August 31, 2007

We're All Inches Away From the Hobo Life

Anybody read Hobo Teacher? He has this quality that makes me wonder if he's for real (there is a picture on his page that I don't think has always been there), but I've been entertained by him for years--I guess since I found his teacher-ware on Cafe Press. That guys rocks! Plus, he kind of reminds me of a math teacher friend of mine.

His most recent post made me spew Pepsi out my nose. Gawd, how I needed a laugh after the first week of school!

August 30, 2007

Students With Serious Questions

After going over rules, procedures and other important stuff for nearly two days, I asked my students to write down questions they had. I did allow them to ask questions about me if they didn't have questions about the class. Most wanted to know how much work I planned on giving and if the class is going to be easy. Lots of duplicates of those questions. Most students are just trying to gain their bearings and figure out what to expect in this class and of me as a teacher and person.

I've made the questions and answers into a PowerPoint that I'll just run on a loop at the beginning of class for the next few days. I'd planned on answering questions in the specific class where they were asked, but here I've found myself at the end of the week, and we're pretty busy tomorrow. Well, I could talk at them more, but instead they are going to write some personality poems and tie up loose ends for the week. It's weird going to school for a week and then getting a 3-day weekend.

Here are the questions my students asked:

Are we going to be in these seats all year?
Are there going to be a lot of projects in your class?
How many projects are we going to do?
What kind of projects will we have?
Are we reading together or by ourselves?
Are we going to read a lot of book?
Are we going to have to do a lot of writing?
Will we have a whole lot of essay assignments?
Are we going to be able to come up with our own essay topics sometime this year?
How many essays will we have to do?
Why did we get to do a 350-500 word essay?
Will all essays be 300-500 words?
How much bookwork do we do? (Not counting reading?)
Will there be a lot of homework?
Will we have homework every night?
Is there homework on the weekends?
How are things graded?
When will we begin poetry?
On the supply list, do you want us to give you the bag of pens or do we hold on to the pens?
What is the funniest thing we will do in this class?
Are we going to do fun activities in this class?
Is this class spontaneous?
Will we work in groups?
What would we need our laptops for?
What are we going to learn?
What will we be learning and what will be reviewing from seventh grade?
Is this class going to be hard? Or is it easy?
Is this class easy?
Will this class be VERY challenging?
What is the hardest thing you will teach?
What kind of assignments will we be doing?
What kind of fuzzy Friday?
Are we going to do a Greek Mythology Project?
Are we going to study a whole lot of Shakespeare this year?
What is A of I ?
Will you help me if I need help?
What do you mean that this is reading, too? Will we read in class?
Why are we doing reading stuff here?
Do we have to read boring books this year?
Are we gonna do vocab books? If yes, when are we taking tests?
Who are they? Where are they?
Where is the emergency exit?
Why do you have smile faces on your door?
What else are you obsessed with besides smiley faces and why?
Why do you have all those little words on the board?
How many tests will we have?
When are we going to go on field trips?
Are you a happy person or do you get mad easily?
Will you be a nice teacher? How can you like teaching?
Did you really want to become a teacher when you were younger or did you want to do something else?
Do you have any pets at home?
Where were you born?
Where are you from?
Do you have a dog?
What school did you graduate college?
What is your first name?
What’s your favorite sport and why?
What is your favorite type of ice cream?
What is your favorite color?
How come your windows above the board are covered up?
Have you ever traveled to any other place out of the United States?

I've never done this before, but I think it has been quite valuable. I hope my students will be content and more ready to buckle down when their questions are answered. Frankly, I was SHOCKED that there were so many class/content related questions.

My Children Are Off to a Typical Start

On the 4th day of school, the school nurse calls. My stepdaughter shut her finger in the restroom door. She'll live, but she might lose the nail. On the 4th day of school!

August 28, 2007

Teacher Stuff About Me

Kimberly over at Terrible Teacher tagged me for a meme last week. I'm not going to tag anyone, so if you'd like to give this a shot, be my guest!

Is School 2.0 about technology or pedagogy?
I think it's about pedagogy. To me, technology is a tool we use to help students think in different ways. Sure, education is going the way it is because of technology, but what's the theory behind our classroom practices? (I'm not really all that familiar with the term School 2., so I may not know enough to truly answer this question intelligently.)

What were 1-3 things you had to”unlearn” to become an effective teacher?
I learn from my mistakes or misconceptions all the time. I can't really think of any one thing I had to unlearn. I do think I've had to "learn" that there is not one answer or teaching technique that works for every student. Sometimes people try to sell you on one perspective or another that will be the end all to solve all your problems in the classroom. It sounds nice, but it's another theory. Theories are nice, but they aren't golden band aids.

Did you learn these poor practices in your teacher preparation program, or somewhere else? If so, where? Like I've indicated, I don't think I've necessarily learned poor practices. However when it comes to misguided theories that some things will fix everything of reach every student, I've learned those things in college, PD courses from the state, personal reading, and in my own schools.

Describe the philosophy of your teacher preparation program in 25 words or less.
Geez! I don't know. All the old pros have the answers, so let's study them. Is this where I can make my snide remarks about how I always wondered if what I was being taught would work outside of white suburbia? Yes, I used to ask those questions. Did the things I was being taught work? Some of them. Back to that nothing works for everyone. I was underprepared to work with the populations I have worked with for sure.

