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Archive for January, 2011

I have often said that relationships are the keys to effective teaching. Apparently, it is also a key to stopping fights.

While some may not have the “opportunity” to even witness a fight, at our school, they are a fairly regular occurrence. Since I came, I have personally broken up over a dozen, so I average a couple a year. Today was one case in point. Here’s what happened:

I was at my desk between passing periods (usually I’m in the hall, but I was finishing up putting a few grades in.) when I heard raised voices in the hall. It’s normally loud in our hallway with about 200 seventh and eighth graders milling around about 50 yards of hallway, but this was a different sound. I rushed into the hallway and saw the circle forming around 2 girls who were yelling at each other. One was one of my eighth graders; the other a tenth grader. I immediately got in the middle of them. I asked the tenth grader what she was doing in this hallway, as the high school hallways are in a different part of the building. She ignored me and proceed to reach over my shoulder, put her hand in my eighth graders’ face, and push her away. Now, both girls are feisty Hispanics, and I knew immediately that pushing someone’s face meant my eighth grader was 2 seconds from swinging.

I put my arm out in between them, made eye contact with her and said, “NO! Go that way.” She immediately obeyed, so I was free to deal with the other girl, who I was able to grab and escort out of the hallway. She was still resisting and cussing, and eventually, I was able to get her to the office. I went back and pulled my eighth grader into my class until I could get her an escort to go to her class.

So, here’s the key: This eighth grader was someone I have spent a great deal of time caring about. She has struggled more than a lot of kids I know, and I was able to encourage her at some of her lower points. Because we had a relationship, seeing me in between her and her enemy overrode her natural instinct to start swinging. She told her next hour teacher, “I’m so glad Miss Brailey got in between us–I can’t afford to be in any more trouble.” Taking time to care about people may help you out when push comes to shove…literally.

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Today did not go according to plan. I had a great first day of the semester, trying to get kids used to the new semester and prepared for novels and short story writing. It was a fairly good day. And at the end of it, all I wanted to do was go home and take a nap before going to dinner at a friend’s house to watch a movie and hang out. I planned to leave at 3:00–I left at 6:30.

Here’s what happened. I usually have kids in my room after school until at least 3:30 (School ends at 2:47.) Sometimes it’s the boys’ basketball team, others it’s random students who need to talk or want English help. But, I always stay after school. It’s during these times that I can really get in kids’ lives.

Today, it began with the few who typically stay in my room until their ride gets here. We talked about the novel they’re reading and a few other random details. Then, two high school students came in to have me check flyers for the Future Teachers of America club they want to start. Then, three other eighth graders come in for help on Math (I teach English.) I now have seven students in my room. Finally, around 4:00, they all left with problems solved. I quickly went to run off my copies and prepare for the semester and go home–I still have time for a nap before dinner at 6:00. On my way, a student asked how long I would be here. “Until I finish what I need to. Why?” She said she needed to talk, and I had said (written in her journal) that she could talk to me if she needed to. Great. “Okay, stop by.” So I went to make copies, left them in the machine and went to grab some colored paper in my room.

That’s when it started. A tenth grade boy I’ve really invested in stopped by to talk. His girlfriend had cheated on him, and he was devastated. She had a rough home life (Horrible would be my word), and he didn’t know how to deal with it. For about 45 minutes, he poured his heart out, sought my counsel, and tried to cope. While he was sharing, two girls came back. They waited awhile, and then were going to leave, so I asked the guy to let me talk to them for a bit, so he went in the hall. One of the girls began to share her home situation–her mother died in December after trying to kill her father. Her dad and step mom are getting divorced and everyone blames her. She and her sister have been taken away and placed in foster care, and she’d been removed from my Honors class because her grades had dropped. As we talked for a while and I encouraged her, her friend began to ask questions about how the counsellors handle a rape situation. I said they call your parents and then look at the legal aspect. She started crying and ran out of the room. Great. Trauma number 3. I decide it’s time to call my friends and tell them I’ll be late for dinner as it’s now 5:50. My male student comes back in with news that his girlfriend is willing to talk to me about her home life, and we decide when to do that. He leaves after I affirm my commitment to him and his success. I then try to find my girls who ran off, locate them, and continue our discussion until their ride gets there. I find out enough to determine that nothing actually happened as far as rape, but the threat was there, so it’s a trickier situation and a conversation I have to finish another time.

