Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Assigned: Reflection on Summer Lessons

In my evaluations of my first-years' lessons, I would often (less so now, as they've really improved on it) focus on the wording and scope of their objectives. I didn't like harping on such an Ed. School-y thing; I hate the empty jargon and (excessive) obsession with standards that permeates education as much, if not more, than I did last year. But, the past year has taught me that in this position--being a teacher and being in Teacher Corps-- a certain amount of compromise is necessary. I felt like I needed to at least tell my first years how to play the game, whether or not they believed in all of it.

All of that said, when I consider the differences between my most and least successful lessons this summer, one of the clearest distinctions is in the scope (not the wording, which I think I've mostly figured out at this point) of my objectives. On the most-successful side, my lesson on multiple-meaning words was very focused--the students had to show, by the end of the period, that they could use different meanings of the same words. This was probably not a particularly hard objective for my students to master, but I did give them a list of 8th-grade-level vocabulary that they had to use and almost every student made a passing grade. Aside from the objectives, this lesson also offered the students more opportunities for participation. I began the lesson, after my set, by giving students cards with definitions for a multiple-meaning word. The students had to walk around the room and find the other student who had a different definition for the same word. Although this was a pretty hard exercise for most of them, I think they really enjoyed moving around and that it actually helped them conceptualize multiple-meanings.

I would consider my lesson on organizational patterns in texts to be my worst because its objectives were far too broad to cram into two 50 minute periods. I had hoped that students would be able to define each of the five major textual organization patterns (sequential order, order of important, cause & effect, compare & contrast, main idea & details), recognize them in texts and apply that knowledge to reading comprehension. Needless to say, I was far too ambitious. Because I wanted to force so much material into the students' heads, I rushed through my set and explanation of each pattern and set them loose on a group activity that they weren't really prepared for.

Our instructional procedures have worked fairly well. I like making my "Do Now" an engaging, un-intimidating assignment that I can steer towards the day's objective during my set. Sharing answers to the Do Now gets students participating early and sets a good precedent for the rest of the period. In evaluations, I've paid a fair amount of attention to questioning strategies, as much for myself as for my first-years. Frequent questioning, whether as quick informal assessment or to prompt deeper critical thinking, is something I still need to work on, but when I've put in the effort there, it's paid off in engaging the students more.

My shortcut to differentiate instruction--and, admittedly, still perhaps my primary method--is to speak to students individually during assignments and ask them questions or give them more pointed directions: "Look for (blank) in this paragraph and raise your hand when you've found it," or (after asking a student to explain his/her idea aloud) "Write what you just told me." This is a cop-out, of course. I do target the students who I know will have more trouble with an assignment, but it's not really planned out and it's completely unfeasible with larger classes. In terms of more formal differentiation, I've allowed students to choose different roles (leader, reporter, recorder, reader, etc.) during group activities, tried to include more tactile elements in my lessons, and pulled examples or analogies from a wide variety of sources (an illustration of point of view using video games, for example).

Differentiation and informal assessment are my chief concerns right now for improving student performance. My lessons are still auditory-visual-heavy, and I've seen how much of a difference a small tactile or kinetic component can make in an assignment. Informal assessment is still a weak point for me; I think I frequently mistake students' energy for understanding and I can think of several students from our summer school class for whom the two clearly do not correlate.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Failure Story

It’s hard to pick out a particular “failure story” from the varied and expansive landscape of failure that was my first year of teaching. It’s hard not just because I look back at my teaching this past year critically and see a lot of failure; it’s also hard because I see how interconnected any discrete shortcoming on my part was with my students’ mistakes, with others of my own, with the myriad injustices of my situation or theirs, and even with my conscious decisions to prioritize some aspects of my job over others. Perhaps it’s my ability to rationalize nearly anything to myself, but I can’t pick out one student, or one specific responsibility I had, and say, “I failed her” or “I failed to do this,” without also seeing where “she failed me,” or “the system failed us both,” or how “I failed to do this because I was also failing somewhere else,” or even “I failed to do this because I was too busy succeeding in this other way.” And all that qualification clearly wouldn’t make for a good story.

Objectively speaking, I think it would be inaccurate to name a particular student my “failure story”; it’s like the converse of the messianic teacher impulse (“I can save a kid myself”) that I try to check in myself. There’s a hidden pride there that I’m wary of. At the same time, I do think of some students as “my failures”—if nothing else, blaming myself alone lets me preserve the hope that my positive impact on students could be that substantial—and so a failure story does fit that subjective look at this past year.

