February 23, 2009


I can't remember how I arrived there, but sometime over the weekend, I ended up at RateMyTeacher. I've been there a few times over the years, and while I'm there, I always check to see what evil things have been said, but I don't have very many comments. Not exactly Miss Popularity on my team. I'm not that cool. The ones I have are favorable, but the I found one posted this month states, "Sometimes she's iffy."

There was still a smiley face, and a decent rating, but what does "iffy" mean to a middle schooler?

I don't know, but it might be a fair assessment.

I'm not trying to be an iffy teacher, but early this year, I conceded that this may not be my best year in the classroom. Teacher, student, wife, mother. Something has to give. I'm coasting this year. I'd like to think that my coasting is still pretty good.

Most days, it's pretty good.

I didn't go get bed until 1:30 am last night because I was working yearbook crap. Even without yearbook stuff, it's common for me to not sleep much--it's been going on since school started. The first few hours of the day were okay, but then I started feeling so lethargic that I swear I might have been shuffling across the room like some old lady on valium.

And then I remember the "iffy" comment.

So, I was shuffling around the classroom mumbling, "Iffy. Iffy. Which one of these kids would actually say something like that? Iffy. I feel iffy. Is that a real word? Like something an old man would say. Which one of them said it?"

Not so much iffy anymore. Eccentric, crazy English teacher is more like it! And I didn't think that would come for another 5 years.

It's only Monday--and the week before the Big State Test. I should try to get more sleep.

Iffy? That's no way to be.

February 22, 2009

Impaired By Wordiness* and Helpless in General

I know verbosity is my downfall. You don't think my entries are so long that nobody reads them sometimes? I know. I do. I use the delete key. Really. You should see my posts before I use it.

This is the week that I have to be a good team player in my grad class. In every class so far, there are always two assignments with my "Collaborative Learning Community." It's kind of a joke. I think we're suppose to actually talk to each other, but mostly we divide and conquer the work. This week my share of the work was to analyze this research study, and wouldn't you guess it? It's too long!

I admitted it when I posted my part (a little late), "Hey guys, my article was longer than I remembered--50 pages! I know the analysis is a little long. I'll take any suggestions to pare it down!"

Brown-Noser Woman replied, "I focused mine on blah, blah, blah rather than what you did in yours. The instructor asked us to keep the whole paper to 3500 words, and I think we should or we might be marked down."

I did what brown-noser #1 did, of course, but I used details from the article and the textbook to illustrate my points--quite eloquently, I'd say. And by saying the instructor asked us to do anything specific is a load of crap. It's in the syllabus, which I am sure exists with or without the instructor. What are you afraid to disappoint the teacher?

Do-Good Girl replied, "HappyChyck is ther any paragraps that we might be able to take out from your analysis? I read it over and it all sounds good but I don't have the article in front of me. I think we should try to keep it under the requirements."

I would normally ignore the abominable errors, as I know I need an editor, but I toiled over my part for hours, and I think this would be a good time for someone offer up some better insight, but that won't happen since we only read our own studies. Yeah, let me just take out some paragraphs. Thanks for the help. No, really. I'm probably better off without it.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the articles the others analyzed. Their studies were a maximum 12 pages compared to my 50 pages. Much easier to write a short analysis on a short study. I'll keep that in mind next time.

So, I took the delete key to my analysis. I started with paragraphs--or half paragraphs. Then I took out any unnecessary adjectives. I reworked sentence structures. I summarized in places where I originally gave details. I cut out information I thought was important but maybe we could get by without. After the first 400 words, I thought maybe it was a better paper, but after that, with each deletion, anxiety attacks started. How could I submit such a terrible paper? Was the instructor going to know how much I was leaving out?

Finally, after 900 words deleted, I quit.

It feels so wrong.

This is one of the definitions of verbosity from Merriam-Webster. Ouch!

February 19, 2009

Illiteracy Saves HappyChyck Money

Would you believe that a woman who could not read saved me $85?

It's true!

