Friday, January 23, 2009

When Everything Looks Like a Nail, It's Time to Buy a Hammer (Or: "Don't make me tell your REAL teacher!")

Classroom management.

Everything I've read suggests that classroom management is the cornerstone of successful education. I've read countless books about the topic, ranging from the light (The Reluctant Disciplinarian) to the heavy (Not In My Classroom). I took a sixteen week course on classroom management, which I aced. I've powered through blogs and articles in teaching magazines, peer-reviewed research and second-hand anecdotes. I think I've heard everything that has ever been said about classroom management.

I was so not prepared.

First, a bit of background about this particular school. It's classified as "urban," and has over 50% of the student body on free/reduced lunches. Since I have started back, there have been two bomb threats, a teacher being verbally abused by a student to the point of tears, a student (in my classroom) being escorted out and frisked for weapons, and an attempted kidnapping. And that's just the stuff that I've seen.

I thought I was doing decently with classroom management, but the last few days have shown me otherwise. I stood guard over a particularly long, particularly strict detention session. The students were not allowed to leave the room, speak to each other, or leave their seats without permission, and it lasted for three hours, while the rest of the students went on a fun field trip. I noticed that, when I was the only adult in the room, the students would start talking quietly, passing notes, and even throwing things when they thought I wasn't looking. I would use proximity, "teacher-eye," verbal and non-verbal cues, and seat re-arranging, but it didn't seem to work for more than a few minutes, tops. When my cooperating teacher walked into the room, they snapped back to attention, instantly. No malarkey with Ms. Awesome in the room, no sir. That, my friends, is respect.

I want that!

She's never had to take any real disciplinary action, since I've been there. They're already trained with her - they know that she's got the authority. So far, I haven't had any authority. As far as the kids - or I - knew, my only threat was something along the lines of "Don't make me tell your REAL teacher!" (which, let's face it, is just too pathetic to use). I should have asked about that, earlier, but with the way they were acting during my observation period, I didn't think about it.

I asked Ms. Awesome about it, and she explained how she handles things - warn them, toss them, talk to them one-on-one, and if that doesn't work, "snap-suspend" them (any student sent to the office is automatically suspended for 24 hours - it's written into the teachers' contracts). She told me that I have the authority to do the same. "Basically," she told me, "You build a gallows and hang a few. Then you just have to remind them that the gallows is still there, every now and then." Her shtick is to be as nice as possible AND as strict as possible at the same time - the kind of balance that the best teachers seem to learn.

Now, a three hour long silent detention with the only 15 kids with enough outstanding offenses to disqualify them from a field trip is a different breed of beast than ordinary classroom teaching. I could try to hedge the situation by saying that things don't get that out of hand during my classes, and only one of the students in that detention was one of mine, but then I overheard a student saying something along these lines:

"We just sat there whenever Ms. Awesome was in the room. Oh, but we talked when Magister L. was the only one in there. Because, I'm sorry, but...*giggle*"

Ouch. In kiddo, veritas. I'm seriously lacking in the respect department, and it's time to earn my wings.

Monday is a teacher in-service (my first), but Tuesday? The gallows goes up, and it's time for some show trials. I'm not looking for trouble, but when the time comes (and it will), the hammer's coming down. Not authoritarian, but assertive. Expect a good entry next week, heh.

Signin' off, brainslingers.

-The Educational Man of Mystery

Friday, January 16, 2009

Class Differences (Or: Magister L. and the Unlikely Alliance)

I have heard repeatedly, both in education classes and in edu-blogs, that each class is different, and that reaction to a lesson can vary dramatically from one prep to another. Well, I've finally had a chance to see that first-hand.

One period? A huge class, but they're cricket-creakingly silent. When I ask for volunteers, I get blank stares. Answers? Questions? Nothing. Jokes fall flat. Information hangs in the air, as though searching for a place to land, but not finding one. However, when it comes time for independant work, they toil surely and silently. I guess I can't complain, but I'm going to try getting them out of their seats a bit more in order to juice things up.

Another period? A tiny class, with few students. Two of them, however, have HUGE personalities, so this classroom is energized. Unfortunately, it's the wrong kind of energy. These two students (a large, tough-talking intimidator and a small, quick-witted insult artist) seem to live to antagonize each other. Even though The Insultor is one of the smartest kids in all of my classes put together, I can't call on him, because he takes every opportunity to twist his answers into insults directed at The Intimidator, who immediately makes "I'm gonna get you after class" motions while shooting him the evil eye. I'm planning on using the "divide and conquer" method of talking to them individually about acceptable behavior. I really like both of these students, and I want them both to be heard, but I won't stand for these back-and-forths.

In another period, there's been some racial tension building. I won't go into details, in order to keep things confidential, but some of the students have been making comments that one of the (minority) students finds insulting. This student came to me and asked that I talk to the others. From what I've seen and heard, these students really aren't trying to be racist - they just don't seem to realize that their jokes are coming off that way. I plan to take them aside and explain that, although I know that they don't mean to be doing it, they are singling out a classmate and making him feel unwelcome, and that it needs to stop.

