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.

 

Approaching Strangers

On Tuesday, we begin my eleventh year teaching eighth graders. The kids I taught that first year are now in their mid-twenties, with jobs and families of their own. I think back to that first year and wander about some of them.

Samuel (not his real name), who had so much potential but was placed in a class that encouraged him to show his less savory characteristics. I think he could be a good defense attorney — not intimidated by anyone with a strong sense that justice is paramount. His sense of justice and fairness were a little skewed, but that’s fourteen-year-olds for you.

I think of Sarah Beth (also not her real name), who spent the first week or two in a daze because of an ADHD medication mis-dose and became such an energetic, focused leader in the class when all the details got sorted out. I can see her as a project manager, juggling a million different things and using her sweet but forceful personality to get things done.

Then there’s Requan (also not his real name). Last I heard, he was arrested for assaulting his mother. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s in prison now, and that’s tragic. I worked with him one-on-one a lot, trying to help him learn to control his anger and his impulses. He looked me straight in the eye like a man when I spoke to him like that, and there was a dim light in his eye that suggested he really did want to change. I still wonder if I could have done more.

This time eleven years ago, they were all strangers to me. I knew nothing about them, not even their name. Within a few weeks, I could predict their responses to certain things.

This time eleven years ago, the new batch of strangers I’ll soon be meeting were toddlers. Truth be told, so was I in the classroom. I had nine years’ experience as a teacher by then, but it was my first year as the primary teacher in an American classroom. It was all a little much, that first year — all the bureaucracy and paperwork, all the behavior issues I’d dodged, by and large, in Poland. I lacked experience despite my experience, confidence despite my confidence, and above all, resources. It’s a strange to admit it, but I honestly found myself wondering, “What exactly do I teach these kids?” Sure, there were state standards, but like any such documents, they lack specificity.

Now, I have experience, confidence, and I know just what to teach them — and often it’s not in the standards for eighth grade because so many read at below-grade levels. But there’s one thing that never changes: I’m always just a little nervous about this year’s kids.

This Year’s Kids Are Different

Every year, I heard the same thing. Probably every teacher hears it from their colleagues in the grade below them: “This group — whew! Prepare yourselves!” That makes those teachers sound horrible cynical, but in all fairness, we all feel that way at the end of the year. Frazzled and exhausted, we’re ready to get rid of the kids no matter how much we love them. I know this because every year someone says, “This group coming up!” I end up thinking, “Well, they weren’t nearly as problematic as your comment suggested.”

This year, though, I’ve heard something for the first time: “This year’s kids are different. You won’t have nearly the same issues you’ve had in previous years.” The careful part of me wants to be, well, careful — not get my hopes up. Expect the worst and all that. But after meeting them during open house tonight (they’re still strangers: “You know I’ll just forget your name by tomorrow,” I said countless times), I think there might be something to that.

We can always hope.

The End, 2017 Edition

Last year, one of the teachers on our team was a novice. Like all new teachers, she began the year with a little trepidation and a lot of excitement. When the year ended and students were walking off the eighth-grade hallway for the last time, she got a little teary.

“You going to get all sentimental this year,” I asked a few days ago.

“No,” she replied quickly.

It’s a common enough reaction: that first year, watching the kids leave and knowing you won’t see them again, you feel a little sinking feeling. They’re your kids, your first kids. The ones that taught you more about teaching than any class in college ever did. You fall in love with them in a way: they’re special, even the ones who drive you crazy. And when they leave, you’re not quite sure you’ll ever have kids that you feel so warmly about, kids quite like this. After a year or two, though, you see that the next batch of kids comes in and replaces the old batch. You can’t even recall many names from the last year without stopping to concentrate on the task. And you feel just the same way about this group as you did last year’s.

It’s then that you stop being quite so sentimental about it all–and all teachers, no matter how cynical or burned out they are now, were sentimental about teaching at one point–and realize, yes, you will have kids just like this next year.

There will be another Susan, whose loud and constant talking drives you nuts but who seems to have a potential about her that she herself doesn’t even fully realize.

You will have another Albert, who sometimes can’t foresee the consequences of his actions or the implications of his body language and so comes across sometimes as being quite a disrespectful child.

