I’m having a day…

Today I have 6 girls in my classroom for over an hour.  Two are crazy loud mouth feisties, two are painfully shy, and two are pretty middle of the road.  I try to talk one through a tantrum over her grade which actually really seems unfair and I am wondering if the teacher really is doing something wrong.  I look up her grades, talk her down, make a deal with her before she goes to speak with this teacher.  Talk to the next one about her grades and talk her into doing her DDM.  I’ve talked about them before, they are tests I have to give because my district needs to check that I am teaching them something, eight million ways none of which they really check!!  The post test is a cold read performance of a monologue which I have to film.  I get her to do it and she rocks it.  The other girls comes back, she kept her temper I am very proud of her, but basically had the door shut in her face and now needs me to call the office so she can get a bus pass and let her into the bathroom and needs me to explain to her why she is also going to do her cold read,  Meanwhile all the other girls are asking about their grades and I go over it with them all.  One girl is asking about make up work when she missed a performance.  I get girl number two to do the cold read and to get shy girl number one to feel comfortable enough to do an actual very simple thing, but she’s shaking her head and hiding under her bangs so I try to duck into another class with her but none are empty and she comfortable nowhere, so I let that go for a min, talk to shy girl number two who is also sometimes nasty and rude into a comfortable state and she does hers.  she decides she’s just going to read it.  That’s not…give me your best…yea…THEN I usher out all the other five girls some of whom are playing soccer in my room.  After conversations about how R. has changed and doesn’t fight anymore, she lists names and names of girls she didn’t fight, T. makes a beyond her years comment to the likes of:  “but that’s the people you shouldn’t fight because you have a past connection with them…”  then we talk with her about her reading struggles and her acting triumphs.  I talk with C. about how I just found out bullying was happening to her in my room, and had I known, and it was important to me for her to know that…AND I need to sign everyone’s attendance buy back paperwork.  AND go over when why they were absent, whether it was excused, if it has to be made up…

Then…it is just shy girl number one and I left.  Alone, and she can finish her DDM because she cannot do it in front of ANYONE.  She starts, stammers, has to restart, holds her hand to her throat consistently.  Yet, she kind of really rocks it, using different voices for the girl when she’s being fake and the girl when she is admitting what she really thinks in her head, great emotion in her voice even some gestures…such growth! so proud of all of them!

This was only what happened after school today.

I am finally done, heading home…and I cry.  I cry because I haven’t told you about the rest of the day.  Another story for another day…soon, cuz there’s some doozies of stories to tell.

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What was the purpose of this blog again?

I may have lost my way, in more ways than one.

I began this blog as a way of sharing my experiences as a teacher with others, especially teachers. Not many people are full time theatre teachers in an urban high school like where I work but many teachers have the same struggles, the same bureaucratic bull that simultaneously angers us and breaks our hearts. There are many teacher blogs out there, but still not enough support of teachers, so I thought I’d add mine in.

I also thought this blog could be a way of sharing resources for anyone who may be teaching my subject or may want to add it to what they do in their academic subject.  Ha ha. Where did I get off thinking I was going to be an expert? I have been teaching nine years but this is only my third as a theatre teacher. I stumbled into some successful projects my first two years, but this last semester has not been successful. That is just honesty. I haven’t had many great ideas to start with, have gone about things wrong, and don’t have many resources to show and share for it.  And as less of justification, and more to hopefully connect to and ease someone else’s woes, I will explain. I have been suffering and battling anxiety and depression for almost a decade now. That’s when I start counting but I’m sure if I looked back…

Some times as teachers we hold ourselves up so high. We are moral guiders, support for 100+ needy students who often don’t get what they need anywhere else but in school, and we are educators. We want to see growth and knowledge in skills and see successes in our students and do it is engaging ways. Make it so fun they don’t see how hard they are working.

But sometimes we are human, not a super human educator and sometime we are lacking. Sometimes we are cranky to students. Sometimes we are underprepared and uninspired. Sometimes we crumble in the face of challenges.

BUT

If we don’t get fired, which, if we love our jobs and still care, we mostly likely will not, we get to try again. Right now we have the excuse of “THE NEW YEAR” and the closing of a marking period is approaching and for some a switch in semester course. For many teaching in a lifelong calling and we can dust ourselves off and try again. I have been beating myself up for not being awesome at nine years. Whatever, I’m a slow learner. I’m ok with that. I’m doing good things.

The approach of the new semester, which for me means new classes and new semester feels as though it could literally save my life. As I begin to do projects that I am more proud of and are more successful, I hope to share even better resources for teachers in all subject areas.

What Matters to my Students?

