Mississippi Teacher Corps

Sunday, January 28, 2007

tapeworms, parenting, and kids that break my heart

A few things happened last week that made me want to come home from school and cry, which I did in fact do one day. I had glipses into the personal lives of a couple of my students that just pained me. I feel truly sorry for these kids, and sorry that I don't know how to help them. In summary:

1. One of my students, Tara, was a nightmare at the beginning of the year. She came into class and rarely did work, snapped at other students, and talked back to me. At her worst point, she openly defied me for several days in a row, and when I asked her to go to the office, she stormed out, yelled at me, screamed, "Bitch!" loud enough for the whole class and probably several other classes nearby to hear, and slammed the door. After talking to the guidance counselor that day, I learned that Tara is repeating the seventh grade, is actually doing much better this year than last year (I would hate to be one of her teachers last year!), is coming to school on a regular basis, which is huge for her, and commonly does things like curse at her teachers. She has some kind of messed up family situation: her mom is not in the picture, at least not in any positive way, and the only positive upbringing she receives is from her grandmother.
For reasons that still remain a mystery to me, Tara came into my class one day, maybe two weeks after this incident, and behaved like an angel. She took her notes, asked pertinent questions, answered my questions (correctly!), and did all of her work. She's been great ever since, and even earned my Star Student award one week for her improvements. I'm really proud of her.
One day last week, she came into my room during planning period to ask a question, "Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket, my puppy got sick yesterday, and he was throwing up, and when he threw up, this thing came out that looked like a worm. What that is, Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket?" So, we had a little talk about parasites, a topic we covered a few months ago in the ecology unit. I told her that she needed to figure out a way to get her puppy to the vet (I'm really worried about the puppy because if you'll excuse my pessimism, I don't think this will happen). She told me that she'd meant to bring in the worm to show me, because she'd saved it for me, but had accidentally left it at home. My initial response was, "Gross!" but then after I talked to her a little more, she said, "I thought you'd want to see it, and I know Ms. Davis would want to see it." Ms. Davis is the other 7th grade science teacher, and was Tara's teacher last year. So, I had her come with me to talk to Ms. Davis about the worm. Ms. Davis praised Tara for thinking about science outside of school, and suggested that I give her 100 as a homework grade for her efforts. I thought this was a great idea. We asked Tara to bring the worm to school to show us.
A few days later, I snuck out of my homeroom to use the bathroom, and as I was walking back, I saw Tara standing outside my door, holding a glass wrapped in tinfoil. I asked her if the worm was inside, and she said it was, so I asked her to come into my room and show it to me. At this point, Ms. Stewart, another teacher on my hall, yelled at Tara, "Give Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket that cup and then get back over here. I'm still telling the principal what you said to me!" As it turns out, Tara had gone to my classroom with the sample, and when she did not see me in the room, she thought that I was absent for the day, so she went back to Ms. Stewart's classroom and started to dump the water in the cup into the trashcan. Ms. Stewart saw her, demanded to know what was in the cup, and when Tara didn't answer, Ms. Stewart told her to hand over the cup and stop dumping it in the trashcan. Tara lost her temper and told Ms. Stewart, "Shut up talkin' to me!" Ms. Stewart wrote her up, and although when students say things like that to me, they get a slap on the wrist or maybe at worst a few days of in-school suspension, Tara was sent home and suspended. When I spoke to Ms. Stewart about the incident, she said that Tara was rude in her classroom every day, had a bad attitude, and never did her work. In other words, she behaved much the same way she did in my room at the beginning of the year. This incident really upset me because Tara was doing so well, then did something stupid and impulsive that landed her in hot water. Worst yet, this whole incident happened because Tara was being a good science student and asking questions about the things she observed.
I showed all of my other classes the tapeworm and reviewed parasitism for a few minutes. They were all really excited to see a real parasite like that. It made me feel even worse that Tara was sitting at home as I showed the tapeworm to the class.

