Monday, March 31, 2008

Hitting the Ground Running

Monday after Spring Break.

Half of my homeroom walks in, put their heads down on their tables, and whine about how they got their sleep patterns all goofed up over break and they were soooooooo tired. Poor babies. That's what happens when you play video games until 3 am and sleep until noon. They weren't going to be able to do anything because they were sooooo tired. They just wanted to curl up and snooze and whine and whimper.

Think again, chickadees.

We have two weeks until the Very Big Deal State Mandated Tests and it's Review Time!!!!!

Three years ago Mrs. Eagle, Mrs. Robin and I decided we needed to come up with a good overall review to get our kids ready for the Very Big Deal State Mandated Tests. What we came up with was a ten day plan where we covered everything in warp speed, had the kids doing mini-labs, taking quick notes, doing mini-quizzes, and basically moving so fast they couldn't see straight.

That was when we had a 55 minute period.

We have a 45 minute period now.

Any guesses on how fast we're going now?

I laid down the law...We don't have time for goof-offs, we don't have time for distractions, you don't have time to stare into space, you don't have time to mess with your neighbor...the only thing you need to do is listen, follow directions as fast as you can and pay attention to what I'm doing on the document reader.

I said it so fast even my head spun.

They looked like somebody had hit them with a stun gun.

Now my classes are pretty fast paced and busy to start with. I'm not a lecture and take notes sort of teacher. My kids are used to doing a lot of work with their hands, making foldables (Bless you Dinah Zike), doing labs, and the like, but this surprised even them.

For example..."Okay, now put your homework in your binder in the homework section and while you're at it, pull out a piece of notebook paper and get it set up like you see here on the document reader. When you're done with this, answer the four questions on sexual and asexual reproduction on the mini-quiz. We'll go over them in three minutes."

After a brief pause where you could almost see them think, "Is she serious?", the binders flew, paper came flying out, heads were staring at the screen, and hands were rapidly flying as they begin answering their quiz questions. Even better, they were so busy they were quiet.

We ended two seconds before the bell rang.

They looked exhausted.

And this was only the beginning!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Carnival Time!

It's rainy and cold in my neck of the woods, so it's a great day to check out this week's Carnival of Education, Spring Break Edition, hosted by Bellringers!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Forget the Apple, Give Me a Box of Tissues!

My recent post on the gift of pencils I received prompted quite a few it's Spring Break and I don't have any nutty stories to share (after all, how exciting is it to read about me cleaning house and doing yardwork?) let's get some audience participation action going.

In the comments section , describe the best gift you ever received from a student OR, the best thing someone could give you as a teacher. For example, I always love it when a kid shows up with a box of tissues for the class. Talk about useful!

Your turn!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Carnival of Education

It's Spring Break time over at So You Really Want to Teach? and that means a special edition of the Education Carnival! Get out the sunblock and check it out!

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Best Gift Ever

Today one of my students, Frail Girl, presented me with a fantastic gift. A gift that only a teacher can truly love and appreciate. A gift that just warms a teacher's heart.

She gave me a 48 count box of brand new, bright yellow, Dixon Ticonderoga pencils!

I about swooned.

For long time readers of this blog, I've had a few rants about the absolute crap pencils that are made and sold these days. Quite honestly, the best pencils out there, by far, are the Dixon Ticonderoga pencils. They rock. They sharpen properly. They work wonderfully. They are a sure way to win my heart.

When I asked Frail Girl what prompted this fantastic gift, her response was priceless..."I get tired of people asking you for pencils all the time and they never give them back."

Bless her little heart.

I am so ready for the Very Big Deal State Mandated Tests next month. I have 48 Dixon Ticonderogas to get me through them.

And lots of wine at home.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Weird Homework Thing We Do...

I've alluded to this in some previous posts, and finally have time to sit down and share what Mrs. Eagle, Mrs. Robin and I do to encourage homework turn in. (Well, actually I need to fold laundry and clean up the kitchen, but this is more fun.)

First the background. Nearly two years ago The Principal took nine of us to the National Middle School Association national convention. This was an awesome experience as it gave us a chance to meet with other middle school teachers from all over the country, attend workshops, and get some great ideas. The District is in the process of looking at, and reforming, middle schools, and those of us that went were part of The Principal's Breaking Ranks team.

One of the workshops that Mrs. Eagle and I attended was on increasing student motivation. As anyone who has ever taught middle school knows, these kids can be slugs. We had a lot of problems with kids turning in work, especially homework, and were looking at some innovative ways to motivate them. (I wish I could remember who the presenter was, but alas, I don't.) The presenter put forth a lot of good ideas, but the one that resonated with us was something we call the Homework Helper. He said that the number one reason kids don't do homework is because they don't understand it.

His solution is to give the kids the answers to the homework.

