How do you prove you can...

What is something at which you KNOW you are good? Anything... cooking, golf, keeping house, your job, soccer, reading.... got something in your head?
Okay.... how do you know you are good at it? How do other people know you are good at it? How many times do you have to do something well to prove you are good at it? Were you always good at it... or are you constantly improving (or getting worse) at this skill?

I've taken on the awesome challenge of proficiency grading. This means that, along with the traditional grade (and don't get me started on how awful those are) I will have a list of ten 8th grade math learning targets (determined by the state and the district) from this term with a judgment on my part reflecting the student's current understanding of that target. I base this judgment on collections of evidence, multiple opportunities to prove mastery, and my daily workings with the students. I am, in theory, letting students and their families know at exactly WHAT they are good.

What does this mean tonight? Pouring over my records of students attempts at things like simplifying square roots, justifying a choice of graph for a data set, and using the Pythagorean Theorem. From this I determine , at this moment of time, on the continuum from Novice to Proficient, where each student is performing.

Someday I hope I can just send out the proficiencies. A list of math skills that every 8th grader should know and then a note explaining to each parent which targets (skills) his or her child has mastered. WHO CARES about a grade? When students comes to my class I want to know what they know, I want to know what they DON'T know so I can help them. A, B, C, D, F tells me none of that. Proficiency reporting does.

Grades are due tomorrow.

So what I'm doing writing this? I have work to do!


Like any job...

Sunday nights, I can't imagine leaving the weekend and jumping back into the chaos of work. After three years I'm learning not to bring as much home (yes, I still grade papers at home... ). For two whole days I am separate from my life as teacher. I talk to grownups about grownup things. I drink wine. I take my time eating lunch (it can be hard to break the 20 minute lunch shovel). I do laundry... slowly. I see my family.
As I sit on couch, blues music in the background and a kitty in my lap, tomorrow seems so far away. To get through a day of teaching my brain and body move at full speed ALWAYS, so, to cope, I think I've finally found a way to slow myself way down when I'm out of the school environment.
I rest, I recover, and I let myself forget (in just 48 hours) the stress I felt Friday afternoon. In this way, I am able to get myself back in the classroom Monday morning energized and optimistic, ready to start the race through the week again.



I have never (Never!) and so many impulsive students as I seem to this year. And all in one class (perhaps the behavior becomes exaggerated in students because of being in a class with others like this?)!
How do I describe it? It's constant noises, blurts, blahs, humms, eeks. Random words, bits of songs, a short thought.
Today I introduced a short movie clip about the Pythagorean theorem. I talked about the song, the movie, the actors, etc. All over, the constant buzzing this class always has. I pushed on:
Me: "So, this clip is from an older movie..."
Student: "Leave it to Beaver!"
Student: "Beaver?"
Student: "I like TV!"
Me: "No, an old movie, in fact it has an actor that was also in the film White Christmas"
Student: "Snow!"
Student: "For white people?"
Student: "I love that movie!"
Me: "Okay, let's just start"

The strange part- it really seems to just be an inability to filter from their brains to their mouths. I've had the mean kids that want to run the class, I've had the kids that just want to goof off... but that's not it this year. This is one of the nicest groups, this group is always enthusiastic about learning and ready for just about anything I throw at them. They just don't stop making noise. EVER. EVER. So, I keep it to a dull rumble or buzz about the room and I move on. But GOODNESS, it can wear a gal out.


Meaningful Feedback

Right now my challenge is getting work graded and back in student's hands quick enough for it to mean something to them. In theory, when students take a test or turn in work they should have it back within 24 hours so that they can see where there are gaps in their learning and then we can work together to fill those gaps.
But I have a life.
I bring home projects and they sit all weekend, untouched. I have a new home, an unfinished kitchen, limited time with my husband, and the weekends go by so quickly. And the time SHOULD be mine- but if I try to fit all my grading, planning, teaching, etc into my actual work day it just simply won't all get done. It is my professional responsibility to get these things done. So something needs to come home with me. Or I need to stay at school late (very late). And just when the grades are all caught up, the next project will get turned in, or the next test will happen, and we're right back to where we started.
But there is hope, I'm learning how to design assignments that are easier to grade. I'm learning to put some of the responsibility in the hands of the students. This year I have only 100 students instead of 120. I can get through it. But, as I sit here, looking at that pile of projects and looking out the window at the beautiful October sun I have trouble getting motivated to lock myself away with the projects for the next five hours.



