Monthly Archives: April 2011

7 Again

Many people have either asked me why I didn’t teach elementary or told me that I seem well-suited for it.  I just smile a little to myself and answer, “Oh, but I do…”

A lot of my students don’t get to have much of a childhood.  By the time they are old enough to do so, many are taking care of younger siblings while mom or dad works a late shift.  Once they get to high school (or sometimes earlier), some of them even have children of their own.  I know that we are supposed to prepare them for life as adults, but sometimes I ask, why the rush?  Everyone has forever to be a grown-up, but only one chance to be a child.

On Wednesday we staged the first MI Easter Egg Hunt because I have a terrible habit of volunteering for things. Most of the staff were excited, though understandably concerned about having large numbers of students traipsing through the halls in search of candy.  (The velociraptor scene in Jurassic Park comes to mind.)  I tried to keep things under control by restricting the hunt to two floors on one side of the academic wing and putting in place procedures for redeeming prizes etc.  Kids will be kids, though, and there was candy to be had so there was lots of mayhem anyway.  But there were no eggs thrown around or stuffed in questionable places, no fights over candy and prizes, and only minimal disappearances of children into the fourth dimension.

In the end, it was just gratifying to see the kids excited and I try to do that in my classroom too.  Large cardboard boxes become temporary spaceships, the Student of the Week winner gets to wear a large foam cheese on his or her head, and googly eyes are abused in abundance.  This week my kids were working on model biomes and it’s surprising how much they enjoy coloring and painting and making animals out of Play-Doh.  Increasingly, even elementary schools are subject to the trials and tribulations of standardized testing, so that kids are drilled and killed from the start.  My hope is that they at least regain some of their natural curiosity and excitement in my class as I am shooting flying monkeys at them.

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All in the Timing

Every class has its own personality, and the time of day when that class meets has a not insignificant influence on student behavior, attitude, and performance.  (Yes, here’s another for the obvious-things-they-don’t-tell-you-in-college file.)

My end-of-the-day classes have always been my most difficult to manage (though that’s sometimes a pretty close contest!).  I’m tired, the kids are tired, and we’ve both picked up a day’s worth of slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  We are currently working on a semester-long project that is much more self-directed than the work we did third quarter, which is a bit of a chancy gamble at the time of the year when student (and, admittedly, teacher) self-direction is rapidly waning.  Last week I realized that sometimes the work was not enough to fully occupy a group of four, so this week I planned some more teacher-directed activities in addition to their group work time.

With my morning class, it had the desired effect of lighting a fire under their butts when they realized that time was limited.  With the afternoon class, however, the carbon cycle activity was about all they could handle in terms of attention span, so when I set them loose to work they pretty much just vegetated.  And in all honesty, I hardly blame them, because 6 hours is an awfully long time to be “on” (and yes, I realize I am being generous with that term!).  So I am going to try giving the afternoon class work time first and hope they build enough momentum to get them through the end of the day.  If not, we’ll stop halfway through and move back to the more structured work.

Learning Helplessness

When I took the TeacherInsight assessment about a month ago, one of the questions asked me to rate my agreement with the [paraphrased] statement, “Students tell me things they do not tell other teachers.”  That was probably one of the few that I marked Strongly Agree, and it is at once a source of joy and frustration.  Joy that my students trust me and seek my support and counsel, frustration that there is almost always nothing practical I can do except listen and tell them over and over how much they are worth and pray that something sinks in.

Last quarter, two of my girls took up the habit of coming into my room to eat their lunches.  Allison was a student I had last semester, Kelly is a current student; both are in my advisory and grew up practically sisters.  They were talking one day about the boy Allison liked–who is one of my current students–when she turned to me, smiled and said, “You are the only teacher I’ve told about this!”  A short time later, Kelly took me aside before class and explained that the reason she had missed two days of school the last week was because her dad had hit her again and she’d gone to stay with a friend.  I told Kelly that I was legally obliged to tell our guidance counselor, who explained that she could look into the matter and refer Kelly to child protection services if necessary.

