Ending the Hobo Parties

“Ha ha! It’s the same Hobo from before!” the kid in the front row sneered, looking around the room to ensure that his classmates were laughing.

I had put on “The Pursuit of Happyness” for kids to watch during class, in preparation for the essays that we’ll be writing. The first is about how Gardner displays perseverance throughout the story, and the second is about the impact that homelessness has on Americans.

This kid clearly has a lot to learn about homelessness.

He doesn’t know that there is probably a homeless kid sitting in one of his classes.

I’ve been teaching for a decade, and have come to recognize how little I truly understand about my students. There are kids who have parents arguing through a divorce, kids who are struggling with depression, anxiety, and certainly homelessness.

I did my student teaching with kids who were living in the Boys’ and Girls’ Homes in Grafton. These were the first kids who helped me to learn what it means to be a teacher.

With their help, I realized very early in my teaching career that my students face uphill battles each day.

I decided to do this unit on homelessness because I want to confront the problems that my kids are facing. Typically, my seventh graders don’t honestly see the impact of their words, and how their actions can hurt others.

It is my job to teach the kids about research, about crafting essays, and about evaluating evidence. I love that I get to work in a district where I’m allowed the autonomy to choose the topic; this year, I dared to venture down a path that is painful. When watching this film and first beginning to consider homelessness, it quickly became evident that many of my students understand little about the struggles that Americans face.

This kid giggling during “The Pursuit of Happyness” along with a number of others, throw around the term, “Hobo.” Did you know that there is a Disney show where the characters throw a “Hobo Party?” There are pages on Pinterest dedicated to the topic, and kids don’t understand the true struggles that are connected with being homeless.

 

My hope is that Will Smith’s moving performance in “The Pursuit of Happyness” will help them begin to empathize with those who find themselves homeless. I hope that kids will be ready to deplore iCarly’s “Hobo Parties” when they understand how many Americans are living with homelessness, and how it effects them. Through their research, I hope that my students begin to understand how complicated this issue is, and how awful it is to be homeless.

And for that kid in my class who is living without a home, I hope that he sees that I’m trying to help others understand him just a little bit better.

 

 

Pick Up That Pencil!

 

“New Year, New You!” Signs of resolutions litter Facebook, and conversations with fellow teachers circle around how quickly vacation sped by.

For the first time in over 12 years, I didn’t correct any papers over Winter Break.

Instead, I spent the vacation with my boys, trying to live in the moment. Still, my thoughts often returned to school- especially on those rare moments when the house was filled with the quiet promise of two sleeping boys.

As I considered this year’s group of kids, I thought about their weaknesses, and what is at the root of all of their struggles. As a teacher, I want to work to help kids with more than just the curriculum outlined by the common core; I want to help them grow as learners.

Unfortunately, most of the kids I’m teaching this year “just aren’t that into” completing work. (Incase you missed it, only about 40% of them completed their summer reading.) They’re happy to sit back, watch movies, be read to, and even to talk deeply about ideas. They “just” don’t want to complete any activity that seems like it might require a big effort.

I realized that what this year’s group of kids lack is tenacity. Once again, I reminded myself that in the age of the smartphone, kids don’t understand the value of education. They figure that everything a person could ever need to know can be learned from a phone. (The many reasons why this is wrong have been discussed at length in my classroom, but the middle schoolers never really seem to believe me… Sigh.)

Honestly, what they need is a chance to develop their tenacity. A chance to build stamina as writers, and to grow their belief in themselves.

This is the second day that we’re working on building up to writing for 10 minutes at a time. As our literacy coach encouraged me to do, I’m writing while the kids write. Because I’m committed to growing as a writer, too.

I hear her words of encouragement echo in my mind during the first block, and I dared to glance up from typing to look around the room of 18 kids. Four of them haven’t written a word. It had been seven minutes.

My frustration mounted. I recounted all of the things that I had done as a teacher to inspire and prepare them for the task.

As the day continued, I still had a kid or two in each class who just didn’t pick up their pencils. Unsurprisingly, these kids are failing 7th Grade English.

