The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Archive for March, 2011

Leaving a Report

Today I was an English teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. I am not certain what the grade level of my students was, but I think they were juniors. Most likely. It was an interesting day. The teacher for whom I was subbing had been gone on  Tuesday and Wednesday also because her five-year-old son has had the stomach flu. So things were kind of in a bad state. Even worse, the previous subs did not leave any real reports for what they did.

On the sub plans for Tuesday, there was one brief note jotted at the very end: “Everything went well.” No details, no name, nothing. Just that. For Wednesday there were a few more notes, but they didn’t say much. “3rd period was chatty. Finished p. 152. 4th period was more on task. 5th and 6th periods were great.” A name of sorts was signed at the end, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it said. And the notes gave no indication of what actually happened during the day.

This got me thinking. What do most subs do at the end of the day? I have a very specific routine I go through at the end of every day/assignment. First, I make sure the floor is free of large debris and put all the desks back where they belong, as needed. I make sure all of my personal belongings are packed away in my bag so that I don’t leave anything behind, as I have done on more than one occasion. Then I take out my portfolio (black vinyl folder that holds a legal pad) and leave a report for the teacher. The report includes the following items:

  • The date
  • A general overview of the day (things went well, things were good, things were not so good, etc.) I also try to address the teacher’s absence and, if I had been requested, thank her/him for asking me to sub for that day.
  • A detailed description of the lessons for the day: what was planned, what was accomplished, evaluation/assessment, suggestions for follow-up. (During the day I will jot notes in the margins of the plans to help me keep track of this information.)
  • An overview of the students’ behaviour, with any specific descriptions as needed. (These include not just the discipline/behaviour problems but also the students who were phenomenal).
  • Any comments from other teachers (only applicable at the elementary level, when the students have Specials like PE, Art, Music, Library).
  • Final comment, wish for the teacher to feel better (if appropriate), and an offer to return any time needed (although there are some classes where I leave this out because I may not have a strong desire to return).
  • I close the report with my name (Alex T. Valencic), email address, and phone number.

Most of the time, these reports are only a page long. It really doesn’t take that much time to give this information. Today’s report was two pages long, but that was because the teacher had specifically requested that I leave a detailed report and there was very specific information she needed, mostly because the previous subs had no left it. The longest report I have ever left was four pages long, and it was for a teacher who had a very large number of disruptive students. (When she told the class that the report was that long, one of the students had suggested it was a good thing. The teacher responded, “No report from a sub that is four pages long is ever a good thing.”)

The reason for my reports is simple: I put myself in the place of the regular teacher. I have left my class for a day and entrusted the care of my students to a stranger. I would want to know what happened. Were my plans followed? What did the class learn? How much of the day will I have to repeat when I return to make sure they are actually on track? How will I make up the lost time, if there is any? What students need to have phone calls made to parents for misbehaving? Who should be rewarded for exceptionally good behaviour? How can I contact the sub if I have any other questions, or I want to request him/her in the future?

It has occurred to me that, of the few times I have seen notes from other subs left for the teachers, I’ve never seen one the way I do them. So it still makes me wonder: what do the other subs do? And, along those lines, is it reasonable for me, as a future regular teacher, to hope for such a reports from my substitutes? I don’t know. My answer to both would be a hope for an affirmative reply, but different teachers have different expectations. If you are a full-time teacher and you have subs, what do you expect? If you are a sub, what do you tell the teachers? If you are neither, what do you think of my approach? I am always interested in improving my craft and would appreciate any feedback!


A New Milestone

Today I was the art teacher at Edison Middle School. The students had some handouts they were doing (essentially glorified colouring book pages) and so it was a pretty easy day, albeit a somewhat boring one, too. I suppose I should count myself lucky, though, since I don’t actually know enough about art education to really be able to teach. I don’t know, though… maybe I could fake my way through it. I’d hate to teach something incorrect, though.

Anyway, despite being a bit bored, I had a great day. The best part was at the end of the day when I realised I have achieved a new milestone. Or maybe I should use the more modern term and say that I have unlocked an achievement.

You see, for years I have struggled to convince students that my last name (Valencic) is not that hard to say. It is three syllables, pronounced, in our anglicised way, as vuh-len-sik. I am honestly not sure where the stressed syllable is located–count that as one of my failings as a native English speaker who never learned grammar and rules for the language. Regardless, I usually give some spiel about my name being Mr. Valencic, and that student may call me Mr. Valencic, Mr. V, or “sir”–not Mr. Valencia, Valencio, Valensis, Vlassic, Valansky, Mr. Dude, Bro, Fro Guy, Shaggy, Mr. Substitute Guy, Curly-Hair Man, or, my favourite, Ryznard Szyndlar (something that showed up in the mail for me once). Most students (and teachers) are satisfied to call me Mr. V, which I am totally down with. (As a side note, I recently learned that my dad has regularly been called Mr. V for quite some time. I did not know this. Odd.) And a few brave souls are willing to give my actual name a shot.

These are the few, the proud, the Marines of the spoken language. They work on it, they learn it, and they are super excited when they say my name correctly. And now they correct their classmates. Achievement unlocked: students inform others of the proper way to say my name. I don’t even have to introduce myself at Edison now. Heck, some of the students, I’m pretty sure, think I am a teacher there; they just don’t know what class. I have suggested that the school hire me as a full-time substitute but, alas, it isn’t my decision, nor is it the decision of the teachers with whom I have suggested this.

Still, it is a good day to know that the students respect me enough to make sure their classmates call me by my name and not by some horribly twisted variation. Now to reach the next milestone, which is for everyone to know my name and say it correctly!


