What follows is an overview of my day from March 2nd, 2016. The impetus for this post came from my constant amazement at just how busy I (and every other teacher I know) appear to be pretty much all the time. I’ve decided to break it down roughly by school period. I’ve removed any and all identifying markers to specific students and/or adults without sacrificing the spirit of what transpired on March 2, 2016. See part 1 here.
TA (otherwise known as ‘homeroom’) is a staple of the middle school experience. The basic idea is that TA provides students with a safe space to mentally prepare for the day ahead. They can finish homework, read quietly, talk with friends, etc. This morning a student I teach rushed into my room during TA and asked me to read something she’d been writing at home. She forked over the crumpled paper and stared at me. I skimmed through her story about an unnamed protagonist waking up in a mental hospital covered in gauze. While I read I made sure to keep an ear out for any verbal sparring between two of my TA students who don’t particularly like each other. Neither of them speaks conversational English, so I have only my limited knowledge of Spanish profanity to go on. Lately they’ve been hostile towards each other, so I had to pay attention.
After reading the girl’s piece as quickly and thoroughly as possible (a valuable skill), I look into her nervous face and tell her I love how creepy it is, being sure to point out a handful of specific details that I noted while reading it. She seems pleased. She snatches her paper back and disappears into the hallway. No signs of trouble from the two boys so far. I plop down next to some of the guys and inquire into the games they’re playing on their iPads. I wrack my brain to recall any details I might have heard earlier in the week about their extracurriculars, life events, and etc. Everyone is glued to their iPad. I relish the 60 seconds of ‘silence’ before the bell rings.
The sounding of the 8:11 bell signals the end of TA and the beginning of first period. Today the kids come in charged. As they trickle in I sense a distinct change in the atmosphere of the room. Each class has its own tipping point, the moment when something as pedestrian as a sneeze is enough to send half the room into histrionics. First period comes in way past their tipping point already. I receive my first portent of the period when a student barges into the room, sits down at his desk, and starts shouting unpleasant things about his TA teacher. This teacher, he says to no one in particular, has taken away his iPad for no reason.
As I walk over to him, pausing for a moment to politely ask another student to refrain from standing an inch away from the Smart Board and reading today’s warm-up at the top of his lungs, my teacher sense catches another potential snag on the other side of the room. A student who has been out sick has returned to find another student sitting at her usual desk. I decide to move towards the two bickering students. The first kid’s boisterous complaining, although pretty loud, is common. Kids are used to him and it doesn’t provide that much of a distraction. Rightly or wrongly (wrongly), I use potential class disruption as the deciding factor in who/what gets my finite attention.
“Get up,” she commands.
“Why?” he says with defiance.
Before she can answer I remind him that he normally sits somewhere else. Sensing his rising argument I throw out a flurry of additional reasons. She’s been out sick and probably isn’t feeling well; it’s good to cooperate with others; be a gentleman; etc. He finally relents and moves. I remind myself to return to them later in the period when things have died down to try and smoothe things over.
90 seconds have passed.
Today’s warm-up, a choice between three fairly interesting writing prompts (they also always have the option to write about whatever they want) begins poorly. Most of the kids are either whispering to each other about more immediately interesting topics or staring off into space. I circulate around the room quickly, giving out a flurry of non-verbals (beaming while pantomiming the act of writing on a pad of paper, mouthing the word ‘WRIIIITE” with looks of exasperation both real and exaggerated, etc.) to any student who hasn’t started the warm-up yet. At this point in the year I know which students won’t have paper and pencil, so I’m also ripping out paper from my own notebook and flinging the jagged sheets down upon desks. I shoo away a couple kids from the pencil sharpener, a mystical object that collects students who don’t want to do whatever it is they’re supposed to be doing.
It’s sort of like playing a giant game of whack-a-mole. Every time a head pops up I have to will them back into writing position.
Everyone is writing and the room is finally silent after roughly five minutes. Unfortunately this is also the time when our writing warm-ups always end. Typically students share out in various configurations (standing up and sharing to the class, sharing together in groups, reading everything they wrote, picking just a favorite line, etc). I look down at my own notebook. I, like many English teachers, always try and do the warm-up with the kids. This morning’s output speaks to its difficulty: a meager 7 words. To be honest I don’t even remember writing them. They just sort of appeared in my rushed, angular script. No one is in the mood to share this morning, not even the kid who always shares. That’s when you know it’s been rocky.
Keyed up, I rush us through our standard opening (reading important dates, going over the weekly outline, and then going through our daily agenda. Without interruptions, this takes like 60 seconds). Today’s lesson involves writing Flash Fiction using the different types of literary conflict: character vs. character, character vs. technology, etc. I split this activity into two days in order to a) give students time to try and flesh out a decent draft and b) mix in a few other small things so the lesson didn’t lose its lustre.
So I ask everyone to take out the sheet of paper containing yesterday’s first few drafts. About 20% don’t have it. This is pretty standard. I tell students that, just like yesterday, I’ll give them about six minutes per conflict station. “Go to a station because the conflict type or the image interests you, not just because your friends go there,” I say. Most of them immediately stand up and go wherever their friends go. A couple of students remain rooted to their chairs, arms crossed. “But do we have to?” one of them asks. Quizzically these are the same two students who last week complained that I didn’t let them move around enough (this is a half-truth. Although I allow students to sit/lounge/get up/sit down/walk around as much as they like, I need to do a better job building in purposeful movement into my lessons).
This is one of the many moments in teaching when you remember that for all the brain-based research on the unique structures of the adolescent brain, kids are really just mini-adults. We can all be petty and recalcitrant. The free-pass we often give to difficult adults (reserving our moral tsk-tsking to closed-door conversations) is often lost when we deal with children.
The activity goes well. Kids who struggle to come up with ideas off the top of their head (a difficult skill) are able to use the pictures as spring boards. After reminding the class that we’ll use these drafts again tomorrow, and making sure each student puts the paper in a place that looks safe enough (pretty much anything encased in cheap plastic), we close the lesson by continuing our read aloud. I’m reading April Henry’s The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die out loud to my classes. It’s a great way to model fluency and expression. The book also serves as a mentor text anytime we need to do something whole-class. Since I keep pretty consistent timing with my lessons, each class is in roughly the same period. So my readings for first period are always a little off with my timing and emphasis. By my afternoon classes I know exactly which words in each sentence to emphasize so kids will pick up on foreshadowing and any narrative nuance.
I flail my arms, pitch my voice, and embody the action of the novel as if my life depends on it, all the while keeping one eye on the advancing clock. With thirty seconds left I put the book down, sum up what we did and how it connects to tomorrow, and the bell rings.