Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Miracle Fudge, Panic, and a Really Long List

I'm enjoying this vacation, the family time, my belly full of my sister-in-law's Miracle Fudge*, and a wave of panic overtakes me--

in my mind's eye I see a dear student, Z, with his beautiful big smile and spiky hair, launching through B-5's door--and I have nothing planned for him, nothing worthy of him. So not ready!

I do some quick mental calendar work and remind myself that I still have NINE more days before I am back in the saddle. I literally have to focus on breathing properly for the next few moments.

What gives? (And of all my students, why Z?)

This is no one-time event. It happens nearly every break we have. My colleague shared she had a school nightmare the other night, you know, the one where she's unprepared....Are teachers the only ones with nightmares with this recurring theme?

I confess to looking at this list of things to do and getting freaked out:
     design a memorial program
        return stuff to Target
       write thank yous
       grade papers
       record papers
       plan our history document-based essays--how to do this???? 
       refocus our Lord of the Flies unit--and get ready for our Big Paper
       put Christmas stuff away
       bookstore to buy books for two of the book clubs I'm in
       plan an event
       edit my pastor's book
       read for the two of the book clubs 
       have loads of fun

But everyone has to-do lists. I just need to chill out.

*Miracle Fudge. ALL wonderful chocolatey goodness, ZERO calories.**

**Oh, my imagination is really good. It's miraculous because it's so delicious.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Chatty Cathy (and Charlie, and Christy, and...)

One of my classes this year has a majority of kids who just like to talk. They sing to themselves under their breath, even, when they aren't talking. There are so many that I am sometimes reduced to elementary school management techniques such as writing the word Q U I E T on the board and erasing letters as a threat to keep them after class right before (oh, I am the Lord's favorite to have the talkers this period) lunch

I am not proud of this.

I spent a whole week on interactive lessons wherein the kids were supposed to learn that many people thought our first constitution was too weak and our country was skidding toward chaos....

Me: "So there were two extremes our founders feared. Can you name them? One, two three--"

Class, tentatively and not in unison: "Dictatorship and anarchy..."

Me: "Nice. After what we learned all week, to which extreme does it look like the US was closer?"

Class, enthusiastically as one: "Dictatorship!"


My colleague who shares many of the same kiddos observed me and said this batch just likes to bellow out  just to be heard, no thinking. I must cling to that.

The other classes understood the lesson completely.

I am slightly mollified.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

October 31

So I do not enjoy this holiday. Its origins bleed through in all the fear and horror and ugliness that folks seek out and that is thrown at us, and as a believer*, that's bad enough for me. Add to that the excuse for our children to dress slutty (yes, in middle school we have had prostitutes, pimps, and a Hooter girl, not to mention the whole menagerie of sexy bunnies, cats, Minnie Mouses, you name it, I've seen it). I'm ever tired of tired costumes, store-bought costumes, hours spent on makeup to make gunshot wounds, zombies, things calculated to nauseate.


Every so often the creativity and boldness of a kid will blow me away. Here are the best of this year. (All boys, probably because of the pressure on girls to be "hot" at all costs. Ever see Mean Girls?)

Here, A. is dressed up as my favorite starfish, Patrick. You can't see his pink tights and his pointy head is drifting west, but he is definitely Patrick. My only regret is not seeing him with his friends; I understand there was a Spongebob and Squidward, too.

R. is committed to his persona--rolled down pantyhose, fake nails, breasts sagging. (As to the latter, nothing was more disturbing all day than to see R. holding up one to another student dressed as our principal, commanding him to smell it.) His face was lined with wrinkles and he hunched around all day.

If it were up to me, D.'s Pizza Samurai would have won first prize. His whole costume was beautifully crafted, completely original, and hey, eco-friendly.

This last one wins my heart. Today was our Declaration of Independence test, and J. came as The Natural Rights Pumpkin who rises out of the pumpkin patch once a year delivering good grades to those who have studied. Yes, those are flowers coming out of his "stem." How can you not melt when a kid is so inspired by your class that he wears something like this to actual school???

*Philippians 4:8 : Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Free Advice!!!

Best advice: don't complain about your boss.

Good advice: if you do, make sure s/he isn't within earshot. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

He Can't Read....

....but he is in my 8th grade history class that has the "gifted" label on it.

Any wonder he doesn't do any homework?  Any wonder he fails his tests?

There is something I wonder: HOW DID HE GET THIS FAR?  I am not waving a huge "hold him back" flag. (Obviously being in a classroom with 7th or 6th or 5th graders won't teach him to read, because 7th and 6th and 5th graders already have learned how.   The kid is attentive about 85% of the time. He is often animated and even voluntarily contributes a few times a week.)

I am waving a huge "horrible reality" flag. A big ol' "make him take a summer school 'how to read' course" flag. A gigantical "help him" flag.