Something my three readers may not know is that I clip coupons. I mean, seriously clip coupons. I've always done it, as my mother did, too, but last summer I made it a hobby. Now I'm one of those women who has stories about how I went to the store and purchased $130 worth of groceries for $30. That was my very best, and it happened a few weeks ago, but usually my savings are closer to 40-50% when I use coupons.

It takes a little work to do this, and it often involves shopping different stores when prices are rock bottom and then using the coupons. I had time in the summer go to different stores on a weekly basis, but now I keep it to Smith's (a Kroger store), CVS, and Walgreens--and only when it's a great deal and I can make it during my schedule.

(Part of this whole couponing thing is that I have a stockpile, so except for basics, like fruits, veggies, and bread, we are rarely desperate for me to get to the grocery store when I am up to my ears in work and grad school.)

If I need to go to Target or Wal-Mart, I will check out the deals they have there, but both of those stores are known throughout the the Internet coupon networks as wildcards when it comes to coupons. Sometimes you'll be hassled, and sometimes you won't. I've experienced this, so it's not worth my time to take a gamble unless I'm going there anyway.

With that background, I needed to get a water filter for our faucet-mounted purifier, so we planned little trip to Wal-Mart. (We have such exciting plans on the weekends, don't we?) I made a list of things I could use while I was going, including, but not limited to, things I could buy for hardly anything with coupons. We were in the store for about an hour, leisurely shopping, and of course, doing price comparisons.

And then there was the checkout. The checker rang up my order, and I handed her my coupons. She immediately started scrutinizing every single one. With the very first coupon, not even an Internet printable one, which often freaks people out, she started questioning. She printed off a copy of the receipt to compare items. Then she wanted to see the item that had already been bagged. The coupon said, "Save $1 off any StarKist Creations or StarKist pouch," but the there was a picture on the coupon that showed two packages of tuna, which basically indicated options. She tried to tell me that I needed two packages of tuna to use the coupon.

I was a little surprised by the situation as it was unfolding because I am used to visiting my local grocery store where I hand over thick stacks of coupons, and they don't even blink an eye. Seriously, you've got to know that to save as much as I do, sometimes I have a coupon for every single thing in my basket, and the cashiers even commend me on my savings, but here I was in this giant chain store with a mere 10 coupons, and she couldn't even push through a basic coupon. I didn't lose my patience, though.

"Oh, ma'am, it's not the picture on the coupon. It's what the words say!" I pointed out what the words said.

And then about 2 seconds later, I realized she couldn't read, and I suspected she didn't understand spoken English very well either, and with 5 people waiting in line behind me, I didn't have time to teach her about singular and plural.

Fortunately, she realized this, too, so she turned on her light to call for a customer service manager to assist. (Maybe her realization was not quite the same as mine, but pretty darn close, I'd imagine.)

Unfortunately, in the next 5 minutes no manager came, even after trying to call someone on the phone, and she continued to scrutinize the coupons by asking us to unpack items from the basket. Nothing met her approval! They were all pretty straightforward: purchase a particular item, get money off! This concept has been around for over a 100 years!

Rather than strangling the woman, I told her to forget it, to cancel my order. I had lost my patience by then--I was, in fact, IRATE--and it was all I could do scream the obscenities that were rattling around in my head. Of course, I had already swiped by card, and a manager had to cancel the order, so I had to continue to wait for someone to come.

I have no doubt that the manager would have been able to resolve the situation had I not lost my temper and given up on the whole thing, but when the manager came and didn't even ask what the problem was--why I wanted my transanction cancelled, why I was an angry customer leaving behind $100 worth of items spread across the checkstand--that sealed the deal. Frankly, I was surprised by that, too. The last time I had coupons problems at Wal-Mart, it was because the coupons were complicated (like buy 3 of a certain product and get a different product free), and the register wasn't taking them despite the fact I met the conditions, and it took 2 managers, including the assistant store manager, who were more than happy to make me happy. Obviously, nobody cared if I left and bought my damn tuna at Smith's because someone can't read a coupon.

So, that's how illiteracy saved me money.

I'm thinking since coupons are so hard to read, maybe I should make a real-life reading lesson out of it.

