Mississippi Teacher Corps

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Another blog for the first-years: how this past year has changed me

I decided to join MTC for the same idealogical reasons that have led many others to join: a desire to help an underserved population, to work with young people and make a difference in some of their lives, to fight social and racial inequities, and to learn how to be a good teacher. In addition, I had a more selfish motive for joining: wanting to make myself a better and stronger person. I told myself that the experience would either break me down or make me much more tough and capable. I survived my first year, and even though I don't always feel positive about the impact I've had on my students when I look back on the year, I have definitely succeeded in improving myself. Perhaps that means that I will have a better positive influence on my students next year.
A year ago, when I started teaching summer school, I was afraid to tell students to stop talking, or to call parents, or to do just about any sort of discipline. I'm over that. More importantly, I am much more confident getting up in front of a class and teaching. I'm used to the idea that I am an authority figure, and I feel more capable.
My personal growth is not just limited to my role as a teacher. This weekend, I spent a lot of time with relatives, and several of them commented to my mom that they were impressed by what I was doing and were proud of how much I'd grown up. The effect that I have felt most strongly from teaching in Mississippi for a year is how much less scared I am to take on challenges. In college, I changed my mind time after time about whether or not I wanted to go to medical school and become a doctor. A year ago, I'd decided I didn't want to do it. This was largely because I was intimidated by the idea of medical school itself. This spring, I started thinking that after I finish Teacher Corps, maybe I do want to go to med school after all. I thought about all the things that scared me away from med school and being a doctor and realized that after the experiences I've had this past year, none of those things seemed all that scary to me any more, and I am much more confident in my ability to tackle difficult tasks. Having to study really hard no longer seems daunting to me; though it may mean working more hours than I do now, it would not be nearly as emotionally draining. A year ago, I was not capable of taking this perspective.
On a less serious note, this past year has made my wit sharper and my sense of humor drier. Over the course of the year, I found interactions like the following one happening more and more frequently in my classroom:
Jon: Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket, can I look at my notes for this test?
Me: Yes. If you want to get a zero.
Jon: That was good, Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket. That was a good one.
I'm very serious when I'm teaching, but developing the ability to joke with my students subtly was a good way to let them know that even though I'm serious about work, I care about them as people and like to have at least a little fun. I think they appreciate it.

Now Playing: The Hold Steady- Stevie Nix

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Post for the first-years: thoughts on documentation

