Monday, December 13, 2010

Top Ten Lessons

Well, I said I was going to get better about blogging regularly, but obviously I accidentally told a lie.  The past month has been like a tornado.  I blew through so many activities and commitments and events that I simply didn't have time.  All month I kept thinking, "This would be SO great to blog about!"  But I just never got around to it.  I guess that's part of being a teacher.  You start to strip the nonessentials in favor of actually getting work done.

Anyway, here we are...the last week of school.  All of my assignments and journals and assessments are turned in, and all that's left to do is look back.  I've learned so much this semester.  I honestly feel like I've learned how to be a "real" teacher, both from my mentor teacher (who happens to be a educational rock star) and from my students (who happen to be pretty awesome as well).  I've experienced so many things, both funny and heartbreaking; I've gained insight into what it really means to teach middle school. And so, to close out the semester I've decided to compile a Top Ten of 2010: The real wisdom from the middle.

Here we go...
10.  Never wear skinny jeans to school on Fridays.  Actually, it might be better advice to not wear skinny jeans EVER, because middle school boys are awkward, and you may find out later that you were the topic of less than savory discussions in the hallway after the fact.
9.  Never stop smiling.  LOTS of teachers tell you "Now don't even think about smiling at ALL your first year, but this semester I've had so many reasons to smile.  When it got hard to smile, because I was tired or overwhelmed, I always seemed to have a student who made me to get over it and smile anyway.  Smiling truly is proof to me that it's the little things that count the most.
8.  Never tell students they've broken your heart by talking when you're talking. You'll have some brave soul who responds, "So if I talk I get a piece of your heart?  I'm never shutting up!"  Yes.  That happened.
7.  Always find the common ground.  I saw firsthand this semester how important it can be to find common interests with students.  I talked about football and music and fashion--anything to try to get to know my students.  I learned more than I ever thought I would.
6.  Always be willing to be a secret-keeper.  I think it is so important to gain students' trust.  I had several students this semester that I'm pretty sure did not like me or were at least highly skeptical of me as this semester began.  Building their trust and showing them that I was worthy of their trust made everything better.
5.  Always know it's ok to look stupid in the name of education.  Sometimes, you just have to make a fool of yourself to get students to snap out of it an pay attention.  I can't tell you how many days I felt more like a performer than a teacher.  You have to put on a show, and sometimes that means you can't look cool.  I'm OK with that.
4.  Never give up on a kid.  I almost did that.  I felt like I had tried absolutely everything, but then I sat and thought about how many other teachers tried absolutely everything and decided to give up.  Middle school is when kids start to completely check out.  I want to keep my kids checked in, but more importantly, I want them to have a reason to want to come to school.  If knowing that one teacher refuses to give up is the only reason, then so be it.
3.  Make new friends.  I LOVE the middle school where I teach.  I will miss our amazing media specialist and the English department teachers and, most of all, I'll miss my mentor teacher.  When my university supervisor told me we were a match made in heaven, he was not joking.  I'll miss working with her everyday, learning from her experience, and just talking.  She truly has been a mentor and a great friend.
2.  Don't be a coconut.  A student told me this semester that she was like a coconut, hard on the outside and soft on the inside, where she could get hurt.  I learned this semester that you can't be too hard on the outside.  You have to show kids that you have a heart--that you care about their wellbeing and want to hear what they have to say.  By being that kind of teacher, I learned how to communicate with students in a much more effective way.
1.  ALWAYS monitor and adjust.  Story of my life. This semester has almost killed me.  I've taught school, worked three jobs, and made my very best attempt to be a good friend and sister and daughter.  I honestly don't have any clue how I made everything fit this semester, but I do know that there was much monitoring and adjusting involved.  Things change, our lives change and get upside down, and we can either get lost in the change or deal with it and fix things.  I have definitely learned the importance of adjusting in so many aspects of my life this semester, and it's a skill that I will always carry with me.

So there you have it--my Top Ten of 2010.  I learned so many lessons, but these are the ones that stick out in my mind.  I'll try to fit in one more blog this week, but I hope my wisdom has added to your wisdom this semester.  Until then, have a fantastic week!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Shortcuts and Back Roads

I said I was going to be better about blogging on a regular basis, so I'm trying to stay true to my word.  Today was DEAR day, just like every Friday.  During English, students Drop Everything and Read.  It's my favorite day of the week, because it means I get to read, too.  It also means I don't have to talk a lot or teach a lot.  So, really, the week (kind of) ends on Thursday.  However, in addition to reading today, I asked my students to annotate two short poems.....for weekend homework.  Ugh.  That dreaded thing that every student hates.  I know.  I felt awful.  But you simply can't get everything done in class.  It's impossible. 

