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updates for 10.09.2011

6 new posts today

8 weeks down

This week was pretty good.  I'm starting to become better friends with some of the other teachers, and things are going okay. As always, it's really hard to focus on the good things I'm doing instead of the things I'm still bad at.  I had a "professional learning community" meeting this week, and my principal and department head were raving about what a great job they thought I was doing.  I'm not exaggerating -- my principal went on and on about how I was one of the most talented beginning teachers he'd ever seen, about how I have good instincts and stuff like that.  He loves the parent communication I've been doing, and basically thinks I'm great. While they were telling me this, I felt good, but then I went back to my classroom to work and started thinking about everything I feel like I'm still doing wrong.  I may be doing well for a first-year teacher, but I still have things that I'm REALLY bad at. I don't have a Big Goal. TFA blasphemy, I know -- but I honestly don't care very much about test scores.  I care about them, but there are things I want for my students that FAR outweigh good test scores.  I want them to be nice to each other, for starters.  I want them to want to go to college, and I want them to work hard at school because it makes them better people. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by my students.  I see these moral/character deficiencies that are holding them back, and I have no idea how to teach my students how to be good people.  But for the most part, they are amazing.  They're so sweet, and so generous.  I was talking to one of the other teachers, and she was saying that kids are really forgiving.  Each day really is a clean slate for them, and they don't carry nearly as much baggage as adults do. I did better this week at the work/life balance thing.  I worked at school after school, and made myself stop at 7.  The only thing is that by the time I went to the gym and came home and showered and ate dinner, it was almost 9.  That's pretty much my whole day.  Blech.  So this week my goal is to leave school every day by 6:30. I'm going to pore over my teaching books this weekend.  It's the end of the first 9 weeks, and I want to change a few things for the next 9 weeks.  I'm overwhelmed when I observe other teachers, because I see how good they are, and I don't know how to get from where I am to where they are.  I guess it's just time. Today some of the other TFAers and I ran a 5k in our town, and I've spent the rest of the day working/relaxing.  I'm being anti-social this weekend, and I love it.  There's brownies in the oven, and Friends in the DVD player. "praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee/ surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee"


Saturday evening.

I think I'm okay knowing there's no way I'm getting any work done today. It's Saturday. I'm sitting in Starbucks, as usual, with my favorite girls. Lately I've been spending a lot of time deep in gratitude for my life as it stands right now. I could start crying within 60 seconds if I let myself consider it from the right angle. Especially in contrast to this time last year, I am intensely happy. I am so fortunate. It's been enough time since I've seen my family for me to start missing them. I miss cuddling with my dog, and talking to my dad in the kitchen after dark, and wandering city streets with my sister. I want to play with my little cousins and listen to my brother talk about work at the UN. I'm glad Thanksgiving is coming up, and I have a trip to Chicago in four weeks. I've got a longing building up. I know I'm not an excellent teacher. I'm not great at grammar, and I'm not sure how to tackle narrative writing, but lord are my students invested. My fifth period class, in the last week (knock on wood), has been a turnaround class. Three weeks ago when they left my voice was hoarse; when they arrived I locked up with tension. This week they earned 15 class points in three days, I've heard peer-to-peer comments of "no one's laughing when you do that," and "that was totally inappropriate," and "shhhhhhh". Every day I told them how proud I am. After sending out a call for book donations, I had five different people offer to send me entire series'. I am overwhelmed with gratitude, yet again. In the middle of third period on Friday, the full series of The Hunger Games arrived to my room, courtesy of college roommate and Chicago engineer Jay. By the end of the day, all the books were checked out by incredibly eager readers. Having high interest books changes everything. I can already feel my super high from a few weeks ago leveling out into normalcy. My life, which last year was an ocean to drown in, has turned back into a dirt path. Not sure where I'm going, not sure I can even see the difference between path and woods, but if nothing else I've got solid ground beneath me. Finally.


