Middle School, How I Love Thee!

In September, I started working at a new, technologically focused middle school. I still co-teach US History and English, but now my students are younger.It’s only been about 1.5 months, but already, I’m in love with my new school. Mostly, I’m in love with teaching 8th grade. Wow. What a fun age! They look like teenagers (well, some of them do), but they are tiny like elementary school kids. Their emotions constantly change. One moment they are excited and happy, and the next moment they are depressed and inconsolable, and the moment after that they are angrily screaming at an ex-friend (from ten minutes before).

Here is what I’ve learned about them so far:

  1. They love structure. Love love love.
  2. At the same time, they generally have no idea how to create their own structure, so they must be constantly reminded to walk in, sit down, and take out their notebook.
  3. A sense of urgency is easy to create. A timer does wonders.
  4. They like to pretend they want to be treated as fully capable young men and women, but really they find that freedom frightening. They really want you to take ownership of your authority and tell them what to do without hesitation.
  5. They are so playful!
  6. They still really care if you call or email home. Even though many of them barely talk to their parents, they desperately want for their parents to love and admire all that they do.
  7. If you frequently contact parents, the parents will be grateful. 8th grade is such a hard time to understand your child. I’ve had some parents tell me that their 8th graders are like strangers living in the house.
  8. Oh my god, the socializing never ends.

I’m adoring every moment of it!

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Why I Embrace My Messiness Even Though I’m a Teacher (And Maybe You Should, Too)

I’ve never been neat. When I was a kid, I had a typically messy teenager’s room. But, unlike many folks my age (thirty coughcoughcough), the messiness never really went away. And my messiness has always been  more than just PHYSICAL messiness.

I would forget to eat.

I would lose my keys. Regularly.

I would walk out of the house with TWO DIFFERENT SHOES ON.

I wouldn’t complete homework assignments (unless I was obsessed with them, in which case I would finish them to the nth power).

I probably would have been late to school everyday–if I didn’t live there (thanks, Putney)!

But I didn’t really notice. That’s the funny thing about being incredibly disorganized–as long as no one is depending on you, your disorganization will probably prevent you from noticing your disorganization. Catch-22.

I mean, I got lots of things done. I did well in all of my  high school classes (ok, not in Calculus, but we won’t talk about that). I discovered a love of music. I discovered that I could write really well and that I loved to discuss big ideas.

It wasn’t until college (go Cardinal!) that I started to see that I had organizational issues. I was very good at getting involved in activities (running the entertainment section of the school paper, creating film festivals on the student television station, holding down a job), but I wasn’t always so good with following through or showing up places on time. I did what I could, but the many student organizations of which I was a member found me frustrating, to say the least. The product I created was always good, but I was a living tornado. I thought it was just the stress of college.

That is, until I started working in the financial services industry and was in charge of *gulp* PROJECT MANAGEMENT.

I couldn’t just write inspired words. I had to send the inspired words to be scrubbed by legal and by compliance. They’re the folks who make folks write things like “past performance is no guarantee of future results” and the like. They had their deadlines (no deadlines!) and I had mine, and my job was to nag, nag, nag until I got everything I needed. Even with a spreadsheet I was abysmal at it. That’s not why I left, though. I left because I was bored.

So I became a teacher. Bwa hahahahahaha! Little did I know how much organization THAT would take! I was a mess at first.

Then I switched to teaching special education. And everything changed.

First of all, because it was my job to keep my students organized, I started researching all the different tools available out there to help them do it. And as I researched more and more tools, I started using them.

And the more tools I used, the less disorganized I became. And the better I became at helping my students. Especially the ones with ADD.

Then kerpow! Light bulb. I realized that I had it. I had ADD. I was 32 years old, and suddenly my life made sense in a way it never had before. A psychiatrist confirmed it.

– I understood why folks always thought I was so random in my observations (they couldn’t follow my train of thought).

– I understood why I always had such an easy time tying together incredibly unlike pieces of information and LOVED interdisciplinary studies (I take in a lot of info and see lots of connections–I’m more of a big picture thinker than a detail-oriented thinker).

– I understood why sometimes I couldn’t accomplish even the simplest tasks and sometimes I was so focused that I could work on something for 10 hours straight, voluntarily (this is called “hyper focus” and folks with ADD have a hard time controlling it, though it tends to come when we are really interested in something).

