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Introduction

When I set out to write this book, I’ll admit it was with fear and trepidation. You see, like many good teachers, I felt I was young and inexperienced with nothing much to offer. Sure, I was creative, and my students enjoyed my class, but that wasn’t any special gift, was it?

Then, two years in a row, I was asked to mentor women older than myself, who, to me, seemed to have it all together, and whose advice I should be asking, not vice versa. But, through those times of mentoring, I began to see that there was indeed wisdom I had learned that I had to offer. And so was born the decision to share it with you.

Much of what you will read over the next pages is just a compendium of the wisdom others have shared with me (kudos, Mr. Sundberg), seasoned with many mistakes of my own. I trust through this, that not only will you learn new strategies, but that also, you will be reminded of the reason you began teaching in the first place. (No, I’m not talking about the money or summer vacation, which frankly seems not to exist.) I hope to break through the lies you’ve been taught and set you free to be the teacher that you have been afraid to be. This book is yours. Take it; steal the ideas. Use what you can and throw away the rest. (Or as Mr. Norvell used to say, “Eat the chicken and throw away the bones.”) But most of all, be affirmed that you are making a difference every day, and that the role you play in the lives of your students is invaluable.

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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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A student told me today that I was almost like an angel or a saint—“One of those people who never do anything wrong.” She listed the traditional “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” kinds of activities. At the time, I explained that I had made choices based on a long-term perception of how I wanted my life to be and the conversations I didn’t want to have with my spouse. I then launched into a discussion of how our choices affect our lives, specifically in the areas of sex and drugs.

I realized, however, as I thought about it, that I didn’t make good decisions because I was so wise as a teenager, but because I wasn’t around all the stuff these kids are. I didn’t know anyone who was divorced when I was in junior high or anyone that wasn’t living with both biological parents (unless one of them had died.) I couldn’t have found drugs if I wanted them (except on a family trip to New York when I was offered crack), and I knew very few people who drank in high school—and those only by reputation, never around me. It’s an entirely different world from the place my students live.

To allow others who may have been similarly sheltered to understand what my students deal with, I wanted to type out a portion of their stories in their own words. The writing is in response to an autobiography project that I assigned. They started with a list of five events that had impacted their lives. Then, they could either pick one to tell in detail or all five in summary. Those were the only instructions I gave them. I got a few “When I got my tongue pierced” or “The day I met my best friend” essays, but more were much more tragic. I think for me the greatest tragedy was the realization that for these kids, there was nothing abnormal or weird about sharing these stories—it is their “normal.” I asked them for permission to share their stories with you. So here they are, in their voice, the stories of their lives :

1. When I was young, my mom lost custody of me and my brother. My grandma [name] got custody. They are still fighting for us today. My brother has seizures, so he’s kind of mental. I have two sisters and three brothers. My mom and dad were never married.
Now, my mom is engaged and my dad is now married. My dad has been married for five years almost. My family is kind of hectic. My grandma is married and has been married for six years. I moved here from [location]. I’m hoping that I’ll move down there next month after the ninth. I haven’t lived with my mom for seven years. I moved here in the third grade when I was nine. . . .

2. The first thing I remember is police busting through the door arresting my dad for drug trafficking. I was small. I’m not sure how I remember this, but Tupac’s “Hail Mary” was playing and the stove was on. My mom and I were crying.
Another memory from my childhood is me, about three now, sitting in a tub. My mother was washing my feet. I cried because the water was too hot. I got burned.
I remember when I was thirteen, when my dad was arrested again—on Christmas. My mom went to rehab for alcohol abuse. My brother and I cried together.
I remember being forced to share a house with my grandparents, staying outside all day, playing football and basketball with my brother.
I remember my first fist fight. I won. But, I felt so bad.
I remember the first time I thought I was cool and try a cigarette. I coughed my lungs out. I almost died. Ha-ha. . . .
I remember a lot of things. Negative or not, the memories have made and shaped who I am today.

3. Birth. My parents got divorced. My dad got remarried. My mom got remarried. I ended up with two sisters and three brothers on my mom’s side. My step mom told me she was pregnant on my birthday. Worst birthday ever because I wanted to be Daddy’s little girl. Sixth grade, my little sister was born. I was scared. My mom took my dad to court for custody of me. We lost. My dad wouldn’t talk to me for a few weeks after that. Seventh grade, I got in my first fight. I was afraid my dad was going to kill me, but he just said as long as I didn’t lose, then I wouldn’t be in trouble. And now, here I am.