“Ricky” was one of the most intelligent 7th graders I taught, which is to say that he was one of my most intelligent students across the board, as my 7th graders were almost all better readers and writers than my 8th graders. He read books at, and frequently above, his grade level, when many of his peers were reading at a third or fourth grade level. What’s more, he was unfailingly polite and willing to help, if a little shy.

I was delighted to have him in my class, but at the beginning of the year I was far too busy putting out classroom management fires to give him much attention. Thankfully, he seemed mature and self-motivated enough to not require much on my part other than giving him the opportunity to learn. I still felt a little guilty knowing that he wasn’t getting the individual attention or even the well-run classroom that he deserved, because I was trying to handle his classmates, who were busy eating paper, trying to blow pencil shavings at each other, or making sound effects for everything they did. My guilt was only exacerbated by the fact that this was a class of seven students. How could I be this harried with such a small class?

Things didn’t improve with Ricky’s classmates for a while, but for the first semester he endured the chaos of sixth period without complaint. Around the beginning of the second semester, which is embarassingly late (but better than never, I suppose), I finally started making headway with the three discipline cases in the class. That progress came with a cost, though. I’d tried many management strategies with Ricky’s class, and the first thing that showed any signs of working was to take a much more authoritarian (not authoritative) tone with the students—to edge closer to the verbal violence that so many of my students expected from authority figures. In picking the first thing that seemed to work, rather than the one that was best, I ended up straining my relationships with all of the students in Ricky’s class, Ricky included. Class took on a negative tone, and while students would usually do their work, they did it with a scowl on their face and with no motivation to work beyond the minimum requirements. Where before class disruptions would seem to spill over from my students’ excess energy, which I could tap for positive use in my lessons, now they were almost always negative—name-calling, verbal confrontations, and complaining.

From my one year’s experience, 8th graders seem to improve in attitude over the course of the year, while 7th graders seem to get worse, so I wasn’t completely surprised when Ricky started getting caught up in the same negativity as his peers. I was disappointed, though, having seen how mature and self-possessed he’d been earlier in the year. When he started complaining and insulting other students too, I came down hard on him, just like I did with the others, but it only served to antagonize him more. The last straw was, in effect, our final unit in his class, in which we read Monster, a book he’d read a year ago. He complained from the beginning about having to do the same thing over again, and I—burnt out from the year and generally disinclined to let a student from his class do anything other than exactly what I had planned for them—told him that he would have to do the same work as everyone else and that he might find some value in re-reading. When I got around to it (which is to say, rarely), I would plan some alternative, higher-level thinking questions for him to answer about our daily reading, but for the most part, I just let him sit in the back of the classroom, bored and barely pretending to follow along. With hardly any interest in the day’s lesson, he became as big a management problem as anyone else. The rest of the class, even the inveterate discipline problems, were relatively focused on the book, and in my relief at finding something that got them to shut up and participate constructively, I let Ricky slip into a role that should not have been his.

Ricky’s story isn’t a failure story in the sense that he came anywhere near failing my class—he passed with the highest grade. It’s a failure because, by the end of the year, he’d learned to associate English class with being bored, angry, and—to some extent—ignored.

I feel like I failed “Ricky,” but I also know that my failure wasn’t as simple as just not giving him enough attention, encouragement, or individualized instruction. The failure of my classroom management certainly helped turn his class’ environment so negative, but that environment was also shaped by things beyond my control, chiefly perhaps the hormonal tumult of the second semester of 7th grade. But while I’ll concede that Ricky’s transformation from self-motivated and mature to disaffected and apathetic wasn’t entirely my fault, I realize that claiming as my failure can be useful, if I let it remind me of my responsibilities to all of my students, even those who seem like they need me the least.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Assigned: Learning Goals and Instructional Decisions

Unlike many other second-years, Deb and I have both taught our summer school subject before this session, Deb during last year's summer school and I during the past school year. In preparing an outline of the course, we were able to look over the state frameworks for 8th grade English and pick out the objectives that we knew our students had struggled with. While we couldn't be sure that our students in Holly Springs would have the same problems that mine did this past year and Deb's did last summer, it helped to have some means of narrowing down the maddeningly broad and vague frameworks. (The state frameworks for English are nearly identical from 6th-8th grade). Thus, we'll be spending a lot of time this summer on subject-verb agreement, on following the writing process all the way through, on inferring word meaning from context clues and word structure, on drawing inferences and making predictions based on readings, and on literacy in non-traditional texts (charts and diagrams, forms, reference sources, etc.). For the first week, we chose the objectives that we felt were most fundamental--mostly context clues and word structure, subject-verb agreement, and identifying main idea and details. The first and third are essential for their reading, while the second was one of the most glaring and universal writing issues for my students last year and looks to be equally necessary for these students, given the writing samples we have from the first few lessons.

