July 21, 2019
This past school year I had an interesting dichotomy of classes. I teach special education English and reading for middle school. Due to the bipolar, I had an episode that prevented me from starting the year with my students.
I got a note from the sub that said my period 1 were angels and I was going to love them. My period 2 was a bit talkative and he had some trouble with them. He was sure that they would come around once I was in the classroom.
When you are given a description of class before you meet them you form an opinion about them. You also think, maybe the person in the room before you did something different and you could fix whatever was wrong in the classroom because you are a master teacher.
The sub had an excellent feel for the students in the classes and for what the year would look like. My period 1 was filled with eager learners. A joy to teach. They asked questions. They took their notes. They worked well with each other. They were kind and helped each other. If someone didn’t have a pencil, they shared their supplies. They raised their hands to ask questions. They were a truly great group of kids. I couldn’t have asked for a better, more loving and caring group of students.
The period 2 was the complete opposite. They were loud and rambunctious. In the beginning, they were not all naughty. I have to say that, individually, all these kids were great kids, as a group together they were a nightmare. Together they created a domino effect of terror. One disaster after another occurred. They were rude to each other. They constantly told each other to shut up. They threw things across the room. They stole from each other. They stole from me. They made fun of each other, and not in a fun way, in a mean way. They cussed at each other. They were a tough group.
In my class, I have a reward system. It’s a token system. For answering questions, turning in homework, scoring well on tests, helping someone out, being a good citizen, you get a ticket. That ticket goes into a bucket. At the end of the week, we do a drawing for a pencil, a student store pass, and a box of candy. At the end of the quarter, I do the same drawing only I add a gift card to the raffle. Sometimes, depending on how much money I have the gift card is $10 to $20.
I have had this system in place for several years. It has worked effectively for the past several years. Kids want to earn tickets. They want to earn the chance at a gift card. It was a hard sell for my period 2.
Throughout the year, I teach short stories. The kids love “Riki Tiki Tavi” and “The Most Dangerous Game”. Mostly they love these stories, because there are movies that go along with each of these stories. They love having a movie day. I do try to teach books that have movies. They love that. But you can’t always do that.
I teach a wide variety of literature to my kids. I follow a higher grade level curriculum and break it down for my special education students. I teach them Beowulf, The Outsiders, and The Lightning Thief. They love getting grade level books. This year we added Wonder and for period 1, they read Enclave .
They months went by and we read our books. Period 1 took their notes to the novels diligently. Period 2 fought me on taking notes. They barely followed along and there were hardly any classroom discussions, unlike the lively debates I had with my other class. It was painful.
One of things I had to develop for the first time in years was a seating chart for period 2 . My theory over the last several years was that a student could sit anywhere in the class for one week but had to choose a new seat the following week. They could never sit in the same seat each week. They had to find new table mates. This made them make new friends and see who they could work with. By the end of the year, they knew who they worked well with and who they should be sitting with.
My period 1 class had no trouble with this arrangement. They fluidly found their seats and made their choices. My period 2 class fought each other on where to sit. They sat next to a bad choice or complained they couldn’t sit next to so and so because they hated each other. So, I had to carefully make a seating chart based on who could sit next to who. A few of the kids had been in fights with each other and had signed contracts with each other that they couldn’t be next to each other. I had to keep them apart. It was challenging.
During the second quarter, after the seating chart had been made we were doing biographical research. The biography project was predominantly about people of color or women who have made a changes in history. There were several African American students in my period 2. The kids were having trouble choosing who they wanted to research. I gave them a list of over 100 subjects to choose from. Nobel Prize winners to athletes to congressmen, all they had to do was google search a few and figure out who was interesting.
I mentioned to a kid who was having trouble finding someone about Malcom X. I said, “He was a black activist. He’s very interesting.”
One of the other students shouted at me, “She said black. She’s a racist.”
A girl shouted out, “Shut up! He is black. That’s not racist.”
Another piped in, “How is she racist?”
First kid said again, “Because she called him black.”
“Shut up! You’re black! Do your work,” the girl yelled at him.
It wasn’t the first time I had been called a racist but it had made me uncomfortable. I usually have the talk with my students as to what they prefer to be called, black or African American. Due to the fact I was out of school for two weeks, a lot had been trimmed out of my get to know you speech. It was clear that some of the kids saw me as not on their side.
