Tag Archives: Student

Why the School Year Begins with Nightmares

He jumped back. He was so startled that I thought I had a bug on my face when I went into my son’s room at 11 a.m. to wake him.

Seeing is believing.

“Wait, what day is it? Is there school today?” he asked. I shook my head and laughed nervously because I had been thinking that I needed to start waking him up earlier to prepare him for the coming school hours.

“Uuugggh, I thought you were waking me to tell me it was time to go to school,” he said and breathed a sigh of relief then buried his head in his pillow. He proceeded to describe a horrific dream where his teacher gave the class an assignment and he got an F.

I felt terrible because I know how much he hates getting bad grades and how generous some teachers are about giving them. I’m especially fond of the teachers who hand the papers back with an imaginary pair of bifocals hanging on the end of their noses as if to remind students that they just aren’t good enough.

Do teachers really need to give kids F’s?

It might’ve already started for you: The nightmares, the rising tension, the fear that you’re missing something, the sting of an impending headache…. It started in our house about a week ago.

The mere mention of school shot the hairs up on the backs of our necks.

And, it ultimately seems to amount to judgment. How will you be judged by other kids, parents, teachers, principals, administrators and so forth? You just aren’t good enough seems to vibrate in our collective subconscious.

But, what kills me and my kids, are the F’s. I don’t understand that need to give F’s, especially with no second chance. Granted, some students seem to live for the F.

I’ve been there. As a teacher, you’re this short of moving the pencil for the student because you’re trying every technique in the book to get the kid to learn and the student refuses.

Most of the time, however, those students who get those F’s just need a second chance. They need to take the test again. They need to hear the lesson one more time. And, it’s not just about percentages such as 50 percent of the class failed; therefore, the teacher must reteach and retest. No, let’s say 5 percent failed. The rest aced it. Why wouldn’t a teacher try to offer that student a second chance? Most likely, it’s too much work and the teacher doesn’t feel like administering another test and definitely not re-teaching an entire lesson to one or two students.

Second Chances

But, what if it was easier than that? What if it was a matter of spending one or two lunch periods with them and chatting about what they didn’t understand? Ask them what went wrong. Even if they’re brutally honest and say they just don’t care or they didn’t bother to study, what if you said well, then, study here and I’ll give you a second chance.

What then?

Would the student succeed?

And, then, how would that affect that student’s future?

Would the student try harder next time, especially if they found success the second time around?

Yep, that’s right, I’ll tell you. That student will succeed because you’ll have connected with him or her in a deeper way than most teachers. Contrary to the way we judge the kid who gets the F, that child simply doesn’t want it even if he or she vehemently claims to want it, even to deserve it.

A highly intelligent and insightful gifted student once told me that he got F’s because he had gotten so many that he finally just got used to it and didn’t care anymore. He was one of the first students I ever taught and those kids taught me more about teaching than I’ve ever learned before. I asked them everything and he was one who I felt so sad about but even more so, I was infuriated with him. He was so freakin’ smart so when he got F’s, I felt like he just did it on purpose. And, judging from his observations, he kinda did do it on purpose.

However, there was one other very important insight. He said he hated seeing an “F” anyway. That’s why he just gave up and gave in to so many teachers’ labels like that he just didn’t care or that he refused to learn, that he was wasting his talents. That was exactly what I was thinking as I was talking to him.

But, it still didn’t register right away. I still didn’t get it. Give him a second chance? What?!

Then, I did, by accident almost. I experiment a lot when I’m teaching, which is why I hold myself at least partially accountable for every performance estimation that I inflict on my students. I give them second, third, and fourth chances so that I can average scores and teach and reteach. Does it make for a crazy exhausting school year? Yeah, but then, I couldn’t call myself a teacher at all if I didn’t do that.

I asked him if he wanted to take a test again. Different questions. Same subject matter.

He accepted. That acceptance in itself taught me a lot. He actually did want to try. So the label that “he didn’t care” made no sense.

Reset the Mind

Before he took the second test though, I talked to him during lunch and asked why he chose some of the wrong answers. I saw where he went wrong and then helped him adjust his logic. It felt like magic when I scored his second exam. He went from an F to a high B. Plus, the questions on the second exam were much more difficult and somewhat more confusing.

