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Keep your finger on the pulse.

Posted by adrionna on Jun 22, 2016 in Information Station, Teaching

How do you get your students’ attention when they seem checked out before the bell even rings?
Why do students seem fine one period and then bonkers the next?
Do I really need to change my lesson if my students don’t seem “ready”? 

I remember the realization well, in my first few weeks of student teaching: what was exhausting about the new full-time teaching experience wasn’t that you’re on your feet most of the time, are expected to be in touch with each and every student, or even that you have poured your soul into this plan that doesn’t seem to be working. In fact, what made it exhausting was realizing that one class period would be the most amazing hour ever and the next hour, it seemed as though students couldn’t even lift their heads up – and I was teaching with the same enthusiasm! The mood swings are what got me – and they weren’t the consequence of my own hormones. I had to learn quickly how to be ready for (and accept – embrace, even) that classes literally changed within a 20 minute time frame. This is not something that was taught in my education courses.

Now, almost a full year into this experience, I have learned to put the mood swings in the following context. You must think of your classroom as a living organism. You are the heart and the head of the operation, but so many different things can affect your environment at any given time – besides the obvious germs your students bring into your metaphorical body, they also bring little stresses (like spats with friends and romantic interests) and serious traumas (the loss of family because of serious illness or violence). On any given day, the body you are trying to manage and teach can be weakened because of the broken wrist (student couldn’t do homework because his sibling was in the hospital all night) or the knee could be bruised (a student’s parent was angry and asked her daughter why she couldn’t be more like her sibling). On the other hand, we have students who are excited because the dance is right around the corner and finally – finally – all that studying paid off with an A on the World History exam.

We can have the BEST intentioned, BEST standards-aligned lesson on the planet, but if we don’t keep our fingers on the pulse of our classroom, that lesson could be null and void in five minutes. Don’t get me wrong — all the cuts and bruises and sprains are NO EXCUSE for not teaching your lesson. As growing human beings, we quickly learn that the world does not stop just because we have a cast around our ankle. Nor should teachers throw in the towel when they see a student struggling. On the contrary!! What does medical staff do even before the examination begins? They take our blood pressure – literally getting a reading of our pulse and how it could be affecting us. Similarly, it is important for teachers to get a read of their class’ pulse – whether it is before the bell rings or in a minute-long “check-in” with your students immediately after the bell signals the beginning of your adventure. The moment I see withdrawn faces and lethargic movements, I ask one of the students before the bell rings (or all of them after the bell has rung), “Aw, man, y’all look beat. What’s been going on today?” I very quickly learn that the tired eyes aren’t from laziness or a lack of desire to be in my English class. Instead, I learn that they’ve had 4 quizzes today (or they’re already feeling those ominous vibes from the quiz they’ll have to take in an hour). I now know that I might need to change my bell-ringer. Obviously they don’t need another deeply reflective question (they’ll have four of those in different content areas today. English loses for now. Oh well.) BUT they can handle a fun creative question that also gets at the heart of what I’m going to teach them (but they don’t have to know that).

Some examples:

My original plan – Bellringer asks students to recall as many literary devices discussed in class yesterday; students are also challenged to think of reasons why an author might use these devices in their writing.

My revised plan after I see blank stares – Students can turn to their partners (they need to be loud – they’ve been quiet in their seats all day!) and try to come up with as many literary devices as they can remember from what we discussed in class previously. Then, create examples of those literary devices that they could use in a funny fictional narrative (get those creative juices flowing!)

Instead of continuing the trend of being quiet, independent, and, frankly, brain-taxing, I make a quick decision to modify at least the beginning of the lesson to be more social, more loud, and engaging. After I get their attention this way, I can proceed to teaching them the way I had originally planned.

I took their blood pressure, did a quick diagnosis, came up with an action plan, and felt the change as the class’ pulse came back to normal. Now I’m able to proceed with my lesson – I just had to remember to check the pulse.

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Because I kept my eyes open

Posted by adrionna on Feb 4, 2013 in Teaching

Today I began my experience as an “official observer” of classes within an elementary school on Chicago’s near-north side. It’s a very diverse school where, sadly, 40% of the population is homeless, or in temporary housing. I briefly (30 min) sat-in on a class last week, where I was able to get a feel for the lay-out of the school and the dynamic of having kids coming from so many different backgrounds.

