Tag Archives: reflection

Fun Sucks

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Hi! Do I have your attention?  Good.

So, for those of you who have been wondering what happened to this blog, I decided to take some time off to sponge off my husband.  Many people have informed me over the years that being a teacher is already sponging off my husband, and considering how many times he’s needed to purchase things for my classrooms over said years, I’d have to agree with them.

I always said to him that if I ever became complacent or stopped enjoying teaching, he should hit me upside the head with a cricket bat.  Fortunately, he didn’t need to because I had hernia surgery last summer that went bad and kicked off a whole new round of Fibromyalgia.  So, I’m currently being the world’s worst housewife.

But the other reason I haven’t been writing is because when I was a teacher, I went to many conferences where some Johnny-in-the-Pulpit preached to me all the ways and reasons why I was teaching wrongly, and how I should fix it.  Most of these people were academics who were only ever in the classroom as students until they became professors.  Few of them had real help to give because they were not currently in the classroom. It pissed me off.  So writing to you real teachers, who are currently in the trenches, when I’m not, feels like I’m being a class traitor.  So, it wasn’t until I could no longer keep a lid on it that I decided to go back to the blog.  And I start by pissing you off.  Hey, it’s a talent.

What I saw that ticked me off was an article about why classrooms should be fun.  Which led me to this conclusion: Fun sucks.  It really does.  For so many reasons.  I’ll list some for you.

1) Fun is relative.  It is hard to know what will be fun to you versus what is fun to your students.  For example, I think it’s fun to schedule a stitch and bitch knitting meet-up at one of the local strip clubs where, sitting in the dark with headlamps and needles (knitting), we knit g-strings for the dancers.  (That’s a hoot.  That is until we are bounced out for not buying drinks and upsetting the usual punters.  I won’t tell you how many times I’ve done this and in how many countries.)  But my point is that although I think this is hi-larious, many other more sane people don’t.  And on an infinitely smaller and less morally questionable scale, the same thing happens in the classroom.  Go ahead, ask your middle school student if something is fun (I almost wrote “if x is fun” but I know it would just send you right back to the strip club.  Pull your mind out of the gutter.)  What does your student say?  “It was ok,” and then they shrug or roll their eyes.  Just don’t ask.  No matter how you couch it, somebody is going to complain about it.  Trying to organize fun sucks.

2)  Fun is not guaranteed in life.  90% of the work we do, anybody does, is not fun.  It might be satisfying.  It might be interesting.  It might be a challenge.  But fun is a diaphanous quantity (or quality, take your pick).  Although it is true that the more fun you have the more likely you will be to stick with it.  But, if we start by promising fun and trying to create an environment that is mostly all fun, we do a serious disservice to the other adjectives that work is.  Fun is hard work for you, and lazy for them.

3)  Fun is not a good teacher.  Let’s think about all the things that cannot be curriculum if we only do things that are fun.  The Holocaust.  Lord of the Flies.  The Salem Witch Trials.  Slavery.  And I’m sorry, but if you are teaching the Roman Empire and it’s all fun, you are really are doing it wrong.  It sure as hell wasn’t fun for the Celtic people, the Germanic Tribes, and certainly not for the Dacians, otherwise known as the people who would become the Romanians.  And these are really worthwhile things to teach.  I won’t go into what’s possible on the elementary level because I only subbed there, but I think it is probably true that those teachers also find it difficult to keep Fun! at the top of the list.  Fun makes a bad developer of curricula.

So, that’s three good reasons why people need to stop hoisting themselves on their own petards.  They are why it is okay to not feel guilty when your curricula are not based on Fun!.

Not that fun has no place in the classroom.  Fun can be had.  But like the chocolate chips in a good cookie, it needs to be something to be looked forward to.  The cookie part has to be good, too.  Sure, many of us don’t notice the cookie part so much, but it isn’t just a complicated method of cramming chocolate chips into our gobs.

