Feeds:
Posts
Comments

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.

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…”

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.

I have mentally written this blog since I started this unit in January, but have been completely swamped. The Hunger Games has been one of my favorite books since I read it. This year, I was blessed with an Honors class that was actually willing to work outside of class (read an additional 10-13 pages a night and answer story questions EVERY night–on top of their regular English Homework.), so I decided to go for it. I received an amazing start from Tracee Orman, who has a TON of information available for on Teachers Pay Teachers. So, I took her ideas and ran with them.

Having 28 students in my class, I began the unit with breaking my class into groups of 4: One male tribute, 1 female tribute, 1 Stylist, and 1 mentor. The tributes were the ones to actually complete. The stylist helped with costume design and publicity, and the mentor was responsible for getting sponsorships and conducting advertising. Though there are 12 districts in The Hunger Games, I chose 7 because there are 7 districts that make it out of the first couple of days, and I wanted the kids to be able to follow “their” characters in the book for a while. The Opening Ceremonies

The first activity we did was the Opening Ceremonies. Students had one chance (Just saying their name and District) to make an impression on a group of study hall kids who were our “Sponsors.” At the end of the ceremonies, these students voted on their favorite tributes. They had another chance to vote after the tribute interviews, where I interviewed each student on their strengths and weaknesses, focusing on why the sponsors should support them.

Marine WorkoutsThen, we had the marines come in and do a boot camp with our students. They talked about real survival and how soldiers are trained to think in order to make it in life or death situations. And, they made my students (all of them–mentors and stylists too) do a PT session. My students were sore for the next few days.

The mentors and stylists had to publicize their tributes. They were each given a section of the hallway to use as their “District” space to decorate. They made advertisements and talked to their classmates and underclassmen. Both the seventh and eighth grade got to vote on their favorite tribute, which they did by putting “Panam dollars” in the envelope for their tribute.

Finally, everything was set and it was time for “The arena.” Outside, I made a circle of chairs about 40 feet apart. The stylists and mentors led their tributes blindfolded out to the “arena” and got them on the chairs. At my count, they had 60 seconds to look around the arena. In the arena (Space between the chairs), there was food (cracker packages), water (Water bottles), medicine (band aids), and weapons (glow stick weapons from the dollar store with stickers attached to them.) When I said go, they had to go grab what they wanted.

Our tributes played it safe (grabbed stuff and got out of the arena), so it wasn’t the “bloodbath ” of the book. Those who got weapons (Stickers) had supplies for the next stage. In between classes (and not in a way to get in trouble or be obvious), students had to try to “stick” each other. If they got another tribute with a sticker between the shoulder blades, that tribute was “Dead,” unless they had “Capitol medicine” (band aids) in order to be healed. I kept pictures of each “tribute” up in my room, where I kept track of how many times they had died, and how many “kills” they had, so their classmates could decide who to “Sponsor.” I also eliminated tributes in a number of other ways:

1. Minute to Win it: Intellectual capacity and dexterity were key components in the games. We played the Minute to Win it games of catching pencils (balancing them on the top of your hand, tossing them up, and grabbing them–2 at a time, up to 12 in under a minute.)and juggling balloons (3).

2. Fruit identification (for the chapter where Foxface dies.): From a distance, students had to identify what is fruit and what is not. I mixed wax fruit in with Prickly pears, ugly fruit, star fruit, red bananas, and blood oranges.

3. Muttations (for that chapter): We were down to four tributes, so I allowed the “Dead” tributes to be “mutts” and chase the live tributes through an obstacle course. If they “stuck” the tributes, they died.

4. “Knife Throwing.” I was down to 2 tributes for the chapter where Cato falls, so I had them throw pencils at each others’ tribute pictures. The first one to make a hit was the winner.

My winner got a copy of the book and a Mockingjay pin, while their District got Dairy Queen Gift cards.

Finally, today, we went to the opening showing of the movie. We got lunch for our kids and another teacher demonstrated archery. Then, we went to see the movie, and finally to Buffalo Wild Wings to analyze the experience. Doing this has been an incredible experience, and a TON of work. But, hearing a student tell another teacher that today was “The most fun I’ve ever had!” makes it all worth while. Truly an unforgetable experience!

