Today I would like to try something different. Instead of blurting out one exercise paragraph after the other, I figured to write about my day at school. The goal is the the same: avoid instances of the title irritations. No nodding. No “noisy” or “loud.” No Said! And No sitting or shaking one’s head.
Trust me. This won’t be easy. Almost everybody in class was sitting or shaking their head today. Middle school.
. . .
Four classes. Today I got to teach four classes. The tense gut-churning feeling in my mid-area intensified each mile I approached the school. That’s because the instructor I work with wasn’t going to be in today — calling out for an emergency, and leaving me his five classes. When I arrived there was a bit of a shuffle with the other substitute, but nothing the VP couldn’t clarify.
“You’ll take the in-school students,” she told me. “And the substitute will focus on online.”
I saluted my assent, and headed to class. To my dismay, however, first period was well underway. Each student had his or her laptop plopped on the desk, eyes wandered from screen corner to screen corner. One even had drool on his lips, he was so attentive. I turned to the tutor, and asked, “So . . .”
“This is first period,” he explained. “We kind of already got started. So you’ll take the students beginning with second period.”
Another salute assent. And I move to the classroom across the hall. There, I tell myself, there I will make my stand!
My hands and dress pants get all chalked up, as I write my name, the school’s name, and the day’s objective on the board: “To build classroom community.” If we weren’t expected to drill away at lessons, I figured, we might as well get to know one another. Especially me, who started here late in the semester, and am still getting to learn student’s names. Plus, I can’t teach somebody if I can’t address him by his name, or hers.
9:30, second period. Here we go. I’m pumping myself up. Standing by the hallway door, like my favorite teachers did in middle school. Greeting kids in skateboard sweaters and black nail polish, as they pass by. Some stare at their toes when I speak to them. Others scrunch their eyebrows. One, a tall boy, looks like he should be in high school, he received my greeting, and returns it in kind, bowing the chin a little bit, and saying, “Good morning.” Polite chap. But he isn’t in my class.
I turn in, and count the students. A half dozen. And half of them are on their phones, the other on their laptops.
“Good morning, ladies and gentleman.” I tell a joke. It doesn’t fly. I cozy up on the flat part of a desk in the front row, get to teaching.
Ice breaker number one. Signatures. The goal is for everyone to come up with and then share a hand sign that identifies them. I model it. I ask for clarification. But few participate. “It’s fine to chill,” I say, moving about the class, winking at the boy with his hands clasped, starting at the white of his desk. When he feels me close, and attempts a bit of eye contact, I give him a thumbs up. “All’s good. But who’s next?”
Our circle of participants dissipates. The energy of this activity dwindles. And I’m left holding back the dreaded, “Cmon guys!” like bad vom in my throat, swallowing it down, and thinking of something else to play.”Next game!”
Blobs and lines. Acrostic poems. One after the other, my memorized playbook of icebreakers and community builders we run through.
What surprises me the most is the student who had given my assigned teach so much trouble last week was the one most engaged with me today, curious, asking questions, the kind of kid who succeeds in life. Another student, who had also been difficult, who no one really knows, but who cares a lot, decides her signature is the middle finger. “That’s alright.” Reassurance is the key, no? “Show me her signature class!” A few do it. I wipe the sweat off my brow, and take a deep breath.
10:30. Third period. Instead of the half participation from second period, in this class everyone is going all in. Hand signals, laughs, and a wonderful circle. The only problem is by the second half of the class, energy has disappeared. Hunger strikes the best of us. Tummies rumble. And a lot of student gaze at their wrists, as if they had watches.
“We did this in kindergarten,” one student tells me, when we get to the acrostic poetry. She doesn’t want to write her name. She doesn’t want to ask her classmates questions. What a bummer! She was all in a moment ago. These students are as reliable as the wind, I refrain from thinking, only now in retrospect do I give myself the luxury of reflecting on the fact. Was I the same? I couldn’t look a teacher in the eye at 12. And now I’m a teacher, peering down from my high heights, getting down on one knee, locking POVs with a STUDENT, and holding my breath until she looks up. “It’s ok. You can chill today, if you’d prefer.”
The bell doesn’t ring, since it’s covid times and that thing isn’t running. But I allow the students to bounce. It’s been 60 minutes. Guess it’s good. Until, as I sit down to reflect on what’s working and what’s not, I hear squeaking shoes and the sound of chatter. My students! Roaming the halls! “Where you suppos’ta be?”
My third period student, fighting his reluctance like swimming up-tide, points to the room across the hall. “There.”
Shit! I think to myself. It’s 11:35 and maybe . . . yup, sure enough I check my phone and the VP is reminding me that 3rd ends at 11:40.
A deep sigh. And the day goes on.
Last two classes: 4th period feels like I’m playing ping pong with 5 different players on five different tables. Paired exercises? Forget about it. Group exercises? Well, I did get the three anime girls to talk to each other, but completely off topic. One student on the other end of the class completely blows me away with her participation. Some students are like oasis in the desert of apathy. Other students are like cactus, and you’ve got to watch out for them. Luckily I didn’t have any scorpions or snakes. But even if I did, I’d’ve pulled out a flute and song the class a song . . . I’d like to think.
One positive about 4th is each student falls into place when the writing instructions are given. What helps is that I’m writing something on the board too. “Write about what you need, want, and what is most important to you, for 10 mins.” Free form writing, which we had built up to, following a series of schema builders and group modeling. That student who dazzled any expectation? Her brilliant handwriting, letters upright like runway models, and well written like librarians. She wants to get a scholarship (this 12 year old!) and go to college. “You can do it!”
Another student, one of the anime girls who, after school, wanted to show me her skateboarding moves: she shows me a moving piece addressed to her best friend, telling her that she will “always be there” for her and that “I knew about what happened to you” but if she ever “needs a hug” she will give her a hug, nh*. (*nh is a new one for me . . . ty student for teaching me.)
After that? Lunch. Sandwich. Couscous. And the Iliad. A winning combination. Then, it’s time.
Last period. Within the first 3 minutes, I know the students don’t want any cheesy icebreakers. Judging, of course, by how one student decides to lay on his back at the corner of the room. Another makes a desk his booster seat. And another student pretends he doesn’t understand the instructions. Not repeated, not modeled. Not explained by a classmate, not broken down into bite sized pieces. “That’s ok,” I repeat, almost to myself.
“Let’s play tic tac toe!” someone suggests.
I raise an eyebrow. “If I win, we play my game next, ok?”
The whole class, all half dozen of them come up to the board, respecting covid, sort of. One after the other, I slay on the board. Xs left and right. I’m up by 5 wins. “Can I pick the next game?”
“You have to win 10 times!” one student decries. I start letting them win. We move one . . .
By the end, I do steer the class to writing. What were we going to do for an hour and forty minutes? Only one student ends up writing anything longer than a sentence. Another student seems defeated he couldn’t get any ideas down. The rest have long checked out.
I take a deep breath. Enjoy a deep conversation with those who are willing to engage in one. Energy is shared, transferred, and good will passed on to the next generation, for those who paid attention.
Until next time.