Classroom Planking

I walked into my advisory one day to find these things occurring: The day before, one of my students had mentioned planking and another asked what the word meant.  We really have no curriculum or structure for advisory, so I decided we should learn about planking that day.  I pulled up the YouTube video from the Australian news station and we discussed how the plank position is actually a yoga position as well.  Then we went back to our scheduled activity (I think we were talking about integrity). Then the next day this happened.  I laughed so hard when I saw my students planking on my desks!  I immediately took pictures.  My 8th grade boys are pretty funny.


A-Bombs in Education

It has been harder to keep up with this blog than I anticipated. Whew! Special Education is a whole different ball game! I have started writing posts quite a few times, but before I can finish I am pulled back to planning, grading, calling parents, etc. Down time is hard to find, but I found some today. Allow me to rage for a moment. Those who know me well are probably rolling their eyes and either settling in to hear another of my opinionated tangents or frantically searching for a courteous escape. Ok, ok, ok...I am opinionated (duh! I am a Fissori :-)). All joking and silliness aside, I am unable to escape the impact of information I learned yesterday. It seemed like a routine conversation with my young men about the book they are reading in literature class. We Beat the Streets is the autobiography of three African American doctors who met during high school in Newark, New Jersey. Despite growing up in public housing, coming from low income families, and struggling with social and emotional issues, the three made good on their pact to see each other through medical school. Although I don't teach literature, I hear the guys talking about the book occasionally and I love using those moments to ask questions and hear their thoughts. Yesterday, during this type of conversation the topic turned to special education. There is a portion of the We Beat the Streets where one of the doctors shares that he attended a Parochial elementary school, where he was eager to learn and would consistently be the first one in class done with his assignments. The teachers would be disgusted with him for "being off task" or for getting out of his seat without permission (and any other thing that didn't fit the teacher's agenda) and would threaten him with special education. Before he knew it he landed in special ed because of his "insubordinate behavior" and "failure to focus" (which, mind you are NOT qualifications for a student to even be referred to SPED, let alone placed there). At first I was saddened and upset by this story because it seemed to me like the author had a uniquely terrible experience with a terrible teacher, but as I listened to my boys talk about this story my blood ran cold. Five, yes FIVE, of the young men sitting in my special education class waiting for Algebra 1 to start retold their own parallel experience. At least five of my fourteen guys were most likely top of their class at one point, but ill- prepared, lazy teachers decided that students who did their work too fast, disrupted the class because of boredom, and ultimately required that they put more effort into their job, were fit for special education. As they chatted, I eerily realized that my suspicions were tragically true: I had students who should have been in a gifted talented program as youngsters. It is rare that words fail me, but I still cannot express my response to this. I abhor the fact that someone in my profession would commit such a horrific crime against humanity (yes, I think it is THAT serious). I know it is not too late for these boys, but I mourn what is lost. I am enraged to think that they could be honors students or taking sophomore level classes if only a teacher five years ago would have been invested in her students and profession. I have cried multiple times in the last 24 hours as I have thought of the ripple effects of these teachers’ decisions, but it goes far beyond sadness. Do we not understand the social, cultural, political (etc) impact of “simple” decisions like this? I guarantee that if this happened to the doctor in the book and five of my students that it is a much more common practice than we care to believe. I can imagine the same teacher’s that identified these young men as “Special Ed” sit around talking about students’ lack of commitment to academics, complain about the crime rates in Chicago, and blame entitlements as the cause of federal deficits, never once thinking back to their role in all of that. Am I blowing this out of proportion? Well, did the A-bomb destroy Hiroshima?  Yesterday, I became eerily aware that as a teacher the power of life and death is in my words and actions. The destruction that I can cause to an individual is profoundly similar to what the A-bomb caused to a city. It is THAT serious. It is THAT life-altering. I believe that education success or failure is THAT powerful. This school year has been the hardest one yet.  Six years ago while I was dreaming about  “molding enthusiastic, lifelong learners”, five of my boys were sent a clear message that enthusiasm and efficiency was punishable. While my dream as a teacher is to build confident, informed, self-advocates, my young men are hiding behind masquerades of athletic ambition and streets smarts because their experience in academia shredded their worth. This year, my first in SPED, is so much harder than my last 5 years because this year is not just about teaching math, it is about unlocking the rusted deadbolt to the chest that holds the shattered pieces of confidence, and then beginning to piece it back together. After 5 years teaching, I thought I had this down, but yesterday’s conversation came as a moment of truth. Here I am daily questioning my choice to do SPED, wondering if I am effective, stressing over how I am going to get my guys to reach the “Big Goals”, and I am slapped with the reality that I don’t have time to question, wonder, and complain. I have to both inspire and challenge these young men so that they can, once again, excel. It would be easy to lower expectations, especially when the boys struggle behaviorally, but I cannot allow the horrific choices of teachers before me to dictate what I expect these boys to do.  Just when I start to question my profession and my ambition to lead education reform I have these critical moments that remind me that the frustrations and challenges are a small price to pay when it means changing the trajectory of a student’s life.


