Thursday, October 27, 2011

Mama Drama

Remember my excitement about returning to elementary school this week? Let's recap the last two days:

  • Two 8-year-olds passed notes that included the words "I want to kill her" and "She's a dumb b!tch." 
  • I managed to remain somewhat professional by not yelling, "What the f&ck is wrong with you?! You're 8 years old!"
  • Aforementioned 8-year-olds were referred to the office and notes were sent home.
  • Mother of the 8-year-old who was most likely the author of the "dumb b!tch" comment wrote back saying that it wasn't her son and that she only signed the note so we know she received it. But clearly we/I were/was wrong.
  •  The mother of said 8-year-old listed the following as evidence:
    1. He said he didn't do it
    2. She's never heard him use profanity
    3. He doesn't even know how to spell those words
Needless to say, I have gained new respect for teachers who must deal with this every day. The kid did a much better job today--they both did--so I was happy with that, but a part of me was completely depressed by how willing a parent was to make excuses for a child when the evidence was clearly there. Please don't misunderstand me: this is not my first encounter with a parent like this, and I'm not surprised by their existence. But the fact that they do exist, and the fact that I can do nothing about it is beyond frustrating. Everyone says that these helicopter parents are a recent development from the Homeland Generation, but I'm not so sure. Based solely on my viewing of The Conspirator, I infer that parents have been defying logic and sheltering their children for a long time. Although I'm guessing that John Surratt didn't take his mother's sheltering as absolution from his crimes against everyone's favorite person. Maybe?

Monday, October 24, 2011

You must be this tall to teach

So here's the thing: I do not like working in high schools. I feel terrible for thinking it. I really, truly do. I try to be sensitive to the fact that high school can be really rough and that the kids are probably going through emotional hell or emotional detachment or something else. The thing is, I can't actually keep that in mind because I am too busy being annoyed by the constant belligerence and attitude and insubordination. I can never believe how many kids I meet with a "me against the world" perspective. I'm sure it is not an unwarranted perspective: I will never really know what a kid has had to endure prior to the 90 minutes I spend with him/her. But sometimes I just want to shake them and explain that not everyone in the school system is out to get them, and that "me against the world" doesn't get you much in life because if you make everything a competition then the world is probably always going to win. 

It's not that I don't like teenagers in general. When I was roadrunning and talked to them individually or in small groups, I loved hearing about their plans for the future and how they're coping with the transitional phase in their lives. There's just something about the high school setting that morphs teenagers into... what is the socially acceptable word for "not-nice mutant creatures?" 

Part of me thinks that my issues with high school students are based in countertransference. I never thought of my high school years as particularly atrocious, but thinking about them makes me feel so awkward and anxious. When I re-dated my high school boyfriend I practically (and by practically I mean definitely) had a panic attack when it came time for me to re-meet his family. Once I dissected those feelings, I realized that I was horrified about the idea of spending three solid days with people who knew me exclusively from high school. That is not the version of myself I like to remember, and it's definitely not a version of myself that I like to be reminded of. And even though high schools are filled with plenty of teachers my age, I still feel like too much of a peer to the students. Perhaps by the time I finish my degree I will feel old enough to work with that age group, but now it might be a bit too close to home. 

The thing that I'm questioning is how much I should push myself to work with middle/high school students while I'm subbing. Part of me feels that I should get experience with all age groups since I don't know where I'll end up as a counselor. Better to be overprepared, right? On the other hand, maybe it's okay that I have a preference of age group and that I stick to it. I really feel that I have more opportunities to set kids on the right path by working at an elementary school. By the time they're in middle/high school, personalities are set and it becomes more difficult to 1. make time to meet with them, 2. unite stakeholders, and 3. implement effective behavior modification techniques. Today a teacher was talking about the vocational test that the seniors will take this semester, and all I could think was, "Isn't it a little late?" I feel that a lot of the tools and interventions that counselors are using in high school are about eight years too late. (As a counselor, I'm hoping to implement a lot of vocational programming into my curriculum. I just don't think it's fair to let kids get to their teenage years without any sort of guidance about what they want out of life. Indecision is fine, paralysis is not.) All tangents aside, I am torn between sticking to what I know/enjoy or going outside of my comfort zone. The thing is, I'm not convinced that leaving one's comfort zone is always a good or meaningful experience. Taking risks can certainly lead to personal growth, but sometimes I think people are pushed into risk-taking just for its own sake. If a person is open to growth or change in other ways, do we really need to force them to climb a mountain or sing karaoke? Anxiety is a powerful catalyst for change, but if we aren't using it consciously and intentionally then there really isn't a point. Then again, I am a huge wimp in a lot of ways and really cannot be trusted with this self-serving monologue. 