Driving on Fumes and a Prayer

Today I was a 6th grade Language Arts teacher at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High. However, I was not subbing for the teacher for whom I have regularly subbed at the Junior High. Instead, I was subbing for her colleague across the hall. The Junior High is currently doing some research to determine if they should move from being a junior high school to a middle school. This would be a drastic shift in the philosophy of education in the building, and more so in the division of labour. Many of the teachers seem to favour the idea, but I don’t know what will happen. Anyway, this teacher happens to be a member of the committee that is looking into this.

During my week-long assignment before the break, she had requested me for today. It was kind of funny, because I didn’t actually know who she was, and had asked one of my classes if they knew her. They looked at me like I was a dummy and said that she was the teacher across the hall. Whoops. I guess I deserved the look. In my defense, though, she had only introduced herself by first name, and had only come into the room to say hello and offered to help out if I needed it. The really great thing, though, was that I had never subbed for her before and she was requesting me anyway. Glad to know that my reputation precedes me in a positive way!

The assignment was for a little more than half the day, starting just before lunch and going until the end of classes. So I was able to take my wife to work and have the car. This was particularly advantageous since it also meant I would be able to get to my evening wind ensemble rehearsal on time. So I took Gretch to work, came home, did some reading, got ready for work, and left, giving myself just enough time to get to Mahomet on time.

Of course, I forgot that the car still needed gas today. It “empty” light had turned on just as I dropped Gretch off, but I didn’t have my wallet with me at the time, and I managed to forget about it in the two hours I had before leaving. I didn’t want to be late for work, so I said a quick prayer and hoped I’d make it there. Fortunately, I did. When I filled up at the first gas station I passed after work, I realised that I must have been driving on fumes because the tank was practically bone-dry. Wow.

But I had made it, had a good afternoon teaching sixth graders the nuts and bolts of writing a research paper, and I made it to a gas station, all on fumes and a prayer. There is probably a deeper message in here somewhere but, honestly, I’m just glad I made it without any problems!


Intervention

Today I was an 8th grade cross-categorical special education teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign.  It was an interesting day, to say the least. Some of the students were quite restless, others seemed thoroughly unmotivated, and some were clearly not ready for Spring Break to be over yet. Still others were focused and willing to work. Some students moved from being uncooperative to participatory and then back again.

At the end of the day, I was invited to attend the team meeting, which in when all of the 8th grade teachers who work together meet and discuss very things such as students’ progress, upcoming field trips, and plans for large integrated projects. But one thing they did today was something that they do not do often. In fact, I don’t know that they have done it before. If they have, it is very rare.

They held an intervention for a student.

Before the break, one of the teachers had met with the girl’s mother in conference and expressed concerns about her grades. She was failing one class and on the borderline of failing two others. This is the last quarter of the 8th grade year, which means that if she fails, she fails school and will have to repeat the 8th grade. The mother asked that the entire team meet with the girl to express their concerns and talk with her about a plan to help her succeed.

I think the teachers went into this meeting thinking that this was another bright girl who just didn’t want to apply herself, and there wasn’t much they could do. But in the process of the meeting, some important things came up. The girl doesn’t do her homework because she is watching her younger brother. Her home life is a mess, with a mother on probation and a father who is verbally abusive and seemingly constantly puts her down and calls her stupid. (Whether or not this is true doesn’t really matter–what does matter is that the girl believes this is what her father says t0 her.)

So the teachers made suggestions on how the girl can make use of her “free” period (kind of like a study hall) to work with the teachers for the classes in which she is struggling. They arranged for her to be able to speak in private with a trusted adult about her problems at home. And they offered encouragement. This last may be the most important element of all. They told her how bright she is. They told her that they care about her, they love her, and they want to see her do well. They told her that what her father has said is not true. They told her that she can get her grades up and that she does have a strong likelihood of moving on to high school next year. She just needs to ask for help and take advantage of the resources made available to her.

I have no idea what will happen with this girl. Truth be told, I don’t have much experience with the 8th graders at Edison. I don’t know if this is because the teachers aren’t gone as much or if it is because they already have their preferred subs, but I spend far more time with the 6th and 7th graders in this building. It is possible that she will not take advantage of this interventions and supports being offered. But I hope she will. What I saw today was a dozen teachers dedicated to helping their students. Maybe it is an over-used phrase among educators, but they really do focus on whole the class without forgetting the one. It was awesome seeing the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) system in action. Bravo to these men and women who have dedicated themselves to their profession!


Finally Taking a Break

Today is Thursday. I have one more day remaining of my days off for Spring Break, then the weekend and I am back to work on Monday. So I am taking a break today and tomorrow from blogging about anything teaching-related. I have books to read, episodes of The X-Files to watch, hair to get cut (I’m about two months overdue for a haircut now), a wife to spend time with, and an intense desire to actually take a break, be lazy, and maybe even get some more sleep than I have lately.

So I’ll be back on Monday. Feel free to come back and read through the archives and find any typos that may have snuck by editor.

Cheerio!


Teaching Strategies: Hump Day

Today is Wednesday. For reasons not quite clear to me, this day is generally known as Hump Day. I find it a somewhat annoying term, and yet I see it all around me. Perhaps that is why I find it annoying. Who knows for sure. When I was serving a two-year mission for my church, there was a common way of describing periods of the mission: first entering the mission field (as we called it) was the Bump. Six months later was something or other that was never defined often enough for me to remember. One year in was the Hump. 18 months in was the Slump, when the missionaries began to think about going home. And at the end was the Trunk, when the bags were packed and the missionary went home. Fortunately, we don’t break down the work week that much. Our society is content to focus on the middle of the week, which we seem to dread while also looking forward to it.

