Thursday, September 30, 2010

Yet Another Reason Why Getting Older is the Pits

I know, I know, I'm not posting at the usual rate which should be several times a week.  I think the additional 30+ kids I have this year are really adding up to a lot more time grading and paperwork, plus the whole scheduling nightmare which really hasn't abated, and then there's the outside stuff that's been getting in the way.  And truth be told, this blog hasn't been much of a priority.

My Dad on the other hand, has been.

Daddy Bird is 75, lives about 3 1/2 hours away, is very independent and acts like a man quite a bit younger.  We're talking a guy who gardens, mows, works on his house, walks three miles a day, is very active in his church.  Definitely not a guy who sits and watches TV all day.

In any case, he got a bad cold after a family reunion thing in Las Vegas, got a bit of a respiratory infection/flu after that, then had trouble sleeping, shortness of breath, and then on Saturday I talked to him and he mentioned that he'd fallen and hit his head earlier that morning.  If that wasn't enough to worry me, he was slurring his words.  My first thought was he'd had a stroke or something and I finally convinced him to get some help.  He did call a friend, who called 911, and we spent four days in a the regional stroke center at a very nice hospital about an hour from where he lives.  He's in a rehab facility right now, and I'm heading out on Saturday morning to take him back to his home.

We were lucky.  This was a warning.  He didn't have a full blown stroke, and in fact, they can't find evidence of one, but they were stroke-like symptoms.  He has an enlarged heart, and is borderline diabetic (that part just amazes me because he eats healthier than most folks, myself included).  His speech is nearly normal, and although he still has weakness in one side, and totters a bit when he walks, it's getting better every day.  He's just going to have to make a few lifestyle changes, and we're seeing a cardiologist to get that issue straightened out.   Fortunately, between me and his long-term lady friend (who is awesome and came up from her home in Florida to help out) he's had someone with him during this ordeal.  His spirits are great (he just wants to get home and putter in his yard), and I think we'll be fine with some adjustments.

So, I was out for two days, and three out of my five classes were hell on earth for the sub.  Great.  They were not happy with The Talk I gave them, and I'm still annoyed with them.  Unfortunately the sub didn't single out any kids by name so I can't slap a referral on them.  I hate that.  I want to know who the jerks were.

So that's what I've been doing.  I really did miss my kids when I was gone.  They do give me something to worry about and think about.  But honestly, spending time with Daddy was pretty cool too, even if it wasn't under the best of circumstances.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Why Do We Feel Like It's May?

This has been a rough start to the school year.  I'm not sure what it is exactly, but nearly everyone is walking around asking why we all feel worn out and exhausted like we do at the end of the school year.  Good gracious, we've just started and we're  dead tired.  

Maybe it's the overload of paperwork that we have at the beginning of every year...and the fact that, for the 7th grade teachers at least, we're looking about about 30 more kids a year than we had last year.  It doesn't seem like it would make that much difference but it does.  (We have the same number of seventh grade students this year, but we're down to two teams...and overall, we went down 7 teachers).  Maybe it's because we're still waiting to hear about our new standards and how the Very Big Deal Government Mandated Tests went and rumors out there indicate it wasn't very good (State-wide, I might add).  And then there's the general student apathy which is nearly as bad as the parent apathy.  Who knows?  All I know is that it's been a rough start.

And then you find that little folded up piece of notebook paper on your desk.

Every year we send out an introductory post card to all our homeroom kids.  Every year.  The key is getting it done while you still can honestly say something good about the kids and haven't been around them long enough to really get truly annoyed.  It's just one more thing we do at the beginning of the year, and considering I've never got one bit of feedback on these cards in the past, oh, six years, you sometimes wonder why in the hell we bother?  I mean really...we're talking about parents who hang up on us.

So this is what I found, dropped on my desk by one of my homeroom kids, Very Nice Boy, on his way out the door the other day

"Dear Mrs. Bluebird,

Thank you for saying that about me and I have something to tell you.  You are a great teacher that wants youre students to exceed and have fun at the same time.  Also you are fun and kind and you are my favorite teacher of all time.  Sincerely, Quiet Boy.

