Posted tagged ‘teaching middle school’

The Specialness of Special Needs Students

September 28, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                   September 28, 2019

                         

I’ve been looking forward to bedtime these past few days. By 7:30 I’m being challenged to stay upright until 9:00. I’ve been teaching special needs students at Timberview Middle School. Let’s just say that I’m getting my steps in during the school day.

It’s a three week assignment that they asked to take on while the teacher is away. One week is done and I’m down three pounds!

It’s been amazing, amusing, intriguing, and educational. Each of the students has their challenges and their awesome characteristics. Each is unique in some way and just like any other middle school kid in other ways.

For example, yesterday I was teaching a lesson to a group of 8th graders about the American Revolution. I mentioned the Declaration of Independence that was signed on July 4, 1776, and then strayed off with the question about whether any of them have watched fireworks. One girl shook her head yes and then said “Katy Perry, Fireworks.”

Being the old guy who is immersed in the middle school culture and yet totally clueless, I asked what “Katy Perry, Fireworks” meant. That led to us pulling up the song on a cell phone and singing it together. The young lady wants me to work on it and sing it solo-style on Monday. 

And then there’s the 7th grade boy who I do math work sheets with. Each time he gets a problem correct he becomes a drummer with his pencil and the edge of the table. His pencils literally take a beating each day. One 6th grade boy calls everyone “Dude”, even the school principal, but has added “Mr. Wolfe” to his vocabulary now. 

The para professionals who work with the students, go to the regular classrooms with them, help them to the bathroom, and do special feeding for the ones who require it…are incredible! I’m like a fish out of water that is being saved numerous times each day. They appreciate the consistency of my presence and my willingness to help, my conversation with the students and communication with classroom teachers about assignments and daily topics, but they know I’m a green rookie. 

It’s a new kind of education. I’ve discovered the specialness of their personalities, the challenges of keeping their attention, the variety of “paces”…from the young lady that required 28 minutes just to get to the physical education class outside, to the 8th grade boy who I can’t keep up with as he runs to give his mom a hug at the end of the school day.

I see the strain on the paras, who must constantly be alert to the sudden changes in their students’ movements and decisions- the chance of a sudden fall, shift in direction, changes in mood, and need to go to the restroom. There is no down time. A couple of them are often bruised by the unintentional blows that they receive.

And yet the work is rewarding. It is a reminder that the most rewarding moments of life are usually uncomplicated expressions of delight and discovery. Understanding algebra is one thing, but having a challenged student consistently being able to correctly add another number to an “8” is another. 

I see other students trudging through their school days uninspired and uninterested. Most of the special needs students look forward to their school days. It is their daily adventure into a place of discovery and relationships. They walk to class with their peer partners and engage in conversations about life. It’s the place where they are challenged, but also cheered.

For the adults that walk along beside them, it’s an opportunity to see life from a totally different perspective. 

And for me? Well…come Monday I’d better be ready with “Fireworks”!

Middle School Sub Teacher: Episode XXVI

September 14, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    September 14, 2019

                             

It was a week!

I was in a middle school classroom five days this past week. The last four days were for 8th Grade Social Studies, a class I had also subbed in the week before another four days. In essence, I shepherded this flock for the past two weeks.

Some of the adolescent lambs needed some encouragement, some needed a watchful eye to keep them from falling into the chasm of complicating life. A few were identified as wolves in sheep’s clothing, seeking to lead the class to destruction. And then there were the sheep, gentle in nature and smart beyond their years.

There were statements like this: 

            “Rhode Island isn’t a state, is it?” 

           And “Mr. Wolfe, this doesn’t make any sense.” “What’s that?” “It says the Quakers believed in the s______________ of c____________ and s______________. What’s that mean?” “You mean right here in the reading where it says ‘the separation of church and state’?” “Oh!”

A couple of students put a ‘c’ in Quaker and made them Quackers. Puritans became “puritains”, a rare form of plantains. Spell check doesn’t work when you write it out longhand.

One student brought me his essay to read. I encouraged him to try reading it out loud to himself. “When I read it, it’s worded like a dialogue line for Tonto, saying something to the Lone Ranger.” 

