Mess Up

It’s important to admit to your failures as a teacher, small and large, and so when I realized that I hadn’t actually made the assignment in Google Classroom this afternoon, I muttered apologetically, “Sorry, I mess up.”

“Yeah, you messed up. You messed up my grade,” came a voice behind me. I knew immediately who said it: I’m a teacher, and it’s almost a requirement to be able to recognize students’ voices for any number of reasons, but also the young lady has a distinctive voice. It’s hard to miss C.

She’d just checked her grade while waiting for our work to load, and she discovered that her grade had dropped from a D to a F. The reason was simple: she hadn’t done the work earlier in the week when I was out with a sick little boy, and she hadn’t studied twelve Greek and Latin stems sufficiently to pass a quiz on them.

“I turned in several articles of the week just earlier this week,” she had complained.

“Yes,” I had agreed. “And since you turned them in late, they are a secondary priority when compared to other work that students turned in on time. It wasn’t a priority for you to turn it in on time, so it’s not a priority for me to grade it, I’m afraid. If you turn it in on time, I get it assessed quite quickly.”

It hadn’t been enough, and she’d been fuming, so when I admitted my silly mistake, she used it.

There’s a part of me that says, “What kind of thirteen-year-old thinks she can talk to an adult that way?” There’s a part of me that wonders how she could possibly think that anything positive could come of being aggressively disrespectful like that. There’s a part of me that wonders just what she thought my reaction might be. There’s a part of me that questions if she’ll ever learn how to deal with disappointments more effectively. There’s a part of me that wonders if she’ll spend all her life blaming others — it was my fault that her grade was so bad and not her fault for not preparing for a painfully simple quiz or for not turning in work on time.

What really made the situation frustrating for her was that she, as a basketball player, can’t play if she has grades below Cs. She missed a game because she had a D in my class; now she’s got an F in my class, and the prospect of playing again anytime soon seem painfully remote. And her frustration was understandable but directed at the wrong person.

At a Loss

There are some times in my classroom that I am positively at a loss, that I am standing there, looking at what just happened, listening to what’s being said, watching what’s going on, and I find myself wondering, “What in the world do I do about this?” I’ve been in the classroom for almost twenty years now, and I’ve come to realize that I will always — always — have these moments.

Last week, for example, in order to load a document I wanted the students to view on the projector, I turned my back on my most challenging class — challenging in that they are, by and large, not motivated and therefore not inclined to behave in a manner that produces the most efficient use of our limited class time — and in the few seconds that I had my back turned, this happened.

This, in fact, is a photo after I kicked some of the papers into a more consolidated pile.

Apparently, in a matter of seconds, a boy who sits in the back of the room stood up, ran to the front of the room, grabbed a girl’s binder, ran back to the back of the room, and emptied its contents on the floor with the girl in heated pursuit. This girl is not very popular, and she has a habit of antagonizing everyone around her and then playing the victim. In this case, though, she was the victim, but that didn’t stop the kids from hooting in approval at the boy’s actions.

I called them down; they stopped after a few seconds; and I didn’t have the slightest clue what to do. I removed them both from the classroom, but that’s hardly a preventative measure for the next time the kid gets an impulse to do something like this. Truth be told, the boy can be more antagonistic and disruptive among his peers as the girl.

These are thirteen-year-old kids. They’re not two or three. Yet their behavior belies their age, because this sort of thing happens so frequently. If it was a one-time occurrence, it would just be a question of youthful hi-jinks, but something similar happens on a regular basis, and I never really know what to do to prevent it.

ET

One thing I’m known for throughout the school is a simple, weekly assignment that I’ve been giving for three years now: the article of the week. It’s simple, really: kids read an article from some news outlet and annotate it. I choose a few words that they must annotate, using context clues to determine the word’s meaning (as nearly as possible), and the rest of the annotations come from what Kylene Beers calls effective readers’ skills: commenting on the text, connecting to prior knowledge, questioning the text — skills like that.

I model it for them and provide a video of my own annotating process every week, and after a month or so, most students have figured it out and get straight As on the assignment. I tell them it’s like batting practice for a baseball player or shooting free throws for a basketball player — the essentials. We do it again and again and again and again and again.

It provides a great deal of insight into students’ thinking as well. Sometimes those insights are sobering.

Two things here: first, I’m more than a little worried that this student made the connection with ET in this text. He included it in his summary as well, and I asked him some questions about it.

