Dear Ms. Jacobs, Help!



Dear Ms. Jacobs,

I was in your fourth and fifth period class last year. I don’t want to tell you my name, but you’d remember me if I did.  Not to be rude, but it wasn’t a good experience. I’m afraid I’ll be in your class again next year, so I thought I’d write you a letter and tell you what I noticed and maybe give you some hints for making next year better for all of us. You really didn’t seem to be having fun either, so maybe my tips will help.

.First of all, there were too many boys in that class. Balance is important, and it didn’t exist in there. That’s probably not anything you can change because our level seems to be made up of mostly boys for some reason. Some of those boys just didn’t want to behave themselves appropriately. They saw your class as playtime.

Remember after a few months when a couple of the boys became class leaders? Unfortunately they led by being complete jerks. They bullied people by making fun of them or interrupting them, or just anything they could think of to make a mess of things. They even said mean things to the kids who weren’t of their own culture, and that seemed like racism to me. Even though you got mad when they did it, and even suspended them from your class sometimes, they didn’t stop. That was jus wrong.

The rest of us were a little worried they’d bully us if we didn’t follow their lead, so we did. We played around, threw things, never brought pencils and sat wherever we wanted to, even though you made seating charts. It seemed like you were just too tired to make us do what we were supposed to do. Even calling our parents didn’t help much. Except for those kids who either got expelled or moved to another school because they felt unsafe at our school, the rest of us just kept on playing, all year.

I could often see you just watching them, with no clue what to do other than write them a referral. That worked a little, but not enough. Sometimes I wondered just what a referral was for if it didn’t do anything. We all liked it when they got suspended that one time. The class was calmer, and we didn’t feel like we had to act different. Somehow you’ve got to get hold of those two guys early next year.

Seventh grade was a kind of weird year, I think. Our bodies were changing, in case you didn’t know that, and we suddenly felt different about lots of things, and we don’t really know what to do about it. It seems like we needed more structure just to help us stay focused. We also need you to keep us interested. I’m sorry I was part of the bad behavior. I could see that sometimes you just waited for the bell to ring because there was no way to really get hold of us. That’s a bad memory for me.

Remember that thing you did at the end of the year, Snake Week? Now that was great. We had a focus, it was interesting, and even though we had some work to do about it, we expected that. We didn’t mind because it was interesting to us. We liked every bit of that. We even liked drawing snakes, and we don’t usually like to draw stuff that much. I hope you do more stuff like that next year.

Here are a few more ideas for what might make next year better for us all, including you. I’m going to make a list:

1. Have our day’s work agenda on the board when we come in.

2. Make us write it down in our agendas and then check them on Friday. We really need to learn how to be more organized, so we know what we’re supposed to do.

3. Give us pencils if we need them at the beginning of the period. Don’t stop a lesson to give out a pencil. We can be held responsible enough to take care of our pencil needs, but you have to do it. Hold us responsible, that is.

4. Start each day with something we expect to do. A DOL or a writing prompt, every day, so we just come in and get started. Those bad behavers won’t have a chance to get started if you do that. Or at least that’s what I think. You should try it.

5. Do you think we could use the iPads sometimes? I know that you didn’t trust us with them last year, but if we get wifi in our classroom, could you just try us out with them? We’d really like that.

6. Keep going with those participation points. That worked pretty well. You could give candy or little prizes to the top scorers sometimes instead of always giving points. Just to change it up. I know I’d like that. It’s make me even more interested in getting those points and not losing them for something stupid like not asking for a pencil on time.

7. End each block period about five minutes early so we can pack up our stuff and clean up the room. Playing some certain music as a cleanup signal might be a good idea. I remember we used to leave a terrible mess sometimes. You must have hated that.

8. Remind us often that eighth grade is different from seventh grade. We are getting ready for high school. We want to be successful and we need your help to get there.

I hope you aren’t mad that I gave you ideas. I hope they aren’t dumb ideas. I will be watching to see if you use any of them. I hope we have a good year. I want to promote and I’ll need your help. We all need you.


Your student

Posted in Teaching English Learners, Teaching Middle School, Teaching Middle School Boys | 3 Comments

Aaaaah! Finally.