2. One of my students, Dave, is extremely needy and starved for affection. He often hugs me in the hall, hugs me during class, tries to come into my room when he has another class, etc. He tries to go to his other teachers for hugs, but they all tell him to get away from them. A few times, I've had to stop him because hugs are OK in my book, but putting your arm around my waiste is not, and putting your arm in my arm while walkin down the hall is not. It always struck me as really sad that he is so touchy-feely with me when I write him up for detention all the time and sometimes have to send him out of my room for being disruptive. He's not a good student, and is not well-behaved.
On Friday, I took his class to lunch (I usually take a different class to lunch), and during lunch, we started talking about his family a little bit. He lives in a really bad part of town (hears gunshuts out in the street on a regular basis), and his dad lived nearby until a few weeks ago, when he moved to Atlanta because he felt that the neighborhood was just too dangerous. Dave lives with his mom and some of his siblings, but, "my momma is crazy!" He then told me, "You know, you can't even lie down and watch TV in my house when you're tired. I tried to lie down and watch TV, and I hadn't been there but a minute when my mom yelled from the kitchen, 'Dave, get your butt off the couch and come over here!' and when I didn't get up, she came over to me and said, 'Dave, move your big fat self off that couch and come see what I want!'" Geez. Calling a slightly pudgy kid fat and lazy seems like a great way to build self-esteem in those vulnerable middle school years.
Dave then proceeded to tell me that he wished he could live with me instead of his mom. How do I even respond to something like that? No wonder he comes to me for hugs, no wonder I always have to tell him to stop talking, do his work, etc. etc.
Speaking of parenting, another interesting thing happened the same day. One of my students, Kevin, is a really sweet kid, will do well in class if I keep on him, is really excited and enthusiastic, but has a huge problem with calling out during class. He and one of his friends come to my classroom after school almost every day just to hang out, so I have a pretty good connection with him. I've spoken to his parents a couple of times before. A few days ago, his whole class was out of hand and continually interrupted me while I tried to talk. I've had a lot of problems with the hyperactivity of that class lately, and am trying to correct the students one-by-one. He was a major problem that day, and had been doing the same thing for a few days before, so I called his parents that evening to explain the situation. They thanked me, promised to talk to him right away, and promised that I wouldn't have any more problems with him. He came in the next day with a note from his mother saying that she'd talked to him, and asking me to call her and let her know how he was doing. He was great in class that day. When he came to me after school, I told him so, and he asked if I would tell his mom that he did well. I agreed, and said I'd go ahead and call her right then. So, while he and a few other students hanging out in my room listened (by the way, I'm still floored by the fact that 4 kids chose to spend a FRIDAY afternoon chilling with their teacher!), I made a positive phone call. His mom was very happy and thanked me for what I'd done, and made the comment, "You know, we want to do as much as we can on our end to help all the teachers, because really you're the ones who are mostly raising the kids, and we want to work with you." The parents of my students think that I am raising their kids. To say the least, this responsibility is a little intimidating.

Now playing: Jay-Z- I'm a hustler

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Genetic Engineering

I'm wrapping up the genetics unit, which is a real shame because aside from ecology, it's my favorite part of the curriculum to teach. Friday's lesson was on genetic engineering (and to a certain friend of mine who was teasing me earlier today: no, I did NOT brainwash them with my liberal views, though I'll admit it was very tempting). I gave the students a reading packet that explained what genetic engineering was, had an article that was fairly pro-GE, and another article that was fairly anti-GE. The students had to make a list of pros and cons, then write a paragraph telling a friend whether they thought GE was a good or a bad idea and why. To introduce the topic, I gave a bell-ringer with the following prompt: If you could change anything about your own genes, what would you change? I really enjoyed reading the responses. Here are some of the most interesting ones:
-I wouldn't change anything because I like how I am. (I had this one from several students. I hope they really mean this and aren't just trying to sound cool, because if this is an earnest sentiment, these kids are a heck of a lot more confident than I was, or any of my peers were, in middle school).
-Multiple students said they would like to have lighter skin and/or eyes.
-I would have stronger muscles.
-I would not want to switch genes with someone who is mixed. (ouch! I hope this kid didn't mean that as a dig at me. I don't think he did, though I'm still confused as to what he was really trying to say there.)
-I would have some long, pritty (sic) hair, like Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket has. (I wrote "Thank you! :: smiley face:: " next to that one.)
-I would have genes to make me look like Beyonce (this from a girl who is beautiful, smart, and very popular. Middle school insecurities are still thriving, it seems.)
-I would have Michael Jordan's genes because he is smart and athletic (a man after my own heart with this one, though I'm not sure I would have picked Jordan as the prototypical scholar-athlete).