Look again — does it make sense for an article talking about a hurricane suddenly to switch to a movie? What exactly did it say about the film?

His connection to the film makes me wonder if he was reading closely at all. After all, it talks no where about the film, obviously. The fact that it comes directly after “11 p.m.” makes me wonder if he was thinking critically at all. After all, even an eighth grader who is severely lacking in background knowledge knows what “11 p.m.” means, right?

The second concern didn’t strike me as all that unusual, and yet for that, it seems all the more frightening. “This child doesn’t know what the Caribbean is,” I almost said out loud, shortly followed with the thought, “like most on-level eighth graders.” It’s a sign of the huge gap in cultural literacy that so many kids today have compared to earlier generations. I would wager that many kids in my eighth-grade class wouldn’t be able to place the Caribbean on a map, and some might not have even known it was a sea, but they would at least know it’s a body of water.

This is not intended as a gripe about how kids today have so much less background knowledge, are so much less broadly culturally informed. The same could have been said about us, undoubtedly. At the same time, it’s an indication of how that marker keeps being moved every generation.

 

Random Fidget

The Girl apparently is anxious to get one — they’re all the rage at her school. Everyone’s got one, and they’re so fun.

It’s the same at our school — the now-ubiquitous fidget spinner. They’re marketed as aids for kids with attention issues and hyperactivity issues. Supposedly they’ll help these kids to focus by giving them a little outlet for their hyperactivity.

What ends up happening, though, is that the kids who have them become fixated on them. They’re just another in a long line of distractions that keep them from staying focused for more than a few moments. The kid in the front row who can’t keep his eyes on his work for more than two seconds now has to contend with this little gadget in his hand and, when he starts sharing it, who’s got it and when he can get it back.

A similar trend (in our school anyway) is the fight with the eternally-in earbuds.

“Take the earbuds out,” I tell a student.

“You tell me that every day,” he says.

Not only that, but I’ve referred the matter to the administrator a couple of times and he’s sat in ISS (probably with his earbuds in ) — but every day, there they are again.

What do these to things have in common? Simple: they’re symptoms of the current generation’s need to be constantly stimulated with something.

L is starting to develop those symptoms as well. She loves to have something playing on her little CD player at all times. She wants to read with it on, do homework with it on, color with it own, play on her tablet with it on. However, what she’s playing on it is somewhat different than what the kids walking down our hallways have blaring into their heads. (How much rap can you take before you go insane? How much misogynistic, materialistic machismo can you listen to before you realize how empty it is?) No, no music for the Girl: she’s always listening to a recorded book.

 

Back to School

I’ve had enough experience teaching now to realize that my worries about returning to school after spring break — potential laziness, potential mutiny, potential problems of every sort — are almost always unfounded. The first week back is almost always painless. But it’s busy, getting used to the schedule again.

This week was the last week before testing. Our school has decided to do the state-mandated testing a little differently this year, and I applaud the decision. Instead of having a week of eighth-grade testing, where we test day after day after day (math, then English, then science, then social studies), followed by a week of seventh-grade testing and a third week of sixth-grade testing (divided by grade because we still don’t have enough Chromebooks for the whole school to test at the same time), we’re testing one day a week for four weeks. Next week we begin, and once those four weeks of testing are over, the school year is almost over. Perhaps that’s what makes the transition from spring break always a bit easier: we all know we have that final push until the big break.

After talking to Babcia

It’s also the time of year that students who are at risk of failing a given class — students who throughout the whole year have usually done very little other than disrupt class — decide they might want to try to do something to save themselves. There’s always one or two who don’t, and they usually move on the ninth grade anyway through this or that administrative and summer school magic. I’m not putting down our school: it’s a phenomenon that occurs throughout the country, I suspect. But I do have mixed feelings about it.

Morning snack

On the one hand, what will keeping these students back accomplish? It’s not like they’re going to behave any differently if they repeat. Because our district — perhaps state? never cared enough to check into it — has a policy that a child cannot fail two years, they’re just going to get pushed on, and if they have already been held back, they know they can’t be held back again, which probably prompts a lot of the apathetic behavior. (Students have told me, “I’ve already failed one grade: you can’t hold me back again.”)