Tomorrow I am back in the same position as today; hopefully I will gain some wonderful new insights, or at least partake in some wonderfully disgusting tater tots. However, I am very much looking forward to my third grade jobs later in the week.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Blue Screen of Death

THIS JUST IN: The computer age is a sham!

I literally spent the entire day teaching ten-year-olds how to save documents and view powerpoints and find things on the computer menu. I realize that I am a fetus myself, but these kids are zygotes: they have literally never known a time without computers. Shouldn't they be teaching me? An assignment that consisted of four research questions was unfinished after 25 minutes because by the time they opened two documents and a web browser we were out of time. I was shocked.

I discussed it with the TA, and she said that although the kids occasionally get computer time in school, it always consists of clicking on a link that is provided for them and then playing an educational video game. Are we really not teaching kids how to use computers for things other than Starfall? This was not a particularly well-to-do school, and the TA mentioned that there were families who could not afford home computers, but I feel like this is one area where the school should pick up some of the slack. How can we be sending kids to middle school with no idea how to do anything except log on and off of a PC? That seems irresponsible to me. These are kids who will be in college using technology we can't even imagine, and yet we're not even giving them the basic skills to take advantage of today's inventions? Have they even seen a Mac*?!

To this day I still consider typing to be the most useful class I took in high school. If nothing else, it shaves accumulated hours off my blogging time each year. But more than that, when writing papers it allows me to get my (cleaned up) thoughts on paper almost as quickly as I think them. (Assuming I'm not drunk... then most of my thoughts are typed exactly like they sound in my head: "whaatthe geiull tarte wegteackinggh theseafegt kkpdisds?????????!!!!!!!111!!!!!>????" #20somethingproblem) I'm just saying, I know I complained that these kids are still on subtraction in third grade (the TA confirmed that this school is behind others in the county), but computer skills are the most unquestionably useful knowledge these kids could take away from school. They will all need those skills down the line. Maybe instead of cramming fifty thousand word webs into the day, we could spend 15 minutes a day working on things like, "This is a word document. You type in it. This is how you open a document. Say it with me class: Ctrl+O. This is how you save it. Say it with me class: Ctrl+S. Good!"

Anyway. I'd hate to cut this rant/ode to computer overlords short, but I have to go play trivia with my roommate. If only smartphones were allowed...

*Yes, that was my tribute to Steve Jobs. Thanks, bro.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

How's my learning?

There is nothing more satisfying as a substitute than working with a class a second (or third) time and seeing the kids' reactions when they see that you're back in their classroom. It's that special look that says, "Oh no, not this bitch again!" If you're every feeling really depressed or insignificant, I recommend immersing yourself in this situation; it will warm your heart. 

I spent the morning with a class I had a few weeks ago. Yeesh. I notice that kids at this school tend to be more unruly than at my other schools, although I also wonder if it's behavior confirmation on my part. Anyway, I had this class before, and they would not just quiet down so we could... well, do anything. At the beginning of the day I wrote "RECESS" on the board and told them that every time they took too long to quiet down I would erase part of a letter and they would lose time from their recess. The way I explained it, if they were going to waste my teaching time then I was going to waste their fun time. They didn't get recess that day. Even if I had a change of heart that morning they would not have been able to go outside because they would not stop talking long enough to get lined up. So you can imagine their joy when they walked into school this morning and saw my smiling face in the classroom. But you know what happened today? They were better behaved. It's nice being able to say to a class, "You have had me before. You know I am not kidding. You know what will happen if you break my rules." And it's a good thing that they didn't owe me time today, because it was gorgeous outside and I would have been super upset if I missed my recess. 

