My journey to shoot for the moon.

Archive for September, 2012

Why I Won’t Shop At Wal-Mart Anymore

I used to visit Wal-Mart once a week.  It was a great place to get everything I needed.  The prices were low, the generic items were generally good and when I found items on clearance, they were very, very inexpensive.

However, I will not shop at Wal-Mart anymore.  It isn’t because of their Customer Service (although sometimes it has been awful).  It isn’t because the prices or items have changed.  And it isn’t because there isn’t one close.

It is because of politics.  I’m not talking about National politics; I’m talking about Local politics.  Douglas County, Colorado politics – more specifically Douglas County School District politics.  The Douglas County School Board offered vouchers to private school students last year.  The School District allowed students to apply for the vouchers and private schools (in and out of the district) could “register” to accept the vouchers.  The students were awarded the vouchers and could attend any “registered” school of their choice.  The majority of the “registered” schools were religious schools.  These vouchers took money intended for the neighborhood public schools and funneled it to private schools.  Most of these private schools were religiously based.

The ACLU, DCFT (Douglas County Federation of Teachers) and a citizen’s group (Taxpayers for Education) took the School District to court and the courts ruled that the vouchers were illegal.  Currently, the Douglas County School Board and Administration are appealing this court ruling.  To fund this appeal, donations have been accepted.  There have been several groups across the country have donated large sums of money to fund the defense of this illegal program and the Walton Foundation has made a large donation.

What the Walton Foundation has to do with the Douglas County School District is beyond me.  Except they are pushing an agenda which includes “Educational Reform.”  The Douglas County School District wasn’t in need of reform.  It has been a leader in innovation in education and collaboration between the DCFT and the School Board.  Well, that is, until this year when the Board of Education decided to allow the Collective Bargaining Agreement expire and cut all ties with the DCFT.

The Walton Foundation, by financially contributing to the legal defense of the voucher program, has shown their support for the School Board.  The School Board that does not respect teachers.  The School Board that has spouted their political agenda and beliefs, even though the School Board is supposed to be non-partisan.  The School Board that wants to privatize public education.

Four members of the School Board are up for re-election in Nov. 2013 and until then there is really no way that I can show how I feel about the School Board and their policies.  The policies that, over the last 40 years, have built a public school system that, I believe, was one of the best in the country.  The current School Board does not understand that by attacking the Union and teachers that they are attacking the infrastructure that has, historically, done what is best for kids.  That is what teaching is about (although teachers deserve to be fairly compensated for their work).

I realize that the attack on the DCFT is in-line with the political climate.  Unions are bad.  Unions are the cause of all evil.  Unions protect inferior workers.  All of this is not true of the DCFT AND this was a system that was working beautifully.  Why destroy something that is working?  Why destroy something that was so inherently good?

The Walton Foundation supports this Board of Education, and I do not.  Therefore, I will not support the Walton Foundation.  I will no longer shop at Wal-Mart.  While I realize that overall the money I spent at Wal-Mart is inconsequential to their financial portfolio, perhaps if others join me…I can dream, can’t I?  And at the very least, I feel that I am making a difference.  Oh, wait!  I’m a teacher.  I make a difference every day.  I wish that the School Board and the Walton Foundation respected that.

Things They Didn’t Tell Me About Teaching Teenagers – Part 2 (The Joys)

I LOVE working with teenagers.  Despite the challenges, it is amazing to see them grow as people.

They are generally open and willing to listen to another viewpoint.

They are passionate about issues that impact them. One of my classes is working on essay writing and I wanted them to write about a Teen Issue – drinking age, voting age, driving age, military service, the dress code at school, etc.  Several of them were quite outraged about registering for the draft.  They couldn’t believe that only males had to register.  It is interesting to note that they didn’t know that they needed to register at 18.  It was an eye-opening conversation for them and the outrage was genuine.  (As a side note, when these discussions occur, I generally do not take one side or the other.  I try to present the ideas of both sides and refuse tell the kids which side I am on – until sometime after the discussion.)

