Friday, December 15, 2006

TIWIT, part 11 of 174: Positivity

"You look sick. Or are you in a bad mood?"

The first kid has walked into fourth period, Thomas, a tough, tall kid on the basketball team. He's usually loud, singing some rap song, obnoxious, barely pays attention to a word I say, but today he sees I'm leaning over my podium instead of standing at the door and shows a little compassion.

"I'm OK," I respond, my voice a lot scratchier than it feels. "Just a cold." It's winter, so it's time for my annual aches and pains. You'd think I'd be immune to most viruses by now, but the kids keep on bringing more germs from all corners of the planet. And so I go through the annual cycle of sickness: The First-Week-of-School Flu, the Parent-Teacher-Conference Cold, the Winter Whooping Cough, Spring Fever, Senioritis. That last one, I think, I've been suffering for the past 15 years of my life. There's no cure.

"If you're not feeling well, we should watch a movie!" Thomas announces. "Doesn't even have to be educational. Just pop something on and relax."

"Thanks for your concern," I say.

"Yeah, I'm concerned," he says. "I'm so concerned, maybe you should just take the day off tomorrow. You know, stay in bed, have some soup, relax, get better."

"I don't know," I say. "When I'm sick, I like to come share my unhappiness with you guys. Misery loves company, you know."

When I'm sick, I go to work. Usually. And when the bell rings, classes start, I usually feel less cranky and tired. The students wake me up, energize me, make me think less about my suffering. Plus, I want to save up my sick days for when I have something better to do, like go on vacation. I love the idea of calling in sick while rushing to catch a flight. But there's another reason I hate calling in: I don't want the substitute teacher to learn how bad of a teacher I am.

If I leave work, and the kids don't do it, or if they're wildly out of control, the sub will know that these kids don't really respect me, don't take my class seriously. And that's what I'm afraid of. I used to be a sub, so I know this is true: When I walked into a room, handed out an assignment, and the kids actually did it, that was a good teacher's classroom. It only happened two or three times, but still, I want to be one of those teachers.

So far this year, I've been out three times: twice for conferences and once because I strained my back and could barely walk. Each time I was so worried about what was going on in my classroom that I could barely enjoy myself. But each time when I returned, I realized the world did not end in my absence. The first time I was out, in fact, I got an interesting note from the sub the next day.

I had warned all my classes that I'd be out. I explained what they'd have to do. I begged them to behave, told them there would be consequences if I returned to the scene of a disaster. Then I left a note for the sub, detailing what each class was supposed to be doing, and telling her what to expect from my classes. "Most of my classes are well-mannered and you shouldn't have too many problems," I wrote. "However, fourth period is my rowdiest class, and I apologize in advance for their actions."

When I returned, the note was quite opposite from my expectations: All my classes, apparently, were loud and disrespectful except for fourth period. At the start of class, I read from the substitute's note: "Students were out of their seats, listening to i-Pods, and talking back." I looked up. The fourth period kids were incredulous.

"What!? We were good!" one girl yelled.

"Oh yeah, that's for third period," I said. "Let's see what she wrote about you guys: 'Class was surprisingly good. Students worked quietly together to finish assignment.'" I looked up. Big smiles from around the room. They were proud. Happy to be acknowledged. And all those years of hearing how students want and need positive reinforcement finally proved to be true. If you focus on the good ... and you reward positive behavior instead of punishing negative behavior ... they will behave. When kids act out, supposedly, they just want attention.

"We should get extra credit for that," Thomas announced, speaking louder than the other dozen voices wanting something in return. "Show us a movie!"

"A movie for doing what you were supposed to be doing? I don't think so," I said. "But I will remember this."

Two days later, things were back to normal. At the start of class, a couple of boys were tormenting a girl, who hurled curses back at them. Some kids were restless, barely able to sit still. Others had heads down. A couple of the good kids were bored, waiting to learn something. And I was frustrated and, as I was ready to blow, to forget the focus-on-the-positives bullshit and start kicking kids out, Thomas came to the rescue. "Don't get mad. We're your best class, remember?" he said. "Maybe you could show us a movie!"

