Sunday, September 28, 2014

2014 School Year: The Beginning

I’m starting to think that if I want to write, I’ll either need to get up early or stay up late. It is something that needs to happen, and if it’s important to you, you’ll find a way, right?

I’m not sure if I’ve written at the beginning of every school year, but I want to this year.

This is my fifth year teaching at Jefferson Junior High. The students I taught in my internship year and the year after have now graduated from high school. I’m feeling sufficiently old. And all I can do is hope that I’ve prepared them at least a little bit for what is next in their lives.

So far, this year is going pretty well. There are always challenges with a new year and when a school tries new things. This year is no exception. I’m still learning the ropes of the School Technology Specialist position because there are new tests and new procedures in place. Or procedures that I need to make, rather.

I'm in a new classroom this year, after four years in my previous classroom (right above where I am now). I took this class to have fewer flies, cooler temperatures, better location to the office, and the SMARTBoard. I still haven't learned to use it. It's harder to adjust to a new room than I remember. Finding a place for all the normal procedures, and learning how to maneuver and such is a bigger learning curve than I anticipated. You get used to things over four years. I did have to redecorate a TON, and my class is anything but bare walls!

As for my classes...

I was a little uncertain about a few kids in the very first week of school. By uncertain I meant I could detect that they’d be a challenge both in ability and their attention span. I made pretty quick changes to seats and have been able to do things with much less effort than in previous years.

A lot of things that used to take a lot of concentration and energy for me are now second nature. I imagine it will continue to go that way each year if I continue to teach.

Overall, I have extremely good students this year. I have a quiet class, and a somewhat noisy class, and a class that needs a lot of intervention as a whole. As with every year, I’m not sure how to reach those kids or how exactly to help them except to be aware that they do need more help.

I receive invitations from leadership organizations every year to “nominate” some good students. I always nominate knowing most of them won’t have the financial means to attend any sort of conferences or anything. But they get a letter telling them that their teacher thinks they’re excellent; I think it’s an important compliment, and it’s meant a lot to some past students. On Friday, I decided to nominate some kids for People to People. I went through each class and identified all my achievers and the ones I know have the ability and desire to achieve. I thought of the ones who, so far this year, have demonstrated a good attitude, readiness to learn, and kindness to those around them.  I ended up nominating 15 kids. That is a lot more than in years past. I probably could have done even more, but you’ve got to pick the best, you know.

This year is going really well. We’re finishing up our first novel. We’re starting a writing assignment this week, in which I’ve given them five possible prompts to choose from. I realize it’s not a multi-genre project, but it’s baby steps for me. Offering students choices is one of my goals this year, and this is one way I’m trying to do that. I’ve done it lots of times before, I just am trying to do it more often. It helps to keep me from getting bored, too, reading the same topic over and over.

Another thing I’m working on more is to tie in informational text more frequently, and stick to our district’s curriculum map better. I scaffolded our book Stargirl by reading an informational article about bullying. I used that as kind of a pre-assessment to figure out whether students know how to identify purpose, cite evidence, identify the main idea, and use context to define words. Judging from what they turned in, in general they’re all pretty bad at all of those things. So I have my work cut out.

I’m trying to connect multiple assignments and literary genres this year. For example, one of the writing prompts on their essay is to connect the novel with the bullying article we read. I hope some choose this option. I also assigned a discussion on our online forum called Canvas. I used the awesome video from poet Shane Koyczan called “To This Day.” I asked students to respond to the video, making connections from it to the article we read, and to the book we’re about to finish. I feel like I’m doing a much better job this year tying everything together thematically and cohesively while utilizing different genres.  

I’m working on being more transparent with the students’ learning goals. I’ve always created objectives for my lessons, but I’ve been bad about putting it on the board and acknowledging it regularly. I’m trying now to make a more conscious, verbal effort to acknowledge their learning goals from the get-go. I’ve done well, and have even had the kids write it down in their binder. I now need to do better at returning to the objective at the end of class, but with an 8 minute shorter period this year, I’m still trying to adjust.