– I understood why relationships were sometimes SO HARD to maintain (I’m at the mercy of my emotions in a different way than many others, though I’m getting better at dealing with this; and sometimes my all-over-the-place way of thinking makes others feel unheard and misunderstood).
– I understood why I was soooo messy and preferred it that way (I need to SEE everything I want, or I’ll forget where it is, so I spread out).

– I understood why consistent classroom management was (and is!) so difficult for me to maintain (I’m easily distracted by every. little. thing. so I struggle with ignoring the tiny distractions meant to take me off course and stop the lesson).

If you look closely at that list, you’ll see that there are useful and not-so-useful skills/handicaps in there. For every negative impact, there is a positive one.

I’ve been lucky enough to have the educational pedigree that allows me to see myself as 2E — Double Exceptional. This means that I have ADD but I’m also very, very smart. I know that Special Ed doesn’t mean dumb. Because I know I’m not dumb.

And that’s why I love my messy apartment, my messy hair, and my cat-fur covered jeans (okay, maybe I’m not so into the cat fur part). These are tangible pieces of proof to the world and to my students that it’s possible to be messy, to be a little out of control, and to still be scary smart, financially stable, and incredibly happy.

I’m just teaching by example, my friends. Just teaching by example.

I know myself. I know my habits. So I can work with them and use them to make myself better.

What are your big realizations about yourself? ow have they helped make YOU stronger?

What Teachers Can Learn From Business Leaders

First of all, I’d like to apologize for disappearing for almost a year. I have loads of excuses, but really it all comes down to “I’ve been really, really busy.” I’ve been working on my M. Ed. in School Counseling, running a facebook group about personal finance, and, well… teaching.

So, now that Spring Break has come to an end here in odd-weathered NYC, I’m here to bring you teaching manna as we round the final stretch of the desert that is the school year (yes, I am mistress of metaphor), according to the good people at INC:

A list of words to AVOID when speaking to students (though the article refers to not using them with employees):

  • Need
  • Must
  • Can’t
  • Easy
  • Just
  • Only
  • Fast

As a high school teacher, I can only explain why these won’t work with teenagers. “Need,” “must,” and “can’t” will engage a teenager’s internal rebellion system, and may make them decide to prove you wrong. Few things are more infuriating for to be told that something you think is unnecessary is something you NEED or MUST do, or that something you want to do is something you CAN’T.

A promotional picture for the movie "Rebel Without a Cause" featuring James Dean.

A teenager will rebel whenever you give her a reason to. Give her fewer reasons to rebel, so she can rebel in someone else’s class!

Come to think of it, this is also true of the words “easy” and “just.” Whenever a teacher tells a students that they “just” need to do one little thing, particularly if the students struggle with work completion, I can almost see students digging in their heels. “That’s too much work,” they say. “If it’s easy, why can’t I do it later?” And what could be more patronizing than telling someone that a hard thing is “easy”?

Even as a grown-up, I hate it. But I can always walk out if I don’t like the way someone’s talking to me. I can always leave. Kids can’t.

Luckily the INC folks also gave us some words that folks get to rally with you (and for themselves):

Thank you/Thanks. Yes (both explicitly and implicitly. More on this later). Could (instead of should). Choose to. And (to state a contrary opinion). “Your name.”

So here’s how these good words would work in a classroom:

“Thanks, Toby!” (after a student answers a question). <— Name and thanks

“If you could go back in time and change your answer to the question, how would you change your answer?” <-Could

[When a student suggests that she do a poster for an assignment instead of an essay] “What a great idea! What could you include in your poster to show me you understand the assignment?”<–an implied Yes and Could and an implied Choose to

“You are such a great classroom participant, Trina, and the only thing that would strengthen your work would be encouraging your classmates to show each other respect when other besides you are speaking.” <— implied Yes, Name, And, implied Could

Of course, not all approaches work for all students, all the time. Clearly, using all of these approaches may work for some teachers, but not for all. If you prefer authoritarian rule of your classroom–and many folks do; there’s no shame in that–try to incorporate a little bit of kindness, as well. Authoritarian doesn’t work for all students, just as loosey-goosey doesn’t work for everyone. Try to be who your students need you to be, not just who you’ve always been.

 

 

 

The Test of a First-Rate Intelligence…

Rachel Dolezal. She is puzzle, wrapped in a mystery, lined with an enigma. If you haven’t been keeping up with the whole saga of Rachel Dolezal, others have summarized it better than I could.

What’s been particularly interesting to me, however, isn’t so much her deception/delusion/possible mental illness, but that so many have used Dolezal as a stand-in, as a symbol of their ability to either reconcile or reject all sorts of other political and social belief systems.

