Wednesday, November 18, 2009

So, Who's To Blame?

I posted my grades for the 2nd marking period today. In my first period standard class, 2 students failed. I expected it; they expected it. In my fourth period standard class - same material - 12 students out of 24 failed. Fifty percent!

The irritating thing is that most of them will be angry with me that they failed. They spent the past two days trying to get all of their missing work in or making up excuses about why they hadn't turned in anything. Fifty percent!

When that many students fail, is it the teacher's fault? In the past, when I've had large numbers perform poorly, I re-evaluated what I was doing, made some changes and saw results. This semester, with this class - nothing! I've tried so many methods and made so many variations of lessons that I'm exhausted. When is it ok for me to say, "You know what, it IS your fault. I've done all I can do."

I'm disgusted with them and with myself. I've tried to reach them, but the ones that have failed don't want to be reached - unless I am going to give them something for nothing. I've said before that I want to be the place where they stop getting passed along. Most of the time I'm fine with that sentiment. Today, however, when I saw those numbers, I really felt like a failure.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Conversations on the Lowest Common Denominator

On Thursday and Friday, I found myself in the midst of several conversations that all resonated the same theme: Catering to the lowest common denominator. I find the more I think about that topic, the more confused I become. Here's the background:

Thursday during lunch, a colleague and I were talking about how difficult one of her standard classes was because she had to constantly repeat instructions and couldn't depend on them to complete homework assignments - either reading or writing. Because of this, she was having to read all of a major novel in class. Time she believes would be better served in direct instruction. (As an aside, I tend to agree. I have done that for some standard classes with Scarlet Letter because I felt it was just too heavy for them to tackle alone.) Her comments revolved around something her father was fond of saying - the lowest common denominator.

During that same conversation, another colleague said something to the effect of: If you cater to the lowest common denominator, the denominator keeps getting lower.

Friday, the principal and I spoke briefly about a new program instituted by our county office. Without going into too much detail, around $200,000 has been spent on a dropout prevention program that allows students to use a credit recovery system to get credit for a class they fail. Now, I like the credit recovery plan. I do agree that it has helped keep some students in school. My concern is this: When do we spend money on the students that want to excel? It seems that in our efforts to pull up the bottom, we are simply letting the top slide down too.

During youth group about 25 years ago, I remember our youth leader saying that it was easier to pull someone down than to pull someone up. She illustrated this point by having someone stand in a chair and another sit on the floor. The person in the chair was pulled down. Her point was for us to make good Christian friends. Now, I'm seeing that scenario in public education. The people on the bottom are pulling down those on top.

So, now I sound like an elitist and that most certainly isn't my stance. I just find myself irritated that the lowest common denominator (the immature, the apathetic) get to set the standards for everyone else.

Which leads me to the final conversation of this topic. Another colleague in another setting commented that she was done dealing with the kids that disrupted her class and her students. She's just sending them out. She wants to focus on the ones that want to be there - and she wants to teach such that they all want to be there. Is that the balance, then?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Updating on a not-so-good day

I haven't written in awhile, but it is only because I didn't really have anything new to share. School is school; work is work. I've continued thinking about other career options while trying to improve my teaching. I've had some success and felt pretty good about some things.

But today was a day that my patience and my fortitude was truly tested.

On the way to work, I prayed that God would guide me to be a good leader, a good friend, a good teacher. I walked in the door and was slammed from minute one. One of our department was out sick and there was no sub. Normally that doesn't bother me, but I feel like I've had to go to other departments and ask them to cover so much this year.

As I was trying to arrange for 1st period to be covered, I had seniors coming in wanting to know if I'd graded their senior project papers. Then, I couldn't find the person I needed to cover the first half of first period. When I asked an administrator if he could help me for 5 minutes, he told me he had to do a uniform check and would try to get there.

My response was, "Nevermind. I'll handle it."

So, I go to my room and get my kids started then go to the other room down the hall and work with those students. I'm running back and forth between classes for the first 15 minutes of the period.

Ok - enough whining. I guess I just felt stressed and pressed all day. I couldn't seem to catch a break.

I even tried using the CPS system in my 4th period class. I'm looking for anything new to help those kids and keep their attention. They were great - as far as trying something new goes. They were little craps for cheating on the quiz I gave them using the CPS. I was too frustrated with the day to even care. But, I did tell them that I wouldn't use it for a quiz again - and they were disappointed. They really like that system. Oh well - I have to be the bad guy because I can't stand a cheater.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Next Part: The Down

Last week, I posted an UP - very proud of that. I actually have had several ups this week that I'll mention later. Right now, let's get to the DOWN.