Of course, he is part of the issue. He mouths off to adults regularly (Today it was to the principal. Gee, kid, not your smartest move. I suppose I am blessed he has been pretty good in my class--my mom has been praying for him since the first day of school....). He shrugs his shoulders when approached about his performance/achievement/situation.

Teachers fail him, but the district moves kids along. But why can't the district provide a remedial reading course? I wonder that, too.  I haven't done any research on how to help kids like him. I don't like the way I feel when I think about him--guilty, defensive, accusatory, angry, helpless. Whoo, I'm a walking party.

Are there any solutions?*

*To his plight, not my feelings. I can deal with my feelings, thanks very much. Now pass the cookies.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

How to Teach the Middle Passage

Begin with the Triangle Trade, the text, and the smart board or overhead.  In their notebooks, have kids draw the east coast of North Am and South Am, and a rough blob for England and then a really rough outline of the west coast of Europe and Africa. Have them draw arrows indicating what items (or, sadly, people) are moving where.
money, money, money...

Then show them the famous cutaway schematics of slave ships. Have them really look at the pictures. Ask what's going on and WAIT...and then accept only full answers, not blurts like "Slave ship!" or "Cross section!" Dig until you get "It shows how to maximize how many slaves you could fit on a ship." Ask why maximizing would be important to the captain. Note the awful tinny sound the word "profit" makes in the presence of these pictures.
Oh my heart.

Ask kids to draw conclusions about conditions on board. Don't move on until darkness, stuffiness, heat, overwhelming smell, seasickness, easy spread of disease, and no dignity about bodily functions come up. Squelch the "Ewwws" by discussing shame, how they would feel about the lack of dignity afforded to them. Work until the students feel compassion, not grossed-outness.

Draw attention to the fact that the people captured on these ships were losing their direction--many never having been aboard a ship or seen the ocean. And then their language. Pick up Alex Haley's Roots and explain that he was blessed to have a thread of language clues passed down, that he had heard that his great-great etc granddad, Kunta Kinte, had gone to chop wood for a drum but never came back.
so good.

Tell how Haley tracked down his ancestor all the way to the west coast of Africa. How he listened to the griots, the genealogic story tellers that memorized ancestry their whole lives. How he listened to the translator say "Kunta Kinte went to chop wood for a drum, but was lost." About how he wept. About how the tribe wept with him and welcomed him home. Cry, because you just can't help getting teary eyed when you tell this.
"When a griot dies, it is as if a library has burned down." --Alex Haley
Explain that Haley wrote a book about his ancestors using what he found out. Tell them he spent the night on a ship to connect to Kunta's ordeal on the Middle Passage. Read excerpts from Roots about Kunta's first day aboard the slave ship.

Show a six minute clip of the film "Roots," the scenes where the men are being exercised on deck, of a dead man being unchained and unceremoniously flung over the ship's side. Listen for the student who mutters, "Horrible," or perhaps "That's so harsh." Congratulate him for his word choice. Share that this part of history is soooo much more than "sad." Suggest "tragic," "unthinkable," "shameful," and so on.

How did Haley know what to write about? Pass out four excerpts from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, a memoir about his capture as an eight year old boy and his ordeal on a slave ship. Have the kids read it, underlining parts they believe the other students should know about it since everyone is only reading one-fourth of the work. Field what they've read onto a class chart. Take questions. Later, contrast this reading with one John Barbot, a man who was a captain on a slave ship. Analyze the differences. Hey look, ma, I've been doing Common Core stuff since before you were born.
I only define some key words in brackets. It's highly readable.
When the bell rings, watch as they solemnly gather their belongings and file out with their brains (and hopefully hearts) full. Quickly rewind the old VHS video exactly 6:55, get the smart board back in order, and do it three more times.

Cookies, Money, Compassion, and Cookies

On the first day of school, I found out Batman was in my class.

On the third day of school, a student brought chocolate chip cookies for the whole class.

On the THIRD DAY, people!
cookies not homemade. me no care.

During the second week of school after I shared with the kids that I had a foreign money collection, four separate kids brought me currency from Fiji, Mexico, Vietnam, and the E.U.

During the third week of school, I couldn't find my reward candy. I shared my sadness with the class that the only time I'd had stuff stolen from me was once years ago, in the notorious Year of the Stolen Sodas, and that I was sad my candy was gone.  The next day, two separate kids brought me candy to replace what was lost.  

I've brought in donuts to the Seminerds already for having 100% homework turned in three times (the bar is upped to four, now). 

This fourth week I found the candy--I am losing my brain cells in this stupefying heat, or maybe old age--and I got to rejoice with them ALL for being upright and trustworthy!

AND this fourth week the same kid again brought in cookies for the class.

Yeah, ridiculously hot and humid weather aside (and no a/c in sight), we're off to a great start.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Haiku for a Disappointed Parent

Every day is a new day. Every day is a new chance to be better.
A D? (Hmm, your child
Didn't use the study guide
or look at his notes...

...He didn't ask questions
Or write out practice answers
the way others did....