I made it through most of the day without many complaints, but then 6th period walked in....Don't get me wrong, I love 6th period.  I blog about them all the time.  They've got personality, for sure, but sometimes with personality comes attitude.  Today they brought the attitude.  This conversation, in particular, stands out:

Student: "Ms. Herring, can't I just circle the word in the poem?  Why do I have to explain the connotation?"
Me: "Because I want to see your thinking.  I need to know why that word is important."
Student: (Whiney voice starts here) "But why?"
Me: "Why is it such a big deal?"
Student: "'s just SO much more writing!"
Me: "Well then, why don't you just do it your way, since you obviously just want to argue with me after I've already given you an answer."
(Insert intense sighing, huffing, puffing, and muttering here)

It was frustrating for me, but also an understandable and rational complaint.  We all look for shortcuts everyday.  Why would do things the long and proper way when we can get there so much faster if we start cutting corners?  This question is applicable far beyond the realm of school work.  Think about our relationships.  How easy is it to cut corners there?  Text instead of call.  Narrow a friendship down to lunch once a month or an occassional "Hi, how are you" Facebook post.  We are always trying to cut down on the amount of effort we have to exert to get things done.

Having had a little time to reflect on this, I think there's something to be said for taking the back roads occassionally--for stretching things out and letting them dwell.  My favorite conversations with friends are the ones that start out as one cup of coffee and end up being five because we just can't stop talking.  I love those family dinners that are supposed to be an hour and last all night because we're laughing and telling stories and looking at old photographs.  The relationships that last are the ones that are grounded in the back roads.  They're an investment, so they're worth all our time. 

I know this is a far stretch from being frustrated with a student who wanted to shortcut my instructions, but it's true.  So the wisdom for today is to take a few back roads and see where they lead you.  I'm hoping to take a few this weekend, just to slow down and see where they take me.  I have a feeling they lead to a pretty great place.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Just a Little Bit of Catch-up Blogging

Ok, so I know I look like a total slacker for not blogging regularly the past few weeks, but I can honestly say that I have not had the time.  I'm blogging today on my prep period from school, because for some glorious reason, Central Office, in their infinite wisdom, has decided not to block blogspot at school.  Thanks for helping me out there, guys :)  Anyway, I've spent the past week having students give me a hard time about not blogging.  One student, in particular, has brought it up everyday for the past five days as soon as he walks into class.

"Ms. Herring, where is your blog?!"
"Ms. Herring, you haven't updated in forever!"
"Ms. Herring, you LIED.  I checked last night, and you did NOT blog."

Well ok, fine, here it is.  I'm not making excuses.  LOTS of blog-worthy things have happened over the past few weeks.  Here's a few.....
  1. I dressed up as the witches from Wicked/The Wizard of OZ with my mentor teacher to celebrate Halloween/Spirit Week, which involved me wearing a prom dress all day while I taught.  Check out Facebook for some pretty excellent photos.
  2. I found out that 7th grade boys really do make inappropriate comments in the hall about young student teachers and said student teacher's decision to wear skinny jeans with boots to school on Friday. NEVER AGAIN.
  3. I mentioned that I was cold one day in class, to which 6th period giftgiver responded, "I could give you a hug to warm you up Ms. Herring." (I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried...)
  4. I set up a private social network for my students, taught them to blog, and graded 142 of the blogs I taught them to write.
  5. I presented their blogs at a curriculum conference, which was an exhausting and stressful, yet rewarding experience.
  6. And finally, I realized I only have four weeks left at the middle school.
Four weeks.  I feel so many emotions when I think about that short amount of time.  Am I completely and utterly drained and exhausted?  YES.  Am I ready for a job where I get paid to work all day?  Most definitely.  But will I miss the funny things that happen everyday and the kids I feel like I've grown to know so well?  Very, very much so.  These kids have taught me so much, but more than that, they've given me so much to aspire to as a teacher.  I want every student I teach to be as special as the kids I have come to know this semester.  I feel like I have built relationships with my students based on trust.  They've shared their favorite football teams and music with me.  They've given me countless silly bands.  They've told me their secrets, and they've even shared their crushes and daily crises and victories with me.  Those things are what make me LOVE this job, and they are the things that will make it SO impossible to leave in December. 

