because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

If My Kid Writes One More Book Report…

Posted on

 

Sleeping Student
Sleeping Student

Monkey has been writing a helluva a lot of book reports this year.

In an English class, a student can — of course — write a formal essay in response to a piece of literature. And they must know how to do this competently. But let’s face it: Writing five paragraph (or two paragraph or three paragraph) essays after every book, can be a real drag. And there is no reason for this when there are a skillion (yes, a skillion) other ways to evaluate a student’s comprehension that are about 100 times more engaging than any book report.

Students could create a piece of art in any medium that represents a character, situation or theme from the story; they might compose a poem or a monologue which explores a situation or character or which develops a theme from the literature; they could write a script for a scene in the story and perform it before the class, or imagine a scene that could have been in the story/play but wasn’t; they could offer an alternate ending or imagine the characters in the future. A musical student could write a song that explores a situation or a theme from the literature and sing/play it for the class. A dancer might choreograph a piece that represents a situation, character, or theme from the literature. Someone could create a diary for a character, not just chronicling the facts of plot, but the character’s emotions regarding his/her experiences. A budding historian might want to research a historical reference he or she noticed in the literature and was intrigued by. Hell, a student could bake something symbolic which links to the literature. I’ve had students bake highly symbolic (and very delicious) cookies!

With any performance based assessment, there always has to be a written explication that accompanies the more creative project in which the student explains his or her intention and explores how the project helps his or her peers understand something important about the literature. Ideally, the assessment process informs the teacher and the learner about student progress and, simultaneously, contributes to the student’s learning process.

I could go on about some student projects that I have received over the years. One of my favorites involves a student who upon completing Lord of the Flies, made a trip to the local farmer’s market and bought a whole pig’s head and recreated the scene where the terrified boys, beat and unintentionally kill their classmate, Simon, and then put a pig’s head on the stick.

I still have the video (which I’ve had switched over to DVD) and I still watch it. And that kid makes movies now.

I know that No Child Left Behind supports “standards-based education”and is based on the belief that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education. The Act requires states to develop assessments in basic skills to be given to all students in certain grades, if those states are to receive federal funding for schools.

So I get it. My school district clearly wants our kids to pass the standardized test.

They want a slice of the pie.

But our kids are dying of boredom.

So please, for this mother.

No. More. Book. Reports.

Pep Talk For New Teachers

Posted on

As the new school year approaches, it occurs to me that there are a lot of new teachers heading out there.  This is my twentieth year in the classroom. It hardly feels possible, but if you were to check my Facebook page, it is peopled by former students from five different schools. Most of these folks now have children of their own!  I figured I’d share some things with new teachers that I’ve learned over the years. And I hope that parents will consider these things, too – especially if you hear your child has a new teacher. Before you start wringing your hands in despair, understand that new teachers bring enthusiasm to the classroom. They are eager to work, eager to get to the business of teaching. Help them; encourage them. They have to figure things out very quickly.

August. A new class arrives. Wide-eyed, unformed, brimming with enthusiasm, the youngest ones tinged with trepidation. They find their rooms, sit in desks which have held many before them, smile brightly, secretly thrilled, eager to ponder great books, study unfathomed formulas, devour complex theories, dream noble dreams. This is the ritual of August, right?

Sort of. I mean, maybe for the first week or two. But by the end of the first month, when that ho-hum routine is kicking in, and summer feels like past tense, students may become hauntingly silent, or worse, horribly restless. This is when a new teacher may begin to panic. Because  there are papers to be graded, charts to be updated, forms to be completed and returned to somebody’s office: It’s grueling and even more difficult when you are still trying to figure out whose office is where and which key opens what door.

When I was a teacher at Metairie Park Country Day School in New Orleans, Louisiana, I was on a Committee that helped to create a new faculty handbook filled with enough information to get a new teacher started, but not so much as to overwhelm.

New Teachers, see if any of these things help:

photo by Eric James Sarmiento @ flickr.com

1. Don’t take things too personally. You have to know this up front. Your students are going to talk about. If you are lucky, they will say nice things like, “I like Mr. X’s hair,” or “Ms. Q. is kinda cool.” More likely, you will overhear them in the halls: “(Insert your name here) is unfair. Not flexible. Boring. Biased. Unqualified.” Let’s face it. Not every student is going to die for your class. Not every student is going to find the Quadratic equation fascinating. Not every student is going to care about conjugating verbs. They won’t all be interested in Mendelian genetics. Some of them won’t like your unit on Lord of the Flies, or insects, or rain forests. Listen to their comments, glean from them what you will, and then let them go. This is especially true for teachers of older students when you receive your first batch of student evaluations.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Usually teachers are the nicest bunch of folks you can ever meet. (Except when there are budget cuts. When there are budget cuts, hide your construction paper and bolt down your stapler.) But generally speaking, if you need support, a new teacher can ask just about any other faculty member to explain how to un-jam the copier or for directions to the nearest bathroom. No matter what your problems might be, if you are in need, there is someone who can help you. Teachers like to be helpful.

