Saturday, July 07, 2007

Living in Jackson

Although not directly related to my teaching experience, I feel like this is relevant enough to post here. Thursday night, my husband picked me up from a church trip at about midnight and we drove home. When we got home, I was giving him a hard time about driving my car instead of his (because my stereo doesn't work). We parked next to his car. Friday morning when he woke up to go to work, his car window was open, doors unlocked, stereo and CD case gone. We filed a police report, but all that entails is filling up a form and them giving you a silly card with a case number on it.
I'm tired of this. We were going to sign a six month lease Friday in the hopes of moving out to the suburbs by January. Instead, I'm going to look at houses today. As much as I would like to argue against the migration to the suburbs, I'd also like to be able to sleep at night and know that my car will still be in one piece in the morning. When a friend came over during Christmas break, her car window was smashed in my parking lot. The people in the apartment across from us just moved out because his car had been vandalized 3 times. I know of at least 2 other cars that had been vandalized since we've been here. This must not be a priority for the police department since it is located ACROSS THE STREET from our parking lot. Every report we file doesn't seem to have any effect. I know the real world isn't like CSI, but couldn't they at least dust for fingerprints??
The most depressing part is that we live in one of the nicer areas of town. I know having a stereo stolen isn't the end of the world, but I don't want random people breaking into my car. The fact that they were in the car is more upsetting to me than the stereo. Anyway, I'll now be the hypocrytical teacher driving in from the suburbs to teach every day.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Why I'm still here

Today was a good day because it reminded me why I'm still here. All the other mess is still falling to pieces around me and I cannot for the life of me get any technology to do what I want, but I got to teach. Today was the first day I've taught in a week. If there's one thing I've learned this summer, it's that I don't like watching other people teach. I want to be up there, doing things. It was fun and novel at first to watch other people, but what I really love is when I'm up there teaching.
The students made my day today. Asking interesting questions (after the bell rang!) and staying involved even though the projector wasn't working and I kept calling them the wrong names. Even when I have a bad teaching day, the students are the reason I want to stay. Don't get me wrong, there were some students that I dreaded to see coming last year, but in hindsight, it was because I didn't deal with their behaviors appropriately. Hopefully this year I can avoid a lot of that. The truth is, students really do want to make you proud. All they're looking for is approval and they'll do almost anything you ask, as long as you know how to ask. I love the excitement they get when they learn or understand something new. Inevitably over the past few weeks I've been asked, "Are you staying at your school?"...I don't know how I could leave. I may have 5-6 reasons to hate my job, but I have 143 reasons to love it.
I've always said that the frustrations in teaching come from the adults. Adults should know better, but usually don't. Adults should be responsible and usually aren't. And generally the adults want to make your life 1,000 times more difficult and much less enjoyable. The key is to avoid adult interaction. :)

Monday, June 25, 2007

Blogging while angry....maybe a bad idea

Today has not been my day. The cumulative stresses of the month of June are starting to take their toll on me. I am exponentially more stressed than I intend to be during the school year. The last time I felt this overwhelmed, it was probably the first week in August. It seems that every time there is a small break from one obligation or another, suddenly there are three more things to be started. I'm tired, I'm grumpy, and I've been in the same city as my husband for a total of 60 hours in the past three and a half weeks. This is not the way I enjoy living my life. On top of it all, my laptop turned itself off today and refuses to turn back on. It's probably because it wasn't shiny, new, and also wasn't free. Now I need money for a new computer...before school starts.

I have never been so ready for a month off in my life. Most of it will be spent lesson planning for next year (I have an entire box of AP stuff and two textbooks sitting in my room that haven't been touched yet) and another week of it will be spent back in Oxford, away from my husband, attending the stupid AP workshop that is also offered 3 blocks away from my house, but for stupid reasons I have to attend the one here. It's ridiculous, but I'm actually looking forward to the start of the school year, because I'll be home more and have more free time.