I received a few questions such as this: “Mr. Wolfe, how many sentences do we have to write for the essay question?”

“So what you’re really asking is what is the minimum I have to do?”

            Pause before the confession. “Ahhh…yes.”

But then there were the ones who went beyond the expected. Like, “Mr. Wolfe, if I run out of room with my essay can I continue writing on another piece of paper?” I fight back the tears of appreciation. “Thank you for helping me to believe again in the possibility that 8th Grade students can be awesome!”

Talking to two girls who did minimal work on an in-class assignment about 9/11: “Hey, I’m a bit disappointed in the lack of effort. I’ll give you the opportunity to come in during lunch tomorrow and bring a little more effort to the assignment.”

“Why do you want us to do that, Mr. Wolfe?”

“Because I’m concerned about the educational pursuit of excellence in your life.”

“You’re what?” (Confused looks on the two who seem to reside in the land of confusion).

“I’m concerned about the educational pursuit of excellence in your life.”

No comments, just confusion that awkwardly turns into grins.

“Mr. Wolfe, can I come and have lunch with you and talk about strategy for GaGa Ball?” (GaGa ball has become a popular outdoor game that’s kind of like mass dodgeball in a octagon ring).

“Ahhh…okay!”

“Mr. Wolfe, am I one of your favorite students?”

            “Yes, you are! You’re in the top 200!”

 

“Mr. Wolfe, don’t you wish you could teach us again next week?”

“I break out in hives just thinking about it!”

Back to the two girls mentioned above.

“We have homework again!!!” Pained facial expressions.

“Yes, I’m-“

“We know, we know! You’re concerned about the educational something in our lives!”

I smile. I think I’m getting through to them.

Playing Hoops Against the 8th Graders

May 25, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                          May 25, 2019

                              

They hoot and holler as I emerge from the locker room wearing gym shorts, tee shirt, and lily white Air Jordan sneakers. Most of them haven’t seen me in anything but sweat pants or jeans. The paleness of the skin IS a bit alarming!

I’ve been their coach, but never competed against them. Today, however, is the Student-Staff basketball game, an event each year where players who were part of the school 8th grade basketball teams strut onto the court to teach their science, math, and social studies teachers a lesson. 

To them I’m just an old man who knows his “x’s’ and o’s”. They don’t realize that I have a jump shot and can see the court well, even though I take my glasses off when I play. The staff also has “Big Matt”, who measures at about 6’6”, a former college football player who can’t jump or shoot, but…hey! He’s 6’6” and beefy! He causes some of students to “reconsider” every time they have an opportunity to take the basketball into the lane.

Mr. Williams, seventh grade science teacher, has been playing at lunchtime with his students. He’s developed into a shooter, at least for this annual game! Mr. McKinney, despite a sore knee, is fundamentally sound and my coaching compadre!

But the students think that they are all that and a slice of Swiss Cheese! They only have five more days of middle school, and it’s time to leave their mark on the staff! To dominate and then leave like Clint Eastwood at the end of each of his westerns, riding off into the sunset.

One thing, however, that has remained consistent through the years about these basketball games is that the staff plays “team ball” and the students play as individuals. The bodies of the staff might be a bit achy and moving slower, but we know that the whole is better than the sum of the parts. 

Big Matt towers in the lane like Shaq and Mr. Reynolds, who teaches most of the players in social studies, is making them pay for not remembering the three branches of our government. He’s administering “justice” to them, “legislating” pain, and “executing” the game plan. By the middle of the third quarter the lead has hit double figures and keeps growing.

The crowd of students and staff watching from the bleachers cheer on their friends and foes and by the fourth quarter everyone is simply enjoying the event. I close out the game with a half court swish shot at the buzzer and smiles emerge from both sides. For the students, their teachers have become human. For the staff, the students have minimized their swag and enjoyed the moment. 

The next day the kids who I competed against greet me with high fives and looks of amazement. Instead of mentioning my pale-skinned legs they tell me that my sneakers are cool! Instead of my slow defense they talk about my half court shot! 