What will work?  I think it can be found by having curriculum that is satisfying.  And satisfying is much more quantifiable.  Do your students know something or have a skill that they didn’t have when they walked into the classroom?  Do they feel that something was hard but worth it?  Can they see the progress that they are making towards a goal?  Going back to the cookie metaphor, having a strong curricula based on satisfactions and recognizable goals makes the chocolate chips of fun that much better.  With maybe a sprinkling of coarse salt on top.  (I’ve got to stop with this metaphor or I’m going to have to go make cookies.  Again.)

And do you know what is really, really awesome about curricula based on recognized growth and hard, but satisfying work?  The students sometimes don’t even know they are growing.  While they are toiling away at something that maybe doesn’t look attainable (yet) and sure as hell isn’t fun, they are still growing.  I only know this anecdotally because of the number of former students who have come back and said to me, I hated you, and I hated this when you made me learn it, but now I’m really, really glad you did.  (I’m paraphrasing here.)  Fun is immediate.  Satisfying is about delaying gratification, and you all have heard the statistics about those who can delay gratification even for a little while.

So, yeah.  If we try to make fun do too much, then fun sucks.  Feeling satisfied, seeing reasonable goals being attained, feeling the worth of the knowledge is a much better recipe for creating not just a happy classroom, but also life-long learners.  You can grow with challenge, you can grow with hard work, you can grow when you see a worthwhile challenge.  Let’s let fun be what it is meant to be.  Not the basis for curricula, but those gooey, yummy, moments of delight that sets the whole class smiling.

 

 

 

 

Note:  Hubby and I are having many words about the use of curricula vs. curriculum.  I will defer to Terry Pratchett’s The Color of Magic to help me remember this rule.

Week 35 – Our Path Leads to Tiblet

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Yes. I meant to write “Tiblet”. Actually, I didn’t mean to originally, but it’s the way it came out as I was trying to research some questions that my students were asking about this amazing book. The real title is My Path Leads to Tibet by Sabriye Tenberken.

Every day during our writing class, students read a chapter of her book and then write a Reading Journal about it. I think I’ve talked about this before. We moved swiftly through the book reading a chapter or two every day.

6th grade students wrote a five-sentence summary of the chapter, they gave evidence of the writing trait we are working on, and then they wrote a ten sentence reflection. They practiced using academic English, and the things they are learning in Grammar class. The 5th grade did variations on this theme. These students needed a little more help with vocabulary which slowed them down a little.

I’ve been blown away with the students’ response to this book. After reading The Alchemist with them, I’m no longer surprised at the depth of their thinking, but this book is tapping into their innate sense of justice. They want to stop and talk about what Sabriye is going through as they feel it. It’s sometimes difficult to keep them on task because they get so angry at what she’s put through. It’s the right moment to say to a student, “Good, I’m glad that you are reacting, but what you are saying belongs in your reflections. Make a note about it, or hold on to it until you are ready to write.” Of course this is not satisfactory, but generally, I find that students do write those reactions in their journals.

Today, students wanted to know if there is another book by her. They wanted to know what her organization was called, and they wanted to keep reading. What I love is hearing their voices in their reflections. I learn so much more about them by what they write.

As we just finished the book, students are pooling their reflections to write letters to Sabriye and her school in Tibet. I compiled all the reading journals for each student and handed them back to them in packets. The students want to make little origami gifts to put in the box along with the letters. If they give me permission, and thankfully, they generally do, I’ll post some of them before we send them.

Again, I’m just so proud of them.

Comments for “Week 35 – Extra Credit? My Eye”

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So I asked some of my friends on “Friendface” who either work(ed) at a middle school or are (were) middle school teachers what they thought about the middle school homework problem as discussed in “Week 35 – Extra Credit“.  Below are their responses.  I just wish I could get this going here on Merifully Teaching.  I still welcome more comments.

