We’re now eight weeks out, with the quarter approaching imminently (it ends on this coming Friday). I’m glad that the quarter’s almost done, although I feel like I have so much to get taken care of in the meantime.

Looking back on just this week, it feels like so much has happened, so much that I want to talk about (and some of which I already have). So here it goes, I suppose (sorry about the unintentional rhyme):

On Thursday, I had very little actually planned, in part because of the four-day weekend (teacher institute Friday, which I will blog about soon, and Columbus Day on Monday) and also because I had projects due in three out of four classes. Two of the three were book projects, created based on independent reading that students were assigned on the second week of class. (I assign one of these projects each quarter, stipulating that students cannot read multiple books in a series for multiple projects and that they cannot do the same type of project each quarter.) I had been a little concerned about how well these projects would turn out, since I had quite a few people who vocalized concerns about finishing their book on time or about knowing which project they would want to do (I gave 45 free-and-clear options, with the caveat that other ideas could be proposed and approved).

The projects in my earlier classes of the day, my sophomores, did not inspire a great amount of confidence in me. Some of the projects were good, but some were lackluster and obviously rushed and poorly thought out. Add to that the fact that almost all of the students in my later section of this class opted to turn their projects in on Tuesday for a late grade so they would have the long weekend to finish them, and I was a little concerned about my juniors, who seem to be even less motivated (and more obstinate).

Because of how Wednesday went with my McCarthyism lesson, I was prepared to show the juniors that they should have listened to me. I had the idea to give them a small quiz over some major information and even had it written up and ready to give orally at the beginning of class.

Then I saw their projects – and I melted.

I looked over some of what was brought in and was surprised to see that several students had exerted a considerable amount of effort in their projects, and many in the first class asked to be the first ones to present their projects. Here’s the funny thing about that: I hadn’t required or even asked them to present their projects! I obliged the ones who wanted to present them, and it was a great experience hearing how these students responded to the books they read. And I knew after seeing several of these projects that it was time to show mercy, even though I would have been sticking it to the student who told me explicitly that they would forget all of the information by Tuesday. In that sense, I also realized, I was giving an assessment not merely as a method of determining understanding but as retribution. Once I thought about it that way, it didn’t seem like such a great idea.

One final note on the project: I consider it mostly a success, having seen how students engaged the texts they read in ways that no book report really can. And the verdict was clear from students – most of them enjoyed the books they read. This element of choice, both in the selection of a book and project, really works well. When I have a student who creates five poster-size sketches of band members (having read a biography of the band) and another who creates a pamphlet on Animalism after reading Animal Farm and still another who composes a found poem on a book about suicide (Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher), then I consider the idea a success. We’ll see how it works out next quarter.

Not everything was quite so rosy, though. Enter: the Challenger.

Okay, a little bit of context: This junior is very bright (as previously noted) and currently in a sport, which is sufficient motivation to get at least passing grades in order to maintain eligibility. That sport, however, will only continue for a short while longer, and then (according to another teacher) the Challenger has announced that the “real” Challenger will come out. (My response was, paraphrased, “This isn’t the real [insert student name here]?!”) And this colleague has informed me that, for whatever reason, I am the primary target for this student.

Anyway, the section that the Challenger is in has some free time at the end of the period, and Challenger decides to make use of my Easy Button. Unlike most of my students, however, Challenger decides to use it for evil rather than good, taking it over to a female classmate (who happens to be pregnant, and everyone knows it), pressing the button for the requisite “That was easy,” and then proceeding to say something along the lines of “Just like [unintelligible name].” I couldn’t make out what name was said, but my inclination is that the name might have belonged to the father of her unborn child. Either way, it was inappropriate, and the Challenger had already gotten away with too much in my class, so I announced that the little stunt was now worth a detention.

What I didn’t realize before I said that is that the pregnant student had started to cry…and this was not the response that the Challenger had expected, let alone wanted. Challenger makes a plea for forgiveness, and the pregnant student utterly rejects it (using some choice words in the process – I let that slide because I felt that she was responding as would be expected, especially with pregnancy hormones). The Challenger didn’t take this particularly well, becoming pretty dejected; after class, Challenger asked me how many detentions (or in-schools) I was giving, and I responded that I was giving only one because I could tell that enough suffering had already been doled out. I was a little sympathetic because this was a case of bad judgment: a totally different reaction was expected, and the Challenger was acting out the same interaction that apparently happens with other students but with a different response. When Challenger comes in on Tuesday for an after-school detention, I intend on having a writing exercise prepared (because I don’t like giving the spare time for other work, even though Challenger will lose out on sports practice) that should focus on reflection about being aware of purpose and audience (two elements of my approach to writing). I hope that I can make Challenger think twice about how they interact with other students – and maybe with me.

But rather than focusing on the challenges, I want to end on a reassuring note. As he has done before, Mr. Super stopped in during one of my classes when I was giving information on McCarthyism, and he observed quietly without interjecting (which is somewhat out of the ordinary for him; he usually has something somewhat relevant to add to discussions). I got a chance to talk to him yesterday during a break at our teacher workshop, and he told me that he thought I was doing fine. I told him that I thought things were going better than expected for my first year and mentioned that I knew that I had some room to improve, but before I got very far into that, he told me that, in his opinion, there are very few things that are harder than your first year of teaching. I thought maybe he was being a little hyperbolic, but then he added in all seriousness, “Maybe a divorce – that might be harder.”

It bears repeating: I got really lucky with this job. I have a great principal who is incredibly supportive, (mostly) amazing colleagues who don’t hesitate to mentor and listen, and a superintendent who really understands how difficult the first year of teaching is and empathizes with me for what I go through. It’s moments like these that I realize that I have everything I need to make this work, no matter what challenges I face.