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Archive for the ‘Articles on Education’ Category

I woke up early this morning (my first back in the U.S.) thinking about school. I have been out of the country for the past month, and now have a little over a week until a new year starts with all the joys and challenges that brings.

What was on my mind this morning was actually an incident from last year. I had an incredible class last year, and I’m looking forward to seeing many of them after the summer. There are very few years as a teacher when you have a class in which there is NO student that you don’t like. Last year was one of those years for me: No one that annoyed me, no one I hoped would be absent, back teaching a subject I love, just an incredible year. While that is an amazing thing, it makes preparing for this year a lot harder. It’s true that I’ve heard every year from at least one 7th grade teacher, “This is the worst class to come through the system!”, but by the time they get to us as 8th graders, they’re usually not bad (except the traditional 5 to 10.) The class coming up has mixed reviews (Some teachers loved them; most had a few challenges.) Still, going from the best class you’ve had in 10 years at the school to the unknown is bound to be rough.

So, what was on my mind this morning was an incident from the last week of school. I was in the midst of writing my traditional “end of the year” letters for my students, and when I wrote one particular student’s, I started crying (and I’m not usually a crier). So you understand, I put a lot of thought and prayer into the letters and try to say what I feel each child needs to hear. The kid that made me cry was a rough kid. He had had a hard life–more difficult than most of our kids who have hard lives. But, in the course of the year, he had shared bits and pieces of his story with me, and on a few occasions, I was able to see through the chink in his armor to the little boy he was hiding with the “tough guy” exterior.

When I read the letters to my students the next day, a number of students cried over their own letter, but his was the only one I’ve ever read that made someone other than the person it belonged to cry. I had warned him that his letter had made me cry, but he let me read it anyway (and I cried again, as did many others in the class.) When other classes came in later in the day, I heard the same statement, “I heard you’re going to make us cry.” I explained that some students do and others don’t, and that more people had cried in the previous class because I had when I was reading someone’s. They immediately guessed the student, so word had gotten out (as things do in a small school.) A student asked me, “Why did you cry over (student’s name)?” The answer I gave surprised even me. I said, “I don’t know. Maybe because no one else ever has.” The truth of that hit me like a ton of bricks. If even part of the stories I’ve pieced together about this student are true, his dad has never cried, his mom can’t stand him, and his siblings beat him up. So, in all likelihood, no one has ever looked at his life and loved him enough to cry for the things he’s suffered and the wrongs that he’s experienced. No one has watched him make bad choices and grieved for him. Whatever way he’s made, he’s made most of it himself. To me, that’s not how it should be. Somewhere along the way, I had gotten a huge heart for this kid without realizing it until I started typing.

As I gear up for a new year, I know some of the kids I will have are students that have caused a lot of problems for other teachers. I already know them by reputation or discipline reports, or from having to write them up in the hallway. And yet, if I keep in mind this situation from last year, I will remember that this kid was a student who had gotten in trouble, and who, from the exterior, made others assume he was trouble, and yet, I had seen a side of him no one else had. If I approach each student (remembering that looks can be deceiving), searching for that chink in the armor that will let me see what’s really going on with them–if I look beyond the external to the heart of a child, I will have no problem loving each one. And when a child knows you care, it’s amazing what kind of a year you can have!

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When we came back from Christmas Break and headed into the long stretch of winter before Spring Break, I could tell my students needed a bit of encouragement. In a moment of honest discussion, one student asked me quite candidly, “Why is school so boring?” At the time, I gave him a typical, “You’re used to a more fast-paced world because of video games, so it seems slow…” answer. Then, I actually thought about it and discussed it with all my classes the next day.

While it’s true that this generation has never known life without cell phones and a myriad of other technology, it does not necessarily follow that school has to be boring. I opened the discussion with the question, “What makes school boring for you?” I explained quite fervently that I did NOT say “Who is boring?” So they were precluded from mentioning specific teachers by name. I really made them analyze what was boring about their classes.
The number one thing the listed was that the content didn’t interest them.

Then, I moved the discussion to them. “Have you ever heard of the phrase ‘Tough Crowd’?” They nodded. “Well,” I explained, “You guys are a tough crowd. Imagine what it feels like for your teachers to look out and see this…” (I mimic their behavior, and they laugh.) “Do you think that makes them WANT to be passionate about what they’re talking about?” It’s beginning to sink in…

“Over break,” I share, “My mom and I went to Dollywood, and we got to see the same show performed two nights in a row. The first night, it was a good show, but the audience totally wasn’t into it. I still was pleased with our experience. But the next night, the audience was incredible–clapping, encouraging…The show was entirely different, even though they performed all the same numbers. The same is true at school. I teach the same material five times, but every time is different based on the audience. My ____ hour class last semester was awesome because they asked great questions, and we had some amazing discussions. Other classes weren’t like that. The difference is YOU!”

