Sincerely, Stasia

Living and learning on a teacher's salary.

Student Quote of the Day 03.26.13 March 26, 2013

Today we were reviewing fact and opinion before reading a nonfiction article. I guess I should have known better, but I asked my students to give me examples. First response, from one of my boys:

“Fact. I don’t like your hair today. Fact.”

Thank you for your honesty, Dwight Schrute in-the-making. I’ll be sure to try harder tomorrow. Hope you’re all having a better hair day than I am.

Sincerely, Stasia


New Jersey Herald – Hijacking public education March 23, 2013

This article by Mike Harris (link below) shares insight on some very important and very real issues impacting students, parents, and educators in the U.S. I specifically enjoy Diane Ravitch‘s site being noted – She’s an incredibly knowledgeable, very well-respected, and credible member of the education community, especially having served as assistant secretary of education for President G.W. Bush.

New Jersey Herald – Hijacking public education.

For more from Dr. Ravitch check out the video below from an address to the United Teachers of Los Angeles in 2010.

Sincerely, Stasia


Do I Bribe My Kids? Mais Bien Sûr. March 23, 2012

I’ve long been aware of the power of the smelly sticker. I was under the impression they were the end-all-be-all of stickers. There’s not much my students won’t do if there’s a promise of a smelly sticker at the end of their task or as a reward for their behavior. Am I above bribing my kids? Nope, not even a little. If a sticker that smells like peppermint is enough to get my kids to study for their tests, then that’s good enough for me.

One day I ran out of smelly stickers (panic!) and found a set of monkey stickers in my desk. I had to pass these off to the kids as the coolest thing ever so they would hold some kind of value. I played them up (because all teachers are actors and actresses when it comes down to it) and the kids ate it up. All of the sudden they would do anything for a monkey sticker. Score!

Then I realized something… If I’m going to bribe my kids, why not give them something they can learn? I took 9 years of French: 4 in high school and 5 in college where I minored in it. I used to be fluent, but now I’m a linguistic disaster. Use it or lose it… I mostly lost it. But, I still remember some of it, however rusty it may be. The middle school where I teach requires students learn two languages on top of English: Spanish and Chinese. Many students are also native Spanish speakers.

I started by telling one of my classes that for every day they were well-behaved, I would teach them a word in French and that we could use these words in and out of the classroom. This was very quickly my most well-behaved block. Before long, there were entire conversations going on in the classroom and in the hallway. They would normally sound like this: (me) “Bonjour! Comment  ça va?” (student) “Bonjour! ça va mal!” (me) “Pourquoi?” (student) “Because I feel sick.” They loved it!

Well. Before long my other classes heard I was teaching one of my blocks French and wanted to know why I hadn’t taught them. I told them their behavior hadn’t been acceptable, and they could not learn any French until it improved. I never thought threatening a noisy class by saying I wasn’t going to teach them how to say “you’re welcome” in French would make them work hard or quietly, but it now happens in an instant. And it’s sustained!

Right now all three of my classes are able to say the following: ça va? (how’s it going?); ça va bien/mal/comme ci, comme ça (it’s going good/bad/so-so); bonjour (hello/good morning); au revoir (good bye); pourquoi? (why?); s’il vous plaît (please); merci beaucoup (thank you very much); de rien (you’re welcome). I keep signs up in the room with pronunciations for students to refer to, but now they rarely need them. They absolutely adore being able to chat with me in French, especially when it’s in front of other teachers, administrators, or students who don’t know what we’re saying.

Straight to the point: As far as I’m concerned, bribing your students to get them to display behaviors that are beneficial to them in school is fine, as long as it’s teaching them something: how to behave appropriately, safety, responsibility, the importance of studying, being a good friend, etc. Kids will accept a bribe in any form as long as you make it seem exciting, exclusive, or interesting… Even if it means they’re learning something!

Sincerely (or should I say Cordialement?), Stasia


A Little Healthy Competition March 19, 2012

The weather has been absolutely beautiful and I’m not going to complain about the early arrival of spring here in Jersey, although it’s just a bit disconcerting. The warm weather has done a number on my students though – they have some serious spring fever. For a teacher that means students who are constantly staring out the window daydreaming when they should be working, extra chattiness at all times, and an overall abundance of excess energy.

As I’ve mentioned before, time management is huge for me. I teach three 80 minute classes per day and that time flies by. In a previous post I told you how I gained back almost 15 minutes of instructional time by using music to focus my students. After I saw how successful that was, I started looking at other routines in my classroom that could use some tightening.

Organizational skills are a big part of our whole school curriculum, so students are given agendas at the beginning of the year and I give them a weekly organization grade using their notebooks and agendas. I noticed that students were taking an excessive amount of time to write down their homework, rip it out of their workbooks/pass out their materials at their tables, and get everything put away. And when I say excessive, I’m talking between 5-10 minutes. Unacceptable.

