May 31, 2007

Ending With a Whimper?

I only have two more days with my students before they go into final exams. It seems like we should be winding down, and preparing for our farewells, but instead, we are pushing to finish everything. Right now it feels like we are going to finish in limbo, and wouldn't that be awkward? I'm not sure what I'm worried about. I'm probably the only who feels like the "wrapping it up" part is going to be cut short. We all know that the students have been "done" for a few weeks now, anyway! They won't even notice...

May 29, 2007

Did I Really Need That Pit Stop to Finish the Race?

It's cruel and unusual punishment to make us continue on with the school year after Memorial Day. Now, I've never actually taught in a district that ended school before Memorial Day, so I'm not an expert on what's better or anything. (Although...when I was a kid we never had school after Memorial Day.) I just know that it's hard to take a blissful, long-awaited three-day weekend and then have to come back to eight lousy days of school.

And on the first day back, I had to listen to student presentations all day. Some of them are sadly mediocre. My students all seem to be interested in war, beauty, and immortality. Interesting thing to ponder...

And, by the way, these presentations are of projects I will need to grade within the next eight days.

And also on this day back from a relaxing weekend, I hosted the yearbook release the cafeteria...where there is apparently no air conditioning. I'm all limp and melted-looking--an attractive look for a professional.

And rather than soaking in a nice bubble bath after this long day, I have to go torture teach my night school students, but thankfully I only have them once this week. They've been terribly mean the last few weeks, and I don't like them much.

It might seem like today was the roughest day in the next eight, but it's not. They are all filled with many unpleasant, yet necessary tasks of my job.

Some might say that the three-day weekend was an good place to refuel before the end of the year. I'm thinking of some analogy where race car drivers have to decide if it's wise to take a pit before the race is over or if they can finish the race with the fuel they have. And you know, if I'm thinking of Nascar analogies, I might be losing my mind, and that little holiday weekend didn't really refresh me. It simply teased me with something I cannot have...yet.

May 25, 2007

Panic! In the Classroom!

One of my students had a breakdown during class today because she didn't have her project. She's been gone a lot lately because of the activities she's in, but she doesn't always keep up on her assignments--even when she's there. Her mom is constantly trying to keep her on top of things.

So anyway, as I busy with other students, and everyone was working independently, I didn't notice the girl sitting alone by the door all hunched over, hiding the fact she was crying. I didn't know what was wrong with her when I first approached, but when I bent down, I found her sobbing, and drying to dry her tears with one of those stretchy nylon book covers, which kept getting snagged on her braces. (Hard not to laugh.) Yep, she was a disaster.

I did not have any sympathy for her but asked her if she needed to call her mother (to calm her down) and if her mother could maybe bring any of her project to school. Apparently she had called her mother, who could not miss anymore time from work, and as it turns out, her project was not completed anyway. So, I sent the girl to the restroom with a friend (I hate to admit I was more worried than usual that this student might hurt herself), but then she ended up getting a severe nosebleed and going to the nurse's office. She was such a wreck that she ended up going home. By the end of the day her project appeared on my desk, so I guess her mother ended up taking time off to deal with her daughter's drama after all.

You know what was amusing about all of this? While the distraught girl was off sitting alone having a breakdown because she thought she might fail--and she admitted she brought this on herself--her friends were ignoring her drama. Not kidding. They were at their desks, involved in their own last minutes project plans, and had no sympathy for her either. Those are good friend, aye?

Wait! There's More: Robotic Responses

Question: I have two pieces of writing to turn in besides my research paper?
Response: Yes. Check the instruction sheet.
Question: So, I can do [rambles off ideas from instruction sheet].
Response: Yes.
Question: Well, what do I think I should do?
Response: What did you write on your project plan what you were going to do?
Question: I dunno.
Response: Look.


Question: How long does the essay have to be?
Response: Essay length.
(I hate that question and am never quite sure what to say. They want to do just enough to get by rather than fully expressing their thoughts.)
Question: So, five paragraphs?
Response: Sure.

