September 30, 2012

Do Not Embarrass Me

Teachers in the state of Louisiana are assessed on their effectiveness based on two factors: COMPASS evaluations (two formal observations per calendar year) and student progress (as measured by the state standardized test). Each of these factors contributes to 50% of my overall score.

I would be lying to say this doesn't intimidate me. In Illinois, I was never held accountable for my students' performance on the standardized test, probably because my district was exceeding the state requirements each year. In contrast, there is definitely a lot of pressure on teachers and students in Louisiana to achieve tremendous growth on these assessments, because they are so far behind.

The good news, I've been told, is that because our students are so far behind, it's pretty much guaranteed that they will show growth each year. Even the Teach for America teachers who come in with little training have been able to see how success in their students' scores.

Observations, I've learned from experience, are super subjective. We were formally trained on the COMPASS evaluations during a staff development meeting the other week, and even as a staff, we were unable to come to a consensus score for the model videos we watched. And when I say we didn't agree, I mean one group would evaluate the teacher as highly effective while another group would evaluate the same teacher as ineffective.

To help us prepare for these formal observations (which are done by persons from the state rather than building administrators), our administration and mentor teachers do several practice observations to give us feedback on where we stand. The big joke in 8th grade is that we're all going to be evaluated during our one section of students that has terrible behavior problems. Everyone has huge issues with this group, so no one wants them to be the measure of success, even in an informal observation.

On Friday morning, I had an unexpected informal observation during that section. Surprisingly, though, they weren't all that bad. I mean, they were by no means model students, but for them, they were pretty darn good. I didn't think a whole lot of it until the principal and mentor teacher walked out and one of my students said, "Miss L, we were really good, huh?"

"Yeah, did you see how I stopped arguing with you when they walked in?" another one chimed in.

"We didn't want to embarrass you," the first student informed me with pride. (I found out later that they were awful for another teacher who was observed during their section earlier in the week, and she chewed them out for it.)

I looked around the room at a sea of faces eager to receive praise for their positive behavior. It was all I could do to not laugh. Didn't they realize that was how they should behave all the time?? I thanked them for their support and gave them all a candy reward for "not embarrassing me."

Well, at least they know how to pull it together when another adult walks into the room... right?

Yummy Eats

I feel like I'm always looking for new recipes to add to my repertoire. Pinterest has been a huge help in this area because I have some friends that provide great feedback about dishes they've tried.

Since he's been off of work, Joel has been a huge help in the kitchen. We've always planned our weekly menus and done the grocery shopping together, but now he's taken the lead when it comes to cooking, at least on weeknights when I'm too tired or lazy to cook.

One of our recent successes has been the white chicken enchiladas with Spanish rice. It had a great flavor, though, we all agreed that we liked the top parts best, which had been cooked by the broiler, so we're gonna change it up a bit for the next round by cooking it first without the sauce. We also decided we'll use only half the sour cream sauce because it was just too much.

This weekend, we bought a bag of Parmesan crusted tilapia from Sam's Club and threw it together with some rice (topped with garlic sauteed mushrooms) and green beans. It was probably one of my favorite meals yet.
And the best part of our meals is that Michael is officially in charge of dishes, so I don't even have to do the cleanup. Yay!

Working with SPED

Up until this year, I've really had it easy when it came to my teaching assignments. Of course, when I was a substitute, I taught everyone, but in my own classrooms, I've had the "luxury" of teaching the gifted classes. Those students, too, come with their own challenges, but, for the most part, I could at least depend on a group of kids that enjoyed learning - or at least that were able to follow directions and produce quality products.

In my new assignment, I'm not only dealing with an entirely different population than I've ever encountered before, but I have Special Education students in each of my mainstream classrooms. Only one of my classes is considered an inclusion class (and, therefore, co-taught with a SPED teacher... which is an entirely different set of challenges I'll save for a later post), so I am on my own with my other sections. I don't even have an aide to help in those other classes.

