Thursday, November 26, 2015

Roll, firedrills, dead fish, and a tender psyche

The bell rings.

In a perfect world with a perfect teacher, this is the time roll is taken.

But the world isn't perfect, and neither am I. Class begins, I launch the lesson, and then--the fire alarm! I did not know (or I have forgotten) there was a drill today! Or is this real?

The law says we have to have one a month

It doesn't matter. I send the students out the door, grab the red backpack containing our first aid and fire drill paperwork, and realize too late that, oh no, I don't have the paperwork AND I don't know who is absent. I fumble around inside the backpack, searching, finally realizing I'll just have to go out there and try to piece this together with my kids' help; I'm the last to arrive at our gathering spot.
We make our middle schoolers sit down for counting ease

When I'm out there, I count and recount students. "Can you think of anyone not here?" I implore the students. I send a paper up to the admin with my best guesses, the last to send the official red paper (except mine is white and unofficial).

After the drill, I search for my boss to apologize. He is angry. Let me write that again, properly: ANGRY.  I tell him I don't have a good excuse but that I feel badly and it won't happen again, offering my hand in forgiveness. He places his in mine and it is as cold and lifeless as the dead fish that cold and lifeless handshakes are often compared to. He can't even look at me, he is so furious. I have made him look bad in front of his boss.

I wake up.  Cheesy, but true. I begin to ponder the dream's significance.

Truth be told, I am quite bad about taking roll even when I am awake. It is one of those secretarial details that I find interferes with my launch into class. It has to be done six times a day because our school receives funding dependent upon the body count--the bodies don't have to be conscious, so far as I can tell, fyi. I have found a way around this which I don't care to share with the wide world; suffice it to say that apparently my psyche has some anxieties about taking roll. And maybe my psyche harbors anxieties about pleasing my boss, or about dead fish. But the bigger question is:


Friday, November 6, 2015

Bad Teacher/Good Teacher

When it's summer, I am able to settle in and get a lot of deep planning done, weeks worth of lessons, and it is a good thing, because there isn't much spare time once that very first bell rings. We catapult into the year. How fast does an object hurled into the school year travel?

that gray round thing is me

d = 1/2at^2 + Vit  (I remember that from 10th grade physics with Mr. Owen. Just showing off, it's not relevant.) All I know is that I start to run out of my deep plans toward the end of October. Weekends begin to clog with paper, so deep planning, since I taught the same subjects last year, gets short shrift ("Shrift" means "confession," the kind Roman Catholics do. I learned that from Mrs. Gross in 9th grade as we read "Romeo & Juliet"--minimally relevant.). It's not good, but it's reality.

This morning snuck up on me and as I was posting the day's agenda on the whiteboard, I blanked. I vaguely remembered telling my English seminar class that "we will do That on Friday." What was That? I couldn't recall, so I threw together a clever little constructed response lesson about an e.e. cummings poem. (Mrs. Kirby taught us the poem in 11th grade. I didn't like her, but loved the poem; moderately relevant.)
"Loneliness" by e.e. cummings
Bell rings, kids sail in, some with their psych evaluations in hand, ready to turn in, triggering my memory--NOW I REMEMBER. OK, so I was SUPPOSED to go home Thursday night and figure out a way to coordinate their psychiatric evaluations of the confessor of Poe's Tell-Tale Heart. They were to be expert witnesses to the court, proving either that the accused was not guilty by reason of insanity, or that the accused knew exactly what he was doing when he killed his roommate with the creepy eye (Incidentally, Mrs. Kirby again. I really did not like her, probably because she did not like me.).

So 35 kids, 35 assignments completed (which is wonderful in and of itself). I wing it: "If you decided he's crazy, sit to my right. Sane, sit to my left." And because my God is merciful unto me, almost exactly half of them sit on either side of me! Unless you teach, you may not comprehend the amazingness of that moment. Remember, I did not have a back-up plan. OK, now what, Lord?

I sternly admonish them that we are no longer 8th graders, but a room full of experienced and respected doctors, presenting evidence as expert witnesses, and that we will address each other as such. In a flash of inspiration, I run to my closet and pull out the black choir robe I use for our history court simulations. The kids yell, "Hammer!" and I turn around and respond, "Gavel!" as I wield it. They cheer lustily.

Gavel is kind of like teachers in a nonteacher family
I invite them to share their reasoning with each other and we ping-pong back and forth. It. is. wonderful. They use textual support, from the obvious ("Normal people do not kill someone because of their weird eye") to the subtle ("The suspect never names the victim beyond 'the old man;' I think is a way for him to emotionally distance himself from the victim whom he claims to have loved").

I wait for them to flag, but the arms keep waving, decidedly un-doctorlike. One student forgets our name protocol and refers to something "C." said earlier. A chorus of "Who is 'C'?" erupts, and the student corrects himself, "I mean, Dr. S," and the class, appeased, lets him proceed.