What age/grade level do you teach? When did you attend school at that level?
I teach grades 8-12. I was born in 1971. I'm an English teacher; you do the math.

When were you in your teacher preparation program?
Since I majored in education (at my school, I'm practically an anomaly among tons of alternatively licensed teachers), I'd say I was in the teacher program from the time I decided to become a teacher. So, that would be 1990--1996. I did my student teaching in the winter of 1996. It seems like so long ago.

August 27, 2007

Fleeting Thoughts for the First Day

If someone were to offer me a nice desk job where air conditioning could be consistently promised, I'd quite teaching tomorrow.

I wonder how the new teachers with their 2-inch heel black pumps faired today. One teacher with 2-inch heels told me that she was wearing them for the image. Seriousness. Power. Professional. Her friend had even higher heels on--things I've never seen a teacher wear. Her weekend job could be as a cocktail waitress. Impressive skills. Ah, to be young!

(I remember when I first started teaching how I used to "dress up" like a teacher. My costume included pointed toed flats, floral skirts, and beige blouses.)

Thinking of shoes, I wore a newer pair today, and my feet are killing me. What do I have that will go with my fancy flip flops?

How late can I sleep in tomorrow and still make it in time?

How soon until the weekend?

How am I going to make it through another year?

What am I doing tomorrow, anyway? Good thing it's written down somewhere.

August 25, 2007

A Peak Inside My Classroom

View from the Door

Some other teachers posted pictures of their classrooms before school started. I enjoyed seeing how others organized their rooms, so I decided to post pictures of my classroom, too. Check out my whole classroom photoset if you'd like. Of course in my talkative manner, I've added comments and notes.

I am fortunate to have such a large room and all that goes with it, as I know many teachers do this job under the poorest of conditions. Heck, there are teachers in my own school who less than favorable conditions. I am truly blessed--even when the A/C isn't working. (Our principal joked earlier this week that we had more technology than air conditioning. It's pretty sad when you think about it.)

This is as good a year as any to take pictures of my classroom because after this year our poor old school is going where old schools go when they die. I'm not sure where that is. Our memories?

August 24, 2007

The Safety Illusion

A few readers left comments after my rant on teaching online responsibility instead of simply blocking everything that might be dangerous or questionable. If this is a topic of interest to you, check out Steve Dembo who has recently written about similar issues and has linked a story from Australia that shows the effectiveness of filters, er, uh, I mean the ineffectiveness of filters.

Ready...Set...NO! Not Yet!

I'm less irritable and less stressed than I was on the first day, although if you ask the dean, he may not agree. Of course he's new, and he did not catch the sarcastic-jaded tone in my voice today when, after our final meeting before opening doors on Monday where we were instructed to go to the library for one last task, I found myself near the end of the line to pick up important documents that had to be handed out to students on Monday and ended up getting NONE of them. All wiped out like crab legs at a $5.99 buffet.

I would have been near the beginning of the line had I not opted to swing by my room to pick up my audio enhancement gear that someone decided needed to be serviced before we could use them. (That means that I will likely lose my voice by the end of the first day, as it is not conditioned, and I will not be spoiled by my mic.) You know...rather than two trips to the library, I was trying to be efficient.

Poor new dean...he thought I was about to lose my cool. What's the fun of sarcasm if you have to explain that it's not really anger? He'll learn. Seriously, if you are expecting things to go the way they are suppose to, DON'T BECOME A TEACHER! Or is that just me that these things happen to? Nah!

So, am I ready? Not as much as I could be. I do not have one piece of paper ready to give students on Monday, but I do have a plan about how they will get their important information, and that will by listening and taking notes. Can you believe how mean I am? No multiple page handout for me to read to them so they can get a little more sleep on their first day back. (Actually, they will get an official everything-you-need-to-know document before we're finished.) No PowerPoint notetaker. No supply list, which they should have already, anyway. No hippy-dippy interest inventory sheet. Haha! Just kidding. I am a dippy hippy, so they'll get that sometime during the week, too. It's not that I'm trying to save trees or anything, but that is a good idea. I just haven't quite gotten things together. So, oh well. The funny thing is that it's not like I have to create the wheel or anything. It's just that I've had so little time.

I had to give up my computer yesterday so I could get a new one that is compatible with the ones my students will have this year, but I was told it could take 48 hours to get a computer back. I was a getting a little afraid that the first day was going to be me and a white board marker. And come to think of it, I probably can't count on the fact that the ones that worked in June still work now. No worries, though. Our computer person is wonderful, and she finished imaging mine just before 4 pm. It's not going to be the year 1954 in my classroom on Monday afterall.

Unfortunately, for the first time since I started at this school, I will be going in tomorrow--on a Saturday--to put the finishing touches on the big back to school event in my classroom. Thank goodness the beginning is near. We're one day closer to the time of year when things are even, organized, and predictable.

August 23, 2007

Misplaced Wisdom: Keeping Students Digitally Locked Out

(Skip to the end if you want the shorter story on how I spoke out on what I believe. As short as I can be, anyway.)

Some of the bloggers on my blog roll are what I consider to be serious edubloggers who blog about their exciting adventures in Web2.0 and beyond. I am interested in what's going in that aspect of education, but at times I've found it difficult to join in.

