Friday, December 5, 2014

Small victories

Happy Friday! Sometimes, as a teacher, the small victories can make you really happy. Here are a few from this week:

1. One of my students, whose grade is literally around a 15 for the quarter, has been more focused this week, and today actually had his reading homework done and then CRUSHED IT with his classwork.

2. One of my girls kept her behavior under control today and was laser-focused on her work, and when I told her how much better she did today, she had such a great smile on her face.

3. A student who is both on an IEP and is an ESL (English as a Second Language) is really into the book we are reading (Waiting for Snow in Havana). Spanish is his first language, so he feels a connection with this Cuban author and loves when the author uses some Spanish. The other day, this boy was a star participant in class, and earned 2 merits for this (I usually only give a student 1 merit per class).

4. My co-teacher and I have been trying to get the behavior of one of our students under control, and so he's been earning a lot more demerits lately. He was definitely pissed about this, and made a lot of noise about it. But I think (I hope) it might finally be clicking for him. Today he did earn a demerit for talking across the room when he was supposed to be working with a partner, but when I told him he had a demerit he just said "okay" in a way that conveyed he knew he had been doing something wrong, and then he refocused on his work. His focus wasn't constant during class, but it was definitely much better and he was more productive. I made sure to tell him at the end of class that though there is still room for improvement, I was happy with how much better he did, and he was pleased to hear this.

5. When I gave my sophomores some classwork the other day, they all got right down to work and were silent basically the entire time. No need for reminders and shushing from me, no demerits. I couldn't believe it! I gave the whole class a merit for that. Now I just need to work on getting them to focus/behave that well all the time.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Taking a risk

I was recently told by a man that I am too cautious and not a risk-taker. While I have always recognized that I am a cautious person--I like to take the time to analyze a situation--I nevertheless felt hurt by these words. When I shared this with one of my dear and wise friends, she immediately dismissed what he said. She reminded me that I have taken a huge risk this year by accepting a job at a very different kind of school and by also accepting the position of Lead English Teacher. This was exactly what I needed to hear. While my risks may not be adrenaline activities or involve potentially damaging behaviors, the risks I take are those that seek to propel my life forward. At the end of the day, I'm okay with falling on that end of the risk spectrum.

I am working at an urban charter school this year. Though I attended a charter school myself, it bears little resemblance to my new workplace. The population is very different, there is a lot more structure (uniforms, merits-demerits system, stricter rules/policies), and my principal said we can refer to its rough location as "a neighborhood in transition." A high percentage of my students are reading and writing below grade level. The majority of them have experienced some type of trauma in their lives. I also have a number of ELL students (English Language Learners). These are new challenges for me, and they are certainly daunting.

What helps me feel better about taking on these challenges are the people that I work with. I co-teach two of my classes with a special education teacher (though we have told the kids that she is not just there to help the special ed students; we are both there to help everyone), and she has been amazingly helpful in making modifications for the students who need them and switching off with me in taking the lead in class. My department is small, but so far we are working well together and have been a good team. Our school is actually a new part of a network of three charter schools, and we could have chosen to just use the lesson plans that the first school already has in place. However, even though we are certainly making things more difficult for ourselves, we all have preferred thus far to create our own lessons, using only a few things here and there from the other school. It's been tough for me, as lead teacher of the department, to have to take on some extra responsibilities. What is exciting, though, is the opportunity to have more influence on what we're doing. For instance, I've already gotten my department on board with doing portfolios with the students. We talked about how this can benefit the students and how we can best structure it, and I think it's going to be a great initiative. Because our students need so much work on their writing, reflecting on their work and tracking their process should end up being very beneficial.

