Monday, April 30, 2012

Where a Poke is a Bag

Another student work sample from one of my really talented poets. I got this activity from Linda Christensen's Reading, Writing, and Rising Up by way of my wonderful high school English teacher.

Where I come from everyone has a truck,
There is always work to be done.
Where you judge by actions not appearances.
Biscuits and gravy is a famous meal.

The food is homemade and made from scratch
and the towns are small
Where ever'body knows everybody.
When the weather is nice
Everyone drives a classic.

Money isn't given, it's earned
By the work of your hands and sweat of your brow
Where respect is easier to lose than earn.

Where the flag is flown high
And in God we trust and we believe.
Where the mountains are home
During deer season.

Where are come from guns are owned with pride
And we dare the government to take them
Where you warsh dishes, worship the Lord,
And your neighbor lives down the holler.
Where I come from a poke is bag.

Does Student A have some things to learn about active voice? Sure. But that sort of self-reflection of home language at fourteen impresses the heck out of me.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Dear First Block

Dear First Block,

You know a lot of things about me. You know that I before I came to you all, I worked with elementary students who didn't speak English as their first (or maybe even second) language. You know that I also worked in an alternative high school for students who couldn't make traditional high school work for them. You know that from that place, I found out the importance of dialogue and teaching behavior just as often as I teach English. You know that I had planned to spend this weekend not thinking or doing anything school-related. But, if you've been paying attention as we've been getting to know each other this semester, you know that committing myself to forty-eight hours of not thinking about work wasn't likely to happen.

I keep thinking about you all and what needs to change for us. I think about our discussion in our community meeting about how I'm "mean" for expecting you to sign in and out to leave the classroom. I think about how I'm "unfair" for "yelling" at the wrong person for talking. I think about how hard it has been for many of you to take responsibility for your actions and realize that answering someone's question is still talking and that asking you to be quiet and raising my voice are two very different responses -- one of which happens pretty infrequently.

I also keep thinking about how many of you insisted that your other teachers let you leave class whenever you feel the need to, take late work even after the grading period ends, and aren't bothered by people up out of their seats for no apparent reason or pens becoming missiles. I checked with those teachers and they said they don't do those things. These all seem like normal teenage behavior, but that doesn't mean we have to accept it. We have to grow.  I feel like you all have taken advantage of my willingness to engage in discussions about our classroom community.

So, we're going to try something new. Tomorrow, two eleventh grade students who used to struggle with finding their place at school are going to come talk to you about how they behave in the class after yours and how rewarding and enriching they find that community because of everyone's choices to engage and work hard. Another teacher is going to come observe our class for a week and hand out detentions that will not be like when I ask you to stay after to talk about behaviors that are creating problems for you. We're going to see if you can start to frame your choices as yours if you see that other adults find similar issues with your talking and disrespect.

I'm not giving up on you or the power of dialogue in a classroom, but you're going to have to earn our community meetings back. I've recently realized that my classroom management philosophy comes out of my desire to teach habits rather than procedures when it comes to respectful, professional behavior. I think you all do not need to get in the habit of making your voices heard; you need to get in the habit of making them heard constructively. That's going to require some quiet time to think to yourself.

I know I seem mean and that it is hard to see how learning these behaviors now will benefit you in the future.  I hope that some day you will come to understand that I've given you this information and these expectations because I really care.

Ms. T

P.S. Cabin in the Woods was hilarious. I don't know what y'all were talking about.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The best student gift so far?

Nine beautiful trout -- gutted, but not cleaned and brought on a teacher workday. They're in the freezer waiting for me to be able to stand up long enough to stuff them with local spinach and goat cheese. Thanks, T.!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

It's Okay to Ask Them to Stop Talking

The book about my first-year of teaching might be called It's Okay to Ask Them to Stop Talking. The other contender is a gem uttered in first block this week: I Wasn't Talking. I Was Just Telling Him What He Could Get at McDonald's for Four Dollars. That one might be too long.  

 It may seem really simple and obvious, but something occurred to me at the end of last week talking to my mentor: It's my job to ask students to be quiet and respectful. It's not personal. I don't need to be angry. I just need to do my job.

"Duh, Maggie," says you.

But this realization has been a long time coming for me. I've tried a lot of strategies to get students to behave professionally and to understand why they need to. I've invested in their social and emotional learning just as much as their content knowledge. For those of you who know me in the real world, it will come as no surprise to know that I've thought about this a lot. Maybe I've over-thought it. So much of the literature first-year teachers are encouraged to read emphasize plans and procedures and rules. These tools can be helpful, but more helpful to me is a mindset.

The past week, the first with this mindset, went really smoothly. On Tuesday, one kid in first block got his warning and knew that if he showed disrespect again, he'd be sent to the office. He's fourteen and he couldn't help talking. That's okay. His brain isn't developed. My job is to help him as he grows and learns, so I sent him to the office saying the following, "This is where we are in your discipline plan right now. It's not the end of the world. Talking out of turn is just something you need to go work on." And it worked. He talked to the wonderful ninth grade assistant principal, got a consequence in after-school detention, and came back ready to work the rest of the week. I think this new mindset is going to make my work a lot less stressful.

