Sunday, March 24, 2013

Precious Gems

Sometimes they are astute: “In your conclusion, you need to give them a reason to value what you just said.”

Sometimes they are poetic: “The night was a thick blanket of darkness . . . . A sliver of the moon was the only light in the sky, and it cast menacing shadows on the cracked pavement that seemed to twist and morph into different shapes and forms.”

Sometimes they are distracted: “But it’s my thirteen-and-a-half birthday!”

Sometimes they are so close: “I think what the author is doing is interpretating.”

Sometimes they are so far: “Surprisingly, the only thing I’m allergic to is diapers.”

And most of the time, they don’t realize how totally awesome they are: “You’ve got to be kitten me right meow.”

One of the best ideas I have had as a student teacher is to write down all of the un-filtered brilliance that bubbles from my students in class, in the hallway, to their friends, or to me and Mrs. B. My student teaching journal is now like a jewelry box collection of pure gold.

Or maybe a jewelry box of precious gems, all of different sizes and colors: uniquely beautiful but in need of gentle care. For this week I also heard lots of things about my students.

Sometimes they were positive: “He has come such a long way, from first complaining about not being able to write a sentence to successfully completing five paragraph essays.”

Sometimes they were complimentary: “I am going to use her paragraph as a model for how to incorporate transitions that help you take your analysis deeper.”

Sometimes they were disturbing: “Her father committed suicide a few years ago. Her mother is never home. Her babysitter watches her and lets her boyfriend come over. And the boyfriend is bad news, getting her into smoking and who knows what else.”

Sometimes they were worrisome: “His mother shows signs of depression. Now he does too. He is extremely quiet. He puts his head down. He will hand in work, but very inconsistently. His handwriting deteriorates over the course of the assignment.”

Sometimes they were heartbreaking: “Last year, his mother only had room for two of her three kids, so he got left out. This year, his mom doesn’t have a place to live, so he’s been staying with his dad, but he refuses to get the kids ready for school. His mom had been coming by for a while, but her anger toward her ex-husband is so strong that she can’t do it anymore. Now, the children are the ones being punished because they can’t get themselves to school.”

Hearing these stories (and more) during our team meeting on Friday was really overwhelming. I am generally an upbeat, positive person. I usually give others the benefit of the doubt. In our education classes, we learn to be sensitive to students because we don’t know where they’re coming from. And at North Providence I heard snippets about students’ home-life stories. But this just hit me all at once. As I sat listening, I could feel myself welling up. It is unfair for anyone to have to deal with these complicated situations.

It took me all weekend to write this post because I was still feeling really emotional about all that I had heard. My heart was heavy.

But as I talked through my feelings with family and some of my other teacher friends, I was reminded of the strength of the middle school model. The 100+ kids on the team have at least five adults very aware of their situations and taking action on their behalf. Before the meeting was even over, the special education teacher left to talk with someone from guidance about one of the students the team was especially worried about. Seeing how the team’s concern develops into a plan of action is really helpful. And as I plan to begin teaching this week, I am excited to incorporate #kidpresident’s heartwarming goodness into my class.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Crock Pot Cooking

I am really terrible at cooking things on the stove. I heat the skillet up for too long and cause a blast of smoke or don’t heat it long enough and the sound of a sizzle is nowhere to be heard. I try to cook an egg and it immediately burns or just sits there in a clear goopy glob. Gross. And flipping that egg? Disaster.

I prefer the crock pot. I can take my time chopping, dicing, slicing, and measuring the ingredients. I can throw them all in together, let them mix, let the juices flow. Flavors infuse. The result is usually something warm and hearty, like chili.  The sum of the ingredients is better than the individual ingredients alone. The slow cooker is totally the way to go – with food especially, and maybe with assessment.

Dr. Cook said it best when she explained the descriptive review process as “slow cooker style” assessment. The individual ingredients of student work get collected and mixed together to create something new. With fresh eyes of fellow chefs and time to think, an assortment of veggies and spices becomes a delicious meal. With fresh eyes and time to think, an assortment of handwriting, word choice, and paragraphing becomes an inspired insight about a particular student, his or her strengths and identity. Rather than get so hung up in whether a student accomplished a given task at an “emerging” or “distinguished” level, descriptive review honors a student’s work with reverence. It allows us teachers to know our students, rather than fix them.

This week, my group and I looked “slow cooker style” at Jacob’s work. I brought in his common task benchmark assessment from the beginning of my time at NPHS. For this assignment, the students were required to read Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech and write a one-and-a-half page thesis-driven response analyzing the central message. The students were supposed to include references from the speech, explore the target audience of the speech, any bias within the text, and their perception of how the speech may have been received by listeners or readers. As my fellow group members noticed, Jacob’s handwriting throughout the piece was a bit sloppy and very inconsistent. It seemed like it had been written by a variety of different people. The group also noticed his colloquial (and inappropriate) language – using words like “colored” and “underclassmen” to describe Truth and other African Americans, his repetition of sentences (whose purpose seemed to be to meet the page length requirement), and the use of “I” throughout. Despite these noticings, the group also realized that his use of the question, “Are you treated fair?” in the introduction shows that he recognizes the inequality that Truth points out in her speech.

As we discussed what we saw, my new insight about Jacob formed: Though he appears to understand big concepts like injustice, he doesn’t seem to have the language to articulate that understanding. He is dutiful to a point (after some prodding, he did complete the assignment), but his shaky handwriting and clunky wordings seems to show distress inside. This makes sense with what I know about the student and his life at home. On my last day, he actually told me, “my family doesn’t know who I am.” This broke my heart, and I was even more disappointed when he was called down to the office just minutes after telling me this since I couldn’t talk to him anymore. I did tell Ms. M so that she can be aware, but I still wish I had some closure on the situation.

