Saturday, November 29, 2008

It's Official

They have finally stopped pulling the punches and Borman Middle School is officially closing at the end of the year. Declining enrollment, employer sanctions laws that are hostile to illegal immigrants, and horrid test scores for the last 6-8 years were the reasons cited, which are all fair. They are actually planning on reopening it next year with a new name as a K-8 school, along with several other schools in the district in the same situation. (This means that, instead of the current 12 6th grades, there will be 5.) I have to say, after all the things that have gone on this year, I'm actually relieved to have a final end in sight.

They promised jobs to highly qualified teachers with seniority somewhere in the district, and would give preference to people who want to stay at Borman. Based on those things, I could probably stay at Borman, and would definitely have a job somewhere in the district. However, after the way Borman has been treated, and seeing the progression of the school the past four years, and after a lot of hard thinking, I'm planning on applying at another district for next year. Part of me feels like a failure, and the superintendent told us that the test scores and school closing did not mean we were bad teachers or a failure. However, it seems to me that somewhere along the line, someone did fail. It may not have been one single person, or one single decision, but something has gone horribly awry if more than half of the schools in the district are now underperforming. Something is not right. That is a major reason for me leaving the district. It would be awfully tempting to say that it's just hard to teach kids in poverty who are learning English at the same time, and that's why our test scores are low. However, the district right next to us, with the same population of kids, has all of their schools performing AND is winning awards. Clearly, somewhere along the line, someone or something failed.

And, since I hate failing in any way, I'm going to go somewhere where they are being successful at teaching students. (My kids would kill me for starting a sentence with "and.") Again, a big part of me feels like I've failed the kids I am teaching, but I also wonder if I just haven't been given the right tools to do the given job. If I kept on in this district, I have a feeling I would burn out sooner rather than later, due to frustration at constant failure. So, I think I'm doing the right thing for me and my future students.

Hopefully, THAT makes me a good teacher.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

They're learning!

Yay! They're learning something! The longer I'm a teacher, the more I realize that the earlier you start something, and the more often you do it, the better students get at it. I know, this sounds like a "duh" moment, but it's true. Allow me several "for instances." [And yes, I know, none of the following things will be on our standardized test, but I think they are victories nonetheless :-).]

For example, I have been making a big deal with my kids about saying the word "library" correctly. I have quite a few every year who want to say "libary," which annoys the heck out of me. So, several times this year, I made them all say it correctly before they went in the library door. Now, when I say it fast, they think I'm saying it wrong and constantly correct me. :-) They're learning!

Another vocabulary example: I have also been attempting to get my students to use academic English in their writing, as opposed to conversational English. Heretofore, I really didn't think this was a distinction that 6th graders who are learning English would be able to make, and so I didn't address it, but this year I've been trying. The result: I was describing a science lab paper the kids would need for a project and I described it as a "worksheet thingy." At this point, at least 3 kids pointed out to me that it was not proper to say something like that and I should be more specific. :-) They're learning!

A non-academic example: I have always told my kids to pick up trash on the playground when they see it, and I always make sure they see me picking up trash as well. However, this year I have been pushing it, and I tell them most days to pick up trash as we're walking inside. On Friday, when I went out to pick the kids up after lunch, one kid was walking toward me with at least 3 cans in his hand. Two other kids saw him and immediately ran off to find trash. As we were walking inside, another girl went off to the track to pick up some blowing garbage. Yay! They're learning! We can make a difference, even if it's just in the little things.

Lesson learned: Start early, repeat often.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Google it!

Today my students were working on a daily math review, and there was a question about what the commutative property was. I didn't learn what that was until I was 16, so I didn't expect them to know the answer, and they didn't. Personally, I can never remember the difference between commutative and associative properties, and so I went to my computer while they were working on the problems and googled it. As I was doing this, one of my kids came up to ask how to do the commutative property problem. As he asked, he looked at my screen, and I just imagined he was putting 2 and 2 together to see that I was looking up something I was about to try and teach them!! (I don't know that's what he was thinking, but it wouldn't be altogether surprising.) I told him to skip the problem and go back to his seat :-) So, I continued googling, found my answer in the expected 5 seconds or less, and went on to explain to the class what it was. I'm not really sure that this qualifies as good teaching, but it least gave me an answer to tell them :-) Lesson learned? When in doubt, Google it!

[By the way, in case you were wondering what the commutative property is, it is the rule that states that 6 + 3 = 3 + 6.]

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Coud This Be True??

