Friday, February 11, 2011

Lesson #9 - Always be Explicit

I have some classes which need their instructions to be very explicit.  Usually these are junior classes (the twelve to fifteen year olds) who need to be reminded at the start of every lesson to get out their books, their pens, their diary, etc.  Once the kids hit senior status, you can usually assume that such rituals are already ingrained upon them, and that your explicit requests need now only be comments such as "write this down", "finish that for homework", and "no, you can't leave the classroom to get it on with your girlfriend".

There are some kids though, who still need the minor rituals. "Get out your novel" before we commence reading as a class, or "Divide your page into quarters...that means fold your page in half that get your ruler and draw a line down the middle in the other direction...yes...excellent!"  These are the kids who need to be told explicitly how long their paragraph should be, and that the name of the film we're studying has a capital letter...and can be written about in more than one paragraph.

Ah yes, it's the HSC (which is the big one in Australia, the one that decides whether or not you are allowed to enter a tertiary institution or not) and kids are still forgetting the name of a text which will ultimately be worth 25% of their final English result. I...being a giver...and knowing that about half my class has a very poor grasp of the language, let alone the course, have developed a super-awesome workbook with all MY notes in it, with pictures and techniques and spaces for them to restate their understanding of what has just been taught.  It's a 50 page monster, but it's the best way I've been able to a) give the kids a representation of what's happening, and b) make sure they don't lose everything in scrunched up piles of paper mache at the bottom of their bags...if they have bags, and c) I've found that kids are less inclined to turn something in booklet format into a fan or a paper aeroplane.

Anyway - let's cut to the story, I'm presenting a particularly animated lesson on what I refer to as 'the angry scene' in our film of study, and instead of stopping to make notes on the board whenever I think that something is particularly relevant, I direct the students towards the appropriate question on the appropriate page and insist that they note down the important facts.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your perspective,  my landmark for where students should write during this particular lesson was in relation to 'the toilet', a still from the film photocopied onto the page which showed a close-up of feet either side of it.  It was actually vital to the line of questioning, despite how it sounds.  As such, I spent much of the lesson saying things suck as "below the toilet", "above the toilet", "look at the toilet", etc.

So, while wandering up and down the room and checking on student progress, I become aware that one student appears to have a lined piece of paper in front of her, instead of the booklet like everyone else.  I approach her with confusion, and question her:

"Did you forget your booklet?"

"No, it's right here."

"So what are you writing on?"


"But didn't you hear me ask you to answer this question under the toilet?"

"Yes, Miss....I did."

True Story.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Lesson #8 - ASD Kids Will Always Sweat the Small Stuff

I teach several students with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), as well as those with Aspergers.  They're fantastic kids, and I find that, as with any kid, they all have their little quirks, though they tend to be magnified by their disorder.  I love teaching kids with ASD, because they bring that bit of something different into your classroom, and remind you to keep thinking outside the box.  I have five kids with some form of Autism in my Year 11 class, and they're all brutally honest, which means I always know exactly how my lessons have gone.

Quirks though, they've got a few.  One boy, who we'll call Sheldon (let's face it, he is my little Sheldon), is very, very smart.  The kid's got a eidetic memory.  I have on occasion asked the class to recall an event in a novel where the protagonist was compared to a tiny chicken, and he was able to pinpoint not only the quote, word-for-word, but the page number.  It's insane, and I wish I could take him everywhere with me, because he'd make up for my terrible organisational skills.

He does get quite stressed though, and frequently needs to take 'time out' breaks in class whenever people get too noisy, whenever someone mucks up our schedule (changing rooms writes off the whole lesson if he hasn't been given a week to prepare), or when I want the kids to do group work.  He also gets quite stressed when things aren't as they should be (if someone's sitting at his desk, if someone has drawn on his desk, or his desk is not where it should be).

On the particular day where this lesson was learned, Sheldon's desk was exactly where it should be, my preparation was exactly as it should be, and the class was working beautifully on individual work.  It should have been Sheldon heaven, but alas, it was not; something was wrong.