Update: Graycie posted her her approach to exhausting query. Check it out!


Question: My final drafts have to be typed?
Response: Yes.
Question: Does it matter what font?
Response: 12-point Times New Roman
(Ten years of this particular dialogue running throughout the year makes me wonder if I should just tattoo it on my forehead.)


Question: I have to turn in my rough drafts and notes and stuff?
Response: Yes. It goes in the third section of your portfolio.
Questions: What if I didn't keep them?
Response: I'm sorry you didn't follow directions.


Question: What if I don't do [Insert project part here]? How much will it hurt my grade?
Response: I don't know. I can't do that kind of math in my head.
Question: Like will it drop me down to a [insert unacceptable grade here]?
Response: It could happen. Why didn't you do it?
Response: I dunno.


Question: So, like, I have to have a binder or something to put all this stuff in?
Response: Yes.
Question: What if I don't have one?
Response: What if things are lost?


Question: So, everything is due tomorrow?
Response: Yes.
Questions: What if I don't get it all done?
Response: That would be a bummer for you.

May 20, 2007

My Autopilot Pen

Your paper lacks focus.

What is your thesis?

Pick ONE of your ideas to fully develop into a research paper. [Insert questions here that probe students with possibilities based on the mess they've submitted.] Your subject is too broad.

Be sure to clearly define the purpose of your paper with a thesis statement. Let that purpose guide you as you write.

Be sure to cite your sources as you go along.


Where are your sources?

Who? [As in, experts alluded to in the writing.]

Start with what YOU have to say and use experts to help you support your ideas. It should not be a patchwork quilt of source information that the reader has to sew together to understand what you are trying to communicate.

What point are you trying to make?

Where's your Works Cited page? (I capitalize it so that they might also.)

Why haven't you cited the sources listed here [Works Cited] in your paper?

Are these the best, most reliable sources available? [In relation to the overuse of Wikipedia.]

Earlier today I felt guilty about finding too many things wrong with my students' rough draft research papers. I know some positive feedback would go a long way, but DANG! I'm back to wondering if some of them have seriously just fallen off the turnip truck. Some of the papers I've read today were such a total train wreck. I suppose I could have complimented them on their use of complete sentences--even though those sentences were not fitting together to form cohesive thoughts.

It's times like this I really hate being an English teacher.

My biggest pet peeve--and I wish that one year my students would realize this--is reading a paper and trying to solve the puzzle of purpose. Yo kid, it's not my job to figure out what your paper is about! You are suppose to tell me with your writing. It's not like we don't go over thesis statements time and time again. I believe that some of them just don't get that it's a conscious effort to craft a thesis. Many of them treat it as if were an optional thing to do in writing.

Writing is hard work. It takes patience and practice. I can tell which students have slaved for hours trying to pen just the right words. In our fast-paced world, I commend their patience to practice what many of their classmates consider an old-fashioned form of communication. I'll keep working on the rest of them.

May 17, 2007

Editor Betrayal

Our yearbooks have arrived, but it’s a secret that they are even in the building because our party isn’t for another week and a half. Of course, I had to go look at the book, and my principal couldn’t stand the excitement either. I haven’t even told my staff because they can’t keep secrets that well, and the next thing you know I’ll have all their friends harassing me to look at the book, too.

My yearbook students, who are basically past wanting to do anything, are begrudgingly making posters to put up all over the school advertising the release party. The truth is we’ve only sold half our books, and we will be able to sell most of the rest in the next week. Students either buy them at the beginning of the year when they are less expensive, or they wait until the last minute and pay a premium price. It’s frustrating, but our rep says it’s that way all over the city.

Today I implored my staff members to use word of mouth to advertise by asking every single student they meet if they have purchased a book and tell everyone how cool the book is going to be.

I was so close to passing on the compliments the principal gave and maybe even showing them the book when my editor piped up, “That’s not truth in advertising.”

“Are you serious? You don’t think our book is good?”