My biggest challenge in working with these students is the amount of small group or individual attention they need. In one of my sections, in particular, it's nearly impossible for me to work with any individuals or small groups because the entire class needs constant behavioral management. I'm convinced that this is the reason I'm so exhausted at the end of each day. I cannot mentally rest for even a minute because I have to be two steps ahead of their antics.

When you work with SPED students, you are required, by law, to meet their accommodations. And in my school, I have to document every single accommodation I do for each, individual student (in addition to the required behavior documentation, including warnings). You can probably imagine how time-consuming this can be.

Last week, I received an email from the SPED Department Head inviting me to a meeting to discuss the three SPED students who are currently failing my class. I needed to bring all of my documentation and examples of student work for said meeting. I was prepared for her to tell me I wasn't doing X, Y, or Z, and that I needed to change their grades immediately (because a SPED student cannot fail if the teacher is not consistently providing all required accommodations).

Imagine my surprise when I presented my documentation and learned that I'm doing everything exactly as required. On her meeting paperwork, under "Next Steps for Classroom Teacher" she wrote, "none." None!

It feels so good to know I'm meeting the requirements for these students because I know I'm doing everything I should to help them succeed.

Now, if I can just motivate them to make better choices... we can bring up those grades!

September 19, 2012

Reading Success

After working at 12 hour day today, I want to take a minute to remember something very good that happened in my classroom today:

I managed to get all 25 students in my homeroom class, the class with whom we do DEAR each day (that's Drop Everything And Read, for those that don't know), to be fully engaged in their personal reading books.

And when I say fully engaged, I mean not one person in the room was "fake reading" (ELA teachers out there will know exactly what I'm talking about) as they have been for weeks. They were not just reading the words on the page, either. They were eagerly devouring the stories in front of them... for pleasure!

I know! It's super exciting, right?!

You're probably wondering what the heck I did to motivate these reluctant readers. And you're in luck because I'm gonna let you in on my strategies here...

We started with a very high-interest class novel, A Child Called It, which my students read with fervour. The shocking content of this novel was exactly what this group needed to stay engrossed in the story. It was like a bad train wreck; they just couldn't stop reading about the terrible abuse in the story. Every time I would stop them to talk about a passage, they'd rush me through my modeling to get back to the reading. It was pretty much the most engaged I've ever seen students in a whole class novel study.

As you read in my previous post, the reason we chose to read that novel for our autobiography unit was because of a discussion of "banned books" in my classroom. Since that time, my students have asked me daily about which of those books they can read next. My students find it very appealing to be able to read what others cannot.

To that end, I walked into my room today with a box of books from my personal stash. Books like Go Ask Alice, The Lovely Bones, Such a Pretty Girl, Black Like Me, Thirteen Reasons Why, and the remaining books in the series by Dave Pelzer. I also included some of my high interest books like The Hunger Games series, The Twilight Saga, The Help, and the Percy Jackson series. I explained to my class that these books were chosen especially for them, and that no other classes would be allowed to read them.

They. Were. Hooked.

I thought maybe a few of my fake readers would come browse through the box, but I was pleasantly surprised to see all of my students jump out of their seats to see what I brought. They immediately started calling dibs on novels and asking me to make waiting lists for the most popular titles. Within 10 minutes, all of my students had new books in their hands they were so excited to be reading. I told them we needed to keep reading after the DEAR bell since we spent so much time choosing new books, and not one student even flinched.

I don't even have the words to express how I excited I am to see them so engaged in reading. I now feel like DEAR time is my happy time. I could cry... tears of joy this time! :)

September 12, 2012

Roses and Thorns

Once upon a time, I heard about a family (I think it was the Kardashians, but don't let that turn you off) who once sat around the dinner table and shared the "roses" and "thorns" of their day. With so much stress in my life right now, I think I need this reminder that there are roses at the end of those thorny stems.

Here are my big ones right now...

