Sunday, February 21, 2016

"You are irritatin'!"

It was a rough week last week - for all of us on our team - even with having Monday off for President's Day.  As you know, I started teaching in January in a more urban setting, and last week wore me out.  Middle school is known for its ups and downs, but last week there were more downs than ups.  To be fair, though, it is just a small group of students who cause those downs, but we tend to focus on those students more than the students who consistently are respectful, kind, and engaged in learning.  So . . . my question: How can we engage ALL students in learning?

I do a lot of professional development reading on my own.  I've read Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Kylene Beers, Richard Allington, Steven Layne, Jeff Anderson, and the list goes on.  These are all experts in the areas of reading and writing, and they are all phenomenal.  I am always inspired by their ideas and try to incorporate many of their strategies into my teaching.  Here is my downfall.  I have not done much, close to nil, reading about students of color and students living in poverty.  That is changing because it has to change.  I no longer teach in a school in which the majority of students look like me and come from a background similar to mine.  With that being said, I have started reading and am almost finished with Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People's Children by Lisa Delpit.  (Here is the Goodreads link: Multiplication is for White People.)

Reading Delpit's book has challenged my thinking and has also made me question how I teach and what I teach.  Too often, students from poor urban schools are not held to the same expectations as students in more affluent schools.  The question I struggled with last week is how do we hold students to high expectations while still understanding the difficulties life is throwing at them.  There is no easy answer, but I want my students to know that they are intelligent, capable, and strong - in so many ways - and that in my classroom I will help them, with high expectations, to become the person they want to be.

Sometimes, students do not understand that.  One student told me last week that I was "irritatin'."  I took that as a compliment because she was struggling with my expectations and what she had always done in school - whatever she wants, which means walking out of the classroom, being on her phone, etc.  Lo and behold, learning took place with her that day.  Internal struggle is good for my students.  It means they are thinking about how and if they want my help to be successful.  It's a slow process.  At times, I'm overwhelmed with how slow it actually is, but I feel like I'm making a dent.

Another aspect Delpit mentions is the lack of high academic standards for students in high poverty, diverse, urban schools.  Think of coloring. Why do you color?  I like to color to calm me.  Students in urban schools do a lot of coloring - at all grade levels.  (Yep - there was research done on this.) Why? To make the students calm and control their behaviors.  In-depth thinking does not occur with your basic, every day coloring.  It's easier to have students color and be calm than have students be engaged and noisy.  Talk about injustice!

In my classroom, I have been working on making my students read more critically and in-depth.  It's not the easiest to accomplish because many of my students have not been pushed in this way and have been resistant.  Some would rather have a worksheet and fill in the blanks.  Delpit says to expect this, so I keep pushing.  I can't wait until tomorrow when we start a unit on Dress Codes: What's Fair.  I'm looking forward to some of my students being "irritated" with me because I want them engaged; that's my job - push them (gently) out of their comfort zone.

Last week did end on a positive note.  After weeks of not reading during independent reading time, my entire last class of the day of 30 students, read for a full 10 minutes.  It was silent, and all of the kids were reading.  One of my colleagues came in, dropped something off on my desk, and looked at me with a look of astonishment on her face.  I knew what she was thinking - all of your kids are reading and engaged.  I smiled at her.  It has taken some doing and getting to know my students, but, for one day at least, students were actively participating in our classroom community by reading.

It's the small things that make me happy and help me continue on this journey of learning.

FYI - I have also been reading Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College by Doug Lemov.  He is a charter school advocate so some don't agree with his ideas, but I have taken some of his strategies and started applying them in my classroom.  (Here is the Goodreads link: Teach Like a Champion.) I'm not a proponent of charter schools or the over-emphasis on standardized tests charter schools favor, but there are some things I have learned from the book - anything to help my students become active participants in their educations.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

"But We've Always Given Up"

For the past several years, I've had what some would call a mid-life crisis.  I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life.  Should I stay teaching, should I go into administration, or should I just leave education altogether?  It wasn't that I didn't like teaching; it just felt like I was missing something. In a few years' time, I tried working in a district office, working in a middle to upper class school district teaching Advanced Language Arts, and then working in an inner-city school as a Literacy Specialist (although no one knew what that really entailed).  Not one of those positions made me feel like I truly belonged there.

I needed to make a difference, so I made the move to my current school halfway through this school year, which is almost 90% students of color, is just shy of 80% of students receiving free/reduced lunch, has around 15% of students receiving Special Education services, and almost 18% of students receiving English Language services.  This has been the best decision ever for me (although it hasn't been smooth sailing).

So what made me want to write a blog?  A comment last week from one of my students: "But we've always given up, Mrs. Sirovy."  Her comment was in response to a challenging activity we were doing, and she was done.  It was just too hard.  No matter what I did to cajole her, she was not interested in participating anymore.  Even though she refused to participate in the activity, which by the way I stole from Teaching Channel and is called Kick Me, I was more disheartened by her comment.  These kids have usually given up when it gets too hard.

Could I fault her?  No.  So many of the kids in our country never see things get better for them even when they and their parents and family members work extremely hard.  Why keep at something when nothing is going to change?  When I see the opportunities students in the more affluent neighborhoods and schools have compared to students in poorer neighborhoods and schools, it makes me realize that our nation needs to have an honest conversation about race and poverty. It hasn't happened yet, but I have faith it will.

My students are just as bright as students in the more well-to-do neighborhoods, but many of my students don't believe that.  If we truly want all students to be successful, our nation's priorities need to change.  Our politicians need to focus on families, students, and education not on Wall Street. This can happen if we never give up.  

Thank you for reading my first post, as it was something I felt needed to be shared and is also experienced by many teachers across the country.  In thinking about my blog, I hope to write about the successes, challenges, and questions that arise as I continue teaching 8th grade ELA.