This is getting really bitter and I have a law paper to write. If anyone has any idea what we're doing, let me know. Thanks to everyone who helped me out today and I promise in about 4 days to be a new person.

Required blog #2

The objectives where my students were most successful were the two related to the Great Plains (explain why people began settling the Great Plains and describe life for settlers on the Great Plains). I think the main reason that they were so successful on these objectives is because the lesson was very interactive. The students played the part of settlers while the railroad owner convinced them to move to the Great Plains. Because they “lived through it”, they seem to remember it better. Another reason the students seem to remember these objectives better is that we started the unit with a picture of a woman holding a baby in the middle of a wheat field. The students spent a lot of time examining and describing the picture. They both told me it was their favorite picture in the chapter. I think that because they were able to relate to the woman in the picture before we started reading the chapter, they were more involved in the lesson. As far as describing life for settlers, I had the students pretend to be settlers and write a letter home about their life. Both students seemed to really enjoy the assignment and wrote great letters. I think the fact that I was able to incorporate varied and interesting activities into the lesson helped the students to better master the objectives. (Also, the fact that this was the 7th lesson I taught meant that the students were starting to get used to me and I was starting to get to know them better).

I differentiated learning well in the Great Plains lesson, because I used visual (looking at the picture), kinesthetic (acting out settling the Great Plains), and intrapersonal (reflection and writing a letter home). Also, by this point, we had noticed that one of our two students was a much weaker reader than the other. If you gave them both an assignment that involved reading, one would struggle and take much longer than the other. For this reason, I realized that I would need to rely heavily on other ways of getting information across. I wanted to make sure she fully understood the material and I did not want to embarrass her in such a small class where the differences were so apparent.

The objectives where my students were least successful was when I asked them to explain why congress passed the Pendleton Civil Service Act and to summarize economic acts passed in the late 1800s. I knew this was not going to be my best lesson ever, but I hoped that teaching it in summer school would give me an advantage when I actually have to teach it during the year. One reason it wasn’t successful is that I personally find Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur to be the most boring presidents in American History. This is MY least favorite time period in the book, so I really have to try to make it interesting and engaging for everyone involved. Also, the material itself is difficult because the students don’t have adequate background knowledge. Before you can understand the Pendleton Civil Service Act, you have to know what the civil service is and you have to understand the corruption that existed in the civil service before 1883. The economic acts aren’t any easier. The Interstate Commerce Act already involves two words that students don’t fully understand (“interstate” and “commerce”). Once students understand the meaning, you then have to help them understand that the importance of the act was to regulate the railroads (meaning you have to go back and explain why the railroads needed regulating). The whole chapter is like a foreign language, with issues and vocabulary that usually hasn’t been introduced until this point. Because of the sheer volume of information I needed to get across, I mostly lectured and gave notes during this lesson. I know that isn’t the best way to help students….I need to find a better way.

In the future, I would definitely take more time on the Hayes/Garfield/Arthur section. I need to take the time necessary to include more interactive activities to make sure that students get the more difficult concepts. I need to recognize my weakness as a teacher, which is that when concepts are extremely difficult, I resort to very neat notes and charts to get the difficult concept across. This is because that’s how I learn, and it helps some students. But there are others who need something else. Now that I see this weakness, hopefully I can be more innovative and recognize when I am shortchanging those students.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Blog #1-EDCI 602

Planning social studies lessons tends to be different that other subjects. Granted, the only time I taught another subject was last summer, but I've noticed that whereas many other subjects tend to be skills based (how to work a certain problem, how to conjugate a verb, how to solve chemistry equations, how to recognize examples of alliteration, etc.), social studies tends to be very factual. There are some skills involved (how to read a map, graph, chart, etc), but the majority of information that students are responsible for is strictly memorization based (Who was president during WWII? Why did people settle in the Great Plains? What were conditions like for the industrial working class in the 1800s?). You can definitely expand these ideas and find creative ways of presenting them, but it's not something that lends itself well to guided practice or independent practice. Without continuous innovation, social studies can easily become a monotony of reading the book and answering questions, lecture, and essay responses. I'm sure all the other teachers would disagree with me and argue that their subjects are just as challenging, but this is my obviously biased opinion.