But four weeks is still four weeks.  All the major assignments are almost complete.  So I promise to blog as much as humanly possible-- to document the little bit of time I have left to gain some wisdom from the middle.  For today, the wisdom is this: Savor every last minute of an experience.  Bask in the knowledge that the memories you make are yours forever.  I feel like I haven't wasted a single minute of my time here, and I want to continue to glory in all those little moments and snatches of talk, not just at the middle school, but in every aspect of life.  It's those tiny pieces of time that I know I'll look back on and love even more with the passage of time.  So, expect me to be more punctual in my blogging efforts.  I've got lots of last moments to savor.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Feeling Like a Food

At the end of last week I had a Show & Tell day with my classes.  Yes, I know that's typically a first grade activity, but it had a purpose in my middle school classes.  Each student had already formulated a theme or focus for the blog he or she is about to start as an assignment for my class.  Their assignment for Show & Tell was to bring in an item that represented their blog ideas.  Several boys brought in football helmets or jerseys from their football lockers.  A few brought in political cartoons.  Many students chose to focus on music by having a "playlist of their life" or a "song of the day" to describe the events of their day.  But one girl, in particular had a Show & Tell item that stood out to me.  She walked into 4th period with.....a coconut.

Now this item had all the more impact, because the student who brought it is so quiet and shy in class.  When I looked at her with a questioning expression on my face, she simply smiled her little smile and sat down in her seat to get ready for class, with her coconut staring at me from her desk on the front row.  What could she possibly be blogging about that can be represented by a coconut?!

We started Show & Tell and began going around the room.  Each student introduced their item and then related it to their writing.  Several students told beautiful explanations or personal connections they had to their item and their chosen blog theme. (Have I mentioned before that, whether or not the kids would admit it, I teach a whole bunch of overachievers?)  About halfway through, it was time for the coconut.  The sweet girl who brought it stood up in front of everyone, and with a big smile on her face, began explaining her blog.

"I plan to blog about what food I feel like everyday," she said.  Okay, this makes a little more sense....except I don't know many people who eat coconuts and I'm confused about how you feel like a coconut unless you just listened to a Jimmy Buffett song or like pina coladas....

Then she got around to explaining the coconut.  She told the class that most days, she feels like a coconut.  Like the coconut, she said, she has a hard outer shell that covers up what is vulnerable on the inside.  The hard outer shell wasn't meanness, she said, just a protection of what she didn't want anyone to know was inside of her.  She could show people the outside and keep up a certain appearance, without ever revealing her true self.  And, she said, it was very difficult for someone to crack into what she kept inside.

So that is how you feel like a coconut.

Well, needless to say, I was floored by this metaphor.  I never would have analyzed the connection she found in the way that she did; it never ceases to amaze me how insightful middle schoolers can be....and people act like it's such a tough age.  The more I've thought about the coconut over the weekend, the more I've realized that I'm just like her.  I am just like that coconut, too.  I cover up all the things that make me vulnerable, put on a smile, and focus on making the best of everyday, without ever showing most people my true thoughts or feelings.  We all do it.  Now, don't get me wrong.  I'm not some damaged soul who fakes happiness everyday just to get by.  I truly am in a wonderful place right now, and I love the activities and people that make up my life.  But I've experienced hurt and loss and betrayal just like everyone else has and will throughout their lifetime.  It just took a 14-year-old perspective for me to figure out that I, too, feel like a food most days.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Joining the String

I feel like I've gotten a little lazy in my blogging....but I'm also not going to tell a lie--the past week has maybe been the very busiest one of the semester so far.  In the past week I have:

  • Uploaded what felt like a million assignments to my online teaching portfolio
  • Switched my closet from spring/summer to fall/winter (YAY!)
  • Finalized a thematic unit to teach to my classes
  • Started a thematic unit of social networking with all my classes
  • Cleaned my house thoroughly
  • Finally took care of 2 1/2 to 3 weeks of laundry 
  • Started a PowerPoint for a curriculum conference presentation
  • Went grocery shopping for the first time in over a month
And most recently

  • Got horribly sick and slept for 18 hours straight on Monday/ truly amazes me what utter exhaustion can do to the human body
However, now that all these tasks, both important and mundane, have been completed, I feel so much better about where I am in life.  I went back to school today after one miserable sick day and felt ready to take on the rest of the semester.

On Friday, I started my big "project" for the semester.  I'm teaching an eight-day unit themed around social networking.  The kids will work with Facebook "status updates," take Tweets and make grammatically correct sentences out of them, and, most importantly, they'll be starting their own blogs.  Their pre-assessment assignment was to write an essay about how social networking affects them and their society.  I was really surprised by the range of answers I received.