P.S.  I really appreciate that what you said about me."

I wish I could remember what I said about him - probably something along the lines about what a nice kid he was (he really is) and how much I enjoy having him in class (I really do).

Notes like that make it a bit more tolerable...

Monday, September 13, 2010

My Charming Class of Malcontents

My Seventh Period Class from the Very Depths of Hell Itself, is the sort of class that makes teachers count the years until retirement.

I kid you not, in a sea of otherwise fairly nice classes (and including two class that are just an absolute joy to teach), this group of kids stick out like a sore thumb.   They are absolutely amazingly miserable to be around.  Surprisingly, it's my smallest class, it is, by far, my worst behaved.

I have at least five girls in this class Who Cannot Shut The Hell Up.  Some of them will literally talk to a wall, given a wall to talk to.  They are Dramatic.  They are attention-seeking.  They are a royal pain in the ass.  I have at least three boys who are the type that like to mess with other people and other people's things.  I could spend all period dealing with "he touched my binder" and "he took my pencil" issues with this group, but I refuse to play that game with them.  I have two little Thugs in Training who walk around like a couple of roosters sticking their chests out and trying to out-bully each other to see who's going to be the baddest boy in the henhouse (news to them, I'm the head chicken in this yard so they better just stop squawking and sit the hell down).   And then, of course, I have a handful of kids who really care, who really try, and who just hate the class because of the idiots that are in there ruining everything for them.

And it dawned on me about a week ago, that these kids all hate each other.  Absolutely can't stand each other.  It's like a cross-country trip with a van full of kids who are ready to smack the snot out of each other by the time we reach our destination.

So, after multiple seating chart changes moving kids, here, there and yonder, I finally gave up on my dream of perfect lab groups of four and started spreading these kids out.  I figured since they hated each other, they'd be better off with more personal space. On Friday, I was simply planning to move Roster Boy 1 to his own little table (since I have such big classes this year, I have a small lab table as well as 5 isolation seats so I can accommodate everyone in the bigger classes) for the express purpose "of giving you a space where people won't pester you."  (I actually moved him because I was a afraid he and Roster Boy 2 were going to come to blows and the further apart I had them, the better life would be.)  As soon as he happily moved over to his table, five hands went up in the air.

"Can I move to a seat by myself?" asked one of the kids frantically waving his hand.

"Seriously?" I asked.  I mean most seventh graders just love to be able to sit in groups, but, again, this is a unique class.

"Yes, pullleeeeze," he whimpered.

"Okay, head over there," I said and pointed to one of the isolation seats and moved his post-it name on the seating chart.

After that it was like I'd opened the flood gates.  Within five minutes all the isolation seats were taken and most of the big tables were down to two kids, or three at the most.  Amazing.

And today?  They were awesome.  They were quiet.  They stayed in their seats, followed directions and did their work.

I was stunned.  I gave them each a Reward Dollar (part of our PBS thing) and told them to mark on the back that it was for being respectful to their classmates by being quiet and doing what they were told.  It was like a different planet in there today.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Day to Remember Hereos

I was student teaching up North when I heard about the planes hitting the Twin Towers. I knew then that life as we knew it wouldn't be the same.

We learned a lot about what a true hero was that day. And one of mine is Rick Rescorla.  If you don't know his story, take a moment to learn about what a amazing man he was.  He saved the lives of 2,700 people nine years ago today.   An astounding feat by an astounding man.

God bless him.

And may God bless all those we lost that day and all those left behind.

When Opening a Locker is a Major Accomplishment

The lockers in my part of The Building are OLD. Not just OLD, but DIRT OLD and could be, in fact, older than I am (which is pretty amazing). I believe some of them are original to the building (1964 era) and some were moved over from another building that was even older, so you can imagine what we're dealing with here.

Old cranky lockers that can give a kid fits.

However, I'm used to this. I'm used to the kids having to deal with sticky lockers and knobs that don't want to turn and handles that actually snap off.

What I'm not used to is kids who can't, after six weeks of school, remember their locker combination from one day to the next.