I stopped at another Wal-Mart on the way home to purchased the much-needed water filter, but I decided that the other things weren't crucial. Kind of. All week long I've thought of things I almost purchased that day...I wish I had some ketchup...I really did need that bottle vinegar to clean the coffee pot...new hand towels for the bathroom would have been nice...I'm tired of banging the lotion bottle on the counter to get out every ounce...

Sigh. If only the woman had been able to read, she would have seen that I was not doing anything wrong. Maybe I would have inspired her to use them, too. Apparently, it's quite trendy to save money these days.

Just as every serious couponer has stories of success, we all have horror stories about how we were made to feel like criminals by simply using the marketing strategies manufacturers intend for us to use, and those of us who are savvy use to its fullest benefit--honestly. This is one of mine, with an educator's slant.

February 15, 2009

On Being Successful in Life

My last post about an irritating sub may have bugging me more because of a a sub I had earlier this year who preached to my students while he was in my classroom.

The students told me that the sub had talked to them most of the period, but they didn't give me details. It wasn't until a few weeks later when the sub showed up in another teacher's classroom and one my students, who is also on publications staff, revealed her supreme irritation at what the sub preached in my classroom a few weeks before.

Apparently, he told the students that they wouldn't be anything without a master's degree.

These are not the encouraging words I would use with inner city immigrant kids. Nothing without a master's degree. Wow.

My irritated student is one of my best and brightest in the magnet program. She is college-bound, but she was offended at what the man was saying. Her own mother is a teacher who started her master's degree but decided to wait until her children were older to continue. The girl's father attended a tech school and works for a casino doing something with slot machines. (Maybe not a well-known career world-wide, but here in Nevada, it would be considered a skilled trade, and I'm sure he makes a good living.) I could imagine her offense because I know her family, and they are intellectual and successful. How could a stranger offend her family?

I was irritated, too. Seriously? To be anything in life, you have to go to college and get a master's degree? That's a bit short-sighted. When I was young, I also once thought to be the most successful, one had to go to college. So I did. I pushed my students to do the same, and I suppose I still do to some extent. Telling students they have to go to college to be successful in inaccurate at best. What was right for me, isn't right for everyone.

Over the years, I've taught more students who were not college material that who were college material. And when I mean college material, I am talking about their abilities and their interests in attending college. Many of these students barely squeaked by, earning the bare minimum grades to earn credit, but when it came to working their after school jobs, they were model employees. Sure, money might have been a motivating factor, but many of them were simply built to learn more from the workforce than from in a classroom. College is a waste of time and money for students like this.

I encourage my students to be productive members of society and to choose careers that make them happy. Not just jobs. Careers. Maybe it's just semantics, but it's really about taking pride in what you do and doing it well. I encourage them to continue their educations with some sort of trade school or apprenticeship training if they are not interested in careers that require college. (If they are interested in college, but seem insecure, I suggest a junior college first.) One of the things our school district is doing right is building more technical magnet high schools. It truly reflects current workforce of our city, and recognizes the needs and interests of our students. Can you imagine the idea of students who are ready for the workforce upon graduation of high school? More power to them!

There was a time when a lot of my students joined the military (when I worked in a rural school), and for many of them, it was because they didn't know what they wanted to do with their lives and joining the military provided a lot of opportunities and a steady paycheck. I was never so proud as I was of the large group of boys from the Class of 2003 who enlisted in the Army, knowing full well that it was not the same Army their friends and brothers had joined a few years before. It would be unwise for anyone to disparage the choices of these young people in my presence. Them's fightin' words!

What is being successful anyway? If success is about money, I know plenty of people who don't have any higher education and make more money than I do. Their high pay comes from years of experience of a job well done. If success is about respect, that's something that can be earned through several means, such as knowledge, experience, and they way you treat others. If success is about happiness, that's a personal issue. Some of us find happiness in our jobs and careers, but other of us find it in the time we have outside of the workplace.

So, what of the students who never go to college, trade school, or into the military? What of the students who simply find jobs that will pay the bills? That comes down to simply finding happiness. Are they happy with their lives? Are they fulfilling their dreams, even if it's bit by bit? Do I look down my nose on that former student who has been working in a mine for the last 10 years and is proudest when he shows me pictures of his wife and children? Do I say, "Did you go to college?" No! I shake his hand, give him a hug, pat him on the back, and say, "Congratulations! You have a beautiful family, and I am happy your life turned out so well!" Am I as happy and proud of him as I am of his classmate who spent years in college and has finally become the lawyer she always wanted to be? You betcha.

