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updates for 02.25.2011

12 new posts today

On the Influence of Parents

Over the past few months, I've fleshed out my own theory about why invested parents matter to a student's success. One common view is that parents matter insofar as they provide the guidance and nurturing outside of the school building. In other words, they play a role analogous to the teacher in the classroom. This is clearly true. But, parents matter in an altogether different way--one that rarely gets recognized in current education debates. Parents serve as checks on the behaviors of teachers, consequently affecting the guidance and nurturing of students inside schools as well. ***** Parents certainly play a huge--if not dominant--role in the development of a child. One's habits, mindsets and attitudes are all developed in some way by one's parents. We can see clear benefits accruing to students who have parents that assist them with homework, crack down on laziness, or read bedtime stories. This is generally what we think of when we think of parents. Anecdotes and facts bear this idea out. In my classrooms, students with more "active" parents in their lives--or, for that matter, their mere presence--generally do better. Research shows, after all, that students spend 70% of their waking hours outside of school--where their source of support would naturally be parents. Clearly, parents, by affecting what students do outside of school, influence how students perform in school. But parents have an often unnoticed influence within a school by playing an often unnoticed role: the teacher monitor. I'm talking about the parents who want to get straight facts from a teacher about whether Alexus truly has had no homework this semester (students enjoy claiming that teachers assign no homework). About parents who constantly check in with the teacher. Who ask at the beginning of the semester for a more detailed version of the class' syllabus. Of course, interacting with parents can, at times, be unpleasant. In every group of parents there will always be a few cranky, whiny, unreasonable ones.  Here are some common refrains and implied messages:

  • "You failed my student because you didn't allow her to do her make-up work!" (implying that, because I didn't create a work packet in the last week of the semester, I had unfairly prevented a student from "passing").
  • "Why didn't you let me know...?!" (implying that, as a teacher, I have to inform the student's parents about their progress on every single assignment as well as their exact physical location via GPS coordinates).
  • "You know what? I'm taking this higher up the chain!" (implying that by disallowing a student from answering a phone in class for a "family emergency," I've done something egregiously wrong that can be fixed by speaking to, or threatening to speak to, a "higher authority").
But, I actually think I would prefer more of these types of "intrusive" parents for one simple, honest reason: a teacher will work much harder for a student whose parent is always shaking things up. Parents monitor teachers and hold them accountable in ways that administrators can't. Even though the administration ultimately holds teachers accountable for performance in the classroom (wielding the power to fire, theoretically), parents can perform the same role. I've noticed this most saliently through my presence--albeit infrequent--at IEP meetings for students with special needs. Those parents who "rattle their sabers" during these meetings--demanding that the school provide better accommodations, or gather the right assessment data, or demonstrate that their student has met IEP goals--influence teachers' behaviors in a significant way. Even though I would ideally treat every student completely fairly, devoting the same exact amount of time to each, the reality is that there are only 24 hours in a day--and teaching demands so much from a teacher that devoting the "desirable" amount of attention to every student becomes difficult. I certainly don't neglect any students. Instead, let's just say I allocate my time to those "red-alert" students first. This is just human nature. With a scarce supply of time, allocate it efficiently by reducing the possibility of receiving negative consequences (shouting parents). ***** What's the ultimate lesson? Parents matter in a significant way. They can certainly be crucial outside-of-school factors, but they can also affect, indirectly, the inside-of-school context, by holding teachers accountable in ways that principals can't. Indeed, very few people dare to ignore a demand/request/plea built on the emotions intrinsic to the parent-child relationship. In a system as dysfunctional as DCPS, we need to make a push to develop parents' advocacy skills. Unfortunately, many parents don't have these skills. This is why we need to consider other social services that can help parents help students. The Harlem Children's Zone seems to be doing a good job with this. I hope that the impending development of Promise Neighborhoods across the country (including one in DC) spurs a rise in advocacy skills in the local community. Monday is parent-teacher conference day. The reality at my school, and at most schools in DCPS, is that few parents will show up and hold me accountable. But I hope we reach a day when the hallways brim with parents, eager to "monitor" the behaviors of the teachers in my school building. That would be the most productive form of a "parent revolution." profile counter

And the battle begins...