Tests. Homework. Projects.
All waiting to be graded.
All waiting to be entered in the grade book.
All waiting.
11 sick kids today- all coming back here and they're all needing homework. Every special lesson plan takes 5-10 minutes from my precious plan time. Every kid that needs a special packet sent home or needs to stop by to get work takes a few extra minutes.
So the tests, the homework, the projects are still sitting and still waiting. The days go so fast and the piles just get bigger.
Aye me.
Taking two precious hours out of this evening at home to get to a few of the piles.


Keeping out the crab

Every year there is one. Or two. Or three.
Those kids that just know how to make me growl and snarl and be a grouch.

Most days I can shrug, I can laugh, I can make it a teachable moment. The times when I find I can only glare and I can feel the hot fire boiling inside of me I know one thing: I. am. tired.
I want to blame that one. Or those two. Or the three talking students in the corner. BUT-
Feeling cranky has become my reality check. The truth remains that, from one day to the next, no student behaves especially better or worse than he or she did the day before. Yesterday Sam made funny noises during my lecture and yesterday Matt had a smart comment every time he raised his hand (but he raised his hand! This is progress!) and yesterday Grace kept talking to anyone near her and yesterday all that was fine.
Today, Sam behaves pretty much the same and today Matt makes comments just like before, and today Grace keeps up the constant chatter, but today it makes me crazy.
So see, after three years of teaching, I finally see. These bad days are all about me. Not the one, not the two, not the three students.
Today I felt too tired to shoot a quick comment back to Matt and today my mind just did not want to take Sam out to the hall to talk quietly and today Grace just made me crabby. The challenge becomes fighting the tired and giving the students the consistency they deserve in my temper and countenance. I have to go on the attack. To bed early tonight. Tomorrow I walk to school (I finally live close enough) and take the extra ten minutes to breath in fresh air and clear my head. I will remember to have some breakfast in the morning. I get my desk organized. I get caught up on grading.
When I am sane, I am happy. When I am happy, I don't snap at my wonderful students. When I don't snap at students the day and the learning and the week go so much nicer.


Ending the Week

Thursdays, I'm exhausted. How can I possibly do one more day? Then Friday starts and whirls by quickly and the weekend arrives. The trick is ending strong and ending happy. Little things make the week end well- a note from a parent with kind words, relaxing with the students and hearing some of their stories, watching a project come together.
Sometimes, the best thing to brighten a day comes as a surprise:flowers, delivered in person by my husband. This job, this life, the profession has plenty of challenges. I love those challenges, but even so, they are easier to face with a partner who supports and loves what I am devoted to. And most of all, a partner who supports ME.


A well run project

Some days, it just goes right. The perfect project is one where I spend hours and hours preparing it, but when put in the hands of the students I do almost nothing. If I've planned it right, if I introduce the project correctly, students get to take control and run with it.
Today, it worked. Students moved around the room, asking survey questions they wrote about topics they picked to other students in the room. From my highest students to my lowest, students were gathering data and finding success. I sat back and watched. It felt so so so so so good.


Sweet September

September slowly slips away. This sunny weekend will be the last in September. September holds so much for me; high emotion, anticipation, beginnings, introductions, successes, and mistakes. September also brings so much more- sweet sun, mild weather, new school supplies, the last breath of summer. I love September.
This September has been, by far, the best of my teaching career. The feelings of being a "first year" have slipped away (it only took three years...) and I have enjoyed this feeling of confidence as this year has slowly moved from "just started" to "full swing".
Is it the students or is it me? This year, from day one, has felt calm, organized, and productive. I know it's a little of both, but truly, the students this year, as a whole, make a nice group.
So, for this last September weekend, I will enjoy this feeling. There will be time at the farmers market, time cleaning house, time grading papers, time relaxing on the couch. Through all of this, never far from my mind, are thoughts of my classroom and Monday and lesson plans.


Back to School Night

The preparation. The anticipation. The stress. All for one night.