Now playing: Lil Scrappy feat. Young Buck- Money in the Bank

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Science Quiz Bowl: the anti-drug?

During parent-teacher conference day on Friday, we had a fair amount of down time, so in addition to grading science fair projects (speaking of which, I HATE the science fair and the crazy things it makes people do... more on this later), jammin' to my stereo, and tidying my room, I spent a lot of time chatting with the teacher across the hall from me. He's in his early 30's, from the Delta, and black, meaning that the students relate to him in a way that they don't relate to me ("that crazy lady is a hippie!") and consequently confide in him. So, of course, I learned all kinds of dirt on my students from him.
There was one bit of information that he told me that I just have not been able to stop thinking about all weekend. Tyrone is one of my favorite students. He wasn't doing very well in my class at the beginning of the year, but pulled his grade up to a high B this past nine weeks. Given that he spent three of those nine weeks in alternative school, that's pretty darn impressive. He's great in class; participates actively, does his work, and gets really excited about what we're doing. The kid is very smart and has what it takes to do well in life. The three weeks he spent in alternative school were for two separate incidents, one in the school building and one on the school bus, in which he was fighting. I had no behavior issues from him in class the whole time, though. When I was talking to the teacher across the hall, I was really disturbed to learn that Tyrone sells crack after school in a "traphouse" to make some money for nice clothes and shoes and whatnot. He's not the only student of mine that I know is selling drugs, but it really bothers me that such a good kid is messing up in a big way.
Today, the other seventh grade science teacher came into my room to ask me a question about Science Quiz Bowl. She's coaching it, and I will be dropping by at some of the practices to help out when I can spare the time. I think that Tyrone was in alternative school for the previous announcement about Science Quiz Bowl where we passed around a sign-up sheet for interested students, because he didn't know what it was about but was really interested. He wanted to know whether he could do it even though he'd had discipline referrals this year, and I checked on the situation and got the OK to sign him up anyway. I told him, and I was being completely honest, that I thought he would be really good for Quiz Bowl.
I think it would be a really great thing for him to get involved in an activity that he'll excel at and enjoy. Maybe getting him off the streets for a couple afternoons each week will help to turn him around. It might not be enough, but I can hope.

Now playing: Jim Jones- We Fly High
speaking of which: I caved in and rapped for my students after school today, sort of. I let the three kids hanging out in my room talk me into doing a routine that went something like this:
Student 1: We fly high.
Student 2: No lie.
Student 3: You know it.
Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket: Ballin'!

Monday, January 15, 2007

"When are we gonna study again?"