I also have a principal who wants to create a strong and positive school culture. She has talked a lot about teaching kids persistence and perseverance, going with the school's motto, "Smart isn't something you are. Smart is something you become." The average GPA last year was incredibly low, but while she wants that number to get higher, she has told us that we need to do it in a way that doesn't lower our standards. It's a refreshing attitude. The principal has also already observed/evaluated me twice. Is that absolutely terrifying? Yes. However, I recognize that it's better to start learning from my mistakes, rather than waiting four months and then having to struggle to break established habits. In addition, she has repeatedly asked how she can help me and support me, rather than just expecting me to know automatically how to make the changes she wants to see. Her feedback also always includes positive observations, which makes criticism easier to swallow (it's like when I'm grading essays--I always try to find something to compliment the students on).

Now that we're a few weeks into the year, the students' personalities are emerging more. This means that more challenges are presenting themselves, but also a lot of positive things. Some kids are learning how to speak up a little more, and we are trying to encourage all of them to believe that their contributions are valuable. I've started making good connections with a number of kids, and I just hope I can continue this. While all students, no matter where they are, could use more positive adult figures in their lives, these are the kinds of kids that need them even more. So while working in such a different environment may be a risk, it also has the potential to yield a much greater reward.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Shared experiences

I finally read a book that I mentioned in my post about Boston Book Festival 2014, Najla Said's memoir Looking for Palestine. It was an intriguing look at the complicated matter of multicultural identity. One section in particular caught my attention. When discussing her mother, who is from Lebanon, Said says, "I had no idea she spoke with an accent until my friend Caroline told me so when we were in the fourth grade." This may seem strange to many of you, but it instantly resonated with me. My mother is from Iran, and I remember people telling me when I was very young, "I love your mom's accent!" For some time, my reaction was, "What accent?" To me, that was just how my mother spoke; there didn't seem to be anything out of the ordinary about it. Plus, her sisters and other family members have much stronger accents than she does, so I only associated accents with them.

One of the powers of literature that I appreciate is how it can sometimes prove that our experiences or perspectives are not as weird as we might have thought. I loved discovering through this memoir that I was not alone in having this funny little experience. I'd always felt a bit silly for not realizing sooner what was so apparent to everyone else, but suddenly, here was affirmation that I was neither silly nor alone. Not bad for something I bought on Amazon, huh?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't

My sophomores have started reading Macbeth. (Yes, I know the quote in the title of this post is not from this play, but it's relevant, I swear.) It is one of my favorite things to teach (and I've taught it since my student teaching days, so I know it like the back of my hand). I feel like I've been more energetic while teaching it, partly because I'm more comfortable with the material, and it seems as though the kids are enjoying it more too. My level 2's love when we act the scenes out, and the other day, one of them said, "I actually look forward to English now." So great to hear!

Today, when they were saying how difficult Shakespeare is to understand, one of them asked me that age-old question: "Why do we need to read Shakespeare? I'm not going to use this." So I told him two things. The first is that Shakespeare is so influential in other literature and culture even today. The second reason I provided is that it helps us explore things in our own lives--ideas of what determines what happens in our lives (fate, free will, influence of other people), gender roles, etc. I'm here to teach them about ideas more than books. He told me that I was the first teacher to give him a good answer.

I was glad that he liked my answer, but I was also a bit dismayed that other teachers hadn't been able to provide an adequate response. All teachers, myself included, need to think more about what is important about what we're teaching. I remember talking last year with my colleagues about how our purpose isn't to teach books. We need to think of those books more as vehicles for teaching various skills and exploring different ideas, philosophies, cultures, dilemmas, etc. Many high school reading lists see few changes over the years because it is difficult to part with classic beloved texts, but even though it might be hard to imagine kids walking out of high school without being exposed to those books, it's more important to question if these are the most effective in helping kids truly learn the skills they need and in exposing them to the world. If all I had said to my student was, "Shakespeare is important," that wouldn't have been enough. Over the course of the unit, by tying the play to articles about modern-day life, short stories, poetry, and the students' lives, I hope they will see how Shakespeare is still relevant and helpful in examining their world. And hopefully this interest in acting out the play will translate to them being more comfortable with public speaking.