I don't know who that sub was telling students what they had to do to be successful in life, but I know he's not me. He hasn't seen what I have seen in the lives of students. I know my philosophy about higher education and what it means to be successful in life come directly from being a teacher. I'd really like to know where his comes from.

February 13, 2009

Just Babysit

Have you heard my rant about substitutes who monopolize the classroom to the point that students do not get their work done? I can't find it, so maybe I've been holding back. Or maybe I mentioned it in a comment on someone else's blog.

Yesterday I had to go to a special luncheon for one of my students, so I was out of my classroom for two periods. One of the classes was publications, and I left them the feature article from a recent Time about print newspapers. They knew what to do, but they probably weren't going to do it until I threatened their grades. Whatever. With only 18 students in that class, even if they are off task, they are a peaceful bunch. The other class is my biggest, yet smartest English class, which is right after lunch, and they really needed to get some instruction on adverb clauses before our big writing exam on Tuesday.

And that instruction did happen. I didn't expect the sub to do it. I expected the sub to direct the students to the information on the board and in the textbook, and give them the assignment. In fact, the sub could have been a mute because all the instructions were on the board. Or, he could have simply read everything to them and made it look like he was doing his job. This lesson was hardly ideal on a day when I was going to be out of class, but I figured I could pick up the pieces today.

Of course, the students all claimed they didn't know about the writing assignment they had to do, and they only knew about the exercises. Seriously? It was all on the board. When the best student in the class came up, freaking out that she didn't know about the writing assignment and wanted to know if she could do it, I knew something had gone wrong. It's okay. We are going into a three-day weekend, and when we come back, we are going into two days of the writing proficiency test. It's not worth the headache to make them do the writing assignment when we won't have a normal class until next Thursday. Irritating, yes, but I can let it go.

Apparently, the sub read every single part of the board and gave multiple examples for everything, and the students were irritated because they didn't need that much instruction. That's okay, though. I didn't expect him to do anything, so it was nice that he was trying.

(I guess he didn't get to the part where he read them the whole assignment, but seriously, I'm over it. I'll let it go.)

But then...the students started telling about how he was talking about memories, and then something about the speakers. What about the speakers? Did he need to audio enhancement? I didn't leave out the mike. No, he was playing music. What?! What music? Oh, great, the music from my computer, and I guess that triggered some memories--and he was probably hoping to get the music to go through the speakers, but that's a technical issue that still hasn't been resolved in my room. Did I ask him to play music from my computer? No. Did I ask him to reminisce about his childhood while my students should have been practicing using complex sentences? No.

And what's even more troubling, is that 70% of the music I have on my computer is for my enjoyment while I am on my prep or after school, and I would NEVER play it for my students. Now, if he was remembering the good ole days, he probably wasn't playing Beethoven. I hope he was playing Lynard Skynard or the Eagles and not Metallica or The Dead Milkmen. The latter two aren't censored Wal-Mart versions. (They aren't completely obscene, but there are probably some random F-bombs.) Our administrator has warned us about playing music that does not have educational merit in our classrooms, and since I'm a rule follower, I generally stick that. Okay, sure, I might play some mellow jazz or classical music on quiet writing days, and that has little to do with educational merit, but I think we can all see the difference. And I think we can all see how HappyChyck could get her bum in a tangle because some idiot decided to play her iTunes playlist during class time.

Regardless of what my playlist might have, I didn't need him wasting my students' time. Sometimes I'm imperfect, and I might tell a little story here and there, but I have a point! You won't catch me reminiscing on grammar days! What would be the purpose in that?

I guess I need to start leaving explicit notes in my lessons to the substitute that say, "Do not waste their time! They have work to do! You are not a guest speaker today. You are a guest teacher, and really that is a euphemism for babysitter. Just make sure nobody gets hurt."

That's already setting the bar lower than I usually do.

