Saturday, December 27, 2008

Carnival Time!

The good bowl games aren't on, you've shopped yourself out, and you're still munching on left over peanut brittle and sugar cookies - why not hoist yourself out of that easy chair and take a gander at this week's Education Carnival hosted by the Big Wonk himself!

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Best Gifts...Ever!

I'm always just flattered and tickled to death when a student of mine presents me with a Christmas card or even a gift. A lot of my students have families where there's more month than money so the fact that they spent anything, even a dollar for some bubble bath at the Dollar Store, really touches my heart. I love the homemade cards (complete with misspellings - I'm supposed to have a "happy and heathy Christmas" this year), and the drawings of stout reindeer and flying cats (figure that one out) make my day. Even the coffee mugs (and we teachers have more coffee mugs than a Starbucks, don't we?) are appreciated.

However, every once in a while you get a gift from a student that really lets you know that they thought about it, carefully selected it, and it was definitely a gift that was intended for you and no one else.

Freckled Boy gave me one such gift this year. I love this kid. He's in my homeroom, and sits right in front of my teacher station. He's always the first kid in every morning, and he's made it his mission to take all the chairs down every day while at the same time engaging me in some of the most interesting conversations. He asked me this morning if I'd be here for a few minutes after the students were dismissed. Apparently his mother was bringing a few presents for him to hand out and he wanted to make sure I'd get mine. I assured him I'd be here, and then promptly forgot about the conversation with the craziness that is the half day before break.

After the buses rolled and the other kids were dismissed, I was walking back to my room and he came up with a shoebox-sized box wrapped in holiday paper.

"Merry Christmas Mrs. B!" he said as he handed me my gift and dashed off to deliver another one to Mrs. Language. (I found out later that he gave her a stapler!)

I went back to my room and unwrapped my package. First, I had to take off the outside paper. Then unroll lots and lots of tissue paper. And finally got to an object about 10 inches long that was also wrapped in paper. A giant pencil? A pen? What on earth?

It was a screwdriver.

Now this may not sound like the best gift ever but you have to kind of understand the back story here. Earlier this year my handy little screwdriver (both flat head and phillips head) was stolen from my pencil cup. I loved this screwdriver and used it all the time. It tightened the screws on the hole punches so they stayed in place. It allowed me to disassemble the hand crank pencil sharpener to remove the broken pieces of colored pencil that got stuck inside. It let me fix chairs and tables which are slowly falling apart on a regular basis. There probably wasn't a day that went by that I didn't use that thing. And it was stolen and that really ticked me off. We had a rash of thefts that week, and that was just icing on the cake.

Freckled Boy was actually standing in front of me when I discovered the missing screwdriver and he'd seen how often I'd used it. So he got me a new one. Granted this one is a lot bigger (I definitely won't be working on pencil sharpeners with this one!) but the fact that he took the time to think about what I really needed and then went out and got it, really made my day.

I totally love the little curly ribbons he tied on the top. I kept them on it when I put it in my pencil cup. It's an awesome screwdriver!

Just when I didn't think it could get any better, my team came trotting around the corner with sneaky grins on their faces and a big silver bag with shiny paper sticking out of the top. What on earth???

Inside? A big huge bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream and two Bailey's glasses, and a great card thanking me for being a great team leader.

Ahhhhh. Made me want to cry. I've got a great, wonderful, fantastic team!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Popsicles Anyone?

We have our first snow day of the year today.

Well, actually it's more of an ice day since that's what's on the ground - and roads - hence the cancellation of school. It pretty much rained all day yesterday. However, when I left my house yesterday morning at 6:00 am it was 55 degrees on my front porch. When I got to school fifteen minutes later it had already dropped to 45 degrees. It continued to drop - and rain - all day long and by yesterday evening ice was starting to form.

Having spent about fifteen years up North where it snows and ices and generally is ugly from about November through March, I have some experience driving in stupid weather conditions. However, when ice is in the picture, I'm not driving anywhere. It's dangerous and it's scary and there's too many idiots with testosterone poisoning who think that because they have a four wheeled drive vehicle they can drive at high rates of speed on icy roads and nothing bad will happen to them. Wrong.

