Spring Itch

These last few weeks have become dull in the world of teaching. We’ve had numerous assemblies, MCAS practice days, and the MCAS itself. The kids have had pretty standard assignments that they can complete independently because of the messed up schedule. Lessons are planned, IEPs are written, and I’m in March limbo. I look out the window and the weather is getting warmer, the sun is out, and I’m thinking of what I’d rather be doing if I had the time, the choice…

Which reminds me of this Boston Globe article.  The author of the book, Laura Vanderkam, states that we actually have more time than we realize, we just don’t spend it well. She figured out that she doesn’t work as many hours as she thought and basic housework takes minutes rather than hours. She realized she spend a lot of her time on the internet or wantering around the house.

I don’t think I spend too much time on the internet although it can be a time sucker, I’ll admit. But I get the wandering around the house thing. I definitely do that, picking up little toys, putting things away that are just going to be pulled out again. I’m always sort of surprised at school that when I sit down, stop checking my email, how quickly I can get stuff accomplished that I previously had put off doing.

I feel like I should be spending these freer days at work plainning curriculum, reflecting on my teaching, but I confess the Spring weather is calling to me. Perhaps a lunchtime walk to clear my head? I don’t know. March is a long month.

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Weekend Thoughts

Just put Z to bed. It was a rough one with the time change that of course I didn’t plan for. I should have skipped his nap. I can hear him fooling around in his room.

It was a weird weekend. Went out with some girlfriends Friday night, neither of whom have kids. I felt weird anyway because I have to wear my glasses for a month due to an eye infection. I’ve been wearing contacts since I was twelve so wearing glasses makes me feel discombobulated. They were also late and I was early, like the dork that I am, and I ended up sitting at the bar by myself for a while which I haven’t done in a long time. Alone with the Friday night crowd with my thoughts at a hip bar. After dinner was over I was thinking that I actually had enjoyed my conversation with some other moms at daycare as we waited for our napping toddlers to wake up almost more than the dinner conversation. I felt sort of out of it at dinner and I couldn’t quite keep up with the talk of tv shows I hadn’t seen and online dating that I’ve never done. I always wish I had more friends with kids.

Today we went for a walk in a local park. I love watching Z run around, chasing birds, climbing hills to find the perfect stick or rock. Playgrounds are cool but I feel like Z gets stuck digging in the sand and doesn’t move enough. We also made sure to stock up on really good food, especially fresh produce. I need to try to eat better during the work week instead of subsisting on yogurt and granola bars. In my last job, I left the house at 6am and didn’t return until 6pm so I was much more mindful about the food and snacks I brought. I’ve had to remind myself that I feel so much better when I eat well. So this week we have tons of fresh fruit and veggies, I’m sure not local but it is New England in the winter, and some good staples. I made Amanda Soule’s leftover oatmeal muffins (best recipe I’ve tried) as well as a tortellini salad with lots of salad veggies.

Anxious about the coming weeks. We have MCAS practice days this week and then two weeks of testing for me. I don’t worry so much about how they do, it will be what it will be, but more about the behavior and emotions. Will they take it seriously or blow it off? I have a student that has refused to take it in the past, will he repeat his performance? Also just the whining and the dead time after the test. I prefer my neat, orderly classes that I have complete control over. With MCAS, I’m at the mercy of administration scheduling me the right rooms at the right times.

Sorry for the melancholy post with the beautiful spring weather coming. I think I just need to get through March and the feeling of burnout that comes with it. Z is calling me, he’s so not going to sleep well tonight!

How was your weekend? What are you thinking about?

I Hate Teaching Poetry

I hate teaching poetry. I don’t like writing it and, with few exceptions, I don’t like to read it. I see the other English teachers at my school teaching huge poetry units where the kids put together anthologies and write a bunch of poems and I’m so jealous that they can do that.  I teach English and I work in a state that will include poetry on the state exam so I have to spend a little time on it. Also, keep in mind I teach reluctant readers all of whom are on IEPs for disabilities having to do with reading and writing.

So this is what I do. First, I teach the basic figurative language-metaphor, simile, personification, hyperbole, and alliteration. We practice identifying these in poems and also in isolation. Sometimes I have the students make a poster illustrating some examples of one type of figurative language like these:

    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I made a graphic organizer that you can get for free here to analyze poems and we write paragraphs about poems based on this organizer. But the big project we do is the song lyric project. It’s pretty simple really. The kids bring in some song lyrics (school appropriate of course!) that they can pick out some examples of figurative language. Any song is going to have some sort of figurative language in it so any song will do. Then they fill out the graphic organizer for their song.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then instead of writing another paragraph about their song, they put that information into a poster like these:

It’s a relatively independent project. I thought I would have a big issue with “school appropriate” lyrics but I really haven’t. The kids will try to push it when I present the project but when it comes to actually bringing in the lyrics, they’re usually fine. It’s also a good project for those weird weeks like the ones before vacations or with early releases where it can be hard to start anything new. Are there any other ideas for teaching poetry out there? Because I really do hate it!