I could see Sheldon becoming quite stressed (he bounces up and down) and approached him to see if I could rectify the situation.  He turned over his desk, and pointed out to me that, of the eight bolts that held the wooden top of his desk to the metal legs, one of them was a quarter turn out of position.  I looked, realised that prior to this moment, I didn't even know that they desks were held together with bolts, and acknowledged that yes, one of the bolts was out of a quarter turn.

Sheldon seemed relieved that I had seen the problem, and immediately stood up to leave the room.

He was going outside, because either this wasn't his desk, or someone had been messing with his desk, and that wasn't okay.  I tried to wiggle the out of place bolt with my fingers, but nothing happened, so I went to my pencil case and pulled a pair of scissors to use as a makeshift pair of pliers.

"I can fix it!"

Apparently, I couldn't fix it, and he was becoming more and more of the opinion that it wasn't his desk anyway.  His desk had a small patch close to the right front where someone had obviously scrubbed it a little harder than normal to clean it, and this one didn't seem to have that patch, so probably his desk was somewhere else, and could he go back to his desk in the library to do his work, because there was something wrong with the desk.

The whole class has watched this unfold by the way, and when I look up from fiddling with the desk to look at the other students, they're all still busily working away as though nothing is happening, and I smile for a moment realising that they're completely used to random oddities.  A couple even offer their desk to Sheldon, who walks over, inspects them, realises that they're not his desk, thanks them for their kindness, and goes back to fidget by the door.  I allow Sheldon to depart, finish my lesson, and within minutes, the class has left the room.

With lunch beginning, and the classroom now empty, I proceed to look for Sheldon's desk.  I turn over every single desk in the room, and inspect the bolts.  Each time I find one that is unaligned, I turn it back over, ensuring that it forms a straight line with the other desks.  The bell rings for half time, but I'm still checking, and when I reach the 28th desk, I find that it has all bolts aligned, and, delighted, turn it over to reveal a small scrawl in pen across the top.

This is Sheldon's desk, I decide, and pull out a rubber to make the ink disappear.  I'm almost done when the bell rings for the end of lunch, and I realise that I have spent 40 minutes trying to make one child less unhappy.  I reposition the desk, and head off to another room for my next class.

It's a day before I see Sheldon again, and we're back in that room.  He cautiously approaches his desk, as though the uneven bolt may cause hell to open up below him, but it doesn't, and he safely takes a seat and runs his long fingers underneath the wooden top to check the bolts.  I smile with relief when I see him comforted by those straight and even bolts.

It's less than two minutes before I see him bouncing again, and he raises his hand.  "My desk has a squiggle line, just there."

True Story.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Lesson #7 - When you're all having fun - no one cares about 'cool'.

I have spent the past year taking Year Eight sport.  There are various reasons, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that I like my sport organised, and I've spent a year shaping the ninety odd boys that are forced to partake in the free mandatory physical activity into exactly how I want them, and I'm not starting afresh each time a new term rolls around.

Because of the number of kids, and the crappy help I have in running the sport, they can be a bit of a challenge.  Year 8 kids are just starting to develop and attitude, and when they're running about, their testosterone is at its highest, and I'm frequently reminding the 'bros' that we can only play hands off sport, that they should put their shirts back on, and reminding the non-willing participants that it's not about being the best, it's about being your best.

We're quite limited in the sports that we can present to the kids too, and I tend to fall back on the basics (soccer, touch football, ultimate frisbee) because they're easy to manage and I know the rules.  It's been a year though, and the kids are starting to get bored, and where previously I could run a game of Dodgeball to get them all back on track, we've been stuck on the far oval in the reserve next door this term, and without walls, it's just too hard to keep track of the balls.

