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DCF Can Provide, But Only You Can Provide For Your Heart.

18 Mar

One of my kids is a father. Jarell is 18, and has a one year old son. Jarell’s also a DCF kid. He lives in a group home and gets money from DCF. They will help him out until he’s 21…as long as he stays in school and lives up to his end of the deal: no trouble with the law, get passing grades in school, go to school, etc. etc. At first, these sound like simple requests…but some of these things are harder for Jarell than you might think. Most of the kids at my school can walk there, no problem. If they miss the bus, no big deal, school is a ten minute walk away. But Jarell, because he lives in a group home, lives in the next town over. And on the other side of it. That was the only placement they could give him. So the school tells him they can’t provide him transportation, so he’ll need to take the city bus. Both ways. And pay for it. That went on for a few months until someone finally questioned why his attendance was so poor. Could his commute possibly be the reason? Now a van goes and picks him up. But it’s too late for his grades, because he’s already missed too much class to make up the work. Was it his fault? When DCF comes and looks at his grades and attendance and tells him that he’s not holding up his end of the deal, is it wrong of him to get upset and walk out? I don’t know about you, but when I was 18, I had friends whose parents bought them nice little cars to drive around as they pleased. And those friends came and picked me up for school in the morning and dropped me off at the end of the day. And if they couldn’t, the worst case scenario was that I might have to take the school bus. Until I graduated and went off to the college that I was already accepted to that my parents were going to pay for, no worries. Kind of a different world, right?

So on the days that this kid makes it to school, he comes and sees me. There’s no time in his schedule for an art class, he’s got enough academic classes that he needs to squeeze in. But on occasion my classes will be doing a project that he loves, and he asks if he can make one too. Then, if he’s in a class and finishes his work for the day, he asks to come down to the art room to work on his project. The last, and most memorable one that he completed was a 3-D sculpture project. The assignment was to turn someone’s initials into a 3-D tribute. So Jarell chose his son. For the past three months, Jarell has worked diligently (well, as diligently as possible given the circumstances) on a project that would normally take a week or two. It is the most successful example of the project that I’ve seen…it’s better than the example I made to show the class. I never would have thought that this kid, with everything else going on in his life, would think that my little 3-D project was so important. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him stick with anything for so long in the three years that I’ve known him. But I know that every time I assign this project again, I’ll always be thinking of Jarell: up to his elbows in paper mache and masking tape, wanting to honor his son in any way he can. And I got to be a part of that.

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Teachers Wear Masks…Remember “Miss Nelson Is Missing”???

17 Mar


Everyone has professional development days. Those days where every school in the state has professional development, and while the kids yell “We have no school on Tuesday!!” the teachers groan and mutter to each other that this professional development better be more interesting than the last one, where we learned about a great online curriculum…except our classrooms don’t have computers. See, unfortunately, because our school is not a public school, we’re usually left out in the cold when it comes to professional development. Usually, the principal tries to bring in someone interesting, and if no one is available, we come up with something “important” ourselves, which usually turns into a complaint session with no solutions. After sitting through countless numbers of these sessions, I asked the principal if I could have a few hours during the next session to do a little art lesson with the teachers. I explained that it would be a good way to get everyone to open up a little, have fun, and at the same time see how art (and the art teacher!) can be used for so much more than making pretty bulletin boards.

So I prepared a mask lesson that would require each teacher to make an animal mask embodying characteristics that also applied to themselves. I wheeled out a cart that was loaded with supplies, and after completing a short brainstorm session, everybody got to work. It was really enlightening to teach my co-workers, and even more so to see how clearly their personalities and styles came out in their mask. One teacher finished in about ten minutes, even though he knew he had 45. He quickly cut, added some pipe cleaner whiskers, and called it a fox. At the other end of the spectrum, another teacher used every material available in every possible color, and created the most imaginative, beautiful creature that never existed. If anyone was paying attention, it was utterly obvious through the expression of these masks what it would be like to sit in each teacher’s classroom for a day and be taught by them.

The best part of the activity was the wrap-up. I had everyone view each mask, and write on a piece of paper adjectives and descriptive phrases that they felt it conveyed. When everyone read the descriptions of their own mask, they were surprised how other people’s interpretations were different than what they originally intended to express. What does this say about the messages they’re sending to their students without even knowing it? They say teachers have to wear many different hats, but I think it might be the “masks” that we wear when we’re teaching that have the biggest effect on our students.

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Don’t Be All Up In My Grill

11 Mar

Everyone who’s ever watched Seinfeld knows what a close-talker is. I, personally, have about a three-foot personal space bubble. When someone I don’t know that well bursts my bubble, it’s uncomfortable. Not only does it make me uncomfortable but it puts me in the awkward situation of trying to back up without insulting the person. Sometimes, the person is so imperceptive that they don’t pick up on my body language and they move into my bubble all over again. Interestingly enough though, personal space isn’t the same for everybody, and it varies greatly from culture to culture. In Asian cultures, particularly China, the concept of personal space is nearly nonexistent. Strangers regularly touch bodies when waiting in line, while people in Scandinavian countries, for example, need more personal space than we do. And anyone who’s ever taught kids with emotional or behavioral challenges knows that their personal space can be infinite. “Don’t touch me,” and “Back up” are phrases I hear in the hallways all the time.

