education, Teacher

There’s A New Kid in Town. Be nice.

It sucks being the new kid – even when you’re not a kid anymore.

writing128At my old school, I could walk into the staff room anytime of day and no matter who was in there, I knew them, I liked them, and I felt comfortable talking to them.

My classroom was set up just the way I liked it.

I knew where all of the office supplies were stored and were the good things were hidden.

The school secretary was my BFF.

I knew when to approach the principal for something and when to turn tail and try again another day.

After 5 years, I belonged.

Until I didn’t anymore. And I had to get a new job.

After spending almost 10 years in the elementary school system, I switched gears and took a new position as a resource teacher at a different school – a middle school – grades 6-9.

I knew that I would know most of the kids because my new school is the feeder school for my old school. They are literally within walking distance of each other. But it was new and it was different and it wasn’t my old school.

My first day, I was lost. I didn’t know where anything was and I didn’t know who to ask. I recognized my fellow newbies by their vacant zombie stares and the way they reached out and grabbed at people, begging desperately, “Help me! I can’t find the photocopier!”

By lunchtime, I was questioning my decision to return to the teaching world altogether.

I was just about to reserve a table for one for my full-fledged pity party, when I walked into the cafeteria.

It was the first lunch for the new group of grade 6 students and they were all trying to figure out where to sit in their new cafeteria.

Last year, in elementary school, they all had assigned seating. You may not have liked the kid who ate beside you, but at least you had a place to sit.

Now, it was a free-for-all.

Some rushed to find a spot next to their friends, while others just stood there, scanning the room.

I watched for a few minutes. I said hi to a few kids I had taught in previous years and then I made a beeline for a little girl I saw sitting alone. Since I didn’t recognize her from my old school, I was pretty sure she had just moved to our area.

“Hi there,” I said, sitting down across from her. “My name’s Mrs. Hollis. What’s your name?”

She barely raised her head. “Sarah.”

“Hi Sarah. Are you new here, Sarah?”

(whisper) “Yes.”

“Where did you move from?” I asked, trying to gently get her to open up.

Turns out “Sarah” had just moved to our area from California. She didn’t know anyone and when the lunch bell rang, she had no idea where she was going to go or who she was going to sit with. So she chose to sit as far away as possible from everyone. She looked like she wanted to crawl inside her own skin and disappear.

I talked to her for a little bit and then introduced her to a few students I knew at her table. I tried to start a conversation between them before moving on.

Next I found a foreign exchange student standing alone in the middle of the cafeteria. She was clutching her lunch bag to her chest in the same way my grandmother used to hold her purse at the mall – as if she was trying to protect it from potential muggers.

This little girl’s English was poor and her voice was barely a whisper but I managed to figure out that she had had trouble opening her locker which made her late for lunch. She didn’t know where she was supposed to go and no one was jumping up inviting her to join them. I quickly paired her up with a few kids I had taught a few years back that I knew would be nice to her and kept moving.

Now, I realize these kids are not in Kansas anymore. They are travelling the mean streets of middle school now. But this shouldn’t have happened.

New kids need support systems in place the first day of school. They need to know that when they go to lunch on that first day, they won’t have to stand there, scanning the crowded tables, desperately trying to figure out whether it’s better to approach an already formed group and risk rejection or eat alone.

It’s difficult as an adult to feel out-of-place in an unfamiliar situation or with an unfamiliar group but it is gut wrenching for a child.

The most important thing for all of us as human beings is to feel as if we belong.

If you don’t feel that you belong in the place where you spend the majority of your time, chances are you will be stressed, anxious and unhappy. And when you are stressed, anxious and unhappy bad things happen. Eating disorders, depression, anger, and a whole host of other things that children shouldn’t have to go through.

Schools need to do a better job of helping everyone feel as if they belong.

New kids transferring into a school should be assigned a buddy, someone who is confident and familiar with the school. Someone who will show them which bathroom is closest to the class and which water fountain only spits out warm water. They need someone to sit next to during lunch that they know won’t make fun of them.

Today was Pink Day. It’s the day when students and staff wear pink to show that they are against bullying. This is a great initiative. But do you know what protects kids most from becoming victims of bullying? Having  friends. Even one good friend lowers your risk. Bullies target kids who are alone because they are easy marks. If you have a friend, even one, you are safer, happier, and more successful.

So when you see a child who is always, repeatedly, unhappily, alone, say something, do something, help.

writing34

It could make all the difference in the world.

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Rants, Raves, Suburban, Teacher

Why We Should Abolish Grade 8

Let the cats and the grade 8's roam free.
Let the cats and the grade 8’s roam free.