When I gave it to him, he held it as if it was a rare piece of parchment paper. Then he smiled and laughed a little. He blamed his success on the questions being too easy, but I insisted that the questions were harder. I had thrown them out because they were too confusing.

After that success, he never got anything lower than a B. Most of the time, he got A’s.

So, what of it? I think the story speaks clearly.

F’s are like viruses. They spread quickly and they’re hard to get rid of. But, you can wipe them out with a little love. And, that just takes a lunch or two.

Don’t get me wrong. My students who don’t like me will tell you I’m the detention teacher. And, I would have to agree. But, guess when I give detentions? Yep, during lunch. Some students, especially in middle school, don’t think it’s so cool to have lunch with a teacher, hence the detentions (and second chances), but that’s another story.

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Common Core in Florida

If you ask an educator or even a well-informed parent who lives in Florida about the New Florida Standards, there will probably be a very intentional groan of frustration followed by a rant or its opposite—dead silence and a mournful shaking of the head.

This is just a test.
This is just a test.

One of the many reasons I’ve stopped writing so much stems from the state of Florida’s new standards. I’m a teacher who’s lucky enough to help my students meet those standards. I wouldn’t say I’m using the word “lucky” sarcastically, and I love to be sarcastic—just ask my students. I’d say I use the word “lucky” with a paradox in mind. It’s a paradox because I met Jeb Bush in 2009. His organization awarded me an Excellence in Teaching honor. The organization also asked teachers who won the award questions about our success in the classroom.

The Paradox and Jeb Bush

I speak of Jeb Bush in relation to the new standards because he’s been a very active voice in promoting the common core standards that created such a controversy in Florida. And, now, parents and educators have been adorned with the New Florida Standards, which claim to correlate to the common core but are more detailed and focused for Florida education.

That remains to be seen, so back to the paradox. I feel like in the grand scheme of Common Core Standards, I helped in some small way to create them. So I feel both lucky and unlucky at the same time. My mantra as a teacher has always been to hold students to a higher standard. By that I mean, in very concrete terms, that a sixth grader can do anything a college student at your local public university can do.

Now, many people laugh at me, but Jeb Bush and his team of educators did not. They rewarded me for it.

However, the paradox of “lucky” insidiously slithers through those ideals to condemn the idea of challenging students. When you scrutinize the training tests that the Florida Department of Education plans to impose on the students, teachers, and administrators, you step back and think of the student who will have to take the test. I’ll put it this way.

I have a friend who’s a journalist, well-educated, and one of the smartest people I know. He took one look at the training test and told me to quit. Of course, I snapped back with a resounding, “No! Never! They need me.” He told me to quit because I will be held accountable for children who can barely write and these students will be required to not only write but perhaps type their answers.

I assume that over their catered breakfasts and suited meetings, the politicians didn’t think about how, yes, technology is relevant, but kids type with their thumbs. So, on top of teaching them to reach a modicum of college-level writing, teachers and administration need to make sure they can type, and quickly.

The teaching that should be happening in every classroom will happen, but these are kids in a modern society. When I announce that a sixth grader can do anything a college student can and possibly better, I mean it, with the passion of a teacher who plans to meet that goal and then some. I plan to infuse into that student all the tools to get them to that point by the end of the year. But, teachers everywhere know that no matter what we do, many students won’t get there even when they try with all their mighty souls.

Why won’t students achieve their goals?

Let’s start with a reality check that’s very distinct to Miami and Florida and our country in general. Many students are still acquiring the language, so please don’t expect them to meet those standards right away—even though as a teacher I will nudge and push them as long as they’re my students. Then, many students go home and find exactly the opposite of what I taught them. There’s no support for doing homework, reading, or even caring about any of it. They might even be told that the material doesn’t matter or that they’re too stupid to do it so just do enough to get by, if that.

I made all of this clear to the researchers from Excellence in Teaching during the question and answer sessions. I’d like to think they took it into consideration. But, it doesn’t feel like they did, so I keep asking myself if I’ve joined my imaginary list of unforgiveable hypocrites in society today.