I try to stop it to collect their papers but the hands are insistent and the reasons keep coming. "Tearing up floorboards and hiding the crime shows he has a clear understanding of consequences." "Well, what kind of person enjoys watching the terror of a person he supposedly loves? A crazy person!" I count to myself how many kids have voluntarily shared their text-based opinions: 28. THAT IS ANOTHER WONDER. I pause the flow to ask the perennially quietest people if they have anything to share, and they do, no stammering, no shrugging, no weak "I agree with Dr. S" comments--they each have something to add.

The bell rings, the kids want to know how I rule. I hem and haw, because honestly, both sides have done a magnificent job using the author's words to make their respective cases. I realllllly don't relish choosing a side. Suddenly, the normally diplomatic K. commands, "ADJUDICATE!" My jaw drops open.

Have you ever in your life heard a thirteen year old use that word? (First time for me. Never learned it in school.)

I smile...."On Monday." The class wails in mock anguish.

I am writing this so that I will remember what I'm supposed to do on Monday: must remember to adjudicate.

On my to-do list

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Launching 2015-2016

The first week has passed, and with it, these events:

1) The debut of Friedrich, B-5's air conditioner. He manages to keep my classroom below 80°, no small feat when the room is made out of cardboard, surrounded by blacktop, is stuffed with 36 people, and it's close to 100° outside.  I am no longer slick and shiny and moments away from heat exhaustion when I leave school. I love you, Friedrich.

2) I have no heavy burdens this year in terms of behavior. Last year The Powers That Be saw fit to give me my third most challenging classroom combination right before lunch. Everyone was friends with everyone, and everyone thought everyone was hugely entertaining, and only about three students had a record of academic success. Through sheer force of teacher will and mother prayers (yes, I had my praying mom lift this class up on the daily), things held together most days and there were even some success stories. But this year everyone seems willing to learn and to come ride my crazy academic pony with no hard coaxing (or threats). Is this the power of Friedrich? An exceptional group of kidlets? I don't care, I'll take it.

3) I had a special delivery of amazing cookies on the first Friday--spectacularly delicious. I think my favorite were the Reese's Pieces/peanut butter cup/Butterfinger kind, but the Almond Joy white chocolate and Oreo cookie's n cream gave them a run. A former student (on my wall of fame for other reasons, but I shall add "Gourmet Baker" to the list of accomplishments) had them sent to me and my hips. All of us are grateful.

4) As the bell finished ringing period 7 on Friday, R. stayed to make sure all the chairs were on the tables so the custodian could vacuum, generally straightening books as he went along.

"Do you need help with anything, Miss M?" R. asked.

Smiling at his middle school boyishness, I looked around at the classroom: "Not today, but how kind of you to offer. I so appreciate that."

"Because I want you to know that even if I didn't have your class at the end of the day, I'd still come over here to help you after school."

And that, friends, is why I know I have the best job in the world.

How to Exponentially Increase Attention, Learning, Energy, and Morale of both Students and Teacher

Among God's many blessings
You are the coolest.
This is Friedrich, everybody.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

In Summmmmmmmer!!!

So it's summmmmer!!! I've been busy doing summer things. What might that mean?

   Well, there are some very fun things.
   1. Hawaii for the first time
   2. Catalina Island
   3. The beach

             Some are less fun.
             1. Blood test at Kaiser
             2. Tune up
             3. You get the idea.

    For teachers, there is always a weird tension about summer; as an educator, what's it for?

A. For taking care of all the things I neglect during the school year? (Hello, messy sock drawer.)
B. For having all the fun I was denied every Saturday for 36 Saturdays? (Hello, travel, friends, books.)
C. To relax and get recharged? (Hello, work outs, afternoon naps, evening jacuzzis.)
D. For professional development? (Hello, big ugly giant new writing unit for our school by Lucy Calkins.)

The answer should be all of the above. But that last one....

Toward May, a student monitor came into B-5 and plunked down the huge Lucy Calkins series of writing units thingy on a table. Rationale? The Boss told us it's what his boss wants us to do; not very compelling, if you ask me. We had one (optional) day of professional development about it. I (opted) out. And now The Boss has a new boss. So do I still need to read all this?
It really is big and ugly, isn't it?

I have been guilting about these units all summer. (Yes, I just coined a new word. It's all part of my summer's work.)

In June, I opened one of the four books that comprise it. "Ick, I can't read this now. It's JUNE. I'm packing for Hawaii. This is too heavy."

In July, I opened it again. "Ick, I can't read this now. I am too busy with guests and to-do lists and Harper Lee's first novel that was released second and books for three book clubs and Catalina. I'll read it later."

It's August...
and time.