They have “light-bulb” moments.  For example, I told the kids at the beginning of the year (after I read their writing assessments – which were horrid) that I was going to teach them to write an essay.  I explained to them that essay writing had a formula and that once they learned that formula they would be able to write essays.  I started by teaching them to write a paragraph – topic sentence, detail, detail, detail, concluding sentence.  And I explained that in a topic sentence you “told the reader what you were going to tell them about” and that the concluding sentence told the reader “what you told them about.”  They laughed about it, but I explained that I made it “silly” so they would remember it.  It took a few class periods, but they got it and started using the terms “topic sentence” and “concluding sentence.”  Here is where the light-bulb moment occurred – I taught them that an essay is composed of an Introduction Paragraph, Detail, Detail, Detail and then the Concluding Paragraph.  I wrote it on the board next to the construction of a paragraph.  I asked them if it looked familiar and they GOT IT!  They figured out that a paragraph was 5 sentences and an essay was 5 paragraphs!  If anyone ever taught this to them before, they didn’t get it.  But they’ve got it now.  Currently this class is working on writing an Introduction Paragraph – and the connection is being made that they put the three “details” in the concluding sentence of the introduction and those are what they write about in the next three paragraphs.  This is WHY I became a TEACHER.

Side Note – I know that this is a simplistic explanation of essay writing.  But these kids will have the foundation of essay writing and we will be able to expand from there.  Prior to their light-bulb moment, they tried really hard to write an essay, but it was obvious that they didn’t understand the construction.

They are compassionate.  Last week I was feeling miserable.  At the beginning of the day I didn’t feel well, but by the time I had to teach my afternoon class, I was losing my voice and felt awful.  The kids were so funny.  Several offered to teach for me, they repeated my directions for their classmates who didn’t hear me, and they worked to help each other when they had questions so they didn’t have to “bother” me.  At one point my class got a little loud and a couple of the kids “yelled” at their classmates, “Mrs. James doesn’t feel good.  Quiet down.”

They are deciding who they want to be.  This is the amazing thing about working with teenagers!  One of the students on my caseload is going to be a dad.  I wrote about teen pregnancy as a challenge, but here is the flip side – this young man has totally turned his life around because he knows he needs to get it together.  I can’t go into specifics (it is confidential) but I can tell you that last year,  I was told this kid was a “lost cause.”  I tried to meet with him and he wasn’t interested in anything that I could offer him as his case manager.  However, this year is a whole different story.  He has been in to get my help and he has been in just to chat.  He knows that because he is doing the “work” that he has my full support and that I will be in his corner fighting for him.  He is actually on his way to becoming a role model for other teens.  I could not be prouder of him.  He also knows that I expect he will continue to make mistakes (he is a TEENAGER), but as long as he is working hard to do the right thing, I’m there for him.  A couple of weeks ago I gave him a hand-written note telling him that he was doing a great job, that I noticed and that he should be proud.  He just glowed.  I don’t know that anyone ever told him that he was doing a great job.

My students from last year come to visit my classroom.  One of my joys is that my students want to come to talk to me.  (They like me.  They really, really like me.)  They want to tell me about how English is going this year and how things in their lives are going.  It is awesome to realize that in 1 semester I managed to have an impact on their lives.  I know that I won’t “save” all of the kids who need saving.  I know that there will be kids that don’t like me, but to think that I made even the slightest positive contribution to their lives takes my breath away.
They are learning that their actions have an impact on others.  I have one very difficult class.  Believe it or not, there are only 5 students in this class.  One student is quiet and doesn’t cause any trouble, leaving 4 students to have me frustrated beyond belief.  I have used almost every tool in my “teaching toolbox” to manage this class to no avail.  This past week they were so awful, I was nearly in tears.  I hate being a “mean” teacher.  It isn’t who I am and leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.  But, these kids need a strict teacher and so I put on that persona and fight the feelings of nausea.  They knew I was mad.  I don’t usually yell when I am mad and I didn’t this day.  My voice got really quiet and I told them that the rules in my class were changing.  I would not tolerate talking over me or rude behavior (not that I tolerated it before – but sometimes kids don’t realize they are being rude, so I try to give them the benefit of the doubt).  I told them that I would be writing them up and giving them homework and that we would no longer be doing “fun” activities in class.  I explained that it was more work for me – to figure out how to make it interesting and fun – and I was no longer willing to do the work, since they were not cooperating.  I told them that I didn’t treat them disrespectfully and I didn’t deserve for them to treat me that way; I didn’t deserve that they were making my job excruciatingly difficult.  Finally, right before I had them sit silently for 10 minutes, I told them that I deserved an apology.  I was not going to force them to write me an apology letter because I didn’t want lip-service, but I deserved one from each of them. (Side note – the quiet student was sent to another classroom to do homework because she wasn’t part of the problem).  Obviously, this was a challenge and not a joy.  But the joy came.  One student walked into class and handed me a note.  It was nearly a full-page handwritten.  It was heart-felt and thanked me for being a great teacher and apologized for being difficult and disrespectful.  It was a joy.  One out of four – 25% – I had hoped for more, but I would take what I got and hope that I was able to reach that one student.


