Posted tagged ‘teaching middle school’

“Mr. Wolfe, Your First Name Is…William?”

February 22, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                  February 22, 2020

                      

The class was about to begin and I was fiddling with my laptop, trying to get a connection with the classroom projector. (Using the term “fiddling” is a hint of my advanced age. It’s not often associated with computers and other technology.) I finally am able to display the image from my laptop to the screen at the front of the classroom, and then the question is asked.

“Your first name is…William?” There’s a tone of disbelief in how he asks it, turning his head from side to side looking at the screen and then back at me sitting behind my desk. 

“What?” I ask, not sure what he’s getting at.

“It says your first name is William.”

I stare at the screen and then notice in the upper right hand corner that my name appears on the slide I’m projecting: William Wolfe.

“Yes, it is,” I say with a calmness.

“I didn’t know that was your first name!”

“What, did you think my first name was Mister or Coach?”

“No, but I didn’t think it was William!” He draws out the pronunciation of the seven letters like a bungee cord. “Why is it William?”

“That’s like asking why the sky is above us?”

“I just never thought…you’d be William!”

He walks away amazed and dazed. Kids are often perplexed when their teachers are possessors of “normal things”, like hiking boots, trumpets, contact lenses that never get worn in the classroom, and families. They’ve associated their teachers with a classroom, a school, and an academic routine. 

Suddenly, they meet their science teacher in the produce section of the local supermarket and their life equilibrium is thrown off. As Ms. Brown is checking out the peaches they stand there perplexed and, depending on the teacher, happy. Their teacher is being seen in another place! The student has a sudden release of endorphins that tells him he has been blessed in some odd way.

My oldest daughter, who teaches third grade, experiences this quite often when she goes to the mall and sees one of her students. It’s like a rare bird sighting for the youngster. Mrs. Hodges actually goes shopping!

My student remains amazed for the first few minutes of our class period together. It’s almost like his teacher is…human!

The Weirdness of Being Energized

February 1, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    February 1, 2020

                                 

I looked at the class, my eyes wide open and fully caffeinated. The 29 students, most of whom have some distinctive characteristic (hair style, short and tall, reserved and animated) or possession they always have with them (Think smart phone, air pods), stare back at me.

“I know you’ll have a hard time believing this,” I begin, “but I look forward to coming here each morning and being your teacher.”

The confession causes eyebrows of each student to lower, like they’ve just been told by their parents that their family is going to move to a remote area of outer Mongolia. 

“I know, I know, that sounds weird to you. You’re wondering what is wrong with Mr. Wolfe. Is my life so lame that I need the company of 115 seventh graders each day?”

Heads nod in agreement to my statement of lunacy.

“But, believe it or not, I get excited to come to school each day. It energizes me!”

For eight weeks I’ve been given the opportunity to teach these 12 and 13 year olds, while their teacher takes care of a family member. Perhaps in these two months or so I’ll be able to convince them that someone can be energized in a way that doesn’t have to include a can of Red Bull. Perhaps they can catch some of my passion for young people and discover what they’re passionate about.

This week they’ve learned that I’m funny, use sarcastic humor like I’m doing standup comedy, and that I have high expectations.

They’ve also discovered that I can be like a military sergeant. If class is to begin at 8:04, I tell them, they are to be there at 8:04…or earlier! Not 8:04:15. The four that came waltzing in 30 seconds late owed me the first minute of their lunch period that day.

For most of them, I realize I expect more than they expect from themselves. Perhaps it’s my penance for the sins of my 7th Grade Language Arts year with Mrs. Blauvelt back in Williamstown, West Virginia. I still clearly remember doing an oral book report for her on the book Swiss Family Robinson and being “found out”. That is, I had seen the Disney movie version of the book, which is nothing like the book, and tried to make Mrs. Blauvelt believe I had read the book. 

Perhaps my expectations for these 7th Graders is to atone for my sins and to allow Mrs. Blauvelt to rest in a more comfortable eternal peace.

I’ve learned so much this week. As my teaching teammates have welcomed me, they’ve also welcomed my many questions. Most of those questions deal with technology. “How do you do this thingy right here?” “Why do they call it power point when I feel so helpless trying to do it?” “Where did MY SCREEN GO?”

As we say, “We’re no longer in Kansas, Dorothy!” I’ve learned there’s a new state I’ve been blown to called Discovery. 