Another Amelia will sit among your students, seeming always to be enveloped in a happiness that spreads to all around her.

There will be another Chester, who has poor physical and social coordination and tries to make it up by showing off intellectually.

Another Davonte will dance through our door and then proceed to do nothing. Ever.

Every student you have this year will come back next year–and the next, and the next, and the next–with a different name, a different face, but the same basic personality. Or with a similar face and different name and radically different personality. Or any and all combinations of those three, hardly exhaustive possibilities.

For a teacher, it’s not the end. It never is, until you quit teaching.

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.

 

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

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

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.

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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:

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“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.

Twenty Years Ago

Twenty years ago, I was only a couple of months into my big adventure of teaching English in Poland. I came home from school and wrote this:

I had a bit of a run-in with Agnieszka today. While arranging the new seating today she got rather rebellious. She refused to sit with Greg because “I don’t like him.” She plopped down beside Iwona and didn’t acknowledge me at all. At first I was polite: “Please, move over there.” When she did nothing, I became a bit mad, for she was forcing me into a power struggle. “I’m not asking now, I’m telling: move to that seat.” She did nothing. I knew the critical moment had arrived: if I said nothing and let her sit there, I would have lost a major portion of my classroom control. If I continued in that fruitless way, I would have made a fool of myself. So I did the only think I could think of: “Could I speak to you in the hall?” I asked/demanded.

“Why are you making this a difficult situation?” I asked. We talked about it and reached a compromise. I explained to her the situation her stubborn belligerence (redundant) had put me in. And I told her that at the same time I didn’t want anyone to be uncomfortable unnecessarily. So we reached a compromise, but in the end I still lost a great deal of credibility.

I should have handled it differently.

I wish I could say that, twenty years on, I don’t have these moments. Twenty years later, I’ve learned something. Twenty years on, I’m not repeating myself.

I wish I could say that, but I can’t.

Preconceptions

Every year, my students begin Romeo and Juliet with certain preconceptions, both about the play and about the character of Romeo. It’s a Shakespeare play, they reason. Shakespeare’s hard to read, noble and magnanimous and all that. He writes about noble ideas, noble dilemmas, high-minded philosophy. They don’t expect it when the play starts out and within a few lines, characters are saying things like this:

GREGORY

The quarrel is between our masters and us their men.

SAMPSON

‘Tis all one, I will show myself a tyrant: when I
have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the
maids, and cut off their heads.

GREGORY

The heads of the maids?

SAMPSON

Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads;
take it in what sense thou wilt.

GREGORY

They must take it in sense that feel it.

SAMPSON

Me they shall feel while I am able to stand: and
’tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.

I take them through the text enough to get them to realize that these two characters, like Donald Trump, are fond of locker room talk that involves suggestions of sexual assault. (No, I don’t bring in the politics, but the thought crossed my mind to make the connection at least today.) I don’t point out to them what Sampson really means when he says, “Me they shall feel while I am able to stand,” but I suspect some of them get it.

Then there’s Romeo: He’s going to be a good guy, they reason, because the play is the most famous love story of all time, and the most famous love story of all time can’t possibly have anything other than the ideal man in it. So we begin reading and find this passage in response to Benvolio’s queries about what exactly is making Romeo’s days so long:

Well, in that hit you miss: she’ll not be hit
With Cupid’s arrow; she hath Dian’s wit;
And, in strong proof of chastity well arm’d,
From love’s weak childish bow she lives unharm’d.
She will not stay the siege of loving terms,
Nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes,
Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold:
O, she is rich in beauty, only poor,
That when she dies with beauty dies her store.

“How has Romeo tried to win her?” I ask. We mark the text and make a list.

“She will not stay the siege of loving terms?” I ask, and the students figure it out.

“He’s used smooth words.”

“Nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes?” I ask, and the students get it.

“He’s been making eyes at her.”

“Good. Finally, ‘Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold’?” Here they stumble.

“Money?”

“No — how do guys use gold to win girls?”

Finally, someone gets it: “Oh, jewelry!”

“Right!” Then the question — should I pursue the issue further? Should I lead them to see just exactly what Romeo’s saying here? Some years, I don’t. This year, I did.

“And what about the rest of the line?”

They look at each other quizzically.

“What do you think he means by ‘ope’?” I ask.