.....I sent you notice
of what would be tested, and
essay questions, too....)

You "know he can do
better--he wants a retake--
Can he please have one?"

Oh, dear parent friend
This is not a driver's test
A D won't kill him

Do you know what? I
know he can do better, too.

I do believe in
second chances; just
not on the same test.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Christmas is coming!!

As a kid, I went to two elementary schools, a junior high school, and a high school in the same district I teach in today. I did my student teaching at two schools and as a contracted teacher have taught in three schools in this district, the 2nd largest in California.

I have NEVER worked, as a student or teacher, in a classroom that had air conditioning. (That's a looonnnnnngggg time. I'm hoping to retire in less than ten years.)

Look--a person absolutely can learn in high heat and thick humidity. But for the cohort I work with, thirteen year olds, learning can be a challenge in the most temperate of times. If my 35 kiddos struggle with the Mayflower Compact when it's 75° outside, imagine their difficulty when it's 95° outside and the humidity is at 80%. When I got home from school as a kid, it was to an under insulated home with no a/c. Hot at school, hot at home, I didn't really have much comparison. But most of the kids at our site have a/c. They know better. We've had students vomiting from the heat, suffering from heat stroke, and at least one teacher who was in danger of heat stroke.

Some people think the most beautiful sentence in the English language is "I love you." I think it might be "I forgive you." But right up there are these words I never really believed I'd hear: "Our air conditioning is coming mid-October."

In C.S. Lewis's classic, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Mr. Tumnus tells Lucy that the White Witch has cast a spell on Narnia such that it is always winter, and never Christmas. Well evil Humidity Heat Witch, start packing your bags or whatever it is that evil witches pack: you've been given notice.
Move over, Humidity Heat Witch--Father Christmas is getting me some a/c!!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Super Start

First day moments:

Coolio, the portable a/c a friend lent to me, shuts down before period 1. So sad. My high hopes are dashed.
Coolio sort of looks like this.

No ants this year!!!  A billion hurrahs! I cut and distribute the power pie, insect-free.
Last year they were EVERYWHERE.

As I near the white board, a funky smell reaches me. It is NOT the smell of stinky teenager. It is the smell of something organic. I try not to think about it, and after that class, I put a powerful odor catcher in the offending zone. Dear Lord, please don't let it be what I think it might be.
Truly thought this trouble was behind us. It might be under us. 

Not one kiddo complains of heat (or stinky zone).
Good sports--love them already!

Colleague brings me a gorgeous lavender plant and an uplifting note on a beautiful card.
A visual reminder to stay calm.

At lunch I buy a soda from the vending machine. It is warm. Is Coolio conspiring with other campus appliances to keep me from cooling down?
So glad our fridge has an ice maker. 

Today was a minimum day! ANNNND we got to leave without going to any meetings! WHooP!
I wish. I went to Vons.

Under the heading "Something I should know about you," a student writes, "I'm Batman."
(Tomorrow I will tell him, "No, I'M Batman.)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Don't get me wrong--

I get a little down in September and it's NOT because I don't love what I do.

It's because I love my summers. Long mornings, being fit once again, naps, BOOKS. I get down because all that disappears AND because I start all over again.

Come June, the kids and I have become a strange learning family. We have all kinds of shorthand and inside jokes. They know when I am joking around and when I am deadly serious. They can read my face and body language. They ask about my family and they bring me chocolate and cookies. And I can read them, as well.

Come September,  I am playing to a tough crowd. I crack all sorts of hiLARious jokes and they are scared to laugh--I'm serious--they will snigger into their hands because "what if this crazy teacher lady isn't trying to make us laugh and we get in trouble?" I forget how difficult it is to cleanly launch a class on a successful learning trajectory, how tough it is to teach them that we often enjoy our learning, but Fun is not the point--LEARNING is the point.

It's all good by October.  The cookies start coming, and they learn they can joke back and we laugh with abandon as long as we stay en pointe.

Here's to a new year with kids who catch on quickly!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

"Mommy! Mommy!"

Have a nightmare when you are little, and you wake up, run to your parents' bedroom and get some immediate comfort there. I had this year's first school dream--nightmare, really--last night, with no Mommy in sight. Glad the alarm went off, because while I was persevering in my dream, it was NO FUN. (Understatement.)

I'd been last-minute transferred to another site;

Of course no rosters;

Thrown into a classroom that wasn't kid-ready, or me-ready;

After the bell had rung.

Next door was a band room that kept the door open.

On the other side of my room was a huge room that kids could just slip into unnoticed because I had no rosters and didn't know who my kids were.

I was desperately obeying the First Rule of Middle School Teaching: "Stay calm." But there was no way I could obey The Second Rule of Middle School Teaching, "Be over prepared," because, well, last-minute transfer to a crazy room after the bell.

I suppose it could have been worse. I mean, at least I had my clothes on, right??

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Dun dun dunnnnn...!!!

