Saturday, May 10, 2014

8th Grade Check-In

Good Morning,

I'm sitting at my little wooden Ikea table, drinking coffee from a certain favorite mug bought at Edeka while I wait for my baked oatmeal to finish. Perhaps my Saturday baking routine has dwindled since I first wrote about routines at the beginning of my stay in Rimbach, but baked oatmeal is something special. I think it will always hold strong feelings of my time in Rimbach. The very first morning, I made baked oatmeal for my friends Susanna and Phillip, who just had time to visit me before they left for the US. I give them a lot of credit for eating my oatmeal, which at the time, really hadn't come into it's own, if you know what I mean. Since then, its turned into something to get me excited about the morning, and symbolizes cozy, contemplating mornings with a side of coffee. Which is why I made it today- I wanted to dedicate time to sharing the past months' events.

Now I'm stumbling even trying to recap what school life was like in March and April....

I guess, now that I think back, March was a realization process that my 8th graders don't take me seriously and the beginning of April, a struggle to figure out how to change that. Easter break came at the right time, and now two weeks into the last quarter of the school year, I'm feeling more in control (again).

While I was away on Skifreizeit, I assigned both my 8th and 9th graders the same English and Music-analyze a song- assignment. It was something that came from the textbook, so I thought it was a no-brainer idea. They had about ten days to complete the project, including all the time in class and I had even booked computer rooms for them to use so they could research. The 9th graders' efforts weren't outstanding, but the real blow was coming back to the 8th graders and seeing that they had done virtually no work and on the day we were supposed to present, 18 out of 22 students did not have their materials to present.

How are you supposed to react when that happens?

I didn't know what to do, so I let them off the hook, pushing the presentations back a day. I realized that if I myself doubt my lesson plan, or can find any flaws in it, or things that don't really make sense, I let the students get away with totally inappropriate behavior because, after all, I didn't prepare well enough to create an effective class, so it's my fault they aren't cooperating.
I know that's wrong! But, honestly, the project was a mistake! It kind of sucked and I feel bad for putting them through that.

That same week, I was put in charge of proctoring a standardized test that every 8th grader in all of Hessen took to see how effectively they are learning English. I was especially nervous in light of the disastrous music projects, but, honestly, I was also proud that I was given the responsibility. AND! I'm a Millennial American! I, of all people, should know how to give a standardized test (#nochildleftbehindsyndrome). I tried my best to create a serious test taking environment: backpacks away, cell phones in backpacks, desks separated, only one very good pen on the desk. I wore my most business of business clothes to look more authoritative.

Ultimately, my efforts were undermined by a broken CD player and a handful of pestilential students who realized the test did not count for their grades, screamed to everyone that "It's ScheiƟ egal! Everyone choose C for each answer", which of course is hilarious to 98% of any 13 year-old, and from that point on, I could not get things back in order. It was by far the scariest moment of my teaching career at MLS. I've never felt so out of control. I was afraid that if I ordered one student to the office (which, I actually don't know if that's allowed here, but its standard American procedure) that everyone else would misbehave to get them out of taking the test. Which, actually, is a ridiculous train of thought, but I wasn't exactly at my best in those 90 minutes.

It's sometimes hard to know when a difficult situation can be overcome by adopting the "Just figure it out and do it" german mentality, or if I really am in over my head. I admire the way German's tackle new situations and problems and it is something I have seen less in my experiences in the US. At home, we expect every direction to be precisely spelled out and if every possible situation isn't accounted for, than its seen as the designers flaw. In all of my experiences in Germany, you are expected to problem solve yourself and strive to avoid "neediness". This was especially clear to me when I studied at a German university in 2011. I think the most challenging aspect of this year is wanting responsibility and independence, being given lots of responsibility and independence, but not feeling able to handle what I've been given.

It's helpful to know that every teacher who has had this particular class of students has struggled with them. However, that knowledge won't resolve how to get me through the year.

After the Music Project and Lernstandserhebung, I started sharing my ideas with David and he helped me craft a lesson plan around one of my favorite Cloud Cult songs. It was a perfect conclusion to a tumultuous week. It was really valuable to see how you can take an idea from the textbook and bring it to life. A textbook is a tool, and not a lesson plan. Up until this month, I haven't known how to actualize that understanding. David ended up coming to class with me to watch how the lesson panned out; we even team-taught during part of it. I've been scared to have someone visit my lesson, mostly because why bother having someone come tell me what I already know isn't working? Having David help me plan the lesson was a really great solution because we could focus on my ability to communicate an idea and not on if I had a great idea to begin with.

It was rewarding to have someone recognize that I can be an effective teacher. It was rewarding to see that when my students behave, and I'm not spending 80% of the class correcting behavior, class goes pretty well. And it was rewarding to share my classroom with a friend.

Post spring break, I have been more intentional about the lessons I plan and recognize that a list of textbook activities is not a plan. Additionally, an effective lesson plan can not be put together the evening, or sometimes, even the day before, at least in my current situation. I need to learn all the material as I go and invent new lesson plans every week. Everything is new and it all takes more time than I expect. And in a room full of unforgiving 8th graders, I don't really have room for mistakes because one blip in my plan can send the room into chaos.

I've gained more confidence in disciplining students and trust in my judgement both when and what punishment is just. This week ended on sort of a sad note, when I realized that I was letting a small group of student's perpetual inappropriate behavior, spoil my enjoyment of working with the other students- the ones who do care, who do work, and who do seem to appreciate what my teaching. I'm using the weekend to try and figure out how to go forward.

On Monday my 9th graders return from their two week internship experiences. I've definitely missed them. At the very least, their return will give me something else to think about. It's interesting: with my 9th graders, I care about being a good English teacher because I really care about seeing their English improve. I want to be better so that they can be better. But with my 8th graders, I have a more selfish goal. I want to be better for myself so that I know that I can teach, manage students and can be effective. Concluding on a good note with this class is a win I want for myself. I hope that's a truth that is appropriate for me to admit.

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