One of the primary reasons I was interested in blogging was so I could get my students involved, too. I didn't blog about the walls I hit until a year later when I found myself planning work for my summer. Some were my walls of inexperience, but others were the walls of a highly locked down district Internet. During that summer, I taught myself as much as I could about some of the interesting tools I could use in my classroom, but when I returned to school, not one was available for me to use. All blocked.

In this past year as I beefed up instruction on how to use the web as a research tool, I had students researching about The Deletion of Online Predators Act. (Here are some sources we used.) I know it didn't pass, but effects and hysteria are long-lasting. Hey, kids! Do want to know why you can't access MySpace at school and why your teachers is bummed that she can't teach you some really cool web applications? Read all about it. Yea, I know. My lame jab and The Man, or something.

I did find a education blog host in the spring (for free--I need the free), which I tried out on my publications students. I don't think I blogged about it. We didn't have much time to work with it, and it was not easy to work with anyway. Utterly disappointing. It was just so wonderful that I've forgotten the name, too.

My greatest joy this summer was finding that wikispaces and were no longer blocked. Hey, I know this stuff is old hat for some, but for me, these are the steps I've been looking forward to. I set up a wiki for my team to use, although some could care less about collaboration. I am confident, however, that I will be able to implement the use of wikis with my students this year.

--->(Here is the shorter version without background.)<---

Along this whole journey, I have bought into the idea that blocking students from social networking sites is not helping them learn about the real world. It is very likely that their "real worlds" may include the ability to communicate intelligently using social networking tools. Students should be taught how to use these tools correctly--and wisely. Those stories about college grads whose employers Googled them and found inappropriate material is not a joke. It's reality. And you know how people conduct entire conferences online now? It's amazing to me, but I figure it's going to be quite commonplace very soon. The powerful online future will be a great place for my students to thrive, but we're building it right now.

I think students should learn intellectual ways to use social tools while protecting/establishing online personas. Are we handicapping them by not doing so? Probably. And for crying out loud, yes it might be wise to block students from inappropriate websites that are sexually perverse and/or violent. (Hey kids! If you're going to look at that kind of stuff--don't do it at school. Duh.) Is it really necessary to block students from social networking sites because they might use them inappropriately? Why not teach some web responsibility? Some professional integrity? Some freakin' common sense?

So, yesterday in a meeting when everyone started chiming in on websites that should be blocked for all the wrong reasons--like Wikipedia because some kids looked up some graphic material with pictures included--I just couldn't hold back. Wikipedia is a sore spot with me because the students use it, and it's not their best, most valid source of information, but in the real world, it's not going away. Sure, students, use Wikipedia, but don't you dare count it as a source. Double check your information. And, by the way, Big Brother is watching, so if you look up inappropriate material, you've lost your computer privileges at our campus--and your mother will know you're a pervert.

(Actually, no matter where you go, there will always be a Big Brother watching. Get used to it.)

In the end, I probably looked like a crazy lady with my impassioned speech--nice that I'm already on my way to becoming the eccentric old English teacher on staff. I know I also stepped on some toes of people I hold in high regard. Ugh. In the end, the powers-to-be in the room agreed with teaching responsibility and intelligent uses, but thought it would be best to block potentially dangerous sites like Wikipedia.

That's just the way it is.

August 22, 2007

Can I Get Some Prozac With That Exedrin?

Chiming in that I made it back for my first day--for us teachers, anyway. Before the day was out I was breaking into the headache medicine of which I am super stocked.

I know I wasn't psyched to go back to school, but after today, I'm just depressed.

The pressure of all the things we have to do to be effective teachers with all the best practices and documentation of all things behavioral and academic (for 150 students) is super stressful at times. Do this. Do that. Don't forget to do that other thing. Use technology. Make it all work together. Be sure to call the parents--for good and bad. And, by the way, you need to work closely with your colleagues because we can see how PLC is working for us. Ack!

I guess just sitting with my colleagues all day while they ask questions for which answers should be obvious just wore me down. I know I am going to have to work with some of them, yet some of them are not easy to work with. (When I have students who don't want to work with other students in class activities, I tell them it is real life experience and they need to learn how to deal with those situations. Boy, do I know.) I am not one for conflict, and I'm pretty easy-going. I'd imagine it's easy to walk all over me, but in my mind, I consider myself flexible. I've made it through a decade in this career, and I'd say that my ability to be flexible has been an important character trait in surviving. Yes, I'm one of those women who has a Plan B--and sometimes C and D--for everything. I learned it in the classroom.

Lately, though, I don't feel like bending over anymore. It is not worth my time to negotiate my way through everyone else's drama. Maybe it should my way or no way. Honestly, it seems like it usually goes one person's way, instead of compromising on all participants' accounts. Other teachers do not seem to have any qualms about going against the flow and doing exactly what they like. I'm so done with them. Somehow I feel like now I'm not being a good team player, but maybe the pleaser/do-gooder in me can get over that.

