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

Archive for April, 2011

When the Going Gets Tough…

Today I was a 6th grade history teacher at Jefferson Middle School in Champaign. I have subbed for this teacher once before, back in October. This was before I started this blog. I’ve only been to Jefferson one other time since then. (In case you missed it, the experience was not a highlight of my substituting adventures.) Still, I rarely pass up an assignment if I am available, so I decided to give Jefferson another shot.

I had four classes during the day: three history classes and one FLEX period (guided study hall). My experience has been that study halls tend to be the least organised and most unruly periods of the day. Yesterday was a bizarro-land exception to this. Shockingly, today was another. But in order to really appreciate what my FLEX period was like, you need to understand what the history classes were like.

I was warned that the first period of the day was the roughest. This was kind of an understatement. While I have not yet broken my record of 28 Discipline Referrals in one day (a sad, sad day in my teaching career, incidentally at Jefferson two years ago), I did have to send three boys to the office with DRs today. The class was very noisy and rather unwilling to do their work. I told them to work quietly. They talked. I said, “Stay in your seats,” and they got up out of their seats. Just about the time I was about to lose it, I told three boys to sit down and start working. One of them stood up and started dancing around. BOOM. Discipline Referral #1. Later on, two boys were talking, running around the room, and stealing other students’ pens, pencils, markers, and whatever else they could get their hands on. BOOM. BOOM. On the way out, one of the boys muttered something along the lines of, “Send me to the office? I’ll shove my pencil up his curly-haired…” Yeah, the office heard about that one, too. Threatening a teacher? Not cool.

Period two was better: no Discipline Referrals were made, but of the 19 students, 12 of them were talking throughout the period. They did their work, too, but they were not following expectations. The third period was actually pretty awesome. Jefferson follows a block schedule format, so the core content area classes are all 80 minutes long. For the first hour, everyone was working on their assignments, not talking, and staying in their seats. At the beginning of class, I told them that if they worked throughout the period, I would give them the last ten minutes to talk freely amongst themselves. Alas, an hour was about all they could give me. As an aside, I am shocked that they have 80-minute classes without any breaks –  conventional wisdom places the attention span of the typical middle school student somewhere between 8 and 14 minutes. For an interesting look into the criticisms of block schedule, I recommend this page by Jeff Lindsay–just ignore the awfulness of the site design!) Still, I was disappointed that the entire class erupted into chaos during the last 15-20 minutes.

The schedule for the FLEX period was quite different. For one, they were only in the room for 40 minutes, seeing as FLEX (by the way, I have no idea what that stands for) is not a core content area. For another, the schedule was pretty simple: 20 minutes of silent reading, followed by quiet study time. Today was the fourth time in my professional teaching career that this actually happened: the students sat in their seats, read quietly, and then quietly worked until the bell rang. I thanked all of them for their work, and left the day realising that, as frustrating as it can be to work with students who make poor choices, there are always those young men and women who are willing and capable of showing that they understand what is expected of them.

As I always do, I found myself changing my approach as the day progressed. I started laying down the most basic expectations with the first class. When that was not effective, I was more specific with the second. That still wasn’t what I hoped for, so I laid things out and made a deal. That almost worked, but it still wasn’t great. So I decided a new tactic: I asked the class what they were supposed to do, and then I modeled what was expected. While they read, so did I. It worked. Their teacher has done the same thing, and, as he put it, he has “trained them pretty well.” Whatever it was, it worked.

So, what is my response to the first half of the adage I used for my blog title?

Well, when the going gets tough, the tough get going, but the smart change paths.

Like a Gummi Bear

Today I was a floating substitute teacher at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High School. In Champaign, the floating substitute usually goes to three or four classes over the the course of the day. In Mahomet, though, the floating sub is usually assigned one classroom for the duration of the day, depending upon the need. What will happen is the school knows that several teachers will be out on a particular day, but they may not know which teachers will be gone, so they schedule me as a floater and give me the assignment when I arrive.

