And then there was this…

After a few months of teaching I realized one of my biggest challenges was going to be getting my students motivated. Again, I thought I’d be pretty good at this because I’d played sports my whole life and that’s all about motivation and determination so I figured I’d use my knowledge of sports to connect on a personal level with my students to get them to actually want to do their work.

Yeah, that didn’t work.

Don’t get me wrong, it worked for some but not all and not always. And in the great state of New York, you are not a highly effective teacher if you do not reach all of your students. So my post today is about one student in particular. A student that I struggled to motivate from day one. No matter how many basketball references, no matter how many serious talks about the future, this student just would not budge when it came to completing his work. And for the purpose of this post we’ll call him James.

In the beginning of the year I had been warned about James by other teachers that had him in the past. I heard loads of, “he does nothing,” and “watch your back with that one,” but I did my best not to let what anyone else said influence me. I had a decent rapport with James, he would sometimes participate in class discussions (although I could usually tell he didn’t know what the hay we were talking about), he would always come by in the morning to say hello, and he allegedly gave me less attitude than he did other teachers.

After about 6 months of doing absolutely no work and 2 failed marking periods James finally promised me that he was going to turn it around. He didn’t want to be in the 7th grade again next year. So when I gave out an assignment to write a persuasive essay about why the main character of the book Lyddie should or should not sign the petition for a 10 hour work day in MA factories in the 1850s, James swore “I got this.” And I believed him. When I got his essay a month later (it was two weeks late), I was proud of him to say the least.

At a glance it looked great! Five well constructed paragraphs, quotes that had been cited correctly, in that moment I realized that even I had been wrong about James. I should have held higher expectations for him from the very beginning. It wasn’t until about a week and a half later when I was reading through the 90+ essays that I ever noticed the content of James’s essay. There among the argument for why Lyddie shouldn’t sign the petition he went off on a tangent about Lyddie somehow going to hell if she did sign it. I had to do a double take. Not only did it not make any sense but it was long, and I had to read it. All of it.

The rest of the essay went on in much of the same way, not about hell but other random things that had absolutely nothing to do with the book we had been working on for the last 2 months. It may have been James that wrote the paper, but aren’t our students a reflection of us? I had a pretty good laugh about that after all was said and done. It may have even been in that moment that I realized I was taking myself much too seriously. It’s important to have high expectations, but sometimes its also important to find the humor in things. Especially as a first year teacher, if you can’t laugh at yourself you’ll never make it out alive.

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Adventure #1: Billy!

I’m going to start off by saying that my posts will be about many different things, and that they are in no particular order chronologically, or logically for that matter. You’ll get them just as they come pouring out of my head, mostly because that’s just sort of how I’m living my life right now.

I believe in adventures. I believe in taking adventures of any kind. Whether it’s going to another country that you know nothing about or just going out in the rain. After all, we’re all going to die someday, right? That was morbid, but it’s true damn it! Anyway I’m going to share one of my most recent adventures with you. Just one, a small one, for the sake of keeping this post short.

Two weeks ago, before I left for Africa (that’s an adventure for another time) it was my birthday. In the past I’ve always done the usual try to get everyone I’ve ever met to meet in one place and celebrate the day I was born and everyone better have fun or else. This year turning 26 felt different in a good way. I didn’t want to get people together to celebrate me, I wanted to do it on my own. So the day before my birthday my best friend and I went to see Billy Joel, my favorite artist of all time. Not only did we see him, but we saw him at MSG, one of my favorite venues, AND we were 20 rows off the stage! I was ecstatic. After dinner we went to the concert where we sang, danced, and repeatedly said “how the fuck did we get these seats?” When the concert was finished we decided we weren’t done and we needed to go out. The only problem was that it was Wednesday night and just about every bar we passed seemed like a big dull dud. Finally we decided to play a little game of left, right, or straight. It’s a game my dad used to play with me as a child where when we came to a crossroads one person either blurts out left, right or straight and you have to go that way no matter where it leads you.

Our game lead us to a bar I had been to loads of times and didn’t particularly like, but we had to go in as is the nature of the game. To make a long story short (too late), we danced the night away and met all sorts of new and interesting people. In fact, one person I met had traveled the world, something I’m largely interested in, and is a coal miner in Canada (what?!). Next week I’m going on a new larger adventure to Vancouver to hang with some of the new people we met. I’m not sure there is a moral to this story, there probably isn’t. But I’ll leave you with this, do the damn thing. Whatever the hell it is. ‘Cause you just never know.

Teaching: lets start at the very beginning.

So, I’m a teacher. I get a lot of mixed responses when I tell people that. Some give me a strange look, probably because I look like I’m 16. Some people give me a look of pity as if to say “your job sucks.” While many others seem to admire what I’m doing. All of the reactions seem a bit strange to me, because when I ask others what they do I usually just smile and nod at their response regardless of what it is. But that’s neither here nor there. Anyway, I just completed my first year of teaching and even though everyone told me all about the ups and downs for many months before I even stepped into my classroom I don’t think I could have ever actually been prepared for what was actually going to happen.

Now, I think I should start off by saying that I did not teach a “bad” group of students this year, whatever that means. Teaching is a challenge in many, many ways and no matter what the makeup of my students, it was going to be a challenge regardless. The reason for the emotional roller coaster ride was largely not to do with them, but with me. I was stepping back into middle school, a place I hadn’t been in 15 years and nobody likes middle school when they’re in it. It’s awkward at best and devastating to many. For me middle school was just awkward, but I don’t like feeling awkward! So my year began with me feeling like I was in middle school again as the foreign exchange student that nobody knows or cares to understand.

The week before the school year began I prepped my classroom, spending approximately $300+ to make sure my students would be in a welcoming environment. Little did I know that with no air conditioning in September in a very old building in New York the environment was about as welcoming as an old man on his porch with a shotgun. But anyway, I wasn’t going to let that discourage me, so when the first day of school came I was ready for any and everything. I had posters, pens, paper, a first aid kit. You name it I bought it, because I wanted my students to know that I was there for them! I had first period Monday mornings as a prep this year (hallelujah!) so I spent the first 45 minutes of the day bracing myself for my first class ever! I was nervous but SO excited, I just knew that we would have great discussions and take part in amazing activities that would teach them not only ELA, but life skills that they would take with them for all time! Of course, that was tainted by the fact that there was a change in the schedule 2nd period so that somehow only half of my students showed up at my classroom. The other half were still in their 1st period classroom. So after about 10 minutes of complete confusion I took the half of the class that I had down to the other classroom so we would all be together. Of course, the other classroom was the band room, so there were no desks, which made the activity I asked them to partake in extremely difficult. After spending another few minutes explaining the activity in a shaky first year teacher voice I asked my students, “are there any questions?” And there was a question! My first question as a teacher! I was so excited, I knew they would have meaningful conversations, I had been so sure of it and when I called on the student and asked him to share his question he blurted out, “are your eyes real?”

And so it began…