With the time constraints of a 3-week term and the confusion of having four teachers, we'll need to put as much continuity as possible in our sequencing of the objectives; there's a tendency, I think, to hopscotch around without much sense when trying to fit so much material into so little time. So, for example, I've planned to hit author's purpose and the fact-opinion distinction before we get to persuasive techniques and persuasive writing, and compare-and-contrast writing before figurative language (so that we can teach metaphors, similes, and co. as forms of comparison).

Along with the state frameworks, we have another master to serve, in the form of this EBS assessment business, which is apparently a district or county requirement. In short, the requirement is that--if the majority of our class that is listed as EBS is to pass--we must assess and document their mastery of 80% of the objectives on a list that more or less corresponds to the MS frameworks. But here's the rub: our EBS students all have different objectives that they need to master. So we've also had to focus our objectives on the skills that most of our students need to master to be promoted. Of course, there are objectives that only a few students didn't master during the school year; those we'll cover in remediation outside of regular class periods.

The inductive strategy that I've used is concept attainment. As a Do Now for our first lesson on word structure, I gave every student a set of six index cards; each set was made up of words that had prefixes and others that did not ("possible" and "inaccurate," for example). The students had to come up with some criteria for dividing the words into two groups. Without telling the students to look for prefixes, most divided the words by whether or not they had a prefix. They were able to recognize prefixes without being specifically told to do so and developed a concept of prefixes that we were able to build off of with a more formal definition. Later, when creating a list of common prefixes and their meanings, I had the students find the meanings of the prefixes inductively, by giving them a list of familiar words that used a particular prefix. The students had to induce a meaning of the prefix from the meanings of those known words.

Monday, May 14, 2007


Herding kids off campus on Friday, I heard something that cast a shadow over the weekend: Catrice was coming back.

Catrice was in my homeroom for the first half of the first nine weeks, but in that brief time she provided some of my best what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here stories. Brash and tall, with her hair cut close and bleached blond, she stuck out among the generally meek and gawky kids in her class. She was 15, in the 7th grade, and read at a 2nd grade level, maybe. Homeroom is supposed to be silent reading. She also had spent part of last year in a mental institution, until she was kicked out for assaulting a nurse. Somehow, she was allowed to enroll with us, rather than the alternative school.

Naturally, she didn't have much interest in reading and spent homeroom talking. She’d prop her feet on the desk or make bizarre noises designed to get my attention. After trying and failing to deal with her in the classroom, I'd send her to the office. They'd send her back. Fine.

Then, Catrice started taking an interest in me. She began by commenting on my clothes, then on my hair. Then she moved on to trying to touch my hair. If I was standing next to her while talking to another student, she would lean backwards and stretch, brushing the back of my head. I’d back away and tell her to stop. Eventually, she started growling at me. I'd write it up and tell her it was inappropriate, but my principal did nothing, and nothing changed.

For one glorious, week-long respite, Catrice was absent. My homeroom looked entirely different while she was gone: kids had their noses buried in books, and hardly anyone talked. I found out that she had had to go to court for beating up her stepfather. I wondered how we could allow her in the same room as those angels.

After a week, Catrice returned and, perhaps sensing that she was on her way out, turned up the charm. Despite all of our preparation on sexual harassment, up to that point I hadn't really thought of her behavior as such—more as inappropriate or generally crazy. Then came the day she propped her leg up on her desk, as I was walking past her. That managed to get my attention and as I looked at her, she stared me in the eye and growled, while stroking her thigh. I was stunned. The next day, she was taken away by the police for some other reason that I still don’t know, and I was free to fight for quiet with the rest of my homeroom.

So, I was a little anxious to find out that she'd be returning. Why would we let any student return for just the last week of school, let alone one who last left school in handcuffs? I asked my principal about it; he hadn't even heard about her coming back. I asked the assistant principal; she said Catrice was back from "the home," whatever that means, and that there was nothing we could do if she wanted to enroll. I told both of them that I wouldn’t let her in, that I didn’t want her in my class. "No one does," the assistant principal told me.

Sure enough, Catrice showed up this morning, but at first I didn't recognize her. The most lasting visual memory I’d had of her was from “Tacky Day,” part of our spirit week before Homecoming. Catrice, however, went beyond tacky, to truly scary; she wore a blue silk bathrobe, a thick brown wig, fake eyeglasses, and a set of rubber teeth that looked like they came from the costume department of a zombie movie.

