Thursday, October 25, 2012

Guide to Student Teaching #9

The days at my placement site have been getting longer, harder, and more frustrating, but I was warned not to let the negativity color my practices, and that was some very good advice, indeed. But when I look back on my first journal entry, I have to laugh at the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, exuberant version of myself I was nine weeks ago. Reality clogged up my pipe dreams for teaching fool-proof units that were elegantly designed, engaging, and ambitious. The glossy ideals I had are no longer there, but there is something better now.
Flexibility. I have learned the beauty of planning lessons with some give. Of course, I’m frustrated that my beautiful, intricate, and delicate original plans are no longer relevant, but what I have is so much better because I know that the constant adjustments and concessions I have had to make have forced me to be more adaptable than I thought possible. My plans are still effective and engaging, but rely less on timing and more on broad goals. As a self-proclaimed control freak, I’m proud of myself for finding a way to adapt without giving up important and worthwhile lessons.
For example, I have noticed a disturbing number of students coming to class without something to write with, so I decided to turn the lack of preparedness into a teachable moment by implementing the “Box of Shame.” The Box of Shame is a pencil box that I stocked with 50 sharpened pencils, some pens, and a pad of Post-It notes. Here is how it worked:
“Ummm… I don’t have a pen. Can I have one?”
“I’m SO glad you asked, D--!” I cheerfully replied to the student as I handed him a pencil from the box. “THIS is the Box of Shame. It has tons of pens and pencils for you to use during class, but the catch is, you have to write your name on the Post-It and I will deduct 1 participation point because you’re not prepared for class.”
The student immediately threw the pencil back in the box, looked around the classroom and desperately asked, “Can anyone loan me a pen? Please?”
The rest of the students laughed and began chanting, “Box of shame! Box of shame!” until another student took pity and handed the unprepared boy a pen.
Since that day, the students nearly always bring a writing utensil to class, and I have noticed that when one student is unprepared, another will almost always come to his rescue. The beauty of that particular teachable moment is that the students learned to rely on each other, if not themselves, to be prepared. Nine weeks ago, I would have been furious that these kids were holding up my carefully tailored lesson plans, but now I see that I need to build in some flexibility, and in finding that flexibility, I can find teachable moments with lasting results.
Even when I came up against an incident of plagiarism, I found a way to react without ruining a student’s self-esteem. Since the paper the student submitted did not actually address the question, my cooperating teacher and I decided that instead of failing him for not completing the task (and very possibly plagiarizing), we would give him another chance to redeem himself by giving him the actual assignment to complete in class. By choosing this course of action, the student has the opportunity to receive a grade, AND I don’t have to accuse him of plagiarism.
I am learning how to balance being flexible and being rigid, too. My freshmen had an assignment where they had to create a Facebook page for a character from the novel they had just finished reading, and when we reviewed the pages in class, they were abysmal. Instead of outright failing them or omitting the assignment, I offered the class one last-ditch opportunity: to meet me in the computer lab during study hall and improve the quality of content on their projects. All but three students were in the computer lab during study hall, and they worked. By the time I reviewed the projects after school, I was so unbelievably proud of them and simultaneously relieved that the assignment wasn’t a waste.
My sophomores, on the other hand, need more rigid expectations. I was sorely disappointed to find only six, 100-point essays submitted today, after granting a 2-day extension, and I will not be offering any second chances. I suspect that the sophomores will realize their mistake when I hand them their grades for the quarter. It breaks my heart to see so many of them failing, but I am certain that a slap of reality will help them see what is expected of them.
I have high hopes for my juniors, especially after I chose to improvise Thursday’s lesson on scene directing by using their own writing. Initially, I had planned to give them a scene from Antigone to direct in small groups, but after one student asked if he could read his assignment, an alternate ending for Oedipus, I decided to put off the first scene from Antigone to allow him and his classmates a chance to direct a scene based on his writing. It went off beautifully. The class was engaged, constructive, and exhibited the basic interpretation skills I originally planned to teach using the film version of Antigone.
Being flexible with my lessons is difficult, but I’m finding myself more satisfied with the results than when I follow my lesson plans exactly as they’re written. As the saying goes, “A strong branch will break against a fierce wind, but a flexible reed will merely bend.” 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Guide to Student Teaching #8

Faculty meetings are the worst. I suppose no one cares to go to company meetings, regardless of the company, but I also suspect that some meetings are better than others. Meetings for food service industry workers mean that there will be food and drink on hand. That is a perk. A games manufacturer might have test toys and games for employees to handle and evaluate. That could be fun. Anyone in the music industry knows that they get to hear a lot of terrible music, but they also get to be the first to discover the next big thing.