So I have a day off and I'm not terribly excited about it.

Why? Snow days are precious. We get three a year and using one right before we get off for our Christmas break is a waste of a perfectly good snow day. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. Snow days are better spent in the deep dark depths of January and February and even March where we don't have many extra days off, the weather is gloomy, the kids are cranky, and it seems like forever until there's something to look forward to.

But at least I'm not out there driving on that mess!

P.S. Some of you have commented on still having school in very cold snowy weather, so I probably haven't explained how things work down here. I was stunned - stunned - the first year I was here and a snow day was called as it was barely snowing (at least in my opinion as an economic refugee from Up North). However, maybe only 20%, at most, of our kids walk to school. The rest are bused in, some from about an hour away in the rural parts of the county. There is also no such thing as a straight road here. Everything is hilly, curvy and there are more rivers, branches of rivers, creeks and whatnot to cross to get anywhere in this area. So, when it gets icy (and we get more ice than snow), it gets treacherous and no one wants to be the person responsible for a bus crash on an iced over bridge or narrow rural road. So, they cancel school.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

When Smaller is Better

As I've mentioned before, we have a somewhat legendary class of seventh graders this year. We've been hearing about them for the past few years, beginning with the elementary teachers who were thrilled to see them move to middle school. (Interestingly, it wasn't one group from one elementary school - all three of the schools that feed into our building had a wild group of kids.)

The sixth grade teachers last year were ecstatic when they moved on to the 7th grade. Cheering and dancing in the halls doesn't begin to describe the joy.

This year the seventh grade teachers are counting the days until the end of May.

This was, coincidentally, the same year that Mrs. Eagle, Mrs. Robin and I volunteered to teach an 8th grade health class (Mrs. Robin taught 6th grade health), with a different group of kids every nine weeks. The drawback to this was that we had to cram five classes of seventh graders into four classes in order to give us the open period to teach the health class.

Most likely with any other group of kids (like the wonderful group we had last year) this would have worked out fine. With this group it was a recipe for disaster. We had our proof when we took our first benchmark.

I had one kid proficient. ONE. Uno. That was it. Mrs. Eagle and Mrs. Robin fared a bit better, but overall we still had only eight kids proficient in the entire school. What makes this even worse is that in the past, we've always been tops in the county when it came to scores, and our kids have always done better than their peers, despite being a low-income building with a fairly unmotivated population.

This was completely unacceptable to us, so as soon as we saw our scores we asked The Principal to come to our data chat to figure out what was going on.

What was going on was that we were spending so much time on management issues that we had precious little left to actually teach science. Our rooms are oddly shaped and somewhat small and we had kids crammed in there with every seat filled (and then some). The kids, who had trouble getting along with each other on good days, were having real problems with each other when they were crowded into our rooms. Even The Principal commented on the different feeling our rooms had with about five to six extra kids compared to the other teachers.

So, The Principal drafted some wonderful souls (librarian and guidance counselor) to take over the health classes, and we got to move kids from each of our big classes, thereby lowering the numbers, into an fifth section of science. This started right before Thankgsiving. It gave us a chance to build a class and put kids in there that were a good mix, as well as giving us a chance to separate kids who had no business being in the same room together.

I can't believe the difference.

I told the kids right up front why were doing this ("Your benchmarks were unacceptable which tells me you aren't learning what you should be.") and told them that this was one idea we had to help solve the problem. Three kids actually came up and thanked me for moving them to the new class so they could actually learn something. How often does that happen? I was able to get some kids away from each other, and the entire class noticed. My homeroom had four boys in there who could be case studies for severe ADHD. Two of them are now in the other class and my homeroom is actually somewhat peaceful.

Now granted, these classes aren't perfect (Fifth Period still gives me hives) but it's a whole lot better. The kids even noticed. A lot of them were delighted, after a few days, when they realized they were getting a lot more individual attention from me (I can help them rather than spend all period telling them to sit down, stop throwing things, keep their hands to themselves, blah, blah, blah.) They commented on that. They commented on how faster the classes went now that we were actually able to do something because deal with idiot behaviors. They love the fact that they actually have more room at their seats. It's been a good move all around.