Getting things in the ground

On the other hand, isn’t this just teaching them a wonderful lesson for the future? “I can do nothing and still succeed!” What happens to them when they get to high school and the rules change? I’ve told several students over the years, “When you get to high school and fail freshman English, they don’t say, ‘Well, he was close. Let’s give it to him.’ They say, ‘Try again.’ And if it looks like you’re going to fail a second time, they don’t say, ‘Well, he’s already failed once. Let’s move him on.’ They say, ‘Nope. Try a third time.'” And by then, they’re old enough to drop out, and they do. What happens to them when they try to keep a job with that kind of thinking? In short, they don’t. They can’t.

Proof that it’s shaping up to be a good day

So this is the time of year all of this swirls through my head, and I find myself thinking about my own responsibilities. It’s much easier for me, regarding paperwork and the like, just to move the kid on as well. It’s much easier for me to make my class almost impossible to fail. I think to myself, “They’re still kids: they’ll grow out of it.” But I look around at some millennial young adults and find myself thinking, “Well, maybe not.”

It’s also the time when thoughts and plans for summer are solidifying. This time last year I was getting a little nervous about the huge project that was looming on the horizon. I didn’t know what all was behind the walls, what all awaited us. And now I know what’s behind the walls because I put it there, and the only thing that awaits us in the kitchen is a bright, open space now.

But plans are just that, and now it’s time to get planting, get mowing, get weeding — all the joys of spring that just leave you exhausted but strangely satisfied.

And time to play guitar with your neighbor.

Turn Around

Dear Terrence,

What a turnaround you’ve had these last two weeks. If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it. (That’s not quite true: I would have believed it because I’ve seen it happen before, but not often. Not often enough, for certain: such kids are certainly outliers.) For the year to date, your Class Dojo positive behavior percentage has been right around 45%, which means you’re a negative influence on the class the majority of the time.

I’m not quite sure you realize the extent of your behavior. You couldn’t go more than a minute or two without talking to someone — and that’s not hyperbole but probably an understatement if anything. You turned in absolutely nothing for most of the year. When I ran a missing assignment report for the year to date a few weeks ago, you were missing 45 assignments, to go along with your 45% percent, I guess. At that point, I couldn’t have possibly given you more than 50 or 55 assignments, so that means you hadn’t turned in 85-90% of your work. Your grade was abysmal as well.

Then two or three weeks ago, something happened. What exactly, I really don’t know. Perhaps your mentor finally said something that really made an impact. Perhaps our counselor, who’s been pushing you all year, finally said something that made an impact. I’m afraid it wasn’t I who said something that made an impact because, I’m a little ashamed to admit, I had all but given up on you. You have to understand: I have 120 students. I can’t expend all my energy on one at-risk kid, and there comes a time when I have to say to myself, “I can keep going after this kid, which hasn’t worked for three-quarters of the year, or I can take that energy and apply it to that kid, who really has shown some growth.” Finite resources and all. So it wasn’t I, I’m afraid, but someone said or did something, and you’ve been a different person since then.

Last week, you turned in your article of the week and worked as hard as I’d ever seen you work. Sure, you didn’t turn in one assignment, but you did turn in two. That’s a vast improvement right there. Then there was that surprising Dojo percentage: 79%. I was shocked. You probably were, too.

Last weekend, I was wondering: “Will Terrence make it two weeks in a row or will things go back to normal?” Tuesday you approached me and said, “Mr. S, I left my article of the week at home, so I won’t be able to work on it as my bell ringer.” Wednesday, when you walked in the building and passed where I had hall duty, you waved your article at me: “Got it today!” You did your work; you set a good example. And that Dojo percentage? 90%. I like to frame things in reference to things you guys get, so I made the obvious parallel to basketball: “Think of that, Terrence: if you’re shooting 90% from the field and I’m your coach, I’m going to make sure you get paid whatever you have to get paid to stay on our team, and I’m going to tell the rest of the players, ‘Just carve out a little space for him and give him the ball. He’ll do the rest.'” That smile was unforgettable: “I know, right!?”

The truth is, Terrence, it’s not just in basketball that that 90% will get you whatever you dream of. Just about anywhere will work.

This week, it was an honor to have you in class. I can’t say I’ve always felt that way, though. Here’s hoping we both keep bring our A-game for the rest of the school year.

Impressed and still smiling,
Your Teacher

Optional

Dear Terrence,

When did a response to “Good morning” become optional? When did manners become a matter of personal preference?

