Sort-Of Victories

Sort-of victories:

-One of my students who is classified as Emotionally Disturbed wrote his essay about how he doesn't believe in violence and nonviolence should be the way of the world. He talked about how there are people at our school that he would like to hurt, but doesn't because he thinks first and doesn't "attack" them. Yeah. Tough spot to be in. Of course we all have this urge at times, but when it comes from a student that is classified as E.D. I can't just brush it off. The wonderfully courageous thing here is that this student--who is severely withdrawn in two others of his four core classes--feels safe enough in my classroom to write his feelings. That's a beautiful and strong thing and a huge step for him. But it of course also places me in a tough position as I had to bring this to Guidance's attention. I want him to keep writing his feelings, and I don't want to stifle that creative outlet. I don't know how this all is going to pan out yet. They want me to talk to him, and while I believe this could leave his trust in me and my class intact, I'm not sure I'm the person who is qualified to do this. I'd love to hear all of your thoughts on this one.

-And on the violence tip, one of my more volatile students had a second episode of somewhat-justifiable outrage. Well, the outrage is totally justifiable, but the actions not so much. This is a student--one of the minuscule few in the Land O'Plenty--whose family moved out of a working-class neighborhood and who has actually seen (not lived in, but seen) poverty and the effects of it first-hand. His demeanor is one I know too well--the boys I grew up with from the blue-collar families around my were are as pride-filled and full of strong ideas about what it means to "be a man." I know the attitude--and I know the shortcomings and short-changing that comes with it. But it is what it is, I suppose. Earlier in the year, he pushed another student who had placed his hands on a girl--an act this student found absolutely unacceptable, an act the violated one of the maxims by which he lives, and who can disagree? He was awarded by Guidance for his acts that day, and I'm not sure I can find it in me to take issue with that reward. He came to the violent rescue again this week when an incident occurred in which a white male student said to a black female student (one of mine, and one of four black students in the eighth grade class), "What, do you think you're cool because you're black?" Again, my student--who is white--was angered by this injustice. It's tough, because I'm angered by the injustice, too. In fact, I'm infuriated by that comment. It's a sad example of how far we have yet to go as a country and, honestly, how much work we have to do as a school community that likes to claim it is full of tolerance and diversity. And how do you punish someone for trying to help someone else? For being offended by a terribly offensive comment? By the same token, he can't go around saving the world with his fists. Interestingly, this is the same student who was entertaining the possibility of writing the following belief for his essay: "toughness comes from the heart, not the fist." A sort-of victory for sure.

-One of my students has Asperger's and faces difficulty with socially connecting with other students. He's so smart and so funny. He's come a ridiculously far way since September and can be seen laughing and joking with students in my class. He raises his hand often and does not seem encumbered by the same crippling shyness and awkwardness he feels in other parts of the school. His mom and I have been in touch since September and this is one parent who has said some of the kindest, warmest things to me--remembering them makes me truly feel like a real teacher helps me weather some of my darkest moments of doubt. Lately, though, this student has been having a tough time during lunch and--according to mom--has been coming home watery-eyed even though he tried to be brave and say his day was o.k. I'm trying to devise some plans to have him and another boy who is kind and might be a friend to him come to my room a couple times a week during my extra-help lunches just to have them help out and hang out. It just breaks my heart that he's having a hard time lately and I hope we can find a way to ease the anxiety he feels. Think about how brave this boy is to just wake up and come to school each day. This about what a feat it is for him to step into a building that makes him feel such strong unease. And think about him the next time you start feeling sorry for yourself. I do.

"Art Wins! Art Wins!"

This is a post about teaching. . .

but the post title borrowed from Kanye West's blog. . . he kind of sums up exactly how I feel about him and his work in his own words: "you gotta love it, though, somebody still speak from his soul." Not long ago, in fact, I used some lyrics from Kanye for my students to practice this new, crazy NJASK task where they have to read & interpret a quote. I figure, let's keep it familiar at least some of the time for them. They'll have plenty of Confucius to work with later.

We've had an interesting couple weeks in the Land O' Plenty. The kids are getting pretty dramatic and pretty antsy and pretty. . . ugh, hormonal. They are SUCH 8th graders right now. Which is at times amusing and at times an instructional feat. We're all ready for a break--5 days and counting!

Small victories in which art is definitely winning:

-My students are pumped about submitting their "This I Believe" essays to National Public Radio's website for this segment, thisibelieve.org. NPR chooses essays to publish online and sometimes records writers reading them for the radio segment. I am just glowing with pride for them--while I have a dozen or so "I believe that if I put my mind to something, I can do it" carbon-copy essays, there are some essays that are filled with such emotional honesty that I'm blown away. And some of my most struggling writers produced the most articulate work, some of them finding their writer's voices for the first time in a while. I had two students write about what they believe as a result of losing a parent--the language was stark and powerful. One student wrote about coping with a learning disability and how overcoming it informed her beliefs, while another framed his belief by discussing how hard his mother fought to help him overcome severe handicaps as a young child--the doctors did not believe he would ever walk or talk and now he's perfectly typical.

