The Elephant in the Room

So, most of you know I switched schools and there is such a stark change in the environment and leadership, you would never know that both schools serve the same demographic.

Some choice facets of my old school

- Teachers never had a chance to talk to each other

- Principals/teachers yelled at their kids (and swore)

- Punishments included hour-long detentions, which students could receive in multiples if “necessary.”  (Necessary = not wearing a belt?  talking back?  incomplete homework?  Rolling your eyes? Tardy?)

- If a student was sent to the office (highly discouraged), they were most likely scrubbing windows, writing lines, or walking around with a sign around their neck.

- Random overhauls in curriculum announced mere weeks before the expected implementations

- Quarterly benchmarks, weekly tests, etc.

- “After school program” = poorly chaperoned time for kids who don’t do homework to stay until 6pm to “do homework.”

- One in-house tutor stretched across grades 6-8.

- no access to parents

New School

- Reflective process where students learn to reflect, empathize, and figure out how to give back to make up for wrongs.

- Curriculum is ultimately agreed on by the teachers

- Pushback is permitted without fear of official or unofficial retribution (aka cold shoulders, blacklist, etc).

- Project-based learning encouraged over assessments

- Consequences fit the problem (usually in 20-minute increment, lunch-time detentions – that the PRINCIPAL oversees).

- Partnership with groups to leverage social-emotional learning, psychological therapy, and academic supports

- Sick days and personal days, pension, and transparent pay scale.

- NATURAL camaraderie between teachers and admin due to official and unofficial gatherings, meetings, etc.

- Parents are involved!

Sounds like a total 180 right?

It’s actually pretty amazing, in a sense. I am no longer teaching all four subjects.  I am no longer staying at school past 6pm.  I am no longer locking up at night in creepy East Oakland all by myself.  I even get a new-teacher budget and there’s lots of books!  And yet..

I have never cried soo much or felt so futile in my life.

Who would have thought that the kids would be so difficult?  So. difficult.  No, I’m not talking about language barrier or academic difficulties. I’m talking about their lack of desire to do hard work and their constant attitude and entitlement. It’s astonishing. And draining. And it makes me not want to continue for the second semester.  And it’s a weird feeling.  Because despite the garbage and practically/technically/actually illegal things that went on at my old school, I came back everyday for the kids.  I never considered leaving mid-year.  It would be so bad for them! It’s better for them to be used to you, no matter how awful you are, than to suffer through subs, and a haphazardly placed new teacher, right?  Also, who’d want to hire you if you quit midyear?  All these arguments right now, is falling flat against a cold stone heart.  blergh.

It’s really hard right now.  And there are no articles that circulate about — excuse my French — cruddy kids.

my responsibility? my duty?

She looks up at me and smiles (smirks?).

“Come on, Ms. Kim. This is boring. You know that, right?”

As I’m trying to work on staying calm and never raising my voice, I’ve realize that with that comes my old tendency to stutter.

“Is it difficult for you to read?  Maybe that’s why you don’t get it,” I suggest lamely.  Inside though, I am full of comebacks and right now, that conversation still niggles at me.  I don’t feel furious, but I do feel indignant.  How dare she?  This story is amazing and how dare she pass off this text as “boring” when it’s  more along the lines of the fact that she can’t read 7 pages straight.

Okay, okay. In this mentality, I see all the areas where I fail. I get it.  Is it her fault she’s so low? Nooeewwwp… Should I take it personally?  Newwwp.  blergh.

I think one of the comments I hate the most is the flippant, “That was fun today,” or “You should do this more.”  Because in them saying that, it assumes that other lessons aren’t fun, or that lessons are *supposed* to be fun.

I feel like getting to her eye level and saying, “This is boring for me too.”  Teaching ELA to kids who are constantly behind and feel complacent or defensive or insecure or whatever about it is boring. It makes me long for the days when I taught math.  When it was easier to just group, differentiate, and figure out what kids mastered and what they hadn’t.

ELA is the worst.  You have to teach vocabulary, grammar, writing, writing, reading, comprehension, fluency, speaking, listening.  It’s not Robin Williams and his classroom of rich prep boys.  It’s not even Hilary Swank and her underprivileged yet eager to succeed group of urban kids.  It’s this weird middle where my kids are behind – victims (?) of the system – yet they .. act like it’s my fault.