“What you have to realize, “I continued, “is that YOU determine what kind of class you have. This is 8th grade–all of your teachers have at least a college education. That means they know WAY more than what they’re sharing with you. So ask about it. When you’re covering material for class, look for something in it that is interesting. Think of how it relates to something you care about. Everything you study has something cool about it. When the teacher mentions something that’s interesting, ask him or her about it. They’ll have a better day because they think you care, and you’ll have a better day because you get to spend time on things you like.”

Now initially, we had to lay out some boundaries because they would just ask question after question. (I reminded them that as the one who EXPLAINED this concept to them, I knew what they were doing.) But, since then, we’ve had some incredible discussions–all related to the material we’re covering (At least loosely…). I even had one girl come up to me and say, “I tried what you said in Mrs. _______________’s class.”

“How’d it go?” I asked her.

“It was really good. Though then we had other things to do, so it got boring again…”

“Well, keep at it.” I encouraged.

Reminding students that THEY are responsible for their education too is always a good thing.

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This past year was an amazing time with my Honors English class. When we parted company, I was intending to have them the following year for Honors 9th grade. We had a number of plans for activities, books, and writing to share the following year, and so parted company for the summer without a real goodbye, fully expecting to be together the next year.

When I went in for our teacher day, I was informed by the administration that I had been chosen to receive the history position I have waited nine years to get back. What an amazing honor–to be able to have the job I love and the opportunity to help tie in the English standards into the history department, as well as plan project based instruction. I was thrilled–and yet, my Honors kids. I don’t know what it is about that particular group of kids, but not only did I connect with them, they connected with each other. They felt at home with each other and me, and I was anticipating the opportunity to continue to develop them. The last thing I wanted was for them to arrive at school the next year expecting to have me and be completely devastated.

So, I composed a letter informing them of the change, affirming my support of them (and my gratefulness at the opportunity to shape their education), and a challenge to continue to succeed and make me proud. Thanks to modern technology, I could find most of them on facebook, message them (without being friends) and ask students to forward the message to those who either didn’t have facebook or who had messaging from non-friends blocked. While they were understandably disappointed, it has been neat to see their continued encouragement, in addition to the support of others for my new position. Transitions are a natural part of life, and each one brings with it challenges and opportunities. While closing a chapter in any book is hard, I am excited for this next season with all it holds.

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We are quickly approaching the end of the school year. Always around this time of year, I take the opportunity to challenge kids with two things. First, I remind them that the fact that we’re nearing the end of the year means that there is a limited number of days that they have left with me and this arrangement of students. I challenge them to take full advantage of the time we have because they will never be in this situation with this same arrangement of people after our remaining 20 days are finished. Make the most of it!

The next part of the challenge is what I like to call “The Law of Inverse Proportions.” For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, the simplest explanation is that one part of an equation is getting bigger while the other part gets smaller, thus moving the two items further apart. I use this to explain that the closer we are to a break, the more hyper students get and the less patience teachers have. I use my life to explain that. Right now, we are in the middle of research papers. I have 120 students theoretically working on these papers. If 80 of them turn them in (probably a high estimate), and I spend 15 minutes per paper (average amount of time grading) grading them two different times (rough draft and final), that’s an additional 40 hours of work on top of the regular assignments I have to grade (and having a life.) Working that out, that’s two hours extra every night of the 20 days we have left. So, take that kind of stress and mix it with hyper kids, and someone is going to get snapped on.

At this point, I switch to the military explanation and say, “Your goal over the next few weeks is to fly under the radar. More people will be written up during these last four weeks than in the entire year combined. So, don’t do things that advertise, ‘Hey, look at me! I’m being annoying!’ That’s like sticking your head over the parapet. You will get shot. What you need to do is hang on to all that energy until you get outside, and then have fun!”

Somehow, they get this illustration and start saying things like, “Is that why (fill in the black teacher) snapped on us today?” It helps them be a bit more sensitive, and gives me a point of reference to say “Remember, fly under the radar…”

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Today was one of those days I live for as a teacher: the kind of day when the lesson plan gets thrown out the window (modified) and you just deal with life lessons.

We have been doing speeches recently. Public Speaking is an eighth grade state standard, and I had given my students the encouragement to pick a topic they were passionate about–either positively or negatively, explaining that if you loved something or it made you angry, you were more able to speak for three minutes, hold the audience’s attention, and otherwise make it easy on yourself. I knew I had a winner when one of my Honors students picked the topic of depression.

By way of background knowledge, this is a beautiful, popular young woman. What a number of her classmates didn’t know (which I knew through a variety of journals and her personal narrative paper), was that this girl had struggled with severe depression–to the point of having to be in an institution this year. When she asked if she should do the topic, I told her I thought it was an incredible opportunity to give meaning to her pain–to allow her experience to impact others lives. She asked if I wanted her to share her story. I responded that if she was willing, I felt it would help many students in her class that see her as this picture perfect image. Thankfully, she was willing.