One of my special ed students recently decided that she didn't want to do anything we told her to do, particularly sitting on the carpet. I decided that she need to be able to sit on the carpet and listen. She met my Sitting on the Carpet and raised it I'll Wet My Pants Anytime You Won't Let Me Do What I Want. I met that with the temporary solution of Diaper. That may not have been the best idea, but I've never had a students use bowel control as a means of manipulation. I spent a lot of time cleaning up urine today. This is not my idea of fun. What will tomorrow bring?


For Gretchen Wherever She May Be: Reflections Pre-Institute

[Caveat emptor: I am personally passionate about corps member development. In no way do I intend the post below to mean that CMs aren't a priority at institute. I'm simply encouraging a little kindness.] Probably the most uncommon knowledge about institute staff is that the operations coordinators are college students. During the agonizing summer of 2008 when I was a corps member in training, I had no idea that OCs were college interns until I actually spoke to one named Gretchen who was studying education in Connecticut. She may have been the only staff member I spoke to kindly the whole summer. (That's an exaggeration. Slight.) I found out at institute that I am capable of being a horrible, callous person. No qualifications. No excuses. I can be awful. I've been interviewing prospective OCs for the last few weeks. As I'm talking to these kiddos - I get to say that since I'm 10 years older than them AND my first class of freshman babies are now sophomores in college - I'm kind of blown away by how accomplished they are. But I also know that most of them, no matter how accomplished, aren't ready for institute yet. They really don't know how tough it will be for them as staff, working for CMs, most of whom don't know they're college interns. We'll train them; we'll support them. But we can never adequately prepare them for everything that will come. These, as of yet unchosen, operations coordinators are my babies. I can get down-right mama grizzly about them. I don't want to see them hurt. So here's all I have to say: 2011 corps, please be kind to my OCs. Say whatever you want/need to me but please be kind to my babies.


Time to Get to Work

I got my pre-institute box in the mail last week and I am so excited to dig into it and start completing everything.  When my mom gave me the package I assumed it was the books I ordered from Barnes and Noble so I was very surprised to cut it open and see TFA letter head.  Because that same morning I also received an e-mail from a charter school wanting to set up a phone interview it took all I had not to dive into it my box and instead I focused on preparing for the interview all weekend and participating in a webinar and completing follow up questions.  My interview on Monday went pretty well and immediately afterwords I cracked open Teaching as Leadership and began reading the introduction.  I love starting new books! I love how perfect and crisp they are and that new smell they have about them.  And yes, I realize how nerdy that sounds but I can't help it. :)  But I'm now in the middle of the Ms. Lora story.  I know some new CM's think its too much and too long but I honestly don't mind.  Maybe it's because I've been outta school for almost a year now and I don't have any unnecessary homework, projects, or test to study for but I kinda enjoy have an assignment to complete.  I'm just so excited to begin this journey and the next step in my life.  I fully plan on enjoying the next 3 months before Induction and Institute; I have trips to New York, Arizona and Cali planned but at the same time I can't wait for it to be June!