Before I received the Excellence in Teaching Award, I got a brownie and lots of coffee. Later, at the dinner, I got to meet teacher and author Ron Clark. He dazzled and freaked out the teachers by jumping, quite literally, from table top to table top speaking about how exciting it is to teach kids.

It was inspirational and a little disturbing.

I got a free book of his and read it. I even agreed with some of it. However, I returned to my classroom feeling frustrated because I was nothing like him and I never cashed in on the 10-day cruise prizes that The Foundation for Excellence in Teaching offered me. I never had that kind of time, except for during summer, and by then I was too tired to think of how I would pay for the plane trip to Alaska.

Then, before I knew it, I was hearing about the Common Core Standards. I saw some interesting videos and teachers promoting it. It appeared to be not just a great idea, but a solution to the mindless standardized tests our students were subjected to year after year.

But, as with most issues associated with politics, the basics have changed—a lot.

Deals were being made. Testing companies started vying for contracts with different states. It wasn’t just about educating kids anymore. Nothing’s ever that simple when money’s involved. Take money out of the equation and everything might be more simplified, more sensible.

Now, however, here we teachers are scrambling to prepare our students for a test that was flung at us only at the end of last school year. There’s nothing practical or helpful about a surprise attack on teachers and their students. Education exists to help children make their way in the world and teachers teach to help them do that. Is that idealistic? Isn’t education supposed to help children, not cause problems for them?

My solution: I’ll be posting about how I’m handling it from both a teacher and a parent’s view. I’ll be rooting for all of our students and for their teachers. And, I’ll sometimes rant or shake my head mournfully when people ask me about it. Written by Lisa Chesser

Everyone should have to teach middle school.

Vortex
I’d entered a distorted dimension, splintered and shapeshifting, grew into a full-time stint as a middle school.

The uncertainty and shock of feeling as if I’d entered a distorted dimension, splintered and shapeshifting, grew into a full-time stint as a middle school teacher. Everyone should have to teach middle school. I’ve said this ever since I realized I wasn’t going to quit teaching after all, ever since I got through those first few years.

I usually say it at a disgruntled moment when it seems as if the people who I’m listening to or observing just don’t appreciate the complexity of heartache and the simplicity of discipline.

Those people usually have Bobble Head egos and tell really bad jokes that they laugh at because nobody else will. But, sometimes those people are people who I would normally get along with and they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be shoved into a tween body and told to cheer up and be happy about it.

Teaching middle school reminds me of this on a daily basis.

If you pressed rewind to the day I began, it feels like one of those nightmarish dreams or thematic moments in a film. I’d spent fifteen years as an artist, writer, and editor and then I woke up in khaki pants and wearing a bun in my hair with a bunch of tweens and teens blinking at me.

What’s worse, I had to attempt to entertain them for hours on end, a daring and nearly impossible feat in a society where social media and video games rule the world. So, I didn’t. I did the opposite. I talked to them. I looked them in the eyes and I talked to them. And, it was eerie.

Swirl
The world went winding around into a useless array of clutter speckled with static electricity.

There were moments when the world went winding around into a useless array of clutter speckled with static electricity that reminded me there was still energy left somewhere for me to tap into, even though the exhaustion accompanying my new career left me broken at times.

Teaching hundreds of students that reading still mattered shifted my perspective of right and wrong. It buried my sense of reality and scraped at my soul. Students openly berated me for daring to talk to them about the beauty of reading, for deigning to announce that the written word stands more powerful, more insightful than the latest flick.

Every fear I’d shut away in the dark corners of those storage closets, where you can’t even reach in order to pull down a box or everything tumbles out, those fears fell, crushing parts of me that I had thought were never to be seen again.

It was subtle at first. Sometimes, it was just a simple observation. A girl cried because someone called her a name. I needed to listen. Yes. These things happened. And, it happened to me so, really, I could help her. But, inside me all these emotions arose from somewhere left alone, somewhere kept quiet.

And, I tried to quiet them again.

But, there they were staring at me, waiting for me to recognize their existence. So, I did and what a twisted ride I took from there.