And what I don’t tell them is that I maxed out on Motrin the night before and soaked my aching body in the hot tub! They are the epilogue to the finished story!

Teacher Love and Life

May 6, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                     May 6, 2019

                                     

The PTO at Timberview Middle School sponsored a pretty cool project this weekend. They had students and parents “chalk up” the front sidewalk entry to the school with words of affirmation and thanks for the teachers and staff. I’m sure when the school staff arrived this morning their faces broke into smiles. It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, a welcome event for weary educators as they crawl towards the finish line of another marathon school year. 

Yes, they are underpaid and sometimes under appreciated, taken advantage of by self-centered parents who assume that educators have nothing else to do but watch their children, and discounted by other obnoxious parents who think their children’s poop doesn’t stink!

But let me tell you about some of the things I see teachers do that aren’t stipulations in their contracts.

I see several Timberview teachers eating lunch in their classrooms…along with anywhere from 15 to 30 students. Thirty minutes of quiet between classes is sacrificed so kids can chatter around them.

I see a couple of teachers giving up lunch time to play football or some other game outside with students, who want nothing else but to impress their instructors!

I see teachers staying after school to help students who are having a hard time understanding the subject material. The teachers are “off the clock”, but willing to give whatever time is needed to have things finally click for the student.

I see frustrated teachers sending emails to parents about their children’s academic struggles or unwise decision making…and getting no response. They see it as a partnership with the parents, but some parents seem to be more interested in whatever sports team is playing.

I see teachers giving hours and hours of their time for events like Science Olympiad, Chess Club, Student Council, and food drives.

I see teachers taking heat for the state mandates on testing, like they’re the driving force behind it!

I see teachers giving words of encouragement to crying kids, hope-filled hugs, and listening ears to student stories that seem to have no end or purpose.

I see teachers giving high-fives and inquiring how the past weekend’s hockey game went. I see them showing interest in their student’s lives, not just how well they understand the latest unit of linear algebra.

I see teachers giving their students nicknames that become marks of distinction. In my time as a guest teacher I’ve nicknamed kids “Mary Poppins”, “Braino”, “Beano”, “GOAT”, ‘Steak and Shake”, “Princess”, “Fruit Loopz”, “The Blonde Bomb”, “Dictionary Boy”, and “Kermit the Frog”. 

I see teachers trying to give their all for their students and then experiencing guilt about short-changing their own families.

I see teachers trying to expand their own knowledge and understanding of their subject matter, while staying current on what they are expected to teach in the present.

I see teachers coming to the aide of students who don’t have the necessary supplies, teachers who do things like bring a pair of gloves for a kid who doesn’t have any, shoe laces for a student whose tongues are flapping uncontrollably, and handing a granola bar to a hungry kid who has no lunch to eat. 

I see teachers as being on the frontlines of our society’s efforts to go forward, to prepare the next generation of difference-makers. No one can make more of a difference in a student’s life than a teacher who is passionate about his/her opportunity to teach!

Hopefully, this week you’ll also see teachers for who they really are and what they do!

Middle School Cool

April 23, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                      April 23, 2019

                                   

I was never one of the cool kids in school. It’s hard being cool when you’re a 4 foot 8 inch eighth grader with nerdy looking glasses. I was a cute kid, but eighth grade girls had moved past cute and had started looking for handsome, manly, and hints of voices that had suddenly started getting lower. I was a high-pitched, miniature, buzzcut boy who always wore clothes from the J.C. Penney’s store my mom worked at. Randy McDaniels was cool! He was 6 foot one inch, a great athlete, and the dream of most of the females in our class. Of course, when Randy entered his senior year he was still six foot one! He had just received an advance on his masculinity that the rest of his classmates wouldn’t catch up on for a couple of years.

As I walk down the hallways of Timberview Middle School nowadays I notice cool and uncool. That is, what students perceive as cool! 

For instance, having a cell phone in your hand is a prerequisite to even being considered cool. To be talking to Joey and without hesitation look at your cell phone and text Charley that you’ll see him at lunch…that’s in the preface of the book on cool. 

