That One Student…

Let’s call her “Dotty.”

She looks like a pretty average, stereotypical even, high school sophomore. But she’s not. She’s probably one of the most incredible young women I’ve met yet.

By age 15, this girl has seen more in her life than many can say they’ve seen in a lifetime. Especially looking at where she’s grown up, her life has been quite atypical than those of her peers.

DOTTY

AGE: 15
RACE: white
HAIR COLOR: dark blonde
EYE COLOR: blue
BODY TYPE: average to thin
OTHER FEATURES: braces, pierced nosed, many other piercings in her ears including gauges.

Sounds pretty stereotypical for a suburban school in this area.

What makes Dotty atypical is her background and her personality…in addition to some other quirks and amazing characteristics.

 

Dotty is a remarkable writer. She has room to grow, of course, but who doesn’t? She writes from her soul. The words on the page are beyond her 15/16 years. She writes about things that her peers and colleagues have only seen on television (‘Breaking Bad’, ‘Weeds’, ‘Law & Order: SVU’, and the like). She writes about her life, her past, her parents’ struggles, and her own. The level of self-awareness she achieves through her exceptional work is advanced past the point I think I could ever be.

She is able to articulate things in such a artful way that she says it without flat-out saying it. 
She wrote about her emotional struggles, but never once said she was battling depression. The only reason I know is because she’s told me.
She wrote about her eating disorder, but wrote from the perspective of her friend to convey the fact that she just wanted to be listened to, not lectured. I would have never known if she didn’t preface my reading it with her explanations.
She wrote about growing up with her dad whose residence was described as if right out of a film. ‘Cocaine’ in her words was ‘snow’, ‘entangled in the carpet of the hallway.’ 
She wrote about her insecurities, the reason for wanting to control her weight, of all things, in a life where just about everything else is out of her control. It’s not because she’s fat, it’s because she’s scared. She, like most other teenage girls, is fearful of her own self-loathing. Something she made clear through personification of the fear, itself.

She smiles–everyday.
She laughs and chats with her peers and friends around her while in class.
She is very open to Frenchie and me when she wants us to read something. Usually that something is an extra piece of writing in which she expresses her deepest emotions and worries.
She is incredibly intelligent, incredible with words, and outrageously insightful. 

Everything Dotty does is purposeful. It’s all very logically though-out, even the illogical.
She always has a reason.

 

Dotty is beyond her years.
She knows what she’s doing, and she sees ways out no matter how deep she gets.

 

Why am I writing about Dotty?

Because she’s amazing. And in an odd way, I look up her. I aspire to be as strong as she is–not just for a 15 year old, but as a person–as a young woman in today’s world. 
Dotty’s going places. Despite her upbringing and the trouble her early life has shown her.
Dotty’s gonna make something of herself.
I can see it in her eyes. I see her determination to succeed and be amazing when she smiles.
She’s excitable and it gives me hope for her, for myself, and for the future of the country.
There are so many amazing young men and women out there like Dotty.
It just takes one compliment to spark that light behind their eyes.

…Planning…?

So I’ve discovered something about this profession (and although I thought I knew before, I really know now): there’s a LOT of planning required, and virtually no time to do it in!

….not a surprise to most, I know.

Between my mentor teacher and myself, we have the ability to split the load, thank God. I take the seniors, she takes the sophomores, and we reconvene in school the next day, or that Monday after the weekend.

It’s on the spot.
It’s quick.
It’s flexible and adaptive.
It’s forever improved upon in the following class.
It’s reflected upon.
It’s discussed.
It’s ‘planning’ at its most able.

With everything going on in the school (have to be in the tutoring room for 1st period prep, have to cover another teacher’s class during 1st period; have to plan the rest of the week for the low-tracked sophomores during 5th, figure out the game plan for the rest of the day during 5th period; conference with students after school, go to meetings and trainings…) in addition to everything each of us has going on in our personal lives, the ability to actually sit and thoroughly create a plan with enough time in advance to feel un-rushed is virtually impossible.

