Monday, May 28, 2012

Upon Writing A Final Exam...

I didn't update this blog often this year, and that is a fair reflection of my consistency in much of my teacherish life so far: intentions fell flat upon implementation because the urgency of the task overwhelmed my ability to manage in the time allowed.

So I sit in a coffeeshop on Memorial Day, trying to write finals for my English I and II classes, realizing I left my flash drive at home.  Classic.  Perhaps I can come up with a final from memory: what did we study this year?  Conflict?  Vocabulary?  Metaphor?  Romeo and Juliet?  Symbols?  Jesu Maria, if this is the list that I am coming up with, how stranded must my students feel, faced with a final exam?  What terrible disservice have I done?!

This may seem melodramatic, but there has been a deep, strangling struggle in me for the last few weeks.  I think I failed my students.  They took the HSA this past week (a high stakes test that should be easy as pie but actually takes them many, many tries).  The look of sadness on their faces as they Christmas Treed the last section, the knowledge of their failure writ in the resignation on their faces, I knew.  I promised them I'd help them pass.  I didn't.  It broke my heart more than I could have predicted.  I did not teach them as well as they deserved; I did not come up with kinesthetic, sorting-based activities; I did not make my activities rigorous enough; and now, I should be writing a final, but here I am, without my flash drive, only my memory of a year -- could have been ten years -- to guide me.

So what shall I do instead?  Help my boyfriend look for apartments and intermittently write a list of the things I failed in and a list of the things I passed in.  Maybe by the end of this I will have found a bigger chunk of my optimism than I've had the last few weeks.

Forgive me if I borrow weighty words and then labor to make them light.

Things I did wrong:
- angered easily at small grievances, among them students' insults and refusals to work
- gave vocabulary work that was too difficult
- stopped providing weekly written progress reports
- failed to insist upon homework completion
- forgave missing work too easily
- forgot to have fun and succumbed to urgency
- got caught in the necessity of the instruction instead of the application of skills
- didn't track IEP goals in grading
- gave them materials they often passed without thinking hard enough
- didn't given them enough rigor
- didn't learn to break up fights
- didn't deescalate conflicts often enough

Things I did well:
- came up with organizational systems in excel
- called parents and kept track of it in excel
- wrote seriously quality IEPs
- organized grades so I could use the data to track progress... but rarely used it that way
- kept on top of emails
- developed a good relationship with my department head
- created different levels of lots of texts... but only sometimes created different ways to interact with said texts
- created individual plans with different kids
- consistent focus questions
- found some decent websites for materials
- realized the importance of teaching explicit skills
- realized the importance of writing a unit test BEFORE teaching the unit

This is getting depressing.

One of my students hasn't come in weeks.  She could have passed.  She could have been a writer; god knows she needs the outlet for her, ah, 'creative' versions of her life (she lies, often).  Did she stop coming because I stopped insisting on it?  Was I too nice, and not kind by pressuring her to get her work done?  Was I too soft, in my hope that a good relationship would inspire work?  Yet... the worst days were the days I got angry or yelled, the days I tried to force LEARNING into their heads.  The worst days were the days they saw my frustration at the enormous gap between where they deserved to be and where they are.  I hear, over and over, that this is not my fault, but I feel so strongly that it IS my fault, that their deelopment this year was my responsibility, that I owed it to all of them to be more patient and have more fun so that they could, too.

Their final is in a week.  Some of them still write sentences without subjects, some of them hate me, some of them haven't written a complete sentence on their own all year -- I teach special ed, I know, but still, I should have students who can write sentences.  It's not fair to them to send them out into the world with a passing grade when they can't write to save their lives -- literally.  Yet I can't fail them, no matter if that is a more accurate representation of how well they can get along by writing, if I am at fault for their inability.  Given the Fail List, I know it's mostly me.

They say that in your first year this feeling of epic failure is common, but that you were still better than the alternative.  Those words feels bitter in my mouth; not the bitter taste of adrenaline, the bitter taste of something poisonous.  How can this be better than what they would have had?  Even my writing has gotten worse this year.  I haven't taught them how to practice writing or how to use it to express themselves, really.

I feel empty.

I don't have time, now, to write the list of things I'll change and add and do; that will come sometime this summer.  There's no perfect wrap up here; I need to write a final and a study guide, so I don't have time to find peace with this.  I don't have time to find peace with my endless to do list, or the rather lonely feeling that came on Friday when one of my kids commented, "Ms. Warfield never laughs."

All I can resolve to change this week is to be joyful, for these days; to use mad libs more often, and maybe Quiddler; to search for something fun this evening that they can do all week, to research fun readings for their final.  I could give them a scavenger hunt through their archive of work from the year.

I suppose there is some hope in this after all: I still have ideas.  I have hope that I can be the teacher I want to be because I know where all the holes are -- the journey to find ways to fill them will be long.  I have to find the right dirt, I guess.  I must not fill the gaps in my pedagogy with sand.  I must fill them with real work and real skills... but I must not let this urgency scare us away from the task.

I'm not looking for sympathy, but I would love an answer to this question: how do I keep it fun and light in the face of obstinate refusal, absenteeism, and administrative pressure for numbers?  How do I change my threshold for stress, to keep the frustration from surfacing in class?  How do I remember thatmy kids are wonderful people whn the adults around me scoff at such?  I know that if I enter the world in the spirit of joy, I will feel better, and so will they -- but where is the time for the meditation, and what do I say, and how do I keep that consistent?  Quaker Meeting helps, but what is my mantra every day?  What can I say that does not harangue and push, but reminds and lifts?

How can I lighten my spirit in the face of all this failure and all this need?

Such is my quest for light.

Forgive me for not writing sooner.

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