What happens to a school when the head custodian and the head secretary both retire at the same time, leaving rookies all sophomore administrators?

• The custodian noticed my pathetic three dollar garage sale lectern. "I'll build you one." He did, and man, that thing's gonna last forever.

• The secretary would call in my subs for me. I don't even know how to do that.

• The custodian would offer to carry my loads of work for me.

• The secretary would iron the table cloths for the school and clean the teachers' refrigerator.

• The custodian knew where every piece of furniture was hidden on campus and could fix or replace a broken piece after one email.

• The secretary would house, give direction, and encouragement to the worst "academic offender" that our former principal was committed to working with and shopped with the students our school supported to go to out annual D.C/NYC. trip, making sure they had cameras (pre-cell phone days!).

• The custodian personally fought--and won--the infamous 2012 Rat War of Outer Bungalowia. 

• The secretary personally helped the financial secretary prepare delicious food for the staff in the legendary year of Waffle Wednesdays, 2013. (A subsequent school-wide weight loss challenge has ended that beloved tradition. Now I cry a little inside, every Wednesday.)

• The custodian would turn on the heat in our non-insulated bungalows on chilly mornings. (And he never told the teachers, but I found out he would prepare the avocados for our guacamole for our frequent staff potlucks before the end of that tradition because of the subsequent weight loss challenge.)

• The secretary would hear my joys, burdens, dreads, and general silliness with love. She said I reminded her of her own daughter, and she has been my school mom.

They take with them decades of knowledge and unconscious competence. Both have done their best to leave well-marked trails for their successors, but all I can say in response to my interior Saturday morning cartoon "Dun dun dunnnnn!" cliff hanger music is we shall see.

(Personally? My school parents are leaving and I am sad.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Get the Kleenex--Promotion 2014

Every year I fall in love, and every year I'm left.

They have flown away to high school.

All of the promotion speeches are terrific--I especially appreciate the way N. expresses his initial fears of entering the sixth grade, something like "I was apprehensive, given my diminutive stature and what I'd heard about the social hierarchy...I was a baby gazelle, easy prey to lions that shaved twice a day...."  Oh my gosh! His speech is hilarious and inspirational, and yes, that's really how he writes. His delivery is natural and wreathed in smiles, but my eyes get all teary.

The promotion music is fabulous. A. confidently strums her guitar--I didn't know she plays the guitar! And then she confidently sings. I didn't know she sings!--and my teary eyes don't get a break.

I get into a compliment war with K.'s mom. "You taught her so much and have enabled her to get this far!" "She only came this far because you have supported her at home!" "But the lessons you gave her will shape and affect her entire career!" "And her drive and work ethic were right there from day one, because of your fine parenting!" (We hug it out. Truce.)

J's dad says, "You are much prettier without your beard." I don't know how to respond until he reminds me that he'd first met me at Open House when I was dressed up in honor of International Talk Like a Pirate Day, complete with pirate whiskers. Now J. has to move to Okinawa--dad's military orders. J. is not glad about this, so our hug has some sorrow, and J. does not promise to come visit as so many of them do. I try to give him the bright, you'll-get-out-there-and-it'll-be-awesome smile (one of dozens of smile types a teacher uses), but we both have trouble...

They are resplendent. I do not exaggerate when I say that this was the best year yet. One proof? Every year I pass out sweaters to enforce our school dress code. Not one sweater this year. I'm telling ya. The boys are sharp and the girls look like butterflies.

They finish strong and classy and are utterly beautiful. There is no question that I love me some summer, but instead of the usual mad and delirious whoops of joy, I leave campus with some seriously damp eyes.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Haiku Series Advocating Student Diplomacy in the Face of Missing Class

Based on a true evening email exchange between myself and a student:


I have been absent--
Did I miss anything that was
important today?

Can you find a way
to ask without implying
my class wastes your time?

I am off to bed.
In response to your question,
the answer is "yes."

Of course, sometimes I tell these offenders that Beyonce performed for our class. Or that we all took naps. And when the kid gives me the "C'mon, tell me what really happened" face I tell them the truth: I taught my guts out and they can get notes from another kid and hope another person can explain to them what they've missed. 

Sometimes students expect a private tutoring session. Am I a bad teacher for refusing to do that? For refusing to try to encapsulate what took me 55 minutes of extraordinary effort to teach? To recreate for an audience of one what I orchestrated the day before for an audience of 159 in five classes? 

I obviously don't think so. It wasn't the student's fault she was sick, but those sorts of losses are not the kind we can just restore with five minutes and a pat on the head. The losses are real. The book can tell the kids the basics.  The book cannot recreate our conversation, our inquiries, our interactions. The book does not crack dumb jokes or pose useful analogies to help kids make connections the way I do. The book cannot explain what it means the way I do in a class. Insofar as explaining after school something that a student didn't understand in class, that's fine with me, and I am eager to do so--unless the said kid was busy not paying attention. 