Linda‘s lonq response get’s another long response!!

from my parenting experience, “doing the work” and “turning it in” ARE two entirely different things. not only had i heard my then middle-schooler repeatedly say, “but i DID the work, i just didn’t turn it in,” i have heard other parents of middle schoolers say the exact same thing.

i don’t know how many times i used the response question, “so how does your teacher KNOW that you did the work?”

the middle school years are laying the foundation for kids to get along with different rules by different people. the sooner they catch on, the better. these years are the turning point of taking responsibility for one’s own choices, some kids “get it” at this point and some don’t — unfortunately mine didn’t. i think 6th grade is a particular issue in which kids were used to their K-5 teachers checking off their homework, essentially reminding them when it’s time to turn in homework and prodding them if they didn’t. in 6th grade, all of a sudden they are expected to do something different to turn it in (basket at the front when they walk in the door, pass it up to the front, etc), usually without prompting. no matter how many times the teacher states what the “new rules” are, there will be a percentage that still don’t understand, well into the year. not to mention that EVERY teacher has different rules and that changes every year, sometimes each semester.

i must’ve often sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher during the middle school years. find a way to non-verbally remind your child daily: a note written in sharpie in the lid of the lunchbox or a special picture or saying to trigger their memory. nagging doesn’t work… and if the notes don’t work… email the teacher that your child may need to be reminded from time to time, BUT do not make excuses for your child.

the best (and hardest) thing a parent may have to do is LET YOUR CHILD FAIL. the earlier they fail, the easier it will be to recover academically. yes, it goes against everything a good parent knows, but it may be the only way that your child will finally “get it” — the choices THEY make, affect THEIR future. if you fight for them, how will they learn to fight for themselves? for my girl, turning in homework had been a standing issue every year from 6th-11th grades. it did take some very drastic circumstances for her to catch on, some kids need to find their own internal drive. now that she’s at the end of her Senior year, i’m proud to say she finally “got it”!

* and i get no extra credit. i have no idea where the term “my eye” came from!

Micki – The privilege of “Friday Free Time” works for me. If the work is in they get the whole 20 minutes and if not they spend the time finding it, finishing it and turning it in. Free time is games or curriculum based activities. They don’t get to just sit and chit chat.

Elizabeth– This time of year the kids are checked out so don’t assign any homework and expect it to come in. If the students are not doing work that is essential to their learning in class then hold them in at lunch or recess to finish it and offer them some guidance. This usually works well.

Ilona– I have to agree with Elizabeth. Our kids are so far gone it’s not even worth assigning homework, unless the threat of a failing grade actually means something to them. As you know, we grade right up until the bitter end! I will be spending tomorrow entering grades! And I sent an essay home today due Friday! 8th grade? Don’t even bother!!

Mikki– We still have until June 14th! Still have lots of days to fill!!! Bored 8th Graders can get overwhelming very quickly-especially 37 of them who are all taller than you!

Thank you, friends, for your comments!  I have learned so much from each of you.

But, I think I win.  We go to the 21st.  I know I can do it.  I’m the little teacher who can.  Chugga-chugga, baby.

Week 35 – Extra Credit? My Eye!*

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Read this first: Logic fails her | oldfangled.

So, below is my massively long response to this question which I believe is at the heart of teaching at the middle school level. Again, I need to apologize to oldfangled for my long response.

Her frustration is with a student who wants extra credit work to make a grade better when she wasn’t doing the work assigned. Serious grrr.

Oi. How frustrating. This behavior makes me wonder what is really going on. I have found a few things that help me find patience in this situation.

1) I believe that for middle school age students doing the work and turning it in are two separate and distinct skill sets. I only know this from personal experience, but since I have started treating doing the work and turning it in as two separate grades, I have seen a significant upswing in students’ ability to manage. So, a student gets a grade for turning it in on time, and they get a grade for the work done. This allows students (particularly the ones who are teetering on the brink) to not be turned off from school completely.

2) I have also instituted separate organization for different types of work. Explicit instruction is not something many students get at home when it comes to organization. Seriously, I have had a drop in lost papers of about 90%. The work being done goes in the orange folder, when the work is done, it goes in the blue folder.

