April 26, 2008

Old-School Digs at the Teacher

Is she the only student that did not turn in her project?

This is the question--with all the formatting--that appeared in a e-mail from a parent. Raising any hairs? The vast majority of my students' parents are super supportive. It's the minority who have taught me well. I've been poked by this schtick before.

So, why is it important to know about the other students who may not have turned in the project. Does the parent want to advocate for them, too? Wow! That's generous!

Or would it make her feel better to know that her student wasn't the only one who didn't do the assignment? You know when you walk into a room feeling insecure and you look around and think, "Oh, good. There is a bigger fool in here than me. Thank goodness!"

Oh no. We all know what she's up to with a question like that. She's trying to start a witch hunt. Sure, I have a witch in me. Do we really want to bring her to school?

April 24, 2008


I'm sick for the second time this spring. The first time came to a head around spring break when I spent nearly the whole break trying every crazy concoction possible and hacking my lungs up. I actually thought my current suffering has been from spring allergies, made severe by the high winds we've had in the last few weeks.

Friday night and Saturday I suffered through a SNWP retreat where the prevailing question was, "What should leadership look like in the SNWP?" I haven't been very involved in the last few years, and there I found myself among leaders, wanting to be more of a leader--or at least participator --and my brain is just full of drugs and the goop that's hanging around in my sinuses. Oh, so pretty!

I still wasn't feeling very well Monday and Tuesday, but I was functioning. Not living, mind you! The head congestion moved into an occasional cough, and that's when I thought things were worse than I thought.

Honestly, I was hoping to hold on a bit longer because I knew dying on Wednesday was out of the question. The foreign language teachers had an exciting field trip planned for our team, and because the whole plan had gone through so much strife and so many changes, I wasn't exactly sure what the trip was anymore, but if I died I would probably need to find new friends. (These two are my best friends in the whole school.) I survived the day--like a zombie--and it was a nice day for our students--spent mostly outside--but by the end, the right side of my face felt like it was being pinched by pliers. As I was driving home, I could barely see out of my right eye because it was so swollen and, well, uhm...drippy.

Suspecting that I was suffering from a head cold exacerbated by allergies--or vice versa, I pulled into the nearest Walgreens and stocked up on the new allergy pills and the kind of cold medicine that lets you sleep. I picked up the kids from school, and when we arrived home, I told them I felt awful. I think they got the message when came downstairs with my pajamas on and my make-up off. "You look really sick!" they told me. Thank you. I thought my eyes were black because of melted mascara, but once I took off the make-up, I discovered my eyes were still black and red. I think I resembled the Juan Wijngaard's Loathly Lady.

I requested a sub for today and drank tea on the couch until my sweetie came home.

When my sweetie came home, he said, "What's wrong with your eyes? You look rough!"

Don't you love my family?

I ate dinner with them and then I went upstairs to read. For about five minutes. Twelve hours later I woke up feeling much better--probably well enough to go to work, but I didn't. Yes, I think I have a little cold, but my allergies are worse than they have been in years!

I need to bank up wellness--and fast. I'm going to the MSA Conference next week, and there is no way I want to be alone and sick in some hotel room in Tennessee! After the conference, I'm back to teaching my own class for the rest of the year, so my game needs to be ON!

April 21, 2008

The Dreaded Research Paper

Midwest Teacher over at Teach Me, I Dare You is stressing out of research papers. Haven't I blogged about my struggles in this area before? I can't find anything good to link... In any case, I can relate to Midwest Teacher's so well, I thought she might be hanging out in my brain, mocking me!

My students had a rocky start on their research papers this year because of the changed test dates fiasco and our commitment to the team project. As a little background, the team project was based in the foreign language classes where students made travel video for a French or Spanish speaking country. In my class students were asked to find an issue (political, environmental, economic, environmental, or social) from that country to write a problem/solution paper and create a public service announcement that will be attached to their travel videos on the presentation day.

I felt that this topic would be something the students might be interested in because they had choice in the countries they chose for their travel videos, and it would be the type of paper that they could not easily plagiarizes from another source. I was a bit apprehensive that students would have difficulty finding information, but this didn't turn out to be an issue at all.

