10 December 2008

This week, teaching

There is a full moon this week, which I didn't even need to look at the calendar to figure out (though it was there, on the calendar, looming at me) based on the way the kids were acting.

Occasionally, the kids get distracted, and start slinging insults at each other. Sometimes, unfortunately, this causes me to have to break character and even laugh, because of the sincerity and/or grammatical correctness they accomplish. Last week, one of my 6th graders said to me, "Pani učitelka, she stinks!" which prompted me to say, "No, she doesn't stink, but bravo, student, because you used the third person singular present simple correctly!" whereas normally my refrain is, "TRETIA OSOBA -- THIRD PERSON!" and they say, "tretia osoba with ssssss" which they usually a lot of the times when they speak. Today, a boy called a girl a "hybrid alien" -- in English, and if I heard correctly (quite creative name-calling, I must say), and she said back, "YOU IS ARE MUMÁK!" Mumák is a word translated as a nitwit or dunce, but the situation prompted me to review the conjugation of "to be" in the present tense. Seriously, sometimes instead of fighting the small battles, I just try to use them as educational opportunities.

One of my 9th grade groups, in fact, my favorite group (so favorite that 45 minutes every week is not nearly enough time for me to spend with them because they are that cool) is about half-full of artists, some of whom will be going to the art magnet high school next year. Upon some reflection about my teaching them, I decided that I would continue a personal December tradition that I began when I first got to SHU, that is, going to see Alvin Ailey in New York City in December -- a Christmas present to self. So I went on to teh YouTube, downloaded Revelations, and burnt it onto a DVD (part one here, then the rest are video responses -- give yourself the half hour to watch this brilliance). On Monday, Amazing Vice Principal lets me know that because one of my colleagues won't be available, I'll be having the group together on Tuesday when I was already planning to show the video. I was like, "ok, cool" but secretly I was like, "omgz!!!" Later, Amazing Principal, Amazing VP, and I have a little chat about it during lunch, and I am honest with them about my nervousness about having all of them together at once, and wow is it lucky I'm already planning on showing them a video. Amazing Principal laughs and says, "you're not zviknutá to have such a large group!" This is one of those concept words that doesn't have a good one-word translation into English -- best translation would maybe be accustomed, but it's more than that. So on Monday, before the Mikulaš presentation, I went over to where these 9th graders were sitting, and told them we'd be together on Tuesday. Then I handed them a note that said, "Who is Alvin Ailey?" and asked them to google it before class. Tuesday morning, before we started watching, I asked who Alvin Ailey was, got a sufficient answer, and reminded them that in oversimplified terms of musical history, gospel music is ultimately what gave us rock, so they could be thankful. About half of them were absolutely enthralled by the multi-sensory experience, occasionally dancing in their seats a bit, and the other half needed to be reigned in and kept from poking each other. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to discuss afterwards beyond their use of the adjective "good" which to me does not suffice in this situation.

This morning, in my first class, ... Here may be a good place to note that, now that I am somewhat of an authority figure, or at least I'm in a position of responsibility, the lighting of the advent wreath while we pray during the first lesson freaks me out, because having flames in a room full of potentially volatile tweens is just a little bit scary.
We get going reading a very short (like 3 paragraphs) article about Australian aborigines. The kids were annoyed with having to read, but it was my goal to 1. have them read to understand, and 2. try to instill some interest and empathy for different cultures that would be heretofore unknown to them. I was asking them questions that required them to answer verbatim from the text, which was not happening, which clued me in that they weren't understanding. Then, and this really horrified me from my culturally relativist, preferably non-Kantian stance, the word in the dictionary translating aborigine into Slovak was something that caused the kids to say that these people were "not intelligent" and "no technology." In the meantime, half of them (how much effort it is to keep 8 kids under control amazes me sometimes) were so not with me it was crazy, so that I couldn't deliver a short lecture on how incredibly spiritually and technologically-evolved these people are (a plug for Mutant Message Down Under here). I should probably take my own advice, as seen above, about picking battles -- but I was really shocked. In the meantime, one of the girls pulls out a bag of peanuts, and, I am not making this up, starts shelling them on her desk. Like, is this a baseball game? I couldn't believe it. Three times I ask her to put the peanuts away which she finally does, but they continue to talk, which is exactly why they weren't understanding the text, and so I asked, "Do we need the Klasifikacny?" (I often remember some advice I got before I left the US, namely "Maria, don't ever give the kids a choice" -- when I ask the kids questions like this, they are usually meant rhetorically and definitely with sarcasm.) Usually, just the mention of the Klasifikacny book (this is the gradebook which also includes disciplinary notes) makes them shape up, but I was getting really annoyed by this point. So I finally had one of them go ask for it (since the groups are split, I often don't have the book when I need it), knowing full well that the student would be asking the vice principal (teaching German next door) for something which could only mean that there was a disciplinary situation. So my student comes back into the classroom and in walks the vice principal, carrying the Klasifikacny:
[The kids immediately stand up, at attention, in a way only guilty Catholic School Kids are capable of -- I laugh to myself and think "wow, I remember this."]
Self: Good morning! Kids, we can speak English with Amazing VP!
Amazing VP: [in Slovak] I want to know, who is being bad?
Self: That's alright, I think we're ok.
[The kids are looking back and forth between us, shaking in their papuče (slippers).]
Amazing VP: No, who is having a problem?
Self: Really, I think we'll be ok now, thank you.
[Amazing VP exeunt.]
[Kids sit back down with relief, knowing I just saved their hides and practically let them get away with murder.]
After the class, I say to Amazing VP, "We're cool, všetko poriadok" and she was like, "Nie, nie je poriadok!" Later we talked about it, and I think came to a good understanding and consensus, but when these sorts of things happen it really causes me to think about classroom management -- which is all tied to my experience level, my own experiences as a student, and my assessment of the relative seriousness of the students' actions. I really think these kids are very intelligent and I also really believe they know damn well when they're acting inappropriately. Yet again, I am fascinated watching these kids even as I also need to be mentally present and in control of the situation. Sometimes I need to remind myself. Further, I really feel lucky to have such supportive colleagues and the Amazing VP who really help me work through these sorts of things and who help me to learn as I go along, at times flying by the seat of my pants. The system in place with the Klasifikacny can be really good, because (and this was my feeling all along) I wanted to see what else was there -- turns out, in October this student had been eating in class with another teacher, and that was really informative when I was talking with Amazing VP. And here's where my mum's pedagogy rubs off on me: this student is a natural leader. What she does, the other kids tend to do, so the challenge is to channel her energy into leading her classmates more effectively. I'm not sure being po škole is the way to do that, but I certainly could be wrong.

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