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

TIWIT, part 10 of 174: A civics lesson

My IB class was supposed to have a novel test today. The way I teach novels, at least in my advanced classes, is like this: They read the book, take a test, and then get working on analyzing it. If they fail the test, they get zeroes on all class assignments until they pass a version of the test. (Trust me, this usually gets them to read.) Anyway, I assigned a novel two, three weeks ago, and figured they should finish by today. But yesterday I realized that most of the students wouldn't be ready. Being the slackers that most of my students are, they put everything off until the last minute.

So, after school yesterday, on a little blog that I have for the class, I decided to pose a question: How many of you would prefer to hold off on the test until Monday? You have to swear that you'll be ready. So, vote on this blog to keep the original date or to move the test to Monday. I need at least 11 votes by midnight and I'll go with the majority.

In the next couple of hours, there were more than 30 messages posted, students practically begging to change the test date to Monday. And so, being a believer in flexibility, I agreed. The test will be Monday.

After that, I got this interesting message from one of the kids:
Hahaha.. thanks Mr P. I do have to tell you im amazed how everyone worked together to collect the votes, everything from non stop phone calls, to IMs,to email...and even, myspace blogs!!!! just to get our class to come here and vote. Intriguing..
My initial thought was, A-ha! They just learned something about politics. That's exactly how a political Machine operates. On election day, city employees visit or call homes to make sure people cast their ballots for the mayor.

But then I realized that this is NOT how the Machine operates. The Machine relies on old technology, like phone calls and doorbells. These kids used modern technology to get out the vote: instant messaging, email, myspace. The lesson here might be for politicians: If you want to reach a large group of voters, especially the young ones, maybe you should consider new get-out-the-vote strategies.

(Hey Kos readers, since you're here, check out more recent posts.)

TIWIT, part 9 of 174: What's your name again?

Just got back from a basketball game. We were playing a suburban team, and we really hung in there ... for a long while. Down by three at the half. Midway through the third quarter, our center put down a monster dunk to tie it up, and the small cheering section that came up north thought, wow, this might be it. Then ... the other team turned it up a notch, our foul trouble caught up to us, we started putting up air-ball three-point attempts, and we lost by 15. Still, it was a valiant attempt, and we have a shot at doing well in the city playoffs.

Since the team's doing well, fans are actually showing up. I'd say I saw at least 10 graduates, kids I taught three, four, five years ago. And here's the cool thing: Every single one of those kids came over and said hello. Seemed genuinely happy to see me. Whatever our troubles were in the classroom, if we had any, were long since forgotten. Another thing long since forgotten is their names. I remember the faces, even the ones that have aged decades in the past five years. I even remember the classes they were in. But the names ... It's weird to think that I spent a good solid year, maybe two, with so many young people at the turning points in their lives, and now they're gone. Gone from the school, gone from my memory.

Still, as my teacher buddy said on the ride home: "It's a real privilege to work with these kids." It really is. He was talking about the players on the team, and I agree. I teach a couple of the starters, and it's really interesting to see them in their element. They may sometimes struggle in the classroom, may be a little quiet or tired or want to goof off, but on the court, they're confident and mature. I have to remember to say something nice, especially to the forward who was something like 13 of 14 from the free throw line.

I teach about 141 kids this year. I say "about" because kids are still coming and going, I'm still making additions and subtractions on class rosters. It's a wonder I remember any of their names.

Another wonder is that I remember certain names from my very first year of teaching. Some kids just stand out like that, make that kind of impression. In 10, 30 years, if I see certain people walking down the street, I'll still yell out their names. Not all of them were the best students. Or worst. Or the most outgoing. Every once in a while, you just meet someone you really click with, and that person just remains in the brain. Anyway, I call out those names. And I'm sure they'll still call me Mister.

When I started teaching, the weirdest thing to hear was someone calling me "mister," especially walking down the street or in a store. Now, I can't imagine any of these kids, any of these graduates, calling me by my first name.

Anyway ... I think I'm having a moment. Don't mind me. I'm thinking about all those graduates I saw, how they've gone on, are well on their way to adulthood. And here I am, still stuck in high school. "You still teach there?" one kid asked me. "Yeah," I said, "and to be honest, I'm actually sort of starting to like it."

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

TIWIT, part 8 of 174: Lying to parents

The first time I ever got a phone call from a parent was a shock.

"Hello, sir, I am calling about my son," the caller said. "I am very worried."

