Saturday, September 29, 2007

Reflections about me and my kids

Why is it so easy to give advice, but not to take it? I was mentoring a first year teacher the other day and I told her that the first year is about survival. She is in a learning curve and no one expects every lesson to be perfect. Somewhere along the path of reassuring her it hit me. I AM a first year teacher. Okay, not completely. This is my 11th year of teaching, but my first in English and Social Studies. The reason that I am so tired all the time is that I think I have to be perfect. (Anyone who knows me KNOWS I am an overachiever!) So on Wednesday I took a deep breath. I wrote the first free verse poem I have written in years. Poetry is not my thing and has been killing me. My students will be writing free verse next week. My poem isn't bad (I am not sure any free verse poem can be bad), but I recognize it has way too much stuff going on in it. My first reaction to it was, "I need to figure this out and get it right." Guess what? I am not going to. I am typing it and putting it up on my Promethean Board on Tuesday and I am going to share my not perfect poem with my students and let THEM help me with revisions. And do you know what I realized? They will gain more from seeing that I struggle, too, than if I had tried to be perfect. They will be less intimidated by their lack of perceived skills when I show them mine. Why did I not see that before? I figure after showing this poem to four different classes next week, I may come away with four completely different pieces of poetry. I am pretty excited about this. It's all feeling so much less stressful now!

I had another big change for me this week. I learned the word no. It has been scarce in my vocabulary and it took me hours to build up the confidence to say it. Our English department head had decided to study a new writing method as a department and got it set up as a class for credit. I was feeling enormous pressure as a new member of the department to take this class, even though not everyone in the department was going to. I finally went to her and explained that I am frantically learning the current writing method AND the Social Studies curriculum AND taking a Promethean Board class AND finishing the technology curriculum revision. I told her that another class probably would cause me to go over the edge and that I appreciated the offer, but no thank you. She completely understood. Whew!

There were other bright spots in my week. I am a teacher that keeps MySpace, Facebook, and Bebo accounts. I believe that if our kids live out there, I need to know what these are about. Over the summer, a few of my students found my Bebo account and to date 45 of them have requested me to be their "friends." I make it a point to not seek them out as friends, but I accept all of them that ask. I was looking over one of my students pages the other night and found a lot of things he has written. Wow! He is an awesome writer. There were a couple of pieces about how he feels about sports and a couple of lines about his girlfriend. This young man knows how to express himself. I sent him email telling him so. He doesn't think it is writing - just putting himself out there. I explained that is what writing is and that I am greatly looking forward to what he has to offer in class. I really am, too. This young man is an athlete and tends to play the part. It isn't going to happen in English class! He sought me out on yesterday's field trip to talk to me about his Bebo page and you could see how pleased he was that I liked it. For all the bad things that I find on my kids' Bebo pages, his was worth it all!

Yesterday our school had Natural High Day. Each core takes the kids on a field trip. The purposes are to show them that they can have fun without drugs, for us to get to know them better in a different setting, and for them to get to know us when we aren't in teaching mode. I look forward to this every year. The last 8 years at North I have gone as an Encore teacher, which is just another set of hands. The core teachers do all the planning and are in charge of the event. This year I felt more responsibility. I was in charge of things like collecting all the money and paying for things. As usual, some very cool things happened. We took our kids to a retreat setting and they have an obstacle course there. It is designed for both team building and trust building. We split the kids into four groups and were guided through the different stations on the course. I always like watching kids that don't hang out together learn to solve problems together. The biggie was when they had to get the entire team across a 10 foot wall. We had one young lady that was concerned about her weight. The kids didn't let her refuse the challenge. They took her right over the wall. Two girls were terrified of heights - whoosh over the wall they went. You have to love kids!

