Teaching the Standards: Content vs. Responsibility

How do you balance your grading?

I’m not just talking about the balance of homework, classwork, quizzes, et cetera (though that’s part of it). I’m talking about the dichotomy between assessing content and assessing personal responsibility.

I ask because I’ve been thinking about grading a lot for a while, and any time I talk to anyone about it, they are absolutely convinced that their way is the number one best way to do it, and every other way is so sucktastic that it makes them throw up in their mouth a little bit to even consider it. (That’s assuming, of course, that they get to choose their own way of grading and don’t just have to do whatever their district dictates. That seems to automatically make everyone angry.)

At my school, we have two choices of how to grade: total points (which is, obviously, the total points a student can earn) and what we call standards-based weighted grading (which means that 80% of a student’s grade is from assessments, which are supposed to be of the standards, and 20% is participation, or basically the formative assessments like homework and classwork – all the practice to get you to the summative).

I use 80/20, and I like it. It means that the super smart kids who never do any homework but still know all the material and can still do really well on tests can still get a decent grade, but the kids who are hard workers and do every single assignment get rewarded for their work ethic. That to me seems fair.

When I was in 9th grade, I came really close to failing math, based solely on my non-completion of homework. I got As on every single test (literally EVERY SINGLE ONE – I am damn good at math, I just don’t like it), but I didn’t do my homework. My feeling was, I already understood the material and how to do it, and homework was supposed to be practice. If I didn’t need the practice to succeed on the test, why waste my time doing it? My teacher’s opinion differed – he used total points, and assigned sufficient points to the homework so that it was about half the grade for the semester. I assume his philosophy was the ever-popular one about teaching kids responsibility and that you have to do stuff that you don’t want to because in life you have to do stuff you don’t want to sometimes, and you better learn how to just suck it up and do it.

I get that perspective, I do. Colleagues frequently express that view to me, and I understand where they’re coming from. But…I have a hard time with it to some extent, partially because of my own experience, and partially because of what I’m supposed to teach. According to my school, my district, my state, my country, I’m supposed to be teaching standards of Language Arts. You know, about reading, writing, speaking, listening…all that jazz. I know my state standards very well, and I know my district’s curriculum framework very well, and nowhere in either is there anything about teaching responsibility. My standards are about content, and that’s it.

So I give my kids a lot of chances to demonstrate their knowledge about content. I take late work with no penalty, because 10% off for every day late has nothing to do with how well the kid can write a personal narrative, and that’s what I’m supposed to be assessing. Plus I harass the crap out of them to get the work done at all – I yank ‘em out of lunch, track ‘em down before and after school, call parents to enlist their support…anything that gets the work in. Some of my colleagues get all squicky about this and huff and puff about how then the kids aren’t learning to be responsible. Yep. That’s probably true. But they’re learning to write, and that’s what I’m supposed to be teaching them.

Now, do I think that responsibility is an important thing for kids to learn? Absolutely. If they’re going to go to college, they have to know how to be at least somewhat self-directed in their learning and get their work done on their own. Even if they don’t go to college, they’ll have to take responsibility for meeting deadlines in their jobs and in their personal lives. If your rent gets in late, well, your landlord probably isn’t going to be very understanding about that. So, yes, I want them to learn responsibility. But I want some guidelines on what it means to teach that. Some consistency. Some standards, if you will.

So that’d be my request. As this movement towards national standards keeps barreling forward, add some standards about responsibility. What that looks like in each grade level. What we expect kids to be able to do when they get out of public education. Whether that’s a general set of standards or part of each specific content area, I don’t know, but I’d be open to whatever. I think many people would agree that teaching kids to be productive members of society is part of the school system’s mission. Let’s formalize that so I can stop arguing with my colleagues over it.

What do you think? Do you consider teaching responsibility part of your job? Would you support standards around that goal?

(Photo credit to nosha)

Goodbye Carnival of Education....FOREVER??!?!?!?!?

Oh no! The Carnival of Education is gone, and I don't think it's coming back!

It's definitely been a while since the last one - a month? Six weeks? - and it seemed like no one knew what had happened to it.

Ever since, I've been ducking over to periodically to check in and see if it was back yet.

Today, to my dismay, I found this alarming little nugget:

Current status ¤ This carnival listing has been discontinued.

What?!? No more Carnival of Ed? A travesty! I propose someone restarts it (or, really, a new version) stat. I'd do it but not that many people read my blog so it seems kinda pointless.

So who should take the lead here? If you have a suggestion, leave it in the comments, or just start haranguing fancy blogger types to get one of them to take up the cause and sally forth for the good of the students, the teachers, the blogosphere, and the world!

(The carnival above is clearly alive and hoppin'. That's what the Carnival of Education needs to be again! Photo credit to {meagen}!

I Got Those Bookcase Paintin' Blues

I'm two and a half weeks out from my report date, but will start going in (at least for planning days for committees I'm on) late next week. And once I'm there, I'm there - I'll be all excited and want to get my room set up and desks arranged and all that jazz. So here's the thing. I got two bookcases this summer off Craigslist for free, offered to me by some lovely woman who read my please-help-a-lowly-storageless-teacher-out post on the site - LOVE Craigslist.

My donor and her father built the bookcases together 40 years ago, and while they are still perfectly serviceable, they are not the most attractive colors. The picture does not quite do them justice. One is what I would describe as a faded mustard, and the other....say, the sky over LA as seen through a thick layer of smog. I'd planned to paint them this summer, but, surprise surprise, somehow never got around to it.

So two questions. Is it worth painting the suckers now? They're classroom bookcases. They will be used to store binders. They are functional, which is what they need to be. But they're ugly, and I like pretty.

Second, if it IS worth it (remember, this calls for sanding, priming, AND painting - if I'm doing it, I'm doing it right), what color? I'd been thinking just go basic black, to match the three other bookcases I have right now, Not that exciting. Should I jazz them up? Chartreuse? Hot pink? Gold (one of our school colors)? Red, blue, purple and kelly green are out as I'm not looking to rep for any of the local gangs.


Another Freakin' Teaching Dream.

I dreamt last night that I was running my classroom as a writing workshop.

It's not even August yet, people. I don't officially report back for another three weeks. Apparently, though, my brain is done with summer and ready to plan plan plan for the new school year.

At least it was going smoothly in the dream...

The Trouble with Boys: Turns Out, It's Not Them

Bill Ferriter, The Tempered Radical, has a great post up about a former student of his, Jack, who is the “PROTOTYPICAL middle school boy.” It’s about how schools are simply not designed for boys – they drop out at higher rates, they’re placed in special education at higher rates, they’re suspended and expelled at higher rates – and how incredibly tragic that is.

Bill describes Jack this way:
It means that he’s a constant ball of energy, tapping his pencil, blurting out answers, standing, sitting, squirming, moving, shouting, and running all over the room. And if you let him stop by during lunch, he’ll burp the entire alphabet, stuff fourteen Cheetos up his nose, and chug milk like a frat boy on a weekend bender…If you patiently sift through the movement, though, it’s hard NOT to fall in love with “Jack the Student.” He is an inquisitive kid who is ALWAYS focused on what’s going on in class. Everything that he blurted out in my room was brilliant, directly connected to the broad themes that we were studying in class and challenging the thinking of everyone in the room—including me.