School faculty meetings are the worst. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes them so awful. Perhaps it is the frequency and duration. 2+ hours every week is, in my opinion, is a poor use of valuable time. On the other hand, if the 2+ hours were used to discuss potential solutions instead of just problems, then I wouldn’t mind. However, when the meetings disintegrate into a 15-person complain-train, not only do I want to run away before my spirit and enthusiasm are crushed, but I also want to stand up and shout, “They’re just kids, for crying out loud! Stop letting them get you down! Can we please move on!”
I don’t doubt that these faculty meetings could be productive, but only if one person would take control, lead, and keep everyone on task. It would be nice if that person would also set the tone for professionalism. I don’t understand how so many educators in a single room lack the wherewithal to transfer skills of time management, focusing, explicit instruction, and facilitating an effective whole group discussion. Even if it is too difficult to maintain order or an agenda, then at least the language should be elevated. It shouldn’t be difficult to use proper English when addressing colleagues, but when profanity becomes the norm, proper English doesn’t stand a chance. Poor, poor proper English. No one likes using you.
I shouldn’t make such broad, sweeping generalizations. There are several teachers and administrators who feel the same way I do, but they also fear the consequences for stating an opinion that may seem oppositional. Since I have been here, I have not seen the administration offer support for the teachers. I have witnessed many promises and assurances to “consider the idea(s)”, but very little action. Teachers have been requesting lists: students on sports teams, students in ISS, students with IEPs, and students who qualify as low-income. Honestly, the school should consider renaming itself after St. Anthony – patron saint of lost items. Nobody knows where anything is. These lists would be helpful, but when it takes two hours to do something today that will save a little time everyday, forever, the trend around here is to put it off.
I don’t have time to put things off, and this Friday night, I made a promise to never put off my own work in lieu of work for the greater good of the school. Friday night was an Open House event, and one that I was planning to attend so I could meet more parents and interact with future stakeholders. I arrived at school a full hour early, just to clean up the room, set up displays, and make sure my classroom looked the way a classroom should look. Then, I spent the day teaching, assisting my cooperating teacher and our students, and completing a special “insert” the principal requested for the last issue of the school newspaper. As the day went on, I became more and more excited for the Open House event, and I felt like I was truly helping the school.
After school, I graded papers, grabbed a sandwich, and purchased a few last-minute supplies for my own work. The faculty met briefly to discuss the agenda for the evening, then the teachers were sent to wait in their classrooms for the tour to begin. I waited in my classroom, alone (my CT couldn’t be there that night) for 2 hours. No tour came through. No announcements were made over the PA system. Fifteen minutes before the Open House was scheduled to end, I walked upstairs and found a large group of people in the gymnasium, watching the principal give the final presentation of the evening.
I asked the teacher whose room is next to mine what happened. She looked at me, sniffed, and said, “I dunno, sister. The tour came to my room. They must have decided to skip you.” WHAT? I was dumbfounded, hurt, and more than a little ticked off. I had been looking forward to this Open House all day. I had made displays, helped the principal, cleaned… I had even bought a Glade plug-in air freshener and played an album of Kerouac’s spoken word poetry. I wanted parents to see my classroom, and I wanted to help sell the school.
Once again, I am reminded that I am merely a student teacher, and perhaps my classroom was skipped over because my CT couldn’t be there. I could understand how that might reflect badly on the school. What I don’t understand is why I was treated with no consideration whatsoever. It wouldn’t have been difficult to tell me to come to the next Open House with my CT. I am wasting my time trying to be and do what this school needs, and I’m done. Now my worry is whether or not this is the type of treatment I can expect as a certified teacher. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Guide to Student Teaching #7

I found a SMARTBoard for my classroom. I didn’t actually find it, but I certainly jumped on the opportunity to get one in the classroom. I also helped the students finish editing the school newspaper, and I got to school extra early to make sure the office would print out and distribute copies before the weekend. Although the newspaper is only sports-related (for now), it looks pretty great. I still don’t have a key to the classroom, and one of the teachers here likes to treat me like a glorified secretary, and the stench of teenaged boys is getting worse every day, and we can’t open the windows because it’s too cold, but I LOVE THIS JOB.

Maybe I don’t love this job the way I love my husband, or my dog (unconditionally), but the conditions I do have aren’t unreasonable. Some of these conditions came into focus this week. For starters, I want to work with people who A) know their course content, and B) like kids, or at the very least, don’t seem to despise them. For example, senior asked me if the Nelson Mandela autobiography was interesting. I said I didn’t know and asked him what class it was for. He said, “British literature.” I struggled for a moment to make the connection, any connection, and when I came up empty, I reassured him that his teacher “probably has a plan” and to trust her. This interaction still confounds me, days after it happened. It makes me wonder what else is on the reading list for “British literature.”