Here's another teacher who was moved to write a poem:

Did I Miss Anything?

Tom Wayman

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours
     Everything. I gave an exam worth
     40 percent of the grade for this term
     and assigned some reading due today
     on which I’m about to hand out a quiz
     worth 50 percent
Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose
     Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
     a shaft of light suddenly descended and an angel
     or other heavenly being appeared
     and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
     to attain divine wisdom in this life and
     the hereafter
     This is the last time the class will meet
     before we disperse to bring the good news to all people
          on earth.
Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?
     Everything. Contained in this classroom
     is a microcosm of human experience
     assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
     This is not the only place such an opportunity has been
     but it was one place
     And you weren’t here

From Did I Miss Anything? Selected Poems 1973-1993, 1993
Harbour Publishing
Copyright 1993 Tom Wayman.
All rights reserved.

Monday, March 31, 2014

"Are You Really Reading This, Thomas Jefferson?"

As a kid, I had the feeling most teachers didn't really read what I wrote. They passed out hundreds of "worksheets" and who could stay on top of all that paper?

In high school, the English teachers (or was it the school?) employed what they called "readers," college students who would read the papers, correct them, and even assign suggested grades. I knew my teacher at least read mine, anyway, because she'd often write a different grade on top, once with the little note, "I don't know why this reader consistently underrates your work." Smiley face for me.

I had a half-hearted (perhaps broken-hearted, but that's another story) Spanish teacher who assigned work for us to do each day, but collected the whole lot on one day. Now I most assuredly did NOT do one bit of that homework until the night before it was due when I frantically ripped some paper out of my spiral notebook and began typing out those jillion ejercicios. But after doing a few, it occurred to me that this lazy man was not going to read all of pages. I began skipping numbers:


And sometimes an ejercicio called for me to do 1-12, but I only hammered out 1-10. I probably shaved off about 15% of the actual assignments on the calculated gamble that this fellow wasn't going to check my work.

I began typing nonsense sentences, sprinkling them throughout the ejercicios: 
 9. El viejo quiero una banana para su perro ("The old man wants a banana for his dog")....  
13. "Hay una banana en mi cuarto, a veces en el piso" (There is a banana in my room, sometimes on the floor).

(I wrote many sentences about bananas. I don't know why; it was a fun word to type, perhaps.)

And then this very bold sentence I'd put in more than once: ¿Ud. esta leyendo esta tarea? No creo que Ud. esta leyendo esta tarea ("Are you reading this homework? I don't think you are reading this homework").

And when I got my ejercicios back, there was the large red A- with an arrow pointing to the raggedy spiral notebook margin I hadn't bothered to cut. Clearly he'd counted the number of ejercicios and was fooled by the dignity the typewriter lent them. Clearly the raggedy notebook margin was the reason for the minus part of the grade.

Clearly this has impacted me as an educator.

I am compelled to actually read what the kids write, to comment on their thoughts, to circle errors and question their answers. Over the years, I find expressions of my same doubts: "Are you really reading this?" And I respond: "Of course not." Sometimes a student writes asides or doodles little cartoons, and I add to the art and write my own asides. "Miss M was here, paying attention to your work," my additions report.

This commitment makes me testy when kids turn in half-hearted work. But is my annoyance directed at the right target? Have other teachers taught them that their work is merely checked for completion, not content? Didn't I have a history of dodging work when I could? Kids soon learn that I truly read their papers, so it isn't until December that I get really truly annoyed when someone turns in hasty, shallow, poor work that promptly receives a pathetic score.

Anyway, with super smart kids, their "Are you really reading this?" queries can be a bit more subtle:

D. sends out a test. Miss M. passes again!

And the answer is, was, and ever shall be: "YES. I am dignifying your thoughts and analyses with thoughts and analyses of my own. This is a dialogue. I care about the time you spent doing work I asked you to do because I believe it will help you better grasp this skill, content, or idea. I grade your work because I sometimes never received essays back from teachers and I suspected my time and efforts went into a trashcan, leaving only a checkmark in a gradebook, and I promised I'd never disdain a student's work that way. Even as I begrudge the time it takes me, I grade your work because I want to dignify your work with my time. I grade your work because I care about you."

That's the truth.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Pigasus, Pasta, Pennies, and Student Strategy

We hate cancer.  We love competition.

So we love The Olive Garden's Pasta for Pennies competition at our school. The period 1 classroom that brings in the most money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society wins an Olive Garden lunch.
Money goes to research to get rid of this horrible disease
While I have huge reservations about "giving to get" charitable drives, there is no denying that the competition makes it far more about winning than eating. Hm, is that much better? OK, then, there is no denying that the drive to win makes for some wonderful team building.

Our class leaps ahead of Mrs G's class by $40 on the first day. I mention that if each kid in class brings in $10, we'd have $360 (stupid California class sizes); I remind them that I pitch in, too. The kids whine that Mrs W's class always wins. I point to the two first place pennants from The Olive Garden hanging by the door. "By 'always wins' do you mean 'always comes in second to Miss M's class?' " The kids perk up.