With some inspiration from my supervisor after a conversation about the dreaded research paper and plagiarism, I made the research process a whole lot bigger than I ever have. In the past, I have gone through the process, yes, but the product weighed the most. This year I decided to put more focus on the process. So, there were many checkpoints along the way:
  • Preliminary topic search (basic information found before deciding on a topic)
  • Online search reflection (focus on using various searching tools)
  • Project proposal
  • Source validity/strength evaluation (necessary with web sources)
  • Working thesis and outline
  • Notes and bibliography card check
  • Writer's group with draft #1 (looking for ideas)
  • Submit draft #1 to teacher for feedback
  • Annotate bibliography (another reflective tool for student to evaluate their sources)
  • Writer's group with draft #2--should be nearly finished
  • Submit draft #2 to teacher for feedback
  • Submit draft #3 to teacher (Best possible draft. This could be the final draft for A/B papers.)
  • Final Draft
  • Project Reflection (process/learning document for students to reflect--also useful for us teachers)
**The public service video was a separate assignment from this, and because our timeline was all messed up by circumstances beyond our control, the students actually made their 30-60 second videos based on their notes before they wrote their papers. Trust me on this, compared to their 8-12 minute travel video, the psa was not a huge effort.

The process seemed to go on and on, and I thought my student teacher, who is the one who actually had to implement most of this thing, was going to tear her hair out. (She came to work today without her braids, so uhm, I think she may have literally done so.) Her complaints were that she would give students feedback, and they would continue to turn papers in with the same problems. Mostly we're talking about places where ideas needed to be developed or clarified with sources. What's worse is that there are several students who simply refused to turn in papers. They don't really refuse; I suppose it's more like dodging the teacher who is trying to get a straight answer about missing papers. How can we help students who cannot help themselves? They don't seem to be complaining that they don't understand. They simply aren't doing it. I don't know why, but I suspect that this paper requires them to do too much work and too much thinking.

In the past, I've tried to streamline this research process because I know it's boring. I think it might have made it too fast.

In the past, I've tried to drag the whole process out over a quarter. It's a miracle we all lived.

What I planned this year is a combination of the two. It was about a month long. It was pretty step-by-step with reflection built in so that students might remember the process that they will streamline on their own in the future. I know my students do a lot of research projects in their other classes, but I wanted to make sure that they could these two things:
  1. Find and analyze valid, relevant, and reliable resources on the Internet.
  2. Develop opinions and support them using resources in a standard written format.
Sounds so simple, right? I'm don't know why my students couldn't follow the step-by-step approach--especially with all the built-in guidance! I only delivered about 15% of the unit, so I don't know if who did the delivery was an issue, but it truly seemed like the student teacher was doing a fine job. Sure, I might have done a few things differently, but she didn't do anything that would have seriously impeded the students from succeeding in this project.

I like this research paper--and the process we went through--better than anything I've done in quite a while. I'm not ready to give up on it, and after I collect project reflections, I hope to glean some ideas about how to tweak it to work better next year. What to do about this year? I don't know. With so many students not finding success, I can't help wondering about the teaching methods, which actually falls on my student teacher, but with my guidance, it's on me, too.

Will I ever conquer this research paper monster?

April 17, 2008

Just Observing

April 11-- 6th grade English class
April 14-- 7th grade earth science class
April 16-- 8th grade Spanish 1 class
April 17-- 7th grade reading class
Everyday -- 7th/8th grade publications class**

In several different classrooms, I've noticed that there are a lot of kids out there who work really hard at pretending that they are working. Those kids wear me out!

"You need to get on task," I tell student.

"I am!" student answers.

"What have you done?" I ask.

"Blah, blah, bulldoody, blah," student answers indignantly.

"Yes, those three words that you've written on your paper in the past 20 minutes are quite impressive. Pick up the pace."

"See Miss! I AM working!"

By the way, this is a pointless conversation to have with "hard-working" students. I'm not sure if they think they are really working so hard or if they think that I'm a complete fool. I think I know the answer, after all, I am over 30.

**I made this observation about other classes, but then I realized that my own publication staff could probably write the book on it. Don't hold your breath for that book, though...

April 12, 2008

Have You Seen the Tooth Fairy?

The tooth fairy has passed by our house two nights in a row.

