April 30, 2007

A New Adventure

My 8th graders students have started an independent project that I used to do with my 10th graders as a cumulative project. It's a cool project that I found at Outta Ray's Head years ago. For the most part, I've kept it as it is, but I have tweaked a few things here and there, including adding a reflective journal, a graphic organizer for my visual learners, more specific rubrics, and a series of small deadlines to keep them on track. It might sound like a lot, but truly the core project is the same. I've added as many tools as I can over the years to make this more accessible for my students.

I'm a little nervous about doing this project, as I know it takes at least 40 hours to complete, and our time is running short. For a few of my students, this is going to be too much to handle, but the rest of them have been dying to do a project like this--they just don't realize it.

I warmed up their brains to the idea of it last week, asking them to brainstorm on possible interests they have related to some of the themes. I presented the project to them Friday, and very few of them had questions. Today's the day--and the next few days--when students plan and try to wrap their minds about what they need to do.

So far, I'm impressed. All the students I talked to today had some pretty amazing topics that they were interested in researching. A few of them were having difficulty seeing that the center of the project is a theme, and the research paper is only a component and not the center. However, the more we brainstormed together, the more they started to develop the whole project.

In the next few weeks I'll be incredibly frustrated with many of my [unmotivated] students, but I know I will also enjoy the enthusiasm the rest of them will carry as they demonstrate their writing and thinking skills on their own terms.

It's going to be a wild ride!

April 26, 2007

Watch Out for the Bookworms!

I've been disappointed in the performance of many of my students this year. I've had an insane amount of students who insist on not turning in work--including major projects--which means, they are choosing to fail. It's a really cool group of kids, too, but just really unmotivated.

But they are readers!

According to my records, on average, my students have each read 33 books this year. That's just amazing to me! Of course, with the way averaging works, I think the number is a little high, thanks to the a good chunk of the students who've read over 50 books this year, including about six students who have read over 100 books. The highest is a student who has read 166 books! Are you kidding me? And would you believe that these are my super-achieving, brightest students who always turn their work in on time? Of course they would read so much, but where do they find the time? Just eyeballing the list of students and the number of books they've read this year, it looks like a more accurate average of the average kids is about 20 books this year. That's not too shabby either!

Hooray for my book-lovin' students!

April 24, 2007

On Which I Give Up on a Student

It's true. I gave up. I did the best that I could, and it was enough.

When 4th quarter started a few weeks ago, Loud-Mouth Girl joined my night school writing class. From the very first writing assignment I gave, she complained that it was too much work and that she hated writing. She wanted out of the class so badly, but apparently the counselor was not inclined to allow her to get out, and I thought LMG could handle the class and be successful if she just tried. Honestly, you can't fail the class if you do all your assignments. You can earn a low grade, but not a failing grade. Besides, the class is designed to help those who need to develop writing skills. It's what we do. Yo! It's a writing class.

So LMG pretty much refused to do any of the work, saying that it is too hard--or too much. "I have to write two pages? That's too much!" "Damn! Why we got to write so much? I ain't going to write no essay on that topic." "I ain't creative. How my goin' to write on that?" And let's not forget how she repeatedly announced how she didn't understand and wasn't going to do the assignment as I'm explaining and giving examples to the class.

And, as you might have guessed, she isn't the type of student who just sits in the back quietly wasting her life away. Nope. She's stirring it up all the time as she is complaining about the class. Every time I reprimanded her for talking about inappropriate things, she became confrontational. I offered to help her come up with ideas and topics to get her started on her writings. More complaining as above. I tried not to take it personally, but she was on the attack all the time. I didn't even want to walk near her. The black cloud above her was so large.

The new student who arrived just last week kept looking to me questioning why I allowed the student to so loudly complain about the work load or jump down my throat when I offered help. I had to assure the student not to worry. LMG was just trying to get under my skin, but she wasn't worth it. Some students proudly wear their negativity as if it were valuable bling.

One of my problem students from earlier quarters said to me last night, "Miss, why don't you kick her out?"

"Oh really? Funny YOU would ask. Why didn't I kick you out? You all are capable of doing it, and I have faith in your abilities. Your antics are nothing in the big picture."

