Mississippi...

Saturday, May 05, 2007

"The MTC Experience"

My MTC Experience
The last two years have been the most challenging and rewarding in my life. Entering the teacher corps was a well-thought-out decision that I embarked upon with excitement and a commitment to make a difference in the lives on Mississippi school children. I feel that I have made a difference in the lives of my students. I imagined this experience was going to be quite glamorous and beautiful, but in reality it was messy and a lot of hard work. In trying to express this experience into words, I am awed by how difficult it is to measure my success and to put into a narrative form the last two years. What was successful about my experience? How do I explain my influence or how I have made a difference in the classroom? Was it improving my students’ test scores? Was it treating students with respect that they do not ordinarily receive from adults? Was it listening to their problems when they cried? What was it that made the pain and the hard work worth it? If I imagine a montage of the moments, in which I know (and knew at the time) I made a difference, I can see the beauty of my MTC experience. The montage would go something like this….


-Listening to speeches on how we can change the world that had such eloquence and humility. I wondered at how middle school students could have such a wonderful understanding of socialism.

-Reading the journal of one of my 6th grade students as she explained why she decided to keep her baby. She wrote, “I don’t have no love in my life. My dad don’t love me. My mom don’t love me. But I is going to love my baby.” I wrote in the margins, “I love you, Kamilla…”

-Talking to Donte during after-school detention about what he was going to be when he grew-up and looking at colleges online.

-Students filling out applications to Harvard and Yale and then giving them acceptance letters to their chosen school.

-Mailing 80 letters for my “Friendly Letter” project and hearing students talk about receiving the letters in the mail.

-Talking Robert out of using a knife he brought to school to prove his honor to older students.

-Waving to a former student and seeing a huge smile spread across his face.

-Receiving hugs after being sick with pneumonia for three days.

-Taking a step backwards after a review game and watching my students attack a test with confidence and a sense of purpose that only comes with preparation.

-Telling students about my trip to Africa and giving a Malian necklace to all my students at Christmas break. Seeing these necklaces on students for the rest of the year.

-Listening to an administrator be shocked (“They are so organized”) at how well my students’ writing was during the state writing assessment. Reading the letters they wrote to the principal during the test. Hearing from other teachers how well they wrote during the assessment.

-Writing letters of recommendations for gifted students.

-Consoling Jakante after he learned that his father was going to jail for the rest of his life for murder. Giving him a hug as he cried.

-Suggesting a science and math camp in Atlanta for a J’lissia and listening to her tell me the news that she won a scholarship to the camp.

-Looking at my students’ MCT scores and realizing that 80 percent scored proficient-- compared to the 35 percent that were proficient when they entered.

- Telling students to “unpop” their collars and making other rap references to an unsuspecting audience of 6th and 7th graders.

-Reading student essays on what they had learned this year.

-Using sports metaphors to my student athletes and watching their faces fill with delight because I had seen them in the game the night before.

-The rowdy class discussions on race, politics, and any subject that strikes middle school students as interesting.

-The competitive review jeopardy games that ended in a tie (when the prize was only leaving class first.)

-Every student who smiled while learning something.

I could continue with my montage, but I think those are the highlights. Those are the moments that seemed to make the hard work worth it. Whenever I was ready to call it quits or whenever I just could not take the stress anymore, I would win a moment from my students. For a few minutes, I was on top on the world and I would easily forget about grading papers, sitting in useless faculty meetings, lesson plans, running to Wal-Mart at midnight to prepare for the next day, negative teachers, unintelligent administrators, and living in Mississippi. I know that nostalgia will kick in when I remember my MTC experience and I will remember only the good moments. The moments when I knew for certain that I had made the right decision to come to Mississippi to teach.

Friday, April 06, 2007

April Showers

Are we still blogging? I have no idea what is going on. I do not understand what we were supposed to do to our blogs. I haven't taken my blog down because I do not care if anyone reads it from the district. I mean, I haven't said anything that gives my school away. I am slaving away at the portfolio project which you can view here: www.amyleeteachingportfolio.wetpaint.com

I am having fun but I wish I would have videotaped and taken more pictures. I realize this way to late in the game and I am kicking myself. As always....

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Lately, I have been feeling run down at school. I feel like I become a different person while I am there. I smile and I laugh and I try my best to make my students do work and enjoy it. Yet, I am out of ideas and so thoroughly annoyed with the constant schedule changes that I feel like a deflated balloon. My principal has changed the bell schedule three times. I am absolutely ready to yell at this man! The students know that their school is insane and so do the teachers. We all drudge through the day waiting for the P.A to release us. He has cancelled the last school dance due to behavior problems. I do not feel that I can make a difference here. Besides what goes on in my classroom, I have no control or say in how the students are treated in other classes or how decisions affect them. I would say that this makes me want to be an administrator—but I am not a fool. I know that people are yelling at the principal and he is worried about his job. However there are people who can deal with the pressure. Why did I leave the Delta?

First years-- do not leave your school for Jackson. The grass is not greener!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

March Madness II

Question 2: Describe training and/or experiences you have had that best qualify you to work effectively with students who have special learning needs such as learning disabilities or attention deficits.
I have had the pleasure of working with a diverse and wonderful population of students. Over the course of the past five years, I have had an abundance of professional experiences which have helped me develop as an effective teacher for students who have special needs. Whether as a tutor, counselor, teacher’s assistant, or classroom instructor, each of my experiences has added another dimension to my teaching and honed skills that I have come to value and cherish.
My intention into being an educator began as a part-time tutor in the academic support center at Antioch College. Through all four years of my studies, I tutored and aided students who were transitioning to become successful in college courses. I think one of the greatest gifts I possess as an educator is patience. My tenacity and fortitude led me to become a successful tutor on campus. After graduation, I became a counselor for students and parents who had been abused. These students faced a myriad of learning and social challenges. I worked with counselors and special education teachers to help them rise above and work with their disabilities. Facilitating and witnessing their academic victories remain part of my inspiration to being a professor.
By far the most rewarding and experiential aspect that has influenced my ability to work with students with special needs has evolved from being a classroom teacher. I have several classes that are devoted to struggling readers as well as students who have an array of learning disabilities. Although my training and education have given me a great foundation for working with these students, I have found that forming personal relationships, observing, and showing care and patience for students who may learn differently is the strongest tool in my toolbox for helping every student be successful.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

March Madness

Well Spring break has finally arrived. I have been applying to jobs. I was particular struck by how easy it is to find fun looking jobs that do not involve teaching middle school students. I have been writing lots of cover letters and I just finished an essay to a community college in Maryland. Here is one question they asked:
Question 1: Describe what you believe are the two or three most important aspects of a college developmental reading course or program.

Throughout the theoretical debates on why Johnny can or can’t read, brain-based research has given educators clues that can aid in the development of reading. The debates, however, will continue to rage on and so will the cries from the students whose lives are impacted and potentials limited by the inability to attain college-ready reading and writing skills. There are three aspects that I believe are crucial to the foundation of a developmental reading course or program: individualized instruction, the promotion of metacognition, and the development of active reading strategies.
While this may be sound cliché, there is truth to the rationalization that each student is unique and learns differently. These differences are critical to the development of student success in reading. By developing individualized education plans and goals for each student, educators can unlock the keys to each student’s achievement. Student assessments and assignments should be tailor-made to fit the complexities of every students’ weakness and strength. Although collaborative learning is highly important and should be used as an instructional strategy, the exceptionality of each student should be at the vanguard of each educator’s selection of course materials, strategy, and assignment.
As mentioned previously, brain-based research has given instructors some powerful tools to aid in the on-going struggle of facilitating the success of developing readers. The promotion of metacognition is an important aspect to every reading program. Reading is a multi-faceted mental process; a process in which even proficient readers are often unaware of the complexities entailed. By modeling and giving students a structured way of deciphering the meaning of a text, students begin to think about their thinking and unravel their own unique reading and learning voice. In addition, if educators design a program where students are monitoring their own progress (by giving prompt and direct feedback on assessments and assignments), students will have a greater chance of achieving true metacognition. Additionally, students need to be made aware of strategies that good readers often use. The practice, modeling, and assessment of active-reading strategies are also an essential part of reading courses and program.
Each of these strategies is an important part in helping students who are at a developmental stage in their learning. Nonetheless, no matter what method employed, being a supportive and adaptive instructor is also vital to success.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Goals

Here are my goals from last year’s spring break (yes I have already started thinking about spring break):


1. Finish Grading 3 days

2. Plan next quarter 2 days

3. Classroom management strategies 1 day

4. Clean House (ongoing)

5. Clean (thoroughly) and arrange classroom 1 day

6. Budget 3 hours

7. Fill out Visa forms for Papus1 day

8. Vaccinations in Memphis (papus) 1 day

9. Catch up on sleep (on going)

10. Clean spare room/Clean office and arrange books 1 day


Here are my current goals for Spring Break:

1. Sleep (on going)

2. Watch Movies and television

3. Find a job for next year

Quite a difference. I am actually going to try and relax!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Why did I leave the Delta?