However, we make it happen with the time we DO have.

We always know just what we want the students to know–‘okay, they have to know “dialect” for the Keystone, so how are we gonna get them to understand dialect?’ We know our materials that are handy (video clips? word document? let’s make a list?)

The answers to these and similar questions are usually scribbled down in three different places: the sheet of computer paper that is folded up and placed as a bookmark in one of the two novels we’re focusing on, Frenchie’s calender/date book, and my planner. Additionally we usually jot it down onto a sticky note and stick it next to the computer on the desk.

It happens fast.
It happens on the spot.
It happens with confidence.
It happens with the knowledge that we get to think on our feet.

Practice, practice, practice.

Flexibility, adaptability, excitement.

I plan on the notion that the more engaging, the better.
The more active, the better.
The more real-world connections we can help them make, the better.

What do they want to learn about?
What do I want them to know?
What do they already think and know?
What do I expect them to think about after they leave my room in connection to the rest of their lives?

Where My Line is Drawn

So after being in the classroom for about 8 weeks (holy cow, it’s been 8 weeks!!) I’ve finally run into my first absolutely true struggle with students.

A class of seniors, second track students who are by no means incapable or unintelligent–in fact they are some of the most intelligent young people I’ve met so far! Not that that is a long time, but it’s long enough! 🙂 Actually! It’s my counterpart seniors to the fourth period class I talked about in my previous post! And, in fact, the day this all began was actually the same day I described in my last post! 

This day was the starting point of what I foresee to be the rest of a very rough semester for both the students and me. 

Frenchie was out of the room at the curriculum planning meeting we had both been in all morning, and an email went out to teachers with prep during 6th period to find coverage for her. In this email there was news:

“The student teacher will run the class. You just need to be there as a presence.”

…oh…okay…that wasn’t MY plan, but why not? At least that way both senior classes would be in the same place for the next class period. Sure.

 

So off I went, without Frenchie to be the commanding presence in the room. My first real time on my own with the students.

Piece of cake. These students know me, they recognize that I’m one of the teachers in the room, so this should be no problem; it’ll be just like any other day.

Wow. I could not have misjudged them much more than I did…

 

With Frenchie out of the room, the students decided to take advantage…as if I was a substitute teacher and unfamiliar to them! I had to fight against students talking, I had to swallow my frustrations and the urge to scream. Trying to maintain the great relationships I had already begun building with many of the students in the classroom, I tried to stay calm and collected, not putting anyone on the spot or making anything feel forced. I let them read in small groups, for heaven’s sake! The same activity that had gone amazingly with fourth period was deteriorating and chaos for sixth period.

I ended up having to yell more than I really like to, making eye contact with those students who I hold to higher expectations and pointedly asking them, “Are ya kidding right now?” 

Somehow I managed to get through the whole lesson, like walking across a scalding hot and rocky beach barefoot, but we got through it.

The next day, Frenchie ran into some of the students from that class who, unprompted, expressed their astonishment and amazement at their classmates’ rudeness and disrespect. That made me feel okay, because  at least I knew that it wasn’t just me that felt floored by their behavior.

 

What did I learn from this situation? Well, I’m still learning from it. A week later. I’m learning that I cannot take the misbehavior of students personally. 
I learned that they don’t take me seriously because they recognize that I’m, really, not much older than they are. In fact, one student turned to me and made a point to say, “my siblings are older than you.” 
       …..oh…okay…
I learned that I need to start being stricter…meaner…less lenient with them. 

 

So far, one of the most important lessons I’m learning as a student teacher: where my line is drawn.

In My Opinion…

In the high school English classroom–and even middle school! Why not??–I think the most important tool to use is inquiry.

Asking questions helps to broaden the scope through which our students look at a concept, a word, a work. These questions help students bridge gaps between text and reality; cultivates discussion and the bouncing around of ideas across the room, from one student to another.

