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Posts Tagged ‘Education’

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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One of my favorite things about teaching History is the projects one can do with students. This is one I did the beginning of the quarter which is a lot of fun.

For me, History is more than just names and dates–it is the story of the human experience, and as such, is relatable to everyone. I strive in my classroom to enable students to feel the feelings of those who have gone before us. Whatever the topic, whether through discussion or role play, I try to make my students “walk a mile in their shoes.”

Charters

Charters

One of my favorite projects is an approximately six week project I do involving colonization in America. Since I hated being assigned a group when I was in school, I always let my students choose their own groups. Before we get to the six week project, I do a smaller project where students have to work together to present one of the different Native American groups. I use that project to encourage my students to be creative (think outside the box) and let them experience group dynamics such as division of labor and which members you can count on. This way, when they choose groups for the six week project, they know whom they can trust.

Old New York

Old New York

I begin the project with the selection of jobs. There are approximately 105 original settlers, and, as luck would have it, I had 105 students in my class. Additionally, Jamestowne (historic) offers a list of the occupations of the original settlers. The original jobs included a majority of gentlemen, a large number of laborers, and a smattering of craftsman. I gave my gentlemen a set salary, my laborers no salary, and my craftsmen got to roll for their salary (so many “heads” equal so many dollars.) Each member had to raise a certain amount of money to secure a ticket to the new world. Because laborers received no salary, they have to “indenture” themselves to other classmates who are gentlemen and can afford them. I occasionally take taxes from them (or fine them for misbehavior). Those who cannot pay their taxes are placed in “stocks.” There are so many societal dynamics taught in this period of the project.

Rhode Island

Rhode Island

Once it is time to “Sail,” I took the class down to the football storage room. It is small, stinky, complete with barrels and a ladder where we could hang my Civil War kerosene lantern. There, by candle light, I had an alumni act as my “ship captain,” and between the two of us, we rehearsed what happened to the early settlers on the voyage, from the six week delay in the English Channel before they could get off to the problems with John Smith, who ended up spending a majority of the voyage in the brig for challenging the captain’s methods, to the Indian attack where two men were wounded the moment they arrived. Despite still being in the school, it lends a reality to the smell, the cramped quarters, and the experience.

When we return to class, each group selects one of the original 13 colonies that they will build. They are given a “plot of land” (white piece of paper) and a charter signed by their “proprietor.” Then, they have the next several weeks to create their colony. During that time, they will do research on their colony, create a travel brochure for their colony, create the rules by which the colony will operate, and build their colony.

History Fair 2012

History Fair 2012

It is always amazing for me to see the creativity and variety each group brings to the experience. I offer “supply ships” bringing items that may be purchased with any left over money from their initial salaries (all salaries stop in the new world.), but students may purchase or make their own supplies or used those provided by nature (rocks, sticks, etc.)

Finally, they are able to present their projects to the community in a history fair. We set up the projects and allow parents, teachers, and friends to come in and view all the projects. It is an incredible experience to say the least. Through the teamwork, the struggle, and the decisions, each student learns the decisions and challenges that faced our founding fathers. I think it’s a lesson they’ll never forget.

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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 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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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!

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