That afternoon, our collection box returns from the money counters in ASB decorated as a pig, er, Pegasus, er, Pigasus with a unicorn horn:
AB, NT, and RT show off their amazing creation
So the race is on. Mrs G, a new teacher, gains the lead. My students decide the way to win is to withhold some of the money we bring in; they decide to put only one third of the donations into Pigasus and the rest into this special jar my daddy had bought for me:
I don't keep this on display. But it came in handy for this activity.
We watch as Mrs W takes the lead; the class groans--they had her in 6th grade and know she has very persuasive techniques to make sure kids bring in money! Some kids in another class contribute to Pigasus. We learn that Mrs G's class has a hidden stash too, and our "spies" press in to discover the estimated amount. Some other classes find out about our hidden stash, but do not seem to know how much we have. At some point, the ASB box decorators make Pigasus's nose 3D. (I have no photographic proof....but trust me, it's a thing of beauty.)

The jar is too small to hold all of our rolled coin, loose change, and bills, so we hide the rolled coin and bills in a project on display, a project shaped like a bald eagle; it feels patriotic somehow. The students vote to stop putting more than five or so dollars daily into Pigasus and hoard almost all of it for Friday, turn in day.

Friday, yesterday--Pigasus is almost full. His top won't close properly. His legs buckle. He is taken to the ASB to have his innards counted.

After lunch, five ASB kids--all my first period students--come in. "We have good news and bad news!" N says sadly (but with dancing eyes and a persistent grin), "The pig's legs didn't make it....but the pig did! We won by $200!" It's actually kind of a pain for me, because I have to race out to La Mesa during my prep period and then deal with my fourth period kids drooling over bread sticks they can't have, but Mrs W has offered to help me serve, and frankly, my period 1 kids are so delightful that I absolutely look forward to lunch with them all.

The formal announcement is made over the intercom, period 7, right before the end of school. My period 7 graciously cheers and whoops as if it were they who had won. That's what I love about our school--we are good sports, and in the end, the more we raise, the more research we fund. That's a win-win in my book.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Elie Weisel and the Little Rock Nine: Unbelievable but True

The first time I ever taught Night by Elie Wiesel, as I scrambled for resources to do this memoir justice, I stumbled upon wonderful materials that were written by one Dr Chris Frost. Mr. Google told me he was a professor at a nearby university. I sent him an email asking if he'd mind if some precocious 8th graders used his materials as we studied the book. He said we could--and offered to come lecture the students--for free.

I was floored by the generous gift of his time (and that he was unafraid of 8th graders, as many adults seem to be). As it turned out, he was one of just 18 students to sit under Wiesel at NYU the first time Weisel taught his own book. Can you even believe it???

His presentation gave our students rare insight into Night and afforded us an opportunity to ask loads of questions. At the end, we presented him with three carnations--a white one for Elie and those who endured the Holocaust, a red one for those who, like Dr. Frost, were teaching truth, and a pink one to represent the students and their promise--he was visibly moved. He said, "I'll have to tell Elie about this today." Can you even believe it???

When asked what courses he was teaching next, he said he was teaching a summer course comparing C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud....in Oxford, England. It so happened that I was going to Oxford to spend a week at the C. S. Lewis conference. "We'll have to meet up," he said. "I'd love to crash a class," I said. Can you even believe it???

It turned out the last full day the students and he would be in Oxford was my first day at the event so I couldn't sit in on his lecture. But then I got my agenda for the conference and that first evening Lamb's Players Theater was presenting "Freud's Last Session," a play about....ohmigosh, an imagined meeting of Freud and Lewis. He was able to get permission to see it with his students. Can you even believe it???

So this year is the first year I am teaching Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Patillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School in 1957. A parent of one of my kiddos forwarded a flyer informing us that Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest of the Nine, was to speak that very week at a local community college. And after a riveting evening of insights and stories and questions answered, I was in line to buy her book when one of my students came over to present me with a copy as a gift!! Can you even believe it???

Mrs. LaNier signed our books and agreed to a photo with us. I don't ordinarily rub shoulders with historical figures...and I want to have proof that it really happened. Because I can hardly believe it.

Here is a picture with two world changers--one of the Little Rock Nine who courageously stood up for justice and my student MRC., an incredible girl who is so gifted I can't believe I get to teach her and I can't wait to see how she impacts our future.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Perplexed, Bewildered, Bemused, Mystified, Stumped, Flummoxed, Puzzled

Can't figure it out.
We post students' grades online
Most parents don't check.

(It's true--on our grading program there's a little scroll-down window that shows us how many times a parent or a kiddo has checked grades. A parent can even sign up for free notifications. If I had a kid I'd be so glad to know what was up, because, according to most of the parents I conference with, teens are, ahem, less than communicative with them, something that hasn't changed since I was a tyke. If I were a kid, I'd be checking all the time.)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

No Lumpia for Me

MONDAY: I pass out the announcement for our next salon, our culminating event after analyzing Lord of the Flies, and I can't believe my ears: actual groans and grumbles.