Though I am no longer at NPHS and cannot use my insight with Jacob himself, I think his identity crisis of not seeing himself as an academic is something that many students struggle with. As Dr. Cook and Ernest Morrell have said, it’s not about fixing the student – because it is logical that Jacob and other students separate themselves from academics. Rather, as I head to my middle school placement, I want to remember some of Morrell’s ideas about working with students: having something to say is motivation, knowing how to say it is literacy, and feeling good about it is identity. All of this leads to his motto that, as teacher, “I can help you say what you want to say more powerfully.”


Yum…I like the taste that this “slow cooked” insight. Time for seconds at middle school!  

Sunday, March 10, 2013


Fresh haircut. Dark colored sweatshirt with a Nike swoosh over his heart. Baggy sweatpants or jeans. He wears a plain black backpack  to class each day, though it never seems to have anything in it, especially not something to write with. But, like most of the other students in class, his iPhone is always ready to go: in his pocket, on his lap, or “hidden” underneath whatever paper or materials we have out for class.

If I get a head nod and a “Hey Miss” as we greet each other at the door, I feel pretty good about what type of day it will be. Otherwise, if it’s a head-down, sunken amble to the back of the room, I know my work is cut out for me. His close friends in the class sense it too. They look out for him and if they know that something is brewing, when I ask what’s up, they say, “Yeah, Miss, you really don’t want to know.”

I’ve heard under-his-breath comments like, “Kick me out. I don’t care. I’ve been arrested before. School is like jail.” Followed by, “It’s because I’m Spanish, right?” But I’ve also seen him raise his hand to be the first to share his Writer’s Notebook response and watched a genuine look of concern flood his face mentioning his “1” on the math NECAP despite how hard he tired and all the time he spends in remediation working on the “modules” (which he says do nothing to prepare him for the test).

I think Ernest Morrell’s equation VALUE (of the task) + EXPECTANCY (of success) = MOTIVATION makes so much sense in the work that I have seen Jacob produce. No matter what type of day he seems to be having, as we move into the “we do” or “you do” part of the lesson, I usually check in with him first individually to reiterate the importance of the work we are doing and remind him that I know he can do it. He usually tries to bargain his way out of whatever we are doing by twisting my words, but as I get up to leave, he groans a bit and eventually begins scribbling away. *I talk about an example of this in my post last week.

Though I get really excited when he participates in class, whether through reading, writing, or sharing his ideas, he seems to have a “one and done” mentality. When we categorized paragraphs from Obama's inauguration speech as examples of "ethos," "pathos," or "logos," he wanted to just glue them on the poster and call it a day. I talked him through an explanation of his resoning, which he was supposed to write on a sticky note, but he resisted. A lot.
Since I am still a student myself, the logic makes sense: If it is hard enough to do something once, why make yourself vulnerable by doing it again? It’s scary and takes a lot of energy and confidence. So as I get another week to observe Jacob before I bring his sample work to class on Thursday, I will be keeping Ernest Morell’s proposition in mind: It’s not about changing the student, but about changing the logic.

I know Jacob is capable of being motivated and being successful, whether in my English class or on the math NECAP. What can I do to begin to change the logic in my last four class periods with him at NPHS?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Engagement and Endurance

When I teach Period 6, I’m not always sure what type of day it will be. Even though I know that I am excited to see them, prepared for the lesson, and able to brush off most of whatever had happened to me that day, I’m not always sure where they will be coming from. Well, I know that a few literally come in sweaty from gym class, but I have no crystal ball for their emotions. I was a bit nervous heading into my observation on Friday, not so much because of my lesson, but because I wasn’t sure how my students would respond.

We’ve been working on ethos, pathos, and logos for what seems to be forever and every day a few students ask me, like kids on a long car ride, “Are we done yet?!?” I let them know that we’re getting there, but now is crunch time. They need to show their understanding in their essays comparing Obama’s and JFK’s use of these rhetorical strategies.

So, the question running through my head this week has been: How do I keep them engaged and help them develop endurance when tasks are difficult and not as much “fun?”

My answer to this question is far from developed, but I approached this problem in a few ways. First, Ms. M suggested doing our pre-writing/drafting on a foldable. This helped the students take ownership of their work and was particularly beneficial for tactile learners. Also, I grouped the students with their friends because they tend to be more productive when they are able to sit next to people they feel comfortable with. Some of the students were absent when we watched and read the speeches, so this seating arrangement also created a structure where the students could easily catch each other up. Third, I worried that I might get stuck having to constantly redirect or motivate certain students, especially a student I’ll call Jacob. To address this concern, I made sure to work with him first so that I could check in with him about his day, give him some positive encouragement, and get him on track for the rest of the period.

Though these strategies seemed to work to engage the students (Jacob filled in each section of his foldable with quotations and analysis!), I’m still unsure about their long-term endurance.

And I’m not sure if I will know.

I asked the students today on their entrance card, “What is the purpose of school?” and “What do you do when you get stuck before/during writing?” and from their answers it seems like they know school is important but can’t articulate why beyond the supposed preparation for the “real world.” So, if  we #hack the purpose of school, would this endurance come easier? Would engagement be more authentic?

These days I seem to have more questions than answers...