Today, I was observed for the first official time, and could not have asked for a better lesson for my supervisor to evaluate me on. My 4th period seniors, the ones “infected” with

SENIORITIS

were asked today to read the second chapter of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. They of course read the first chapter yesterday, so we reviewed, and they nailed it.

I split the class into three groups, each group reading a section of the chapter that was only 2-3 pages long.
(They’re seniors, so I know they won’t read a whole chapter, even if I bribed them to.)
Within each of these sections, the students were asked to individually react to the text with questions, comments, immediate responses, etc., and the questions could either be personal/individual or could be a collective group question.

After so many minutes, they discussed briefly each section within their groups and volunteered at least one person to come up to the front of the room and explain so we all had knowledge of each portion of the entire chapter.

They decided to tag-team while at the front of the room. It was kind of awesome.

Then came the discussion and questions.

We began a discussion about

The discussion stirred up a lot of questions and realizations for the students, ultimately bringing up topics of gender norms, individuality and independence, racism, class-ism, pre-schooling and parenting…they did a beautiful job exploring a very important central theme to the text.

Of course, as my supervisor and I had discussed afterward, I should have been less inquiry-based in my leading of the discussion, and could have had even richer discussion around socialization and what it means–what it does for society, but hind-sight is 20/20, as they say!

Basically, it is discussions and moments like this that really support my philosophy that an English classroom runs on discovery and exploration, both of which cannot survive without inquiry and discussion.

Building Relationships

So I have begun my official student teaching as of TODAY (21 January, that is). Hooray!!!

Even though today was the first OFFICIAL day for the university students to begin in the classroom, I’ve been around since the week after the students got back from winter break. I had very little else to do during the day (I was working nights over break) and I figured I should get familiar with the material the students will find on the midterms (you know, that are given out the week I officially begin…so Friday, if the snow doesn’t throw everything off).

SO.

Last Friday, I had some very interesting and meaningful conversations with a couple students–both 10th grade, track three students, but in two different periods. Both of these students are not very active in class, kind of lower-performing…they sit in the back and either sleep or have music in their ears so they don’t pay attention. Fine.

One of the students in particular, the one who sleeps every day in the back of the class, let’s call him “Sunny“, I was able to make a really strong connection with this week.

In 3rd period I ran the warm-up (the same one I had just run in the previous class period, too):

With a partner make a list with the following:

1. Onomatopoeia (give me 3)
2. Allude to a famous person while describing Homecoming or Prom court
EXAMPLE: “Watching the Cleopatra of Rydell High was the highlight of my freshman year.”
3. Oxymorons (give me 2)
4. Describe your favorite food using personification

I had paired him with the student sitting in front of him, but that was probably a rookie move on my part because they couldn’t really focus on the task at hand.  So I compromised with the two of them–I said that as long as they have two of the four questions correct, I’d help them with the other two (they didn’t know what to do for allusion and personification). They agreed, and when I checked their papers before regaining the attention of the whole class to go over the various answers, they had numbers 1 and 3 filled in correctly. However, when I asked Sunny to share his oxymorons with the two other students standing at the front of the room ready to share, he said he didn’t even have any.

He was insistent that he didn’t have the answers, and then when Frenchie asked him to pick his head up (he had been sleeping in class all week, as it was), he started to fight her on it, asking to go up to the office instead of working one-on-one with me. She gave him a choice: “go into the middle room with Ms. S. (that’s me), or you can go up to the office, but take the write-up…”

His decision: sit one-on-one with me in the middle room.

In the middle room, I ended up having a very interesting conversation with him. He didn’t understand why Frenchie addressed him with such a confrontation (really, she was very level-toned and addressed him quite diplomatically, in my opinion); and I took that opportunity to explain to him that he’d been sleeping every day that week in class, and the following week was midterms, a time of the highest stress level for everyone at the school. I talked to him like he would talk to his friends–like we were equals. I showed him the respect that he felt he deserved.

And I pointed that out to him.

If you wantFrenchie to show you the respect you feel you rightly deserve, you’re gonna have to show it right back to her. Just like I’m giving you this kind of respect right now, I expect you to show both of us, Frenchie and myself, that same level of respect because we work really hard to basically give you the answers to your exam…you just have to pay attention.