At first, I was aggravated that 16% of the kids weren’t doing their homework. Then, at break, I felt the icy wind whipping my face and my toes began to go numb in my impractical pointy heels.

I realized that 84% completion is the highest rate that I’ve had on an assignment all year.

Instead of focusing on those kids who just don’t care, I decided that I would look around the room and appreciate the 84% of the kids who are doing all that they can to learn.

New Year, New You… I refuse to get stuck in the negative. I’m going to teach those kids who want to learn.

 

The Revision That Was 10 Years Coming

“MPO it!” the class echoed back at me, grinning.

For the first time in ten years, I found a revision strategy that my students understood and seemed engaged in.

Victory filled the air.

Years ago, I attended a conference that author Michael Patrick O’Neill spoke at.

He suggested that students learn to write stories using his “formula” targeting readers with short attention spans.

At the start of our narrative unit, I asked students to write stories with a clear beginning, middle and end.

Then, they re-wrote them using the Michael Patrick O’Neill formula.

As described in the slide, students re-wrote their essays so that they begin with the climax. (I hinted that using dialogue or imagery is a great way to do this.)

 

Then, they explained the context, added a “so what?” and explained how things wrapped up.

I showed the kids some models of how I re-wrote blog posts using the MPO strategy, and they were instantly able to see the effect of this strategy.

One kid did ask, “Why didn’t we just start writing the essay this way?”

“You couldn’t! How would you have known what the climax was? Or what happened at the beginning or end? Instead of writing a new story, just grab the good stuff from an earlier draft.”

“Duh!” a classmate rolled their eyes.

This English teacher is having a glass of wine to celebrate some successful revisions, and helping kids learn the difference between revising and editing. WAHOO!

 

 

How This Teacher Hopes You’ll Use Your Vote to Help All of Our Kids

“Wait, so why is Question 2 Bad for schools? I don’t understand why teachers are against more schools.”

This idea has surfaced throughout my adventures about town. I’ve talked to other toddler parents at the playground, moms on the block, and parents of school-aged children at weekend play-dates. It is important that everyone fully understand exactly what this question is asking people to vote for.

Here’s the short(ish) version.

Question 2 would allow the cap to be lifted on public funding for more charter schools. To understand what this means, you first need to understand what a charter school is.

A charter school is a publicly funded “private” school that has a special mission. For example, students who attend AMSA have twice as many math and sience classes, and students who attend Seven Hills attend citizenship classes.

To attend a charter school, students need to meet certain grade criteria and sometimes pass an enterance exam. Their parents need to be educated enough to complete the enterance papers; students who need learning and language support are not able to attend. (Translation: ESL and Special Education students cannot apply.) Charter schools have a “seperate” mission, so they don’t have to follow the common core, and students don’t have to complete state exams.

I’m sure that there are reasons to support charter schools, but I can’t speak to any of them.

All that I can see is how much charter schools hurt public education. 

Last year, 450 million dollars of state tax dollars collected for education were spent on charter schools, instead of public schools. This means that kids who are in public scools had nearly half a billion dollars less to buy things like new pipes for safe drinking water, math books, qualified teachers, and laptops that work. (I could have a serious rant here about the condition of schools and equipment, and how underfunded we are. But I’m restraining myself. Be proud.) Lifting the cap would mean that the condition of our schools, teachers and materials would only further deteriourate. YIKES.

Because they don’t have to accept those with special language or education needs, charter schools provide a “seperate but unequal” education. Think about it: the more top preforming kids who leave the public education system, the fewer there are in my classroom. At the start of the year, I had about 20% of my students who were identified as having a learning disability; anoterh 20% were identified as needed language support. We’ve already lost two students to charter schools- the more who leave, the higher these percentages “left behind” are. As the top students leave, the middle of the class that I try to teach to becomes lower and lower. YIKES.

Question 2 is bad for public schools. It means that those people who believe in public education are left with less funding, and only the kids who need support. The public schools have less money to pay for things that they need, and budgets are cut even when taxes increase.