It was a shock mainly because it was 8 p.m. and I was at home. "Sure," I said, "how can I help?"

"Can you tell me, sir, is it true that my son is dating a girl?"

Oh boy. How was I going to deal with this?

First, some background. My phone number is listed, so I really shouldn't have been surprised that he reached me at home. The real surprise about getting calls at home was that, in my first six years as a teacher, I had only been called once by a student. Maybe I've gotten prank calls once or twice, but not what might be expected. This shows that students are either very respectful about teachers' privacy or they don't really give a damn or, I guess, that they don't know how to use telephone books. If the information doesn't pop up on google, they don't know how to find it.

Anyway, I sort of should have expected this call from this father. After all, I had just spent about an hour after school talking to this boy about his life, his religion, his girlfriend. He was supposed to be in some ACT prep class but came in my room, said he wasn't feeling well enough to sit through the class, so could he please hang out for a while? I was grading some papers, was planning to be there for a while anyway, so I said sure. Once he sat down, though, we started talking and I graded zero papers.

This kid was from Sri Lanka. As with most kids from religious backgrounds, I asked him about growing up Muslim.

"I don't really care about my religion," he said.

"Do your parents know that?"

"No way," he said. "They'd kill me."

"What would they do if they found out you were dating, especially a non-Muslim?"

"It wouldn't be pretty."

Even though I didn't ask for specifics, I knew he was dating. Every person in the building could see this kid holding hands with his very Mexican, very non-Muslim girlfriend. Still, I didn't probe, figuring he'd tell me more if he wanted to.

An hour into our chat, the counselor in charge of the ACT class came into my room and asked the boy what he was doing, why he wasn't in class. "I didn't feel well," he said. She left in a fury. "Oh boy," I told him. "That's one woman you don't want to piss off."

"Whatever," he asked. "What can she do?"

Famous last words.

What she did was this: She called the boy's house. Told dad that the boy wasn't feeling well enough to go to class, but he was still in the building. Maybe because he was waiting for his girlfriend!

And now I had dad on the line. "Is it true, sir? Does my son have a girlfriend?"

"Well ..." I stammered. "I know he has many friends."

"I am very concerned. We don't want our children to do certain things."

"I understand," I said. "And, from what I've seen of your son, I think he's a great young man. Very respectful. Very ... proper. I'm sure he wouldn't do anything ... bad."

"But what about this counselor calling and saying he has a girlfriend?"

"Oh, I'm sure she was upset that your son wasn't in class. And it was probably true, he was probably waiting for his friends."

"But does he have a girlfriend."

OK. Is it really up to me to inform this man of something like this? Am I my student's keeper? Can't he just ask his son? Doesn't he know as a father what the truth is? I thought back to all the times I had seen this boy with his girlfriend. Seemed innocent enough. Then again, had I ever actually seen anything? Or was my memory colored by what I had heard from other teachers? What is truth anyway?

"Well," I said. "I can assure you, I have never seen anything improper in my classroom." This was the truth! I assign seats, and the two lovebirds sit separate from each other in English. There's no way they had ever done anything in my presence. "What your son does outside of my classroom, I don't really know. But in my room, nothing."

The father thanked me and asked me to call if I ever suspected his son was dating, especially a non-Muslim.

to be continued ...

Monday, December 11, 2006

A-I, A-I-O

Must ... be ... good.

The A.I.O. is visiting. She will most likely stop by my classroom. Must make sure there's evidence ... of ... learning.

An A.I.O. is an area instructional officer. The job description, as far as I can tell, is to make teachers miserable. Or at least fearful. I'm not sure how it works, but the city seems to be subdivided into regions and areas. And each subdivision is ruled by someone in charge. You know, another high-paid bureaucrat that reports back to the big boss, whoever that might be. The A.I.O. is somewhere up there, making a visit somehow dreadful. Oh, our A.I.O. smiles a lot. Says that we are her favorite school. But when I talk to teachers at other schools in the area, I learn that she tells them the same thing.

Anyway ... I won't mention names. But I do have a funny little story about our A.I.O.

She used to be a principal. I interviewed at her school. She didn't hire me. Didn't call to tell me why, didn't answer my calls. But about six months later, after I had found another job and had forgotten all about her school, she finally wrote me a rejection letter. I WISH I had saved it. Had I known she would one day be my A.I.O., I would have. In the brief letter, I counted no fewer than 10 errors in grammar and punctuation. At the time I was so angry that I was ready to pull out my red pen, circle the mistakes, and send it back to her with a little message: Maybe you should've hired me as your personal English teacher!