I need a good sub.

February 11, 2009

At Peace With Punctuation

Today I reviewed compound sentences with my middle school students. Shhhh. Don't tell anyone, that I am such a freak, but I really enjoyed it. I am impressed with how much most of them know, so it's not painful at all. Sure, I had to do one-on-one with a few, but even that proved to be fairly painless. It was even fun.

Fun? Over the years, I have come to terms with sentence structures instruction for the purpose of teaching where to put commas in sentences. I have a 2-inch thick folder with various handouts and practice papers I've used with different groups over the years. When I tell the students that I could on for days about clauses and sentences, I'm not really kidding...

So I'm a nerd. I like grammar. Why? I think it's because sometimes it's so tiring being a hippy-dippy English teacher. Sometimes having flexibility and options takes a toll on my brain. In so many aspects of what and how I teach, there are multiple answers. With grammar and mechanics instruction, there is one way.

It's the rule.


(Yes, I know that "one way" is not always accurate, but a lot of the time it is!)

February 9, 2009

Lead Me On

My students' favorite way to begin an essay is to simply restate the topic.

The song that has impacted my life the most is...

If they are super creative, they might begin with a question lead that is really restating the topic.

Have you ever had a song impact your life?

I know at least one of their 7th grade teachers taught them about using different types of leads, but it is largely forgotten. So, I whipped out my little lesson on leads, which is not very creative at all. It's a list of different leads, and I walk through each one with them, explaining which might be useful for different types of writing, and giving alternative examples. Afterward, they identify different types of leads on a worksheet, which is pretty lame, but I emphasize that the real purpose is so student can have yet another paper full of examples. Afterward, students work in pairs, practicing writing different types of leads with potential topics.

Again, I know it's not exciting. It's direct and to the point. They have some different ideas with which they can begin their essays. When I did a quick poll of the students, most of them claimed that the leads lesson was a review of what they had learned, but they had learned at least one new idea for beginning a lead. (I also emphasized that the options are limitless. The ten or so I gave them are some basic, flexible options.)

After we did the lesson, I asked students to try writing three different leads for a piece of writing they had done, and afterward, they were asked to choose the best one (they could consult a peer about it, too.) That was our revision activity one day.

Imagine my shock when I collected the essays, and many of them didn't try on different leads--and those who did, resorted to the lame question lead which basically asked the reader to answer the question the writer is suppose to be answering in the writing. Bleah.

It took me a few days to look at all their bomber essays, and when I did I puzzled over a next step. Even my proficiency high school students, who aren't as good at writing as my middle schoolers, are receptive to the basic leads lesson. What's up with the 8th graders?

As it turned out, we had a library day scheduled the next day, so I made up a Leads Treasure Hunt. I sent them off to find interesting story beginnings. I know, and I told them, that some of those introductory lines could not work for all pieces of writing, but many of them could. I emphasized my concern about their lack of "interesting introductions," and I believed that perhaps they should immerse themselves in good writing.

I'm so full of bullshit sometimes.

Only I didn't think so at the time. It's a great idea! I observed students plowing through books, recording good beginnings and shunning the dull ones. I was so proud!

The very next day, students shared their beginnings in small groups. The essential question asked them to find the characteristics of good introductions so that we might steal ideas from good writers. Initially, students had difficulty articulating what made the writing effective. They simple answered, "It is good." But with a little prodding, they started looking at the word choice, sentence structures, and similarities in some of the techniques they had already learned. It was wonderful!

So, then...the next step was to again try to apply what they learned on a piece of writing.

However, when I started looking over the essays, guess what I found? The same crap found at the top of this post. I'm incredibly irritated. Yes, there are a few students who won't be able to write a cool lead for years, but my students are generally bright, and you know if I'm stressed about leads, the bodies of their writings are pretty good.

When their turned in their essays, which are best rough drafts that include revision marks, one of the three things they had to do was make sure they had a good lead. Was I not explicit enough? It was written on the board. We'd spent days talking about, searching for, and writing leads. Do they really thing their leads are okay?

The song that has impacted my life the most is...


