grade camp next week. How's THAT for a middle school teacher's perfect solution????

19 days, 19 days... we can do this. WE CAN DO THIS. **SIGH**

Monday, May 10, 2010

Thank You Notes inspired me to write this "letter of recommendation" for Mrs. Fair, my 7th grade math teacher.

During my years of school, I had many wonderful teachers, many who touched me in personal ways, serving to create the me of today who now teachs 7th graders math and social studies. Looking back, I feel fortunate to have had all those role models to help me become the teacher I am today.

However, of all those teachers, Mrs. Fair stands out as the one who made the most significant difference in my life. When she came to our junior high, young, pretty, in her impeccable clothes, all of the girls looked up to her, wanting to be like her some day. She always looked the part of the perfect teacher, and best of all, she smelled wonderfully! We were entranced from the start.

Once we got past being mesmerized by her picture perfect appearance, we discovered this wonderful, soft spoken, caring, kind, patient, guiding person who pushed us further than we'd ever been pushed before.

Math had always been mundane, something I had done with rote patience, a task to be completed. But with Mrs Fair, math became exciting, engaging, something that made my mind twist and turn, thinking about concepts in a new way. I was hooked, forever hooked on math! It was fate that someday I would stand in front of 7th graders, trying to impart the same skills to them as she did with me.

Even when I was struggling, she encouraged me. When I was confused, she believed in me. When I wanted to give up, she pushed me harder. Seventh grade was a turning point for me. I learned how to be a student, how to experience success through unconditional teaching. Mrs. Fair was the reason.

Cossondra George

Friday, May 07, 2010

So there's this kid..... it's always about that ONE kid, isn't it.....
RL is this big gumpy kid, rough around the edges, but just plain loveable, nowhere near as tough as he'd have you think he is. He's incredibly intelligent, not afraid to be wrong, willing to speak his mind, take a chance, with a smile that would melt you heart. He stands almost a foot taller than me in his ubiquitous black Carhartt jacket and has that look that makes you think he is going to plunk every kid he walks by on the head. In reality, RL is a big ol' softie, soft spoken, and gentle.
He lives on the edge though. Trouble seems to come looking for him way too often. The notes from subs say he was off task, bothering others, disrespectful. Every time I wonder if they really have the right kid. When he gets suspended once again for getting into a scuffle, I wonder how the heck THIS kid could ever do that.
When I took kids to a college hockey game, RL brought in his money and permission slip with pride. Unlike many of the students I was taking, this was a rare opportunity for him to do something BIG. His family doesn't do those kinds of things, and I was sure the $15 to go had been a hardship. I was a little surprised he was going. However, when the trip was all said and done, he was the ONE kid of the 25 I took to say "thank you" as he exited the bus. He added, "It was fun!"
Then today, there he is, in the office again. This time for chewing tobacco, an automatic 3 days out of school. The principal stuck his head in my room, saying RL was concerned about his work, so I went over there, taking his test he'd be missing today, along with a calculator, admonishing him, but encouraging him to think and do well on his test. When I saw his mom walk in the office, I introduced myself to her and told her what a wonderful young man her son was. She looked surprised and thanked me. I took his incomplete test and told him I'd hang onto it for him. As they walked down the hall together, RL looked back at me over his shoulder, a shy smile my way as I waved goodbye.
There's always that one kid.....

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Letting Go

The last weeks of school are all about letting go. We let go of the students, who are moving onto the next grade, along with letting go of our met and unmet expectations.

The most difficult part of becoming a teacher for me was the realization that I cannot save every child that walks into my classroom. Like many newbie teachers, I was sure I would be the one who could reach every struggling student, turn them around, and make them want to learn, want to please me, and want to be successful, in not only my classes but in life in general. I was naïve about the power of outside influences and the potential of forces beyond my reach to change the performances of students in my classroom.

I rode into school with my super hero cape, smile on my face, toolbox full of research, and college classroom pedagogy tricks, enthusiasm bubbling over, ready to tackle them all. Tackle, no…. I was going to save them all.
Then, reality set in. I saw them walk in the door, downtrodden from years of failure and despair, already having given up on themselves. These were the easy ones, as time would tell. These just needed their confidence restored, a chance at success, and some shoring up of skills and independence. I was able to see the spark return in many of these students, the assurance that yes, they can do it, that someone believes in them, and wants them to be successful.

