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 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.