I'm sorry to have to admit that my next move does not include me being a nurturing, patient writing teacher. For the students who still are trying to use the question, but doing it like a thesis restatement, I offered suggestions about different types of questions to ask. I don't believe they are being difficult. But for the rest of them...it's the REDO stamp.

The REDO Stamp?

"Redo! This work is incomplete and/or substandard. Resubmit this work by tomorrow."

They will write inspiring leads one way or another.

The sooner, the better. The big, scary state writing proficiency exam is next week.

Double Ack!

February 6, 2009

La Cucaracha

It had to happen sooner or later in our new school...a cockroach was spotted during my 3rd period class.

Apparently it darted into the printer.

So then the question is, "Should I try to take apart the printer to find the offending bug?"

It will come out eventually, right?

"Yeah, probably after it leaves behind some eggs," one boy said, smiling at the ensuing chaos over a mere cockroach.


February 4, 2009

The Useless English Text

Today one of my students asked me if they were ever going to use "the green books I gave them." That would be the new writing and grammar textbook that I was required to check out to all students. I'd probably complain if I didn't have enough textbooks, just like I'm complaining about having to check out the grammar text.

(This is where some of you will hate me. I deserve it. We have so many resources, both print and online, that using any of to excess is probably not going to happen. It is nice to be able to piece things together. And it is actually necessary to piece things together. Read on.)

However, what I said to my student, whose question compelled her classmates to listen up, was, "Well, it's hard to say. So far I can't find anything in here that we can use. Earlier this week, I wanted to find something that might help you write better conclusions, but there is a barely a paragraph on it--and that is basically telling you that an effective essay needs a good conclusion."

I felt a rant boiling up, "And you know, I had a student who came in after school asking for clarification about which titles should be underlined and which should be in quotations, so I explain it to her again, and I was going to have her go home and read her text, too. And maybe practice a little. She totally would have done it, too! Only there were no lessons for that! There was just a two-sentence explanation."

Maybe 8th grade students should know that book titles should be underlined and magazine titles go in quotation marks, so perhaps that is why there is virtually nothing about it in the writing and grammar book. But what about conclusions? It's a writing book! In my experience as a writing teacher, I have found that essay beginnings and endings are the hardest for students--at all levels. They'll even admit it! Yesterday I took an informal poll and asked, "How many of you have read a peer's paper that suddenly ended and you weren't sure if the essay was finished or if you were missing a page?" Half of the students in each of my classes raised their hands. Some of them started joking about how often they had simply stopped short of the conclusion themselves. How about some tips, examples, or practice in a writing textbook for writing conclusions?

I have a textbook that has such things. My high school students use it. It's a text specifically designed to help students pass the proficiency exam. Now, the company that prints the text does such texts for many states, and they are all probably the same. I've used this particular text in two different schools--in proficiency writing classes. You know, the class for the students who either didn't pass the test and are receiving desperate remediation so they can graduate, or students who are unlikely to pass the test without taking a special, focused class. That's not to say that the text can only be used for proficiency classes, but I betcha anything, that's how it's used in most schools.

It's a major pain in the ass being an English teacher sometimes. For one thing, our curriculum isn't linear. There are so many different things we have to teach. Sometimes it's divided up into writing and literature, but the course I teach is both. (At my school, in the 6th and 7th grades students have both an English class and a reading class, but 8th grade is just English, a combination of the two.) Teaching both means that I need a lot of resources, and sometimes even two official textbooks. And what a blessing if I have two different textbooks, which I do. What would be an extra special blessing if the texts were of any use at all.

I'll keep looking for reasons to use the text. I hope something pans out soon. We are moving into research soon. What do you think the likelihood of a nice fat chapter on research in the digital age? I mean, it is a new textbook...

And what you do you think? Might we save some students from taking proficiency classes if their middle school texts were more useful? Actually, I've seen some of the writing and grammar texts for high school, too. Not much more useful.

So it's all on the teacher. And teachers expect and are expected to use textbooks in their instruction. It's taken me years to build my files of instructional tools, for without those tools, my students and I would be left with the mere textbook.

In my first years of teaching, that's all I had. My poor students. I hope they eventually turned out okay.