Thinking though.  Maybe I need to have less rigor on Mondays.  Maybe I need to slow down.  I now understand why/how kids end up as they are in college.  This slow slow progress somehow starts before high school… and middle.  I don’t know. It’s discouraging.  Back to the drawing table.  What are the minimal things I want my kids to get down before they move on?  I’m almost 2/3rds done with first semester.  It’s still just trial and error.

I miss reading To Kill a Mockingbird with my old students.  I cried when I read the verdict of Tom Robinson in that class, and I still cry now when I read it.  Although now, I think of mockingbirds and I think of my students.  And I hear stories of how all of them are scattered and falling through cracks and making the wrong friends.  And I feel like everything is hopeless.  And when we do high school suggestions during parent-teacher conferences, and kids are planning to go to the crapcrack schools around this area, I just think, what’s the point?  Why do I bother trying to do the hard things?

I think I’m extra sad because today I found out that my Ren Man is hanging with the wrong crowd and just going the wrong way.  I found out same case for Diva.  I found that Emo is most likely not going to have a chance to go to the ivys because her high school doesn’t support her in that way even though she’s freaking brilliant.  She taught herself geometry.  WHO can SELF-TEACH themselves GEOMETRY in 8th grade?  And the system is so messed up, that even if you prepare them super well, or even if you don’t prepare them well at all, they’re all going to end up wherever depending on the luck of the draw.

And then. with kids who are unappreciative, or just mean, or hurtful, why bother trying?

Folks, welcome to Oakland public schools.

Dear Assessments, I don’t believe you!

So, today, I sort of slogged into class. I had semi-discouraging one-on-one conferences during interventions with my students as I broke the news to many of them that they were 4-6 years below grade-level in reading.

But then, during our talks and observations over the novel, I realized no wait, these kids DO know.

Maybe they’re just assessment’d out, or reading practice’d out, or.. y’know, lazy.

I’m going to go by what I know and what I’ve experienced… which is that, these kids can’t be/aren’t that low.  If they have a so-called 1st-grade independent reading level and a 4th-grade vocabulary level, then having a teacher guide them through a 5th grade book is still okay.  And based on their fluency, their participation, etc, I don’t think all of them are as “low” as the programs claim.

I *will* be cutting back a bit and allowing more practice time in class.  But at the same time, I can’t just get all down that my students are “so low”, because I don’t think they are as low as the assessments purport.

On the same vein though, I just feel like I’m doing a super cruddy job.  But, I think back to what I covered with my kids last year, and I have to remind myself that I basically ended with 9th graders, and now I’m starting with semi-7th graders.  We are not there yet, but we can be.  Also, I had 90 minutes of ELA and 60 minutes of Social Studies. Every. Day.  That’s a total of 750 minutes a week.  Whereas at this school, it’s a more normal 470 minutes a week (but with 125 minutes of silent independent reading and 120 minutes of reading practice through Reading Plus).

I’m not a huge fan of smart computers teaching kids how to read, but maybe expertly navigating this data and having kids buy in with the right competition and such, could cover that space where it’s “good enough”.

And year by year, I’ll extend from the “good enough” to “FREAKING FANTASTIC!”

Glum, ho hum

It’s tough.  I’m nearing the two-month mark at my new school, and I need to realize that teaching is not for the glory or the praise.

It’s tough because as I’m doing what I think is good for my students, my students at the same time are mouthing off to me telling me that I am too strict, that I don’t know them enough, that I think I have power, etc etc.

It’s also tough because there is an element of truth to all they say, and yet they are so unfair about it because they fail to take in the context.

Lastly, it’s tough because on Friday, I caught a glimpse of how some kids are currently definitely set up to fail.  At my past school, failure was natural, but in a sense, we offered alternatives (by not offering electives, having PE tutoring, and having 3-hour after school homework time).  At this school, these alternatives are (thankfully) not in place.  What this means is that academic growth is slower and and I need to take into account that some kids will just fall down a drain if I don’t slow down, differentiate, and reflect.

I’m just dreading it because I’m also having a hard time liking my students right now.  One girl told me that they “test new teachers” (she meant it just honestly, not testily), and I’m to have meetings with a few students this week.  Their issues with me, however, are things that I think comes with this overentitled perspective.. that I’m the newcomer and I don’t know “how things are done.”  And that’s just unfair.

Finally, if I worked in Palo Alto, their starting pay is still more than my current salary.  I know it’s not about that, but sometimes, it feels like it is.