I have two boys in my homeroom who never, ever, remember their combinations. Ever. I'm at the point where I'm tired of looking it up for them and figure if they can't remember three little numbers (and which direction to turn the knob, yet another issue with these kids) then they don't need a locker and can just carry their books around all day. That may sound like a chore, but since they only have three textbooks this year (reading and LA are using class sets), that's not as bad as it sounds.

I thought it was just my kids who were having trouble, but found out from some of the other seventh grade teachers that they were seeing the same thing. Mr. Math has one kid who asks for his combination every morning and Mr. Math doesn't even have to look it up - he's told it to the kid so many times that he has it memorized. Apparently we have a whole group of kids this year who can't memorize a three letter combination.

Which got me to thinking...are we raising a generation of kids who can't memorize sets of numbers because we're all running around with cell phones where all we have to do is touch a screen or hit a pre-programmed key and the phone automatically dials? I have kids honestly tell me that they don't know their parents phone numbers when I'm filling out a phone pass (which makes the secretaries up front nuts as they have to then look up the number since the kid doesn't know it).

I know these kids can memorize some things - I've seen them memorize rap lyrics, dance steps, and football plays. So you think, as much as they love having those lockers, they could at least memorize three little numbers.

But apparently not.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Surviving Centers

I think I just survived two days of centers.

Mrs. Eagle and I had the great idea this summer that we would occasionally do centers instead of a unit test so that we could give the kids more hands' on experiences and also a different way of assessment. Mrs. Mallard, one of the most creative and amazing science teachers we know (she teaches 8th graders), is a big fan of centers and we saw the great results she got with them, so we thought we'd try them. I know a lot of teachers, in particular elementary, do centers, but it's not something we've done much of in seventh grade science.

So, we came up with four center activities dealing with our rock and mineral unit. We had a mineral identification center where they could identify a variety of minerals using streak plates, among other things. We also had a center dealing with the rock cycle that included labeling and diagramming. Another dealt with the three rock types and involved drawing a comic strip. The last one was a puzzle dealing with minerals and their uses in our daily lives. Pretty simple stuff and stuff that could be done, with a bit of focus, in two class periods.

One thing we learned from this is that large classes, small rooms, and center activities can be a challenge simply from a space and mobility perspective. The smaller classes seemed to be able to get on task a bit quicker, while the larger classes seemed to have trouble just navigating around the room without stopping and interacting with other kids. However, once they finally got going, they didn't do too bad.

Mrs. Eagle and I haven't graded the center packets yet, which is something we're going to do this weekend, however from what I've seen, they range from kids who barely did one activity to kids that rocked and did all four and did them well.

The big problem with most of these kids is they have absolutely no concept of time management (despite a giant timer on the screen, thanks to my Kagan Timer Tools software), and they are highly social and can waste an entire class period talking about cheer-leading and other important things. I ran laps around the room trying to get kids focused and helping them stay on track. It worked with some, but not with others.

Many of these kids seem to think that if they turn in anything, even if it's poorly done or incomplete, that they deserve a good grade. I think many of them will be surprised when they get their packets back and see that we actually expect some sort of effort and quality work out of them. Hopefully it will wake a few of them up.

And just think, progress reports come out next week.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The Shopping Spree

Historically, the class of kids we take to lunch is the Absolute Worst Class of the Day. Part of it stems, I am sure, from the fact that we're moving them from one point to another - always a reason for behavior issues. Then again, we're also bringing them back from a thirty minute block where they've been talking, socializing, and generally creating some sort of mild mayhem in the lunch room.

When I first started at The School, my fifth period was actually broken into two parts. I'd start the class and teach a bit, we'd stop, go to lunch, then I'd bring the kids back and we'd finish up our class. This was hell on Earth. Trying to get the kids focused on what we were doing for the last twenty minutes of class was a challenge, to put it mildly. It's a bit better now as the kids come in, sit down and get quiet, we line them up, walk them down, and then when we get back we start class. Still, trying to get them calmed down has always been a bit difficult.