1. My magnet class is loving their novel, A Child Called It. They can't wait until it's time to read the story each day and complain when I scold them for reading ahead or trying to sneak the book home. Today, the class was misbehaving, so I told them they had to read on their own and fill out a comprehension packet. This was supposed to be their punishment. Not one student complained. In fact, I've never seem them so engaged in a lesson. They happily read along for 25 minutes, and even when I announced the possibility of a "pop quiz" tomorrow on the reading, the students never even flinched. Success!!

2. My department head used my lesson plans (the ones I complain about making every single week) as an exemplar during our meeting. Staff were re-taught parts of the lesson plan template that are commonly incorrect, and then they were to work in small groups to create sample plans. I was asked to lead a group because apparently, I know what I'm doing. Holla!

3. A certain someone who loves me a whole heck of a lot has taken to making me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every night so I have something to eat in my crazy, busy days. I am reminded of how much I love that man every day when I take my first bite.

1. Babe (who has insisted that I stop referring to him as such on this blog and will henceforth referred to by his name, Joel. So much for privacy! haha!) was in a car accident on Monday afternoon. Remember when I said people down here can't drive? I wasn't kidding! He called me at school to let me know, and I immediately went into panic mode when I heard the ambulance sirens and his confirmation that they were there for him. I left school right away (thankfully, I was done teaching for the day) and spent the rest of the afternoon/evening in the ER. The good news is that he'll be fine. The doctor prescribed some strong pain medications and a muscle relaxer, and he needs to do some follow up for his back/neck/shoulder pain.

2. Our hot water heater is out... again. This makes four times, people. The handyman who comes to fix things (per our property managers) said he had to order a special part or something and will notify me when it arrives. In the meantime, cold showers suck, I can't do laundry, and dishes are piling up fast.

3. I'm still dealing with some severe behavior issues that I can't seem to control. In one of my classes, there are so many students with Behavior Intervention Plans (BIPs) that even our dean (whom I love, BTW) struggled to help me with the seating chart. There are just too many of them to separate. And each of them has the ability to set the whole class off with just one outburst. They exhaust me.

I hope the rest of you have more roses than thorns lately!!

September 9, 2012

Cooling Off

This past week, I feel like I hit my breaking point. Since moving here, we've been hit with one thing after another, and my stress level is at an all time high. I've cried more in the past few months than I have in the past few years.

The company Babe has been contracting for is super shady. He's had it out with the owner on a weekly (okay, sometimes daily) basis about the illegal practices and money missing from his paychecks. This guy owes Babe so much money, it makes me want to scream. And now he's being "punished" for sticking up for himself by not being given any work. Obviously, this is a huge financial stress on us, but even more concerning, to me, is the fact that it's put Babe into a funk that he can't seem to shake.

After months of trying to make this work, and too long of giving the owner the benefit of the doubt, Babe has resigned to the fact that it's time for a new job.

I'm sad for him. I'm angry for him. I'm worried for us (not about our relationship... just about paying our bills).

All this stress just emphasizes the fact that I am so homesick for my family, my friends, my pets... everything. Life has been so much harder since moving down here.

And to top it all off, I logged into Facebook on Friday to read dozens of status updates about all things Fall happening in Chicago: beautiful, cool weather; pumpkin farms opening; apple picking; German Fest (aka: North Park Reunion); and the start of the Chicago Bears season.

My favorite time of year in that beautiful city, and I'm missing it all!

The tears... oh, the tears.

And then, I woke up this morning, with Babe by my side, and saw on my iPhone that the weather was a beautiful 63 degrees. I'm not kidding when I say I couldn't tell you another day when the weather has been below scorching down here (even in the rain)... I seriously hate going outside because I melt in the heat.

"OMG! We have to have breakfast on the patio!" I excitedly declared. And he instantly agreed.

So we did. We sat outside (and I got to wear a sweatshirt!!!) and enjoyed our coffee, eggs, and music. We relaxed out there together for about three hours, which was only possible because he didn't have that stupid job to go to today. It was Heavenly.

