Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Wednesday before vacation

Wow--just wow.

And there are still two more days?

Tomorrow and Friday we are learning about the Bill of Rights. Or is it more accurate to say that I will be teaching about the Bill of Rights? I surely* want them to learn. We'll have "translations" of each right, we'll create pictograms that incorporate the number of the right with its meaning (picture a bear holding a gun-shaped number two), we'll chant--but will they LEARN? Only one way to find out...

[*Don't call me Shirley.]

Thursday, December 10, 2009

a little low...

There are such highs and lows in this line of work; I'm experiencing a bit of a dip at the moment.

I and many of my colleagues are reading The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need--And What We Can Do About It by Tony Wagner.

We had a wonderful meeting; the book is interesting and so are the people I work with. But I left feeling terrible. The gap between what I believe is best for my kids and their current reality is vast. The gap between the teacher I aspire to be and my current reality is equally wide. The gap between our culture's obsession with fame, pleasure, instant gratification and ease, and the road to true satisfaction and success and joy is even wider.

If there were any sand in my house, I'd be inclined to bury my head today. I need to take a walk and breathe the December air, and try to remember what is most important about any of our lives or jobs on a daily basis: love and conscientious effort, love and conscientious effort.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

tragedy in the bungalow on a Tuesday

Oh little birdie
I will keep my blinds lowered
In your memory

Bye Bye Birdie

Note from my sub: "Toward the end of the period, a little sparrow flew into the classroom! I saw it & quietly walked toward it, so as not to make a scene. It flew in an arc across the room & smacked into a window, and dropped to the floor, dead. I grabbed some paper towels & carried it outside. I put a little cross ...on the window as a memorial for the poor little birdie : ) So much for not making a scene."

This just happened to happen in my big ol' huge toughest class.

So now there is a yellow cross on one of the windows, inscribed: "R.I.P. Little Birdie". So sad. School is supposed to be a safe place.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Scantron: love/hate

Normally the tests I give have a smattering of matching, some "use the vocabulary word in a sentence that demonstrates you know its meaning", and an abundance of short answer and mini-essay questions. They take HOURS of brutal boredom to score. Such a test is a snapshot into a kid's brain--I can see what they comprehend and where they make connections and where their thinking is fuzzy or their understanding is lacking.

With a Scantron™ test, students bubble in responses. The tests take minutes to grade, and I can see which questions were missed most. But I can't see how they interpreted a question to arrive at a "wrong" answer that actually does best align with their interpretation.

Worse yet, I can't tell with a Scantron™ test if my questions are well-or poorly-designed. See, I try to design even multiple choice tests expecting kids to think about their responses. I do not believe much in rote memorization, and even my Scantron™ tests reflect that. They are not generally straightforward; they require making inferences.

Well, the kids BOMBED their first Lola Scantron™.And now the tension in my head: did I do a poor job teaching this? Or did they blow off studying because I told them it would be a multiple choice test, or did they rush through it without deeper thought?

Can't tell. It's hard to go forward without a diagnosis...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Book Club: The Global Achievement Gap

Our professional book club starts soon. We will be reading a book that posits that our schools are failing to teach students the skills they need to succeed in the best jobs around because we are too busy "teaching to the test", the Almighty state standards test that NCLB mandates.

Before I go further, have any of these critics seen the tests that are being taught to?

Is it possible for a multiple choice test to measure critical thinking?

I really want to know. In my class, tests always have a healthy portion of short answer/essay questions, and the homework I assign/design requires originality and thought. Hmmm...

Monday, November 9, 2009

swine flew....

Oh H1N1
Take your filthy snout and fly
Far away from here


It's here. It's nasty. It's H1N1.

Yet I am not worried; I am likely immune. Oh, I wash my hands, use Clorox™ wipes on desk tops, make any kid who sneezes wash hands, even kids who correctly sneeze into their elbows.

See, I work daily among the least hygienic demographic in the universe, beat out only by dirt-eating babies and poop-throwing chimps. Last week I was grading one set of a test while another class was taking it, when in dismay I found SOMETHING, something organic and bloody and gooey on a test. I let out a shriek--involuntary, I assure you--and when the class saw what I saw, they were just as appalled. "Is that a BOOGER?!?" one gasped. My stomach flopped.

I am not making this up.

I stopped and considered. This was something gross that was visible. What about all the microbes and freaky germs that crawl around that we can't see? A person could go crazy dwelling on the unseen. So I'm not going to do it. I will offer prayers for mercy and grace during this outbreak, I will offer love and service and support to the afflicted, but I will not allow it to consume my thoughts.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Thomas Jefferson, Darth Vader, and Chuck Norris

You're lucky Hello Kitty isn't listed in the title. (Then again, of 27 kids in the class, only nine are girls; H.K. got cut in the final round, beating out Waldo, dinosaurs, and others.)

The kids are creating their own translation of the Declaration of Independence, each kid re-writing a section into 8th-grade friendly terms. And because it's not just fun and ridiculous but also working the critical thinking skills, the pictures that illustrate their translations have to be Star Wars based and include Chuck Norris. I let the kids vote on the theme and this is what they chose.

Hey, what could be more American?

My Incongruous Seminar Kids

The Declaration 
of Independence, Star Wars,
and Chuck Norris: whoa!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

maybe almost nearly possibly mostly

Sunday after church was:

me and a stack of papers
me avoiding another stack of papers, the ones I really need to do
planning like crazy (spending waaay too much time with Edgar Allan Poe)
checking FB as a reward every ten minutes
one hour nap
and mostly spinning out like an eighth grader, inwardly groaning about all I needed to get done.

