Mississippi...

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.