But whatever. I'm not really all that concerned with the visit. Or what she says if she does poke her head in my classroom. I just would like a chance to edit any report she writes about me.

The kids, on the other hand, might freak out when they see a "team" of observers storm into the room. They get really funny when someone walks in. There could be utter chaos one second, and the next, total silence. The teacher, sobbing at his desk, might look up and notice that the principal has walked in for an observation. The students think they're the ones being observed, so all of a sudden, they're reaching for ID's, taking off out-of-dress-code sweatshirts, opening textbooks. They respectfully raise hands and ask questions, use foreign words like "sir" and "excuse me."

After the observation, I ask the kids what happened, why they were so good. "Because it's the PRINCIPAL!" they say, not realizing that they're setting themselves up for a lifetime of fear. Fear of authority. When I tell them I was the one being watched, not them, they smile. "See?" someone says. "We made you look good!" "Yeah!" someone else agrees. "Now give us extra credit!" And then the whole class is loud again, everyone demanding extra credit.

Ah, back to normal.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Sunday morning blues

I have no idea what normal people do on a Sunday morning. I am an English teacher, which means my morning (and probably afternoon and evening) will be spent grading papers.

I've procrastinated as long as I could. Did the dishes. Watched stupid Sunday morning news programs with coffee in one hand and the Tribune in the other. Scrubbed my toilet. (Well, I let the Scrubbing Bubbles do the scrubbing.) If I stay home any longer, I'll find a hundred and one things to do instead of grading. So it's off to a coffee shop, where I'll be for the next few hours, grading, grading, and trying not to fall asleep, trying not to get distracted.

If there's one thing I know, students HATE when I don't promptly grade and return their papers. On Thursday, some of my classes had quizzes. On Friday, a couple kids asked what they got. When I told them I hadn't graded them, that I had taken them home and left them there, there was a moment of disbelief. "I hate when teachers don't return a quiz I know I did good on," my biggest trouble maker said. This is a kid who rarely pays attention, rarely turns in homework, and all of a sudden he's demanding that I do my job. Sheesh.

I've got more on this subject, but I know that sitting in front of this computer is just another diversion. I must be off. But first a shower ...

Saturday, December 09, 2006

TIWIT, part 7 of 174: I guess I don't know

All day long, kids have been walking into my room and exclaiming, "It's cold in here!" At first I wanted to be accommodating by trying to explain. The windows are closed, I'd say. It's an old building, and sometimes the heat doesn't get to all the rooms. The library across the hall is hot, they've got the windows open; I prefer this. No, you can't put on your sweatshirt, it's not in dress code.

But after 20 or so exchanges, I'm tired. So I stand at the door and bark at them as they walk in: "Yes, I know!"

"What do you know?" they ask, enter my room, and say, "Wow, it's cold in here!"

"I already told you, I know!"

A girl heads my way, I know she's not going to like the temperature, so I say, "I know! I know!"

"You do?" she asks, pausing in the doorway. "How do you know?"

"I just do," I respond. "I've been here all day."

She almost starts crying. "I can't believe they'd do that!" she says.

"Who? What?"

"Oh, you know!" she says. "You said you know about it."

Of course I don't know anything about it. I just know that it's cold in my classroom. She takes out a copy of the student newspaper that just came out, flips open to the "personals" section and points at a little love note written to her boyfriend ... by someone else. Then, she points to another. There are two separate messages to this boy, and neither are from her, the girlfriend. I want to laugh. But this is a serious situation, this is the most important thing in the world to her, a crisis.

"Ah, yes, everyone wants him," I say. "But who is he dating?"

"Yeah," she smiles. "Did you see the message he wrote me? Look!" I read a declaration of true love. "I bet they feel salty now," she says and walks in the room with confidence.

It's another typical day. Some students won't be able to concentrate because they're cold. Others will be upset about something their boyfriends did ... or didn't even do. And the list goes on and on. They're hungry. Someone threatened them. They worked all night, didn't get any sleep. They got kicked out of the house. It'll be amazing if any of them will hear a word I say.