 If I had just sat down and powered through, I'd maybe be almost nearly possibly mostly done. 

Not even close.
Didn't even watch the Charger game.

In this economic climate--and in this world--and as a follower of Jesus, I am loth to whine, but gotta tell the truth: it does get a little old, spending half the weekend working when I am supposed to be resting and refueling.

First break = 11/11, and I hereby commit to doing NO SCHOOL RELATED WORK THAT DAY. Unless I have to, that is.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fighting the Good Fight against Spoonfeeding

Ay ay ay ay.

The Declaration of Independence is tough. And I have these high expectations that they will be able to understand it. I demand they understand it. I FORCE them to understand it. 

Darn near kills me every year. 

We have a TCI game where we use context clues to match key portions of the document with "translations". Then we view famous people reading it aloud. ("Hey, that's Whoopi Goldberg! And that guy who was in 'The Patriot' "!) Then we discuss its ideals and take notes. Then they create a booklet wherein they "translate" it into their own words and illustrate each section. Um, they are allowed to use the results of the TCI game. They really only have to "translate" two parts:  OK, so:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

OK, so it's not simple. But with Mr. Dictionary, Mr. Textbook and all his margin notes, with me as their fearless instructor who TOLD them what it means, I know they can do this. But oh the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth! I am so meaaaannn! I make them think!!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

i must remember
the relentless tyranny 
of 8th grade friendship

texting is but a
new form of validation
of one's existence

am i the only
one who thinks cell phones and teens
are like drugs and teens?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Open House is coming! Dun dun dunnnnn!

Open House is this week! If this Thursday you wonder why there seems to be four extra hours in the day, the working part of the day, that's because whatever day Open House is scheduled on mysteriously--scientifically--metaphorically--becomes the Longest Day of the Year.

It's like the first day of school, butterflies included.
It's like looking at a high school year book of the future ("Oh! So that's what little Johnny will look like in 28 years!").
It's like doing standup while sitting down.
It's like being a psychologist ("That's little Johnny's mom? Wow, that explains so much...").
It's like being on a slide under the microscope of sometimes hostile scientists.
It's like being a radio celebrity on the red carpet ("Wow, I've heard about you. You look different than I'd imagined...").

It's being caught between the urge to "clean house" to make a pleasant impression and the desire to show the grim and sometimes odiferous realities of cramming 38 thirteen year olds into an ancient bungalow.

Pray for me!!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Today in English Class

Sometimes everything
works even better than you
dared to imagine--

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Writer's Notebooks & a Literary Gift

I'm grading them. Just a modest stack, because the class is tiny--only 27. Of course there are two space cadets with lame excuses. But I am reading S's, and she shared part of Langston Hughes' "Freedom's Plow" with me--wrote it out on her own, even.  And though there is a part of me, a cynical calloused part that has worked decades with Artful Dodgers, less-than-honest 8th graders too long to believe that everyone who shares stuff with the teacher does it without a hidden Eddie Haskell motive, I believe this girl is for real.  She wrote out these first few stanzas:

Freedom's Plow


 When a man starts out with nothing,
When a man starts out with his hands
Empty, but clean,
When a man starts to build a world,
He starts first with himself
And the faith that is in his heart-
The strength there,
The will there to build.

First in the heart is the dream-
Then the mind starts seeking a way.
His eyes look out on the world,
On the great wooded world,
On the rich soil of the world,
On the rivers of the world.

The eyes see there materials for building,
See the difficulties, too, and the obstacles.
The mind seeks a way to overcome these obstacles.
The hand seeks
 tools to cut the wood,
To till the soil, and harness the power of the waters.
Then the hand seeks other hands to help,
A community of hands to help-
Thus the dream becomes not one man’s dream alone,
But a community dream.
Not my dream alone, but our dream.
Not my world alone,
But your world and my world,
Belonging to all the hands who build.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And I read this and got tears in my eyes because this is my September Dream. Every year without fail, I want this community dream. I want Us. I want Ours. I look at the rich soil and the woods, the obstacles, all these students and their potential and challenges...the September Dream drives me on for moments like this, infinite in potential and awash with kid love. I have the best job in the world. I get to be with people like S. 

Friday, September 25, 2009

baby owls tipping left and atlas rally caps

Whoa, you think as you read the title. Has the deadly hot bungalow damaged Lola's brain?

Nope, it is just the new reality of teaching seminar kids (SKs, if you will). SKs are the top one percent of gifted kids. That still doesn't explain the title unless you are an SK yourself or are the teacher or parent of one.

So for history review, we are playing a game-show type game with the left side of the class competing against the right side. I call them Lefties and Righties, and immediately the Lefties make Ls out of their forefingers and thumbs and stick it on their foreheads. One kid is bouncing back and forth, and I remark, "So you are an equal opportunity bouncer?" "Oh no," says the kid, and immediately tips only to the left. The kids with Ls to their foreheads incorporate the tipping left. They cheer for their teammates with a gentle "whoo whoo" and when I say they sound like baby owls, they tip faster and increase the intensity of their whoo whoo-ing.

