The Rookie Diaries

The trials and triumphs of a first-year teacher.

5 days until the next 6 weeks.

I am back! The last week of school is officially upon me. Although I have not written in far too long, suffice to say that my lack of blogging does not indicate a wane in the school year. Quite the opposite. As my principal likes to remind our students, the end of the year is approaching but North Star winds up and does not wind down. Aside from the end of the year giddiness that both my students and I are experiencing, I am going through a whole different kind of excitement that is separate from my impending 6 week break. My dreaded first year is almost over. I have to be honest though, it was nothing like the horror stories that, unfortunately, many of my teacher friends have endured. My rookie  year was difficult, of course, but nothing that discouraged me from knowing that education is the field for me. I am leaving this year looking forward to the next, a unique first-year sentiment.

Many changes are happening at my school next year. Several of our beloved staff members are taking new journeys, my principal included. If you have been reading avidly, or had been when I was writing a lot more frequently, you know that my principal played a large role in my positive first year experience. He is a mentor that taught me so much about how to best to serve my students on a daily basis. I am sad to see him go, but he will be close by. If you are reading Jesse, be warned that I will continue to seek advice as you “fly like an uncaged bird” (long story) on your new journey. Needless to say, our new principal is already an amazing member of the NSA family and I am so excited for her to begin her new role as principal at The Hill.

I’ve heard the second year of teaching is a lot different then the first. Many other experienced teachers try to explain it to me, but often have trouble putting it into words. One of my colleagues said “Last year I felt like a pauper and now I feel like a queen.”  That doesn’t sound too bad to me.

I am so excited for next year. I am so excited for a break. Thank you all for reading while I literally went through the trials and triumphs of my first year. It’s certainly been a roller-coaster and as cliché as it sounds, I’ve learned so much. I am not sure what the close of this year means for this blog. After all I will technically not be a “rookie” anymore. I am sure I will still use this blog as an outlet to tell the ridiculous happenings that find their way into my day at school. Always assume, though, that I look forward to continue working in Newark and helping my kids change history.

I know. I am sorry! Track your page!

Spring break. What a wonderful thing. I spent most of yesterday sleeping, which is very foreign to me. I already feel refreshed and it’s only been one day. Before my break officially started, my last class on Friday was a great reminder of why everyone at my school does the work that we do. All too often, however, it can be momentarily forgotten in the hectic schedule of the school day.

Two weeks ago my students and I started reading Of Mice and Men. I highly underestimated how much they would love the novel. I know that as a seventh grader, I was widely unimpressed. I realize now that I was just never given the opportunities to appreciate it. As a result, I wanted to try to make that happen for my kids. My plans for the week were jam packed because I wanted to finish reading the novel before our 10 day hiatus. For Friday, the plan was to finish reading the last chapter so that our Socratic could be on our first day back.

As curriculum moves to the common core, I’ve been trying to let students digest literature on their own before discussing it as a whole class. Consequently, larger and larger portions of my class time have moved toward students reading sections of the text independently and answering questions before beginning class discussion. For this last chapter of the novel, however, I really wanted to read it out loud with the kids. While only about eight pages long, I decided to read the majority of the text to them, to make sure that we could finish the chapter before the end of class. For those of you that do not remember the last chapter of Mice and Men, it’s incredibly sad. I found myself  having to call on students to read, because I was getting too worked up. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one.

Throughout the read-aloud I needed to look up just to make sure that students were breathing. The occasional desk tapping or pen clicking that normally poisons the atmosphere were entirely absent from the room. They were completely silent and invested. As we were nearing the end, I specifically remember reading the following line: “George raised the gun and his hand shook…” In unison, the kids gasped. It was the first indication that George’s intention was to kill Lennie, and they were shocked. I looked up and about half of them were holding their book with one hand and covering their mouths with the other. I asked a student to pick up in the reading. I wanted to continue observing their reactions to the rest of the novel. As the novel’s ending became more clear, I caught one students eyes as she looked up at me. She mouthed, “Are you serious?” I mouthed back, “I know. I am sorry! Track your page!”

