This has been a year of hard work and relentless pressure to help students improve.
Payday came yesterday, when a student handed me this note:
Something about our brief review of the water cycle inspired them to start baking. Or at least to use a lot of different colored frosting.
The most impressive part, aside from the vast savannah of textured grass frosting, was the multiple levels of the water cycle cake, including a soaring mountain peak capped with snow and sugar glaciers.
The cake isn’t exactly a perfect representation of the water cycle, but it does probably represent the most time at least two of the students spent thinking of science outside of class all year.
Oh, and just for the record, the science teacher did not eat any of the cake.
The end of the year is still two weeks off but already my thoughts are shifting to next year.
My visiting scientist has wrapped up her work this year and the geckos have gone to summer with her. Although the lizards did make interesting roommates, they never did reproduce so perhaps a summer under her care with yield better results.
But there’s no easy way to line up a successor. The GK-12 program has shut down.
I did offer to mentor a student teacher through the Woodrow Wilson program that trained me, but the odds of a them having someone interested in middle school sounded long.
More concretely, changes in the schedule mean that I will no longer have a science “elective” course to teach. I had had one nine-week “Excel Science” class all year and the combination of small classes and strong students made it pretty fun to teach.
In return, I will have a section of high-ability students next year. The forecast is for larger class sizes in general, and high ability sections tend large as well – because there is only one and there is often pressure to squeeze in as many students as possible.
So one worry is how to work more than 28 students into class at a time. I have seats for far more than that, but with only seven lab tables and room for four per table, you can see there are limits. One or two groups with a fifth student is manageable but much beyond that gets tough.
Not that I have any numbers yet for next year’s class sizes but it’s the kind of thing that makes you a little anxious over the summer break.
Really the biggest question will be how I will tailor my lessons to challenge my more capable students. As a parent of three talented young girls, I know nothing drives me crazier than teachers who leave my daughters unchallenged and bored.
All in all, things could be tougher: in a massive room shuffle, most of my peers at the middle school are moving rooms over the summer.
Whatever lies ahead, though, for now the focus remains finishing up these next two weeks strong.
A friend in high school once accused me of being nothing but an overgrown hippie.
The budding punk rocker in me was horrified at the time (and just to be clear, my hair never came close to hippie standards for length).
But in my dotage, I’ve come to accept there may have been some truth in that. Maybe this former Marine has a streak of Peace & Love hidden down deep inside.
Case in point: When my first daughter was born and I at last held her in my hands, I had one thing to say. Right there amid the business-like chatter of the nurses, I knew the first word I wanted this beautiful new creature to hear from me:
I grew up surrounded by a passion for the power and beauty of words, after all. My mother, a sometime Latin teacher, was a philologist in the purest sense: a lover of words. Her greatest joy seemed to be telling stories, stories that used words to spin laughter or sadness from her listeners. Devouring books and learning to speak other languages were the hallmarks of becoming an adult in my family. As a young child, I stood in awe of my mother’s ability to discuss me with my older siblings in French — leaving me completely frustrated and out of the conversation.
So when I stood beside the bed of my dying mother Friday morning, watching her peacefully slide away as her breathing slowed, I clung to only a single idea. I leaned over and pressed my cheek against hers, my lips just above the glowing red oxygen monitor clipped to her earlobe. I wanted to say one thing, wanted her to hear one word at the last.
About six weeks left in my partnership with a scientist and I am still finding reasons to be thankful for this opportunity.
Reason #137: She saves lives.
A couple Thursday’s ago Kyra Noerr (nee Kline) was in my room on our prep period and I had to leave for a meeting. I successfully escaped the meeting as quickly as possible but when I stepped out into the empty halls, I saw one of my students.
The teen was not doing well. She could only make it down the corridor by keeping one hand on the lockers. I caught up with her and asked if everything was OK, and she sheepishly said she was a “little” dizzy.
I hadn’t seen anyone that unsteady on their feet since I was on board the USS Belleau Wood in a North Pacific gale. She made me seasick just watching her. I asked if she’d seen the nurse, and she said she had but now was being sent back to class.
She was in no shape to learn, so I walked the student back to my empty classroom. Mrs. Noerr kept an eye on her while I tried to reach the nurse by phone. No luck, so I thought we’d let the student rest for a bit and drink some water. She seemed to be OK while she was sitting, so I stepped out to check something with another teacher.
By the time I got back a few minutes later at the start of passing time, the student was on the floor and Noerr was over her, checking her pulse and trying to make sure she was OK.
I called the nurse, who was soon on her way. A crowd started to gather outside my room and some students were already in the classroom. I told them to sit down, then went into the hall and closed the door behind me before directing the kids arriving for my next class to another teacher’s room.
The nurse soon arrived and the student has fully recovered, safe and sound as far as I know.
But it almost didn’t turn out that way. See, while I was assuming the student would be fine with a little rest, Noerr was far more worried. If you feel faint, she told her, be sure to tell me.
Which is what the teen did soon after I left the room, with a woozy “Mrs. Noerrrrr …”
She was sliding out of her chair, head arcing straight toward a sharp corner of the table or the hard floor beneath when Noerr caught her and eased her gently down. The teen was conscious at first, but passed out at least twice, revived both times by Noerr.
A small thing, I suppose. People faint all the time.
But I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if Noerr had been back at her university. Would I have left the student alone for a few minutes in my room? If so, would I have returned to find her unconscious and badly injured? On my own, would I have been able to help her and keep the other students out of the way?
Those questions are all just hypothetical, and I am very, very glad that they are.
Here’s to a little victory this week.
Not mine – I can’t take any credit for this. I can boast, though, on behalf of my school — and marvel at what it took to accomplish.
We started the last rotation of our classes designed to focus on improving test scores. These are the first classes of the day, before students go on to the regular English, math, science and other classes. In my case, that means helping shore up some of the geometry knowledge of students who have shown signs of weakness in that area.
Other teachers are focusing on reading skills or problem solving – we’re breaking up the whole school into small groups of students with similar needs and trying to help them.
In my case, I have around 25 students in two 30-minute sessions and about 90 percent are ones I’ve never met.
We start the course with a pre-test to see what the students might already know and that’s what put the bounce in my step this week.
See, these guys have plenty of math still to learn. That’s OK – that’s what I get paid to teach them.
But they could put together a clear, coherent answer to a short-answer question.
And that’s a sea change. To see a majority of any class consistently restate the question, declare the answer and then support it with facts – well, it was new to me. This is with no review, no reminders – straight out of the gate they could assemble a solidly structured answer.
The staggering part is just what it took to get there: a massive, schoolwide effort stretching across two academic years. From math to social studies, students had practice using the same techniques and procedures in every class. That persistent consistency seems to have been key.
The needle is pretty stubborn in middle school, so seeing it move — even a little — is heady stuff.