. Regurgitated Alpha Bits: September 2008

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Mimi Fights the Good Fight

There was an interesting discussion going on over in It's Not All Flowers and Sausages about the appropriate way to address a situation with a disruptive child. Looks like this topic is a hot one!

Mimi shares a story about a child in her class that routinely disrupts the other children. When she notices some of her students reaching their breaking points with him, she decides to have a class sit-down and allow students to share how this child's behavior makes them feel.

Handled poorly, class meetings can be disastrous. But in true Mimi fashion, it was handled with concern and a dedication to making the experience positive and educational for everyone. No blaming, name-calling, or hurtful language was allowed. The only thing students could share was their feelings. We call this kind of a dialogue "Using I-Messages," and it is an encouraged method of student mediation in schools.

Children are wonderful, generous, awe-inspiring little people who, let's admit it, can at times be a bit unaware of how their actions impact other people's lives. Kids are, by nature, selfish at times. That's part of growing up and learning how to live with others. By having a class meeting about the issues, she empowered her students to share their feelings in a positive way instead of allowing it to fester until someone takes the kid out behind the jungle gym and takes their feelings out on his face (which was bound to happen.)

A few of the responses to her blog suggested that this was "singling out" a student and putting him on the spot in an unfair way. I would suggest that he was unknowingly singling himself out in very negative ways and was doing so blissfully unaware of how it was hurting others.

Of course this child is not self-aware enough at his young age to understand why he acts out, and it's our job as professionals to help him make better choices. That takes time. In the meantime, it would be unfair of us to expect other students to simply tolerate him without equipping them with the tools to address their feelings positively. Mimi did just that.

One final note, many responses suggested that this child might have learning disabilities or emotional disabilities that have gone undiagnosed, and Mimi should be mindful of that.

To be blunt: No Duh!

CLEARLY, this kid has some issues. Even if he were diagnosed, he still would not be allowed to trample over other students' right to a safe environment. His teacher would still need to address the misbehavior issues. Parents and teachers understand that a diagnosis is not a free-pass to hurt others, and most teachers can spot a child who needs extra attention without the benefit of a diagnosis. Mimi does not need an IEP to tell her she has a special-needs child here. I'm positive she'll take every step necessary to help him, and the rest of her class, have a successful year both academically and emotionally.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Self-Deception is a Beautiful Thing

Yesterday afternoon, I attended the theater with my mother. We saw Souvenir by Stephen Temperley. This true story accounts the late-in-life singing career of soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, or Lady Florence, as she preferred to be called.

Lady Florence was, in reality, a socialite living in New York City in the early twentieth century. Armed with life-long love of music and a seemingly unending supply of money from an inheritance, she staged yearly performances for her friends in the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton and gave the proceeds to her favorite charities. Her repertoire included the challenging works of Mozart, Verdi, and Strauss and always included at least three elaborate costume changes.

Word spread of her singing. She recorded records and soon strangers counted themselves as fans and clamored to attend her concerts. In 1944, at the age of 76, she rented out Carnegie Hall for a sold-out performance. So great was the demand to see her that two thousand fans had to be turned away at the door for lack of tickets.

Her undying appreciation of the musical arts inspired her to share it with others, even at her own expense. She spent thousands of dollars on stage decorations, costumes, and concert venues. She was known to rehearse tirelessly.

Have a listen to her unforgetable rendition of Mozart's "Queen of the Night." Be sure to listen to her entire performance as some of her most memorable vocal feats occur near the end of the aria.

I simply can't stop listening to her slaughter this beautiful piece of music. She exemplifies the reason I only watch the try-out stages of American Idol, when they spotlight all the people who haven't a snowball's chance in hell of making it on the show.

She was completely tone-deaf.

But in her mind she was a diva with impeccable pitch and accuracy. She did not hear her own faultering half-steps or recognize her inability to hold notes or maintain a consistent tempo.

She truly believed she had a gift and that it could be used to benefit others. All reports about her personality indicate she was a kind and generous person who frequently put the needs of others ahead of herself. A network of friends within her social circle fostered her self-deception in an effort to protect her feelings. Her sweetness kept them from revealing the truth to her.

At her concerts, they muffled their laughter behind balled-up fists or shoved handkerchiefs in their mouths. When the giggles got the best of them, they would bolt for the door to release their laughter in the lobby far from her sight. When strangers filled the concerts with roars of laughter, her friends buried the gaffaws behind shouts of "Brava!" Tears of laughter, to Lady Florence, were simply tears of joy.