And it was a good reminder that even through all the stress, I have my best friend and biggest supporter by my side. Our relationship is stronger through each tribulation we face, and I think that's a huge testimony to the strength of our love and commitment.


God knew I needed today. It was just enough rejuvenation to get me through this next week.

September 3, 2012

Glimmer of Hope

I just realized I forgot to share what has been my glimmer of hope for this school year: my magnet class. Now, while this is a term that is used very loosely in this population, they are still my most motivated class. They are the group that closest resembles the students I used to teach, meaning they want to learn.

I've had several conversations with all my classes about college choices. As I mentioned before, the vast majority of my students have goals of attending college. We've talked at length (and will continue to do so) about how the choices they make every day will impact their future. I use reminders about "college choices" as a way to correct off-task behavior so they will believe in the value of their learning time in my classroom.

One of the college choices we talk about in my ELA classroom is independent reading. I've shown them statistics about how reading for just 20 minutes a day will dramatically improve their test scores (directly determining which high schools these students can attend). I tell them that my goal is to get students to enjoy reading, something about which many (okay, most) of them are very skeptical.

When I mentioned to my magnet class, though, that one of the ways I will get them to love reading is by letting them read whatever they want, their eyes widened with interest. Clearly, these students have never been given much choice... something that will be a welcome change for them in my classroom.

Through our discussion, students learned that while I pretty much give them free choice for their book club selections, I do require parent permission for certain books, if they will be reading them without my guidance. Instantly, my magnet class wanted a list of such books.

Haha! I hooked them!

In a matter of 20 minutes, I had the entire class literally begging me to change the novel selection for our biography/autobiography unit. I was planning to read The Diary of Anne Frank with all of my classes, honestly, because it's in the textbook and less work for me (Remember how I was feeling overwhelmed? I wanted to keep it simple for the first unit.), but with their prodding, I have agreed, instead, to allow their class to read A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer.

The fact that this is a "banned book" with mature content (even though it is required reading in some middle schools) has these students intrigued. They are so excited to start reading tomorrow... I can't wait!

Finally, Caught Up

Thanks to Hurricane Isaac and Labor Day, I had the past six days to rest, recuperate, and get myself caught up on school work. I was able to spend a couple days at home with Babe, which is a luxury with our (okay... mostly his) work schedules since everything shut down in the state. It was nice to be able to relax together, even if I was crabby without power for part of it!

After a couple days to relax, both mentally and physically, I felt rejuvenated enough to dive into school work. Since starting the year, I've felt behind. I know this feeling comes with starting a teaching job after the school year has begun, but I don't like it at all. I'm the kind of person who plans way in advance, so it's been hard for me to feel like I've been grasping at straws just to make ends meet each day.

For the first time in my teaching career, I have to submit formal lesson plans, on a template provided by my administration for every single day. In Illinois, I only had to submit lessons for my scheduled observations, twice a year, so this is a huge change for me. The biggest issue, I've found, is that I feel like I'm forcing myself to make lessons that fit their teaching model rather than doing what comes naturally to me from experience. The template, unfortunately, doesn't lend itself very well to a ELA classroom as easily as it does to math simply because we cover many objectives in one day rather than one (and because so many of our lessons are not confined to only one day or activity). I do not normally include modeling, guided practice, and independent practice in every lesson. Still, I've been struggling through this because it is the expectation. To be honest, I feel a little like I'm making it up just to appease my administration, which I feel is a waste of time... but what do I know?

Today was the first day of the school year I actually submitted my weekly lessons (which are typically due by noon on Saturdays for the following week). It took me way longer than I'd like to admit, but hours of work, I've finally met the requirement. Now, the task will be to stay on top of this every week.

The great news is that I used my extra time off to come up with some really cool lessons I hope my students will enjoy.

I would love to be this productive every weekend... think we can make them all six days???