I guess I am fortunate enough to find myself in a profession that allows me to enjoy what I do every day. Yeah, I get tired at times, but I still love my job. I look forward to each day. I hope someone will smack me when I start counting down the days until the end of the week. I don’t have a problem with counting the days until a break or until the end of the school year. But spending all of your time looking forward to the weekend? That seems a bit counter-productive.

Which is why I write about this as a teaching strategy. The strategy isn’t actually Hump Day, of course. Nor is it the recognition of the concept or the use of the term. Rather, it is the opposite. One of the most important things a teacher can do is to simply love coming to work, each and every single day. I’ve met the teachers who are their to do their jobs, as they think of it. And I’ve met the teachers who understand that their jobs are a lot more than what the contract says. I watched Mr. Holland’s Opus yesterday, and I think that this scene captures beautifully what I am talking about:

 

Fortunately for the music students at John F. Kennedy High School, Mr. Holland learned:

 

So the next time you find yourself thinking of Hump Day and then looking forward to the weekend, just remember: the teachers who rush to the parking lot with gusto as soon as their work day is over are rarely the teachers for whom after-school assemblies are planned and former students come back 30 years later to celebrate.


Teaching Strategies: Games

Following the topic I used yesterday, I have decided to devote this week to discussing different teaching strategies, which, for my purposes, are being differentiated from pedagogical methods. Yesterday was the use of videos, particularly those found on YouTube, to complement and/or supplement classroom lessons.

Today I’ll be talking about using games. Believe it or not, this was actually a major focus of a unit of student in one of my curriculum and instruction courses during my last year at the University of Illinois. Each class was begun with a student sharing a game that can be used in the classroom. Games have many different uses. Through my work with the Illinois Teen Institute and Operation Snowball, we regularly use games as a teaching tool. As the saying goes, we strive to have fun with a purpose. Every game, every activity, every silly song we sing shares the purpose of helping those involved progress toward the goals of the program. And so it is with the use of games in the classroom.

Some games are used as ice breakers. They help the class get comfortable with one another or to get to know each other. Some games are used as energizers. No matter how exciting the lesson may be, there are times when the students are going to start dragging. They need something to get them up and moving around. Other times the students are too wiggly and they just need to expend some energy. There are also the games used as closers, although they are not used as often in the formal classroom setting. These allow the group to prepare to move on to whatever comes next.

But there are two categories of games that are most important, in my opinion. They are the team builders and the self-awareness builders. Team building activities have been around for a long time. I love them because they allow those involved to learn to trust each other. As an educator, I strive for a classroom that is truly a cohesive unit. I want my students to rely upon each other, to help each other, to teach each other. This is very much an aspect of my egalitarian views of education. Team building activities provide opportunities for small successes, which in turn set the stage for improvement through scaffolding and supports.

Those activities or games that develop self-awareness are not used as often, but I find that I use them most often when it seems like the class is not paying attention. My favourite is the hand on the chin activity.  This is how it goes:

I tell everyone in the class that we are going to do an activity, and I need everyone to stand up by their chairs. Everyone stands.
I tell the class that I want them to follow my directions as I give them. They give consent, wondering what I’m going to have them do.
I tell them to extend their right arms, and I show them what I mean. Everyone extends his or her right arm. (If someone uses the left, I will point this out, and they switch.)
I tell them to take their thumbs and index fingers of their right hands and make a circle. Again, I model this, and they follow.
I then tell them to slowly bring their arm in and place the “O” on their cheek. As I do this, I slowly bring my arm in and place my “O” on my chin. 9 times out of 10, every person in the class will do exactly as I did. Occasionally I will have a student who catches what I said and chuckles. The rest of the students are standing with their hands on the chins wondering what is so funny.
I repeat the last instruction. Slowly, realisation dawns: the chin is not the cheek. My response to this is that it is important to follow directions and to listen closely. We need to be aware that those in our lives may say one thing and do another. We should be confident enough in our classroom setting, and in our lives, to stand tall doing what is right, even if everyone else is doing the wrong thing.

I love the change that comes over the classroom when we do this. For a brief while, I have a room of students who are paying attention, working hard, and helping each other. And I’ll admit it: it is really funny to have a room of 25 boys and girls all place their hands on the chins after being told to put them on their cheeks.

 


Teaching Strategies: YouTube

Today is the first real day of Spring Break here in Champaign, Mahomet, and Urbana. I had earlier stated on Twitter that I would not be posting anything today, but I just found this awesome YouTube channel that I wanted to share with all of you. (Shout out to Edna Lee at Regurgitated Alpha Bits for sharing this on her blog!)

The channel consists of surprisingly well-made (for amateurs) music videos of 52 different events in history, put to popular music. Some of the songs are contemporary, such as the story of the French Revolution set to Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance while others use hits from the 1980s, such as Tainted Love by Soft Cell to tell the story of the Trojan War. There are even some Beatles tunes thrown in. Some of the videos are better than others, but they are fun and would be great to share in the classroom.

Except, of course, for that nagging problem that seemingly every school district in the nation has blocked access to YouTube. This channel alone provides an excellent argument for allowing teachers and staff access to sites that are blocked to students. There are lots of ways around this, of course, and a quick Google search can give you directions on how to take advantage of any number of them. (Edna Lee even offers a way to rip YouTube videos, but I’ve never used it and I have no idea what the legality of it is, so I’ll leave you to find your own methods of acquiring the content).

Anyway, I thought I’d share a few of my favourite videos from History for Music Lovers!

(more…)


Crying

Today was the last day of my week-long assignment as a 6th grade Language Arts teacher in Mahomet. It was an excellent conclusion to a wonderful week, even if I did have two girls accuse me of a being a terrible, mean, evil person.