Her singing brought her national fame, but not for the reasons she thought it did.

And why this, on a teacher blog?

Well, in part I want to share the curiosity that was Lady Florence. I find her story fascinating in a train-wreck sort of way.

More importantly, I share it because when I have a rough week, I need to remind myself why I chose this job and this odd little story did just that for me.

I have a lot of kids who "sing" like Lady Florence. It's my job to make them believe they're wonderful...

because they really are.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Let the Crazy-Making Begin

The fun is over now…

I had my first screamer of the year.

No, not screaming student. Screaming students; THAT I can handle.

This was a screaming parent.

On the playground.

At dismissal.

With all my kids gathered around me.

What did I do?

Let her scream at me.

What should I have done?

Sent her to the office to scream at the principal. He gets paid to be screamed at by parents who choose not to check their facts before screaming at teachers. Besides, my principal will simply tell a screamer to go home and come back once she's calmed down and then walk away from her. (Note to self…try THAT next time.)

What's another reason why I should have sent her to the office, and now I feel like a rotten teacher?

Because she turned and screamed at my kids who were standing with me (insert dagger into heart) because they were staring at her, mouths agape, as she screamed at me. Evidently, she thought they should not be staring at her as she railed their teacher about her "stupid, friggin' homework policy" and wagged her finger in their teacher's face while her son (this kid) stood there sobbing.

Yeah, she's right. Move along, kids. Nothin' to see here.

I feel like absolute crap that I didn't ask her to leave right then and there. NO ONE should be allowed to talk to any kids that way, especially when that person is





I should have stepped up, but instead I simply quietly asked my kids to take three giant steps behind me and wait for their parents there.

What was she screaming about?

Her son's conduct report that had the box checked next to Incomplete Work.

Why did I check that box?

He had incomplete work.

Why did SHE think I checked that box?

That morning her son came to me sobbing because he forgot his school planner in his desk so he couldn't write his homework down in it. The ONLY requirement I have with homework is that they write what they did at home for reading and math in their planner. They choose from a list of acceptable at-home activities that have them read for 30 minutes and practice math for 15 minutes. Then they write what they did in their planners. There is nothing to turn in.

Because the ONLY requirement is that homework be recorded in the planner each day, I am firm with that requirement. I give students one "freebie" per trimester to forget their homework, but after that I begin to lower their homework grade each time it is not completed correctly. There are no other consequences assigned.

I make every attempt to help students be successful with homework. It is specifically designed to be completely independent for every child, despite their ability level. As part of our end-of-the-day routine, I remind students to take out their planners and put them in their backpacks. I ask before we walk away from the room if everyone is sure they have their planners.

Because I do take those steps daily, if child forgets his planner I will not accept notes from parents confirming that their child did indeed complete their homework.

Even from screaming parents with sobbing little boys.

That's my stupid, friggin' homework policy, in a nutshell. (That lady needs to be in a nutshell.)

Was that the incomplete work that earned him a poor conduct report?

No. That conduct report resulted from the mountains of incomplete class work he has. The incomplete class work that I have been talking to her about on a regular basis. The incomplete class work that I've talked to her husband about. The incomplete class work that I agreed, at her request, to allow him to take home and finish each day. The incomplete work that he hides in his desk so as to avoid taking it home and finishing it.

THAT incomplete work.

What did she say BEFORE she learned the truth behind the conduct report?

"You're the worst teacher he's ever had!" (I can live with that. Someone has to be the worst.)

"I've never heard of such a stupid, friggin' homework policy." (Well, you heard of it when you came to Back to School Night…twice. Once in my room, and once in the other 4th grade room where your kid's twin brother is enrolled.)

"I'm going to the office to have him put in another class." (Newsflash… There IS no other class to put him in at our school. The only other 4th grade is full. She could transfer him to another school, if there's room, but I can pretty much guarantee, with our district's over-crowding issues, there won't be room for 2 kids so her twin boys will be in different schools and she freaked out when we put them in different classes this year. Besides, as you learned at Back to School Night, the other 4th grade has the EXACT same policy.)

"He had all A's at his old school!" (Checked his cumulative record. No A's. All C's, D's, and F's. All Needs Improvements in Responsibility for Learning sections. Teacher comments included things like "Student does not complete class work" and "Student often off-task.")

What did she say AFTER she learned the truth behind the conduct report?


What is her kid's reason for not completing his work?

He claims that he is not getting his work done because of all his tablemates talking to him and asking for help. (Which one? The one from Cambodia who doesn't speak English or the girl who is so shy she doesn't talk to anyone?)