You know, at the beginning of my teaching career I felt like a little whitey, although well intentioned, lost in a land of mostly students of color and poverty. Yeah, I judge based on actions, but I still don’t have the experiences everyone around me has had. Yeah, I grew up on welfare, but we lived in my grandma’s house and I never went cold in my house in the winter. Do I know much about any of these cultures? As years passed it left my mind. I feel at home here and I have delightedly learned so much. When I switched from being an ELA teacher to a Theatre teacher and three years in I really want to make performance pieces that MATTER to the lives of my students and address needed change in our world. It started to sink in again, how do I know what matters to my students who have just moved from Jamaica or the Dominican Republic? How do I know what matters to my students who slept outside last night in the cold? And our country’s a little shaken up lately. Mike Brown, Eric Gardner, it’s gotten people shaken up and saying vile shit. It’s all bubbling to the surface, both the hurt at being a second class citizen in this country and the racism. How do I understand, not assume, what their opinions are? Yes, open up, ask questions, let them talk, listen. Yes, I know that although I value that completely, I don’t do it well. Either the conversation feels too shallow, I don’t have all the facts researched or they are unattainable, and I don’t want false facts thrown around, or the conversation is not happening, they get really off topic and I take over, or I’m too rushed. Time is so short! Gotta get projects done, etc., etc.

I’m embarking on a special project with one of my classes. They want to do a physical theatre piece based on the song showed below.

I am all for it! This is what I want, Social Justice in the classroom! I can already feel my instincts wanting to control this. How do I handle the Fuck the Police line? How do I get them to understand not all cops are the enemy? Get them to see all sides and see what I deem to be the right moral lesson to gain from all of this? Then get them to portray that in a theatre piece with all students engaged in the small amount of time left? And I gotta roll, no time to breathe, reflect, do my research…

DDMs, Part One

Visual Art, Drama, Music, Chorus, they are a different world from Math, Science, English, and History courses. Teachers in arts courses teach skills that support student work in academic subjects and also help them to grow as members of a larger community. The classes are structured differently. You better sing for most of your time in your chorus class, but pipe down in English.  You’re stretching and meditating in Drama, but usually not asked to do that in Science. These classes can sometimes be a refuge for students, the outcasts, the ones bored with math, the ones who don’t fit into traditional expectations of the sit down classroom. Teachers of the arts teach in a different way and give a different kind of support.

Yet, in my district, we are expected to do many things the same way as other classes. The largest example of that is in the DDM testing. Our district, comprised of five main high schools and several alternative high schools, requires every art course to have a pretest and a post test that is the same throughout all of the schools. Students entering a band course for the first time are asked to play a song, within the first three weeks of the course, whether they have some musical background or no. Students in my drama course are expected to perform a cold read of a monologue within the first three weeks. DDM stands for District Determined Measures and the purpose is the have it as uniformed as possible across the district. These pretests don’t impact their grade, for my class, they got a 100% for doing it. The post test does impact their grade and is their final.

Our students are also given a school wide writing assessment called the “Writing to text” DDM. This assessment is also the same throughout the district and it is tied to art teachers as well. So, students who have my drama class, do they grow as writers throughout the year? Well, I want them to so it certainly encourages me to teach writing as a part of course. Students also have pre and posttests in all other subjects, with the exception of Physical Education, which is currently designing theirs to be implemented next year. Throughout the year students also take our state’s Math, Science, and ELA tests, SATs, PSATs, Midterms, Finals, and midway through DDMS.

What is the point of this, I ask myself. Well, with these tests, the leadership in my district can see how my students are learning, what they are learning, and how much they are growing compared to other Drama teachers in the district. In other words, am I as good of a teacher as someone else? Teachers in other courses have to do these tests, so why shouldn’t we? It’s only fair. Also, when critics want to question the validity of these arts courses, we have proof to show them student growth in our classes. These tests are designed to keep teachers accountable, but I still ask, what impact do they have on students?

One of the Real Reasons Teachers Get “So Many” Vacations

Holiday vacation: it’s all about the reflection. “Student I” has been on my mind after his confession that his father hit him on Monday because of his absences. I know he isn’t the only one I have to worry about and I did all I could. But it took me until today until I realized one important thing:

He is scheduled for a parent teacher conference Monday. Worst. Timing. Ever.

Let me tell you something about this student: He is the type of student who absolutely will not and I mean will not give you anything if you haven’t built a personal relationship with him. He will skip your class and be completely disrespectful to you. He often comes to my class telling me another teacher or an administrator got on his case, about something completely legitimate, and he “cussed ‘em out.” He always tells me he has cussed someone out, about three times a week. The thing is, this student was skipping my class and the beginning of the year but has completely stopped doing so and is there every class and is never disrespectful with me. Because I have built this relationship with him.

The teacher who requested it…is…more heavy handed than me. I know the good side of her but I fret for how this meeting will go, and for what the fall out will be. I am wondering if I should give this teacher the heads up or if there will be even more consequences of THAT.