I saw the light switch click behind his eyes. We had reached an understanding.

These two moments were so key to me, because I felt that I had really gotten through to each of these young men; I had made a connection with them that I knew results could come from.

This week I was able to witness positive results in “Sunny“–he was attentive in class, and although he was talking with his peers about irrelevant social business, he was still awake, and very aware of me watching him. Then on Friday, as I was walking to meet Frenchie in the hallway, Sunny, who was walking with his friends from the basketball team, saw me walking toward the door, and as I heard Frenchie greet him and wish him a good weekend, he smiled widely and shouted

Have a good weekend, Miss S.!

Not only did this show that he is aware of me keeping an eye on him (every day in class, we make coincidental eye contact because he’s looking around to see if I’m paying attention) but he seems to appreciate it and respect me for it.

I’m recognizing these moments for a few reasons:

1. Because these are the kinds of connections I aim to make with students in my classroom now, and in my own as a full-time teacher.
2. Because I was able to recognize by intuition and observation of his behavior just what kind of tone he would respond to; I was positive and supportive of their needs (“Sunny” was tired because he had stayed up late the night before for a basketball game on TV, and although I didn’t support that, I told him that if he had to watch the games that were on late, at least do something the next morning so he wasn’t sleeping in our class anymore).
3. And because of these reasons, I feel as though I’m not only gaining his respect but I’m gaining his trust which really is most important.

In Frenchie‘s classroom, as well as the entire school from what I’ve noticed over the several months I’ve been there, it’s this trust and caring atmosphere that really builds the important connections between teachers, faculty, and students. Although I know these connections cannot be made so pointedly with each and every student, I know that the ones who I recognize to be the most disengaged, for lack of a better word, are the ones with whom I can really make an effort to connect.

This translates, not just in my experience student teaching, but in my entire future in this profession. The ones who are willing to work for it are the ones who will make it obviously known–the students who ask for help and participate actively in class–but the ones who need the most help are often the ones who pretend to care less. Sure, sometimes there are students who can’t be bothered to change their already ingrained learning interests, but I think it is always worth a try to at least reach out to these tuned-out learners.

The question is: how do I balance making these connections on a personal level with planning, grading, teaching, and my own personal life? It is this question, and I’m sure many, many more that I aim to explore–not answer, because that will take a whole career’s worth of experience–in my student teaching and future career.

What’s YOUR Center?

It was the end of the first marking period at “Rydell High” and “Frenchie” was scrambling to make the deadline for her students’ grades.

She needed extra time.

It was a Friday–my day to be in the classroom.

So I took my chance to teach my first real lesson.

Something that I learned about the 10th graders from the curriculum planning meeting I sat in was that the 10th graders (and even some of the other grades; French and I were having the seniors do the same assignments) were going to be doing self-reflecting work out of a book called  7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. 

This book has a lot of really great writing prompts and issues that are brought up that we pose as prompts to the students.

So quickly, Frenchie and I threw together an idea for the students to work with this book–a book that they all were expected to have.

There is a chapter in the book that talks about “Centers“. These “centers” are basically categories of priorities: “school centered”, “friend centered”, “parents centered”, “work centered”, etc.

Every day, we give the students a writing warm-up, and since this specific day I was in-charge of…well…everything. So I decided to make their warm-up somewhat relevant:

What is currently your top priority?

Before I revealed the actual prompt (above), I made sure to give them a little more of a chance to have background knowledge on the topic, so I asked

What is a “priority”? What does that word mean?

I took a few suggestions from the class, all of which were related and accurate, and then posed the warm-up question. I asked for a time-keeper and asked him/her to put 5 minutes on the timer, and asked if they could let us know when there was one minute left.

I made sure to write with them (my top priority was to write my thesis on Peter Pan…).

When time was up, I asked for a few to share out what their top priority was and why. Many of them said things like “getting into a good college”, or “getting an ‘A'” in a specific class.