I am terribly unhappy at my current school. I am not sure how the heck any one administrator could make my life such pure hell. We have had a meeting until 5pm every “blessed” day. Yes, 5pm. Everyone is upset. Worse yet is that these meeting do not help the students or the school. Why? Well, all the time spent on telling teachers to have more interactive and exciting lesson plans could be spent on—you guessed it—lesson plans. I am not so sure that my principal actually understands how angry he is making the teachers. He has even cancelled tutoring to have these meetings! The nerve. I do not understand how anyone is really that stupid. I don’t get it. He spent about thirty minutes talking about how easily we can be replaced and yet the other 7th grade language arts teacher he fired has had THREE teachers walk out after only teaching for two or three days. Those poor students. He will never find a replacement. Most of the good teachers have already started looking for other jobs. I wish I had not left the Delta. At least the principal didn’t try to make life harder than it already is at school.

Friday, January 12, 2007

January Blog II

Why does optimism always kick you in the behind? I was re-reading a paper I wrote for the technology class last year and I have yet to accomplish anything I thought I would! Here is a section from that paper:

The internet is not a one-way communication tool. It differs widely from other technologies—such as television, radio, or movies. These only offer communication in one direction. With the internet students can be senders and receivers. In thinking about literature, I believe that communication is at its heart. This may be too broad, but reading and writing serve their functions in society by communicating ideas, information, and stories to one another. The internet does the exact same thing. Students can benefit by writing, viewing, and reading about the world, but they can also be participants in a real way. Many of the examples given in the text serve as excellent examples. For example, students can chat online with an expert on Shakespeare or share a short story with a group of writers. These uses all reinforce the idea that Language Arts is the study of communicating with one another efficiently.
Additionally the internet can work very well to support a positive learning environment. Parents can use a website to stay in touch with classroom assignments to create a sense of extended community. Teachers and students can use the internet as an easy research tool that would very much support the ideas of adaptive expertise. Even though students may not have all the knowledge they need to do a challenging project, they could use resources on the net and continue. The computer could also be used for assessments. More importantly, the internet could be used for real-world based projects. Students could design their own websites or newspapers while studying writing. Students could monitor their progress in writing by using a digital portfolio in which they talk about their strengths and weaknesses in writing thereby promoting self-awareness and metacognition. Moreover teachers can design numerous projects in which students can test their ideas and hypotheses.
These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. Technology extends far beyond number munchers and overheads. Taking to heart how students learn, I can see even more possibilities. I have very big plans for next year using the internet. I am hoping very much that the technology will be available to my students. I am very interested in using digital portfolios as stated before. I would also like to do a project much like the example of “Monsters, Mondrian, and Me” in Chapter 9 only modify it for middle school age students via e-mail. In one of my reaction papers I mentioned doing a project that involves students using low-tech media to trace school and home connections and then posting these on the web. I think bubbleshare.com would work well for that project. Also, I am planning on using the internet for research and classroom ideas. I am anxious to watch examples of good teachers and become involved in a network to continue learning. Although I feel as if this course served as researched-based reinforcement to many of the concepts and philosophies of student learning I already hold, I have many new ideas and a better understanding of why certain educational concepts and models are successful.


I am going to try and make these items my goal for next semester!

January Blog

January Blog 1: How do you feel about blogging?

I have always felt funny about blogging for a number of reasons. It feels strange to put yourself out on the world wide web when the experiences of teacher corps are quite personal. I also think that my shifting audience of a personal journal slash prospective MCT participants slash random hits from google searches is a absolutely absurd combination. I think it may be good for a laugh after I leave Mississippi, but I then I think it may be good for a cry. I do not like being told to blog. I hope that people do read the blogs if they are interesting in applying for teacher corps. I mean some of the details of our blogs are quite revealing about life in MTC. I also hope that the first years can read them and not have to feel so lonely. I have enjoyed reading other teacher’s blogs—especially last year. I was thankful that some people were honest about their experiences. I felt pretty alone last year and blogs were one way of staying connected.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Frustrations...

It has been awhile since I had a good rant about the school that I work in. Arg. I am so tired of the all of the bs surrounding the school district and school I work in. Interestingly enough, the topics in our leadership class seem quite pertinent to the everyday problems I encounter. Why is everyone only worried about self-preservation? I swear the school that I work in could be a great school if only people were not worried about their jobs/careers. Can you imagine this being your only motivation to teach or serve an administrative role? In the field of education or in any field-- how do people like this function? Do they go home and relax and not worry about their detriment on society? If my only motivation to be a teacher was keeping my job-- my students would not learn anything. I would turn in all paperwork on time, even if I didn't understand what my "boss" wanted. I would never question the reasons behind changes, and I would never object to anything because my students and my classroom would be the last thing on my mind. I am soooo overly tired of ridiculousness. The district wants every middle school classroom to look exactly the same and no one seems to mind that this mold may or may not fit every teacher or every student. NONE of the suggestions I have received as a teacher have made an impact on my students learning. If anything they have weakened my spirit to teach. Not only that-- these people have the nerve to interrupt instruction to bring in more bullshit. What?????? Coming here, I was certain that I might stay for a while. That was a pipe dream. I want out. I want to stay for my students, but after this year. I am GONE! I respect anyone willing to stay, but I know I could be in other places where I know that I could actually make a difference because the people I work with want the same thing. Most of the faculty and administration don't actually like students or education-- it is just a job and a paycheck. I could never think in those terms. It is education. It is a noble thing, not a monetary thing! At first I was fooled that people were just pretending and that their true motives were pure-- nope. They really do not care about students learning and reaching their potentials.

There are things to do...

While living in the Clarksdale my husband and I went to almost every business there. We were always looking for places that felt comfortable. Our favorite place by far was Ground Zero in Clarksdale. Especially when there were not very many people (almost any weekday and some low key weekends). There you can play pool for free. Unless you decide to bet money on your game with some very talented pool sharks. It has a fun relaxed atmosphere. What was nice about Ground Zero was that it felt as if we weren't in Clarksdale. There are people that come from all over to visit and work there. It is fun to look at the graffiti and just chill. The "heat" of the Delta's racism can really be overwhelming in almost any place of business-- and at Ground Zero everything and everybody was chill. I highly recommend going there. Also right down the street is a little organic and plant store that also serves coffee and fresh baked goods. I also liked escaping there. Mostly what I learned after many various explorations was that I had to make where I lived an excellent place to hang out. Really, it is very necessary. There are no movie theaters (unless you want to see ALL of your students at once). Buy a used couch, plants, rugs, etc-- make your living room the place to be and relax. Light candles at dinner and play soothing music. That is what saved me last year.


Now living in Jackson, I am still exploring places that are fun. I live in the Fondren area and there are some pretty neat restaurants right up the street. Aladdin (730 Lakeland Drive,) is an Arabic restaurant that has a great atmosphere and is fairly inexpensive (around 6-7 dollars)-- they also have good veggie friendly meals. There is a coffee house called cups down the street from the middle eastern restaurant that is nice as well. Not that I really have time to go to these places often, but once in awhile we venture out of the routine. I feel like I have less time to explore than last year (which seems impossible), but the paperwork of JPS is unbelievable. I have very little advice-- other than there are plenty of esay options-- movies, bowling, bars, etc.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

PTA

I just witnessed my first PTA meeting in Mississippi. It was a mixture of agendas and moods. It was a nice celebration for the kids. Our band really rocks! The band director is quite superb. He is militant and demands a lot from the kids-- a great teacher. For the first time in my life, I am seeing students cheer the musicians. I wish that spirit had been alive while I was in school-- instead band and choir nerds were usually tortured. Watching the whole "show" of students being introduced and for once recognized for their accomplishments. I think this is a missed area of concern for low income students. We never showcase our students and their successes. If students had more opportunities to DO things (sports, etc.) they would have more to occupy their minds. I cannot believe that students have to try-out for middle school level sports. I really wish that they had a "B" squad for the students at the middle school age. When I was growing up-- sports and other activities were a given. Almost every student had some area of interest and/or talent. The few that did not have a place were the "at risk" students who dropped out or failed. There are 950 students at my school. Only about 100 of them participate in some form of activity. The rest are "at risk!" Why or why can't we offer more to the students? It is such a disservice. No wonder they vandalize the school, don't care about grades or much of anything-- they don't have ANY outlets for their minds and bodies. After-school activities would not be a hard change for schools to make. Funding may be somewhat of an issue. But on a district level-- it would work. JPS spends thousands of useless things and programs. Why not invest in meaningful after school activities the students would just enjoy? They might actually start to care about the school...


I remember when my students took their pictures-- most appeared shy and inexperienced to have the photographer tell them to smile and sit up straight. Their pictures revealed a hopelessness I have never seen in children this age before. Why? Because they don't have enough to do, and have never been acknowledged for their talents and strengths.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

That's It!