“Open?” a student suggests.

“Correct. Now, she will not ‘ope her lap to saint-seducing gold’?” I see in some of their eyes that they’ve got it, so I suggest what I suggest every year. “We’ll have to behave as adults in this unit and not giggle and be immature about some of the topics. So what’s he saying?”

They get it. They’re mildly shocked. The girls are a little angry and disappointed that this supposed hero of the greatest love story of all time is a fairly typical male and simply trying to get Rosaline in bed — to spread her legs, literally.

“Nothing ever changes,” one student observes.

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The Girl tonight hit on her own preconceptions and battled them mightily. Beans are nasty. She’s decided that already. Of course, at her age, I’d decided the same thing about a lot of things, most beans as well. But we have a rule in our house as Nana and Papa had when I was growing up: you have to try everything. In L’s case, it was about three bites of beans.

We jokingly took a picture with a time-stamp (that’s in fact illegible) to see how long it took her to eat them. Although she didn’t have to sit at the table the whole time, she had her final bite around ten minutes before bedtime.

I remember doing the same thing.

Nothing ever changes.

Curve

Recently, our school district changed its grading scale for all high schools and middle schools, switching from a seven-point scale to a ten-point scale. In the past, the lowest A one could get would be a 93; now it’s a 90. Not a big change at the top end of the scale. But by the time you get to the bottom, it’s ten points. To pass with the old scale, you had to get a 70; now, it’s a 60. There was a grading floor of 61 with the old scale — the lowest grade a teacher could give was 61. That’s now a D. The new grade floor is a 50, which is the lowest F as well. In other words, a student can do absolutely nothing for an assignment and be 10 points from passing.

How does that affect the overall curve? When I put my quarter’s grades into the handy-dandy spreadsheet I use to calculate the letter grade spread of the class, I realized that I hadn’t updated the look up table that determines whether grade X is an A or a B, and so before I updated that table, I saved the old version for comparison.

A B C D F
16 33 39 46 33 26 17 21 34 13

It more than doubles the number of A’s and cuts by almost 67% the number of F’s. On the bright side, look how much better kids these days are doing!

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Mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, a lot of the people getting D’s now instead of F’s might need a bit of a confidence boost that finally not failing might give some of them.

On the other hand, most all of the students who have F’s have them because they don’t complete a significant number of assignments. It’s not that they’re trying, struggling, and failing — they’re not even make it past the “r” in “trying,” let alone the rest of the sentence. So what does this teach them?

I can’t help but feel that this is just another example of trying to rig the system so that the results look better. How do we decrease the number of high school drop-outs? Lowering the standards for passing might be one way. But in the end, what does that do?

Locker

It’s really not always been a pleasant task, morning duty. I stand by my doorway, keeping an eye on the kids in the morning as they head out to their lockers in shifts (girls, boys, then late-comers) and keep an eye on my room as well. In some years, it’s been horrific: because of the fact that the lockers for my class are, logically, more or less by my door, I’m surrounded by my homeroom class, and when it’s a class that’s challenging, it’s exhausting. There’s misbehavior in the hallway; there’s misbehavior in the classroom — watching one means neglecting the other.

This year, though, I have a class of high achievers for my homeroom, which always means few if any behavior issues. And just outside my door, one of the sweetest students I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching has her locker. She always, always is in a good mood, and it’s evident in everything she does.

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Today I mentioned to her that I’d noticed that and really appreciated it.

“Are you always in a good mood?” I asked.

“Pretty much.”

“Why?”

“I see other people happy, and it makes me happy.”

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Other people’s joy makes her joyful. Such a radical notion, it seems, when you’re jaded with the behavior of some of they challenging students, students who have such warped worldviews that it’s difficult to believe it took only thirteen years to reach that level fatalism.

“Other people’s happiness makes you happy,” I said as I headed back into my classroom to get a paper for an student. “That’s beautiful.”

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

Planning Help

My students are about to embark on a paired-down version of the short story project I’ve been using for years. Paired down is hardly accurate: it’s radically changed. Instead of reading The Tell-Tale Heart and writing three analytic paragraphs about it, they’re adding on to something they did earlier this year. More choice. Less grading. Seems like a win-win situation.

Less is sometimes more for everyone.