September 15, 2009

My brain was on fire- sorry if this doesn't make any sense.

The worst of the flu is over and I am recovering nicely (though slowly). Thank you to everyone who called and thought good thoughts for me while I was ill. For a few hours on Wednesday, I thought I had the Swine Flu, as one of my students went home sick on Monday with the first diagnosed case of Swine Flu in the St. Louis Public School District. A quick trip to urgent care told me that I was simply suffering from an upper respiratory infection- in other words, a nasty cold with flu-like symptoms that made my whole body ache.
While I hated missing out on teaching my kids for two and half days, I must admit it was nice to take it easy. Teaching has reminded me of winter in the past few weeks: sometimes, it's like climbing a mountain without any air, carrying all of my worldly possessions on my back; and at other times, it's like sledding down a steep hill, barely dodging obstacles, exhilarating, scary, but laughing all the way. I've been exhausted and worn out, but I've never lost sight of the truth- I love teaching and it's what I'm meant to do. I've got hundreds of papers, worksheets, tests and quizzes to grade (amazing how that stuff piles up when you're not looking), data to enter on my TFA trackers, and a week of lessons to plan, but right now, I feel happy that I got to relax and put my health in the forefront of my mind.
I can't write for much longer, as my head is getting heavy with thinking too much ;-) I have empathy for my students who are sick in class now, and all I can do (since the nurse was recently let go due to budget cut backs) is let them put their head down or call home sometime during class.
Before I say goodbye (for now), here's a few things I've been jotting down in my great amount of free time. A few things to ponder about the teaching profession that nobody ever tells you, but are very important to know, and a few random thoughts as well.

Teaching seems to be ALL about paper pushing. If a student misbehaves, you have to record it. You have to record what you did, what was said, what you plan to do. If you call a parent, you have to record when you called and what was said. If a student is in Special Education, you REALLY have to record the modifications you provide for that student or else you cannot legally fail the student (even if they did nothing). If you don't modify the work, the lowest grade you can give is a C. And IEP meetings are not normally supposed to be similar to court rooms, but if lawyers get involved, that's what they feel like.

When I was preparing to become a teacher, I always thought my time off from school would be busy, especially in my first two years of teaching, but I always hoped there would be time for something fun, like reading middle school books, circling interesting passages that might engage my student's minds. For now, that day-dream has been pushed aside by all the other details that I must enter into their proper spots and fritter away at extra time. I must enter grades. Enter progress reports. Enter attendance. Enter who was absent when and who needs to make up this or that. Enter what books they are reading. Enter when the test is on the calender. Enter who looses participation points for talking. Enter who can't sit next to who. Enter who is missing what assignments. Enter an insane asylum for dreaming about paper cuts and swimming in a vat of hand lotion after paper has sucked all moisture out of you, trying to relax after a grading period when you are overwhelmed with students asking you every two minutes what their grade is. I hate, Hate, HATE paper pushing. It literally sucks you dry, but that is what a lot of teaching has become these days in order to cover our own tracks and protect ourselves from...well, whatever may happen.

There are a lot of things about teaching that I LOVE. I love telling my students they are doing great. I love watching students work hard just because I asked them to. I love seeing a class of students raise their hand like Hermione Granger for every question, then moan and groan when I don't call on every single person. I love watching students wiggle in their seats like five year olds, waiting to be called on, or told that they followed my instructions correctly. I love the one student who makes a point to hug me at the end of every day. I love that when students were asked to think of someone who is a role-model of kindness for an essay contest, some chose me. I love acting out a physical definition of vocab words and watch my students copy me. I love that my students got more excited when I let them listen to the 'Eye of the Tiger,' than when I pull prizes like chips and pencils out at the end of the week. This is what teaching is and always should be. It is about the CHILDREN. It is about their well being and growth as human beings and citizens of this world. I try to remember this every time I look at my watch and realize my prep period is over after only entering data and not working on my actual lessons. Just when I feel as if I'm being swamped by paperwork, a student always tells me something nice, or asks to tell me a story, or writes me a note, or asks if I need a hug. They are mind readers, my 70 or so 11 year olds. They read body language as if I were an open book. They are experts on when to push and when to hold back, when to smile, and when they can get away with pouting. I hate the paper, but love the students.

In closing, here's a funny story- one of my delightful students raised her hand on Monday, and as I approached her, expecting to answer a question, she pointed at her mouth and opened it wide enough for me to see a small white lump. I instantly said, "You need to throw that gum away. You know that gum is not allowed in school- go, hurry!" She looked at me as if I had just announced she had to do five hours of homework for the rest of her life. At first I had an gut reaction to just let it go, but I had been reminded by an administrator just that morning that there was absolutely no gum allowed in school. So, I gave her my 'look' and said, "You know the rules- I'm not going to ask you again." She got up, looking back at me as she walked to the garbage can, acting as if she was walking to her doom. She stood over the garbage can and asked me quietly if she could "Save it and put it in her pocket." I looked at her, flabbergasted, and just pointed at the can. I walked away, never taking my eyes off her, and saw her secretly put it in her pocket. "Put it in the garbage can now!" Thinking I had a battle of the wills going on, I stared her down until I saw her put the white lump into the garbage can. She sulked back to her seat and sat, dejected and unhappy. I shrugged it off, never having had trouble with her before, thinking she was just having a bad day. After the period was over, she came up to me quietly and asked, "Ms. Labrie, can I get my tooth out of the garbage can?" Yup. Her tooth. I didn't know 6th graders still lost their teeth...