Strangely enough I didn't think about quitting until after Christmas break. During the first half of the year, I was so overwhelmed that I didn't really have time to think or do much of anything except try to survive. I don't know why it never occurred to me that quitting was really even an option. Some weird childhood lesson must have lingered in me. The second half of the year is where I lost hope. I tried so many different ideas, tricks, and strategies and part of me felt as if things had gotten worse. We had a different principal (even worse than the first one) and it was like starting over with the students. They had gotten away with too many things at the start of the year and with "fresh" meat to test and try they really starting running the school. All of those things aside, working and living in the Delta is quite depressing. I started to doubt that I was going to make this work, I regretted ever coming to Mississippi, and I really resented being treated horribly by students and "some" of the teachers and town members. Every time I thought I couldn't take it anymore, I watched the TFA promo video-- about the critical need for teachers and the desperation of students and I would cry and whine and get back to work. The worst part about being in a tough situation is you think you can overcome and "win." But when you grade a test in less than 50 percent pass, or have an unsuccessful lesson because there is a ___________ (pep rally, assembly, or any other nonsensical thing) you BLAME yourself.

Perhaps this is just my personality, but I thought it was a personal weakness that prompted my feelings of wanting to run away. It was an awful way to feel, and the only way out of it was to keep trying and keep keepin on. One thing that kept me from going was actually the other 6th grade language arts teacher-- she was terrible (and wasn't certified, etc.) I know it is a terrible thing to think, but, well, I told myself that "at least my students are learning something, at least I want and KNOW they can learn, at least I know my subject area, at least I can speak correctly, at least I do not physically beat them to make them behave, at least I am TRYING!" I know this is not a healthy way of thinking and it is pretty dirty-- however, imagine the substitute your students will get after you leave-- I guarantee the thoughts of leaving will vanish.

My advice to first years who are struggling-- it is okay and natural, do your best and DO not think less of yourself if your classroom isn't perfect. Of course don't accept things as they are-- it is your job to lead your students and to help them learn. But learning how to teach takes so much time and you only have to go through your first year once. If you leave your ego at the door, and throw your hands in and get messy, make mistakes, screw-up, and try until you find out what kind of teacher your students need for them to learn-- it will get easier and easier to do what you came here to do. Your students need you, and they will appreciate you (even if you think they hate you...).

Saturday, September 30, 2006

A few random reflections



I have been thinking a lot about college. I am getting graduate applications together for numerous literature programs. I have been reading old papers and trying to decide which one to rework and submit along with my application. I cannot believe I have kept papers from since high school in my files. Looking back on my own high school experience and the expectations from teachers at a small, rural, and poor school I am shocked that I can read and write. I did run across a letter that I received from Howard University (yes Keila I wanted to go to Howard). Being the only multi-racial family in a small town is an experience that one day, perhaps with old age, and much forgiveness I will be able to discuss. I wrote Howard for a reading list when I was 13 and I just found the letter they wrote back to, along with a list of books that I read except for the last two on the list that the library (or my mom's collection) did not have. Sometimes I think about the times I spent as a child reading and learning and wonder at the cost effectiveness of pursuing a ph.d. However, this is the letter and reading list that started my path to becoming a literature lover.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Motivation

My motivation strategies are of the "minimalist" vain. This is done on purpose. If there is one thing I have learned teaching-- it is that you cannot congratulate students for doing what is expected. There is an underlying philosophy that you teach them when you reward mediocre work and behavior. Students NEED to learn the value of intrinsic rewards-- this will help them when there is not a cookie, brownie, or prize for going to work, getting up early or staying late to finish a project or paper, and hopefully, when they graduate college and high school. My students have to work very hard for praise and when I give it I am super specific and I make it sound "good." Last year, I said "good job" when they could have worked harder. I gave reward points when they didn't earn them. And I let things slide by making excuses for my students and myself. Needless to say this was not a very good classroom climate. Although my students felt very free to be creative with me, I could've motivated students to perform even better than they did.

My new system is working much better. I have not baked a single cookie, I have not handed out a single piece of candy, and I only have three exceptional pieces of student work on my "wall of fame." I do not say "good job" and I only say "yes" or "no" when passing student work (idea stolen from another teacher). They work much harder for me and I immediately hand back assignments that are unfinished or unacceptable. All these seemingly harsh tactics are coupled with a relentless drive to keep students on task throughout class. Phone calls and detention if they did not complete assignments or "try" on tests, standing over them until they start working (until they say “Ms. Lee don’t play), writing notes of a positive nature on their papers, or helping them get started and relating positive statements. With students who are inclusion students or low-performing students I am not as harsh as with students who are on grade-level. But I hate having any student that just sits there without even making an effort.

As for motivation that helps keep students on-task when there might be temptation to misbehave (60% days, right before holidays, and or crazy administrative changes) I play competitive games. All keeping in the minimalist vain, I reward students by getting to leave class early, catching a beanie frog to answer a question, and receiving a bathroom pass, etc. Even though I may be teaching students one objective, I have numerous goals for them-- motivation training is one of them. I strongly believe students need to be pushed into using intrinsic rewards as motivation.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Jackson Vs. Delta

I am at a different school with the same problems, but with a little more money and a few smarter people. I wish I could say that on an administration level things were different...but I can't, so I won't. I was way better prepared for the first weeks of school. Way better prepared, I almost felt cocky (sp?) when I held my homeroom class or they messed up the bells. I brushed it off, and kept on teaching as if I knew they were going to ask us to keep the same class for 4 hours. I truly was ready, even though I was very nervous. I went in with very solid procedures, and I had been dreaming about the first days for nearly eleven months (after my dismal first-first days last year). Last year, I was in awe of the problems in my school, my students and their problems, the lack of information given to me by administrators, etc. I was thrown into the fire and I was burnt the rest of the year. I had very good intentions and I worked my ass off, but the start of the year was terrible. Couple that with zero support from administrators (two of them in one year) and you have yourself a volcano. This year, I did have better support and a little more organization, but I was much more confident about what I needed to do. Confidence is something that I didn't have last year (at all). Now, I know what my strengths are because I know how students respond to me. I know (very well ) that I am a "different" teacher. Within in about three days, students knew that I am about business and that I take learning very seriously.

The only thing I was not prepared for was having 40 students in one class-- I would like Mr. Wong to take a crack at controlling students who do not even have desks or a place to sit. Oh and did I mention that 17 of them are self-contained special education students????? Yeah, I forgave myself for having one bad period....

Sunday, August 27, 2006

What will I do next year?

Throughout this summer and especially right now, I feel a crunch to decide what to do next year. I have finally decided to pursue what I set out to pursue-- a PhD in literature. I am not looking forward to application process. And in-between grading papers and ole miss classes; I don't really know how I am going to prepare for the GRE's. Actually I am really concerned with the GRE lit tests. Yikes, what a monster.

I cannot stand how standardized tests only include African-American and ethnic literature with questions about white authors. This weirdness is also included in the Praxis exam in lit as well. For example they will quote a poem by a dead white guy that, say Langston Hughes used. Does the question require ANY knowledge of African American literature-- no! Anyway, I am going to be reading or at least pretending to read some more "canonized" texts. I think having to defend the legitimacy of English to 6th and 7th graders really pushed me to keep studying literature. If I could defend it to my students, on a regular basis-- then I can definitely defend it to myself.

I miss literature classes immensely, and I miss reading theory and wonderful books. I can’t believe that it has been nearly two years since I took a literature class. I already have dissertation ideas—who said living in a small Delta town would stop one from dreaming. In truth, watching my students and knowing the limited options they have for study, I felt even more compelled to keep studying. I am not looking forward to the isolation I will feel in graduate schools. One of my mentor teachers, who was the only black faculty member in the lit department told me that it gets pretty lonely (as if undergrad wasn’t bad enough) as far as racial or socio-economic diversity. I was looking at the stats and he is completely right. At many programs there are literally one or two students of color and although there is limited statistics on class—the few statistics I have seen are abysmal. Most students who go to graduate schools in the humanities are rich and white. Even though right now, I cannot imagine missing in Mississippi—I know I will. For the first time in my life-- I deal little with these types of people.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Effective Unit

Although I didn't do all the lessons/projects I wanted to in my first year-- one was memorable. We did a play-- it wasn't that this project was profound, but it was something that my students really enjoyed. Everyday while we read, discussed, practiced, and performed the play was a good class day. Since I couldn't get legally make copies of a play I dug (nor could I find an age appropriate play)-- I used a play from the reading book. It was a Greek play for kids on democracy and leadership. This project was effective for a number of reasons. First of all, many of my students were scared to read out loud and they generally read with a monotone and forced voice. The play allowed them to shine with their voices-- after that it was no problem to get them to read with enthusiasm. It was also effective because every single student in the class passed with a B or better on the reading comprehension test. They understood all the vocabulary words for that unit and they actually used and said them with confidence. You can't read a text three times every unit, but it was great that they understood the motivations of the characters, the plot, and could discuss the text on a fairly high-level.