He continues the description – it’s worth a read. The post closes with, “In the end, I’m starting to think that schools are rigged against kids like Jack. And that breaks my heart.”

I completely agree.

This probably isn’t a surprise to anyone, but I love my obnoxious boys – the kids who Mrs. Mimi at It’s Not All Flowers and Sausages refers to as the Naughty Boys. They’re energetic, and crazy, and loud, and so much fun. Total whack jobs. So often they’re made to feel like they don’t fit at school, like they aren’t good enough because they aren’t the quiet girls who sit and get their work done. Would I like the Slacker to get more (okay, any) work done? Absolutely. Would it be nice if the Charmer could go a week without getting in trouble for being a smartass? Hell yes. But does that make them bad kids, or serious problems, or more trouble than they’re worth? Not in a million years.

My husband was one of those boys. So was his brother. They were active, energetic, normal boys who liked to move around and do stuff and make smartass comments. Some of their teachers could handle this, could redirect them without making them feel like failures, and some of them couldn’t.

So my husband and brother-in-law spent a lot of time kicked out of class. Frequent visits to the principal’s office. Phone calls home. Made to feel like losers. My brother-in-law especially didn’t much care for this, so he became a total behavior problem – he reminisces fondly about the different times he made teachers cry. Positive attitude? Probably not. But kids know when their teachers don’t like them, and why would you want to try for someone who clearly does not like you?

I’ve been reading the book The Trouble with Boys by Peg Tyre. I can’t remember where I found the recommendation or I’d give credit, but it’s pretty interesting. It’s written more with parents in mind than teachers, but definitely has information that I can apply to my classroom and my kids. That’s especially true for me as a Language Arts teacher, because there’s such a gap between boys and girls in reading and writing. The book’s suggestions aren’t new – boy-friendly books, choice in subject matter, male reading role models, let kids be active in the classroom at times – but they’re a good reminder.

My brother-in-law dropped out of high school. Today he’s a stable small business owner. He got his GED and works incredibly hard, but his success is due in large part to his middle class parents who gave him a down payment (the money they’d saved for his college fund) and co-signed the loan with him.

My kids don’t have parents who can do that. I need to make sure that my boys are as prepared as possible to succeed, because no one’s going to fix their mistakes for them.

(Photo credit to JoF)

Looking forward.

Hi. I am better today.

Still confused as hell, frankly, but writing about it helped, and then I put on a pretty dress and cute shoes and went to a dinner party with friends. Between the delicious food, the even more delicious wine, and the scintillating conversation (and I’m not being sarcastic, it really was), it was a good way to recover from feeling slapped in the face.

Today I worked out, and next I am getting my highlights redone and then going to another teacher game day, this time pool-side. I will tell my friends my story and receive their commiserations. Then I will try really, really, really hard to put it behind me and not dwell. I am an exceptional dweller (as you have probably figured out by now), practically a squatter in the mess of past problems, but I don’t see it doing any good in this situation (or most of the time, actually).

I am going to look forward. Some of my class lists are up on the district website, and I love several of the kids who are currently scheduled to be with me (though one is Miss Opinion, so we’ll see how that goes); they might change, but that will also be fine.

I left a message for the other eighth grade Language Arts teacher about starting to plan, and I have a pile of books that I am actually going to start reading. (I realized yesterday that I have all these great books [or I hope they’re great, anyway] and have felt all smug and self-righteous all summer about having them, but, um, I still have to actually READ them. A pile of books will do more if they are opened and understood. Unless you just need a doorstop or something, in which case they should probably stay stacked. But my doors stay still on their own, and I need to do some learnin’. So. Reading it is. Study Driven is going with me to the salon so I can be enlightened by Katie Wood Ray as I let chemicals cook my hair into a blonder blonde.)

I am also going to start working on a little cartoon thing I want to do for back-to-school night, and I am stalking the office supply store sales for cheap pencil sharpeners and the like. Staples is looking pretty good for next week. Then I will clean out some closets and organize the garage.


One step forward, seventeen steps back.

So right now I am…..I don’t know what I am right now. Hurt? Bewildered? Angry? Insulted? All? More? I don’t know.

I was supposed to meet with the Charmer today for our second official mentoring meeting. We’d had something scheduled for last week but he canceled because he was out of town. And that was the way he put it – when I was confirming with him and he said he couldn’t do it, he said, “Only because I’m not home this week.” So we rescheduled for this week.

When I got to his apartment, he, his mom, his sister and a friend of his were all in the living room. I said hi to them, and he said hi, then got up and walked out. And that was the last I saw him. He refused to come meet with me. He refused to even speak to me. His mom went to talk to him twice; the second time she came back and said he was literally bawling in his room but that he still wouldn’t come out.

His mom said that he kept saying that I’m a teacher and I tell other teachers stuff, and that it just seemed like he really didn’t trust me. She said she’d thought this would be good because he was getting in trouble but that he was upset about this at a level that she didn’t understand. She said she’d have to talk to him more about this because she didn’t know what was going on. She said he was worried I was going to hate him. She said she’d have him call me to talk to me at some point.

I have no idea what happened.

Last time he and I talked, he seemed to enjoy the conversation. I was the one who finally said I had to go, and maybe I’d overstayed my welcome and he hadn’t known how to tell me, but he seemed surprised that I was leaving. We’d talked about a whole bunch of things, from how he needs to watch what he says to the war in Iraq, and I thought it was fine. Good, even.

Today, sobbing in his room, refusing to speak to me. What?

When I got home, I called his mom to give her some more information that I’d thought of as I drove – the mandated reporter stuff. Because to me, wailing that I’m a teacher and I tell other teachers stuff seems like it might connect to that. And that maybe there’s something going on with him that’s dangerous enough that I’d have to report it.

His mom said she hadn’t thought of that, and that he spends a lot of time with girls so maybe there’s something sexual with him; I said that was a possibility, but that I was more concerned that he might be getting involved in some sort of violence. I didn’t explicitly use the word “gang” but that’s what I tried to imply. Hoping mom could infer what I meant.

Because….it worries me. It worries me with a lot of my kids. And I was hoping that the Charmer was smart enough to avoid it, but maybe he’s not. The friend he was hanging out with in his living room? Had lines shaved in his eyebrows. That’s a gang identifier; around my school, it’s normally for MS-13 and they shave one line in one and three in the other. I only saw one stripe in each but he left pretty quickly and I didn’t get a good look at the right side.

His mom said she’d talk to him more and she appreciated the additional information. I said I would appreciate a phone call from him at some point. She said of course.

I doubt it’ll ever happen.

I doubt I’ll ever see him again.

Maybe that’s for the best.

(This dog's face nicely expresses how I feel right now. Photo credit to C.C.Photo86.)

The Stress of a New School Year

I realized today that a new school year is quickly approaching.

Seems like that should not have been a surprise, right? Pretty expected that as summer comes to an end, a new year correspondingly approaches (yes, I know that for many of you, summer goes till Labor Day - I have till mid August), and yet, it was a shocker.