They've taken two tests since the change and the grades have been quite a bit better then previously. Our next benchmark isn't until January, but we're hoping we'll see an improvement there.

They were so good (except for - guess who?! - Fifth Period) that I actually tried a lab today.

And it actually worked!

Carnival Time!

Check it out over at Mamacita's page, and while you're there, bookmark it! She's awesome!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Hey Dude, Where's My Doorprize?

This is the sixth year we've used our science texts so we're due for new books next year. Assuming, of course, that there's money in the budget to pay for them. We've been told that they're in the budget, but you can guess what will be the first thing cut when the cutting begins.

And of course some nitwit will write a letter to the editor bemoaning the fact that we buy new books - Outrageious! Ridiculous! Information hasn't changed any! Why do we need books! What a waste of money! (I am not kidding here - it happens every year.)

Do you have any idea what a book looks like after six years of seventh graders have slung it in and out of lockers, tossed it on the floor, flung it in backpacks, and goodness knows what else?

Still, the books we use now have held up pretty well, yet will become almost useless next year when our new standards go into place. Simply put, about half of what I currently teach will be moved to 8th grade, some will go to 6th, and a lot of the 8th grade curriculum will come down to 7th. If we don't get new books about the only idea we've come up with is to have a class set of each grade level and mix and match as we go through the year. Not ideal, but workable.

And then there's the fact that our entire plant unit, which is in our current standards and will be in our new standards, is not found in any of the books used at the middle school level. We spend about six weeks every year with the books in the lockers and pull information from all sorts of outside sources.

Our district, apparently, selects textbooks a bit differently than some as they teachers actually select them, not someone sitting in central office who doesn't live eat and breathe standards day in and day out like we do. What this means is that the various publishers come to town, rent a hotel conference room, lay out a big buffet (free food is an important component here), does a big pitch on Why Our Product Is Your Best Choice, hands out some cool door prizes (free stuff, gift cards, you name it), and of course the swag...lots and lots of free samples.

We live for free samples.

Mrs. Standards made a comment in all the workshops we taught on the new standards this summer that every single one of us should go to these events, not only so we make a good decision on what we end up with, but so we can get the free stuff. We are, after all, living in fear of not having new material for our new curriculum, but if we have enough of these freebies, we'll at least have something to work with.

So, last night Mrs. Eagle and I went downtown to The Big Fancy Hotel, mooched at the buffet, sat through the presentation, and got a huge bag of free stuff. We walked in, were pointed out the middle school table and told to take a pile of samples.

We sat down and flipped open the student book and took a look at the table of contents.

"Oh my gosh," said Mrs. Eagle. "They actually have everything we'll be teaching...even plants."

We were impressed. The book was smaller (and lighter in weight) than what we currently use. They essentially cut out everything we won't be teaching with the new standards. This is a huge improvement as our current book is big, bulky, and we don't use half of the chapters. The standards were all over the place, the section review questions were designed with Bloom's in mind, and it had all the STEM stuff we need (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics).

We also discovered that it has a companion workbook/book that is written at 2-3 grade levels below what the book is written at - instant differentiation! We loved this because it will really help the spec ed kids we teach as well as our lower readers, many of whom are completely lost when it comes to reading our book.

Technology was all over the place - pre-made PowerPoints, video quizzes, labs, you name it. Considering that we're going to have to teach some of the 8th grade content this year (squeezing in the stuff the kids will miss when the standards change) some of the free CD's and DVD's will be a big help. We'll be able to utilize some of the free stuff to teach this content, and that may give us a chance to test drive some of it.

All in all, we had a good time, got some neat stuff, and although we didn't win a door prize we were just tickled with what we did get.

Oh yeah, and the buffet rocked.

Carnival Time!!

One of my dearest blogging friends is hosting this week -Mr. Teacher over at Learn Me Good (Buy his book - it's a riot! It will make great gifts for teacher friends!) He does a fantastic take on Dickens, so check it out!!!