We started off by listening to a professional version of the play out loud-- which inspired them to read correctly and with fluency. After that each student selected a part and wrote a page describing that character and why they deserved to cast for the part. I picked the best students for the best parts-- and in the end everyone got a chance to play a character or have a role in production. Since the space I had for a classroom was limited (and I wanted to focus on fluency)-- I decided to use a tape recorder to record their performances. We practiced several times before taping the show. Students helped each other stumble over larger words and worked to perfect their characters. It was really cool watching the students suddenly care about how their reading sounded. On the performance day, we taped the play. I picked my most energetic students to be sound people-- and they were (for the first time) tired after one of my classes! Then we listened to the tape and did some self-evaluations. They listened to excerpts from the other classes and it even had a competitive edge about which class had best readers and actors. Even though this was a simple unit-- and didn't require much of me-- except to facilitate-- it was very successful and they wanted to record themselves every story we read after that. Low tech rocks.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

A little more advice

Tip #1: Keep things simple. I don’t mean not to plan fun
or complicated lessons, but at first keep things relatively
easy. Students won’t necessarily be used to lessons where
they get out of their seats (seriously). Just don’t come
out with your “A” game. Show them your “A-” game.
You want to establish order in your room. Once you do that
you can do any activity you want to. Make sure that they
are successful on the first quiz or test. You will see
their best work in the first couple weeks—take advantage
of that attention. It is true you need to practice rules
and procedures in the first couple days, however you want
the students to think you will be a tough teacher and if
they work hard and listen they will (and can) be successful.

Tip #2: Don’t act surprised by the behavior, actions, and
speech of your students. It is like going to New York City
and gaping at the tall buildings. Share your surprise (or
horror) after school. Students will know you are a new
teacher and veteran teachers never even bat an eye at some
of the crazy things students say and do. Call your students
on inappropriate or disrespectful things they do or
day—establish early that you will not tolerate this kind
of stuff. Come up with tag lines (or an action or
consequence) you will say to them—after three weeks they
will say the tagline for you.

Tip #3 Be over-prepared for the first day. Have puzzles,
school handbook reading assignments, worksheets, etc ready
in case you have to hold your homeroom class for a long
time. Try to ask your administrator to walk you through
what will happen on the first day. This will help you sleep
the night before and if the administrator doesn’t know
himself he/she might start making those decisions. You
don’t need to be forceful about going over these
details—just stress that you want to be ready. Have your
room set up, name tags, rules and procedures, places for
student work, posters, and CLEAN your room. Really imagine
students in your room. You want to be over-prepared.
Memorize the bell schedule or post it somewhere you can
easily see it. Buy a clock for the room or have a watch if
there isn’t one in your room. Expect that the bells will
not be working correctly on the first day. Schedules
probably won’t be ready either. Be ready for anything.

Tip #4 Get to know your students. I was lucky being an
English teacher. They were always writing journal entries
about their lives and what they thought about. You have to
find something unique about every student. Know what they
like and don’t like. This will help you motivate and know
when your students are going to have a rough day. Take
advantage of surveys—this worked for me. I did learning
style assessments as well as surveys to find out prior
knowledge, what they may be interested in studying, and
getting feedback on previous lessons. Asking them what
helps/helped them learn forces them to think about how they
themselves learn best. I knew a lot about my students
because I thought they were interesting people. I spent two
hours everyday with them—and it was impossible not to want
to find out about their lives, opinions, and interests. It
really helps!

Tip #5: Stay organized. Find a system that works for you
and stick with it. I was terrible at this. I would be a
week or two behind in filing and I never seemed to catch up
after that first month of school. Develop your own system
for making sure paperwork goes to the right place. Do a
little everyday or find students that can help. Whatever
you do—do not drown in paperwork. It is easier said than
done, but if you know where things are going to end
up—your job is easier. Bribe the janitor to find you a
working file cabinet and you can buy your own manila folders
(cheap at walmart) at first. Without some sort of
organizational tools you will have no way of keeping track
of the paper flow.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Corporal Punishment

My feelings haven't really changed about corporal punishment-- I am still against it and I think there are better ways of dealing with behavioral problems. The real difference in me is that I have witnessed it, and had to accept that it is used in the school I teach in. And that in some cases corporal punishment seems effective. As far as classroom management goes, if you send a child to the office- they will be paddled. And at first I could not even accept that fact. Major mistake. Students thought that I was weak and they exploited that weakness. In my school, many teachers used different methods of corporal punishment as well. This was unexpected and I didn't even realize it until late in the school year-- I was so concerned with my own classroom that I never noticed. Lots of teachers used threats, humiliation, and physical force to keep students "in line." And I thought raising my voice was mean. The truth is students are accustomed to it. When they see a teacher that does not use physical intimidation-- they think you are in a sense 'weak.' Considering how rampant it was in the classrooms I taught in this was the case.

Parents of students would regularly tell me that I was free to hit their children. Calling home even became an issue for me-- yikes I sometimes even heard the screams. Or the next day the student would approach me and try to blame me for their sore butts. At the end of year, I remember joking with other teachers about corporal punishment. I had accepted it usage.

My assistant principal gave almost of all of the “official” paddlings. At first he seemed like such a monster to me, until one day when he stuck-up for a child that had been beaten by his father at school. Ruth and I watched as he chased his son (that he never saw) around school buildings. The student had just lost his mother and was living with relatives. Can you imagine? No teacher had ever even called saying there was a problem—he just showed up to school one day. But my principal put his foot down and talked to the father man-to-man. And the student went and spoke to the counselor. It should have been reported to child services, but did eventually student feel safe with the principal. To many parents a good beating is love, but there is a line and it was nice (somewhat) to know that at least my principal knew the difference.

Overall, I feel like corporal punishment is ineffective, especially with students whose misbehavior stems for post traumatic stress disorder (not all that rare). But for other students whose parents use it in love—it keeps them from acting up. I think in another five years it won’t exist—even in Delta schools. I am just waiting for a parent to finally sue the school for it and have it be outlawed.

Biggest Challenge

Time. I am sure numerous people have written on this subject concerning their first year of teaching. I had an older teacher once tell me that she didn't start drinking coffee until she began teaching. I used to want to be a public defender (I haven't ruled it out yet), but then I changed my mind because I figured the government would try to screw you out of doing a good job and give you too many cases with not enough adequate time to do an excellent job with every client. Well teaching has the same loophole. This was by far my biggest challenge.

I was accustomed to hard work-- but the emotional exhaustion was pretty intense. I can remember being slightly depressed just to walk into such a sad excuse for a school. The social problems of the town and the students are draining (so one can only imagine what it is like for the children). It took me a great deal of time to learn where my students were in terms of their knowledge and experience. I would spend time lesson planning lesson I couldn't even use until I taught background concepts-- I definitely learned to start from the beginning. I would spend time on paperwork that the office never bothered to use. I would correct everything (ha I don't do that anymore!). I just wanted to put my heart into everything and I discovered you HAVE to reserve yourself a little bit. Complaining does not help! Also classes at Oxford became a matter of priorities and sometimes teaching had to take the front seat. It was also my first year of marriage and that was not an easy task. Luckily my husband was supportive and would even help me file student papers—he knew most of their names and it was amusing when we would run into a student in town.

I wish that I had some sort of time management training. I had to start making lists to keep track of everything and keep track of those lists. I even started to read some stuff online about staying organized! As an English teacher the paper load can crush you. Eventually, I started understanding what tasks had to be done immediately and what tasks I could delegate to students or others. Teachers definitely need assistants! In my district design project for Dr. Mullins class, I made sure that every teacher had an assistant and that they were paid well.

Next year, I will probably have similar problems (with some solutions) but at least I know what to expect. I am going to take July to write lesson plans for the 9 weeks of school. I need a break, but I also want a nice year.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Oxford vs. Clarksdale

I am so thankful to not be living in Clarksdale. For those of you who do not know my husband and I have a really rough year and on Tuesday we left Clarksdale and didn't look back. I am looking for a new job and I hope that I can find somewhere we will be happy, safe, and feel comfortable even leaving the house. I debated for a long time about whether to leave my school-- I felt like I made a committment to Higgins for two years, but I knew if we continued living there I would burn out. I feel like I am breathing good air for the first time in a long time. I cannot beleieve the events of this past year. The things I have accepted and watched, the things I have witnessed, the things I have gotten used to-- is scary, real scary. I never thought I would watch a student get paddled and just sit by and watch. Moreover, I sent students to the office and they got paddled. Getting used to watching disrespect displayed between teacher, students, and adminstration. I am not saying there were not good moments, but after the intial shock of witnessing these events-- I got used to them. Even calling people and telling them about daily activities (going shopping, work, etc.) becomes a story.

In comparison, Oxford may be expensive but life is so easy here. My husband and I can go to a restaurant without an altercation and we have yet to recieve a threatning phone call. Parents don't hit their children in public and in general people are pretty nice to each other. People are more curious than insulting to my husband when he is speaking french. My husband is extremely happy here-- which makes me happy. Since Clarksdale was his first experience in America-- it was pretty schocking for him. I just kept telling him that not all of America is like Mississippi. I cannot beleive I spent a year of my life in a place like Clarksdale, and I pray for those who have to spend their lives there. With everything that I tried to teach-- that is the only thing I managed to get through to the students. The world is so much bigger than Clarksdale, and I will always read the autobiographies that they wrote about the colleges they will attend in other states!

