Sunday, September 28, 2008

The First Month of School

I've survived the first month of the school year, and so far it's been a doozy. I'm teaching five sections of freshmen reading, which is not my dream position. I have never enjoyed teaching freshmen, and these particular freshmen have been identified as needing an extra English class in an attempt to boost their scores. Their reading scores are far below grade level, even more so than our average student.

I'm not a reading teacher, and there is no real curriculum for the class, so I'm kind of winging it. I know most of these kids hate to read, so my goal is for them to find something they enjoy reading, so perhaps they'll see reading as a joy and not a burden. I'm not sure if that's working yet, but that is what I'm aiming for.

There have been two major challenges I've been dealing with thus far. One, it's been incredibly hot in Chicago this school year, and my lovely school does not have air conditioning. I teach on the third floor and it is an oven in there. Only two windows open in my room. There is rarely a breeze. How ever hot it is outside, it's about twenty degrees hotter in my room. Makes for a fun environment! The kids bitch and moan to no end. It is so frustrating. And makes it really hard to get through a lesson.

After every long Chicago winter, violence in the city escalates when it gets warm. My kids always explain, "When it gets hot, they start shooting." The statistics would seem to prove this statement. When it's hot, tempers shorten and people get really agitated. When you cram 27 or 28 students into a small, ventilation-free 100 degree classroom, you can imagine how effective that is in creating tension. (Not to mention I'm six months pregnant. I keep telling the kids, "However miserable you are, I'm more miserable!" They don't care.

The other challenge is that some genius from my school thought it would be a good idea to put all the freshmen students into "pods." Some of the pods are single sex, but most are mixed sex. So these kids are together all day long, including PE and lunch. Which is not what high school should be.

Furthermore, the bad kids (of which there are many) are having a negative effect on the good kids. Because they are stuck together all day long. I feel so bad for the kids who I can see want to learn something and are at least somewhat excited about school. The unmotivated students (I know I should not use the word "bad," and I don't mean it literally, it is just a fast description) tend to gobble up most of my attention, because many of them have incredibly terrible attitudes. I've been cursed out more this year than any since my first teaching job six years ago. And these are freshmen. It's pretty shocking the behavior I've been subjected to. And it's not even October.

I always try to do some kind of icebreaker activity at the beginning of the school year to get to know my students better. This year I had my students write me a letter describing themselves and defining three goals they want to achieve in my class.

It was amazing. In 90% of the letters, the students would write about how great they were, how much they loved school, and how they would not be a problem in my class. But every one of those letters added this caveat -- that the student was great until I got on his or her bad side. When and if that happened, the student would have to put me in my place, because he or she has a temper and that is just how it works.

I find this attitude incredible. It's not new -- I have always heard this from students. But it still never fails to astonish me. I think this is a huge problem for my students. They seem to have no idea how to get along with people who don't follow this philosophy.

I'm reading these letters thinking, "Seriously?" As if I could put my principal in her place when she made me mad, because she had gotten on my bad side? How will my students ever be able to hold down jobs with this attitude? I have told the kids that it's not my job to adjust to their personality flaws -- it is their job to overcome them. But they don't seem to believe me.

When I meet their parents, I see where they get it. I've had many a parent try to put me in my place for daring to question their child or give their child a failing grade. These are usually the parents who have never returned a phone call, who have never made any effort to contact me. They show up for the last fifteen minutes of "Report Card Pickup Day" ready to kick my ass. They chew me out, even as I'm trying to show them that their angel has missed 27 class sessions, has never come to class on time, and has never turned in an assignment. It makes for a fun day.

I am trying a new philosophy of my own this semester, however. We'll see how it goes. I really enjoy reading Alan Kazdin's writing about child discipline. He is often published on I bought his book The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child.

My daughter is only 19 months old, and I don't think she'll be defiant. But most of my students are constantly defiant, so I thought the book was a good investment. Basically, Kazdin believes that you should try to ignore bad behavior and praise the hell out of good behavior.

This is probably much easier with your own child. No matter how defiant your own child is, he is still your child and you love him. I don't love that many of my students, especially not the defiant ones. But I'm trying.

I have one class with four problem students. Three males and one female. They are doing their best to control the class. They are four of the most awful, disrespectful students I've ever had. And they are together all day long, feeding off each other. It's great.

Two of these boys cursed me out the second day of school. And the third. The girl in this group spent one class last Tuesday yelling and screaming and singing at the top of her lungs about how awful and bogus and unfair I was. There was no security on the floor, so I had to just sit there taking deep breaths and ignoring her. She kept screaming, "You have no control!!!" It was the first time I ever truly contemplated just getting up and walking out and never coming back.

But it made me mad that she was acting like this in my class. So I just kept sitting there, taking deep breaths. And emailing my friends. It would have been funny except that it was in my class and it was just getting worse and worse. Then this student, whose name is Precious (that's a misnomer if ever there were one) started yelling about how hot it was. Then more about how bogus and unfair and awful I was and how much she hated me.

It is really hard for me to say anything positive to her. I would prefer to never speak to her ever. But I'm employing Kazdin's methodology. Each day that she is good in my class, which means she is not combative or rude (she doesn't do any work), I praise her for how well she's behaving and thank her.

I'm using the same technique with the three boys. I find something good to say to each of them each day. If they are reading, I praise them. If they are not reading, but not talking either, I praise them. If they have gone through a whole class without cursing at them, I praise them a lot. In one of the boys, I can already see an improvement. With the other two, I can't tell yet.

If I survive this class until Christmas break (which is when my maternity leave begins, hallelujah!), I will most likely have Kazdin to thank for it. But if I don't make it, I'm holding him personally responsible.

It's supposed to be cooler this week, so perhaps I'll see an improvement from my students do to that factor alone. Cross your fingers for me.

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