Perhaps I should explain. As you may recall, we had started watching the movie Hachi yesterday and finished it today. The students had just finished reading the book, or, rather, just finished hearing the book read to them, and were thus familiar with the story. You would think that they would understand that the movie, inspired by the book, would have a similar, if not identical ending.

Apparently such a thought would be incorrect.

There were a number of students in each of my three LA classes that were greatly saddened by the ending. There was crying amongst the girls and the boys–in fact, my third class had more boys crying than girls! But it was the first class that brought for the accusation of being evil. I learned today that the biggest difference between a film and a book is that sad things in books are much more difficult to internalise than sad things in movies for the simple fact that, no matter how vivid your imagination, you can’t see the sad things in books the way you do in film.

And so it was that two girls were crying for almost half an hour, and then accused me of being a terrible, mean, evil person. I pointed out that it wasn’t my idea for them to read the book and watch the movie, but that was no excuse; at least, not to them. I also pointed out that they already knew the ending, so I didn’t see why they were so upset. Alas, to no avail. Fortunately, though, my wrap up activity was fun enough to distract them from their sudden hatred of me and, by the end of the day, they were back to loving me.

The wrap up activity involved the class dividing into three groups. One group identified elements of the book Hachiko Waits that were not found in the film Hachi. The second group did the opposite. The third group had to identify elements shared by both the book and the film. It went really well, and students in all three classes found different elements to discuss. Within the classes, they shared ideas with each other and supported one another’s efforts to fulfill the assignment. After reviewing the answers, I asked the students to tell me what their plans for Spring Break were. Some are staying in town, some are traveling to other parts of the state, many are going to different states. Many, but, sadly, not all, will be doing at lest some reading over the break.

Me, I will be applying for full-time jobs, writing book reviews, contemplating more my philosophy of education, updating my other much neglected blog, and watching The X-Files on Netflix. All while wearing my pajamas as much as possible. I’ll try to update during the break, but I may not update every day. We’ll see.

Regardless, I hope that those who have a Spring Break (or Easter holidays) have a wonderful time!


So Much Blood!

Today was day four of my ongoing assignment as a 6th grade Language Arts teacher in Mahomet. The festivities today involved watching the first part of the movie Hachi, one of at least two Japanese-inspired remakes that Richard Gere has done. (The other that I know of being his take on Shall We Dance?). And of course, being the closet sadist that I am, I stopped the film right at the climax of the story, leaving all of my classes hanging until tomorrow when we watch the conclusion.

Oh, and for those of you nay-sayers who are wondering about the educational value of spending two days watching a movie, I will point out that a) it is the last few days before Spring Break, b) the 3rd quarter just ended so it is silly to start something new and then wait a week to carry on and c) we are going to be doing a class discussion of the differences and similarities between the book Hachiko Waits and the film that was inspired by it.

Anyway, during my second class period, a quiet young man approached me at the beginning of class and said, “Um, Mr. V, can I have a band-aid?” I looked at him and asked why (since many students claim to need them for non-important reasons, such as a piece of cracked skin near the base of the fingernail). He was like, “Well, I’m kind of bleeding. Look!”

He showed me the backside of his hand, which was covered in blood. It turned out he had picked off a fairly large scab and started bleeding. A lot. I quickly pulled out my first-aid kit that is always in my bag, gave him an antiseptic wipe, and prepared a bandage with antibiotic ointment. These are all things that I have carried since I was in high school, when my friends were the ones regularly cutting themselves and bleeding on stuff. Then I kept carrying them because of my unfortunate habit of bumping into things and bleeding.

As I administered first-aid, someone asked, “Hey, are you a Boy Scout?” to which I responded, “Yep! An Eagle Scout, actually!” Everyone thought that was pretty cool. Or at least they claimed they did.

Having bandaged up the young man, we started the movie. About fifteen minutes in, I noticed him playing with a small beige-ish coloured object in his hand. His band-aid.

*sigh*

So much for needing a band-aid, I guess. At least the bleeding had stopped.


Walkabout

Today was day three of my awesome week-long assignment as a 6th grade Language Arts teacher in Mahomet. Today was an early dismissal day for the junior high school because the teachers had to attend some mandatory in-service training meetings. As a result, I was done with school a couple hours earlier than usual. Because Gretchen drops me off and picks me up each day, I decided to walk to the Mahomet Public Library to wait for her. Fortunately, it was a beautiful warm afternoon. Unfortunately, I was still wearing my dress shoes and, even worse, my thin dress socks instead of my thick cotton socks.

You see, the Mahomet Public Library is something like two miles from the junior high school. So it was a bit of a hike. A rather painful hike while wearing uncomfortable shoes with thin socks. But it was still a lovely walk.

As I was walking about town, I was stopped by a couple of high school boys in their truck who offered me a ride, but I declined, explaining that I enjoyed walking and that it was a wonderful day. Later on, I was attacked by a crazed swarm of adolescent girls.

Okay, they weren’t really a swarm, and it is probably a bit of hyperbole to call them “crazed,” but this was what happened:

I was approaching a street corner where the local Dairy Queen was located. Suddenly I heard a bunch of yelling and excited screaming that, among other things, included my name (OMG OMG Mr. Valencic! Hey! Mr. Valencic! Squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!) I looked, and about a dozen or so of the girls from my classes the past few days were running to me, waving their arms and yelling for my attention. This was very much an example of students being surprised to see a teacher outside the school setting. Anyway, the girls dashed across the street, surrounded me, and began to ask me where I was going, why I was walking, and whether or not I remembered their names. We chatted briefly, I explained that I was walking to the library, and I apologised for not remembering all of their names. I bid them all a good afternoon and continued my hike.