I have no idea why she didn't just tell me it was her tooth instead of looking at me like I killed her dog, but this just goes to show, I can always have more patience, and things are not always what they look like on the surface.

September 9, 2009

What about Bob? and other life lessons

Now that I've actually got students reading, writing and taking tests, I'm finally seeing their true abilities. And, I'm laughing. A lot. Not at my students. Well, maybe at my students sometimes, but I hope you will laugh with me....Here's a writing prompt one of my students wrote. It is funny on so many levels.

"When I grow up I want to be a raper. I want to be the greatest raper in the world. I will also sell a multy platinum album. I am going to make as more as songs as I can. My nickname is going to be the billion dollar kid, unless I think of something better. Then, I am going to be the king of rap. After that I will rap for a couple of months then stop. After that I will have a huge return. Then finally I would make more albums. Then I would rap and make songs until I die. The End."

Besides the miss-spelling of 'rapper,' I love how this student has just described the life of every celebrity/musician that has come to be idolized by our society. Other students wrote about what super power they want to have and what they would do with it. For example, one student wanted to have telekinesis so he could walk the dog and cut the grass at the same time. Another said he would have super strength so when he gets caught in traffic he would just pick up his car and walk away with it. The imagination of my students is so delightful and their eyes shine so bright when I give them the smallest compliment- I love my life.

I am concerned at how petty my students can be sometimes though. They treat each other so badly, get SOOO angry when someone makes fun of them, and take no responsibility for their actions. The idea that their words hurt just as bad as the words of others is something that has not yet connected in their young brains. So, I borrowed an idea from my first cooperating teacher Sue Moore (good teaching is stealing) and introduced my classes to a friend I call Bob. Bob is a clean, unused piece of computer paper. When I held up Bob in front of my oh-so-mature 6th graders, half of them grinned and the other half looked at me as if a second head had just sprouted out of my nose.

As I introduced my great friend Bob, telling the piece of paper how beautiful, clean, and sharp he looked, my class started to play along, telling Bob how beautiful he looked, reaching out to touch the paper as I walked around the room. A few students continued with their disbelief, nearly yelling in frustration, "It's a piece of paper..." I just kept going, telling them all the wonderful things Bob does for me, but then suddenly, I stopped, proclaiming angrily, "Bob just gave me a paper cut! How dare you Bob! You are so mean!" After which I crumpled up a corner of Bob. Silence in the room. I then got really angry and called Bob names, crumpled up the entire piece of paper with each insult and threw him in the garbage saying that he wasn't my friend anymore. Cheers met with moans, the whole class completely involved in Bob's fate. I just walked around and let them react, remaining silent. Then I said, "Class, I'm starting to feel bad now- I mean, Bob was my friend. He probably didn't mean to give me a paper cut." I took the paper out of the garbage, tried to smooth him out, apologizing, but it was visually clear that no amount of saying 'I'm sorry' could take the wrinkles out- an outward sign that words leave scars. Bob would never be the same because of what I did.

The reactions of my students to this was both enlightening and disturbing. The first time I taught this lesson I gave each student a piece of paper, but they got so angry so fast that they ripped the paper to shreds, stomped on it on the floor, screamed at it, saying words that made no sense for the small 'paper cut' Bob had given. I knew some of my students had been told the words they were saying, using the tones that had been directed at them, doing everything to this paper short of body slamming it to the ground because they had been given permission to be mean. I revised the lesson for the next two classes to just me holding the paper, because I could barely contain the chaos that had erupted the first time. The other reaction that helped me see where my students are developmentally was at the very end, when I asked, "Is it my fault Bob looks all wrinkled and hurt- like a piece of garbage?" More than half said it was Bob's fault. More than half. I had to repeat over and over again that while Bob had 'started' it, MY words did that to Bob: I finished it by hurting him right back. I now have 'What about Bob?' posters around the room, wrinkled pieces of paper stapled to the wall. Maybe this will remind them of the impact their words and actions have, maybe not.

Life lesson number two- all sixth graders suffer from short term memory loss. What, that assignment is due today? We were supposed to keep that piece of paper? I did what yesterday? The less sleep I get, the more irritating these questions become. I have a feeling by the end of the year my sixth graders will be on top of it. The trick is getting enough sleep so I can keep my patience and understanding until then. On the other hand, if I have to keep a student for lunch, call him/her out for talking in class, or just have a bad day in general, the next day it's as if yesterday never happened. They're as good as new!

The next life lesson I have to share is that when you buy a mattress, make sure you buy the right size. Please see the picture below.

I spent most of my last weekend painting the bed frame (It reminds me of Easter now- very colorful. I got kind of paint happy) and was so excited about sleeping on a real mattress after two months on an air bed, but realized once the mattress had been delivered that my frame was in fact for a full mattress, not a twin. Ooops. Won't be making that mistake again.