In another class period, the strangest thing has happened. The kids the other teachers complain about - the self-proclaimed "gangstas" that talk in rap slang and wear baggy pants and generally dislike school - seem to "get" me more than any other group of students, and this period is packed with them. If someone interrupts me, they tell them to quiet down so they can hear what I'm saying. Every joke hits, every lesson lands. Homework gets handed in by kids who haven't handed in homework in months. They're active when I need them to be active, they're quiet when I need them to be's like there's a CLASS going on, or something. In this period, it feels like they're all rooting for me just as much as I'm rooting for them - it's incredible. I want to figure out how to bring this dynamic to my other classes.

Finally, an update from last week: Still tired, still functioning on little to no sleep, and I still haven't recovered from that cold from two weeks ago. I'm hosing down my throat with chloroseptic spray between classes, which works for about the first fifteen minutes of each. I think the lack of sleep and new/constant daily exposure to adolescent-germs are weakening my immune system. Also, my car might be breaking down. But will Magister L. surrender? NARRY A CHANCE!

Until next time, ladies and gents!

-The Educational Man of Mystery

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Tiiii-iiiiiii-iii-iiime: It's Not On My Side (Or: Magister L. Punches The Clock)

Time waits for no man:
Not even the ones with slick costumes.

(Note: This post was inspired by this entry from So You Want To Teach?)

Time management. It's never been a problem for me, before.

Now, don't get me wrong, I haven't been slacking. I've been going to school full time and carrying two jobs for the last four years, so I'm used to an 8+ hour work day with few breaks and no breathing room. Student teaching, however, has left me without breathing room, sleeping room, showering room, shaving room, and...well, I'm just out of room. As such, I've been looking like I've been hit by a truck full of stubble and eye-bags.

Because of the long commute to and from my placement, I need to wake up at 4 in the morning, and I get home at around five in the morning. This has been resulting in my falling asleep around 8 p.m. every night. This gives me three waking hours in which to write lesson plans, grade papers, work on the peripheral projects required by the student teaching course, and do all the little things that a person needs to do in order to function (eat, shower, shave, laundry, housekeeping tasks, grocery shopping, bank visits, etc.). The weekends are a little better, since those are only 8-hour (sometimes 12 hour) work days.

In short, I think I've met the first of many Super-Villain nemeses: The Clock. He is able to tire me out, weakening my one super-power: Passionate, energetic teaching.

Right now, I'm coasting through. It's the beginning of the term, so I'm mostly doing grunt work - running copies, grading/checking in papers, entering grades into the computer system. I can operate at half-power and manage that kind of stuff. What worries me is the upcoming weeks, in which I'll be doing everything I'm doing now, but also engaging in massive amounts of preparation, and expending tons of energy by actually teaching.

I don't mind the half-hour lunches - I don't get lunch breaks at all at my other jobs - and the hour-long planning period is helping a lot, but I don't know if I'll hold out for much longer without sleeping.

Master teachers: How do you do it all in three hours a day? I'm not looking for free time so I can sit around eating Spaghetti-O's and watching The Jetsons - I just want to sleep. I already quit one job to make room for student teaching, and I can't afford to quit another: my family is below the poverty line as it is, and although scholarships are covering most of the cost of tuition for the semester, the extra costs (a "professional" wardrobe, TONS of gas, materials for class, the cost of brown-bagging lunch every day) are killing me.

Will Magister L. defeat his newest foe?
Will he fall asleep behind the wheel and crash into a corn silo?
Will he force his students to play "Watch the Spot on the Wall" while he secretly naps behind a copy of Savage Inequalities?


-The Educational Man of Mystery

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Psyching Out and Psyching Up

"And if you're scared of the future tonight,
We'll just take it each hour one at a time."

-"Boomboxes and Dictionaries" by The Gaslight Anthem

In six hours, I'll be waking up for my first day of student teaching, and I've got a cold.

Or, rather, this cold has me. I've been rattlin' the chains of this beast for the last two weeks, every day hoping that it would relent in time for my term of, classroom. That's not going to happen, so I'm planning on waking up a bit early to load up on throat spray, cough drops, vitamins, twelve gallons of water, and a catheter. Well, maybe I should reconsider those last two.

I'm nervous, but in a good way. It's a performance-enhancing nervousness, I think. It reminds me of when I was getting ready to take the Praxis II tests. My family was wishing me luck, and I mentioned how on-edge I was feeling. My mom looked me in the eye and said, "When have you ever met a test you couldn't annihilate?" I kept repeating that to myself, all the way through the tests (which I did, indeed, annihilate). That's what I need to keep telling myself, now.