I picked back up in the reading and as I continued to read, George’s ultimate decision to pull the trigger was finally explicit.  Now, the room was no longer silent. I heard sniffling, looked up and saw students wiping tears from their eyes. Even students who you would not suspect. One student, who sits right up there with me in the front–totally high- maintenance behaviorally–had turned his book over and placed his head on his desk. It’s my natural instinct to go over and tap him on the shoulder, which I did, and he looked up at me and just said, “I can’t Ms.Kelly…it’s too much.”

Just like spring break has made me realize the need to stop and take time for myself, my last class before spring break reminded me to do the same in the classroom. It is so easy to highlight what could have gone better in class each day. Yes, my lesson was not common core aligned at all but I would not have them read independently first if that meant that we were not able to share that moment together. At times I forget to recognize and appreciate how deeply affected my kids are by literature and by learning. Hearing my students gasp in pure surprise as George drew Carlson’s Luger and sniffle as he pulled the trigger will be a keepsake from my journey as a first year teacher.

The Other Side of February

I have a personal rule that I should not go a whole month without writing a post. I am cutting it close, but I made it just in time! I don’t know if this is a first year teacher thing, a teacher thing, or just a human being thing—but February seems so long. It’s odd though because it is actually the shortest month. I think the bitter cold combined with the darkness is tiresome and trying for everyone. There were points when I would wake up to my 4:30 am alarm and the darkness would continue for two a half more hours before the sun would show itself. I’ve had similar conversations with many colleagues and, let’s face it, if we can’t pull it together in February then our students are having a rough time as well.

If I haven’t mentioned him before, I share a room with an 8th grade English teacher (Hi, Thomas!) who taught in Mississippi with TFA prior to joining the North Star family. While most of our mornings are pleasant, mostly filled with tired jokes and music, there are at least a couple days a week where I tell him about what I dread in the upcoming day. Maybe not the best way to start my morning, but it happened. The reasons normally vary. I worry that today Jordan will start making weird noises again or blurt out “sausage” in the middle of independent practice. I worry that I will find Geoff chewing on a screw that he found on the classroom floor. Or that another 7th grader walked out of a classroom without permission and is nowhere to be found. Errrr can someone go look in the boys bathroom for Aaron for me? All of those things happened to me in February. Dreaded February.  My complaints to Thomas definitely became more frequent last month. He told me again and again, from experience, if you can make it past February the year flies by after that.

I am starting to believe him. During our seventh grade team meeting this week, we talked about the final class list for our end of the year trip to Boston. Spring break is just over two weeks away. There are definitely parts of my first year that I want to put behind me, but I am starting to think that time is moving just a little too quickly. I am glad, however, that dreaded February is over. Hopefully, after this winter Storm Venus, the days will be brighter and my complaints to Thomas will become less frequent.

Do you like cats?

One of my coworkers, who is extremely thoughtful, asked our seventh grade students to fill out birthday “surveys” for me today at the end of her math class. She gave them to me after school as an early birthday present. It was such a sweet gesture, and the student responses ranged from sweet and thoughtful to passive aggressive and hysterical. Here are the questions with a few of the top responses. Note: there is a theme. See if you can catch it…

1)      What is your favorite thing about Ms. Kelly?

  • My favorite thing about Ms. Kelly is that she still teaches us even when we are at our worst.
  • My favorite thing about Ms. Kelly is her smile and all the happiness she brings to class while teaching.
  • My favorite thing about Ms. Kelly is that she is a huge Raven’s fan! I am too?
  • Ms. Kelly is very energetic.
  • My favorite thing about Ms. Kelly is that she is funny because when she makes a mistake with a word she makes a funny face.
  • One thing is that she is very patient with our class which helps us not lose dollars when we should.

2)      What is your favorite memory of English class with Ms. Kelly so far? Why?

  • My favorite memory of English class is when we started to talk about the Ravens.

3)      If you could ask Ms. Kelly any question, what would you ask her?

  • Were you excited about the Raven’s when they won the Super Bowl? What did the people in Baltimore do?
  • Do you know that you’re teaching a future NFL player?
  • How tall are you?
  • Do you sleep? because you work so hard for us.
  • How bout dem Ravens?
  • Why do you teach 7th grade? Really, we are so moody.
  • What’s your middle name?        
  • Do you like scary movies?
  • Do you like cats?
  • How come you are so patient?
  • Would you still like the Raven’s if you weren’t from Baltimore?
  • How were you in college? Because Ms. Kelly is a quiet person but is a very smart one.