Really? You guys don't want a luau? (do not let them see you wilt. do not take this personally. do not think about all the lumpia you won't be eating do not do not do not)

Not really, they say.

Does this mean you didn't like the first one?

NO!! they explode sincerely. We loved it!  But this one seems like too much work, and we have so much going on in our other classes.

OK, no salon, but you will each need to do your own music assignment independently.

Again there are some groans, but I don't care--I want to try this activity: each student has to choose a song that she thinks fits the text and then document it to death. I show them my example with citations from our text:
The Who: Baba O'Riley written by Pete Townshend

Out here in the fields                     (The whole text is on an island—“out here”)
I fight for my meals                       (Jack hunts for meat: 68)
I get my back into my living         (Ralph and Simon build huts: 50)
I don't need to fight                       (Piggy is always right, but can’t
To prove I'm right                                   fight back when antagonized or questioned: 71)
I don't need to be forgiven            (Jack apologizes once—never about Simon or Piggy: 72)
Don't cry                                       (Ralph cries for the death of Piggy only in the end: 202)
Don't raise your eye                     (Roger is furtive, doesn’t make eye contact: 22)
It's only teenage wasteland          (No adults on the island except a dead one: 95, 96)

THURSDAY: We share the songs--"Demons" by Imagine Dragons was selected by four students, two have written about "The Eye of the Tiger," and the class clown has chosen "Don't Stop Believin'." I ask them if this was easy or difficult, and it turns out it was challenging on a surprising number of levels. I will definitely try this again next year. Kids learn documentation, learn how to support their thinking, and as S. put it, "To put on paper our ideas and connections in a way that would make sense to the reader."

Of course they want to me play the songs. I tell them that was supposed to be part of the salon they didn't want.  And then I play some of them anyway. I am their hero for this melodious minute.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Teaching vs NASA Engineering

I don't usually post full articles that others have written, but this one validated some of the struggles I have personally, daily struggles that John Q. Public is ignorant about.

Teaching isn't Rocket Science. It's Harder
by Ryan Fuller

In 2007, when I was 22, I took a position as an aerospace engineer working on the design of NASA’s next-generation spacecraft. It was my dream job. I had just received a degree in mechanical engineering, and the only career ambition I could articulate was to work on something space-related. On my first days of work, I was awestruck by the drawings of Apollo-like spacecraft structures, by the conversations about how the heat shield would deflect when the craft landed in water and how much g-force astronauts could withstand. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t just watching a documentary on the space industry—I was inside it.

I was extremely motivated during my first year of work. I got in earlier and stayed later than most, and I tried to learn everything I could from my more experienced colleagues. The work wasn’t easy. Our team was trying to re-engineer, with modern technology, something that was designed in the ’60s. As a design engineer, I had to integrate the efforts of several different groups that often didn’t talk to each other or even get along very well. My deadlines haunted me like a thousand nightmares. Over the course of the next few years, though, I received awards and exceptional performance reviews, and I gained the respect of my colleagues, some of whom had been in the business for about as long as I had been alive.

Because I’ve worked as an aerospace engineer and later as a teacher through Teach for America—this is my second year of teaching 11th grade math and robotics at Sierra High School in Colorado Springs—I find the public perception of both careers to be fascinating. When I tell people that I worked on the design of a NASA spacecraft, their mouths drop and their eyes pop, and their minds are no doubt filled with images of men in white lab coats running between rocket engines and blackboards filled with equations of untold complexity. Most people will give aerospace engineers tremendous respect, without having any idea what they actually do.

But no one can fully understand how difficult teaching in America’s highest-need communities is until he or she personally experiences it. When I solved engineering problems, I had to use my brain. When I solve teaching problems, I use my entire being—everything I have. A typical engineering task involves sending an email to a colleague about a potential design solution. A typical teacher task involves explaining for the fourth time how to get the variable out of the exponent while two students put their heads down, three students start texting, two girls in the back start talking, and one student provokes another from across the classroom.

As a teacher, I must prioritize the problems of getting the distracted students refocused and stabilizing the cross-classroom conflict before it escalates into a shouting match or worse, all the while making sure the learning of the other 25 students in the room doesn’t come to a complete halt. I also must address these problems in a consistent, respectful way that best serves the needs of the students, because if I don’t, the problems will increase in number and become more difficult to solve.

As an engineer, I dealt with very complex design problems, but before I decided how to solve them, I had a chance to think, research, and reflect for hours, days, or even weeks. I also had many opportunities to consult colleagues for advice before making any decisions. As a teacher, I have seconds to decide how to solve several problems at once, for hours at a time, without any real break, and with no other adults in the room to support them. There are days of teaching that make a day in the office seem like a vacation.