For you, considering all that has passed between us, my behavior likely seems two-faced. You think, “Here he is trying to be all nice to me, and when I get to class, he’s going to be on my back about everything.” That’s not an accurate interpretation of my behavior, though. You see, I won’t deny a simple fact: despite the fact that your behavior often is the most irritating aspect of my entire day, despite the fact that your behavior disrupts the whole class, despite the fact that your behavior often descends into outright disrespect (never mind the fact that disruptive behavior is itself disrespectful) regardless of how politely I redirect you, and despite the fact that some of your behavior seems downright spiteful, I try to approach each day as if it were the first day you and I ever encountered each other. I try to give you the benefit of the doubt each and every day. In short, I try to start fresh daily.

It seems only fair. You are, after all, only a kid. Your personality and behaviors have not completely congealed, and there’s always hope that you will mature during the school year and come out the other side a different kid. It does happen. And so I want to foster that possibility, however remote, in your behavior by starting anew every morning, and the simplest way I can do that is simply saying as cheerfully as I can muster without sounding false, “Good morning.”

Ironically, this type of behavior extends even into the adult world. There have been plenty of times, in both my teaching career and in other jobs I’ve held, that I’ve come to work with a sore spot for some colleague or other. It’s hard to leave it all behind, and sometimes that sore spot gets irritated just by seeing that person, and the last thing in the world I want to do is to be cheerful and polite. But that’s part of the game. It’s not being false or two-faced to hide those true feelings; it’s called being professional. It’s called being an adult, realizing that these little rituals like “Good morning” are just that, rituals that really mean nothing more than “I acknowledge your existence this morning.” True, it is a shortened form of an older greeting, “I wish you a good morning.” But even my worst enemies I wish a good morning: if things are going well for them, they’re not likely to take anything out on me.

So let’s try this again. I’ll say “Good morning, Terrence,” and you say, “Good morning, Mr. Scott.” And we both know we’ve started our day off with each other on a positive note.

First practice is tomorrow morning.

Kindest regards,
Your Teacher

Body Language

Dear Terrence,

The fact today that you didn’t know your body language was so disrespectful — not to mention your tone — is only mildly surprising. What is more unexpected was the question you asked next, though it shouldn’t have been.

“You’re going to tell me that my body language is disrespectful even when it’s not my intention?”

To begin with, I’m impressed with that construction. That you would use the word “intention” like that — for some reason, it was surprising. Perhaps that’s because of the way you’ve spoken for the rest of the year.

But more surprising was the fact that you didn’t know that body language can be disrespectful without intention. I work hard to teach my own children just such things: there are things you can say and do that, even though you don’t mean disrespect, show disrespect. In the matter of disrespect, especially when dealing with people in positions of authority over you, it’s the question of interpretation that is often more important than the question of intention.

I don’t think you realized what your body was doing, though, because it’s hard to imagine someone sitting as you sat without realizing how much disrespect you were communicating as I spoke to you.

  • First of all, you were slouched down in your chair. This communicates a lack of effort, that you don’t even care to sit up and pay attention. It suggests you’re just enduring the current moment.
  • Next, you had your elbow on the table with your hand resting on a balled fist. A balled fist always suggests aggression. And having your head down like that communicates, “You are so exhausting me with this nonsense…”
  • Most tellingly, your facial expressions exuded disrespect. There was that scowl: eyebrows slanted downward, a frown. Your nostrils flared occasionally as well.
  • There was also your inability (or unwillingness) to make even cursory eye contact. Refusing to look at someone who is talking to you is about as disrespectful as you can get. It’s also a little immature.

I only mentioned your body language, but there were other non-verbal cues that suggested disrespect.

  • Your tone of voice when you mustered an occasional, monosyllabic response was edged with anger and contempt.
  • Your continual tooth sucking — don’t know what else to call it, so I’ll call it what you call it — suggests that you would say something to me but it’s not worth my time. You start to take the breath to speak, then realize I’m not worth it, and open your mouth to let the now-unneeded breath out.

To your credit, when I pointed all this out to you, you began slowly to change. You sat up, you made a bit of eye contact, and you stopped sucking your teeth.

But here’s the big problem: when you do this with me, I take this to be another teaching moment. It’s tiring, that’s for sure: “Here I go again, having to teach kids things they should already know by this age, things that have nothing to do with my subject matter.” But still, though I feel overworked with such issues, I see it as my job. I teach in order to prepare you for the future, and sometimes, interpreting figurative language seems the least significant subject matter for your success. However, you will soon encounter people who are not interested in teaching you these things, not interested in even dealing with it. These people will probably have the ability to make your life very miserable very quickly. I’m talking about bosses, and they’ll fire you in such a situation.