Teching off the School Year!

So, having grown up with a dad that tinkers with computers for fun and always being interested in problem solving myself, I always loved tech!  How much cooler was it when during college, I found out that tech was cool!?

Then, upon entering the ed sector, I found that lots of people are not very tech-literate.  I’m not going to push this point but the concern I see is that because people just assume “tech is better”, they pilot these insane programs that claim to do insane things (improve kids’ reading by 2 grades in 1 year!  Intervene and plug in all the holes in a kid’s Algebra, etc), and in a sense, just gives the teacher a lot more work.

So, after about 2 years of excitement, my enthusiasm faded.  I realized that in reality, these tech substitutes are for the poor – the ones who lack the resources to simply hire another helping hand in the classroom.  Instead of adding a teacher’s aide 3 times a week to move a teacher-to-student ratio down, they add a class set of computers with the hopes of “differentiating.”  Don’t get me wrong — there are some good programs out there.  But those exercises really only hit the drills and the very low levels of Bloom’s.  

Not to mention – a class set of Chromebooks? UGH.  Internet’s not dependable AND Chromebooks blink off about every .5-2 hours!!!  They turn on fast enough, but it’s so frustrating.

The “flipped” classroom is another cool idea.  Almost every kid has an access to a smartphone.  But, again, internet access, a quiet room to study/listen to the lecture, the English ability to listen to Khan’s fast-paced explanations?  So many barriers.  This would only work for middle-income and up. Basically.

 

So, where do I like my tech?  I like it high quality (think: iPads), to facilitate classroom collaboration (more on that later, but for now, jump on over to my DonorsChoose page and donate if you can!  Use code INSPIRE to double your impact until 9/9).

AND I like it in my OWN teacher planning and fun supplements.

Here are some amazing things I found this past week:

Common Curriculum.  Normally, I’d describe, but if you’re a teacher, you’ll understand as soon as you click through it and experiment.  It’s amazing and from the looks of it, it’s only getting better.  Free too!  Perfect for extended lesson planning!

Flocabulary!:  Now, Flocabulary is good on its own just subject-specific merit.  It’s a paid service, but I think it’s so worth it.  If you’re skeptical, you can try a trial run.  I totally encourage it.  BUT what’s even MORE impressive, is its vocabulary lessons.  I am SO stoked to try it!  They have this awesome rap with high level words and definitions embedded, then a cloze exercise, definitions and other vocabulary exercises along with it.  So, all I have to do is press play, implement, and pace!  So easy.   Until I have a better handle on teaching, I’m going to go for something ready-made.  This is standards-aligned as well.  Woo hoo!  

Today’s Self-Assigned-Ment: “Essential Questions”

I’m excited. Next year I’m going to be teaching humanities at a school less than a mile away from my previous school.  It’s a charter school, the same population, and similar subjects (humanities – no math or science).  Why am I leaving? Save that for a different post (after I’ve stopped making it personal).  So, for the first time in a long time, I got to create a pacing guide with my own choices for literature!  Of course, there will be lots of editing involved, but I just wanted to write out something that I would love.

As I was doing so, I remembered that I wanted to have overarching themes to effect meaningful, relevant learning experiences.  Only once do I remember having a teacher who explicitly did that (HS junior year Lit, first semester: “What is the American Dream?”).  Yet I’ve observed other teachers do that, and it just makes sense to help my kids make connections rather than having them do it on their own.

I was not even sure what the key words were so, first, I began to search “How to create overarching themes”, “how to write big ideas,” and thanks to Google’s autofill, I finally found the right topic: “How to Frame Essential Questions”.

In looking that up, I found this blog post: Understanding by Design: Essential Questions.

Below are a few choice quotes of this writer’s summary of this chapter in the book, Understanding by Design.  (ahh internet, O how you allow us to keep boiling things down!)

“Wiggins and McTighe define essential questions as “questions that are not answerable with finality in a brief sentence… Their aim is to stimulate thought, to provoke inquiry, and to spark more questions — including thoughtful student questions — not just pat answers” (106). “

“according to Wiggins and McTighe, essential questions actually have one or more of the following meanings:

  • Essential questions are “important questions that recur throughout all our lives.”  They are “broad in scope and timeless by nature.”
  • ….
  • Essential questions help “students effectively inquire and make sense of important but complicated ideas, knowledge, and know-how — a bridge to findings that experts may believe are settled but learners do not yet grasp or see as valuable.” 
  • ….(108-109)”

We sometimes send students the message that getting through the content is more important than their own questions.  We have trained students that not to know something and be curious about it is risky.