The Kid Who Always Needs a Pencil

January 22, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                           January 22, 2020

                                

He comes into class with $200 Apple ear pods firmly in place. They are a sign to his peers that his parents will buy him anything. I notice that he surveys the classroom, deciding who he wants to greet and who to ignore. His $60 backpack gets dropped on his table like a sack of potatoes, and then he goes to infiltrate the ranks of unsuspecting students. His $150 pair of athletic shoes compliment the rest of his privileged life. Not including his clothes, I estimate his classroom value at over $400. 

Two minutes later I use my voice to blow the trumpet for the launching of class. “Have a seat and let’s get into it!” is my usual summons to order.

Ear pod boy plunges into his seat like he’s launching into one of the water slides at Great Wolf Lodge. 

I take attendance and then give the plan for the next 55 minutes. The kid who, by the way, the teacher I’m subbing for has left me a scribbled note about is in his own world of “peer-dom” pretends to listen as he dreams about the tall blonde two tables away. She looks his direction and he puts a hand on one of his ear pods, as if to convince her of his value and coolness.

“Today”, I tell them, “you’re going to be completing these two work sheets.” I explain what they need…textbook, copy of the work sheets I’ll hand out, something to write with. The kid is unwrapping a Pop Tart as I’m talking. Crumbs dot the sides of his mouth. If he’s trying to impress the blonde with his ear pods, he negates its effect with the remnants of the Pop Tart.

The work sheets get passed out and students begin to fill in the blanks. Five minutes later ear pod boy comes to my desk and says the words that he has spoken so many times before.

“Can I borrow a pencil?”

“You remembered your Pop Tart and your overpriced ear pods, but you couldn’t remember to bring a pencil?”

He stares at me with a blank look that conveys his disinterest in writing utensils. Pencils are not high on his list of priorities. The blonde is. Munching on a Pop Tart that he had to remember to get out of the pantry at home, that’s high! But to bring a pencil…to any class!…on any day!…for any reason!…that has not appeared on his radar yet! That’s what the teacher is there for, to keep him supplied! 

He’s a visual aid that communicates that the simplest things in life seem to be the hardest for some people to do.

Last Day of School Before Christmas Break

December 21, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                   December 21, 2019

                            

I agreed to it. It wasn’t like I was entering a dark unknown cave unaware of the dangers and unexpected holes sending me into the great abyss. I knew I was agreeing to substitute teacher on the last day before the school’s Christmas break. Some of the students had requested me. I’m still trying to decide whether that is a good thing or a warning sign, kinda’ like the army recruiter who smiles at the young buck standing in front of him and making him believe the next four years of his life will be simply a more mature version of Disney World. 

The last day of December school is frequented with sudden fits of stupidity as young adolescents all sugared up feel compelled to commit head-shaking acts of frenzied unintelligence because of their excess consumption of candy bars, peppermint candy sticks, and Starbucks Frappuccinos.

Teachers hold up surrender flags in the form of “Home Alone” and “Home Alone 2”. In reality, by 9:30 they’re wishing they were home alone and wondering why they didn’t take a sick day? 

The sound of shoes sprinting down hallways is common. Students wearing red Santa hats and adorned with tinsel is the norm. Ugly Christmas sweaters and students in Santa suits pass by almost unnoticed. 

In a couple of classes a few students suddenly broke out in song…off key, but still festive. One student blessed me with a candy cane and another with a container of baked goods that were meant for the teacher I was subbing for. When he saw that the teacher was gone he said, with great disappointment, “I guess you can have them!”

The political correctness of our culture leads some students into some degree of uncertainty as to what the right greeting/blessing is. Do they say “Merry Christmas!”, “Happy Hanukkah”, “Have a great break!”, “Happy Holidays!”, or “See ya’ next year!” I wanted to say “May the coming celebrated birth of the Christ-child be experienced in a deep way by you and yours!”, but I knew the typical middle schooler’s attention span wasn’t that long so I shortened my greeting to “Merry Christmas!”

The teaching staff did hallway countdowns as the day went on…”Three classes to go!” “Down to two!”, and words of encouragement “You can do it!”

When the final bell rang the walls of the school expanded as the entire staff exhaled in the realization that survival had been accomplished. 

Timberview Middle School, where I hang out, is a great school, great staff, mostly great students with a few warts thrown in that grab most of the attention. I almost always enjoy my days there, but Christmas break is longed for by everyone. It’s like the  opposite of the college student who comes home on Christmas break. Coming back and living with the parents is okay for the first couple of days, but then everyone is looking forward for the second semester to begin so Junior can leave again.