We then made sure that everyone had either their 7 Habits book or a packet of photo copies Frenchie and I made during 1st period Prep.

I read the first section which introduced the concept of “centers”, then turned it to the class and asked for volunteers to read aloud.

After the gist of each section was read, I stopped the reader and asked someone else to summarize briefly the driving point of the portion read (“Pause. Let’s talk real quickly about what he’s saying here…”). With the end of each section, I asked for a new volunteer to read next.

The process moved pretty quickly, and moved quite efficiently. It began a little slowly–as my aunt (a 6th grade math teacher in AZ) says, “I became a dentist with how many teeth I had to pull!” After about the second pause in reading, though, the students seemed to understand the process and became much more responsive. The amount of hands raised to offer-up answers, definitions, explanations, and examples increased tenfold by the end of the class period.

Once we finished the reading, I went up to the board and asked for the class to make a list of all the centers the author addressed in his chapter. I also told them, that they should all take out a piece of paper and pencil or pen and write the list at the top of their own page.

When the list was completed and in front of them, I said

“Okay, with the last five minutes of class you’re going to get a head-start on your homework. For homework, I want you to write 350 words–preferably typed–telling me what your life’s center is right now. You can have multiple centers, one center…For example, if I was to write about my centers I would say that I have a heavy emphasis in my school center, friend center, and work centered.”

By the time I finished explaining the homework, they had two minutes left, so they had already began to pack their bags and put their portfolios on the shelves.

This sounds like a lesson that went swimmingly, perfectly, even. But it wasn’t.

I guess in explaining one of the centers, I used the term “y’all”. I’m from Las Vegas, where we speak like that. But a few of the students, of course, caught my diction. In expecting a relevant comment, I called on–let’s call him Jimmy–Jimmy in the back:
“Ms. S., are you from here??”
“…no…”
And I asked for someone who actually had a relevant response to my question. Instead, I got more guesses as to where I was from:
“Are you from Virginia??”
“North Carolina?”
“Maryland?”
To refocus everyone I made sure that one thing was clear:
“I’m not telling you where I’m from! Now let’s focus, c’mon, guys!”

Luckily, that was the end of that.

In response to their questions, though, I plan to make it into a game. I’m going to try and connect English and writing with geography and U.S. History (since they’re taking that class, too). I’m going to give them hints each time it’s brought up like:

I’ve lived in 6 states. 5 of those states were all a part of the Union in the American Civil War. Guess one state and explain why you think that is a state in which I have lived, or why you think that is the state I am from.

We’ll see how it goes…

Professional Development Opportunity

In looking for opportunity to progress productivity and learning for both students and teachers alike, one must find resources? Nowadays, these resources are found mostly online for everybody. It’s pretty easy to just “Google” everything and in two seconds find something out there in the cyber universe that is exactly what you need.

But what about relevant lessons? What about planning a curriculum for an entire grade of students in a high school?

Once more, I bring you to “Rydell High” where I go at least once a week (and lately it’s been at least twice!) and assist in the classroom, run warm-ups, occasionally teach a full lesson, and participate in discussion between teachers who are brainstorming ideas for their 10th grade American Literature classes. These group brainstorms occur all throughout a teacher’s day: at lunch together, between periods, on preparation periods, and all-day curriculum planning meetings.

Each of the English teachers at Rydell who teach tenth grade were given the opportunity to call in a substitute teacher for one full day so that they could take the entire school day (and more if necessary) to iron out the giant kinks, wrinkles, and bumps in the cloth of the American Literature curriculum.

The most important thing I learned while sitting in on the first half of that day-long meeting:

Your peers are your best resource.

The amount of times I heard “that’s such a good idea! How did you do that with your 10-2’s?” or “Do you have the handouts you gave your 10-3’s? I really think my 10-honors will really benefit from that lesson, actually!” and other phrases of the similarity was countless. 

