Monday, October 31, 2011

athlete & artist

Soccer player Brek Shea has been making a splash this year with the U.S. Men's National Team. But I recently learned that he has another talent: painting. Now, I'm not usually a fan of abstract art, but some of his pieces are actually pretty cool. And what's even better is that he uses his work to help raise money for children's charities. So if you're looking for a new piece of art for your home, check it out: Left Foot Studio

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dear Mr. & Mrs. So-and-so, your kid is awesome.

One of my least favorite parts of my job is having to call or email a parent about their delinquent or slacker child. Even though most of them are usually grateful to me for informing them, no one enjoys being the bearer of bad news.

On the other hand, it is great fun to be able to tell a parent how awesome their kid is. Last year, I had a class that really gave me a run for my money....there were maybe 5 or 6 students who drove me absolutely bonkers. (And it wasn't just me--these were some of the usual suspects in the administrators' offices. Thanks for putting them all in one class together, guys....) I did have some nice kids in there, but one stood out above the rest. He worked hard, behaved, participated in class, and joked with me about soccer. Also, for a short paper assignment in which students had to use careful observations about the world around them, this student wrote about how it really bothers him to see so many of his peers making irresponsible life choices, and how they often don't deserve the priviledges they are given. (I photocopied that paper and saved one for myself and put another in the teachers room for others to enjoy.) He was like a shining beacon of hope in a class that perpetually gave me a headache, so I wrote to his parents to tell them that. Even though they were already aware of what a great kid they have, they were very glad that I took the time to tell them so.

I just finished sending an email to the parent of another student who has a very refreshing attitude. This girl is in my CP2 class and is on an IEP. But while many of her classmates haven't been doing very much of their work, she has been working her tuchus off. She does her work, earned one of the only good grades on a recent exam, and is now hard at work on a research paper. While the other students have chosen pretty typical, familiar topics (9/11, the Boston Massacre, Hiroshima, etc.), she has gone with one of the ideas I gave the students--the Rwandan genocide. So already, loving the ambition. Then last week, on the first day I brought my students to the library to begin their research, she came in and excitedly told me that she had already started her research at home the night before and had a page and a half of notes! That seriously made my day right there. A reaction to an essay assignment that doesn't range from begrudging compliance to hostility is like Hanukkah come early. And this student now has over 80 notecards of facts she's written down. That's more thorough than my honors students! Oy, so much kvelling going on here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Bust a move

The Homecoming Dance is coming up at my school, and the very thought of it is enough to trigger a teacher's gag reflex. Last year I chaperoned the prom (which is for juniors) and Senior Dinner Dance. I actually had a great time at both, and I love seeing my kids all gussied up and having fun, but some of the dancing...oh my lord, the dancing. Sometimes they're cute or even funny when they dance, but when the grinding starts, I want to grab the pin from a boutonniere and gouge my eyes out. Last year, I saw one of my students grinding with some girl, and all I wanted to do was yell, "GET OFF OF HER!" And I've heard that Homecoming, which is largely attended by underclassmen, is even worse.

I know this makes me sound a little old-ladyish. Adults always seem to be shaking their heads at the dances the kids are doing. And I certainly remember kids doing this when I was in school; don't worry, I understand that I'm not that many years removed from my students. (And yes, I'll admit that I'm a big fan of "Dirty Dancing"--who can resist Patrick Swayze?)But it really has gotten worse. I was talking about this with a few other teachers last week. One remarked that when she was in school, the big dance craze was "The Carlton":

It's ridiculous, yes, but it's better than pretending to have sex on the dance floor. Things like the Dougie also can look a bit funny, but again, at least it's not painful to watch. We talked about how we just have a hard time understanding how students can feel comfortable grinding the way they do in front of their teachers. I mean, you wouldn't do that in front of your parents, right? Although I must say, it's not like I just have an issue with kids dancing like that--I'm grossed out when people my age do it too. Get a room, people, because the rest of us don't want to watch that.

Okay, now back to my knitting.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

funny moments

This week's edition of 'Overheard at School':

During a lesson on utopias:
"Is a cornucopia a utopia with corn?"

