Corona Teaching – Month 2

So, it’s been a while, and a lot has changed. I’m no longer teaching 8th grade, for one. Instead, I’m teaching 7th grade. And now, instead of being the SpEd Teacher and the English teacher, I’m now the Humanities teacher, and I have a lovely co-teacher, who mostly pulls kids out and helps with one-on-one work and building beautiful relationships with the kids, and a para who officially only works with one child in the class but occasionally lectures everyone when the students are behaving poorly.

Or rather, that was the way things were a couple of months ago, before all of this Corona mess began. I really should have been keeping up with this blog the whole time, but I didn’t because frankly, I was burned out.

This year has been a difficult year. Not only was this particular seventh grade class incredibly creative, interested, and social, but they were INCREDIBLY creative, INCREDIBLY interested (but not really in the content, unfortunately), and INCREDIBLY, UNCEASINGLY social. And often mean to one another. And sometimes to me. I was burned out and tired everyday. I was frustrated a lot, too.

But that was all pre-COVID-19. Now, all has changed.

First, rumors of a virus started going global, and right in the middle of sickness season. I was very proud of myself because I was right in the middle of a mass hysteria unit, and got to relate everything we read about in the news to “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” and the “War of the Worlds” broadcast. “Are we overreacting to this news of Coronavirus?” I asked my kids, hoping that I was being provocative enough that they would stop talking for a moment and engage with school. For once, they seemed moderately engaged!

In those last two weeks of school, as NYC teachers and parents petitioned Mayor DeBlasio to close schools, a microcosm of what would soon be happening in the outside world was already happening at school. Non-Asian kids were jokingly accusing perfectly healthy Asian kids of having Coronavirus (as a joke, but things go really quickly from joke to threat in middle school, sometimes even within one spoken sentence). Then students started accusing everyone who was wearing a mask of having Coronavirus, and then, finally, schools went remote. Then standardized tests were cancelled, then shelter-in-place, then city-wide mask requirements.

At first, I was frankly glad of the rest. January to March are the burnout months, when the weather is cold, everyone is stressed out about upcoming standardized tests, flu season is wrecking everyone, the chlidren begin to smell, teachers stop getting enough sleep, and summer feels years away. Students start getting irritable, which makes teachers irritable, which makes students even MORE irrritiable, which makes parents angry, which makes admin frustrated, and everyone just spews anger, irritation, and frustration at each other until allergy season, when the students start taking allergy medication and sleep in class. It’s a tough time.

So this year, I got to skip all that. But with standardized testing gone, I realized that I’d lost my way. Without the pressure of having to force kids to make arguments, and with the added pressure of looking for ways to engage students’ minds without traumatizing them (this is ALWAYS my aim, but it’s much easier for a kid to feel traumatized in the midst of a pandemic), I had to take a  good, hard look at what my teaching had become: uninspiring. I’d been trained into this.

I was interested in my content but not inspired, my kids were occasionally interested in it but never inspired, and I’m not sure I did a good job of selling the usefulness of the skills I was teaching.

After 16 years of teaching secondary school–11 in high-poverty settings–I realized that I’d lost my way. For years, I’d been wondering where the great ideas I’d had as a new teacher had gone, and I realized that my strict adherence to the Common Core (though, a lot less strict than many other teachers) had more or less destroyed my creativity as a teacher. I’m not against Common Core, not a bit, but in my desire to fully master that sort of teaching, I eliminated the other, creativity-sparking kind.

I had to re-learn what it is one can teach a student when the ultimate goal isn’t necessarily an essay or a multiple-choice test designed to confuse and trick you. Over the next few entries, I’m going to bring anyone who is reading this along on the journey I’ve taken to rediscover my teaching love while in quarantine.

I’m still mid journey, but you’re welcome to come along!

Wow, 3 years of 8th grade

So I started out loving to teach middle school, and I still do.

But I’ve learned some things along the way that you didn’t get to experience with me.

The first thing:

  1. 8th graders are intense
    for all the reasons that you already know. They’ve just gotten the hormone infusion, they are incredibly narcissistic (which is developmentally appropriate), they want desperately to be liked but are too obsessed with their self image to show others how much affection they have for them, they need lots of sleep but get precious few hours of it,  current middle schoolers  have super high rates of anxiety.

The second item on my list will come tomorrow. But firs I want to talk about how I’ve dealt with this big, first realization.

The more you can find ways to connect with them and help them see that you are not against them, the better. I dealt with this some of their volatility by encouraging them to write in journals about their feelings. They had twenty minutes to write every Friday. Some found this frustrating, and some found it relaxing. In any case, after they wrote, I would respond in writing to what they’d written to me, and they would see my response on post-its in their journals the following Friday when they wrote again. Some didn’t bother to write much, and others loved to write. Some would draw. The boys struggled to come up with what to say, I noticed, and I think this is because, generally, they arent as comfortable expressing themselves in words. Whether this is constitutional or because society specializes them this way is not my concern. Of course, there are always exceptions to generalizations about “how boys are” ad “how girls are,” but in this case, I’m talking about my students, not boys or girls in general. I saw journaling as an opportunity to get to know the students better and as a way for them to create space in their day to delve into their minds. Students don’t have nearly as much time as they used to for recharging, staring at the ceiling, etc. which Cal Newport refers to as “solitude deprivation.” Many students look forward to this time to empty the randomness of their brains onto the paper.

Tomorrow, or the next time that I write, whenever that is, I will address the second major thing I have learned about 8th graders in these three years: they don’t want you to be exciting, no matter what they say.


Teaching Tips for “At Risk” Students

So, I’ve recently fallen in love (metaphorically) with the witty “bro” millionaire writings of Ramit Sethi. And, along with being funny at times, Sethi has some great free products that will teach you a lot about getting started in entrepreneurship, much of which is incredibly astute. I’m talking Stanford University *ahem, my alma mater, ahem* astute. And, oddly, applicable to education.

It occurred to me this morning, as I was reading some of his book on my kindle that a lot of the psychology he applies to making sales applies equally to teaching a class.

Follow these rules when selling a product or service (or day of education):

1. Do not rely on pure information to sell folks on the value of what you’re selling. Rely on RELATIONSHIPS and PERSONAL CONNECTION. It doesn’t matter whether or not your class will help them pass [insert standardized test here]. It matters that you connect with them on a personal level. Heard the description, “she could sell water to a drowning man?” That’s what teachers need to do.


2. Baby steps, my friend, Baby steps. Just like with dog training, baby training, or any kind of training, students learn best through praised baby steps. Priase ’em for walking in the door. Praise ’em for turning in a HW assignment. Praise ’em for apologizing. Praise ’em for farting outside the classroom. Praise ’em for sitting in their seats the whole class. Praise, Praise, Praise! Start out praising the small stuff. When they have all (or mostly all) gotten the small stuff, move on to the bigger stuff, then praise them for that!

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3. Praise feels sooo gooooooooood. It sounds so silly, but, recently, when I took an entry-level French language course at Alliance Francaise, I felt a bit of ABSOLUTE JOY when the teacher told me my answer was right. I was a grown woman in my 30s, and I knew my answer was right, but it was still a huge rush when my teacher told me so. Imagine being a teenager! Double the rush! Triple the rush!

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Remember: your students are human. When they seem difficult–chances are that they are just acting like all the other humans act when they are forced to do something they don’t want to do!

And that’s when you have to become a salesperson.