I had a conversation with a confidant of mine on staff. She feels like although the teachers at our school are all nice people, the atmosphere is too much like high school at times. There are very definite cliques. There's drama. There's gossip. There are even love triangles. I'd never really thought about it (other than some people act like middle school girls), but she's right. Those uncomfortable feelings of not quite fitting in... Most of the time I blow it off, and just social with whomever I like. Yea, I was one of those kids in school who didn't specifically fit in any one place. It's okay, but it is exhausting at times. I have to be careful because sometimes I feel caught between people who don't like each other. Seriously, what do I care about other people's lack of social graces? Oh, other than just like high school, not getting along with your colleagues can make your life a living hell.

Oh my gosh! Reality check. Now I'm all full of drama! I'm one of them. Maybe it's time for me to go back to teaching high school.

When you add up stressful working conditions with immature people, it's easy to get frustrated. These are not the feelings I want to start the year with. So, get my tantrum out. Have a good cry of frustration. Turn my frown upside. Get over it, aye?

That's right.

August 20, 2007

A Classroom Equipped for Anything

I picked up my keys today. I had a former student helping me, so she worked on setting up my room while I worked on cleaning out a couple of file cabinets that have been crammed with stuff—quite a bit from the teacher before me. Oh! I feel so light and free after filling a large trash bag.

Following is a list of some random things I found. Some things belonged to me. Some did not.
  • a check made out to the school for $17 written in March of 2003
  • cold medicine tablets that expired in December of 2005
  • a red Matchbox Mustang
  • 2 bottles of headache medicine
  • a metallic green charger plate
  • 1 package of strawberry fruit leather
  • 2 packages of instant Miso soup
  • $1.37 in change
  • a package of sewing needles
  • a package of safety pins
  • blue and pink crocheted slippers
  • a Twin Towers souvenir keychain
  • 5 bottles of hand sanitizers
  • a red metal chalk holder
  • a 6-inch cleaver
  • a brand new box of Bicycle playing cards
  • 2 foam dice—1 blue and the other hot pink
It would probably be best if I claimed what was mine and explained a few things, but it’s much more entertaining if I don’t.

P.S. No air conditioning in my room today. It was 108° outside, so I doubt I'm exaggerating much if I said it was 100° in my classroom--it's been closed up with no air for 6 weeks. I probably would have gone home if I hadn't had free labor a poor kid trying to get ahead on her required community service hours.

August 18, 2007

"Teacher Arrested" Draggin' Us Down

There's one thing that we teachers we can count on when it comes to media coverage: we always come out looking bad.

I suppose it much the same in many places.

Unfortunately, this month we've had a rash of teachers who actually are bad. Coverage of three teachers (here, here, and here) and their criminal behavior with students has been in the news. When I heard continuous news of the first one who was in court, I was seriously irritated and disappointed by this person who had considered himself an educator, but his coverage was following the trial. Soon to be over, right? Unfortunately, with news of more teachers popping up all over the county, I'm cringing my way through the news each day.

It's bad enough that we are hundreds of teachers short for the start of school, but I guess the teachers we have left are creepy pedophiles. As a member of the community, that's what thought would be in my head, anyway.

One of the worst moments in my career was in the last year when some students were casually talking with me. I don't remember what the topic was exactly, but it had to be about trust. They asked if they could trust their teachers. It pained me to tell them that I'd really like them to be able to trust their teachers unconditionally, but I told them that that no, they could not. They could not trust us. There aren't any adults they should trust. They had to look out for creepy feelings of intuition and watch for inappropriate behaviors. Trust no one. How sad! (A couple of them told me they'd have creepy feelings around former teachers. Oh! I wanted to cry!)

Because of those depraved teachers, I need to be vigilant in keeping my distance from students. I get a little anxious if the door closes and I'm left alone with a student between classes. Sure, kid, you can ask me a question--just let me prop the door open. You know, so everyone knows I can be trusted with you in a room for 30 seconds. I know I might be extreme, but that's the world today.

That reminds me that I should review good touching and bad touching with my own children. What a great way to prep for the new school year...

August 17, 2007

Joey's Story

That kid really got on my nerves. He wasn't malicious, but he was out-of-control and irritating. I likened him to Jim Carey and Tom Green. Outside the classroom, I suppose he was quite amusing, but when I was trying to teach the students the difference between adverb clauses and adjective clauses, his antics were not appreciated.

I tried everything with Joey. I tried reasoning with him. It wasn't fair to the other students, and he wasn't doing the best he could do either. He understood and would try to control his antics, but in the end it wasn't possible.

I tried detention. In general I don't like detention. It hardly makes an impact.

I let him and his sidekick have the last 5 minutes of class to perform for their classmates IF he could control himself during class. It only worked once or twice. Again. No control.

I gave him time-outs. At that time I taught in a classroom that exited to the outdoors and had a bank of large windows, so I could keep an eye on the student I banished outside. It served as a great way to get him out of my hair and calm him down, but he ended up spending half his freshman year standing outside the classroom.

Of course, I also called his mom. She became my new best friend. She was in no way blind to her son's uncontrollable antics. She did not excuse them and worked on the issues at home.

Sure, Joey was a lovable kid. He was friendly, and because he was so full of school spirit, he was always at school events. So, as a person, I truly held nothing against him, but the thought of having him in my class again for his sophomore year made me want to put my head through one of those windows in my classroom. There was nothing I could do, though. I was the only sophomore English teacher at my small school.

A few months into his sophomore year I called his mom, "Jan, I'm just calling to tell you that I'm going to have to strangle your son. I'm sorry. It's just the way it is."