Kid #1 has his Spanish homework out. I tell him in Spanish, no Spanish in my class, only English.
Kid #2: "Whoa, you speak Spanish?!"
Me: "Un poquito."
Kid #2: "That wasn't un poquito, that was like mas grande!"
Me: "Your mouth is mas grande!"

Ms. K: "Do you hyphenate T-Pain?"

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

motivation frustration

One thing that teachers always struggle with is how to motivate students. I've been discussing this with a few colleagues, and we all agree the apathy we see from many of our students is discouraging. We try to give them a lot of extrinsic motivation, but while it works for many students, it is lost on others. And intrinsic motivation is a whole other challenge. After all, we'd rather not just have the students learn in order to get good grades--we want them to be as passionate about these subjects as we are!

Grades for term 1 close in a couple of weeks, and I have a bunch of students failing. I told them at the beginning of the year that failing my class is a choice: people who choose to do no work or almost none will fail. Last month, I even emailed a bunch of parents of students who hadn't turned in any homework. It's frustrating when I want them to succeed more than they want to. However, as my cooperating teacher from my student teaching days told me (and this has been said by others as well), sometimes kids just have to be allowed to fail. After all, they're in high school now, and while we of course need to push them and reach out to them, we can't coddle them. They have to make their own choices and then live with the consequences.

I'm really hoping that report cards will be a wake-up call for a lot of students. And I also want to keep finding different teaching methods that will engage students more, especially the reluctant learners. Hopefully I'll be able to tap into something that appeals to them a bit more, or perhaps feels more accessible, so that they (or at least some of them) will finally start completing their work. One of the best and worst aspects of this job is that it's always changing. This keeps it exciting and intellectually stimulating, but it's also quite tough to constantly be searching for, testing out, and reevaluating new teaching methods. But whenever I find something that works, it always makes me happy. As I continue to gain experience, my bag of tricks will get a little bigger. And I'm glad I have my colleagues to learn from and occasionally commiserate with.

pretty things

On Sunday, my lovely friend R.M. and I had a delightful brunch (possibly my favorite meal) at Gaslight in Boston, then made our way over to the SoWa Open Market. My favorite find of the day was this gorgeous handcrafted tile (the picture doesn't quite do the cobalt blue justice):

I plan on incorporating this into my future kitchen somehow, perhaps over the stove or sink as part of a backsplash. Strange as it may be, I've had my kitchen planned out for ages, ever since I saw Metcalf's painting "In the Cafe" at the MFA:

I plan on painting the walls a sort of golden yellow, the cabinetry black, and have some cobalt blue bottles and seaglass on a windowsill. (Yeah, I watched way too much "Trading Spaces" as a kid....) Having this tile just makes the whole plan seem like it'll actually happen some day. Plus, I love the idea of having something unique and non-factory produced included in the design. Little details like that can make all the difference.

If you want to check out info on the people who produce these tiles, check it out:  Their work is beautiful, creative, and eco-friendly!

Friday, October 14, 2011

In Soviet Russia, blog posts you.

I recently did a unit on Animal Farm with a couple of my classes. One of the lessons was on propaganda, and in order to help them understand how propaganda works (and in a creative, fun way), I had them create their own propaganda posters from the p.o.v. of Napoleon and the pigs. These are a few examples from my honors class. They're pretty cool! I love it when kids are given the opportunity to use their imaginations and then really run with it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Procrastinators Anonymous....It's okay, you can join later.

Today is one of those days where I have very little motivation to do the work I know I should be doing. I've got a stack of papers that need to be graded, but I'd much rather sit here and go on Facebook, watch "Easy A," and nosh on something. I swear, sometimes I am as bad as my students. Which is why I try to teach them to not procrastinate--I understand the guilt and the stress that comes along with it. So why am I posting here right now? I guess it's a form of "productive procrastination." Sometimes in college I would clean when I was supposed to be doing homework. I mean, how could I feel too guilty when I had actually accomplished something? Right now, this blog is replacing the vacuum....