Now, this was nice.  This brings me to my second question:  How do I write them?

Unfortunately, there was much more chaff than wheat on the Google results, and what I realized is that for now, I do best by looking at others’ plans and then adapting them to my own kids.  As a teacher, I am learning to not go out of my way to reinvent the wheel — I end up doing it anyway.  So, there’s no guilt in not being “original.”  Thankfully, lots of the themes that I seek to teach or books that I want to cover have already been taught in some way, shape, or form before!  So, now it’s just the process of sifting through all the old resources and figuring out what I want to use for my students!

So third, as I sifted, I thought of this whole “Understanding by Design” or “Backwards planning” and other teacher-y terminology, and my mind drifted back to my last semester of grad school in 2012, when I learned of Universal Design for Learning – the idea that all students (regardless of academic background) can learn (given the right scaffolds and resources).  It’s also the idea that if we modify parts for a student with special learning needs, that modification could also help the “regular” student.  As I continue to teach in a diverse environment, differentiating is a challenge, but it’s exciting as well.  When you take a step back, you do realize that everyone is learning!  Anyway, I found this nifty tool on the CAST website where I could self-check my unit goals and methods.

So this is my own self-study for the day. I hope you also got to reap a few benefits.

How do you frame your units? How do you create your essential questions or big ideas?

Secret Confession #1…

I’ve been avoiding this question like the plague, because – hello! – I’m an English teacher. And yet… here it goes.. What is Theme?

It plagues me, I tell you, plagues me!

I spent all my middle school and high school years struggling to understand and explain what theme was. It was pretty easy getting by; after all, longwinded explanations in class or easy process-of-elimination tricks during tests help in figuring out “theme” (especially if they write out the themes for you).  But I never had an easy time explaining this.

In college, I loved figuring out how to write my lit papers. I’d spend days revising my intro paragraph and writing and rewriting my thesis statement. By the time I’d stewed in this for days, the rest of the paper would practically write itself. (This is my writing process). Somehow, by the time I got to the conclusion, I was able to figure out what the larger idea was and tweak my introduction. My thesis would be bombtastic and voila, in the midst of it all, I’d be able to argue that I had figured out one of the major themes.

Yet in middle school, it’s not so complicatedly simple. In middle school, I have to be able to say, “Blah!” is the theme. Once I get into the gray college area of hemming and hawwing and agreeing that “sure, given the proper evidence, that could be a theme,” I’ve left the rest of the class behind. And furthermore, the smartypants that asked the question probably wasn’t thinking along the lines that I assumed.

Also, in middle school, I have to make sure that we don’t confuse “topic” (a word or short phrase associated with the text) with “theme” (the main idea or lesson of the text). (Now “theme” however, is not the “moral” of the story. Why not? I don’t know! Or maybe it is!) Even worse, when I refer to teacher guides, sometimes they mix up topic with theme. For instance, “battle of good and evil” or “coming of age” is called a “theme”; but that’s not necessarily a main idea – that’s more a phrase! So sometimes, specific topics are themes?  (This issue is exacerbated by tests doing the same thing!!!)

This bothers me. I hate teaching theme, because in the end, I don’t feel like there’s a specific answer. For now, my main strategy is just hitting the process of determining the theme over and over again, and guiding kids through it, and suddenly by the end of the year, most of them are wowing me with papers that are evidence-based and tell me what a text is saying (okay fine, at least half, if given lots of scaffolded guidance). Then I can say, “A ha, that’s a strong argument,” or “Sorry, kiddo, I’m pretty sure that’s not the theme – or even if it is, you have no proof.” Yet I have this sinking feeling that at the end of the day, the kids are sort of like I was: knowing that they’re supposed to write a certain way and bounce upon the idea that we touched upon most in class.  Would it be messed up to tell them that I know a theme is the strongest because I can feel it in my bones?  Maybe by doing this, it will magically sink in when they get to college.

I’m at this weird point where I’ve been teaching Lit long enough that I take a lot of things for granted, and I forget to walk kids through certain processes.

Seriously: how did you learn what theme was? Or, how do you teach theme? Or how would you teach theme?

Must figure this out before … I retire!