Failing Jamal

Jamal was a con-man. Granted he was twelve and not a man, but he was a manipulator. It took me a long to realize that his tears weren’t real and that his real problem was reading. He could not read. How he had made it to sixth grade? I guessed that the tears and his excellent acting abilities had a lot to do with his problem. But, he was reading at a second grade level. I had a lot of goals for him—since he was a challenging student. He had scored minimal on every MCT he ever taken in his brief academic career and I was determined to raise that score up. This was not an easy task—since he “claimed” to dislike me, my class, and the subject I taught.

There is a section is Wong that I wished I had read and really taken to heart before starting teaching (especially with 6th graders). He writes that teachers should practice 100 times in a mirror saying, “Because you chose to break the rule.” “Because you chose…” and “Because you chose…” If Jamal threw a spitball at me—it would be
“You are picking on me.” And “you just hate me.” And “why did you fail me?” Being sensitive to favorites—since I am never the favorite, I analyzed (quite seriously) my behavior and actions toward him. Nothing, in fact I gave him more chances than other students before he actually got the boot to the office. I had this strange policy of sending my discipline problems on special errands. I really didn’t have favorites and no student ever accused me of having them—except Jamal. Why did this student continue to think I simply hated him?

The level and severity of his reading problem, combined with his behavior problem and lack of trust in me made it nearly impossible for him to learn in my classroom. I called home. I sent letters. I had conferences. Nothing changed. I pleaded and ran after Jamal to stay after school. On the rare occasion when he would come in, he would rush to get make-up materials and never do the work. I would spend more time with him than any other student during class—to try and help him understand. Nothing worked and he failed.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Grading, passing, and failing

I finished my final grades. I still cannot believe I have to figure grades. Sometimes it feels very fair—I just enter numbers into a computer and then it spits out a number that determines whether the student will pass or fail. In reality it is not that easy—I dread grading. Not because I do not like the mental act of checking off right and wrong answers-- but because I root for students and when they don’t deal well—I have intense sadness. What should I have done better? Why the *&&* didn’t they understand I did a great lesson on this? Etc, etc, etc. What I have discovered throughout this year in terms of grading is that there are elements of subjectivity, objectivity, correct choices, errors, poor teaching, and good teaching—and you just have to keep making it harder for the students not to fail. And some students, even though you don’t accept the choices they make—you keep riding them—even if it is two years before they understand what you said to them. I had really special goals for all the students that got held back last year—and they all passed with C’s and above! It is a good feeling—but then I have students who did not pass my class—I sit around and cry when I think about them stuck in the same classrooms, with the same books, and same teachers next year. Summer school would the perfect option for them and that is all they really need. A swift kick in the pants (metaphorically of course) and a way to have some extra time to learn the material that they missed.


That is why I am excited to teach summer school. The vision of seeing a 16 year old in 6th grade will probably never leave me. I had many 14-15 year olds who just could not get out of the 6th grade. I cannot imagine the psychological impact that must have on learning and esteem. Did districts have special programs or plans for these students? Nope—nothing—not a single option! I know that teaching summer school will be a lot of work, but these students deserve a second chance to be in their correct grade and to master the material they need to know how to do. I can’t wait!

Electricity

I feel at a loss for words right now, I just moved (thankfully) after a long search for somewhere in Oxford to stay. I wish that I could have had a few real days off before being hurdled into MTC chaos. I am starting to get things done, say for example, blogging. But I finally found something I want to address. First of all, let me state to any readers (far and few between, I know) I have always felt strange about blogging-- I write as if it is a journal entry that I will look back at and laugh, or be to bored by my own writing.

But the truth is, I miss academic writing. I have a number of topics that I want to write about and sometimes I just do not have the energy to do so-- to truly formulate some of the arguments that are in my head. The following may seem like an inane discussion but it is something that is bothering me.

I want to talk about electricity. In Clarksdale, they do not have a corporate electric company (such as Atmos energy). "Clarksdale Public Utilities" (names have not been changed) is probably one of the crudest and most inhumane energy companies in the continental United States. I have lived in a lot of cities and have seen the variety of co-op electricity companies owned by town members, big and small corporate electric companies. I have never heard of people paying around $300 a month for electricity. In Clarksdale, the rates are high—okay it is annoying but I paid the bill. But can others? You cannot, of course pay your bill online, so every month you take a trip into the vacant downtown to pay your bill. After seeing the same clerk for nearly ten months—you start small talking. The clerk, Sarah told me that at least 50-100 people every day have their electricity cut-off in Clarksdale, MS. I knew already that many of my students did not have electricity/water, etc. But 50-100 people everyday! Sarah also told me that many people become so behind in their bill that they aren’t able to ever get utilities anywhere in Clarksdale. Did I mention that the utility company also handles water and sewage, and trash pick-up? So not only do homes not have electricity—they don’t have water or sewage or trash pick-up. I grew-up in the country and sure there were times when my family couldn’t scrap together enough money for electricity or we had a slum landlord who wouldn’t fix the water-well—and yes, it sucked. BUT, eventually my mother would scrap enough money together to pay off the bills. In Clarksdale, there is no room for error—you pay your bill late—ten dollars and ONE DAY later they cut-off your lights and you have to pay a 35 dollar fee to have them turn them back on. In order to even get electricity you have to pay a 175 dollar deposit. They do not change policies, or make exceptions. And this is just one aspect of daily life.

The point I am trying to make is that it is hard to be poor—of course, but in Mississippi it is the (over-the-top) institutional racism inherent in everyday life that continues to make you poor—over and over again. It is NOT generational poverty that is the problem, but racist systems designed intentionally to ensure that African Americans continue to be poor or working class.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Mary Poppins

Today the assistant principal (next year's principal) told me that next year I have to start off the year "mean" and that I can't act like "Mary Poppins." His comments are apt-- although I have never heard the Mary Poppins comparison before. He went on to say that I can prove I care by acting mean. He wasn't mean about it or anything and he said it in a fatherly type of way. He is right-- I have struggled with this all year. My students know that I care-- which is great. But, I have still not mastered-- or come anywhere near-- mastering classroom management. I have to be "meaner." By far this is my biggest weakness--- and strangely my biggest strength. Before teaching in the delta-- I had never had a negative encounter with students. This is actually an accomplishment as I worked with emotionally disturbed youngsters who had been abused. Most times, I try my best to be "nice" with everyone. With my students, I listen and take very seriously their concerns, successes, and failures. And this is year has been hard because students, say, the darndest things. Amongst them-- most times-- unreasonable complaints. For example, I can call on a student twice during a class period and then the next question, the student will gripe that he/she never gets called on. Even on days when I utilize the "popsicle stick method" there are hints that it is unfair.

My real revelation this year has been you can't really win-- but you keep trying. It is not that I want to be liked or popular, but I want to treat my students with the same respect I expect. The truth of it is, the power relationship is unfair and my students don't have any real agency. With my Antioch education (note I just used the terms--agency and power), it is hard to just be the boss. But I HAVE to be. Their job as students, is to test the limits and the boundaries because they need to learn those things. Being a middle school teacher, it is really just part of the process. Throughout this year I have been challenged by how to let my students have power (in a constructive way) in my classroom. I can read Wong until I am blue in the face, but I had to learn my own style. I am just beginning to understand what that means and how students respond or don't respond to me. My students get to be creative in my classroom and that I am truly proud of-- even if they can't come back from lunch quietly. They cheer each other on when we do creative expressions and group projects. Now I know what works and what I cannot do. I wish I had had less expectations to start with-- I expected more of myself than was possible. But as I have been saying my expectations are my goals now. Sometimes, really wonderful moments happen. Sometimes, it is a real mess. I don't know what next year will look like, but I am gonna plan my ass off this summer, because I want so badly to have more good moments and less mess.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Thank-You Letters

This may seem like a small succes, but everyone of my students can now right a letter correctly. Today we wrote thank-you letters and I checked everyone of them. They actually used commas in the right places and their writing has improved--they also wrote sweet thing to their moms' and others. I even recieved several. Here is one:


Dear Ms. Lee,
I would like to thank you for being my teacher this year. I want to thank-you because you teach me two very important subjects, reading and langauge arts. I also want to thank you because you let us do fun activities instead of the boring worksheets. Thank you for preparing me for the MCT next week. I love your class.

