26 April 2007

Classroom Management

More advice from PLANS.....

Classroom Management Strategies:

Stand at the door of your classroom and greet the students by name as they walk in each day. This is so simple and so easy to do, but it's incredibly effective. Think about how much more you're going to respect someone who knows you and cares about you as a person than someone who doesn't know you from anyone else in the room. If your brain isn't too tired and addled yet, you can try to ask each kid about something personal, mention something that's going on in his life.

Make your expectations clear and reasonable. My biggest pet peeve is hearing kids call one another homophobic names (even "that's so gay" bugs me), so I tell them in the first week that I don't like to hear that in my classroom. For the rest of the year, I always say the same thing when I hear them make homophobic comments: "Hey, I don't want to hear that kind of language in my room."

Don't make more than two or three rules, and be consistent in their enforcement (see: homophobic comments, above). I only have a few rules in my room, but I'm always bugging kids about them: no gay comments, no food in my room, don't be mean/don't hurt one another, and don't keep anyone from learning (including yourself). Of course, I have these posted in my room -- put in positive terms (DO be respectful to everyone in this room) -- and point to them sometimes to remind people.

ALWAYS BE CONSISTENT. You don't have to do the same things every day, you don't have to have a fast and firm routine (though it helps a lot of people) but you do have to be consistent in your expectations and reactions, and you do have to react the same way to all offenses, even when it's one of your favorite kids. If you find that you're not being consistent in your enforcement of a rule, then it's probably not very important to you; stop worrying about it. (For example, I could care less if kids are chewing gum or out of dress code -- I don't even notice. And no matter what anyone says, I refuse to beat myself up over not enforcing unimportant rules.) If it's important to you, always call people out on it.

Be able to admit mistakes without losing control. I used to just say, "Own up to your mistakes!" but recently I've been joint-conferencing with a teacher who endlessly apologizes for mistakes. Admit them, laugh about them, but don't roll over and show your pink belly to anyone.

Move people. It sounds simple and dumb but it works so well. I usually give people a warning like, "I don't think this is working out for you today. I need you both (or all) to be able to learn today, and I think that we could do better." Then they say, "No, Ms. Backes, we won't talk, promise." Then when they're back off task, talking again, I make them move to the other side of the room, or to one of the desks I have facing the walls. Make them. Stop class and wait for them if they're taking their time.

Plan ahead/anticipate trouble. "Last time you guys worked together, it didn't go so well. What are you going to do to make sure you're more successful today?"

Move people out of the room. There are several ways to do this. I have a "buddy teacher" -- the art teacher, whose classroom is across from mine -- and I have an arrangement with her for one kid at a time to sit on the floor facing the back door and read or work quietly. Sometimes I just make people sit right outside my room, where I can see them but they can't see my class. Sometimes I send people out and say, "come back in when you're ready to learn." (Yesterday I did this and the kid walked out the door and walked right back in and sat down. I almost said something, but he stopped the random yelling out and actually contributed to the discussion for the rest of class. Will wonders never cease.) Sometimes I send people who aren't acting up out to work in the hallway and library and keep the people who are being annoying in my room to yell at each other.

"Stop." (Actually, a huge part of my classroom management involves talking to my students the way I talk to my dogs. It works, no kidding.)

Keep moving around the room yourself. (At Grinnell we called this "proximity" -- now I call it 1000 steps a day on the old pedometer....) Circulate. Avoid the temptation to sit at your desk and grade papers or catch up on paperwork. Touch base with everyone.

Don't send more than a few kids a semester to the principal (or through whatever your discipline matrix may be...). My principal LOVES me because I've only sent two kids to her all year, and that was for fighting in my room. The other day, she showed me a referral another teacher had written, which had a needle taped to it (apparently the kid had been poking himself with the needle during class). "What would you have done in this situation?" asked the principal. "I would have said, 'Hey, quit poking yourself with a needle and get back to work.'" "Yes!" said the principal, "and it would have WORKED!"

Make jokes. If they're dropping F-bombs or whatever, I'll say, "Hello.... teacher? Authority figure? Language??" and they usually apologize. (Or sometimes just, "Hey, not appropriate.")

Play to your strengths. I'm funny, chatty, weird, intelligent, and totally spazzy, and I use all of these to my advantage in the classroom. I'm NOT detail-oriented, precise, or rememberfull, so I don't use classroom mangagement strategies that would require me to be so.

Do NOT freak out about stupid things. For example, today a teacher who I like and admire started yelling at one of my students for "sprawling all over the floor, and not acting like a lady!" I was like, "um, was she being disrespectful? No? Was she doing her work? Yes? Then I don't see a problem."

