Saturday, November 19, 2016

"Now you are the student, and I am the master..." -Darth Vader

My favorite masked heavy breather perfectly describes a First Day of School I had a few years ago.

From day one I try to establish an open, trusting environment; my goal is to help each student view herself or himself as "gifted and talented" (although not necessarily the kind that comes with a high IQ). 

As students are filling out their first day info cards, one of the questions is "What is something you are good at?"  I explain that we are all good at something--some of us never lose friends; others can cook for a large family; others can sleep through a tornado; some can burp the alphabet. I tell them they aren't allowed to write "I don't know," but to look for abilities that may be overlooked. That year, I said, "Now me? I may be the slowest runner in the land and I can't do the Dougie [that year's current popular dance]. But I can beat you in Scrabble, all day long!" And so forth. 

Sooooo after the final bell of the final class rang, instead of darting out the door to check their phones, one girl smilingly approached me.

"Miss Munnelly, I'm D. You teach people all day, and now it's time for someone to teach YOU. I am going to teach you how to Dougie!"

And she did.

Best first day ever.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Chess in B-5

Seating charts can be tough.
Strategic, like Stratego. ("Jojo needs to sit up close to see the board better, but he's really tall and his head blocks others from seeing.....hmmmm")
Little bombs hide right under your nose, like Battleship. ("I didn't know they went out last year!")

Some classes are easy--you can let the computer randomize the kids for you, or if you want, seat kids so their names amuse you. You can have a Wild West corner and put Colton M.,  B. Weston,  A. Silverthorn, and Wayne H. all in one corner, and you can have the Alex corner and stick all the Alexandras, Alexes, Alexises, Allies, Lexys all together, maybe center them around an Obiyashi for some fun cognitive dissonance. Lately I've wondered about a row of Leys--Ryley, Kyley, Lee, Bailey, Hadley, Kayley, and of course the perennial Ashley.

So. Many. Moves. Some fatal!
But every year, one class will be a chessboard of tricksy dimensions. This year one of my classes has two Queens, and it almost doesn't matter where you put them because they are so strong wherever they are placed. They are powerful in their own ways, taking down Pawns with scorn or eye rolls or mocking laughter. The same class harbors an unpredictable Knight; how he moves from day to day is anyone's guess. He can be a strong ally to the Queens. There are a few Kings in the class, young men who love learning but have limited personal power and sometimes they are vulnerable. I am lucky to have a few Bishops, really super smart self-controlled students who are fantastic and compliant. It helps to move a Bishop next to a Queen or unpredictable Knights. When I set my pieces on the little seating chart boxes that represent their chairs, I have to use quiet kids or the English learners as Pawns to "block" the chatty pieces' volubility (and hey, that sometimes helps a quiet kid come out of her shell or the English learner practice his English more).

My class is in a double horseshoe in order to facilitate students addressing each other and so everyone can see the Almighty Promethean board. But that also means it's easy for Queens to make eye contact with each other, or even with the unpredictable Knight.

The moment of truth comes, of course, during the game itself. Sometimes kids have friendships with pieces I didn't suspect would block progress, and sometimes the seating is genius. Sometimes my game is limited by Individual Education Plans that say "Preferential Seating," and that leaves some pieces anchored all year.

Anyway, I just finished the chessboard for this tricksy class.  Truth will tell. I just wish I were a better chess player. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Top Ten Cool and Groovy after Two Entire Weeks

The cool and the groovy about 2016/2017 thus far--best launch yet!!!!

1. I still have A/C! Hurrah!

2. No energy-sapping children! When I compare this year to last, I realize how tough a few of them really truly were, how much of my "teacher juice" was used in reining in the man-sized nonstop talker who never did his work during advisory and period 6, or the Trio of Terror that formed period 7 (I got them down to the Deadly Duo after a parent conference with one, but the other two? It was mostly my will against theirs. My will won, most days. Most. All days? The bell would ring and I would think, "Just in time!")

Oh, is the bell ringing already???

3. My day ends with a delightfully sweet class! Last year I ended with my largest and chattiest and Most Likely To Be Seen in the Counseling Office (see above).

No more--I've got sweetie pies, now!