Monday, October 10, 2011

Cosby & the classroom

I've been looking for an apartment lately, and today I saw one that might be The One. Afterwards, my dad and I were discussing finances in the car, figuring out what all my expenses would be and how much I'd have leftover at the end of the month. At one point I reminded him we needed to figure in the cost of groceries, and we both immediately started going into this old "Cosby Show" routine:

This is one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite shows. I decided I needed to look it up on YouTube for a millionth viewing, and it got me thinking. Now that I've learned more about what kind of a teacher I am, I think that my style is somewhat like the way that Cliff Huxtable parents. I'm a loving person, but I also tell it like it is. If this were "Full House," after Theo makes the speech there would be a big "awww" moment. But instead, he calls the kid out, telling him his excuses are stupid and he'd darn well better shape up. And then, at the end, they hug it out. I try to give my students a lot of encouragement, but they also quickly learn that I'm not just going to sugarcoat everything. If I think they're being lazy or not living up to their potential, you bet I'm gonna tell them. Not in a mean way, mind you--that won't get you anywhere with kids. But what most of them need simultaneously (one of our vocab words last week!) is a hug and a swift kick in the ass. Also, we teachers can't just tell them to do better; we have to show them how to do better and point out their strengths so they have something to feel good about, all while making it clear that we will be holding them to a high standard.

I've had this style rub a couple of people the wrong way. One girl last year told me that she thought I talked down to her. The truth is, she expected me to coddle her and tell her that everything she touched turned to gold. Instead of working hard and turning in all her work, she just complained about everything. But I've had plenty of kids come to me for extra help who ended up staying for a while afterwards and talking to me about school and life, and not all of them were doing well in my class. I think (I hope) that they recognized that I am always willing to listen to what is on their minds and will try my best to help them find a solution. And they had learned to understand that even though I demand a lot from them, and that they truly have to earn good grades in my class, that it is all because I want them to be successful and to reach their full potential.

Friday, October 7, 2011


I came across this website called Out of Print. They've got a blog, but best of all they sell T-shirts and tote bags with famous book cover designs. Love them!

A friend also recently shared a link to a site that sells shoes with literary designs. So delightfully nerdy. I'll take a few pairs, please.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Silence is golden. Duct tape is silver.

I think I may have witnessed a miracle yesterday: two classes that worked in almost total silence. It was like being transported to an alternate universe. Or heaven. These two classes had to take a vocabulary quiz, then afterwards begin working on reading the next chapter in their book and answering the questions. Whatever they didn't finish would become homework.

When I've done something like this in the past, I had a lot of issues with kids whispering afterwards. Also, if students know that they'll be able to finish something at home, they'll often try to interpret that as "I don't have to do any work during class" (which is so dumb--you think they'd want to have less work to worry about at home). But this year, I'm trying to establish my expectations right off the bat so they don't get into bad habits. At the beginning of class, I told them that if they talked during the quiz, they'd receive a zero, and if they talk while other people are still finishing up, they'd lose points for taking away from someone else's ability to do well, and that working on the chapter assignment was not optional. BAM! Laying down the law this year. And best of all--it actually worked. Those classes are usually kind of chatty, and this was the quietest I've ever seen them. I only had to remind a couple of kids to not whisper or to get working, and that was it. Last year, sometimes when I would tell students to stop talking, they'd loudly ask, "Is anyone even still taking the quiz?" So obnoxious. And of course it probably makes the slow test-takers feel self-conscious. I refuse to let that sort of thing happen this year.

I really want to continue improving my classroom management. This is something that you have to learn through experience and trial & error. And so far what I've learned is to be friendly and fair, but firm (the only time 3 F's are a good thing in school). I've never bought into the "don't smile until Christmas" way of thinking, because while a teacher like that may be able to run their classroom well, kids will never be passionate about the material if they feel like they've stepped into a military classroom. I want to engage the students in what we're doing and to be approachable. At the same time, I think what my students are learning is that while I am friendly, I also don't take shit. Bad attitudes, rudeness, sneakiness, misbehavior, etc. don't fly with me. I know "The Look," and I'm not afraid to use it. I've also developed quite a good 'teacher voice.' I think it's especially important to make this intolerance for bad behavior clear because I'm a young woman. I won't receive some of the automatic respect that older teachers and males get, so I have to be clear about what is or is not acceptable in my classroom.