In fact, up-to-date technology is the first chapter in the book How to Be Cool In Middle School In Ten Easy Diagrammed With Pictures Steps. Cool students walk down the hallways with Apple AirPods in their ears. They are an indication that overpriced merchandise is not an obstacle for them…or their parents’ credit card. Having an Apple Watch is an even greater advance in the Kingdom of Coolness! In saying those things I have to admit that I pull out my gold MacBook at Starbucks with an air of prideful arrogance!

Middle school cool kids stand in the middle of the hallway at the height of student traffic moments and expect everyone else to detour around them. It’s their position of royalty with the feel of their subjects keeping their distance from them. If uncool students did that they would be trampled by the stampeding herd!

Uncool kids wear things like hair headbands with cat ears attached. Cool kids wear hair apparel with a Nike swoosh prominently displayed!

Cool kids have their parents deliver Chick-Fil-A to them for lunch. Uncool kids bring Lunchables or sandwiches made with white bread. 

Cool kids go to school athletic contests and sit in the upper corner of the bleachers with their cell phones and make inappropriate remarks about uncool classmates. Actually watching the game that is being played is not cool, unless someone they are infatuated with is playing.

Cool kids moan and groan about going to Language Arts and Math. Depending on whether the teacher is considered cool or not, it may be acceptable to seem interested in the Science and Social Studies classes. 

Cool kids ask to go to the restroom at least twice a day and take their time in the venture. Cool kids have cool looking water bottles, also. 

Cool kids run for student council and get elected even though they have no interest in making any decisions or planning any initiatives. Uncool kids, who would be awesome in getting some things done, never get elected! 

Cool kids show up in the morning with their Starbucks Frappuccinos. Uncool kids have juice boxes.

Middle school coolness is the predecessor to high school cockiness. It’s like the incubator for developing distorted perspectives on what’s important in life. Into the mash of that heated setting teachers try to lead students to deeper life understandings and principles. 

And, you know something? Bottom line, middle school teachers are the ones who are really the cool ones! 

Middle School Passing Period

April 13, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                   April 13, 2019

                             

It’s like an 8:00 A.M. corridor in an O’Hare International Airport terminal…many people rushing and others in no hurry at all…people on a mission and others who look like they’ve been beaten into submission…people all put together and others who are frantic as they seem to be coming apart.

Instead of an airport terminal, however, it’s a  middle school hallway…between class periods. It’s the four minutes of bedlam where a thousand students are required to navigate slimmed down hallways to get from one classroom to the next. 

I stand with two of the awesome sixth grade teachers, Dan Ferrante and Stephanie Wilcox, against a railing watching the mixture of personalities and temperaments pass us by. 

Some use it to ask one of their teachers a quick question or to plead their case for grace.

“Ms. Wilcox!” whines one girl, as she sticks her lower lip out and speaks in a tone that conveys the world is coming to an end, “I didn’t get all of my math homework done…but it wasn’t my fault! My little brother was sick and I had to do his jobs around the house, PLUS my own!” She punctuates the agony of injustice in being the overworked child of the family with a deep sigh.

Ms. Wilcox is very understanding of the inconvenience and tells her that she will send an email to the mom to express her concern for the illness of the brother and her understanding of the daughter’s inability to complete her math assignment.

Eyes wide open greet the teacher’s response. “Oh, you don’t have to do that! He’s…he’s fine today! Our…ahhh…internet is down anyway!”

Ms. Wilcox knows the talent this student has for avoiding work. She’s heard it all before. As the student walks away she enjoys a giggle of satisfaction over the terror she has created in someone who’s been prone to be the terror!

Several eighth graders walk down the crowded hallway with their noses in their cell phones, oblivious to the mass of bodies around them. 

A couple of sixth grade boys with an obsession for looking cool walk by with AirPods in their ears, as if their social status has been elevated. AirPods are the middle school version of a high school student driving a Maserati GT Convertible to school. They think people notice! They overestimate their peer group. Little Tommy, who has so many papers sticking out of his folder that it resembles the aftermath of a tornado, notices only the obstacles in his path to science class. His coat, which he never takes off, flaps in the hallway breeze and one shoelace is untied and so loose the tongue of the shoe looks thirsty! AirPods mean as much to him as hominy grits!