Straight to the Point: Kids are competitive. It’s natural, and I use it to my advantage as much as possible. I started small, having table groups within each class compete against each other for behavior points, where the table with the most points at the end of the week chooses from the treasure chest. Typical teacher stuff.

Then I came up with The Homework Competition. Here, each block gets a box on the board. Every day I put tally marks up for missing, incomplete, or late homework. The block with the lowest number of tally marks at the end of each month gets homework passes (1 per student) and we reset the board for the new month. My classes ate up the idea of competing against each other and my homework percentages went way up. Simple!

This is where the next phase of my time management overhaul came in. I decided to up the ante with The Homework Competition. The best part? This one requires no reward whatsoever because the kids just love competing against themselves and my other classes. Couldn’t have been easier: I started timing my students to see how quickly they could get through our homework routine.

It goes something like this: I hand out the materials they need (practice sheets, workbooks, loose leaf paper, etc) and my kids put their hands up in the air. The only thing they’re allowed to have in front of them is a pencil – no agendas, binders, or folders. I get the timer on my iPhone ready and give it the old “ready, set, go – write it down, rip it out, put it away, pile it up,” then I watch my students scramble. Time doesn’t stop until all of their supplies are put away, their workbooks are piled neatly in the center of their tables, and their hands are folded to show me they’re ready to rock & roll.

Each class’s daily time and fastest time are kept on the board in their Homework Competition box. I knew I had come up with a winner the first time I heard my classroom explode with cheers and applause when a class found out they had beat another class’s time. They’re still held accountable for their organization – Their homework needs to be written exactly as I have it on the board (for reference purposes) and it must be written neatly, otherwise they lose points on the notebook and agenda check I have each Friday. They know the rule: It’s good to be quick; it’s best to be correct.

So how well does it work? Those 5-10 minutes it took in the beginning of the year have been cut down significantly, although it took a month or two to get to where we are now. As you can see in the picture, my classes’ fastest times are now between 39-59.7 seconds. In the past month, the slowest time we’ve seen was a minute and twenty seconds. When it comes to kids, a little competition can definitely go a long way.

Sincerely, Stasia


Who Are You Writing Your Story For? March 2, 2012

This week I started one of my favorite writing units with my students: Fiction. I love listening to them brainstorm and hearing them get excited about each other’s stories, which are typically very creative. To start the unit, I always have them develop a main character that they’ll use throughout their stories.

To do so, I ask them to put their heads down and I walk them through a scenario where someone has entered our classroom and is standing in our doorway. Whoever they choose to see becomes their character. They first imagine and write down the characters’ external traits, then dig a little deeper to brainstorm their internal traits.

I teach them that one of the most important steps in making their characters come to life is that they have to be real. In order for them to be real and believable, they can’t be perfect. We discuss, at length, how no one is perfect. Everyone has flaws. Everyone has things they’re not good at. Everyone is scared of something. Those features are what make the characters human and give them obstacles and problems we can write into their stories, giving them the opportunity to solve those problems and grow.

I’ve taught this lesson, with some minor tweaking, every spring for the last four years. It wasn’t until I taught it this week that I realized I haven’t been following my own advice. Like everyone else, I’ve come into contact with many people in my life, and especially in this past year, who gain pleasure from pointing out what they see as other people’s flaws and shortcomings. I never teach my students that if someone keeps their nose in your business it means they’re jealous because, honestly, it’s not always true. Sadly, some just enjoy that sort of thing. People like that are toxic and I’ve let them get to me. No more.

Straight to the Point: No one is perfect. Everyone has flaws. I’ve started embracing mine – They make me who I am. Things I haven’t been good at, things I wish I’d done differently, or obstacles and problems I’ve been faced with have helped form my character and given me the chance to strengthen my resolve as I’ve moved past them. Someone told me a few months ago that it’s not about your past, it’s about your future. I agree, as long as you factor in that the issues and problems you’ve encountered in your past affect the way you approach your future. It’s up to you to decide that outcome.

I learned an important lesson from my brother a few years ago. When people try to publicize what you’ve done “wrong” or what you’re not good at, why deny it? Your issues become a lot less interesting and people don’t have much they can say if you’ve embraced your faults. I am far from perfect, but I love who I am and I wouldn’t be that person without my strengths and my weaknesses. Most importantly, the only person that has to like who you are is you, and if you’re not happy, you have the power to change. It’s like I tell my students constantly – Your story isn’t finished until you decide it’s good enough. And even then, when you think you’re done, you’ve just begun.

Sincerely, Stasia


Stress-Free Sick Days February 29, 2012

Filed under: Organization,Teaching — sincerelystasia @ 8:17 pm
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I hate being sick. Who doesn’t? I especially hate being sick now as a teacher. When I worked in the private sector, a sick day just meant sending an email to my team assigning coverage, turning on the auto-reply and changing my voice mail message to let clients know I was out of the office. Oh, and a messy desk full of paperwork the next day along with my chair being set to the wrong height.

