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Archive for the ‘Student needs’ 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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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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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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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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