This week though, I was proactive, and decided that it was time I find something different.  I searched the storeroom, and there, staring back at me, was a bin of softcross equipment.  Now, softcross is baby lacross.  No contact except plastic on plastic, a tiny pathetic little squishy ball, and no pads.

We set up three stations, softball, cricket and softcross, man each one with a teacher, and split the kids into their teams.  I've inadvertently managed to pick the two 'silliest' teams to start on softcross with me, and I briefly explain the rules and start the kids off.

For a while there, I had the kids interested.  It was a challenge to catch the tiny ball in the basket, and teams were easily recognised by the colours of the sticks, so there was no need for the kids to wear braids to identify their teams.  They ran and played, and then they 'forgot' that it wasn't okay to hit each other with the sticks, and we had to have a time out.

It was during this time-out, that Scotty, the third most annoying fourteen year old I've ever met, decides it'd be pretty funny to stick the lacross stick between his legs and make lude gestures (I tried to illustrate this, but it's better left up to your imagination).  The lads all have a bit of a giggle, and I contemplate taking it off him, but decide against it when I realise that he'll only take that to be more suggestive.  The next thing you know, thirty boys are kneeling with a lacrosse stick between their legs, and I'm trying to work out how to get them to stop without bursting into giggles.  It's naughty, but it's bloody funny.

Next thing you know, Ted, one of the sweetest, most honest kids I've ever met, but also the largest by far (he'd be at least three times the size of your average eighth grader) picks up the little yellow squishy ball, and two gum leaves, and with the lacrosse stick between his legs, he yells "I've got the snitch!" and tears off across the oval, stick waggling between his legs as he does.

What happens next is so out of character I almost fall over, but I can only imagine that Ted's cred has played a serious role in what is and isn't acceptable.  Ted's pretty cool, you see, the kids respect him.  When I need them quiet, it's him that they look to to see what to do, and when he tears off like a rocket across the oval pretending to be everyone's favourite wizard, so do twenty-nine other boys. hands wrapped tightly around the handles of their 'broomsticks'.
I ask questions about exactly what it is that is taking place, and Ted turns around and brings the chasing game to a complete halt.  I appear to have asked a completely stupid question, because Ted has a look of absolute dismay on his face in his answer:

I nod an acknowledgement, and spend the next half hour watching what is mostly soccer, played with a small squishy yellow ball and thirty boys running around with sticks between their legs.

True Story.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Lesson #6 - I'm not a genius

I teach a class on both sides of a lunch break.  It's not uncommon for me to lose students over said lunch break: either they disappear to another class to catch up on missed work, get called down to speak to another teacher, do something at lunch that lands them in the principal's office, or nick off and force me to fill out a truancy slip.

I'd say that, with that particular class, on that particular day, I probably lose 3 on average over the double (more if they've been getting in trouble together).
So - opening the door on that particular day is a bit like a game, only it's not a lot of fun, and there are no winners.  On one particular day though, I'd had enough.  I was sick of people showing up late, or not showing up at all, and I took a stand.  I had a moment of inspiration and invention, and I created (tada!):

I'm a genius!  The "special late desk" seemed like a brilliant invention, and as my first latecomer (Doug) arrived, I put it to good use:
"Special late desk" win!  Doug suffered rather a lot of embarrassment as I plonked him in the front row, right in front of the board.  The little 'special late desk' note that I stuck on the top added just the right amount of "aw crap" that appeared on the young boy's face in the form of a cute little shade of pink.

Right then, I loved the special late desk.  I wanted to marry the special late desk.  I had grand dreams for the future, and all the magnificent times that the special late desk and I would have together.

Then there was another knock at the door:
The rest of the class were quite enjoying the humiliation of Doug, and as Nelly appeared in the door frame, a cheer broke out.  I must admit, I quite enjoyed it at first, until I realised that I only had one special late desk, and that Doug and Nelly were quite friendly.  I would have to invent another special late desk.