It was a long haul, wasn’t it?  But I’m quickly putting it all behind me. For the next few weeks, you can find me here, lounging around, reading novels, making colorful lists in my journal (because that’s about all I do there anymore), planning my road trip at the end of July and experimenting with different ways of fixing easy summer food.

Oh, and of course I’ll be planning my lessons and classroom daily and weekly structure. I have the same kids next year that I had last, so it is imperative that I be ready for them. I don’t want to bore you with anther year like last year, so IT’S ON!!! I will be ready for them this time!

However, before I dive into all the specifics of what’s to come, I’m going to rest and relax and heal for a while. I hope you have some time to do the same.  I think I’ll go see a R rated movie matinee this afternoon… See you soon!

P.S. I’m also participating in the Connected Learning Massive Open Online Course (#clmooc) through the National Writing project. I’m blogging about that over at my other blog. Come check it out. It’s so cool and never too late to jump in and join the fun!

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Rolling With the Punches


We’re still here. Breathing deeply among the chaos, the unexpected heartbreak and trouble. Kids who thought their last minute efforts would pay off are learning that they will not be promoting next week. There are moms crying in the office as they learn of the fate of their kids. Grades were due yesterday and today the deal making is happening.

Unfortunately for some, the deals are not without a plan. They had to earn a certain GPA this quarter and read a certain number of AR books in order to surmount the bad choices they made in an earlier quarter or quarters. They always think they can make it until they don’t. And then they act all surprised. Yesterday a boy came to me, he who had really tried to pull his grade up and had actually succeeded, and told me that he needed good comments as well as good grades to get to promote. Heck, comments are cheap and he did get his grade up, so I commented away.  “Making excellent progress…”

Right now there is a crowd  of boys in the office who thought it would be a good idea to bring an alcoholic beverage to the super fun pool outing the PE department took them on this morning. One brought it and the others drank it. And now they are all going home. For the rest of the year, forget promotion. Oh my. What were you thinking? Stupid choices will take you down sometimes.

In the Seventh grade chaotic boys class, we have been learning about Snakes, Spiders and lately the Honey Badger. They are completely taken with the Honey Badger and want to watch videos about them every day. Knowing this class as I do by now it should be no surprise that they would fall for the meanest, smartest animal out there!  They’d much rather watch science animal videos than Hollywood movies, so guess what my next year’s units will be built around? Yep. Reading, writing and watching videos about surprising animals and maybe some dirty jobs.  Boy stuff.  Stuff that will grab them. Hello, why didn’t I think of that sooner? Duh!


Posted in Teaching English Learners, Teaching Middle School | Tagged | 3 Comments

What’s Next?



We’re almost there. Two more weeks are all that are left. Yet for almost half of my eighth grade students, it will seem an eternity.  My eighth grade ELD class, the one in which the students are deemed Intermediate, who speak English very well, and have little to no interest in school, has many students who will not be promoting this year. They will go on to high school because after all, we can’t have students driving themselves to middle school, but it won’t be because they have done anything at all to prepare themselves for this next step.  They are the non-doers, the sitters. Occasionally there is a time, and it resurfaces every so often, when they rise up and seem like they might do something in class.  But after handing in a hastily prepared assignment or two, they sit back and watch again. This is not only in my class. They do this all day long, all year long. I have no idea when this habit pattern formed, but I sense it started before they arrived at middle school.

Mostly these days what they watch is their phones or iPods. You know those videos you see where people walk around with their heads down, missing their lives because they are looking at their little devices? Yes, like that. Even in a very low income area, most of them have an electronic device of some kind. It is a constant battle to keep the devices in their pockets or backpacks. I tell them to put them away, and eventually I take them away for a while, but in the big picture it isn’t much use.  The other day I found one of my non-doer students with two devices out at the same time.

But this post isn’t really about the problem of electronics interfering with what’s going on, it’s about what’s next for these students. The electronics are a symptom, but they are not a reason. I wish I understood what drives their inertia. I worry about their lives, what they will do with them. I wonder if they think they will start doing school in high school, or if they just don’t see the purpose for it. I look for engaging things to offer as class activities, and I will admit that snake week was pretty popular, but only from the point of view of an observer. The written work that accompanied it was not done.