I have long proposed that Grade 8 be abolished.

Sort of like the 13th floor in a hotel. Just skip over it. It’s bad luck. No one wants to get off on that floor.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying kids in grade 8 are bad people. It’s just that when they hit grade 8 they become afflicted with a condition I have coined Grade-Eight-I-Tis ©.

Grade-Eight-I-Tis, or G.E.I.T. for short, causes the adolescent brain to stop working, allowing the puberty hormones to take over.

Now, you may be asking yourself, what are the side effects of this dreaded condition?

Well, since you asked, let me give you an example of G.E.I.T. in action.

***************************************************************************************

Yesterday, as I was driving through my neighborhood, minding my own business, I saw one of my former students coming around the corner of the little side street where I was about to turn. He was with three other boys, all in grade 8.

I taught him three years ago when he was in grade 5. He was a cute little kid then. Nice, friendly, helpful.

I waved at him but he didn’t wave back. This was odd because he always waves at me. In fact, the other day, he actually stood in the middle of the road so that I would stop my car and talk to him.

That little mystery was solved in a matter of seconds.

As soon as I rounded the corner, I saw the fire.

I have no doubt that this former student of mine started the fire with his empty-headed buddies and then just sauntered away. There was no one else around and the flames were pretty high by the time I started beating them out with an old hat I found in the trunk.

Between my hat beatings and the man from across the street who came over with a bucket of water, we managed to put the ditch fire out pretty quickly.

But I was mad. I called 911 and told them they needed to send someone over to spray down the grass, just in case there was a rogue spark lurking somewhere. Then I told them to have the police call me. I was on my way to have a chat with a few budding arsonists.

I caught up with the boys pretty quickly (athletes they are not). The three I didn’t recognize took off running. My former student walked over to the car.

Trying to be cool, he leaned over my window, “Hey, what’s up?”

“You’re busted, buddy,” I told him. “Get ready for a chat with the police about the fire.”

“I didn’t light any fire,” he said, trying to look cool as sweat beaded on his forehead under his stupid backwards baseball cap.

“Whatever. Tell it to the police.”

Now, I know the worst thing that will happen to this little dumb-ass-kid, and his equally dumb-ass friends, is that they will get a slap on the wrist. Even if they are charged, the Young Offenders Act in Canada protects kids from their own youthful stupidity. And I suppose that’s a good thing. I can only hope that their parents will realize that unless they want to visit their kid in a juvenile detention facility in a few years, they need to step up and nip this problem in the bud.

*********************************************************************************************************

This incident just reinforced my belief that G.E.I.T. is a burning problem (no pun intended) that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

In my little fantasy-world, students in Grade 8 would not be in the classroom.  Instead, they would be out in the community helping: helping people, helping animals, helping the environment. This would help grow the parts of their brain that have been stunted by G.E.I.T. They would learn empathy, compassion and respect.

There would still be grade 8 teachers but their job would be to coordinate and supervise the work placements.  Yes, it would be like herding cats, but seriously, if we’re being honest here, isn’t teaching grade 8 like herding cats anyways?If you’re going to let the cats out of the bag, you might as well give them a wide open space in which to roam.

And who knows?

Perhaps if you’ve just spent the week cleaning out the ditches around your neighborhood, you might not be so quick to light them on fire.

I’m just sayin’.

————————————————————————————————————————————–

Checkin' for monkeys right now.
Checkin’ for monkeys right now.

UPDATE: I heard from the police this evening regarding our little junior arsonists. It seems three of the boys threw the fourth one under the bus and said that he lit the fire without them knowing. Apparently, this one rogue trouble maker ran off to the ditch (alone) to pee and then he started a fire. That makes sense to me. I always light a fire after I pee in the ditch. Yeah…and then monkeys fly out of my butt!!! Amazingly, their parents apparently bought this big stinking sack of doo-doo and all four got a “stern talking to” from the police.

I must say, I am a little concerned. I believe the United Nations puts “firm talking to”s in the same category as waterboarding. I hope the boys can get past this.

Memoir, Pop Culture, Princess, Rants, Raves, Suburban, Teacher

Why I can’t get cocky about my mental health.

writing34You should never get cocky about your mental health.

I should know. For the most part, I’m a confident, easy-going woman. I have an amazing family and a ridiculous number of incredible friends. My life is full of an abundance of riches.

And yet I’ve suffered from depression.

Mental illness can strike any of us. It doesn’t discriminate.

I’ve seen an 8-year-old boy crawling on the floor, barking like a dog because of a mental illness that has been made worse because of years of abuse and neglect.