Now Catrice was taller, much taller. Her hair was long—I don’t know if it was her own or a weave, but it looked much nicer than anything she’d had before. And most strikingly, she didn't have the crazed look in her eyes I'd seen before. You could see her thinking.

"Good morning, Mr. Schaefer," she said.

"Uh...good morning, Catrice,” I stammered. “Are you going to be in this class?" I was sure she knew what I wanted to hear.

"Yeah, they said that I should go back to my old classes."

"Oh, okay," I said. And then, trying to conceal my disappointment, "Well how are you?"

"I'm good. A lot calmer."

I wanted to say, "Yes, you are," but that didn't seem right. She was calm, though. Even as the rest of my homeroom girls crowded around her, a couple of them showing out for her the way they used to, her voice stayed low, in control. What had they done to her at "the home?" If this was Catrice, why not take her back?

A few minutes later, my ever-tactful assistant principal poked her head in the door and warned me, "Mr. Schaefer, your girl is here." And to make things completely clear, "'Catrice is here."

"Thanks, Mrs. Carter, she's right here in my room."


She didn't stay long after all. The counselor pulled her out and I heard later that she was being sent to the alternative school after all, which makes sense. If any of her classes were working at this point, she wouldn't be prepared for them. But still, I felt a little regret that I wouldn't be able to witness this new, reformed Catrice.

It's telling that, for a turnaround as dramatic as Catrice's to take place (assuming it wasn't all just good behavior for her first day back), you need to take someone out of our school. Too many of my students need whatever she got and have instead been allowed to run further in the wrong direction. While I doubt anyone sees it like this, sending Catrice to the alternative school might be protecting her from us more than it is the other way around.

Thursday, May 10, 2007


In a piece I wrote this fall but never posted, I talked about the internal politics of my school and how they were mostly playing out along racial lines. In short, there appeared (and still, for the most part, appears) to be good camaraderie among the teachers at my school, a remarkable thing for an integrated faculty on the black side of a de facto segregated school district. But our principal has been a divisive force. By mid-year, his passivity and incompetence had infuriated many teachers, and faculty meetings were as tense and outright confrontational as his spinelessness would allow. I couldn't help noticing, though, that the most vocal criticism always came from white teachers. They would complain about discrepancies in the way he treated black and white teachers (e.g. letting my black team member arrive at school halfway through homeroom every day, but telling a young white teacher that she was probably being sexually harassed by students because she wore open-toed shoes) and wax nostalgic about last year's principal. True, last year's principal sounds great, like a real teacher's principal; she spent much of the principal's fund on photocopies and dry erase markers for teachers, while this year's spent it on a new desk and paint job for his office. But she was also white, and our principal this year is black. And it was discouraging to see how quickly our faculty could split along racial lines, with the white faction buzzing through the winter about filing grievances with our district office.

A lot of the unrest quieted down over the spring semester. Our principal may have improved some, but I think it had much more to do with people's complacency and their familiarity with chaos and incompetence trumping whatever racial tension was bubbling underneath. But now that tension seems to be manifesting itself on a larger scale.

An unintended consequence of trying to stay out of office politics is that I am often completely surprised by certain announcements. The most recent one came early last week, when all district employees received an email from our district superintendent saying that he was resigning, that he'd enjoyed working with us, and would miss all of us. Resigning, mind you, with two weeks of school left. The email began, "As many of you have already heard," but of course I'd heard nothing about this and had to ask several teachers to fill in the details. From them and from our local paper (which I never read, shame on me), this is what I've figured out:

As early as May 3, there were rumors that the school board was asking for the superintendent's resignation, but the formal announcement wasn't made until almost a week later. The case against him is legitimate: the district hasn't made as much progress as the board would like; the assistant superintendent had recently resigned and is filing a gender-discrimination suit against him; and he tried to not renew the contract of the music teacher at my school, a decision the board overturned. I've had hardly any personal experience with him, but he never struck me as particularly exciting or effective. To be honest, I'd suspected that he was using the job to live out his boy-band fantasies. On two different occasions, our district convocation at the beginning of the year and our district-wide Christmas program, he's monopolized the stage and microphone so that he could sing--"I Believe I Can Fly," supported by interpretive dancers from the white high school, and some falsetto R&B version of "Silent Night," respectively.

But some people liked him. I asked Mrs. GE, the oldest teacher at my school, about the whole affair recently, and she told me that a lot of people felt he was the kind of person who could bring the district together, integrate it, even. "Some people don't want to change," she said, meaning the white power structure in town.