I finally gave in tonight, though. She dug in her heels and planned on sitting--and likely stirring trouble--for the entire 100-minute class period. "Miss, you know I don't want to be here. Refer me to get out and I'll we'll all be happier." I told her, again, that I'd rather not because I didn't want to give up on her. I had every faith in her abilities. Or so I told myself. I'm so full of holy teacher shit sometimes. Actually the only thing I had faith in is that she was going to be the reason there would be a cat fight in my classroom tonight.

So I wrote a note to the counselor--and I know the LMG had already repeatedly begged the counselor to get out--telling her that I thought LMG would be better off staying in class, but she was determined to fail. Was it possible for her to get out of the class? ( I left off all the stuff about how she was a giant pain in the arse who annoyed everyone.)

Oh how happy she was! But somehow her posse thought I kicked her out of my class. So, the negative vibes remained.

Can one student really have such a large impact on a classroom?


April 23, 2007

More Than Teen Theatrics?

I believe that 90% of my students are screwed up. All of them--from the hood rats to the spoiled brats. They have issues. I remember when I was their age (barely) and for no good reason at all, I was often distraught and depressed. A lot of these kids have good reasons, but what can you do? My reactions to their angst usually goes something like this: "Your life sucks? Yeah, well, you're a teenager. Stuff happens. You'll get used to it, and then you can be an adult. Don't worry. Being a teenager isn't terminal."

Only, I have known a few for which being a teenager was terminal.

It seems like every day I see or hear things where I have to make a judgment call to decide whether it's normal growing pains or something more serious. Ahem. You all know what I mean. Write that down on the long list of teacher duties. Honestly, a lot of the time I block out a lot of the hormones around me. It's for my sanity.

So, today when one of my students turned up the drama, spiced with anger and violence, in a speech about his pet peeves, I had to assess the threat situation. Is this kid a danger to himself or us? Or, is he just making an ass of himself for shock value? (Thanks, pop culture.)

After class, I called him up to ask him if he thought his speech was entirely appropriate, and he informed me that he did not want hold back on his emotions and that he truly felt what he said. I understood, but argued that perhaps he could have chosen other strong words than threatening "death" to those who "peeved" him. He did not back down when I suggested a referral to the counselor. At that point I was wondering if the show he put on was for real and not a way to see how far he could push me. Nonetheless, I kept pushing him about the power of word choice, testing him by asking if I should be afraid of him if I were to cross him. He calmly and emphatically said that I should be afraid. Well, I asked, didn't I?

I did not feel fear.

I felt sadness.

I backed down at that point and told him I would refer him because if he felt so many angry and bad things inside he really needed to talk to someone. And you know what? He still didn't back down. Why? Because he got the appropriate attention from me.

Apparently when the counselor called him in, he admitted that he was trying to get everyone's attention by his performance today. And he did. It breaks my heart to think of the poor kid suffering through so much inside. I'm so glad I heard his cry today, but I can't help but wonder how long he's been crying for help.

April 22, 2007

Happy Earth Day

I'm celebrating Earth Day buried in 30 lbs of papers to grade. I feel a little guilty, as it would not be too difficult for me to have a mostly paperless classroom. The problem with that is that I can't read from the computer screen for hours on end. I feel like I'm going blind from my computer usage as it is. Can get some bonus points reading the writing of a recycled pencil on recycled paper? That's hard on my eyes, too.

Here's a Ecological Footprint Quiz to see just how earth-friendly YOU are. My score of a 12 is here. I took the quiz a year ago and received a higher score, so somehow I'm making less of an impact on my world now. I'm still a resource hog, though.

Another thing to think about in life.

April 21, 2007

The Mommy in Me is Still a Teacher

My stepson has been in trouble at home a lot lately because he's been in trouble at school. His school has this color-code system (Fred Jones, maybe?) where if he's good he stays on purple, but as his behavior declines it goes green, yellow, and don't-you-dare-get-to-red. So he's had spurts where he's come home with greens two or three times a week. There was a day several weeks ago he got a yellow, and so we went back to the classroom to see what the problem was. I wanted to buy the poor woman a drink because she looked like Mrs. Frazzle. What the problem? Not listening. Disrupting others. Not staying on task. Bless her heart she recognized that these are kindergartners and it's spring. Challenging indeed. Acceptable? Not in our house.