Later on that week, I witnessed at least four extreme reprimands for seemingly mild offenses. I’m ashamed to admit that I caused one of the incidents. A student was walking away from the gymnasium, where a guest speaker was just about to begin giving a motivational talk, and I noticed that he wasn’t holding a hall pass. I called after him, by name (because I’m actually trying to learn every student’s name, regardless of whether or not they’re in any of my classes), and asked him where he was going. The young man didn’t stop, slow down, or even acknowledge that I had called out to him, so I tried again, chasing after him. He curtly told me that he was going to his locker, but he didn’t stop, turn around, or even slow down. I continued to chase after him, asking, “Why? You need a pass, dear,” in my best “adult” voice. Before he could respond, another teacher bellowed, “YOU ARE BEING DISRESPECTFUL! STOP. TURN AROUND, AND SPEAK DIRECTLY TO A TEACHER WHEN YOU ARE SPOKEN TO!” It was extremely jarring, and I was a little embarrassed.

As the student turned to talk to me, an administrator shot around the corner and yelled, “Somebody call his parents to pick him up! He doesn’t belong here anymore if he can’t be respectful!” I began to panic. The situation was spinning out of control, and I was worried that he would be kicked out, suspended, or, my biggest worry, be sent to ISS instead of class. I spoke up, partially out of fear for the student, and partially to try to defuse the situation. “He doesn’t need to be sent home. He was in a hurry, and I just wanted to know why and where he was going. He needs to stay here. In school. Please.” I winced, waiting to be reprimanded, but instead, I received a condescending smile, and a reassurance that the student would be “handled.” I didn’t see him again until the end of the day, when he came to apologize to me “for being disrespectful.”

His apology was so forlorn, I had to talk to him. We talked for a few minutes, and I reassured him that I liked him, and I was just trying to make sure he had permission to go to his locker. He gave me a hug and said thank you before he left. I felt better, but I wondered how many other kids resented being ruled by fear, rather than respect.

The respect issue hit me hard this week, when I had an epiphany regarding the school culture, specifically, the student culture of apathy (or laziness). For several weeks now, another teacher in the classroom next to mine has asked me, to make copies of his handouts and worksheets for him. He always asks during 3rd period, which I’m not teaching yet, so I duck out and do as he asks. This week, I reminded him that I am working, but since my 3rd period was heading to the computer lab, I could do it. My CT asked me if that is what he keeps asking me for, and when she found out, she was furious. It occurred to me then, that the students might learn to be lazy because they see the adults in the school modeling it for them.

These kids need teachers that are advocates for them, not prison wardens. The final insult this week, and the most frustrating, had to do with the newspaper. Since Wednesday, several students began to show an interest in getting the newspaper published and distributed, especially the students who had submitted articles, photos, and interviews. I took advantage of their collective interest, and scheduled “work hours” during study hall, lunch, and after school, and do you know what happened? They came, they worked, and by Thursday, the paper was almost ready to be published. I spent that night putting some finishing touches on it, and the next morning, I drove to school a full hour early just to drop off the paper in the office and request that copies be made and distributed at the start of the school day.

I spent the entire day, waiting to see the paper in some student’s hands, but by noon, there was nothing. I asked my CT to gently nudge the office staff, and she was happy to do so. By 2pm, there still wasn’t anything, so I marched up to the office, walked over to the desk, and saw… the original document still sitting there with my note on it, untouched. A student called out to me from the front of the office, and asked if the paper was coming out or not. I waved it in the air, and said, “I’m glad you asked! Here it is, and it’s getting printed NOW, if I have anything to say about it!” At that moment, the principal came out of her office and looked from me, to the student, to the paper in my hand, and asked, “What’s that?” Unbelievable. I cordially explained that the office had been given the paper very early that morning, and it needed to be printed immediately “so the kids can see what they did and feel proud of themselves for doing it.” She took it, looked it over, and told her secretary that they needed to keep a copy for the Open House Night.
She could have said, “The kids need this,” or “This is impressive work,” or “When will the next one come out?” but she was only concerned with using it to sell the school to more tuition-paying parents. At least it got published, I only wish it had been published for the students. These kids are really great, and although they annoy, disgust, and frustrate me, they also surprise me constantly with their sweetness and spontaneity. From a hug to an impromptu song, they make this job so very, very satisfying. This is what I mean:

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Guide to Student Teaching #6