A small herd of seventh grade girls roam down the way in unison. Their conversation is so fast-paced they sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks. Never once do they acknowledge the three teachers. We are obstacles in the midst of their verbal jabber.

The boy I sent to the office last week passes by and I sense a scowl. He may have just spit on me…in his mind! His preference is to have the inmates run the asylum. Teachers are like prison guards. Someday he may find out from first-hand knowledge that prison guards are different!

“Mr. Wolfe, who are you subbing for today?” asks a cute sixth grade girl who still isn’t tall enough to ride the carousel merry-go-round by herself. 

“No one! I just decided to come and hang out in the hallway for a while.”

She giggles and goes on to her Language Arts classroom, not sure if I’m serious or trying to fool her. 

Another sixth grade girl. “Mr. Ferrante, do you want to read my speech?”

“Sure, but maybe at the beginning of our lunch period…unless I can read it in 15 seconds!”

There are the few who seek to take five minutes to get to their destination. They are in no hurry…with the exception of the 2:45 bell at the end of the school day. Jet propulsion empowers their feet at that point!

The crowds lessen and the teachers turn towards their classrooms. For the next 57 minutes the terminals will be quiet until the next class period’s flights begin boarding. 

Perplexing 8th Graders

March 7, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                          March 7, 2019

                                    

There are some eighth grade students who I have gotten to know in the past two years as I’ve substitute taught in their classrooms and coached them on athletic teams. Some of them I joke around with in “perplexing ways”! That means that I’m able to bring a look of confusion or perplexity to their faces!

Yesterday as I subbed in a social studies class, that I enjoy greatly, I brought uncertainty and pondering to one student’s face, and a realization to another.

In the classroom there was a constant, annoying, ringing sound, almost like a humming, that could be heard in the midst of a silent moment. I wondered what it might be, but then a student sitting next to my desk asked me the question.

“Mr. Wolfe, what’s that sound?”

I paused and listened, sensing that I could lead him on towards perplexity. My face took on a moment of extreme concentration as I pretended I was trying to hear what he was hearing. I shook my head.

“What sound?”

“That sound!”

“I’m not hearing anything.”

“You can’t hear that humming, or whatever it is?”

I listened again like I was a contestant on that old TV game show, “Name That Tune”.

“No!”

Unbelief dotted his face.

“I’ve heard about people like you,” I said. “I know there’s only been a few cases, but they do happen.”

“What are you talking about?”?

“People who’s hearing is as acute and sensitive as a dog’s. It’s called Auditory Canine Syndrome.”

“What?”

“It’s when someone can hear sounds that no one else can.”

“You can’t hear that?”

“Hear what?” I turn to the boy sitting in the chair beside him. He is perceptive enough to go along with “the play”. “Do you hear anything?” He shakes his head no.

Perplexity has landed on Student #1’s face. For a few seconds he thinks he has Auditory Canine Syndrome. I let him swim in the currents of confusion for a few seconds before I confess to our ploy. Yes, we can hear the humming. One class period later I have someone check it out from the maintenance crew. It ends up being something in the heating ventilation system.

And then there was the “realization” that came to another student. The class had watched a video that dealt with the “Trail of Tears”. A study sheet accompanied the video, some questions that could be answered as they watched the 20 minute video, and a few others that they would answer afterwards. With 15 minutes left in class one young man hadn’t answered any question, even the most obvious ones! I walked by and he smiled at me. 

“Freddie (not his real name!),” I said. “Your paper has so much open space on it that it resembles South Dakota!” 

“Huh?”

“I’m not seeing anything on your paper but open space!”

“Yes, there is! There’s the ink print on it.”

I just give him “the look”. A few minutes later I walk by again. He looks up at me and says, “See! I answered number 1!”

His answer consisted of two words, short words at that! 

“Great!” I respond. “Now it looks more like North Dakota!” And I look at him with eyes that express disappointment. He realizes that I believe in him, that I don’t think he’s as dumb as he wants people to think. For a moment he realizes he is underachieving…and then he lets it go!