I didn’t ever see this, or at least not to this degree, when I taught high school, but I don’t really think this is a middle school anomaly. It would be very surprising if these guys suddenly began doing school in two months. They don’t know how to do school because they haven’t been practicing.  They get good attendance, but that’s about all. I suspect that high school is very different now from how it was ten years ago when I taught it. In fact my colleagues have alluded to that truth.

Next year I will try again to start the year off in a well organized, structured way. I will have high expectations for my students and will communicate those clearly. I think I do that each year, but each year I think that next year I’ll do it better, more effectively.  Next year I’m teaching eighth grade, all eighth grade, so I already know who will be in my classes.  The outlook is a little bleak, to be honest. Still I will do my best to change things up, because there is nothing else I can offer other than my best effort.  And for now, I’ll make it through the next two weeks, and then I’ll rest a minute before it all begins again.



Posted in Teaching English Learners, Teaching Middle School, Teaching Middle School Boys, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Snake Week

garter-snakesLast week I decided it was time for something that would keep my students interested at this time of year. Enter Snake Week! I collected a bunch of information about snakes, and put it all together in a Blendspace. Check it out here: Snake Week. You can see that I’ve attached some poems and articles and videos, information about the stories we read, a PowerPoint of snake facts, even a graphic organizer I used with the PowerPoint. I’m still adding graphic organizers as I write them, but you can get the drift.

I’m really excited about Blendspace. It has made creating a unit so easy, and it’s so easy to teach because everything is right there, in the order you want to use it.  It’s online so you don’t have to use a flash drive or put it in Dropbox or email it to yourself. And you can gather info for it from anyplace, really. You can go from one activity to another very smoothly. And no, they aren’t paying me to say this! I just want to share because it’s so seriously cool and useful. It makes me seem really organized, and I’m anything but.

And as for Snake Week?  Bonanza. They were fascinated all week. Every day.  If you read this blog much, you know that’s a really big deal! Enjoy. I hope this is helpful to you!

(P.S. The picture above is of a Garter snake mating ball.  So interesting. And, yes, a little creepy.)

Posted in Teaching Middle School, Teaching Middle School Boys | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Is It Over Yet?


Oh my.  Back to school today, after a three day weekend, and what a long day it was.  The kids are all but catatonic, or at least in the morning they were. By fourth period things picked up, as usual.

My first period Spanish class rolled by without incident. Everyone got a grade check. Ho hum.  No one seemed to care much. One kid turned something in, but that was it.  It didn’t seem to matter to anyone that their grade was not all they’d like it to be.

Second period was when things got moving a little bit.  I gave everyone their graded work and their grade checks. Not a soul asked if he could turn in anything late. One kid showed me a huge pile of work and said “Look at all this.” I asked if it was done and he said “No.” And then he just sat there. Didn’t do one bit of it.  The class has huge History and Science projects that are both due on Friday, so I said they could work on them.  Last week I’d spent time explaining in detail how to do the History project, and everyone who plans to do it got to work on it.

Did you notice what I said there? “Everyone who plans to do it.” Yes. Not everyone has any intention of doing either project. Those kids, the non-doers,  just sat there, hands folded, not making much noise. They just patiently waited for the time to pass. In this class, only about eight out of twenty-one students have a GPA over 2.0.  This means they will not cross the stage at promotion unless someone works a deal for them at the last minute, and believe me there are a few that are waiting for that deal. What they don’t seem to get is they will have to actually do something to get it.  Sitting quietly in one’s seat won’t be enough.

After breakfast break, the high maintenance girl who carries two backpacks came to me and said that one of her backpacks was missing.  It wasn’t on the floor by her table where she’d left it.  I calmly announced to the class that no one would be going to fourth period until the backpack showed up.  A minute later I saw it in the front of the class, by my work station. I gave it back to her and told her to get back to work.  Within a couple of minutes she was standing at my desk, and she said, in an imperious voice, “Tomorrow will you try to take better care of my stuff?” I explained, almost calmly, that I would not.  I told her the room was locked at break and no students were in there. Someone just picked it up and moved it as they walked in.  She had it back. I told her she’d have to look after it herself if that wasn’t good enough.