I was at a baseball game with teacher friends at the time. We'd been talking about a variety of topics (the delightfulness of pedicures, why that guy a few rows down was wearing such a definitively unattractive shirt, my overuse of the word delightful) when one of my friends mentioned that she was feeling stressed about the new year. She's going to have three and a half preps and is unenthused, especially as she reports back next week and just learned about this yesterday.

And as I sat there and commisserated with her, I suddenly thought, hey. I have a new year starting soon too. I have to build new relationships with kids too. I have to get to know IEPs and figure out differentiation and learn how to work with my school's new admin and prep for a new grade level and find new model texts and figure out my room layout and learn a new software grading system that we're adopting and try to implement a pilot advisory program and reorganize my classroom library and and and and and.

Mild panic attack in the middle of the game, there.

But I worked through it quickly. I think the issue is that I loved last year so much. So so so much. It was such a great year - not to say I couldn't do better in some areas, but it really was delightful and it ended on such a positive note. So I'm a liiiiiiiiiiiittle nervous that this year won't live up to last. Maybe it won't, but it'll definitely have some great pieces to it.

Mostly I'm super excited for next year - since I'm going to 8th grade I'll have some kids I had two years ago, and I loved those guys, so that'll be fun. Plus I'll get to see my kids from last year again and catch up with them, and THAT'LL be fun. I hear good things about our new admin, I'm really excited to work with the other 8th grade Language Arts teacher because she's a rock star, I have a friend who's offered to share some of the model texts she's found with me, I'll almost certainly do cooperative learning pods because that's how I's all gonna be fine. It'll be busy, and overwhelming, and stressful, and exciting, and awesome. And I believe that.

And I'm going to keep believing that every day until the end of next summer. When it'll start all over again.

(Photo credit to Stephen Edmonds.)

A Bad Dream

I’ve always suffered from nightmares – every few months I’ll have a dream that wakes me up in the middle of the night, usually breathing hard, often in tears. Mostly I get through them fine, especially now that I’m married as I just snuggle close to my husband till I feel better. They involve all kinds of scary stuff, anything from spiders and snakes to falling off a bridge to (one especially memorable time) Nazis throwing grenades at me.

Periodically I’ve looked up the meanings behind my dreams. Falling dreams mean you’re feeling overwhelmed and out of control – interestingly, I had a lot of those types of dreams in middle school. Being under attack apparently is supposed to mean you’re feeling vulnerable or that a project you’re involved in isn’t going well. Snakes and spiders have like thirty different meanings each, so who knows. Some days I buy into the interpretations, some days I laugh and move on – it just depends.

Last night I dreamt I was being laid off from my school. They’d overhired, they said, and they needed to let a Language Arts teacher go. And regretfully it had to be me. I argued with them about it – why not the person we’d just hired from Texas*? She was brand new and I’m two years in! No, they said, they’d paid to relocate her so they couldn’t afford to not hire her. I tried again. Okay, what about one of the other two brand new teachers? Surely my experience is good. No, they said, just no. No explanation. (Apparently my subconscious couldn’t come up with a good reason for that.) I argued with person after person, making my case, using the most persuasive reasons I could come up with, alternating cajoling and flat-out begging, but nothing. At the end of my dream, I started to come to terms with it. Well, I thought, at least now I can move districts. At least now I can try to find a job in my home district without feeling like I’m abandoning the kids whom I’ve been working with for two years – I don’t have a choice.

I woke up in tears. It took me a good fifteen minutes to calm down. And then I started to wonder what the hell this meant. The end of my dream was true; I do feel guilty sometimes for not working in my home district and working in a suburban district instead. I grew up in a city and in its public schools, and I have every intention of my children someday going to those schools, despite their challenges. And while my district is very typically suburban, my school is pretty urban (high poverty, high mobility, high minority enrollment). If I were to lose my job at my school, my district has only three other schools that I would consider going to. I like urban schools and I feel like I’m needed more there. But I do sometimes wonder if I should consider moving districts entirely.

Was my dream a portent of things to come? Was it telling me that, yes, in the next year or two I should get ready to change districts? Or was it just a dream?

*We have not hired a teacher from Texas. I’m not even going to begin to try to figure out what that means.

(Photo credit to Robert Couse-Baker)

Guest Post Up!

I have a guest post up over at JD2718; he's been thinking about new teacher retention, so I wrote an essay from the perspective of a relatively new teacher and what would have helped me. Please go check it out!

I'd love thoughts from anyone, but especially from those of you who are still in your first five - statistically, around half of us should be gone by then. I don't intend to be one of those, and I don't think most of you do either, but are there things your schools or districts could have done (or could still do) to help keep us around?

Ideas here or there are very welcome!

Karma matters.

The incident with two students repeatedly punching a third left me crushed. That it could happen in my classroom, whether or not I was there, that a third of the class saw it happen and said nothing, that the student being hit felt too afraid to say anything until under duress…that broke my heart. No one should be unsafe at school. I know that plenty of kids feel unsafe every day at school, but they shouldn’t. Plus I believe in karma – what goes around comes around. I want my kids to have good things coming around for them. I couldn’t just let it go.

So despite the pressures of the pacing chart before our state tests, I decided to take a day to address it with the class. I wanted to use some sort of video or text that they would relate to, rather than me just sitting down and lecturing them about it. What to use? My favorite, of course – The Freedom Writers Diary. I went through the book, searching for excerpts that would address the biggest issues: that kids don’t want to rat each other out, that they’re afraid of consequences for doing so, and that in the end, violence doesn’t solve anything.

Two of the stories were perfect for what I wanted. The first I chose was by a student who was being bullied by three boys, and he lashed out and almost killed one of the bullies in his rage. He ended up in juvenile hall for several days and had to do community service and pay a large fine. He deeply regretted and was ashamed of what he had done.

The second was about two boys from the Freedom Writers’ school who had gone to Las Vegas; while there, one of the boys murdered a little girl while his friend watched him kidnap her and then walked away without doing anything to prevent the crime. I had admin approve the selections and the lesson. Then I told Mr. Sincerity what I was going to do and gave him the choice to be there or to go to the library for the conversation; he chose to leave.

Here’s how it went. I started by talking to the kids about what had happened, that two of their classmates had repeatedly hit a third and that no one had reported the situation. I said that regardless of why it happened (because I knew that the kids probably believed that Mr. Sincerity deserved it – he’s not very popular while the Goofball and the Fidgeter are), it wasn’t okay with me. So I asked for thoughts as to why no one would say anything in a situation like this (that way it was sort of hypothetical as opposed to a direct attack on their personal choices).

The answers included: they thought the boys were just messing around; they didn’t want their friends to get in trouble; they didn’t want to get beat up themselves; they didn’t think it mattered; they didn’t want to get involved; and, of course, the ever-popular they didn’t want to be rats.

I hate the whole don’t-be-a-rat thing. It infuriates me to no end that society tells us that you shouldn’t be a snitch about anything, when really, it just means that thugs and criminals get away with dangerous behavior more easily. And with the gang activity at my school and in the neighborhood, the gang members push that concept HARD.