With that said, I started planning my lessons this week by focusing on the state curriculum. Thankfully, the curriculum for U.S. History is much less vague than the other social studies frameworks. Since history is generally taught chronologically (so that students can see cause and effect) and since textbooks generally follow this format, I found the corresponding chapters in the textbook and started at the beginning. My objectives for the first two lessons were similar to everyone else's: classroom management related and giving a pretest. For the rest of the first day, I focused on two skills that are surprisingly lacking in students: How to make and use a timeline and how to use a textbook. I'm a firm believer in teaching these skills from day one, so that the rest of the year you can use them without confusion. The second day focused on "The West" and various topics about settlement in the west (mining, cattle ranching, the Great Plains, and Native Americans).

My experience with student needs and development is that they are familiar with timelines, but they've rarely examined exactly how they are created. I've noticed that students can often answer questions about a timeline, but when you ask them to create one, inevitably 1981, 2000, and 2001 are equidistant on the timeline. This strikes me as such a fundamental gap in the understanding of the function of a timeline. The point is not only to put things in order (why not just make a list??), but also to show the relative positions in time of certain events. Teaching students to create their own timeline, step by step, generally gives them a better understanding than just reading timelines and answering questions. Also, asking them to include significant events from their personal lives on the timeline allows me a glimpse into their life outside of school. (Students inevitably list their mother's birthday, their birthday, and their babies' birthdays...they also tend to include their parents' marriages and divorces). Using the textbook is simply something every student should know how to do, but most students are never taught. I started my world geography class in January with a lesson on how to use the textbook and never again had to answer "What page is this on??" I also make it a point to explain to students that sometimes knowing how to find information is more important than memorizing information. Students don't realize how often adults have to look things up. As far as teaching within the chapters after the first day, I approached the course as if the students were seeing the material for the first time. Even though these students took the class during the regular school year, they obviously missed something, so no assumptions should be made about what they already know. I actually found that I had mistakenly made an assumption on the second day when my 17 year old student did not know which state was indicated on the map by CALIF. I did teach her, however, how to look at the U.S. map in the front of her book and find the same state to get the answer (the most important things I teach my students are rarely in my lesson plans).
My instructional decisions were driven by one core belief that I hold, which is that students who have difficulty in a class (for whatever reason) are the ones who most need varied instructional strategies. Obviously, something didn't work the first time around. Maybe the student is a kinesthetic learner and their teacher lectured the whole year. Maybe the student has reading difficulties and their teacher gave them chapters to read with review questions. Maybe the student has A.D.D. and simply can't focus long enough to learn the material. Maybe the student has just always hated history class (like I did in high school) and has never thought of history as fun or relevant. Regardless of the reason, these are the students that most need varied activities and strategies (i.e. the ever-present "differentiated instruction"). (I've had a long time to think about this since I was required to "remediate" students once a week in U.S. History by reading a list of facts to them from January through April).
My first lesson was basically a "preview" of the chapter, that involved a worksheet I created where students look at all of the pictures, drawings, graphs, etc. in the chapter and answer questions about them. This strategy (which was thankfully suggested to me by a veteran teacher at my school) engages visual learners as well as students who have difficulty reading. The chapter usually includes graphs or charts for the more analytical students and pictures to be described ("List 3 adjectives that describe the man in the picture") for the more creative students. By the time we actually start reading the text, the whole class can pretty much tell me what the main points of the chapter are (in "edu-speak"= I created background knowledge for the students who didn't have any).
My second lesson asked students to read a couple of paragraphs about the Comstock Lode in Nevada ("chunking text"--or, not making students read the whole page when all they need is two paragraphs) and then drawing a 4 panel comic strip to summarize the story. I love this activity because it engages those kids who are horrible at social studies but great at drawing, it allows me to easily see if students understood the material, and it forces students to use higher level thinking because they have to process the information and put it in another form.