4. When I was a little kid, my dad was not a good one. He is/was a drug addict. My mom had me at a young age and wasn’t married to my father. My mom had me in April, and they got married in September. She married him because she thought he would change. But, he didn’t change. He would steal my mom’s car and leave. When he left, he would go get high on cocaine or marijuana and stay out until it wore off. When he would come home, he would make up lies about where he was at. My mom dealt with it for a long time. Then, I found out that my mom was pregnant with my sister. She had my sister and still put up with his crap. In August [year], they finally got divorced. I was sad about it, but then I got over it. He couldn’t keep a job and was in jail a couple of times. In March [year], I got a call that my dad wanted to see me. I went home and saw him. He was with my cousin. My cousin and my mom were talking, and my dad took me in my room and said he wanted to talk to me. We sat on my bed and he started to cry. He had been doing drugs and told me that he didn’t want to live anymore. I screamed and started crying. My cousin and my mom ran in the room and asked what happened. Then, they left, and I didn’t see my dad for a while. In October [year], my dad went to jail for a month and a half. It was sad, but then again, oh well. He is now sort of stable and has a job. But, if any of that wouldn’t have happened, my mom probably wouldn’t be the woman she is now and wouldn’t have raised me like she did. I probably wouldn’t be as strong as I am now and independent.

5. I grew up in a house with four rooms two bathrooms. I lived with my mom, dad, and two sisters. This was until I was six. My mom decided to move out and get a divorce. We went to my aunt’s house for a couple of days, then moved out to [location.] I lived there from [time]. I went to first and second grade in [location]. We had moved in with my uncle. Things got bad between me and his daughter, so we went back to my aunt’s. This time, we lived in the back house, which the last time was occupied. We lived there for like two years. In [year], my mom wanted to move again, so we did. We had to move schools again and make new friends. Well, I liked it because it wasn’t that hard. . . .

6. I don’t really remember when I was born, so I’ll skip to when I was five. When I was five, my mom, my mom’s ex, and I used to live in [location.] My dad would always think my mom would cheat on him. He was a truck driver, coming home only some weekends, so he did not know. I know my mom didn’t cheat on him because I’m here from like __to two o’clock. So then my mom and dad divorced. We got kicked out of our house and forced to move here. We lived with our uncle until his wife didn’t want us to live at their house. So we moved into my grandfather’s house. I loved it there because he didn’t care what we did at all. My life has been very well after all of this. My mom has a very good job and she is very well. . . .

7. [Date] is one day I will never forget. One interesting day, I should say. That day I won’t forget because I lost my dad that day. I was at my friend [name]’s house, and early in the morning, my dad got up and decided that he didn’t want to be around anymore. He got up, and he got dressed. He and my mom got into a huge fight. They wouldn’t stop. They argued about everything, until my dad got so far, he grabbed a knife and started going towards my older brother’s room, and my mom had to call the cops. The cops heard the whole thing over the phone and were sent to our house right away. My dad was escorted out and told it would be best if he were to stay gone for a few days. It ended up being more than a few days. When I came home, he was gone. I saw my dad again that July when there was a medical emergency including me where I had to go to the hospital because my little brother shattered a glass window in my face at about three inches away from my face. I was put into the emergency room for eight hours. They took X-rays of my face and hands and then sent me home.
The problems just spiraled out of control from there. My brother was sent to a mental institution, shortly after the incident with my face, and we went in for family counseling. One year later, my little brother was released and sent back home. Before he was released in [time], I had stopped seeing my dad in [time]. I haven’t seen him in a year, nor has he tried to contact me in over a year. I really don’t understand why it seems like my dad didn’t care, and if he did, he had an odd way of showing it. I kind of miss my dad, but I don’t really miss the things he said and he did. On [date], my parents will be getting a divorce, and then me and my two siblings will be put in a custody battle. This will probably be a long, hard process, but it will have to be done. I hope to have all the fighting over with soon, but with all this, something good is sure to come.