I’ve seen a teenager who has suffered with anger issues and hormonal imbalances all of his life, suddenly discover drugs and spiral out of control.

I’ve seen a big, strong, confident man brought to his knees by depression.

Thousands of stories just like these play out every day, all over the world.

And yet many suffer in silence, too ashamed to admit that they have a problem. They are afraid of what other’s might think or how it might affect their position at work. And some of these fears are valid. Individuals still face the possibility of discrimination and recriminations when they disclose a mental illness.

Sometimes though, people do get the strength and the courage to reach out for help for their spouse, their child, or themselves, only to be told that help isn’t available.

They are often told that the wait-time for mental health services is months away. That’s too long a wait when you are on suicide watch for your 13-year-old daughter.

As a teacher, I often hear those in the “back to basics’ camp calling for less focus on helping children understand their feelings, so that more time can be spent on their math and spelling skills. They say it like self-esteem is a dirty word. As any teacher knows, a student with a mental health issue is a student who isn’t learning like they could. Our first priority as teachers is for our student’s well being. End of discussion.

Bell Canada started the Bell Let’s Talk fundraising campaign in 2010 and has since committed to investing $62 million in Canadian mental health initiatives. Some have criticized Bell, saying their campaign is nothing more than a marketing strategy designed to promote their brand and their products.

To that I say, well…duh. It’s marketing 101, not rocket science, people.

But if their program helps reduce the stigma around mental health and the money donated allows more access to quicker mental health services, then I don’t care why they are doing it.

You see, I’m one of the lucky ones. I have the financial means to access treatment, be it therapy, when needed or medication, when necessary. I also have the support of loving friends and family.

But I know how privileged I am.

Many Canadians don’t have that. Which is why we need to be there for each other.

So, thank you, Bell.

And Canada?

Let’s keep talking.

writing33

Teacher

CORRECTION: Michael Zwaagstra is a teacher, not a ‘former’ teacher.

In one of my previous blogs, I refered to Manitoba teacher, Michael Zwaagstra as a “former teacher”.

He is, in fact, a full-time teacher.

My apologies for my sloppy research and reporting.

If you would like to read his comments and reponse to my post, please check out the comment section of my last blog post.

In the interest of fairness, please check out his website. I don’t agree with everything he says or how he says it, but he makes some good points. http://michaelzwaagstra.com/

Rants, Teacher

Why Common Sense Education lacks Common Sense

writing30The student make-up of your average classroom has changed so dramatically over the past few decades that it is barely recognizable. So why are reformists suggesting we go “back to basics”? Why not go forward?

In a recent article, Mr. Zwaagstra, a representative for a group called Common Sense Education, says that teachers need to stop treating students like individuals and instead, focus on the subject:

Instead of wasting their time designing multiple lessons for each topic, teachers should put more effort into instructing the whole class at the same time. Students would learn more and teachers would have more time to focus on things that really matter.

Quick question, Mr. Zwaagstra: when was the last time YOU, or any of your Common Sense Educating peers, were in a classroom?  I’m not talking about a homogeneous grade 11 Chemistry class where all of the students have already met the pre-requisites. That’s a challenging job but it’s not the same as teaching in a mixed abilities classroom.

I’m talking about a public school elementary or middle school classroom, where integration is fully in place.

Let me paint you a little picture I like to call “reality”.

It’s September and you have been assigned a class of 30 beautiful grade 4 children. You can tell already that they are nice kids and you want to do your absolute best to help them be the best they can be.

Besides yourself, you have a one teacher’s aid (or EPA) assigned to work one-on-one with a high needs student in your class.

There are thirty (30) students in your room. Six (6) have Individual Plans (meaning they are at least 2 grade levels behind their peers and have specific goals designed to help them improve), four (4) have Behavior Plans (this means they are disruptive to themselves, the teacher and the rest of the class), and five (5) have Adaptations, meaning they can meet the outcomes if they have a special accommodation in place. These adaptations can vary wildly, from making sure the student sits at the front of the room to having someone to write down everything they want to say because they have a writing disability.  (Note: Some children have more than one of these plans in place.)

That makes 15 children who need some sort of individualized support. Half your class.

Now, let’s go deeper. Those six children with Individual Plans? They are all different. They are as different as you and I, which means their plans are different.

One boy, who is big for his age, has severe autism and operates at a 3-year-old level, needing support for toileting and all other personal needs. He shouts out when he gets upset or overwhelmed or just plain excited and has been known to bite. He has EPA support and spends part of his day in the learning centre.

One boy has Asperger syndrome, which means he misses a lot of the social cues that his peers understand. This often results in hurt feelings and social unrest. He also cannot complete his work with one-on-one support. He does not have an EPA.