Middle School Speeders and Laggers

November 9, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                      November 9, 2019

                             

I’ve noticed something about middle school students. Most of them have gotten their speed controls confused. They speed when going slow is the wise decision and they go slow when speed is better suited for the moment. 

Somewhere along the line wires got crossed. Rewiring doesn’t seem to be an option now. Instead, teachers monitor the hallway speed zones and take note of slow-moving students taking their time to get back to the math or language arts class. 

For example, I substitute taught in a seventh grade science class yesterday. They were taking a test. Before handing out the three page exam, I emphasized that they should take their time and recheck their answers when they were done. Some listened, others didn’t. Fifteen minutes into test time several students rushed their papers to me like they were trying to be the first to buzz in on Jeopardy. 

On the other hand, I’ve noticed one student who seems to have to go to the restroom every class period. When he goes…to go…his classroom absence more resembles the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. He never seems in a rush to “cross the Jordan” back into the classroom.

At lunchtime several students remind me of Joey Chestnut eating hot dogs at the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4th. They throw their lunch items into their mouths without a need to taste what they’re eating. Their objective is to be one of the first ones to get to the GaGa ball pit outside. There should be a mandatory serving of peas and carrots for every middle school lunch. It would act as a dietary speed bump.

On the other hand, rarely will there be a student who is quick to pick up a piece of trash under or on their cafeteria table, especially if it wasn’t put there by him/her. The same student who is quick to grab a Cheeto from someone else’s bag treats a chip bag wrapper like the source for the Bubonic Plague.   

At 2:45 when the final bell rings to signal the end of the school day the scene is similar to a Walmart 5:00 A.M. Black Friday sale. Kids fire up their turbos and battle the hallways in a human sorta’ Dodge-Em Cars. Teachers stay to the sides for their own safety. To cross the hallway during these few moments is a recipe for becoming roadkill.

On the positive side I’ve seen several students in non-academic settings, such as Target or the supermarket or an Air Force Academy basketball game and they are quick to acknowledge me with a greeting. I was glad to see one of them because I couldn’t remember if he had ever returned from his restroom wilderness journey or not. 

Middle School Weirdness

October 26, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                              October 26, 2019

                           

When I walk down the halls of Timberview Middle School each day I’m taken back by the weirdness. The weirdness is a strange recipe mixture of cluelessness, pseudo-coolness, and a special spice of individuality. It goes like this:

“Mr. Wolfe, I can’t get my locker open and I’ve tried ten times.”

“Okay, let’s have a look.” We walk a few feet to a locker. “I see the problem.”

“What?”

“Your two inch thick backpack strap is hanging out like a human hand trying to escape jail.”

“Oh! So, you think that’s the problem?”

Then there’s the boys who take a clump of their hair and stand it up like a corn stalk with a rubber band or small scrunchie. If a boy wears a scrunchie around his wrist, evidently it means that he is “taken”! That is, a girl gives it to him because she likes him and he wears it to tell her he likes her back. Weird! The corn stalk hair, however, that just looks stupid.

The awesome kids who bring flavor to each of their teachers are offset by the few students who are committed to being bitter herbs in the midst of a great school day. They are the bite of “raw horseradish” in the midst of an apple pie. They come to school seeking to destroy class momentum and the grasp of concepts and ideas. One boy who makes me break out in hives has strengths in the areas of annoyance, immaturity, and inappropriate comments. He works well in a classroom all by himself, but in a classroom of 30 students he is determined to lead the Titanic into an iceberg. I have nightmares of a futuristic scene where he’s been cloned.

Then there’s the new fashion of jeans with rips and holes in them. Yesterday one girl had more holes than Swiss cheese in her pants. I remember the old days when my mom would iron on a patch over a hole in the knee of my jeans. A pair of jeans that needed a third patch ironed on meant it was time to go to J.C. Penney’s and buy a new pair. 

Weird! 

Yesterday a 7th Grade boy stood in front of his locker with an empty Dorito’s chip bag balanced on top of his head. I didn’t understand it, and I don’t think he did either.

There’s students who seem to have bathroom issues. That is, their need to go to the restroom happens about once every class period, but never during lunch and the few free minutes at the end of their lunch period. Put a mathematics calculation before them and they suddenly have irritable bowel syndrome. 

Every passing period there are a few students who walk down the hallway entirely focused on their cell phones. If the school hallway suddenly had a sinkhole they would be swallowed up…still looking at their cell phones until they hit the bottom. 

And in the midst of this climate of strange emerging adolescents are the teachers who seek to lead them to a brighter future through the jungles of their present. 

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!