Saturday, December 16, 2006

Some days teachers should get hazard pay. Yesterday was one of those days. In the past, our student council has sponsored a door decorating contest for the holidays. Somehow this has tranformed from a simple door design, to an all out school-wide decorating feat. Now each grade level, 6th, 7th and 8th, decorate their designated part of our square school. The overall theme is decided by the student council, but each grade can come up with their own ideas.

Last year was simply winter. We decorated like December in Hawaii complete with teacher replicas on the doors in grass skirts and yes, coconut bras. This year, the kids wanted something more traditional so our theme was "Awesome Winter Scenes."

Traditionally, the 7th grade wins. Maybe it is the enthusiasm of the teachers, the fact 7th graders are just at the perfect age for something like this, I really don't know... but we always win.

Yesterday was decorate day. The entire day was set aside for work. Whatever was to be done had to be done this day.

8:30.... chore assignments based on what the kids had chosen to do. My door was to be a hockey rink, another was to have polar bears skiing with Coke, the other one was to have polar bears bowling with penguin pins. A skating rink hanging from the ceiling in the hall, snowflakes everywhere, snow people in every available empty wall space, a sledding hill with more penguins, trees, icicles, snowmobiles above the lockers. Each 7th grade locker would have either a set of skis, a snowboard or snowshoes with the student's name on it.

Glue, glitter, paint, construction paper, tissue paper, scissors, aluminum foil, tinsel, cardboard, ladders..... everywhere!! The entire middle school hall so thick with kids and supplies you couldn't walk. CLassrooms full of worker bees, diligently attacking their assigned tasks.

The first hour or so was amazing. Every kid was engaged, learning, accomplishing great things... the second hour... well, things started falling apart. To be fair, a large number of the kids were still doing what they should be, their decorations coming together wonderfully. Others were bored with their tasks, there were not enough ladders to go around, and visiting with friends in other locations seemed more fun. Let the wandering begin...

We, the teachers, tried to keep track, but with so many kids, so many places for them to be, 6th graders intermingled with our 7th graders, 8th graders coming to borrow supplies or scope out the competition. Chaos was on the edge of our peripheral. Some of the decorations were starting to look amazing. My door was a 3-D hockey rink, complete with advertisements on the boards, penalty boxes, and nets. It won't even open all the way because the design sticks out so far. THe penguin sledding hill is terrific. Sparkly snowflakes hang everywhere. But there is a winding red and green paper chain from somewhere tanlged down the floor all through our hall and into the 7th grade hall with "guards" by it yelling, "DON'T STEP ON OUR CHAIN!" "GET OUT OF THE WAY!" to everyone walking or working near.

I asked the big plan for the chain. "We don't know what we are doing with it, we just got bored with what we were doing and made this instead."

and so the rest of the morning went...

We cleaned up before lunch, or rather, herded the kids to clean. Brooms, dust pans, glitter, rags, water, garbage cans.... it almost looked worse when they were done than when they began cleaning! :-) My guess, many have never used a broom or wiped a table before!

But alas, the hall is beautiful, the paper chains are hanging low, the aluminum foil skating rink glistens like real ice, the giraffes on the sledding hill are simply adorable.

I am so tired I may not be able to walk to the parking lot....

and I am quite certain that my Christmas bonus check is "in the mail"!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Yesterday we took a HUGE chapter test in math - this chapter is the worst one every year - it covers order of operations, integers, writing algebraic equations, balancing one step equations - too much stuff piled into one but I give the ending test anyway. (Yes, I can think of many reasons not to... but I do)
My policy is if you don’t get at least a 75% the first time, you will redo until you meet that magic mark. Today was reteach/retake day.
Brooke... Brooke is this large, loud, obnoxious young lady from one of "those" families. She does as little as possible in school, reads at a low level, performs low across the board. Brooke's first test score was 34% - typical for her. Today, with her retake Brooke got 91%!!!! She worked so hard, you could almost see the smoke. I asked her, jokingly, "What happened? Did you get smarter over night?" She said, "NOPE... I knew you were going to keep making me redo it til I got it right so I STUDIED last night!" I don’t know who was more excited - Brooke, or me...
Joe... my little Joe who sleeps through almost all day every day. Doesn’t do much of anything anywhere. Joe got 42% first time through. Pretty good for Joe.. not good enough for me. First retake today - he added 20%. I almost just said, "good enough" but no... I gave it back with some more pointers, hints, pushes in the right direction. ANOTHER 18%!!
I love my job.. I love my job.. I love my kids... I love my kids....what a WONDERFUL way to head off to a weekend!

Monday, November 27, 2006

The magical question was posed to me:
If you could build your own school, what and how would you do it?