Two children are multiple grade levels behind in their math and two others can barely read at a grade 1 level. They do not have EPA support either.

Let’s see, what’s next?

Oh right. Behavioural issues.

One of your students lives in foster care, having suffered neglect and abuse at the hands of his parents and grandparents. At any given time, he could be crawling on the floor, barking like a dog, or snuggling in close, asking you to “please, please be my mommy.” The next minute he tells you to f-off and the struggle to remove him from the classroom, once again, begins.  He does not have an EPA.

And remember, he’s only one of four students with his own behaviour plan. And they are all different. Some have ADHD, which may mean they are all over the place or it may mean they are completely introverted. You will figure out which is which pretty quickly.

What about the other 15?

A few of these kids are your very bright and very independent learners. They are usually placed at the back of the room because the front is needed for the kids who need one-on-one support and special cueing. They are usually bored senseless because you have to go over the same lesson 3 times when they have already gotten it the first time.

Finally, you have your so-called average kids who will do their work and make A’s and B’s and fly under the radar all year, unless you purposely make it your mission to focus on them.

That’s your class. I’ll admit…it’s a challenging one but sadly, it’s not unusual.

So, tell me, how do you focus on the subject and not the student when you have such a rich, diverse group of learners? How do you put aside everything you know about the child as a learner and just say, “The heck with it. I’m teaching one lesson, one way and if you don’t get it, too bad.”

How is this common sense?

Rants, Teacher

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­A guide or a sage? Spare me the crap. (Part 1)

standardised-testing-1Michael Zwaagstra, a school teacher and self-professed saviour of the education system, recently wrote an opinion piece that appeared in my local paper.

He said universities are brainwashing teachers to be a “guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage”.

Oh, spare me the melodrama.

Most teachers I know don’t have time to pontificate on whether they are guiding or a ‘sage-ing’. They are too busy teaching.

In a series of Common Sense Education videos on YouTube, Mr. Z has proclaimed that the “progressive ideology” of today’s education system is a failure.

Ah, yes. Once again, the education system is a failure. I’d be upset by this…if I didn’t hear it every other day…every other year…in every other century.

Back in the ‘good ole days’, teachers taught one lesson plan to the class and everybody learned it and we were all happy about it.

Yup.

At least, that’s the story that keeps going around.

And yet, it’s not quite true. In fact, it’s not true at all.

People who yearn for those rose-coloured days of school, filled with spelling tests and multiplication memorization, tend to forget a lot of the facts that went along with these things.

Back in the 1970’s, when I started grade school, we didn’t have children with special needs in our classes. Children with physical or mental disabilities were sent to a different school. In my case, their school was right across the street from my school. They were literally a stones-throw away and we never got together. The kids in my class who struggled were labeled “slow learners” and they failed at the end of the year.

People who wonder why kids never fail anymore, hear me now: because it doesn’t work.

Do you seriously know anyone who failed a grade (or two or three) who went on to great academic success because they had a chance to “catch up”? In my high school, these were the guys who went to the liquor store for you in grade 11, because they were already 20. They weren’t burning up the academic world thanks to being held back. They were just putting in time in a system that didn’t give a crap about them or their special learning issues.

In 2005, the Journal of Applied School Psychology published a study of students and discovered that:

Across grade levels, those events rated as most stressful by children were: losing a parent, academic retention, going blind, getting caught in theft, wetting in class, a poor report card, having an operation, parental fighting, and being sent to the principal.” 

Wow – kids would rather go blind than fail a grade.

And don’t forget about those kids at the school across the street. They were segregated from their peers, kids who may have lived across the street or were in their own family.

Thankfully, things have changed.

This new “progressive ideology” tries to treat students with respect.

All children are now considered worthy of a public education. We know that everyone benefits from integration (when it’s properly funded and implemented). Those who learn in different ways are taught in different ways.

Unfortunately, it is very, very hard to provide individual support when you have 30 students and one teacher.

Mr. Zwaagstra says that teachers are burning themselves out trying to adapt their lesson plans to meet every child’s individual learning style. He advises:

“Instead of wasting their time designing multiple lessons for each topic, teachers should put more effort into instructing the whole class at the same time.”

I agree that teachers are burning themselves out (please see a picture of me labeled, Exhibit A), but this ‘helpful’ advice just doesn’t ring true today.

We need to make some changes to our education system, but just declaring it a failure and going back to the good old days isn’t going to work. It’s 2013.  We have to look at today’s kids in today’s system and figure out what works best for them.

To be continued…