Is she sick?
Is the recession affecting her cash flow?
Did the cat next door scare her away?
Is it a high tooth-losing season?
Does she need a personal invitation?
Was she here but couldn't find the tooth?
Was her flight canceled?
Did she fall asleep early before doing all her duties?

I sure hope she stops by tonight. Hey! We'll be out running errands this afternoon if she wants to sneak into the house...

April 11, 2008

If It's Friday...

I'll be giving up my prep to sub in another teacher's class.

That's what has been going down at my school for...well...a while, I guess.

At my last school, it was a teacher's last rite of passage to take 3-day weekends for the entire year before retiring. The last year I worked there, I covered in the business class almost every Friday. The teacher was a friend and mentor to me, so I didn't hold it against her too much--plus she told me from the beginning of the year that she planned to burn up her sick time. I guess I was prepared for it although it was a pain. Sometimes we would be so short on subs that I would absorb another teacher's classes into mine for the whole day! I couldn't get double pay like I deserved, but I would get the pay for giving up my prep, which was like $20. Wahoo!

I was so disappointed to come to the largest district in the state--one of the largest in the country--only to find that from time to time I would be asked to cover another teacher's class during my prep. So, I guess it's pretty typical. (Or is it? Chime in, please!) What's curious about the Friday situation at my current school is that the staff is pretty young. I can only think of a few teachers who might be nearing retirement, and honestly, a teacher like me, with about a decade of experience, is an old timer. So what gives? Is Friday golf day?

Golf day? Hang-over-recovery day? Heading-to-California day? Taking-sick-time-because-I hate-my-job day? Or, could it be a true illness has struck? You can't imagine what ill-feelings I have toward my fellow teachers when my Fridays are forced into a hectic pace because I have to work through my prep in another teacher's classroom.

(I know some of you are thinking that I do have time to spare these days, and that's true, but this irritation applies to all the other times!)

This morning, as I was rushing down the hallway to see if I could figure out the lesson in my colleague's classroom before the students showed up (1st hour prep, no less!), I decided I should just accept the Friday fate and wake up with a smile on my face. Wahoo! It's Friday! Today I will surely have the opportunity for extra money to make!

It's all in the spin, baby!

(In case you're worried, we make what our hourly rate would be, so it's much better than $20, or I wouldn't be finding the good in this!)

April 10, 2008

Time on My Hands: Utilizing My Mad Skillz

As I have a student teacher in my classroom this semester, I have a lot of time on my hands to wander about the school. I thought it would be really boring, but somehow I keep myself pretty busy.

For a couple of weeks I parked myself in the foreign language language department and worked on the yearbook. (Originally I planned to camp out on the super comfy lounge couches, but there's no wireless Internet there. Strange and inconvenient!) I'll admit that the during the last yearbook deadline of each year, I'm hardly the exemplary teacher to my English students. Taking note on the hours I put in each day working on the book while I was not teaching this year really drove home the idea. Lots of work. That's why they pay me the big bucks. Sheesh.

As it turns out, my yearbook skills keep me busy long after the yearbook has been submitted.

Today I spent quite a bit of my day doing photo work--taking some and finding some from my archives. The aide in the contained special education room flagged me down from the hallway and asked if I had anything to make a scrapbook for her student to send to the feeder elementary school. Materials to make scrapbooks? No. Photos? Sure. I didn't have pictures of every student in the class, so I did an impromptu photo shoot. Afterward, I uploaded and adjusted the pictures right in the classroom. What was life like before the digital camera?

Later in the day, the magnet coordinator reminded me that a few months ago I told her that the pictures on the recruiting board were boring. Sounds like a personal issue, huh? Yeah, mine! I don't remember telling her that, but it does sound like something I might have said. So, I went digging into the files looking for photos of magnet students and events that might better illustrate our program. Recruiting season is over, but we're off to Chattanooga later this month for the Magnet Schools of America Conference, thus our board needs revamped so we can REPRESENT, yo! I offered to help put the board together, but frankly that was foolish of me. I'm no better at boards than I am scrapbooks.

How about fliers? I volunteered to make up fliers for the upcoming poetry slam. Something to get the students hyped up. Just so you know, I'll probably try too hard to make it look cool or just so. That's okay though. I have some extra time.