She didn't file a lawsuit against me. Instead, we again brainstormed ways to deal with Joey and came up with something revolutionary. She knew I was the drama coach, so she thought maybe he could help out around the stage as a form of punishment. Her ulterior motives were perhaps to help him find another outlet for his antics. Although he was the class clown, he and his friends were more into athletics. However, because of his exuberant personality, he didn't balk when he had to report to drama practice. He was up for anything. It actually worked out for me because in a community where athletics reigned supreme, I was forever producing shows with a skeleton crew.

Even better, Jan's suggestion was actually a lifesaver for me, as I had lost an actor and was in need of a replacement for the upcoming show. So, Joey was compelled to pay me back for his behavior in my classroom by becoming an actor who needed to quickly learn his lines for a performance that would happen in just a few weeks.

Recipe for disaster? Hardly. Joey was a natural on the stage. He could be himself there. His over-the-top antics smothered us in my small classroom, but it fit just right on a stage in an auditorium. It's the truth. He rarely irritate me at drama practice. Even better, he came out for every play after that and became a leader in the club. He didn't even bother with athletics, except in costume as the mascot. Drama is where he belonged.

Did his behavior in my classroom improve? To some extent. I had a special bond with my drama kids. If you've ever advised or coached an extra curricular activity, you know how that works. Once he became one of my kids outside of the classroom, he tried much harder to cooperate and please me in the classroom. I know his behavior improved, but I probably also had more tolerance for him, too.

During his senior year, I agreed to to let him be my student aide. Now, that's a special bond--or a whole lot of faith--if I'm going to let the the biggest class clown I've ever known be my aide. By his senior year, he had grown up and become more serious. He was calmer in class, and he was more serious about raising his grades. He wasn't totally serious, though. It was during his senior year that he made a moving swimming pool out of the back of his El Camino--just one of his crazy kid antics.

He was at times a high maintenance aide, but I quickly found that if I kept my desk full of snacks and drinks, he would happily work his way through his tasks without disrupting my students. What gangly teenage boy have you ever known that couldn't eat every minute of the day? It was kind of a running joke between us because initially he was not thrilled with my choice of snacks for him, which included fruit, nuts, and granola bars. Hey! I don't need junk food, and a hyper kid like him didn't either! However, he finally grew to like them and proudly told his mom that I was keeping him healthy.

During his senior year, he announced that he was going to study acting in college. I was proud that during high school he had found his true passion. Of course, I consulted him about perhaps having a double major just in case he had difficulty finding employment. I also warned him that based on what he'd done in our little drama club, he had a lot to learn about theater, so he should go in prepared to be the little fish in a big pond. I wished him the most success, but I wanted to keep him grounded.

Joey was one of those student who I felt was more than a student. He was family to me. My own kid. A little brother. I've had a few students to whom I've become that close, but I can probably count them on one hand. I always consider myself a mentor, but there are those certain students when you feel like you've truly given everything you have and you clearly see the impact.

My moral or point? I don't know. I can't help but marvel at how sometimes those kids you want to send to Siberia turn out to be the ones you remember the most. The ones you miss the most, too. Sometimes it takes just the tiniest little thing to make them come around to your point of view, and you earn their respect, and they settle down enough to learn a few things.

August 16, 2007

Rambling Yearbook Reflection

The major thing I regret not doing this summer is tweaking my publications curriculum. I hate to admit that although we've put out a good book the last two years, the curriculum hasn't been rigorous enough. In the first couple of months I am able to do direct instruction, but once we start having deadlines, the class time is short for me. It's also pretty short for students who have deadlines, but they meet deadlines at different paces. So, it's not uncommon that there are students who are sitting around doing nothing. I know. It's terrible. I never allow that to happen in my English classes. It's my own stinkin' fault. I get buried with deadlines, and the lumps in the corner become my last concern for the moment.

Unfortunately, that laziness breeds laziness and I can't get many of them to do anything when I do need them. Some of them are so undependable that I can't trust them when I do need them in a crunch, so they've just scored more free time.

So, in the eleventh hour I am working on structuring much of the class so students have to work independently on a variety of modules when they aren't working toward deadlines. At this point I seem to have plenty of materials, and for the first time ever in my career, I will have a class set of textbooks--at their grade level--to use. (I don't know when they are arriving, though...) I am working on deciding what should come first. What will hook the students to be interested? (Most of the students I had last year didn't care about journalism and were there only for yearbook.) What essential skills and concepts do we need to get the newspaper off the ground and the yearbook a running start? What skills can wait?

You see, it isn't until about 3/4 through the year when students have explored the different issues in journalism, written different types of stories for the newspaper, practiced elements of photography, and designed yearbook pages that they truly understand what we are trying to accomplish in our publications class. My students are unskilled and unexperienced as we stumble our way through the year producing things that represent our school. Yikes! Once I have them fully trained, the year has ended, and they move on to high school. It seems quite unfair, doesn't it?

When I taught high school, I usually had students for two years, and the editors generally had been there for three. It makes the biggest difference if I have people on staff who know what they are doing and can help train new staff members. I don't have to begin from scratch each year that way--not to mention the amount of time I save establishing who is capable and willing on the staff.