Why My Kids Are Precious

2/24/11 They were assigned to write a motivational letter to a classmate in another class. As I was assigning, I attempted to pair friends. Not everyone got someone they knew, but almost all still turned in their letters. (~7 didn't, and I have rockstar students who volunteered to pick up the slack) Some of them are so sweet! Even to the people they didn't know! And they're all itching to know who wrote a letter to them. I can't wait to share on Monday! Also, during tutorials, I had 7 kids come. Each one was seated at a different group and either working on a TAKS passage or their essay. They all still make me nervous when I see repetition of the SAME mistakes we've been talking about for weeks. But for the 4 who come consistently, I've seen SO much improvement. And I am coating them with compliments, which they love. I've seen more smiles from some of them this week than the whole year. It's fantastic! The only tutoring session that hasn't gone well was today during PE when I pulled out a student who was NOT happy about being pulled out of PE. Pero, thankfully, he still did the work, just sullenly. Lastly, had my mid-year eval today with my AP. She basically said that I'm on track to success and doing things really well. Her biggest compliment was again that I have a great repoire with my kids. She said when she's observed that I have a casual atmosphere and yet my students are eager to participate and 98% on task. We talked about how a personal goal I had this semester was to focus on more positive reinforcement, i.e. focusing on praise over off-task or incorrect behaviors. She said this is reflected by my students who are, minus the ones who are bad for everybody, focused and producing a lot of work for me. It made me feel really good and re-committed me to continuing to take my 6-second pauses and focusing on the positive. For ex, coming into class, students should be completing their Do Now. Instead of hollering at the ones who aren't, I start behaviorally narrating, "Sheila is completing her Do Now, Jack is assigning himself," and sometimes I give bonuses (our behavior system). It's fantastic because it truly works. The off-task students get on-task, until the few who aren't on-task either change their minds and decide to conform or have to be talked to. Anyways, it was really awesome to hear that great feedback, especially this week where I feel like my patience has been SUPER thin. My last good thing for the day --> I was waiting for students after school to be picked up, when I saw one of my higher students walking with her mom. They passed, and then I remembered that this student, Jen, was one of 3 students last week to score a 4 on her essay (perfect score). 180-ing, I raced back, introduced myself, found quickly the mom didn't speak English. I asked her if her daughter had told her about her awesome writing. No, she hadn't. I explained what a fantastic job she had done and commended her talent as a writer. I LOVE giving out compliments SO MUCH MORE than crafting a way to express that students are not living up to their potential. It gave me a burst of energy! Lastly, tomorrow is the talent show. Not smart on whoever scheduled an early release day the week before TAKS. However, my team is the closing act. We had our first practice today. I literally flashbacked to failed dance practices in high school and failed dance practices during fish camp. Nauseous feeling and all. I hope I can man up and be goofy for my 7th graders tomorrow. bleh.


What up wit it tho?

Today was another in the long succsesion of horrible days that I have been having. I've quickly begun to realize that, at the relative end of my time in TFA, I am not at all cut out to do this. I'm so anxious and agitated at school that my kids can't help but feel it too. Even the best things about my day (the picture-perfect illustration of Goku with the accompanying essay was OUT OF CONTROL awesome) are tinged by my exhaustion and sadness. Kindergarten is not supposed to be this way. I guess relentless pursuit is not in my vocabulary, at least not against the on-slaught of 29 little ones.  I look back on the way I felt last year, and it's amazing to me how much better off mentally I was in my first year than I am now. It's not that I don't care, but that I am too depressed and overwhelmed to do anything about it. I'm really hoping that someday soon I can end these excessively maudlin posts, but knowing what I know about the difficulties of re-structuring classroom culture that doesn't seem likely. Grin and bear it is really my only option at this point, unless I can somehow develope a game-changer with my PD, cause Lord knows I won't talk to my principal. Never in my life have I harbored such anger and resentment towards another human being. She is even making me re-think my calling into ministry. I'm praying for it everyday, but grace seems so far off right now.  I really hope these are just the February blues talking, but I cannot express how sad I would be if this year made me fundamentally re-assess who I am and what my place in God's providence is. Perhaps, really, it's all for the best. God's will is inscrutable, but that doesn't mean his love is. I know ultimately that whatever the trials I'm facing, I am accepted and loved, and that if I can just express an iota of that same love towards my students, we will all be the better for it. Here's hoping. P.S. The flippant title is totally a defense mechanism, since it can be hard for me to bear my soul like this.