I roamed the room for a while, checking on people. One girl wore a bandaid on her upper lip for some reason. She kept taking it off an on, and there was no boo boo under it.  I don’t know if it was an attempt at exfoliation of a few mustache hairs or what, but it was a little off-putting to try to carry on a conversation with her with that bandaid on and off her lip.

Finally the period ended and it was time for Sweet Basil and Mikey and the gang.  The seventh graders.  Those who are having sex ed this week. Oh yeah.  Students always come in with questions for me about that. They often ask what ‘sexual intercourse’ is, because they learned the word in science class but not what it means. So then it falls on me, their ELD teacher to explain it to them.  But not today.  Today they just wanted to know at what age they can do it.  “Can fourteen year-olds do it?”  I talked about the deep emotional involvement, and the chance of babies and said that while it is possible to “do it” at fourteen, it really is better to wait until they are mature enough for the relationship that goes along with it.  Bla bla bla.  Mikey just rubbed his hands together and said “Condon! No babies with a condon!!” (Spanish for condom) The conversation devolved from there and I changed the subject. Enough of that. I guess we’re going to study spiders next.

And we still have three more weeks. It can only get better from here, right?

Posted in Teaching English Learners, Teaching Middle School | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

On Being Someone’s Favorite Teacher

There are years when you limp along all year, certain you’ve lost your touch completely.  The kids are out of control and none of your tricks are working. Some days you feel like crying, but of course you never do because that would be the end of life as you dream it. Other days you get quiet, or you go along as though everything is okay, even though that is far from the truth. And on some days you get mad. You write referrals, suspend the most serious offenders from your class over and over again and you no longer care if they don’t like you because you can’t stand them. It’s on, and you will win. After a suspension they come back swearing they will behave better, and sometimes they do for a minute or two.

You understand that every child deserves the best you have to offer. As you look at the quiet, desperate looks on the faces of the other students in your class, the ones who do the assigned work and try to actually participate, you resolve yet again that the miscreants will not dominate things any more.  And the cycle of acting out, referring, suspending and reconciliation begins again and again. And you know that this behavior is not only happening in your classroom, and you wonder why you are the only one doing any sort of intervention. You ask other teachers, and they so agree with you that certain kids are just out of control, but when you ask them why they are not writing them up as well, they fade out of the conversation.

So you keep trying. You can remember when you could see a child in there, one who might one day become a decent adult, but the memory is pretty dim by now. And you can’t see any way to make contact with that child. So you do what you think the other kids need most.

Then one day, after referring two of the gravest offenders once again, the Principal calls their parents in and tells them all in no uncertain terms that if any more of this behavior crosses her desk they will be expelled from school. She tells them our students deserve better, and the disruption these boys are causing will no longer be tolerated. And she suspends them for two days.

This time, when the boys come back they are chagrined. They apologize and say they are embarrassed to have been suspended for such a small thing. You tell them that to you and the other students it is not small, and that they will no longer be allowed to dominate your classroom. You tell them that you will do the same thing again, as many times as necessary, and they believe you. Suddenly they sit in their seats and do the assigned work. They don’t play around, or call out or bully other students. They ask you repeatedly if they are being good. They wonder if you’ve told the principal and they go ask her if she has heard anything good about them.

Then one day, one of the boys says, “Maestra, Mrs. X asked if she was my favorite teacher, and I told her no. I told her you are my favorite teacher.  ” Stunned, you ask why ever he told her that. You ask why you are his favorite teacher, and he replies, “Porque Usted es buena gente conmigo (you are a good person with me). You teach me things I need to know, especially in English. You are just the best teacher for me.” And in a moment of clarity, you realize that kids do crave limits. When they don’t have them, they will seek them and some will push harder than others as they look for the security they need.  And you wonder what your career in teaching might have been like had you, the one who is known for being a little too nice, been a little meaner sometimes. If you who understands so well the security inherent in giving a person limits had stood a little more firmly behind your own limits, what would the impact have been on your students and yourself? And you resolve to honor those limits, both yours and those of your students, in the future, understanding that it is never too late to learn to do a better job.

Posted in Teaching, Teaching Middle School | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments