Tag Archives: students

A Story about a Parent


Teaching can be a pretty thankless profession lots of times. It often feels like a job where you’re just a cog in a poorly functioning bureaucracy. We get fits of inspiration and gratitude from our students, passing – if any – encouragement from our beleaguered administrations, and an exhausting evening spent doing who knows what for tomorrow and the future.

In my career, the parents of my students have run the gamut. For every family with five daughters in college, there’s the family headed by a single alcoholic father who is unable to cope with his life’s tragedies. For every mother who sends the periodic note of gratitude, there’s the mother who picks up their child in the afternoon without even a glance at me.

I don’t doubt whether these parents all love and care about their children, of course. Nor am I in a position to cast judgement on them and their circumstances. It is simply the way things are.

This year, I have thought about one of my girls with whom I feel I haven’t made much of a connection. She’s not a troublemaker, nor does she distinguish herself with an insatiable desire to please. She doesn’t violate class procedures and routines, nor does she follow them with much consistency. She’s neither defiant nor does she appear at all driven.

She is, in truth, a talented artist. She loves all mediums of art. And while she doesn’t talk or write much or initiate conversation or focus for any significant length of time, there is a human being in there. So when she finds something to be too hard, she bangs the desk and groans. She becomes upset. She starts to give up.

Only in my class, giving up is not an option. We all signed a contract to that effect. Everyone needs to do their best and always try. It’s non-negotiable. So when she’s stressing an assignment too difficult for her, I tell her, “Come on, you have to try. Don’t give up. Do your best.” Past her giving it another attempt, there isn’t much acknowledgement toward me.

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And so, back to parents. It turns out this particular girl’s mother found her way into my classroom this morning when the students were out.

“Are you Mr. Ray?”

“Yes.”

She told me whose mother she is. She asked how her daughter is doing.

“Well, she’s really sweet and respectful. She’s a really nice girl. But she is having a lot of trouble focusing.”

The look says, “Tell me something I don’t know.”

But then, the gratitude.

“Mr. Ray, last year, she came home every day and cried. She hated school. She didn’t want to come to school.”

My face says, “How horrible. That’s so sad.” Mom continues.

“But this year, she comes home happy. She says she likes school.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful, I’m so glad.”

“And she says, ‘Mommy, I know I have some problems, but I’m going to try. I can do it.”

And I’m left speechless and touched. I thank mom so much for letting me know that. I feel less like a cog and more like the engine. Back at it tomorrow to figure out how to reach this special young lady.

Reality Check


Well, the time has finally come. It’s “see you in September” time. While the kiddies still have one more week of summertime bliss before they strap on their backpacks and skip along to school, we New York City teachers have our alarms set for earlier than we want. My lunch is packed, and when I’m done with this post, I’ll pack my bag, too. Goodbye, summer. Hello, reality.

I admit, I am having great difficulty approaching year six of my career with the usual renegade optimism I’ve always summoned in the past. On the plus side of things, I’m happy to remain in the same room I’ve been for the last two years. I am also tenured now, which could work in my favor. And, I’m predominantly a third grade teacher for the third straight year, so I’m able to continue to hone my skills in teaching that grade’s content.

There are flip sides to all of this, too. I’m glad to be in the same room again, but with precious few hours for me to be in the room to set up before the kids arrive, there is plenty yet to be done. I’m glad to be tenured, but the city’s new evaluation system may make that distinction moot; in the spring, no one had an answer what kind of protections tenure afforded teachers moving forward, and I’m yet to hear anything this year, either. And, while 11 of my students this year are third graders, one is not. How does he get the education he needs and deserves?

Yes, it is difficult for me to find the positives right now. Uncertainty sits like a dark cloud over the back to school proceedings. Perhaps clarity will begin to reveal itself at our meetings tomorrow, but right now, it’s a morass of concern.

All I can say with certainty is that in one week, 12 little darlings are going to arrive in the schoolyard, casting their eyes toward me, excited to be back, scared to be back, indifferent about being back. And it’s on me to harness that excitement, assuage those fears, and overturn that apathy.

Major challenges await. It’s impossible to know the form they’ll take. But, there’s a trend evident in each of my first five years: by the end of the year, magically, everything has fallen into place. It always seems impossible that that will happen. This year is no exception: it seems impossible now, but it will be reality by June.

 

King Henry Died Drinking Chocolate Milk: A Poem about the Metric System


If you teach the metric system, there’s a mnemonic device to help your students remember the prefixes from milli up to kilo.