Belated Sorry

I remember very clearly the first time a kid grafittied about me being a bitch. It happened during AIMS last year, when I kept having to ask a student to stop talking (after he and most students were finished, but we were waiting on a few kids and it's SO hard for them to be quiet at that time). He got mad when I gave him consequences, and I found "Ms. Mathinaz is a BITCH" written in a cardboard box I had when he left class. He never admitted to doing it. When I told my principal the story, she said that I was now officially a middle school teacher and that I should appreciate it. It hurt me when it happened then, but since then I've actually started encouraging kids to call me mean. I would now find it a much bigger insult to hear that I was too nice. Today, he came by after school and said he needed to talk to me. He said, "Remember last year, during AIMS, when someone wrote something on that box? That was me. And I wanted to say I'm really sorry. Can you forgive me?" Forgive you?! OF COURSE I forgive you. I forgave you the same day it happened, because I'm a teacher and that's what we have to do. But I'm overwhelmingly touched by the fact that it's almost a year later and you feel better having finally said that to me. Seriously? What a great kid.


Sick Day

After spending the last week with my body trying to eject a lung I gave in and took a day off. I went to work this morning with the plan that if I could get a doctors appointment I would go home, if not, I would suck it up one more day. I showed up and lugged by tired body up the stairs to find the mess of a classroom I left yesterday. I lethargically cleaned up handouts, books left on tables, and other attrition from yesterday's battle against the achievement gap. I then began the agonizing process of alternating between calling my doctor and typing up a sub plan for the day. By 8:10 I had both arranged I was ready to leave school and return to my bed. I spent all day in bed making up sleep from last night's allnighter of fitful coughing and thinking about my students. At 2:15 I tossed on some sweatpants and headed to the doctors only to learn that my appointment had been canceled without warning. Angry and frustrated I retreated to dwell over feeling crappy and worrying that my students were missing yet another day of instruction. I hope that their day was less of a bust than mine..



My students often struggle with the fact that my class doesn't have very many answers.

In free writing responses or during class discussion, I'll often remind them: "There is no right or wrong answer here," they look at me like I'm nuts each time, "there's no equation to solve or date to remember - I want you to feel empowered to create your own ideas out of nothing." "This is hard," I'll tell them - "I know it's nice when we can all agree on the right thing - on the right opinion or the right answer." And they'll wait, silently, hoping that I'll tell them that today - today is the day our discussion will lead us to an answer. And again, I'll say, "But the hard things are the good things. Those are what we want to chase after. Answers mean we're finished with that idea. I don't want us to ever be finished with any of our ideas - they should always be growing and changing." Then the pencils return to the pages and sometimes the foreheads press against the desks - sometimes they say they give up - but we push forward again, together. Because we must - because the only answer is to keep going.