Of course, I received what I expected from lots of students--"I'm addicted to Facebook" and "Social networking is my life" were common answers on several essays.  However, I also got several student responses that thoughtfully considered the negative effects that social networking has had on their generation.  One response from a 7th grade boy struck me as both thought provoking and beautifully written.  This is what he wrote:

I feel sort of like I'm in a box.  It's fairly large and translucent, but it's a box nonetheless.  I can see, feel, hear, taste, and smell everything in my box, but that's it.  I don't know if there's anything outside.  When I see everybody else--my sisters, friends, and just about everything else, I look at their long arms, ears, and eyes, and see how deformed they look.  They're all tied together with strings.  Social networking cuts out their tongues and breaks their legs.  They don't talk, don't move.  I may be in a box, but it's airtight and free from contamination.  I'm still human.

This is maybe the most beautiful extended metaphor I've ever heard about social networking.  The abstract thinking that this student portrayed in his writing took my breath away.  But isn't it also so true?  Sometimes I wish I was in a box like him, shut out from the world and it's problems and drama.  When I was sick and slept for 18 hours straight, it was kind of like being in his box.  I got a break from Facebook, the news, and every other personal distraction for almost a whole day, and when I came back I felt like I had missed out on so much.  I'm stuck in the string.  So many of us are.  The wisdom of this week is this: If you're going to be stuck in the string, be the positive part.  Several of my students talked about the negative drama that social networking brings about.  We all need to  take a step back and be the positive part of all our networks, whether they're school, family, friend, or online networks.  Be the change you wish to see in all your worlds this week, and I'll try to do the same.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Excerpt from 6th Period

Yesterday in 6th period, the class was seriously talkative and unfocused.  It didn't matter what I did, five minutes after I had achieved some semblance of order we were back to talking and moving quickly off-task.  This conversation took place as I was reaching a point of major frustration....

Me: Ok, guys, PLEASE stop talking.  It just breaks my heart when you talk!  You know what?  I'm going to make a big heart with lots of pieces and hang it on the wall.  When you talk, I'm going to go take a piece off and hand it to you so you have to think about how sad it makes me when you don't focus!

It goes quiet for a second, and then....

8th grade boy: So if I talk, you'll give me a piece of your heart?!  I'm never gonna shutup!

Needless to say, my discipline technique was an epic fail.  I think the lesson here is pretty obvious: ALWAYS think before you speak.

More to come tomorrow......

Monday, October 4, 2010


In 2005, Frank Warren started the Post Secret project.  He sent out 3,000 blank postcards and asked their recipients to follow three simple steps:

1. Tell a secret you've never told anyone.
2. Be creative.
3. Mail it back.

The response was explosive.  I had heard about Warren's book when it was first published in 2007, but I saw the book with all the postcards for the first time last week when one of my students brought it in for me.  Reading random strangers' secrets felt forbidden, but it was so cathartic.  Some secrets were funny, some were heartbreaking, and some were heartbreakingly funny.  However, the common theme in all the postcards was that it laid out peoples' flaws.  They all got something off their chests anonymously that they were so scared to share, if it could be connected to them.  I immediately connected.  I can think of several things I have never, and will never tell anyone because I'm SO afraid.  I just know that the minute I shared my secret, someone would judge me.  I mean, I have best friends--dear friends who know intimate details of my life.  But there are just some things I think we all feel sure would shock even our closest confidantes.  Those are the secrets we bury deep inside.  They're the secrets we cover up by finding a million things to keep our minds busy, so we can pretend like it's really not there.

Middle schoolers have those secrets, too.  Middle school and middle adolescence is a time in life when we're the most vulnerable.  We still have to rely on the adults around us, but we want to be adults so badly. It's when we start to make adult decisions and probably feel the repercussions of those adult decisions, both positive and negative.  So I thought it might be good to share Post Secret with my students.  Last Thursday for our bellringer, I shared the book with my classes.  I read them some of the secrets and gave them one requirement--be honest with yourself.  I told them they didn't have to share their secrets with me.  They could rip them up, burn them when they got home, whatever they wanted.

