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.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

OK, so I caved.

I am a blogger; a blogger without a sharp vision as yet.

But this is what I'm thinking as a start: I will boil down the day, or a class period , or an event, or a lesson, into seventeen syllables. That is, unless I am inspired to really dump it all here! There is so very much that is hilarious and human and heartwrenching about teaching--especially in a middle school. Face it: if you had to relive one year of your life, it probably wouldn't be your thirteenth!

the only downside

That pile of paper

isn't gonna grade itself.

So much for Sunday.