But what am I supposed to do about any of it? I can't magically make the room comfortable for everyone. I can't tell this girl the truth, that she isn't really in love, that eventually, the boy will dump her or cheat on her, but she will move on, find someone else and forget about this boy and all his secret admirers.

But as the next few students walk in, I don't say "I know" anymore. Because, really, I don't know what's going on in their lives or who they really are. All I know is that when that bell rings, I've got 46 minutes to educate and entertain, to make them forget about all their worries and realize this is the most important thing in the world, that if they just pay attention and do what I say they will get smart and go to college and get good jobs and live happily ever after.

Um ... one thing at a time. Maybe I'll just focus on the cold today: "Chicken Dance anyone?"

Friday, December 08, 2006

TIWIT, part 6 of 174: Mean girls

As shocking as it may sound, there are fights in school from time to time. Straight-up fist fights with a crowd in a tight circle, hooting and hollering, kids running from all corners of the building to see. There are even times with no security guards present, when a single teacher may try to handle the situation.

Over the years I've stopped my share of fights, and I have even developed a simple formula for determining whether or not I should step in and try to break it up:

Examine combatants. Are girls involved?
If NO, step in and stop the fight.
If YES, yell like hell for security and stand back.

This formula has prevented major injury to both my body and spirit. But I learned it the painful way.

Of the six or seven boy fights I've stopped, here's what typically has happened: Boys have squared off, perhaps have taken swings at each other, perhaps have ended up in a tight embrace. I squeeze myself in between them, loudly say something about having them arrested if either so much as touches me, and they stop fighting. This is because most boys don't really want to fight, don't want to get hurt, don't want to lose. And they're looking for a way out. With me in between them, they can leave with ego intact: I fought, and I would've won, but this teacher man wouldn't let me.

Girls are different.

The last time I tried to break up a girl fight (I mean, the first time I tried to break one up) was four years ago. I heard the distinct yelling in the hallway that clearly signals a fight. I saw the bodies running past my door towards a nearby staircase. I popped my head out of my classroom. No adults around, just lots of teenagers yelling and laughing. I raced over to see two girls swinging wildly at each other, grabbing chunks of hair, falling to the ground. I realized I knew both of them. One was in my fourth period, the other I had the previous year. Both were about five feet tall, petite, sweet Latino girls. No problem, I thought.

I got close, yelled both of their names. "Stop!" I yelled. They kept going. I grabbed one, pulled her away, the whole time yelling her name into her ear. The other girl took the opportunity to mount an attack, with me in between. For five or ten seconds, I was stuck. In that time, I was pinched, scratched, and punched repeatedly, I have no idea by whom or how many times. Security guards came in and separated the two, pulled them away kicking and screaming.

I examined myself. No blood. They didn't break the skin, but it looked like I might have a bruise or two. Oh well. That wasn't the part that scared me. The scary part came 20 minutes later when I was in the discipline office, writing up what had happened.

One of the girls was in there. A lot calmer. She looked at me. "Hi," she said. "What are you doing here?"

"What do you mean? I was trying to break up the fight you were just in," I said. "Didn't you see me?"

She looked at me blankly. "You were there?"

"Yes, and I've got scratch marks and bruises to prove it. You mean to tell me you don't remember me in between the two of you screaming your names and telling you to stop?"


I left, having learned a little humility. Since that day, I know that no matter how important I may think I am, there are times when I am totally invisible.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Sometimes you're powerless to teach

Almost had a day off the other day.

When I showed up at 7:15, there was no electricity in the building. Only the emergency lights were on in the hallways. It was a very surreal atmosphere. Dark. Quiet. The few teachers I saw on my way to the main office were smiling, excited about a possible day without students, and crossing their fingers, hoping we'd be sent home, too.

An announcement from the principal ten minutes later: "ComEd has been called. We'll keep the students in the cafeteria and auditorium for a while and see what happens." No power means no classes, that's what happens, I thought. But ten minutes after that, full power was restored.

When students did show up later on, they had no idea. No idea that they almost had a day off. And no idea that their teachers would have been just as excited about it.

Something similar happened at a Northside high school last Friday, the day of the snowstorm. But their kids lucked out.