If you've read my blog before, you may recall that a while ago I said I was waiting for one good thing to happen to make up for all the crazy bad stuff. As an update, there is still lots of crazy things going on at my school (our principal got fired and we have countless random "interim" people all around instead, we were told all teachers in 6th grade must literally be teaching the same page on the same day, etc.) These things are all incredibly frustrating and annoying.

In the face of all of these things, I am forced to focus on the little things :-) One encouraging thing is that we have been given a reasonable lesson plan format to follow, which is significantly less detailed. This effectively has given me my Saturdays back, as I was spending the entire day doing lesson plans. Another good thing is that my other team member has returned from maternity leave and I no longer have to "take care" of the sub next door and do two teachers' worth of work. These things are great, on an organizational level.

On an educational level though, I was greatly encouraged this week when I happened to hear two comments from kids that made me feel like perhaps I am making progress. I was talking to my student who is always full of questions (usually academic, always non-stop). The girl sitting next to him said that she was in his class last year and that his talking drove the teacher nuts. I asked if his behavior was any better this year, and they both agreed that it was somewhat better than it was last year. This may sound like an incredibly minor thing, but this means that something I'm doing is making a modicum of difference! (I know that may not necessarily be the case, but I will gladly take credit!! :-))

The other comment I heard came from a situation where a new student was teasing another student about something 6th graderish (name, hair, height, I don't know). One of my other, shall we say, "outgoing" students then yells across the room, "Hey! Leave him alone! We don't tease people in here, right, Mrs. Shetler?" This literally warms my heart. We have had numerous conversations about teasing people (especially about their names), and how we should absolutely not be doing that. (And yes, in my room, we always use the imperial "we," :-)). While there is still PLENTY of teasing that goes on, evidently my point has gotten across!

Perhaps I am becoming a better teacher yet...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Cooking with 6th Graders

Parent-teacher conferences are this week. In another valiant attempt to include food and/or cooking in class, I decided to have the kids make no-bake cookies to serve to parents at conferences. I could get away with this because the language arts standards we were addressing the last few weeks were about functional text (reading schedules, charts, signs, recipes, etc.) The first battle was finding a recipe that was truly no-bake AND no-heat. (Most no-bake recipes involve melting various concoctions on the stove.) So, I sent my good friend, and passionate recipe-searcher, Liz Brinkman on a mission to find a real-deal, no heat cookie recipe. This is what she came up with.

The first big task was getting the kids to understand what all of the ingredients were.
"It says honey. Can I bring syrup instead?" .....Not really the same thing.
"Do I have to put in the peanut butter? What if I don't have crunchy?" Yes you have to have peanut butter, and no it doesn't matter what kind.
"What is non-fat evaporated milk powder? Is that like baby formula?" Same idea, but DON'T bring baby formula. Look for powdered milk.
"Where do I find a coconut?" PLEASE don't bring a whole coconut. We're looking for shredded coconut; the kind that's in little bits.

After that task was navigated on Friday, and everyone had divided up the ingredients to bring in, I promptly forgot to remind them to bring it all in on Tuesday. So about half the kids actually had the ingredients on Tuesday. Thanks to some awesome parents, and a bunch of kids who had plenty to share, we ended up with enough of everything to make the recipe (7 groups made it, actually). Having enough ingredients was a victory in and of itself.

Once we're actually ready to begin assembling the cookies, and I've handed out the mixing bowls, spoons, and measuring cups, this is the first thing I see: kids banging the bowls with the spoons and putting the bowls on their head. In the words of Seth Myers and Amy Poehler on Weekend Update, "REALLY?!?" Some days it's like teaching 3 year olds... Then I had to triply review that if we need 2/3 of a cup of honey, you need to put in 2 of the 1/3 cups. Even after going over it several times and making them repeat it back to me, I still caught several trying to put it in the half cup. (It's amazing how much kids DON'T figure out on their own...)

We did run short of honey, but this was generally remedied by adding more peanut butter. (My whole room smelled like peanut butter and honey--it was great!) After getting everything generally mixed together right (although I did have a good contingent dump the coconut into the mix, even though the balls were supposed to be rolled in it--"add more peanut butter!!") we finally got everything put away into plastic bags and safely stored in the lounge fridge. I did have to beat a couple teachers off with a stick at lunch the next day, but they turned out great. My floor was completely covered in graham cracker crumbs, but it was easily vaccuumed.