This phenomena, of turning actual people into SYMBOLS, isn’t just limited to issues having to do with race and stereotyping.

As a teacher, I see it a lot. I have heard teachers say that they know that research has proven that Restorative Justice improves the morale of a student body, BUT they just feel that what “these kids” need is… more discipline, more boredom, more… something awful. Then they attempt to explain away their convictions, as if there is some logical connection between the two belief systems.

I’ve heard teachers say that parents don’t know how to consistently discipline their kids, and then talk about how they refuse to call home and tell parents when a student is misbehaving. Then I’ve heard teachers try to rationalize their refusal through convoluted reasoning.

In the world of Rachel Dolezal, I have lots and lots of friends trying to reconcile the fact that they feel Rachel Dolezal’s desires to change her outward identity are wrong, but Caitlyn Jenner’s actions are desires to change her outward identity are perfectly fine. They are twisting themselves into knots looking for just the right theory to unify these two different ideas.

I say, stop it. Why must your ideas and emotions be consistent at all times? We are not robots. Sometimes gut feelings are okay.

Here’s a favorite quote of mine from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

In fact, it’s incredibly rare for people to be completely ethically consistent. See for yourself. Check out this fun little test: Philosophical Health Test.

I think it is perfectly okay to have a feeling about something, but still behave differently. If research says one thing, but you feel another thing, it’s okay for there to be dissonance as you do what has been proven to work. If you think Dolezal is out of line, but Caitlyn Jenner is not, it’s okay to not be able to come up with a logical reason why. Sometimes feelings really are enough.

It’s okay to feel things and not act on them, just as it’s okay to feel things and act on them. They are feelings. They do not have to line up with your morals. Nor do they have to line up with your actions.

The same way that a student can FEEL like they want to nap during class doesn’t mean that they need to act on that feeling.

It’s okay to live with a little cognitive dissonance.

How to Trickle Tech Into Your Tech-Resistant School

Every few years, there’s a new set of teaching must-haves that the powers that be say are effective for literacy, emotional health, numeracy, or critical thinking.

Nowadays, the new new thing is technology. And it’s no longer just about Powerpoint slides or showing clips of films to illuminate parts of books. Teachers (like myself) use computer programming, web searches, animations, game design, and even students’ smartphones to help strengthen student interest and deepen student learning.

As someone who has always been interested in technology, the search for ways to incorporate technology into the classroom comes naturally to me. I’m always looking for new tech tools to use in my own life, and from time to time, they trickle into my classes. I recognize that the world we live in is a media-focused world, and the more I can bring that world into my classroom, the more engaged students will be. More importantly, those students who don’t pass required tests will end the school year with some new technological knowledge they can use outside the school building.

But we all know some technophobes.

These are people who are perfectly comfortable using pen and paper to write notes and expect kids to do the same. These are folks who are not comfortable with technology themselves and so like to behave as if it doesn’t exist. These are folks who may be functioning just fine with a flip phone, so don’t even know what possibilities are out there.

These “tough sell” folks are the ones you need to convert first. Here’s how I did it:

1. Incorporate easy-to-use tools into basic school activities. Build them if you have to. Make it easy for others to use, even with no technical knowledge.

I teamed up with the school’s dean team to create a Google form that teachers could use to report misbehavior. I designed the form, showed the deans how to send the form out to everyone, and now our school’s digital discipline form is used schoolwide to report student misbehavior. It’s easy to use and decreases paper. Win win!

Here’s how to do it (text)

Here’s how to do it (video)

2. Use tech to solve problems at the school. Do it on your own at first as a pilot, then roll it out to allies. When the principal sees that you are doing good work, volunteer to turn-key training to the school.

I’m in the process of doing this with Remind. I work at a small high school in New York City. Because we don’t have regular assemblies, and announcements go out once per week on a one-page document, and I only teach the 11th grade, it can be difficult to share timely information with students and families I don’t see regularly.

I use Remind to stay in touch with students in my mullti-grade, after-school technology club and the yearbook club. I also use the app to announce information to students on the school yearbook and the school newspaper. It works. Students get my announcements sent directly to their phones. This solves the big problem of communication for an overscheduled teacher like myself.

Because it’s been so successful, I plan to recruit a few other teachers at my school to use it, as well. Start small, show success, then grow.

3. Use your understanding of tech to solve MONEY problems.

In a time of shrinking budgets, nothing speaks to a principal like saving money. I changed our yearbook company from the grandaddy of all yearbook companies, Jostens, to first Treering, and then Picaboo.

