You have to attend to be present

“Being present is what you experience when you are completely focused on this very moment.” This is a popular definition of present, especially given all of the research on mindfulness. However, while being mentally present is something everyone could work on in their daily lives, some students have difficulty being physically present at school.

NPR’s recent article, “What One District’s Data Mining Did For Chronic Absence” got me thinking about my students – past and present – and their attendance. It also made me reflect on school attendance policies, which, surprisingly, can vary from district to district and oftentimes, school to school.

absent

The article makes a few salient points, one being that it’s difficult to teach students when they are not in school. Sure, missing a day or two here and there will not put a student behind. However, chronic absences can (and do). But what is a chronic absence?

I’ve looked this up and it varies. Some schools consider 3 unexcused absences a year chronic. Others state that 10 absences without a doctor’s note are unexcused and chronic. As a teacher, I have often wondered why attendance rules are so murky in some schools and strict at others.

As a high school student growing up in the Midwest, it was considered an excused absence if you chose to go hunting during a designated week in the fall. Clearly, the attendance rules need to be tailored to the ways of life and norms of the community in which the school resides; however, when chronic absences are left alone, the only one who suffers is the student.

In many urban communities, students neglect to come to school due to circumstances beyond their control: family trauma, transportation and working parents are often major factors in whether or not a student shows up in a classroom. Over the years, I’ve had more students miss school who actually did not want to miss school. However, circumstances out of their control forced them to stay at home. An early bus. A lost transit pass. A parent who overslept. The list is endless.

While some of my students would (and still do) email me for missing assignments when they are absent, these usually are not the students who are chronically absent for days at a time. They are also not the students who struggle the most. The students who sporadically come to school are the ones who find it difficult to keep their heads above water in their classes. This leads to frustration, anxiety and a myriad of other feelings because they have so much work to make-up and have missed a great deal of instruction.

For a teacher, this chronic absence problem is also frustrating. We spend our prep time re-teaching lessons to students, gathering make-up work and trying to get students caught up, only to have them be absent the next day. And the cycle continues.

Perhaps the city of Grand Rapids was onto something. Involving parents and holding them accountable, not by blaming them, but by educating them. Students will follow their parents’ lead. My parents were always of the mindset that “early is on time.” I’m usually super early to everything. But late? Never. This is not something I learned in a classroom, but something I witnessed at home.

More districts and schools need to reach out to the people in the community in order to improve attendance. Letters and phone calls home about chronic absences is impersonal and probably makes parents feel ashamed. Perhaps the solution to the attendance issue is schools and communities working together.

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YA Sunday Book Review: I”ll give you the Sun

It’s been awhile since I’ve wanted to stay up all night just to finish a YA book (Eleanor and Park was the last YA book where I did just that). Although I did not spend all night reading I’ll give you the Sun, (this would make for some interesting teaching days…) it was the kind of book that I never wanted to put down.

sun

Jandy Nelson does a fantastic job of storytelling. The story flip-flops from twins, Noah and Jude’s, point of view throughout the entire story, eventually coming together at the end.

The story begins from the viewpoint of 13-year-old Noah. Readers gain insight to his struggle with his sexuality and the fact that he’s not very popular, but immensely talented at painting. His bond with sister Jude weakens when tragedy strikes and from there, betrayal and mystery unfold.

Jude is 16 when readers first hear from her. Thus, three years have passed since readers first heard Noah’s version of events. At first, readers will want to hate Jude just based on her brother’s description. However, after learning her side of the story, it becomes difficult to choose a twin to side with. Jude was the quintessential popular girl until tragedy struck, making her reflect on her decisions, present and past.

While the story is somewhat far-fetched, that’s precisely what makes it a superb YA book. Teens enjoy being over-dramatic, so to them, this book hits a home-run. I specifically like that I’ll give you the Sun, doesn’t shy away from the topic of homosexuality, as it’s portrayed in a very real light, which is relatable to experiences many teens are likely going through.

I would recommend this book for students 8th grade and up, as there are some descriptions of sex and mature language.

 

My advice to pre-service teachers: Get a job

I vividly remember my college graduation (many years ago, mind you). I was fresh-off a semester of student-teaching tenth grade English. My college cohort spent a semester visiting “urban” schools (my college was situated in a rural part of Ohio). I tutored middle school students in Cincinnati for their upcoming state tests. I was certainly prepared for my own classroom.

Or so I thought. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The article, “What Should We Expect Pre-Service Teachers to Know?” offers many salient points. Yes, I video-taped myself many times and while I detested watching myself in action, it helped me tweak my teaching craft. I learned that communicating with parents (and keeping records of doing so) can help a teacher tremendously. Worksheets are not always the answer (and really “ditto” machines are a thing of the past).

However, the article missed the mark in some respects. Because the only way to actually know how to teach is to teach. Get a job. Get your feet wet. Jump all-in. You’ll either sink or swim (most often, you’ll tread just enough water to keep you afloat, even as a seasoned teacher).

burnout

My first year of teaching included a lot of yelling, crying, frustration, wine and Tylenol. It was hell. I hated it. There were times (like when an eighth grade student threw my class radio on the floor because I wouldn’t let him use the bathroom) that I thought I just wasn’t cut out for teaching. The administration offered no support and my mentor tried to comfort me, but was biding her time and wasn’t necessarily interested in improving her craft or mine.