And for some reason, nearly every year, the kids they put in my lunch class are the kids that aren't all that academically oriented or well-behaved to start with. Were talking the low achievers, the low readers, the kids who live in the principal's office. A few years ago, three of the kids in my lunch class were responsible for 50% of The Team's discipline referrals. Every day when I go to pick up my kids from the cafeteria, I'd have one of the lunchroom aides stop me to tell me what crazy little bits of misbehavior my darlings did on that particular day.

So this year, after eight years of absolutely dreading the lunch class, I have an absolutely awesome fifth period class to take to lunch. We're talking kids that line up and get quiet without having to be told a dozen times to do so. And then when they walk to lunch they stay in line and stay quiet. And when I pick them up, they walk back in a quiet line, a fact that still astounds me. The lunchroom aides can't tell me enough how nice and sweet and well-behaved they are. In fact, I haven't had a single kid in one of the "time-out" seats along the front wall of the cafeteria (I've had kids there all year in the past).

So, the other day I emailed The Principals and told them what a wonderful class I had and asked if it were possible to have them open the School Store the last twenty minutes of class so I could take them shopping. Currently the School Store is only open in the mornings before classes start and in the afternoons after buses roll, so aside from special appointments for entire classes (like I asked for) the kids don't get a whole lot of opportunity to shop. Mrs. Sparrow agreed to open it up and I told my kids the day before so they'd be prepared and bring their School Bucks to spend.

So, instead of going over our workbook assignment in class we went shopping. What a blast! I had to help Mrs. Sparrow a bit with the actual selling aspect, but that was a lot of fun. We sold a lot of candy, chips, and drinks, but also some stuffed animals, a fuzzy blanket, and some other big tickets items. The kids were excited, and loved the fact that it was their own "private" shopping time and they didn't have to share the room with 30 other kids.

I love the fact that my Admins have something like this I can use to reward my kids. And I hope my Fifth Period tells all their friends so I can do this with all my other classes when they start behaving as well as Fifth Period.

Friday, September 03, 2010

It's Not Size, It's Guts

So yesterday one of our boys, Big Boy, came into homeroom crying his eyes out because he'd been punched in the face by another kid on the team. He's in Mr. Math's homeroom so he hustled him across the hall to Guidance so we could figure out what happened. Apparently some sort of altercation happened outside the cafeteria on the way from breakfast to the homerooms before school started.

Now Big Boy, as far as I know, doesn't have a beef with anyone. He's not a great student by any means, but definitely not a trouble maker. He has the motivation of a slug and moves just as fast. He's just one of those kids you notice more because of his size and the fact that you put a lot of zeros in the columns across from his name.

It took a while to figure out what had happened and who the culprit was. At first we only had initials so Mrs. Social Studies and I took my gradebook, as we were doing hall duty, and went through the names to see who we had with those initials. We came up with two, one an honor student with impeccable manners who wouldn't dream of punching another kid, and the other a little guy about 80 pounds soaking wet who is about a quarter of Big Boy's size (and who could best be described as a "fart in a skillet"). Nah, couldn't be either one of those two, we figured.

We figured wrong.

It was Tiny Tyke. Amazing. I'm not sure how he even managed to reach up high enough to smack Big Boy in the face, but Tiny Tyke was apparently the little villain who took on a kid four times his size. Why? I have no idea. But it is a bit amazing how fearless this little guy apparently is.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

It's Not Black Friday But It's Darn Close

Part of our School Wide Positive Behavior Support program involves rewarding the kids with a "School Buck", for doing the right thing and being "responsible", "respectful" and "engaged". When we hand out a School Buck we have to be specific about what they are getting it for. For example, we had a video today and I handed out Bucks to kids who were actively watching the video (engaged) and taking notes. My mom said she thought it was as if were bribing the kids to be good, but I see it more like teaching them basic economics - you do your job and you get paid. And it's amazing how the kids react when they get them. I've handed out Bucks for kids who've helped others with their lockers, picked up trash from the floor in the classroom, and kids who come in and get to work even before the bell rings.

The kids can use these School Bucks to buy supplies in their classrooms - boring stuff like pencils, erasers, pencil grips, and highlighters. The highlighters have been a huge hit in my room, and I must sell a pencil or two every class period. The cafeteria even got into the program and is selling slushies at lunch so the kids can have a treat now and then.