They also were given large blocks of free time. There was an outdoor basketball court, volleyball net, and field for frisbee. Inside were a number of games and there was also a hike down to a fishing hole. The kids were awesome, but the highlight of my day was when one of our boys was sitting off to the side. He tends to be a loner by choice. He has long, blonde hair and wears more makeup than I do. He considers himself to be very goth. He is quite the artist - if you like the skulls and dark art he does. Anyway, he is sitting off to the side and a couple of the boys yelled for him to come even up the basketball teams. That alone stunned me, because they usually leave this young man alone. But he went! He played basketball with them for about 1/2 an hour! I took pictures just because I was so excited. After a while there were other kids that wanted in the game and he gave up his spot and headed back off to draw. I went and chatted with him about his experience. He was laughing because he wasn't very good at basketball, but I think that short experience changed something in him. He was a different kid all day. I am anxious for Monday!

There are times when I let the details of my job overwhelm me. The technology aspect can make me crazy. The learning curve I am on leaves me feeling behind. The English papers that must be graded are insane. But I love what I do. Lucky for me teaching isn't just about technology or English or Social Studies. It is about these kids and the amazing resilience they have. My kids don't have a lot of money. Many are from very poor home situations. They come into my classroom with a lot of baggage, but they are really all about being kids. I am so blessed to be able to share a brief part of their lives!

Okay - off to Saturday School to assist those that are struggling academically! I love my job!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

What a week!

Monday started off well. After school, a fellow teacher and I had the privilege of co-facilitating our district's new teacher induction. It is a series of four meetings that are two hours in length and include large group discussions and break-out sessions. There are 130 new teachers in our district. We were told that 30 - 40 usually attend these, so we made copies for 60. 76 showed up! Sure, we ran out of cold, bottled water and had to scurry to the copy machine, but we were thrilled to have so many attend. We know the numbers will drop a bit for the second one, but we are off and running on the plans.

Tuesday went just as well. I am taking a class for the Promethean Board the district is putting into a number of classes. I have not been overly happy about giving up three hours every Tuesday night for 10 weeks AND having to pay for the class. I felt like the district should train me for free since they want me to use the board. But, since it is such a cool board, I was going to do it. Word came to us this Tuesday that through some grant money, we are all getting paid an hourly wage to attend. Woohoo! Huge kudos to our Staff Development Director!

Then came Thursday. I am finishing the heart maps with my English students and have loved the conferencing that goes with the Writer's Workshop format we are using. On Thursday, one of my young ladies shared her story with me and told me how there is very little good in her heart and she just didn't want to be around any more. My heart broke for her. Not something I could ignore. Long story short - I ended up taking her to our liaison officer (she held my hand tightly on the walk to the offices) who did an evaluation, determined that she wasn't a threat to herself, but brought mom in and set some things straight. After school, I think I sat in my room and cried for an hour. I felt this young girl's pain so intensely. I thought being an English teacher was hard because I was learning new curriculum and had tons of papers to grade. This is more than I bargained for. Our liaison came and talked to me and assured me that this student opened up to me because she trusts me and that was a good thing. I know that in my head, but I am not sure my heart is strong enough. I am going to have to get tougher if I am going to continue in this role. I am not sure I can handle becoming an administrator if I am going to fall apart like that either. Loads to think about! (On Friday, I did get a big hug from the young lady and a thank you. Now I am praying her weekend goes well.)

Last night I went to our high school homecoming football game. Our team got killed, but I had a good time. A number of teachers have ramp passes so we can park our cars on the opposite side from the bleachers and watch the game from there. We bring chairs and sit outside chatting. I can't believe the number of students that seek us out instead of hanging out with the kids in the bleachers. I ended up driving three boys home because one had promised his mom would take them home, only to remember his mom is on the other side of the state with his brother at their football game. His dad is not big on driving them around, so I made them call home and get permission for me to take them. You learn a lot outside the classroom! I have a feeling that Monday, two of these boys are going to work a bit harder in my English class.

I am glad the week ended well, but I am exhausted. You would think that in my 11th year of teaching, I would be used to the roller coaster. I guess every year throws a learning curve, especially when you put yourself in challenging positions.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

English, Social Studies, Social Networking, and Technology

My blog entry that expressed my frustration about technology at the beginning of my school year mushroomed faster than I ever thought possible. It also gave me great insight and ideas. It catapulted my learning about blogs! The power of the blog is amazing!