Back to School.

This is THE night. I think about what message I can give parents about the year in math in 8 minutes . I place handouts at the door and sign ups for volunteers. Two days ago, students filled out schedules to take to their families. Heck, my team even bought door prizes (at the dollar tree, we only can give so much) to raffle off to our lucky parents.

Tonight, 30 minutes to launch, the power blows. Poof. A frantic call to the power company. Two hours, we're told, before power can be restored. So, we are sent to doorways and to the parking lots to direct parents back to their homes. Sorry folks, guess we'll meet you another night. I, personally, breath a sigh of relief. As the math teacher, I'm usually the one attacked at back to school night. Parents are sure if they don't get the math part of schooling situated JUST SO, their child will fail life. They want to talk and talk and question and on and on, and I just want to go home and sleep so I can teach the next day.

But, I'm not out of the woods. We've been told all will be rescheduled. So, another day of preparation. Another day of anticipation. Another piece of stress.

Also worth noting, I'm always amazed how quickly teachers can throw together an impromptu "let's get a beer" when the time calls for it.


I see their True Colors shining

Every class has a personality- the whole, the group, the mass. How does that happen? How does the group take on unique traits?
Today I had students find their True Colors. Students rate this and that, likes and dislikes, add here and tally there and suddenly a color appears and students split into four nice personality groups. I love this activity. I wait for it every year and see if my take on each group can be matched by the colors---
My morning group - from day one, sweet, full of inquiry, polite. We have class discussions and people raise hands and offer insight. We finish right on time. When we get out planners to write homework, I see busy pencils filling in the blank next to math. This group has the most BLUES . Check!
My after lunch group- little noises all the time, if I'm not careful they'll soon drive me crazy. High energy, full of chatter. Every comment from me sets off 10 separate conversations around the room. They do better in groups. Note taking days will be like pulling teeth. This group has mostly REDS. Check!
My last group of the day- they get it done. Yes, energy, but mostly focus. They want directions, they want the work, and they want to get going. Class discussion falls short, people don't want to raise their hands, they just want to get ON with it. This group has more GOLD than I've ever had. Check!

Who knows what the kids take from this. We talk about group dynamics, knowing yourself and knowing your classmates. For me though, this is a treasure. I have numbers to back up my gut. When I plan lessons I can remember my REDS, and include something active. I can remember my BLUES and plan group sharing time. I can remember my GOLDS and have directions on the board, ready to go when they walk in. It gives me the power. Power. Without letting on to my students that I hold the strings.


Laying Down the Law

By the end of the first week (day?), students know what they can get away with. This might be my biggest challenge. In the first week I have so much to get DONE and to just get through. Learning names, passing out important papers (if you don't return this, you will never go to high school) , seating arrangement, schedule changes, broken lockers, lost 6th graders.
So, in class, as I look over all the new faces, letting little things go seems like the easier solution. Okay, so a kid calls out a goofy answer in the middle of discussion. Laugh a little, move on... Okay, so that kid got up in the middle of a presentation and sharpened the pencil. I'll just pause until he's done.... Okay, so that kid keeps whispering to his neighbor. I can talk over that... and suddenly, I have a problem.
This year, from the start, I'm on it. Okay, that kid calls out a goofy answer.... I hold him for a few minutes after class to talk about expectations. Okay, so that kid sharpened his pencil... I use that time to talk to the class when I expect students to take care of those things. Okay, kids keep whispering in class... I stop talking. I wait. I wait. The whole class waits. I make it clear, we don't move on until the whole class is listening. The whispering stops.
Today, I held my first two lucky winners after class. Hopefully, three minutes of my time lets them know that I a)notice their behavior in class and b) I expect better. So today, I drew the line. Day Two.


First Day

First.... Day.... Done.



So, when do I know I'm ready?

Friday, Friday, Friday. In theory, on my desk right now, a weeks worth of lesson plans are waiting. Copies and materials for the week are lined up on the counter. I've looked over class lists and learned some of the names. I have back up plans if things run short. My grade book is uploaded into the computer. My systems are all in place and ready to go.

In theory.