And this week we had the opening of The School Store.

The faculty got a tour of the store last week, and I've got to be honest, it's impressive. It's in one of the older classrooms right by the front office, and has great displays of stuff a typical middle school kid would like - everything from boring school supplies like sheet protectors and trapper keepers to posters to silly bracelets, stuffed animals, pillows for the stylish bedroom, t-shirts, snacks, and soda pop. It is all arranged attractively, and behind counters which are staffed by administrators, folks from guidance, and teacher volunteers. The store is open in the morning during homeroom, and after the kids are dismissed in the afternoon. We can also make appointments to take our classes there, as long as we call and they can get someone to help staff it. We each got two special blue hall passes so we can give these to kids in the morning and they can go shopping.

And boy, can these kids shop!

The demand for these two hall passes in the morning is amazing. Today I had four of my homeroom kids standing with me during hall duty, waiting for their classmates to come back with the Store Pass.

"Hurry!" they screamed, as they saw a classmate come around the corner with the pass and a handful of purchases. Goofy Boy came up to us and tiny little Helpful Girl just about took his head off as she grabbed for the pass, removed it from his neck, put it on and dashed off to the store.

"Man, I thought she was going to take me with her," he said with a smile as he showed off his bottle of Coca Cola. I couldn't have agreed more. And she wasn't the only one who was waiting impatiently for that Blue Pass.

The number of kids walking briskly by my hall duty station, wearing the Blue Pass, and heading to the store was pretty large - but then again, if you consider that each homeroom teacher received two, that's a pretty big number of kids. Big enough, in fact, that they had to turn away kids yesterday morning as it was too crowded.

I decided to check out the store yesterday afternoon to see how it was going, so after the kids were dismissed I headed over.

Oh. My. Gosh.

The room was packed with kids standing three and four deep to buy a soda, a snack, a poster, anything they could get their hands on. They were waving their School Bucks around so that it looked like the trading floor of the Stock Exchange on a really busy day. That, and a bit of Black Friday mixed in for good measure. It was insane!

But man, it's nice to see these kids enjoying the rewards that they've earned.

On an aside, I'm enjoying hearing their talk about their School Bucks. There was a big conversation in my seventh period about which kid on the team they thought had the most School Bucks. Most kids by now have at least a few (if they haven't already spent them all - some of them spend them as fast as they get them), but a few of them are hanging on to their Bucks to buy one of the big tickets items (MP3 players for example) at the store. It so happens that one of the kids who save up their Bucks is in my seventh period.

Mean Girl didn't have a pencil, and was whining because I wouldn't just give her one.

"Well buy one," I suggested to her, "that's what your School Bucks are for."

"Well, I don't have any," she whined. I'm not surprised. This is a kid who even wrote on her student information form that she was "mean sometimes," who's nose is in everyone's business, who's perpetually sour-faced, and bothering other kids. She also won't do a lick of work, and considering her behavior most of the time, I'm hard pressed to find something to give her a Buck for.

"Well, maybe if you did some of the things like you're supposed to, like being responsible, being respectful, and being engaged, you'd earn a few," I said.

At about this time, Quiet Boy who sits at her table (I figured he was the one person in that class who could ignore her as he doesn't talk to anyone,) reaches into his pocket and pulls out a ziplock bag that is CRAMMED FULL with School Bucks. This kid is rolling in the dough! Absolutely rolling in it! Even my eyes pop out when I see the stash that he's earned, but then again, it isn't surprising. He's a hard worker and a super nice kid.

By this time the whole class has spied his roll of cash and they are staring in awe. He slowly opens the bag, peels off a Buck, then another, and asks if he could buy two pencils. Mean Girl's mouth is about ready to touch the top of her shoelaces by this time. I take his Bucks, and hand him two newly sharpened pencils. He inspects the points, lays one down by his books and then hands Mean Girl the other pencil!

Mean Girl is stunned.

And of course I had to prompt her to thank her benefactor.

And as for Quiet Boy? I gave him another Buck for being nice and buying his most unpleasant table mate a pencil.