This week has been an interesting week. I am truly enjoying learning to teach Social Studies and English. We are currently working on the geography of America and I am planning a couple of lessons in Google Earth. Because I am an English teacher that teaches one Social Studies class a day, I have not asked for maps or a globe. I am not sure I need those things when I have 25 computers in the room. I really think the kids are going to like these lessons.

I am not asking my students to do any assignments that I am not doing as well. I am enjoying doing journal entries and we are working on heart maps to prepare us for the upcoming poetry unit. These are so much fun. I feel certain I will do a new one every year I teach this! I got to explain my heart map to my students this week and I was completely amazed as I told stories about the things in my heart and every one of my 8th graders sat and listened. 8th graders listening? Who would have thought! They are all working intently on their own. I will be taking many pictures this week and will post a few. I am working hard to learn to teach English, but I can promise this is a change I needed. I need a challenge!

Now to the technology: First of all, I have been given the green light to offer a monthly social networking class. I plan to have parents and students come in and discuss sites like Bebo, MySpace, and Facebook. I will have the students log into their accounts and show them to to the parents. The parents will be the ones helping their kids make good decisions. I will then encourage parents to open their own accounts to monitor their kids. Now I hope this is well received. This is another one of those things I am passionate about, but I don't know if I can get our parents to participate. It is a great idea, but who knows?

Secondly, we had a meeting this week about the new Information and Communication Technology Curriculum (formerly the Computer Curriculum.) I started on this committee last year when I was a computer teacher. We have had a number of very loud conversations about the topic, but were told in the spring that we were simply to align the new state standards with the curriculum. We weren’t happy, but did as we were told. When it got to our Instructional Counsel for what should have been its second reading, there were others that weren’t happy. They wanted to see it go further. That elates me. We have a new curriculum director and on Thursday night I actually heard him utter the words that now is a good time for us to become more cutting edge. We have another meeting this coming Wednesday to discuss what that could look like. We are to come with ideas. I am overwhelmed. I am still not getting my hopes up too high (easier to avoid being crushed), but I have some hope. Now all of the sudden I need to figure out what cutting edge is!

So, for all of you in the blogosphere that have been so helpful, I really need help. What do you do in your schools to make you be cutting edge? Do you teach some cool stand-alone classes at the high school level? How do you integrate technology into the regular classroom? What districts are shining examples that I can hold up in this meeting? I figure I won’t get everything I ask for, but now is the time to ask for the sky!

Thanks in advance for your help. The connections I have made via my blog and Twitter have moved me forward in amazing ways and the support has been phenomenal!

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Reflections AFTER the first week of school

After a rough start to the school year from a technology point of view, I need to take a few minutes to reflect on the rest of the week.

Tuesday was the first day back for students and I am always excited for the first day of school. This year I was also nervous. All week I felt like a first year teacher. Two new subjects to teach.. Wow! I tried not to let it overwhelm be, but there were moments of panic in the week. I have taught computers for 10 years. Could I really teach English and Social Studies and could I do it well? As the kids came in Tuesday morning, I was more overwhelmed by how much I had missed them over the summer. They are 8th graders, so very few of them were anxious about being back. They are the top dogs in the school and you could see that knowledge on their faces. Many of them knew I was making the move upstairs and my classroom is the first one as you make the turn down the 8th grade wing. So as I am standing in the hall to direct them to orientation, I was greeted with hugs and high fives. What an amazing way to start the year. I think a few of the 8th grade teachers were jealous. They don’t know many of these kids yet, but I have the advantage after having them in classes for the last two years. Knowing I was a leg up in forming the relationships necessary to teach students was a confidence boost to me. I was able to let them choose their own seats and make suggestions about a few not choosing wisely. We did ice breakers on the first day and rules and procedures on the second. My social studies students (I am thrilled to have them twice a day) did current events and wrote their personal history. My English students wrote two bio poems. The second one will not be due until Monday, but I have been grading the first cinquain poems and learning much more about my kids. Reading their personal histories has also been helpful. Even though I have had these students before and know a lot about them, put a pen in their hands and information flows. I was worried about teaching writing, but I can tell that they are going to need this class. Sure, they need to learn more about spelling and grammar, but they really NEED to be able to channel their feelings onto paper.

