Saturday, October 20, 2007

what's next?

So now that I'm in 7th grade with my class I'm starting to get questions from people about what I'm going to do when I graduate my class. At our school after your class graduates 8th grade you're basically out of a job. I can't think of another job where you give years of successful, dedicated service only to find yourself out on your ear. Of course there's always the option of applying for the next 1st grade class.

As I contemplate my future I do think about applying for grade 1 when I'm done. All of my own kids will still be at the school, we'll still need tuition, I'll still need a job, so it seems like a logical conclusion. I think I could relate to first graders pretty easily, though it would definitely take a bit of transitioning after being with the older grades for so long.

It's funny, though, as all of these questions come to me I find myself wondering if the people who are asking have an opinion about what I should do when I graduate my class. Would all of the parents of those little first graders be happy to have me as their children's teacher? Do my colleagues respect me enough to rehire me -- especially now that they know my faults?

I was talking with someone just last night about how challenging this job is in so many different ways. It requires so many different skills that you're bound to find your weakness, and have to struggle against it everyday. Of course, this is really what it's all about, but dealing with these weaknesses day in and day out can sure be a blow to the self-esteem. I mean, in many ways I know I'm a good teacher and I love what I do, but there are days when I don't feel like such a fabulous teacher and I question what I'm doing. A mentor once told me that when she started teaching she was just convinced that she was terrible at her job and it was only a matter of time before everyone found out that this was true. I've often felt the same way.

Still, I sometimes find myself looking at those little kindergarteners and wonder if I will be their teacher.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


This chemistry block is extremely cool. For the last week and a half the students and I have been exploring combustion, which means we're basically lighting things on fire, watching them burn and setting up mini-explosions in class. How cool is that! (Of course, we're also learning that combustion is what happens when a substance reacts with oxygen and other concepts like that, but the demonstrations are the cool part.)

I have to say that is what is so cool about Waldorf education. Though we get to the concepts connected with the things we're learning, the concept is not the entire point by any stretch of the imagination. I always think that the goal of my teaching is to create fond memories for the subject matter. So though the students may not remember a fixed concept like oxidation or combustion, they'll absolutely remember the colorful flames they saw when the mixture of zinc and sulfur ignited and the feeling of dread they felt when I set one student's dollar bill on fire. Then, when they come across these subjects again (like in high school) they'll have a natural affinity and interest in the subject, when they are really ready for the definitive concept.

Tomorrow we begin studying acids and bases. I'll start with letting the students taste two different "mystery substances" and try to describe the difference between the two. Then they'll put their hands in two different buckets to feel the difference. Then finally they'll watch the magical color changes as I add red cabbage juice to the different substances. Then we'll make red cabbage juice together. We might talk a little bit about naming these different substances "acids" and "bases" but we'll go into that in much more detail on Thursday, after they've had a chance to sit with these experiences a bit.

Though they're sometimes challenging, right now I'm loving exploring this stuff with them!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

finding help

On Friday afternoon I met with the school counselor at one of our local middle schools. One of my students has had serious challenges with written language. Even now in Grade 7 he sounds out every word that he reads. He has somehow found a way to understand everything he reads, despite his halting, stuttering way of reading, but learning to read was a real challenge for him and he continues to be a slow reader. In addition to his struggles with reading, he really struggles with writing. He is able to compose sentences fairly well, but his spelling is so atrocious that other people would not be able to read his work. He misspells simple sight words (so is soe, for example).

The meeting was incredibly productive and the psychologist and the principal were very supportive and were convinced at the end of it that this child needs their help. They're going to assess him and find what he needs and how they can help him.

After this meeting, though, I'm feeling pretty bad that his challenges haven't been addressed before now. I mentioned to them that he has been a concern from 2nd grade on and it was so clear in the conversation how sad it is that he has been a concern for so long and that he's getting help now in 7th grade. The whole thing has me determined to help in setting up some sort of assessment standard to use in our school. It's interesting how our school's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. It's wonderful that our teachers are independent enough to teach to the class what seems most important for that particular class. We don't have to worry about testing and assessing ability is solely up to the individual teacher. In many ways I can assess my students' abilities better than anyone. But at the same time, I'm quite close to the situation and it's sometimes difficult to know what to do. It's quite easy to just keep plugging along, doing the work that needs to be done, without really addressing individual students' needs. There just isn't time for it. I think, though, that if I had another teacher look over my students' work with me and then we had guidelines about what should be done when there is a question about a student's achievement, this student's challenges would have been addressed earlier.

