"Blogger's block"* is a very special form of writer's block, and I got it bad this year. No posts for several months, but not because I had nothing to say or no time to write. I filled 1 1/2 notebooks with early-morning journaling since September. HOWEVER, bloggers must presume that anything we post can be seen by current parents, students, co-workers ... all the people that I would be writing about! I could have sanitized or generalized some details, but that would be neither informative nor therapeutic. Now the school year is over, and secrets can be spilled! I will use the same format as my 2016 end-of-the-year post, but I've written a LOT more than last time.
* I just invented this term. Do ya like it?
- new initiatives include: in-class binders for organization, "Detective Agency" promotions for ungraded-but-important tasks, student nametags with velcro spots on desks, Mastery Objectives as better summative assessments for each unit
- student population challenges include: new guidance counselor (because Martin retired last June), some students from one feeder school had a convicted pedophile teacher in 2nd grade (which must impact their trust of teachers), the 7th grade Learning Center teacher was very permissive with kids on his IEP caseload (so they don't expect to work during support periods), NINE new students from other school systems to integrate (usually we have just two or three) and at least two seem to have unidentified special needs.
- early-morning diary entry on Thurs. Sept. 15: "I feel storms brewing, trouble approaching, barely avoiding disaster, already!!"
- first round of insomnia began at the end of this month
- early-morning diary entry on Friday Sept. 23: "Hopefully we bottomed out early." Oh buddy, no you didn't...
- 3 no-school days to start the month: Jewish holiday on Monday the 3rd, Columbus Day, then Yom Kippur on Wednesday the 12th.
- Old Sturbridge Village field trip on Thursday the 13th -- it goes well…
- .... but I get sick that afternoon [just like last year!!!] and don’t go to school the next day, so this trip never really gets debriefed.
- Another new student joins us right before the field trip -- I can tell right away that he’ll be a project this year, and I will be totally right!!
- This same week, a different new student rebels against my teaching. “This is bullshit” he mutters a little too loudly when I return a not-yet-proficient quiz; “Don’t do it” he tells classmates during an activity. “It’s stupid. He’s not really teaching us.” This boy is my first-ever Flipping Rebel! After days of parent emails, phone calls, 1-1 conversations, bike rides, and late-night reflection, I figure it out: after several years of rigid textbook-learning with 30+ peers in a room, he is uncomfortable with student-centered instruction; and a fixed mindset [see all things Carol Dweck] limits his acceptance of mastery teaching. -- It will take months for us to get on track, and I’m still not totally sure how he feels in June. But at least I never again heard him call a classroom task ‘bullshit’! Victories.
- As the month goes on, I’m trying to make beyond-the-regular-curriculum connections to the 2016 Election. We use icivics.org games with solid success, specifically “Win the White House,” which teaches the Electoral College better than any other resource I ever found….
- … but maintaining civility in an increasingly polarized atmosphere is tough. My students’ community is majority-Democrat, but there are some vocal outliers. While doubting myself pedagogically, I am also flailing to stay afloat in a political sea of troubles.
- diary entry on Sat. Oct. 29: “First decent week of the school year.”
- The day after the election is a shocker for nearly all students, especially so soon after I showed them Project538’s confident prediction of Hillary’s victory. Oh yeah, and I had a quiz schedule for the same day. I made them take it anyway. It didn’t go very well.
- This month I implemented the open-ended Extension Choice projects: pick a format (game, song, model, etc.) and persevere through challenges to produce it during class time once or twice per week. Grading based on reflections of your effort and learning, with higher recognition for taking greater challenges. Even my Flipping Rebel seemed to approve this idea!
- Diary entry from Sunday November 13: “Finally slept over 7 straight hours from 11:00 to 6:15!”
- Diary entry from Tuesday November 15 (4:05AM): “Worst night in a long time. Nearly no sleep and now I give up. Light on, notebook out….” Stayed home from school that day to recuperate, chill down, and replace the &%$#ing dishwasher.
- 2 special-ed students have been spiraling out of control. Early this month, the girl bolted my class (reason unknown) and was found lying down in the faculty parking lot, presumably hoping to get run over. The boy was literally running with scissors during a support class. (And I wonder why the other special ed kids don’t get to watch the videos or retake their quizzes?!)
- Diary entry from Thursday Dec 1: “This is just how I live now. 5 hrs sleep, even when I get to bed an hour early, ran 3 miles, and took 2 melatonin pills.”
- Average score on the “What’s the point of no return?” unit objective assessment is 96%!! OK, we must be doing something right.
- 1st trimester grades include only 3 D’s, 2 Pass, zero F’s or Incompletes. 6 students even earned A+ in the first term, which is usually a no-no but these kids could not be denied.
- One of the special education students who sparked major concern in September-October gets moved to a different program with other teachers. That will help.
- This month we did the annual Declaration of Independence analysis, readers’ theater, etc. but I had really planned for this month to be about the War for Independence. Major sign that my scheduling is way off this year.
- On Tuesday the 20th, I felt myself getting sick all day, through the slate of after-school parent conferences. Got so delirious and fevered that I had to leave halfway through. Took 2 days off before vacation, stumbled in for the Friday, and stayed sick with the flu through most of the holiday vacation week.
- In my memory, this was the quietest month of the school year, although I had a couple more bouts of 4 AM wakeups. That holiday flu lingers for three weeks; it sits in my chest and feels like mild pneumonia. Probably it was.