But do I want to use my last precious days of summer reading a unit that The Boss's new boss might not even care about?

Vote now!!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Bill Gates, Star Trek, Charlie McCarthy, an Avocado, and Tegretol

I thought if I ever stopped teaching it would be because of someone wonderful--"Oh, yes, well, ha ha, my mother always said it was just as easy to marry a filthy rich man as it was a poor working sap--meet my new husband, Thurston Howell Rockefeller-Gates Spielberg-Bono!"

Or because I hit a magic number of years that the retirement people say will leave me protected from eating cat food in the twilight years--"Eh? Speak up, sonny-- when you are 117 it's a little hard to hear--oh, glad you are coming to my retirement party..."

Or because of something awful--"She's dead, Jim..."

But you never think of the in-between awful stuff that doesn't quite kill you. As it happens, I have this evil condition that, if unchecked, makes it impossibly painful to say my Ms, Bs, or Ps. (Try teaching about the Missouri Compromise with that problem...) For a week and a half I was talking like a ventriloquist. If unchecked, it makes it incredibly hard to eat. I was reduced to cutting up peanut butter toast and sliding it into my face like a letter into the mailbox and chewing gently, swallowing fearfully. With an unchecked condition, I didn't want to move my face for fear of disturbing the volatile Angry Nerve.

But think about it: all I do at work is talk and smile and eat. (Yes, I eat at work, don't judge.)

Can I tell you that the kids didn't seem to care about the ventriloquy? About my frozen smile? They went right on learning. They empathized. They wished me well at the end of class. And maybe some didn't even notice, so self-oriented are some middle schoolers.

One a co-worker was so worried about me not getting proper nutrition that I had a little gift bag one morning: a delicious cold chocolate protein shake...a avocado...some applesauce...and a spoon. Soft foods for me to slide into the mail slot, to get past the Angry Nerve. And a little John Lennon quote to feed my soul: "It will be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it's not the end." I cried a little, the good kind of crying.

And now that I have the right med dosage to appease the Angry Nerve, I can go back to my wondering what will really take me out of the classroom.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Middle v High

When I first imagined becoming a teacher, I saw me in a high school. I saw only English lovers in my class, all engaged, competent, and sharing, laughing and loving each other. (I suppose this was a lot like my English class, part of the reason I wanted to teach high school English to begin with.)

I was first hired for middle school history. I was surprised at how funny the kids are, how they don't hold grudges, how fervent and affectionate and loyal and adorable they are. I liked them so much I decided to stay. And then I was "declared in excess," "pink slipped." That is the public school version of being fired. It happens either because there really are too many teachers and the one with the least seniority goes, or because the administration wants to get rid of a teacher but because of seniority, has to dig deep in order to do so, "declaring in excess" all the teachers up to the target. I was last hired and there was a teacher high above me whom they wanted out. It was inevitable.

I ended up being picked up by a high school. My English class was filled with English lovers...AND:
     English haters-
     English apathetics-
     silent kids-
     the chronically bored-
     those too cool for school-
Their ability levels ran the gamut. They sat slumped in their chairs, sleep heavy on their eyes. Some kids had writing that was positively hieroglyphic. I lasted one year there before my mom talked me into taking some time off to explore other career options.

I'm back in a middle school and oh so glad. But after a decade or so, a person can get curious and want to check out the color of other people's lawns. So today I checked out a high school. I liked it...a  lot. I liked the kids and that it looked like the teachers' efforts were directed toward helping students understand, not just repeating/reprimanding/redirecting. Yes, there was a ton of passivity, but after 16 years in Middle School Land,  also known as Squirrel Country, it was almost refreshing.

But then we noticed the conditions. The school is huuuuuge. There are so many teachers that they don't really know each other. There is competition for juniors and seniors. The toughest kids? Good luck. Stakes are super high. There is little collaboration. There is a ton of politics.

I head back to my little middle school tomorrow. Z will hail me with a happy smile. I'll have to tell O. to settle down. I'll likely have to interrupt some silent cross-room mouthed conversations between S. and J. BUT....I'll wave to every colleague, ask specific questions about their family, be blessed to know that everyone loves all the kids, eat lunch with good people. I will be home. I am not settling. The grass is always greener where you water it, and we positively have sprinklers at our school.

Friday, January 30, 2015

He looks incredibly great, actually...I'm not kidding.

An op-ed piece     By   

"As extensive research shows, just one year with a gifted teacher in middle school makes it far less likely that a student will get pregnant in high school, and much more likely that she will go to college, earn a decent salary, live in a good neighborhood and save for retirement."

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

The other day my father went the Natural History Museum. After looking up his last name to give him a ticket, the young docent, K., asked, "Do you have a sister named Lola? She was my favorite teacher all through school..."

