Monday, February 28, 2011

Sometimes we spend too much time focusing on the rain, forgetting that there really is always a silver-lining to the cloud above. At this point in the school year, I'd like to pause, reflect and think about the good things of my new position.
One of the best parts of taking on this new position has been the challenge of doing things differently, looking at school from a different perspective, and stopping to really reflect on the true purpose of education and the implications standards and accountability have on the lowest students of the pecking order. It is easy to get into a rut of doing the same thing, year after year, teaching to the 'norm', cruising along expecting them 'all' to get it, pushing forward regardless. But working with special education students has caused me to stop and think critically about what I teach, how I teach it, and the consequences of them not getting it. I've been forced to rethink how I do things, and change my standard go-to methods. Regardless of where next year, or the next, may find me, I have a new lease on teaching, one that will carry me into where ever the next part of my journey may lead.
The kids on my caseload remind me daily to not take for granted the things which come easy to me. To watch a student struggle daily with the simplest of tasks is painful at best. I have one girl who works very hard, but simply cognitively, cannot understand basic math. When asked what half of ten is, she struggles to answer. When shown her 10 fingers, shown her two hands, she still does not grasp that 5 is half of 10. But, next year, she will go to high school algebra. Anotehr young man could not log onto the computer, even when reminded his password was a certain number followed by his first name. He goes by a nickname, and even at 15, does not know how to spell his first name - a simple one. Others try hard, but without constant reminders of the steps of mathematical processes, they get lost, forget, simply cannot follow along. But, they will all go to algebra in high school next year. I am amazed at the determination and the willingness to continue to try that many of these students exhibit day after day, failure after failure. They want so badly to please, to be successful, but because of the luck of the draw and the narrow-mindedness of the state implemented curriculum, they are constantly failing. From them, I learn humbleness, daily.
I've come to realize, this year, how much student relationships mean to me, and to teachers in general. Until you find ways to connect on a real level with your kids in your classroom, you will never reach them academically. The old saying goes, "Kids don't care how much you know until they know how much you care, about them." is true.. so true... I wish I could somehow impart that into teachers everywhere, that want to know students on a real and personal level. If we could ever achieve that, I truly believe education would soar.
Through the bad times, it is easy to forget to focus on the good. This year HAS had many high points, many kids who've touched me deeply, and for that I am grateful.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Teachers live and teach in their own Utopian Worlds, behind closed doors, assuming behind each and every other closed classroom door teaches another equally motivated, dedicated and inspiring teacher. We defend the honor of educators everywhere, assured in our own minds that all are on an even keel, providing a quality educational experience for students.

When that boat is rocked for a teacher, the overwhelming incompetence of colleagues can be a shocking awakening to our secure existences. Suddenly, the reports we see on the news, the attacks on public education, all the negativity seems plausible. We question our own worth. We question our faith in the all.

I've loved teaching from the moment I set foot in a classroom. From the first time I was in a middle school classroom during my student teaching days, I knew that THIS was what I was meant to do. I've loved the kids, the subjects I've taught, and the never-ending excitement of my chosen career path. I've often remarked I can't believe they PAY ME to do this.

I lived in my own closed door world of Utopia. I thought every other teacher had the same ideals, the same dedication, the same drive to provide the best possible opportunity for their students.

Then, my world changed. I saw into the classrooms of others. Some teachers I've watched teach with a fever and dedication that shames my own methods. I watch and learn in awe of their knowledge, their passion and their constant drive for their own excellence to shine in their classrooms. I leave those classrooms as inspired as the students, feeling as if I've grown as a person just by having witnessed that person teach and share their love of subject matter with their students. These are the superstars of education, the ones who should earn the Grammy or Oscar of our profession.

Other classrooms, I see teachers who are adequate, getting their students from point A to point B, with little inspiration or flare, but with a certain safe and guaranteed plan that in and of itself offers security for students in those classes. These are teachers who teach, convey content, and earn their paycheck, day by day, lesson by lesson.

