Friday, September 30, 2011

The Battle for Next to Last

Several years ago, I was inexplicably talked into taking on the job of coaching cross country. I was a sprinter in high school and college, so the only thing I knew about distance runners was that they:
a. Left practice for long periods of time.
b. Ran outside in ANY weather.
c. Were more often than not, just a little bit weird.

"Just go run" was heard quite a bit that first year. I have since made it my job to know everything there is to know about aerobic conditioning, anaerobic conditioning, tempo runs, intervals and fartleks.*

Caught unawares, I was a stranger in a strange land at my first cross country meet. You want to see some intense competition, head over to the Wamego Invitational on the second Saturday in September. Simply amazing.

I had coached volleyball and basketball the few years before this, and was unprepared for the radical beating my coaching philosophy was about to take. At a volleyball tournament, my team had been smothered by an unbelievable group of eight girls whose coach never even spoke to them during the entire match. The girls knew what to do. They pressured each other. The corrected each other. They substituted themselves. Their coach had them trained.

Of course, being young and dumb as I was**, I jumped at the opportunity to talk to this coach in the hospitality room. He described his practices and philosophy. I can remember asking him if every girl in the school wanted to be a part of his team and whether or not he had to cut anyone. He said, no, he didn't have to worry about that because he created such an intense atmosphere that they cut themselves. I can remember thinking what a great idea that was and how that was the type of team I wanted to create. I even scribbled a note on the program about it.

Fast forward to me now in charge of a completely different world. I was digging through one of my many "Idea" file folders where I found that old program. I can remember that tournament like it was yesterday. I can see the faces and hear the voices. I can remember how I felt when I thought I had figured out the secret to a great team. I sat down in my chair and stared at that paper and thought, "what an idiot I was."

And then I thought, "what a jerk he was."

Being a part of what I am now, I can't imagine treating kids in the way that coach obviously did. I can't imagine putting a child in an environment where she felt like a loser whose only option was to quit something she once loved.

Now, I will grant you that cross country is not exactly a team sport, so the dynamics involved are somewhat different. But I will also tell you that everyone, everyone, is welcome on my team. I don't care what size or shape you come to me, you have a home here.

This year, I have Nate. Nate should be a part of our offensive line, but hated playing football. As you may well imagine, he is not one of my top runners. He is my bottom runner. Actually, he is everyone's bottom runner. Nate routinely finishes last. He's okay with that, and I'm okay with that. I put an immense focus on personal records (PRs) for my kids and would rather they improve in every race than medal***.

This year, there is a boy from a neighboring school who runs just about at Nate's pace (think turtles, only slower). This makes for some incredibly interesting finishes. The last race of the day. Everyone else is finished and possibly even cooled down. And here come the two last place finishers.

Cross country, I have found, is a sport where everyone encourages everyone else, no matter what uniform they are wearing. There is something about running several miles in a row that just makes people want you to do your best. So the scene at our last meet was just incredible. A hundred or so kids and adults lining the course, cheering on the two people left out there. Nate would surge ahead. The other boy would take back the lead. Nate would make his move. Kids are screaming. Arms are flailing. You would have thought it was for Olympic gold. It was one of the most intense sporting moments I have ever witnessed. 

When it was all over, I heard not a single negative comment. Both kids were congratulated. Both kids came away feeling like they gave it their all and did the best they could do. There were no snide remarks about the last place finisher. There was no one making fun of the "big, fat kid who can't run*."

There is hope for our future.

*To become a true distance coach, you must be able to tell a group of adolescent boys to go run a fartlek and not crack a smile.
**Oh, alright, often still am.
***Don't get me wrong, I love medals and winning, but for some kids, winning is defined in looser terms.
*This is how Nate describes himself.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Late Thunderstorm

It is happening again.

Today we whiteboarded the first worksheet over density. We had discussed our lab yesterday and talked about what the relationship was between mass and volume.