I'm a genius!  I manage to fit a second 'special late desk' into the front of the classroom with minimal disruption, and successfully embarrass a second student into showing up on time in future (at least for a week).  I even make a second little sign.  I begin to launch into my spectacular lesson when:

There is no escape. Another latecomer, and then another...
And it becomes evident.  I am not a genius.  I am an idiot.  I have, in total, six students come in more than 5 minutes after the bell, and I don't actually have enough 'special' desks to sit them at.  I flounder, and I give up, put them all down as partial truants, and with no forethought, move everyone out of the forth row.  I no longer have a special late desk, I have a special late row, and it's filled with troublemakers who I have now located in a central location.

Luckily, by the time I get to this point, the lesson is pretty much over, and I can start planning my next patent for the next lesson.

True Story.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lesson #5 - No one puts Davey in the corner.

When I was still at university, I had to engage in practical 'prac' teaching.  I did so at 5 different schools over my degree, all of which were challenging in different ways.  At one particular school, I had the 'pleasure' of teaching an absolutely atrocious Year 10 class.  All but three of the students were male, and they pressed every single one of my buttons on a daily basis.  They were rude, aggressive, violent towards each other, and I was small, meek and mild, and I hadn't gotten into my teaching 'stride' just yet.

I'd learned fairly quickly that if I asked students to leave the room for a minute while they calmed down, they would do a bolt, so within a couple of days I came up with a new strategy - 'time out' in the corner of the room.  A time out would only last a minute, but the idea was that they were focused away from the rest of the class, and that, as they were so often acting like kindergarten kids, it was time that I treated them as such.

For several days, the 'time out' system was working for me.  A kid hit someone, or called someone a name, or called me a name - and I sent them to stand in the corner.  It actually ended up being a pretty ok spot for them, because the heater was right in the corner, so they could stand there and warm themselves up while contemplating why they shouldn't have dropped the F-bomb in class.

Of course, as a rule, behaviour management techniques often have short lived results.  It was winter during my prac, and fairly cold where we were (hitting a max of about 10 degrees Celsius on most days) and soon enough, being sent to the corner was a badge of pride.  It was warmer there than elsewhere in the classroom, and it meant that you had done something that upset the weak little pretend teacher.  In fact, the only kid who didn't like it was Davey, who didn't like anything but calling me names and giving me death stares.  Davey didn't like going to the corner, and I learned quickly, would do anything to NOT be there.

On one particularly chilly and hateful morning, I asked Davey to take his book out of his bag.  Davey felt it necessary to tell me where he'd like me to put his book.  Of course, he knew the rules, and at 10 minutes past nine, it was time for Davey to make his way to the time out corner.  Davey, as usual, was not impressed, and this time, he had a plan.

I can only image that it was a plan, because it was far too ingenius for him to have simply thought of on the spot.  Davey, simply looked at me, looked back at the heater, looked and me, and proceeded to unzip his fly and urinate into the gas heater.

It was about 45 seconds before I realised what had happened.  It apparently takes 45 seconds for urine to evaporate, and for the stench to fill a classroom. 

It takes another minute and a half following that for a teacher to evacuate 27 boys and 3 girls from a classroom, and 5 or 6 minutes for the defendant's best friends to agree to dob in their best friend to get out of a whole class lunch detention.

The classroom was put out of action for the day, and we didn't turn that heater on again for the next three weeks I was there.  He got a 48 hour suspension, and 30 kids froze to death for a month.

True Story.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Lesson #4 - Size Doesn't Matter (if you're a spider)

At one stage, I had a quite intelligent and capable class who were the top of the top in their particular subject in their particular year group.  They were lovely (though occasionally a little cocky), and often I miss having them around.  Often, not always.

On one particular occasion, when involved in a heated discussion a rather enlightening aspect of crime fiction, I was shocked and surprised by a blood curdling squeal from the back of my classroom.  Amanda seemed to have either just witnessed a violent murder, or was trying to compete with fingernails on a blackboard.  A shiver ran down my spine, and I spun around immediately to face her.