During that second quarter the period 2 started to get loud. They would talk over me when giving instructions. During quiet working time, they were not quiet. I had slowly taken away their Friday fun giveaways one at a time. First it was the candy, then the student store pass, then the pencil. They had the opportunity to earn it back, but they never did. They just continued to be bad.
I finally bargained with them. Started from zero. I told them if they had a good week, we would not only have the raffle on Friday but we would watch a movie. They got one movie in before the end of the quarter. They just couldn’t contain themselves.
Winter break was much needed by all.
After winter break we moved on with mythology. I taught Norse mythology with Beowulf. My period 1 loved the mythology. They had great discussions on how mythology and Christianity influenced each other. They wrote great essays about epic heroism for Beowulf. There were great breakthroughs for some of my struggling writers who were finally able to find textual evidence and support their claims of why Beowulf was an epic hero. It was great teaching.
My period 2 did not find great parallels in the mythology. They did like that Beowulf fought monsters. They did write good essays with one on one help. The blood and gore in Beowulf held their attention. The notes we took did not hold their attention. When I graded their notes, out of the 15 kids in the class, only three took notes. The rest did nothing the entire time we read the book.
When we got to Greek mythology and The Lightning Thief, I encountered the same problems. My period 1 were engaged with the lessons. They took their notes. They answered the questions. We had discussions. My period 2 refused to engage. They rarely took notes and talked while I read the book to them.
Instead of writing an essay for the novel, we did a one pager. It’s an assessment in one page. It’s less writing and gives the kids a way to be creative. They a large construction sheet of paper and need to fill it. They need some letters from the characters, a book rating, character list, favorite quotes from the book, and a couple of drawings. The kids like to do this. It gives them a chance to work at their own pace and give their own response to literature.
Of course period 1 worked diligently. They paired off and shared supplies. They helped each other find quotes. They helped each other about characters and descriptions. They helped each other draw or suggested drawings.
On Monday, period 2 started out on the right path. They had their paper and pencils. They had all week to work on the project. They were loud as usual. Throughout the week, I had students at my desk that I worked one on one with to help with ideas of what to put on their papers. It was coming along.
In period 2, on Thursday, it was super loud. As always. they were all out of their seats. My supplies were not on the back table, where they were supposed to be. One of the students had taken them back to his seat. One of the girls got up to get a colored pencil from him. She smacked the box and the entire box of pencil exploded over the room. They all laughed. She exclaimed, “It was an accident. He hit my hand.”
Exasperated, I said, “Please, pick it up and return to your seats. If you need a pencil, come get one at the back of the room. Leave the box in the back so everyone has access.”
The pencils came back in disarray. The class quieted down. Students were in there seats. I sat back down at my desk.
I look up and see two objects being thrown across the classroom. PING! PING! Markers were being chucked from two different locations in the classroom.
The kids were laughing. Ice went through me. I got scary calm.
It must have shown on my face. The kids got quiet. I stood up. I didn’t say a word. I just started collecting papers. I then started collecting markers. Still, without saying a word.
They asked if I was going to count the coloring against them if they hadn’t finished. I just looked at them. There was ten minutes left of class. I just raised my finger to my lips. I stood in front of the class. Calm. Scary calm. They were quiet.
The bell rang. They left.
I assessed the damage. They had opened every box of crayons and markers and dumped all the contents all over the place. They had ripped the packages so that some of markers and crayons couldn’t go back into the boxes. Everything was scattered.
I was furious.
Something had to be done.
They needed to be on lock down.
I moved my classroom around. I moved all the tables to line the walls of the classroom. I left two tables in the center of the room facing me. I made a seating chart.
I went to the administration and explained what had happened. They knew all the problems that I had been having with that class that year. They said to start sending them to the dean’s office.
Now, I don’t send kids to the dean’s office. I firmly believe in handling your own discipline problems. It’s better that way. In 18, years of teaching, I have written three dean’s referrals.
My period 1 was shocked at the new seating arrangement and but just shuffled chairs around to where they liked and moved them back when they were done. We were moving on with The Outsiders. My period 2 was moving on with writing a persuasive essay on vaccinations independently.
When the period 2 came in, I assigned their seats. One boy I had sitting right next to me.
He said, “Oh, hell no. I’m not sitting there.”
“Go to the dean’s office.”
A girl laughed.