I would be overselling the effectiveness of clear expectations if I didn't mention this confounding variable: I also used an incentive program with them that I didn't use last time. I am inconsistent with using this program since I like to feel out a class first, but here's the basic premise: if a student is doing a good job, they get a post-it or index card (depending on what is in my Mary Poppins bag at the time). Whenever I catch them doing what they're supposed to, they get a stamp/signature/sticker (again, depending on the vagaries of the bag). If they get a predetermined number of stamps/signatures/stickers by the end of our time together, they get a prize. If they start getting off-task they can lose stamps/signatures/stickers. With classes like these it's a great way to give students constant feedback, and even though I would never do something like this as a regular teacher, I find that as a substitute it can be nice to have a more immediate reward dangling in front of them than, "I'll give you a [insert mascot here] dollar so you can eventually get a pencil from the school store." Is it bribery? Yes. Is it effective? Usually. And since I have this class again in a few days, I'm betting that they'll be as good as they were today because they know the consequences for their behavior, both positive and negative. 

One more braggy note before I go: I got two recesses today! I went to kindergarten for the afternoon (a class I taught yesterday) and got to spend a full 30 minutes outside with them. It was nice getting to see two very different ages today: it reminded me what was great about both.Then again, that could just be the sunshine talking.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

I heart you mocho

It's hard for me to tell if I'm on the minority side of the immigration issue in our country, or if it's an availability heuristic and I only remember the people who scream, "It's America, speak English!" at whatever newscaster is listening at the moment. I just thought that I should preface this post by acknowledging that I know that some people who read it (those of you who are not my roommate?) will have different opinions on the matter. It's cool. I'm not trying to start a debate here. As always, I'm just trying to share a part of my amazing job.

In the past few weeks I've spent a lot of time at a particular elementary school. I met a little girl who does not speak any English and has somehow made it to first grade. (I don't know anything about her history, so it could be that she is new to the school this year. I would assume that's the case.) Her teacher does not know any Spanish. The day I met her I happened to be in the classroom to work one-on-one with another student, when the little girl was trying to tell the teacher something. It wasn't working. I studied Spanish from middle school all the way through freshman year of college (and promptly forgot most of it by the end of sophomore year) and knew enough to translate. The teacher looked at me like I was a godsend and the little girl lit up knowing that I could at least try to speak to her in her native tongue. I've been in the classroom a few more times, and even though the teacher didn't recognize me as the Spanish-speaking sub, the little girl continued to glance my way and share knowing smiles with me. 
Friday when I worked in the media center I had this girl's class with me. While I read a story to the class I watched as she and her friends whispered in the back. I told them multiple times to stop, but since the only Spanish I remembered would have been literally "shut up!" I stuck with English. Then finally I blurted out, "No me gusta!" The girl looked at me, puzzled, and then turned to her friend to ask, "No le gusta que?" Her friend explained in Spanish that I didn't want her talking while I was reading the story and understanding dawned instantly. When we moved onto our next activity, I decided to try to stretch my Spanish a bit further. I would ask a question to the class and then, if I knew how, translate it into Spanish. Instantly this girl was more engaged and would raise her hand. Her responses would be in Spanish, but either I or one of her friends (more often the latter- seriously, I need to take some more classes!) would translate for the class. It was that simple. I didn't know enough (or have enough time) to say everything in Spanish, but it didn't matter: as soon as she heard me speaking it a little, she was like a totally different student.

Regardless of one's opinion on what I did, you have to admit that it would be pretty frustrating and scary to spend one third of your day in a place where most people didn't understand you. Hearing your native language from a stranger (even if it is espa├▒ol mocho) must be a huge comfort. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to say that I was a hero who changed this kid's life or inspired her to learn or anything like that. I suppose what I'm trying to say is: considering the growing number of families dealing with language barriers with the local schools, sometimes simple gestures can go a long way. And it doesn't seem like a major commitment for school staff to sprinkle a few Spanish phrases into their lessons if it means making some students feel more comfortable. And couldn't making students feel more comfortable and welcome improve things like academic engagement, attendance, and graduation rates? Perhaps this is the idealistic guidance counselor in me talking? I'm constantly trying to think of ways to improve students' attitudes toward school and learning, and my method seemed to work for this child and her friends. Now if only I could find ways to reach out to remaining 28 kids in the class...