Looking deeper at my streetwise students, I realized how much of their confrontational vocabulary and actions centered not only around their personal space, but more specifically around their face. Allow me to provide examples:

1. Knocking off someone’s hat: Not recommended, unless you are looking to start a fight. If you are, this would be an excellent way to do it.

2. “In your face” (exclamation): something you would shout after you just beat someone badly in anything competitive, for example if you just dunked on them on the basketball court.

3. In your face (verb): To be in someone’s face in not a good thing, and it will be requested of you to “Get OUT of my face.” You’re too pushy, you’re too close, you’re asking too much.

4. Mush: If you find that you got in someone’s face, you might get mushed. That’s the act of placing one’s hand on another person’s face and pushing the person backwards. If you see someone get mushed, sh**’s about to go down.

5. Grill: Can be used in 2 ways. You can grill someone, which means to stare them down. Will probably be met with “Why you grillin me,” unless it’s a member of the opposite sex, in which case it might be a compliment. OR, you can be “up in someone’s grill,” also bad. Similar to getting in their face.

6. Save face: Finally, what you might do if you realize you’ve made a mistake and now you need to cover it up. May or may not work.

This isn’t rocket science. Everyone knows not to touch someone else’s face unless you’re invited to do so. But it really got me thinking about our faces as this sort of portal into ourselves, the front door to letting someone in. So what do we do in our next art class? We make masks. On each others faces. Risky? Yes. Worth it? Definitely.

I offered them an out. If they felt really uncomfortable, they could use a plastic face mold instead of another person. But most of them paired up and got to work. We called them “Emotion Masks,” because after they created the mask on their classmates face, they later added details to show a certain emotion of their choice. We got some amazing results and I couldn’t believe how well they worked together. Smearing Vaseline and plaster strips on someone else’s face was taking a big risk for some of these kids, and yet they worked together and didn’t even get mad when plaster water dripped down their necks. I’m not naive…if their partner had been up in their grill the next day, all bets would have been off. But for 45 minutes, to be in their face was finally ok.

Get the full lesson plan here!



8 Ways Not to Start a Class

9 Mar

I wrote this lesson with a friend of mine when we were going to school to get our certifications. While we were learning about the lesson plan writing process, a lot of time was spent discussing the “Initiation” of a lesson, or rather, what were you as a teacher going to do to get your students interested in learning for the period? What was your “hook?” We were told that if you came prepared with a great initiation, then the rest of your lesson would be successful. So, I thought for a few minutes about how my teachers used to initiate lessons when I was in school, and whether or not they succeeded in capturing my attention. Here’s what I came up with:

1. “Take out your books and open to page 65.”
(Wait, what? What page did she say? I turn to my neighbor and ask them, but they didn’t hear either. Shoot. I’ll just pretend like I’m following along.)

2. “Does anyone remember what we learned yesterday?”
(Do you? Aren’t you the teacher? I don’t think I should be held accountable if you’re not going to be.)

3. “Well, the photocopier was broken this morning, so why don’t you just go ahead and read the next chapter on your own.”
(Yes! I love it when the copier is broken. Now, I can open my book and pretend to read while I write a note to my friend. Probably about boys.)

4. “I have half a muffin left…does anyone want it?”
(I do!! I LOVE history class!!)

5.”We’re watching a movie today. No talking.”
(Ha! He didn’t say no passing notes. And he ALSO didn’t say we had to take notes, even better!!)

6. “Amy, you’re late. Where were you? We were going to start our lesson but now you’ve interrupted the whole class.”
(I forgot my book in my locker. Plus, I’m pretty sure YOU just interrupted the whole class.)

7. “Raise your hand if you are still confused about yesterday’s lesson.”
(Yeah, right. I’ve been confused since 2 weeks ago, I’m sure as hell not gonna raise my hand now so that the whole class can laugh at me.)

8. “When I call your name, say yes or no if you did your homework. Hold it up so I can see it!”
(Hmm. This homework from last week sort of looks like last night’s homework. I’ll hold this up instead and see what happens.)

Well. Seems like I spent most of the time trying not to get in trouble, and much less time actually learning anything. Since initiations really did seem important, my friend and I spent a lot of time coming up with ours. Our lesson was on negative space, and found object sculpture. Instead of stating the topic and handing out an informative packet, here’s what we did instead:

Students enter the classroom. Right inside the door, there is a clothesline strung up. Hanging from it, are plastic monkeys from a Barrel of Monkeys. One per kid, and attached to each is a slip of paper with each kids name on it (enabling you to take attendance without actually calling out names). Students are instructed to find their monkey and have a seat. “Today you will be building a habitat for your monkey. Under this sheet (spread out on table with found objects, or junk, underneath) you will find everything you need to create your habitat. When building your monkey a home, think about how he will use his surroundings. He will need to climb, sleep, etc, but he will also need enough room around each feature to be able to interact with his environment. This is your negative space. Take both the positive and negative space into consideration when building your habitat. At the end, display your monkey in his environment. Ready, set, go!” The sheet is then whisked away, and the students dive right in to find the “best” pieces of junk for their sculpture.

Of course, this lesson might not be for you. Maybe you don’t feel like building with found objects. That’s ok. But this lesson has always been wildly popular, and I believe it’s because of the initiation. The odd act of being given a monkey when you walk into class. The suspense of wondering what’s under the sheet. If you have a desire to get your students involved in learning instead of chowing down on muffins, I’d recommend putting some thought into your initiation. First impressions are everything, and a little plastic monkey would have made a big impression on me.

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