We read the first essay and talked about what would have happened had anyone told the bullies to stop bullying, or had anyone reported the situation to the school or the police; the kids pointed out that the writer would never have ended up in juvie and that the bully wouldn’t have been almost killed. They decided that because no one got involved, the situation got a lot worse when it didn’t need to.

Second essay. This one ends with a line about how David, the friend who walked away, had a chance to save two lives that day. We talked about that line a lot. The kids realized that it meant that both Jeremy and the little girl would have been saved if David had only spoken up.

I asked them if they thought it would be hard to tell your friend to not do something that you know is wrong. Almost all said yes, it would be really hard. I agreed with them. But are hard things important to do sometimes? Yeah, probably. We talked about how this probably wasn’t the first time that Jeremy had done something wrong, but that it doesn’t start big – with friends, it starts small.

It starts with your friend cheating on a test, and you don’t tell because they’re your friend and you don’t want them to be mad at you and it’s not that bad. And then they start pushing a kid around in the hallway and you don’t tell because they’re your friend and you don’t want them to be mad at you and it’s not that bad. And then they start shoplifting clothes and you don’t tell because they’re your friend and you don’t want them to be mad at you and it’s not that bad. And where does it stop?

Yes, it would be hard. And yes, it might end the friendship. But at the end of the day, you have to be able to live with yourself. We talked about the word karma then.

Did they all get it? No. Did they all agree? Certainly not. But it went well enough that I decided to do it with all my other classes the next day, and that was the day that my student Sparkles made a tough choice.

When the Goofball and the Fidgeter got back from being suspended, I did the same thing with both of them. I acknowledged that I didn’t believe they were the only ones at fault, but that they still made dangerous choices. With them, I talked about how if they’d gone to the sub to say that Mr. Sincerity was making racial slurs, they’d have been able to avoid the rage that led to the violence, and that they then would not have gotten suspended. Report it, I said. When someone’s messing with you, make sure that you’re protected so the consequences go to them, not you.

Will they always do that in the future? Probably not. But maybe they’ll do it once and avoid one future suspension. And that’d be a good thing, right?

(Photo credit to consumerfriendly)

Why I Don't Have Subs Supervise Group Work (Or, Bleaaaaaaaaaaaaah)

I was talking today to a sub I met; she’s recently started working in my district so I got her information. We were discussing what teachers want out of subs. I said I’m looking for two things at a minimum, ideally three. The two minimum are to follow the plans I leave and let me know what happens over the day, including specific names. The extra-credit third is to keep some sort of control over the classroom.

With most of my classes this year, all three were doable (or should have been – one sub decided not to tell me that a kid had told another student to fuck off, because he felt he’d dealt with it at the time. The kid involved was ED and had another student not reported it to me, who knows what would have happened long term – not your call to make, Mr. Substitute, and that’s why you were not invited back to my classroom). But one of my classes was a challenge. Eighth period.

Now, I adored my eighth hour. It was full of funny, smart kids and we all got along really well. However, of the 29 kids in that class, ten were…challenging. Of the fifteen most challenging kids on our core this year (based on referrals and the numbers of times we discussed them at core meetings [ad nauseum, by the way]), ten were in my eighth hour.

I got along well with all of them (including my pals the Slacker and the Goofball), and when I was there, we were good. Got our work done, had a good time doing it, didn’t make really stupid choices….it was just what class should be. But when I was gone…oh, when I was gone. They fell apart.

Every damn time, they fell apart.

I tried everything I could think of – bribery (free time when I get back! Candy!), threats (detentions, referrals, personal meetings with admin), parental conferences in advance (kids called home and told parents they would have a sub and needed to be good), extra supervision (pop in visits from the teacher next door, admin, and our student achievement coach), safe places (I gave the subs lists of kids who could take breaks if they needed to so they didn’t fly off the handle)…nothing worked. At least not for everyone. We finally got to a point where most of them could handle their shit relatively well, and I had to be relatively content with that, because I couldn’t come up with any other solutions.

The second-to-last time I had a sub this year was in…late February, maybe? I had a training for something and so I needed coverage. Normally I try to leave a sub relatively easy work – individual work, some sort of review, student-directed, nothing assessment related – but this day I HAD to have them working in groups so that I could get to where I needed to be by spring break. With great trepidation, I gave them an uplifting speech on behaving well and how I knew they could do it and I was so looking forward to that good report…you know, lying through my teeth.

When I came back, I grabbed the sub report and started reading before I even took my coat off. Every class had a good report (period six had been a little shaky at first, apparently, but had gotten it back together), and some had great reports (period two was called “delightful”….except period eight. The sub wrote that too many kids had been a problem to name names, that they’d been off task, that they hadn’t gotten their work done, that they’d argued and screwed around and basically sucked hard. Fuck. Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.

So at lunch, I hauled the whole class into my room, after having checked with a few trustworthy kiddos to ensure that the sub report was accurate (they verified the behavior problems). I read them the sub report, including the praise for the other classes, and then, with a steely glare, I read them their section.

After I finished, I did the whole I’m-so-disappointed-I-thought-we-were-past-this-you-guys-are-so-great-for-me-I-can’t-understand-why-you-don’t-want-other-people-to-see-how-rockstar-you-can-be spiel. Then I asked anyone who felt they’d made bad decisions yesterday to come to the front of the room. About eight of my charmers shuffled forward. I then had the kids who were still seated to show me their work from the day before. About half had finished it; they went back to lunch. Most of the rest were almost done; they finished and left.

Anyone who was nowhere near done joined the front of the room bunch. That group got another lecture on making good choices and how they owed their classmates an apology for having wasted so much time the day before that they’d then lost part of lunch. They shuffled back to their seats and got to work. I stood at the front and gave ninja death stares to any kid who seemed unfocused. Finally one kid, Mr. Sincerity, came over to me. “Can I talk to you in the hall?” he asked. We went outside. “I don’t think it’s fair that I’m here when I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I couldn’t get my work done because of the Goofball and the Fidgeter. They kept punching me.”

This kid is known for lying like a politician angling for votes, and he sells it every time, so I didn’t believe him for a second. Clearly he just wanted to get out of the consequences. “Then why haven’t I heard about this before?”

“Because I was afraid they’d hurt me more if I told.”

I told him I didn’t believe him and sent him back in to the room. Then I grabbed Ms. Reading and went to the cafeteria to find out if his story was true. I asked my most trust-worthy group of kids if anything had happened in class that I didn’t know about. They shook their heads. I pressed the issue – anything with those three boys? Nope, nothing. About to walk away, I decided to ask one more time. Anything involving punching? Ohhhhhhh, yeah! The Goofball and the Fidgeter kept hitting Mr. Sincerity! Aghast, I asked why they hadn’t mentioned that before. The girls shrugged – they hadn’t thought about it? And it seemed like they were just messing around?

When I got back to my room, I called the office and said I needed an administrator ASAP because frankly, I had no idea what else to do. My favorite AP (I mean this. She is awesome and I love working with her) came down to deal with it. After I filled her in, she sent Mr. Sincerity to the office to make a statement and we sat down to chat with the other two.