Things They Didn’t Tell Me About Teaching Teenagers – Part 1 (The Challenges)

As my first month as a full-time High School Special Education English Teacher comes to an end, I wanted to reflect for a moment about all the things that no one tells you about when you are studying to be a teacher.  These are things that I’ve encountered since school started and they have been challenging.
You will deal with teen pregnancy (I should have assumed that, but I didn’t expect it to hit me as it has).  One of my students is going to be a dad.  He’s excited and seems to have changed his life because of it.  But how do you balance that he is still in high school?  How do you support him without “approving” of his actions?  And what the heck do you say when he proudly shows you pictures of the ultrasound and tells you he’s having a boy?
Teenagers can be angry – very angry. The venom in the writing of one of my students shocked me.  On the outside, this students appears fairly happy.  And at what point do you worry?

Students are coming out before they are able to drive. I have one student who wrote about coming out in his writing assessment.  I don’t remember knowing so much about myself at age 14.  Ok, I knew I wasn’t gay, but I didn’t know much more than that.  Some of my students are VERY secure in who they are as gay men (I haven’t had any girls come out – but David told me that he has friends who have identified themselves as bi-sexual and lesbian).  I was NEVER instructed how to handle these things in the classroom!  So, what do you do when students are writing alternative words for “like” on the board and one of them writes “queer?”  And does it matter that the student who wrote it is gay?  If it isn’t offensive to him, should it be to me?

Honestly, I can’t even believe that I wrote that sentence!  I handled this by discussing the word “queer” and asking another student his opinion of the word and would he be offended if someone said he was queer.  Then I explained the connotation I had about the word and what it meant when I was in High School.

Teenage girls don’t understand the messages they send when they flaunt their bodies.  They don’t understand that they are disrespecting themselves when they show too much.  For example, when a young woman wears very short shorts and bends over…and I see more than I want to see (a crease between her thigh and you know where…) that she will attract unwanted attention.  I am NOT saying that a girl deserves what she gets when she wears provocative clothing, but there are some things that are inappropriate wherever you are!

Students are not making adult connections the way they need to so that they can become successful adults.  Many kids are on their own a lot of the time.  They don’t have an adult to talk to (Mom and/or Dad is too busy) and the  kids are lost.  They don’t feel that their parents are there for them.  I’ve had several students tell me that my boys are lucky that I am their mom; that they wish their parents cared that much for them.

Students are rude and disrespectful.  I know that this has always been the case, but sometimes the kids don’t realize what they are saying (or doing) is disrespectful.  They don’t understand why it is not alright to do certain things in a classroom that they can do other places.  They don’t respect adults.  They don’t know what their limits are and treat teachers as friends.

Some of my students will be arrested and go to jail.  Some will attempt suicide.  Some will be truant and jeopardize their own futures.  And some will be sexually assaulted.  I didn’t like being a teenager and hated high school, but I honestly believe that teenagers today have things harder than when I was a teen.

No one tells you that things are so tough for teenagers when you are studying to be a teacher.  No one tells you of the true challenges you will face that have nothing to do with curriculum, assessment and education.  They don’t prepare you for the time and energy that these things will take.  And the heartache.

(Watch for Part 2 – The Joys)

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