Despite my feeble attempts to instruct students with very little resources and help available, I kept on treading water. A few colleagues checked in on me periodically, telling me “it would get better.” Eventually, it did. But not without major struggle.

Experience = everything in the teaching world. Once I had two years of experience, I was able to get a job at a school with more support, resources, and higher pay. I was, for the first time in my career, happy. I felt like I was making a difference. No one slammed my classroom radio into pieces. In my mind, I was thriving.

Teaching is like riding a roller-coaster. There are times of great joy and excitement, but sometimes things are scary as hell. And sometimes you get “stuck” and go off-track. I’ve taken a total of two years off during my tenure as a teacher. Regardless of popular belief, teachers are not the Energizer Bunny. Eventually, they stop.

What should society expect pre-service teachers to know? I have a few ideas:

1.) Communicate with parents often. Keep a log of ALL methods of communication. Be professional, even when a parent is rude or blames you for their child’s behavior, refusal to turn in work, etc. You must keep your cool in all communication with the parent. Tell your husband/friends how you really feel at home while drinking a glass of wine.

2.) Avoid the teacher’s lounge. Or any area where teachers are gossiping about students. This is SO HARD! However, it’s also negative energy. You don’t need it. Avoid like the plague. Do not fuel the fire. If you do, your words will come back to haunt you.

3.) Do that cool/innovative lesson. Use the school lap-top carts even though you’ll spend half the time instructing the class on how to connect to the Wi-Fi. Don’t be afraid to teach “outside the box.”

4.) Ask for help. Your colleagues are a great resource. Have some of them pop-in and do a peer observation. You can bet you’ll get some excellent tips and tools.

5.) Management, Management, Management! If your classroom management sucks, then your year will be twice as difficult. Spend the first month of school (or longer) going over procedures, etc. Practice lining up. Make the students walk silently in a line and practice this over and over. Be a hard-ass about how you manage your classroom. Seriously.

Lastly, allow yourself to make mistakes. I still make plenty. And I’m sure I’ll make more. Give yourself time to reflect. Allow yourself down-time on the weekends. Re-charge in the summer. Because in the end, teaching really is the most rewarding profession.

YA Book Review Sunday: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Part of the reason I love teaching the middle grades is due to the fact that I really enjoy reading Young Adult novels. Not only does it keep me in-check with the emotions of teens, but it allows me opportunities to recommend books to students and, perhaps even more importantly, have conversations about books with young adults. Perhaps someday I’ll create my own fictional YA masterpiece…

Every Sunday, I will try to post a review of a YA book that I’ve read. I’d love to hear your thoughts and recommendations (and so would my students).

Without further adieu, here’s this week’s review!

earl

Title: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Author: Jesse Andrews

Synopsis: Greg is that high school kid who is nice to everyone, but doesn’t really belong to a clique. He has a friend, Earl, who is sort of Greg’s foil character. Greg and Earl make movies and goof off together. Then, Greg’s mother strongly urges (okay, forces) him to befriend Rachel, who has leukemia and whom Greg went to Hebrew school with years ago. Throughout the book, Greg struggles with who he really is (and isn’t) and who he thinks he should be.

Review: I really enjoyed the style of this book. The narrator, Greg, writes it as if he’s having a conversation with the reader (yes, the “F” bomb is dropped quite a bit). At times, you feel as if you are living through Greg’s experiences and thoughts. Earl’s character was the most interesting and least developed. I almost feel as if I want a sequel to the book from Earl’s perspective. Rachel is the sick one, the victim so-to-speak and the person at the center of the story.

Overall, an easy, funny read about the honestly of being a teenager in today’s world. I’d recommend for 8th grade and up.

 

 

The Fear of Failure

Yesterday, I posted this article to my Facebook page. Interestingly, it claims that parents have the responsibility to teach their children that failure is okay.

A child of parents who never sugar-coated anything, the notion of learning from your mistakes makes perfect sense to me. However, as an educator, I often see students who are terrified of failing. Getting an answer incorrect causes anxiety and heaven-forbid they try something where they will fail the first go-around.

Do not give up, words on blackboard

The fact is, failing is a natural part of life. As a teacher, it is my job to prepare students for the many failures they were encounter. This doesn’t mean I purposely give failing marks; rather, I try to foster resilience in students. I get them to reflect on their mistakes. What can they do better the next time? What did they learn from their failed attempts?

I was lucky – when I failed as a child, my parents saw it as a learning opportunity. They didn’t blame the teacher, coach or other students. My failure was mine alone. I had to persevere.

I think back to my days of running high school cross-country. I was not as fast as I wanted to be. I sometimes came in dead last. Instead of telling me that running wasn’t for me or blaming my failure on weather, poor biomechanics or a myriad of other factors, my dad asked me how I was going to get better. When I decided I wasn’t going to wear a watch during races (which curbed my anxiety about mile split times), he supported me. I still remember my first race without a watch. It was torture, running through the cornfields of the Midwest, dripping with sweat, feeling like I was going to place dead-last. But my father’s booming voice cheering me on and my teammates who echoed his sentiments gave me strength.

In the end, I ran a Personal Best that day. I still came in near the end of the pack, but did I fail? No. In my mind, I had reached my goal, a goal put into motion because of previous failures. I learned mental toughness, strength and resilience, which would help me later in life when faced with jobs, relationship and finances.

The fear of failure is real. Parents are afraid of failing their children and children believe that failing is not an option. Failure is unpleasant. It’s uncomfortable. But it’s in failure that we find strength.