I know that’s meaningless to you. You say things like, “I’ll just get another job.” Unfortunately, getting other job when you’ve lost one is not like getting another pencil from you next teacher when you’ve lost it in the previous class.

I hope we can get this habit of yours under control before you head off to high school (there are teachers there who will treat you like the aforementioned boss), but even if we can’t, I hope we’ll continue making progress.

Regards,
Your Teacher

Crossing

Dear Terrence,

I know some of the materials — most of the materials — I give you are merely crossing your desk. I stand here at the hole punch, making three even holes in these Frayer diagrams, preparing them for a long and lustrous life in your binder, but I understand that this paper, like so many others, simply won’t make it there. You don’t have a pencil most days, and you often can’t remember your password to use our Moodle installation, so how can I expect you to keep up with a single sheet of paper? I just punch the holes out of habit, I suppose.

Yet it’s not asking that much. I’ve told you things like this before, but the only really significant thing that separates you from the kids in the “smart” class is not intelligence but habits. I have students in that class, Terrence, that can produce materials I gave them at the beginning of the year. I can say, “Get out the graphic organizer we used for project X because we’re going to add some things to it and reuse it for this project.” And a fair number of them — a majority, I would say — can produce the material in question. That’s why they’re in that class. They’re not smarter than you. They care to be organized, and they are, therefore, simply more organized than you.

For you, though, the materials just cross your desk and often end up in the floor. It’s like so many things in your life . Even your housing situation seems to be just crossing the arc of your life: you don’t speak of living somewhere, only staying. So with so many things in flux in your life, its little wonder that this too is in flux. It seems like yet another example of non-curriculum skills we need to be teaching you, but in the age of testing, testing, testing, it just seems to fall through the cracks for all of us as you guys are crossing through our classrooms on your way to the future. Perhaps we all just need to cross ourselves and try harder.

A bit cross with myself and with you, as well as frustrated,
Your Teacher

Gone

The Boy was playing CandyLand with K, and after he’d won the first game, he was eager to play another.

“I’m going to win again!” he proclaimed, and for a moment, it looked as if he were going to do just that. He shot ahead with double color after double color. Then K drew the gum drop and zoomed ahead.

“Oh, I’ll never win!” he proclaimed, frustrated.

“Yes, but you might draw another candy piece and move ahead, or Mama might draw the candy cane when you’re way past it and have to go back many, many spaces,” I reasoned. But as I often remind The Girl, there’s no reasoning with a four-year-old. He continued playing a bit halfheartedly. He drew a candy piece eventually, but K had shot so far ahead by then that his chances of winning really and truly were gone.

And with that loss, his desire to play was gone as well.

I remembered the whole time they played the new buzzword in education: grit. It’s really nothing more than perseverance in the face of difficulty and setback, but educators and researchers in education like new jargon. (I suspect it’s mainly from the latter.) And so “grit” is thrown around in education blogs and educator gatherings quite often these days. It was rewarding to see The Boy showing some of this perseverance. It took a good bit of encouragement, but he finished the game, learned the lesson (?), and we had a nice close to the afternoon.

The next night, The Boy and I are working with Legos. I was building a jail for him, and he was building a mystery. Not having a plan, he found the process a little slow-going and frustrating.

“I just can’t get it,” he fussed as he couldn’t get two pieces joined. He threw them down, and for just a moment, I thought the chances of a relaxing evening of Lego-ing were gone. But just for a moment. Seeing everything as a teaching opportunity — or at least trying to — I showed him how to get the pieces together, then pulled them apart and had him try again.

“I got it!”

Two opportunities to teach that could have disappeared but didn’t. The trick for me, though, is to transfer that to my students. Everything can be a moment to teach, a learning opportunity, for the at-risk kids in my charge. They lack social skills, patience, anger management methods, volume control, grit (there it is again), a growth mindset (another edu-speak jargon term that’s hot now). Every teaching moment can’t bloom — I’d never get to the curriculum some days. The balance must be there, but there’s so much they need before they’re gone off to high school…

Inspired by the Daily Post’s prompt of the day: Gone.

Motives

“I’m not putting it up.” The kid has a book bag on his shoulder at the start of fifth period — verboten in our school. “I told all the other teachers, too.”

How did this happen? How did no one come down on you like a ton of bricks for such insubordination? How come your mentor, who works in this building, didn’t say something? How come I’m making assumptions?

“Why?” I asked.