We held a publishing celebration for our essays and the students did a fair job of crafting genuine praise and positive feedback for the work of their peers.

The website for This I Believe was helpful and I employed a couple of their curricular ideas for this unit, adding in some resources from a cooperating teacher I worked with a couple years ago. I'm looking forward to making this unit even stronger next year.

Hooray for authentic audiences. Whether my students get published by NPR or not, we're all feeling like winners already.

-One of my girls told me last week how she never thought she was a good reader or writer, or "good at English" but now she does and she's taking Honors English next year. This is a girl who I had to pull aside a couple months ago and talk with--she was getting a little obsessed with climbing the social ladder and in the process was really changing into a person she was not. I was impressed with her reaction to my thoughts, which were that she was way too smart and cool to be changing who she really is for others. I saw her gradually return to the kind, caring girl she was to start with and--perhaps to her surprise--her social status didn't suffer a bit.

-My differentiated independent study project on tolerance--including a whole host of issues from race in America to the Holocaust--is working marvelously. The students are gaining a unique understanding of various issues that they have chosen to explore. Resources included in the options range from Obama's speech on race to the MLK obituary all the way to issues of immigration and schooling. It's based on a tiered-point system that matches up with Bloom's Taxonomy. Thanks, Mom, for the wonderful template!

pics npr.org; kanyeuniversitycity.com/blog


Trivial Pursuit Redux

I promise the constant barrage of consumerism is coming to a screeching halt soon (alas, an income tax return only lasts for so long).

Here's the depressingly tiny image of my spring handbag. It's the most beautiful shade of blue:

And here is a larger photo of the bag in black:

For some reason blogger is giving me an issue with uploading a gif. Guess who doesn't know how to fix it?

Blue is a pretty uncharacteristic color for me to choose, but I have an obscene number of black handbags and I figured the blue would be adorable with my new spring jacket and flats (neither of which are yet in my possession). Needless to say, this was not a "will this fit in with my work clothes?" purchase, as most of my work clothes are black. I've stopped asking myself that question, thankfully.

So, the ridiculous thing about this bag is I scooped it up for less than half (about 60% off, to be sort of exact) of what it is selling for right this second on the kooba website. Fashion is so very ludicrous sometimes. Thank goodness for Gilt Groupe. Now don't rain on my parade and tell me some horror story about how Gilt manages to work this voodoo. And don't tell me I'm insane--I'm an equal-opportunity style hunter when it comes to clothes and shoes, but when it comes to bags I have a serious affliction. We all have our vices.

Images Gilt Groupe and kooba.


Variation of Interpretation

I haven't given a "test" all year, besides a short-answer thing on our Edgar Allen Poe unit; for culminating assessments I've created a range of multi-options individual and group projects. So I decided to put together a quasi-test for The Boy In the Striped Pajamas. The students participated in a Socratic Seminar one day, which accounted for 30 points of their test grade, and a written test the next day. The written 70-point test avoided, of course, any trappings of the traditional (i.e., multiple choice, t/f, matching). Instead, I asked students to choose and respond to a few quotes that highlighted multiple issues and layers in the story. They were asked to indicate why the quotes were significant by discussing what the quotes showed about the characters or how these quotes were important to events that occurred. In addition, I asked them to respond to two open-ended questions.

Needless to say, lots of writing to read through. But very worth it, as the students truly had the opportunity to show me what they each learned and how they each uniquely interpreted the characters and events in the novel. I believe this was an effective assessment. The range of responses I received convinced me that the students all took away important ideas and enduring understandings from the novel. They did marvelously.

In particular, their ability to discuss structures of power has greatly improved. We built on many of the ideas we started thinking and talking about during The Outsiders. Further, I was super impressed by how many now not only understand the concept of dehumanization but can spontaneously (meaning with zero mention or reference to on my part) and successfully use it to interpret ideas in writing and in conversation. And not only did it come up quite often in a test that did not include the word once, it has also been included on a few Weekly Word Study lists!

As I read through their open-ended responses, I discovered that only a few students chose to respond to an open-ended question I had debated including: "Choose the essential question you saw as most important to our reading. Give your own version of a response to it; explain how this question helps you better understand at least two different characters or situations."

I knew this would be a question that challenged them and that only some students would take it on. I almost didn't keep it, but decided it was worth seeing what direction they could take it in. I was surprised to discover that one of my struggling readers chose to give it a go. Let us call her Terri. Terri struggles a great deal with basic conventions of writing and with comprehension. She is usually rather quiet in class, save for the uncharacteristically talkative role she played in Socratic Seminar the day before the test (see below for more on this). As I read her response, I couldn't have been happier about my choice to include this question as one of our E.Q.'s and as part of the test.