Whatever. She believes him so I agreed to move his desk and give him a "privacy wall" to put up around him to prevent others from talking to him when he should be working. If the problem is others talking to him, we should see a great improvement in his completion rate next week when he not being bothered by those pesky non-English speaking mutes.

And when he doesn't get his work done, which he won't, and he gets another poor conduct report, which he will, what is she going to do?

Why, come and give me a great big hug and apologize for being so irrational.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Getting Down to Basics

My principal, who really is a good person who wants to do what's best for students and teachers, decided to try to put an end to combo classes this year. I whole-heartedly supported this decision, having been a combo teacher for many years.

Combos are tough on the kids because there is no way to not rip them off educationally when teachers must split their time between two grades. It's not like the days before standards-based education when a combo class was made up of the brightest students in the lower grade and the less-bright students in the higher grade and then the teacher just shot for the middle and taught them all the same curriculum.

Now we teach each grade their specific curriculum with all the same requirements as a straight grade. Remember, each grade's curriculum is designed to fill a whole school day, but combo class teachers must split their days across two grade levels. See? There's no way to NOT rip those poor kids off.

So the decision was made to try to avoid them this year. Our Gifted and Talented classes have almost always been combos, so we added many of our high achievers from regular education to those classes so that they could have enough students to justify straight grades instead of combos.

Fine enough. The teaching that goes on in the Gifted classes is the kind of high-quality teaching we wish we all could do with our students. I was very comfortable sending off some high achievers to GATE.

Then this week my grade level got an email from the principal asking that we regular ed teachers select six more high achievers to transfer to the GATE class because the numbers were too low in that class and too high in ours. (We're full in regular ed.)

Now my comfort level with the whole "straight grade" concept is getting a little less comfortable. In an effort to make straight grades, we've already picked the advanced students and very high proficient students and sent them away. Now you want the ones I have left too?

So I start looking at student data and got some good news/bad news.

The good news: I don't have to give anyone to the GATE class.

The bad news: I don't have any students who are even proficient at last year's standards. Ok, I have one. She literally made proficient by 1 point in Language Arts. She gets no work done in class and I have yet to see a stitch of homework out of her. I doubt she'll qualify for GATE.

My entire class, except her I guess, is made up of students who are at the Basic level, Below Basic Level, and Far Below Basic Level in Language Arts and Math.

Man, that sure explains a lot.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Listen Up

Be honest. Have I been talking gibberish lately? Have I lapsed into speaking in tongues?

Do you understand the words coming out of my mouth (aka Keyboard)? (Thanks Chris Tucker.)

I see all of you nodding your heads yes, so I know I'm not crazy then.

It's the oddest thing…

My students can't seem to hear me.

At least, most of them can't.

Example from Friday:

Ok fourth graders, we're going to grade that math paper now. Please take out your blue grading pencils and hold them over your heads (Because I've learned that if I don't make you prove to me that you took out a blue pencil, most of you will correct in regular pencil, purple crayon, or boogers.)

Remember, as I call out the answers I want to you put a checkmark through the number on the problems you get wrong like this. (Here is where I model how to make a checkmark through some numbers on a sample test because by the 4th week of 4th grade this class seems to never to have graded anything before.) Do not put anything on the ones you get correct. Correct means that it is NOT wrong. Do not put stars on them. Do not put smiley faces on them. Do not put any other marks. Just leave them alone. (Fat chance this will happen.) All those markings make papers difficult to read. Checkmarks only, please.

Then we proceed to grade the papers (as we have, in the same fashion, EVERY DAY for 4 weeks.)

Now that we're done listening to the answers, you need to count how many checkmarks you have on your paper. Here's how that's done. (Now I model how to count checkmarks on the sample test. Please Lord, give me strength.) At the top of the page by your name, write a minus sign and the number of checkmarks, like this. (Time to model how to write the number wrong with a minus sign on the sample test.) Look carefully at how I wrote it. I put the minus sign first, then the number. Remember, that is the number of checkmarks. Minus sign, number of checkmarks. I placed it right by my name. DO NOT circle your number wrong. Simply write it as I showed you. Minus. Number. Near your name.

Please count your checkmarks now and record them by your name. (At least five minutes will pass before they all have this task completed. I will make 17 students redo it because they did not follow my instructions.)