It turned out to be a lot of fun for me and the kids, and it wasn't even very disastrous! Maybe that's what good teaching is like: having "fly by the seat of your pants" fun, and even learning something in the meantime!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Yellow Pages vs Websites

I was planning my 700 hours worth of lesson plans yesterday. (My kids are starting to learn that I exaggerate a lot.) This planning for every subject is ridiculously time-consuming, not to mention the outrageous lesson plan format we have to follow. ANYWAY, beside the point. This week in Language Arts (English, for you old school people), my kids are studying functional text, which includes things like recipes, directions, schedules, signs, phone books, etc.

As I was on my hands and knees yanking the phone book out of its resting place at the bottom of my closet, where it cushions my glassware and boosts up an occasional child, a thought came to me. What is the point of the phone book? When do I ever use it? Clearly, not much. However, I suppose it can still be of use if a person is looking for a plumber or a roofer and doesn't know one. Hence, I will still teach my kids how to use the yellow pages.

However, once a person does know what specific company, restaurant, or organization they want information on, the group's website is much more useful. For that reason, this week we will be locating information on a website as well (which is a totally different skill than using MySpace). I know this may seem like a bit of a no-brainer, but the state standards out there would probably say that I shouldn't be wasting my time on things that aren't going to be on the standardized test at the end of the year. In my humble opinion though, (imho in text speak), it is a necessary life skill that I use all the time. Like I say, though it may be looked down upon by some, I think that is one small thing that contributes toward being a good teacher (even though it may not boost my students' test scores). :-)

Saturday, September 27, 2008


Wow, this is a fun, marginally useless website!! 
If you have time to kill, give this a shot. I pasted in the words from my blog, and this is what came up. The words that are written most often are bigger :-) 

Monday, September 15, 2008

Where's Ashton Kutcher?

I'm really starting to wonder if I'm being Punk'd. For some reason, we have had nothing but disastrous things happen to the 6th grade at my school this year. I believe I've explained a number of previous events, including having to take on teaching all subjects a week ago (as opposed to 1 and half subjects previously) and having my room broken into and an entire lab worth of laptops stolen. This weekend, I found out that my room, along with others had been broken into again by others. Luckily (for me), this time there was minimal damage done to my room, and nothing taken (not that there was that much else left to take). Just as I was processing all of this, I found out I'd have to take on an extra 9 students, since my co-worker didn't have a sub today. 

In the midst of settling all these kids, I was called out to a meeting in which we found out 3 of our 6th grade teachers are being involuntarily transferred to elementary schools who are short teachers, since our numbers are so far down that we are currently overstaffed based on the number of students per class. The decision as to which teachers go is based on seniority, and so our 2 brand new teachers were forced to leave, unless anyone else volunteered to take other positions. I really felt like the right thing to do was to volunteer to take one of the elementary positions in order to support our brand new teachers who have just moved across the country. However...I like my job (at least when a thousand bad things aren't happening). I have no desire whatsoever to start over at a new grade level 4 weeks into the school year, and so I'm staying. I know no one can fault a person for wanting to keep their job, but I still feel awful for those teachers that are going to have their lives turned upside down (not to mention the students in their former classes who will be split among the remaining teachers, and the students in their new classes who will be taken from other teachers and reassigned). I know I did nothing wrong, but I still feel like the right thing to do would've been to help someone else avoid a terribly unfortunate situation... 

As I take on about 7 new students tomorrow that will come from these departing teachers, I have a chance to create a stronger classroom. I hope I will come out of this a better teacher. Wish me luck. Actually, scratch that. Wish me wisdom. 

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Tornadoes and Menopause

I was in the middle of a science lesson this week on tornadoes. (Reminder: this is the first week I have ever, in my entire life, taught science.) My kids were fairly engaged and of course, asking all kinds of questions I can't answer, so we started a list. They were asking things like, "What happens if a tornado runs into a mountain?" and "Could a chicken survive a tornado?" and "What happens if a plane flies into a tornado?" I was wracking my brain for any bit of information I have about tornadoes, and can't answer any of the questions. In the midst of this, one kid pipes up and says, "What's menopause?"

I lost it. I totally cracked up. I have no idea where that question came from, but I was ecstatic that for once I had a decent answer. I said, "I'll tell you when we study the human body next semester." 

We'll see if he remembers.  I'm not sure if this makes me a good teacher or not, but it sure gave me a good laugh :-) 

Making Them Speak

If you read my last post, you know that I had two kids on the verge of tears after making them speak in the front of the class to everyone. One just flat out refused to go, and the other stood up there for 5-10 minutes before a meager one sentence left his mouth and he fled to his seat. Yesterday I found that those efforts at making them get over their stage fright were worth it. 