I was instantly angry at her betrayal. Nice way to support the staff and our efforts, little miss snotty editor! I did not agree with the theme the class chose this year, but I told them--and especially the editor--that if they could work it out, we could do it. These were her ideas! What didn't she like? I’d be the first to admit right here if I thought the book wasn’t good. It is good—better than last year—with a lot of special little details that I’ve not seen in other middle school yearbooks. I overreacted in anger and told her to leave if she felt that way. She didn’t leave, and now I will be irritated with her the rest of the year because she was being such a brat.

(I’ve been disappointed with her and the other editor all year long. They aren’t the hard-working, creative students they were last year. My relationships with my editors have always been this way. It’s like a marriage. You think you know a person, but then you make a commitment to each other… I could do a whole series on yearbook editor nightmares I’ve lived.)

If the rest of the staff could not see my anger, they are blind and deaf. I tried to regain some positive stature:

“For those of you who take pride in the work we’ve done this year, please tell all your friends to buy a yearbook.”

Then I recruited help to do some last minute party planning from the enthusiastic staff members who will probably turn on me next year when I give them leadership positions.

May 16, 2007

Scenes from My Teacher Life

Probably not coming to a theater near you. Probably not even on the Lifetime channel, either.

A Quick Question the Day Rough Drafts Are Due

Student: Miss, is it okay that my title is my thesis statement?
Teacher: No.
Student: But I ask a question and then the rest of the essay answers it. It’s what my paper is about.
Teacher: That’s nice, but the title and the thesis are different things. It’s like saying your name and the period are the same. Did you actually state your thesis in your first paragraph?
Student: Well, no. It’s my title.
Teacher: That’s nice, but you have to also state it in your essay. The title is something separate.
Blah, blah, blah. Back and forth. Student does not get it. Wants me to say what she has done wrong is okay.
Teacher: Just turn it in.
Student: So, it’s okay.
Teacher: No. It’s not.

How Many Days of School?

Teacher: Be sure to turn in your reflection logs.
Sounds of students sucking in air. Obviously many have forgotten.
Random Student: Oh yeah. I need to do that.
Teacher: I’m sure it’s not a problem since you’ve doing it all along anyway.
Much eye-rolling from the students.
The teacher participates in transparent self-talk. The class is used to seeing such theatrics when the teacher is exasperated and is quite unmoved as the teacher has a conversation with herself.
Teacher: Note to self: the reflection logs are not working well despite the fact that this is the third check and we have gone over examples in class. Should we throw them out? Hmmmm. No. Try something different.
Random student: Does that mean we don’t have to do them anymore?
Teacher: NO! It is a very powerful tool—oh never mind!
Random Student: Does that mean we don’t have to do it?
Teacher: Oh, no. You still have to do it. I’m just not going to explain to you again why the reflection journals have great educational ramifi—seriously just never mind. They're due today.
Silent, blank stares from the students.


Kids Are So Strange

There are students waiting outside the teacher's classroom, and as she walks from the parking lot she sees one student standing on the edge of the sidewalk, obviously waiting for the teacher with her arms outstretched.

Teacher: Uh, what are you doing?
Her friends giggle. She just stands there grinning with her arms outstretched.
Teacher: Are you going to hug me or help me carry some things.
Student: I want a hug.
Teacher: Okaaaaaaaaaaay. Did you want that reciprocated because my hands are full…
And then the student puts her arms around the teacher and gives her an awkward hug.
Student: Ha! I hugged a teacher!

May 14, 2007

Aren't There Some Dumb Questions?

Research papers are due for peer evaluation tomorrow. Papers were assigned weeks ago. This isn't the first paper we've written this year. The following question from one of my students made me want to poke my eyes out with dull kid scissors:

How do you write a research paper?

I probed him about a few things, but he claimed he didn't know how to do any of it. I could understand if he needed help with parenthetical documentation, or if I had to go over citation tips again, but he wanted all of it?