You’re pushed to a point that most of us runaway from and never really address. We simply encounter it over and over in our lives. We have run-ins with the classroom bullies who insidiously stick a foot out while we’re just walking to our desk, but this time, the bully’s a co-worker or even a boss, maybe even the person we love.

When I see kids come to school with their hair cinched into a bun or even disheveled, I chuckle. They don’t know how to just live, just be. If they do, they overdo it. They don’t have a sense of individuality and if they do they hide it. Muted and blended, they try so hard not to be different. But, when their appearance masks missing homework or no pencil or even a missing backpack, I know there’s more to it.

No matter how hard I try to forget, there I am too. I’m sitting in school without my pencil, no homework. My mother had had a fight with my stepfather. My grandmother had too many kids to care for and I had to help. My sister’d thrown a fit. I’d stayed up late doing my work because what else was there to do? I needed something to get my mind off the fighting. But, in the morning, sleep and chaos left my work at home.

I sat in class, reprimanded for not doing my work. It wouldn’t be the first or last time.

I remember that, my past, when I stay with my students organizing their folders. I remember that when I sit at lunch listening to their problems. I remember what it was like to be them when I give them the extra bag of chips I buy because I know one of them will be hungry for many reasons. Someone forgot to pack lunch. They just have no money. Or, maybe they just starve themselves. But if a teacher hands them a bag of Tostitos and everyone else is grabbing some, they might just take some too.

As adults, we get caught up in our problems and forget the kids who came with those problems. As adults, we forget the life we left behind. We forget what’s important in order to chase meaningless wants and desires.

Sometimes, as parents, we look at the social media and general consensus that education and agree knowingly. But, it doesn’t really matter when kids still go to school anyway. We love to justify our neglect, our smug lives, our rush forward. But, we shouldn’t.

How do I know? Well, I’m a middle school teacher. You should try it someday. You might learn something.

The Colors of To Kill A Mockingbird

Screenshot of To Kill a Mockingbird(an America...
Screenshot of To Kill a Mockingbird(an American movie issued in 1962) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every year since I began teaching, my students and I read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee together. They reluctantly open it and groan because after the first page, they almost unanimously claim confusion and therefore annoyance.

By the third chapter, they’re excited, irritated, laughing out loud, and angry. They love reading with a southern accent and can’t believe I’m letting them read a book with so many bad words in it.

That is, until we get to the “N” word, which everyone nervously reads or skips over. We always read a great opinion piece about the “N” word written by Leonard Pitts Jr. first, but that’s not the most controversial part of the book, at least not to my students or me.

The part they struggle with is the whole reason for the novel’s title To Kill A Mockingbird. They want to know why Tom Robinson’s found guilty and ultimately killed. Tom Robinson’s the black man accused of rape, but the evidence clearly shows it was impossible for him to do this. The jury comprised of white farmers remains unfair.

This year, a new element will enter into the inevitable discussion about change—What about Trayvon Martin?

The jury composed of six women appeared very different. The stories changed. Different characters. But, not different colors. There are the colors: it’s all still in black and white.

And, when that question comes:  What about Trayvon Martin?

Suddenly, this room full of lackadaisical sixth graders will boom with anger and upset. And, what will I say?

Nothing.

No, not really, but yes, nothing, in the sense that I won’t give my opinion. I’ll have to let them read news stories and perhaps bring in articles themselves. But, ultimately, it will be up to them to decide what happened.

Mine? I act as a guide, just like with my own children, when they say the whole world is against Trayvon and black people, I say, I’m not sure about that.

Look at the jury, look at what happened, look at the facts, how are things different? How has the law changed? What can we do to change something like this in the future?

Should Zimmerman have had a gun?

Why did Trayvon beat him?

Would Zimmerman be alive and Trayvon be on trial if Zimmerman hadn’t shot him?

What if they were both black?

What if they were both white?

These are questions I don’t think any of us can completely answer. I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to answer this. I struggle with this.

I hate guns and in To Kill A Mockingbird my students learn how much the main character’s father and the lawyer defending Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch, hates them too. He teaches us to walk in someone else’s shoes and to be kind to our enemies.