Today was definitely different, though! (more…)

Outsmarting the System

Today I was an 8th grade science teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. I am now just 9 teachers away from subbing for 50% of the teaching staff at this school! I am not sure if I’ll be able to pull it off, with less than 30 school days remaining in the year, but it is still pretty awesome.

The students I worked with were pretty good, and they were all working quite hard, even the ones who typically slack off in every class. There was only one class in which I had any problems, and that was an afternoon “FLEX Period” which is kind of like a focused study hall. I don’t know what the focus was supposed to be when I was there today, though, but we went to the computer lab where the students were given the following very clear instructions from their teacher:

No music sites (videos or audio), no random web surfing, and no inappropriate sites (i.e. sites that should be blocked by the school’s CIPA filter). The only sites they should be on were Study Island, Google Earth, or FreeRice. It is also generally acceptable for them to go to school-appropriate game sites like Fun Brain or Cool Math Games.

What is not acceptable is to circumvent the filters to get onto Facebook.

So of course the students at Edison Middle School have learned that just because is blocked by the filters, there is no reason to assume that is, as well. Which, for some silly reason, it isn’t. Which, in turn, led to me repeating telling two students to get off of Facebook.

So they closed the window and, as soon as I was out of view, opened it up again, but kept it hidden on their screen.

Silly children. They really think I don’t know their tricks? I told them to close it again, and then positioned myself in a spot in the room where I could see their screens at all times, and still see what everyone else was doing. Unless, of course, I happened to turn away for a moment.

When I did, these children once again tried to sneak it open. So after three warnings, I told them that if they went onto Facebook again, they were going to the Discipline Office. One of them took me seriously and actually stopped playing around. The other, though, waited about fifteen minutes, then went right back to doing what she wasn’t supposed to be doing. I immediately buzzed the office and told them what was going on and why she was being sent up.

Funny thing: apparently the students didn’t think about the fact that telling me how they are outsmarting the system would result in me passing on this juicy bit of information. Which I did. So now, hopefully, the secure-server version of Facebook will also be blocked by the filters. Sure, these bright young men and women who can’t figure out how to turn assignments in on time will probably figure out another way to circumvent the filters, but their teachers will still find out and will still put more blocks in place. Even though the teachers would love to have access to these sites. But when the students can’t show self-control, the harsher restrictions have to be put in place.



Today I was a 5th grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. As the substitute for my mother-in-law, I spent the day trying to keep out of the way of the student teacher, who has one more week to go before her full take-over in the classroom is over and her supervising teacher can resume teaching (at least part of the time). I have to admit: it is hard to do that.

Especially when there are students in the classroom who don’t understand the weight of their poor choices.

Especially especially when those poor choices lead to bullying of others.

Much like my Internet friend Edna Lee, I hate bullying. In fact, I do not hesitate to say that there is nothing, and I mean nothing, that can possibly happen in a classroom that makes me more furious than when I see or even hear about bullying. And it isn’t just because I was bullied throughout my public education career, although that is surely a part of it. It is because the very idea that there are young people who think it is acceptable to insult, harass, tear down, mock, and/or physically injure someone who is thought to be “weaker” than they are makes me sick. It is inexcusable on every level. It makes me boil inside to hear someone say, “Oh, they are just being boys” or “Oh, you know, boys will be boys” or “Oh, it is just a phase–she’ll grow out of it” or “I don’t see why you are so upset; after all, this has been happening for decades. It is a part of growing up.”

I am going to say right now that that is the biggest load of nonsensical crap that I have ever heard in my life. And if you happen to be someone who has said those words in your life, I hope you’ll stop to think about what you are saying, and I hope you’ll erase the phrases from your vocabulary. Bullying is never acceptable. It is never a part of growing up. It is never a rite of passage. It is mean, it is spiteful, and it is evil.