An example of an inductive strategy that I used was my set in my third lesson. I basically presented the students with a historical situation and asked them to explain the problem to me and what would happen next (this doesn't exactly fit in any one of the inductive teaching strategies listed in our notes, but may be a modified version of unguided inquiry). I had three people at the front of the room with a long piece of butcher paper, which I explained was a railroad. I put nametags on each of the 3 according to their profession (one was a factory owner whose factory made pants, one was a factory owner whose factory made shirts, one was a farmer). I explained to one factory owner that her family wanted to eat corn for dinner, where would she get it? She told me she would buy it from the farmer. I asked her how she would get there and she said she would walk. We went through a few other scenarios like this. Then I brought up another volunteer and explained that he was the railroad owner. I explained that he was very unhappy and asked students what the problem was (no one using the railroad because no one lives on the other end, no money for the railroad owner). I asked what the railroad owner might do about it? (encourage people to move down there). We went through the whole scenario of the farmer moving and the crops being shipped on the railroad. Students had "discovered" the course of historical events before I ever gave them the notes.

This blog has become really long, so I'm going to wrap up by explaining my basic philosophy on planning. Working in a district where we constantly have professional development by cheerful elementary school teachers who want to teach us cutesy words for situations that don't need cutesy words (the kids sitting next to each other are "shoulder partners") instead of useful teaching strategies, I've become fairly embittered toward the "edu-babble" or "buzz words" that teachers are constantly required to document in our lesson plans. I do, however, believe that a lot of these strategies hidden in ridiculous terms are very useful. Whenever I plan a lesson I tend to think of certain students I taught this year who had difficulties learning material (because they may have been "dyslexic", "kinesthetic learners", or "at risk students"--whatever special category they fit in to) and I just think "How could I teach this so that someone like W.A. would get it?" "What could I do in this lesson to make it interesting to someone like J.E.?" "How can I teach this in a way that M.J. won't have to read too much?". I may be stubborn about using the terminology, but I think in the end, I do try to incorporate what I've learned into my teaching strategies.

Saturday, May 26, 2007


At the beginning of the year I had a student, K.C. He was very bright, attentive, and charismatic. He talked a little too much and sometimes got in trouble for it, but he was polite and considerate and just very different from my other students. I found out later that he was from California and wondered if that somehow explained it. He wasn't performing to his potential and I spent quite a few afternoons on the phone with his mom. Around Christmas, he came and told me that he was dropping out to get his GED. I was SO disappointed.
Yesterday he came by to see me. It was the first time I'd seen him since he left. He told me that he was graduating next week with the seniors (with his GED) and going to the community college. He hoped in a couple of years he could transfer to a four year college. I asked him what he wanted to study and he said maybe psychology. I got his email address and promised to send him mine. Then he said, "I just wanted to thank you, Mrs. D." And I asked, "Thank me for what?" He said, "Just...thank you...for everything." We talked a bit more and then he hugged me and left (I've gotten over my paranoia about touching students, although I am very careful about how I hug my male students). Just that small interaction made me understand why veteran teachers stay in the profession. I don't even remember what I said to him that made him come back up to the school and find me six months later to thank me, but knowing that I said or did something that made a difference made me feel like this year wasn't a waste.

Kids are funny at the end of the year. Suddenly they're really going to miss you. I finally told my kids (10th graders) that I'm teaching 11th grade next year. The ones who gave me nightmares this year invariably said, "I hope I have you again next year! Request me in your class." I finally questioned one girl who has been rolling her eyes at me for the past 180 days,
"Why would you want to be in my class next year? I thought you hated this class."

"I don't hate you. I hate having to be quiet in your room."

It's when they say things like that, that I remember how young they are. I think the best part about next year is that I will no longer feel like I need their approval. I feel fairly confident that I know how to do this job now, so it doesn't matter if they like me. I tried to feel that way this year, but I was constantly wondering if I was doing things right and all you see are students all want reassurance from someone. Having more confidence and having a reputation at the school with the adults as well as the students is going to make next year much easier. Not easy, but easier.