This public school teacher, who is sending her kids to public schools, begs you to vote no on 2.

 

 

 

 

 

 

F*ck Summer Reading

I’m writing this while I’m sitting at school. It’s 5:37pm and I’ve been awake for 12.5 long hours. While I wait for Open House to begin, bitter that I’m missing dinner with my boys and exhausted from the race home to drop off kids and wash dishes. So to be fair, my mindset isn’t all that positive.

As I enter the scores for summer reading, I can’t help but roll my eyes and let out an exhausted breath.

In one class of 20 children, 5 of them completed the summer reading assignment. That’s 75% of the kids who are starting the year failing my class.

I went over the assignment last week, and offered to let them go to the library to find a book if they needed to start the process. The teachers last year all encouraged the kids to read the books so that they could participate in the fun reading day celebration this month.

In all, about 50% of my kids read a book. That means that 50% of my kids are failing my class during the second week  of school.

Why do I, as the English teacher, have to start the year by failing kids who have so little parent support? The other content area teachers do not assign summer work. Somehow, the English teachers got stuck with the summer reading.

It is time for it to end.

Next year, I’m petitioning to end summer reading. There are piles and piles of research that explain why it’s helpful, and important. But my students don’t do it, and there isn’t anything else that I can do to help them complete it.

I complied the list of missing summer reading assignments and I emailed every parent. Only one emailed me back regarding the missing work. That’s a 2.5% parent response rate. What hope do these kids have? What hope do I have of pulling them back out of the trenches?

This is the last time that I’m going to start the year by failing my kids, after spending the first few days filling them with hope and excitement. This is the last time that I’ll have to call a parent who is already overwhelmed and let them know that their kid is behind before the year even started. This is the last time that I’ll be collecting summer reading.

I hope.

Please.

 

 

Almost Explosive

“This is 4/4. You need to keep reading ahead in the music to stay on time!!! Don’t just look at what you’re playing, now! That is like driving a car and looking at the hood ornament!”

My high school band teacher was full of wonderful sayings dripping with sarcastic humor. I spent an hour a day in his class for four years, and to be honest, some of his snarky comments are still a part of my inner monologue today.

My favorite came up in the hall this morning, when talking with another English teacher. She commented that her kids were trying to write using quotes from a text, but weren’t bothering to copy them word for word.

“Almost only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and nuclear war.” I rattled off.

“WHAT?!” she gawked.

I repeated the adage that is such a familiar part of my inner monologue. Then I explained, “You can’t almost  hit someone with a nuclear missile.  You can’t almost be on the beat of the music, and you certainly can’t almost quote a text…Just  share the maxim, and then draw a mushroom cloud on their papers when they ALMOST quote something. They’ll get it,” I smirked. (Disclaimer: I was being sarcastic!)

My band teacher would be proud to know that his legacy lives on.

 

 

My Huge Display of Growth

In September, when all of the other teachers were building beautiful, inspiring displays to welcome back the school year, I was cursing Pinterest and my inability to put together a reasonable display. 

But, I’ve been working really hard at stepping out of my comfort zone.

It isn’t always easy, but with a growth mindset, I know that I can get better at this.

So, what better place to start than with a display of what it means to have a growth mindset?

I think I won.

growth 1
Mine

 

growth 2
the one from Pinterest

The Infection I’m Glad I Caught

“The point isn’t to get it all right away. The point is to grow your understanding, step by step. What can you try next?”

I never tell my students that they tried their hardest, so it is ok.

Patrick and I never want to tell our son that he is smart, and that is why he is learning so much.

When I am frustrated about work, I don’t tell myself that I just don’t get it.

Instead, the Tobiasson family approaches things with a growth mindset.

This is what Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success encourages teachers to tell their students, colleagues and children.

In her numerous research studies through Standford University, Dweck found conclusive evidence that the way that people think about learning and problem solving is a determining factor in the success that they find in life. Things like sports, algebra, reading comprehension and learning new product sales strategies are different learning activities that are more successful when approached from a growth mindset.