The worst part of it is that, as a substitute teacher, I rarely recognise bullying, because I am not around the students nearly long enough to catch what they are doing. Most bullying is not done in front of teachers, and it isn’t done in an ostentatious way. But every now and I then I am around long enough to realise what it going on. And then the brakes are hit, fast and hard. There is absolutely no tolerance in Mr. Valencic’s classroom for bullying.

So this morning the students were starting a chemistry lesson when some student said something to someone else. I honestly did not hear it, but the student teacher did. And she did exactly what was needed: she slammed the brakes and she put a stop to it. She had already been planning a minilesson on bullying for the afternoon, but it got bumped up to the beginning of the day right quick. She talked to the class about expectations and about the problem with bullying, even when it is just what the students think of as “harmless name-calling.” I remember growing up and hearing kids repeat this idiotic adage time and again: “Stick and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I am so glad to see signs that counter it. My personal adaptation is this: “Sticks and stones may break the bones, but words will crush the spirit.”

The university supervisor was there this morning to observe the student teacher and she even jumped in with some comments about bullying. (For those who may not know, university supervisors almost never say anything to anyone other than the teachers in the room.) She pointed out to the class that bullying is illegal; it is harassment, and they can go to jail for it. (Technically, Illinois only has laws requiring all schools to have anti-bullying policies as outlined by the State. Unless I am misreading the law, there is currently no criminal penalty for bullying, although there are penalties for harassment, which is the umbrella crime under which bullying would fall.) She also informed the students that there is a case in Urbana right now in which several students have been arrested in response to a severe case of bullying.

Will the bullying in the classroom stop? Maybe not. Will the teachers and administrators make a much more concerted effort to respond swiftly and appropriately to all claims of bullying? I think they will. In the meantime, I hope and pray that parents all over the nation will do everything they can to support to anti-bullying policies in schools and actively work toward teaching their children appropriate behaviour toward one another.

(And yes, I did have to be more involved as the day went on, just so that there was an extra pair of eyes keeping watch for inappropriate behaviour.)

You're Supposed To Be Doing What, Now?

Today I was a Family & Consumer Sciences teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. I have been very fortunate to have teaching assignments nearly every single working day for the past two months. In fact, so far I have had only one working day without an assignment. My schedule for this week is almost completely filled–I just have to find something for Wednesday. Why have I been so lucky? I’m not sure, really. It may be because the districts actually put a halt to hiring new subs for the year. (Interesting aside: one of my districts employs 200 substitute teachers, even though they only use, on average, 60 subs a day. Not sure why they have so many extras, unless it is just really that hard to find a sub some days.) But I think it may also be because I am willing to accept just about anything.

Which is why I accepted the aforementioned Family & Consumer Sciences assignment despite the very obvious fact that I had no clue what that entailed. I mentioned it at dinner last night, and learned that Family & Consumer Sciences is the modern name for what used to be known as Home Economics, or just Home-Ec.

Oh. Interesting.

Little known fact about myself (well, little known to those who don’t know me incredibly well): I never took any vocational education courses in high school. Even the one state-required course that falls under that category, Consumer Economics, was not taken, because I managed to test out of it my Freshman year. (I think that business classes are part of vocational education… Please correct me if I am wrong!) I had friends who took courses through the vocational ed program. I have a former classmate who is now teaching vocational ed at our high school. But I was very much the hard-core band/choir/drama geek who loaded his schedule each semester with math, science, language, social studies, and band/choir/drama. If I’d had an extra hour or two to the day, maybe I would have dipped my toes into the vocational pool, but probably not. It just wasn’t my area of interest.

So, armed with my complete lack of knowledge of this field, I went off to Mahomet-Seymour High School today wondering what on earth I’d be doing. The first class of the day was Food and Nutrition. I walked them through an introduction to a unit on eggs–Hey, I can handle that! I was an eggs-to-order cook for a few years while at the University of Illinois!–and that was that. The next class was Cooking & Culinary Arts. We watched a video clip of Good Eats starring Alton Brown. So far, so good.