Last days of school

The last days of school were surprisingly anticlimactic. Students kind of dwindled away throughout the week depending on if other teachers would let them take their exams early or if they had classes with no exams like P.E. Also, being on A-day/B-day blocks means that Wednesday was the last day I saw some kids and Thursday was the last day I saw others. It didn't feel like it had a lot of closure.

One thing that's strange to me is that kids don't get their yearbooks until the summer. I remember at the beginning of last year kids were passing around yearbooks and I couldn't figure out why. Apparently they do this so that pictures from second semester can be included in the book, but then students don't get to sign each other's yearbooks, especially seniors. I'm sure kids with yearbooks are annoying, but these last couple of weeks had a lot of random down time where they could have been doing that. It seems like one more thing we're doing to make these kids feel like they have no sense of camaraderie at the school and therefore no investment in it. I'm constantly surprised by how little my students know about each other. I guess they move so often, they don't really get to know each other.

Friday was make up exam day. We kept the students in the cafeteria and took turns watching them. The students left at 1:00. At about 1:30, the vice principal came on the intercom and announced that ALL STUDENTS should be out of the building and off the premises. About 5 minutes later he came back on and said, "Teachers, we wanted to inform you that we have planned an in-service professional development for this afternoon and it will start shortly." (My stomach sank.) "The in-service will take place at your individual residences, so at this time, teachers, you may begin moving to your own homes to start your in-service for this afternoon." I think that was when it hit me. The year was over. I'd survived. I had no more lessons to plan and no more students to teach. It was summer. I hadn't even considered the idea of summer. I'd been so busy just trying to make it through. And I thought for sure that I wouldn't. I think I celebrated a little bit too hard yesterday, but I sure did deserve it. I have to go back Tuesday and Wednesday and do paperwork and help with graduation, but mostly I'm free!

High School Fashion

Unfortunately my camera ran out of batteries, so this is the best picture I have. I know this student has worn this shirt to school before, but I guess this was the first time I looked at it. I couldn't help myself. I had to ask.

"Mark, are those food stamps on your shirt?"

"Yeah, Mrs. D. You've never seen these before? They have one that has an EBT card and then food stamps and it says 'Back in the old days'"

All the other kids in the class were unimpressed, because apparently they had seen many of these before.

I can't decide how I feel about it, but it seemed like something that should be shared.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


I just reread my past few posts and realized my blog has become pretty depressing. It's not that my life is that depression 100% of the time, it's just that, like every journal I've ever kept, this has become my mode of venting/processing the bad stuff. When the good stuff happens, I just live it. I've never felt the need to document that part.

So here's some of the good stuff, and maybe you can piece together the big picture:

1. Tuesday I got to leave campus to eat lunch for the first time. It seems like a really silly thing to be happy about, but all day I had this professional air. I had an appointment. I had to go somewhere on my planning period. I was very important and had very important things to do. It's amazing how leaving the building can make you suddenly feel like an adult.

Which brings us to #2:
I went to a Rotary club luncheon. I'm starting an Interact club at the school. We'll be the first in the district. The Rotarians were cool. The club is all about community service (yea Peace Corps!), international understanding (yea Peace Corps!), and mentoring opportunities from the Rotarians (which my students desperately need). Will it work? I have no idea. Are the kids interested? I sure hope so. Will it be a headache? For sure. But suddenly I have a role in the school other than boring children for 100 consecutive minutes each day (Now I can bore them after school too! :)