April 5, 2008

They Say We Can't Write

Sometimes I think it would be so much nicer to be a math teacher than an English teacher. Aren't the concepts in math pretty linear? Cut and dried? Black and white? Start on page one of the textbook and go from there? Of course the grass is always greener, especially since the dismal results of a district-wide algebra test came out in the RJ. Okay, nevermind. I'll stick with English.

We 8th grade English teachers at my school have our own dismal news, as we received the scores from the state writing proficiency exam on Thursday. We're at that year in NCLB where we need to have this impossible percentage of students who are proficient, and instead of raising our numbers, we slid back 5%. My students did worse than students I had last year--20% fewer passed the exam. I know. Screams and tears of frustration. Seriously.

Our administrator wants to us to meet ASAP and come up with some ideas and solutions. Our department--not just 8th grade teachers--stepped up our game this year. As you can imagine, to find ourselves in a worse position after taking more training and collaborating more with each other, is a slap in the face. And now we need to meet? I don't know what to say. Teaching writing is is not formulaic. Of course, there are best practices and techniques we can use to grow wonderful writers, but darn if it doesn't seem like those ideas clash with teaching to the writing test. Imagine that.

In a perfect world I see my students being able to express themselves in many situations. They can switch between modes of writing and find success. They can write a poem one day, a persuasive essay another day--and then a constricting state-mandated essay another day.

It really doesn't sound hard, right? Who are we kidding? Writing is hard work. It's more than constructing sentences, spelling words correctly, and knowing where commas should go. It's also having the ability pour your heart and mind on paper. Is there an educational bandage for that?

Of course not.

But let's throw another confusing element in this mess:
  • About ten of my best writers barely passed the writing test.
  • Several of my consistently average students didn't pass by a 1/2 point. Arg!
  • Three of my average-struggles-with-English students, who I thought could be borderline, earned very high scores.
  • The rebel kid, who proudly told another teacher how he got around addressing the topic, who I was sure would receive a 0 for not addressing the writing topic, ended up also receiving an above average score.
Although I've read and studied the student writing samples w/ scores that the state has released (and my students also had some activities evaluating these samples), and I attended a training conducted by a state scorer who revealed some insights about scoring, I am confounded over some of the scores my students earned.

Yea...It's not cut and dried and at all. And what do I plan to do about these scores? What went wrong? I certainly don't want to walk into a meeting Monday afternoon, where my administrator expects me to be a leader, and say, "I dunno."

So, I'm saying it here. I dunno.

I'll be taking the position that this year our entire department banded together to build better writers and prepare students for this big test. We have some great tools in our toolboxes now, and I think we should simply carry on with what we started this year. In this NCLB era, we all want the quick fixes, but there aren't any quick fixes--especially in the craft of writing.

April 4, 2008

More Moving

Last summer I was distraught and obsessed with moving to a new home. I'd really like to be the kind of person who puts down roots and never moves, as I don't find much joy in moving. Especially in August down here in the blazing desert.

I'm not moving homes again, but I will be moving my classroom. Everybody in my school will be moving into another classroom--in another building.

For those of you who teach in absolute horrid conditions, please do not read on. It will just make you loathe me and my colleagues and our brand new school.

Oh yes, we are so excited! Kind of. Right now we're not. There's so much weeding out and boxing up to do. The administrator who was brought on to help us with the transition got us all riled up right away by telling us not to take our old junk. "The tax payers want to see everything new." I thought the reading teachers might riot when it was suggested that they not take any beat-up (well-loved) books. And those old comfy couches in reading corners are not welcome either. I guess my $3 stool will be going back to the thrift store. Sigh.

Many of us are concerned about storage. What comes "standard" is about half of what I have in my classroom. Is anyone surprised that six bookcases and three filing cabinets isn't standard? So, I'm in the process of making those serious choices about what to keep, what to throw away, and what to send to the obsolete pile. I accuse the students of being pack rats, but we teachers are the worst--especially those of us who've taught for a while, have been in the same classroom for a few years, and who work in older schools where we inherit "things" from our predecessors.

I love a good purging. Please tell me that it will feel just as good paring down my classroom materials and that I won't regret throwing away those things I'm saving for the time I might need them.