Now, I adore these boys. They are troublemakers, absolutely, but they work their butts off for me and they make me laugh, and by the end of the day, I can usually use a laugh. So I was heartbroken that they would do this. When Ms. Rockstar AP asked them what happened, neither said anything at first. So I pressed them on it, at which point the Fidgeter started to cry as he told us what had happened.

He said that Mr. Sincerity had been calling them fags and making racial slurs [both punchers are Latino and Mr. Sincerity is White] and comments about their mothers. So they got tired of it, and they started hitting him. They were careful to do it only when the teacher wasn’t looking, but that was why.

Now, maybe I’m naïve (probably I am, honestly) but I believed him. The tears…this kid might lie, but he wouldn’t cry about it. This was something that was hurting him immensely. And I told Ms. Rockstar AP as much when she came back to me after she’d concluded the investigation, found no evidence to fault Mr. Sincerity, and suspended the Fidgeter and the Goofball. She didn’t disagree, but, as she put it, no one had heard Mr. Sincerity say anything, but seven or eight kids had witnessed the physical violence. She had no grounds on which to take any other action.

I’ll never leave group work again for a sub. And I’ll never forget the Fidgeter’s face as he broke down in tears, so crushed by the words that had been hissed at him in class.

(I wish this situation had had any humor in it. At least the photo does: by aaardvaark)

MySpace, Facebook, and Student Boundaries

I’ve been meaning to write about MySpace and Facebook in connection with students for a while. I have accounts on both, and have for quite a while. Facebook I actively use, while MySpace I use only on rare occasion to keep in touch with a couple of friends. But I don’t friend students on either.

When a kid finds me on MySpace (my kids don’t use Facebook as far as I can tell), my response is to tell them that I don’t friend students on the site because I’m not their friend, I’m their teacher, and I think it’s important to have a distinction between the two. “However,” I add, “if I did friend students on MySpace, I would totally friend YOU.” That apparently makes sixth graders feel special enough that they’re cool with the policy, and it’s true. Because if I friended anyone, I’d friend everyone, and that would include them. :)

Some of my former students have pushed a little more after I’ve given them my spiel. They say, “But Ms. Teachin’, we’re not your students anymore! So we can be friends!” These are seventh graders. Because one year removed is so clearly different.

To that, I remind them of my responsibility to report information that I consider one of the big three (hurting self or others or being hurt) and then I ask them if they really want me looking at their pages. They always shut up real fast then.

I do add that if they ever have anything going on that they’re worried about or excited about, they can always come talk to me in person, but that I just don’t want to cross that cyberspace line. They seem to get it, and some have then come to take me up on the offer.

To me, if a kid asks to be my friend on MySpace, it’s a compliment – they like me enough to add me to whatever their little social networking world is. I don’t think they’ve necessarily thought the possible repercussions through (as evidenced in this recent letter to the NYTimes’ The Ethicist [and the position the teacher ended up in? Exactly why I don't do it] and then discussed extensively at Joanne Jacobs), and so it’s my responsibility as an adult to remind them of some of the consequences to posting personal information on the internet. I’m hoping this year to incorporate website and internet usage more into class this year, so I’ll probably do a specific lesson or two on internet safety and privacy. They could use it.

One more thing on MySpace, though – through the Facebook discussion at Joanne Jacobs, I found the best teacher MySpace site I have ever seen. His profile explains that he became a teacher to escape his ninja past, and includes a story about a sixth grade girl who was secretly a ninja assassin armed with a Pokemon pencil. Totally hilarious and awesome. If I were going to friend students on MySpace, I’d want to be as badass as Mr. Wright.

It's the most wonderful time of the year...

No, not Christmas, but in some ways even better: super cheap school supply season. Deals are coming in slowly, but I can feel them hovering, waiting for the right time to land, when I will swoop in and buy 50 packs of lined paper for a penny each. Love it.

So far the only major office supply store that's getting in on the action is Staples, and in my hood, they're selling 8-packs of pencils for a penny each. Ordinary people can only buy two packs at that ridiculous price, but teachers...ah, teachers can buy 25. Because Staples hearts the educators of America! And because they know we buy a lot of crap for our classrooms so it's smart to build good will. But mostly because they totally heart us! Right? Right.

This particular deal is only happening through tomorrow so you may want to
hop on over to Staples' website tonight to find out if the same rockin' prices apply at your friendly neighborhood store. Some of the districts by me report at the very beginning of August, so it's definitely time around here, but if you're an East Coaster and don't go back for six weeks still, you may have to hold off.

And nothing great at Office Depot or Office Max yet, but it's only a matter of time. Keep watching those circulars!

(Photo credit to
Claudia Snell.)

Celebrate Good Times, Come On: Celebrations in the Classroom

I've spent the last two weekends at weddings, celebrating with friends and family from near and far. It's been fabulous, though exhausting (last weekend was in Vermont, this one is in California wine country) . My feet hurt from dancing and my eyes are heavy with lack of sleep from laughing and talking late into the night. I've spent time with friends I haven't seen in years and with those I just met two days ago. Flowers, wine, music, love. Wonderful.

It's made me realize that we need celebrations in our lives. Or, specifically, that I need to work more celebrations into my classroom. Weddings are an insane amount of work for the people throwing them, but the work is worth it for the sense of community and hope that come out of them. Same thing with classroom celebrations, I think. I need to do a better job of acknowledging kids who go above and beyond, as well as everyone who does what they're supposed to do. My grade level is hopefully going to piloting a way to do some of that, but I can do it my room too.

What does that look like? I'm not 100% sure. I've got a few ideas so far, like doing publication nights periodically where kids could present their work to audiences of family and friends, or having students of the week for each period. That might be a lot to keep up with, but I'm betting I could keep it fairly simple, and I'm hoping it would be meaningful for the kids.

What do you think? Any other ideas for ways and things to celebrate in an eighth grade Language Arts classroom?

Anger in the Classroom Part II

One more bit to add about the anger stuff. A teacher I work with is legendary for his rage. When he gets mad at a kid for behavior he considers beyond the pale (like the time a student put a “kick me” sign on the back of one of our severe needs kids), he loses it. He takes the kid out in the hall and yells so loudly that we can hear it in my room, and I'm four full rooms away.

Honestly, it would scare the crap out of me to get reamed like that, so I imagine it's true for the kids as well. That's one of the reasons I'm resolving to yell less and try to not get so angry – I hear how the students talk about him and I just don't want to be known that way.

I'm not saying that when kids do dumb or inappropriate stuff they shouldn't have consequences, because they should; that kick me sign was deeply not okay and the student involved needed to know that, but I don't think that yelling did anything to change that student's future behavior. I think all it did was humiliate him and make him hate the teacher involved.

I'm also not saying that we should make decisions about our behavior based solely on how students will react, or that we should worry about our reputations too much, but, again, I believe that I can be more effective as a teacher if my kids like and respect me, and they'll like and respect me more if I treat them with compassion and respect.

A few weeks ago I read this great book (and I'll post about it more extensively coming up because I loved it so so much) that Angela Watson from The Cornerstone Blog recommended. It was short and simple, just some advice about fourteen things that great teachers do differently. The whole book really resonated with me, but one part in particular stood out for me – the section on treating everyone with respect.

