Posted in Teaching

On Fire: A Completely True and Not at All Sarcastic* Look at Differentiation in a Middle School Classroom

* ok, maybe a little sarcastic

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Imagine trying to light ten different fires while simultaneously trying to put out seven. That’s what differentiation in a classroom of thirty students feels like.

I once taught a dynamic, interactive, differentiated lesson that included modeling, group work, individual accommodations, and a reflective recap of the learning objective in front of an intern, an observer, and my inclusion teacher, and it all went near-perfectly. (Once. I said this happened ONCE. It was like seeing a unicorn standing on the back of the Loch Ness Monster.) Afterward, my inclusion teacher told me, “Wow! You were on fire!” I said, “Thanks, yeah, that’s pretty much what it felt like.” Then I collapsed into a plastic chair for a full 30 seconds before setting up to do it all again for the next period, during which neither Nessy nor the unicorn made an appearance.

Accounting for every student’s distinctive learning style, individual accommodations, unique personality, and level of stress makes direct teaching difficult and giving inspirational speeches almost impossible. It seems like I’m always pressuring my students too much or not enough. I can never find the proper balance. I don’t think it’s my fault, though. Mixed-level classes and large class sizes and the amount of variation in accommodations make it tough for one person to address an entire group the same way.

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Consider this: What if Abraham Lincoln had been required to accommodate the Gettysburg Address? What if Martin Luther King, Jr. had wanted to inspire half his audience to action while also thanking the other half for all the work they’d already done?

Abraham Lincoln:
“Four score and seven years ago (that’s 87 years) our fathers brought forth on this continent (North America), a new nation, conceived in liberty (that means formed in freedom), and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. (I’ll pause here for a moment while you think about that. Danny, here’s a paper copy of the speech. Yes, Betty, you may go to the restroom.)”

Martin Luther King, Jr:
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. (Sally and Albert, you’ve done an excellent job exalting valleys so far this year, and Robert, you’re making good progress on straightening those crooked places. You should feel proud of yourselves.) Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. (Mississippi, I know you’ve been struggling with the whole freedom thing. You just keep applying yourself, okay?) Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado…”

I’m not critiquing the practice of differentiation. It is absolutely the right way to teach and the best way to help students progress. We have come so far from the days where every lesson was a teacher-centered lecture that left bright, creative, differently-engaged students behind. My point is only that individualized instruction is difficult, especially in large classes. You need a lot of matches and a lot of damp towels to concurrently ignite and douse the coals of each individual student’s motivation to the appropriate level, and if you do it right, there will likely be smoke coming out of your ears by the end of the day.

I think that metaphor got away from me. Sorry. To clarify, don’t bring matches to school.

 

 

 

Posted in Teaching

Mid-Year Crisis

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Thanks, Pixabay, for illustrating my internal stress and providing all images for this post.

Teachers, listen to me. No, seriously, pick your head up off that desk or out of that bucket of wine, and LISTEN. I get it. I really, really do.

It’s the end of February, which means…

  • You have six weeks until the STAAR test and eight weeks of lessons that you need to teach before the STAAR test.
  • Your TELPAS samples, NJHS applications, progress reports, and 504 data are all due at the exact same minute, but all of your conference periods are taken up with team meetings, parent meetings, and intervention meetings, so you barely have enough time to eat twelve Girl Scout Cookies (I’m pretty that’s the recommended dosage) much less get your paperwork done.
  • A quarter of your students have been absent for four days in a row (but not the same four days in a row because that would be too convenient), and you can’t figure out which ones have the flu and which ones are on a mid-month non-spring-break family ski trip, so you’re just Cloroxing everything and giving everyone the stink eye when they return to cover all your bases.
  • You have 47 more book projects to grade, which you should have handed back last week, and two days from now you’ll have 139 journals to grade, which are a lot more difficult to carry on field trips. (Not actual field trips. You know when you take papers back and forth from school to home and back again without ever actually grading them? I call those field trips.)
  • Oh yeah, and it’s about time for someone to bring up the fact that no one’s planned the field trip yet and for someone else to point at you say, “So-and-so is good at organizing things. Remember when she planned that potluck?” and then you will have to close your eyes and take three deep breaths before pointing out that asking ten people to all bring food on a certain day is not the same thing as organizing transportation, activities, insurance, and volunteers for 450 kids, but by the time you open your eyes to say that, everyone will already be voting for you to do it.
  • You are being observed by four different people from four different colleges, universities, internships, and countries, all of whom you are supposed to mentor into being a teacher, but what you really want to do is yell, “Run, run, run! Go get your engineering degree!” Meanwhile, all you can think about is whether or not you should use a personal day to catch up on grading. (Anyone else ever done that? *raises hand*)

I. GET. IT.

To prove that I get it, here’s the truth. That note about the 47 projects left to grade with 139 journals on the way? Those are my current stats. So what did I do tonight? I… ate cheese and Girl Scout Cookies for dinner, watched some old Star Trek episodes, googled lavish vacations to faraway places and then less lavish vacations to not-so-faraway places, then took a bubble bath where I tried to use speech-to-text on my phone for the first time in order to draft this blog post. But instead of actually drafting this blog post, I ended up trying out jokes for the stand-up comedy routine that I like to pretend would make it big if I ever got drunk and wandered in front of a microphone like on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Then, when I read what I recorded, I realized there wasn’t a single period in the whole thing because I didn’t know you had to say the punctuation, which is ironic because all week I’ve been making my students read their commas out loud during warm-ups to prove they’re in the right place. So, now I’m actually typing my blog post, still quite effectively avoiding all my grading.