At this point my head was reeling because to treat a child this way is beyond my understanding.  Kelly had already told me about a previous incident, but I’d hoped that was long in the past.  Violence is a way of life for many of our kids, and it is easy to become desensitized to it and ask, “When do I have to say something?”  Maybe I am just naive (and even then I feel some of that wearing away), but I am still taken aback when students–children!–make serious threats of violence as a way to solve their problems.

Today I was trying to counsel a former student who was extremely frustrated with another teacher.  She felt she was being treated unfairly and refused to respect the teacher because she felt he did not respect her.  (That’s another bit of culture shock I had to get used to…the idea of genuinely earning respect rather than expecting it based on position.)  I tried several approaches: telling her to just grin and bear it for nine more weeks to pass the class; trying to help her see things from the teacher’s perspective; encouraging her to control her own behavior regardless of what others in the class were doing; all to little avail.  She’s got quite a temper but I know she’s also capable of sensitivity and compassion; the trick will be unlocking it.

Finally, at the end of the day, another former student came by to see me.  I had passed her in the hall this morning and saw that she looked very upset.  When asked what was wrong, she said she’d tell me later. At lunch she asked if she could come by 8th period to talk to me, and I said that was fine since we’ve been watching Avatar.  She told me about her boyfriend, who’s been in and out of jail, who had called her cursing and saying he’d cheated on her.  She claims to love him and thinks he loves her, and that just about broke my heart because it wasn’t so long ago that I myself was so desperate for attention and affection.  At the end of the day I gave her a hug and let her go, saying only that she was more than her body, more than what any boy thought of her, more than what anybody said about her.  Yet I say all these things to her knowing full well that it’s taken years of suffering and heartache to learn those lessons myself (heck, I am still learning them!) and that she is bound to go through a rough road no matter how much I wish it were otherwise, because that is just how life is.

One of the interview questions at a job fair I attended Saturday was about the most frustrating thing I’ve encountered as a teacher, and I answered the lack of control I have over students’ lives outside the classroom.  The baggage they bring in certainly can make academic learning difficult, but on a more fundamental level, some of these kids go through truly hellacious things in life, and even the “little” tragedies–a break-up, a friend moving away, parents divorcing–are still hard.  My own childhood was blessedly simple, but perhaps it is now my burden to care so much after these little ones and not be able to do much except listen.

>Donors Choose

>In the current atmosphere of backlash against teachers and public employees, it is nice to know that there are people out there who still care about education and educators.  DonorsChoose.org is a place where teachers can post wish lists of supplies they need/want, and anyone can make donations to different projects.  The only caveat is that teachers who get their projects funded need to show evidence of their supplies in use and have their students write thank-you notes to the donors.

In January, I posted a request for Wisconsin fast plant seeds, 3:1 and 1:2:1 tobacco seeds, and an ABO blood typing simulation kit.  The responses I got were touching, and some of my friends and colleagues donated too!
“I gave to this project because I want to encourage more active participation in science. It’s fun and I have enjoyed my career in it.”

“I gave to this project because me and my husband both went to Lima Senior and our children will go there someday. We want to help give kids in our area the best education possible. I hope our little contribution helps.”

“I gave to this project because Miss Du is an amazing and inspiring teacher!”

“I gave to this project because instructors like Ms. D have had an immeasurable impact on my life. I want to do what I can to see that others get to have the same great experiences I was able to have.”

“I helped because I’m a strong believer in Health & Life Science education.”

“I gave because this dedicated teacher’s description of the project makes clear that the school has a good strategic plan for learning science in a hands-on way under committed leadership. “

Sounds like I have a lot to live up to!  We’ve done the blood typing already and started the tobacco seeds germinating before spring break.  I’m trying to figure out what to do with the Fast Plants now, and I’m somewhat afraid that my penchant for killing whatever I try to grow will again rear its ugly head!  I’m thinking about using the Bottle Biology system to grow the plants and give the students a chance to see ecology in action.  We made the bottle ecosystems last semester, sort of on a whim, but I think with a bit more preparation we could really make some neat stuff happen.