Thoughts

We’re on February break here. It’s not my favorite vacation, honestly. It’s cold here without even a teaser of Spring because of that cold New England wind.  We have all just battled a wicked stomach bug and are now on to the sniffles. Still, it’s a good time to get things done, like taxes, and start some home improvement projects. We bought this condo last year and I have continued to break every venetian blind that came with it. So unless I really wanted to expose my family’s foibles to the neighbors, it was time for some window treatments. We also need a bigger fridge but that will have to wait. Only one big ticket item every few months around here.

It’s also an ideal time to set some intentions in teaching. This passage from this book I’m reading is especially sticking in my brain:

“Not knowing that thoughts are just thoughts can get us into trouble in virtually every aspect of our lives. Knowing it can help us stay out of the traps our own mind sets for us. This is especially true in parenting. For instance, if you have the thought, “Tom is lazy,” you will easily believe that this is true about Tom, rather than just your opinion. Then, every time you see Tom, you will tend to see him as lazy, and not see all the other aspects of who he is that are blocked or filtered out by your strong opinion, for which you may or may not have much evidence. As a consequence, you may only relate to him in a limited way, and his response to how you treat him may only confirm and reinforce your view.

In reality, you have made Tom lazy in your mind, and are not able to see Tom as Tom, for who he is as a whole being. Instead, you see just the one attribute that you are preoccupied with, which may only be true to a degree, if at all, or may change. And this may make it impossible for you to connect with him in any meaningful way because everything you say or do will be “loaded” in a away that he might feel and feel uncomfortable about, and that you might not even recognize as coming from you.”

Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn, Everyday Blessings; The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting

I hope the authors don’t mind me quoting them. I feel like I have a tendency to do develop strong opinions about my students because I work with them so intensely. I develop these opinions about my students and maybe don’t recognize enough that they can change. Especially in middle school, the kids change from day to day. I’d like to try to separate a bit from my opinions about my students and try to really see them. At this time of year, it’s easy to form these strong, often negative, opinions which get reinforced when venting with colleagues. I think the last sentence of the above quote is especially apt. That our strong opinions can make it difficult to connect in a meaningful way because the receiver of our strong opinions will feel uncomfortable but not even be able to name why he or she is feeling that way.

How hard is this though? To separate from our thoughts and opinions about people? Especially because middle school students are constantly trying to aggravate a reaction. But for the rest of this year, I’m going to try. I’m going to try not to form such opinions about my students. To be more open to who they truly are. I think this will refresh my teaching in a way. Make it more positive. It will be my challenge.

Do you have any intentions for your teaching? Or parenting?

A Manifesto, If You Will

A lot has been written about teachers lately along with unions, collective bargaining, and the direction American education should take. As someone who has been a teacher for ten years, here are some of my thoughts.

The biggest topic or conclusion politicians and educational policy people come to is a great teacher makes all the difference. This is a noble thought. Here’s the problem. How do you determine this? What is a great teacher? Does it have to be someone who stays through the evening hours? Someone who has no life outside of teaching? An experienced teacher? A new teacher? Is there a learning curve at all anymore?

This is what I think. In any field, you have people who are good at their jobs, bad at their jobs, and most of the time, pretty average at their jobs. I don’t think teaching is any different. If you think back on your school career, I’m guessing you can remember some great teachers and some bad teachers and then a whole lot of okay teachers. And I’m speculating that some of your great teachers, maybe your friends didn’t think were so great. It often depends on the student and the learning style.

But most teachers are going to be your okay, average teacher. If everyone is great, then there is no great. I am an okay, average teacher. I do some things really well and some things not so well. I have good days and bad days, lessons that work, lessons that flop, students I connect with, and students who I just don’t reach.

And that has to be okay. Because…teachers are human beings.

So unless we want to switch to computer-aided instruction or robots teaching our children, we are going to need to accept the fact that most of the teachers children will come in contact with will be average, okay teachers. They will make mistakes. They will have bad days. New teachers will not walk into the classroom the first day and achieve perfection. They need time to get used to their jobs like everyone else in a new job.

So what needs to change?

First, if we need more teachers to be great, how do we make them great? I think most teachers would roll their eyes when asked to discuss the evaluation system at their school. Most administrators are in charge of evaluations and frankly, are too busy with administrative duties to properly evaluate all the teachers in their charge. I think experienced, great teachers should be paid to mentor and evaluate new teachers and make employment recommendations. This Gladwell article is an interesting take on the subject.

Also, nothing irritates me more than hearing a teacher loudly complain about how late she stays at school. Frankly, I think, if a teacher is at school until dinnertime everynight she is either: A. a teacher in her first couple of years or B. very inefficient. Some teachers prefer to come in early, some prefer to stay late, others try to utilize prep periods and lunch periods well. It’s a matter of preference and time spent in the building does not make a great teacher.