In fact, don't freak out about anything. Once or twice a year, you can strategically flip out and yell at the class (but NEVER do this from a place of anger! it HAS to be calculated, and you can't be personally invested in it -- shock and awe, friends, shock and awe) for something really unacceptable, like making fun of someone, ganging up on people, or whatever.

ALWAYS be polite. Say please and thank you even when you're giving orders. Never sink to their level. Never be sarcastic when disciplining. Never hold grudges; allow everyone to start with a fresh slate every single day (even if you're so sick of their little face you could scream!).

Along these lines, NEVER fight with a kid. Do NOT engage with them, no matter how surly they're acting, no matter how much they clearly need to be taught a big fat lesson about shutting the hell up and being respectful for once. If you fight, they'll fight back. If they're fighty, ignore them, separate them, give them (and yourself) time to cool down before discussing the situation rationally.

Be aware of the fact that the entire class will reflect your energy. If you walk in crabby, they'll get crabby. If you walk in relaxed, they'll feel relaxed (though if they're middle schoolers, you won't really be able to see a difference).

Stand or sit right near them. This works really well for the one kid who's always off task in a room full of generally work-oriented people. Sit on the desk right next to hers and keep tapping on her paper to re-orient her focus. "Okay, good, you've already gotten three questions done. What's number four? What are you going to do about it?" As long as they're engaged, they're not hurting anyone else.

A big part of what I'm doing this year is just not making that big a deal out of much. They swear, they call one another names, and I just keep reminding them that I don't want to hear that in my room.

Pick your battles. Honestly, there are a couple of kids who aren't going to do anything or learn anything this year. If you want to sleep in the back of the room, super, as long as you let everyone else in the room accomplish what they need to do. Push kids to excel, but know that if a kid absolutely refuses to do anything in your class, you can waste your time fighting with him, or you can use it to help the kids who are actually trying to learn.

Choose the worst two or three kids in your class and raise them up to be the people you want them to be. Catch them being even remotely good (for the most obnoxious kids, "good" often looks like "faintly acceptable,") and heighten their success in their eyes. "You did SUCH a good job today, and since everyone admires you so much, the whole class was more successful!" "Can I hang this on my wall so your hard work can help the other kids?" Tell the kids that they ARE the people you want them to be, and they'll BECOME those people. I swear this works, and you may just be the one teacher the kid can get along with. (Of course, there will always be the handful of kids you just don't get along with -- treat them super respectfully, never let them know how much they bug you, and pretend you like and admire them -- but don't waste too much of your time worrying about them, especially if they're committed to disrupting your class.)

"Hi, Connor, how's it going today?" "Hey dude, good to see you." "Thank you for raising your hand!" "Thank you for your hard work today!" "Awesome job today." "You guys worked so hard today; you rock!" And so forth.

25 April 2007

Advice to Student and New Teachers

This is a list I've been keeping on PLANS, that charmingly old-fashioned Grinnellians only site. I started it after watching a bunch of first year teachers (often TFA people) struggling with things that seem obvious once you know them, but maybe aren't so obvious when you don't. And then I kept adding to it because that's what I do. I archive.

It's not a complete list, but no list of advice could be. Think of it as a work in progress... add comments of your own.

Advice to Student and New Teachers

As a young teacher, you're going to have to do it cleaner and better than the next guy. Dress professionally, arrive early, stay late. Don't gossip.

Observe as many parent conferences as you can. Notice how teachers talk to parents. Practice this on your own. Talk to your students' parents. Role play with your teaching friends. No kidding, knowing how to talk to parents is a huge thing.

Take a how-to-teach-reading class, even if you're secondary, even if you're not an English teacher. Even (especially?) if you're a math teacher. I can pretty much guarentee you that you'll have students who can't read, and you won't be able to teach them with the textbook or fancy handouts or anything if they can't read. One of the most frequent things I hear my colleagues say is, "I don't know how to teach reading in the content area! I can't teach reading... I was never trained to teach reading." Lack of training isn't an excuse. You'll have to teach reading. Learn to love it.

Spend time observing how different teachers around you handle classroom management and discipline. At Grinnell, we like to believe that as long as your lessons are engaging and authentic, you won't really need classroom management. Wrong! The most engaging lesson in the world won't help with a kid who has to see his mom having sex for meth at night or his dad get carted off to prison or whatever, and who comes to school itching for a fight. If the school where you're teaching has a discipline matrix, make a copy and stick it in your files. In fact, share them with your classmates and collect as many discipline ideas as possible, because you very well may end up in a school where budget cuts have destroyed whatever system they had and now they have no system and are looking for one. Be ready to do all your discipline and management by yourself, and plan not to rely too heavily on the office to help you out.

There is some truth in the old saying "Never smile before Christmas." Start the year strict and ease up as you go, because it will be nearly impossible to GET strict midway through the year.