Another goal I have this year is to remember J.M. Barrie’s advice to be a little kinder than necessary. I even had my awesome friend design a poster to put up in my room to remind me (so cute, huh?). I get frustrated with students pretty easily but believe I’ve gotten better and more patient every year. I am asking kids more regularly if they’re OK if they seem a little off. I will often use a small gesture like a hand on the shoulder. I think it’s working to build rapport, even with the students I find difficult. One highlight of parent conferences was when a quiet, shy student lingered after her parent and I were done talking. She said, "I just want to say I'm glad to be in your class." I smiled and asked her, "Why is that?" and she told me that she likes my class, that I'm nice, and that she's had some not so nice teachers in the past. I don't think I've done anything to treat her especially well, but apparently my efforts to be kind are working, because I'm pretty sure the last word students have used to describe me is "nice." 

Another thing I’m doing to build rapport is to use more positive reinforcement. It seems silly, but I put smiley face stickers next to my kids’ journal scores if they did a good job. It takes a few extra seconds which can add up if you have a full load of classes to grade. Thankfully, I just have half. So I decided this one small thing could possibly make a big difference. They may not be in elementary school, but I still think they like the positive recognition. “Gold stars” are always a cool thing, right?

I’m trying to use the harder academic language more frequently in class. I also plan to draw students’ attention more to author’s purpose because I think they have a hard time identifying that, and therefore have a hard time comprehending. I’ve actually looked at the kids’ Lexiles to identify the at-risk kids. I’ve reached out to one student and provided him a list of books at his level in our library catalog. I have plans to have my students fill out an evaluation form at the end of the term when they have a good grasp of my style. If they're honest and constructive, I hope it will confirm the areas I believe are my strengths and direct me on improving my areas of weakness. 

It’s funny that I’m making all these goals and feel I’ve progressed so much this year at a time when I’m considering bowing out of teaching in the next year or two. I guess I figure we should always be trying to improve. Because it’s not worth doing if it’s not worth doing well, right? If I don’t care about being the best teacher for me, I at least want to do my best for the kids. Who knows? Maybe this year will change my mind. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Motherhood Anxiety: Part 3 – The Inheritance

Let’s go the lighter route on this motherhood anxiety topic, shall we? Please proceed with all the sarcastic tonality you know I possess.

I know I can’t be the only one who has a long list of insecurities and horrible traits they’ve inherited from previous generations—ones that just shouldn’t be passed on.

This is serious, folks. I mean, I have qualities and genetic traits that nobody should have to endure. For the love, I don’t want to give these things to another human being and watch them suffer through what I have suffered.

For one thing, I’m a hairy beast. If you look at my brothers, they’re hairless everywhere but their legs. But me? I have tried every hair removal cream on the market. I’ve tried bleaching. I’ve waxed. I’ve shaved. And I even have hair left after six treatments of laser hair removal! I’ve been self-conscious about this my entire life. Why would I want to subject another little girl to this?

Also, I have B.O. and a serious sweating problem. I’m not talking about like just casual “oh I exercised so now I stink” B.O. and sweat. I mean I have legitimate, nasally offensive B.O., amplified by the absurd amount of sweat I produce. It was so bad that my mother even told me I stank, and I started wearing deodorant in third grade. Standard antiperspirant hasn’t been enough to block the sweat, or the smell if it’s been long enough. I’ve tried five, count them, FIVE different natural deodorants because antiperspirants are connected to cancer (thanks, Brittany). These five deodorants work for like three hours on my unrelenting glands. I’m currently trying to make the life-altering decision between cancer and major stinkage.

I’m short as all get-out. Granted, I may have been taller if we had caught my thyroid problem a little earlier, because nobody in my family is as short as I am. But really, who wants to be five feet tall? And who wants a thyroid problem? I don’t see anybody raising their hand. Maybe that’s because both of these SUCK.