There was some stress where deadlines were involved, but taking a sick day as a teacher is stressful. There are so many things to worry about: How are my kids going to behave? Or, more accurately, ARE my kids going to behave? Who am I getting as a sub? Will my sub be able to, or bother trying to, follow the plans I left? Am I going to be a day behind in my schedule when I get back because I need to teach or reteach content that should have been taught in my absence? Doesn’t make for a very restful day off.

I’m an organized person, especially at work. I’ve been referred to as OCD, anal, and as the “Spreadsheet Queen.” I can admit that my organized nature does not carry over into all areas of my life, although I did create a spreadsheet with a tab for every month since January 2008 that lists every payment I’ve made on every bill (including dates and amounts paid, balances, and confirmation numbers). I’ll admit that goes a bit beyond “organized.” But enough about my now-apparent OCD. I find that being organized at work just makes my life easier. The amount of time it takes to become organized in my classroom is so greatly overshadowed by the amount of time and stress it saves me that it’s completely worth it.

Straight to the Point: When I know I’m going to be absent, I am as detailed as possible with what I’m leaving behind. If I don’t leave a solid plan, I can’t expect my substitute to magically make a great, on-task lesson appear out of thin air. The lesson plans I write for myself might be considered cryptic if you’re not familiar with the specific terminology we use in our classroom. When I write out my sub plans, I’m incredibly detailed and put all of the instruction directions in plain language.

What if you don’t plan on being out? I’d rather be up for 15 minutes at 5am sending an email with some typed up sub plans to a coworker than spend the entire next day trying to play catch-up!

The picture is from a few months ago when I was going to be out of school for two entire days. In a row. Ugh. If you think that’s bad, imagine what I left behind a few years ago when I had surgery and needed to be out for two weeks! To make things easy for my sub I label everything (from homework to notebooks to folders) with the class it belongs to and what it’s being used for. I find that when I leave clear instructions and clearly labeled work, the substitute feels obligated to follow suit and clearly labels the completed work in addition to leaving my room neat and organized. Score. If you think you might need a little extra ammo, do what I do. Leave a granola bar (also labeled with a “thank you” Post-It, because how could I not?) and a bottle of water. A little bribery can go a long way and, as far as I’m concerned, the outcome is worth the trouble if it means a stress-free day off.

Sincerely, Stasia


Putting Up The Wall February 27, 2012

Filed under: Teaching — sincerelystasia @ 3:20 pm
Tags: , , , ,

I’ve said it before: I love my job. Even more than my job, I love my students. Both when I student taught and in my professional career as a teacher, I’ve worked in schools with a high percentage of “underprivileged” students. That word means a lot of things to a lot of people, and there’s often disagreement. To put it simply, many of my students have come from one parent households and have to do without things that others take for granted.

There’s a problem that many teachers don’t talk about. Most of us are in this profession because we are passionate about education and about having a positive and lasting effect on the lives of children. I know this is certainly true for me. However, there’s a catch. I’ll be honest – I’m a very sensitive person. I want the best for everyone I care about and I’ll do whatever I can to make others happy. For a teacher, that can lead to a slippery slope.

I first encountered this problem during my student teaching experience. There was one little girl, whose name and face I will never forget, who truly defined the issue for me. She was sweet and kind, she tried her best every day, and she always had a smile on her face. However, before long I came to find that she rarely slept and never had time to play because she had to “watch the babies” at home. She was five. And she was spending her “free” time caring for her infant sibling. One day she asked if she could come home and live with me. She looked me dead in the eyes and asked if I could be her mom.

That, my friends, was the first time a student shattered my heart into a million pieces. It was also the day that I knew I had made the right choice changing careers to be a teacher. That night, and nearly every other night for the rest of the year, I laid in bed and stared at the ceiling. I thought about her and the rest of my students. Did they eat dinner? Did they have blankets to sleep with? Were they alone or was there an adult home while they slept? I worried. I cried. I drove myself crazy. And it’s not just me – this is incredibly common for teachers. Yes, there are support services for those students and yes, they were all in place. But how do you look at those kids and not feel like you should be doing more?

Straight to the Point: There comes a point where you have to put up the wall or you’ll go insane. We can’t adopt our students. We can’t be their parents. We can’t make ourselves sick with worry or we won’t be able to give them 100% when they need us. Knowing all of this doesn’t make it any easier and it doesn’t stop us from spending sleepless nights or being worried to tears over our students – I’ve had plenty of those nights this year alone.

Take note, teachers: You’re human. You can only do so much. It’s okay to separate yourself from your kids. Putting up the wall doesn’t mean you’re insensitive or that you don’t care about your students. It means that you need to recognize that you cannot be everything to every student and you cannot solve all of their problems. Do what you can for them in your capacity as a teacher and a human being. Make sure they are getting the support they need and qualify for. Then, for your sanity’s sake, go home, pour a glass of wine, cry it out, and put up your wall until tomorrow. You’re allowed.

Sincerely, Stasia


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