My students are from the poor side of our city. My middle school has 87% free and reduced lunches. We are 60% Native American and a large number of those students seem to float between Rapid City and the Pine Ridge Reservation. The poverty on the reservation is mind numbing. We have students that run in gangs. We have a problem with alcoholism both with parents and students. Drugs are not uncommon. We seem to draw in more special education students. We also range up to average middle-class. We certainly aren’t up to what is seen in large, inner-city schools, but it is the toughest part of Rapid City, SD. Most of my kids come to school with a great deal of baggage. I think our teachers are the hardest working middle school teachers in the city. We try to take care of students needs before we can even think about curriculum. Our school serves breakfast for the early drop-offs and has an after-school program that runs until 5:30 for those that have no where to go after our 3:02 bell. We have an Eagle Closet, which would be like a thrift store except it is free for our families. We have a parole officer that comes to our school several times a week to meet with her kids. We have a liaison officer that is kept far too busy. We have a food backpack program that sends students home on Friday with a backpack full of groceries to get students through the weekend. We have just set up a new fundraising committee that teachers are volunteering on to raise money for so many of the other items our students need. And with all of this said, let me assure you, there is NO other school I would rather work at. Even with all the issues they have, my kids are just kids. They need an education and they need someone to care about them. I never leave the school on any day when I don’t know with absolute certainty that I touched the life of a child. There is nothing that can give more purpose to my life.

My previous post expressed my frustration with technology. Yes, I am passionate about teaching 21st century students with 21st century tools, but even more so when it comes to MY kids. These students that come to me each day have not had the advantage of computers in their homes since birth. Some of them are starting to get them now, but their parents certainly know very little about technology and aren’t teaching them how to behave in an appropriate manner on the Internet. I have accounts on MySpace, Facebook, and Bebo and have found many of my students on Bebo. This summer, many of them found my account and made me their friend. (I don’t remember ever wanting to communicate with any of my middle school teachers in the summer, but maybe that was because I grew up in a different kind of household.) Because they reached out to me, I never missed an opportunity to chat with any of them. I counseled a few on what they were putting on their pages from a safety standpoint and tried to turn a blind eye to the language they were speaking to one another with. I did pull one young lady aside on the first day and express my concern at how vulgar her sign in name was and why, perhaps, that wasn’t the impression she wanted to leave with someone who might be her future employer. She hadn’t thought of it that way.

I talked to my principal about Bebo and we are going to try to get the district to open up the Internet one night a month. We are going to invite parents with their children to come in and I am going to discuss safety on sites like these and why putting the wrong image out there for the world to see might not be a great idea. Then we will have the students log into their accounts and show the parents. I will encourage parents to make the call on what is and isn’t proper and guide their own children. I am also go to encourage parents to set up their own accounts and have their children make them their friends so they can check in. I know some kids would feel this would be an invasion of privacy, but most of my kids would welcome this kind of attention from their parents. And parents just need to learn how to guide their children in an unknown territory for them. My son and I have had numerous conversations about what I have seen on his pages and it gives me a window into his friends. I hope we can work this out. I think it could be fun and good for all involved.

Back to the first week, – I get sidetracked once in a while – even with all the frustration, I love what I do. It is a calling. I don’t get up and go to work every day, I have the pleasure of spending my day with some amazing, young individuals who make my life richer. They keep me grounded. They make a bigger difference in my life than I probably do in theirs, but they make me want to work my tail off to be the best teacher I can for them. I’m glad they’re back. I needed to be grounded!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Start of the School Year

I have had a blog post idling on my computer for a week, but I could not post it as it was just too angry. I am passionate about what I do and I do not apologize for getting worked up when my school district sets us back 5-10 years in the technology arena. But I also recognize that just going off on an angry rant about it will get me no where.

I walked into my building to find that a great number of computers have been removed from my school building, not because they were not working, just because they are 5 years old. I would have no problem with this, but there will be no more replacements for two years. I just don't understand taking perfectly good computers out of the hands of students.