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“That woman is CRAZZZZZZZY!”

THAT, my friends, is classic end-of-February behavior.

But have no fear. We’ve gotten through this before, and we’ll get through it again.

Those papers will get graded, or they won’t.

That field trip will get planned, or it won’t.

Those TELPAS samples will be turned in, or… well, in the fine print, I think it says you could lose your license or something, but IT’S FINE because those TELPAS samples WILL GET TURNED IN. (Do it tomorrow. During lunch.)

The point is YOU CAN DO THIS. WE can do this. Spring break (the real one) is just around the corner, and vacation or no vacation, you’re finally going to carve out some time for yourself.

Everything will be okay.

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[Insert calming music here.]
Now, take that half-empty box of Girl Scout Cookies to bed with you, and get some sleep. You’ve got kids to teach and papers to grade tomorrow. Maybe.

Posted in Teaching

Highlights, Lowlights, and A (Possible) Glimpse into the Future

I’m home sick today. I was home sick yesterday too. I’ve had a cold since last Wednesday and am also dealing with some crazy home repair issues, which I’ll probably write about in a later post. (They say comedy = tragedy + time, so I need a little more time before this whole house issue is funny.) Yesterday, I was sick-sick. Like, “pajamas all day, 4-hour naps, multiples doses of Robitussin” sick. Today I’m “I feel better! I’ll accomplish something! Oh wow, that took a lot of energy, I think I’ll lay on the couch for a while” sick.

Photo of teddy bear, tissues, orange juice, medicine, and a book
If anything will cure my cold, these things will.

Tomorrow it’s back to work, regardless of how I feel because…

A) Taking two days off in a row when you’re a teacher is kind of unheard of and definitely unsettling. You can’t help but wonder what sort of shenanigans are happening  in your classroom without you there. Also, one year, every single time I was absent, I got a new student. Every time. That’ll teach you to take a “me day”. *
B) Being absent is a lot of work when you’re a teacher. Last night (whilst sick) I spent an hour making sub plans, and this morning (whilst still kinda sick) I spent half an hour redoing the sub plans that I did wrong last night because I was sick. (I don’t recommend trying to operate Google Forms under the influence of cold medicine.)
C) I miss my students. I have GOOD kids this year. Kids that smile at me when they walk in my room and say “Have a nice day” when they leave and sometimes laugh at my bad jokes. I have kids that listen (mostly) and do their work (mostly) and politely point out that I wrote the year as 2011 instead of 2018 and offer to fix my mistake. They’re not just good kids, they’re GREAT kids. I love teaching them and, despite getting the year wrong once in a while, I think I’m doing a good job of it.

However…

Today during one of my short bursts of energy, I decided to clean up a random pile of papers on my desk. In it, I found a scribbled sheet of notebook paper from last November titled: Highlights From the Week Before Thanksgiving. I thought, Oh, neat! Then I read it and realized that “Highlights” was sarcastic, and I thought, Oh, no.

Here’s what it included:

Handwritten note that reads, "Highlights of the Week Before Thanksgiving"

  • Yesterday I wrote on a student’s paper, “This is not a simile! You are not comparing two unlike things. Liver is liver.”
  • Today a student misspelled his own last name on his paper. His last name is three letters long. He has no academic disabilities.
  • There are currently SEVEN project books in my lost & found box. Four of them have the owners’ name written prominently on the cover. We are working on the projects in class today. The students need their books. No one is approaching the lost & found box. ???
  • Conversations I’ve had in the past three days:
    • Conversation #1
      Student: “Where should I turn this in?”
      Me: “The same place we’ve turned things in since the first day of school.”
      Student: *stares at me blankly*
    • Conversation #2
      Student: “I have a question.”
      Me: “Yes?”
      Student: “I finished my assignment.”
      Me: “That’s not a question.”
      Student: *stares at me blankly*
    • Conversation #3
      Me: “Every day you ask to go to your locker to get your book.”
      Student: “I know. I just forget to bring it.”
      Me: “Okay, we need to come up with a solution for this problem. Why don’t you put a big colorful sticky note on the inside of your locker door that says, ‘Don’t forget your book.'”
      Student: “But I don’t go to my locker before this class.”
      Me: *stares at student blankly*
    • Conversation #4
      Me: “Please read the next item on today’s Workshop Rules.” [Note: The sentence says, “I will use my resources if I need help.”]
      Student: “I will not use my resources if I need help.”
      Me: “Let’s try that one more time.”

 

You’re probably thinking, “Wow, her students last year were definitely not cut from the same construction paper as the ones this year,” but you’re WRONG! My students last year were AWESOME! They, too, said please and thank you and laughed at my jokes. They, too, worked hard (mostly) and followed directions (mostly). But during the fourth month of school, they all– collectively and simultaneously– lost their minds. I remember it now clearly. It was a dark time.

So, here I sit, itching to get back to my classroom tomorrow, hoping against hope that my two-day absence has not made my beloved little seventh graders regress into name-misspelling, book-losing, non-question-asking shadows of themselves, because that really shouldn’t happen for at least another two months.

Wish me luck.

* Update: Since the writing of this post, I have received an email telling me I will have a new student tomorrow.