4)      Any other birthday wishes for Ms. Kelly please write below:

  • I hope you have a happy birthday or a week of the Raven’s parade back home. You’re representing for the RAVENS!
  • Have fun at your party and party like a Rockstar.

They sure are a curious bunch, huh? The most frequently asked question was: “How bout them Ravens?” verbatim.  Also, one of my student’s favorite memory of English class was when we learned about apostrophes. That’s interesting. You learned about apostrophes on Monday, when I took a personal day and you had a substitute. Are you trying to tell me something?

On another note, I think I’ve mentioned liking (loving) the Ravens once or twice. Maybe three times, at most. I might have also created a free-edit about Joe Flacco but really, that’s it.

Writers right the world.

One of our mantras in seventh grade English is: “Writers right the world.” I’ve told them several times that education and the ability to articulate yourself, via written and oral work, is one way to be a civil rights activist of their time. They look at me like I am crazy. Today, in my mind, I thought: “I told you so.”

After winter break we began our new class novel, Kindred, by Octavia Butler. Before reading the text we tackled many schema building articles that focused on African American oppression, starting with the antebellum south to present time.  Class discussions at the end of last week explored how the dominant culture continues to oppress minorities in our society, even in ways that are mostly invisible to us. I asked them: How many of you have band aids that match the color of your skin? Who has seen an African American or Asian mannequin?

As a chance to reflect and get creative with these articles, students wrote free verse poems today in class. Their writing never ceases to amaze me. If I were to hand most of their poems to a stranger, I can bet that he or she would not guess that the author is a seventh grade student. Below is one that I found to be particularly powerful.

Directions: Use the notes above to help you create your own poem using one or all of the articles we read last week—Willie Lynch Speech: Let’s Make a Slave, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege, and Skin Discrimination. Write your poem on the lines below beginning with the title.

“Enough!”

Haven’t we had enough of the disgrace that takes place in our society?

Haven’t we had enough of the drugs, violence and poverty?

Haven’t we had enough of our hypocritical and stereotypical lives that we face and embrace?

Hiding from the street corners, fighting, stealing and disgracing our race.

Haven’t these statistics been a wake up call? Aren’t we tired of seeing our people fall?

Aren’t we tired of living below standard, below our expectations, aren’t we tired of not having any goals or dedications?

Aren’t we tired of oppression that we face suppressing us for not being who we are and shining like a star?

Is it really Willie Lynch’s fault or the lack of motivation and resilience that we haven’t been taught?

Wow, right? They are finishing their poems for homework tonight and once I read through them all, I am sure that there will be several more that make an appearance.

Own it, girl.

Sometimes I still feel too young to be a seventh grade teacher. In fact, being home for the holiday has reminded me of this on several occasions so far. When I was treating myself to a much needed manicure, the manicurist was making small talk and asked me where I live. I told her New Jersey and she immediately asked, “What are you studying?” It still felt unnatural to say, “Actually, I teach. I am a teacher.” I second-guessed myself after the words slipped out. I had to talk myself back into the truth. No, you’re right Alison. You are definitely a teacher, I thought. The manicurist, however, was not so sure.

“Oh really?” She paused, looking for words that would not offend me. “First grade? Second grade?” she asked. When I told her seventh grade, she reacted in a way that made me once again question the authenticity of my profession. “You? Seventh grade?” I nodded. Did I stutter? To ease the look of disbelief on her face, I laughed a little and said, “I know. I look pretty young.” She wanted to know more.

“Do they listen to you?” she asked. My sister, who had been eavesdropping this whole time, laughed from across the room. “Sometimes…most of the time” I responded amidst my continual unnecessary and uncomfortable laughter. “You look like you could BE in seventh grade,” the manicurist told me. At first I was offended, but then realized that she was one hundred percent correct. Catch me on a good day and I can look, at most, 20 years old. Other days, however, I might just be a teenager.