Did he expect me to give him the simple answer or redo the unit we did last quarter? Oh! He remembered the unit, but he did not do the paper. Between the two of us, we're a disaster. I have obviously not gotten the concept through to him, and he has chosen not to attempt anything that would allow me to give him feedback. It's nice that he's finally reaching out for help, right? This has been going on for weeks, and it took up a good chunk of last quarter and TODAY he decides to play along with the rest of us.

And for goodness sake, is this the first year ever that he has had to write a research paper? Did he just fall off the turnip truck?

May 11, 2007

What Did We Expect?

Our foreign language teachers planned a big team event today, which involved all of our students sitting in a room watching travel videos that they made for the entire day. (Yes, students on my team all take a foreign language.) It was a really good idea for them to share--and evaluate--their videos with each other, but it was a long day.

We fed them snacks regularly. We packed them into a room just the right size to accommodate 150 teenagers. We contained 150 teenagers to one room for an entire day. We let them out of the room for lunch, where they feasted on pizza and other food they brought in, which included quite a bit of junk food.

Did I say student-made videos? Yea, really cool. But if you look at the number of students we have in this group who are not motivated students, you know there were going to be plenty of poor quality videos. Some of them were so boring. Ack! And since it's so cool to make all your letters swim or spin on the screen, I got dizzy just watching a few of them.

And you know every time I saw a spelling error I wanted to jump up and say, "Whose video is this? Are you KIDDING me?" And don't even get me started on my pet peeve with exclamation marks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So, let's review:

7 hours
150 teenagers
small room
24 videos
half of the videos painfully dull
crazy editing and style issues (probably only to me)
uncomfortable chairs
lots of junk food

Okay, okay. I have to be positive. The kids had a great time, and even the crappiest movie is better than I can do because I haven't bothered to learn i-movie yet. Kudos to our foreign language teachers for pulling this together!

But...right now....

I wonder if that bottle of wine my brother made me is ready to drink yet?

May 10, 2007

Involving My Students in Writing Assessments

Basic graphic organizer that I use with my students to help them see the whole picture.

One of the components of the independent project that my students are working on is related to either art or community service. When I've done this project before, I have considered throwing out this part because it's not really language arts related like the rest of the project. Originally, it was only a fine arts component, but I added community service as an alternative option for those who are painfully artistically challenged.

Although the art component feels like it should be discarded from the project, it often inspires students to reach beyond the expected, and it seems encourage them to add pizazz to the entire project. For example, one of my students chose LOVE as a theme. For the creative writing component she will be writing several poems. She has chosen to combine the art component with it and make an illustrated book of poetry. I doubt she would have illustrated that book of poetry had it not been for the art component.

I almost threw out the art component this year because I've been trying so hard to build stronger rubrics, and I could not figure out how to write a rubric to this component that is wide open. And I mean WIDE open:

Fine Art or Community Service Component
For fine art:
Create, perform, present, or share with the class:
…or other alternative means of expression


For community service:
Plan and implement a community service project related to your theme.
Document your process using journals, copies of letters, and pictures.

Most years I've basically given students full points on the art part if it was halfway decent. There were always students who thought taking 10 minutes to glue some pictures on a poster board should be considered art. But what had I really said they could or couldn't do? Sometimes collages make wonderful pieces of art. It was so subjective. I was ready to hit delete on this section, when it occurred to me that my students could write their own rubrics for this section.

How will I know if you perform well in this area? Well, why don't you tell me?

I'm not going to be one bit humble here. I was insanely proud of myself for thinking of this brilliant idea. Student input is one aspect of assessment where I could use some improvement. There are very basic requirements, but the approaches still leave a lot of room for student choice in this project. Why not involve them in creating the criteria for certain parts of the project? This is all about students learning something they want to learn. The more they make choices, they more they will gain from the experience.

Okay, so with that back story, today was the day when students had to turn in the criteria they established for themselves. Even with that, I gave them options. Some turned in a checklist of things that will prove they have excelled this is component, while others turned in some impressive rubrics with descriptors on a 5 point scale. Seriously! Full-blown rubrics! I love those kids!