Yours Truly,
Samantha


Maybe they were all trying to suck up (most likely) but at least this student knows the difference between handing out worksheets and learning by doing!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Today

I actually think my detention policy might be having a good effect on my classroom!!! Maybe, just maybe it is. Today was okay...for the first time in a long time I was able to teach. I have been working hard-- really just trying to be consistent. I have changed my lesson plans dramitically. I am trying for it to be somewhat the same everyday-- no matter how boring that sounds to others--it works!!! The kids are learning more, even if it isn't as fun for me or for them. I don't allow a single minute of downtime. They work right to the bell! I have been assigning more homework! While some kids are fighting it-- others are embracing it and I have been rewarding those who come with their homework done the next day. Most of these things I should have been doing from day one-- but on day one I didn't know what the hell to do. I should have started out "mean!" And that is what I am going to do next year. It is not that I won't smile until christmas-- I just won't relax. I am going to treat everyday with a certain milatant attidude that I am getting right now! I cannot wait until the MCT is over and I find out if I have even made a dent in their learning and scores. Right now, I feel good and I want to linger on this day!!!!!!!!!!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Teacher Prep

The following is a reflection paper written for Dr. Mullins.

The questions and issues raised in Teacher Quality and the Question of Preparation are extremely important. At a base level the questions that arises are: What makes a good teacher? How much training is needed for a successful teacher? When should the training take place? What is “highly qualified”? I look around my school, I am hard-pressed to find good examples. More so than the teachers, I am hard-pressed to find stellar leadership from all levels of the administration. And I know that I am not alone. Teaching in a critical shortage school, where perhaps thirty to forty percent of the teachers will not be coming back, I am well aware of how hard it is stay in the field of teaching. Knowing that the principal and superintendent will have to look hard to find replacements, I am at a loss as to their behavior. Why would they be anything but supportive knowing that they will have to find new applicants after they drive the first year teachers away. Being supportive is in their best interest. New teachers should be treated as an investment for each district. Amazing programs to train and retain teachers are created, but until the individual school districts find good leaders, the shortages will remain.
I always thought that teaching was a lot more of an individual effort. My thinking was naïve. Although I still feel that one teacher can make a difference—one student at a time, those efforts are limited by the tone set at the administration level. Young, idealistic teachers are often targets for administrators who feel threatened by newcomers who have little to lose by taking a stand. The older teachers, fearful for their jobs, do exactly what the principals ask. Our school has had two principals and I have watched as veteran teachers jumped through the contradicting and conflicting hoops of both leaders. Why not seek out and promote creativity and ideas from new faculty?
Students also receive mixed messages from administrators. When instructional time is not valued, the students will not value instruction no matter how hard teachers try. I never imagined the amount of interruptions, unplanned assemblies, etc. that plague my school. I am not placing all the blame on the leaders of schools, however if they have high expectations and operate in more regard for the students and the teachers, then literally level of the school would rise accordingly.
Even though the questions raised in the article centered on teacher training, a lot of the real training happens at the experiential level on the job. That is the bottom line. Therefore, the leadership of the school district becomes responsible for the training of new teachers, not the colleges and universities. As I said new teachers should be regarded as an investment for each district. If young, idealistic teachers felt their ideas and enthusiasm were validated (especially by the principal) they would stay in teaching. If new teacher orientation at each school was well-structured, teachers would stay in teaching. If the adminstration handled discipline issues well, classroom management would follow, and teachers would stay in teaching. I could go on and on. I am not trying to imply that school leadership is the sole factor in a good school or in making good teachers, however the problem does not occur in recruitment. Recruitment and selection criteria are very selective, TFA, for example, only accepts one in eight applicants. The problem occurs on the job, after the fact; when high hopes are met with unprofessional administrations.
The Equity Myth
Is equity the answer? My answer is still yes, despite reading the article on Edgewood. I agree with the statements from Jimmy Vasquez, “Everyone wants a quick fix, but there is no miracle for Edgewood…You can’t erase generations of poverty, oppression, and racism in a single decade.” His statements hit home. Of course more money isn’t the only answer, but it certainly helps. And well-spent money probably makes the most difference. Sometimes when I look at my school and how much federal money goes into it and how little ends up helping, I feel like the situation rivals those Save the Children scams to help starving children. Of course low-income school districts are more prone to be victims of fraud. They are easy targets because no one in looking. I don’t even want to think of about the kind of crazy construction contracts that have been made. All of that aside, nonetheless, I am still not willing to accept one example of a school receiving equal funding as an argument that money does not make a difference in the educational experience of school children. I remember debating on what college to go to and weighing the cost differences between colleges. I remember my mother telling me, “With education, you get what you pay for.” And it is true. What is also true is that change takes an incredible amount of time. Since becoming a teacher I am much more willing to accept this. Maybe in another twenty years Edgewood will have much higher test scores and graduation rates similar to those in a richer school district.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

For the past week, I have been working on speeches with my sixth graders. Teaching them the structure was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be and surprisingly they learned a basic essay format from doing a speech. Anyway, their topic was what they wanted to change in the world. Their speeches were awesome! Here is a sampling of some of the things they wanted to change:


Stop killing black people
Clean up the city-- too much broken glass and trash
More trash pick-up
Too many kids on the streets
Get rid of Bush
Stop the war (and in particular stop black people from getting sent to war)
Give everyone a mansion like Usher
No more beatings at school
Fix up the school and classrooms
No more uniforms
Stop children from being kidnapped and raped
College should be free
Make it so adults don't have to work two or three jobs
Going to the doctor should be free
Too many guns on the streets

These are eleven and twelve year olds....talk about critical thinking skills....

Classroom management

I have tried so many new things I don't even know where to begin. My new reward system is working out well. My students are always singing that song, "Betcha can't do it like me"-- so I decided to make a game out of it. I made a chart for each class and they earn a betcha each time they complete an activity quietly or go a whole class period without any name-calling. For every 12 betchas they successively get a different reward. The culmination will be watching a movie and doing the betcha dance. Although it doesn't solve all problems it has helped. Moreover it has helped me be able to award good behavior instead of simply disciplining bad behavior.

Another thing I have tried is playing a review game at the end of each class. I throw a small beanie frog to any student who can answer review questions to lesson. On days when I do this, my students have actually groaned that the bell rang!

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Wow

My husband got held up at gunpoint at 7:30 in the morning. He is okay. I am not.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Where I spend most of my day...

There are certain facts about the school where I teach at that are beyond on my comprehension.

-Everyday, I am hustled out at 4 pm-- actually about five minutes to 4. I am scolded at for attempting to stay late and do a better job. How is that a bad thing? And on the same hand, I am not allowed to leave before 4pm. Only exactly when "they" decide it is time to go....

-I have yet to see a student expelled. There is no set discipline system for students-- they can continue to get kicked out everyday, fight, etc. without long term consequences. This just keeps students coming back for more-- they are trying to find a line that doesn't exist. I am really wondering what it actually takes to get expelled-- yikes. Numbers and funding are that important, huh?

-There are two middle schools in this town. One has higher test scores, one has very low-test scores, one has students that are at the right age for their grade, and the other has many 14-15 year old sixth graders. My school is a dumping ground for the district. How does that happen? How is that fair?

- Everyday, there are announcements made about getting arrested for fighting and everyday there are fights. It is a great way to start off the morning announcements!

-We end school 10 minutes early everyday-- that isn't in the handbook. Every 7th period class is now behind.

The list could go on and on. It is very easy to see why there is a teacher shortage here. Every once in awhile I search the internet to find school websites and look at schools that have a lot of resources-- if only....

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Rough day

Some days teaching is the hardest job. Some days it is, simply, fun. Other days are in between fun and madness. Today, was one of those tough days. I don't know why-- but everyone was crazy today. By the end of the day, everyone looked completly fried. Why? I have absolutely no idea why the students decided it was a "free day" and complained throughout the day that they shouldn't have to "work" today. I tried to make today fun-- I video-taped them presenting their compare and contrast paragraphs. My new classroom management strategy has been to try and make the lesson so exciting and new that students would be heartbroken if they got in trouble (or kicked out). It didn't work! Today was so insane that they even ended school five minutes early and made an annoucement that all students needed to leave campus withing five minutes. For a few moments, I wondered if there was a bomb or some other horrible incident about to occur-- but I guess the principal (and everyone) was exhausted. There were a number of fights. I kicked out three students (and I am guessing a lot of teachers had similar trouble). On days like this, I have to wonder about classroom management. I mean, what would Wong do?