8. A few months after living a life of abuse and lies, I broke. I couldn’t handle the stress, and I couldn’t bear living with my mistakes. I found a bottle of pills and took nearly twenty. I was numb. I stumbled into my room. Becoming more and more dizzy, I began to pass out. My sister walked into the room, picked up the pill bottle, and screamed. She quickly told my mom what had happened. She was screaming, crying, and starting the car. I was rushed to the hospital. My family was shocked. I was forced to stay awake until a room had opened. I could hear my mom filling in the rest of the family. I could only make out a few words… “She found Grandma’s pills…she was raped.” I closed my eyes as I was put on a stretcher. My inner thoughts were screaming, “Take me, take me, take me already.” The nurse interrupted them as she impatiently shoved a large white bottle in my right hand and a straw in my left. “Drink quickly, sweetheart.” I took a sip. Charcoal. I should have known. I drank hastily, growing more and more terrified. I heard my step sister inform my mother what had to come next. 72 hours in a padded room. I trembled. “Why hadn’t I just used a quicker method?” My inner voice boomed in my head. By now it was 11:00 pm. I had arrived at around 3:00 pm. I was exhausted. Hauled onto a stretcher, the paramedic socialized and tried to give me advice. I fell asleep, and awoke in a new hospital. A mental hospital. I stayed there for almost a week. I will never forget this experience. And I hope nobody will make the mistakes I have.

These are just a sampling, but I think they paint a clear picture. May we love well and never be fooled by the calm exterior. Additionally, may we realize that not everyone’s dealt the same hand in life, but as so many of my students did, understand that regardless of the hardships, there is still hope.

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This past week, I had two days of consecutive conversations with teenagers who were trying to navigate the baggage they had inherited from getting involved sexually at too young an age. It is one of my biggest frustrations that no one (or maybe not enough people) seems to be talking to these kids honestly about the choices they’re making, so that by the time they get to me, it is often too late.

The first instance was a young lady who came in to see me because she has sought my advice before. Just that Friday, she had come by at the football game and discussed a relationship with a guy. Knowing the guy she was “talking to,” I had warned her as explicitly as I could without telling his business. She assured me that they weren’t dating, but were “friends with benefits.” I explained to her that was worse. “Why?” she asked me, “What’s wrong with that?” I explained to her that being “friends with benefits” meant that she was willing to give herself away without any type of commitment on his part. She was completely devaluing herself. She agreed I was right, and shortly after, went away…

Tuesday, she came in to tell me “things had happened,” and now everyone knew about it and was calling her names, and she might have a disease–an incurable one. “I should have listened to you.” she said, “But, he promised me he was a virgin…” Of course he did. The whole school had heard rumors of everyone this guy’s been with. But, she believed him. And it may have affected the rest of her life.

We discussed how she couldn’t change the past, but she could learn from this. I explained that the most valuable lesson she could learn is to value herself–that her value doesn’t come from a beauty pageant or from an older guy paying attention to her–it is simply because of who she is. I gave her a hug, and she left.

The next day, the second girl came in. She came to talk to me because I had seen the scars on her arm from cutting. She explained that she was doing it because it made her ex-boyfriend pay attention to her. I asked her if she really wanted a relationship with someone who was only in it because he felt sorry for her. She said, “I don’t care why he’s with me, just so long as he is…” The back story on this girl is that she had given this guy her virginity because he kept bugging her. She finally said, “If I let you, will you shut up?” My heart broke when she’d told me that. I explained to her that the reason she felt so attached to this guy is that she had given him her virginity–that that act creates a powerful bond between people, and that’s why it is not to be given thoughtlessly. I explained to her that she needed her heart to be healed and that bond broken.

Two lives devastated by choices. I realize talking about sex is an awkward conversation to have. I also realize that everyone has to make the decision of when and if they are going to have sex, and that THEY have to make that decision. My challenge though–to parents, to teachers, and to adults who have conversations with young people is this: No one says, “I wish I’d been a bigger slut in high school.” But plenty of people say, “I wish I’d waited longer.” Please be honest with kids. Counsel them on the consequences of the choices they make. When appropriate, share your own experiences–even if they include regrets. It’s far easier to be awkward for a little bit than to pick up the pieces after the fact.

