Wednesday, June 25, 2008

27 kids!

Suddenly, everything was not going so smoothly. It was 4th hour on "B" day and I had twenty-five kids sitting in rows, copies of a pre-writing worksheet strewn around the desks, pencils flying, students poking, a kid begging a pass to the nurse, and two boys in back who refused to pick their heads up off of their desks.

I was strolling up and down the aisles, trying to lead a discussion on writing a product review and reaching about four kids. Each time I paused to put one outburst out, another burst up behind my back. It was like waiting tables in a giant restaurant with no busboys and too many tables.

And every time I glanced up to the back of the room, TL was smiling and writing notes with his little green marker.

When the bell had rung and I was finished picking up pieces of inky, broken pens; twisted, torn worksheets; and the shavings from at least three pencils that someone had just sharpened and sharpened and sharpened, I sat down with my supervising teacher.

"Well," he said, "how did you think that went?" I had kind-of hoped he hadn't noticed.

He went on to explain that I had been bum-rushed by a very tricky class and handed me a piece of paper, full of those green-marker jottings, that detailed where I might have gone wrong.

He gave me some simple tips:
  • Use a timer, say, "Now we're going to put away our worksheets and switch gears to the reading for today, I'm setting the timer for one minute, have your novels out when the bell rings."
  • Tell the class exactly how you want the conversation to run. Tell them that sometimes you will say, "raise your hands," and you will expect them to wait to be called on, and sometimes you will ask a question and tell them to answer out loud, so everybody can talk. Sometimes you may even ask them to turn to their neighbors and talk about the question (for one minute, using the timer)
  • Use the "take a break" strategy that has been systematically drummed into their brains since spring. And remember , it should be a time to collect thoughts or to take a breather, not a punishment.
  • Randomize who you call on. Ask a silly question like, "raise your hands if you are wearing colored socks." Then ask those people with colored socks to share an answer from a group activity or from written work.
Well, today was "B" day again. I used all of TL's suggestions on the eager and calm students of first hour. The class sailed. They were digging the discussion, participating, and even understanding some of what I was saying. But these kids were not at all the same class that I would face in a few hours. 4B is a totally different beast.

And they responded too. More so. I had them in the palm of my hand... mostly. The discussion went just as I described it to them. they were (mostly) quiet when I was talking or when one of them had the floor. They participated in the discussion pairings and they reported back to me when i asked everyone who was wearing a necklace to tell me what they had said. They even took the conversation in a new, unplanned, but totally appropriate direction - all on their own.

It's amazing what a few simple tips from an experienced teacher can do.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Student Support Team Meeting

I continue to be impressed with the care that Crosswinds takes when dealing with individual students. This morning I attended a Student Support Team Meeting. These meetings are held twice a month to follow up on students who may need special attention. The team was comprised of representatives from each house, the principal, and the school psychologist.

I was fascinated by the meeting. I tried to picture it taking place in my own school, where meetings often break down into gossipy sessions full of complaints. The representatives presented their cases in a neutral manner, detailing the interventions that had been attempted. Fellow teachers offered suggestions and shared strategies that had been successful in the past.

These Student Support Team Meetings also serve as the first recorded intervention in the process of making a decision about special education status for students with behavioral and learning disabilities. I was impressed by the fact that Crosswinds has a bi-weekly meeting in place to discuss students who may be in need of services. I would love to see something along these lines implemented at MTS/ComArts.

My enthusiasm for the meeting was put in check by TL as we walked out of the meeting. When I told him how impressed I was with the format, professionalism, and efficiency of the meeting, he thanked me, but confided that he had been listening to similar complaints about the same kids for months, with concrete interventions. Perhaps our schools are more similar than I originally thought.

At any rate, the system is surely worth looking at.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Week 1, Crosswinds

My dreaded stint across town has begun, and as I feared, the drive and the hours are a real bummer. It is a twenty mile drive to Woodbury, which takes only a half an hour or so in the morning, but which takes anywhere from forty-five to seventy minutes at the end of the day. Meanwhile the sun is bright and warm and the days have all been beautiful. I am jealous of my family, who are quickly making my spring tan look pale.

But Crosswinds is fantastic. If it were not so far away (and not year-round) I would be begging for a position there. Being in an English classroom this week has made me question the turn that my career has taken. Originally, I planned to teach literature and writing, not video and editing. I still get to teach creative writing in my screenwriting classes, but it is not quite the same thing. It is exciting to discuss books and teach basic writing skills.

Crosswinds is a product of a lawsuit against the St. Paul school system. It is a district of its own, funded by the St. Paul school district, created in order to provide quality programs for kids who live in (mostly poor) areas that were at one time (and perhaps still) offering less quality education than the schools in other districts. It is a 6-1oth grade middle school and is arranged into numerous houses in order to create a sense of a smaller community within the school. Each house is comprised of the four pieces of core curriculum, Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies and contains around eighty students.

As I said, Crosswinds is located in Woodbury, Minnesota. It is as close to St. Paul as you can get and still get an "in the country" feel. The school was built in the middle of a farmer's field, literally. The closest neighbor is a full-on farm with tractors and sheep and a guy in over-alls. It is an absolutely beautiful spot, especially for those city kids who get little chance to experience green spaces outside of city parks and lakes. Yesterday, when I arrived, I was greeted by a giant snapping turtle, laying her eggs in the garden in front of the school.

At Crosswinds, classrooms are all open; you can see above the half walls right out into the hallway and into your neighbor's classroom. Teachers do not have desks in their rooms, but rather an office shared with each other, which results in a massive amount of communication between the faculty and other staff.

Crosswinds employs the responsive classroom design. They have a homeroom everyday where students group up for announcements, sharing, and games.

They use an especially effective system to deal with behavioral issues. When a student first gets out of line, he/she is asked to "take a break." Students go to another part of the classroom for a moment to regroup and rejoin the class when they are ready. If the discipline needs to go further, students are sent to the "buddy room." Each classroom has a partner room to send students to. When a student is sent to the partner room, he/she fills out a form detailing the situation and his/her plan to amend the situation. When the buddy room teacher has a moment, he/she speaks with the troubled student. By this time, the student has had time to cool down and is able to communicate with a staff member who was not part of the problem, but who has a close relationship with the child. It works remarkably well.

I'm really enjoying my time in the classroom at Crosswinds. The students, all seventh or eighth graders, are a very diverse group, both economically and racially. They are very comfortable in their surroundings and the sense of a trusting, close-knit community is strong.

My supervising teacher, TL. has turned out to be just the kind of educator I respect. He has nine years of teaching experience, is thoughtful and calm in the classroom, has a passion for the kids and the job, and a keen interest in education in general. We've already spent a great deal of time discussing the philosophy and the future of the education in the U.S. We need more teachers like TL., far too many of our colleagues are ignorant or disinterested in anything save their immediate classroom needs.

I am already beginning to take over portions of the instruction and have received positive and constructive feedback from TL. As I watch him effortlessly and calmly manage twenty to twenty-five junior high students, I recognize that his patient, but insistent, brand of classroom management is a skill I need to observe closely.

I've come a long way from my first year teaching, when I frequently engaged and argued with students, constantly losing the battle, but I have a long way to go to catch up to TL.

It is Saturday today and I find my thoughts drifting back to the faces of the kids that I met during the week, a sure sign that I am quickly becoming fond of them. Despite all my moaning about this assignment, I am already sure I will miss it when the term is over.