[Ed.: OK, I could either frame this as "My dad looks good for his 77 years," "I look awful for my half century," or "Students have absolutely no idea that 13 years isn't really that long." (Personally, I think my daddy looks fantastic.)]

"...yes, she made me love history so that I even got a history degree--lots of my friends did, too."

Teachers don't get to revisit students and distill and analyze their positive and negative influence on their students and their lives' outcomes.  That "extensive research" can't really show causality.  Could I measure my efficacy by counting who got pregnant in high school, who graduated from college, who saves for retirement? Is it my personal fault if a kid drops out? There is NO WAY to find out one's influence without asking the students, is there? 

And self -reporting is, as they say, less than reliable.

How can "They" know what would have happened if a kid had this type of teacher, or that kind? How could they know that maybe K. would have become a ROCKET SCIENTIST or a BRAIN SURGEON if she hadn't gotten derailed by the thrills of 8th grade history class where we sang some cheesy songs, took Cornell notes throughout the year, and reenacted the Battle of Gettysburg in twenty minutes? 

Maybe I RUINED HER. Maybe K. was going to find the cure for cancer. Maybe she would have been an engineer and be making all kinds of money, rather than handing my extremely youthful-looking dad a ticket in a local non-profit museum.

But maybe I saved her life. Maybe she was thinking about finding the cure for cancer, but now she will live a beautiful, fulfilling life helping others connect with the past, present, and future. Maybe she would have been miserable in any other field.

I reread that NYT paragraph and find it overwhelming. That much responsibility...that's crazy, people. We place these middle schoolers into cinderblock classrooms (which I find absolutely horrifying--the cinderblock classrooms, not the placing of the kids) and for 55 minutes, five days a week, one middle school teacher can have that great of an impact??? How can anyone be calm about this??? How can we not be more serious, wise and intentional about teacher recruitment, training, and retention??? how? how? HOW???

When I was in middle and high school, taking those career aptitude tests, one of the questions was about how important it was for me to influence people. For me, the answer was super duper important. I really wanted to (and still hope to) make a positive difference in this world--but I didn't think I could actually influence someone's sex life or retirement savings.

That's like, dude, more influence than Oprah

I've always felt the responsibility to be a heavy one, an honorable one. But dear Lord, this little paragraph means I want to make sure that YOU love them through me. Help me to be Your arms. Help me to speak Your words. Help me to love them the way You do. Amen.

*from "Can Students have too much TECH, JAN. 30, 2015

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Gone with the Wind? Wind out of His Sails? Caution to the Wind?

Eighth grade boys....

Though George Washington's official inauguration was on April 30th, 1789, it happened today in B-5. I was teaching the students the difference between the two key words "president" and "precedent," and explained that as the first president ever in the history of the known universe, every time Washington did anything, he was setting a presidential precedent.

O. chirped out, "I wish I could be the first president to fart!" I returned, "I'm afraid you are far too late for that, my friend." O. shook his fist and stage whispered, "Curse you, George Washington..."

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Day I Discovered Motherhood Would Have Killed Me

"Miss M,
(smiley face) I know this paper may not be exactly what this essay contest was about. It's just that as I began to write, my feelings started unraveling. I was about to go w/some cheesy generic story, but I thought this was more meaningful. Just thought I'd let you know.
~H. (heart)"

This hot pink sticky on her paper didn't really prepare me for what I was about to read.

We were participating in the Jackie Robinson Breaking Barriers essay contest and my students were writing about obstacles they had overcome. (I really wanted one of them to win a trip to the All Star game!) I fully expected to read about students facing their fear of heights....of trying out for cheer... of maybe trying to make friends at a new school.

I was not prepared for the baring of wounds, some deep and ugly, many still raw.

R. was born with a chronic condition that leaves him in pain when he eats certain foods.
N., who is Asian, faces stereotypes and racism on the baseball field.
M. has gay parents and deals with slurs and mean jokes regularly.
D. struggles with anorexia--and he is a male athlete.
A. is on anti-anxiety medication at age thirteen.
B. tries to make sense of his parents' divorce and his being "caught between."
S.'s best friend died.
A's dad has been fighting cancer for years.

On and on it went. In the stable middle class neighborhood, my babies were facing all kinds of struggles that they never shared aloud. All kinds of troubles, and all kinds of courage--courage I felt they really were too young to ever have to exercise. Thirty-six kids, thirty-six trials.

H? Her story was about being shunned for being, they said, fat. I could hardly believe it. This healthy, beautiful girl who in no way had any extra poundage was believing she was heavy. I was enraged. Who dares to scar this wonderful lovely beautiful girl? WHO?? I wanted to find them and, er, set the record straight.

I had to walk away from the papers because my soul couldn't take it.

I don't know if I want to participate in the contest this year.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Haiku for a Beginning Teacher

At each day's ending, 

write down these TWO THINGS: what worked

and what made you smile.