“what do you know about students?”

When I interviewed for the position I now hold, I found myself sitting across a table from the principal and three assistant principals, faced with this question.  After a nearly hour-long conversation on topics ranging from social studies curriculum to discipline philosophy, I thought for a moment before giving my answer.

“I know they’re precious,” I said with a smile.

That received a laugh.  Phew.

“I also know that school is the last thing on their minds, which is why my job as a teacher is sometimes the last thing I do.”

I was reminded of that sentiment on Thursday.

It started out so well.  I got up early, washed my hair, put on nice clothes, and prepared for the day which included an extra-special activity for my mock trial class.  They loved it, I loved it, and I even had time to put the “Do Now” activity on the screen for my 1st Core as I did hall duty.

At approximately 9:05, my students were entering the classroom and reading their instructions on the screen.  As I greeted several students at the door, I heard a loud noise inside my classroom.  I turned around just in time to see one male student throw his notebook on the ground as the other ferociously unzipped his jacket.  I stepped in right as the angry notebook thrower invited the other student to “take it outside”.  The student who was now without a jacket said, “you really don’t wanna do that”.  They pushed each other.  One girl screamed.  I stepped in the middle, seperated them, and put them in the hallway in separate corners.  I yelled for another teacher to get the administrator, and the incident was over in a matter of seconds.  I walked them up the hallway, emailed my account of the incident, and greeted my class who I thanked for being on task. 

After class, another teacher asked if I was ok.  I laughed.  “I’m fine, why?”

“The fight!” she said. 

I was dumbfounded.  Was that a fight?  Two 13 year old boys pushed each other.  End of story.  I told her as tactfully as possible that I spent the last several years at a high school with gangs who fought at school.  A lot.  This was nothing. 

When I came home that evening, I had some online notifications about my old school, and I was disturbed to read some accounts of a fight they had the same day.  This was a real fight, between bigger boys about bigger issues.  This fight was about gangs and race.  It was at school and it disrupted the school day.  People were hurt, though thankfully everyone is ok.  Some of these students were arrested because of this fight, and I taught some of them in past years.

I thought and felt a lot of things when I heard about the “riot” at my old school, as some are calling it.  I thought about my (former) students and colleagues, and the community around the school.  The hardest thing after a fight like this is battling the negative publicity that undoubtedly follows.  Schools, administrators and teachers can do everything in their power to prevent things like this from happening, but we forget that students are also people who bring with them their own unique set of issues and conflicts.  It is unfair to ask the school to solve and prevent conflicts that begin elsewhere, but we do it every day. 

That’s what I know about students.  I would love to sit down with a parent or two and ask, “what do you know about raising children?”


“can i go to the lav?”

You want to go where? 

“The lav.  The lavatory.  THE BATHROOM.” 

Sheesh.  Transfer students. 

Sometimes I get so wrapped up in the drama and “other” stuff about school that I forget to talk about the most important parts – the curriculum and the students.  And man do I love them. 

Last class I introduced students to the structure of our Federal government by giving them a Constitution Scavenger Hunt.  They were a little disappointed when they realized they didn’t get to leave their seats, but I think it proved to be more interesting than originally anticipated.  I am constantly amazed at how different my classes and students are, but how similar their thought process is.  For example, when we came to Article 2 of the Constitution (the Executive Branch), the hands started shooting up:

“But Mrs. Russ, what if the president dies, and the vice president becomes president.  Is he still only allowed to serve 8 years?”

“What if Obama didn’t want to run for re-election now, but then he changed his mind 20 years from now.  Could he run again?”

“What if most citizens really wanted a president to serve more than 2 terms?”

I am amazed at their curiosity and I get so excited when I see these sparks.  I am happy to answer these same questions all day, because it tells me they’re thinking.

We’ve also been working on their 1st marking period project.  Instead of assigning one cookie-cutter topic, I gave them a menu of options to choose from.  In addition to selecting their own topic and creating a research question, students have to incorporate two elements of technology.  I gave them a list of suggestions that included Prezi, Voki, Zooburst, Glogster, Myths and Legends, and others.  I am amazed to see the final products coming together.  One student is making a commercial about the citizenship process using Windows Movie Maker.  Another student has decided to write a rap song and create a Voki to sing it.  Others are making electronic scrapbooks, Prezis, graphic novels, and pop-up books to illustrate concepts like the 1st Amendment, democracy, rule of law, the legislative process, and citizenship.

I also came across this article today.  It’s about the importance of Civic education at the secondary level.  It says things that I could have told you over a cup of coffee, and that my colleagues and I have known for years.  I’m not really sure why it took so many researchers with so many letters after their names to tell us in such a decisive way that we do, in fact, need to keep teaching Civics and social studies. 