This is all to avoid the weightier, life-altering personality traits that can be quite challenging. I was a highly sensitive, emotional child. It’s taken me a while to get those things under control. I talk too much. I’m a perfectionist—again, have that under control after almost three decades. I feel guilty very easily. I have had high expectations of people and can be unforgiving. I am highly controlling and impatient behind the wheel. I’m a workaholic. These things lead to chronically high stress levels. I say again, why would I want to give birth to someone who has a good chance of inheriting these things?

I could go on and on. I had an overbite and had braces for two years. I even wore headgear at night, people. Headgear. I had surgery on my left eyelid because it was lazy-ish. My vision is bad. My legs are huge, whether I exercise or not (probably bigger because I exercise). I have sideburns. I have a cowlick. I scar easily. My hands are tiny. It’s hard to find cute shoes small enough for my feet.

Obviously some of these grievances are pretty inconsequential, but they add up. If at some point I need 25 reasons not to procreate, I need only reread this post. So, future babies, if I ever get brave and give birth to you, I apologize in advance for the ugly, sad, embarrassing, and otherwise unpleasant things which you’ll inherit from me. At least you have someone who empathizes. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

I Don't Have to Know

I don’t know what bothered me about it, exactly.

I was just standing there, minding my own business, watching some kids throw apples away, attempting to enjoy the Dunkin’ Donuts latte lite I had just gotten.

It is September, and I picked up a coffee habit around last Christmas. That’s a lie. I had the habit also when I was in the eighth grade but stopped drinking it, mostly under the threat of stunted growth. Too little, too late. I'm still five feet tall. 

Dunkin’ Donuts has made a lot of money off me this year—more than I’d like to admit. I even earned my Starbucks gold card in the past eight months. I may have earned a drink or two from Beans & Brews as well. So you could say I’m kind of a connoisseur of lattes.

When my LDS coworker came and stood next to me and said, “I didn’t know Balibrea was a coffee drinker,” I denied nothing. I said, “I shouldn’t be, but I am.”

He stooped over awkwardly, staring at my CTR ring on one hand, and my latte in the other. He said, “I just have to know. Why do you drink coffee?”

I was so taken aback by the question. He saw that I was drinking it. I admitted I knew better, by church standards. I figured he would just make his silent judgment of me, and we’d both move on. But no. I didn’t even know what to say in response because I was taken off guard. I can’t be sure, but I think I muttered something along the lines of, “I don’t know. I just like it,” as my eyes wandered nervously away from the face of his judgment. I guess that was good enough because he then proceeded to ask me for help creating a Linux installation disc. (P.S. not part of my job description. Also, no idea how to do anything of the sort.)

So, what is the real answer? Why have I been drinking this glorious tasting nectar from the coffee plant? I have a few reasons, if you “have to know.”

First and foremost, I just like it. I mean, isn’t that why anybody makes a decision? Isn’t that where temptation comes from anyway—desire? I enjoy my lattes. Plain and simple. I guess people who smoke weed enjoy that. People who drink alcohol enjoy that. You can make these kinds of comparisons all day. I’m not making excuses. I’m giving you the answer to my coworker’s question: because I like it. I don’t feel dependent on it. While I enjoy it and like to drink it regularly, I am not dying or getting headaches without it. It’s not a need I have. I just like it.

Secondly, and this may sound silly if you’ve not indulged in or enjoyed coffee drinks before, but it relaxes me. It has become a morning ritual of sorts. I come to work, I get lots of things done. I make sure testing is running smoothly. I knock out work orders. I reply to emails. I grade work. I enter it into Gradebook. I make my classroom and desk organized and pretty. I get things done. And then I take a break. My drink actually centers me for a few minutes. I focus on that. And then I feel ready and energized to take on the rest of the day.

Thirdly, you may call this justifying, but there are benefits to drinking coffee. In this article from Runners’ Magazine a few months ago, I read about the benefits of drinking coffee. Some benefits are mood improvement (oh, what was my second reason again?), stress relief (huh? Reason #2?), boost in antioxidants, decrease of diabetes risk, enhanced brain function, and lower risk of heart disease. I dare you to find a similar study in defense of drinking soda.