A friend who teaches there told it like this: "There was no power and we had the kids just waiting, not letting them go to their classes. At about 7:45 it was decided that school would be canceled, and kids started going home. A little after 8, some kids were still hanging out, waiting for rides, when the power came on. The kids that were still there scattered! You should have seen them run."

The teachers, obviously, had to stick around and had an in-service day. For me, that would've been torture. I'll take a day with students over a day of meetings any day. In fact, if they announced a surprise in-service day, I'd be the one running from the building.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

TIWIT, part 5 of 174: Cruel and unusual punishment

A cell phone rings, faintly, but I still hear it. The whole class turns around to look at me, wondering what I'll do about it and hoping not to give away the person with the phone. I zero in on her anyway.

"Give me the phone," I say.

"I'm sorry, I didn't know it was on. I'll turn it off."

"No, that's OK, don't turn it off. Let me answer."

Reluctantly, she hands it over. I answer: "Hello?" A boy's voice, confused, asks for the girl. "No," I say, "she doesn't want to talk to you. She's ... a little busy right now." Behind me I hear some kids starting to laugh. On the phone, there's momentary silence, then a demand to talk to the girl. "Listen, buddy," I say. "She doesn't want to talk to you. She's with me now, got that? And don't bother calling back!"

I hang up, turn the phone off, and tell the girl she can pick it up after school.

The girl shows up right at the end of the day. By then I've forgotten what happened earlier and think she's just visiting. "What's going on?" I ask. "You need help with that essay?"

"Stop playing," she says. "Can I get my cell phone back?"

Of course. I know this by now. If I want kids to stop by after school or during lunch to make up a quiz or conference about an essay, they conveniently forget. But if I have their electronic devices, they show up. No excuses.

I suppose it's fair that if kids can't use cell phones in class, neither should teachers. But I use mine from time to time. As a weapon. Kids fear my phone.

Students are working and I'm taking attendance. "Where's Amanda?" I ask. A couple of kids shrug. "Wait, I saw her in the hallway earlier," I say, loud enough to be heard. "Why isn't she here?" A few more shrugs. So I pull out my cell phone. I make a spectacle of myself, wanting everyone to see me dialing, hear me leaving a message: "Hi, this is Amanda's English teacher calling. I just want you to know that I saw Amanda earlier and she's supposed to be in my class right now, but she's not here. I hope she's OK, not just hanging out with that boyfriend of hers. Thanks."

Kids hate that. Amanda will be in class the next day, and so will all the other good kids who want so badly to be bad.

Better yet is to call home when the kid is in class in front of me. Last week, a tough kid showed up when he was supposed to be taking a practice ACT. There were five other kids in class. Everyone else was gone. So, these kids thought they'd get a free day, but I pulled out a short story and asked them to read. The tough kid, Tony, put his head down.

"Tony, do me a favor and read page one of this story." No response. "Tony, talking to you."

"I don't feel like reading."

"Hey, listen, this is your first time here in a week. I'm not asking if you feel like reading, I'm telling you to read. So, go ahead."


The other five kids were getting restless. A couple volunteered to read to avoid this confrontation. Maybe they're afraid of Tony and his temper, but I felt like pushing it. None of them should've been in class. They should have been taking the practice ACT, and I was the one who was supposed to have a free period.

"Tony, read."

"I don't know how to read."

"Yes, you do. You're one of the better readers in this classroom."

"I'm telling you I don't know how. And I don't feel like reading."

"Well, if you don't know how to read, now's a good time to learn. This is English class. So, start, and I'll help."


This could have gone on for the next 30 minutes, but instead, I pulled out my cell phone and called his house. Surprisingly, his mom answered.

"This is Tony's English teacher. Tony is refusing to read."

"I'm so sorry," she said. "I don't know what to do with him. I'm a single mother, doing my best. But he just doesn't listen to me. I've been praying for him."

"I know it's not easy," I lied. I don't really know how hard it is, but I could imagine. "But here's the thing. Tony is saying he doesn't even know how to read. Is this true?"

She was on the verge of tears. "He's a wonderful reader," she said. "He used to read all the time. Now, he just wants to hang out with those friends of his." Then, the magic words: "Can I talk to Tony?"

Absolutely. I handed the phone over to this tough kid, who all of a sudden was mumbling into the phone, "I'm sorry, mama."