There are a few students that I've made special efforts to help. One of them is Kelly. After about the second week of school, Kelly's mom requested a conference with all of Kelly's teachers. Based on what Kelly's mom and other teachers said, Kelly is not a very good student, doesn't work hard, and isn't very motivated. She's not a classroom management issue, but she struggles in school. Kelly's mom was concerned that Kelly doesn't do her homework, and I offered to call Kelly's mom each week to tell her what homework assignments Kelly would have that week (I've worked out a similar system with at least five parents). I've been calling Kelly's mom each week and have become fairly close with her; she called me once to ask if I could tell her any web sites that might help her with her nephew's science fair project.
Just before break, at the beginning of exams week, I made an announcement to all of my classes that I would be at Pizza Hut one evening holding "office hours" for anyone who wanted help studying for the nine weeks exam (and no, I will not buy you pizza, but if you want pizza and bring your own money, that's cool). I stole the Pizza Hut idea from a friend of mine who does TFA in the area. It sounded like a great idea to me; it would encourage students who needed help to seek it out, and would give me an opportunity to connect with them outside of school where I could be less serious and talk to them about things other than science. Those are two things that I'd really like to do a lot more of, but I've struggled to convince students to come for help outside of the school day.
Fifteen minutes after the set meeting time, not a single student had shown up, and I started to get very discouraged. Then, Kelly walked in the door. We ordered food for her (she decided to get the exact same pasta dish I'd ordered after asking what I'd be eating) and then sat down. She was the only student who showed up, which was very disappointing, but ended up giving me a really great opportunity to work with her. As we waited for our food, we chatted about nothing in particular; Kelly told me about her family, what she wanted for Christmas, and how she'd been really embarrassed when she sang at church and her boyfriend was there. After the food came, I turned the conversation to science. I asked her what she would like to study, and she didn't have any clear ideas of where to start. After a little prodding, she mentioned that she was a little confused about some of the genetics stuff, and showed me how she thought she was supposed to draw a Punnett sqaure. I realized pretty quickly that she was completely confused, so I started going through the genetics unit from the beginning and making sure she understood every part. Once I made sure she had the fundamentals down, I started drilling her, giving her Punnett square problem after Punnett square problem to practice, scrawling on the Pizza Hut napkins. I ended up taking one napkin and listing a step-by-step process for her to follow when doing one of the problems (which ended up being pretty useful for me, since I soon decided to give those steps to all my students).
After we'd been reviewing for a while, she made a comment that went something like, "Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket, does it ever happen to you that you're helping your friend, or your friend is helping you, and you feel really good about it, but then later you don't know what to do?" I wasn't quite sure what she was getting at (was this a question about studying, or about life lessons?), and after asking her more about it, I realized she meant that she would study with a friend for a test, think that she knew the material, and then sit down to take the test and draw a blank. I asked her if, when she studied for a test, she would ever try to do a problem on her own, without looking at her notes or asking a friend, and checking to see if she could do it correctly. Kelly said, "Yes. Oh, you mean before taking the test? No." Bingo. We had a little conversation about study techniques, and I wrote a new Punnett square problem on a napkin that I told her to take home, attempt later that night on her own, and show to me the next day.
After we'd been there for a while, Kelly's mom showed up with Kelly's two-year-old sister, Carrie, whom I'd just heard all about from Kelly. Carrie's probably the cutest toddler I've ever seen. She walked up to me, said, "Hi Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket, I'm Carrie," and proceeded to talk about all kinds of random things. I was amazed by her vocabulary and powers of articulation. I talked to Kelly's mom, who had just stopped by to see how much longer we'd be studying. She told me that she was fine with Kelly staying longer, because she desperately needed help studying. I asked Kelly what she wanted to do, and Kelly said, "I want to keep studying." I'm popping my collar a little bit at this point. I told her mom that if she felt comfortable, I could drive Kelly home when we were done studying so that Kelly's mom could get home (she's a single parent with a two year old, so I figured this could help her a lot), and Kelly's mom agreed. I studied for a while more with Kelly, and finally had to tell her that I needed to get home. As we walked out to my car, Kelly asked, "Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket, when are we gonna study again?" Now I'm really popping my collar.
On the drive home, I let Kelly play with the tracks on the mix CD in my stereo, and she was endlessly amused by the fact that I had "Laffy Taffy" on it. When I dropped her off, her mom invited me to come in and see the living room. I told Kelly's mom that I'd heard from Kelly that the mom used to go to the blues club just down the street from my house, and I started asking Kelly's mom about it and told her that she should come out there some time. This conversation prompted a little giggling from Kelly; the idea of a teacher having some kind of social life outside of school is pretty funny when you're in seventh grade.
The Monday that we got back from break, Kelly found me in the cafeteria and asked when I would be at Pizza Hut again to study. I told her I'd do it again before the next major test. She came and found me later that day to tell me, "I'm dead serious about what I asked you at lunch. I'm gonna get my friends to come this time, too." A few other kids have asked me when I'll be at Pizza Hut again. Finally, something's getting through.
On a side note, the students are acting much more receptive to me these days. A few kids are coming by my room after school to get help or just hang out, and since break, the students have been on much better behavior. They're also coming to me for hugs now. That's a lot more fun than giving detentions.
Now playing: Jason Aldean- Amarillo Sky