Friday, February 29, 2008

Teaching With No Allies

One of the difficulties with teaching teenagers, is that they have minds of their own. If a student doesn’t feel like completing assignments, there’s actually very little an educator can do to rectify the laziness-situation.

Case in point: I have a bright 16-year-old in my class who is fully capable of completing assignment, but comes in three days a week between 10 and 11 and is failing all his classes except gym. Previously I had phoned several times to speak to N’s family to give them a heads up, often with phones being disconnected or no one picking up the phone. Today I reached N’s sister who didn’t speak English, but with my poor Spanish she was able to give me his brother’s phone number.

The following conversation clued me in to why N was lazy in the classroom:

Ms. C: Hi there, I wanted to talk to you about my concerns for N.

Brother: What he do now?

Ms. C: Well, I’m concerned for N’s grades….he’s struggling to complete work, and often won’t make the attempt. Of the last 15 assignments N handed in 4.

Brother: Yeah, this has been a problem for a while.

Ms. C: Is there a way you can talk to N this weekend? If this keeps up, he’ll have trouble passing the marking period.

Brother: All I can do is make him go to school, if he doesn’t want to work, I can’t make him. Just fail him.

The conversation went for another minute or two, but I was schmoozing on autopilot while my brain floundered. Just fail him? What, as long as Child Services doesn’t cite you for neglect because the kid is technically attending school it doesn’t matter if he succeeds or not? It made perfect sense why the student didn’t give a damn if he did the work or not…because no one cared at home.

While I’m not going to give up I find this situation very challenging; if the kid doesn’t care, and the guardians don’t care…how can I approach N and increase his productivity?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Winter Break and Certification Exams

Happy mid-winter break everybody! I made no plans for my week off of school, mostly I’ve been reading, sleeping, and playing videogames. My plan is to be fully energized for the last third of the school year. The only smirch on my plan is that I have both certification exams on Saturday. My ATS-W and CST in Special Ed are both Saturday, from 7:45AM until conceivable 5PM (though I hope I’m out before then!) It’s a bit pressure-building to know that my certification and my future as a teacher rests on a test-a-thon, however I’m pretty confident. Actually, I’m confident about the actual teacher test…and less confident about the CST on special education. I teach special ed, but I only have experience with emotionally disturbed students…leaving some question marks on other disabilities. I know book stuff about Autism and MR and others…but it’s only book stuff.

Much studying is in my future! To all other teaching fellows and new teachers taking their exams: Good luck!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Math Game That Teaches (me) Humility

One of the first important lessons I learned as an educator of jaded, over stimulated teenagers is that games are the way to go. Competition becomes a social aspect of class work and assessment that truly engaged students in the age of video games and one-upmanship. In my class it’s everything from vocabulary bees to Global Studies Bingo and everything in between.

Last week I created a game to help students conceptualize the number line and get a mental picture of what makes numbers negative. Some may think that negative numbers are baby stuff for high school students, but the abstract idea coupled with shoddy math programs (Everyday Math, I’m talking about you!) has made 4th grade math hardly comprehensible. The game consisted of a number line that spanned the entire blackboard, from -20 all the way to +20, and the students would select number cards that would either have a negative or positive number (some would be equations that would have to be solved to get a positive or negative number.) The winner would be the first person to get to +20.

The only problem, and this is definitely an example on inexperience, was that I made an equal number of cards that moved a student forward and moved them backwards. Can you tell what happened? For an entire math period, students stewed in frustration as the hung towards the middle of the number line, mostly around zero. No one won, because all the negatives and positives canceled each other out! It didn’t end in riot or anything, and I quickly declared everyone a winner…but it certainly was one of my more rookie mistakes of the year. In a way, I needed that humbling moment to remind me that I am still learning.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Book Recomendation For Teachers:

A Piece of Cake was an amazing read that I think all teachers in urban schools should definitely take a look at.

If you have students in foster home arrangements, you should read this book.

If you are suspicious of students being sexually or physically abused, you should read this book.

If you have students who experiments with drugs, you should read this book.

If you have students who engage in gang activity, you should read this book.

If you couldn't put down A Child Called It, you should definitely read this book.

A Piece of Cake is a memoir…a story that happened to a real person, Cupcake Brown…and this tale follows a young black girl from the death of her mother, to the abuse and rape in foster care, through the neglect of social services through the foster program…and observes a young woman making all the wrong choices: drug use, prostitution, and the joining of the Crip gang. While all illegal actions aren’t celebrated, they are explored with honesty…allowing readers inside the mind of an abused child reaching womanhood and seeing her gangster homies as a safe-place, and her drugs as an escape.

This book really made me think about my students, and could have been written about them. I have teenage students who are in and out of foster homes, sometimes on the streets. M, my 17 year old father of a 3 month old baby gets high almost every day. And if I get inside his head, I can see why. All the pressure of fatherhood and the growing sense that he’s headed for an IEP diploma, so why give a shit? Is evident.

And isn’t the truth that once we understand and can isolate what holds our students back, isn’t that when we can help them persevere?

Friday, February 01, 2008

Uber Inspiration

It’s been a crazy, chaotic couple of months. The holidays wiped me out, and the time after Christmas break and before the start of the new semester put me in the lowest mood of the year. It was merely a funk where all the issues of being a teacher seemed to be chained to me and dragging me down. Overwhelmed is the right word, and I felt like I was losing an uphill battle. The momentum of moving toward Christmas broke and I was left in an educational freefall.

Thankfully, that was a temporary funk.

In more upbeat news I had a glorious victory with a favorite student of mine.

L is by far my favorite student of the last two years. She’s more learning disabled than emotionally disturbed and is wonderfully behaved. L is a beautiful 16-year-old with devastatingly low confidence and a give-up-quick attitude. I have been working since September to build her confidence, and I have seen much progress. In ELA my L takes more risks, answers questions in front of the class, and I can even get her to read aloud once in a while. Math is a whole different story. Let me tell you, when it comes to math, this girl will shut down.

When the majority of my students become stumped with their classwork they throw chairs, stomp out of the classroom or curse me out; L will merely put her head down and refuse to acknowledge the presence of math. At least, it used to be that way. Math class has a push-in during my lunch, but I found that working one-on-one with L during my lunch brought her great success with practicing math. She and I are fond of using bright-colored transparancey pens on the cream-colored desks in my classroom, and she has shown great progress:

September assessment of math skills: 2.7 grade level

January assessment of math skills: 4.5 grade level

Yes, I am mostly happy for L…she really has come a long way and she rarely shuts down when it’s time for math. But more so I am very pleased to bear witness to actual student progress, to be able to measure how far a student had come from.

Now, here’s the really good news. Last week L passed her math RCT. She and I studied after school everyday for two weeks, worked very, very hard…to the point of frustration. We knew she had to get 39 out of the 60 RCT questions right to pass, and L told me that last year she didn’t even answer the written portion of the exam, only the bubble-ins.

“L, pass or fail I will be proud if you do your best to answer every question.” That was my goal for her, to overcome her desire to give up. I was determined to make L determined…even saying that a wrong answer was ok because it meant she tried at least.

I wept when I heard the news, L got the exact number right (39) that she needed in order to pass. Amazing. I had a feeling she’d be close to passing, that I could tell her that she was really close, did really well and we could work towards her taking the RCT again in June… Simply stellar!

And the best thing? Now she has quantitative proof that she is able to achieve things she works hard for. L can see for herself how far hard work brought her, and that is an incredible feeling for a child. I can honestly say, with a full heart, that I have never been more proud of another person…or of myself.
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