When he hung up he read. Did an OK job. The rest of the kids read, too, but the bell rang before we finished, and I knew none of them would ever ask how the story ends. But I hoped that Tony would show up the next day and not attempt to derail yet another lesson. I hoped I had reached him. "Reach out and touch someone," the phone company ads used to say.

The next day there was a note in my mailbox: Tony has a ten-day out-of-school suspension. Drop off some work in the discipline office. I toyed with the idea of dropping off that short story. But I didn't.

What it's all about

Last summer, I read Frank McCourt's Teacher Man, a memoir of his teaching days in New York. In addition to being funny and inspirational, it was absolutely true. I found myself thinking that he could easily be writing about my experiences. Even the school on the book cover looks like the one where I work. (Then again, probably every school built in the early 1900s looks like a cross between a museum and a prison.) Reading his book, for the first time ever, I realized that others go through the same exact things as I do in the classroom. It's strange; when teaching, you're working in front of dozens of teenagers, yet it's one of the loneliest jobs out there. That's because when you actually do your job, you're alone. No colleagues. No teamwork. Just you and a bunch of adolescents, who may or may not want to be there, who may or may not even acknowledge your existence. So who knows what really goes on during those 46 minutes in other people's classes?

There was one part in Teacher Man that I found a little unbelievable -- that students actually called him "teacher man." That, for some reason, seemed just a little too made up. Then, as if on cue, a couple of weeks into this school year, a student raised his hand in my classroom and said, "Hey, teacher man, what are supposed to do?"

And so here it is, a blog about some of the things that go on in the classroom. No complaining about the job (I hope). No ridiculing the students. Just the day-to-day stories that some of my non-teacher friends find amusing. Your comments and questions are much appreciated.

Whoops, and I just realized something today: I have to go back and change some of the titles to previous posts. They should say part 1 of 174, not 184. That's because there are 174 school days this year, and that's definitely one of the reasons why I teach.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

TIWIT, part 4 of 184: About a mile that way

It's late at night and I'm riding home on my bike, going fast up my street, almost there, a little out of breath, having had a little too much to drink. I pride myself in not drinking and driving. "If I crash while riding my bike, I'm the one who will get hurt," I like to say.

About two blocks from home I notice a group of gangbangers hanging out on the next street corner. I think they notice me, and they slowly walk towards the street. I start peddling harder, faster, I'll just blow past them, let 'em try to knock me off my bike.

As I approach, one steps into the street. We make eye contact. The moment of truth. "Hey, Mr. P!" he exclaims. "What's up?!"

"How's it going?" I yell back and keep going, wondering who the heck that was. Probably someone in one of my classes, past or present. I arrive home, safe again, realizing yet again that this is the kind of thing that happens when you live a mile away from the school you work at.

I often feel that I'm one of the lucky people in the world because I get to walk to work. I walk just about every day, never worrying about the early morning fight for a parking spot. On snowy days, like last Friday, walking is actually faster than driving.

When students find out that I walk, their first reaction is to laugh. "Can't afford a car?" they ask.

"Let me tell you about luxury," I reply. I've said it many times, and by now I sound like a recording. "I have a car, a brand new car. But I don't have to drive. In life, that's luxury."

To which someone will usually reply: "Since you're not using your car, can I borrow it?"

The second reaction to me walking is: "Hey, wait a second, where do you live?"

I just point in a random direction and say, "About a mile that way." You'd think that living that close would mean I'd see students all the time. But it's not so bad. I think most of them live about a mile the other way.

But I do run into students at stores. The first time was at Jewel. In addition to groceries, I had a 12-pack of beer and a box of condoms. I placed my stuff down before realizing the cashier was in one of my classes. It was too late. She was pretty professional about it, considering, but there was a hint of mischief in her voice when she said, "Have a nice weekend." Ever since then, I make sure I check who the cashier is before getting in line.

So far, knowing the local teens has gotten me out of potential trouble at least twice. There was the cycling incident, and then more recently, a group of five scary-looking guys turned the corner right into my path. It's weird. At school, none of the kids scare me. Maybe because I've figured out that underneath every hard shell is a child that really does want to succeed and wants to be appreciated. On the streets, though, it's a different matter.

"Hey!" one of the guys called out to me. "You remember me?"

"Um ... no, should I?"

"Yeah, you probably don't recognize me because I cut the braids off."