My assignment today was to watch/interact with the first graders. There are about 25 students in the classroom and each love -and need- attention. This is difficult with one teacher in the room, so the school is excited that my class is working with theirs. This school stresses building relationships with students so that the students are held accountable in more than just a student-teacher relationship, but rather an apprentice-mentor, or co-partnership. I’ve been given two charges, K and D. The administrator who assigned me to them described the students as those “who have needs, but who shouldn’t be having those needs.” After interacting with the students for the first time today, I understand why. They are smart, they are creative, they are funny, they are kind. But they need to know they’re doing something worthwhile, and its through these personal relationships we build with them that they put school on a higher pedestal than anything else. It’s school that will help them escape poverty. It’s education that will open their minds to the world.

This is what a teacher hopes for, anyway. This is what I hope for.

I ride public transportation often, but I rode it more often today. I people watch sometimes, but I really saw people today. I had my eyes open all day long. In essence, I was seeing these people as the first graders all grown up. Here’s what I saw.

After I left the school, around 10:30am, I saw two women on the corner, smoking cigarettes, telling each other they don’t really care what others think about them. One smiled back at me when I looked over. That was nice, but I want more for J than that. She wants attention and thinks that being silly and acting out will get her that. She’ll get attention from me for really trying to spell words during the break-out session tomorrow morning. But what if it’s not enough?

On the train, I saw someone who looked like he wasn’t really going anywhere. With a big brown paper bag in the seat next to him, he just looked happy to be somewhere warm. I was so happy that all those kids today were able to be somewhere warm, with breakfast, lunch, and dinner to look forward to. I’m proud that we, as a society, have created a place for our most vulnerable to be shielded from the harshest elements so that they can learn and better themselves.. that they’ll better the world through their efforts. I think JA will appreciate that when he’s older; he read like a champ today, and I am so looking forward to the next time he reads me a story. He was so proud of himself, reminding me an hour later “I’m a good reader.” But what if it’s not enough?

During one of my walks, I heard a dad yelling. Loud. He was holding the hand of his little boy, while his brother was walking behind them, holding the hand of their mother. There was such a lack of peace: there were tears, loud cries, and just.. unrest. I couldn’t believe that adults would act so irresponsibly around such young children.. around Kindergardeners. Around kids that would be in the first grade next year. This is where these kids are coming from. They don’t need to know about Rosa Parks as much as they need warmth, kindness, and a sense of love and security. Someone in their lives constantly showing support and encouragement. Good teachers are ready to give this to so many kids that pass through their classrooms, but what if it isn’t enough?

At this point, you can imagine I’m getting a little disheartened. It’s late, I’m getting a little tired, and I’m seeing a world working against all of the kids I tried to reach earlier in the day. This is when a young man sits down in front of me on the train and just starts talking to the family around me. No prior meeting, just a young black man eager to start a conversation with a white woman with her two young girls. What? After living through the stark privileged/underprivileged dichotomy of the day, I was surprised. Suspicious.

Turns out that just asking “Are yall on your way home?” can incite an amazing conversation with an incredibly nice woman that gives the eavesdroppers (like me) inspiration to keep going. The young man is a math major, hoping to do something really great with it. Story goes that he had a great teacher who made math really exciting. Because of those teachers, he is all about math and science and excited about what he can do in the world with that knowledge. He doesn’t think he’ll go to grad school; but he hasn’t even considered it, really. He just has his eyes set on a degree so he can make something of himself.

I’m nearing my stop and interrupt them. I tell the young man hurriedly that I started observing at an elementary school today. I told him I hoped the kids turn out like him.

He looked a little shocked, but I know it made him feel good. I hope it did, anyway.

Because he gave me an incredibly valuable gift. It’s one full of inspiration, motivation, and encouragement. Everything that I need to give those kids tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.

Because, just like the young man who had his eyes open and started a conversation with a random stranger at the end of the day, I never know who I’m reaching.

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