However, I did have several students turn in their secrets anonymously.  And when I say several, I mean the majority.  When I got home from school, I read all the secrets my students shared with me.  I sat down in my living room and read all those secrets with tears pouring down my face.  I can't share their secrets, because it would break their confidence, but I can tell you that you can never read a kid by their cover.  Why did so many of my students want me to read their secrets?  It's the same reason I wrote down my own secrets.  We just need to get it out.  We need to feel like we can get rid of our darkest places.  Sure, they're still there.  The things we've done or the thoughts we hate that we have are still there, but knowing that someone else took part of our pain makes it just a tiny bit better.

I took a little bit of that pain from my kids, and I wish I could take all of it.  So what I learned from this activity is this: Don't be afraid to take a deep breath and just let it all out.  We need to share and grow and move forward, and we can't do that by bottling up the things that hurt us or kill us slowly everyday.  So find a person or a piece of paper or a postcard--whatever you need, and let out a little bit of pain.  It'll make tomorrow seem so much more doable than today.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Do What You Love, Love What You Do

Today may have been the best birthday I have ever had.  I walked into school this morning running on four hours of sleep and exhausted.  I was anything but ready for another day.  I started to get the classroom ready for the day, wrote out the bellringer, changed the objectives and dates on the board, and in walked two girls from my 5th period class, to wish me a happy birthday and bringing me flowers and candy.

Um, have I mentioned lately that I love my job?

These kinds of things happened all day.  Immediately after the flowers arrived and my mentor teacher went to find a vase, a group of girls from 4th period came in to deliver "birthday hugs."  My 1st and 6th period classes both delivered rousing renditions of "Happy Birthday" as soon as the bell rang for their classes to start, and I received handmade cards and silly bands all day.  The 6th period gift-giver even made me a necklace out of paper clips....pretty labor-intensive if you ask me.

Here's the thing -- I really do teach the most wonderful students in the world.  It's pretty rare that you get to spend the majority of your workday laughing.  I get to do that.  I love how something funny or unexpected always happens in my class.  I love how I spend my entire day smiling.  I LOVE how teaching these students makes me want to be the very best teacher I can possibly be, because I feel like they deserve even more than that.  Getting to know my students this semester has brought so much joy and fulfillment into my life.  As I was driving home today, I couldn't help but think about how sad I'll be in December when I have to leave.  But today, I don't have to think about that.  Today, it's my birthday, and I'm going to enjoy every minute of it.  And tomorrow I'll get to go back and do what I love all over again.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Loving the Little Things

Friday was National Love Letter Day.  In honor of this little-known day of importance, we had all of our classes write love letters for their bellringer activity.  We received a wide variety of responses to this prompt.  I read an excellent love letter to frozen yogurt, which I totally appreciated due to my own obsession with Red Mango.  I also read a break-up love letter to homework that made me laugh out loud.  On a more serious note, I read a beautiful love letter written be a girl to a person she hasn't met yet--a letter to her hopes for her life in the future.  Somewhere in between these two extremes on the love letter spectrum, there were two love letters addressed to me.  I thought I'd share them with you.

The first letter I received was co-written by four of my 8th grade students.  It reads:

Dear Ms. Herring, 
It's National Love Letter Day, and we just wanted to tell you we love you as our teacher.  You help us with things we don't understand, and we love how you are always in a good mood, and how you are always smiling.  We love you.

I also received a letter from my 6th period gift-giver, who is referenced in an earlier post.  It says:

Dear Ms. Herring, 
Hey. What's up?  Are you having a good day?  I am.  I hope you are, too.  As soon as you said to write a love letter, I immediately thought of you.  That's not just because you said it.  It was because the word "love" makes me think of you (and Jesus).  When I think of "love," I think of things that make me smile, and you make me smile.  Plus, you're pretty.  

Have you ever heard of the book Lizard Music?  I just saw it in the bookshelf.  Judging by the back, it sounds hilarious.  

Well, I got to go.  Bye.

Reading these, and all of the kids' letters, made me smile.  What I learned was this:  It really is about the little things in life.  I read love letters on Friday to moms, dads, siblings, middle school crushes, Oreos, pets, tacos.....I could go on and on.  The common thread that tied all of these loves together was happiness.  We love the people and things in our lives that bring a smile to our faces.  I could write my National Love Letter day letter to teaching.  As cheesy as it may sound, I love what I do everyday.  It makes me smile.  It's hard to find a job that truly does fulfill you--a job that makes the early mornings and the late nights and the long days worth it.  But teaching really is worth all of that for me.  It makes me happy and, above all, the randomness of middle school never ceases to make me laugh.  I guess we'll see what funny situation this week never fails that my school week starts with something blog-worthy...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Monitor and Adjust

Out of all my classes, sixth period is not only the biggest group of kids, it is also decidedly the most lively. More interesting stories and quotes come out of this particular class than any other fifty-minute section of my day.  This entry is devoted to an excellent example of why middle school teachers MUST monitor and adjust......