Even without these types of interactions with strangers, I find myself unwilling to truly believe what I do each and every day—even when my friends and family believe it. My sister and parents are so thoughtful, each getting me a teacher related gift as part of my Christmas present from them. My sister bought me a little paperweight that says, “The kind words of a teacher can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are endless.” She thought I could put this on my desk at work. That’s right, my teacher desk in my classroom. Got it. My parents, as one of my stocking stuffers, gave me a calendar titled, “F in exams: 365 Days of the Very Worst Totally Wrong Test Answers.” Its just as funny as the name implies. Some of the days that I’ve looked at so far are hilarious. On January 1st the test question is: “Upon ascending the throne the first thing Queen Elizabeth II did was to…” and the student response was “Sit down.” Every day the answers just get more absurd. I can’t wait.

Even while receiving these thoughtful gifts, it was odd to be receiving them as the teacher. Not just the student at college who loved her Education classes the most, which is what it has been in past years. Nope, I am the teacher who stands in front of seventh graders every day and…teaches. Like I said before, I still don’t feel like I am old enough to believe it. Aside from the fact that I look a lot younger than 23 (and three quarters!), I generally feel as if I don’t have enough wisdom or life experience to be imparting knowledge to the youth of America. That’s scary to say, right? Maybe this is why I am still not confident about telling people that I am a seventh grade teacher or maybe it is because some people react like the manicurist above. I still feel like, at times, that I could just be one of my seventh graders at a desk, sitting up straight, tracking the speaker—we hope, and participating in class. I would be a teacher’s pet, for sure.  Then I think about it a little more. Re-do seventh grade? Hm, no thanks. I think I will stick with the whole teacher gig instead.

I hope everyone is having a happy holiday season! Whatever it is that you may do, own it. Next time someone says, “You? Seventh grade?” I will respond, “Absolutely.”

I broke all four core values.

For those of you who have been reading from day 1 of my rookie teaching experience—it is certainly not all smiles and laughter. I don’t want readers to think that I only write about my negative happenings, but in retrospect they are much more intriguing than days when my students are well behaved and doing exactly what they are supposed to.  Friday was, by far, the most difficult day of teaching I’ve had so far. After wiping tears and smudged mascara off of my face, I admitted to my principal and colleagues that I felt like a negative five year teacher. Any misbehavior that you could have nightmares about came to fruition last period on Friday. Students were laughing, smiling incessantly, talking, bouncing around in their seats, bouncing around out of their seats and making noises that should never come out of any human being. It was a war zone: me against them and they were winning. When my two hour class period ended, I felt like an absolute mess. I had begun tearing up in class before it was over, and students could tell that I was upset. Luckily, this kicked them back into serious mode for the last few minutes but I couldn’t forget how they had made me feel for the previous hour and fifty-five minutes.

My dean of students saw me crying in my room after and she was highly displeased to say the least. She said, write down the name of every student who gave you trouble. It was easier for me to write down students who didn’t misbehave. That list was two students long, or two students short. Needless to say, my class heard from the dean and my principal for about forty minutes after school. Among their many repercussions for being disrespectful, students were required to write me an apology and hand it in for homework the next day. Here are a few of my favorite lines:

“[…] I will cherish the hours you put into our day so that we can go on to live very successful lives.”

“I will learn to respect you and be grateful for what you do for me.”

“I need you because I need to be able to pass the school year. I regret everything that I have done to you.”

“I apologize and we shouldn’t be putting all the pressure on you because you are a new teacher. We should be appreciating teaching us what we have to learn so thank you.”

“I know that I have been acting very foolish lately and I have to change my behavior so that I can be a successful student in your class.”

This is by far the best one…

“Over the past few months I have talked back to you, said negative things about you, gave you attitude and many other actions. Now, I am going to do the right things and bring my behavior up by paying attention more and not talking back and not being disrespect.”

My immediate thoughts: I haven’t heard you say negative things about me to my face so that must mean you’re talking about me behind my back. Thanks. Additionally, I wish that you would have paid more attention to that grammar lesson on adverbs. Then, perhaps, your apology would be more eloquent.

Of course, at the end of the day, they make me cry but their successes absolutely outweigh their insane behaviors.

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