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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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I started this blog almost seven years ago when I was in the process of writing a book entitled Life Lines for Teachers–a collection of advice pieces I wish I’d known as a beginning teacher.  I was new to blogging, but had been shamed into believing everyone who wants to be an author needs a blog.  So, I wrote–sometimes previewing sections of the book,  sometimes dealing with incidents that arose in the the course of the school year.

Then, the state made cuts.  By changing the complexity model to only funding based on free lunch, not free and reduced lunch, our school (80% free and reduced lunch) lost almost 20% of our budget.  Overnight, my building laid off 1/4 of its staff, and I went from teaching all of the eighth grade (a task in and of itself), to teaching all of eighth grade and half of seventh grade–all while writing the plans I was teaching, creating power points, etc. (an insurmountable task).  Obviously, the blog got pushed to the wayside–as did the book.  I had gotten a rejection letter from Scholastic, and while I had plans to finish it anyway and submit to other publishers, again, time was an issue.

Yet, often, things would come up, and I would think, “Man, I need to write an article on that.” *Sigh*  And now, the state cut another million dollars from our budget, so once again cuts were made, and next year, three of us will teach all of sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade, ninth grade, and eleventh grade (one of our department is only licensed to teach seniors…)

Obviously, I will have even less time next year than I did this, but I realized in the course of travelling (and blogging) for another grant I received, that I have an unpublished book sitting and not helping anyone.  So, while I may not have time to blog regularly.  I should have time to post chapters from my book–and maybe occasionally add something if the stars align.

So, thank you to those who have stuck with this blog or checked in–even during my long absence. I hope what I post will be helpful!

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Today was my birthday. I was expecting kids to say, “Happy Birthday,” But didn’t expect anything like the response I got.

When I reached my classroom, all the lights were off, and I opened my door to a chorus of Happy Birthday’s from around 30 of my students. They had decorated my board with a variety of sayings and encouraging words. Throughout the day, I received a number of cards, balloons, cupcakes, posters, etc. I also had a number of upperclassman stop by to wish me a happy day. All in all, it was an amazing outpouring of love.

So often as teachers, we wonder if anyone listens or cares or if we’re making a difference. Then, there are days like today when kids show us how much we mean. It’s an amazing feeling! I am blessed beyond measure to work where I do!

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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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First semester, I always cover poetry as it’s an 8th grade state standard for Indiana.  I have recently added a new poem to my collection, which has enabled me to talk about some pretty heavy themes.  The poem is “The Thread” by Ellen Raskin from her book Impulse.  You can find it on the back cover of the book.  I use the poem to talk about free verse, as there is no rhyme or rhythm, but Ellen has designed the poem to make a thread with the words which ends with the word Act.  But, it is the content of the poem which made me choose it.  “The Thread” is a poem about three teenagers who attempt suicide and fail. 

While attending the funeral of a recent graduate who had chosen to end his own life, I was made aware by his mom that suicide is something that needs to be talked about.  Another student at my school attempted suicide this summer, and I know countless others who have contemplated it.  Suicide is a subject that needs to be brought into the light.  This poem is the way I do it. 

This year, we read the poem together.  Initially the kids are in shock, as the last line is “Put the gun to my chest.”  Once they got past the “Wow, Psycho!” comments, I asked them what they thought about it.  They correctly identify that the poem is written from the perspective of someone who is suicidal.  I explained the background of Raskin’s book and pointed out her obvious design in the poem.  We talked about the metaphors in the title:  Hanging on by a thread (Which breaks when the person attempts suicide.) 

When I initially asked what they can relate to in the poem, I was greeted by blank stares.  So, I asked some questions from the poem.  “How many of you have wished you could stop thinking?”  Every hand goes up.  “How many of you have memories you wish you could forget?”  Again every hand.  “Did you ever want to stop replaying a conversation over and over in your head?”  Every hand.  I began to share with them that one of the biggest lie someone who’s suicidal feels is that they’re alone.  That nobody understands what they’re feeling.  “Obviously,” I said, “That’s a lie, as everyone of you just said you’ve been there.” 

We then proceeded to talk about “Coping methods.”  What can you do when you feel this way?  The kids had some very good ideas:  Talk to someone, play a sport, consider someone who has less than you, etc.  The thing that most hit me happened in my fifth hour class.   We were sharing as usual, and one girl piped up, “I thought about killing myself this summer.  I’m still torn up about my dad leaving.  I decided not to because I thought about how it would affect my mom and my sisters if I died.”  Another boy chimed in, “Yeah, I was like that–my dad and brother make fun of me a lot, so it’s hard to be at home.  I thought about killing myself, but I decided it wasn’t worth it.  I had too much to lose.”   These were two VERY popular kids.  I shared with both of them (And the class who was listening in) about the fact that killing yourself doesn’t just eliminate you, it takes out anyone who would come through your line (kids, grandkids, etc.)  I also challenged the class to make sure to let each other know what they meant to one another, as they could have lost two classmates.  I also told the students who shared how glad I was that they had chosen to stay with us and the difference they make for me. 

So, poetry can be a great way to teach life skills–literally and figuratively.  Who knew!

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This week, we covered the Ballad of Barbara Allan in class, and I was reminded again how much students enjoy being involved physically in their lessons.  

The Ballad of Barbara Allan is a really old poem about a woman named Barbara Allen who is loved by “dear sweet William,” whom she rejects, and he dies.  On the surface, it doesn’t have a lot to do with the typical junior high student.  But, anything about relationships relates to junior highers, so I decided to get them involved.  Here’s how we did it:

Cast:  Narrator, Barbara Allan, William, Servant, 6 pall bearers.

Basic Action:  The narrator begins telling the tale.  “William” is seated on 2 folding chairs, AKA his “deathbed.”  He calls his servant to retrieve Barbara Allan (I insert the line “Go get Barbara Allan” into the poem.)  She comes and rejects him.  He dies, is lifted by the pallbearers so she can see him, then is set in the “old church tomb” (back on the chairs).  She dies and is buried beside him.

Discussion points:  We discuss “cheating” in a relationship.  Barbara Allan accuses William of  cheating on her.  I ask my students, “Guys, what do you say if your girlfriend is accusing you of talking to other girls?”  They give a variety of excuses.  “William says, ‘I was just telling them how much I love you, baby.’ (Rough Paraphrase)  Do you buy that, ladies?”  Of course, they say no. 

Favorite parts:  The kids love embarrassing their classmates who have to pretend to love each other.  They also love being pall bearers as the boys get to pick up their classmate who has to stay still and pretend to be dead.  “Barbara Allan” also has to lay on the floor and pretend to be dead. 

The bottom line is anything a student has to act out definitely makes an impression.  I’ve had students act out Canterbury Tales, The Boston Massacre, Lincoln’s assassination, the Vietnam War, the catacombs, travelling to the New World, many ballads, and diagramming parts of speech.  Invariably, these are the things people remember.  So, go ahead!  Have a little drama!

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