An article in Salon explains it better than I can:

Here’s how the traditional yearbook business works: When big yearbook providers sign up with a school, they ask the school to predict how many books it will need for the year. These estimates are due months before graduation. Because class sizes and demographics shift from year to year—and because some kids have stopped buying yearbooks altogether, thanks perhaps to Facebook—yearbook advisers don’t have much to go on when they’re making their guesses.

For schools and for parents, there are big costs to guessing wrong. If a school orders too few yearbooks, some kids who want a book will go without. That’s why schools tend to err on the side of guessing high—and then get stuck with unsold yearbooks, and a huge bill to the yearbook company. To cover costs of overprinting, some schools add an extra fee to the yearbooks—$10 or $20 per copy that you, the parent, must pay. Even so, lots of schools end up in hock to their yearbook providers.

Because of my background working with the printing industry, I was well-aware of the growing popularity of print-on-demand, which is cheaper and requires no estimating and overbuying of books. You buy what you need and ONLY what you need. My school went from regularly losing up to $2000 a year on yearbooks, to ending the year in the black, every year.

Note that I’m not talking about super high-tech stuff here. I’m not suggesting that you convince your school to buy a whole bunch of new technology. Instead, look for small, easy technologies that will solve problems at your school. Slowly, others will come around.

SOURCES:

Manjoo, Farhad. “The School Yearbook Business Is a Scandal. Here’s How to Fix It.” Slate. Slate.com, 28 May 2013. Web. 31 May 2015. .

Literate conversations: a how-to

In the October 2014 issue of Educational Leadership, an article–“Reading Moves: What Not to Do”–brings up the idea of a literate conversation,. A literate conversation is one in which the conversants are creating meaning out of the common experience they have created and shared through reading.

Unfortunately, in many classrooms, these conversations don’t happen. Instead, we –fearing losing control of the classrooms or letting students feel as if they haven’t accomplished anything by not reading, not reading closely, or reading material that is too hard for them–tend to ask students little beyond low-level, detail-oriented questions that require almost no understanding. The article explains it well:

   Imagine that you’re sitting in a coffee shop one morning reading the local newspaper when a friend walks in and asks, “Have you read the story about the tornado in Johnsonville?” You respond, “Yes, I just finished it.”
   If your friend were then to subject you to the sort of low-level questions found in most reading series (“What was the fire chief’s name?” “What color was the car that was destroyed?”) you would probably look at her somewhat grumpily and wonder what was wrong with her.
   Instead, your friend would be more likely to ask something along the lines of, “That tornado was terrible, wasn’t it?” You might respond, “Yes, it was a miracle that nobody was killed!”

All well and good, but how do you actually implement this in a classroom? Many students are so used to answering low level questions that when faced with a higher-level question, they are at a loss. They don’t know how to started, don’t read the question all the way until the end of the sentence, or provide answers to unasked questions (because they have guessed what the question is asking instead of reading the question).

Fearing the inevitable frustration that students express when given work that they think is too hard for them (even if it isn’t), we give them predigested questions. We operate out of fear instead of a desire to model thinking.

Q. So how do we solve this problem?

A1. By modeling thought processes and giving just-in-time instruction.

or

A2. By scaffolding.

In short — DON’T TELL THEM WHAT TO DO FIRST. Let them grapple for three or four minutes, then show them the steps. or GIVE THEM EASY STEPS FIRST, then build on those steps.

Method A1 :

1. Give students the text/picture/film clip/lyrics about which they will be answering questions

2. Give them the high-level questions they will answer, from least to most difficult. All questions should require interpretive reading on some level.

3. Give them 5-7 mins to answer the first question. Be sure to tell them they have 7 mins  to get started, then you’ll get together again to discuss.

4. During the 7 mins, go straight to the most- and least likely to understand kids. What patterns do you notice? Help them out.

5. After 7 mins, reconvene. Ask: How did it go? Ask: To easy, too hard?

Model: Model how to break down the question. Let them complete the question on their own.

6. Give them another 7-8 minutes to start the next question. Say you’ll reconvene in 7-8 mins.

7. Again, go around. If after that, it is time to reconvene, do it. Otherwise, let them fly.

METHOD A2:

1. Give students the text/picture/film clip/lyrics about which they will be answering questions.

2. For each high level question, give a pre-question–a low-level question that REQUIRES copying, quoting, or a simple “what do you see.” This calms those who are used to giving low-level answers.