Dweck found that it is important for people, of all ages and abilities, to consider how they approach problem solving. In short, she found that instead of thinking of things as easy or hard, people should approach all of life as a challenge to find the greatest success. Dweck found that offering praise for “intelliegence and ability doesn’t foster self-esteem and lead to accomplishment but may actually jeopardize success.”

Think about it: What if you thought that you were a really terrific writer. Your whole life, teachers, friends and your parents praised your writing skill. Then you go to Stanford, and fail Writing 101. How do you feel? Would you want to keep writing? Or try something else?

At some point, everyone faces challenges.

But successful people, like Tom Brady, have a growth mindset. They know that they have to keep trying new strategies, continually practice, and never give up.

In the education world, the philosophy of the growth mindset is spreading through schools like margarine flows across Wonderbread. Teachers are watching videos, reading required books, and attending workshops about how to talk to students to help them change their inner monologues to reflect the growth mindset.

My favorite one is “The Power of Belief.” 

Here, Eduardo Bricino talks about the importance of not telling yourself that you can’t do something, but instead thinking “I’m not there, yet.”

It isn’t easy to keep up the growth mindset. Everyone has roadblocks, and things that make them want to give up.

I’m lucky enough to have a guy at home with me, reminding me about the importance of not yet

Yesterday, at a stop light, Patrick caught me praising Jasper for being smart.

“He keeps learning and growing!” Patrick reminded me.

Yes. 

 

Don’t Get Lost in the Grammar Forest

This year, our district has finally decided that grammar matters! (As a grammarian who thought grammar was dead, this honestly excited me.) Our department head asked that all students in middle school be able to define and identify the eight parts of speech by the end of the year.

Honestly, I was excited to be given license to teach a topic that I genuinely believe in.

Any English teacher can list the ways that teaching grammar is boring for students and teachers alike, so I have dug deep to find fun activities for kids to do. (Sort index cards! Color code sentences! The Grammar Olympics!) I even dared to venture onto Pinterest to find some activities.

One thing that the kids seemed unclear about was the idea that the eight parts of speech can be broken down and further defined into subsections.

“So wait… an article is an… adjective?” I was asked a dozen times.

In a moment of desperation, I sketched a tree, showing the different branches of adjectives. Then, I drew one for pronouns…

Now I have a grammar forest in my room.

I think that the kids like it, because one brilliant kid even made me a sun.

“How can we expect our grammar forest to grow without sunlight?”

Brilliant.

 

 

Why We Pledge

I love that I get to teach in a school that is liberal, and trusts teachers to put students’ interests first. One thing that is truly unique about the school I work in is that at no one ever makes any announcements, and no one ever leads the school in The Pledge of Allegiance.

When Patrick, my patriotic husband, heard about this, he was horrified.

“But you do The Pledge, on your own?” he asked.

“Sure, most of the time. When I can remember to. But there are lots of things happening in the morning, and if I don’t get to have any coffee…” I fumbled.

He steamed. I relented.

Now, each day, I make sure that my students join me in saying The Pledge. I never start it, and I’m never the loudest voice. Instead, I make sure that a different student begins it, and that all members are respectfully participating.

I don’t do this because my husband will yell at me, or because of some rule.

We pledge, because people across the country, throughout our history as a nation, have dedicated their lives for the ideals and freedoms that our flag represents. Each day, I acknowledge, and ask my students to acknowledge, the efforts and sacrifice of these men and women.

My husband, a Veteran, doesn’t thank others for their service.

He thanks them for our freedoms, which so many take for granted each day. Our children attend tax funded schools, regardless of race or gender. I can choose if I live or teach in a place that is conservative or liberal. I have the right to make of my life the best that I can. There are so many advantages to living in this imperfect nation, and so many things that we take for granted each day.

My sincerest thanks, today and every day, to all who sacrificed for these freedoms.

Image result for american flag veteran
“Freedom don’t come free…”