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Surviving Parent-Teacher Conferences

The time has come…

We are less than a month away from Parent-Teacher Conference Day, and I’m not a fan. Conferencing with parents any other day is usually fine, but Conference Day is exhausting. It’s an under-caffeinated marathon of jilted ex-spouses, helicopter and bulldozer moms, and parents who want their every action validated. It’s speed dating without the benefit of alcohol. In an attempt to make Conference Day more productive, I put together three tips to make those meetings a success. Read about it here on the Richmond Moms Blog.

Parent-Teacher Conference

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Censorship and Other Bad Words

I recently read an article from Lehigh University’s First Amendment Site regarding book censorship. Written in 2009 by a journalism student, the article chronicles a brief history of censorship and book banning. One quote struck me: “The most effective antidote to the poison of mindless orthodoxy is ready access to a broad sweep of ideas and philosophies. There is no danger from such exposure. The danger is mind control.” That was the 1978 decision of Judge Joseph L. Tauro of Massachusetts in Right to Read Defense Committee v. School Committee of the City of Chelsea.

Thinking about a few amazing works of literature that have been banned over the centuries, including To Kill a Mockingbird (racism), Call of the Wild (banned and burned in Nazi Germany), Ulysses (obscenity), Of Mice and Men (profanity), Fahrenheit 451 (uses God’s name in vain), The Giver (drugs and suicide), The Color Purple (people have sex), and even Dahl’s The Witches (move over J.K. Rowling because Roald Dahl was inspiring wizardry first)…parents, legislators, and school board committee members love to stoke the literacy funeral pyres when students read anything besides censored textbooks or that one book that begins with the line, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Why is this relevant now? In my county in Virginia, where I live and teach, there is a mother who homeschooled her child. Then she sent that precious snowflake to public school and became very concerned over the county’s suggested summer reading lists for secondary students. Last month, that mother took her complaints to our county’s weekly newspaper, who published her story. In that article, this mother threw words around like “pornographic,” “vile,” and “trash” to describe the books Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell and Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys. Yet has this mother ever read the books herself? No. What concerned me most was her bragging that four titles on the 2015 summer reading list for one county high school were removed after she contacted the school’s administration. Why administrators cave to the whims, rants, and aggressive nature of bulldozer parents is beyond me…it not only undermines teachers, but also feeds into the mind control that Judge Tauro warned against. By allowing one parent to dictate the summer reading list for an entire school of 1500 students, she came back for round two this summer with an even bigger chip on her shoulder. In the case of fundamentalist mother versus administrators without backbone, mother wins.

As if the original story wasn’t infuriating enough, the following week The Chesterfield Observer published a follow-up article that included an interview with our State Senator, Amanda Chase. In the interest of full disclosure, I do not care for Mrs. Chase, nor did I vote for her. I consider myself politically moderate (despite the fact I’m wearing my “Feelin’ the Bern” t-shirt as I write this), but I am wary of politicians aligned with the inflammatory and fear-mongering tea party. Mrs. Chase defeated our previous out-of-touch senator in the primary and there was barely a contest in the Republican stronghold of District 11 in the general election. She won with 64% of the vote. Our Virginia General Assembly notoriously passes what I call “Do-Gooder” laws, and Amanda Chase is one of those do-gooders. A family friend described the problems of our General Assembly this way: there are too many do-gooders and not enough lawyers. However, I am grateful that our Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, vetoed two bills in particular while in office so far–one requiring public schools to notify parents before using sexually explicit books in school, and he twice vetoed a “Tebow Bill” that would open public school sports to homeschooled children. So that tangent aside, in the June 29th article, Mrs. Chase calls for firing certain librarians, stating, “If librarians are not recommending books that line up with Chesterfield County Public Schools’ core values, they should be dismissed.” When the Observer presented the idea that parents should help their children pick out books, Chase says parents are too busy.

What. The. [Censored].

