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Archive for August, 2010

I decided today as I was anticipating the start of school with students tomorrow (We had the first day with teachers today) that starting school has all the emotions of going on a blind date.  Think about it–all the same questions run through your mind:

Will I like them?

Will they like me?

What if I hate it?

Can’t I just hide in the bathroom until they go away?

Additionally, I think if you approach the first day of school with a similar mindset, you can save yourself a lot of heartache.  First, recognize that you’re going to feel nervous and awkward–and so will the students.  Everyone has hopes that the experience won’t be that bad.  And everyone knows, regardless of the experience, that it has a definite ending time.   So, laugh a little, and enjoy the ride while it lasts.  And as I tell my students on the first day of school:  Congratulations, you made it!  Only 35 more Tuesdays to go! 

So in honor of my first day tomorrow, I decided to write a little poem to commemorate the solemnity of the occasion.  Here goes:

                                     ‘ Twas the Night Before School Starts           

‘Twas the night before school starts

And all through my mind

Thoughts chased each other

Twelve at a time

The children were nestled–

What would they be like?

Would I love them forever

Those dear little tykes

Or would, in my classroom,

They make such a clatter

with their pushing and shoving

And incessant chatter?

How could someone do this?

Their nerves must be steel!

With the first say tomorrow,

Tell me how should I feel?

If being too strict

May lead me to folly

And woe to the teacher

Appearing too jolly

What if I get up there

And forget what to say?

Can’t we postpone this

Just one more day?

And the names parents choose

Tell me how they could do it!

Khalid? Laquisha?

Who’d NOT stumble through it?

Whatever my worries

Most surely they’ll keep

Now if only I’d manage

To just fall asleep

Despite what my day’s like

Whether good or a bummer

I have to remember

Only nine months til summer!

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Regardless of your age, height, or physical attractiveness, there will come some point in time in your life when a student has a crush on you. These are especially difficult waters to navigate, but there are some guidelines which may be helpful. First, it is immensely important that I stress, you should in NO way encourage a crush. I have seen far too many talk shows about teachers being in inappropriate relationships with their students. But, that being said, you should also not see a crush as something that requires you to crush a student’s self esteem.

My best advice in dealing with crushes is this: accept the compliment, build self-esteem, laugh it off, and move on. Just today, I walked into the gym to give a student a contest form, and as students started calling my name, one student started clapping, and soon I received a round of applause just for walking across the gym. This will make anyone’s day. Then, however, one of my students felt the need to yell, “Sexy beast!” at me. Instead of flipping out and writing him up, I merely rolled my eyes, said “Whatever,” and kept walking. Later when he confessed that another student had put him up to it, I just pointed out that it was not acceptable behavior (this he knew, as he was confessing.) And that was the end of it.

I have received marriage proposals, date invitations (one student asked if I would go out with him if his mom wrote a letter giving her permission; another asked if transferring out of my class so he wasn’t my student made a difference.), and propositions. In each case, I thank the student for their compliment, point out proper boundaries if needed, and say no. Usually, I employ a bit of sarcasm. Example:

Miss Brailey, will you go out with me?”

Hmmm, do I feel like going to jail today? Sadly, no.”

Or

“If you were ten years older, I might consider it, but alas, you’re not.”

My favorite from another teacher with a known crush on John Travolta (she had a cardboard cut-out of him in her room):

“Mrs. Peele, do you want to go out tonight?”

“Let’s see…(weighing options on imaginary scales with her hands) John Travolta…? Dylan…? Sorry. John Travolta.”

In any case, I don’t need to tell a kid he’s sick and wrong to establish boundaries. I just need to politely decline.

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A lot has been said in today’s society about making everyone equal.  While it is a nice politically correct sounding dogma, it does not work well in education.  Let me explain. 

When I was in school, our seventh and eighth grade classes were divided into four sections.  Without too much thought (or even looking at chronology in numbers), it was fairly easy to determine which section was the “smart class” and which was not.  Did it damage our self esteem?  Not mine–I was in the smart class.  But, I will tell you what being in “the smart class” did for me.  I am really a high average student.  I can memorize well, but I really had to work for the grades I got.  Because of the class I was in, I was surrounded by students who were driven, so I competed.  I remember many mornings in eighth grade getting up at 4:30 in the morning to study for science tests.  I later read my notes into a tape player and listened to them when I went to sleep.    Why?  Because I was around successful people.  Everyone in my class studied, everyone did their homework, and everyone was successful.  So, I was too.   I am absolutely certain I would have worked less if I had been surrounded by people with lower abilities.  As it was, not studying wasn’t ever an option.

