Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 12 2007

nearing the end of the first quarter

I’m sorry it’s been so long between posts; I meant to write last weekend and just didn’t get around to it. I’ll break it down for you:

The Bad
The past few weeks have had their ups and downs. After the elation I felt two weeks ago when my students did so well on their quizzes, it was very disappointing and frustrating when we spent a day reviewing for the test and it was like everyone had forgotten what we’d learned. I literally had half of my students asking me what conjugation was even though that had been on their quiz! I still don’t have any idea what happened. Giving tests is always frustrating in general because of a few things that happen every time: a) I start test days with a warm-up designed to hit all the major points that will be on the test, and inevitably there are students still asking me how to say a word or not having any idea how to do something, b) my students have clearly not been taught to read directions, and despite my efforts to explain each section very carefully, there are always people who ignore part of the directions or just don’t do what I was asking them to do, and c) grades can be so inconsistent, both for individual kids and for classes as a whole. I knew going into last week’s test that it was going to be rough, and I could tell just from glancing at them as I received them that something had gone horribly wrong. I put off grading them until Sunday because I didn’t want to get too depressed at the start of the weekend. I got through two of my first period tests before I decided that I wasn’t going to continue grading, nor was I going to count the test. If my students were all doing so poorly, it was my fault rather than theirs, and they don’t deserve to be punished for my bad teaching. I decided instead to make copies of the key to the test and let the students correct them, then find an alternate way to assess their understanding.
Behavior has also not improved. There are so many things now that make me wish I could go back to the first week of school and do over, and my classroom management is #1 on that list. I still don’t agree with the advice not to smile until Christmas, but I also think that I came off as nice far too early in the game, and it’s so true that now I have a harder time enforcing rules because I was too flexible in the beginning. There are so many things that I am not doing or responding to because at this point it’s all about picking my battles, and some things are just now worth it right now. I’m going to change a lot as soon as we start the second quarter in a week, but for the moment, I’m going to keep going with what I have. The battles I’m not fighting: uniform policy, showing IDs when they come into class, and using inappropriate language (I hear “fuck” so many times a day it’s not even funny, but for the moment, I have no idea how to clean up their mouths, so I’m going to let it go as long as it’s not yelled or directed at someone in particular). I’m still grateful that I don’t have any seriously bad students; the worst I have to deal with is a student occasionally leaving class without permission and the constant talking all around the classroom at any given time.
I’m also still feeling so overwhelmed by everything I have to do. Lesson planning is getting a little easier, but there are lots of administrative things that take up my time. I don’t understand, for example, why the school cannot hire people to call parents when their children don’t show up for class. Why is it my responsibility to call the parents of the 15 or so kids who are absent from my classes on any given day? Plus I’m supposed to check the master attendance list at the end of each day to see if any of the kids who were absent were skipping, in which case I have to document it by filling out a form. If a kid does something like leave class without permission, I have to write them up (just like I did as an RA in college) and call their parents. Calling home is made all the more difficult by the fact that 75% of the numbers listed for students are either wrong or disconnected. Getting the right number requires filling out yet another form to give to the guidance counselors, who so far have not responded to my inquiries. So, all of that stuff is hard to keep organized… then we add to that all the papers I have to keep track of. The fact that so many of my students are absent so often means that they’re constantly coming in and asking me what they missed, but when they’re all absent on different days and I still have a class to teach at that moment, I can’t just stop what I’m doing to pull together all the worksheets they’re missing and give them instructions on what to do! And I have quite a frightening number of students who have no grades right now because they’ve been absent for every single test and quiz and have not taken them despite receiving repeated warnings from me that they will receive a zero. I used to be the most organized person in the world, but between all of the administrative stuff and the fact that I am also a grad student and do not get enough sleep as it is, I feel like things are chaotic all the time.

The Good
All of that being said, this week has seen a number of improvements, both from myself and my students. Since I finally had a full weekend (for the first time in four weeks) to get work done, I started this week feeling a lot more together than I had in a while. I didn’t have lesson plans done for the latter half of the week, but I did have plans and materials for Monday and Tuesday, and I had some new classroom management strategies to implement.
The big thing I added this week was an extrinsic motivation for good behavior. I gave each student an index card with his/her name on it and told them that they would earn a sticker each time I saw them being quiet and on task during class. This includes their warm-up time (the first five to eight minutes of every class), their independent practice time, and any other time when they are expected to be quiet and focused. I never would have guessed it, but stickers can work wonders for high school students. It helps that mine (for right now) are each worth half a point back onto a previous test or quiz, but most of the conversations I heard this week involved competitions purely for the stickers themselves, not for the points they would earn. It’s a good system because it rewards positive behavior without necessarily punishing bad behavior, and the kids are smart enough that they pick up on the fact that they are responsible for how many stickers they earn. At first they would ask “why didn’t I get a sticker?”, but when I replied that they had been talking or not doing their work, they would accept that for true and immediately fix that. On the whole there was less talking during class this week, so that’s a definite improvement.
As far as the tests go, I returned them ungraded on Monday and gave the students the opportunity to correct them themselves. I explained to them that I felt it was unfair of me to give them bad grades if it was my fault that they didn’t understand. I had decided, after consulting with a few TFA advisors as well as my mom (who has a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology) that perhaps I was making their tests and quizzes too difficult. They were almost all writing-based rather than covering the full gamut of listening, reading, writing, and speaking, and as my mom pointed out, it’s much harder to recall a word than it is to recognize it. Now that I know that it’s okay for me to test them using some matching or multiple choice, I’m going to do that. I first made that change on a quiz I gave yesterday, and my, what a difference! Instead of averaging a C or lower, each class averaged a B+, with numerous people getting over a 100 after extra credit points. They were all much happier with me, and I was pleased too – it proves my students have been learning, even if they can’t necessarily say or write a whole lot! What I hadn’t realized was that in a first-year language course, it’s just not that realistic to expect a student (especially a young one) to be able to speak and write well using the Spanish they know. Now that I’ve gotten the official TFA approval to lower my expectations, I think grades will go up considerably.
I’m also starting to feel a little more organized. It was just hard at the beginning of the year to know everything I’d need in order to keep track of things. In the past few days I’ve made a number of new forms and spreadsheets that I can use to keep myself and my students informed about what’s going on in class. I gave out progress reports this week so they’d each know how many absences and tardies they had, what their current grade is, and what they need to make up. They took forever to write out, but I feel much better knowing that I’ve done my duty in giving people warning of what their grades will be, and a lot of kids have already responded by asking me how they can get their grades up. It’s encouraging.

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