September 21, 2012

Well, that's a relief.

I have survived the first week of teaching 7th and 8th grade English! Cue the manic celebration...

Just a few thoughts before my brain peters out from sheer exhaustion:

Trust me, I have a plan.

There was a moment on Wednesday when I finally felt the enormity of the expectations upon me, brought home by the fact that we have three weeks until our first benchmark test. I had been in this kind of hazy denial, focusing on getting through each day, one at a time. Which works...for about three days. Then the whole idea of knowing what I want my students to learn kind of becomes important. Needless to say, with five preps, 52 minute periods that fly by until I slump exhausted in my chair for last period prep, 150 new faces, a messy room and four different textbooks to familiarize myself with, I felt like I'd jumped in the deep end without a life jacket.

Or tipped over the cart.
It's a good thing that everyone at Ki-Be, especially the English department, is so helpful and understanding. Three cheers for great teachers! After a few late afternoons that melded into late evenings, my room is looking more like my room and I've got a solid plan for ALL OF NEXT WEEK FOR EACH OF MY CLASSES (I can not tell you how big that is). I've even got about 80 names memorized (it helps that I've got about a thousand Jose's and Juan's and lots of lovely names that stand out like Justice, Heaven, Hope, Rainbow, Angel and Jesus).


I've only had serious issues with one little guy so far, and I've dealt with worse in the past. Out of 150 kids, who handle change about as well as a cat handles a bath, that's not too bad. Here's an excerpt from my 'Come to Jesus' speech I gave to him (his name is changed of course):
"Listen Vincent, I taught in St. Louis for three years. That is one tough city. There is nothing you can do or say that is going to intimidate me. There isn't a word you can throw at me that I am going to take personally. I will not back down. I will not change my expectations of you. So you might as well stop being disrespectful and stop fighting me every step of the way because the only place that's going to land you is the Principal's office. I'm not Mrs. E. Get over it. I do things differently. Adjust. And if you do anything, ANYTHING, at all that I consider disrespectful, disruptive or distracting, I will send you directly to the office. Do you understand?"
He improved.
It's at times like these that I both feel very strong and shaky all at once. I despise confrontation, but boy, was this young man asking for it. The important thing is to never change my behavior, to remain consistent and reward like a mad woman when anything positive occurs. He was absent one day and the two classes (yup, that's right two) I have him in were the smoothest, loveliest classes ever. It's sad to say, but this often is the case with disruptive students. The rest of class breathes a sigh of relief and buckles down with a teacher that's giving them his/her full attention instead of focusing on the one attention seeking student. We'll see how this relationship develops- I have hope that he'll come around.

Positive is BY FAR the best way to go

Let me just say that it is amazing what I can get a student to do for just one M&M or a ticket, even when they don't know what the ticket is for. The entire atmosphere of my classes changed when I introduced positive incentives such as tickets and class points on Thursday. This idea clicks in their brains, 'What, I might actually get something immediately if I try? I'm gonna TRY!'

I can get used to the laughter.

7th and 8th graders are slightly (emphasis on slightly) more mature than 6th graders, and most of that shows up in what kind of humor they understand. I've never had so many kids laughing at my jokes. It actually shocked me so much the first time I said something intentionally funny (we shall not discuss the "draw the balls" incident) and the whole class laughed. I was so thrown off, in fact, that I kind of stammered in my next sentence and lost momentum. I tried the same joke with my next class, and boom! Laughter! They love it when I randomly speak with an accent, too. It caught them off guard at first, and now they're counting how many accents I can do. The laughter is so endearing that I'm almost tempted to try stand up comedy. But that would only happen if I could give the audience a grade and control whether they get to go to the bathroom or not (oh, the POWER!). Nah, I'll stick to my captive audience.

