Archive Page 2

My children teach!

I am a proud parent.

Both my son and my daughter teach.  My daughter teaches at a private girls’ boarding school in NY.  Probably the oldest such school in the nation. She teaches high school math.

My son teaches at a charter middle school in San Diego.  He is a special ed teacher.

Conversations/discussions/arguments with them have expanded my understanding of education.  We are lucky to live in a nation where education is mandatory and we are lucky to live in a nation where there are educational choices.

And on Mother’s Day the best gift is that “My children teach!”


Lessons from the Mission Middle School “Biggest Loser” Competition.

 I am the biggest loser.  Well, at least, at this moment.  At school the staff is doing the Biggest Loser competition for 20 weeks, the person with the greatest percent weight loss will get a couple of hundred dollars.  A start on a new summer wardrobe!

In the first week I thought a lot about how much weight I could lose and realized that, realistically, I couldn’t be the Biggest Loser.  I didn’t have enough weight to lose. But, nonetheless, losing weight seemed like a good idea.  And doing it with a bunch of nice people seemed motivating.

Now I have people asking me how I’m doing it.  ( I’m not cheating!  Is there a way to cheat?)

I have a plan.  I’m using The South Beach Diet.  Tried and true, research based, plenty of data.  Many people have used it to successfully lose weight.  There is an abundance of information about diet, habits, successes and faqs in Arthur Agatston’s  books.  I didn’t just tweak my diet – I made significant changes in what I eat, when I eat and how much I eat.  My meals are different, my refrigerator looks different, the pantry is looks different, and by summer, my wardrobe will be different.

The lessons learned that can be applied to my ‘day’ job?  If you want to see change you must make change happen.  Not just random changes, not just ‘tweaks’ but significant changes.  And you have to be committed for a significant period of time – no changing horses in midstream.   There must be a well thought out plan; research based and data driven.  And it helps to have others around who are also committed, encouraging, and, yes, a little competitive.

We all want to improve student achievement at MMS.  To make that happen we must be prepared to make changes – big changes to get big gains.  We need to build a path to success.  The Biggest Loser competition may save the lives of some of our coworkers.  Improving the academic achievement of our students will improve the lives of our students, and, possibly, save their lives.

 I don’t think I’ll be the Biggest Loser in June when we do the final weigh in.  But I’ll have a new bathing suit when you see me at Moonlight Beach on September 8 at the Annual Staff Day at the Beach!!

One student at a time.

At my inner city, high-poverty, low income, non-diverse population middle school college seems a long way away.   For the most part we have been focusing on kids finishing high school – many will be the first in their families to do so.

We have a new Principal, Jeff King, a founder of Turn Around Schools and a guy who comes to us with quite a track record.  I’ll say more about him in another post.  Anyway, Jeff doesn’t talk about finishing high school he talks about being ready for college.

BUT I know that this idea is not new to some staff members.  Last night I hosted a dinner in my backyard to celebrate the beginning of college for a former student from our school.  Three teachers (and myself in a more minor role) have mentored this boy since 7th grade!

Santos lives in the largest growing poverty area in San Diego County, he attended the elementary schools & middle school with the lowest test scores, his father was arrested and deported for spousal abuse, he sleeps in the living room because a boarder rents his room, his mother speaks very little English.

Santos was an AVID student for 5 years and I think that made a tremendous difference in his life!  Throughout his high school years the former middle school teachers edited papers for him, pushed him to read, checked report cards, talked to his teachers, took him to see local colleges, helped with college applications, grant/scholarship applications and spoke to a Dean at UCSC when it looked like his application would be denied.  All the things I would have done for my kids but he didn’t have that kind of mother in his life.  I taught him to drive.  One teacher set up a bank account for him (in her name, because, after all, he is only 18) and asked former teachers, principals, superintendents for donations, she took him shopping and got all his supplies and even has some spending money left in in his account.  He has an on-campus job and knows he can’t afford to come home for Christmas or Thanksgiving – he has some family near school and will stay.

I hope he’ll be successful, we all know the stats.  But these teachers have given him an opportunity that doesn’t come just because one attends and graduates from high school.

I can’t express how proud I am of Santos and of Kirsten Josephson, Maria Velasquez & Mary Adams.  I know that teachers all over the country do this kind of thing every day, these just happen to be the ones I know.


Hey, Mrs. Harris, I have dyslexia!!

Three of my former students are brothers, I taught each of them in 7th grade.  The youngest 3 years ago, the oldest about 9 years ago.  I taught 2 at my former school and the youngest at my current school.  But this is about the middle boy, Will.

Will is now 19 or 20 years old.  In the past couple of years he has dropped in to say hi to me in my classroom.  I was at his high school graduation and got a big hug from him and his mother.  I saw him in June, he was riding past the school and stopped to tell me how his brothers were doing, how his cross-country running was going and about community college.  He was serious about school, told me about his plans and mentioned that he was struggling a bit academically but he was working on a transfer to a 4 year state school.  All good.