Whether or not our superintendent was pushing for integration, his dismissal has brought the ugly side of race relations in our town back into the light. The school board is composed of five old men, one black president, three white members, and another black member. The vote to ask for the superintendent’s resignation was 4 to 1, the one vote against coming from the black member. He was quoted in the local paper as saying that he wanted history to remember that he opposed the decision. Parents on the black side of town are well aware of what this looks like and called the board out at its most recent meeting after the decision. From the quotes I found in our local paper, it sounds as though this was the last straw for many people. There are threats of a lawsuit over the district’s de facto segregation; I don’t know how often the topic is raised, but it sounds convincing.

Dr. Mullins told us this semester—and I fully believe him—that appointing superintendents, rather than electing them, is generally a better way of filling the position, since it usually allows the board to cast a wider net for candidates and keeps petty local politics out of the process. I don’t have all the facts, of course, but this seems to be a case where local politics need to be involved in the process.

My students are only catching onto the story slowly. True, they’re in middle school, so I’m not surprised that it’s not the first thing on their minds. I wonder though, how much of my school’s community cares enough about this to really oppose the decision, support the aforementioned lawsuit, or at least organize around the next school board elections. Complacency has roots almost as deep as racism down here.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

First Semester Reflection

The semester's not over, but it's close enough. This has been, without a doubt, the most difficult thing I've ever had to and I'm still not entirely sure I'm cut out for it. But my problems have been mostly what I expected. Chief among those would be the difficulty I have had with classroom management and with my seventh-graders especially, who have become comfortable and less easily controlled. These problems have dogged my efforts thus far and, as expected, correspond to my still-inadequate work ethic and organization. The small successes I have had have almost always coincided with days when I have a more detailed lesson plan and my papers are closer to order. I have experienced a few of those wonderful improvised mini-lessons or explanations, but their effectiveness is directly related to my confidence, which is itself dependent on my being organized and prepared.

One of the rudest and most immediate shocks of my teaching experience has been the difficulty of maintaining order in a classroom at my school. Because it lacks real walls, my school sounds and feels like the students are more in charge than the teachers. Our administration does little, if anything, to dispel that feeling. The harshest reality of classroom management in my school is that my classroom is not entirely my own, because I can be interrupted or drowned out by a noisy class next door or in the hall. Another shock has been the level of disrespect that students expect that they can get away with; too often they are right. Showing respect to my students—at least what I consider respect—has not proven especially effective at establishing a different climate in my classroom. Authoritarian language and posturing (not disrespect, per se, so much as a harshness that feels foreign to me) instead, have seemed to earn me more respect and ended problems more quickly.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Management Part II: Sticking to it

I seem to begin all of my assigned posts by describing how, well actually, I didn't really do the assignment exactly as it was intended, really. This one's no different. The assignment: enforce every rule and consequence all the time, every time, for two weeks. A tough one, to be sure, which is why Ben said we only had to do it with one class. If the assignment has taught me anything, it's that I'm truly horrible at consistent enforcement. What I ended up doing was more like consistently enforcing rules and consequences for one class for a couple days, then switching to a different class for another two days, then having a bad day and falling apart for every period, then coming back strong at the beginning of every single period but easing up midway through.

That's not to say I didn't try. I started every day of the past two weeks (and most periods, even) mentally resolving to be the drill sergeant I need to be. But the flesh is weak. Often, I'd start the period draconian and consistent about students talking, not getting to work on time, etc. but find myself needing to send a student to the office. Dealing with that, I'd either miss a few infractions or just be so relieved to get the problem student out that I'd ease up on everyone else for a while. From there it was a slippery slope toward chaos.

Not that I'm completely inept or a total pushover, though (despite what my students may say/think about me). I did find that the weeks of being more hardcore, if not completely so, have helped diminish the constant talking and especially the verbal disrespect. Whether through example or some change in my tone/posture/whatever, my warnings and directions seem to carry a little more weight than they did previously. And on my better days (or rather, better periods, of which I've had maybe 3), when I'm catching every infraction and still moving the class forward at a good clip, things just seem to get better and better, with negative consequences becoming more effective and the class points and verbal praise piling up (at least until a kid swipes another kid's pencil and I'm suddenly trying to prevent World War III).

So, to sum up: I'm still no paragon of consistency, but I know that I can be better about enforcement and I've seen enough to know how much easier my life could be if I was. As I said in my last management post, I don't think my rules need to be changed. My negative consequences haven't changed officially, except that I now move from one writing assignment to detention and that I've gone back to holding my own d-hall after sending weeks' worth of lists to the office and never seeing my students in the school-wide one. My positive consequences do seem a little sparse, Student of the Week having fallen by the wayside temporarily, but I'm confident they could work if I stick to SoW and the weekly class rewards.