Reality: Twenty post-it notes are stuck to my desk with lessons I want to teach and estimated times. Hopefully, all will find their way into a lesson plan book eventually. Copies have been made... but I'm missing some. Materials have not been found. I need to review the first week schedule, because it is different EVERY DAY as we throw the kids back into school. I still haven't labeled homework turn in baskets. I'm still learning the new grade book program. BUT, I feel SO CLOSE to being ready. Tables are in place...class list just keep changing, so I have to stay flexible. I know what I need to teach in the first week... but the first week schedule keeps changing, so I have to stay flexible. My desk is almost clean... but then, if I had it completely clean it would seem weird. So close, but I am a bag of NERVES as I go into this three day weekend. I'll be in the building a time or two before Tuesday gets here.


One Week

How do we bring all the pieces together? I've been preparing for this year with trainings and readings and thinking about what makes GOOD teaching. I'm full of ideas! Then, suddenly, here I am, the week before school starts, and I'm scrambling to get desks in place and plan for the first day and suddenly I feel all those great pieces slipping away.... seeing the big picture can be tricky when I'm just trying to see my way through the first week.
Class numbers just keep going UP! Last week I checked and I had classes between 29 and 31. Today I looked and I'm at 34 a class! I need to create a whole new seating group SOMEWHERE in my classroom and find more chairs so I have seats for everyone on day one. Yikes! I'm worried I will become a zoo keeper rather than an encourager of higher thinking.

Two more days to prepare and think and plan and get ready... and then, no looking back.



I want the perfect first day. That thought consumes me. I'm in the school a week before the other teachers, moving desks, filing papers, and trying to remember what I will feel when I stand in front of 30 strangers. I know, from the past, that systems need to be decided before the first day. The classroom needs to be a functioning, well oiled machine before 8th graders walk in- with them comes chaos. Only one things slows that chaos down- a clear picture on my part.
So, now I ZEN. I sit in my classroom and think. I look around the room and try to imagine a face in every desk. Is there enough space around the drinking fountain? When they get up to sharpen their pencil, is there a path from every desk? Will the turn in basket be here... or there? Or should I have two? When students turn in work, how will I collect it? What will I grade, what will just get a glance? Will they keep journals? Do they all need graphing calculators? If I have a class set of (anything- books, calculators, markers, compasses, protractors) how will I keep it from being destroyed/lost/stolen? Do they check everything out? Are they assigned a number? Are there baskets at every table? How did they sit? In rows? In groups? How do I communicate home? Newsletter? e-mails? How will I communicate daily and weekly plans? Where will I post our learning targets? Will I start each day with a problem or a riddle? How will I teach group dynamics? How will I stay caught up with planning, grading, organization, and the two thousand other things I HAVEN'T thought of once this year gets going.
I have a lot of questions.


Late Night Dreams

School, just around the corner. How do I know? The school dreams have started. Dreams of the first day, a classroom in chaos. School dreams never show a perfect day, but show the worst case scenario. Last night I saw visions of the first day of school-- and I had done no preparation-- school started NOW.
No matter how many first days I have, the nerves never go away. I must be crazy, thinking I can get up in front of 32 people and keep order and teach math. Suddenly, in the light of day, it hits me how much needs to be done before one student sets a foot in my room. I learned, in my first year, that a less than perfect first day will be something that can haunt me all year long.
SO, tomorrow, I go to work. When the dreams start, it's time to take control. Tomorrow it's time to unpack boxes, think about systems for the year, and get a feel for what is to come. I'll meet with my teammates and start to plan our attack on the year. This, to me, marks the beginning.


A sneak peek into another beginning

With one meeting and one casual BBQ, another school year lurks just around the corner. This year's classroom assignments, teaching teams, and even subject assignments are coming to us much later than normal. Summer phone calls have bounced from administrators to teachers and from teachers to teachers. No secret is safe on a middle school staff and no rumor is left un-said.
So, we finally all met. Papers were passed out- classroom maps, team lists, who teaches with who (whom?). Summer pleasantries were exchanged... but none of us were really ready to face the music. A few more weeks of summer still awaits us before we jump in fully and find out what this year (it will be different than last year!! I know it!! New systems! New Students! New Ideas!! I can make it perfect THIS time around!!) will have in store.