Now, let’s look at it from another standpoint.  Doesn’t a class being “the dumb class” make a student not try?  In my experience, sometimes.  But, more often, if I have a lower level student in a smarter class, he or she will be completely lost and start to be a discipline problem (and more often than not, the class will be tailored to the middle, so the high-end students will be bored and lazy.)  However, if he or she is on the same level as all of his or her peers, it is more likely the student will ask questions.  The class may go at a slower pace, but more learning takes place. 

Last school year was the first year I had an honors class at my school.  (I had been told previously that we “didn’t have honors kids.”)  For the most part, this class achieved more than classes I have had in the past.  But, my other classes saw success as well.  As students were grouped more closely by ability, I was able to teach each class with the vocabulary and explanation they could understand.  And I even saw some of my regular English students move to Honors English (and succeed) for the second semester.   

I believe honestly assessing students’ abilities and teaching them at the level they are at is much more effective than trying to lump everyone together and use differentiated instruction.  You wouldn’t do very well as a football team giving the entire school equal chance to play in hopes that the good kids would influence the bad.  In the same way that there’s first and second string in sports (and some actually get CUT!),   Education should be tracked by ability.  We should recognize that not everyone is good at everything, and that’s okay.

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Lie #4: Rules can govern every aspect

of student behavior

While a great deal of press has been given to The 55 Essentials, I would encourage you that unless you are that particular teacher of the year, much fewer will probably be sufficient. When trying to write rules, several teachers I know have tried to cover every aspect of student behavior. They think of all their own personal pet peeves and the things that students traditionally do wrong, compiling them into one monstrous list. There is one major problem with this: Students are varied and seemingly eternally creative.

You doubt? A demonstration, then. In one of my early years of teaching, I had three rules, conveniently starting with the same letter: Responsibility, Relationship, and Respect. I had explained to my students that these were to govern our time together. I expected them to be responsible: bringing supplies to class, doing their homework, and being punctual. Then, I pointed out that there were certain things that were necessary merely because we were in relationship with each other, explaining that there were things I couldn’t let one student do because not everyone could do them. Finally, I explained that I expected them to act respectfully towards themselves, their classmates, and me. These three rules could be applied to every situation. If, however, I had made the typical rules like “Don’t chew gum,” “Bring two #2 pencils to class,” etc., this situation would have been allowed:

It was the year of the Winter Olympics, so many of my junior high students were watching the events. As I was enthralling my class with tales from history, I looked over, and what to my wondering eyes did appear, but one of my students in his seat with his knees under his chin, calculatingly moving from side to side. “What are you doing, Nate?” I inquired.

“I’m bobsledding.” He replied, most innocently.

Never would my rules have naturally included things like, “Do not participate in Olympic Sports using your desk as equipment,” “Don’t practice invisible instruments in class,” “Don’t make sound effects for imaginary animals,” “Do not light matches and stick them on your person,” or “Do not lay on your stomach and spin on the library tables.” [Note: I have said all of these to students.] So, you see, less is really more. Pick a few rules which address character (I currently use the Code of Chivalry, as my classroom is now decorated like a Medieval Castle) and apply these to the situations in your class. (Note: As I am predominately a middle and high school teacher, I will say that little ones may need more specifics. Just please don’t insult your seniors’ intelligence with “hands to yourself” type rules.)

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Helpful Hint #6: The Syllabus

I was both blessed and stupid enough my first year of teaching to accept a teaching position at a school that was being started by three families, had eight students, and at which I would have seven preps, including one class containing three different Maths which didn’t have books for the first three weeks (I’m an English/History Major). No, I’m not making this up. I remained at that school for seven years with much the same work load, new classes every year, and a student population that had reached fifty (and received accreditation) by the time I left. They truly were some of the most precious and most fulfilling times of my life. In truth, I only left because I was invited to work with a missions organization two hours away and felt God’s leading in that direction—leaving broke my heart.