Okay, I know what you're thinking because you could have heard a pin drop in that room as we all looked at each other and went, "What????" Homework is, after all, practice. If a kid doesn't get it, and does the homework wrong (if he does it at all), then he's repeating the wrong thing. He's learning and remembering something that is wrong. However, if you give the kid a key to check the work, then they're doing it correctly, and learning it correctly.

So Mrs. Eagle and I kicked this idea around for a while. Many of our kids don't do homework for reasons that have a lot to do with the poverty they live in. Every year we do this neat parent letter about giving your child a place to study that's quiet, well lit, and all that, but in reality a lot of our students are sleeping on the sofa in Mom's Boyfriend of the Week's apartment, living in homes without electricity because it got cut off for non payment, or go home to households where the yelling and screaming is paramount. Some just wander the streets until it's dark because it beats being home. And some are responsible for baby sitting hordes of little siblings and cousins and whatnot when they get home so homework is the last thing on their minds.

So....what to do?

We did several things.

The first involves choice. Middle Schoolers often feel that they don't have many choices in their lives so we decided to give them some. On Monday, we assign four homework assignments. We mix them up a bit. We'll have a more math-oriented assignment that appeals to the kids that like math, an assignment that's more reading and answering for kids that do better there, and sometimes a drawing/labeling exercise for the more artistic. The kids get to choose which two they want to do and then have all week to do it. Homework is due on Friday.

The second thing we do is provide the Homework Helper. The Homework Helper is the answer key to that week's homework. We put it out on Tuesday, and only make ten copies which are numbered and put in sheet protectors. I have them in a rack on the supply and materials table. The students are welcome to use them during homeroom, or any time we have a few minutes in class, or they can check them out for one night, to be returned during homeroom.

As we explain to the students, there's three types of students. First you have the kids who are going to do their homework anyway and who won't even bother to look at a Homework Helper. Second, you have the kids who will do most of their homework but struggle with a few questions and will use the Homework Helper to check his or her work. And lastly, you have the kid who has never turned in any homework - ever - and who will simply copy it and turn it in. The way we look at it, at least they're copying the right information, they're writing it down, they're looking at it, they're being exposed to it. And they'll get the points for turning in their homework. (For the record, homework isn't a huge point-earner in our gradebooks...only about 10 points a week.) This is also a big help for my special education kids.

What we've seen is that kids who have never turned in homework are now turning in homework. And when they get their progress reports and see the lack of zeros and see the fact that they are actually, most likely, passing, they begin to realize that doing homework does pay off. We started this program last year, mid-year, and saw our homework turn in increase to about 95%. Previously we were at about 50%.

My favorite part, however, is how this plays in parent conferences. I always take a copy of a homework helper to a parent conference, especially if the kid is still one of the few who won't be bothered (and they are still out there). I will point out the lack of homework on the progress report, and explain as I hand the parent the Homework Helper that there's really no excuse for that as the Homework Helper is available in class, and can also be checked out overnight. It's pretty powerful when the parents realize that there really is no excuse for not having the work done and turned in.

So that's what we do. It seems weird, it's definitely not for everyone, but it's working for us. I can't tell you if it's improved comprehension or retention of the material as we've been doing this all year with this group of students. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that, at the least, it's helping some of them develop some work ethic. A lot of my students at the beginning of the year weren't turning in much work at all, but once they got the hang of the Homework Helper, they started to turn in work. Many of these same kids aren't relying on the Homework Helper any more, but are attempting to do the work on their own. I consider that somewhat of a victory.

March Madness at the Carnival of Education

One of my favorite bloggers, Mr. Teacher over at Learn Me Good is hosting this week's Carnival of Education. His theme is March Madness, so all you basketball junkies hike on over and give it a look. And while you're there, peruse some of his other posts. Mr. Teacher is a hoot, and the fact that he teachers third grade, a grade I wouldn't be caught dead in, gives him extra bonus points in my book.

But the big question I the only one who doesn't give a rat's patootie about March Madness??? Me, I'm waiting for the NHL playoffs...

Friday, March 07, 2008

Carnival of Education

Well I'm not going anywhere with the Very Big Snow Storm going on outside (even though it's barely snowing right now) so I'm going to spend some time reading the Carnival of Education, hosted by the esteemed (and ever pithy) Education Wonk. Come join us!

Middle Schoolers plus Snow equals Chaos

The local weather forecasters have been prognosticating for nearly a week that we were going to have A Very Big Snow Storm beginning this morning and going on into Saturday. This is the South where Very Big Snow Storms don't happen all that much and everyone gets all freaked out and rushes out and buys bread and milk. So you would think, considering that we've canceled school for the simple threat of ice, that we wouldn't have school today.

Makes sense, right?