Don't I have students who return for a second year? The majority of my students are 8th graders. Last year I had four students in my class who had taken the course in 7th grade, and this year it looks like I have four again. (I had more, but some aren't invited back.) I suppose is enough that I can assign each one a team to look over, but only one of the four is going to do any good. The rest will be like the near-sighted leading the blind.

And it is what it is.

August 13, 2007

Going Back to School Early

Ms. Whatsit has been thinking about what our professional responsibility is before the school year starts--before we are actually on contract. Apparently she bended a little to save herself some stress, but mostly she is enjoying her last days of vacation while she questions why we teachers are given so little paid time to prepare.

In the last few years I've thought a lot about what I really need to do, and how much time I should put in outside of my contracted time. I've had great intentions of doing some planning this summer, but I haven't done as much as I had hoped. Why was I going to do it this summer? I had more time to think and plan. So, that's my choice. Well, actually, my true choice was to blow off doing any work for most of the summer like I thought I would.
So, there's a moot point.

When it comes to the amount of time I take to put my classroom and curriculum together at the beginning of the year, that topic does irritate me a bit. It seems impossible to prepare for the beginning if school with the amount of time we are given. The irritation for me stems back to the closing of school, when we have to remove everything from our walls and pack up our materials. Putting up bulletin boards doesn't take too long, but unpacking seems to take forever.

I did go back to school last week. I planned on meeting up with a colleague so we could work on some changes for our team, plus I thought it might be nice to get my room put together early because during our contracted time, I lose out on most of the free time because of my yearbook responsibilities. I wanted to go to my room not because I'm excited to be back but because I know I have too many irons in the fire and I can't do everything I need to in time if I don't. I'm slow moving when I start back to work. The earlier I start, the less stressful it is as I do a little bit here and there.

Well, guess what? The administration is refusing to give out keys earlier than the first official day for new teachers. It's true. They don't want us back yet. I'm hardly offended.

Guess what else? There A/C will not be turned on in our classrooms until the first day back for returning teachers. (Sucks to be a new teacher--three days with no A/C in their classrooms.)

I don't know, but it seems like my school is discouraging us from coming back early to work. I'm down with that.

August 12, 2007

Real Friends

Since I moved to the city, I tend to receive a lot more phone calls of this ilk: "Hey! Are you busy? I'm in town!"

It would be nice if my friends and family would call a few days in advance to let me know they're coming, but the sad truth is that I'm usually not that busy.

Last week an old friend, Mary, called one morning, "Hey! What are you up to? I'm at the Imperial. My husband's playing in a poker tournament. I've already lost too much money. Come rescue me."

I met Mary back in 1991 when I had to move back home in Utah to try to raise more money for college. I found a job at Burger King in January, and she was hired there a few months later. We joke about it now because I was her boss for a while. This is particularly amusing because she is several years older than I am, and she had a lot more experience in fast food than I did. Neither one us was stayed at that job long anyway.

You'd never believe what bonded us: yard sales, antique stores, and crafts. Maybe it's not so unbelievable, but I've never had any other friends with these interests. The crafting part was the best because we would visit all our favorite boutiques, declare (sometimes literally--continue reading) that everything was too expensive, and then go make our own homemade crafts for a fraction of the cost. And a lot more fun! And let me tell you, when she left fast food to work for a florist, our crafting went to a whole new level.

Mary can be boisterous and she's definitely opinionated. At times it can be embarrassing, but at least with her you always know what you're getting. My first husband didn't like her, probably because he was well aware of what she thought of him. But then, don't think for a minute that just because she was a whopping one of two friends I had left after our marriage broke up (not exaggerated), that she didn't tell me, "I told you so." There are the friends who soften the blows, and then there are your friends who keep it real.

I guess in my case "keeping it real" is picking up on an old friend on a corner on Las Vegas Boulevard (also not an exaggeration) when you haven't seen her in three years. No big deal. When I couldn't find any good antiques stores open on a Monday morning, she's the kind of friend I could bring back to my half-unpacked house so we could drink iced tea and gossip like old women--like old women who saw each other just last week.

I love how time and distance make no difference with good friends.

August 10, 2007

In Preparation for the Big Day

Today the kids and I participated in the great adventure of gathering supplies from the required supplies list. The kids were really excited. Seriously, what is it about new boxes of crayons and pencils? I'm usually a total sucker for new supplies, but my heart's not into it this year.

We started at Wal-Mart because I thought my chances of still finding spiral notebooks for a dime would be greater. (I supply my night school students with a notebooks and folder each quarter. They act like it's a great gift that I give them. I do it to prevent excuses of no paper and to provide ready-made organization. It's so worth my $20 annual investment.) It was a disaster at Wal-Mart with narrow aisles, supplies in confusing arrangements, and the crayons were nearly $2.00! What? They are suppose to be super cheap! I also chose Wal-Mart because I thought I might pick up some groceries, since we're basically down to rice and chickpeas at my house.

I dodged moving carts stood gawking in the aisle for about five minutes before throwing up my arms and saying, "Let's go. We're going to Target." Risky move. Target isn't always known for it's deals. And hey! Forget the whole grocery idea. The third-world diet isn't killing us or anything.