I still have a couple of kids in first block who love to talk, especially about inappropriate topics, because they love attention. Two boys from that class came to me to ask me to send those two kids out more often. I felt gratified that those boys felt comfortable coming to talk to me about it, and I knew they were right. Both of the kids who are asking for attention just need to go talk to an administrator about how to seek attention in a healthy way. It's my job to get them there.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive

Thanks for all the Facebook, e-mail, and real life love, friends! As one teacher friend reminded me, I'm still doing good things in my classroom and I should make sure to celebrate those, too. The other day, a student opened up to me about some tough stuff. I felt really honored that she felt like she could trust me just to talk. Another left me this great note before we left for Spring Break (on one of the cards we generally use to send good news home to parents):

Ms. Thornton,
You are the best ever. You might be groutchy (sic) some days, but that's okay. I forgive you. :) If I could send this to your mommy I would. I'm sure she would be proud to know you're amazing. I <3 U!! Oh, and have a good spring break!

Isn't that lovely? I'm so blessed by so many of my students! Today in eleventh grade, we read children's books to learn about Transcendentalism. They sat in a circle around my chair and we discussed some of the class and gender issues with the movement. Tomorrow we're reading "Song of Myself" and then writing a "Song of Ourselves" to hang up in the hallway. I love that we can be playful and creative in that class!

I also think it's worth pointing out that this is the second semester in a row where my smallest class is also my highest achieving and most fun. Anecdotal, sure, but there it is.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Spring Break(ing my foot)

My classroom blogging adventures began when I broke my foot last October. Things might heat up again around here because I refractured the thing while hiking too far in one day (applause, please). I don't know if it's the moderate amount of pain, the first day back from spring break, or the countdown the students all have going on till summer (thirty-six days, y'all), but today was rough.

My students talk over top of me and each other. A lot. This semester, my ninth graders are much worse than my eleventh graders, but that wasn't the case last semester. Today, after fourth block left, I found a note complaining that I yell all the time. Now, a certain amount of "all the time" can be attributed to teenage hyperbole, but I can't say I've never raised my voice in our classroom. I'm human, as my CI from grad school still helps me to remember. And as a human, I'm getting fed up with some students making inappropriate jokes, yawning in my face, and talking whenever they can find a space.

I've tried a lot of things -- talks in the hallway, staying after to help

students come up with plans to focus more, a few whole-class discussions about why the amount of chatting is a problem. I've had some success, but I remain really frustrated. I know I could be authoritarian and send kids who are repeat offenders to the office. They also seem to quiet down when I do some sort of direct instruction. So, I could just lecture all of the time. Neither of those options seem particularly appealing to me. I want a classroom where students learn to think and act critically but also show respect while doing so. This desire proves to be a tall order.

While hashing things out with some of my wonderful, wonderful colleagues, I mentioned the community meetings I've been trying on Friday where we air things out and try to

figure out how to make the next week better. One of my fellow teachers said this could be a problem. That she wants her students to express their opinion when it comes to content, but that she never wants them to have a say in classroom management. I think that line of thinking makes a lot of sense to a lot of teachers. Someone else pointed out you wouldn't voice a major concern in a faculty meeting, you'd go to the administrator in question to discuss issues.

But I just can't see myself teaching in that sort of classroom. I want students to feel empowered and to find a voice at school so they don't hate it and drop out or not get anything from it. I also want my students to show respect toward each other and me. Are these desires that at odds or have I just not figured out how to get them there yet?

Monday, April 2, 2012

I am R-U-N-N-O-F-T

By this time tomorrow, I'll be in the wilds of Appalachia to celebrate spring break. Y'all be good and enjoy these lovely words from Edward Abbey:

"May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottoes of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you -- beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.”

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Kony in the Classroom

Everyone managed to finish Things Fall Apart despite our previous problem at least well enough to pass the test. I combined a take-home multiple choice test I brazenly borrowed from the internet along with an idea of Carol Jago's. She has students write poems in parts as one way to respond to literature. We dusted off Greg Orr's "Gathering the Bones" together and reminded ourselves of what good poems do (I had a lot of questions about rhyming, sadly). They then wrote their own-seven part poems that summed up some of the major themes and characters of Things Fall Apart and the work most of them turned in was both creative and accurate. I especially loved one student's re-writing of the theme song from Fresh Prince.

After they finished their tests, we watched Invisible Children's video about Joseph Kony. I know you readers out in internet-land have access to Teh Google and probably saw the video before I did, so I'll spare you a summary. Then we read some of the criticism about Invisible Children's methods and discussed if how privilege affects our way of understanding problems and possible solutions. One kid at the end asked what did any of this have to do with Things Fall Apart since it deals with Nigeria and Kony was most active in Uganda (points to that kid for knowing the difference!). Another student piped up that they were both about the ways in which Europeans cut up boundaries without understanding what's going on with the people who actually live there.

Livin' the dream, y'all. Livin' the dream.