Yesterday, a number of her classmates were out, so, while I could have had her give her speech then, I (with the remaining class members’ votes) decided to have her wait until today so everyone could hear.

Her 3-5 minute speech initially took about 7 minutes, with her stumbling around the symptoms and causes of depression. Finally, she got to her story. When she switched into that mode, she gained confidence and was extremely transparent about the reasons she had struggled with depression and her experience in the facility. Her classmates hung on her words. She shared the struggles she had undergone resulting in an attempt to take her own life. She praised her classmates who had been there for her to encourage her. She explained how she had learned to share her feelings with others and allow them to help her through her situation. It was a truly unforgettable experience.

I am thankful today was a catch-up day, because we only ended up having about 15 minutes for Shakespeare, Vocabulary, and continued work on research papers. But, as one student shared with her, “I feel like I used to know who you were–we had a few conversations, but didn’t really talk much. But, now, I think I have a lot more respect for you. I’ve seen what you’ve gone through, and what you’ve overcome. Thanks for sharing with us.” Those moments–the times when human beings truly are genuine with each other–are precious indeed. And in the midst of that, we were able to open up a taboo subject and show students that everyone has struggles, and we can overcome them, if we will stick together and encourage one another.

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Today, I had an opportunity that is far too rare in my experience. The story actually began Tuesday before break. I had two parents come in to meet with me. Their daughter had come to me in August about her habit of cutting and how her parents were trying to get her help. We had discussed the reasons she was cutting and the positive ways to deal with her emotions instead of cutting. I hadn’t really talked to her about it since. Her parents, however, started calling the school. Apparently, they had been trying to figure out who had been talking to their daughter. My name came up, so Tuesday, they came to talk to me.

In our meeting Tuesday, they had expressed their concerns for their daughter. They were hoping to understand what was causing her to cut and how to help her. I was deeply touched by their brokenness and loving concern for their daughter. I can’t imagine the humility it took for them to come to the school (the mom doesn’t speak English) and ask for help. I offered then to meet with them as a family and discuss the strategies to move forward. They gratefully accepted, and we set the meeting for today.

It was a complete surprise to the girl (not the way I would recommend, but how they chose to deal with it.) I set the ground rules of being honest, then asked the girl a series of questions about what the “triggers” for her cutting were. She explained the yelling in her house was a cause. I asked her dad about raising his voice. He explained that he had grown up in another country, very isolated, with little education. “I didn’t have experience in social situations. I don’t know how to communicate well.” I applauded him for his courage to come and admit he didn’t know and ask for help. We discussed ways to “slow down a discussion” and keep yourself calm. He and his wife were able to share with their daughter the things she does that trigger their anger, so we could talk through what each party needed from the other.

While I am not arrogant enough to think we solved everything in an hour, I think we made definite progress in each member of this family learning to communicate honestly and positively what they need from the other. I walked away from the meeting with a deep sense of gratitude for a set of parents who had the willingness to say, “My child is having problems, and I need help to know how to handle them.” I think so many parents have ignored the adage “It takes a village to raise a child,” and have seen the school as an enemy they have to fight instead of an ally with which to stand. I wish more parents were willing to ask for help–even just to find out they’re not alone in the struggle they face. It takes both humility and courage, but it can save a child’s future set the course for strong relationships in the future.

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I have taught “The Tell-tale Heart” for years, but just yesterday (11/1/11), our discussion turned into an amazing teachable moment. I had been sharing about Poe’s troubled past and the speculations of his use of Opium (for which the paranoia in “Tell-tale Heart” makes sense) and his trouble with alcohol which seems to have brought about his demise at the age of 40.

After explaining these details, one of my students asked a very poignant question: “I don’t mean to be inappropriate, but if that stuff made him imagine all these things that made him such a brilliant writer, wasn’t it a good thing?” An interesting question.

I explained that any addiction may seem to have good qualities–a number of kids say that marijuana helps them focus or allows them to deal more easily with stressful situation. The problem is that those advantages are short term. Poe died at the age of 40, delirious in a gutter. That’s not quite the end we long for. What kind of writer could he have been if he hadn’t had an addiction?

Another student piped up, “It’s easy to quit smoking.”

“For some people,” I said. “A lot of that has to do with your family background. If your parents smoke, it’ll probably be a temptation for you. If they drink, you will probably struggle with that as well. That’s why it’s better to stay away from that kind of stuff. When you’ve never tried it, you don’t know what you’re missing. If you have, it’s a lot harder to avoid. And the lie of that kind of stuff is to think you can control it. In the end–like Poe–it ends up controlling you.”

I love when a simple Literature lessons turns into an opportunity to talk about life. That’s why I do what I do…

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