An hour later I finally made it to the library and spent the next four hours waiting around until my wife was able to pick me up. I’d tried to get a ride home from other friends, but none of them got the message until she had picked me up. (Don’t worry, though–I have already arranged for a ride tomorrow so that I won’t have to walk a couple of miles and wait around in the library all day.) It was still fun going on a bit of walkabout today, and it was fun to see students outside the classroom; perhaps even more fun for me than for them to see me outside the setting they are used to seeing me in.


Dress for Success

Today was the second day of my week-long assignment as a 6th grade Language Arts teacher at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High School. Things went really well today, and my positive relationship with the students and staff is continuing to grow. In fact, the teacher across the hall has already listed me as a preferred sub and has put in an assignment for me after Spring Break.

During one of my classes this afternoon, one of the girls asked me why I always wear a tie. The brief response was that I do so because I am a professional and I dress professionally. Also, I don’t think the students would take me very seriously if I wore jeans and a t-shirt. But the actual answer is a bit more involved.

This actually goes all the way back to my Fall 2007 student teaching placement in a 5th grade (gifted) class at Garden Hills Elementary School in Champaign. I had visited the classroom before the assignment actually began, and noticed that the teachers tended to wear informal clothing. The male teachers, especially, wore nice jeans or casual slacks and polo shirts. As an impressionable young prospective teacher, I took my cue from my mentors–in this case, all of the teachers in the building. An important side note here is that most of these teachers had been working within the profession for at least 20 years. I dressed well, but still casually. My university advisor suggested that I never wear jeans, so I switched to wearing my khakis, but that was all the advice I got.

Near the end of my placement, I had to spend three days in a “full take-over” in the classroom. The first day, I dressed as usual. The second day, I wore slacks, a dress shirt, and a tie. The difference in the class’s response to me was incredibly apparent. So I decided that, from then on, I would dress professionally when I taught. When I was given my second student teaching assignment in a 1st grade class in Paxton, I decided to start off the right way. (Right for me, I should say.)

I didn’t think much of it until the last day I was there. Several of the boys and girls came wearing ties in honour of me. They had (with their teacher) made scrapbook with their pictures and comments, many of which referred to my ties. I was touched, and it reinforced my decision to continue on wearing dress clothes to work. The only time I have lapsed was when I did a short afternoon assignment for my mother-in-law last year. I wore what I wore when I did my fall placement in 2007. I decided not to do that again.

So I continue to wear dress shoes, slacks, dress shirt, and tie to work, regardless of the assignment. It doesn’t bother me that other male teachers don’t dress the way I do. My decision to dress as I do is for me. I don’t have any desire to transfer my personal standard onto others. For example, there is a 3rd grade teacher I know who almost always wears shorts, a hoodie, and sneakers. Everyone knows him, everyone loves him, and everyone respects him. Maybe it is because he has been teaching for a very long time. I don’t know. But, for me, I feel that how I dress impacts how my day goes. And perhaps I was influenced from a vignette in Gloria Ladson-Billings’ The Dreamkeepers:

Pauline Dupree… is always impeccably dressed in a style that reminds one of a corporate executive. Her outfits always are coordinated; she seems to have a different pair of shoes for each. During our first interview, she said that some of the girls in her class sometimes peek around the classroom door in the morning to see what she is wearing. When one of her students asked why she was always “so dressed up,” Dupree replied that she dressed the way she did because she was coming to work and she worked with very important people, so she wanted to look good…

[What follows is a dialogue between Dupree and one of her students]

Dupree: As far as money is concerned, it is true that teachers don’t earn as much as I think they should but there really is more to work than earning money.

Student: Like what, Mrs. Dupree?

Dupree: Like getting the chance to work with the most important people in the world.

Student: Who?

Dupree: All of you. Every weekday morning I wake up I know I’m on my way to work with the most important people in the world. Do you know why you’re the most important people in the world?

Because you represent the future. How you turn out will have consequences for us all. What you decide to do with your lives can help make this community and the world a better place.

And so it is with me. I dress for success. Not mine, but theirs. Tomorrow is Tie Day at MSJH. I think I will bring several ties and change them each class period, just because I can. It should be a great time!


A Pile of Plans

Today I was a 6th grade Language Arts teacher at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High School. This was Day One of a five-day assignment. I was requested for this assignment. I’ve subbed for this teacher a few times in the past, and was quite pleased to know that I left enough of a good impression on my first day that she listed me as her preferred sub. Presumably, the students are the ones who gave me such rave reviews.

When I arrived at work this morning, I found a giant pile of plans on the table. If you happened to miss the picture I posted on Twitter (and Facebook), here it is:

This is what a week's worth of plans look like!

The teacher for whom I am subbing left incredibly organised, well prepared plans. There have been a few times when I have walked into a room and nearly had a panic attack. The plans for the week were also outlined on the chalkboard to the left of the picture. This allowed me to explain to the class the general outline for the week. All in all, I am confident this will be an excellent week.

One of the things I had waiting for me was a note from the teacher that said something along the lines of this:

Marcus* has been causing regular disruptions in all of his classes. If you need any assistance, please call the assistant principal. Also, please make a note of any discipline issues you may have. I am afraid that I will have to make a call to his parents soon.

This is not an uncommon note from a teacher, and I actually appreciate knowing that I may have some students who will be pushing limits and testing my management techniques. What was weird was that I experienced no such problems. In fact, Marcus was incredibly well-behaved, stayed on task, and got a lot of his work done today. After class I called him over to the desk and told him about the note and asked what had been going on. He just shrugged his shoulders and said, “I dunno.” So I praised him for his work today and encouraged him to do the same in all of his classes throughout the day. I passed this on to the teacher across the hall, who simply said that she hopes things will turn around for him.

