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As we inch closer and closer to the end of the year, I’m focusing on reinforcing the skills we covered in class, teaching some new stuff, and zeroing-in on character development. My students have been off the wall lately and I don’t know if it is because we haven’t had a break since New Years or if I’m getting overly comfortable with their antics. Something tells me it is a little of both. Today I tamped down on the behaviors by being more aggressive with my classroom management system and I think it helped calm everyone. Fortunately we are only a few days from spring break!
Over the past few weeks two of my students have started the process of being evaluated for Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). I’m really pleased by this because I didn’t think it would actually happen this year. Milwaukee Public Schools has a reputation for taking their time in coming out to non-district schools for evaluations; however, the staff I’ve been working with is top-notch and I am grateful to have them as partners for my two students right now. The parents of the two boys being evaluated have been hesitant about their children being labeled with learning disabilities, but I’ve finally won them over with the argument that this will only help them advocate for their children as they move to different schools next year. At my school, our staff has had two or three years to really get to know these boys in a small-classroom environment. If they don’t get help now, it could be another year or two before anyone identifies their needs and starts the process again.
I also worry about my students with poor attendance records. One of my two girls made great strides from her beginning to her mid-year assessment, but there were so many questions where she gave me a blank stare because she simply forgot topics we learned in class. She has been out a lot because she just moved and is living out of our bus zone. But, at parent teacher conferences I spoke to her aunt and I think she is staying closer to school during the week now. I guess that’s a small victory.
As I reflect back on the year so far I am please with the successes of my scholars and optimistic about the future of my struggling students. I did, however, have some more humbling experiences over the past month.
One part of my day-to-day life that doesn’t cease to shock me is the presence of violence in my students’ lives. When I was in kindergarten, I didn’t think to play with guns. I wasn’t as mature as my students. Violence always made me uncomfortable. Hell, violence still makes me uncomfortable! Given my anxiety, I was pushed over the edge when, mid-lesson, one of my boys quietly pretended to have a machine gun and amused himself by motioning his interlocked fingers across the room. I stopped what I was saying. I told him to repeat what he did with his hands. He refused. I told him he wasn’t in trouble. This went on for about five minutes until he recreated the scene. I asked how many people he would have hurt had he held a real gun. We counted seven. I asked what would have happened to those people had he held a real gun. We all agreed they would have died on the spot. Rather than just telling my students “No!” when they build guns with their linking cubes or motion across the room with their fingers, I felt like I needed to explain why I don’t like guns. I think they understood, and I’ve seen a lot fewer guns since that day.
To continue on the subject of violence, it hurts to know that my students go home and can’t really play outside because their parent’s know the state of their neighborhoods. I helped one parent with enrollment forms the other week and as I sat in the same room as four generations of family, I realized that their lives are tough. My school doesn’t require me to make home visits to my students. Because I have strong relationships with my students’ parents I haven’t really thought about visiting homes, either. But driving to that house and stepping inside made me realize what a refuge school can be for our students. This boy is hyperactive, but he has no room to move at home because he lives with five other people! No wonder he runs around my room! It was eye opening to me.
The ups and downs of the past month and whole school year remind me why I am doing this work. My director walked into my room last month and told a student “There are people in this world who can’t read as good as you. Think about that.” As I saw a look of seriousness cross his face I almost cried. We’ve done an injustice in this country if our inner-city students don’t read and write as well as their suburban peers. He can go on and succeed next year, but it makes me sick to know that there’s a disgustingly disproportionate number of young black children we’ve failed. I can close the achievement gap in my classroom, but I don’t know what it will take to close it across Milwaukee, Detroit, or the nation.