Was that ever in question?


“i love you, but i don’t like you right now”

My high school church youth director told us a horrific story one night about how her own mother uttered these words to her.  How could a parent not like their own child? 

I don’t have kids of my own, but after today I know the feeling of loving someone, but needing to be away from them before you physically harm them.

Today my 8th graders decided to teach me a lesson in their 1st Amendment rights.  It was cute.  After asking them to “please stop talking” in the hallway, in the classroom, during the quiz, one lovely young lady decided to stand up for herself and her classmates.

“Mrs. Russ, I’m sorry for exercising my 1st amendment right to freedom of speech by talking to my friends.  I won’t do it again.”

“You’re right,” I said, “you do have the right to free speech.  But now you have to decide what’s more important – your right to talk or your grade.  So I’ll keep teaching, and you can make your decision.”

Then it happened.  Several of them looked at each other with this look on their faces.  I don’t exactly know how to describe it, except to say that it was as if they turned into raisins and their faces shriveled inward.  Their eyes scrunched up, their mouths were agape, their brows furrowed, and their expressions seemed to say, “What the hell is she talking about?”

I sighed quietly and kept going, trying not to let them see my clinched fists.  I had determined that I would not commit a felony today.  I would do anything to make sure these students are educated, safe, and taken care of.  I would even put myself in harm’s way if they were ever threatened.  But I really did not like them at that particular moment.

Right after school we had a faculty meeting about everything except school.  This week is Red Ribbon Week – the point is to encourage kids to stay drug free. So we’re wearing pink shirts on Wednesday to support Breast Cancer awareness and Thursday is team jersey day.

Read that again.  Let me know when you understand the logic.

We were also reminded that a group of superintendants from around the country will be visiting our school to see how we utilize state-of-the-art technology in our classrooms.  It’s both exciting and stressful, as there is a lot of preparation to be done.  To conclude the meeting, we watched a brief video clip about the United Way Campaign…on a 5-year old LCD projector hooked up to computer speakers amplified by someone holding a microphone. 

The irony was not lost on me.


“mrs.russ, do you know how to cook?”

Of course I can cook.  I make a mean lasagna, and my meatloaf isn’t too bad either according to my husband, our neighbor downstairs, and a singing troubador. 

When my students asked me this question, I told them the same thing, highlighting my most famous recipes.  Their response was an eruption of laughter.  Finally a nice girl clued me in on the 8th grade code – “cook” is a dance move.  In case you’re wondering, I do not “cook”. 

Then I learned about “baking”.  Not the seasonal baking that I enjoy, and not the baking that a certain subgroup enjoys in back of the school underneath the bleachers.  I was accused of attempting to “bake” when I threw attitude back at my students.  For example:

student: “what’s that smell?”

me: “must be your upper lip”

student: “no mrs.russ, don’t try and bake”

I learned so many things from my 8th graders this week, and I remembered why I love teaching so much.  It really is so much fun to interact with students every day, especially when they’re learning to be real people – good, hygenic, sarcastic people. 

One of my favorite moments was when a student raised his hand and said, ever so seriously,

 “Mrs. Russ, I have something important to tell you.” 

“Ok” I said, “What is it?”

“I need some candy.”


“what makes you a hero?”

The thing about the average 8th grader is that there is no such thing.  Some of them are taller than me, some are shorter.  Some of their voices are deeper than mine, some are higher.  Some of them are far less mature than me, and some of them are much more mature than me. 

“JT” is an 8th grader.  He is barely 5 feet tall, has the cutest baby face, wears glasses that constantly fall off of his face, and occaisionally falls out of his chair.  He also plays trumpet, and you might remember me mentioning him in this post.  Most days I want to eat him.  Today before lunch he asked me if I coud help him with an English assignment during the lunch break, and I gave in.  We sat down to start  writing, and I asked what the assignment was about. 

“Well, we have to interview someone about being our hero, and I wanted to interview you.”

Take a moment with me.

I sat in awe as this precious 12-year old asked me questions about being a hero.  It was pretty easy to answer most of them – “What do you think makes someone a hero?”, and “What are the challenges that heroes face?”  But one question got to me.

“Do you ever think about quitting what you do?  If so, what makes you keep going?”

I smiled, and thought about the past several days, weeks, and years.  My first answer was honest – “Absolutely, of course I think about quitting.”  Then I answered the second part of his question:

“I keep going because I love what I do, and because other people depend on me to do it.”


leap

In case you didn’t know, Louisiana assesses students in grades 3-11 each year with the LEAP test.  In 8th grade, you have to show proficiency in math, science, english and social studies in order to be promoted to the 9th grade.  If you don’t, you will be enrolled in a summer remediation program. 