Anyway, I'm glad something is being done now and I hope that I can help set something up so that this kind of challenge doesn't go on for so long in the future.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

slippery tongues

I so distinctly remember when I was in middle school and I had the strong realization that I had to really think about every word that came out of my mouth. I don't remember exactly the circumstance, I must've said the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time, I suppose, but I really remember feeling so sad about the fact that I could no longer freely speak whatever was on my mind. I suddenly discovered that words had power and meaning and if I wasn't careful with them I could get into trouble.

Well, today a student at our school had the same wake-up call. I was the study hall teacher today at lunch. All of the students who were there had work to make up for Spanish, so the Spanish teacher came as well to make sure that everyone knew what they needed to do. After she got them all squared away she left the room to go make some copies. I stayed sitting at my desk and all of the students, working silently, stayed at their desks. One of them was not working, though. This student had left his work at home and study hall was his punishment. He had to just sit at the desk and ponder. Well, after the Spanish teacher left all was quiet in the room for a few minutes. I was working, they were working, it was good -- until I heard from the other side of the room, "God I hate that stupid b*tch." I raised my head and gasped in surprise. Then the student raised his head and gasped in surprise. He immediately started apologizing, muttering, "omigod, omigod, omigod." I escorted him to the office and by the time we got there he was crying, asking what was going to happen. It was immediately clear that he had forgotten I was there -- easy to do since the Spanish teacher had been helping everyone and she had just left the room.

He was sent home, suspended for the day. I actually felt kinda bad for him, and would've felt worse except for the fact that he's had it coming for awhile, he just finally got caught. Still, he was so remorseful and immediately knew he had messed up big time.

I had a little talk with him while he waited for his parents in the office. I told him I understood what happened, that it was an accident, but still, he's got to be responsible for what he says, and he really shouldn't say things like that no matter who is around. I wonder how he's feeling about it now and if learning that lesson is as painful for him as it was for me.

Then again, if my son's take on it is any indicator, he could be receiving congratulatory phone calls from his classmates. My son is in his class and he plans on shaking his hand in the morning, thanking him for having the guts to say out loud what they've all been thinking.

Monday, October 8, 2007


Respect -- isn't it a slippery term? I mean, you know it when you aren't getting it, but how can you describe it, really? I've had many conversations with my students about respect and what respectful behavior looks like -- I've certainly brought it to their attention when they are acting disrespectfully. But I don't think I've really talked to them about what respect is and what you're really showing when you are respectful towards another person. Respectful behavior can mean so many different things, and it often depends on the actual people involved and their individual needs.

As I see it, respect simply means allowing space and understanding for another individual. Recognizing when someone needs to be listened to, understanding the amount of work they have put into a task, speaking to them in a way that shows your understanding for their particular circumstance -- these are all examples of respectful behavior.

So what is disrespectful behavior? When a student rips up his beautifully calligraphied nametag that his teacher labored over in the summer -- that's disrespectful. When a student continually talks to a friend when the teacher is explaining something -- that's disrespectful. When a student talks back when his teacher tries to encourage him towards proper classroom behavior -- that's disrespectful.

Clearly, disrespect is so much more tangible than respect.

Why the treatise on respect? Today I sent a student home for disrespectful behavior. Today in main lesson on four different occasions this student spoke to me in disrespectful ways. He talked back when I corrected his behavior; he argued when I suggested he change something on his test; he said, "Do you have a problem with it?" when explaining his behavior; and then argued that I was being unnecessarily harsh on him for one disrespectful comment.

Though every teacher I spoke with at school said this was absolutely warranted, even overdue for this child, it is hard not to question my own actions. Am I being as sensitive to his needs as I could be? Do I need to work harder at "finding the backdoor" to influencing his behavior? What is he really asking for?

Though I know that his behavior was unacceptable, no matter what my actions were, there's no way around the fact that respect is a two way street. You give a little you get a little. I'll try to give a little more tomorrow.

Sunday, October 7, 2007


I spent a couple of hours at the library today looking for books for the class. It was great just spending time with the librarian who was so on fire about kids reading. I mentioned to her that I was looking for something to read to 7th graders and she recommended a book called The Read-Aloud Handbook that is full of suggestions by grade level. She was so enthusiastic about the author of this book and his passion for reading -- she couldn't recommend the book highly enough. She was just thrilled that I was reading aloud to 7th graders -- I think people generally stop reading aloud to middle school students. Anyway, my students just love being read to.