The game is close and the kids are competitive. The Righties are annoyed by the Lefties' unity and by their strange but compelling cheer. They are even more annoyed when the Lefties take an early lead and hold it almost the whole period. But in the last minutes of class, M ties the score, having defeated several Lefties in a row. B yells, "Righty Rally!" and grabs an atlas, opening it up and wearing it on his head. "Rally cap! Rally cap!" chant the Righties, and now there is a sea of atlas rally caps on the right side of the room. Up walks BC to challenge M; he is a Lefty powerhouse and the chanting and whoo whooing and tipping crescendo--whomever wins the next point wins the game. "It's the FI-NAL COUNT-DOWWWN!" shrieks a child, tipping maniacally, and the whole class starts singing this song. "How do you all know this song?" I query. "It's by Europe and it's from a commercial!" "Wow, sounds cool." One Lefty stops tipping long enough to say, "I have it on my iPod. We could play it while M and BC face off." Cognizant that this is wasting an instructional minute but realizing that bonding moments in teaching must be grasped like the brass rings that they are, I let him pop it in my brand new iPod compatible boom box (thanks, Best Buy), and now every kid is quivering with excitement and singing heartily to the throbbing beat.

And right as M wins the match, the bell rings. Perfect timing, perfect day: baby owls tipping left and atlas rally caps.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


I never want to
But sometimes, unbidden, tears
slip away, away....

Sunday, September 20, 2009

day of rest

Poised between thought and
execution, Sunday is
suspended in time

Friday, September 18, 2009

Visitors= Love

The wheelchair ramp that leads to my classroom affords me an early view of former students coming to visit, smiles wide, heads bobbing with purpose, pushing up the ramp. My heart swells a bit, acknowledging the effort and planning it took for these adolescents to put aside other endeavors to come visit my bungalow way at the back of the school. Generally it's delightful to get caught up, to hear tales of high school and rites of passage.


Today is FRIDAY. It was a billion degrees in the classroom. My brain is mush. My emotional giving tank is on empty, and I am officially off the clock. I know it's the highest compliment, but my heart sank as three sets of kids came by today to say hello, a junior and some freshmen. I just couldn't stay in that nasty box a moment more. "Guys, I'm leaving as fast as I can, sorry," I call out. One freshie queries, "Why?" and is truly surprised at my alacrity to leave.

I suppose that's part of the compliment: that I love teaching so much that I reluctantly go home every night. Or perhaps it's a mild putdown, that anyone who pours so much into teaching must have no personal life.

All I know is that when it's a billion degrees, peace out and catch you later. 

Friday Afternoon Visitors

Your eyes open wide
when I say I'm leaving as 
soon as I can. 

Friday, September 11, 2009

First Week: the naming of names

I'd like to sound stirred and passionate, but I really am just tired.

The kids are overwhelmingly wonderful.  They happen to come with all these names, though.  I generally delight in names that are unusual, but navigating them the first week can be tricky. Kids can be very touchy if you pronounce their names--part of their identity!--incorrectly, charging you with the responsibility to get it right even though their parents were the ones who gave them unpronounceable, highly unusual, totally made up names.  This year I have Wuences who goes by David. Wonder why. I have Desteniey, pronounced destiny, but all weirdly spelled. In the past I had an Antione, but not pronounced "Ant-y-on" as it looks, but as it should be if it were spelled correctly: "Antoine." That same year I had an Antwan. At least it was phonetically easy. One year I had a girl whose full name was Mi Y. Yep, a one letter last name. Care to pronounce that? 

It also would help if people didn't all name their kids Austin and Justin and Taylor and Alexis and Alexandra and Alex and Tyler and Caitlin and Katelyn and Kaitlynne. Last year we had a set of identical twins whose names were Jonatan and Jonatas. (Yes, you read that correctly). So far I have almost every one remembered, ahead of the learning curve, but stumble over which girl is Katrina and which is Katarina in the same class. Of course. 

first day

they came in new clothes,
sat in old chairs, and they were
utterly precious

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Beatles and Big Tuesday

Almost there.

The desks are ready, books neatly covered and placed at right angles, each covered by a worn atlas. The whiteboard has the day's agenda (well, the history agenda, anyway).  Copies of the first week's work are in trays, awaiting distribution (well, the history work, anyway).  Almost everything is in place--only the reading books remain, and that is easy. 

Most of the kind and fabulous women in the English department met with me and helped me figure out the first week, and the other kind and fabulous woman lent me a complete unit for the second week. I still have a bajillion questions about how not to teach what they already know, how to find out what they don't, how to use the diagnostics that are supposed to answer those two questions, how to make sure I hit it all, how to really give these kids what they deserve. I can't live up to that, though, because. Because I won't be very good my first year.  I try to reconcile myself to that. I won't be terrible, far from it. I will get better. But it's the law of the rookie, the greenie, the beginner. I bring energy and drive and willingness, but they aren't substitutes for know-how! 

The task here is twofold. 
1) Do my best
2) Don't beat myself up for falling short of how effective I want to be

Unlike my classroom, my teaching is not almost there. But because of the kind and the fabulous, with the support of all the resources I graciously have been given, by following in the surer footsteps of others--like the Beatles sang, it's gonna be all right.

Windex? Ha!

We attack brown dust 
that, phoenix-like, despite all,
reappears somehow...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

yet ANOTHER superintendent

Had Alan Bersin. He implemented so many positive reforms! What a shame his bedside manner was so lousy that he alienated most of the people who now benefit from his shake ups. He left for a more powerful position working for Ahnold up in Sacramento, and now he is working for Obama as the border czar. His legacy = focus on literacy.