Thank goodness Target is a more hospitable store--and the one in our shopping neighborhood is under construction! They had their supplies (reasonably priced) in the seasonal area of the store, with the supplies kind of in a circle. It was easy to stand in the middle and look around for what you need, or to play, "Hey kids! Find the pink erasers. Bring four!" Lots of fun for the kids. Confusing for the mom reading from two lists.

I did end up finding notebooks for a dime. Plus, I stocked up on Maped pencil sharpeners because I can only find then at this time of year, and they last forever. (The school will provide electric sharpeners, but that grinding sound all day long drives me mad!)

Tomorrow the ritual continues on when I take each of the kids to buy school clothes. In the past I've either just bought them a set number of outfits or we've made it a family event to go school clothes shopping. Times are different now. Before I didn't know what clothes they had and my stepdaughter wasn't on the excellent hand-me-down system she's on now. Plus, we live with each other now, and I don't think the boys anyone has the patience for a family event involving hours of waiting for others to try on clothes. Wish I could get out of it myself, but I'm getting paid extra. Hahahaha! Don't I wish! I should be getting paid extra!

I have stock piled a few things as I found them on clearance (like the chinos for $2.50), so tonight we did inventory. It's going to be a quick shopping day for just a few things. Just enough to satisfy that feeling that we are preparing for the special event of the FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.

It's always nice to have a few new outfits to make a good impression and some new black pens that will work for sure. I'm not going to say that starting school doesn't cost this teacher some money, but my preparation in going back to school is largely MENTAL. Do you think our students have to prepare themselves mentally, too?

August 9, 2007

It Takes a Team to Build Skills

A few days ago I was thinking about throwing caution to the wind by spending time teaching the secondary language arts skills of researching and speaking at the beginning of the year, although these skills aren't addressed in my curriculum until later in the year and it's going to put a burden on me because of the testing requirements.

Jennie offered her excellent idea of using more oral response in her classroom and asked if perhaps the social studies and science teachers could do projects. Ms. Whatsit asked what my team thought. For this post, this focus on just the research part, as it is the most difficult and time consuming to tackle. Of course, in this day and age, and in my technology-rich school, we are talking mostly Internet research.

Each class has at least one big project a quarter: math, science, foreign language, and English. I think the semester-long health class even does a few projects. The social studies teacher also does one big project a quarter, but she constantly has students doing smaller projects, which she simply calls assignments. The students don't think of them as that, though, as they usually take a few days to a two weeks to complete.

During team meetings, the poor quality of projects and assignments we receive has come up a few times. I know it might sound like an issue of students not understanding what is expected of them, but I'd say that everyone is clear with instructions and rubrics. However, we expect that the students know how and where to gather good information, and I think there's a gap there. Earlier this summer I met with most of the people on my team, and we decided that introducing research skills earlier in the year will raise the bar for the students, and in turn they produce higher quality work.

As I said in my previous post, the responsibility falls mostly on my shoulders to teach the skills. Just like reading and writing, isn't it? So, do you think the other teachers on my team have any problem with me going the extra mile to prepare the students to be better researchers? No way! Knock yourself out, HappyChyck!

The more I think about it, the more I feel alone. If I better prepare the students, what are the other teachers going to do to support me and the students? Will they continue to allow students to use Wikipedia as their best source? Will they continue to accept work without source documentation? Will they at least ask for a bibliography? Will they familiarize themselves and introduce students to excellent subject-specific sources?

Some of the teachers on my team are right there with me. They direct students to quality sources. They require source documentation. They are vigilant against cut and copy plagiarism. They are fighting the good fight!

Other teachers squirmed in their chairs as they admit their lack of knowledge on research skills and available sources--even those our own library has. Their nervous chuckles can't hide the fact they have no idea how to teach students to format a bibliography page. On the surface they seem on board, but I can tell by their glazed looks that it's all on me. One of them even said something to the effect that she didn't have time for all of this.

All of this? Grrrrrr. I established a Wikispaces for our team to use. Talk about time! I certainly hope that the other teachers on my team use their own spaces (which we all set up together) with their students, but even if they don't, I have established a research wiki for everyone to use as a reference--students and teachers. Did I do this because I know so much more they they do? Although, at this point it seems I might... NO! Seriously, I am insecure in my knowledge of smart resources for the students to use. Researching today is a lot more complicated than it was when I was learning to research. So much information--but is it the best and is it valid? I shared my information and techniques with my colleagues. I invite them to share theirs with me. I even invite the students to share, too. We're all invited to navigate this vast territory together. As a team.

I believe my team is in support of teaching students smart research skills right away so students can use those skills throughout the year. The more I think about it, the more I think my colleagues don't realize they must play an important role in applying the skills. We need to have another talk. They told me what skills the students need. I'll tell them what part they can play developing those skills.

August 8, 2007

Not That Cute Anymore

The inquisitive nature of my now six-year-old stepson is wearing on my nerves. Well, not just now. I've had a mommy break for the last couple of weeks, so I forgot how irritating this character trait of his is. It's not that he's just inquisitive. It seems 90% of what comes out of his mouth is in the form of a question--from quizzes about what I'm doing, to questions about why things are the way they are, to requesting permission to do something that he knows will be a cold day in hell before I say yes.

"What are you doing?"

Let's see...hmmm. You told me you were hungry a little while ago, and I told you I was going to make lunch in about 15 minutes. That was a 1o minutes ago, and now I'm standing in the kitchen putting turkey on a slice of bread. What do you think I'm doing?