Dear fellow parents and Mrs. Chase… I do not claim to be a perfect parent, or even a patient one. I swear in front of my children, and the f-word flows pretty freely in these parts. I listen to SiriusXM’s Backspin in my minivan while shuttling my children around town. I know you mean well, I really do. “Save the children!” It’s a noble thought, but my children and many like them do not need saving. Granted, my kids are young and autism keeps them blissfully innocent and unaware of many of life’s harsh realities, but they know there is profanity and obscenity in this world. Nonetheless, my kids mind their manners, follow directions, and do not hit, bite, or swear. And here is an outrageous idea…I am not too busy to be a parent. I know what they watch on YouTube, I know what book characters they like, and I take time to help them choose books and activities. I even talk to their teachers about their interests and ask for suggestions for books and games. If and when the time comes that I am not comfortable with them reading, hearing, or viewing something, then I will make that call. Please, please stop telling us how to parent. Any middle- or high-school kid wanting to read Eleanor and Park will find that book tamer than what she hears in your average school hallway, bus, or locker room. Bad habits are not curated at the public library. Instead of sheltering kids from controversial things and hiding from reality, we need to teach them how to cope with adversity, make good choices, consider other viewpoints and experiences, and learn from good and bad consequences. If my senator Amanda Chase wants to protect my kids in a meaningful way, she can introduce a bill that will erase the age cap from the autism insurance mandate rather than call for the dismissal of public school librarians who foster curiosity, imagination, and creativity in young adults. To these micromanaging legislators and the parents who seek to impose their will on all of us, don’t you have anything better to do? Maybe you should read a book.

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(Image source: http://quoteaddicts.com)

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Thanks, but No Thanks

Richmond Family Magazine is a free, local publication that’s been in existence since 2009. I browsed the magazine a few times, but I am not a devoted reader because of it’s lack of substance. It’s chock full of more advertisements than articles. The managing editor of RFM is Karen Schwartzkopf, and this week she put Virginia teachers in her crosshairs.

Beginning Friday, it started snowing in Central Virginia. By 10:00 p.m. on Saturday night, we had 12-15 inches in Richmond and the surrounding counties. School was cancelled Friday, Monday, and Tuesday…so far. Like my students, I get giddy over snow days. Mrs. Schwartzkopf, however, does not approve of that sentiment and let Twitter know about it.

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“Thanks, but no thanks,” is the only acceptable and family-friendly response I can think of for her #sorrynotsorry lameness.

Mrs. Schwartzkopf, I am not rooting to avoid my students. Snow days create more work for teachers when we have to revise our lesson plans and, undoubtedly, cut certain activities because we are expected to adhere to guidelines for pacing and testing. There will be field trips, conferences, and meetings to reschedule, as well as children to refocus. I find your attitude faulting teachers for the weather misplaced and immature. I root for snow days because I can be productive (I emailed parents, responded to students’ questions via Edmodo, and graded work today) while spending extra time with my own children. Slowing down our morning hustle and bustle on occasion is a nice and welcome change.

Here is what I really do not understand…

Why is it acceptable to openly disrespect and mock teachers in 2016? Over a snow day. When did the profession become worthy of such snark and silliness? Why are public servants, including police officers and teachers, the villains these days? I have taught middle school since 2007, and every year there are those few little darlings that make me question my chosen profession. But I realize that a child’s poor attitude and behavior towards teachers and classmates are likely learned from the adults in his or her life. Children need a model for respectful behavior, and some parents fail to meet this bill. On the other hand, middle-schoolers are impulsive, emotional animals. You deal with it and move on. As teachers, we strive every day to foster positive relationships with students and parents, hold our students accountable, give children a sounding board, make the classroom fun, encourage analytical thinking, and spend our own money on classroom supplies to that effect–all while collecting endless amounts of data, completing forms, checking off boxes, and spending hours upon hours in professional development, parent conferences, and meetings. Our good intentions and best practices never seem to be enough, and we are under constant scrutiny. Gregory Michie wrote in The Washington Post, “We’ve created a climate where good, hard-working educators feel justifiably discouraged and unjustly maligned.” That’s a big reason why morale is low among teachers across this country. The concepts of teachers becoming targets and our country’s CULTURE of disrespect is further opined by The Chicago Tribune, NoBullying.com, and The Wall Street Journal.