3) Then I started pulling kids out of their lunch, PE, or whatever breaks and recesses they have in order to sit them down to do the work. I checked to see if they came early or stayed late. (Even pulling some kids out of detention, and trust me, they would have rather been in yard crew.) At first this is onerous and a real pain in the butt, but students soon learn that after the first infraction, they will do it under my eye. What I learned is that most students have a real reason for not doing the work. 1) They didn’t understand the instructions (even though I explained it 1 million times.) 2) They have no time after school or home is unsafe or too chaotic to do the work. 3) They don’t have the materials at home and are too embarrassed to ask for help. These are just the most common.

4) I also give as little homework as possible because of the above. Students do not *need* homework. Homework happens because we didn’t finish it in class and/or they need it for the next day’s lesson.

5) Then on the rare occasion when a student really does mess up, I still know what they are mastering from the curriculum. I currently have a student who went and asked the school secretary to edit a paper for him because he knew that I would not let him off the hook. He may be turning it in late, but he will turn it in or spend every lunch with me until the end of the year.

6) And no. I don’t give extra-credit either. Only if a student has proven that they have mastered the content, and that takes up all their time.

Wow. I’m sorry this got so long. But it’s bothered me since I started teaching middle school, and so I’ve spent every year of the past 13 or so experimenting with ways to make sure work gets done *and* turned in. I’m not at 100%, but it’s better.

I think I’m just going to copy and paste this on my blog.

Maybe like the fact that teens need sleep in the morning, I think we will find more answers in brain research than anywhere else. That and the fact that the ages between 11 and 14 do not make up a whole lot of any research on cognitive ability. They either get thrown in with elementary or with high school. Do we really know their age appropriate norms? Are our policies taking them into account? And as any middle school denizen can tell you, this age is a different beast entirely both cognitively and emotionally. Unfortunately, it is also the age when many people decide whether or not they will (or can) succeed academically.

I’ve promised myself yearly that if I am ever in a place where I can research my hypotheses, I will. What I do know is that hard and fast rules that may work for high school or college students seem to do more damage than good when you are dealing with students who are still very young in many ways and may not have the executive functioning of the upper grades.

Are you a middle school teacher? What has worked for you? What hasn’t? I’d really like to learn from you. Yes, you.

* Will someone please tell me where this expression comes from?

Week 31 – Student A’s Response: Third Draft

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Third Draft – So this is where we knuckle down on the grammar and mechanics.

When students hand it in, I edit their papers.  Only I am allowed to edit papers because, well, honestly, students really can’t be trusted to do this.  I do not correct their papers.  Let me repeat, “I do not correct their papers.”  And once more, I do not correct their papers.

Correction is their job.  If I make corrections for them, they learn to rely on me and do not learn the grammar rules.  I enable bad behavior.  No, thank you.  Instead, I write codes on their papers which correlate to a grammar rule sheet that all the students have.  So, you will see things like “format” or “comma-intro” written on their papers.  Student go look up the rule, write the rule, and correct their paper.

This is called the PSR or Personal Skill Record.  If you scroll all the way down, you will see the grammar and mechanics rules that Student A broke.  She wrote down the code, the rule, and the number of times she made the mistake.  And finally, she fixes these errors in her final draft.

I do not always choose to catch all of the errors (sometimes I just don’t catch all the errors) because I don’t want to overwhelm a student.  However, I am looking to see that a student has fewer and fewer errors as the year progresses.

Students who have no errors get 10pts. free and have no homework.  It’s worth it.

3rd draft tree 1
3rd draft tree 2
3rd draft tree 3

PSR tree

Week 13- That’s Me, Local Screw-Up

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Well, I screwed up.  Got too big for my britches.  Caused myself a whole mess of work.  As it says on the tag line, this is a journal of reflection which means looking at where we make mistakes as well as reveling in our successes.

I often regale people with stories of how wonderful peer revision is.  Except when you don’t teach it correctly.  Then, it’s hell on wheels.  And it’s a little hot down here.