King Henry Died Drinking Chocolate Milk is used to remember the order from largest to smallest: Kilo, Hecto, Deka, Deci, Centi, Milli.

And so did King Henry.

And so did King Henry.

Long ago in my student teaching days (I had a lot more time on my hands), I wrote this poem to introduce the mnemonic. Feel free to use it with your students.

King Henry Died Drinking Chocolate Milk by Matthew S. Ray

One upon a time, in the country of Metricland,

There lived a king named Henry, and one thing he couldn’t stand

Was regular white milk – whole, low fat, or skim.

Only chocolate milk ever appealed to him.

 

He’d call on his servants, “Bring me my milk!”

“And don’t get it on my robe made of silk!”

“And make sure it’s chocolate, not white, and not red!”

“If it’s not chocolate, then OFF WITH YOUR HEAD!”

 

So every day he’d wake up with a glass of the chocolate treat

Sitting on his nightstand with a plate of cookies to eat.

He’d gobble them down, then swallow the drink,

Then get up and walk down to the bathroom sink.

 

When he turned on the faucet, instead of water there would be

Chocolate milk a-flowing from a chocolate milky sea.

After brushing his teeth, he’d start on his path,

To his chocolate bath tub for his chocolate milk bath.

 

While bathing in chocolate, Henry would sit with a straw

Drinking up the bath milk and the filth that he saw.

He drank up the whole bath: soap, milk, and all.

And one day was his last bath, it was King Henry’s fall.

 

The queen came in that day and no, she couldn’t stand.

Lying dead in the bath tub was the king of Metricland.

Never again would he wear his robe made of silk:

King Henry Died Drinking Chocolate Milk.

Creative Commons License
King Henry Died Drinking Chocolate Milk by Matthew S. Ray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Nice to Meet You (Face-to-Face)


I had a great thrill this week. I finally got to meet face-to-face one of my favorite people in the online educational community, Pernille Ripp.

Pernille has been a friend and collaborator for two or three years. I don’t remember how we found each other on Twitter, but I remember bonding with her when Wisconsin was devolving into a union-workers’ hellhole. Pernille was down at the Capitol frequently, voicing her opinions and fighting for what she believes in.

That’s how she rolls, and I’ve always admired that about her. She is outspoken, upfront, and committed to her values. We’ve Skyped, e-mailed, and talked on the phone, but it’s a different element in person. Our conversation over dinner was passionate and interesting. Being able to sit with Pernille for a few hours was a wonderful experience.

In the past, Pernille and I had some brief hypothetical conversations about someday working together, maybe opening a school. Let me tell you, our students and colleagues need more people like her. So, Pernille, if that offer still stands, you know where to find me.

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Be True to Yourself


Some people are subject to the whims of the winds. They change positions like their underwear. They say one thing when they mean the other. They say they’ll do this and then they do that. They tell you what you want to hear while thinking what they know is what they should be saying. They seem to be more concerned with being popular than being right.

In a school, it can be hard to be principled and grounded, but it’s necessary. When we’re talking about children’s lives, the popular and easy opinion very often does not result in the best situation for them. So it becomes imperative to stick to one’s beliefs and stand one’s ground, regardless of who presents opposition.

Conversations with colleagues, supervisors, and subordinates should always be framed around what’s right, just, and sensical. When we compromise our values, so many stakeholders stand to lose so much.

We have to be able to remember what’s important. It’s not being popular or having an easy path to take. It’s about standing by your beliefs when you know, no matter what others say, that the less popular road less traveled is the one that makes all the difference.

Fake It ‘Til You Make It…If You Make It At All


They’re silent. At least they got that much out of this. You can’t talk during a test, plain and simple. Even the slightest sniffle or throat clearing will be treated with suspicion.

Some of them are looking back to the passages – maybe they’ll pull it out. Sure, I know no one expects good grades on this year’s tests. But maybe, just maybe, these kids will pull off a shocker.

Or…maybe they know “What Good Test Taking Looks Like,” so they’re turning back, putting pencil to chin in a thinking pose, and underlining.

But I see in their faces that nothing here makes sense. The words are too long and too many. The questions are too boring and too many.

But they try. They’re too young to realize that, while the test is hard for many their age, it’s even harder for them.

What are they learning from this experience? You gotta fake it ’til you make it.

But with tests like these determining who’s smart and who’s stupid, how could they ever make it?