4. My seminar class isn't cliquey! And, they have already earned donuts. This year may be expensive for me...(I buy donuts after a class earns four stars. Stars are earned when 100% of the class turns in their assignment.)

5. All of our new hires are really strong, great teachers! I often spend my preps in my colleagues' rooms as I grade my papers there. I steal all sorts of great ideas as well as see what else my kiddos' day looks like. I can also do a lil cross-discipline application when I know what's up. Annnnd I get to see my students' behavior with other teachers. That alone can be revelatory. I like my new history parter, too. I used to be considered the structured, organized 8th grade history teacher. This guy makes me look like improvisational.  Hoping to learn from this kid--he's sharp.

Trying to be the best I can be by surrounding myself with greatness

6. The weather hasn't been super nasty! Last week was gross, but not as gross as some days of yore that I recall. Most days this week, I didn't use the A/C.

7. The blind guy came! Not the man with no sight, but the guy who measures our windows so we can get new blinds!! Yay! Mine are dingy and dirty. Some slats are bent, and one has a hole in it. Now that presents a puzzler: how did that hole arise??? I  have been at my site so long that I remember when the current blinds were installed (yes, I've been teaching since 1932)...I never saw a kid stab a hole, and I'm an attentive teacher. I will never know.

Hopefully installation will go smoothly
8. My printer got fixed!! Joy!

Image result for printer works meme
I hit print as soon as the repair lady left the room

9. One class only has 24 kids in it! It's my ideal number. The others are still sizable (34 in the other 4), but how fun to have one little one. And the books I recommended to them? They are all reading and enjoying them!! The Elephant Man, Bull Run, The Outsiders, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men... they are all hushed and focused during our advisory reading time. In fact, one girl tore out her John Green novel with a gleeful, "Yay! We get to read!" I'm in heaven.

10. Now you KNOW I love my A/C, but it really is obnoxiously loud. When it's on, half the class can't hear the other half, and I can't hear them. The decibels are ridiculous. But the custodian called in a work's going to be fixed!!!!

This school year is just off to a magical start.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Seeing What We Do Not See: Not for Nothing

His parents and grandparents found out he had flunked out of high school at the moment they waited for him to walk across the stage--and he didn't.

He went on to a life of alcohol, low paying jobs, broken relationships.

Around age 48, he got sober and he realized that if he ever ever ever wanted to rise in the work world, he'd need a diploma, so he went back to school at night - he had a family that needed him to.
Grossmont Adult School
At age 50, Phillip Esquibel told this story during his address at his graduation from Grossmont Adult School--his parents were cheering for him, but I swear they weren't louder than I was. (They were glad, but I was crying like a baby. And for the record, some babies cry A  LOT--those are the babies to whom I am comparing my crying output.)

I was at his graduation because a student I'd never even had on my roster asked me to come.

I'd met M in an after-school program our 8th grade history department had dreamed up after we realized that most of the Fs in our classes were because kids didn't seem to have one of the two fundamentals a person needs to succeed--adequate personal drive or an adult able/willing to MAKE them take care of business. We decided I'd be that adult, forcing them to come after school, making them stay an hour doing history work. They could "graduate" from our prison of love and responsibility once their habits or grades seemed established (we had only one or two kids exit). I didn't get paid for this, and we didn't have any help beyond the counselor who called the parents and talked to them about this intervention as if it were not an option. We had such limited success and it took so much of my energy that we only did it this one year.

Imagine my surprise when, seven years later, M came to visit the DP teacher's lounge at lunchtime with an invitation for me to come watch her get her GED at Grossmont Adult School. My heart leaped up that she had gone on to TCB on her own, coming to the realization (at age 20) that this was better done sooner than later. (NB: she invited me, not her regular teachers, to the event, although many of them were sitting right there as she asked me. I felt she had given me a crown or a Major Award in singling me out. It was awkward, but while embarrassed, I felt honored and touched to my core.)
This Major Award is also awkward and embarrassing. 