The fact that Mrs. Schwartzkopf, a work-from-home mother, saw her teacher friends celebrating a snow day apparently sent her over the edge. Perhaps she’s waging the psychological mommy wars, one of those parents who project her own sanctimony and/or shortcomings on other parents. Maybe she views school as daycare and teachers as babysitters. Whatever her motive, I’ll say it again: Our good intentions and best practices are never enough.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 10.11.15 PM(Image source: Mouthy Mother)

I found Mrs. Schwartzkopf’s apologies insincere. Since those apologies, she deleted her Twitter account. It’s unfortunate she felt the need to hide. Mrs. Schwartzkopf, as a teacher, please allow me to share why I welcome a couple days “off” and the goals I’m working on this week. Consider it a “teachable moment.”

  • Work on my NBC entry: This 12-page narrative to accompany my submission for National Board Certification is kicking my butt. I haven’t written a paper like this since college, but it’s nothing like college writing. By the time I achieve certification, I will spend $1,025 of my own money and give up several Saturdays attending workshops and coaching sessions. I don’t want to sound like a martyr because I realized the work, time, and money commitments when I signed up; but I do want to point out how ridiculous you, Mrs. Schwartzkopf, sound when you mock people who also work from home in the evenings, weekends, summer, and blizzards.
  • Paperwork: I am up for recertification and my triennial summative review this year. I brought home my binder to organize the forms, certificates, emails, and lesson plans I collect to demonstrate I can do my job.
  • Get at least four Weight Watchers FitPoints every day: I’ve done this by walking the dog with my oldest son, and sledding and playing outside with my younger two.
  • Meal plan and prep: I usually do this every other weekend, but this Saturday I’ll be attending one of those NBC coaching sessions referenced above.
  • Clean bathrooms: I live with three little boys and a husband…enough said. This is low on the totem pole and the reason we buy Clorox wipes in bulk.

Today, my three boys and I piled onto the couch after breakfast and watched The Lorax. Things 1 and 2 took turns reciting all the lines. Thing 3 was just happy to be invited to the couch party. It was a wonderful moment, and one I will not apologize for wanting more of. I’ve never met Mrs. Schwartzkopf, and I certainly do not want to judge a person based on one poor comment. People have bad days, but when you use your status to promote poorly-placed snark and disrespect among your readers and followers, you lack integrity and common sense. Perhaps you should spend a week as a substitute teacher and see what it’s like in the trenches. How quickly will you be hoping for a snow day? I’ll offer the same advice I offer my 7th graders…Slow down, check your work, and think before you speak.

To read more about this debate and another perspective, check out Mouthy Mother’s blog post here.

And no matter what Mrs. Schwartzkopf says, my boys are loving our snow days. They also love their teachers, who I hope are enjoying some well-deserved time to explore the world outside the classroom.

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Back-to-School Pinspiration

When the school year wrapped up in June, I felt pretty burned out. I was also over my classroom set up and needed to change things–new posters, new room arrangement, and a new view. This summer, I looked to Pinterest for inspiration to revamp my procedures come September. Here is what I’m digging into.

I love some well-placed snark and sarcasm.  Check out Meme Hall and Bathroom Passes and Using Memes to Connect with Students. Every time I use a meme, students actually read its message!

meme_collage

My class rolls for the 2015-16 school year look mighty brutal. The table I use for supplies like pencils (because middle-schoolers NEVER have a freaking pencil), glue sticks, scissors, and paper will have to be commandeered as a student desk. I went to IKEA with some teacher friends this week and bought a Dignitet curtain wire, Riktig clips, and Bygel containers. I’m going to mount the sucker under my whiteboard for easy access to supplies and for hanging awesome work and/or papers missing names. There are so many IKEA hacks on Pinterest, and homeschool resources have amazing ideas for maximizing space and staying organized.