“Because my locker is beside Samuel’s locker, and it stinks, and every day my bookbag stinks, and I’m not going to have it stinking anymore.”

Do you not realize that most teachers are so imminently reasonable that they would find your reluctance reasonable and offer a solution? I explain this to him.

“Now, explain to me your problem just like I showed you.”

He does. I offer to let him lock his bookbag in my closet until we can work out a solution.

“Thank you,” he says on the way out.

That all problems could be so easily solved.

Curriculum

Three events today, happening within moments of each other, reminded me just what challenges some students in my class face, and how I am often really not teaching what I thought I would be teaching to thirteen-year-olds.

We’re working on a cross-curricular unit that incorporates Sean Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens as the anchor text. Since I’m the literature/reading teacher, the unit starts in my room. To make the process simpler and faster, as well as to hit more standards, I’ve designed a unit that includes a jigsaw reading of the article: independent groups read one chapter of the book, then present their chapter to others who read other portions of the book. Each group gets a habit.

I copied the book to make my life easier: we don’t have enough books for two classes to use them simultaneously, and because I have a class-set of Chromebooks due to an elective I teach, I told the other English teacher that I could just scan the book in for my students. I scanned them in two pages at a time, which meant that, because the first page of each chapter was on the right side of the page, there was always a page from the previous chapter as the first page. I knew it might be confusing for some, but I thought that most thirteen-year-olds could figure out that it must be part of the previous chapter, especially since I’d already shown the kids how to read the PDF versions of the novel: Left page, right page, scroll down; left page, right page, scroll down. When I found that some students were having trouble with that and were in fact treating the first page visible as the first page of their chapter, I was frustrated, disheartened even.

1-fullscreen-capture-11162016-50017-pm

Later, as I was moving around the room, I noticed some students having problems with Google Docs’ outline feature. It turned out that, instead of turning on the automatic-numbering outline feature, they were manually adding numbers — like it was just a typewriter instead of a computer. Since I had showed the students how to do this, since we had spent time working as a class, working as groups, working even as individuals with simple outlines, I thought everyone knew how to do it But if a student is not paying attention, if a student is more interested in most everything else other than what is being taught, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Yet it happens to these students time and time again, and they can never figure out why. What are the chances of someone who can’t pay enough attention to learn how to use a simple outline feature ever going to keep a job? Perhaps these students will learn some focus, but they’ve made it this far without paying attention: what’s in it for them to start now?

Finally, I had a vivid reminder of how poorly some of the students read. A student was struggling to figure out what to put as a sub-point in his outline. To his credit, he had figured out that the heading immediately above would be a main point and knew that something below it must be the sub-point. The first paragraph after the heading was short:

1-fullscreen-capture-11162016-50036-pm

“Synergy doesn’t just happen. It’s a process. You have to get there. And the foundation of getting there is this: Learn to celebrate differences.”

I sat down by the student and quickly assessed the problem. “Read the first paragraph under the heading,” I said. He read it. “Tell me something about ‘synergy’ from the paragraph.” “It’s a process,” he said after a moment’s hesitation. At this point, I was thinking that another helpful question or two and I’d be on my way. “And what is the foundation of that process?” He made a wild stab — something completely outside the text. “No,” I reminded him, “no, it must be in the text. It’s right there in the text.” Another wild stab. “Find the word ‘foundation’ in the text,” I instructed, growing a bit frustrated with my ineffectiveness. He found it. “And what does it say is the foundation? What’s right after it?” Another wild guess. I sat there, wondering what was going on in his head, wondering if he was seeing, what he was thinking, what even he was feeling.

This evening, I called the Girl to the computer and had her read the paragraph. “What is the foundation of synergy?” I asked. “It’s a process. You have to get there,” she began. “No,” I redirected, “one thing. It’s in the text.” She re-read, then said, “Learn to celebrate differences.”

I don’t say this to brag about our daughter. I point this out to show the level of reading of so many of my students, students who should have responded like L, for she is, according to testing, reading at about an eighth-grade level. The level my students should be reading at. What’s most frustrating about all of this is the shortsightedness of these same students. They don’t see how far behind they are — and how could then? They divide school into two, fatalistic groups: the smart kids classes and our classes.