Got Carl Cohn. Genial. Silent. He held "Cookies with Carl" meetings to listen to the people. His legacy = a new logo (he didn't like SDCS having a different one than SDUSD) and cookie crumbs.

Got Terry Grier. He implemented something called SMART goals where we had to fill in paper grids on everything imaginable using this little acronym.  His legacy = acre upon acre of deforestation and--brace yourself--a new logo. 

The new logo was announced in the same letter he announced his probable acceptance of a position in Texas that will pay twice what San Diego does, and will have half the headaches.

Boy, can't wait for that new logo. That oughtta really improve education, right?

Super Duper

come and go like fashion; leave
us new logos--thanks.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Wait, don't bring it!

I went in again today for another 2 1/2 hours, and this time? I dug deep, kids, but I am wiped out. 

Knocked out another few shelves. 
Filled another can. 
Recycled another ream. 
Took more stuff home to organize.


Know how your closet looks when you decide it's time to really deal with it? Yeah, well that's my classroom. It has to look worse before it looks better. (shhhh, that's what I'm telling myself.)

I go in on Monday morning,  but that is more of a planning time (and social too, not gonna lie). After lunch I'll try to give it a few more hours, energized by hope and planning. 

Right now, though, I feel like a tsumani just hit me. Nap time, big time.


What have I unleashed--
opened one little closet:
paper tsunami!!!!!!

Bring it!

I went in yesterday! Room's all sparkly and shiny. :-)

When you return to your classroom after summer vacay, there is so much work to be done before you can get any work done. Lemme 'splain.

You have to remove everything from the surfaces of the class so the custodial crew can work their magic. So that means all the stuff sitting on all the surfaces (pencil holders, tickler file, framed picture of Aunt Margaret) has to go in a closet somewhere. And THAT means when you return, all of the Sitting Stuff has to be pulled out and put back before you can get to the juicy curriculum and organizational challenges!

This year there is another level of challenge for me. I will be teaching English for the first time since 1914, you recall, and the retiring teacher graciously left me the units she developed. What a precious gift! Ah, but the Precious Gift (six boxes!) needs a home. So I spent almost three hours in my jigsaw puzzle classroom, weeding out, making decisions, and making room.

I am so glad I did. The anxiety cloud is less dense. And I was hit again by that tingly anticipation of what could be The Best Teaching Year Ever. I'll know it's time to retire if I feel dread, but every year I am so dang excited!! In fact, I'm going back for round two today! Bring it!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


The anxiety cloud is hovering.

What the heck will happen in English class? Some of my friends are going back to school way early. We are to report back three days before the kids, but these teachers are going back three and two weeks earlier. I only go back one day early just to devote attention to my room and the Almighty Copy Machine.

Maybe peace of mind is worth it. Maybe I am making a big deal over something that isn't.

I get a teeny resentful about allowing my career to impinge upon my vacation (see post entitled "Used to" below...).

Should I go in early and dispel the cloud? Or take my novel to Starbucks and the beach and carpe these diems?


anxiety cloud
raining on my teacher soul...
call it "September"

Friday, August 14, 2009

money money

How much do teachers spend every year on their kids and classrooms and supplies?

Dunno. I only know how much I spend each year.

I have begun the annual spree. At Office Depot I dropped $118, and Target another $10. It's not even September yet! I buy donuts for some classes, candy for rewarding answers and participation SeaWorld-style (like when the trainer gives the sea lion a dead fish for barking on cue). I haven't even been in my classroom yet to know what else I'll need--well I know I need a new CD player--, but fifty cents for a comp book is a great bargain, and I like to hand some out on the first day to kids who raise their hands first, just to show them that engagement itself can be a reward. 

[Some years I spend more than others. Last year I sent away for a talking Thomas Jefferson doll ( I put him in the closet and FORGOT I HAD HIM!! OK, so that was dumb. But this year TJ is in the house. Fo shizzle. I will be sure to post the day my presidential purchase makes his first middle school appearance!]

$$$o Far....

Fifty cents will buy
A bound composition boo(I bought twenty five)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


what if....
teacher taught kids the way she'd
want her own kids taught

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Used to

Used to feel a little guilty on Monday mornings, rising at 9, finding the gym empty, reading book after book on the balcony, ordering take-out sushi. Or as guilty as a person can feel when she is blissed out.

But one day it dawned on me: I work nearly every Saturday of the school year for at least three or four hours, often more. Some days I work Sundays, too. I am at school for an average of nine hours a day. And I cannot use the restroom or walk away from my desk or any of those mini-breaks that most professionals do to refresh their spirits. (Five minute passing periods are like blinking and the exiting kids from period 2 always overlap with the entering kids for period 3.) What it boils down to is that my two month summer vacation is all my Saturdays and many Sundays and potty breaks and water cooler breaks and "let me just step outside and quiet my mind" breaks all strung together like pearls!

Used to feel guilty, and now I feel fine, just fine.

summer days

"Summer days".... these words
dance, long and warm in my heart,
but end before I--

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Plan

OK what I'm gonna do is assign each kid as one of the thirteen colonies right when we study them. The New England kids will be sitting together, the Middle Colony kids too, and of course the Southern Colonies. Then when we learn the songs, they'll likely remember at least their own and have some others to chime in together, built-in camaraderie, and since the state name tags will have the state shape on it, that's one-thirteenth of them memorized simply by association. Seeing the states of the others in their region should boost recognition, too.