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I also found these Valbekant sticky notes at IKEA. They only cost $0.49 for a three-pack. These would be awesome to use with an activity center like Tabletop Twitter, having students respond to quotes or primary sources.

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Since our students are issued Chromebooks, I also keep an eye on technology resources. Here are a few pins I’m interested in incorporating into my classroom:

Movie Poster Template — Because it’s just cool.

Playing History — So many games, so little time.

SMS Generator — Students create fictional text messages between historical figures.

Tagxedo — These word clouds look incredible!

Tools for Your Paperless Classroom and Google Tech Tools — I already use a few of these apps, but there’s always more to explore. I am going to survey my seventh graders at the beginning of the year to find out what educational/project apps they like using, what they hate, and why.

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Teacher work week officially starts on Monday, but I went to school today to set up my classroom. I bought this Ullgump rug at IKEA to add texture to my room.  I put it under my desk, and all I could think the rest of the day was… “It really ties the room together.”  Thanks, Lebowski.

(Image sources: Pinterest)

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The Best of…Teacher Life 2015

Slightly late posting this one since school ended on June 12th.  As the school year winded down, I reflected on the highs and lows, went through my little notes about activities, revised what needed to be revised, etc.  I am slowing making my way through dozens of sticky notes I plastered on units, notes, activities, and projects.

As if life in seventh grade isn’t awkwardly horrible enough, it felt like morale was an all-time low among teachers this year.  We had a dozen new initiatives to implement, including a new online evaluation/professional development thing, Chromebooks distributed to every student, adult learning plans, peer observations, way too much technology training… Yep, teachers were burned out by November.  Meanwhile, our poor kids are stuck in the middle of middle school, and there’s a huge spread between those who think they know everything and those who are still clueless.  They’re awkward.  Some are jerks.  They’re kids.

Despite the challenges, there were some hysterical moments this year–moments that had my sides and face in pain from laughing so hard.  Here are my favorite shocking/enlightening/delightful moments of the 2014-2015 school year.

1. The “brothers don’t shake hands” moment.  Student J finished a quiz in my classroom during lunch and was on his way to another teacher when Student B came in.  These two boys are friends.  J opened his arms and stuck out his chest to give B a chest bump.  B misread all those cues, wrapped his arms around J, and gave him a big hug.  J’s face turned very confused as he said to me, “I guess this works, too.”  And I died.

Teacher Top 10 2015

(Image source: http://s.quickmeme.com/)

2. The ask.com fail.  Every time I give project directions or talk about reliable sources for research, I tell students to never, ever, ever use ask.com or answer.com.  This little ESL girl completed a project on Henry Ford, and one of the components asked students to find charities or projects their Industrial Giant was known for.  She ignored the ask.com restriction.  Again, I died.

Henry Ford

3. Field trips!  You know what it’s like to have cabin fever?  That’s how I feel being in my classroom every day.  I love field trips, and we took great ones this year.  They make for long days, but they’re fun and give everyone a chance to stretch their legs.  This year I had to beg for parent chaperons, though.  Seriously, who would not want to spend the day with their child and 149 other 12-year-olds?

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Hall of Mammals

4. Letters from former students.  During Teacher Appreciation Week, I received a letter at school from a student I taught in sixth and seventh grade.  This year she was a freshman in high school.  Like divine intervention, I received her letter on a day that I was feeling particularly frustrated.  I got in my car at the end of the day and cried like a baby.

“Your style of teaching and passion for history inspired me to develop a strong feeling for the subject of the past…”

“It reminds me of the potential you saw in me and helps me pick my head up and push through…Thank you so much for always pushing me to do my best.  I appreciate it!”

5. Letters from current students.  I appreciate well-placed snark.  This boy wrote me the best Christmas card I’ve ever received, and there wasn’t even a gift card inside (not that I held that against him).