Fairy Tales aren't so...happily ever after after all

I love hooking interest. That's why I speak in accents and why I can completely justify Captain Underpants and The Day My Butt Went Crazy as vital additions to any English classroom: some kids will only read when toilet humor is involved. That's also why the original version of fairy tales and Greek myths are such great stories to use in middle school (when school appropriate of course). They're gross. They're nasty. They're more complicated and sensational than the best soap opera ever was. The villains die in terrible ways- the lessons are clear- life isn't all sunshine and butterflies- and middle schoolers connect with and dig that stuff. They forget that they're reading and that it's work and that they don't like it. This is how life-long learners are born.

So, to end my first week, let me give you a student quote that made me smile:
"Disney had it all wrong. Fairy tales are grim, yo."

September 14, 2012

Not gonna' lie

I'm kind of nervous. 7th and 8th graders are...I don't want to say intimidating, but that's the truth (see the title?). I'm intimidated. For those of you who don't know, I just started a new job teaching small intervention classes to low readers and English language learners, and now, due to high kindergarten enrollment, a inner-school transfer was made. Long story made short- I'm replacing the 7th and 8th grade language arts teacher because she is now teaching kindergarten, starting next week.
I introduced myself to my new classes yesterday and while nothing remarkable happened (no one threw their pencil or said anything more interesting than, "Why's that chick staring at me? She's a teacher? Oh..."), the overwhelming feeling I had was, "This is going to be tough." Here's my attempt to process this feeling and get myself pumped for Monday.

Blast from the past, my middle school self (top left, second row). This will help me
picture my students as cute and adorable, and so very, very awkward.
1. I'm going from a grand total of 27 students (I know, I know, pretty sweet deal, right?) to over 150.

Uh...yeah. Quite the transition there. I've handled about 80-90 in the past, so even with my previous student load, this is going to be a lot. However, I was looking over my rosters and realized I have some repeats in my advisory, 7th grade reading intervention and 7th grade regular, at least there's something.

2. This move to 7th and 8th grade language arts is taking place in the fourth week of school.

Hmm...not the ideal time to start. I foresee them knowing each other's names (all 150 of them) and me stumbling for a while. It's a different feeling than the actual first day of school when they're nervous and can forgive a few mis-pronunciations.

"Is Gruky here?"
"It's Grace."
(Looking down at a name spelled Grauckie) "Oh. My mistake." (And we move on. And I never mis-pronounce that name again.)

That's expected. There aren't too many laughs. But kids can be more brutal to a newcomer than a pack of starving hyenas that smell fresh meat. Four weeks into the year, there are already groups and power structures forming, and I'm going to come in and mix it all up. Transitions are hard, especially to a teenage brain, which thrives in a stable, predictable environment. I will be the focal point, the visible instrument of change. The punching bag of which all frustrations will be taken out on.
Deep breath.
Stop freaking yourself out, Jessie. If I'm going to be a punching bag, I'm going to be the one that never breaks and comes back to knock you over when your back is turned, ha ha!
Many teachers have made a move or started a job even later than this and survived. If I make mistakes about names or stumble when I speak due to nerves, I just need to move past it and get over it. Teenagers of all ages are so obsessed with their own lives that anything I do to embarrass myself will be forgotten soonish (I hope). I just need to start strong, pretend like it's the first day, and make the class my own. Speaking of making it my own...

3. The teacher I'm replacing is a great one.

Nobody likes to say goodbye to someone they like. There's a lot of procedures that I will chuck because it's not my style, and that may anger a few students. However, these kids just don't know how awesome I am yet. Once they figure that out, they'll adjust.

4. I'm used to 6th graders.

It's not like I haven't taught or been around 7th and 8th graders. Heck, I was one and I survived, but the exuberance and excited curiosity of 6th graders fueled my teaching. I love what I teach, the 6th graders pick up on that and respond in kind, and that makes me even happier and energetic in the classroom.

Here's a normal reaction to a WONDERFUL lesson by a 6th grader:
"Wow! That book's cool. Can I check it out?"
By a 7th grader:
"You said duty. Ha ha ha ha ha!"
By an 8th grader:
Stone silence, no emotion, leaning back, arms folded. It's uncool to be interested.