What's for lunch?" Kid, have you never seen turkey and bread before? Can't you figure this out?


While watching a movie, "What is that man doing? Why is he doing that?" Shhhhhh. Watch and you will see. Wow! Think of all you might learn from OBSERVING!


"Look, this box would be perfect for my turtle. Can I bring it home from my sister's house? Please?"

"No," is my stock reply, and at this time I am speaking as an extension of his father.


Some family member in California bought him a little turtle last summer at some yard sale or street fair. We've had this conversation for a year now. And recently I found out from a friend that turtles carry Salmonella.

Does asking me the same question over and over ever get you what you want? Yes, that's right. It just irritates me and and you get into trouble. What part of "no" do you not understand?


This whole questioning business was been worse as we are settling into our new house. Things are not quite all in place, and I suppose he's excited about a few things. It's taxing my brain, though...

Can I hang my gourd? (A little craft project they did with their cousin in Utah.)
Where are the thumbtacks?
I don't know.

Are the chimes going outside my window?
I don't know.
Why did you hang them on the wall? They won't chime there. When are you going to hang them outside?
As soon as your dad finds the hammer.
Did you find the batteries yet?
Are my sister and I going to get our own computer?
No. You can use the family computer.

What happened to the computer that was in our closet? Wasn't that going to be ours?
No. It was a junk computer.

Where is it?
I don't know. I think your dad threw it out.
Did you find the batteries yet?
No. I. Did. Not. I will let you know.
Can we go to the store?
Not spending money this week.
Why not?
We're saving.

Repeat that 5 more times during the day. Add variations to include bizarre questions such as, "Isn't rain God's tears?" What do they tell the kids in Sunday school?

I think I'm losing my mind. Like the Chinese water torture, it's what I call the kid questioning torture. Drip, drip, drip.

August 6, 2007

Balancing Our Needs with Curriculum Constraints

I hate the first weeks of school. There's so much "training" that has to happen so the classroom runs smoothly. Last year I elicited responses from fellow teachers about what they do to start the year in their classrooms. Although, I know I have little time to waste, as many would agree, I still need to prioritize what should happen first. Of course I have quarterly benchmarks with lovely assessments that pretty much drive what I have to do. What I want to do is skip ahead a few quarters and hit the benchmarks for the 3rd and 4th quarters that have to do with public speaking and researching.

In English, we pretty much do the same skills year after year, adding and building a little more in each area every year. Of course, my students should have some idea of what good public speakers do and definitely should have some good research techniques, including a good idea on how to document their sources. They should know these things because the building blocks are in the benchmarks, and the students have had competent teachers before me. However, the other teachers on the team and I are often disappointed by the quality of speeches and projects the students turn in.

The obvious solution is that I should start off the year reviewing and building speaking and research skills. The responsibility falls on my shoulders because these are language arts skills, skills addressed in my curriculum. It is difficult to hear the other teachers on my team complain about the students' lack of skills or abilities. These big issues, researching and speaking, are things I have observed throughout the year, but as I have tried to explain to my fellow teachers, these are skills addressed later in the year, and I do have more to teach than I can handle. (No, I don't take total responsibility for what the students can or cannot do, as they do not come to me brand new to life.) I teach a high stakes subject area. It's about whether the students can read and write. Researching and speaking are secondary--that is, not assessed on high stakes tests.

The rub is that researching and speaking are important, especially in our student-centered, project-based magnet program. Actually, in life, researching and speaking are equally important to the other communication skills, and these often overlooked skills could be more important in some career fields. I've found that explicitly teaching public speaking skills (about a week) and research skills (about a month) makes a HUGE difference in the quality of work students present. Of course! Guidelines are set and examples are given.

So, the big question is how do I squeeze 5 weeks of instruction that will help students throughout the year in all of their classes into a quarter of already-crowded curriculum? How do we ever balance what the students need to be successful in their learning process with what Very-Important-People-Not-in-the-Classroom need to see in test results? Very carefully? Stand back, folks. I'm a trained professional, but this one could blow up in my face.

August 1, 2007

It's August Already!?!?!?!

I cannot believe how fast my summer is going. As always, I thought I would have enough time to have fun and plan for next year. Silly girl.

Earlier this summer I started working on some collaborative space at Wikispaces.

I have a copy of Twelfth Night next to my bed, which I planned on reading and planning an approach to use it with my students first thing in the year because we will be participating in a Shakespeare in schools kind of program in September. (Twelfth Night will be presented, in case you're wondering why that play.)

In June, I attended an afternoon training on innovative ways to use our new Macs in the classroom.

Last week I was in Texas learning more about teaching for an IB Middle Years Programme.

A little bit here and there to keep me connected to teaching, but really I've done little to keep my brain in the game--or to get myself ahead in the beginning when going back to the classrooms hurts so much. I'm not sure when I have to report back (three weeks?), but as soon as I get my house put together, I'll be putting my classroom in order since I left it rather a mess at the end of the year. (It looks fine on the outside, but beware if you open any drawers or cupboards!)

I've got thank Mister Teacher for reminding me that the beginning is near. Da da dum! He's been thinking about all the things he needs to do, too. I don't know... his list sounds pretty easy to me. At least he has a list. I have a sense of impending doom.