Do NOT try to be friends with the kids. You are an adult in their lives. Regardless of how young you feel, regardless of how tiny the difference in years between your students and you, regardless of how much you still feel like a middle schooler, you are an authority figure. Behave accordingly. Do NOT have students over to your house, do not gossip with them, do not give them advice on what chicks they should take to Prom. We all rolled our eyes during the lecture on ethics, but (especially if you're teaching middle school or high school) some of your students will be incredibly fun and cool people, and it's not that hard to forget the difference between you -- for you. Your STUDENTS, on the other hand, will never forget the fact that you're their teacher. Have fun with your students, but never forget your place.

NEVER talk smack about the teachers/administrators/staff to any member of school community. Don't gossip to other teachers, or kids, or parents. If you must vent, call someone who has no connection to the school at all, like your dad. Or my dad. He's great about that stuff.

When you observe teachers, ask to see their gradebooks and see if they'll explain their system of grading to you. Personally, I grade on a points system, where every assignment is worth points in multiples of fives (to make the math easier for myself). I have a system of circles and highlighting that makes sense -- immediately -- to me. Other people keep track of absences in their gradebooks. Some people give participation grades. I give grades only for work toward mastery of state standards. Figure out what works for you and hone it.

Keep your grades on paper, even if the school makes you keep them on the computer. Our school switched to a terrible grade program this year, and the couple of naive new teachers who kept their grades on the computer only suffered when the program broke down (again and again!).

Keep all the pretend lessons you make to teach your classmates. Keep all the lessons your classmates teach you. Keep everything.

Make friends with parents. Think of ways to get them in your classroom. I've had parents come in and do dramatic readings of poems (they like to do Poe at Halloween), and other parents come in and talk to my classes about how they use reading and writing on the job. Meet with them as often as possible (but don't kill yourself to do so). Be professional and friendly.

Stop thinking you're going to be a great teacher right out of the gate. I know other people will say this, but you'll secretly think "Well, most people can't be great right away, but I'm different. I can be, if I just work hard enough." You're wrong. Teaching is one of the hardest jobs in the world, and everyone sucks their first year. Be okay with that.

Do not spend too much time at school! Hang out with your friends sometimes! Talk to adults. Get sleep! Take care of yourself, because no one else will, and if you don't take care of yourself, you won't be much help to anyone else.

Smile. Laugh. Keep a record of all the good & funny things that happen, or you may not want to keep going back. Play with the kids sometimes. Hang out with them. Have some fun once in a while. Let the kids know you like them.

18 April 2007

Grief and Numbness

People on Plans this week were questioning themselves for feeling numb about the V-Tech shooting, or chastising themselves about caring so much about V-Tech when hundreds of innocents have died in Iraq and Darfur in the last month alone. Grinnellians were dealt a double blow on April 16, when the body of a student who had been missing since September was found in a country club swimming pool a few blocks from campus, where he'd drowned himself.

Watching tragedies from afar brings up feelings of guilt and -- in cases like V-Tech, where the media script for school shootings was written years ago -- complicity, that we live in and stand witness to a culture that would allow such a tragedy to happen, and then feed on it for weeks afterward.

How can we not feel angry? How can we not feel numb?

Empathy requires analogy for understanding. We draw comparisons to experiences we've had in our own lives to understand that which other people must endure. The closer the analogy, the deeper the empathy. Virgina cannot be discussed without mentioning Columbine; 9/11 was linked to the Oklahoma City bombings; Paul Shuman-Moore recalls stories of other friends lost, other students gone, other suicides. I've been thinking about Carl Grimm this week, thinking about how he sat across the aisle from me in one of my classes, about how I never really noticed him until he was gone. I remember now how I felt then, not quite to the fall break of my freshman year at Grinnell: freaked out and sad and scared and worried.... Just, as I imagine, as many of the kids at Virginia feel right now. Just as many of the kids at Grinnell feel right now. I'm thinking about Jonathan and Lenko and how the campus community reeled in the wake of their loss, how scary and sad and surreal that time was for all of us. And this is how I begin to understand what's happening in Blacksburg and Grinnell right now. My heart hurts for everyone in those communities because I've been there, I've been a scared, sad, angry, lost college student on a campus trying to deal with tragedy, violence, and loss. I know how it doesn't stop hurting, not entirely. I know that those kids will still be thinking about this week in five years, ten years. I know that the next time our national media is binging on the latest story of violence and terror and sorrow, the kids who are now living through the tragedies in Blacksburg and Grinnell will think back to this week and draw analogies to their own tragedies in order to move past the numbness and find empathy.