As I said, improving my classroom management is going to be an ongoing process. I'm certainly still making some mistakes. But I think that yesterday was a sign that I am definitely learning. (After all, students aren't the only ones learning in school!)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Marcel the Shell--the book!

Marcel the Shell is now going to have his own chilren's book and eventually a TV show! So excited. :) Check it out:

And if you have no idea what I'm talking about, this is the original video:

Monday, October 3, 2011

The only thing we have to fear of public speaking.

Jerry Seinfeld said, “According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” Now I don’t know about all of you, but public speaking scares the bejeezus out of me. Maybe not as much as death, but it’s still frightening. So then why do I teach? Well, for some reason, speaking in front of a group of kids is less scary to me, at least after the first week or so. But put me in front of a group of adults, whether it’s a speech or just my thoughts during a faculty meeting, and I can actually feel my heart trying to escape my chest.

Despite this fear, I have forced myself to speak in public on some occasions. After all, facing your fears can make you feel more powerful and confident, and most of us could certainly use a little dose of that. I also had practice when I was growing up—I attended a charter school where public speaking was a requirement. Each year, students had to complete and present an “exhibition of mastery”—a project on a particular subject for which we wrote a paper and created some sort of a visual aid, then presented to our classmates and a couple of teachers. As much as I may not have been such a fan of this at the time, I do recognize and appreciate the goal—to make public speaking more of a habit in order to make us more skilled and comfortable in this area.

Last year, I observed that the public speaking skills of my students were, overall, quite lacking. At our school, there is a speech requirement for junior year English, but no other public speaking requirements in the rest of the curriculum. This year, I have vowed to make public speaking a little more common in my classes. Some of the presentations will be for large grades, while others will just be part of class routines. There are lots of opportunities that I need to exploit. For example, what I’ve done a couple of times already and will continue to do is have students teach each other important information. When I need to discuss some historical background for a book, how many students are going to want to listen to me lecture about it? Yeah, I’m hearing the crickets too. It’s a lot better to have them look at the information, decide what’s important about it, and create posters that they then use to teach their classmates about a particular subject. Another opportunity is when students create little character posters or something of the sort, they will need to present them to their classmates. When a couple of my classes recently presented propaganda posters they created, I made the presentation worth 5 points out of 15 on the rubric. Not only did they have to make their presentations informative, but they also had to speak and present themselves well—stand up straight, hands out of pockets, make eye contact, and speak up. When I handed back the grades, I heard a couple of students expressing their outrage that they had been docked a point or half a point for failing to do one of those things. How could something so small matter?! Well, I want to teach them that how you present information is almost as important as the information itself. After all, when they go to interview for colleges or jobs someday, no one will take them seriously if they are slouching, looking down, or mumbling. This is about more than just a little grade.

Throughout the year, I will continue to look for ways to get students to face their fear of standing in front of their peers and speaking. I’ll also make them participate more during class discussions, whether they want to or not. Yes, some of them will despise me for all of this, but like I said, it’s an important life skill. So many of them have such wonderful ideas, but if they can’t express them, then those thoughts will never be able to be appreciated like they deserve to be, and that would truly be a shame. I want my students to feel confident in themselves and to have a voice.

 And if any of you have suggestions or thoughts on incorporating public speaking into the classroom, please feel free to share!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Need a book suggestion?

Came across this website today: Whichbook. For those of you who are readers, how many times have you tried to decide on a new book, saying, "I want something with a little humor, but kind of unusual, and without the typical happy ending"? Or maybe you're looking for a book that's a serious epic with lots of violence, or a short, beautiful, optimistic novel. It can be tough to find something that matches up with our moods. On this site you can choose different combinations of factors, then they'll generate a list of books that match your needs. Pretty cool, no?