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.

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…

I received the following four journals this past week. I thought they might reveal a little bit about the state of Education. The only thing I have changed is spelling and names. The rest is exactly the words used. The first letter was a free write (Write whatever you want); the others are a response to the topic write a letter to someone who has impacted your life. Here’s a sampling of what I received. Keep in mind, I teach 8th Grade:

1. “(My girlfriend) might be pregnant. I don’t think it’s so bad. I’m happy about it. I don’t see what’s so bad. Her mom wants her to get an abortion, but I won’t let her. If she succeeds, I will call her a baby killer.”

2. “Dear Mom and Dad,
When you guys left me I didn’t know what to do. I was lost. You guys made me go through hell. I didn’t have you in my arms. I never had a hug or kiss. It’s hard for me to see kids with their parents. I cry inside when people say, ‘Hey, tell your mom or dad…’ Every time I hear Mom and Dad, I feel so depressed, and at some point I feel like ending the pain, and I want to end my life so I don’t want to live with the pain. I never knew you guys at all. I wish I did.”

(I asked him what had happened–wrote the question actually, since he said I could read his letter. Here’s what he wrote back:)

“Well, when I was a baby, my mom gave me to my grandma and she left, and my dad split too. So I grew up without parents. So, I don’t know how it feels to love.”

3. “Dear Dad:
I haven’t seen you in years. This ‘in and out of prison’ crap is killing me inside. I need you, and all I can do is talk to you on the phone and Facebook–which I don’t know how you have a Facebook in prison. Even though, if you add it up, you were in prison for 12 years of my life, I’m 14 now. I love you and need a dad. Our memories are dear and close to me. I’m in this classroom writing it as an assignment, but I actually mean this to you, Dad. Our memories make me smile. For now, I’ll have to stop writing. I’ll see you when I’m 22. Love, your son…”

4. “(Name) was my mom’s husband who tore my family apart. He came into my life when I was 18 months. My brother was about 4 years old. He threw bricks at my brother when my brother would pee in his pants. When I was 3, he took me to the room and took my clothes off and raped me. I didn’t know what was going on until I was 7 years old, and I asked to live with my dad because I was scared. When my step mom started noticing scars and noticed I was acting different, she pulled me into the room and asked me if something was going on. So I told her how he was abusing me and punching me in the face and raping me. She got scared and nervous, so she called my dad at work and told him he needed to come home. When he came home, my step mom talked to him, and he came out of the room crying and made a phone call. Even though I lived with my dad in (town), I still went to (a school name). After school, I walked to the office because my name was called over the intercom. There was a guy with a notebook and pencil. My sister and brother were in the office talking to him, and it seemed as if he was taking notes. He asked me questions about when I was raped. I remembered everything that happened like it was yesterday. My mom didn’t know this guy was here. I was trying to figure out who he was, and when I looked at his shirt, there were 3 letters “CPS” I didn’t know what that meant. She had told me it meant Child Protective Service. I thought I was going to get taken away. My mom walked into the school and realized what was going on. After she and the CPS guy talked, she took us to my aunt’s house and we tried hiding from him (step-dad). When he found my mom, he started shaking her and tried killing her. As I started crying, he came and punched me. My mom pressed charges, and now he has to be 100 feet away from us and he is not allowed in (town). After everything, my mom took me to the hospital and they got me checked out, so after that I was sent to the emergency room, and I was dehydrated. They didn’t think I would make it through the night, but I did. And now, I’m living today for tomorrow.”

One week of letters. So the reader knows, I have submitted each of these letters to the counsellors. As to the validity of these letters, I have heard the general details of each letter confirmed by siblings or others in the community. The specifics are the account given me in the child’s own words. Yes, there are details which make me question their truth (i.e., do CPS workers wear shirts advertising their logo? I don’t thinks so…But, I had heard from the other siblings similar accounts of this step-dad’s treatment of the kids, so the details in it are at least mostly accurate.) For me, it was just another reminder to not write these kids off as “Failing students” as the state would label each of them but the author of the third letter, who is in my Honors class–the rest currently hold F’s in my class. It’s a matter of looking at a student who has already “Left the Child Behind” and trying to pick up the pieces in the aftermath.