One of the biggest misconceptions about teaching is that it is a single job. Teaching is actually two jobs. The first job is the one that teachers are familiar with; people who have not taught can pretend it doesn’t exist. The tasks involved in this first job include lesson planning, grading, calling parents, writing emails, filling out paperwork, going to meetings, attending training, tutoring, and occasionally sponsoring a club or coaching a sport. The time allotted to teachers for this work is usually one hour per workday. But these tasks alone could easily fill a traditional 40-hour work week.
clapping chalkboard erasers takes up all my time these days

The second job is the teaching part of teaching, which would more aptly be called the performance. Every day, a teacher takes the stage to conduct a symphony of human development. A teacher must simultaneously explain the content correctly, make the material interesting, ensure that students are staying on task and understanding the material, and be ready to deal with the curve balls that will be thrown at her every 15 seconds—without flinching—for five hours. If, for some reason, she is not able to inspire, educate, and relate to 30 students at once, she has to be ready to get them back on track, because no matter what students say or do to detract from the lesson, they want structure, they want to learn, and they want to be prepared for life.

I experience more failure every five minutes of teaching than I experienced in an entire week as an engineer. Giving a presentation to NASA about how the thermal protection system of a spacecraft is connected to its primary structure is a cakewalk compared to getting 30 teenagers excited about logarithms. A difficult moment in engineering involves a customer in a big meeting pointing out a design problem that I hadn’t considered. The customer’s concerns can be eased with a carefully crafted statement along the lines of, “You’re right. We’ll look into it.” A difficult moment in teaching involves a student—one who has a history of being bullied and having suicidal thoughts—telling me that she is pregnant 30 seconds before class starts. What carefully crafted statement will help her?
Moments of success seem to come less often as a teacher, but when they do arrive, they can make up for all the failures: the excitement on a student’s face when she understands a concept after lots of struggle; the feeling of exhilaration when all the energy in the room is directed toward the day’s lesson; the shared laughter between teacher and student at a joke that only they understand. Sometimes successes doesn’t strike until later, as when I found out that a two-minute presentation I gave on petroleum engineering changed the career path of one of my students. In each second of her chaotic day, a teacher has a chance to transform the lives of young people for the better. How many aerospace engineers can say that?

In teaching, a person can be extremely competent, work relentlessly, and still fail miserably. Especially in the first year or two on the job, success can seem impossible. For people who have been so successful up to that point in their lives—failure is a difficult thing to face, especially when that failure involves young people not being able to realize their full potential in life.

Because of all this, sometimes teachers in high-need communities think about leaving for other professions. As someone who quit his job designing a NASA spacecraft during a severe recession without any clear plan, I understand the power of doing what feels right to you—you have that choice, that privilege. Just don’t forget about the ones who don’t have much in the way of choices and privileges. Don’t forget about the ones that don’t get to choose what school they go to. Who don’t get to choose who their teachers are. Who don’t get to choose how the students around them act. Who don’t get to choose what kind of environment they were born into. Don’t forget about them. They’ll be there Monday morning.
A version of this post originally appeared on TeacherPop, the blog of Teach for America corps members.

Ryan forgot to mention the lack of time for reflection and bodily functions. Don't laugh--if I had twenty minutes immediately after each class to reflect on what went right, to record successes and failures in my delivery, to straighten up, to get that email to a parent ASAP while the student behavior is fresh in mind, to ready the room, to gather my thoughts for a bit, or to sit in silence after a raucous class activity, of course I'd be a more effective teacher.  And one can only dream of using the facilities when one needs to....


Friday, January 3, 2014

Fats Waller Was Right: "One Never Knows, Do One?"

One girl's smile as I
opened the huge, heavy box,
Overpowering scents...and love
filled with teenaged joy:

Shimmer body mists,
candy, two lotion bottles
And.....a stuffed turtle!!!

This bounty she gave
despite her low grade, despite
her classroom silence

And so the truth, proved
once more, that teachers can't know,
can't guess, whom they touch

G. handed me the giant box, heavy, shifting, right before lunch (all kinds of sweet things have happened this year with period four, right before lunch). I hugged her and told her I'd open it on Christmas morning. "No, open it right now," she urged, eyes shining.

Uh oh, I'd better put on my "appreciative teacher face" because sometimes kids give the darndest things, even things I can't identify, and I have to step diplomatically and enthusiastically through emotional land-mines.

But this time, I was blown away. Every one of the items was something G. would love to keep for herself, but she gave to me out of love. I know her family doesn't have a ton of money, but whatever they gave her for shopping, she had poured so much on to me that I got a little dizzy and my eyes leaked. I looked up at her and her face was beaming, gratified that she had overwhelmed me. Big hugs, and off she went.

And so I know now that G., despite the tug of war grade between a D and an F, despite her stream of Fs on tests, despite me routinely asking her to re-do assignments because they don't make sense, despite her lack of voluntary participation in class--loves period four as much as I do.