Tuesday, October 2, 2012

It's a new day; it's a new dawn and I'm feeling....

...pretty good.

The year has started out going really well (except for Yearbook, which I hate, but that's another post for another day).  The classroom management secrets that I figured out last year have made for a much better start to the year, in terms of letting the kids know my expectations.  The top 3?

  • Find the most obnoxious kid in the class and make that kid your best friend.
  • Kids will behave better if they genuinely believe that you care about them (that means setting expectations, sticking to them and letting them know they have your full support)
  • Inappropriate behavior:  Ignore 50%. laugh off 20%, talk to the kid privately 20%, call home 9%, write up 1% and only when all else fails.

I will also say that Admin is towing the hard line this year and it has made a huge difference.  This year there are absolutely no hats allowed in the building.  While this may seem like a small thing, it really makes a difference.  It avoids a million little opportunities to defy authority.  Before, this is what it looked like--  Kid knows he's not supposed to wear hat in the building.  Kid wears it anyway.  Teacher asks him to take it off.  He obliges, turns the corner, hat back on.  Another teacher asks him to take it off, lather, rinse, repeat.

I am also teaching "World Literature" as opposed to "American Literature."  While initially, I was really unhappy about this, there is quite a bit of freedom in it.  I hate the textbook.  It is full of what I call, "dead white guys" and the kids just don't relate to it.  Heck, I don't relate to it!  We haven't done much reading yet because I am focusing on writing for the SOL (more on that in a minute), but I have selected a few short stories to teach reading strategies that have been very successful. 

"The Last Spin" -- This is about 2 rival gangs who decide to settle a dispute by having one member from each play Russian Roulette.  In the course of the game, the two gang members realize they have much in common and admit to fear and discontent with gang life.  I always leave the last page out and make them write the ending.  By the way, their endings are often better than the real one.

"The Landlady" -- This is often read in middle school.  However,  I have such a wide range of reading levels and it is great to teach strategies such as making inferences, making predictions, and visualizing.  I won't say too much about this one because to do so would ruin it, but suffice it to say that it has a spooky and twisted element that students can't resist.

"Birthday Party"-- Truly a short story at only four paragraphs, it does such a great job of painting a picture of the setting, the events and the characters that it is awesome for teaching the importance of writing with vivid, sensory details.  It also makes for some great classroom discussions.  I loved hearing my kids hotly debate what they thought was going on. 

The last thing I want to talk about is the debate about standardized tests and merit-based pay.  The Colorado teachers strike brought some big issues to the forefront of America's conscious and I think ultimately was a very important step.  While I do agree there should be some way to evaluate how students are progressing, our current culture of standardized tests is not the solution.  Example:  in the same county where I teach there is a school largely populated by upper middle class families.  Their scores are excellent.  What is the difference?  Both schools have excellent facilities and basically the same amount of funding.  In fact, we have more funding due to a grant we were awarded two years ago.  Both schools have excellent teachers.  One of our teachers was Teacher of the Year not just for the county, but for the region.  The difference is the socioeconomic level of the students.

I can't even begin to explain all the ways this makes a huge difference in how students do in school.  If you aren't familiar with Maslow's Hierarchy of Need, read here about how not having basic survival and comfort needs met impact a student's behavior and performance.  Remember also, that while you may have the time and desire to work with your student, contact teachers, and bug your student to do his work, not all do or can.  It's not even an issue of not wanting to do those things in most cases.  Many of these parents are single parents, working more than one job, or struggling with other issues that just keep education from being the priority.  I also had a teacher friend point out that many parents are intimidated by the system, based on their own experiences. 

The point is, don't judge these parents because you have no idea what is going on in their lives or what they have been through.  After having only the parents of seven (out of 110) students show up for Back to School Night, I was really angry and depressed. However, I have decided this year to double my efforts in reaching out to parents early and often.  I have been delighted by how appreciative these parents are.  Many of them say that they hate that the first time they hear about a problem, it is "too late."  They care about their kids and want them to be successful, sometimes they just don't know where to start. 

This brings me back to standardized testing and merit based pay.  Merit based pay basically says that  successful performance as a teacher (and therefore in some cases, raises, if you are fortunate to work in a county where raises are an option, which I am not, sadly) is based on how students do on standardized tests and other state mandated gauges.  I get the logic behind it, but it is short sighted.  I can only control what happens for the time they are in my classroom, which ranges between 3 and 4.5 hours per week.  That's it.  What happens at home, what they choose to do outside the classroom, the million little and big choices that they make or their parents make impact their performance far more than anything I could ever hope to do.  Yet, I am held accountable. 

It's just wrong.

I don't know what the answer is, but my thought is that teachers and parents must be involved in this conversation and a massive overhaul of our educational system is needed to prepare these kids for the world they will face when they leave school.  Further, if a quality education becomes something that is only available to those who can pay to provide it, we are in deep trouble.  If you want to know what the state of education is, what we need, what can be done, ask a teacher.  I'm sure they will have many insights for you. 

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