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Posts Tagged ‘boundaries’

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 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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It’s the summer, so not much is going on on the school front, obviously. When I was travelling, I didn’t notice that I missed school, but once I got back in the area, I missed my students. Luckily, as a teacher, you are never far from an opportunity to see kids–even if you don’t want to.

If you are a new teacher, you should be aware that unless you move, you can never have a normal life again. What I mean by that, is you can never go anywhere without being recognized, so be alert. If you think celebrities have it bad, we may have it worse. Here’s an example:

When I left the house, I was just going to a friend’s house to tutor her in Algebra. I knew this would involve about nine hours sitting on a sofa (literally–she had a lot to make up), so I donned a pair of men’s pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. I wanted to be comfortable, and besides, no one’s going to see me, right? All went well until I decided to make a Walmart run about 11:00 to get some weed killer. No sooner did I walk in the store when I saw a student of mine and his girlfriend. Spotted! That’s just one example. Others include the mall, the movie theater (Where incidently I’m planning on seeing a number of students tomorrow for the midnight Harry Potter showing), Drive-thru, the gas station–Even Jamestown, Virginia, on Spring Break.

Knowing this to be true, I am very careful where I go and what I do. (Hey, I even case a store before I buy underwear!) Others, I know are not so careful and have been spotted going to bars, into strip clubs, etc. I guess my challenge is that if you are a teacher, you are being watched–ALWAYS. And remember, the old adage is true: Actions speak louder than words. What are yours saying?

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I was recently re-reading Lewis’s Screwtape Letters and came across this quote. It is scary how accurately he has summed up our educational system. For those unfamiliar with Screwtape Letters, it is a series of letters from a senior demon to a younger one on how best to ruin the human race.

“In that promising land the spirit of I’m as good as you has already begun something more than a generally social influence. It begins to work itself into their educational system. How far its operations there have gone at the present moment, I should not like to say with certainty. Nor does it matter. Once you have grasped the tendency, you can easily predict its future developments; especially as we ourselves will play our part in the developing. The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” These differences between pupils – for they are obviously and nakedly individual differences – must be disguised. This can be done at various levels. At universities, examinations must be framed so that nearly all the students get good marks. Entrance examinations must be framed so that all, or nearly all, citizens can go to universities, whether they have any power (or wish) to profit by higher education or not. At schools, the children who are too stupid or lazy to learn languages and mathematics and elementary science can be set to doing things that children used to do in their spare time. Let, them, for example, make mud pies and call it modelling. But all the time there must be no faintest hint that they are inferior to the children who are at work. Whatever nonsense they are engaged in must have – I believe the English already use the phrase – “parity of esteem.” An even more drastic scheme is not possible. Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma — Beelzebub, what a useful word! – by being left behind. The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.

In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers – or should I say, nurses? – will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time on real teaching. We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us.

Of course, this would not follow unless all education became state education. But it will. That is part of the same movement. Penal taxes, designed for that purpose, are liquidating the Middle Class, the class who were prepared to save and spend and make sacrifices in order to have their children privately educated. The removal of this class, besides linking up with the abolition of education, is, fortunately, an inevitable effect of the spirit that says I’m as good as you. This was, after all, the social group which gave to the humans the overwhelming majority of their scientists, physicians, philosophers, theologians, poets, artists, composers, architects, jurists, and administrators. If ever there were a bunch of stalks that needed their tops knocked off, it was surely they.

As an English politician remarked not long ago, “A democracy does not want great men.” It would be idle to ask of such a creature whether by want it meant “need” or “like.” But you had better be clear. For here Aristotle’s question comes up again. . . . For “democracy” or the “democratic spirit” (diabolical sense) leads to a nation without great men, a nation mainly of subliterates, full of the cocksureness which flattery breeds on ignorance, and quick to snarl or whimper at the first sign of criticism. And that is what Hell wishes every democratic people to be. For when such a nation meets in conflict a nation where children have been made to work at school, where talent is placed in high posts, and where the ignorant mass are allowed no say at all in public affairs, only one result is possible. The democracies were surprised lately when they found that Russia had got ahead of them in science. What a delicious specimen of human blindness! If the whole tendency of their society is opposed to every sort of excellence, why did they expect their scientists to excel?

It is our function to encourage the behaviour, the manners, the whole attitude of mind, which democracies naturally like and enjoy, because these are the very things which, if unchecked, will destroy democracy. You would almost wonder that even humans don’t see it themselves. Even if they don’t read Aristotle (that would be undemocratic) you would have thought the French Revolution would have taught them that the behaviour aristocrats naturally like is not the behaviour that preserves aristocracy. They might then have applied the same principle to all forms of government.

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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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I had a rare opportunity today to teach a life lesson.  Just before Fall Break, my last hour class had left the computer lab a complete mess, so I decided they would not be allowed to use it the next day.  They had projects they were supposed to finish, so I knew this would be an inconvenience for them, but I wanted to teach them to respect property and follow directions.  So, I opted to have them write a 2 page paper on appropriate behavior in the lab.  Needless to say, that went over like a lead balloon–heightened by the fact that a number of students had missed the announcement informing them that they would have to make up their project on their own time, and their class is 8th hour.  They were on the verge of mass revolt.  By the time the dust settled, I had sent two kids to the office for refusing compliance and attitudes, and two more had only managed to remain in class when they found out the office made them do the same assignment I did.  Lots of grumbling ensued (Albeit mostly silently after 2 referrals), and then we left for fall break.

Which brings us to today.  I opened their hour today asking them what their options are when they feel like they are being treated unjustly.  “Get mad.” said the girl whose attitude got her a free pass to the office.  “How’d that work for you?”  I asked, and she smiled.  I proceeded to explain that we are not often treated the way we deserve.  For example, I am held accountable for my students ISTEP scores, when many of them refuse to try.  This is unfair.  Like them, I am penalized for something I didn’t do.  What ensued was a great life lesson where we were able to discuss their options when they disagree with an authority.  I explained how to ask a teacher to speak to you in the hallway (which takes the teacher off the defensive), how to offer solutions to a problem (Like cleaning the lab or silence while working), how to weigh when a situation is worth fighting about and when you need to just suck it up and do it, and finally, I discussed the fact that I don’t see having a bad attitude one day as indicative of a bad person.  What had been a negative situation which frustrated all of us turned into an opportunity to learn how to handle conflict in a respectful way.  The class completely turned around after that.     Often, all that is required is a bit of dialogue and any situation can be turned to your advantage.

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