And by the way, how embarrassing that my child has contributed to sucking the life out of a teacher.

We have a system for dealing with this, but when push came to shove nothing seemed to be working, so my husband told the child who cannot listen at school (he has issues at home, too) that if he got in trouble again--no matter how minor--he could not go to his grandmother's during spring break. My stepson adores his grandmother. (His mother's mother.) You've never seen such a focused child. He got it together and went to his grandmother's.

But then, he came back from break and was okay for a few days and then started up not paying attention in school again. Really that's what it is. Not listening to instructions. Being off task. So, guess who gave up his next visit to grandma's? Traumatic event. Let me tell ya. Consequences suck.

His grandma is supportive of this, but then she did suggest I talk to his teacher because she thought since he was so bright, he might be bored and acting out because of it. I guess when he gets distracted and doesn't listen to us it's because he's too smart for us, aye grandma?

His teacher is quite competent and has things in place for him to do when he is finished with his work. He has an extension/practice folder, there are centers, and there are computers. The homework he brings home seems to be an appropriate challenge for him. So, in general, I think when he isn't paying attention or doesn't follow instructions, it's more a personal problem than a teacher problem.

My stepson is kinesthetic and logical/mathematical. Sitting in a desk practicing letters is tough for him. Last summer, sitting down for an hour to "practice school" did drive me to drink, and now he's in a full-day program. He is excelling in developing his academic skills, and socially and developmentally he has grown so much. He has all the other stuff dialed in. We're not backing down on this. He is capable of having the whole package--he has demonstrated it many times.

I tried not to be too irritated with my stepson's grandmother and her suggestion, but then the next day when his mother called, annoyed that he would not be coming to visit, and suggested that his problem was that he was not challenged enough and that we should talk to the teacher, I wanted to murder. (I might be a little biased here; I have to recognize that. I mean, the kids have visitation with their grandparents, not their mother. Uhm. Yea.) Doesn't anyone think that the problem is that the child needs to learn the discipline of learning in a classroom? Doesn't he need to learn when it's time to do what he wants to do and when it's time to do as he's told?

Am I totally sounding like a teacher here? I can't help it. It's an insult to my profession to think that the struggles that a child has in learning choices and consequences should hold teachers in a negative light.

Thank goodness I was a teacher first, or who knows? I might be a parent who does not think that children should have to deal with the consequences of their poor choices. I might be a parent who coddles when children deserve to be in trouble for their bad behaviors. I might be the parent of a child who can't help but grow up to be a juvenile delinquent. Okay. We know that sometimes good parents end up with juvenile delinquents, but just so you all know, this parent's working really hard to prevent delinquency from ignorance and lack of parenting.

I personally know that some teacher somewhere down the line will appreciate it.

And some kid, when he grows up, will appreciate it, too.

April 18, 2007

Plugging Away

Wow! I'm barely even a weekend blogger lately.

Last weekend my parents were in town. Of course, I ditched school for a day to hang out with them. It was a blast just hanging out by myself with them. When I go to their house to visit, I rarely even have time alone with them both at the same time. In recent years, visits have been short, and just because I have time off doesn't mean anyone else does. So what did we do while they were in town? Not much. I'd say our big event was hitting yard sales on Saturday morning. We just relaxed and visited.

Some of my students had cause to celebrate this week because we finished the yearbook! Wahoo! I'm slightly disappointed in myself because we did not make deadline--there's really no reason why--in the big picture, anyway. When I think back to the days when I first starting doing yearbook...it was all on paper and we sent our layout plans and copy to the plant and they designed it. Now it's so much easier! It's all digital, and we actually build the book online.

The celebration, by the way, was a little odd. Everyone brought food and we ended up with about 8 bags of chips, tons of candy, soda, and a big green salad. Hilarious!

