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Empty Chairs at Empty Tables … or Desks

empty chair

There are a lot of things we can say about suicide. We can say that an attempt is a cry for help. We can discuss warning signs. For those who are struggling and contemplating, we can tell them not to give up. We can point them to hotlines and support resources.

As a teacher, I’ve had training on these things and dealt with them on various levels.

Today I’m thinking about realities I haven’t thought about before. How do you handle losing a student this way?

How do you help teachers and students who have to face an empty desk that signifies so much more than an absent classmate?

How do you comfort colleagues who think they should have seen something, done something differently, been more observant?

And perhaps the toughest one of all—how do you help students who realize they should’ve treated their classmate better?

If a student bullied another, we don’t want to say, “No, you didn’t do anything wrong.” Perhaps they need to feel that responsibility, let it serve as a drive to change. On the other hand, we don’t want to break another student when we’ve already lost one.

So what do you say to a student who’s upset because he remembers making fun of the kid who’s gone?

I really don’t know.

Some of the most eye-opening conversations have been with the in-betweeners. Kids who say, “I didn’t really know him. I saw him around. Some people were mean to him. That wasn’t cool, so I never made fun of him … but y’know … I never really tried to make anyone else stop. I should’ve.”

That goes to show there is no in-between. With bullying, if we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem.

We need more solutions moving forward.

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Going Off-Topic Can Be On-Topic

When I was in junior high, there was this one English teacher. I never had him, but I heard stories. Stories about the stories. My classmates talked about how all they had to do was make one comment or ask one random question to get him going, and they could keep him talking through all of class. As in, never getting to the lesson. As in, no homework.

Not something I aspire to as a teacher.

At the same time, I find I can’t be totally rigid about sticking to the agenda and only the agenda. That likely comes from my years in deaf-ed, where kids often have gaps in their world knowledge, and if I don’t allow a tangent to fill them, who will? I have a curriculum to stick to, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t time for other conversations.

Here’s what I’ve learned: Kids want to know things. Since my students have heard about my publishing deal, they want to know a lot of things.

How long did it take to write the book?

Why is it going to be so long before it’s published?

How did you get the book deal?

What’s an agent?

Will it be in bookstores or will we have to buy it from you?

Will there be a movie?

I get particularly in-depth questions from students who want to write and publish novels themselves, but some of the most intense curiosity comes from students who aren’t into writing at all. Often who aren’t even into reading all that much.

Indulging those questions gives them insight into something that certainly isn’t on the curriculum in any of their classes. It also reinforces one of my favorite points—don’t pigeonhole people. Yeah, I’m a math teacher. Yeah, I’m a novelist. Yeah, I know ASL.

Hopefully it gets through to them that they can be as multi-faceted as they want, too. Especially in the adolescent world of “What’s your label?”

And you know what? Sometimes tangents like that work in writing, too. It might seem like wandering off aimlessly, but if we do it right, it can actually play right into our point.

Of course, the trick is the “doing it right” part. But isn’t it always?

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Kids, Don’t Apologize for Making Me Do My Job

The other day, my ninth graders were working on a review assignment. Mostly independent, or working through with friends, while I circulated to help out.

These were mostly things we’d learned between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so it was a little tricky to remember some of the concepts. Not a problem. That was the point of reviewing.

In more than one class, a student or two got to the fourth or fifth question they’d asked me and prefaced with this:


Sorry to bother me? Sorry I had to weave through rearranged desks to get to them? Sorry they had so many questions?

Well, at least one said it was the last one. “Sorry, I have a lot of questions.”

Mind-boggling, from my perspective.

I guess there are teachers who prefer that their students work in silence while the teacher sits at their desk and does their own thing. And okay, I admit, there are days when I’m exhausted and sitting down sounds really nice.

But like I said to my students … “What are you apologizing for? Why do you think I’m here?”

Helping students is what makes teaching fun. Seeing them piece things together until they understand. It’s certainly not about hearing myself lecture from the front of the room.

If you have kids, make sure they know they should never feel like they have to apologize for asking a teacher to do her job.

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A Teen Type Missing in YA Lit (Thank Goodness!)

Young adult novels (contemporary and otherwise) manage to fit a lot of different types of teenagers. Artsy types. Bookish types. Sporty types. Loner types. Popular types. Aggressive types. Passive types. Sometimes characters who are more than one at the same time.

I always appreciate the variety. I like finding novels with characters similar to students who don’t seem to be represented so much in pop culture. A particular type stood out to me this week, though, and I realized I don’t recall ever reading a character that quite matched up with it.

The whiners.

And please, my fellow YA authors, don’t feel any need to change that.