Now I'll call out the grade. When you hear your grade, you write your grade right next to where you recorded the checkmarks and you'll draw a circle around the grade. This way, I can easily find your grade to place it in my gradebook. Let me show you. I have a minus three written right here by my name. The grade for that many wrong is a 4. So I am going to write a 4 and draw a circle around it. The ONLY number I circle is the grade. Where does the grade go?

4 students: "At the tabottoomp."

The other 29 students: " ."

It goes at the top of the page, right by your name. Place your finger where you're going to be writing your grade.

2 students place their fingers at the top of the page, by their names.

6 students hover their fingers over their papers while looking around at others to find out where their finger should be placed. There's little help to be found though, because…

25 students do nothing remotely close to what I've asked. Their actual activities are both too numerous and/or too disgusting to recount here.

I need to see all of you with your fingers pointing at a spot right next to your number wrong. Look up here to see what I am pointing at and do the same thing on your paper.

Same 2 students place their fingers at the top of the page.

6 different students hover and look around.

3 students point at my paper.

22 students do nothing.

Everyone place one finger in the air, like this. (Model how to hold up a finger up.) (BTW, the finger I was holding up was not the one I really wanted to be holding up at this point.)

Place that finger right by your name, like this. (Model.)

30 students place their fingers in the correct place. Close enough.

That is where you're going to write your grade and circle it.

Here are the grades…

I call out the grades, tell students to record their grades and circle them, and then ask that they hand in their math papers.

The results are:

2 students had their number wrong and grade in the correct place on their paper with a circle around the grade.

8 students had not recorded their grades.

5 students had not recorded their number wrong.

4 students wrote the number wrong backwards (3- instead of -3).

4 students circled the number wrong and not the grade.

5 students did not circle anything.

1 student circled everything: the number wrong, the grade, and then a giant circle around both of them.

2 students had neither the number wrong nor the grade. One had good reason though. He had no name on his paper near which to write them.

2 students used frowny faces instead of checkmarks. Oh, and smiley faces for the ones correct.

I'll include those same 2 students in my group who used stars, smiley faces, or a combination of both for correct answers. That group was 14 strong.

The good news is that this shows they're getting better at grading papers...

Thursday, September 4, 2008

I’ve Been Remiss

Where have you been, Edna?

I know that's what you all have been thinking, anxiously checking your email/reader for my latest prose, wondering what happened to me, hoping I was not trapped beneath something heavy.

Well, I have been trapped beneath something heavy…

…the insupportable weight of a new school year!

It's not the mountains of paperwork that we must hand-out, explain, highlight for parent signature, collect, rehand-out, re-explain, rehighlight parent for parent signature, collect, rerehighlight for parent signature, screw the explanation, stick a post-it note on with the words "sign here" in three languages and an arrow pointing at the signature line, collect, and then eventually forge the parent's signature that exhausts me.

It's not the repetition of classroom routines that, after three weeks, remain a mystery to this class.

"Go to your seats, empty your backpacks, go the coat rack and hang them up."

"Anthony, why is your backpack at your seat and your books in the coat rack?"

"Vicki, when you sit in front of the coat rack and empty your backpack, no one else can hang theirs up. Do you not see the line of 32 students waiting here? Besides, you might get stepped on."

"Jim, how did you even manage to fit your backpack into your desk?"

"I know Vicki is crying. Tell her Ms. Lee said Told ya' so."

It's not even the looooong hours required just to keep my head above water (or the fact the mechanic at Goodyear told me, as he packed up to leave at 4:00 PM, that he'd love my job because he'd love to work from eight until two each day. I let him know that the only way my hours and his would be the same was if he had arrived for work at 4:00 AM because it's not unusual for me to work from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM. So put that in your tailpipe and smoke it, sucka!)

No, it is none of the above.

It's Travis.

Travis is new to our school this year. Wanna know how I know that?

Without fail, every day and with every activity we do Travis raises his hand and utters the phrase, "At my oollld school…" and then attempts to tell me how what I am about to do is different, and in many ways inferior, to his old school's practices.

In addition to being the unofficial historian for his old school, he coughs the cough of a student vying for attention, twice daily grips his stomach from inexplicable pains, scratches at rashes only he can see, suffers from blinding headaches until something more fun is being done, loses sight in one eye for brief periods of time, limps during PE but forgets which leg he was limping on and will actually ask me if I could refresh his memory, wonders aloud if everyone can hear that ringing noise or if it's just the return of his ear infection, and cries during math because although he understands the assignment he still wants to live with his Nana.

Oh, and he has a twin brother who, thankfully, was enrolled in the other 4th grade class. He likes to remind me that they ARE identical twins.

God, help us all.