Whitaker writes, “If everyone in a school is treated with respect and dignity, you may have nothing special. However, if everyone in a school is not treated with respect and dignity, you will never have anything special. Of that I am sure.”

I want to have something special in my classroom, and so I need to make sure I treat everyone with respect. The change I personally need to make to ensure that happens is to reduce my anger and my yelling.

(Photo credit to bethany actually)

On Being a White Teacher in a Mostly Non-White School

Jose Vilson wrote a post a couple of days ago about why so few Black men are teachers. I was going to comment on the post, but it ended up getting long, so I’m going with my own post instead.

This was in some ways a hard post for me to read. Please understand that I don't disagree with Jose's premise or with the vast majority of his points. It was difficult for me because of who I am and who my students are, and because it made me consider if there's more of a disconnect between those two than I'd previously realized.

I'm a White female teacher in a school that is 65% Latino and 30% White with a handful of Black or Asian students scattered throughout. And I so agree with you that kids need to see themselves reflected in their teachers; we have one teacher who is not White. One.

The thing is, I love where I teach. I love my kids and I love working with them - I became a teacher in large part because I believe in social justice, and that doesn't much exist in our society. So I don't want to move to an all-White (or mostly White) school, even though I am White. I want to stay where I am, but I feel guilty sometimes that I don't reflect my kids' experiences, that I don’t come where they come from (I'm also very middle class, something my 80% free lunch kids are certainly not), that I haven’t experienced the discrimination or challenges that they will probably experience in life.

People talk about how we live in a post-racial society, especially now that Barack Obama is president. That’s bullshit. We went to Philly last week to visit my sister, and one of the things we did while there was to go to a Philadelphia Orchestra concert at the Mann Center. My sister lives in Center City and we took a bus to the Mann Center – it went through a Black neighborhood to get there (I don't know Philly well enough to know where, exactly, and, oh, the difference in the homes and the wealth level. Peeling paint, broken gates and fences, weeds growing out of cracks in the sidewalk. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s no different for my kids.

I talk to them about that occasionally, that it's unfair that the people in power mostly look like me. It’s not something I’d bring up to a whole class necessarily (though I might, if a reason arose), but I’ve had a few individual conversations, particularly with my young Latino men who are teetering on the brink of gang involvement. So I talk to them about the inequity, and how it makes me really sad to see kids like them, who are smart, funny, powerful, choose this path that leads only to death or jail, when right now they have so many options and the potential to change the balance of power in society. A few times when I’ve told colleagues about those conversations, they chew on the insides of their cheeks and look at me with deep concern, asking if I have the right to have those conversations.

Do I have the right? I don’t know. I think I do, I think I have a moral responsibility to do it, but maybe I’m just another White teacher trying to save urban youth, in a really offensive way, and I just don’t know it. I can’t….I can’t quite believe that, but maybe it’s true.

As far as I know, I’ve never had trouble creating relationships with kids from different backgrounds than me. Almost all my faves – the Charmer, the Eyeliner Queen, DC, Smiley, Slick, the Chatterbox, Oh Yes, the Chowhound, the Goofball, BB Bob, the Slacker – are all Latino. The Natural Athlete and Miss Opinion are both White. I adore plenty of kids whom I haven’t written about too, of all races, but race has just never really felt like a huge issue in my classroom. Maybe that’s naïve. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, or blind. I do see that some of the White kids stick together at my school, and it makes me sad for them because it so limits their options for friends, and I’ve certainly heard kids make racist comments to each other (which get shut down immediately) but as far as I know, it hasn’t been a big deal in my own relationships with kids. But maybe I’m just not aware. Maybe I don’t see it because I come from a privileged White background.

Bleah. I don’t know. I just don’t know.

One of Jose’s commenters, Lucky Star, wrote, “If you are an educator who is not a person of color who teachers primarily Black and Latino students, you should have no worries because, at the end of the day, our children so desperately need good, quality educators of all backgrounds. They need educators who care about them, their lives, their successes and their failures. THEY NEED ALL OF US.”

I hope that’s true. It’s what I believe.

Would my kids benefit from having a more representative population of teachers? Absolutely. No question. My school definitely needs to have more diversity in our staff...but I want to be there too.

Anger in the Classroom

Yesterday I talked about four instructional goals. I have one other main goal this year, and frankly, it’s my number one goal – it’s not instructional per se, but it absolutely affects instruction, because it affects the classroom environment.


I have a temper, and I just...get mad quickly. My biggest pet peeve is kids talking when they aren’t supposed to, whether that’s when I’m talking or when they’re supposed to be working, or (worst of all!) when another student is talking. It drives me up the wall, because it comes across as so incredibly disrespectful, and it’s such a waste of time, and we have so little time as it is, really. And then I get angry, and then I yell, and then no one is happy.

It’s not good. I know this. It’s a huge problem, honestly, and I’m deeply ashamed of it (I’m ashamed enough that I really don’t want to be writing this post, but again, pushing past my comfort zone). Because really, who likes to be yelled at? No one. I sure don’t. It sucks. So how can I justify behaving like that to my kids?

At the end of the year, I did a little student survey – what they’d liked, what they hadn’t, what they and I had done well at, what they and I could have done better with. Answers varied in most categories, but one…one was consistent. What I could do better was yell less*. Almost half my kids wrote a variation on that theme.

I read those, and it made me sad, and embarrassed, and angry with myself for letting that happen. And I resolved to do better next year. Now I’m hoping that posting this here will also help me change – public accountability and all that. I’m not sure just how to manage it yet, but I’m hoping just being aware of the issue will make me notice it more when I start, and that will remind me to stop. I have one other thing I’m going to try that I hope will help, but I’ll post about that another time.

Here’s what I’m going to do. Once a month, let’s say on the first Monday of each month (I will put it in my Google calendar to remind me), I will post about how I’m doing with the yelling. That will keep me focused on it. Plus, you know, public shaming if I’m not doing well, but public congratulations if I am! Of course, if you all think this is the worst idea ever (the posting about it part, not the reduction in yelling part), then I’m sure I could be convinced to do that differently. But I think it might help.

So stay tuned for the first Monday in September (two months from now, just about), and find out how I’m doing with it after my first few weeks with the eighth graders.

*They wrote that, or to do nothing differently – many of my little charmers wrote things like, “Nothing because you are the best teacher ever!!!!!!” Suck ups. And these were anonymous, so they didn’t even need to. :)

(Awesome Anger Bot image credit to StickBus)

Getting better all the time (I hope)

Mostly on here I tell stories about successes or moments with kids. They’re more fun to write about and, I assume, more fun to read. (Though maybe not? No idea.) And some moments with students are either so ridiculous or so heartbreaking that I can’t not write about them.

But I don’t do a lot of reflection about ways in which I could improve – actually, scratch that. I reflect on that all.the.freaking.time, I just don’t write about it here much. I think it would probably be good for me, though. Put it out there, own it publicly, admit my mistakes, try to figure out how to get better. So I’m going to try to do that. I’m scared about this, because it’s outside of my comfort zone, but I ask kids to push past their comfort zones all the time so probably I better do it too.