I have one male student is sixth period who has decided it is appropriate to give me gifts and compliments on a daily basis.  The first day of gift-giving, he walked up to me after class with his hands outstretched and holding a red cut-out of a heart.  "Ms. Herring, I found this on the floor.  I thought you should have it."  In my head I said, Actually you spent more of my lesson today cutting this out than listening.  But I responded, "Why, thank you.  I'll take care of that."
The next day, he came in with one of those initial keychains.  "Ms.  Herring, does your name start with an 'A'?  Because I found this..."
"No, my name does not start with an 'A', but thank you so much."

The next day, since gift-giving was obviously getting him nowhere, he decided to up the ante, with a little help from his fellow band geeks, of course.  Another boy who sits near our friendly, sixth period gift-giver looked up as I was helping another student and exclaimed, "Oh my gosh, Ms. Herring!  Your eyes..."  I looked at him quizzically, wondering if he was going to have an appropriate explanation for this little outburst.  His response was, "Your eyes....they're grey."  My eyes, by the way, are not grey.  They're green.  However, another girl at the table chimed in to the conversation, "Yeah, Ms. Herring!  We've been trying to figure out what color your eyes are for like a week!"  At this point, I was going to attempt to steer attention back to the lesson.  But before I could do anything, my sixth period gift-giver blurted out, in his loudest voice, "I know what color they are!  They're beautiful!"  Every middle school head in the room whipped around to see how I would handle this situation.  In my mind I'm thinking, I MEAN, HOW DO I RESPOND TO THAT?! So, doing everything I could to avoid reacting, I simply said, "Well thank you," and moved to the other side of the room.  My sixth period gift-giver has faithfully kept up the compliments everyday since.  I've come to expect it on a regular basis, and my reply is always the same.  "Thank you so much."  With a smile, of course.

I'm sure this semester will yield several more stories from sixth period, but this is, by far, the best one
from any class period of the semester so far.  What I've learned from sixth period, in this particular situation, and in several other smaller ordeals, is this: Middle school teachers must ALWAYS monitor and adjust.  In life, just like in class, you never know what will get thrown at you, whether it's a gift with someone else's initial on it or an unexpected compliment.  Sometimes, you just have to laugh and go with it.  The past six months of my own life have been filled with one unexpected event after another.  I never, in a million years, would have thought I would be right where I'm at in this moment.  But I can honestly say that I've never been happier, and I wouldn't change a thing.  I went with it.  Flexibility is key in life, and it's key in the classroom.  I just have to always remember to monitor and adjust.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Don't Judge an Emotional Basketcase by its cover

So a student walked into class this last week and the first thing out of her mouth, before she even sat down, was this:

"Is this class gonna make me cry?! Because I'm already an emotional basketcase!"

In my mind, I'm thinking...Woah, girl...welcome to middle school, this is what we like to call dramatic overreaction.  The bell hasn't even rung yet and we're already talking about breakdown?  

It could probably be argued that this statement pretty much sums up the majority of middle school girls in any given time and place.  However, the way she threw her emotional state out there struck me as so honest.  I mean, I feel like an emotional basketcase sometimes.  For example, today I had about five time-consuming things to get turned into my supervisor, lesson plans to think about, LOTS of laundry and cleaning that's been building for some time now, no groceries in my house, and job applications looming.  I could go on, but it would start to get ridiculous. Just typing that list makes me hyperventilate a little bit.  These are not large or daunting tasks.  It's simply that the pile-up of mundane things in life can make anyone into an emotional basketcase.

I'm sure the things in this eighth grade girl's life might seem mundane too, if she listed them out like I just did.  But they're big things to her.  Just like my things are big things to me.  That's really all that matters when we start to feel overwhelmed by life.  It's easy to dig yourself into an even deeper hole once this happens.  So, from this dramatic outburst I gained two pieces of wisdom.  First, being an emotional basketcase happens.  Just get out of it one step at a time.  When I started to feel like there was no way I was going to finish everything, I just picked the easiest task on my to-do list, and I did it.  Then I went to the next and the next.  Blogging was somewhere in the middle of my list, so I am no longer an emotional, overwhelmed basketcase at this point.  I'm getting closer to the end of the list and much less overwhelmed.