I’m not talking about teens who get whiny now and then. That happens, both in fiction and in life. Part and parcel of being not-quite-kid, not-quite-adult. No, I’m talking about teens who do nothing. But. Complain.

All. Day. Long.

I can barely take it for an hour at a time with those students. If I had to read it in a book, that book would get put down and never picked up again.

And from a math teacher standpoint, let me just say that complaining that it’s hard and you don’t get it before I’ve even started explaining anything isn’t conducive to learning. It doesn’t endear the student to their more open-minded classmates, either.

If you know someone like this in real life, please find a way to rehabilitate them. When you find a successful method for doing so, drop me a line.

I could use the help.

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"Teasing Your Friend" Doesn’t Make It Funny or Okay

Warning: A rant is about to ensue.

It’s nothing new. I imagine people have been tossing “joking” insults at their friends since the dawn of time, and especially boys. You’ve probably heard the type:

“Joe, you’re such a girl.” (Having two X chromosomes is an insult?)

“Hey, Larry likes guys.” (Besides it being untrue, what’s your point?)

“You’re so gay, Jeff.” (“Gay” as a vague catch-all synonym for stupid, clumsy, goofy, or whatever would actually fit the situation? … Must not kill the children with my laser-eyes.)

That’s when it’s tame, and I’ll let your imagination fill in when it’s not. I’m sure there’s some psychological/sociological explanation about male posturing, establishing dominance, or some other testosterone-fuelled phenomenon.

It drives me nuts.

What can I do about it? Probably not much. I try to take the extra moment for a stern “None of that in my classroom,” but it’s always met by the same thing:

“I’m just playing. Joe and I are buds. He knows I’m kidding.”

The kidding aspect of it doesn’t make it okay. I try to get that across (and get the class back on track with math, please-oh-please). It’s very trying-to-empty-the-ocean-with-an-eyedropper. When I briefly mentioned it on Twitter the other day, I added the hashtag #CallMeSisyphus.

Super frustrating. I’m not stopping anytime soon, though.

Here’s one reason why, aside from the fact that such “insults” are offensive, annoying, and unintelligent.

I know a guy, former student, now an adult, who’s come out. I imagine him sitting in my classroom years ago. I imagine those stupid comments getting tossed around every single day. Back then, I was a new teacher who barely knew how to keep thirty teenagers from killing each other for forty-five minutes, much less having her ears tuned in to the random banter. So, I really don’t know if it’s gotten worse, or if I was just too stressed about not knowing what the heck I was doing to notice.

But even assuming such comments weren’t lobbed at him directly (best-case scenario), I imagine how hearing it over and over made him feel.

Possibly he would have felt a little like I do when I hear that first type of insult: “You’re such a girl,” etc. Kind of like I feel when someone tells a guy they throw like a girl, and I want to respond with, “Yeah? Let me show you how to kick like a girl.”

The feeling is that even if it’s in so-called teasing, it holds an inherent assumption that being female or being gay or whatever is automatically inferior. Not worthy of respect.

Never mind that we’re human beings. All of us.

And I know I’ve said it before, but I don’t like this “looking-down” attitude on any front. Not Republicans talking trash about Democrats. Not atheists saying the religiously inclined are idiots.

You don’t have to agree with someone to show them respect. And it’s really not that hard.

Now, if only I could convince a few fourteen-to-fifteen-year-olds of that.

Any ideas?

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Parental Priorities

This one’s not exactly about math. It’s kind of about math, but more education in general.

I’m not one to judge right and wrong ways of parenting. A lot of things have to depend on the individual child’s needs, the family’s background and values, etc. But I have some observations about different types of parents.

There are parents who apologize profusely for their kids missing school for legitimate reasons, like medical issues. Then there are those who check their kids out of class to go get smoothies.

It’s not like either extreme is always great or always terrible. Sometimes the kids who miss for doctor’s appointments aren’t great about getting caught up on what they miss, and sometimes the smoothie-getting kids are.

Still, I wonder what message the smoothie-run parents are trying to send. That they’re a cool parent? That sometimes you have to give yourself a mental-health break? (I can agree with that on occasion.)

What message are the kids getting? Like I said, those kids are often okay with making up what they miss. They’re usually kids who clearly believe school is important, at least to some degree. But what about other students, who know why their classmate misses a class or two in the middle of the day? What does it say to them about where their priorities belong?

I don’t know. I do know that with math in particular, if you miss a component or two and don’t catch it up, you risk being very lost on concepts that follow. If you don’t solidify basic equation solving, for instance, you’ll have a very hard time with most other topics in algebra.

Most parents do the best they can, especially considering the bull-headedness of some teenagers. Some teens already understand the importance of their education, even the parts that don’t immediately seem relevant. Others take a while to figure that out.

I just hope parents aren’t delaying that understanding.

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