When Atticus encounters Mrs. Dubose, a decaying hateful woman who likes to call him a “Nigger lover” for defending Tom Robinson, Atticus removes his hat and tells her she looks like a picture. His daughter, Scout says, “It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.”

I’ve been told that I shouldn’t read To Kill A Mockingbird with sixth graders, but now, I know I have to.

I do believe times have changed, but how? What’s changed? Are we better or did we just learn how to play a different game? What kind of game are we playing? Did we just change the rules and create illusions?

I’m not sure, but I know my sixth graders will spend time this year trying to figure it out.

Written by Lisa Chesser

Our Education God: The Test

Teachers often share many similarities with the students they admonish, chastise, chase, change, and ultimately love like a mother who spends her days doing the same. Because we’re together so much of the time and essentially trapped in the same environment, teachers want to escape just as much as students do, especially at this time of year. We also tend to mimic each other and think alike.

Since mid-April, we’ve been testing and I feel like a caged animal, so do my students. They’re wild, then angry, then tired, then irritated, then they start the cycle all over again.

Angry Student
Angry Student

I’m pretty much the same. I have no energy at the end of the day and I’m dreaming of that final day of school like never before.

See, I’ve been teaching for a while and the more years that pass the more I question the relevance of the Test, the more I think about it, and the more I hate it.

Backward Steps

I always walk backward to my own experience with tests. I was the kid who panicked, stayed up all night, worried so much so that I often bombed the Test, but ironically enough in a relaxed environment, if you never mentioned the word Test, I could answer any question perfectly.

I eventually got over it because I wanted to go to college and after bombing my first SAT, I knew I needed to figure out how to handle this.

So, I taught myself how to take a test.

Put any test in front of me, give me a minimal amount of time to study for it, and I’ll score well.

I had none of the handbooks, trade books, test-prep books, and didn’t use any “tips” to get me through it.

I found that if I treated a test mathematically and thought in a similar way to this imaginary person who created it, then I could defeat it. I practiced a lot, and it paid off. I plan to take the GRE soon and know that I’ll have to buy one of the test-prep books to review information that’s been filed away in those dark cabinets inside my brain. However, I also know I’ll not only pass it, I’ll do well on it. I proved that to myself.

Worshipping the Test

When I teach students how to take standardized Tests or any Test for that matter, I point out these basics to them and then we practice. I don’t rely on tips. We use some standard ones, practice using them, discard some, and return to others.

Woman teaching geometry, from Euclid's Elements.

I try to help them as much as possible because I know their education god, the Test, will be there as long as they remain in the world of education. It will make judgments on them. It will torment them. It will inflict fear in them. It will never go away until they worship it, until it knows they will kneel down and worship it.

But, there’s one way to bring a master to his or her knees. That’s to master the master, which is why I spend so much time teaching my students how to test.

Now, however, feeling so sick and tired, so broken, so desperate to end this school year, I just want to kick the test, even if it’s kneeling before me and my students.

I want it to die. I hate it for different reasons than the anxiety and fear I felt when I was younger.

It drains students from actually learning.

Instead of spending time learning about the great novelists and their character’s conflicts and struggles then realizing that all these struggles reflect their own, that books are Bibles for kids to value as tools to tackle their own difficulties, students learn that they have to score well on a test or they won’t be appreciated in school. Perhaps they won’t even move to the next grade level. All too often they think of themselves as failures, which I try to change by teaching them how to test. But, that in itself stealthily strips literature, language, mathematics and the written word of their essential value.

The False God and Judgments

Schools know that high scores on tests mean that they look good in any and every way. “That’s a good school,” a parent says to another. “Why?” I ask as a parent, not a teacher. “The scores. They’re ranked one of the best schools (in the state, country, etc.).” How else will people know whether a school is good or not?

Well, to answer that question, I’ll tell you and the Education God: Test.

There are a thousand other ways to compete and show what you know:

Contests

Art

Design

Competitions

Presentations

Portfolios

Projects

It goes on and on.

If the Department of Education hired trained representatives to visit schools and actually observe teachers and students, get to know us, hang around and see what we do, couldn’t the DOE learn and teach a whole lot more than by looking at the results of a multiple choice test?