Come Together


The play each class in my school is required to present is draining. There always seems to be something else that needs to be done. Every year, we wonder how we’re going to pull it off, and every year we marvel that we did.

This year’s play was extra special. In my two previous years teaching self-contained special ed, I sought out colleagues in the same position. My reasons were these: 1) two or three small classes combine to make a stageful of kids, so that’s good, and 2) birds of a feather have a propensity for flocking together.

When the play wrapped last year, I found myself thinking it was time for my birds to fly a little higher. So I reached out to my co-teaching colleagues across the hall and asked if they might consider our classes working together on the play this year. To my delight, they said yes.

Why did I seek them out? I like the idea of inclusion in a classroom, but even better is the idea of inclusion in a school. I thought it would be a rewarding experience for everyone involved if my kids had the chance to work with students with disabilities in a less restrictive environment as well as their general ed peers. Turns out I was right.

This play featured 42 students, three teachers, and two paraprofessionals. It was an amazing collaborative effort for me and my students. Here are some of my major takeaways:

  • Originally, I asked my class who wanted to speak in the play and who didn’t. I thought back to my days in elementary school, when the shyest kids appeared on stage but didn’t speak or acted as grips, stagehands, and gophers. I wasn’t planning to push the point with the kids who didn’t want to speak, but my partners persuaded me to look at it differently. As I wrote the play, they said they wanted all of their kids to have at least one line – one chance to shine – and I realized I should want the same, even if it meant a push outside a student’s comfort zone. Rewriting the script to include everyone became a challenge I enjoyed. It meant changing the story, adding characters, and finding group speaking parts for the kids who really would have been mortified to have all eyes on them even if for only one word. The end result: everyone had a chance on the microphone and everyone was an important contributor to the play.
  • This play brought out the best in kids who rarely have the chance to shine. It turns out that one of my students has been in my plays for three consecutive years now. I experienced great joy watching him grow from someone who, in first grade, just stood on stage and, in second, was removed from the play because he refused to practice and threw a punch when his space was violated. His growth? In third grade, not only did he practice with us every time, he danced, sang, smiled, and said his line with clarity and confidence.
  • He wasn’t the biggest story. That distinction goes a boy who has been my major project for the year. Picture a boy screaming, crying, saying things that don’t make sense, rolling on the floor, hopping, and showing no inclination toward socialization or schoolwork. Picture a boy crying on stage during rehearsals because the music was too loud, the prospect too scary. No way he would ever sit for the play or participate for it, right? Now picture him smiling, dancing, singing his face off, and posing for pictures with his mom, friend, and class after the play ended. During the course of rehearsals, as my colleagues and I determined the stage was a bit overwhelming for him, we asked him if he could sit there and then come off stage to dance. Boy did he ever. He had a starring role as a dancer and showed more confidence than I can remember seeing from him all year. The untrained eye wouldn’t know he was “special”.

That brings me to my final point. My parents attended the play. My dad has time to do such things now that he’s retired from his dedicated service to the city. My mom is a retired District 75 principal (the severest disabilities). They both said you couldn’t tell the students without disabilities from the students with disabilities.

And that’s why I did this. It was an opportunity for my kids to be seen as kids and kids alone – never mind their low reading levels and other issues. To their credit, they had the administration smiling, the audience laughing, and their teachers beaming.

Kids are kids, no matter the label. Today my students made that point loud and clear.

How to Treat a Kid You Don’t Like


If you’re like me, you’re human. That means that as much as you profess to absolutely adore each and everyone of your students, realistically, you don’t. There are always kids that rub us the wrong way. No one should judge us for being human.

When we should be judged, however, is when we allow ourselves to single out the child we don’t like for particular scorn and humiliation.

Why does a young child deserve the ire of an adult who is trusted with his or her care? What message does this deliver to the child and the peers? The messages are clear: “You’re not worth my time,” “I don’t like you,” “You bother me,” “You make my day worse,” “You are a nuisance,” “You are not worthy of my kindness.”

Does this model appropriate interpersonal behavior? No. Does this create a low-stress, high-support environment? No. Does this help build self-esteem and motivation? No.

Does this allow the adult to unnecessarily exert an undue influence on the child? Yes. Does this ruin the child’s day? Yes. Does this make the child timid and fearful? Yes.

The only way to treat a child you don’t like is the same way you treat a child you do like: with love and respect. Children are children – developing, impressionable, fragile, and eager to please. Even if it hurts your face to smile at a child you don’t like, it’s necessary to do so.