I don’t know why he has been causing his teachers so much grief. I think it is odd that he doesn’t seem to know why, either. I’ll be interested to see if today was an exception or if he will continue to stay on task throughout the week. I’m also looking forward to continuing to work through the pile of plans that are on my desk this week!

* Names have been changed.


In the Computer Lab

Today I was a social studies teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. My classes included world cultures, world geography, and current history. The students were excellent, most have had me before, and the teachers notes for the day were clear and well-organised. So things went pretty well today.

Many of the classes were working on projects, so I spent the majority of the day in the computer lab. The students were mostly working on their projects, although some claimed to be done and played online flash-based games instead. They insisted that their teacher allows them to do this, although I found out later that he does not, in fact, allow them to play games. However, I trust my students to tell me the truth and to be responsible for their own actions, and if they want to be dishonest and hurt their own grades, that is up to them.

I am always surprised at the types of games that students play while on the computers. Most are appropriate educationally-based games, such as those found on Coolmath.com, but, occasionally, someone tries to sneak through with a game that is not appropriate. Usually, these games involve takes on the first-person shooter model and include killing and bloodshed. Fortunately, my students are always willing to close the game and go somewhere else. Today, though, I witnessed a new game. It is called Robot Unicorn Attack. I have no idea what the appeal of this game is, but it seems to be popular.

What can I say? Kids are weird, even (or maybe especially) the ones in high school.


Relevant Teaching

Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign (but not for my mother-in-law). I was only there for half the day (really a lot more – about five hours instead of the typical seven), but it was a good day. The class is really used to me by now and were happy to have me as their sub (except for the few who are determined to be difficult for every teacher they encounter). We spent the morning doing science, math just before lunch, and Language Arts afterwards.

Whenever possible, I strive to make my teaching as relevant to the students’ lives as possible. So I was quite pleased when the science lesson was on the history of the development of the cellular phone. After all, these boys and girls are 11-12 years old, yet almost all of them own cell phones already. Those who don’t want them soon. I contrasted this with the fact that I didn’t get a cell phone until 2005 (which actually elicited laughter from the class). We talked about the different kinds of phones that exist and what model they would most like to get. Having piqued their interest in the matter, it was easy to get them to start working on the assignments.

The math lesson was on measuring the volume of rectangular prisms, which is was harder to make relevant, but I started off by having the students identify the various rectangular prisms in the classroom. An interesting discussion arose when someone suggested a piece of paper was a prism, but others disagreed. We established a rectangular prism has to have six rectangular faces with a measurable length, width, and base. Having determined that these were acceptable criteria, the class decided that a standard piece of paper does indeed constitute a rectangular prism. I then tried to help them understand the concept of volume. I used an example I had stumbled upon last year that seems to work really well: just about everyone knows what volumizing hair products are for. They understand the result of using such products, and from there they were able to understand the concept that volume is the measure of something taking up space. So that connection also worked.

Going for three-for-three, I spent the afternoon teaching about adjectives, and managed to get the students to provide several examples of adjectives before they even had a clear definition. I asked for someone to give me a noun, and he suggested the name of a girl in the class. I then asked the students to describe her. After we created a decent list, we discussed how adjectives are words that modify, or describe, nouns. Just as the students started to work on the assignment, their teacher arrived. It was a pretty good day all around.


Well, That Was Poorly Timed

Today I was a supportive services (special education) teacher at Lincoln Trail Elementary in Mahomet. I was happy to return to Lincoln Trail because a) I have had a two wonderful experiences there in the past, b) I have applied for one of their many job openings and am eager to have my name and face known around the school, and c) this guaranteed that I will have worked every day for the first three weeks of this months (since I am already scheduled for the rest of this week and all of next).

While working, I had the opportunity to teach with a very skilled student teacher and a teacher’s aide who does her job very well. The students were eager and participatory today, which was an added bonus. When it comes to special education, it can be kind of a crap shoot: some days are great and some days are not. I was glad to have a good day, and I know that the other teachers were glad, as well. It was also a fairly laid-back day, since the students at Lincoln Trail are finishing up ISAT testing this week and the teachers are, consequently, not loading them up with too much extra work. So, all in all, I had an easy and pleasant day.

Of course, this would be the day that the principal comes by the room to check up on things. And of all the times for her to come by, she just had to visit when the aide was texting the teacher for whom I was subbing (assuring her that all was going well), the student teacher was reading magazines with some boys who had just finished their mornings work, and I was on my phone looking up the etymology of a word that had come up in conversation with the boy who was working with me. (As an aside, the word butcher is not a word with a root and the -er ending. That is to say, a butcher is not one who “butches”–rather, the word butcher comes from French for bouchier, which came from some other word meaning the slaughter of goats. Go figure.)

Anyway, so the principal walks in and sees the substitute teacher doing something on his phone, the aide texting, and the student teacher reading a magazine. Not exactly the best timing in the world. Oh, and none of us realised she was there at first, so she walked in and stood there for a bit observing all of this. Whoops. Fortunately, the aide explained what she was doing, at least. Unfortunately, especially for me, I didn’t even know that it was the principal, so I missed my one opportunity to introduce myself and leave a good impression.

Hopefully this will not reflect poorly on my attempts to secure full-time employment at this school!


Venting

Today I was a 3rd grade teacher at Stratton Elementary in Champaign. Today was a very rough day. Of the sixteen students in the class, four of them were awesome, eight of them were less-than desirable, and four of them were quite terrible. Or, rather, their behaviour was, respectively, awesome, less-than desirable, and quite terrible. I do not believe any child is bad. It is the behaviour that is bad.