Their assignment for this week was to do a book talk (basically a verbal book review) for the class. They had a week to prepare (to plan and mentally prepare themselves :-)) and then everyone got up in front of the class and presented. The girl that had actually been crying last week, hemmed and hawed, and begged not to do it, but finally got up and did a very nice job. That was a victory in itself. The other student who had been terrified, but got a bit out last week also managed to survive another speech without passing out, and did a fine job as well. 

However, the real victory came later on during Social Studies. They had already shared their current events with two small groups, and I asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to share theirs in front of the class in the last few minutes. I looked around and I noticed one of several hands that had shot up instantaneously. It was my crier from last week! She was waving her hand furiously in the air so that she could get up and share. :-) Needless to say, I let her go first (and she did an excellent job of presenting). At that moment, I felt like a good teacher :-) 

Friday, September 5, 2008

Making Them Cry

Is being able to make kids cry a good or bad thing? It's generally not something I strive to do, but in this instance, I didn't feel too terribly bad. I made one kid from each group get up today and share a current event they had recorded. The point was not to share the current event, but to practice speaking in front of a group without giggling, shrieking, contorting one's body, facing backwards, having someone else read it for you, crack up, burst into tears, etc. The first kid flat out refused. When I could tell she was so petrified that she was just about to cry, I let up and said I'd come back to her. Just about that time, another kid says, "Hey, are you crying??" Not helpful. That comment actually did bring on the tears (technically not my fault). Then, after several other kids had gone, the next kid got up and couldn't get a single word to come out of his mouth. After quite a while, and lots of giggling, he managed to get out one sentence (as compared to the required three) while standing next to me, and then sprinting for his seat. He was the last one to go, and then I asked if there were any volunteers that wanted to share their current events. To encourage this, I said, "See look, no one actually died of embarrassment!" At which point, the last kid that had gone, said, "No, but I was scared--to--death!!" No actual tears, but still. Poor things. Would this make me a good or bad teacher? :-) 

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Adaptation is the Name of the Game

They say that teachers need to be ready to adapt. The all-knowing "they" is not kidding. In my first 3 weeks of school, my teaching has been turned totally upside down. There are tons of reasons for this, most of which I will not go in to. (I know, dangling modifier...) However, these are the 2 biggest reasons. After 3 years (plus 3 weeks of this year) of teaching 2 subjects to 2 or 3 classes, we've now been informed that since our district is underperforming, we are no longer allowed to trade classes with another teacher. We are all required to be self-contained. As stated, I did not find this out until last Friday. So now, for the first time in my life, I get to do the one thing I wanted to avoid at all costs, which is teaching all the subjects at once. Given that I was never interested in this, it is pretty daunting to me to take it on in a week's time. 

The other major change was that this morning when I walked into my room, I discovered that the laptop lab that had been stored in my room was now empty of all 29 laptops. My room had been broken into, and they were all stolen. This may not seem like a big deal to my teaching, but it is to me. If no one else was using the laptops, (which was about 4 out of 5 days a week), I made a point to use them. Even if I hadn't planned on it, I found a way to incorporate them in to whatever we were doing. Now, without the laptops there to use multiple times a week, I'm almost at a loss for how to teach the kids. The textbooks all seem outdated, irrelevant, too difficult, and worst of all, boring. I guess the infamous THEY says "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." THEY sure better be right. I guess I'll know as I get settled into this new way of teaching...if I'm a good teacher yet. 

Why I'm Here

What you have just stumbled upon is my first attempt at a blog. It is based on a thought that I have had in my subconscious for the last four years of my life. "Am I a good teacher yet?" I am a 6th grade teacher (in my 4th year teaching), and I strive to be good at what I do. For that matter, I strive to be excellent at what I do. However, on many days, I'm not so sure I've hit the mark. I'm definitely making attempts, and I've definitely done some things right. However, I still know that I have a long way to go at getting good at this game we call teaching. Therefore, this blog will basically serve as my documentation of the adventures of teaching that present themselves before me, and the refining process they have on my teaching ability. There will definitely be humor, (since my students amaze me, crack me up, and boggle my mind on a daily basis), there will definitely be advocacy of technology (I'm in an educational technology master's program right now), and there will definitely be examples of my attempts at becoming a better teacher. I hope you'll join me on my journey!