After all, when I stepped out onto my driveway this morning at 5:45 am, it was sleeting nicely and there was ice on my car. I met the rest of the Breakfast Bunch (Mrs. Eagle, Mrs. Chicken, and Mrs. Momma-Aide) at Waffle House for our traditional Friday breakfast, and we were all sitting there, stunned, that they hadn't called school yet. My gosh, it was sleeting like mad out there!! We rolled into school about twenty minutes before they started unloading kids from the buses and they still hadn't called it. Although it hasn't happened since I've been at The School, in the past they've actually canceled school and had the buses go back out and drop the kids off.

Not today.

The kids came stomping in grumbling and complaining about how they all wanted to sleep in and it wasn't fair and it was awful and gosh it's just dreadful they had to go to school today. Considering that I finalized grades this past week and noticed that in between holidays, election day and snow days we haven't had a five day week since the middle of January, I think they were getting a bit spoiled. This four day school week was really appealing to them. However, we have already used up our three allotted snow days this year. Personally, I'm not enthralled with the idea of adding days to the end of the year.

So we had first period, and second, and third, and nothing...the kids had finally settled down and were working pretty well when it was time to go to lunch. Unfortunately we walk them down to lunch right past a series of big glass doors and they all looked out and saw....SNOW!

Great. They hit the cafeteria all wound up, convinced that, at last, they were going to go home. It only got worse when they heard an announcement over the broadcast system calling all the eighth grade team leaders to the office.

By the time we got back to class they were nearly pinging off the walls. We had an email waiting for us telling us that school was going to be released at noon.

In an hour and a half.

We had, obviously, already had lunch so we proceeded to continue on with the day, teaching and trying to keep our kids focused and on-task while the cafeteria quickly got the 6th graders and 8th graders fed. I felt bad for the eighth grade teachers as they had to march the kids to the cafeteria, have them pick up lunch on special foam trays, and march them back to their classrooms for them to eat.

By the time my fifth period rolled around, nearly half of them had already had a parent come by and dismiss them. By the time the call went out to load the buses the kids were nearly besides themselves with excitement.

We were just hoping they could all get the kids dropped off at home and didn't have to turn around and bring them back to school. The thought of being stuck with these kids for hours on end, and possibly overnight if it really get nasty, was enough to scare the bejeebers out of any of us.

Fortunately the buses got off, the roads weren't bad - yet - and we all got dismissed ourselves at twelve thirty.

And as for me, I don't go the bread and milk route. I've got a case of local wine and plenty of popcorn if I need it.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Do You Ever Forget What Day It Is?

I do...and I forgot to get on line and post about last week's outstanding Carnival of Education hosted by Sam go there and check it out and don't worry about being marked tardy...I'll write you a pass.

You Mean We Don't Have Forever?

During second period today I received an email from Guidance with the report card schedule on it. It turns out that my grades for this nine week grading period are due Thursday.

I went to the homework board and wrote in big, huge script..."All missing work is due no later than this Wednesday."

"This Wednesday?" a tiny voice squeaked.

"Yup, this Wednesday. I have to get your grades finalized. That means Thursday morning won't cut it."

The look of panic on some of their faces was pretty evident. I have a lot of kids who haven't turned in work, ranging from homework, to vocabulary, to 100 point assignments. Some because they don't care, a few because they've been absent and aren't in any hurry to make up work, and others just because they're disorganized and confused. Last week I printed off progress reports for kids in danger of failing and highlighted their missing work.

Any guesses how much work came flying in after that little exercise in paper-wasting???

Yeah, a big fat zero.

Today, however, was different. I had kids coming up all day asking if they owed me anything, kids digging through binders checking for lost and missing assignments, a few cleaning out lockers to find worksheets never turned in.

By the end of the day the late work showing up in the homework basket was piling up.

Nothing like a deadline to put the fear of God in them.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Good News, Bad News

I had to be out of the building on Friday, along with The Principal, the Guidance Goober, Mrs. Eagle, Mrs. Bunny, and Mrs. Art, and a few others on the middle school reform team. We had to do one of our meetings downtown, with the other middle school teams, to see how we were implementing some of our new strategies to help our at-risk population.

Mrs. Eagle and I didn't really want to let our homework sit there over the weekend - we both like to get it graded and back as soon as we can - so we went back to The Building late that afternoon to pick it up and see what comments our substitutes had left us.

My note said, "You have the most wonderful classes. They were all well mannered and well-behaved. It was a joy to teach them."

Delightful! Perhaps my "Don't embarrass yourself, me, or your school by acting badly" lecture worked.

The bad news was, as I've gone through the homework this weekend, a lot of them didn't turn it in. This tends to happen when I have a substitute on homework turn in days. I don't know what it is that causes them to forget to turn in homework on the days I'm not there. We do it every single Friday. However, part of me suspects it's because I'm not there reminding them every 8 seconds that they need to turn in their homework. Who knows?

But the note did make my day.