Counting it all joy

Overheard at the end of a block N.: "Ohmigoshhh I lost my exit slip!" An unintended consequence of blogging on weekends is that I'm usually writing when I'm physically and emotionally at my peak. I get to catch up (somewhat) on sleep, I can actually spend some time reading for pleasure and chatting with non-teacher friends, and most of all, I have two whole days to get ahead on lesson planning. I also have a chance to pump myself up for the coming week and tell myself that my students are actually going to learn as much as possible. After all... I have two whole days to get ahead on lesson planning! (Did I mention I have two whole days to get ahead on lesson planning?) Unfortunately, most of the time, these high hopes don't come to fruition. I either get bogged down with trivial but numerous and time-consuming errands, or procrastinate by watching YouTube videos and playing my guitar, or otherwise spend my time in unproductive ways. Consequently, of course, I usually don't have as great of a week as I expected. That's why I'm incredibly grateful that by the grace of God, despite my lack of productivity last weekend, this past week was probably my best yet. Between being able to keep students focused and on task all day (probably because periods were shorter thanks to NECAP testing), exchanging text messages with a struggling student for the first time, and administering an objectively difficult unit exam that students dove into enthusiastically and successfully, this week was the first time that I felt like I was genuinely generating transformational change in the classroom. Perhaps the most memorable moment from this week was a brief conversation that I had with a student after class on Thursday. C. is a football player who towers over me (and I'm a pretty tall guy), has been expelled or suspended from multiple high schools, for who-knows-what reasons, and simply exudes "toughness" in every way. There are times when I wonder if he should have IEP, either for the emotional disturbances that caused his previous disciplinary issues, or for the exorbitant amount of time that he takes to process the material that I teach. Yet I've noticed that given sufficient time and guidance, he is able to solve every question that I throw at him. So I pulled him aside after class on Thursday and told him that if he wants, he can come in after school once in a while to make up the work that he couldn't finish during class. He responded, "Thanks Mr. K. I really like the way you treat me with respect. You're the only teacher who understands," and promptly walked out the door to his next class. I really hope he takes up my offer. One thing that's been on my heart lately is the notion that I can and must be joyful at all circumstances, whether it's after a really great week of teaching (like today), or in the midst of deep, excruciating struggles (not to say that I've experienced anything remotely resembling deep, excruciating struggles, though I know that some of my fellow CMs have). I've been blessed to lead a weekly Bible study at my apartment, and one passage that stands out to me from what we've studied is James 1:2-4.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Here's an example of backwards planning, if I ever saw one. The desired end result is being perfect and complete, lacking in nothing, just as we were originally created by God. The way we become perfect and complete is by letting steadfastness have its full effect. The way we let steadfastness have its full effect is by counting it all joy when (not if!) we meet trials of various kinds. There's something to think about, the next time I feel like I'm having a miserable day and nothing is going as planned. Jesus said it best in His promise of the Holy Spirit:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
It's that simple. We've been given peace. Our hearts need not be troubled or afraid. Can I get an amen?

I teach for A.J.

Yesterday as my students were taking notes, A. politely raised his hand (like he always does). I went over to his table and he said, "Ms. Y, did you know that it takes a year for a lizard to poop?" Where do kids get this stuff? It's AWESOME. Time for a more lengthy update soon. Headed to TAL today (known as ProSat in some regions, I think) so that might be the perfect time for an update. Whoops, don't tell!


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