That said, 6th graders can be tiring at times- they are so wiggly! A 6th grader's brain simply can not comprehend the idea that they are not the center of the universe. (7th graders are making that transition and 8th graders are supposed to be there, described with great humor here.) I loved to blow their minds with a simple lesson on how much a million really is during my Holocaust unit, which in turn would help send home the terrifying truth of just how many people were affected in that time. I have a lot of great materials and lessons for 6th grade, so I'm a bit worried about increasing rigor, difficulty and interest for the older kids. I am looking forward to having higher-level discussions with ties into social justice as well. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated! 

I hope that I can break through their teenage shell and awaken joy there too, I'm just not quite sure how. Yet. While I have been mistaken as a student 14 times so far this school year, I am the adult in the room, and by golly, I'm going to stay strong in the face of apathy and get them excited about reading!

Join me, friends, in future posts as I capture all the pitfalls and joys as this new adventure unfolds.

September 12, 2012

You can count on change

I handle change about as well as a chicken deals with it's own beheading, and the past five months have been nothing but constant change. There was much running about, but I don't think I bled on anybody. Too much. I have not written in a LONG while for two main reasons: that whole losing-my-head-because-I-was-so-busy-figuring-out-my-life thing, and a strange lethargy that accompanied my unemployment status. Not a good combination of sensations, let me tell ya. I have empathy for those searching for work. Never give up, never surrender, my siblings in suffering!

Here's a quick breakdown for all of you in the mood for an update:
May- Resigned from my job in St. Louis in order to move back to the Northwest to be closer to family. Said goodbye to St. Louis and a wonderful school, full of beautiful teachers and spectacular students.
THE PLAN- Teach in Portland, get my own place and visit family and friends all the time!
Some of my fellow Busch staffers- amazing bunch of educators. 

June- Drove across the country with my sister Corey and father Paul in the winner of the "most cramped cab you can create" contest of moving trucks. Moved in with my sister Caitlin and helped her prepare for baby #2!
THE PLAN- Teach in Portland and help Cait with the babies!

The gang at Chimney Rock.

Can you feel the cramp?

July- Amid my trouble with boys (another change, but not really worth the words it would take to explain), we welcomed Lucia Jean into the waking world. Isn't she a lovely "papoose" baby (as my Mom has taken to calling her)? During this time, I realized getting a job was really hard. Really, really hard. Especially in Portland: too much firing last year to do any external hiring.
THE PLAN- Teach in Oregon or become a substitute...which is about as appealing to me as jumping into shark-infested waters wearing a suit of bloody meat.

August, part 1- Applied for 56 jobs, had no luck but lots of good times with friends, including two beautiful weddings.
THE PLAN- Teach anywhere. Even looked into a position teaching English in China. Kind of defeats the purpose of moving back home though...

Andrea, Alli and I on the waterfront for the 4th of July.
My friend Jessica, looking radiant. Recognize my dress?
August, part 2- While visiting my grandparents in Benton City, WA, I applied at the local middle school because, hey, why not? I got a call a few days later for an interview, after which I was offered the job (that same day). Can I hear a BOOYA?!?!
THE PLAN- Move to Benton City, live with my grandparents, get a Washington teaching licence, and teach Read 180 and ESL.

Here's my classroom (from a few weeks ago).
I was really proud of my word wall.
September- School started off with a great-big-exciting-bang, Benton City has grown on me and my students proved to be a good bunch. I got really excited about the Read 180 program and what it can do for low readers. I even got ideas for teaching ESL (English as a Second Language), of which I have about as much experience as a newborn does at walking.
THE PLAN- Get switched to teaching 7th and 8th grade language arts...wait, what? That wasn't part of the plan!

Fine. Bring it on. It's not like I've had time to settle in or anything. (New classroom pictures to come I guess)

Plans? Ha. I made God laugh a lot this summer. And that's OK. Everything that happened turned out to be wonderful. I'm sure the next big change will bring it's own challenges and rewards too.