My philosophy on documentation contradicts a lot of what I heard before I started teaching, but after a year of attempting to meticulously document all behavior issues and becoming very burnt out in the process, not to mention falling behind on grading as a result of all the time I spent documenting things, here's my advice to the first-years: don't sweat the documentation. Allow me to elaborate.
In an ideal school, I would have time to document everything that went on that somehow related to my class. I would teach several classes a day, each of which contained no more than 20 students. This would leave me with ample time during the school day to plan lessons, grade, and contact parents. The students would be well-behaved for the most part, the school would be well-organized, and the administration would have consistent policies. My school is the opposite of what I just described, and so are the other schools where MTC places teachers. Something that took me the greater part of the school year to learn how to do was balancing priorities at school. I decided at the beginning of the school year that I would limit the amount of time I spent each day on schoolwork so that I had enough time to take care of myself: getting a good night's sleep, going running, cooking, spending time with friends, etc. Granted, I didn't often do as much of the aforementioned activities as I would have liked, but I always made sure to fit in at least some minimal amount of those activities to keep myself from going crazy. In the time I set aside to handling school matters, I faced a multitide of tasks that I had to prioritize: planning lessons, grading, contacting parents, preparing incentives, documentation, and so forth.
At the beginning of the year, I bought into the idea that I needed to document everything. I set up a "behavior log" in which I made a spreadsheet for each class period for each week with a column for each day of the week and a row for each student. At the end of the day, I transfered the notes I'd scribbled down on my clipboard during class (e.g. "Laddarius- talking, chewing gum, did not spit out til asked 3x) to the behavior log. I then highlighted each incident to indicate the disciplinary action I took: copying assignment, request for detention, office referral, etc. Here's some advice: don't do this. During the few weeks that I kept up with this log before abandoning it, I spent so much time working on my behavior log every day that I didn't have time to grade papers until several weeks after I collected them. By the time I finished with the log each night, I was so tired of thinking about discipline that I lost motivation to call parents. My lessons probably were less creative, too. I also realized that the behavior log was unneccesary. Every time I spoke to parents or an administrator about a student who was a behavior problem, it was enough to say, "Jasmine has been talking excessively during class for the past few weeks. I've spoken to her about the problem and assigned her detention on multiple occassions, and I moved her seat to the front of the room. Several times, she was so disruptive that I had to send her to the office." Never was the legitimacy of such statements questioned. Even when I had the behavior log, I usually ended up making statements like the one above, not, "On January 15, Jasmine called out during class 5 times. She served detention on January 23rd." Bottom line: if you are like me and you have a reasonably good memory for how frequently a particular student violates your rules, and what actions you took to correct the behavior, you don't need to kill yourself writing it all down.
If I sent a student to the office, the office was supposed to send back a copy of the referral that indicated the disciplinary action taken by the administration. I only got the carbon copy back sometimes, and they often came to me weeks after the infraction. Your school will probably have a system for sending copies of referrals back to you. My advice is to keep these copies, but don't spend time trying to organize them. Just keep them in a folder, and if a situation ever arises in which you need to prove something, you can go through the folder to find the referral you need. This is a simple form of documentation that doesn't require much time on your part. Originally, I had a folder for every student that included a page on which I listed any disciplinary issues with that student (date and very brief description of the incident, e.g. "talking during class and insulting other students"), and I kept office referrals in these folders. The folder system falls into my "too much work at the expense of instruction" category.
I kept a parent contact log at the beginning of the year, but sort of abandoned it while I was on my behavior log trip. I think that keeping up with the parent contact log would have been useful, at least for my own reference, and would not have been a time-consuming endeavor. Notes in this log were short, e.g. "9/2- talked to Derrick's mother about throwing objects," "9/2- called Charles's house, number disconnected, sent letter home about talking," etc.
In terms of non-behavioral documentation, I would recommend making a folder on your computer where you save all of your lesson plans, handouts, worksheets, tests, etc. Divide it into sub-folders by topic. Save it on a flashdrive for easy access. This takes basically no work and will end up saving you a lot of time, especially if you end up teaching the same class two years in a row. If ever called upon to show what you've been teaching your students, you should be set.
I would also recommend having each student make a folder in which they place their major tests and quizzes after you pass them back and review them in class (you can include smaller assignments, too, if you desire). In addition, have students keep a notebook in the classroom (I did binders last year but want to do spiral-bound notebooks instead; read one of my older blogs for a full discussion of this) that they may take home to study, but generally leave in the room. If a parent ever comes in with questions about grades, you will have a notebook on hand to demonstrate whether or not their child keeps up with class assignments in a daily basis, as well as tests to demonstrate whether their child is studying adequately.
I used GradeKeeper for my grades and would highly recommend it to anyone else. Print out progress reports from GradeKeeper at least once every nine weeks to distribute to students; your school will most likely require you to give out progress reports anyway, and this serves as excellent documentation that you informed each student not only of his/her current average, but of grades on each assignment, any missing assignments, etc. If you can successfully get your students to do some sort of silent reading assignment for two or so class periods, you can even have individual conferences during class time about grades and have each student sign that they met with you to discuss their grade and understand what they need to do to maintain or improve it. This is very useful to some students, and your administration will probably love you for it. I did it the third nine weeks and wished that I'd done it earlier in the year.
One more word on GradeKeeper: print out all grades to date at least once every few weeks, and keep those sheets handy in your classroom. Also have print-outs of the grade spreadsheets from the previous nine weeks on hand. You never know when a parent will show up to ask about their child's grades, or when someone from the office will interrupt you in the middle of class to ask for the current average, as well as the previous nine weeks' averages, for a student moving to another school district, and will demand this information immediately.

Now playing: Van Morrison- Brown Eyed Girl