Instructionally, I am not good enough at teaching grammar and conventions. I know they should be done in context, I know they’re super important, but it’s not what I’m as comfortable with or as interested in so it hasn’t happened thoroughly. I don’t do portfolios well – I kinda tried to start them this year but I didn’t have a clear vision and hadn’t thought it through. I haven’t figured out how to grade work (like essays) in a timely but also thoroughly completed fashion (god, this one kills me). Writing workshop I’m willing to believe is a rockin’ way to go but I’m not sure how to incorporate it.

So what am I doing about those? Well, my PLC-mate this year (the other 8th grade Language Arts teacher) is a grammar rock star so I’m hopeful I’ll learn a lot from her. I’m also considering a couple of books I’ve heard good things about: Mechanically Inclined and Everyday Editing, both by Jeff Anderson – AND they tie to writing workshop, which would also be good! Portfolios, I’m reading about them online and may also purchase Power and Portfolios (recommended by a few people I respect). The grading one….yeah, that one messes with me. I’m kind of hoping it’ll become less of an issue (maybe?) after I figure out how to really do writing workshop – I’ve got Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle which I’ve skimmed, but I’m more excited about Katie Wood Ray’s Study Driven. I’ve started it and I love it so far, so I look forward to getting further into it.

Are there other areas in which I could get better instructionally? Heck yeah. But I feel like four goals is enough for the moment.

Anyone have any other suggestions for how I can improve in those particular areas? Thoughts, suggestions, anything would be helpful!

(Photo credit to idomusic2)

Clarity in the classroom.

So. Why they bought in after that day in a way that felt distinctly different. Why they surrounded me and hugged me repeatedly on the last day of school. Why one sweet girl brought me a cake. Why Slick spent his whole first day of summer vacation helping me move my classroom.

I’m going to talk about me with this because I believe that I’m the determining factor in my classroom; I’m the leader and the responsibility for creating this kind of community rests with me. Could I have done it without my students’ full involvement? Absolutely not. But it would never have happened without mine, and they buy in (or don’t) because of me.

I think…it was a lot of things. I was honest. I told them that it hurts to see a kid deteriorate and that I wish I could change things. I was protective of them, explaining that makes me angry when adults speak badly about students. I was vulnerable, sharing with them that it’s hard to not feel like I should give even more when I watch these types of movies. I listened to their ideas, going against my usual seminar rules to answer their questions at the end. I related to them, because I love the movie and so did they. I made it a safe space in which they could talk about their fears and hopes and experiences (like Smiley did another day after school). I honored their ideas by letting them talk about whatever they wanted that connected to the movie without me stepping in.

Every single one of those is an attitude I can, and I try to, express every day. But it doesn’t always happen, and that day it did. It all clicked, shifted into clarity all of a sudden like on a trip to the eye doctor as he fiddles with that strange sight machine (better on one…or two? Three…or four?), and our newfound vision lasted for the rest of the year.

I hope we can do it again next year.

(Photo credit to cheetah100)

Freedom Writers Socratic Seminar

When I said on Thursday I’d finish my post about how my class and I came together tomorrow, I obviously meant Monday. Right? Right.

This actually ties back to a previous post about the movie Freedom Writers. I’d mentioned that I’d shown my kids the movie and they’d been loving it, and that I was planning to finish with a Socratic seminar about the movie. Which I did. I gave them a little seminar pre-planner, nothing extensive, just to get them to think about it a bit and so they’d hopefully have something to say during the seminar – favorite part, least favorite part, anything they didn’t understand, and lessons they could take from the movie to apply to writing, school and life.

For the seminar itself, we started with everyone going around the circle and saying one word that connected to the movie in some way for them (which was so effective as an opening, by the way – I got the idea from a colleague and it rocked!), and then they started talking. We’ve done Socratic seminars before, though not too often, and they enjoy the process, but they’re still figuring it out, so I do get nervous about the whole thing. It’s that whole student-centered classroom in which I have to give up all control – it’s terrifying! But as per usual, they were rock stars and blew me away with their level of conversation and critical thinking about the movie and its issues.

The thing with seminars is they always want my opinion too. I like to flatter myself that it’s because they’re actually interested in what I think, but the odds are good that really they just want to listen to me ramble on rather than have to talk themselves – it’s easier.

And I don’t participate in seminars, as they know, but they were really insistent this time.

And I was nervous about how they would interpret Gruwell’s seventeen jobs to pay for everything in the world for her students.

And I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to screw over their future teachers by leaving my kids with an expectation that a teacher can only be good by giving up everything personal to be a super teacher.

And so I broke my seminar rule about not talking, and I told them that at the end, I would give them five minutes and they could ask me anything they wanted about the movie and I would answer their questions.

And I did. My favorite part? The part where Gruwell is talking to one of her students who had stopped showing up to class when his brother was convicted for a crime he didn’t commit, and then when he does come back, he says all he deserves is an F. A lot of my kids like it too because she says his attitude is a big fuck you to her and his classmates, and she also uses the word balls, and sixth graders love to hear cursing (so taboo!), so they giggled when I said that, but I explained why I like it. As a teacher, I said, it’s so hard when you see a kid falling apart and you are helpless to stop it. You try you talk to them, but you don’t always get through. I like this part, I said, because you can tell he hears her – you can tell she gets through.

(Is that moment Hollywoodized? Absolutely, and I didn’t address this with my kids – it wasn’t the time for it. But I still believe that if you have a relationship with a kid, even if his life is totally destroyed by forces outside your control, you can remind them that not everything is terrible and he can still overcome. And I have to believe that people can overcome disasters, because otherwise, many of my kids will not make it. They experience so much trauma in their lives that I have to believe in minor miracles because otherwise I’d just sit at home and cry all day every day.)

They nodded thoughtfully. Least favorite part, they asked? Easy. The way some of the other teachers talk about the kids – calling them thugs and criminals (I know some people think that part was overblown and heavy handed, and maybe it was for a movie, but I’ve heard some colleagues use those terms about my kids). I went on. When Ms. G. says to another teacher that he can’t teach them because he doesn’t even like them, and he responds by asking what that has to do with teaching…oh, that part breaks my heart, I said. Liking your students has everything to do with teaching. And then I took the opportunity to be vulnerable to them.

“I think you know I love you,” I said to them, and some nodded while some just listened. “I want what’s best for you. I want you to have every opportunity to be whatever you want to be, just like Ms. G. wanted for her kids. But teaching like she did…it’s not realistic. She taught for four years and she quit. I don’t want to quit after four years – I want to teach forever. So I can’t have three jobs. I wouldn’t be a good teacher if I was personally miserable, which I would be if I lived like her. She got divorced over it.”

I paused and looked at them. Socratic seminars offer a different perspective – sitting in the group, at their level, rather than standing at the front, and it felt so appropriate for this conversation. I continued, “Every teacher I know spends their own money on the classroom. You know that. But we can’t do it like she does, because we don’t want to only be there for one group of kids and then leave. We’re in it for the long haul. So I love this movie, but I don’t like that part of it either.”

After that day, five weeks or so before the end of the year, they were with me. Pretty much every moment of every class, they were with me with whatever we did, on my side, in our lessons, in it together.

I’ll talk about why I think that was tomorrow (real tomorrow! Not fake four-days-from-now tomorrow).