I also reflected about this question: Do I have psychic ability? Before Student I even came to me this meeting was scheduled and I immediately scheduled a block of time with this parent afterward. I wanted a meeting to give the other side, to cushion the blow. I already figured this dad has heard a lot of the complaints but his son’s good side and good habits in my class deserve to be heard as well. (I am not a psychic but I hate to admit how old I am but I have been doing this for nine years and I do read people and situations like this pretty well.) Even still, I worry is this Monday will go the same as last Monday for this student at home.

To add some humility to this post are two things:

I have emailed a colleague and asked for advice because she is smarter than me.  J Should I give this other teacher the heads up about the home life or not?

I also have this reflection:  I don’t build relationships well with all of my students and have actually made damaging choices that have probably branded me as a bitch forever, which is ok, but have probably shut some students down for good, which is not ok. I know I bring my own biases into my class every day. That is why I immediately get on the same page as the misfits, every time, because I was and am one. The students I sometimes have the worst time with are the popular kids, the jocks, the pretty girls, etc. I know on the surface I realize that the jock who is too cool for school not only has something damaging him and weighing him down but he needs what I have to teach him as bad as anybody else and I just gotta break through to him, like everybody else. But underneath, am I remembering the “type” of kid who used to throw milk at me in the lunch room? Why am I not able to simply find multiple layers on which I can relate one human to another? Sometimes I do and I vow to get better at it. This is what this reflection is all about.

I teach at a truly struggling inner city school where these kids truly have the odds stacked against them in ways you have never seen. This is not bleeding heart stuff, and if you really need to we can look at data. I always want to make it clear that this is not an excuse to expect less than success from them; it is only my way of explaining how proud I am of these tough, resilient, strong kids. There’s been a lot of talk about “grit” lately and hell yeah, these kids got grit. But almost every single one of them is like Student I, they need a personal connection with their teachers to cut through their practiced bad academic habits and they need to know a teacher legitimately cares before they can put down their built up anger and fears.

The Worst Time of the Year

Picture the scene: Tuesday afternoon, RIGHT after school lets out. We are officially on Thanksgiving Break and a group of teachers have gone down to the local pub where we all bum rush the bar for whatever well-earned drink we are getting and for most of us it is beer. The cast of characters include a few diehards that have been at the school for almost a decade, actually, I think I am only one of the two, an adjustment counselor, a few newbies, and every style of person from old to young, doe eyed to the original hipster academic type.

One of the newbies leans back and looks at me from two teachers down.  “Which do you think is the hardest time of the year? Do you think its March when we have that long stretch with no days off?”

He doesn’t expect this, but I say: “Now, the holidays, it is the worst. There is nothing good about this time of year.”

“What do you mean?”

“Our students –“ I say kids, I always say our kids, my kids when speaking about them. “LOOSE THEIR MINDS. All their traumas are triggered-anything from bad home lives that they have to go home to and spend extended vacations at, or holiday stress causing more abusive situations, or students who have lost a family member and they have to go through the holidays without them… We have the most amount of kids with stories and needs coming out of the wood work needing help needing extra support, being volatile and touchy and off the wall.”

“Oh…but what is the worst for us do you think?”

“Now,” I say again. I know what he means. What we do wears us all out, but we need these breaks, every year more than the last, only if we simply forget how tough our first years were, and at least this time of the year they come frequently. But for me, the hardest time for our students will always be the hardest time for me.

This year I go on break with “student I” on my mind who came to me today about abuse at home and I won’t see him until the holiday break is over to know if he is ok. I followed all protocol and reported it, and processed with the student afterward, glad to miss my lunch break to speak with him one more time before the day was through. I wonder too, about the students who have erupted into needless arguments with me this week, the ones that are the easiest to overlook since what they are doing seems like anything but reaching out for help, the one who broke into tears in class yesterday and wouldn’t talk to me, the ones who haven’t been here all week, and what about that boyfriend roughly slapping his girlfriend around in the hallway today? This is only Thanksgiving Break, I think, and this will get worse before it gets better. I dread the last few days before vacation because I worry, and I have even less control than I do on weeks I see them five times.

Our students, our kids, are like weather barometers, they pick up on changing pressure, they brace for it, react to it, long before and after. Holiday stress, the traumatic effect ever changing staff in our building has on them, even the events happening in Ferguson. They aren’t over dramatic, or even in most cases unstable, they are teenagers and the students where I teach are incredibly empathic and caring and what they see around them impacts them deeply, in only a way a teen could feel. They also have very few coping mechanisms as of yet to deal with way more weight than most people ever do, and that is a fact, a cold hard fact, with the student population I teach. So whether they are going home to a complete shit show or not, they know someone who is, and this time of the year is the worst for them. There is nothing good about this time of year.

Except for, maybe, doing what little we can do to extend kindness and protect them.