Wow... First I thought the building, the sparkles... the WOW... a pool, a gym, a cafeteria... just for my middle schoolers. Nice classrooms, with CARPETING so when students move it doesn't make that horrid skreeeeeeching noise. Lots of windows. Chairs that allow movement, like rockers - you see those in libraries sometimes that allow the seated person to rock slightly back and forth. Bookcases, lots of bookcases, full of books. Computers, maybe even tablets!!, on every desk in every classroom. Projectors in all classrooms. Storage areas for all that stuff we all collect because we know if we throw it away, tomorrow we will need it desperately. Bright colors, welcoming colors inside. Outside, gardens for students to work in, grow flowers and vegetables, playground equipment, age appropriate for middle schoolers. Basketball courts, soccer field, track, swings, obstacle course.

But then... after the intial excitement of all that outward, material stuff wore off, I realized those things would be great, yes. Not the most important part of MY school though.

The most important ingredient in my school, my perfect school... would be.. the STAFF! I would want staff members who share a common vision of what education looks like. Quality educators who are willing to think about their teaching critically, and make changes daily if needed. People who want to work together, talk together about curriculum and pedagogy and kids, who want to read about new ideas, learn new things, try cutting edge ideas, and most of all, are willing to fail.

I would want teachers who LOVE middle school kids more than anything else - who didn't just end up in middle school by default, but are at that level because they think these kids are challenging, exciting, and can learn, and even more importantly believe these guys WANT to learn. My school would be led by a principal who shared all the traits of his staff, who was willing and anxious to jump in and teach, learn and grow with the students and staff. All other people there, secretary, bus drivers, cafeteria folks... anyone who would come into contact with the students would be valued, trained, a true part of the education process.

The only physical part of the school not at all negotiable would be technology. Cutting edge technology with ongoing training for staff would be imperative. Students love it, it is engaging, it is challening and students MUST have these skills to be competive in college and in the workforce.

Ideally, the school would be small and house only middle schoolers. Perhaps 40 students per grade, grades 6, 7, 8 would be about perfect. Up to 100 students per grade would be acceptable given adequate resources and facilities. No class should have more than 20 students at a time. Teacher total load should not exceed 60 students, in order to allow them to know their students well, communicate effectively with parents, and adequately allow for individualization of instruction and assessment.

The curriculum should cover the basics of course, but be well supplemented with exploratory classes, cooking, music, shop, art, physical education, health, drama, journalism, and time for students to explore areas which excite them - clubs like robotics, sewing, babysitting, etc... should be offered as well.

The basics should be emphasized - students need to know how to read and write and do basic math, but they also need to explore how these skills apply to real world situations. My students would do many projects - writing letters to officials, working with local adults to solve community problems, developing ways to use their skills they are learning in science, math, etc... to really examine real-world situations. When kids have a real audience, they want to produce, they want to excel, they want to impress. THEY DELIVER!

My curriculum would be ungraded as such, instead giving students the skills they need to progress. If a student needed to work on fractions all year in order to grasp those concepts, then so be it. Just because he was struggling in math would not keep him back in language arts or science or history. Individualism would be the rule rather than the exception.

The halls of the school would be decorated with student work - permanent student work. Handprints of all students who pass through would be on the walls with their signatures. Revolving displays of other student work would be prevalent. Students would be expected to responsible for things like policing litter in the halls, keeping their lockers clean, taking responsibility for the cafeteria's reasonable neatness when they left.

Parents and community members would be active in my school - encouraging students, supplementing instruction, donating time, materials, experience and knowledge. If the school was near a university, I would encourage pre-service teachers to be strongly involved with our students.

How would I do it… the BIG question… I don’t know.. if I had that answer, I would have done it already! I think the most realistic method of funding such a program would be a corporate sponsor of some kind. I cannot imagine how wonderful it would be to have someone to fund my dreams!! I always tell my husband if we ever win the lottery, I am building my own school J He just laughs….

Friday, November 10, 2006

Parent teacher conferences were last night. I must confess at the begining of the blessed event, I was less than excited. This is a tough group of kids, and I was not sure what to expect from meeting with parents. Sure, I have talked with many on the phone, had a few face to face meetings, so I guess I did have some expectations.

Outside the fact it was an incredibly long day, I was pleased with the outcome. Many of my struggling students had parents that came. We had some wonderful, productive conversations!

The most amazing part of the day however, was an observation on my part though. As wiht most schools, I have a large number of students whose parents are divorced. The first set of these, the father visited with me first, never mentioning that his wife was sitting waiting to speak to me next. He did have a few negative comments about how he was never quite sure what type of structure was in place for homework or nightly reading when his son is with mom. His tone made is obvious he felt his wife was inadequate in his supervision of both their son's behavior and academic progress. When he moved on, the woman who followed him introduced herself as A's mom, and made a sharp tongued comment about me having met her husband, and proceeded to praise her son, acknowledging his successes. She made a few subtle jabs at dad, and moved on.

The next set of divorced parents I noticed, the dad again was the first to visit with me. He told me mom would be there soon but since he is also himself a teacher, he needed to get to his own conferences. He was polite, never giving any negative comments about mom, and even pointedly left the progress report for her to pick up. Meeting with mom shortly after, was pleasant as well. We discussed their son, and ho sending him to dad's classroom might be a productive option when the son comes unprepared for class. All in all, this conversation was positive as well.