I teach in Virginia.  I have never lived in Louisiana, and I only visited once during a summer trip in high school in 2001.  I learned all of this fascinating information today during a child study for one of my 8th grade students.  She moved here from Louisiana with her mother and two sisters this summer.  Two weeks into the school year it was evident that she has some learning difficulties, so our guidance counselor called together a child study with the mother, school system psychologist, social worker, and general education teachers to determine a course of action. 

The story was confusing at first.  We learned that she had been held back in 3rd grade because of lack of academic development, and that she was not promoted after her 8th grade year in Louisiana before moving to Virginia.  This means that I have a 15-year old 8th grader sitting in my classroom, which also explains her extreme shyness and lack of confidence. 

Today was our third meeting this month to determine an appropriate academic, mental, and social course of action for this student.  It also was not until this morning that we received the transcripts from her previous school in Louisiana…and learned that she passed her 8th grade courses.  So the question before us became, “Why is this child repeating the 8th grade?” 

Her mother told us that when they moved here over the summer, the student’s test scores were the hold up.  She passed social studies and science, but  not english and math.  (As a sidenote, english and math are the only two subjects whose test scores are measured for AYP in the public school system)  Because they moved over the summer, she did not have the opportunity to complete the remediation program in Louisiana.  They were told by the school district that once the transcripts came in, a decision could be made about grade-level placement.  When no transcripts arrived, she was placed in the 8th grade again.

After an hour in our meeting, I felt an overwhelming amount of sympathy for her mother, who has three teenage daughters, a full time job, and is doing the best she can “so that they don’t get pregnant or raped.”  I stared, a bit confused, at a transcript from Louisiana with a different grading scale, testing system, and semester schedule.  I watched a beautiful young girl hold her head down while she listened to a room full of adults discuss her fate as if she were just another number.

I also thought about my lesson for the day – Expressed, Concurrent and Reserved powers.  How wonderful that states have the sovereignty to decide issues like education.  Who’s it hurting?


thursday

The only way to summarize my teaching life lately is to tell you about last Thursday.

It began at approximately 4:13 AM.  I woke up abruptly from a terrifying dream.  Worms were coming out of my belly button.  This will make sense later.  When I arrived at school at 7:15, I quickly jumped into the routine of setting up for homeroom, clearing the tables for first core, and setting up the paper worm lab. 

Oh, did I mention I teach science two days a week now? 

In a previous post I mentioned a hybrid schedule that I’m trying with the science teacher – Mondays/Tuesdays are social studies, Wednesdays/Thursdays are science, and Fridays are hybrid/choice days.  Last Thursday I assisted with a paper worm lab – students learned about independent/dependent variables and units of measurement (mm) by creating paper worm from a straw wrapper, making it grow with drops of water, and measuring it’s growth.  Just when I thought I had done everything in education…

Thursday was also conference night.  This was new for me, as I typically scheduled conferences on my own through the guidance department at my former school.  Here, we have a designated night where parents can schedule a time to come meet with teachers, and teachers can request to see parents if a student is struggling. 

I quickly learned that conferences were done on a “team” basis, and I was to check the schedule of incoming parents to see when I was needed to make an appearance.  I was intrigued that the parent of one student, “Ed”, was coming at 5:30, so I decided to sit in on the meeting.  Ed is classified as special ed and is in one of my collaborative classes.  He is labeled as “ED”, or “emotionally disabled”, rarely speaks, and only seemed to be capable of raptor-like noises to voice his approval or disapproval.  I learned a few weeks into the school year that he lost 40 pounds over the summer, and that any phone conversation with his mother resulted in the phone being taken over by his father.  You put the pieces together.

At the conference, his mother seemed a little overwhelmed – she spent most of the time looking us up and down, and trying to convince us that “Ed” did in fact speak normally at home.  Two of his teachers revealed that they had never heard his voice before.  When asked about his weight loss, his mother became flustered.  The Special Ed coordinator stepped in and explained that he had “been sick”.  After they left, we learned that “Ed” had been binge eating and makig himself throw up over the summer.  It was also revealed that the family are practicing Christian Scientists.  I have so many thoughts on that, I’m pretty sure I could start another blog.  This conference was sandwiched in between kid-who-gets-beat-up-at-home, and girl-who-does-things-with-boys-for-attention.  All in the 8th grade.

Needless to say, half-day Friday was incredibly welcome and long overdue.  One student asked, “Mrs. Russ, why do we have a half-day today?”  To which I replied,  “don’t ask silly questions.”