(You would be shocked at how many kids do not know the names of states on a blank outline map. Oh, they can tell you the capital of Louisiana, but they can't find Louisiana.)

And then as we eventually study states' stands on historic issues, they'll have stance, just like a real congress. And as our country expands, maybe each kid will get another state on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line, so when we discuss North/South issues, they will have a deeper understanding.

Do I make and laminate cards that look all pro and use these? Nah. I think kids will have to make their own and keep it--the cards will have the OUTLINE of the state in the color of the REGION (ie, all the Middle Colonies will be green) with the NAME of the state on the back? And the ABBREVIATION on the front. Later the kids can add key facts/peeps/stances as we travel through time together. So I need to find an easy way to have kids draw their states. Choice of free hand and overhead trace, I suppose. I'll need yarn. (Can you believe it? Yarn? I don't believe I've never typed that word before...)

OK. So kids will have to keep them in their backpacks. They'll wear them first semester. I'll bring out the tricorn hats. Flava, you see. Drama, don't you know.

my new first week idea

B e M a s s a c h u s e t t s
F o l l o w S o u t h C a r o l i n a
B e c o m e h i s t o r y

Friday, July 31, 2009

Freaking out a bit...

I am a little freaked out: I will be teaching English again next year.

Mind you, I love literature and would like nothing better than to have an excuse to talk about it. I have an English credential and have taught English to 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th graders.

But that was in 1914.

OK, so maybe it was less than a decade ago, but soooo much about the WAY English is taught has changed, at our school anyway, that I wonder how the heck to teach it.

I know the basics--vocabulary. But my class will be the top 1% of the gifted kids. Should I use the program our school uses for the (warning: oxymoron imminent) normally gifted kids? Or should I get the program the 6th Seminar grade teacher loved, all about Greek and Latin roots?

Literature: the whole school reads The Diary of Anne Frank. I'm thinking Lord of the Flies and The Pearl. The Pearl and Anne Frank really have so many parallels...and LOTF is just so juicy and age-appropriate, especially since one of the things we do history as we follow the victorious colonies is evaluate human nature so as to determine what sort of government to set up to run the newborn USA.

Types of writing--narrative, expository, persuasive. I think the district gives the school outlines, and the teacher I am replacing gave me units she has developed, and she was awesome. But lordy, it's been a loooonnnngggg time since I taught How to Write a Report. BC, even (Before Computers).

And I won't have any (here it comes again) normally gifted this year. I'll have three classes of regular history, the abnormally gifted English class, and the same a.g. kids for history. I'm really quite excited about having the a.g. kids for two classes back-to-back. I just pray I can challenge and reach and excite and really educate all these 13 year olds. Well, if earnestness and effort count for anything, then there's at least that.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

25, please.

Hours, that is. I think I need an extra one every day to keep up.

See, it's crazy how much goes on at a school. I am just one person, and last week I had:
Open House (consider the prep time for that)
Bible Club
our class's auction basket to arrange
bracing for the CST (the high stakes test we take that seems to determine whether our school lives or dies)
a test with many short answers to grade
tutoring with kids before and after school
unscheduled visits from former students
a request for a 1,500 word essay and award nomination
an invitation to review a book for a publishing company
a pile of papers about whether John Brown was sane or crazy
another about the Dred Scott case.


Saturday, April 11, 2009

there's the rub...

teaching kids to write
would be so much easier
if it weren't so hard

from The Cornerstone Blog

I read this on Angela Powell's awesome blog, The Cornerstone Blog. I love what she writes, I love how she thinks, and I love that even though she teaches littler ones that the issues we encounter overlap as much as they do--the meta-issues of pedagogy and learning....Here she is:

It seems like teaching is getting harder because it IS: we’re attempting to reach more kids than we used to, and address a wider variety of issues and needs. It’s critical for educators to understand the magnitude of what we’re attempting without letting the results overwhelm us.
Low-performing students from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ and those with learning problems are no longer siphoned off into special education classrooms while we wait for them to drop out. As much as we bemoan the pitfalls of NCLB, in our daily practice we are in fact attempting to leave no child behind—not even the ones who WANT to be left to their own devices, or who don’t have the cognitive or emotional capabilities to try. And the 3 R’s are just the tip of the 21st century iceberg: we want our kids to graduate with technological and communication skills, well-developed creativity, interactive problem-solving abilities, financial savvy, an applied understanding of personal health and nutrition, environmental awareness…and the list is growing every year. We are trying to do it all, and we’re expected to succeed. Yet we cannot become discouraged when our students, our administrators, or we ourselves fail to achieve an increasingly impossible mission. When teachers become overwhelmed, the cycle of learning and growth is stopped cold.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Not-So-Super Vision

The auditorium was full of kids deemed "good" by the Powers That Be. They were consequently being "rewarded" with a movie in the auditorium, but since this was close to twenty years ago, the movie was shown on two TVs and our seats were in the back, making it hard to see or hear whatever was showing. I sat in the back with Thao, one of my wonderful students, who ignored the microscopic reward movie and took the opportunity to tell me all about whom she liked, and why, and all the various details that make up ninth grade girl drama.