In my times at The King’s Academy, a syllabus was a means of survival. When we started the school, we had four students (of the eight) who were part-time students. This meant they only came to school on Tuesday and Thursday and spent the other three days being home-schooled. When faced with the idea that a full half of my class would be absent every other day, I came up with the idea of a syllabus broken into each day’s work. This way, a parent could know what we were covering in class and cover the same things at home, so my students were on track when they came back every other day. Additionally, with seven preps, if I didn’t have mapped out where I was headed in each class, I was in for a daily nightmare. My first year, as I was hired one week prior to the start of school, I did my syllabus in two-week increments. Now, I am able to write a quarter at a time.

While my syllabi are book specific, I do have samples available upon request for every History Grades 7-11 and every English Grades 7-12 plus a number of electives.  Many people, though, have asked me how I go about writing them, so these are a few of the specific guidelines:

  1. Have some kind of opening activity. For me, it’s journals. My students spend the first 3-5 minutes of class writing a response to a question on the board. This allows me to take attendance, pass out papers, calm down from a previous class, switch gears, or otherwise relax. Then, we spend about 5 minutes sharing responses. This allows the students to grow in their confidence of their work and lets others (and me) get to know them.
  2. Plan on about 15 minutes of continuous instruction. This may seem like nothing in light of all you have to cover, but keep in mind the word continuous. The television generation has developed about a fifteen minute attention span, as this is the standard length of time between commercial breaks. If you have a lot to cover, do two fifteen minute stints, but never present new information for longer than thirty minutes in a forty-five minute class period.
  3. Have some kind of application of what you learned or discussion which emotionally connects them to the material. This may be a project, a debate, a movie clip, a game, or some type of movement. (This may also be a transition between two stints of fifteen minutes.) Remember, students best remember the things with which they emotionally connect.
  4. Have about 5 minutes at the end to assign homework, start homework, answer questions, or just talk. Often times, I will have “teachable moments” in the course of discussion or teaching which eat up this time. Having five extra minutes provides a cushion for the “unexpected.”

 

And voila—That’s a class period. When I write a syllabus, I just include the date, the journal prompt (for absences), what we’re covering in class (with page numbers to help me, not just the student), and the assignment. This is also helpful in the cases where kids say, “You never told me we had….” I can simply respond, “It’s in your syllabus.” Additionally, if your students are college bound, they will need to get used to dealing with a syllabus and planning ahead.

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Many people wonder how to handle the first day of school.  My student teacher was actually asked this question in her interview, and as she had started in the Spring, she had no idea.  Hopefully, this advice will remedy the nerves of others in her shoes.  So, this is for you, Kristina!

A few things to remember about the first day of school:

1.  Spend a few days before school starts talking the whole day.  This gets your voice used to lots of talking.  I talk more the first day of school than any other time of the year.  It is a strain on your voice, so you need to build up lest you spend the second day whispering.

2.  “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”     This quote has been attributed to many people (including my mother, which is where I heard it.), but it is true, so I want to touch on it.  When students walk in your classroom on the first day of school, they will make a myriad of judgements. Here are a few suggestions: 

      A.  Dress professionally.  Let me define that term.  Look attractive without wearing anything too tight, low cut, high, etc.  Survey yourself from all sides.  I’ll speak specifically to ladies.  Stand in from of a mirror and bend towards it.  This is the view for any student you are leaning over to help.  Turn around in the same position and check your backside.  Also the view you present a class.  Sit in front of a mirror and see how far up your skirt you can see.  This is also a view you are presenting.  If you are unsure of your own judgement, ask someone you trust.

     B.  Arrive early.  Whatever your attendance policy, beat it.  If you are racing in at the same time as the students, you will not have an opportunity to collect yourself, and they won’t think punctuality is important.

     C.  Feel at home.  Decorate your classroom in a way that makes you feel comfortable.  Mine is decorated like a medieval castle with quotes on the walls lots of art work.  I realize I have more freedom than most, but I get countless comments from teachers and students alike about how much they love being in my room.  This is the attitude you want.  Additionally, it communicates to the students “I care about this place and am willing to invest in it.”  It also communicates a sense of longevity:  “I’m planning to stick around!”

     D.  Be organized:  Have all the materials (rules, agendas, handouts) within arm’s length of wherever you stand most often.  That way, you don’t have to fumble around trying to get something.

     E.  Walk around your room before the students get there.  Make sure you can easily navigate the aisles and walkways.  I have my room arranged in a semi circle for that reason (And the fact that I can see everyone, and no one can hide.)