(Photo credit to 9 TM)

Show and tell

Rachel left a comment yesterday that got me thinking. She said, “I think my students know that I care about them and want them to do well...but I'm just not as gregarious as [another teacher] is, so they gravitate towards her. I'm coming to terms with this.”

It sucks to feel that you aren't as well-liked as other teachers. Which I know, because that was totally how I felt during my first year teaching; Ms. Reading was way more popular than I was, for a variety of reasons, and it was really discouraging for a while. But I managed to change that, especially this year. I think this happened for two reasons: the first was that I became more explicit in talking to them about why I do what I do, and why it matters, because everything I do (or almost everything – nobody's perfect) is to help them succeed. The second was that I showed them by giving them my time. Explaining and demonstrating that to them changed the tenor in my room dramatically.

When I think about when that happened, two main moments come into my mind. I'll write about the second in a different post, but the first was right before winter break. My kids tend to fall apart a bit before long holidays because their home lives aren't all very secure, so they start acting out and being even bigger whack jobs than usual. I'd been cracking down on the behavior because I wasn't willing to let my classes completely unravel just because they were going to have two weeks away; frankly, if home is unsafe, they need school to be that much safer. But because of that, none of us were enjoying class as much as usual.

The Wednesday night before winter break started, I spent two hours baking cookies – nothing complicated, shortbread spread with chocolate, and small, a little bigger than one of the old half dollar coins. I made 150, enough for each of my kids and a few extra for others who might ask.

The next day, I gave each student a cookie on their way into class. I didn't let them bite in right away; they had to wait. We used the cookies for a warm up on sensory details, and then I talked to them about the other reason I'd made them cookies.

I told them that I knew I'd been pretty strict recently and that class had been difficult at times. I talked about why, that I was worried about the behaviors I'd seen and we still had a lot of work to do that we couldn't get through when people were being obnoxious, and so I couldn't have that going on. But, I added, that didn't mean I didn't care about them. I said that I loved them all and I wanted them to succeed because they deserved that. I told them that I wanted them to have every chance in life to do whatever they wanted, that it was my job to help them get there and that I felt so lucky to have that opportunity to help them. I explained that I didn't enjoy being so strict, but that I'd enjoy it even less if they someday were limited in their options because they hadn't learned enough to succeed, and so we were going to learn as much as possible together, and if I had to be strict to get there, so be it.

I said that was why I had spent two hours baking them cookies to eat and to use in class; I wanted to remind them that I loved them but that they needed an education to be successful.

I truly believe that being so explicit with them helped tremendously. They got it. They understood exactly what I meant.

But I also believe that the additional time I put into them by baking cookies helped. It wasn't monetarily expensive to make the cookies but it did take time that is outside of my contract hours, and the kids know that's a valuable commodity. My kids might know that better than most, in fact; my kids don't come from families in which the world revolves around their adolescent schedules. My kids have parents with two jobs, sometimes at night, younger brothers and sisters who need caretaking, families who can't or won't drive them to sports practices, finances that won't allow for piano or swimming lessons. So my kids know that when someone takes time out of their day to do something for someone else, that matters.

I know that I don't have the same encumbrances on my time that teachers with families do; I'm married, but I don't have my own children yet, and my husband is very understanding when I stay late. I understand that everyone has to make their own decisions about priorities. But I see how much it matters to them when I'm there, I see the light in their eyes when they see me and the glow on their faces as they bashfully shrug off my congratulations afterward. So I go to after school events – band concerts, basketball games, spelling bees. Not all of them, but I go to at least one type of each event that I have kids in. Again, everyone has their own priorities, but for me, this has really helped.

Tomorrow I'll write about the other time that really solidified us as a family.

(Photo credit to The Scott)

Being liked

Recently I was hanging out with a friend who's also a teacher. We were talking about a variety of teaching stuff, as we are wont to do, when the conversation turned to teacher popularity. Both of us tend to be pretty well-liked (though I was definitely more popular this year than last year), and we've both had colleagues make disparaging remarks about us for that, saying that it's because our classes are easy.

And you know, I really resent that. My class is not easy – my kids work their butts off for me. I just find ways to make it fun (sometimes, at least), and I talk to them about why we're doing what we're doing, and why it matters for them. I also tell them explicitly that their success matters to me, and that I care about them. I praise them regularly, and I talk to them about their lives. Sometimes I reward them with their choice of candy, pencils, or PBS Bucks (Positive Behavior Support, not the Public Broadcasting System) for them doing well on something, or just because. I greet them in the hallways and I laugh at their jokes. When they're struggling, we talk about why they're having trouble and I ask them to come in after school or at lunch for help. If they don't do it on their own, I go and find them in the lunchroom and bring them with me. I let them come into my room at lunch to play games or talk or use the computers. We have fun together, and they know I love them, and that's why they like me, NOT because my class is easy.

I believe it's okay to be liked by my students. It means they try harder for me. It means they're more comfortable talking to me about their problems, which helps me understand them where they're coming from and how that impacts their schoolwork. It means that I can use our relationship to encourage them to do better or to express my disappointment when they fall apart. It means that I don't have management issues with some kids who tear other classes apart.

Yesterday was my first official mentoring meeting with the Charmer. He and I talked for a while, some about his issues with school, some about the world in general.

My favorite part of the conversation came when we were discussing how one of his teachers believes that I fix problems for him. I was trying to figure out how to explain that a lot of teachers prefer a more formal approach, that they don't feel comfortable giving up their personal time (lunch, or after school, or what have you) and that that's okay, though it's not how I work. So I started with, “You know, some people think I'm overinvolved with my students--”

“You are,” he interrupted.

I looked at him, flummoxed. Because, um, plenty of people would probably consider me mentoring him to be overinvolvement. And perhaps he did too and this was his way of letting me know. I tried to figure out how to respond, as he continued.

“That's not a bad thing, though. You just care about your students more, and you spend time with them, and you get to know them better.”

Clearly my friend here didn't understand the prefix “over”, as the implication in its use (or not even implication, but flat out meaning) was that I was too involved, but rather than start critiquing his use of the English language, I felt it would be more productive to just address what he was talking about and bring it back to my original intent in the conversation. “Right, but it takes a lot of time to do that--”

Interrupted again. “But that's what makes you more dedicated. That's what makes you a better teacher than them.” I smiled at that and thanked him. He continued, “Honestly, I think they're just jealous because kids like you more and like your class more and they don't have that.”

Don't you love it when they suck up like that? And when they totally validate your own feelings on a subject?

When the Charmer, his mom and I all sat down last week, his mom ended the conversation by saying, “You know, I can see how you're the type of teacher that students just love.” I laughed and said something about how there were plenty of kids who wouldn't agree with that statement (I am, after all, a big fat meanie), but I really don't think it's a problem to be liked. It makes my life and their lives easier, and isn't that a good thing in the end?

(Photo credit to dhammza,
"I'm a dreamer but I ain't the only one Got problems but we love to have fun" -K'naan, "Dreamer"

I teach eighth grade Language Arts at an urban school. My kids kick ass and will change the world. I want everyone to know.
Copyright 2009 I'm a Dreamer All rights reserved.
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