I looked at her. “You want to go, too?”
She stopped laughing.
New rules of the class for period 2: No talking. No devices. (I used to allow the kids to listen to music). No getting out of your seat without raising your hand. Do your work. If you do not follow these rules, it will be a dean’s referral.
I had printed their assignments and put them in folders with their names on them. I read them the instructions. I told them if they wanted one on one help to come see me and I would help them. A few of the kids raised their hands and came over for the one on one help. They got right to work. Most of the kids just put their heads down on the desk and went to sleep.
This went on for the first two weeks. About four of the kids in the class worked on the assignment, the others refused to work. Seven were written up for throwing things, fighting, cussing and being disrespectful. They went to the dean’s office. The class was quiet. Those that worked, worked. Those that didn’t, didn’t but it was quiet.
My period 1 were angels. We read a new book, Enclave. They loved it. Post-apocalyptic novel with zombie like creatures out to get you. They couldn’t get enough.
Around week three, most of period 2 started working. Some of them actually finished the vaccine essay and went on to the next assignment of writing a short story.
All the assignments were independent work with me as a reference and guide. I worked one on one with most of the kids. There were two students who refused to work at all and did nothing for the remaining of the year.
The last assignment I gave period 2 was to read The Count of Monte Cristo. It was an abridged version with a picture on the opposite side of the text to show what was happening. I think the book was a total of 200 pages including pictures. They had to read and answer comprehension questions independently. If they could not read it, they could come to me and I would read it with them and help them answer the questions.
At different times, I would have small groups working with me. The class was finally starting to work and get on track. They were working quietly. They were working at their own pace, some were further ahead and some were behind, but they were working and engaged.
The boy who refused to sit by me was now actively seeking out my assistance to work with him on the chapter questions and the readings. He needed some guidance on finding the right passages to answer the questions. He had actually apologized to me upon his return to class after yelling at me. Things were beginning to get better.
The final writing assignment for this class was to write about if they felt the Count was justified in his revenge and to write about a time they had sought revenge. All of them believed he was justified in seeking revenge. The kids all had a story about a time they had been done wrong. It varied from having their favorite cereal eaten by a sibling so they did something to them. Another girl wrote that a friend stole her boyfriend so she cut off that girl’s hair.
I asked if any of them felt remorse for their revenge. None of them felt bad about their choices. It was interesting to see.
Period 1 finished their novel and had to do their book assignment. It was a choice board. They could do pretty much anything they wanted to do to present the novel. They worked like they always did. They were able to listen to music. They had shared art supplies. They really got to play around the last two weeks of school. The last day before finals we had a party to celebrate their hard work. I bought them doughnuts and juice.
Period 2 came in after the party and saw the remains of the party and the credits rolling from the movie. They asked if the other class had a party. I told them that period 1 had a party. They wanted to know if they were getting a party. I told them they had not earned one, but I would let them listen to music today.
They seemed a little bitter but happy with the music. They wanted to know why they didn’t get a party. I explained to them that the other class had never thrown anything, never been written up, never yelled at me or at each other. They were civil to one another. They did their assignments. They were being rewarded. I told them they had the same opportunity but they chose not to take it when they destroyed my classroom supplies and disrespected me.
One of the kids said, “You’re right Ms. T. We don’t deserve a party. But we will be better.”
They were good for the next two days, which was the remainder of the year.
It was interesting to have such a diverse group of kids. I have a ton of teaching experience under my belt. I used all the tools in my toolbox. None of it worked.
I had one group that was great. It was a great mix of kids. They had grit and intrinsic motivation. I didn’t have to dangle a carrot. They wanted to learn.
My other group was just difficult from the start. They fed off each other’s energy. They fought for attention in negative ways. It bred more destructive tendencies. I know they were good kids. One on one they were amazing kids. Together they were a violent storm that would level a city. I moved their seats. I offered rewards. I changed rewards. I changed the point system. I adjusted the curriculum. I worked one on one. Nothing seemed to work until they were isolated.
It just goes to show, no matter how much experience you have, sometimes it doesn’t matter. You just gotta push on and keep teaching, eventually you find a way through. I had to remove everything that could distract them in order to get them to focus. That period 2 told me that their favorite part of the year was reading The Count of Monte Cristo. I thought it was interesting that their favorite novel was all about getting revenge. I should be wary about them.