2.  Communicate Expectations:  Obviously, rules will be a part of your first day discussion.  But you should realize, it’s part of EVERYONE’s first day instructions, so your kids will hear them many times.  Make yours stand out, or they will tune you out.  I use the Code of Chivalry for mine.  I also address GENERAL behavior.  Kids, regardless of their age, will always out-think you.  Some examples:  I have in the past witnessed students bobsled using their desks for equipment, play invisible instruments, talk to imaginary pets, light themselves on fire, attempt to pole dance, and a myriad of other interesting stories.  (I teach junior high mostly.)  These instances would NEVER be covered in the standard “Use blue or black ink” and “Keep your hands to yourself” type rules.    Therefore, use general rules which can be applied to specific instances.  I use Responsibility, Relationship, and Respect.  I define carefully what each of those include, and I can apply them to any situation, including the ones listed above.   Decide what you’re willing to put up with and what you’re not.  For a more detailed explanation of how to create rules, check out the post:  Taming the Natives.

3.  Stress Self Control:  A key I’ve only recently learned is that it’s not my job to control students.  “WHAT???”  You may ask.  Let me explain.  I have control over one person in my classroom:  Myself.  I determine how I’m going to act.  If I could control my students, they would always do their homework, never speak unless spoken to, and then only to communicate a fount of wisdom, and always be kind to each other.  But I don’t control them.  Moreover, I CAN’T.  And what’s more important:  It’s not my job to.  It IS my job to control the environment in which my students find themselves.  It is my students’ responsibility to control themselves. 

      I spend the first day explaining this to students.  I explain very specifically what self-control looks like.  I also explain to them that there may be days when they are unable to control themselves.   I explain that in real life (with which my students are VERY familiar), people who do not choose to contol themselves are placed in facilities where all their choices are made for them.  They receive a lovely orange uniform and someone else decides what they eat, when they get up, etc.  In the same way, in class, if they are incapable of managing themselves appropriately in this environment, their freedoms begin to be limited.  First, they are warned.  If they cannot bring themselves under control, they are moved to a seat of their choice, away from whomever they are distracted by–this allows them to think through “Where will I be able to act like I should?”  I tell my sudents:  “First move, your choice, second move, office.”  In the past several years, no one, I repeat, NO ONE, has made it to the office.  If you empower your kids, they will learn to accept responsibility–and not just when you’re watching.

4.  Don’t let things slide just because it’s the first day.  If you let it pass the first day, you will have a hard time correcting it in future.  Address tardiness, extraneous talking, and disrespect immediately.  Kids are usually the best behaved they will be all year on the first day.  If you let behavior slide then, you’ve accepted it for the future.

5.  Learn Names.  I always start and end my day with my students telling me something about themselves or answering a question.  I do this everyday for the first week of school.  By the end of the week, I know every student’s name, and have learned a great many things about them already.  (Just so you know, I average 120 students.)  This let’s them know I care about them and their interests.

6.  Have fun!  One of my favorite quotes is by Danny Silk who said, “I’m going to have fun because there’s nothing worse than me being bored while you watch.”  Enjoy yourself.  If you’re not having fun, and you enjoy your subject, you can guarantee the kids aren’t.

7.  Be a real person.  Take time to communicate yourself to the students.  I end the first day of school allowing students to ask me any question they want to know, and I answer it (As long as it’s school appropriate.)  This sets the tone of our relationship as open and establishes me as someone who is honest and trustworthy.  Not a bad way to start the year.

8.  Realize:  if you don’t get it all right today, there’s always tomorrow.  And 178 days after that.  Don’t let an initial failure wreck your outlook for the year.  Learn from mistakes and move on.

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Welcome to Life Lines for Teachers:  Caution, Not Enough Rope to Hang Yourself.  (The name is from the title of my upcoming book.)  On this site, I will be discussing a number of issues not covered in my book as they occur in every day classroom life.  After fifteen years of teaching nationally and internationally, I realize I am by no means an expert, but after numerous years of teachers older than I seeking out my advice, I realized I just might hold the keys for other teachers.  So this is the result.  Please note, the stories I will share on this site are 100% real and without embellishment (Despite the fact that I am an English teacher most often.), and only first names will be given.   As much as possible, dialogue has been recorded exactly as it has transpired.  Additionally, if there are topics you would like to see covered in a post, please feel free to email your questions and comments.  And thank you for including me in your life.  Sincerely, Amy Brailey

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