Letter

6. Food in the teacher work room.  File this one under the “enlightening” category.  One morning, delicious gourmet popcorn appeared beside our copy machine.  My coworker graciously shared the recipe for peanut butter cup popcorn, and she made me very fappy (fat and happy).  This crack corn was so good, it’s my food highlight of the year.

Popcorn

7. Larry.  That Larry, he’s a scoundrel.  This sketch was brought to my class one morning as a gift from one girl to another and caused a commotion.  I do not shock easily, but fishing this paper out of the trashcan…well, my jaw hit the floor.  I later learned that Larry is a mash-up of two One Direction singers.  When my girlfriends give me gifts, it’s usually in the form of gift cards or wine, not sketches of gay celebrity porn.  But this sketch did provide us with our catchphrase of the spring: “Don’t get Larried!”

Larry

8. An abundance of snow days.  They really are the best things behind winter, spring, and summer breaks.  My boys definitely enjoyed extra pancakes and sledding between January and March.

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9. The “Bye Felicia” trend.  I love a good 90’s throwback, and “Bye Felicia” was all over the seventh grade.  And none of the kids ever saw Friday!  Between Felicia and all the Tupac, Biggie, and Eazy-E t-shirts, I felt like I was reliving middle school.

10. The Last Day of School!  Well, duh.  I am lucky enough to call my team members my friends, and I look forward to our summer adventures.

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Classroom Bracketology

In the same breath that I complained about snow days disrupting my World War II unit, I ditched my just-finish-the-damn-SOL plans to bring some bracketology to seventh grade.  I was inspired by “Teach with Tournaments,” which I saw in my Pinterest feed a few times, and March Madness.  I’m writing this blog post while watching Wisconsin take on Duke… Come on, Badgers!  Definitely check out Josh Hoekstra’s website and video clip.  This guy makes money telling teachers how to complete brackets.  Seriously.  Either he is a genius, or we’re that stupid.

Anyway…

I did some research on unsung heroes of World War II, trying to find names I (and my students) never heard before.  I found heroes from various walks of life, including soldiers, spies, pilots, Americans, Soviets, Brits, and those who publicly opposed the Nazi party in Nazi-controlled lands.  Names on our brackets included the big guns like Churchill, FDR, Eisenhower, Patton, Schindler, Von Stauffenberg, and Zaytsev; as well as lesser-known players like Mildred Manning (Army nurse/POW), Noor Inayat Khan (spy), Maximilian Kolbe and Chiune Sugihara (both tried to save Jews from concentration camps), and many others.

I pre-filled brackets for each class and printed names on strips of paper.  Each student drew a name.  They had 25 minutes to research that person and find out what he/she did during WWII that was heroic, then create a 60-second pitch to win over their classmates (and, more importantly, me) to advance to the next round.  It was interesting to see a student draw a name and look completely disappointed with their assignment.  Maybe he couldn’t pronounce the name on the sheet, or she didn’t want to speak in front of the class, but every kid fired up a Chromebook and feverishly wrote down facts.  Good facts, too.

The debates were fun.  Many kids spoke in first person, starting with “I am the greatest hero because…”  I put 60 seconds on the timer–kids dubbed it the “shot clock.”  When less-popular names advanced past the big guns, they were bracket-busters.  The phrase, “He’s a real bad astronaut,” was spoken multiple times as students advocated their advance.  Get it?  Get it?  They’re so clever.  One kid compared his soldier to Chuck Norris.  “He could just pick up a handful of bullets, throw them at the Japanese, and kill hundreds of enemy soldiers.”  A little Chuck Norris meets Hot Shots Part Deux…I was very entertained.

It took an entire block to get through the research phase and first round.  We finished the second/third rounds after reviewing for the test.  The championship round was done after the test.  They were epic.  The kids were so into the debates, and in the end, realized it was a tough decision because every person on the bracket did something extraordinary.  There was cheering, gasps, upsets, and tough losses.  Those lessons go beyond March Madness.

And now Wisconsin is up 31-29.  One half and one minutes to go…

Brackets

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