I had never been to an adult school graduation and had no idea what to expect. It wasn't like other graduations I'd been to. It was small, for one thing; there were far more graduates than guests, even though guest seating was limited and some had to stand. The air somehow smelled a little bit like privation and the crowd was weathered and worn after the long day's work. Love was there, and all kinds of pride. The teachers in particular stood out to me, relentlessly positive, faces beaming, full of the stories that their students had told them of broken pasts healed, language and learning obstacles surmounted, wasted time redeemed, aimlessness turned to purpose, goals achieved, new goals set. The students themselves were full of hope and encouragement; one grad's mortarboard's glittered message: "I'm a g-ma--if I can, U can!"
Much nicer than the glitter of the grandma graduating--but the idea is the same.
BTW, the g-ma looked to be around 50 years old; that told part of her story.
It was the best graduation I've ever been to, better than the Harvard commencement address in Latin (which was hilarious because the student kept slipping into commonly used Latin words and phrases and into Pig Latin so the non-Latin speakers understood his gist) or the 1997 address by Madeleine Albright.
A great speech, sure, but Phillip's made me cry.
It was a validation of the human spirit, of the old saying that you're never too old to start, or it's not how you start but how you finish and dozens more old sayings about tenacity.

And watching beautiful M shake hands, taking pictures of her like mad, I wondered if it was also a validation of that long ago program that we'd jettisoned.
Beautiful M shakes hands, ready for the next step in Life
Or maybe it was a testimony to time given, to high expectations, to the influence of relentless attention, to the power of relationship. September is coming, and while I do love my summers and, like a proper Beach Boy look forward to my Endless Summer, I can pick up my new teacher year with a renewed sense of faith in the power of Love, knowing that while we teachers do not usually get to see the direct outcome of our efforts or caring, we do not love in vain.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

It's the Final Countdowwwwwn! Beach chairs, hard work, and carbonated rewards

Every September, I tell the kids that students who score 103% in my class in June are exempt from taking the final. 

Every test, I remind kids that the final is given after textbooks are turned in, AND that the final comes out of the questions on their tests; I remind them that our test correction sessions are very valuable for their future June selves. 

Every assignment, I give a bonus point to students who really did a fine job. This is how people are able to earn more than 100%.

Every June, I give a comprehensive final that covers everything from Jamestown all the way up to wherever we land; this year, it's the end of the Civil War (no assassination, no Reconstruction, no Jim Crow: where did the time go?). 

Every June, the students who have achieved that dizzying number (ok, so it's really 102.5% because I believe in rounding up) sit in lawn chairs outside the classroom, drinking the soda of their choice (which I supply), munching on snacks (which they bring), playing with their electronics, listening to music, signing yearbooks, chatting, and basically feeling care-free and special as a reward for their commitment and fine work in my class over the school year.  Mathematically speaking, even if they scored a zero on the 50 point final, they'd still have an A- in the course.  Scholastically speaking, dang.

Every year, I am delighted to celebrate their outstanding achievement with their names in my window. 
This is how it looks in my brain. The reality contains considerably more blacktop and zero grass. 

Every year, it's a pain to round up beach chairs from the teachers and search for the sodas they like (inevitably, someone wants a @#$! Cactus Cooler or a !@#$ Welch's Grape Soda--WHERE CAN I BUY JUST ONE CAN OF THESE?), but I don't really's the least I can do for the kids who've done the most. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Slump vs Pump

It's March and I feel slumpy, classroom slumpy.  I suppose it doesn't help that, out of curiosity, I find out that I could retire with some nice benefits in seven years.

Seven years? That's nothing.     Seven years? That's eternity--when you are feeling slumpy. 

I tell a colleague how I am feeling. What is wrong with me? "You are feeling your age!" she said brightly. "You are tired of the yearly troubles. I'm leaving when I turn 55." She is turning 50 this month. 

Well. There are yearly troubles. (My biggest complaint is that my district has NO PLAN to implement for students who can't read at grade level. Somehow they are supposed to just learn by being around others who can? Is reading osmotic? Doesn't W., who reads at the 3rd grade level,  need some actual instruction and practice? Doesn't J., who reads independently at the 4th grade level, deserve better? Why are there three Fs in my class? Hm, I invite you to look at their reading levels.) But this feels different.