Add to this all the students lacking social skills who need instruction in this simply to reach a state of mind in which they can functionally work with someone. No, that’s not even correct — to get them to the point that they can stand to be in the same group as someone they find irritating. Several students in my lowest level class are incapable of getting along with much of anyone. “He annoys me.” “She gets on my nerves.” “He’s a pain.” “We might fight.” So on top of basic reading, I have to try to teach them how to deal with each other. Given their fatalistic worldview, that’s nearly impossible. “When I’m mad, I just react. It’s just how I am.” For them, it’s as immutable a fact as the inevitability of tomorrow’s sunrise. There is nothing they can do to stop it. Is this laziness? Learned victimhood? Personality? Nature? Nurture? All the above?

It’s not that I’m feeling pessimistic about my chosen profession. I’m just not sure those who don’t teach, who don’t interact with such kids on a daily basis, really know the extent of the problem we face in the American education system today, and all too often, those very people are the ones making the decisions, about funding, about testing.

At the Dinner Table

We sit around a few tables during a planning period and talk about how to use the data we’ve received from this year’s fall MAP testing, a test which provides information about skill levels of our students. There’s a general score that summarizes everything called the RIT score. (I don’t know what it stands for.) That in turn can be correlated to grade levels by looking at national norms. For the longest time, eighth grade nation norms were 220 at the beginning of the year and 222 at the end. This year, the re-calculated norms have fallen three points. In addition, the data show that in a single, mixed-group classroom (something like science or social studies that is not grouped according to ability), a teacher can have a student reading at the kindergarten level and another reading at the level of a college sophomore, with all the other levels mixed in.

How does one teach a group like that?

There is a predictable corollary to that: the students who read at a second-grade level often behave on a second-grade level. Or perhaps worse, because they exhibit second-grade behavior in nearly-adult size bodies. A dangerous combination at times.

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At the dinner table, we talk about our day. L tells us the latest adventures with Timmy, a student who moved here recently from up north and has been seated in L’s group. He refuses to work. He’s mean to other students. He cursed at a teacher today. He flagrantly disobeys. I suggest that he’s probably acting out because he doesn’t want to be there, and he’s hoping his behavior will somehow get him moved back up north. It’s a fairly logical assumption. But here’s the thing: his behavior is affecting my child’s education. The teacher is having to take time out of instruction to deal with him.

“He’s even worse that Demarcus, and I thought he was bad.” Demarcus has been the subject of a few stories, and I’ve found myself thinking that I have a few older versions of him in my classes. Struggling in class. Unable to work and so entertains himself. It’s a common cycle, a chicken-egg mystery by the time they reach my classroom: does the behavior cause the low academic achievement or does the low academic achievement cause the behavior? It’s probably a bit of both.

I kept my story to myself and let E tell how Jameson picked a scab in class and now it will bleed forever. I love how he’s always trying to join in “adult” conversations. He aims, shoots, and hits the target but generally only grazing it on the side.

E’s problem is relatively insignificant; L and I, though, are facing the same issue from two different sides of the desk at two different ends of the same problem. What I can do as a parent is quite different than what I can do as a teacher.

But there’s a third role: citizen. This is an issue that is larger than just my school, L’s school, our district, our state. It’s likely the condition of the majority of schools around the country.

It’s hard not to be pessimistic about this reality.

First Impressions

Dear Teresa,

You caught my eye from the very first moment I walked into the room. You were sitting at the end of one of the two-seat tables your teacher uses instead of desks, talking to your friend. It was obvious you weren’t supposed to be there: the lab tables are designed for two people, not three. When I moved to the front of the classroom, clipboard in my head, obviously ready to take role, you didn’t move back to your seat. I hadn’t said anything earlier because I didn’t want to assume you were being anything other than a friendly student who knew when to move back to her seat. So your behavior from the beginning was something that called attention to you.

When I asked you to move to your seat, you insisted that that was your seat. I’m a patient man, and I thought that perhaps you were just being a typical playful seventh grader, so I calmly and politely repeated that you needed to move to your seat. When you again insisted that you were in your seat, I saw the whole interaction unfold before me. I knew you were going to be defiant. I knew you were going to show an attitude. I knew that you were going to be disrespectful. I knew all these things because I’ve seen people behave like you behaved many times, and I know the behaviors that lead up to it. As I stated, I had my eye on you from the moment I walked into class because of your behavior: you called attention to yourself immediately.

Now, what was most troubling about our interaction was when I asked you what your name was. I asked you, and you said nothing. I asked you again, and you were silent. Your rigid body language said plenty, though. It said, “I will not respond to you. I will not reply.” However, someone in the classroom said your name. The problem with that is simple: I wasn’t asking the question “What’s her name?” to the class. I was asking you, “What’s your name.” So when you didn’t answer, you were being defiant yet again. And when I kept insisting and you finally said, “You hear my name. You hear them telling you,” I knew we were close to the end.