Research. Even now, I just sigh with despair. How to teach 16 year olds that research does not equal google or wiki? That is the question. Over the past few years, I've used the term "academic research" in place of the antiquated "research." Our instant-gratification-society has all but eliminated the idea that you have to spend some time doing anything, much less spend some time looking up something that wikipedia already has a page on.

At the end of last year, I decided to eliminate the one big research project of the semester. Instead, I would have students do mini-research projects all along. All of these projects would be designed to lead up to them being able to do a research paper. So three weeks ago, I initiated the first research assignment.

Students had to look up "talking points" of the health care reform debate. They had to identify the source their "talking point" came from and decide whether it was a liberal, conservative, or neutral source. HOLY CRAP - WHAT WAS I THINKING?!?!?!?

In my mind, this was a simple project that would allow them to find out information about a very relevant current event. I even got them started in class by modeling what I expected them to do. I wanted to cry after the first 15 minutes in the library. The next day, I addressed some issues/questions that everyone had about the assignment, and off we went to the library again. I wanted to drink heavily after the first 15 minutes in the library.

I've spent a great deal of time thinking about the assignment and looking at what they turned in. I still can't decide if it was the multiple-step assignment that they didn't understand, if it was the concept of a talking point that eluded them, if it was the idea that they had to read the websites that frustrated them, or if they are just not able to do the work. (I typed and erased "if they aren't smart enough for this level of thinking." I honestly don't believe that in my heart of hearts.)

Overall, the total project was a failure. The kids learned just about nothing; I was frustrated beyond belief. Before I gave the assignment, I told them my goal for academic research lessons for the semester. They knew that this was a minor assignment designed to gauge their research skills. Afterwords, I told them that I was very disappointed in the way the assignment turned out, and that the majority of the disappointment lay with me and my lack of planning.

I really am trying to examine this fiasco and learn something from it, but I just don't know where to start. I did give them another research assignment that was much simpler, much more focused, and much shorter. I even felt it was too simple - find 5 facts on transcendentalism and cite your source. The facts had to come from 5 different websites - no pedias or dictionaries allowed. Some students had difficulty with "a fact!"

Needless to say, I'm feeling frustrated with this. I really need some guidance on teaching academic research!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

An Up, A Down, A Let's Try Again...

I haven't written in awhile which does not at all fit in with my original plan, but I've had to really process this one. (That's for you Ali.)

An Up:
Two weeks ago, my class moved into Romanticism. I always begin by showing "Rip Van Winkle" and discussing the shift from logical thinking to imagination. It's a great introductory lesson. I've used the same lesson for a number of years, and I feel very good about it's purpose and follow through. I haven't ever, however, felt that way about teaching the next piece "The Devil and Tom Walker." I've tried numerous activities and methods to make this story work. The problem is that the students have to read the story - and they rarely do that. None of the activities work unless they read the story. I've tried the CD and had them follow along; I've tried having them read it aloud and/or silently; I've assigned it for homework; I've given pop quizzes; I've given read along guides - NOTHING.

This year, I decided that I was going to try yet another method to teach something I really like to kids that had no interest. I spent hours - literally - looking up different teaching techniques for this story. All to no avail. I had to dig in and rely on my own creativity. The first time period we study is Puritanism with a strong religious focus. While Romanticism is the third time period, it comes pretty quickly on the heels of Puritanism. So, I thought, "Why not let the Devil be a starting point?" I found a couple of video clips from The History Channel's documentary on The Devil and showed them in class. The main concept was that people have been making pacts with The Devil since the beginning of time. We then discussed the Faust legend and recalled recent movies with that same theme. From there, we began reading.

I had them read the first paragraph (which is kind of long) silently while thinking about the focus on the past. Then, I read aloud to them. I pulled out all of the stops - they especially liked my devil voice. I only read a couple of pages to them. Then I stopped reading and told them the next portion of the story. We skipped a page or so of reading!! They then read a few paragraphs on their own. I told the next section, and then I finished reading the story aloud.

NO ONE FELL ASLEEP! Every student that was there understood the story. I was elated. They all said they liked the story. Wow!