Then, there are the classrooms where every day, a part of my teacher heart dies, withering into oblivion, watching the incompetence, the slacking, the willingness to just get by that is exhibited by these teachers. I watch students flounder in the chaos, struggling to make it through yet another hour entrusted to this adult.

and I miss my own Utopia, my own little world of oblivion... that secure planet I taught on for so long....

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

When it comes to dealing with students, THEIR PERCEPTION IS OUR REALITY. Too often, we as teachers, forget that regardless of what our intent is, the only thing that really matters, is how our students perceive our intentions.

If we deal with a student harshly, they think we hate them. Rarely is that the actual case, but once a student decides their teachers hates them, the cycle becomes difficult to break. The student finds reasons to believe this hatred exists in even the most mundane of comments and actions. The more they are convinced of the hate, the more their own actions stir the pot. Reacting to this negativity, the teacher compounds the problem, reinforcing the student's belief.

If a student thinks the teacher doesn't have faith in their ability to be successful, the student becomes less likely to try, therefore, zeroing in on their own self-fullfilling prophecy. As the student's grades suffer, they are certain the teacher finds their ability less than par, and find more reasons to slack in the class.

On the other hand, if our students think we like them, think we have faith in them, think we enjoy our jobs and being with them, we set up a pattern of happiness and success in our classrooms. The more we project our enjoyment of being with our students, the more we show we believe in their potential, the more we expect from them, the harder they work to live up to those expectations. The harder they work, the more successful they become. The more successful they become, the happy we are with our jobs. The happier we, their teachers are, the happier our classrooms are. The happier our classrooms are, the more learning happens there.

Seems like a pretty easy win/win scenario doesn't it????

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The key to success in teaching is not necessarily the same as the key to success in other professions. For most careers, it seems a drive to be the best, the willingness to work to achieve that top spot, coupled with the necessary training/schooling, can successfully lead you to your goals.
Effective teaching seems to be a bit more intangibly based. When I think about the difference in effective and ineffective teachers, two things seem to be the key to their differences.
The biggest component I see in effective teachers is the self-reflective piece of the puzzle. Great teachers spend time on a regular basis looking at what they've done in class, looking at their students' achievements, thinking about what worked well, what things were close but not quite, and most importantly, what is not working at all. They consider academics, of course, the lessons themselves, the assessments, the projects. But more importantly, they look at classroom management. How are they relating to their students, how can those relationships be improved, and what their personal role in the shortcomings of the interactions are.
The second part of effective teaching is humbleness -a willingness to admit your shortcomings, a willingness to admit you don't know all the answers, and most of all, a willingness, even a drive, to change. Teachers who are effective seek out those wiser than they themselves are, trying to find solutions beyond those in their own toolbag. They ask for advice, constructive criticism, and direction in their classrooms. They want to learn, grow and become more than the mundane.
If self-reflection and humbleness are truly the keys to effective teaching, can we teach all teachers to have those traits? Can we somehow encourage them, cultivate them, and require them? Is that possible?
Rereading my most recent posts, I feel the despair and downtrodden-ness taking over. I started my blog as an honest attempt to share what it is like to teach middle school- the good, the bad and the ugly. I've been forgetting to share the GOOD parts.

and even on my worst day, there are good parts...

Today in 6th grade social studies, we reviewed for tomorrow's chapter test on the physical geography of Latin America. I've taught this unit, and loved being back really teaching kids, so I want them to do well on the test. It will be their first test this year they cannot use their notes on, so many of them are unprepared for the reality of commiting new information to long term memory. The test is very basic though. A few vocab words, a map of some important places and landforms of the area, and some short answer questions. An embarassingly easy test, with one 'essay' question asking them simply to recount somethings they learned about the rainforest.

I want them all to be successful on this, their first attempt to take a real test. Using your notes on a test doesn't require you to store information, it just requires you to take good notes. By scaffolding their learning, making this test a simple one, I hope to set them up to realize they CAN learn, can remember information, and can be successful.