Thursday, January 30, 2014


I have this awesome student in one of my senior classes. She is a bright, kind, and conscientious young lady who is great at participating in class, and she led an awesome EdCafe last term. However, last term she also struggled with her writing, and ultimately earned a C+ for term 2. Her mom talked to me about how disappointed both of them were, but said her daughter was putting everything she had into the paper that was due today, determined to do well. The student had also conferenced with me the day before, and really worked to make sure she understood the revisions I was asking her to make.

They turned their papers in today, and since the conversation with the mother was still on my mind, I decided to grade the girl's paper while the students worked quietly on an assignment. Once school ended, I called her over and showed her the B+ grade she had earned. She bounced with happiness, saying with a big smile on her face that she was going to go tell her mom.

This is what happens when students don't give up, when they turn their disappointment into determination, when they choose to learn from their mistakes. The grade may not have been an A, but that's irrelevant--she had made such a great improvement over her last essay and demonstrated that she had truly learned something, so it was a victory.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Allowing kids to fail

A big part of why I do what I do is because I care about kids. I want to help them navigate the angst-filled journey that is adolescence, and to help them become good, productive, compassionate, responsible, conscientious global citizens. Sometimes though, I have to express my caring by being tough on them.
Many kids struggle to learn personal responsibility. When they don't meet with success in school, it is not uncommon to hear the blame be put on the teachers or some extenuating circumstances. Other times, they will try to bargain, claiming that they understand that they messed up, but if I bail them out this time they promise they'll do better the next time. There have been a couple of occasions, one recent, in which this has happened. The students tried to gain my sympathy, telling me that they knew they should have done all of those homework assignments or they knew they screwed up by not turning in that essay until two months after the fact, but that if they didn't pass my class for the term they would not be able to participate in a sport. One even tried to play the "You're an athlete too" card, hoping I'd empathize, but I told him I wasn't buying into that since I always kept up with my grades and never put myself in this situation. The other student tried telling me that she was sure I could get permission to change the grade (I got her essay on the day grades were finalized for the term), but I had to tell her that this was not the issue; the fact was that I wouldn't feel right about changing the grade. We have policies in place which the students are well aware of, and I had already stretched that for her in the first place due to special circumstances. I tried to be as gentle as I could, reminding her that she did well in the first term and I was sure she could get herself back on track for the rest of the year.

This student was distressed, appealing to a guidance counselor, but I knew I had to stay firm. In her eyes, I probably seem mean and cold-hearted, but I hope that someday she can understand that I do this not simply out of a sense of fairness, but because I care about the type of person she is going to become. So often these days we read about how kids struggle to stand up for themselves and solve their own problems because they are incredibly overprotected. Their parents are so afraid that their children will fail and feel badly about themselves that they make it impossible for the kids to fail or bail them out of any kind of trouble. While kids certainly need to know that their parents will be there for them and support them no matter what, protecting them in this way ultimately leaves them unable to cope with the difficult realities of life and prevents them from being able to pick themselves up after experiencing failure.
Making the problem worse are the teachers who also give kids an out. Though it is the responsibility of teachers to never give up on their students and to remain encouraging, as my cooperating teacher from my student teaching days told me, "Sometimes kids have to be allowed to fail." I have told struggling students before that the student-teacher relationship has to be a two-way street--I want so badly for them to succeed, but they have to want it for themselves, too. I'm there to give them the tools they need, but they have to use them. I'm not there to be a hand-holder. And if I make an exception like this that gives the student a way to avoid failing because of poor choices she made, I will only be setting a bad precedent. This way out becomes expected not only from me but from others as well.

One strategy that we could probably all try to emphasize more with kids (whether we are teachers or parents) is to remind them that just because they experience failure, that does not make them failures. Even though they may have made poor choices, there is an opportunity to recognize them and learn from them, and we have to help show them how to do that. Kids can't learn this if we bail them out of trouble every time, but hopefully will if we stay firm in our expectations of them while also showing them that we are positive about their abilities to meet those expectations if they make good choices.