It was our discussion in the hallway that sealed it. You refused to look at me. You answered in a very disrespectful tone. You huffed and puffed, smacking your teeth. You all but flipped me off with your behavior. Your behavior screamed profanity, screamed disrespect. I’m very sorry that you didn’t see that. I’m very sorry you didn’t realize the horrible things your body language was saying. However, it was at that moment that I knew there was no way to salvage the situation. I knew that, if you stayed in the room, you would not have a positive impact on the class. so I asked the administrator to take you out.

Look at the situation from my perspective: I come into your classroom during my planning period to cover for a lacking substitute teacher. I simply asked you to move to your seat. And from that, you have created a very strong and very negative first impression. Should I see your name on my role next year, it will be hard for me to start with a clean slate with you. However, that’s just what I’ll do, for two reasons: first, because I’m an adult. Simple as that. Second, I don’t know what happened to you this morning leading up to our encounter that might have soured your whole day. I don’t think I deserved for you to take it out on me, but still, you’re a kid, and kids often don’t have the cognitive and emotional mental tools yet to deal with such situations. (Truth be told, many adults don’t either.)

So I just wanted to let you know that, should you still be a student here next year, I’ll do my best to let that first impression side. But here’s the thing: if that’s how you always behave, you’ll quickly create that same first impression with every teacher in the eighth-grade hallway, and you’ll find yourself in situation after situation like the one you experienced today. You might say to that, “I don’t care,” and perhaps you don’t. That would be a tragedy. But I think you do care.

If you’d like some help learning how to make better first (and second and third) impressions, I’d be happy to help you out. Just let Ms. Smith know, and we’ll figure out something we can do.

Regards,
Your One-Period Sub

How Many?

They always seem a little surprised that I can do it. I strike up a conversation with a student before school, someone unknown, someone who’s caught my attention. We chat a bit, and then I ask the question: “If it’s not too forward, can I ask you how many referrals you got last year?” Today’s student, E, raised his eyes to the ceiling as he began count, but I didn’t let him continue. “It’s okay,” I explained. “The number is not the point. The question is the point.” He looked at me with a bit of confusion. “Did you notice I didn’t ask you, ‘Did you get any referrals last year?’ but rather, ‘How many referrals did you get?’, which is a different question entirely.” I paused. “Do you want to know how I knew you’d gotten referrals even though I’ve never seen you before in my life?”

Later, when E is in class with me, I recalled for the class, with his permission, the conversation. They were intrigued and asked if I could do it again.

“Really? You want me to put you on the spot like this?”

“Yes, we don’t mind!”

I pointed to a boy who had already been quite chatty. “You’ve gotten a few.” I pointed to a girl who, despite her best effort to hold it in, had displayed a bit of attitude. “You got a few.” I mentioned two or three other students, and I was not wrong with a single one of them.

“Do you want to know how I do it? Do you want to know why I can confidently say that I could walk down the all on other team and tell you who’d gotten referrals, that I could go up to the sixth grade hall and make bets on who would get referrals within a few weeks?” They all wanted to know, so I explained the simple fact: “You are constantly, constantly communicating. With everything you do.” I glanced around the classroom and created a list on the fly: “The way you’re sitting in your desk communicates,” I said to a young man who was slouched in his desk. “The way you carried on at the beginning of class, before we really got started, communicated,” I said to the girl who was arguing loudly at the start of the period. “The way you wear your clothes,” I said to a girl who obviously takes a great deal of pride in her physical appearance.

“Every little thing about every one of you communicates, some of it positive, some of it negative. Some of it you’re aware of; most of it, I would guess, you’re not aware of.” And so many of them are not. They don’t see that they’re communicating disrespect with their body language and get upset when a teacher calls them on out on it. They don’t see when they’re communicating apathy by the simple way that they hold themselves. They think they’re riddles wrapped in mysteries, but so much of it is just so obvious.

“Are you saying you know everything about us?” one girl asked.

“Certainly not. I’m only making inferences based on what I see, inferences based on past experiences. I don’t know why you all do the things you do.” That was a bit of a lie: I don’t know about the specifics for this or that student, but I know many of the contributing factors.

Every year, I have this same conversation. Every year, I have the same hope that I can help them change.