Our state has added a new web filter. Right now it blocks an awful lot of sites, but they have a very simple Click here feature that allows you to justify a site. They are very fast about re-rating it, but then it still seems we are blocked at a district level. I can't get to a number of blogs. I can't Twitter. I can't download anything. I can't get to ANY multimedia site: YouTube, TeacherTube, streaming audio, even clipart! Web 2.0? I would be happy with just a few of these open! How am I supposed to teach my multimedia learners like this?

If that wasn't enough, I have received two notes letting me know I am exceeding my server quota by almost 13,000%. Since when do we have a limit? And that limit is 250 MB. Are you kidding? So, frustration getting the best of me, I decided to just take EVERYTHING off the server only to find out that when they re-imaged my teacher computer over the summer, I no longer can burn CDs. So I shot off a message to the help desk. I also made it clear that I don't think it is right that they are recommending teachers purchase their own thumb drives to store data. We work for the district, shouldn't they provide a place for us to store our files? Is 250 MB reasonable? Luckily, I had burned all my files in the spring and I just dropped the new files right onto my computer today. I have dumped everything else. I am no longer a bother to the server.

By this week I was ready to throw in the towel. I switched teaching positions so that I could lead by example and show teachers how to integrate technology into the curriculum. Fat chance! My hands are tied. Yes, I have classblogmeister set up, but now they are getting ready to dictate to me what blog I can use. They are not sure they want me using my wiki. Maybe I should just ask what may I use, please?

Thankfully, yesterday was the first day of students. Many of my 8th graders were surprised to see me as an 8th grade English and Social Studies teacher. I was a computer teacher for 10 years. I was greeted with hugs. Many of those that are in my core were cheering and many who didn't get me expressed disappointment. It doesn't take long to remember WHY we do this job. I need these kids probably more than they could ever need me. By today I was already starting curriculum. And they got right to work. We wrote a short poem today and not one of them complained. I love being a teacher!

So where does that leave me? Do I believe I can teach 21st century learners with 21st century tools? Not really. I have a lot of new curriculum to learn. Do I have the energy to fight this fight? Do I have a choice? Next week my kids are going to be using the computers. They are going to be as frustrated as I am. What am I to tell them?

Fighting this in my district is going to be tough. We have a lot of new administrators this year. They have a learning curve of their own. I understand that. Are they going to be willing to take on a tough fight? Do I dare take it to my school board? Man, can't that get you fired? How about taking it to the media and ultimately to the public. Pretty risky. I remember when I went in my classroom and just taught my kids. Life was simpler then. I can't go back to that now, but need to figure out how to go forward. One thing is certain though, I am not in this alone. Many, many other teachers are feeling the same way I am. When I put my neck out, I am confident there are others behind me. Teachers uniting for a cause should be a force to be reckoned with.

Will it work or will I be looking for a new district to teach in???

UPDATE: I greatly appreciate all the feedback I have received and it has been most helpful.

Doug Johnson made a reference to Mars and Venus and has helped me see that part of the problem is communication. We speak different languages. For example, the fact that I received a notice telling my I was almost 13,000% over my 250 MB limit on the server caused me to panic. Yesterday, I had a reasonable conversation with a young lady in the IT department that said that we were nearly filling our servers and that there was a lot of data that could be put on discs freeing up the space. They are making the quotas bigger for teachers that request and justify why they need more space. It was practical for them to set one limit and send that to all. For most of our staff, it was taken wrong (myself included) and we felt like we were being told that our materials were not to be given a place to be stored. I reacted strongly and pulled ALL of my stuff off the server. I had a genuine reason for most of what was there, but there was also a number of files that could have been archived to discs, freeing some of the space they needed. I think it is in the language in which the requests are presented.

The same, I believe is going to hold true for a number of the sites that are blocked. Many of us are putting together a list of the tools we would like to use, a reason why we would like to use them, and a rationale for what they will add to our curriculum. While I struggle with having to defend my every move, I also recognize that our IT department IS trying to ensure the safety of our students. Hopefully, we can meet in the middle.

Thanks for all your suggestions and help. I will be searching through the many blogs I read to take guidance in the tools you are using and how they are working in your classes.