Before school started this year he dropped by – actually rode over to my classroom.  He looked good, tanned, in great shape, and with a big grin on his face. “Mrs. Harris, I have dyslexia!” he blurted out.  And then rambled through a great story.  Will admitted that effort was not his strong suit in high school but in community college he started to work hard and has a career plan to be an industrial engineer/designer. But he was struggling academically.  He is a lucky guy and has several adult mentors, including a former high school teacher.  These mentors and a couple of community college teachers urged him to be tested at school and he finally did so.  A free service at school.  They discovered his dyslexia and, although, he didn’t have the right ‘nomenclature’ it sounds like they wrote him a 504 plan.

Will listed all the services he can and will use: a note-taker will give him copies of class notes, he can use a laptop in class even if other student can’t, he can have extra time on tests or take them in another room, he can get audio version of all his textbooks, he can preferential registration times for courses, …   I’m sure there are more, he was bubbling over with information.

He has such renewed energy and hopes for success.  It lightened my whole week and as I write I am again buoyed by his optimism.

The downside – damnit why didn’t we send him for testing in elementary/middle/high school???  How many other kids have we missed who didn’t have Will’s resilience and never realized their disability?

Just a thought.  BUT I still feel his excitement and see his grin.  It’ll keep me going for quite a while.

Classroom Management

There are plenty of blogs about classroom management surfacing at this time of year.  The two I have read most recently and inspired me to write are Always Formative and ABrandNewLine  .

My classroom management has already begun even though I won’t see students for another week.  It started with the 3 books I read/reread this summer.

  1.  I have reviewed Harry & Rosemary Wong’s The First Days of School each summer before school starts.   I am not a ‘religious’ follower of Harry Wong but I do believe I would be a better teacher if I was more organized and I spent little or no time on behavior problems in class.
  2. I am in the middle of  Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov.  It is a compendium of techniques and strategies he observed in excellent teachers.  Once again, I use what fits me.  But it certainly makes me think.
  3. At my daughter’s suggestion I also read Mindset The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck.  It gave me a new way of thinking about my lowest students.

Now the week before school, I am setting up my classroom (I changed rooms this year) and I am continuing to work on classsroom management.

My desks are arranged in pairs and in groups of two pairs, with an aisle across the class (32 desks).   This allows me to stand beside every student and to move across the classroom easily.  I have cut construction paper for the students to use as name tags for the first 2 weeks.  As soon as our rosters are finalized (well, closer to being finalized) I will make seating plans and assign each student a seat from the first day!  As well as writing a name tag for their desk, each student will fill in an information sheet and possibly take it home to get parents’ phone numbers and contact info. I will go over a handout titled “How to Succeed in Ms. Harris’s Math Class” which includes a supply list.

My point is that on the first day I want students to know that I am in charge – I know what I’m doing.  I also like to keep them busy the first day (and everyday thereafter)  I love to hear kids say “Class is done, that was so fast.”

I used to say that I managed my class by force of my personality.  But after having 2 student teachers and presenting in an “Opening Day Classroom Management Workshop” I realized that I do a lot of things to make my class run smoothly, as well as using my strong personality.  So as well as preparing to get students in and started I will also implement the strategies and procedures from the books I read.

In terms of classroom rules my mantra is “Respect yourself, your teachers, others and property.”  DONE!   This is not the tax code – I won’t list every infraction possible.  But the simple ‘crimes’ like dress code violation, chewing gum, using the phone during class, speaking when someone else is speaking, walking around during instruction, poking the boy/girl in front of you, are all covered by RESPECT (and, yes, sometimes I sing it).

I teach middle school math so it is not difficult to structure a class period so that everyone knows what happens and when.  This makes life easier for all of us.  A side benefit is that I notice kids who after a month still don’t ‘get it’ and I can look out for those kids.

In a few sentences my best advice is: Be prepared, know what you are doing and why you’re doing it. (Middle school students are a little like wolves if they smell fear/indecision they start to circle and then …) Don’t look for new bff’s, you’re the teacher, kids want you to be the teacher.  Most kids are comfortable with rules/procedures, take advantage of that. Be real, show your passion for your subject/education/students.

And lastly ENJOY.  If you aren’t having fun teaching then it’s not the job for you, find something else to do.

And so I begin.

My inspiration and motivation is my daughter.  She has been blogging about teaching math for over 2 years.  And through her blog she got a permanent position and lost a temporary position.  (That’s a tale she will tell.)

I must admit that my first impression was that blogging was a little arrogant.  I mean, who really cares what I thought, did, said, …?  What do I have to share and who would be interested in it?

Then I realized that through her blog and the blogs of other teachers my daughter has a cohort of colleagues.  Who exchange information on interactions with students, instructional strategies, educational resources, who commiserate, sympathize, empathize and support each other.  And send out the much appreciated “Way to go!”

This ‘cohort’ is larger in number than a math department at a school, maybe even larger than the faculty at a school.  And they are ALL engaged – they blog, comment, discuss because they are interested.  Boy, I wish I could say that all the people I speak to at my school are that interested.

I’ve already ‘met’ some of these educators by commenting on my daughter’s blog.  The other day she was ‘talking’ to one of them and I was adding to what she was saying.  Kind of cool.

And so I begin.  I often process by verbalizing, now I will process by writing so be patient as I find my stride.

Then I’ll be up and running.