3. Allow them to move forward to the harder questions at their own pace. The simple questions are the life raft that allow students to try swimming in deeper waters.

Give students the opportunity to feel smart. It’s important. Just feeling smart is the first step to saying/expressing something smart. To expressing anything, actually.

3 Ways to Help Students Love Themselves

A picture of a baseball field and a baseball in the air with "if you build it, they will join" on the picture

Create the activities and clubs and adventures that will allow the students to struggle and shine. Then publicize it. And others will join you.

And nowhere is this more true than in high school. Recently, I’ve been exploring the idea that many students in Title I schools are missing the one key skill they need to succeed in college: obnoxiousness.

“What?” you are probably saying. “I went to college, and I wasn’t obnoxious!”

And perhaps you weren’t. But I bet you were obnoxious in the glorious way that EVERYONE IS who decides to take a step into a world of people who are “smarter” than, wealthier than, and different from you.

You have to believe that you can run with the big dogs, even if you look and act like a small one. You need to BELIEVE you are a big dog, even if you are clearly a tiny tadpole. And you have really believe it, or actively be tryign to convince yourself to believe it. Every. Single. Day.

Or here’s another way to look at it: when I was 22 years old, there was no way you could tell me that I wouldn’t have written my first novel by age 30. I had the talent and the interest.

But the longer I was in the world, the less OBNOXIOUS I got. The more interesting people I met, the more I understood about the world, the more money I noticed that I DIDN’T have, the more I started thinking to myself… but who am I to write a novel? What have I experienced? What have I done? Why do I deserve this? And I stopped trying. Because I was no longer surrounded by the veritable army of teachers and mentors who had been telling me for 22 years that I was a good, even great writer. I was in NYC, the land of “but everyone wants to be a writer.”

Those folks who have the gumption to push past the self doubt or, even better, who don’t have enough knowledge to even doubt in the first place, are the ones who get that novel written. It might be terrible, but it’s done.

It’s that BRASHNESS that gets things created in this world, that gets college finished. And it’s that lack of brashness that makes those very things not happen.

Recently, I was lucky enough to have a friend suggest I listen to a recent episode of This American Life called 3 Miles. It is the story of how several students from a high poverty public high school in the Bronx reacted, over the course of years, after walking onto the campus of Ethical Culture Fieldston School. The effect was devastating. Most kids simply could not handle the overwhelming  feeling of I CANNOT DO THIS that took over. They’d simply experienced too much failure.

So here’s how you help them overcome it:

1. Let them win something. Let them compete to the best of their ability and provide lots of different ways for them to win. A great example of this at work is the Annual Poetry Out Loud Competition. While not all students end up winning the national competition, each school’s competition allows for winners at every level, should you choose to run the competition that way. If you have a lot of students in several grades compete, you can have a classroom competition, a grade-wide competition, an audience favorite, and a school wide champion. Simply saying that you were the grade level champ in something feels good. Heck, I still tell people about coming in 4th place in  the Brooklyn-wide spelling bee in 5th grade, and I’m 38 years old. These things stick with you. I was also my school’s storytelling contest champion with the story The Silent Couple.

2. Let them present their work to outsiders. A few weeks back, I brought several students to present at the NBA Cares All-Star Coding Event. My students got to meet Dikembe Motumbo and show off the Scratch Games they’d created to Motumbo and to professional coders at SAP.

Lots of students, Hadi Partovi, and Dikembe Motumbo at NBA Cares

Myself and my students looking awesome with Dikembe Motumbo. My students and are the ones with the carefully drawn yellow arrows above our heads.

Just yesterday, I brought another group of students to Pre-moticon! An intro workshop to help students start thinking about what projects they want to present at Emoticon later this year. My students were already getting psyched about what they will create by the end of the meeting.

Screenshot of a video game where the object is to catch food and water and snacks and tools falling off of shelves.

Here’s a zombie game that one of my students remixed from another game, changing the theme and the points.

3. Encourage oddness. I think this is the most important one. If we want our kids to develop the fortitude to “do their thang” against all odds, even when everyone else says they can’t do it, we need to encourage them to go against the grain. It’s okay to be good at school, to wear odd clothing, to enjoy things other kids don’t enjoy. Teach them to enjoy the things that make them stick out. It is this ability to embrace their oddness that will ultimately allow them to feel that they can’t look any baseless critic in the face–especially their own self-doubt–and tell them to hit the road.

So build it. The kids will come. Slowly. But they will join you as long as you give them ample opportunities to shine and publicize their successes like crazy.