Here's her response, word-for-word:

I think the most inportant essential question from this unit is "what roles do our family and our social background play in shaping our values, beliefs and perceptions"? This question is like what the hole book is about Bruno has a germon back round so he is hier [higher] up the [than] Shmuel that has a Jewish background. This question helped me understand because Bruno doesent cair he just sees a little boy his age he doesent mind his back ground or aney of that stuff. But father is a Natzy so Bruno is adumedicly [automatically] soposte hate th Jewish people.

So, did she answer each part of the question exactly? No. Let's put that aside, though, because there are a few brilliantly clear understandings going on here. First, Terri knows that Bruno "is hier up," or has more power than Shmuel. Yeah, yeah, you're saying in your head, duh, he's German and Shmuel's Jewish. But you're not 13, ok? And this is a really important fact to acknowledge if one is going to analyze the world from Bruno's perspective. Then she says something that really impresses me. She knows what Bruno's background is, and thus, according to it, how he's supposed to act towards Shmuel (automatically supposed to hate him, or at least think he is far better than him), but she flips the essential question right on its head and says that--which is absolutely the truth--Bruno just sees Shmuel as a friend, another boy, not one ounce different from himself. Bruno "doesent mind his back ground," even after Father tells Bruno that the people on the other side of the fence aren't people at all. This declaration on Father's part makes it clear to Bruno that his visiting Shmuel would be considered very wrong indeed if discovered. Again, this may seem like a really obvious interpretation to you. But Terri took the idea that our backgrounds shape our perceptions and decided that yeah, while they do, this also helps me understand that Bruno decided to operate on his own set of values, which inherently assumes that people are equal regardless of what Father seems to think. Ok, ok, and my heart smiled when Terri wrote, "this question is like what the hole book is about." Because, well, it kind of is.

Another beautifully perceptive response--this time to a quote where Gretel tries to explain to Bruno what they are, and decides that they're definitely the "Opposite" of the Jews, anyhow--from one of my most struggling readers in another class: "the significance is that religion of race didn't mean anything to [Gretel and Bruno] they just knew that they were on the better side of the fence." Yeah, that's basically it. The kids, for sure Gretel, understood their superiority without having to be told that it existed.

Students prepared for our Socratic Seminar by crafting three discussion questions the day before it commenced. They came in and were solely responsible for facilitating their own conversations--absolutely no input or direction from me. There is an inner circle which discusses and an outer circle that listens and takes notes on interesting conversation, then they switch. The outer circle is not permitted to jump in with comments at any time, much to their chagrin. Here are some highlights (ok, and a few that could be termed low points--but funny, pretty funny. Funny is their saving grace sometimes, no?) from the Socratic Seminar:

Possibly the best, most concise description of who Father is an what he's about:
Student 1: "So what was Father? A good soldier? A good father?"
Student 2: "Neither. Just a man. Doing a job."

A question that prompted a great discussion of the question of Mother's complicity: "If you were a woman of that time, would you stand up for your opinion?"

A student says this while the principal was in the room, I wanted to hug her: "Well, I think it really relates to the essential question we have about power and how it makes you see the world."

A question that caused much heated debate, believe it or not: "Is Bruno a round character or a flat one?"

On why Father didn't notice Mother's questionable relationship with another soldier: "Well, he was busy with the whole Nazi thing."

On why Father becomes ill-tempered and vicious after Bruno's death: "He lost somebody. He could be an alcoholic now." Deceptively simple, yeah?

On why Father is a Nazi at all, a comment that shows how far we have to learn yet (:::cringe:::): "Maybe he just really likes Jesus."

And, of course, the Seminar would not have been complete without: "YOU'RE NOT IN THE CIRCLE, RYAN!"


Prose Friday or Walking Contradiction

Serious eye and sincere life indeed. . .

In typical Libra style, a little H.D. Thoreau for some much-needed balance around here. . . a most cherished passage from Walden, "Economy:"

We worship not the Graces, nor the Parcae, but Fashion. She spins and weaves and cuts with full authority. The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller's cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same. I sometimes despair of getting anything quite simple and honest done in this world by the help of men. They would have to be passed through a powerful press first, to squeeze their old notions out of them, so that they would not soon get upon their legs again, and then there would be some one in the company with a maggot in his head, hatched from an egg deposited there nobody knows when, for not even fire kills these things, and you would have lost your labour. . .

On the whole, I think that it cannot be maintained that dressing has in this or any country risen to the dignity of an art . . . All costume off a man is pitiful or grotesque. It is only the serious eye peering from and the sincere life passed within it, which restrain laughter and consecrate the costume of any people.

P.S.--I have an exciting post to do all about our Socratic Seminar the other day, complete with quotes straight from the mouths of babes. They did so well it makes me all teary to think about it!