Race, Economics, and the Science Fair

Today was the very first day since I have accepted Teach for America that I was exposed to the large achievement gap that exists within my city (Austin). I volunteered to judge the regional middle school science fair today. I put on my "teacher dress" that I bought on Monday and went down to the event center to listen to eight 6-8th graders talk about chemistry and their projects. I was really looking forward to this experience and was interested to see what they were learning in school. It was AWESOME and very very frustrating at the same time. I have never paid attention until today at the homogeniety that exists among "aspiring" school-aged kids. The first three experiments I observed were amazing and to be honest with you I tried really hard not to pay attention to race but once I got to my one minority kid I kind of fell in love with him immediately. He was not the best dressed, his board was not the prettiest (he said his school could not give him construction paper and I am assuming neither could his parents), but he had an amazing experiment. He was measuring the effect of salt and sugar on melting points and talked about how the more ionic the salt the faster it will melt the salt etc. It was GREAT. He had all of his variables right and was able to just talk about science which for many is extremely difficult. He was at the top of my list for advancing to state. When I came back to the table with my other judges they had already picked out who they wanted to advance. They kept dropping phrases like "Well the Asian kid obviously had their parents help" and "the minority kid (except they dropped the word black instead of minority) just wasn't dressed right and his board wasn't pretty" etc. etc. etc. Who knew that judging a science fair was all about the "LOOK". Granted when you move up in science and become a professional sure, but he is in SIXTH GRADE!!!! On top of that, the one judge I was most frustrated with teaches at a STEM school and he has arrogant written on his forehead. He kept talking about how his kids are way more motivated and that "that black kid didn't even know what a mole was." Did you know what a mole was in sixth grade? I don't even think I could define a mole when I entered college and I am a chemistry major. I'm just so very frustrated that because of his "look" which was likely due to his socioeconomic background and the fact that he is a minority can stop him from advancing to state and gaining that confidence that every student regardless of their color needs. And on top of that he was, in my opinion, the best student that I got to listen to. I was also suprised at how few hispanic/African-American children there were today. Out of the chemistry division which was well over 50 kids, I only saw three minorities. This was fascinating to me since 42% of this city are hispanic or African-American. I also decided to look up the School ReportCard for Austin ISD when I got home from the science fair and was utterly amazed at the statistics. For the schools in Austin in 2010 81% of the white children met standards on the TAKS (the mandatory test here in Texas). But, only 60% of hispanic children and 63% of the African-American children met standards on the test. Why is that? These kids are being taught by the same teachers, but because they are a different color they do worse on the test? Can someone explain that? Who makes up these tests to allow for this gap? Why are these kids so far behind when they are getting taught by the same teachers? Is it the parenting? Is it the lack of discipline? Or is it just a lack of confidence in these kids? Is the reason they are behind because the teachers that are teaching them are not instilling the confidence in them? Is what I witnessed today because the kid din't have the right clothing on he doesn't get to advance to state the reason he is more likely to do poorly on the TAKS test? This is wrong. WRONG. No one's color should determine their intelligence level. My goal next year is to be sure not to develop the same arrogance that I saw today by "veteran" teachers and their idea that this kid wouldn't do well at state because his board/clothes weren't pretty enough (oh and that he is a different color than everyone else). My goal is to be sure that every student when they walk out of my classroom in May 2012 has a sense of confidence instilled in them. Even if they don't pass the TAKS they will know that they CAN pass the TAKS. No matter what color or socioeconomic background they come from. I'm sick of this gap and I haven't even started teaching. But, at least I saw today what the gap is. I've read and read and read about it, but until today have not seen it firsthand since I've been accepted. I will close that gap. Scouts honor. In the words of Journey, Don't Stop Believin'


Consistent and Fair, the golden rule of teaching.

So I'm in my classroom,  sitting on my huge teacher's desk and using my Smartboard as a monitor. It's pretty entertaining. I'm relaxed, because yesterday I came home from school, slept for three hours, planned for three hours, then slept for six more. Funny how that seems like I slept for eternity, but really it was basically a normal amount of sleep broken up in a strange way. Today is Thursday, but Friday for me because tomorrow I'm driving to Hot Springs for Professional Development. When I planned to go to this trip, I honestly looked at it as a break from my kids. A reason to have a four day week. Now that I'm back into teaching (and a lot happier than I was when I found the opportunity)... I won't say I regret registering, but I wish I could be with my kids tomorrow. I'm leaving for the weekend with a bad taste in my mouth. We have a system of discipline in my school called the blue book. Fifth and sixth grade teachers use it. When students break rules, we write down what happened int he blue book. The number of warnings determines the punishment. It's a pretty black and white system, and although in the beginning of the year I thought it was a joke, I now realize that even students with 11 and 12 warnings still really hate getting written up. Today I had a student call another student a "rapist" and wrote it up. I hate the language my students have started to get away with in my class. They think they can cuss outside my door, when they're staring at the floor, or under their breath. There have been a few times where I could not identify who was doing it, so I didn't do anything about it. Lately I'm better at preventing and pinpointing it. So something like rapist is not going under my radar. However, before that broke out, other students were saying something about "roaches" over and over. My school is not new nor that clean. We get bugs. It happens. I assumed that's what the ruckus was about. So my Name Caller comes back to my room at the end of the day and starts crying. He's been suspended for the second time this year. I look at the blue book. This is his sixth warning. I wrote him up this morning. Good, right? Discipline is important. BUT I have another TWO students that I wrote up yesterday-- one for throwing things, one for constant outbursts and overall obnoxious behavior in class. Learning was much more interrupted with these two students. I wrote them up and sent referrals yesterday. It was their 9th and 11th referrals. Those students were in my class today. BOTH OF THEM. How it's fair that I have to explain to a student that "sixth warning means suspension, sorry" when some students are getting away with ELEVEN makes me want to cry, too. I even walked to the principal with him in an attempt to reduce the punishment to in school suspension, but it was a moot point. Sigh. In other school news, my custodial staff makes my day. I asked for a new teacher's desk two days ago (mine is HUGE and BROKE), and today I got one! Yay! I also am moving into a new classroom in a new building supposedly by spring break. Pumped to have built-in shelves and A HALLWAY that is not outdoors!