As she went on nonstop in that inimitable ninth grade girl way, a stranger we presumed to be a substitute strode purposely toward us. "Young ladies, keep it down," he sternly urged. "Sorry, sir," we replied. Thao inhaled, and off she went again, but a bit more sotto voce.

Five minutes later, Stern Substitute came back, brow further furrowed, and he addressed me exclusively: "Young lady, you have done nothing but talk the whole time you've been here. It is time for you to go back to your class." Mind you, I had only said a few words the whole time ("Really?" "Wow." "No, what?"), but I grabbed my sweater and keys and stood. "Where are you going?" asked Thao, shocked that I was obeying Stern Substitute. "To my class," I shrugged, and as I headed out the door, the auditorium was filled with greetings from all the angels quieter than Thao: "Bye Miss M! Where are you going?"

I at 25 had just been mistaken for a 15 year old girl.

Later, SS found me in my class after school, surrounded by students. He apologized beautifully, and then ruined it by saying, " You have to admit, you WERE talking quite a bit!" I just smiled, but have always remembered both his huge error, his humility in seeking me out to apologize, and his persistence in his original mistaken belief. I try to keep this in mind when I am supervising--not that I have sent adults to class, but that maybe what I think I'm seeing isn't as accurate as I believe it to be.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

my goal (double haiku education on so many levels!)

to be a teacher
like jaime escalante
and mary poppins

combined into one
(but looking more like mary
than jaime, I hope)

Saturday, April 4, 2009

best sub ever?*

It was the last day before vacation
and all through the class
the kids were all quiet, no whispers, no sass,
The sub held them all in the palm of his hand
He was determined they'd all understand
the Kansas-Nebraska Act on this last day
before the kids were released--yes, he'd have his say
And I, the regular teacher, came back for some papers
was happy to see no child cutting capers
And they turned in their chairs, their eyes shining bright
"Miss M!" all broad smiles that were laced with delight
As I gathered my papers and strode out the school
I yelled,"Have a great week!" and thought, "My job is so cool!"

* and he was fine, too!

Monday, March 30, 2009

depends on your motive

"I don't understand":
a phrase launches inquiry
or prevents one's growth

baby steps

Sometimes you explain a new concept, and a student or two doesn't grasp it right away. That is to be expected, so you plan to explain it more than once, and in more than one way. You draw pictures. You have kids act out a concept. Together you connect the new learning to prior knowledge. You break a task into manageable pieces (I hate the word "chunk"-- reminds me of something waaay gross); you have students put the new learning into their own words. You have them practice.

But after all this, if a student still says she doesn't understand, it's time to size up the situation.

a) Was the student involved in the process?
b) Has the student a history of comprehension issues evidenced by reading scores or misfollowing directions?
c) Does the student generally "get it", and this is an unusual situation?

Each of these situations requires a different approach. Today, Homework Avoidance Queen M. said she didn't have her intro paragraph because she didn't understand. My teacher gut told me that she fell into secret option: d) Will do anything to avoid work, and has learned that an exasperated teacher will sometimes either excuse you or do the work for you.

Point blank, I said, "It would be refreshing if you would just say 'I forgot to do it.' "

I waited for a retort or an eyeroll that would show I hit the target, watched for a hurt eye squint and an involuntary head recoil that would prompt a swift and sincere apology from me, but what I got was a small one-sided smile: bull's eye.

At least she didn't claim I lost her assignment. Progress, perhaps? Just lying instead of lying and blaming others is, I suppose, a step in the right direction.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


Kids are not always honest, but you can tell when they are sincere. B. is a robust, fun person, a boy who is very much an 8th grader and very much someone I enjoy. His sense of humor is at the ready and he has a big ol' heart. I am older than most of my kiddos' moms by now, and the days of kids having crushes on me are gone. Still, it is very sweet to hear a kind compliment.

Staying abreast of slang is a job perk no one told me about! I learned about sick and dope and phat and tight when they came out, and now I can add "gangsta" to the list.

Friday, March 27, 2009


"You always wear such
gangsta shirts," he said, and I
smiled all day inside

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Bill (Clinton) System...

...or the BS, as I like to think of it: If you deny (or assert) something long enough, you'll be off the hook.

A few days ago I wrote about supposedly lost homework. M. was the inspiration. She told me she had turned it in (and implied that I had lost it), and furthermore told me that she had worked on the assignment with the principal.

OK, so that was easy enough to confirm, except the principal said she'd never worked on it with M.

M. insisted yes, they had worked on it together on Friday.

No, said the principal, she'd never seen that assignment before, and on Friday, they had just worked on math (my principal was a math teacher).

BUT M. CONTINUED TO ASSERT--TO THE PRINCIPAL-- THAT YES, THEY'D WORKED ON IT. Whoa. M. has waaay overplayed her hand and now is going to Saturday School.

I hope the bungalow is too hot and she has to sit next to someone with bad b.o.

i'm just gonna say it

you are a LIAR:
you lied to me, to your mom,
to the principal

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


One look at that smile and I recognized the 22 year old man the erstwhile 8th grader had morphed into. B. had been one of the "Who's Who" of the office--generally in trouble, but of the mildest kind, the type of boy who knows exactly how to dance on the line between being a nuisance and being in major doo doo. B.'s beautiful, mischievous award-winning smile* and good-natured sense of humor** had surely saved him more than once from certain death at the bare hands of frustrated teachers throughout his educational journey.