We've been doing a balancing act of learning about public speaking and poetry. Actually, my department is organizing a poetry slam, so I'm hoping that many of my students will indeed combine these two topics and participate. So far I have about 5 students who are excited about the slam. Yea, wow. Five. Even after I presented them with some wonderful examples, students are interested in learning more about slam, but are still not too excited to give it a shot--or even simply reciting some of their own poems. Oh well. Can't have everything. Yet. We still have time.

Our school has another event coming up in a few weeks. The Magnet Schools of America conference is here in Las Vegas, and part of the conference includes school tours. We are also including our annual Technology Showcase on that same day. (The Showcase is when we invite everyone and anyone to come check out how we use technology. I've never actually had anyone come to my room, even last year when I was told there'd be people stopping by.) So, apparently we'll have people in and out of our school observing--and judging. Sorry, that's the cynical side shining. Admin is super-stressed about this visitor day. I don't know why. We'll do what we do, and people can take it or leave it.

Man...I can't believe I actually have to teach for one day, and my students will be stunned that they must work and be able to tell people on what they are working. Gaaaaawwwwwwwd! What a bummer! I don't know what admin is worried about. We'll rock.

April 12, 2007

Great Book Suggestions?

And while you're offering input on my book dilemma, any great books you can offer up for suggestions? Sometime soon we are suppose to hear from our high school counterparts to see what novels they do in the 9th and 10th grade (the IB MYP program goes on to high school for those two grades, so we try to work with the school that our program feeds into) and they might have some books in storage that they aren't using that we could borrow, too. I'm looking novels that are multicultural, particular set outside of the US, and also books about man's inventions or creations (and it's impact), which I suppose lends itself pretty well to science fiction, but it doesn't necessarily have to be that way. Nonfiction suggestions are welcome, too. The latter is a theme my team would like to work with next year, but of course they thought it would be a great idea and then just drop the whole deal in the English teacher's lap. Gee, thanks for the input, aye? Anyway, these suggestions could be books to be studied together or books students read independently. :-)

April 10, 2007

Why I Bailed on the Big-@$$ Book

In my last post I mentioned that I'd planned to read a novel with my students but bailed at the last minute. NYC Educator wanted to know which one and why. So, the book is The Three Musketeers. Unabridged. I inherited boxes of the books when I took over my classroom and the IB classes. The department chair from a few years back had ordered them, and considering how long it sometimes takes to get things in, they have been sitting for at least two years, but probably not more than three. I have enough for every student to be able to take on home--and then some. Do you know what a miracle that is? We usually only have classroom sets, and we're totally up-a-creek if a copy is lost or stolen.

So in the back on my mind I've been wondering how and when I can get to this, so decided I could assign it as "the" book for them to read this quarter (as opposed to books of their choice), and we would spend a few days a week on different aspects of the book. I've had two main concerns the whole time. The first one is that the book is rated at an 11th grade reading level. My students are pretty much broken up in thirds in terms of their reading levels: a third are above average, a third are at level, and a third are below level. And of those third who do have a 11th grade reading level, can they sustain reading at that level for 600 pages? As for the rest of them, would they be able to read the book and understand it--at all? The more I looked into it, the more the more I had my doubts. It's a tough read for an 8th grader, even one who is an accelerated course. Here's a list of other books that have approximately the same reading level, so when you compare others in its area...WOW. I have the highest confidence in my students--seriously, even though it doesn't seem like it--and I think they could possible handle the book, but then I think I might be kidding myself. (Yea, like when one of them asks me what insomnia means.) The vocabulary is very high, and we even have a decent translation, too!

How much is enough when it comes to challenging your students? I want them to be able to stretch themselves, but I don't want them to become so frustrated that they might give up. I would expect them to be able to read the book independently, at approximately 100 pages a week. That's about 6 weeks to read this book. If we read it together in class, it would be much longer. Sure, they would have guide questions, and we would do discussions and extensions, but half of those things depend of the fact the student has initial understanding of the story.

With such a long book, I would hope that it would have much literary merit. I can see many uses of figurative language, and I would spend on a lot of time with character development, which is great in this story, but I think I was hoping for more along the lines of theme. Maybe more symbolism. Maybe a book that everyone talks about and says, "Wow! You should read that book! It changed by life! It made me really think!" It's largely a book that entertains. But, I do have to admit that it's also one of those stories that everyone should probably know about for the sake of cultural literacy.