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Reflections

Reflections: My First Year of Teaching in the Mississippi Delta

Expectations

My expectations for teaching in the Mississippi Delta were humble: I imagined a peaceful classroom of engaged learners. I have always loved school: the bells, the smells, new notebooks, pencil sharpeners, and books. For me schools are romantic--large brick buildings filled with students and teachers all seeking one of the highest pursuits known to humans—education. Before actually teaching in the Delta, I knew of the problems associated with poor, rural schools. My graduating class had forty-two students, and a teacher’s salary was considered “rich.” I knew what a bad teacher could do to an already bad school. My motivation was simply to be better. I grew-up poor and I know how hard it is to slowly get through educational experiences that others have been practicing with generations of guidance. My goal was to simply “help” foster as much educational and emotional growth as possible in my students. I imagined all kinds of lovely things in my classroom. I wanted students to engage in lots of group work, develop critical thinking skills, and learn about great thinkers, writers, and historical events. I would help them apply for college and motivate those who thought college, wasn’t for them. I imagined staying late at school to correct papers and plan creative lessons. I imagined coming home tired, but happy. I imagined rewarding good behavior and politely showing misbehaving students how to deal with a situation better. I was a class clown, so I would naturally know how to get a troublesome student back in line. I also imagined being involved with after-school activities. Teaching in the Delta would be a lot of hard work and a challenge, but I thought, I am young and I have worked hard before—let’s go teacher corps!
Reality
The challenges of a new teacher are enough, but the challenges of a Mississippi Delta teacher are unfathomable. The lack of resources and chaotic administration alone could drive a teacher to quit before the first bell sounds. Not having paper to make copies, or even having access to a copy machine, drove me nuts in the beginning of the year. I asked my principal if I could make thirty copies and my polite request was denied. How could I teach without books? How could I teach without the ability to make copies? How could I present a professional and trustworthy face when I was informed of important announcements and procedures at the same time as the students? How could I create a peaceful classroom when students received corporal punishment for misbehavior? How could I have tutoring or any after-school activity if my school locked down like a prison at four o’clock? How could I incorporate technology without the presence of technology? How could I teach?
After just three months, I know I can. My goals are still as high as they were when I started, but I have adjusted my timeline slightly. I hadn’t imaged that my expectation would become my goals. I hadn’t imagined that my goals would become ideals that I will have to fight to accomplish. There are so many obstacles that I leave school everyday amazed anything has been accomplished. Despite bells that don’t ring on time, insane interruptions from janitors, erratic announcements about going to jail for fighting, and routine paddling, learning happens. Why? The students.
The students are the best and worst in the world. Their problems are a result of institutional racism and poor educational systems, but they remain brilliant and filled with potential. I wasn’t prepared to start from ground zero. I imagined enhancing existing reading and writing skills, not creating them. To some people my students may seem unruly and un-teachable, but that is far from the truth. They simply lack meaningful educational experiences and reinforcement. They have inspired me to make the journey with them.
The reality of teaching in the Delta is the reality of racism in America. I am very familiar with institutional racism, however the educational system in Mississippi is blatant white supremacy. That may seem harsh, but destroying the lives of countless, brilliant students is even harsher. The reality is that African American students are told everyday they enter the tired halls of Delta schools that they are not worth it. They are not worth good textbooks, qualified teachers and principals, new technology, or even fresh paint and comfortable desks. The racism in the Delta is not invisible. I pass a white academy everyday and I work at an all-black school. I pass shacks on the all black side of town and I pass mansions by the academy. In some ways reality has altered my expectations. In these few months, the one thing that has most changed for me is my resolve. In light of the harsh realities with which my students contend and in light of the obstacles inherent to poverty and specific to racism, my resolve to teach has deepened. Also, in light of the potential I've seen and the resilience and strength my students display everyday, my resolve to resolve is inspired. I may not feel as young as I did three months ago, and I cannot remember ever working harder, yet I now sing, Let's go teacher corps!

Monday, November 28, 2005

Losing Melanie

Today, one of my best students left Clarksdale. I have no idea why. She peeked her head in politely during my last period and said she was transferring and her mom was waiting in the car. I hugged her twice and told her how brilliant she is, and not to let anything or anyone stand in her way. Man, I almost cried.
She is such a good student and from day one-- she was an inspiration to me. My roughest class period--- the lunch crowd--thirty some odd students-- when they all showed up. She made me realize how much students lose when the class isn't going well. She would wait patiently and scowl at those who were making so much noise. In fact, if I needed to know whom it was that was talking I could just look at her face. As that class got better (little by the little), she emerged as a leader. It was a sight to see-- since she is a small, timid girl of barely eleven surrounded by thirteen and fourteen year olds. She was my line leader on the way to lunch every day. Her journal entries were always so candid and insightful. For her how to essay, she wrote my steps to using context clues and determining the meaning of an unknown word-- it was sweet. She really listened in class-- I mean really listened and it was great to see her improve her writing skills so much over the course of the last three months. She is going places....
I had so many individual goals for her-- and now I have to let those go. What is even odder is that I can't help feeling she might be leaving the Delta-- and that is a great comfort. I hope against hope that she will go to a school that she can really thrive in. Hmm, geography and privilege. I live right across the street from the private catholic school and I can't help feeling jealous. Their facilities are nice, and their teachers clearly have keys to the building. Everyday, their parents pick them up from school and it isn't as chaotic looking as my school.
God, it isn't fair. The history, the present, and sometimes the future are ugly. The level of white privilege in this country has got to fucking stop. Everyday, as all of my students enter the tired halls of Higgins-- they are told they aren't worth anything-- they aren't worth the cost of books-- they aren't worth the cost of nice computers or qualified teachers. Everyday...that is the message my brilliant, bursting (I mean bursting) with potential students are sent. Racial and socio-economic oppression are huge monsters to fight-- but in other places there are so many more opportunities (and of course different battles) than the Delta. I can't believe segregation is so alive and well. I can't believe institutional racism exists at this high of level-- it isn't even hidden. It is out in the open complete and total bullshit. I am glad I am here-- so very glad I am here....

Thursday, November 10, 2005

I am Ms. Lee!

Looking back over my summer blogs I can sense my enthusiasm for teaching and doing well—that has not changed. What has changed is my ability to have enough time to accomplish my goals. The only sad thing about teaching is time—I NEVER have enough. Never. Throughout the last three months I have felt like I have let every one down—my family, my students, my friends, myself. It is a pretty lousy feeling. I didn’t realize how little time I would have to go the library, pay bills, do laundry, etc.

I give my best everyday, but then at the end of the day something has to give. I spend most of my nights grading essays and lesson planning—and that doesn’t leave much time for much of a personal life or really anything else. I can’t wait for Christmas break—so I can for once be truly ahead in lesson planning and really assess what my students need to work on most. Also, I just want to read more about reading. My students present such diverse problems with reading. I feel that I have not adequately addressed their needs. I go to bed worrying every night that they will leave my class not experiencing what reading really is—that little narrator in your head. I mean if I can help my students become better readers—to me—I will be helping them for life. No joke. In the summer, I didn’t know where to start gathering material and resources—now I know exactly what I need.
I was very nervous about teaching in the summer—now it is like second nature to talk to students. That nervousness faded around the second day of school! I remember being frustrated by making mistakes—now I make them all the time and they turn into learning experiences that I easily laugh about with my students. Esp. one day when I accidentally started writing in French! I can’t start a lesson unless the objectives are on the board—before it was easy to forget. I can grab a stack of papers and roughly estimate how many sheets there are. I can look over thirty desks and tell who doesn’t have their book open to right page. Now, it is easier to tell who “gets it” and who needs a little one on one. Over the summer, I had no idea what a sixth grader was like—now I can write a book about them!
It isn’t that I have changed—my life has changed. I really love teaching, even if it makes me forget to pay bills or do laundry. I never imagined how good it would feel to really have students learn and become “smarter.” I am always telling them, I love hearing their brains get bigger when they have really caught on. I remember my first blog about how weird it was that students called me “Ms. Lee” – now I feel like that is who I am. Teaching really isn’t a job—it is just what you are. I am teacher. I am Ms. Lee!

Monday, October 31, 2005

Halloween...

Halloween, 2005. What a strange day! The superintendent stopped by room—she is really nice. She used to be a teacher at Higgins, so I think she has a special affinity for the school. My students were working on “scary” stories—we have been studying foreshadowing. Dr. Wade thought it was “cute.” Even though I hate that phrase when used in connection to a learning activity, I guess it was cute. I thought it was a good idea. Today for the first time, I realized my students have really been opening up with writing— I was looking over their writing in the beginning of the year and they have really improved. My favorite day of the week is when they make a rap, story or a song using as many spelling or vocabulary words as possible. They work really hard on them because they get the chance to perform. It is so much fun!

Everyone was a little crazy today and I was exhausted by three. My husband and I went to help my mother with trick-or-treaters. Her new neighbor told her she got five hundred trick-or-treaters last year. I don’t know how many kids actually came but it was more people than I have ever seen. I started off giving five or six pieces of candy and ended with giving one per person. When I was younger we got three trick-or-treaters—my two brothers and myself—my the world is changing…

The strangest thing happened during the Halloween rush—a little girl of about three just sat down on porch. I didn’t actually notice her for a while because of all the kids. My husband jabbed me in the side and wanted to know if I knew her—I had never seen her before in my life. The poor girl was lost. We flagged down the police and I guess they had been trying to find her for a pretty long time. She never cried, or asked for anything—she did try to give us all of her Halloween candy. She was really sweet. It is funny how kids have such a good sense—she picked our porch—probably because she felt safe. About three police cars showed up—and all the neighbors thought people had egged the house or something horrible like that. It was a sight to see. Anyway, she was reunited with her family and all ended well.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Go Ontrell!