It was the others I had to learn to let go of. The one young lady I have this year has missed 44 days of school so far. That is one fourth of the entire school year. Try as I will, I cannot teach her 180 days worth of curriculum in less than 140 days. I can try to help her grow along a continuum, moving slowly forward, but I can’t make up all those lost days. I can encourage her to come to school, make her feel welcome when she is here, and make the most of the days she does attend. Reality is though, she will move onto the next grade, going into that class unprepared. I have to let go of my expectations that she will be successful this year. It is out of my control.

I had to let go of my expectations for the girl who came here to live with her grandfather, because her mother, the drug addict, didn’t want her anymore. Up until this point in her life, she had basically raised herself. Despite his efforts, grandfather couldn’t get her to come to school on a regular basis. He couldn’t keep her from roaming the streets, hanging out with the rough older crowd of kids she was drawn to. She was sent to juvenile lockup so many times, eventually, she was sent away. I had to let her go, knowing I hadn’t made the impact in her life I wanted to, that she needed me to make.

Others I have had to let go of because their parents have instilled in them a sense of entitlement that the rules do not apply to them, that they hold no personal responsibility for their own learning, and that any failure is due to my lacking, and none of their own. I’ve had to let go of both the students and the parents on many occasions when even at 7th grade, the parent thinks their child should be able to walk in and out of the classroom at will, shouldn’t be held accountable for their supplies, work or behaviors. They consistently blame other students, the teachers, the school system and society in general for the shortcomings of their child.

Letting go of those children was never easy, and was always a hard fought battle on my end. I’ve taken late night tear filled collect phone calls, listening to the “I think I’m pregnant” stories. I’ve made repeated parent phone calls trying to impress upon them to importance of having their child in school. I’ve explained rules and procedures, outlining how to help their child experience success and independence, offering parenting readings to support my stance. I’ve gone to ball games and track meets, talked about dogs and vacations, tried to make those personal level connections that are so important to reaching troubled kids and drawing them into the circle of success. And sometimes, it works, and sometimes, it is like that balloon you see flying high in the sky, escaping, out of reach.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The school year is winding down which makes for all kinds of excitement, good and bad.

Finally, it seems the kids are in their groove: they all know what is expected, how to make it through the day, and they manage to follow that routine fairly unwavering, almost like cattle headed to the feed trough. The ones who don't like me and my classes have decided to just keep plodding their way through, headed for that victory lap, hoping against all hopes I don't get moved to 8th grade along with them. The ones who do like me and my classes start begging me to teach them again the next year, or even more amusing, ask can't they please be held back in 7th grade to do it all over again.

But personalities aside, we've found our comfort zones with each other, reaching an understanding and a middle ground.

7th grade camp is just around the corner and the excitement is building. Tomorrow will be our official meeting where paperwork is passed out, and the long anticipated "What to bring to camp" list is finally in their hands. Every day, every hour, the questions about camp are endless. The ones going want details. The ones not going want to pout, beg, and plead their case one more time. The ones going want to know who will be in the cabin, what classes they will take, what is the food like, and are you really going to search our bags. The ones not going want to posture and say they didn't want to go anyway, even as they longingly soak up every tidbit of information. It is a rite of passage for both groups. For many, it the first time away from home, away from parents, and on their own. For some of those left behind, it is a first wake up call that their behaviors do have consequences, sometimes, long after the offenses occurred. But for everyone, it is the marking of the end of the middle of middle school.

And as the student population looks longingly at June 9, so does the staff. With more and more cuts and consolidations, the changes on the front for next year are being pondered. Some teachers embrace their new assignments with enthusiasm and acceptance. Others pout and complain. Some take their arguments up with adminstration, pleading their case for what they view as the best placement or schedule. Others monopolize the lounge conversations with their complaints, or corner anyone and everyone to whine about the situation. But for me... what I do next fall doesn't matter as long as I get to stay in the middle school :)

My own schedule for the upcoming year looks much like this one, thankfully. The addition of 1more section of social studies won't change much in my day. The addition of one section of Algebra 1, however, will make for another prep, one I haven't taught before. It will be an adventure for me and the kids. I look forward to the challenge, and look forward to having that upper group of kids again.

My philosophy on the schedule is to embrace the changes, assume those in control know more about the big picture than I do, and forge forward with all my might, for better or worse.

So as the year winds down, the changes roll on. New kids will walk in the door in the fall. New routines will be created. Some I will like. Some I won't. Some will like me. Some won't. But come next May at this time, things will look much as they do now....