And here he was, getting permission to do some observations for (uh, did I hear him correctly?) his student teaching class. Oh, the irony! We laughed so hard together! He is going to be amazing: brains, humor, and insider's knowledge into the trappings of the adolescent male mind. This'll keep me going for at least a few years!

*he won best smile in our yearbook
** when another teacher saw the Chargers tattoo on his inner arm, she remarked, "That one musta hurt..." and he said, "Oh no, that's a birthmark..."


no mischievous kid
imagines he'll one day want
to be a teacher

Monday, March 23, 2009


So many kids across America (I may be exaggerating--maybe it's just across my district) do their HW, but don't turn it in. I just think that's fascinating. Here is a kid, he just spent a good twenty minutes of his free time completing an assignment, and he doesn't turn it in.

OK, so I think I've solved that problem. At the beginning of class, on my cue, out comes everyone's assignments and they hold the HW in front of their schweet faces. I scan, prompt the faces I can see, and once the forgetful are ready, I pass around what we call The HW Bucket. Kids put their HW in it and pass it to the next kid. The system works, and it takes care of one big problem some have had with HW.

Another problem dealt with is the old "Teacher Lost My HW!" shriek. Here's my solution: kid does HW, puts in bucket. Teacher grades papers, puts them in her tray of graded papers. After papers are passed back, all graded work is placed into folders that stay in the classroom. If a kiddo thinks she turned it in, she is invited to check her folder. Sometimes the paper is there, graded by my fabulous and doctor-worthy handwriting; the kiddo has fallen victim of "sticky paper syndrome", and I joyfully fix the gradebook. If the paper is not there, I invite the kiddo to check her notebook. Often the paper is there, but because said kiddo was absent on turn in day or something, the paper never made it into the bucket.

And sometimes the kiddo looks in both places and finds nothing. After teaching this long, I have acquired, thankfully, a little bit of understanding of human nature. My heart no longer whispers, "Believe the children!" when it comes to homework-adverse adolescents. I just brightly smile and let them know they can redo the assignment. No matter how much they wish they had it as an excuse, the following are not really plausible:
1) There is no HW black hole.
2) We are nowhere near the Bermuda Triangle.
3) I don't use their assignments as kindling as much as I'm tempted: I have a gas fireplace.

Bermuda Triangle

"But I turned it in--
I swear I did--" (trying to
buy another day)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Planning, Part 1

I love planning lessons.

It's like detective work and the Superbowl and To Sir With Love and a Marine Corps obstacle course for the brain and theater and so much more!

But this week I have to delve deep into slavery. Every year I am overwhelmed at the task, at the painful legacy, at the materials I can draw upon, and somewhat stymied by constraints of time and the vicissitudes of middle school. I am stalling the planning right now, because slavery is something every kid knows about, and no kid knows about, at the same time. I don't think our American minds can wrap around slavery. Austrian Josef Fritzl was sentenced this week for the way he abused his daughter for 24 years, and it is unthinkable. But one hundred fifty years ago, his behavior in the context of slavery would have been LEGAL. How can I hope to honor the memory of those who endured the unendurable? (Dear God, I need You to help me, because this is overwhelming.)

OK, so planning. Here is Ground Zero.

1) Figure out what you need them to know.
But good luck with this! The starting place in California public schools is THE ALMIGHTY STATE STANDARDS. Fancy committee people somewhere boiled down our nation's history into 69 topics (
when you examine them more closely, way over 200 more separate teaching points--see for yourself: But they weren't fancy enough to be specific---oh no!

Look at Standard 8.2.1: "Discuss the significance of the Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, and the Mayflower Compact." Wow--does that mean a kid needs to know what these bad boys say and imply? Or just that all three formed the springboard for self-government? VAGUE, baby, VAGUE. And the painfully funny thing is that each California kid takes a test at the end of April that may (or may not) include a question about this standard, and the question will be SPECIFIC.

So just how DO we teach about these docs? Have you taken a look at them? The shortest--only two sentences-- and most uniquely American of these is the Mayflower Compact. Take a gander:

"In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord, King James, by the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, e&. Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord, King James of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini, 1620."

OK, so one of the sentences was quite the doozy. But this is what California tells me to teach eighth graders--so that they can "discuss the significance" of it!!

I picked a hard one on purpose to make you feel sorry for me :-). Well, there are plenty of hard ones. This week, here are the my "starting point standards":

8.6.4 Study the lives of black Americans who gained freedom in the North and founded schools and churches to advance their rights and communities. (note: I will rely on the text for information about these people. "Study" is annoyingly vague, too; do the kids need to know any specific people? What exactly do they need to remember about what they study?)

8.7.2 Trace the origins and development of slavery (did this already); its effects on black Americans and on the region's political, social, religious, economic, and cultural development (dang! Is that broad and vague enough for you?); and identify the strategies that were tried to both overturn and preserve it (e.g., through the writings and historical documents on Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey). (ok, so we will look at Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey's rebellions, and we will look at Frederick Douglass's writings, and the pro-slavery writings of Solon Robinson. You can see they expect the teacher to determine which writings to use, and that, my friends, takes time, and again the question of the CST hangs over the teacher's head ).

8.7.4 Compare the lives of and opportunities for free blacks in the North with those of free blacks in the South (I'll be using the text, and God bless Al Gore for creating the internet; and we will use a T-chart to compare and contrast. Much less vague!).