You know that phrase, “instant success”? What a load of capitalistic shit! Reserved for infomercials and advertisements, the phrase shouldn’t be associated with education or learning. Change, or success is gradual and as a teacher you have to look for it (or even study it!). Thinking about what or who to write about for this reflection was somewhat difficult—do I focus on one person? Do I focus on a classroom management strategy that worked? Do I write about a time when one or more of my classes really got into a story or concept we were studying? Only upon reflection do I realize success occurs in my classroom everyday. Like any good researcher I had to look for it and analyze it. None of these successes were instant or easy, but they all felt pretty wonderful. In remembering the events of the last two months, my mind kept coming back a series of successive successes for one charming sixth grader named Ontrell Cocroft.
Ontrell is an eager beaver-- the kid of student that likes to cross his t’s and dot his i’s. No doubt most of his teachers have liked him (and of course I join in that group) and have easily given A’s and B’s. So easily, in fact, that he doesn’t know how to answer complicated questions or think critically. Having received A’s and B’s for most of his academic life, he was pretty shocked that he was failing my class when one-month progress reports went around.
When I think back to the written responses he gave on short answer questions, I cringe. I knew he has done the work of reading and listening in class. Somehow, he expected me to give him all the answers to the questions. He would do well on multiple-choice questions and anything that required route memorization. But when asked to “explain or describe” he would be lost—as a result he would fail tests that included those types of responses.
Ontrell had never failed before, but being given an “F” for the first forced him to reassess himself. I never imagined giving a student an “F” would be a positive thing, but with Ontrell it was—I spoke to him individually about his grade, explained what I thought was the problem, etc. After that, he started really engaging in class. If there were something he didn’t understand—he would ask a question (something I strongly encourage anyone who is failing to do). On creative projects, he would ask for help coming up with new ideas (before he would simply copy the example I provided). Every writing assignment became a little better, and it looked like he was having a lot more fun! He was really “thinking” about assignments and questions. Every time he came up with new ideas I would say, “Go Ontrell!”
The next time progress reports came out—he saw his grade and gave a great big hug and thanked me in the middle of class. I hide my bursting happiness, and simply said, “I don’t give grades, you earn them” like always. The whole class laughed pretty hard. I was really proud of him.
The whole “higher standards” philosophy is true. I could have been pleased that Ontrell was good at copying what I said or did, but that is not my goal for my students. I want them to know how creative and smart they are—I want them to keep getting to the next level of thinking. You have to keep saying, “go.”

Monday, September 26, 2005

Dakar, Senegal






I can’t believe the government. I can’t believe that something as simple as love would be so complicated. My fiancé was denied his visa to come to states in the beginning of August and I had to travel to Dakar, Senegal to rescue him. Luckily, we were successful and they gave us the visa in five minutes. While I am thankful, having to take off the time from teaching was awful. It was a big decision—but after consulting a lawyer and knowing if he were denied a visa the chances of him ever coming were almost impossible-- I had to go. To hear them say “yes” and have all my problems and worry dissolve in a second was well worth it. We left the embassy in shock and we kept wondering if it was just a joke or some horrible mistake! I am so happy—no more long distance telephone calls, or worrying—the love of my life is coming!

Returning to Africa for the second time was amazing. I missed the smells, even if it wasn’t Mali. My fiancé and I went to Goree Island—one of the main slave ports in West Africa. It was a very powerful experience—I taped the whole thing and I can’t wait to show my students (they were so excited that I was going to “Africa”….). I saw tiny rooms where they housed women, children, and men to be shipped to places like Mississippi. The door “Aller sans retourner” (leaving without return) is something I will never forget—the door that drops right into the sea. Being in a Dakar made me think so much of Mississippi—how much has really changed? What are the chains that are still invisibly attached? I really can’t express all of my feelings in writing because the ideas are so visual to me. I am working on a video—the first time I have touched video since I started MTC. The connections between Africa and America—the “transatlantic” (Paul Gilroy for any lit nerd) are something I have to explore more. The music, the poverty, the solidarity, and the misconceptions. I am hoping I can have something meaningful to show my students—to start a unit on Africa…

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Is it really Inductive?

The pros…the cons
My students are very used to deductive instruction—perhaps a little too accustomed to it. As a new teacher, I feel as though deductive teaching is the first thing I reach for, or strive towards-- I am still trying to make sure I get everything into my lesson. However, I believe that deductive teaching can be quite boring and trite (when used over and over). But, then again, some students feel very comfortable with this method—since it is something they are familiar with and they can experience success this way. Depending on the objective, there are moments where deductive instruction is essential (and just makes sense) and there are moments when other strategies “work” more efficiently.
Inductive instruction is very good for explaining the odd, or the exceptions to common rules. It gives students power and the ability to take measured risks (good risks!) with the aid of a teacher. They become the inventors of the rules, or discoverers of those odd exceptions—their contributions “make” are the lesson. However, they can “break” the lesson—if they just aren’t into the material or students aren’t comfortable making guesses, predictions, or hypothesis.


In my room…
I have used a lot of inductive instruction for grammar (you have to have something to spice it up!). Sometimes, I find it hard to follow all the way through—letting the students really find ALL the answers and rules. I think this happens when not enough of the students know basic grammatical concepts to help them make those “educated guesses.” However, I have been most successful when I was halfway through a unit and I was presenting material they had a good frame of reference fresh in their minds. It was pretty great when they presented ME with the rules for singular and possessive nouns. The real trick or challenge is setting them up for as much success as possible. Even though I try to this every lesson, the planning and steps becomes very important in inductive instruction. Once in awhile, a lesson becomes inductive all on its own—when I realize that my students don’t understand a concept (I assumed they had in previous grades or at least should have had). I know it doesn’t “count” as inductive, but there are moments when the learning experience of a lesson turns out this way.

In my classroom, deductive or direct instruction occurs when concepts are particularly hard or very new. I am very sad to report that I use it more frequently than some the other strategies. Especially at the beginning of the year, I used direct instruction a lot. However, in middle school, especially in sixth grade, I feel a pretty heavy burden to prepare students on how to be student—takes notes, listening skills, answer questions, etc. With direct instruction, I can provide a forum for them to practice these skills on a day-to-day basis. As I said, students are probably too familiar with deductive teaching, but they do not always understand how to be active within this format. That is the missing link with deductive instruction—it doesn’t have to be passive. I know, my sixth graders need to be shown how learn from this strategy. They don’t do anything automatically and along with every new objective they are learning—they are also learning how to interact with deductive.

Both deductive and inductive instruction work well for me—I think variety, creativity, and thoughtfulness lead to their success in the classroom.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Classroom Management Update(s)

Well, my plans have changed. So much has changed that I am amazed at my former self of June and July. Throughout the last month I have been slowly realizing ALL the things I need to do in order to have a more efficient classroom. This is what I lacked in the planning stage in the summer. My first day could have been so much better had I known more about my school and its policies. I never imagined bells couldn't ring on time or that students would be more concerned about the social scene than what their teacher was saying. I didn't really understand what it would mean (to my plans and my head) to have to hold my homeroom class for four hours. Time to wake-up!!!!

When I started this process, I never imagined having to raise my voice (not in anger-- but just to be heard) with kids. Wow, thirty students talking at once is loud. And certainly louder than my voice could be. I still have not figured out an effective way to silence all of my students. During my worst class (and worst moments)-- I flicked the lights and they thought it was a light show. But the countdown is only slowly working-- they are learning how to become quiet in five seconds! Maybe one day it will always work!

Okay, so the whole corporal punishment thing. I am still fighting with it. My whole idea about having kids write out of the dictionary has gone out the window-- they don't care and I had one student who owed me 11 pages. And he stole my dictionary (I think). My students are not intimidated by copying things-- in fact I think they prefer it to doing actual work. I enforce my rules but I hesitate to kick students out all the time. I walked by a paddling during my planning period and I almost had a heart attack. How can that work? I sent two kids to the office for fighting and they were paddled. Great....I have to think of something better for my students. I am working on a tutor/detention plan. Calling student parents is a godsend!

Yesterday, my mom was telling about a new system devised to help monitor drug addicts who are on parole. A smalll device was devolped that monitors their sleep patterns. Apparently when a person uses drugs their sleep patterns are altered dramatically. What was surprising about this invention was that the addicts were grateful for a device that would "catch" them. During one interview, a woman who had repeatedly been put back in jail for breaking parole for using again, spoke of how great it was to not be able to fool with the system. The device kept her accountable-- she couldn't lie (and didn't have to waste energy trying...) or try to switch urine when she came in for routine testing. It was clear, reliable and fair.

I know it isn't a very eloqouent comparison, but what I want it a classroom management plan like that. Free from my error. I never realized my students would need so much structure. Structure for everything...I thought that they could decide a few things by themselves. Nope-- I was wrong. I thought I had a lot of structure in my plan. I need more. Don't get me wrong a lot of things did work-- but I am presented with a new problem or situation everyday and I am constantly amending and correcting my orginal plan. If my students are learning half of what I am learning they will graduate college before age 12.