I also left the library with a few ideas for books. I'm looking for two books -- one to read aloud, another to have as a class reader next month. Here's what I came out with:
Freak the Mighty (read aloud)
The City of Ember (read aloud)
A Day No Pigs Would Die (either?)
I, Juan de Pareja (either?)
A Single Shard (highly recommended, maybe good when we do geography of Asia in the spring)
Woodsong (by Gary Paulsen, also highly recommended)
Loser (Jerry Spinelli, probably not something I would either read to the class or recommend for a reader, just the title puts me off a bit, but I'll give it a shot)
The Yearling (I'm not sure what to do about this one. It's so sad, but also a really good read, and just the kind of book I would have as a class reader. It's also quite long and I'm not sure that all of them could get through it in the time allowed.)

Anyway, those are my options right now. I'm really looking for a good classic coming-of-age story that I could give them as a reader. For now I'll start on these and maybe do some surfing.

Saturday, October 6, 2007


Two posts in one day? I figure I'll get while the getting's good.
I spent most of the day at school working (except for a short break to watch my favorite 8 1/2 year old kick butt in a soccer game). I did a couple of chalkboard drawings:
Not thrilled with the hand, but hands aren't easy!

This is a quote from Marcus Aurelius that came from the chemistry book I'm using. I kinda like the campfire picture, at least it looks good this
small :-). I think I'll add some shadow to the stones.

I started doing some of the demonstrations that I'll be doing in front of the class. I'm sure glad I did them ahead of time. Most of them went well, though I usually had to do them two or three times. A couple of them were quite combustible! The room smoked up and there were some pretty spectacular flames. The class is going to love this block. There was only
one casualty so far. This is the surface of the science table. I did one of the combustible experiments on a glass dish thinking it would be flame-proof enough. A couple of minutes after the giant flame appeared the glass dish shattered spreading pieces all over the room, burning the counter and filling the room with an awful toxic smell. Oops.
All of this experimenting is fun and it's such a good example of how this job pushes me to do things I never imagined myself doing. I mean, in so many ways the thought of rifling through tubs full of chemicals, learning what the symbols mean, figuring out the reactions between them, and then conducting the experiments is completely overwhelming! Let alone being confident and composed enough to present them with authority to a group of 7th graders!
Among Waldorf teachers there's an understanding that it's not necessary to be an expert at everything you do with the students. The students can sense you're striving to learn and to become a better human being, and this is what counts most. So, whenever I find myself a bit out of my comfort zone and fumbling a bit to find my way in this job I repeat this mantra, "It's in the striving. It's in the striving." I think this block is going to have me really striving.


On Monday the seventh grade and I will begin a new block. At our school we study subjects in blocks. We devote the first two hours of every morning (called Main Lesson) to one subject for a number of weeks. We began the year with astronomy, and now we're moving on to Chemistry.

Last year the class and I studied Physics together. One of the demonstrations that I showed them was how heated air expands. To do this I put a balloon on a flask, put the flask on a stand and heated the bottom of it. Of course, after a short time the balloon inflated slightly. The students and I wanted to see if we could make the balloon inflate further and so they all cheered me on to hold the blow torch to the bottom longer to see what would happen. Before long the bottom of the flask and the stand that it was on began to smoke a little bit and the room started to smell bad. I quickly turned off the blow torch and oh-so-calmly suggested that we go outside for the last few minutes of main lesson. The students saw right through my composed exterior and we all had a big chuckle about the fact that I almost set off the smoke alarm in our Physics block.

Yesterday, when I told the class that we were going to begin our Chemistry block on Monday, SD raised his hand and politely asked if we were going to be working with combustibles in chemistry, and (gulp) if I was going to be the one conducting the demonstrations. We all remembered the 6th grade physics debacle and had a good laugh. I promised that despite the combustibles there would be no casualties.

As we enter this chemistry block I'm noticing the social chemistry in the classroom approaching combustible levels, as well. Though for the most part this group of students who have been together for so long have come to know and understand each other quite well, occasionally the group finds itself simply out of patience for one or two in its midst. Right now my most impulsive, least mature student (who is quite combustible himself) is wearing on everyone and though in the past everyone was quite careful about expressing their opinions in class, yesterday it all came to a head and while he was out of the room the class said some pretty difficult things about him and their frustrations with him. Though I often find his youthful enthusiasm and filter-free existence refreshing, it is often quite challenging in the classroom and sometimes it is simply impossible for him to be in the classroom at all. I'm wondering if he can hear his classmates' concerns and respond to them in a productive way or if he'll find them so overwhelming that he'll just give up. Whatever it is, something has to change.

Stay tuned for some explosive content in the next few days.