This week at TSHS was a mixed bag. There were equal parts instructional time, extracurricular activities, and administrative tasks. I am not entirely happy about only having 33% of the week dedicated to instruction, but I suppose this is how some weeks work. The Club Days have been a particularly sore point for me because I feel like my students and I lose a lot of momentum by having the week broken up on Wednesdays. It’s like planning for a two-day week, twice a week, and I have had to re-teach quite a bit of content. The students typically like the idea of an entire day dedicated to extracurricular activities, but they do not like the fact that it is mandatory and that they are not allowed to choose their clubs, for the most part. I think the students truly see Wednesdays as a waste of time. I tend to agree with them.
                  This Wednesday, however, I made up my mind to use the day to practice some writing. I’m still eager to help create a school newspaper and advise the students who participate in this club. A few weeks ago, the newspaper staff agreed to shift the focus of the publication solely onto sports-related news. My lack of sports knowledge helped the students understand how to convey news of the football teams to an audience beyond the school. I began Wednesday by drawing 4 columns on the whiteboard, and labeled each column: Who, Where/When, Why, What/How. After the students slowly filtered into the classroom, I asked them what our team records were. Junior Varsity is at 5-1 and Varsity is at 4-2. I asked why they thought JV had a better record, and the students immediately began describing specific games, players, and contributing factors. I wrote down nearly everything the boys said, and 15 minutes later, they were able to see a chart of which players performed exceptionally at specific games and why. I put the students into pairs and asked them to write up short profiles of each player listed. They actually seemed to enjoy doing that, and by the time the bell rang, the “staff” had created 5 player profile article drafts, one list of statistics, and 2 articles on Spirit Week, including an article on the Homecoming Dance. It was so satisfying.
                  I began typing up each draft on a shared Google document, and when the next group of students arrived, I asked them to help me type up the drafts by reading the handwritten drafts out loud. We finished typing halfway through the period, and several students asked if they could also write about specific games and/or players. I encouraged them to do so, but explained that the deadline for article submissions was that day. They frantically began writing. I directed the “photographers” to see my CT, who was working on a layout design and formatting pictures, and then I called a meeting of the “editors.” We reviewed the shared document together, clarified and corrected mistakes, and added missing information to the drafts. I explained how a shared document works, and they were happy to be given editing rights to the copy. One student even used his lunch hour to edit and add another article! Amazing.
                  I’m certain that we can have an issue ready to publish by next Friday, and I’m also certain that once students see their names in print, they will become more motivated and find a meaningful purpose for the waste-of-time-disguised-as-important-Club Days. I sure hope so.
                  The week also included some instructional and administrative victories, such as finding a way to teach vocabulary in a way that doesn’t make my students cringe (we played Charades), planning out the next three weeks of instruction (I’m taking over entirely on October 23rd!), and showing a few administrators what I can really do to help the school (I created a classroom website). I feel really good about how I’m doing this job, particularly the things I have control over.
                  BUT, the brighter the picture is, the darker the negative is. There are so many things I have no control over, nor am I allowed to offer any input on, and there were three issues that I really wanted to speak up on. The truth behind my school’s “100% graduation rate” is an ugly one. I overheard a few teachers discussing the possibility of kicking out a few students due to failing grades and lack of cooperation. They implied that the graduation rate for TSHS is 100% because the administration kicks out any students that may tarnish that record. It’s a disgusting, depressing, and ridiculous action for a school to take, and it shows that the administration has a profoundly misplaced sense of what is truly important in the field of education.
                  Later on in the week, I wished a particularly difficult student a happy birthday. In the beginning of the year, he had no direction, no motivation, and no respect. He had even gone as far as to curse out the principal for grabbing his arm. After a few weeks of working with him, he had made amazing progress academically and socially. He worked harder because he knew that if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be allowed to play football, which he told me was his passion. On his birthday, this Wednesday, he was kicked out of the school for refusing to participate in the St. Francis Day all-school field trip scheduled for Thursday. He claimed he was not Catholic, and that the day would not mean anything to him [deleted content] and the principal kicked him out of school. I wanted to find him, and tell him everything would be okay. I wanted to tell him that he did (almost) everything right, and that sometimes the world isn’t fair, but we have to deal with it. I wanted to beg him not to go back to the gang he told me he was a part of. Most of all, I wanted to tell him that I would speak to the principal on his behalf. I did none of those things, and I wonder how long I’ll carry around this regret.
                  To add insult to injury, the administration had scheduled individual conferences with all of the teachers this week, and I was shocked to find out that my CT had received a less-than-favorable review. When I discussed her review with her, she was inconsolable. It seemed that the principal told her she was not a “team player” and that she should consider whether or not this school was a “good fit” for her. The principal commended her on her lesson plans, instructional style, and grading procedures, but gave her the impression that she might not be a good employee because she doesn’t “monitor the hallways during her off-periods.” My CT reminded the principal that she was mentoring a student teacher (me) and that we spend every free period planning, discussing, and cultivating instructional interventions for our students. Apparently, mentoring a student teacher is no excuse for not being a hall monitor.
                  This particular situation angers me because now I need to make sure my CT doesn’t regard me as a nuisance, a chore, or a possible reason for losing her job. I have been quiet about the many, many faulty policies the principal has implemented, and if she wants to run her school into the ground, that’s her business. If she is looking to sabotage my Student Teaching experience, that is unacceptable. I have worked too hard to allow one administrator take away my livelihood.