Remind me again, why are we in this field?

Is it to nurture and help? Or is it to bully and squash?

Sadly, some people aren’t quite sure.

I’m Finished with “I’m Finished”


My intriguing mix of students this year includes a bunch of boys who feel it absolutely necessary to complete a task and then announce it to the class.

As such, throughout the first few months, nearly every task – from the mundane act of taking out a book to the serious work of completing a math test – has been punctuated by these boys with a loud, “I’m finished!*”

*Or, “I did it!” or “I’m done!”

To be frank, it’s annoying. I told them (maybe not in the most sensitive or kindhearted way) that it really wasn’t necessary to say “I’m finished!” every time they were finished. In fact, I eventually told them, “I don’t want to hear you say ‘I’m finished!’ anymore!!*” Yeah, it definitely got my goat.

**I said this while standing on a chair. I wasn’t sure how to make it any clearer.

The night of the day during which I climbed upon a chair to announce in my own way that was finished with “I’m finished!,” I contacted my para. I told her this nonsense needed to stop. It was bothering me and in turn making me angry at the kids.

Of course, I knew they were doing it because they were excited to accomplish something properly and they wanted validation. But they weren’t understanding that calling out, “I’m finished!” all day long was not the way to go about things.

With this in mind, I asked my para to talk to each of the offenders and figure out some kind of secret signal among them. When they gave her the signal, it would be like saying, “I’m finished!” only it would be quiet and not interfere with the other students*.

***Or with dear old teacher’s sanity.

The next day, unbeknownst to me (wink, wink), my para did have a conversation with the boys. She told them she thought them calling out like that was bothering me, so that maybe they should just tell her when they’re finished. But instead of saying it, they should just make a checkmark in the air. (She told me the plan privately and said the kids were pumped about it. So was I).

As the day went on, I noticed a quieter room when tasks were completed. I pretended not to notice the “air checks,” but all the same I did remark, “Wow, I don’t hear anyone saying, ‘I’m finished!’ today. That’s great.”

It went on like that all day, until finally, one boy couldn’t stand it any longer. He had to tell me that it was a secret they had with their para that they were keeping from me, but that they all agreed on a signal to use instead of saying, “I’m finished!”

I feigned amazement. “You mean you’ve been keeping a secret from me all day?” They had, they said. “Hmm,” I said. “Wellllll, it is working, and it seems like you’re still saying you’re finished even if you’re not saying the words, so I think maybe you should keep doing it.” And so they did.

Last week, my quietest girl raised her hand to tell me something. When I went over to her, she said, “I’m finished.” And wouldn’t you know it, the formerly loudest boy, the leader of the “I’m finished!” movement, said, “No! You’re not supposed to say, ‘I’m finished!'”

When kids say it now though, it’s okay because it isn’t incessant. It’s only for the major tasks – like publishing a writing piece or indicating their ready for me to collect their tests. The verbal, “I’m finished!” has stopped, and so has the silent one.

Finally, we’re finished with “I’m finished!”

 

Don’t Fail Kids With First Impressions


“First impressions count,” or so they say. But should they?

In my career, I’ve encountered many types of children. They’ve been funny, studious, shy, noisy, sad, boisterous, unmotivated, driven, intelligent, average, overweight, generous…

Most of us are drawn to a particular type of person. If that person doesn’t fit our vision of an ideal individual, we may be less inclined to want to get to know them. In our heads, we will form a series of incontrovertible beliefs and convince ourselves that every last one of them is accurate.

I know I have made the mistake of assuming the worst of others based on my initial impressions. You probably have done the same, maybe of your colleagues or other peers.

The great fault is not in having first impressions. The mistake is holding onto those impressions and convincing yourself they’re right.

Have you done this with students? I have. There have been kids I’ve had – and even have now – that I made my mind up about before giving them enough of a chance. I’ve written them off as lazy, rude, or beyond help.

And I’ve never been right.

We need to be sure not to hold on to the first impressions kids give us. Even if it takes months to be revealed, there is always more than meets the eye. Every child wants to learn, be successful, feel proud and have others be proud. If we understand this, then we can work past our first impressions and work toward figuring out who the child really is, instead of assuming the worst.

When we give our students a chance to let us get to know them and show us who they really are, only then do they have their chance to shine and be valued. We need to let kids show us who they are before we decide.