Pulling my hair out!

2/24/11 In the week when I want to be most inspirational, motivating, and positive, I feel like I'm barely making it through each day! Yesterday, I woke up a little earlier than usual to make some last-minute changes to my ppt and stuff for the day. At 7:10 it hit me that I still hadn't made my copies at school. Crap. Normally I get to school at 6:55-7 if I have to make copies. Last semester, I was there at 6:45-6:50, but I'm not quite that new this semester :) Anyways, I spring into action, but I needed my checkbook. I couldn't find it anywhere. So, I gave up, put on my shoes, got my lunch, and was ready to sprint out the door when I realized my keys were NOT where they are 99% of the time. I used to be really bad about losing them, but now, no matter what, I put them in the same place. Pues, I literally turned my place upside down for 15 minutes. Two minutes into the search, I find my checkbook, of course. I considered calling another teacher to come pick me up because the clock was ticking towards 7:35. Thankfully, I did not cry. At 7:25, I did one final check in my bedroom and found them hiding under a motivational quote I had clipped from a magazine. Thanks for that. I rush into school and I'm pretty sure I skipped someone for copies. But she was lolly-gagging around the copier, didn't say anything, and the days of extreme politeness are over. I ended up only 3 minutes late unlocking my door, but then in the end, because I still had to set stuff up in my room and couldn't deal with my students, I was 5 minutes late into starting class. Frustration! Classes went fine. We did a really neat motivational activity where they wrote, in groups, how they're "RED"y for the TAKS using figurative language. I slapped 'em on the board and they brightened the room. However, the kids are just crazy! They would get so loud. I figured out after 1st period to save that fun activity for last. But I almost yelled during 3rd because they were just so. loud. Instead, I covered my mouth with my hand and waited 6 seconds. That's how long it takes impulsive to be a thought-out action. Maybe I only waited 4 seconds though because it still came out harsher than I meant it to when I told them to take it down 2 levels or the activity was done. It wasn't just me though. I heard at least 3 other teachers raise their voices at students today. Something is in the air. (Maybe it starts with spring and ends in break?) I again pulled students during PE. I was excited when the two students who I pulled yesterday wanted to come today. Granted, today they were running. But still, they worked independently and I worked with the two new ones. One student in particular makes me very nervous. He just straight-up doesn't get the material. I tried to teach him gutcheck and little tips to look for, but he's relying SO heavily on them they didn't seem to work. They're not all you need; they're just supposed to help. He's my biggest concern right now. I love tutoring though. You see the students who often give you oodles of trouble when they're proud of themselves because they're progressing and not out-shadowed by anyone else. It's heartwarming. One more day. I got 8 hours of sleep last night, so I'm hoping my patience and enthusiasm can set the tone for class today. If you'd like, please join the prayer for students testing on March 1st in testing. It's all explained in my previous post - http://facinglafrontera.teachforus.org/2011/02/20/join-our-novena/ Especially praying for the student who just isn't getting it. He can still write an excellent essay and he can still scrape by if he truly focuses. We're "RED"y!


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