- 5:30AM diary entry from Jan 23: “Feeling healthier than I have in 5 weeks! No coughing when I got up for the first time in about that long.”
- I stopped despairing and doubting my flipping systems this month. By holding the line for a few previous months, I proved to myself and my students the value of assessments and related activities. My Flipping Rebel stayed quiet.
- This month started great. Diary entry from February 3: “Yay Friday! One of the best school days of the year yesterday: discussion improvements in all sections, I nailed down the next few objectives and assessments.” Also I got offered to join the #sschat moderators group, then we had the Patriots’ amazing Super Bowl win on the 5th.
- Double Snow Day on Thursday 9th - Friday 10th totally blows up my lesson planning. I could have handled one day off, but not both…. Then we get snowed out on Monday the 13th. I spent hours each snow day making plans and contingencies, many of which get dashed by the next cancellation.
- We always have a vacation the 3rd week of this month. I have students test out Edpuzzle and Listenwise during class on these school days, because I can’t really start something new. (Both have their merits, but I’m not impressed enough to implement them later this year.)
- Vacation at DisneyWorld -- YAY!!?? My 12-year-old daughter’s epilepsy flares up big time on the first day, and persists the whole time. She can barely walk, feels sleepy or cold at strange times, loses her appetite …. she suffers the most of course, but the wife and I don’t really get the brain break we expected.
- Wife and I alternate taking days off work while we get my girl’s medical situation under control, because she can’t make it through a school day. That includes MRI scans to check for tumors, blood tests for cancer and leukemia and whatever else, and another inconclusive EEG. It takes 3 weeks before life returns to “normal”, after we adjust her epilepsy medication dosage and make some other lifestyle changes.
- Meanwhile, of course, teaching and flipping mattered very little to me.
- When I came back to regular life, we worked on discussion skills about current political topics, historical connections, and the pros/cons of letter grades. I considered going gradeless for Term 3, but students’ comments and responses strongly indicate that would be a bridge too far. My class is “weird” in so many other ways that TTOG would be too much, I decide.
- I don’t go grade-less, but I do redesign the grading for mastery.
- The 2nd trimester ended with 3 D’s, 7 C’s, 1 Pass and 1 more new student. Of course I feel guilt about some of those lower grades -- how much did my absences and decisions contribute to this?!
- diary entry March 29: “Good news: I seem to be healthy. [daughter]’s seizures are back under control. She’s not dying. No snow in the forecast...No videos I must make this week, just revising last year’s a bit.”
- Not many diary entries this month, which usually indicates things are going well.
- The Pioneer Trail simulation goes pretty well this year: 4 days before the vacation week, and 4 days afterward which is a change. A best moment is when the superintendent happened to visit during one of the active challenges (hopping around the room with a cup of water, to simulate surviving a scorpion sting).
- One casualty of circumstance is the Extension Projects. I end up ditching that activity before vacation, because it just won’t fit the class plan for the next few weeks. I also never formally grade their progress on February-March, but actually no student ever asks me about those grades…. maybe they are prepared to go gradeless!
- I actually don’t work hard during this vacation week -- it’s kind of the break we didn’t get in February….
- ...oh wait, on the very last day of break (April 23) my brother emails to inform that our father died in his sleep at his home in Austria. It doesn’t hit me hard at first; we weren’t really close and I had not seen him since 2011.
- It takes a couple weeks to gather details about my father’s passing, and to figure out funeral arrangements etc. with time zones, language barriers, and funky family politics. Finally I decide we will fly to England for a memorial with relatives on my father’s side: aunts, uncles, cousins. That’s what we do May 17th - 24th. It turns out to be the right decision (however expensive) in so many ways. For one thing, it’s a much better traveling experience than February -- my girl stays healthy the whole time.
- Schoolwise, this month was all about planning around that absence. Students did two rounds of paired-research: one about 1800s inventions, and the other about reformers. Memory and memorialization is the key theme, which of course is on my mind with my father’s passing. Students designed some pretty cool statues to honor Lyman Beecher, Lucy Stone, Harriet Hanson, Frederick Douglass, and others.
- The last 3 days, my students went on their own previously scheduled trip to New York City or Quebec. I think I only worked 6 normal school days this month….
- We had 2 weeks of regular school days, then the final week of special 8th-grade events. That means shoehorning some Civil War-related learning, but no way I could fit something comprehensive. The “soldier promotion checklist” system got the job done alright, but the calendar was (once again!) not on my side.
- Now here I am finishing this post on the first day of vacation, with a summer cold that’s invading my body. That seems about right.
Reflecting in general terms, this was my least-favorite year as an 8th grade Social Studies teacher. (I had a couple rough ones while teaching ELA, but that’s another story.) As a whole, this student group was the most anxious and the least-trusting population I’ve ever had. Political trends, topics, and debates about the new president/administration only increased those qualities.
I also had frustrations with school-related systems and policies. We tried a new Advisory system that extended homeroom twice a week; my small group of 14 did not ‘gel’ very well, and the prescribed activities were totally unhelpful. The teaching assistant I described earlier should have been terminated (or at least remedied better) before June, because she limited students’ learning and made minimal yearlong improvement (e.g., a student complained last week that she was filing her toenails during an academic support period).
Lots to consider this summer, but I don't think a hefty overhaul is required. Some systems and ideas never really had a chance in 2016-17!