The cast of characters around this table included:

               
“Frenchy”           “Ms. Lynch”            “Jan”                    “Marti”

        &   
“Rizzo”                  “Sandy”                        “Patty”

Each teacher brings something different and new to the table (literally and figuratively). One teacher was ahead of the rest of the team in their general outline of the curriculum because she thought she was behind. Meanwhile “Frenchy”, my host teacher, thought she was even further behind, when really she was just focused on other skills with her students. For example, the 10th graders are reading 12 Angry Men; at the same time, they’re getting the skills necessary to be successful on the state standardized tests and learning about being American and therefore why it’s important we read these canonized American texts. That’s a lot to cover.

However, these teachers taught me how important it is to work as a team, to share resources and ideas with each other, and just how great and supportive your colleagues can be in stressful and confusing times. Here these teachers were at “crunch time”, planning something that one would think had already been established.

Well it wasn’t.

Why?

Because:
1. There is just not enough time in one day to get everything done that a teacher would like to. There are current grades to put into the computer (and depending on the district, there could be really, really strict timelines for that, or there could be really lax ones. But these students and their parents/caregivers rely on gauging their student’s success on the grades they see in the computer). Unless a teacher has help, it’s inevitable that their grading will lag behind when there are other lessons to prep for, meetings to attend, and, oh yeah, teaching has be done.

2. Teachers’ lives do not revolve entirely around their classroom.  As selfish as that sounds to some, these teachers–each one of them sitting around that table–have families, children, and lives outside of the walls of “Rydell High”. There needs to be a healthy balance between work and personal life.

3. This is the first year that Rydell High has experimented with a Writing-Based Curriculum. In a school system that, nationally, has been all about teaching for the state tests (thank you, NCLB) a progressive portfolio-based structure takes time to implement. To transition from one strict style to one that is much freer and liberal is difficult in the worst sense of the word.

Bottom line: there’s just not enough time for everything to happen at once behind the scenes.

With that said, these teachers worked as a team to really prioritize what their students will learn and when.

Since everyone was in different places with their students, highlighting what was the goal for each marking period really drove their focus. With the scattering of the team’s placements, tempers began to rise, anxieties began to surface. However, there is always one in each team, regardless of what the team is working together to achieve, who has the skills to bring everyone else off the ledge and calm the group, refocusing them on strategies to organize and prioritize. That was Marti‘s job–a Reading Specialist, Marti knows many tricks of the trade when it comes to talking people down.

Not only does Marti posses the right skills to calm a crowd with her high-pitched, sugary-sweet voice, but she is the resident standardized test expert. She offered up her knowledge of test-taking strategies to help her teammates incorporate exam preparation with the curriculum requirements around the literature students must read (Twelve Angry MenOf Mice and Men, etc.).

To do this, the “Pink Ladies“, we’ll call them, decided to model their midterm exams in the same formatting as the state test–killing two birds with one stone

I was able to, from this discussion, grab Marti for a really great conversation clarifying the difference between “teaching to the test” and what they were doing by modeling their own exams to the test. The difference is, as explained by Marti, that the Pink Ladies weren’t changing their midterm formats to “teach to the test” but because it relieves some of the students’ anxieties, or possible anxieties, when they sit down in front of that exam paper.

It boosts their confidence. 

All in all, what I learned from this experience is:

1. It’s so, so, so important to work as a team with your fellow teachers because, in anything in life, we’re only as good as our strongest support. And the strongest supports come from having the strongest support system under you. Who would be better to support you than those who understand exactly what you’re going through??

2. That support system of teachers, coworkers, peers, and colleagues is the most important resource you can have. Why make things harder for yourself with such limited time when there is a plethora of experience through trial-and-error just down the hall from your own classroom?

Also connected to the above two points:

3. Working with your fellow “Pink Ladies” is going to ultimately help you in covering the zillions of things in need of covering (state test, portfolio, canonized literature, and whatever else your individual school, district, and department requires of your students).

Moral of the story:

Don’t forget to utilize your resources–i.e. your colleagues and peers!!!–when in a crunch!