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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, a student dropped by during my plan. I had seen her yesterday with her friends, and she mentioned she wanted to see me, so I told her to stop by. I knew it was going to be a serious conversation–the guidance counsellor had already asked me if I knew anything that was going on with her.

She came in and after a bit of small talk, the big confession came out. She had cut this summer. No one knew about the first time, but the second, she got scared because the bleeding didn’t stop. When she finished telling me the story, she explained that her mom had freaked out, called the school, and tried shoving religion down her throat (She’s not really religious.) I explained to her that people turn to faith in times of crisis because it is only through faith that pain has purpose. If evolution is true, and everything is an accident, there is no reason to continue to fight against pain. It is only when we understand that there is a God and an afterlife that suffering has meaning.

I next explained that most people cut because they can’t handle emotional pain, so they try to bring their pain into an arena that they CAN handle–the physical. I asked her if that was the case with her. She nodded. (She was crying at the time.) She said, “My parents taught me to be tough and not show my emotions. When you stuff emotions for so long…it’s not good. They told me it’s weak to cry.”

I responded, “That’s bull. Sometimes it takes a lot of strength to cry because it’s allowing you to be vulnerable. Plus this (I indicated the tears running down her cheeks) That’s cleansing–that’s how you get those emotions out. Then, you can deal with them.”

I went on to ask about her home life. She explained that her parents yell at her over little things, and they used to hit her (but don’t now). She said she really struggles with anger. I explained that anger is either fear or hurt feelings–you have to figure out which one you’re dealing with so you can handle the real issue. I also explained that I was going to ask her to do something hard–forgive her family. I explained that forgiveness does not mean the person who hurt you was right–what they did was wrong. But, forgiving them takes control of you away from them. It allows the situation to quit hurting you.

I also explained to her that your blood is life–when you spill it for something, you’re giving power to that thing. Instead of making the situation better, you’re actually making it have more control over you (She’s Aztec, so she understands the meaning of blood sacrifices.) I explained that she needed to break those things over her life instead of giving more power to them.

Finally, I asked her if she had options of places to go when things at her home weren’t going well–she had to think, so I gave her that assignment–to develop a network of support for herself. Then, I gave her a hug and a Kleenex and the bell rang. Once again, I am reminded that though I can’t change the situation these kids deal with, I can give them the tools to survive–and I can show them they are not alone. Someone cares about them. And sometimes, that’s all it takes.

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J.J. Heller, one of my favorite artists, has a song that states, “It’s the little things that make a difference. It’s the little things that show love.” Today, as I was scraping gum off the bottom of desks, I thought about the truth embodied in that song.

There are so many things teachers do that are never noticed or even considered by those who think we’re “so lucky because you have the whole summer off.” In the midst of moving desks, scraping gum, running copies, planning lessons, touching up paint, putting up bulletin boards, and the thousand other things teachers do in their “summers off,” we sometimes don’t feel very lucky.

Which is why it’s a good thing to be reminded why we do what we do. In addition to scraping gum, I got to take a walk around the building while students were re-registering. In that time, I got hug mobbed by the cheerleading squad, had an “appointment” scheduled with a cheerleader wanted to talk to me after practice about some “boy issues,” helped a student assemble a desk chair for his mom’s office, caught up with another student about her break-up and new boyfriend, helped a seventh grader open a locker, spoke to 3 parents, and otherwise just enjoyed seeing familiar faces.

One cheerleader who will be a junior this year told me that she had recently been cleaning her room and found her journal from my class (eighth grade.) (I always tell my students at the end of the year to hide their journals somewhere where they’ll forget about them for a few years, and then they’ll find them and laugh.) She said she had re-read it, laughed, and cried over all the memories. She was so glad to have it. She said, “I think I’ll hide it again, so I don’t find it for another few years.” I love it!

The girl who had “made an appointment to talk with me” spent an hour with me hashing through her struggles and a difficult discussion she was preparing to have with one of her best friends. She explained her difficulties and listened as I shared the possible scenarios she needed to consider. It was a great discussion.

I think those two experiences truly made me look forward to the start of school. Because when it comes down to it, I scrape gum off desks and give up my “free time” and the thousand other things I do because it DOES make a difference. It shows love.

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