You could easily send me to an article like this one which has some direct contradictions to the article above. And I probably wouldn’t contend, because I think water is the best thing to drink always, which is why I drink so much of it.

So now I’d like to get to the real reason I wrote this post: why did it upset me so much that my coworker asked me that question? The long and short of it is, it’s none of his business. Honest and truly, my decisions don’t need to be questioned except by those closest to me who are concerned for my well-being. My decisions are between me and the Lord. (Note: It could be that I was automatically defensive because of my own guilt, but going by his tone, I’m pretty sure his question was more due to nosiness and judginess than curiosity. And that bugs me.)

I have a problem when people who are overly concerned with the decisions of others, and especially with those that are visible decisions. For example, most church members don’t get tattoos. Some have them: some got them before they converted to the church, some during periods of inactivity, and others while they were active! Since it’s a visible decision, would you walk up to them and say, “Now, I just have to know. Why would you get a tattoo?” I would guess that the person would probably have a few reasons for having chosen that, but does it really matter? The fact is that it was their decision, period. It really is none of your concern. Does a tattoo put some kind of damper on the faithfulness of a church member? Are you concerned that they make you or other church members look bad somehow?

When you see somebody not taking the sacrament, do you ask them why not? 

You can’t see somebody’s pornography addiction. You can’t see the lies coming out of somebody’s mouth. You can’t see the premarital relations couples are engaging in (I hope). There are lots of things people do that you can’t see. If you could see these things, would you ask about them? 

To be quite frank, many of us prioritize or assign levels to commandments. We know the three greatest sins are those of perdition, adultery, and murder. Not in that order, obviously. But I think we’re pretty safe in saying that somebody who drinks or smokes or breaks the sabbath is probably not in as much trouble as a murderer or adulterer. But I think from the smallest of struggles to the largest, it isn’t our stewardship to worry about the decisions of others. It has been commanded of us to love. Make people feel welcome and loved and hopeful that they can change and be forgiven. 

As a common example of prioritizing, let’s look at caffeinated soda. Some people were brought up being taught that caffeine is not acceptable (see vending machines on BYU campus). “Gasp! Who brought the regular Coca-Cola to mutual?!” Some people were brought up being taught that that’s just not the case. “Love me some D.P.!” But do you see that it’s a big deal to one group, and not that big of a deal to another? Our backgrounds are so different. I don’t see the need to question why these people do what they do. Be comfortable with your decisions, and live peaceably with the decisions of others.

But I am not writing this to debate the “seriousness” of sins or their consequences. I’m writing to remind you that the way you look at something is not the way that everybody else does. If you have never drank coffee in your life, hey! Good for you, man. I’m sure you have made some decisions in your life I wouldn’t have made. But as President Uchtdorf so eloquently reminded us, “Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you.” If you don’t drink coffee, maybe you eat meat more often than in winter, cold, or famine. Maybe you eat Hostess cupcakes instead of herbs, fruits, and grains. Maybe you drink alcohol sometimes. Maybe you smoke. Maybe you stay up too late and sleep in too long (nah, you’ve never done that). 

What matters ultimately is the promise at the end of Doctrine and Covenants 89:

18 And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones;

 19 And shall find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures;

 20 And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.

 21 And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them. Amen.

I think these verses speak for themselves. As with any commandment we choose not to obey, we’re simply depriving ourselves of blessings. We know that when we make sacrifices to improve ourselves and our spirituality, we are blessed. Please rest assured that I know that. I don’t need you to be concerned with my decisions, or the sometimes complicated reasons why I make them.

I’m in a very good place right now spiritually. My faith is strong. My gratitude is high. I make a lot of good decisions—mostly good, I think. I believe the Lord is proud of me and how far I’ve come recently, however weak I may be in some areas.

Maybe you have some serious, invisible struggles. Maybe you have smaller, visible ones. Whatever things you do struggle with, trust that the Lord will bless you as you try to overcome them—if or when you decide you want to receive more blessings. And know that, unless it comes from a place of genuine love and concern, I do not consider it my place to ask you about them. I don’t have to know.