Another point that made me hesitant is the morality of the the main character, D'Artagnan. Sure, he is chivalrous in protecting the woman he loves, but she happens to be a married woman. And what about the evenings he spends with Milady and her chambermaid? (Not at the same time, thankfully.) The fact that adultery is acceptable and flouted around so easily is not a topic I embrace having to discuss with my middle schoolers, even if we support a tolerant multicultural atmosphere at my school. I have had situations, if you'll recall here and here, with these students concerning innocent ideas they misunderstood! Imagine the pain and suffering with them with it being more obvious, although it isn't necessarily blatant or obscene. I know that many of them are not so innocent that they aren't thinking about or even experiencing sex, but that is with their friends. On the other hand, I have students who don't feel comfortable interacting with the opposite sex. They are still kids. They aren't at that point where they opening talk about it--in any way. Their health teacher might think differently, but that's a different purpose. Trust me on this. I have taught high schoolers and I currently teach a group at night. The maturity level is very different. Still having some things be sacred and not talked about so casually is one of the advantages I enjoy in teaching middle schoolers.

I don't know. Maybe living behind the Zion Curtain for most of life made me prudish. Or perhaps I'm still gun shy from the book experience I had last year. In real life I'm not a prude at all, but the classroom is different. I wear the facade of my grandmother.

I wish I had never mentioned to my students that we were going to do the book because I had to come in and tell that that after more studying I decided that the language might be too hard to sustain reading for weeks, there wasn't enough literary merit, and I was concern about some of the character traits portrayed in the book. Some of my shiny star students understood when I said, "There's reading a book on your own, and then there's studying a book as a class. There's a big difference."

I don't know, the more I think about it, the more I waiver back the other way. Sigh. Perhaps I'm over-reacting on the mistresses concept and that they could look past that because it's not a big deal, and there's plenty I could have them look at from a literary aspect, but then on the top, there's still the reading level. I would have fewer qualms if the book were half the size and perhaps only one grade level higher than the grade the students are in. That would be plenty challenging.

If any of you have some different views here, I'd sure take them. I asked around my department and had a long talk with the librarian, but essentially the only person I had much serious collaboration with was the French teacher. She was super excited that we were doing a French novel, but when she started studying it more, she lost her enthusiasm, too.

So, there you have it.

April 8, 2007

Wearing My Running Shoes This Week

For most of the evening I've been having anxiety attacks as I've been thinking about the week ahead.

I've been trying not to kick myself for doing virtually nothing to ease my suffering for the upcoming week while I was on vacation.

I was taking a break.

Actually, the next two months might have been more comfortable had I done any planning ahead during my vacation, but I was taking a break.

My husband just shakes his head because he's heard this story over and over.

God forbid I should take a guilt-free break.

At least I'm better than I used to be. I've worked through many vacations. I've graded papers and projects during my vacations. Not this time, though. I have a nice aged stack of projects waiting on my desk.

Oh, the agony!

I did spend time reading and planning for a novel that I have now decided is not good enough to study with my class. It was casual, and on my own terms--not like real work. It's all wasted now.


I could have read another piece of brain candy, since I only fit in a few pieces while I was taking my little break from ed-u-ca-tion.

Tomorrow is non-stop. I've set the alarm back to 5:15 am. My prep times will be filled with, well, prep work. No sharing Spring Break stories with my department mates. Stepson has an appointment right after school. And, Monday night means, double the suffering with night school.

No worries. I'll make it through. I have to. My parents are coming to visit later this week. That means a weekend with no work because I'll be too busy spending time with my family.

The path is getting steeper. My mess is getting deeper.

I'm already on survival mode until June 8th.

April 1, 2007

Oh Glorious Relaxation!

Yes! Spring Break is finally here!

I've slept in twice.
Caught up on my feeds. (Well, mostly.)
Read a book--Always Running.
Went clothes shopping and found bargains. (Four shirts for $50!)
Watched brain-numbing television without guilt.
Irritated my husband.

And it's only the beginning of day 2!