Friday, November 15, 2013

A Week in My Classroom

Comfortably numb.  That's what I am right now; it's been a hectic week so we are already settled in for the night and enjoying a rare Friday night at home.

The week started off just fine at school as we are working toward completing research papers and Senior Projects.  Then on Tuesday we got word that the parish was sending in an assistance team to observe most of the classes on campus and various common areas.  The reason for this new, heightened scrutiny is because our school dropped a letter grade under the new school evaluation system, so the parish sends in teams to those schools to offer assistance where they can.  It's not a bad thing, but something about the heightened scrutiny just exhausts me.

I'm not one to put on dog-and-pony shows for things like that; I've always been of the mind that any observer that comes in needs to see what actually happens every day; if they're going to help or assist in any way then they need a real picture of what is going on.  That's hard enough to do in the brief time they are there without clouding the picture with a false front.  That doesn't make it any less stressful, though.

So this team shows up Thursday and Friday to begin their observations.  They caught me two times; once for the senior class and once for my sophomores.  And I had to be interviewed which took about thirty minutes.

As it happens, I had planned to cover Isabel Allende's "And of Clay We Are Created" today as the first day in a two part lesson.  I had a lot of prep work to do with this lesson because I had never taught it before and also because I am using it as a sort of review for many of the terms and concepts we have covered so far this semester.  Finals are just around the corner as we are on block schedule and our semester ends before the Christmas break.

Before we could do anything, though, we had to read the story.  And this is where my dilemma always is.  Many of my students read below grade level, so I like for us to read aloud as much as we can.  This particular story has some higher level vocabulary in it which is another reason for the oral reading.  In a higher level class you could probably assign the story for homework and students would come to class the next day having read the story and ready to do whatever activities or lessons you had planned.  You might even be able to assign silent in-class reading and let them sit in class and read the story.  But that never seems to work in my class.

In my class when I assign silent reading there will always be several who stare out into space, go to sleep, or just refuse to read.  Is it me?  I don't know.  But the only way I can be sure everyone reads the story is if we read it aloud.  Plus, that way we get to stop and discuss and clarify things as we read.  I can ask thought provoking questions and we can have some good discussions as we read this way.

But to an observer, it is boring.  My observer today didn't say that, but it was probably boring.  She probably would have liked for me to put them in groups and let them read to each other, or in pairs.  But when I do that then I have to bounce from one group to another and tell them to stop talking about lunch, the dance, the football game, going shopping, boyfriends, girlfriends, their weekend plans, whatever.  It's a chore.  I can't assess comprehension that way either.

The buzz word now is "engaged"; all students must be actively "engaged."  So, I made up a graphic organizer for them to complete as we read; they were to focus on the three main characters, identify their traits and find textual quotes or passages to support them.  This worked really well.  The students were interested in the story (although I had one boy who sat right behind the woman observing me and went sound dead asleep.  I poked him multiple times to wake up but he was asleep again within minutes.  He was not "engaged.")

At any rate, it took us most of the class period to read and discuss the story.  We got the graphic organizer done.  Day two of this lesson will be Wednesday when we will do part two of the graphic organizer in which we look for imagery, similes, metaphors, and personification throughout the story.  We will also read a newspaper account of the real life tragedy that inspired the story and compare that in a writing exercise to the fictional version.

But, in the end, even though I'm not a dog-and-pony show sort of person, I wonder how the observer saw the lesson.  I obsess about things like that and want my kids to make a good impression.  They try hard and they work hard.  When an observer like that comes in, do they know these kids aren't reading on grade level?  Do they know that some of them work jobs and are up late at night earning money to help their families?  Do they realize how far the kids have come since August?  What kind of picture does one get of a class in 45 minutes?  Is that enough time to judge the merit of a teacher?  Is part of part one of a two part lesson enough to judge its merits?  Does it matter that on day two they will be working in small groups and pairs?

I don't know.  But the stress of the whole thing just does me in.  Not knowing when an observer will pop in, how long they'll stay, if they'll be back; being examined and poked and prodded...critiqued...interviewed.  What can YOU do to make them learn better?  Because if a child isn't learning, it must be the teacher's fault, right?  Does the student also have an obligation in this process?  Or the parents?  It's all part of the package, right?

There was some good news this week, too.  I got word yesterday that J.C. Penny adopted my classroom through the Adopt-a-Classroom program; they contributed $400 to my classroom which I promptly spent on a class set of Fast Food Nation.  The huge generosity of my blog readers at the beginning of this school year enabled me to get class sets of Twelve Angry Men and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, as well as lots of general supplies like paper, pens, and pencils.  But we were still lacking our non-fiction anchor text, so I was quite grateful for the Penny's donation.

Another cool thing that happened this week is that I got an email from Rick Bragg!  How cool is that!  I wrote to him and inquired about getting a class set of his All Over But the Shoutin' for English III, and Somebody Told Me for the Creative Writing class.  I was kind of hoping he might donate them to us; he sent me a very kind email today directing me to a contact person so that maybe we can get this done.  I was thrilled.  I love his writing.  It was almost as cool as getting an letter from Harper Lee; if that ever happened, my life would be complete.

Also cool this week was that Meghan Hochstetler, the media specialist and education outreach person at the Robinson Film Center, came to work with my classes this week.  She is a fabulous teacher and great with the kids.  With my sophomores she led them through the filming of a scene from Macbeth, and with the Creative Writing class, she taught them how to write a screenplay and led them through a workshop activity in which they collaborated and wrote a scene based on a prompt she showed of a painting.  The kids loved it and both classes learned from the activity.  The Robinson Film Center is a great education partner and a real asset to our community.  I'm grateful to Meghan for coming to my classes each year and for the work they do with kids from both Caddo and Bossier parishes.

So, it's been a week of ups and downs, stresses, fun, and good news.  Next week is the last week before Thanksgiving break so it will be busy and the kids will be distracted.  All the research papers are due by the end of the week (which means I will spend Thanksgiving break reading them.)  But for now, it's the weekend.  Time to rest and recharge; tomorrow is the Highland Jazz & Blues Festival and I'm looking forward to that!  It's my favorite local festival.   Last year:

Good times!

Happy weekend.

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