At first my English teacher instinct berailed me for not reading every word. I felt some guilt about it; I guess I still do. However, I feel so proud that I kept EVERY kid with me for a 90-minute lesson which was mostly devoted to literature. Usually, I try to pare down my lit lessons to 30 minutes. The nature of this story doesn't allow that luxury. It has to be read in one sitting or the mood of the story is lost.

So, I feel good. I still have it - the ability to re-create lessons to keep the kids interested.

Tune in next time for the next part of the post - A Down, A Let's Try Again.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Sense of Peace

For the last few weeks, it seems that all of my spiritual studies have led to the idea of "peace." Both the ideas of what brings peace and what disturbs peace. I find myself more focused and relaxed when I have peace - duh!

That peace is a major point of success in the classroom, too. I remember when I was student teaching, my cooperating teacher told me that no matter what, I needed to be the rock in the storm. I found myself recalling those words many times during my first 2 years as I couldn't seem to find any peace anywhere with my schedule. Forget about focus - I was teaching 7 classes between 2 schools.

As I found my niche and began growing in my career, I made "peace" my mantra. No matter the chaos, I had to be the calm. It was difficult to do sometimes because it is so easy to get stressed about life when things don't go your way. Over the years, I found myself on pretty solid ground. I felt at peace - most of the time.

One day this week, one of my coworkers was stressed about one of her classes. "There was too much chaos," she complained. "I spent more time telling them....than teaching." I know. I know that feeling all too well.

The nice thing was that I was able to really listen to her complaints/problems and offer some solid, focused advice. I knew as we were talking that I was telling her the exact right things. I didn't feel that I was elucidating on theoretical pedagogy; I was giving her practical advice the here and now. I felt great! (As an aside, it also felt great to know that she implemented some of my suggestions and felt good about the outcome.)

My first piece of advice to her was to be the calm in the storm. As that phrase keeps emerging I realize that one of the most valuable lessons I can teach my students is the value of peace - an inner peace.

I entitled this blog "A Sense of Peace," but I wonder if it might not be "A Sense of Babble." I just wanted to get this idea of peace and focus down. Maybe I'll come back to it later.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Question of Multi Tasking

I read an article in the paper last week that basically said multi-taskers don't do any task well. They can juggle a lot of responsibilities, but none of them are really satisfied with the job they do on anything. That started me to thinking...

I'm a multi-tasker and I'm not satisfied with the job I do on most tasks. (Bear with me. This isn't a Multi-taskers Anonymous meeting, I promise.) As I chose to stay at my school, I picked up more and more responsibilities. Most of the time they were just given to me; sometimes I chose them. For the past five years - since I got married - all of these tasks have become just tasks. I continue to do them, but much of the time my heart isn't in it.

Now that I have begun this "journey," I find the advice I give to my interns coming back to haunt me. "Don't be afraid to say NO. Monitor just how much you set yourself to do." I've not done a good job there.

My initial response is that these tasks take away from my time to prepare for my classes and build relationships with my students. But, if I'm going to be totally honest with myself - and that's the purpose of this quest - there are only 2 tasks that aren't directly student-related. The other tasks offer me the opportunity to build relationships with students that I don't normally teach.

So, I find myself recalling the last blog about "the easy way out." Is it just easy to do a mediocre job on a lot of tasks? Am I pulling away from the students because I have too much to do or am I creating too much to do so I don't have to focus on my dissatisfaction with my performance?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

2 Lessons

Lesson 1: Not the easy path. On Friday, one of my colleagues and I were contemplating a field trip. This trip would be excellent for our yearbook and journalism students. Lots of workshops that give them specific details on what we do. A GREAT opportunity. Then we realized that the date of the field trip was on an early release day. Suddenly we contemplated dropping the whole thing just because we would miss 2 hours of staff development.

Now, here's the lesson - at least for me. For a moment I was ready to do what was easy instead of what was right. It is easy to forget about the trip and stay at school. It isn't so easy to push forward and try to convince the leadership team that this is a worthwhile venture. Lesson learned.

2. Lesson 2: Embrace the artsy-fartsy. Ok, so I've never been one of the teachers who always has some groovy activity with every lesson. Some things you just have to learn - cut and paste days just aren't my style.

I have a 4th period (last period of the day) standard English class of 28. They are tired, ill, worn out - basically done with school for the day. And I have to teach them the American literature canon! Last year, I noticed a lot of 4th period standard classes and the ones that were the best behaved were the ones who had artsy-fartsy assignments (much to my dismay).