We've studied hard for the test together. They made vocab cards, with definitions of the terms, as well as pictures, to help them remember. We organized our notes on a foldable. We've practiced locating the places on a map multiple times. Each student located the places on his own map, as well as contributed to a larger hand drawn group map, locating those and other places. We played vocabulary bingo, we played a review game together today, go over and over the questions/vocab words they were struggling with. I tried to give them visual clues to help them distingush between words they were confusing - tributary and estuary... a TRIBUTary conTRIBUTes to a larger river. We drew it, repeated it, talked about it.

Tomorrow will be the test. We will see. Some of them have sat, refused to participate, even in the fun activities. Others, have shown their eagerness to learn, their willingness to tackle a challenge. I am anxious to see what they have learned.

Then... what comes next? The other teache
r will go back to teaching. I will go back to being the sidekick. I hope I've made a small contribution to his journey as a new teacher, helping him with some ideas of how things can be done differently in social studies. Maybe that's the true test in this project... not what the students learned, but what he learned, and how this impacts his relationship with the students?

Regardless of the outcome, I have loved being the real teacher again, loved connecting with the kids, loved sharing knowledge with them and seeing their excitement to learn.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

I've come to the conclusion that I am a wasted paycheck this year. Because I have a special education degree, I fill a quota instead of really teaching kids.
We call it inclusion, co-teaching, servicing students in the least restrictive environment; in reality, it means my days are mundane, the needs of many of my students remain unmet, and I feel like a cow, wandering the field, chewing on grass, never really doing anything worthwhile or exciting, just waiting until slaughter day.
Today is an ordinary day, much like the past 20 weeks of school has been filled with. I started the day in a high school history classroom where students were watching a movie on the Great Depression. I sat with the handful who were not allowed to watch the movie because they either didn't bring a permission slip or couldn't behave.
Second hour, I am in a 6th grade social studies classroom. Today, we had a middle school assembly in the auditorium that lasted nearly the entire hour. Together, the co-teacher and I walked the 20 students in our class down to listen the presentation. Afterwards, we herded them back to the classroom, where we spent the last 15 minutes playing a quick vocabulary BINGO.
Third hour, I actually have my own class. WOOHOO. 8th grade prealgebra with 10 labeled students I am entrusted with to prepare for high school Algebra next year. Some days, things go well. Other days, it is a waste of effort for me and my students. We are learning to find GCF's of pairs of numbers and monomials, as well as algebraic expressions. For this group of students, who have such low numerical skills they don't understand that dividing by 2 is the same as taking half of something, or that half of 10 is 5, or the difference in even and odd numbers, this is liken to torture. They don't know their multiplication facts, but are allowed to use calculators. But a calculator can't lead their way from 80 + 5x to 5(16 + x). We draw factor trees, we talk about strategies, we work problems through together, but the bottom line? They simply cannot do the work. It is too difficult for them.. and that is the ones who actually care and try to do it. Many simply look at it, watch me explaining the process, and tune it all out, choosing to simply breathe instead of try.
Fourth hour, I am in an Earth Science 8th grade class. We finished watching a video on the history of the earth we started earlier. Then, the remainder of the hour, we watched clips from the Weather Channel, including a horse making a snow angel.
Now, it is lunch time, and I sit at my desk, pondering my worth, wondering if I accomplished anything worthwhile today.
Co-teaching can sometimes be worthwhile, when I know what the grand plan is, and can work to help my students master what is being taught. Unfortunately, that is rare. I usually walk in the door with students, wondering what is going on that hour. Things that would help my students be more successful in regular ed classes - organizers for their notes, study guides for tests, rewriting tests - those things happen only when I am in the planning loop for the classes and have time to create those aids. Reality? That doesn't happen. I see the test when they see it.
My own prealgebra class is like trying to teach Greek to a donkey. The divide between where these students came to me, and where they need to be at the end of the year is too huge a gap to bridge.
I am disappointed in my own lack of ability to overcome, my sinking into an abysmal hopelessness like many of my students. I took this position thinking I could make a difference, thinking somehow, I could help these students achieve. In reality, I am just a bean to be counted, a degree that keeps the school in compliance, saying these kids are being serviced, when in reality, they are being left behind.