I've done a month-long internship in a 6th grade class, a month-long internship in a 7th grade class, a week-long methods experience in a 5th grade class, and a solid month of methods-teaching in a seventh grade class. And now, I'll ask myself:

"Self, when have you ever stood in front of a class whose socks you could not, in essence, rock? Relaaaaax."

For those of you who are interested (que the crickets), here's a Day Zero wrap-up of all the things I've done prior to actually student teaching:

1.) Driven to the school a few times.

This was an important one, because the school is over an hour away and is across state lines, in an area I've never been near, before. I still don't have the directions down, but I know that with the help of my pal, Maggie (Yes, I named my GPS device), I can find my way throught the thirty miles of cornfields and five miles of confusing downtown streets that rest between me and my destination.

2.) Met with my cooperating teachers and my college advisor.

We had a meeting in which the advisor laid out all of the things for which both I and my two cooperating teachers will be responsible. It's a lot of work. In addition to all the standard student teaching stuff that I was expecting, I'll be conducting a quantified research study to prove to the state that my presence led to student achievement. The highlight of this meeting would probably be when my cooperating teacher for science said something to my advisor along the lines of "As long as he's willing to get a little crazy, he'll do fine." My advisor (who has observed and graded my performances at other placements) grinned, looked over at me, and sort of shook his head, saying "Well, you don't have to worry, there."

3.) Met with my first cooperating teacher in her classroom.

At the aforementioned meeting, my cooperating teacher for Language Arts (I'm just going to call her Ms. English, since the titles are getting unruly) invited me to visit her classroom during the week. I was able to get a look at her classroom, meet some of the students, and get a feel for the sort of atmosphere she maintains. I asked if she had any copies of her seating charts or class rosters, so I could start learning students' names. She did me one better, and gave me a sheet of not only their names, but their school pictures. She then gave me a copy of her state's standards book for language arts, and let me look through her giant book of activities, so that I could see what she was planning on covering, next. Or, rather, what she's planning on having me cover, next. For any future student teachers who are reading: ask if you can do something like this! This was a huge help. It took the mystery off of the whole thing, and gave me an idea of what I'm getting into.

Well, ladies and gents, I've got to get going, because I've got some serious sleeping to do. As always, keep the sails stretched, pavement pirates.

-The Educational Man of Mystery

Monday, December 22, 2008

What's All This, Then? (or: Introductions, Ahoy!)

This is the way the world ends:
Not with a bang but a blogger.

Salutations and exaltations, bloggers and bloggees. I'm Magister L., and this is my blog.

I know, I know; I can hear you: "Who are you, and why should I keep reading this?"

Simply enough, I'm a student teacher. Or, at least, I will be. Starting in January, I'll be student teaching eighth grade language arts for a period of about eight weeks, followed by eighth grade science for another period of about eight weeks. As part of the Student Teacher Chronicles project, masterminded by Joel of So You Want to Teach, I'll be blogging my experiences, reflections, questions, insights (*snicker*), and frustrations. I'm hoping this will serve both as a tool for self-evaluation and as a resource for other student teachers and education majors - something to give them a first-hand account of all the zany adventures that will, no doubt, ensue (and believe me, if I'm involved, they will be zany).

A little about me, if you're interested:

I've wanted to be a teacher since I was about twelve. Before that, I wanted to be a mad scientist or an under appreciated, off-beat writer. With my current major/track, I'm looking to be certified to teach science and language arts in grades 4-9 (yeah, my state has a weird system). In essence, I hope to teach the next generation of mad scientists and/or under appreciated, off-beat writers.

I graduated early from high school and went straight to college, so I'm fairly young. As in, old enough for boozing, gambling, and paying for my own health insurance (only one of which I actually do*), but just barely. This is intimidating, because I'm less than ten years older than the kids I'll be teaching.

I've spent the last two years as a tutor, tutoring students ranging in age from 11 to 60 in writing, lit, philosophy, logic, Eastern religions, bio, physical science, environmental science, history, math, technology and...well, pretty much whatever they threw at me. I'm hoping some of the tutoring tricks I've picked up will translate to teaching tricks, once I'm in The Show (er, The Classroom).

On the non-education front, I'm into reading (anything: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, comic books, etc.), music (punk, ska, folk, hardcore, hip-hop, etc.), politics (Chuck Todd is the man), and geekin' it up in general.

While I appear to be a simple middle school education major by day, at night I fight crime as the masked superhero Magister L., blinding bad guys with my Overhead Projector Vision before hitting them with a radioactive copy of Crime and Punishment (which not only knocks them out, but improves their reading ability by five grade levels). As such, I must conceal my identity on this site, lest my nemesis, The Standardizer, find out who I really am.

Or...well, maybe not.

Fair enough, for an intro? If anyone has more questions, ask away in the comments section. More posts to come, shortly.

Until next time, keep the miles in your eyes and the pride in your strides,

The Educational Man of Mystery

*I'm talking about the health insurance.