It's hard to empathize when you can't analogize. How many of us know what it's like to live through a war -- not the kind you see on Fox News, but the kind you see in the faces of your neighbors and family with every new loss? How many of us have had to lie silent on the floor of our house, waiting for the rain of bombing to stop? Not too many, I'd say, and so it's nearly impossible for us to understand that kind of tragedy. Without analogy, it's hard to feel.

Ours is a culture of binge-and-purge events: one week of everything we can learn about Virgina and then we'll be done. One week of Anna Nicole, one week of Katrina, one week of the Los Alamos fires, one week of Columbine, and then we're done, while the people directly involved are still in the middle of the sorrow and the loss, we'll turn our collective heads and hearts to the next big thing. It's not that we don't feel genuine emotion in the midst of this media-bombing: we all stood witness to the destruction of Katrina, of the Tsunamis, of the Amish school shooting, and we mourned. We stood witness for Iraq as well, in the beginning. Millions of people marched in protest, millions of people stayed glued to their TVs, weeping, as the United States dropped the first bombs on Baghdad in March of 2003. We cared -- maybe we still do. But we have to get on with the business of being alive, and life is comprised of the mundane.

And yes, we do develop a sort of numbness. We have to. It's not possible to live every single day in fear and anger and overwhelming sadness -- and still remember to pick up bread for sandwiches, and pay the phone bill, and write that thank you note to grandma. We have to compartmentalize, we have to be able to shut things down. We have to be able to turn off the endless loop of planes hitting the Twin Towers, walk out into the sunlight, and pet a puppy. We must, we must turn from the tragedy and walk back into our own lives, or we won't be alive at all.

16 April 2007

Oh, Virginia.....

Maybe I shouldn't admit this, but I am completely riveted to the news about Va. Tech. Maybe it's because I'm a teacher, and I've had to spend the last few days reviewing lock-down and emergency procedures with my students (coincidentally, we had a sloppy lockdown drill last Friday where one of my students "got killed" -- and let me tell you how much I loved hearing that the principal had told her "you're dead, Reina"). Maybe it's because I lived in Norris at Grinnell, and even though I know their Norris is a classroom building, I can't help but imagine some mutant cross between our Norris and ARH. Maybe it's because of what happened at Grinnell in the fall of 1998, when we spent a few dazed weeks wondering why Carl would do that to himself, trying to pick up the pieces in the aftermath.... or Grinnell in the spring of 2003, when we all sat inside a bubble of tragedy and sadness that seemed inescapable.... The analogies of tragedy, I guess, and I suppose it's normal to try to put a face on such loss, to try to comprehend it..... I don't know. All I know is that I'm so heartbroken over it all, and the closer-to-home Grinnell story, as it unfolds, somehow ties VA with Grinnell, and all we lived through there.

God. I have nothing profound or illuminating to say. I keep coming back to something Vonnegut said, in advice to new babies on this planet. "God damn it," he said, "you've got to be kind."

05 April 2007

Pat: Miss? You're not going to be happy.
Me: What.
Pat: Don't get mad, Miss.
Me: What happened, Pat?
Jenni: He spilled soda on your floor!
Me: (raised eyebrows at Pat)
Pat: Well... yes. That's true. It was an accident, Miss.
Me: See, Pat, this is why I don't want you to bring food into my room. If you have cornnuts, there's cornnuts all over my floor. Soda, there's soda on the floor.
Pat: Miss?
Me: Yes?
Pat: There's more.
Me: What.
Pat: I used a kleenex off your desk to clean it up.
Me: Okay...
Pat: Well, I *thought* it was a kleenex. I grabbed the first thing I saw. I thought it was a kleenex.
Me: What was it, Pat?
Pat: Miss, it's nothing. Just don't be mad when you find the paper.
Me: WHAT paper?
Pat: The paper I thought was a kleenex.
Me: You thought a piece of paper was a kleenex.
Pat: Yes, Miss, I didn't realize it was a piece of paper until after I'd used it to wipe up the soda.
Me: I find this very hard to believe.
Pat: Then it got all crumbly and fell apart. So you couldn't read the writing.
Me: There was WRITING on it, Pat? On the paper you took off my desk to wipe up your soda? What did it say?
Pat: I couldn't see it through the soda. It's in the garbage. I think it was someone's phone number maybe?
Me: A parent's phone number?
Pat: Miss, I don't know.
Me: How am I going to explain to a parent that I couldn't call him because one of my students thought the piece of paper with his phone number on it was a KLEENEX and used it to MOP UP a spill??
Pat: I just wouldn't tell him, Miss. Just don't tell him.

Two seconds later, another student tipped her desk over and spilled her Arizona Iced Tea down the backs of both my legs. Luckily I was wearing black. I announced to the class that I was no longer their teacher but merely a person with wet pants, and I ignored them for the next few minutes while I tried to get as much tea as I could out of my pants.

Oh, middle school.