Then we got to the Life Skills class. Um, okay… I think. We went to the computer lab and they spent the period finding articles online about positive peer pressure, negative peer pressure, and filling out a worksheet to compare/contrast the two. Oh, and they had to print out the articles. Except that the printer ran out of paper and instead of waiting for it to get refilled, they just kept hitting print. So several articles got printed about a dozen times. Oh, and someone tried to print an article but instead of highlighting the relevant portion, he or she just hit print and printed off a 34-page document, 32 pages of which were a list of the blog articles that had been published. Whoops.

And then we got to the area that left me completely baffled: Early Childhood Practicum. With two class periods at our disposal, we went into the bizarre basement computer lab so they could have a “work” day. (This is the computer lab that has film projectors and other antiquities lying around.) One boy seemed to be working on something that may or may not have been a  relevant project. The only other boy in the class spent the two periods on (he didn’t click on anything inappropriate, though). The girls all seemed to be shopping for prom dresses and checking out hairstyles that can do, despite the fact that prom is in five days.

It turns out that the girls were working on their projects, though. One of them is doing a wedding planning project, and, after browsing dresses, turned to cakes. Aha! I know about cakes! I suggested she check out the Sunday Sweets segment of Cake Wrecks. Victory!

Now if only I could figure out what the rest of them were supposed to be doing all day…

Book Review IV: The First Days of School

Today is Good Friday, so there is no school in Champaign, Mahomet, or Urbana. The official name for the day off is “Spring Holiday” but I don’t think there is anyone who believes that it is merely coincidence that this day off occurs each year on Good Friday. And thus it is that I have spent my day taking care of things around the home, like washing and bagging fresh fruit and vegetables for my wife and I to grab for snacks while at work and cleaning up around the house.

As is my policy now, if I have the day off and have recently finished reading a vocational book, I write up a review. I don’t know how many people actually read the reviews or find them useful, but I do know that, by far, the most popular post of mine (based on specific page views and search terms), has been my review of The Dreamkeepers. The two other books I have read and reviewed so far have been Setting Limits in the Classroom and The Internet and the Law.

The next book in this series is How To Be an Effective Teacher: The First Days of School by Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong. This is billed as the best-selling book in the education field. While it is ostensibly about the importance of the first days of school, it is much more than that. It is a book that emphasises the need for teachers to stop being workers and start being professionals. While I find that parts of it are outdated (I have a copy of the 2nd edition, though, so it is possible that the 4th edition is up-to-date), it is an excellent source for information on not just how to start the school year off right, but why the thing suggested are suggested. (more…)

Movies and Cupcakes

Today I was a 1st grade teacher at Robeson Elementary in Champaign. The assignment was only two and a half hours long. I would normally turn down such an assignment, as I prefer to work for a full day, but I had no assignment this morning, so it worked out quite well for me. And I was able to come in at last minute for a teacher who needed to take her daughter to the doctor to treat a nasty bout of warts on her foot.

The students had PE first thing when I arrived, then they were watching a movie with the rest of the first graders as part of a Earth Day celebrations. The movie was the Disney Nature film, Oceans. After the movie, we came back to the classroom where we celebrated a birthday for one of the girls in the class. With such an easy afternoon, you’d think that everything would have gone really well.

Unfortunately, it was the Thursday before a 4-day weekend, and the students all over the building were a bit antsy. The class did not do too well in PE (they got 2 points out of the 5 possible). There was a lot of talking during the movie, despite numerous warnings from the other first grade teachers. And then I had a lot of kids running around the room during birthday treats. All of this was after their teachers had talked to them a lot about good behaviour and rewards for meeting expectations. Of course, they are in first grade, which means most of them are 6 or 7 years old, and they are still learning self-control. But I have seen these first graders demonstrate the ability to do what is expected before, so I know they can do it again.