Not only would the DOE help create more jobs, but it might just do something that no one seems to be able to do by making more tests. It might just improve the educational system.

We’ve been worshipping a false god. We don’t need this god. God should live and breathe inside us, forcing us to hold hands and be gods ourselves.

That’s what our kids need—a helping hand, not something to judge them.

Wild Women and Mad Men: Bite the Change

mouth
mouth (Photo credit: Darwin Bell)

Since Saturday, I’ve been upset and I didn’t want to write about it because I knew it would’ve been unfocused. I also don’t want this to be a place for readers to have to endure endless rants. So, I’ve been reading fellow writers’ posts while attempting to sedate the anger I still feel. But, as I was browsing the blogs I follow in my Reader, I came upon the Daily Prompt: Be the Change. It asks the question:  What change, big or small, would you like your blog to make in the world?

After quelling my initial outrage over a long-awaited yet horribly disappointing Saturday, here’s my answer to this question.

This blog should change every reader’s perspective. What you once thought to be true or real should change because you read about a strange but inspiring moment. You should laugh like a mad man or a wild woman and do something spontaneous. You should find solace in it all because you feel comfortable being different and take pride in yourself even if others won’t ever see it.

In short, this blog should inspire resilience. Without it, you’re doomed.

I write this now, two days later, more clearly and focused, well, because of the prompt and because of the distance from Saturday.

On Saturday, November 10, I got up at 6 a.m. to drive across town to an Idea Expo for teachers. In a fog of fatigue after teaching all week, I told myself this was too important to miss. I did find inspiration in the Superintendent of Miami-Dade Public Schools Alberto Carvahlo’s well-delivered speech. It garnered a standing ovation from the audience of teachers.

But, that was it.

Fifteen minutes later, I sat in a boxed room with a teacher sharing a lesson on Dracula, one of my favorite classics, which she purportedly teaches to middle-school students. I thought, okay, I’m gonna like her because that’s daring.

But, I didn’t like her.

I wanted to bite her.

Instead, I bit my lip and left for the day. She would be the next speaker for the next presentation, and I wouldn’t be able to keep my mouth shut for that long.

Here’s why. She showed us a sample of the lesson she prepared for her students. She showed us a prompt about horror, which we had to answer. Fair enough, I thought. It was when she asked us what controversy meant that I flinched for the first time. She told us she was modeling the lesson for us. Okay, fine, I’d heard that before. I didn’t like it but okay. Then, she asked for responses, which we gave. After that, she said, if her own students couldn’t answer the prompt, she would let them copy off the student next to them.

I flinched again. I few curse words flew through my mind.

Then, she showed us her list of vocabulary words and said that she didn’t believe in letting students struggle with words because sometimes they mispronounce them. Fine, fair enough. Again, I just needed to give this a chance, give her a chance. She’s a teacher. She deserves my respect.

As she reviewed the list of words, she said, “Aqueese.” Just like that. Aqueese.

I jerked my arm and stabbed my paper with my pen. I shut my packet.

The word was acquiesce.

I make a lot of mistakes. I encourage my students to correct me if I misspell something on the board. I’m a writer, so I know how misspellings happen. But, if I’m teaching pronunciation then I’d better get it right. If I’m teaching spelling and I suck at it, I’d better study those words or admit my weakness.

It was too much to bear. I grew up loving literature so much that I passed my days in the library. I skipped science class, not to go to the beach, but because I snuck into the library to read. I lived inside these books, and she had proceeded to mutilate what I loved.

English: Billie Holiday, Downbeat, New York.
English: Billie Holiday, Downbeat, New York. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, I left.

I walked to Starbucks and listened to Billie Holiday belt out her piping-hot tunes. I pretended none of this just happened and settled into the sounds around me.

But, the anger lingered.

The fumes gathered and swirled.

I looked at my own children and myself as a child. So many teachers had disappointed me the way this woman did that day. So many teachers have handed my children misinformation on a silver platter and lauded themselves while doing it.

I could and can only think:  Resilience. Laugh out loud, relentless resilience.

The only regret I have is that I didn’t speak my mind. In an effort to be polite, to tame the fire in my belly, I bit my tongue.

And, in honor of Dracula, I should have bit her.