Anyway, during the course of the day, I struggled with a lot of behavioural problems. During lunch, and after school, I was able to express concerns with my colleagues. I was appreciative of their support and encouragement. I also received encouragement from some of the students who were behaving admirably well.

What I find interesting about all of this, it never occurred to me that it would be a good idea to turn to my blog to vent about my students. It is one thing to say I had a rough day. It is an entirely different matter to turn to the internet and use profane, disrespectful, and hateful language in describing my students, my job, my employers, and pretty much everyone in the world. Venting is healthy, but it needs to be done in the appropriate setting. It is totally cool for me to vent to my colleagues and to my wife. But I will never use my very public blog to vent to the world.

Besides, I love my job. Even on the rough days. “For it must needs be that there be opposition in all things…” If all of my days were wonderful, I would become complacent and lackadaisical in my work. So here’s to hoping for a better tomorrow!


Book Review II: The Dreamkeepers

Today I was a 7th grade math teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. I am fairly certain I was working with a different group of 7th graders than I have been, because the students today were considerably different from those I have come to know extremely well. Some of the classes were incredibly rambunctious and even disrespectful, while the others were really awesome. Rather than write about my experiences today (which included a boy and girl making out right in front of me after school–like, right right in front of me), I’ve decided to share my second book review.

As mentioned earlier, I have decided to take time during my prep periods/plan time each day to read through the vocational literature I have acquired over the years. After completing these books, I will provide a review here. The reviews will mostly focus on my impressions of the overall text and how I feel it relates to my personal philosophy. In addition to wanting to share what I think about the books that I was required to read in my classes (as well as those books that have ended up in my hands through various means), I am also interested in seeing how my own ideas have changed over time.

The first book I selected to read was The Dreamkeepers by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Ph.D. (However, my review of Dr. Robert J. Mackenzie’s Setting Limits in the Classroom was posted first due to its coinciding with some experiences I had while teaching that day.) The subtitle of this book is Successful Teachers of African American Children. From the beginning, the book is set out to be an expanded writing based on Ladson-Billings research over the course of three years in a majority African American community school district in northern California. The purpose of the study was to identify what methodologies have been most successful in helping African American students to achieve academic success. The book was of interest to me because there is a sizable African American population the Champaign school district (about 40%). I am well aware of the challenges facing the African American community, particularly in terms of high poverty, high unemployment, high incarceration rates, low mortality, and low high school graduation rates, among many, many other challenges. So I decided to read Dr. Ladson-Billings book to see what methods would help me improve my teaching and improve the lives of my students who are so often in difficult situations.

On the one hand, the book is full of amazing teaching strategies. The main focus is on what Ladson-Billings terms culturally relevant teaching. I love the principles of this pedagogy and find that it fits in quite well with my own philosophical leanings. To be brief, culturally relevant teaching “is a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.” The thing that struck me the most as I read through the book was that these teaching strategies are appropriate for every classroom setting, which led me to a key question that was never answered: What teaching strategies will specifically help me improve my teaching and improve the lives of my African American students?” Throughout the book, Ladson-Billings focuses on African American students and their teachers, yet there is nothing in the book that is actually specific to teaching African American students. I could go through the entire book and remove every reference to race and still have an excellent resource for successful pedagogy. If the point of the research was to emphasise that minority students will best benefit from receiving high quality education, then I am at a loss as to why this was never explicitly stated. More importantly, there was nothing to indicate that high quality education for minority students is somehow different from high quality education for majority students. So what is the point of the book?

I really don’t know. It annoys me to have to say that, because I truly enjoyed reading about successful teaching strategies. I truly believe that all students will benefit from the application of culturally relevant teaching. In the end, I would recommend this book to all, but I with the warning that you may have to sift through a lot of chaff to find the kernels of wisdom.

(I have four pages of notes from the book and most of them are critical of Dr. Ladson-Billings approach to her own research. If you are not interested in reading all of them, you can probably stop here.)

(more…)


Facebook

Today I was the art teacher at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High. This was the first time I’ve subbed for an art teacher in over two years. It was a good day. The 8th graders were making “handscapes” (landscapes that featured hands in atypical locations, such as in the place of tree branches or clouds or ears of corn). The 7th graders were making balancing toys–paper images weighted with pennies and made to balance on the end of a pencil. The 6th graders were making pictures of their dream locker interiors, which included video game systems, secret rooms, soda machines, etc. With just one exception, everyone was working on the assigned project the entire class period.

I love how middle school students are so interested in knowing who I am beyond just the substitute teacher. They ask me questions about music, literature, movies, television, whether or not I’m married, where I went to school, how old I am, what my first name is, what my wife’s name is, how I get my hair to look so awesome, etc, etc. I also have the occasional student ask if he or she can add me as a friend on Facebook. This happened today. The conversation went something like this:

Student: Hey, Mr. Valencic, what’s your first name? I want to add you as a friend on Facebook!

Me: Sorry, I don’t accept friend requests from students.

Student: Oh, okay.

I have had surprisingly few students attempt to add me a friend. Two are high school students in Mahomet. I did not accept either friend request, though. Some may think I have some sort of double-standard, because I have many, many, many friends on Facebook who are in high school. These are young men and women who I have come to know through Operation Snowball, Inc. and the Illinois Teen Institute. In each case, I have a strict policy (which I shamelessly stole from my friend and drug prevention field colleague, Rob Grupe) regarding friend requests: I do not add teens, but teens may add me. However, the relationship I have with these teens is not the same as the professional relationship I have with students. While it is a professional relationship, the nature of these prevention programs leads to a greater degree of friendship and I am also a resource for these students to find support in building up their prevention programs at home.