The grumblings have started. I didn't teach them about density! That thirty minute discussion we had yesterday? Oh, we were supposed to pay attention to that?

The good news is that this particular rumbling is occurring a whole ten days later than last year! And it wasn't so much a mutiny as it was just general complaining.

So at this rate, in about 17 years, I shouldn't get any grumbling until after school breaks for the summer. I can't wait :)

All in all, this year is going so much better than last year. I think there are several reasons for this, not the least of which is that I feel much more comfortable with the environment I want to create. Last summer my Modeling class ended in July and I rushed in and, well, just rushed in. I hadn't taught "real" chemistry in several years, so was a bit out of practice and at the same time trying to radically change how these kids expected to be taught. This year, I at least am familiar with the material and the process and have been able to go into class with an actual plan. And I think word got out from last year's group and so the kids' expectations were different coming in.

I know it's early in the year, but I still don't have my classroom climate where I would like it to be. We were in the middle of a discussion today when an administrator knocked on my door and had to talk to me RIGHT NOW. I asked the class to continue on and come to a consensus. Um, yeah, that didn't quite happen. The discussion apparently came to a screeching halt and uncontrolled chaos reigned.

I can handle that. There is something about having a specific problem to tackle, even if you aren't sure how.

I'm just glad that this year my kids aren't openly plotting my demise.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Larger Than Life

Isn't it sad that the only time I will ever know who truly loves me will be at my funeral?

We said good-bye today to a man whose full influence can never possibly be measured.

I talked Bud into taking the head track coach position a few years ago and truly had no idea what I was getting into. Bud was a unique mix of old school football coach and teddy bear. He loved his teams and he loved the competition. And he wasn't afraid to let you know either one. His pregame pep talks often ended in tears when he talked about what he believed you could do.

As we waited around the football field for his final farewell, I watched as hundreds of people gathered in memory of a person who had been so important in their lives. It was an amazing site, though upon reflection, not entirely surprising. It often took us half an hour to walk across the parking lot to get to a track meet. The man knew every coach in the state.

It's days like this that remind me of one of the most amazing (and frightening) aspects of this job. All of those eyes that are always watching me. Those kids who sit in the back and never make a sound. Kids who eagerly sign up for any activity you decide to sponsor. All it takes is one inadvertent comment about something totally unrelated. That one comment could lift a child up. Or it could tear him down. And I might never even know it.

I'm not sure I can ever hope to leave anywhere near the legacy that Bud left behind. I was blessed to have been able to coach with and learn from him. I, like so many others, am a better person because he touched my life.

And I have no doubts that he is up there, right now, teaching the angels to play football.

Friday, September 23, 2011

What He Truly Believes

I have a student in one of my classes who is kind of hard to like.

Now, I can count on one hand the number of students over the years that I honestly could not stand. He is not one of them.

He is loud. He can't read. He is argumentative. He resists doing work (probably because he can't read). His normal speaking voice always sounds like an argument. But all those things don't mean that I dislike him.

I put up with a lot in my classroom. If I didn't, I would have most of my class in the office everyday. I work really hard to remember that these are kids. They are learning who they want to be and some of them are overcoming amazing obstacles simply by getting to school every day. Part of my job is to teach them science. The other part of my job, like it or not, is to model good behavior and to show those kids what is and is not appropriate in a school setting. I can't do either of those things if they aren't in my room.

Today, my "low" kids had a wonderful discussion about energy and states of matter. The kids (all of them!) were interested and participated  in the discussion (where are all the administrators today?) and ended up with all the conclusions I had hoped they would.

As the bell is ringing and the kids are headed out, he turns to me, dead serious, very matter-of-fact and says, "Mrs. Schroeder, I'm really glad that you don't think I'm stupid."

I cried.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Teacher Tip #5

If something like Google Earth or Stellarium is cool enough to use in your classroom, it is totally worth thirty minutes or so to let the kids play around before getting down to business.

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