I hate to say it but we probably need to look at the yearly schedule, the time of day, and the vacations a little more carefully. But…if you’re going to take away summers, you’re going to have to increase the pay. And I don’t know if I would stay in this profession without the summers off. I could do a longer day, especially if the kids got more of the arts and physical exercise and hands-on-learning out of it. But there is something about having a summer to reflect on teaching and starting anew in September. Plus there is no air conditioning in probably 99% of school buildings in New England. And summers are getting hot!

I have more ideas about more standardized curriculum and school culture, but maybe for another time.

What are some other thoughts you have as parents and teachers?

Musings on a Monday

As I emerge from the mountain of grading the end of the term brings and the four IEPs I have to write along with the progress reports, my mind wanders to my weekend. I’ve decided to write about it instead of my work as our IEP Writing system program is down. Oh well.

 Such a nice weekend. Beautiful warm weather here for January. Z and I took lots of long walks and got treats and coffee at our local bakery. We played outside for hours with dried beans and little toys and threw a basketball around. We visited choo choo tracks and waited for a train. He took a long nap so I got to read the paper, write a little bit, almost finish up a hat. The warm winter here has made me itch for spring. I’m so excited to start our garden in our little yard this year. Last year was a trial run.

 The day’s almost over here and it went pleasantly quickly. I want to rush out of here, grab groceries and go home to the mayhem that the house turns into with “boys’ day”. When Papa is in charge the dishes pile up, the toys are everywhere, there is no nap. But I get a wonderfully sleepy, happy little boy at the end of the day. Sometimes you just have to bite your tongue and let it be.

Stay Flat

I thought this was a good take on bullying. How often do we model positive, kind, behavior for our kids? I can’t say that I always do.

 I’m at the point in the year where I’m frustrated and snippy. We’re near the end of the term, kids owe work and are unmotivated to do it. I also have quite a few students with excessive, unexcused absences who haven’t grasped the responsibility of making up work. But I haven’t reacted well and have been using angry words and tones.

 Last year, a colleague and I had a catch phrase we muttered to each other when our voices started to raise. “Stay flat,” meaning use a flat affect and tone when dealing with a frustrating situation with a student. You speak almost in a monotone and use short, directive statements and it keeps an escalated situation calmer and more serene. I need to remember that right now.

 In this book about mindfulness and teaching, the author talks about setting an intention for your day. This is my intention today. Stay flat.

Am I Being Shady?

I admit it. I work on this blog at work. I get my other stuff done, I’ve been teaching for over ten years, I can use my time efficiently-lesson plan, write IEPs, do my other paperwork, and work on this blog. But is it ethical? Probably not. Is it necessary? With all the other things that I need to do to run a home and a two-year-old who is obsessed with the forbidden computer, I would say yes.

 

But here’s my rationale. I’m a mentor teacher and a few days ago I went to a mentor’s meeting. The big push is on reflective questioning, reflecting and being mindful of why you do what you do. I would argue that this blog helps me do this. I reflect on my practices and write about them, the inclusion of photographs really helped with my last post. I try not to use it anymore to vent about colleagues and students although I certainly could. It’s become a part of my day, with my morning coffee, I blog. And yes, I write about home, but being a mother and a wife has become so much of a part of how I teach now. Am I hoping this blog leads to some sort of writerly career change? Yes, but I still teach and I teach well. And I’m hoping this blog helps me to continue to do that.

Word Wall

One area of teaching English I’ve always struggled with is vocabulary. Somehow, the idea of giving kids a list of vocabulary words, even from a text we’re reading, and giving a quiz at the end of the week never seemed very authentic to me. I’ve used Isabel Beck a lot in my practice when choosing the words, but I always feel that the words are gone from the kids’ heads at the end of the week. Also, the constant vocabulary instruction sometimes interrupts the flow of a novel we’re reading.

So this is what I came up with. My seventh graders are reading Warriors Don’t Cry which has tons of words which will be unfamiliar to them. There’s so much other good reading comprehension stuff in there and it’s a long book so I didn’t want to spend too much time on vocabulary. Sometimes you have to let things go, you know?  I came up with this word wall idea.

How it works is this. My students have a reading assignment. When they read, I have them find about four unfamiliar words and fill out a personal dictionary sheet like this, similar to a word map.

Then they come to class and fill out a word card on one of their words.

 

They share the word with the class and it goes on the word wall. They get extra points in their writing if they use a word wall word or a personal dictionary word in their writing.

 

It’s definitely not perfect. Some students pick pretty basic words so they don’t have to look them up. They all struggle when the exact form of their word isn’t in the dictionary. (i.e. looking up determine instead of determined) And I still need to encourage them to use the words in their writing more. Maybe a writing exercise? I know they’re just getting introduced to the words so they won’t be committed to memory. Are there other ideas out there for teaching vocabulary?