We had just finished the Cold War and I had time for one more unit. The pacing guide had become non-decipherable after Easter. I had to choose between the Vietnam War (briefly glossed over in the Cold War material) and the Civil Rights movement. I figured Civil Rights would be more fun. Despite the sheer determination of students to be obnoxious teenagers ("Why are we studying this now instead of back in February?"--don't try to explain the logistics of sequential historical events to a child that has been trained to believe Martin Luther King only exists in February), I think I may have won them over, thanks to Teaching Tolerance. The organization sends free videos and accompanying materials to anyone who requests them. They sent me about 5 different vhs/dvds and some awesome posters. This was the first time I've gotten to use them. Last week was state testing, so I planned a movie on Rosa Parks into the lesson. It was miraculous. The same class who would NOT be quiet or respectful while I was giving them the notes earlier was silent the minute Rosa Parks' cousin came on the screen. Students who haven't turned in a paper all year watched the video from beginning to end and made a 100 on the quiz afterwards. The worst discipline problem I had was reminding students who wanted to ask me questions to wait until the end. I gave some more notes and showed a video on the children's march in Birmingham today. It had the same effect. The way the videos are produced, they have interviews interspersed with actual historical footage and re-enactments (recorded with a historically accurate camera, so they look real--but subtly indicated by a sign on the side of the screen). They have outstanding music from the time period and great stories that the kids can connect with ("I was always nosy, so I crawled up under the house to see what Aunt Rosie [Rosa Parks] was talking about."/ "My mama told me, 'Don't go. I mean DON'T GO.' And I said, 'I hear you.' We were raised not to lie. So I didn't lie and tell her I wasn't going to the march, I said 'I hear you.'") Kids are getting teary eyed when people are being abused and cheering when "Bull" Connor finally gets removed from office.

Hopefully, the next couple of weeks will be more of the same.


Somewhere between Sunday evening and Monday morning there was graffiti found on my school that said "Virginia Tech" and had tomorrow's date. When I heard it on the news Monday (I had taken the day off), I was surprised, but didn't feel overly concerned. For the past few days, all the kids at school have been talking about it, taking every opportunity to ask me what I think and if I'm coming to school tomorrow. I've assured them all that I'll be there and the school is taking every precaution. I reminded them that if they hear anything specific, they shouldn't hesitate to tell someone, because this is not a joke. They've all told me they heard it was done by kids from our rival school. I think they'd accuse our rival school of doing just about anything, but it sounded plausible. They've all informed me that they're not coming to school tomorrow. I actually had 2 students stop by today to get their assignments for tomorrow. I heard a couple of teachers talk about whether or not they were coming.
I'm trying to remain level-headed, but the closer I get to tomorrow morning, the more I start to worry. I've rationalized it a million different ways. Kids who were actually going to do something wouldn't warn you first...would they? I feel 90% sure that it was a stupid prank, but that 10% keeps nagging at me. What if something happens? We haven't had any kind of faculty meeting this week. The only information given was a written description of what happened and the "security measures" being taken that was distributed to the students. No one has mentioned what we might do if something did happen. There's evidence that someone who is not enrolled at my school was in my class Monday. Another non-student was found in first period today. I don't feel completely confident that the administration has this under control. We have an assembly at 9:45. One thing's for certain, my door will be locked all day tomorrow and my cell phone will in my pocket.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Friday the 13th

I can't sleep right now for various non-school related reasons, and the strangest memories are popping into my head. Last Friday was Friday the 13th. I realized this quickly since the LCD projector I signed up for was MIA, my overhead screen would no longer pull down and stay like it had the day before, and the speakers were busted. As my second block kids were coming into the room, a kid sat down to start the Do Now and asked me the date. "It's the thirteenth. Friday the thirteenth," I responded. A female student immediately turned around and announced, "Don't have sex today. Ooops, sorry Mrs. D., but they shouldn't." I simply told her it was good advice and continued with my day, but as I look back, I'm starting to wonder if I should have her make public service announcements at the beginning of every class.

"Having unprotected sex will get you pregnant and probably keep you from graduating."

"Refusing to do your homework or to study will cause you to fail this class."

Maybe I should just have some cheesy posters of garfield made up that say the same things. Or a cute white kitten doing something adorable. There is an amazing lack of cheesy posters in my room.