8.9.1 Describe the leaders of the movement (e.g., John Quincy Adams and his proposed constitutional amendment, John Brown and the armed resistance, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Weld, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass) (Ah, specificity at last! There are seven people listed here. We don't have time to teach all seven, and we'll learn more about John Brown later on, so this week we will focus on Tubman, Garrison, and Douglass.)

8.9.6 Describe the lives of free blacks and the laws that limited their freedom and economic opportunities (back to vague again).

Enough stalling. It's time for me to move on to the second part of planning. Tune in!

Impossible... fully teach the barbaric outrage, our nation's shame: slavery

Friday, March 20, 2009

You Don't Learn this in Teacher School

So there we are, a bunch of schoolies hanging out on S.'s couch after a long Thursday, full of calamari and nachos and guac and cookies, discussing Victor VillaseƱor's Burro Genius. So the conversation turns to what only can be called "Awkward Moments in Teaching, rated PG-13."

So how are we supposed to handle the sixth graders who, in science, misread 'organism' as 'orgasm'?

So how are we supposed to teach eighth graders about the Non-Intercourse Act?

So how do we go on when a student reads aloud that Jamestown is in Vagina?

So how are we supposed to plough through a short story when Mark Twain, instead of having a character 'exclaim', has him 'ejaculate excitedly'?

Onward and upward, dear dedicated educators--red-faced, perhaps, but onward and upward.



Thursday, March 19, 2009

Declaration of Sentiments

We began by discussing their reaction to the true story about our school's boys' basketball team that won six of nine games, but lost one of them to an all-girl team. Wow--issues of manhood, assumptions about girls and sports, bias, pride--thirteen year olds have some mighty strong opinions! I love what S. said when she tired of hearing the guys trying to explain away the loss: "You got beat by girls--take it like a man!"

This launched us into the first women's rights convention, catapulted into existence by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott's experience at the London World Anti-Slavery Convention. See, they had attended the convention as ardent abolitionists, but when they were required to sit behind a curtain (??? I know!) with the rest of the women, they had a new mission.

Kids registered shock as they learned about the list of charges leveled in the Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls in 1848. These were some that shook the kiddies the most:

"...He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns...

...He has made her, morally, an irresponsible being, as she can commit many crimes, with impunity,provided they be done in the presence of her husband. In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master - the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement...

Tomorrow we will examine the gender gap in pay equity and discover why voting is so vital. My hope is that some among them will remember this lesson when they turn eighteen, thanking those who blazed the trail to make it possible.

And if even a bit of chauvinism dies, we ALL win. And if someone tells you that you throw like a girl, ask them "Which girl?" Because it just might be a compliment.


male versus female:
stereotypes prove hard to
dispel--man, oh man....

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Prodigal and the Beast

The Prodigal

D. came back to school again, and this time as she came up the ramp she searched my eyes. I ran to greet her, gave her a big squeeze and asked her if she was safe. She hugged back, saying yes, and her face registered surprise at the tears she saw brimming in mine. "I'm not trying to be nosy, but I was so worried about you. If you need to talk or need help, I'm here for you and you can reach me on school email..." Her smile was genuine. I heard she got counseling on site; I hope it's not a one-shot deal.

The Beast

I introduced him by saying, "You are gonna be down on him at first, but hang on--I think you'll appreciate him by and by", and they learned that Horace Mann was the one to hold responsible for mandatory public schooling. "I HATE him!" yelled E., never one to keep any thought that popped into his head from shooting straight out of his mouth. "This is the man that subjects me to the cruelty of the quadratic equation?" queried A., eyes wide with mock fury.

So I pass out some of Mann's own writing, telling them that obviously Horace was persuasive, because he was able to convince people that funding public education was worthwhile; he even convinced childless curmudgeons and biddies that their investment would pay off. After they wrestle with the text a bit, I start fielding answers to the question, "What did Horace argue would happen if we had a better educated public?" As the list grows, I see their faces soften. As they compare their lives with those of children who work in factories, the kids seem to settle into their chairs. And when we discuss how education directly corresponds to better income, health, and lower crime rates, it isn't really surprising when E. shouts with reluctant but genuine admiration, "Horace was a BEAST!" (and that is E.'s highest praise!)

Poor Horace

Brianne is laughing:
"Horace Mann's part is so straight!"

(kids say some straaange things)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Irish and German Immigration

"Did you plan this, Miss M?"
Nope. It just so happened that today is the day we learned about the first wave of Irish and German immigration. Nice!

This year it was easier to teach about Jackson and his antipathy toward the National Bank right when our own banks were recoiling from bad lending practices. Other past lessons that coincided with what we were learning about? The electoral college right when Florida was having dangling chad issues; the Alamo on the anniversary of its capture; impeachment right when Bubba was in deep trouble.

St. Patrick's Day 2009

when what I'm teaching about
aligns with their lives

Monday, March 16, 2009

It was tough last week to hear D. and her sister never went home after school on Friday. After an anxious weekend, there was still no news on Monday. And then Tuesday, voila. She and her sister repeated the performance this week, so I certainly pray she shows up tomorrow. She is a gifted girl, beautiful hair, mysterious low voice, all kinds of potential. Her big sister always seemed to be in trouble when she was at our school some years ago.

It is so troubling that the choices a person makes at age 14 could haunt her for the rest of her life.

But that's why I do what I do--try to love them, really educate them, be there for them. These situations make me feel as though I have failed. I have failed D. somehow. I hope she gives me another chance.