Friday comes and I attend the Lamb's Players performance of "The Miracle Worker." I'm completely familiar with the story to the point that when we enter the theater and see the water pump where Helen will connect finger spelling with objects ("Everything has a name!" says Annie. "If I can just teach her one word..."), my eyes get misty. The set is inspired--all gray shapes except for the dining table, Annie's bed, and the pump, because shapes are the way Helen experiences the world's layout. At one point, Annie is reading aloud from her mentor, Dr. Anagnos: "Obedience is the key to education..." and I chuckle, because as a middle school teacher there seems to be so much resistance.

The play continues with Annie as frustrated as can be with her pupil's lack of progress and stubborn resistance. Yet giving up is the furthest thing from Annie's mind. She speaks of the mind as being the world, of the gift it is, of the privilege of helping another person open to it. My face has silent tears running down.

When the light breaks on Helen's face--when W-A-T-E-R marries the cool liquid on her fingers--my heart sings. When Helen bangs the pump to know what it is, I smile. When Helen touches Annie who spells out T-E-A-C-H-E-R, my slump packs its unwelcome bags and leaves.
Let there be light

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Mean Girls (and Boys)

Taxpayer, did I fail you today? What is it you pay me to do, anyway?

Sometimes a puppy or piglet or what have you is born and the mother rejects it. Usually it's the runt, but sometimes the little one is rejected for no reason humans can fathom.

Kids do this, too; they will gang up to reject another kid for reasons no adult can understand.

I spent one period in a give and take with a class that I called out as being mean to a student (who was absent, of course). They protested belligerently:
"The student (we'll call her JoJo) posts troubling images on Instagram. "
"The student ignores me when I say hello."
"The student suddenly changed her style and is dressing strangely."

I parried.
"JoJo is pursuing negative attention, because being ignored is the worst feeling ever."
"She has learned that your greeting is sarcastic and has an undercurrent of mockery."
"She is trying to re-invent herself since you persisted in rejecting her true self."

Their protests persisted, but one brave young man raised his hand. "This is my first year here, and I learned that trying to make friends can be a big mistake. I have good friends now, but it was really hard to be rejected." I sensed the lump in his throat before I see his eyes tear up, so I quickly interrupted and turned my head, dragging the kids' attention away from him, knowing (unfortunately) how deadly public tears can be for a young man. "So what T is saying is that this meanness isn't directed at just JoJo. That doesn't make me feel better. Remember when I told you in September that I would soon love each person in here? Well I do now, and imagine how it feels to find out that someone I love is being wounded by people I love!" My eyes filled with tears, but I kept them from rolling out.

"What would you think of a person who enjoyed poking needles into a newborn baby? That's essentially what you are doing. We all have souls that are as tender as newborns, and your meannesses are needles poking her soul."

One kid raised his hand: "My first year in this neighborhood was when I was in 5th grade. I said hello to JoJo, but the other kids said not to because JoJo was weird. I kind of listened to them." His confession and indictment shift the conversation to the practical--the kids start to ask how they are supposed to treat her. But they say it begrudgingly, self-righteously. It is clear they still think she is bringing this upon herself.

What grows is what we water. If JoJo's Instagrams are too weird to like, I suggest, find a comment she has made and validate it. If JoJo says hello, respond. Compliment her about something true and real about her, like a good hair day or a nice nail polish choice. Being nice does not mean you have to marry her or eat lunch every day. Think about how it would feel to be her.

We had gone as an 8th grade class to the Museum of Tolerance just last month, and one well-liked student wrote an unprompted vow (her word) to be an ally to others, an agent of goodness. In the middle of this exchange with the class, I pointed right at her: "I call upon you to fulfill your vow to be an ally to this human being!" Her eyes widened. She nodded once, solemnly.

This conversation went on for over forty minutes. I do not know if many behaviors will change, JoJo's or the rest of the students'. I do not know if JoJo can recover from FOUR YEARS (5th, 6th, 7th, 8th) of belittlement and rejection.

But the vow girl stayed after class to share how she had been rejected in elementary school and knows how it feels, and confessed she'd been mean to JoJo but felt terrible about it. And you know what? I believe she will fulfill her promise, and just that one person might help to turn the mean tide.

Taxpayer, if you expect me to stick to the state standards every day, I let you down. But if you pay me to create better American citizens, I gave it my best shot.