3. Don’t forget to forgive yourself. One of the greatest advantages to teaching is the forgiving nature of children. That same characteristic which makes your students forget the complex theory which you masterfully presented to them just yesterday allows them to completely forget your prior day’s blunder. Even older students will be tolerant of your errors if you are honest about them and don’t try to pretend they didn’t happen. You should apply this same forgiveness to yourself. Some of your lessons are going to suck. But some will be brilliant.

photo by Nick J. Webb @ flickr.com

4. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. This is not in any  handbooks I’ve ever read on teaching, but it’s actually really important. If your new teaching experience is anything like mine was, in addition to your teaching responsibilities, you’ve probably already taken on extracurricular responsibilities. Whether you’ re working on a yearbook, organizing a dance or proctoring for SATs, helping to make costumes for the play or coaching a sport, no doubt you’ve got your new teacher hands full. And just as you are getting a grip, someone pops his head in and offers you another great “opportunity for growth.” Don’t be afraid to say no. It isn’t always easy, but you don’t have to take on additional responsibilities you don’t feel ready to handle. Because if you take on too many activities, you’ll get sick. This is because new teachers spend late nights planning, and grading, trying to stay one day ahead of their students. So while it sounds obvious, don’t forget to get enough sleep, eat right, and take lots of vitamins.

5. Don’t forget to laugh. If necessary, look for something funny! Just watching a group of kids at work or coming down the hallway is usually sufficient. There’s usually someone picking his nose, someone with an unzipped fly, someone with pants down around the knees, some girl wearing waaaay too much make-up — (and I’m pretty sure this applies from kindergarten all the way up to college level, folks!) And don’t take yourself so seriously that you can’t appreciate the hilarity of the moment when you learn that you have chalk on your butt. It’s funny!

6. Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers. The most seasoned teachers will tell you that even fifteen or twenty years from now, you still won’t know everything – especially these days with the technology changing so quickly, the kids will, no doubt, be teaching you many things. Let them. If you don’t know something, don’t make something up. Tell the student you don’t know the answer to the question. Write. It. Down. Do some research, and get back to the student with the answer. That student will know that you care.

In May, when you feel more relaxed, more comfortable, more competent, you will walk from one end of the campus/quad/building to the other and each time experience something different — a burst of magnolias on the east side of the auditorium; on the terrace, a gathering of students, intense in their chatter; the sturdy dark wood of the dining room, inviting and scented with red sauce; in the middle school wing, you might see mouths devouring a snack. If it is a Thursday, maybe they might be eating donuts (*she said nostalgically*); outside, during recess, the littlest ones will swing and climb, jump and shout; and everywhere fluffy squirrels will scratch up the nearest trees. You will smile at a colleague while passing her and return a wave to a student who enjoys your class. You will remind someone to throw his plastic something-or-other in the garbage can. You will begin making plans for next year’s classes. You will feel calm. You will feel you belong. You will have survived your first year, the gauntlet.

I promise you, the following year will be a lot easier!

Seasoned teachers, how did I do? What did I forget?

Growing Up Is Hard & Bullies Just Stink

Posted on
photo from Chesi - Fotos CC's at Flickr.com

My husband and I have always taught our son that it is important to be friend-ly with everyone. To us, being “friendly” means being kind and tolerant and respectful toward another person, even if you don’t like him so much. We have always been clear with our son that being friendly does not mean that he has to be friends with everyone. He seems to get it.

My son knows that friends are important to me. He understands that my closest friends are the people I can trust to help me when I need them, and he sees I am there for them just the same. If we are lucky (and I consider myself lucky), we have people with whom we can share our deepest secrets; folks who come over even when they know we are sick and barfing; they see us without our make-up on and don’t care that the house is a complete mess; they are the people we shop with, take walks with, or sit still with. I am lucky enough to have people in my life who keep little cans of Canada Dry Ginger Ale in their garages refrigerators because they know it is my favorite drink.

There is, of course, an ebb and flow to friendship. Sometimes one person gives more and the other receives – but friendship cannot be one way. Interactions may be brief or extended, but interactions with true friends should – in the ideal – leave us feeling filled up rather than emptied out.

photo of "angryboy" by bolinhanyc @ flickr.com

For kids, it’s harder. I imagine sometimes life must seem more like the reality-show Survivor where there are alliances that change daily. There are secret merges. One day you are in, and the next you are on exile island, alone. Or just voted out – excommunicated, without explanation. Blindsided. My son has been negotiating these waters for a few years now. He knows he has friends; it’s just that many of them don’t attend his school or aren’t in his same grade.

Last year, when my child found himself on the ground at recess, getting kicked in the nuts, he noted later, it wasn’t the being kicked that hurt so much (although it did hurt) but that the fact that a person he’d thought was his friend for many years stood by and watched it happen. That betrayal hurt him much more. He felt – and still feels – that if that person had intervened with a “quit it,” or a “leave him alone,” that somehow it wouldn’t have been so bad because he would have known he had that one person. That one friend.

These playground dynamics are also a terrible reminder of the ever-present social hierarchy, that author William Golding was right: It is Lord of the Flies out there, and everyday there are still perpetrators, bystanders, victims, and (sadly) precious few rescuers. And despite all the anti-bullying campaigns, no, we simply cannot seem to all just get along.

This year, things have been much better for my guy. Since he is heading for middle school in the fall, last week I asked him to tell me the biggest lesson he’d learned from elementary school. As we walked side by side, I was pretty sure he was going to say something about making sure to include quotes in his essays, or to try not to get hit in the face during dodge ball, or something about not eating Diet Coke and Mentos at the same time.

He thought for a good while and then said, “For better or for worse, one thing I learned while getting picked on last year is that the only person I can really count on is myself. And that the people you think are your friends one day may not be the next.”

His words seemed too adult, like he understood and has come to accept something dark about humanity that has taken me almost my whole life to understand. I’d be lying if I said I am more than a little sad that he understands it so well at 10 years old.

What is your experience with bullying? Would you rather have your child be the bully than the victim?