For most of the class, this is their second paper.  For some, it’s their ninth.  So, when it came time for students to score each others’ papers using the 6+1 Writing Trait of Idea and Content, I assumed (catch that: ass, u, me) that the students would be confident enough to give each other helpful feedback.  (In my head, I hear Dr. Bob Kelso from Scrubs shouting: “WRONG-O!”  I loved that show.  I’d be really worried if the voice was Dr. Cox’s.  That’s when I know I’ve really put my foot in it.)  Because of my rush, returning students did not feel that they received enough feedback to make peer revision worthwhile, while some of the new students were not sure what to say.  One of my students gave such cock-eyed feedback to the writer of the paper she was revising that he was practically in tears.

So, as hard as it is to look at my screw-ups, learning is in the reflection, and here is what I think I did wrong.

1) I allowed myself to be rushed.  The rubric for the returning students was significantly harder than what they had before, and they needed more time.  Some of the new students also needed more time to put their thoughts in order.  I give myself a month to shepherd students through this process, and as I saw that they were working their tushies off but needing more time, I gave it to them.  However, I did not really take into account what that would mean in the end game.*

2) Because they did such a great job scoring each others’ papers the first time, I didn’t take the time to review properly.  I needed to have reminded myself that we have all slept since then, this is new material for many students, and I’m a dumb bunny.  Just remembering the dumb bunny part would have reminded me to take more time to practice giving feedback.  (This is commonly called anchoring.)

3) The pairings.  I had new students reading old students papers and vice versa.  I’m still not convinced I should change that part.  The cool thing about pairings like that is that the returning student’s paper helps the new student to see what is possible.  It is a model for them for future drafts.  The returning students also give very good feedback.  But this time, it wasn’t reciprocal.  The returnees didn’t feel they were getting enough back.  In the early days of class, the returning students felt honored to help their classmates, but that was when they were confident with the rubric.  Now, it feels to them like a drag because they aren’t getting the help they need.  Two of the students almost panicked when they got their paper back with a score (which were accurate) but very little information on where revisions were needed.  I almost paired them exclusively with each other, and I probably should have listened to myself.

4) This process usually takes about 50 minutes.  I knew I was in trouble when many of the pairings had not finished conferencing at the end of class.  The process wasn’t fluid.  I saw it, and I did not intervene.  Bad teacher.

So, how much damage have I done?  It’s hard to tell.  Ted, the founder of my last school, likes to say that our mistakes are transient, and our successes are enduring, meaning that it is not our mistakes that define us.  I really, really try to believe this.

But it does not mean I can write off this mistake and just “do it better” next time.  I need to fix the mistake.  To do this, I’ve been meeting with frustrated students to help them see what to do next.  I’m reading the returning students’ papers with an eye to seeing if their reader, at least, gave them a holistic score that was correct, and giving them particulars to revise.  And reminding them that their readers are new to this process.

I’m meeting with new students to help them pinpoint what is on the paper which can be seen in the rubric so that they can give better feedback next time.  I’m having that one student meet with me so I can re-teach her, and having her do an extra scoring of a paper so that I can be sure that she can participate next time.

We will not be writing a full paper for December.  It is a half-month of school, and I don’t expect that we will get to do a peer scoring for a Humanities paper.  So, we won’t get to do a process like this for expository writing until January.  However, students are currently working on some creative writing that could be used.  I will certainly grab the overhead and have students anchor a few papers before I let them go on that.

All of this is a lot of unnecessary extra work I created for myself.  This is what living and learning feels like.  Living and learning also means using the knowledge I gained from having to fix my mistakes.  God grant I put to use what I’ve learned this week and last.

*Note: I never blame students for not knowing something.  One of my biggest peeves as a teacher is hearing other teachers say, “Well, they should know this.”  Bullshit.  If they knew it, they would do it.  They want to get it right.  Only in cases of very damaged kids do you get that kind of oppositional behavior.  It isn’t something that happens in normal life.  If they don’t know it, it is because the student is in the wrong level of class or you, dear teacher, haven’t taught it.  I always want to say to these people, “Pull your thumb out and stop blaming your students.”