Today, I revamped an assignment on coat-of-arms and made it relevant to a time period. Students could work alone or in pairs to create a coat-of-arms that represented the time period we just finished. The idea is to have a closing activity for the time period which will allow them to review their notes and the material studied. I gave out the assignments and the kids went right to work. They were coloring, looking up clip art on the computer, talking about their project - everything I wanted them to do.

So, Lindsay, I must admit that there is, in fact, a time and a place for the art projects. I think that time and place is 4th period!

The lesson is don't discount what you haven't found success in before. Each group needs different methods of instruction. I guess now I'll have to buy more colored pencils!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

An Experiment

Yesterday, I decided that I would try a Writer's Workshop with one of my classes. Normally, I don't go into the touchy-feely method of teaching, but since normal hasn't worked for me lately, why not try something new?

Writer's Workshop is a method of instruction that allows students time to write on a specific assignment while the teacher conferences with each student individually. There is a lot more to it, but I wanted to just try a basic conference style setting with 28 juniors.

I gave the assignment, explained the process, and off we went for the last 30 minutes of our class. It was delightful! I got a chance to speak to about 1/2 the class - as individuals! The students actually worked on the assignments. There was very little talking; there was a lot of focus.

As pleased as I was to have the experiment work, I was doubly pleased at how I felt after the class was over. I really felt energized, not exhausted. I was motivated instead muddled. I also felt that I had really SPOKEN to my kids not just taught them.

As I continue this series, I really feel that my neglect of fostering the personal relationships with my students has made a big difference in how I feel about teaching. For some reason, I pulled away from them. I hate to admit it, but I think I stopped trying altogether. I'm embarrassed by that. I've always prided myself on being such a "good" teacher, and I allowed myself to forget the most important aspect of teaching...Love the students.

If Dale Jacobs reads this, he will insist I return to my Paolo Friere!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Lesson - Part II

I was doing very well with my attitude adjustment until 11:00 on the first student day. One of my colleagues got a call from her babysitter saying that they were taking her 4 month old to the hospital. He was unresponsive. An hour later, we received word that her son died.

Even now, I find it difficult to write about. There are no words to express the pain and sorrow and helplessness - I'm at a loss.

So, here's where the lesson comes in. My friend and her husband spoke at their child's funeral. One thing she said was that she became a teacher because she had strong Christian teachers who influenced her, and she wanted to make a difference in someone's life. She wanted to make sure as many of her students as possible would be in heaven to play with her child.

Teaching for the love of the students - I forgot all about that. I got so wrapped up in discipline and lesson plans and leadership that I forgot why I used to enjoy this so much. I used to let myself love my kids. I really got involved in their lives. Somewhere sometime I stopped.

So, I'm trying to get there again. I'm trying to make some real connections with kids that I would have let go. Maybe this is what I'm looking for in my work...meaning.

The Lesson - Part I

Last Sunday in Sunday School, we talked about Cain and Abel. Now, I realize that might seem to be a rudimentary lesson, but we really examined some of the lessons we can take from that story.

Different people were talking, and I made the comment that Cain was really mad at himself. He wanted to blame Abel for his problems with God, but ultimately, the fault lay with him. He brought a mediocre offering with a mediocre attitude. The lesson to me was that your attitude and giving make a difference.

Wow - you think?

I went to work on Monday trying to keep that thought in my mind...your attitude makes a difference. I felt much better about work and my job until Tuesday. That is part two of the lesson.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Day Three - the Purge

I felt the need to purge today - just get rid of mess that has piled up during the last 16 years. I thought I did some of that when I changed rooms three years ago, but I didn't. I think I just stuffed junk in file cabinets with the idea that I would get to it later. So, today was later.

It felt good to let go of things that got passed down to me with the admonition, "You should keep this in case someone asks for it." What???? If you can't specifically tell me what it is and why it is important, then it's outta here! Of course, now I'm sure one of my administrators will want some climate survey from five years ago that made its way to the trash can today.

One of my coworkers said that he was in a minimalist phase. Last year, he got rid of a lot of old materials, but this year, he is throwing out even more. He said he was trashing old textbooks and workbooks and deleting old computer files. He made the comment that it was difficult to do at first, but then he felt relieved.