Due to the incredibly public nature of Facebook, despite the numerous attempts to create security restrictions, I always make sure that I would never be ashamed to let my mother, my employer, or my ecclesiastical leaders see what I have posted online. (This is also true for my blogging.) I am always shocked when I hear or read about teachers who do not maintain these professional boundaries. I have heard of a high school discipline counselor who friends teens, has joined a group dedicated to her, and has had pictures of herself drinking alcohol posted in the same mobile uploads album with pictures of her students. To me, it just makes so much more sense to treat Facebook as a semi-professional outlet and to remember that just because you can make something available online, doesn’t mean that you should.

Have a great weekend!


Bathroom Breaks

Today I was a 2nd grade teacher at Sangamon Elementary in Mahomet. This was my second time teaching 2nd grade in Mahomet, and it went really well, despite the near-constant talking that went on throughout the day. In an odd sort of way, I was actually glad that the students had been so talkative. In discussing my experiences in Mahomet with others, I’ve had some friends and colleagues comment that the district seems to have a Stepford Wives kind of feel to it. Today was a good reminder that the students in this district are “normal kids” (if you’ll excuse the use of the term). They were fun, they were eager to participate, they were respectful, but they were also bursting with energy and had trouble controlling their enthusiasm–something that should not be a surprise to anyone when you take into account the age of these boys and girls.

So, one of the things that teachers are constantly dealing with is the need for students to use the restroom. As they get older, they are better trained to use the bathroom at limited times, but younger children are not as capable of waiting for bathroom breaks. I still remember the day in first grade when one of my classmates needed to use the restroom and our teacher refused to let him go until after the math lesson she was teaching. He ended up wetting his pants, his desk, and the floor surrounding him. Instead of finishing the lesson, she had to stop in the middle and let us all out for an unplanned recess so that the janitor could clean up the mess and the classmate could get new clothes. As a result, I am somewhat lenient on allowing students to use the bathroom, provided they do not abuse the privilege.

What is more difficult, though, is planning my own bathroom breaks. Typically, I am able to pace myself to line up with my break periods. After several years of this, I thought that I had this down to a science. But every now and then, something happens with my body’s chemistry and I find myself having to use the bathroom more frequently than normal. Today was one of those days.

Despite using the restroom during lunch, I found myself needing to use it again about 45 minutes later. I had 45 minutes remaining before my afternoon plan period, so I thought I’d be okay. 15 minutes later, I was getting worried. 15 minutes after that, I realised that there was no way I would make it. Not only was my bladder practically bursting, but I also had um… other pressure… building. This was not a good combination. Finally, with just ten minutes to go before the break, I ran next door, asked the teacher there if she could keep on eye on my class, and booked it down to the restroom.

I barely made it on time. But I did make it, thankfully! I got back to my class and, to be honest, I don’t know if the students even noticed if I was gone. Still, I was glad for the teacher next door who saved the day for me. I would have been forever scarred if I had managed to wet my pants while teaching. In the future, I will be ever diligent in planning my bathroom breaks!


In Which My Curly Locks Help Me Teach a Lesson

Today I was a biology teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. It should be no surprise that I had an excellent day. In fact, it seems that nearly every day has, in general, been excellent. My job is awesome, my students are great, and my colleagues are both awesome and great. Again and again, I find myself wishing that a full-time substitute teacher job existed in any of these school districts. Alas, ’tis not so. However, a full-time job teaching would be even better, and I am doing as much as I can to achieve that goal.

The focus of my lessons today was on genetic pedigree charts. The students are learning the basics of human genetics, and were identifying how dominant and recessive traits can be identified through family pedigrees. In the process of things, I managed to once again have several class periods where the students were fascinated by my naturally curly hair. I even had a co-teacher who was curious to know how I came about such lovely locks (not that anyone actually called them lovely, or locks). So I did a quick Google search and discovered that curly hair is a dominant trait. A quick pedigree chart established that my dad is not a carrier for curly hair (because his hair is straight), but my mom is (since she has curly hair). My wife’s hair is straight, which means that any curly hair that our children may have will come through me.

Curly hair is also most likely a trait linked to multiple genes, so it isn’t a straight forward AA/Aa/aa genome, but it is still pretty cool. So I used my hair as an introduction to the lesson. I was also able to point out how different genetic traits can lead to health problems, which is why doctors’ offices ask about family medical background. Having established a point of interest, I had classroom after classroom of students who were interested in the subject matter and keen to know more about the extra credit opportunity they will have tomorrow to map out their own genetic traits. It was definitely an excellent example of taking advantage of unplanned moments to teach and make lessons relevant.


A Lone Man

Today I was a reading specialist at Sangamon Elementary in Mahomet. I’ve only taught at Sangamon one other time, which was back in November, and I had a great experience, as I have had every time I’ve taught in Mahomet. So I was looking forward to returning to the school.

My day consisted of listening to 1st and 2nd grade students read quietly to themselves, then practice writing sight words on marker boards. They also played some matching games the teacher had created, which simply reinforced their awareness of sight words. Not a tough day at all. It was actually a fairly good experience working with these kids, and I look forward to when I can return.

I had an odd experience when I was standing by my door, though. The students in the halls would pause when they saw me and then crane their necks to keep looking at me as long as they could. It took me a while to figure out why. You see, of all the faculty and staff at Sangamon, there are only two men: the principal and one of the custodians. So when the students see a male teacher, they see an oddity. It is very similar to when I was doing my student teaching in Paxton. The smaller school districts in more rural areas tend to have fewer male teachers. I’m not sure why that is, though. I have always known that I would be a minority in my profession. It is kind of strange when I am the only man.

Such is my job, though. Some days I am surrounded by men, other days I am surrounded by women. However, one thing remains the same: I am always surrounded by professionals who take their jobs seriously and want the very best for their young charges.