As a teacher, I learned something else too.  Don't judge an emotional basketcase by its cover.  While my things are small things that snowballed into one big thing, some kids have one BIG thing.  and it's eating them from the inside out.  I still don't know exactly why this girl was an emotional basketcase on this particular day, but I respect that maybe her thing is a big thing, like divorce or the loss of a best friend.  I don't want my class to make anyone cry, but I do want it to be a place where kids feel like they can work it out.  One step at a time.  Sometimes that's all it takes.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Disconnect to Reconnect

Since we're continuing to work on personal narrative in 7th and 8th grade pre-AP English, I've had the opportunity to get to know a lot about the kids in my classes this past week.  One exercise we did in class involved students sharing the things they like, or love, or can't live without.  An 8th grade boy got up to share, and this was his first comment:

"Without electronics, I don't know where I'd be--probably curled up in a corner somewhere."

Of course we all laughed at this.  The kids laughed, I died laughing, and my mentor teacher just shook her head and smiled.  But, I mean, if we really think about it, we are all addicted to electronics.  I can honestly admit that I don't know where I'd be without my iPhone.  I use my GPS and maps constantly to aid in my sometimes dicey sense of direction; I constantly check and update Facebook and Twitter, and, let's be real, I'm sitting here typing out into the nothingness of the electronic world right now for all (or no one) to see.  As a society we love to broadcast ourselves, and we love to be constantly connected.

But what happens when we choose these forms of connectedness?  I think we lose a sense of true human interaction when it's so easy to communicate without speaking.  We can text or send Facebook messages all day long, but how does that affect our capacity to sit down and have meaningful conversation?  My poor, sweet 14-year-old sister had to have her text messaging taken away, because she couldn't have a sit-down conversation for longer than five minutes without checking her phone, and I'm sure she's not the only 14-year-old to have this problem.  I teach about 125 more of them everyday now.

So the wisdom of the week is this: Sometimes, you have to disconnect to reconnect.  My goal this week is to disconnect myself.  Give my Facebook and iPhone and everything else a little break and have a meaningful conversation with someone each day.  Like a real, live face-to-face conversation.  I'm pretty sure I can do long as I can find someone else who can disconnect long enough to join me...

Sunday, September 5, 2010

An Eye for an Eye...middle school style

So my Classroom Management class definitely paid off on Friday.  Not because I had a middle school rebellion in my classroom that I had to subdue, but because it helped me to hear one of the funniest things I've heard come out of a kid's mouth in a long time.  In Classroom Management, one of the most important things I learned was "teach from the feet, not from the seat."  It's great advice.  When you walk the classroom constantly, kids are more on alert that you're nearby, and they're less likely to act out or talk while they're supposed to be working.  So I was walking around the room at the beginning of class while all the students were getting settled, and I overhear this conversation.....

7th grade boy #1: This morning, my little sister's kitten bit me--so I bit it back.
7th grade boy #2: Dude, you did what?!!
7th grade girl: Oh my god, did you hurt the kitten?!
7th grade boy #1: I mean, it bit me first.  So I just bit it back.  Then I brushed my teeth--A LOT.

First of all, this story is completely true.  I know, it may be difficult to believe, but this actually happened.  It took a lot of self-control on my part not to fall apart laughing when I heard this conversation take place.  I can only hope that more ridiculous quotes like this come out of this semester.  Anyway, it was hilarious at the time, but later in the day I started to really think about this little conversation.  What kind of wisdom, you might ask, can come out of this?  It struck me yesterday that what this student was describing is just an extremely strange example of the type of retribution we see taking place in middle schools, high schools, workplaces, and everywhere else everyday.  An eye for an eye...a bite for a bite?  I can see the connection.

However, that's not the wisdom in "7th grade boy #1's" statement.  The wisdom is this: You can give back to others what they dish out to you, but it's definitely going to leave a bad taste in your mouth.  While biting a kitten is weird, it made me think--how many times have I made a biting comment or judgement, only to find myself to be the one more hurt in the final outcome?  People will always be willing to dish out negativity.  It's a harsh reality of life.  I see it everyday between the students, just as I see it everyday among my friends, or in an overheard conversation in a restaurant or in any number of places.  When we're hurt, why is our first instinct to get even?  And what would happen if we all did what our mother's suggested and "killed 'em with kindness?"