I like the idea of narrowing my focus. Having before me only what I need. I always save, save, save "just in case." And "case" never comes. This year, I want to utilize materials that work not materials that are handy.

And I'll keep hoping I won't need my gradebook from 1998!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Day Two - A Rainbow

This morning when I went out to get the paper, I saw a rainbow. Now, the remarkable thing about it was that it hadn't or wasn't raining. It was just there. And it made me think. Now, whenever I see a rainbow, I feel closer to God - kind of like He's sending the sign just for me. I really felt that He was telling me in His own special way that I have to move forward and focus on positive things.

Now, I recall my earlier post which cited a lot of spiritual references - divine intervention, etc - and I know that this is what I'm supposed to do. Now, whether the "this" is search for an answer or stay in education, I haven't figured that out yet. At least I feel better about the here and now.

One of my friends was talking today about being happy in the here and now. She said she had spent so long looking ahead at various milestones that she found herself struggling with the present. Hmmmmm...

My problem is that I've stayed so busy for the last 16 years that I've failed to pay any attention to the present. I've never slowed down enough to look at the present and decide if it really makes me happy. Keep in mind that I'm really talking about my career now - nothing else.

My first year of teaching was insane. There is no other word for it. I taught 2 classes of drama and 2 classes of video production at high school then traveled 30 minutes to a middle school where I taught 6th grade social studies, 6th grade art, and 7th grade PE. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I just survived.

The next year was only slightly better. I kept the same schedule at the high school and traveled 20 minutes to a middle school where I taught 8th grade science. That was the year I learned that I could do all that and begin the drama club at the high school.

The following year I became English full time. I felt like it was my first year teaching all over again. Within the next 4 years, I took over the newspaper. Three years after that, the journalism class added broadcasting. Two years later I was department chair and National Honor Society coordinator. Somewhere in there I managed to get my Masters in Composition and Rhetoric and get and renew my National Board Certification. There have been numerous interns and mentees along with Planning and Leadership meetings and Staff Development Coordinator responsibilities. Oh yeah - I also got married and had a kid.

So, here I am slowing down - or at least adjusting to the workload - and I'm questioning what I'm doing, how I do it, and why I do it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The End of Day One

So, I made it. I made it through the first day back, and I lost that hopeless feeling around 1. I was happy to see everyone but still felt lost - like everyone belonged there but me.

I actually shared my concern with my principal. He's retiring in December, and I will certainly miss his guidance. In fact, when he announced his retirement last year, I remember the depression beginning to set in. When I told him my concerns, he suggested that I look into administration. Ha Ha! Now, I think I would be a good administrator, but I have a small child and don't want to commit such an abundance of time to anything but her right now.

He says that he finds that most people need a change every 7 years or so. I agree - at least I'm certainly showing signs of needing a change. I just don't know what form that change should take.

On a positive note, it was really nice to think about something other than lunch or Blue's Clues today. Once my brain got used to working again, I was able to jump right in and go.

I really wanted to talk with some of the people who have been there longer than me. I want to know what keeps them in it. Maybe I'll find out.

Also, everything today seemed to point to a spiritual to live don't live to the shining star in someone's life...find the star in the students...divine intervention...God's plan. I heard all these things today; I even woke up singing a song with the line "Come unto me...all who are weary...and I will give you rest...Bring your hurts, bring your scars, bring the load that you carry...and I will give you rest."

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Day One or Ground Zero

I go back to work tomorrow after summer's vacation, and I'm trying to find reasons to continue in education. I teach English at a small high school in NC, and tomorrow begins my 17th year. Right now, I can't conceive of 14 more years, but I don't know what else I would do.

I guess the purpose of this blog is to find a reason to stay or find a way to quit. My plan is to write each day seeking out the good in education. At the end of my 200 day search, I'll be ready to make my decision.

This will be a pedagogical, emotional, spiritual, and personal quest. I'm growing curious as to what will come of it. I anticipate that a history of my career will unfold along with an examination of varying views on education.

I'm nervous about the outcome. Whenever I have found myself at a career crossroads, I've always had a drink and kept moving. Now, I find that I'm not able to silence the doubts and confusion. I'm a good teacher - I know that. I'd like to be able to say I'm a great teacher, but I don't think I can anymore. I'm afraid I'm becoming the "teach-out-of-the-same-plan-book-every-year" teacher. I've never respected those. If I've become what I hate, should I leave? Can I change? Can I love my job again?

We'll see...