In the end, I'm still going to have students who turn in poor quality work, as I had several students not turn in anything. These are the same kids who will draw some stick figures on notebook paper and then argue that they've worked hard on it. However, the majority of the students have set the bar high for themselves. They're owning this project, and they're excited!

This is the stuff we teachers live for!

May 8, 2007

Biohazardous Book

This is exactly something that would happen in my classroom:

My students started reading Going Where I'm Coming From in my class today, and we have just enough copies for a class set. In fact, in my largest class, if everyone shows up, I have to lend out my teacher copy, which is all marked up with teacher goodness.

Of course, in the very first class today, one of my student had a nose bleed and dripped blood over a few of the pages.

We were all sufficiently grossed out. I wiped the pages down with Clorox wipes, and later in the day after the pages dried, the stain didn't obviously look like blood.

But we still know...

May 2, 2007

Under a Microscope

We had visitors touring our school today from the Magnet Schools of America Conference. Perhaps a little unnerving, yes, but in the end it turned out rather well.

A large number of my top students were tour guides, and therefore excused from their classes today. At one point today I was a momentarily stressed out when I did a status of the class, as I was out of my classroom yesterday while I attended the conference myself, and found that the majority of the students felt like they didn't really understand the project.

In many ways I was not surprised, as I have gone through this project before, and it is not uncommon for students to take several days to understand the requirements and to formulate their project proposals. I was absolutely prepared to work one-on-one with students to get them on track today, but I was anticipating that number to be no more than five students in each class--not the fifteen in the class where we were expecting visitors!

In the big picture, I really don't have a problem with observers in my classroom seeing this whole process, but today we were suppose to be showing our use of technology. My students were suppose to be demonstrating their skills in researching, yet only a small portion of the class was at that point. The students who would have been on top of the game, as I said before, were excused from class to be tour guides.

Of course it worked out in the end. I gave a little background and invited the guests to talk with the students about their projects or any other information. I observed many students interacting confidently with our guests, which I was pleased about because if you're in 8th grade and you have a room full of teachers wanting to know what you're doing, you know that has to be a little weird.

There was one gentleman who went straight over to one of my flakiest kids (plus one that would not be comfortable talking to adults) and started quizzing him about the website he was looking at. Did he think it was a valid source? How did he know? I could tell with a glance that it perhaps wasn't the strongest source he could find. We've been through evaluating sources this year, and I reminded students to closely analyze their sources when I was explaining this component of the project. I think the man was also giving the student a refresher on the unit about research that we already covered about types of sources and ways to find them. Now, this is the kid who would not have been paying attention when we did that unit, but I'm sure vague memories started to come back to him and wished he would have paid better attention!

After about ten minutes I stopped by to check on the student, and the gentleman started to lecture me about how there were better web resources available. I smiled at him and said, "Oh yes! We've covered that concept this year. I'm sure Benito will get there." Then the man moved on to quiz a few more of my more inarticulate students. The man must have had some sort of radar! And the truth is, many of the students in my classroom at that time were not even magnet students; technically they were students who were enrolled in accelerated classes, yet not in the program. They are the students who are barely making it in accelerated classes, but if they were in the regular classes, they wouldn't be challenged enough.

After the group left, I checked in again with Benito, teasing him about how the gentleman had put him through the wringer.

"Miss! What was with that?"

"I don't know," I laughed. "He just wanted to help you, I suppose. You should have been able to discuss your topic and choices with him."

"I know. Miss, it was the first web site I looked at!"

I wonder, was he just about to click out of the page? Was he trying to decide if the page was worth his time, and he was hung up by having to articulate what he was processing in his head? Or, was he seriously considering the poor source he was looking about?

I suppose I'll never know. I do know that the gentleman, although he did rub me the wrong way, too, did a beautiful job in reinforcing one the the broken-record messages I've been sending all year.