That's my goal for the week.  I don't want a bad taste in my mouth.  It's unfortunate when people take the time out of their busy lives to bring others down or hurt them.  But it happens.  My challenge for myself, and for anyone else, is to rise above the "bite for a bite" mentality.  Be unflinchingly positive when faced with negativity.  It can only make you stronger.  And you won't have to worry about that bad taste in your mouth.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Scrapes of the Hearts

Today was my first official day of student teaching.  I'll be spending my semester with a great group of 7th and 8th grade pre-AP English students.  During the first nine weeks of school, all of the classes are focusing on personal narrative. One would think that the average middle schooler would have personal narrative down to an art.  I mean, look at Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.  Our entire culture is obsessed with the need to broadcast itself to the general public.  However, the wisdom I gained today was not a new lesson but a rehashing of a lesson I think everyone learns on what I call a "continuing education basis."  Some people will just always refuse to scrape their hearts.  Here's what I saw all day long.....

Students in my classes have writer's notebooks.  These books are divided into sections that students use to work on different types of writing.  Today, we focused on "scrapes of the heart."  Scrapes of the heart are those things that dig at us.  It our burning questions, our frustrations, our failures, our pains and angers.  Scrapes of the heart are uncomfortable because we try to bury them in a place where talking is unnecessary.  However, writing about the things that scrape us up can be amazingly cathartic.  This was the focus of today's lesson.  And this is how students responded....

Girls immediately began to write.  Some of them looking forlornly at the pages of their journals and sniffling occasionally.  Others furiously filling pages like they couldn't get words out fast enough.  When it came time to share their scrapes of the heart, hands flew into the air, tears were shed, and tissues were passed around.   In stark contrast, the young men in 7th and 8th grade pre-AP English found a million things to do besides write.  They passed jokes across the table about the emotional state of their female friends, they started conversations about sports or what was on the menu for lunch; Thinking about scrapes could potentially show a weakness, so why even go there?  It's so much easier to bury those scrapes down deep, where they can only grow into bigger wounds over time.

The gender differences were obvious all day long, and it almost made me smile.  These reactions to scrapes of the heart will continue for these students well into adulthood, just like they continue for all of us.  As a woman, I can't help but apply this whole scenario to my own life.  How much of my life is spent guessing what a man is thinking or feeling?  I mean, obviously they won't say it, because it might scrape their heart up.  Whereas I always seem to find myself being an open book.  If only we could all just find that happy medium, communication would be so much simpler....

So, the first piece of wisdom I gained from the middle was this: "Don't be afraid to share your scraped up heart." I heard some beautiful stories today--stories about lost siblings and parents, about unanswered questions and unanswered prayers, and about the frustrations and confusion of being young and a little misunderstood.  The kids that shared experienced a visible sense of relief once they got those scrapes out in the open.  It was as if letting others hear a small piece of their pain allowed their scrape to begin healing.  I hope I can be that courageous.  I know I've got a few scrapes myself.  Sharing sucks.  It hurts and it's hard and it makes me feel vulnerable. But maybe, if we all start sharing our scrapes, we'll get a little relief and things will heal up nicely.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Snatches of Talk

Well, I've finally made it.  All the college hours are complete.  All that stands between a diploma and myself is one semester of student teaching.  Sitting at Starbucks yesterday afternoon, with the last hours of summer slipping away and graduation and a real grown-up job looming on the horizon, the full impact of being almost, kind-of finished with college finally struck me.  Then I started thinking, what have I really learned in college?  Sure, I've sat through all those basic gen. ed. courses that we all drag ourselves through as freshmen and sophomores (and even as seniors).  I've learned a million strategies for struggling learners and gifted learners and all the kids in between.  But what is going to make me a successful middle school teacher?  In college, we talk and talk and talk about how to be effective in a job, but there's a big difference between talking about being effective and being effective.  So all these thoughts are going through my head as I'm sitting there, pondering the days until I am officially a teacher and no longer a student teacher.  

I think the key to being a successful student teacher is having an open mind and, more importantly, open ears.  You have to listen to what's going on around you. So, for the rest of the semester, I'll being listening for pieces of wisdom from the middle.  Of course, this wisdom will be gained from my mentor teacher and the other teachers and administrators at the middle school where I'm assigned to student teach.  But even more importantly, I can gain so much from listening to students.  It would be selfish of me to keep all of this newfound wisdom to myself, so I think it's better if I share it with you.  Every post will explore a small snatch of conversation I happen to catch from a student.  Kids really do say the funniest things, especially when they're thirteen and think the most mundane things could end their world.  So hopefully we'll all learn a lot this semester.....I'll learn how to be a teacher, you'll learn about the innate wisdom of the average middle schooler, and maybe (if I'm lucky) the kids will learn something, too.