She was speechless, and her hand pointed to a spot directly above the doorframe.  She shook like someone overflowing with adrenalin, and for a milli-second I wondered how long it would take me to leap over and lock the door to stop what clearly must be some kind of insane chainsaw wielding criminal at the door.  I turned quickly and faced the foe that had caused the girl so much fear:
And it turns out that it's not a super-evil mega mass murderer, instead, it's Lola, the huntsman who's been living in my classroom for the past two weeks.  She's made her way out of the crack where the wall meets the ceiling and put herself on public display.  She's about the size of the lid of a jam jar, but apparently, terrifying.

I assure Amanda that Lola will in fact do nothing to hurt her.  That she's been sitting on the ceiling for over two weeks, and won't move for the duration of the lesson unless someone disturbs her.  A small paper ball suddenly impacts the wall about 10cm from Lola's front right leg.  Someone has disturbed her.

Lola began to descend the wall.  Amanda began to freak the hell out.  I had been made a liar, and as the tears rolled down her cheeks and I tried to regain control of my lesson, half the class was in stitched, and the other half was migrating to the opposite side of the classroom.  As Lola sat above the door, escape for the fearful was impossible.
Amanda is now unable to move while Lola climbs across the wall towards her.  I calmly explain to the class that Lola is an animal, and if I need to remove her from the classroom I will, but I don't want her harmed.  Most of the boys continue their great amusement, and one makes the Darth Vader death march while Lola continues her amazing ability to head towards Amanda.  I honestly think she was doing it on purpose, and finally, when she's almost directly above the hyperventilating red-head, she begins her descent.  Fight or flight takes over, and before I can react, Amanda has flown to the opposite side of the room.  She's halfway out the second floor window when I shout 'hey!', and approach the downward travelling spider.  I ease her onto my fingers, and am quickly surrounded by the male component of my classroom.

Amanda proceeds to vomit into her lunch box.

I decide to approach Amanda with the spider, to attempt to show her that it's harmless.
So I took Lola outside, and I let her go on the tree below the stairwell, and Amanda never trusted me again.

True Story.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Lesson #3 - Sometimes the excuses kids make are valid.

Every class has a certain number of students who are constantly looking for ways to escape.  Some manage it by not showing up in the first place.  Some manage it by simply not showing up in the first place.  Some like to employ the device where they offer kindly to help the art teacher clean up...for half an hour.  Some like to attempt to casually slip out the window when you're not looking.  Most however, opt for one of two options:

Toilet passes are fairly easily discouraged, and I have a couple of options that work well.
#1 - You need to ask me if you can go without using the letter 'e' in your sentence.
#2 - My toilet pass looks like this:

#3 - "When you've finished all your work for the day."

You can usually make a kid hold it until the next lesson, and then they have to bother that teacher instead, which is great.

Sick bay passes are a different story though, because who am I to diagnose whether or not a kid is actually ill.  If a kid says they have a headache, or a stomache-ache, I can try to keep them in the room, but ultimately, if they want to go, I'm not going to have them keel over in my room.

Enter Sven, who is probably my most regular "I need to go to sick-bay-er".

Sven is thirteen.  He is very well-schooled in the possible diseases that could cause him to need to be exempt from class, and I am super reluctant to let him go to sick-bay, because I know that 99.9% of the time, he's faking it.  The kid once claimed to have period pain (he obviously overheard a girl use this one, get away with it, and decided to try it on).

However, one day, he tried on a new symptom.  A teacher's worst fear:

I told him he was fine, that he should sit down, stop thinking about it, and it would go away.  The kid is a hypochondriac, and I was bored with his games.

I assure him that it's probably just dandruff, or that he's imagining it, and he assures me that he's 'for serious' this time.  He approaches my with determination in his eyes, it seems he is not going to take his spelling test lying down.

He has one more move.  He slowly, ever so slowly moves his clenched fist towards me, and finally hits me with the clincher, opening it:


True Story.