So here’s the point. I teach because it puts me in contact with kids that DESPERATELY need someone to care about them. I stay after school because that’s when the best conversations happen. For so many students, school is their only safe haven. To have a teacher who will hug them and let them cry is more than many of them have in a parent. To hear someone say, “We’re going to get through this. I’m here for you” means the world to them. Did I solve everything? No–though all three said they felt better. What I did do was hug them, listen to them, and let them cry. I also showed them that they were worth me adjusting my plans. So don’t be in such a hurry to leave. Missing dinner and staying after a little may change someone’s life forever.

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Strange as it may seem, there is a great deal of time in eighth grade English devoted to teaching the Holocaust. The Diary of Anne Frank is required reading for every eighth grader in some format (Ours is a play). The more I’ve taught, the less I’ve made it my mission to teach Anne Frank, and the more I’ve made it my mission to teach the lesson of the Holocaust: Don’t judge someone on the basis of anything other than who they are as a person. Notice I didn’t say don’t judge–But then again, neither did Martin Luther King, Jr. He (and I) said, “You’re going to judge people–it’s natural. But WHEN you judge, judge by character, not color of skin.” The challenge is how to explain that to a student in a way that sticks so that the horrors of the Holocaust are never repeated again. This is how I do it.

Day 1: I begin my lesson with a bit of background information: How World War I caused World War II by the treatment of Germany and the Kellogg–Briand pact. We give a bit of background on children in hiding, and then the fun starts.

Day 2: I show a video called “Survivors of the Shoah.” It is a free video available upon request from the Shoah Foundation. I’d encourage every History and English teacher to own one. (Show the actual video, not the 15 minute intro with Morgan Freeman.) It lays out the Holocaust better than anything I’ve ever seen. I tell my kids before we begin that the people they will see are not actors. The videos are not reenactments, but real news reels. I plead with them to listen to these people as REAL people, because that is what they are. I tell them to watch with a piece of paper so they can jot down what stands out to them or questions they have. Then, I press play. Most never tear their eyes from the screen. From that moment until I stop it, there is rarely a sound in the room–unless it is of someone sniffling (Several students cry every year.) or my explanation of something. It is my favorite day of the year. At the end, I explain that until you understand how bad something really is, you’ll never be mad enough to stop it. That concludes day 2.

Day 3: I begin with a quote attributed to Edmund Burke (It’s actually a paraphrase): The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” We discuss their questions from the day before. This year, a number of students asked whether slavery or the holocaust was worse, so we had the opportunity to compare (options, duration, brutality, value, etc…) But, I had a flash of inspiration of how to bring the message home to them. About 2/3 of our student population is Hispanic or Hispanic mixed, so the issue of immigration is a huge hot button for our students, many of whom have had family members deported. I decided this year to compare the Holocaust to the issue of Immigration, but the lesson can be brought home using the hot buttons in your area. Here’s what I said:

“Let’s look at the issue of immigration. What have we done? First, we identify I group of people. Then, we start to blame them for our problems: Hispanics are costing us our jobs. Hispanics are bringing drugs into our cities. Hispanics are bringing gang violence. Hispanics want to take over and drive us out. Have you heard these things? (They all nod.) Are they true? (There’s silence…) In some cases, yes. But of ALL Hispanics. No. But what do we do? We judge all Hispanics by the actions of some. Suddenly, ALL Hispanics are illegal. We brand them border hoppers. So we make laws against them. Do you see how this works? Pick a group, label them, attribute wrong to them, judge them for it, and make them pay…It’s an easy progression. It’s the same thing Hitler did. Most people never even stop to think. That’s why I’m challenging you with 2 things. First, BE EDUCATED. The first thing Hitler did was eliminate the 2000 smartest people and burn books with ideas against him. WHY? Because education is power. Educated people are the ones to see when something is going down and do something against it. Think for yourself. Second: Understand that everyone has an agenda for your life. I do, your parents do, MTV does, Apple does, your friends do, your enemies do. Everyone is trying to get you to do something. Ask yourself: What is this person trying to get me to do? and Is it right? Remember, the ONLY thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. Don’t just let things happen. Stand against what’s wrong now, before it’s too late”

Then, we begin Anne Frank. I let them act out the play, and then we end the quarter with a movie about the Holocaust. All in all, amazing life lesson time!

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