The most amazing non-traditional family came in a herd to my table. There were 4 adults, and 2 small children. (the young man being discussed is out of school suspended) WOW! What a wonderful support network for this young man. Had I not known the mom previously, I would never have been able to determine which were the biological parents and which were the step parents. Each of the 4 adults had positive comments about the boy, concerns to ask about, suggestions on how we could help him experience more success. It was the MOST amazing conference I have ever been a part of!

As I reflect back on these particular three conferences, I wonder why parents have such a difficult time realizing how their interactions, or lack thereof, impac their children. Why can't they be more like the last group, working towards a common goal for their child.

Conferences are conferences... leaving me with a to-do list for the next day, a stack of "I found it in my backpack" papers to correct, and a new sense of appreciation of my students.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

If I had to describe this school year so far, being 7 1/2 weeks in, I would say frustrating. I am feeling overwhelmingly, and increasingly frustrated.

Let me preface the rest of this post by saying, I have some great students this year: wonderful, intuitive, funny, caring, polite and pleasantly memorable.

Now... the down and dirty. Overall, I am shocked at this group's inability to do ANYTHING independently. They ask everything about everything: what day is it (even though it is written on the front and side board), what do I need for class (again, written on the board outside my door and on the big board inside), what numbers do we need to do (when I have said it and it is written on both boards). they come to class CONSISTENTLY without materials, at least 3 students per hour lacking a writing utensil. A large number are absent frequently, suspended, sick, or just gone. They do not do homework, they do not seem motivated by grades. Parent phone calls produce little impact.

It is the 8th week of school and I am tired and frustrated and running out of ideas.

I have tried a variety of lesson strategies. I took them outside one day to collect some data in a simple experiement. We went over expectations, directions, etc before we went outside. STill, out there, they didn't know what to do, even the students who had repeated instructions to me! Several spent their time laying on the ground moaning about how difficult the assignment was.

I have done online simulations, but they are unable, unwilling to follow logical steps, steps of projects I have used in the past with great success.

I have assigned plain old read the chapter, and complete the vocab worksheets out of the social studies book, but even these are "too difficult" for them.

CLass discussions erupt into farts, obnoxious comments, off-task comments.

I feel like a first year teacher, instead of a 14 year veteran. Classrooom management has always been one of those things that came naturally for me, and this group has tried my very inner core of patience.

I have tried bribery - resorting to candy for those who do complete work. Does it help? not at all.. not even temporarily... the ones who get the reward give it to those who didnt earn it despite my pleas not to. The wrappers are all in the hall between classes.

I have sleepers, I have tardies, I have a whole huge range of "I don't care and you can't make me" types this year!!

I find myself longing for the last year's group...... or even the year before that..... I just want to be able to TEACH and have them LEARN!!

**SIGH** someone tell me it will get better, or at the very least, NOT WORSE??????

Friday, September 08, 2006

One down, 35 to go.. the end of the first week of school. I am tired, the kids are tired, and we are off to an awesome start. This year is different for me in lots of ways. First off, I am teaching not only 7th grade math, but also 7th grade social studies. The focus of the ss curriculum has changed since I last taught it. Now we cover Eastern Hemisphere, so this will be quite an adventure.

I also feel like it is a totally different year because I rearranged my classroom tables to an entirely new look. With laptops, my choices are limited, but I found a way to create 4 pods of sorts. After 1 week, I really think I like it better. There is more flexibility to separate students, and definitely more room to allow me to get to them. I was worried the kids couldn't see the board as easy but so far, it seems just fine.

Without Linda in 7th grade, I feel a disconnect between the 3 of us - not that it is anyone's fault, but Linda was always the organized one who kept us focused and on task. Who will keep us there now? NOT ME!! I had to dig out the AR point goal chart to copy for all of us, and all I could think was FOR CRYING OUT LOUD... mine is probably the wrong one people!! What are you thinking???

The kids are an interesting group. I have heard soooo many negatives about them as a group, and about specific students. It seems every "troublemaker" comes with a ton of "you just wait" stories that make me even more determined to hammer out the problems and make it work.
Without detention to send them to during the day, I think we will all be forced to rethink classroom management. I have never been one to send students often, but on that occasion I needed to, it was certainly a relief to have that option.

Mostly, I think I am just brain-tired from the constant neediness of them all this week. They are getting into the routine of coming in, starting their math starter, being ready when the bell rings, etc... but some of them are SO lost... J. who just spent 2 years in 6th grade is the worst. He didn't even manage to get his name written on his notebook, he can't remember to push his chair in, and when he leaves my room ( and I have him 3 HOURS of the day!!) he leaves EVERYTHING laying on his table as he walks away. Of course, he comes to class with nothing, so maybe I should stop sending him back to get his materials and then he wouldn't have anything to leave??

Next week will be another week... the routine will start to fall in place. RIGHT???? I know, it won't be long and it will be June and I will be crying they are leaving :-)