"Oh yeah, hey, how's it going?" Forgot the name, but couldn't forget the kid. I had him two, three years back. He was probably one of the biggest pains of my teaching life. He was smart. One of the sharpest minds I've run across. Despite that, or because of it, he was bored and never, ever did his work. The only contribution he'd make is in class discussions. He's always take the opposing viewpoint, didn't matter if he was arguing against me or the whole class, he loved it and was good at it. He always defended George Bush, which really pissed off his classmates and made me wonder--was he doing it because he believed it or was he just having some fun?

A teacher friend and I used to argue about this kid. "I'm giving him a C because of all his contributions to class discussions," my friend, a history guy, would said. "He could single-handedly defend George Bush's foreign policy against the entire class."

"Are you kidding me?" I'd say. "He doesn't turn in any work. I don't care how smart he is, he's not passing my class."

I eventually gave him a D. Maybe because he turned in a couple of essays late in the year. No drafts, no notes, but still good. Whatever. It would be a bigger waste to have him not graduate just because of me.

"So, what are you doing these days?" I asked.

"Going to Chicago State," he said, proud. "Working on eventually going to law school. Gonna be a lawyer."

"Well, you certainly know how to argue," I said. "You still support Bush?"

"Of course," he said, sly grin on his face. "Anyway, thanks for everything."

And he was gone. And I was safe again, this time to wonder: thanks for what? I certainly didn't teach him anything. He came in smart. He left knowing he could pass without doing much. Oh well, maybe one day he'll defend me after I crash my bike.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Lesson of the week: Never teach on an empty stomach

A couple of girls are talking and I overhear something about "food."

I walk over. "Mmm, I want some," I tell them. "I'm really hungry."

They give me a weird look. "What?" I say. "You were talking about food."

"Actually," one of them laughs, "we were talking about boobs."

"Oh, nevermind," I mutter, walking away. "I just lost my appetite."

This is why I teach, part 3 of 184

So far this school year, I've kicked two kids out of my classroom. It was accidental, but that's still two too many, if you ask me.

I've got this constant battle against sleepy kids. Kids put their heads down and I get offended, thinking there's no way I can be that boring. I'll walk past and kick their desks hard, jarring them awake. "Oh, I'm sorry, was that rude of me?" I'll ask. "Well, so is sleeping in class!" Or I'll do the old drop-a-heavy-book-next-to-them routine and ask them to pick it up. I'll force kids to stand up and stretch, or go get a drink of water, whatever, just don't sleep in my room. My newest trick is "The Chicken Dance." I want it to become my reputation.

A few days ago, I was talking about something important and I wanted to make sure all the kids were paying attention. I can't remember what it was that I was talking about, but it seemed really important at the time. "I need your attention. This is really important," I announced. "So if any of you put your head down, there will be horrible consequences." Of course two minutes into my lecture or presentation or whatever, two heads went down. I tapped them on their shoulders, they looked up, and two minutes later both heads were down again.

"OK, that's it, I warned you," I said. "Come up here, both of you." Surprisingly, they actually did it, got up and walked over to the front of the room. Now what was I going to do with them? For some reason, this idea came to me:

"The three of us are now going to do the Chicken Dance," I said.

"What? I don't know no Chicken Dance," one of them said.

"Fine, I'll show you. It goes like this ..." And I did it, the arms flapping, the squatting, everything. "Got it? Now ... the three of us together!" I started, and they just stood there.

"Man, I'm not dancing!"

"What do you mean you're not dancing? You have to! I said don't sleep, and you put your head down twice, so now, as punishment, you have to dance. What about you," I looked at the other kid, who the whole time was just sleepily standing there, "are you going to dance or not?" He shook his head.

"Fine, then," I said. "You guys have wasted enough time as it is." I turned to the rest of the class. "I'm really sorry about wasting all this time when all you want is an education. Your parents are going to ask you what you learned in school today, and you'll tell them you learned the Chicken Dance. Sorry, I know, this is English class. I just think these two--and the rest of you--need to see that you can't sleep in class. I mean, what's the point of coming to school if you're just going to sleep through your classes? Now, don't the rest of you think that these two should do the Chicken Dance with me?"

Silence. I thought they'd all get a kick out of it, but nobody wanted to see the humiliation. Maybe they were worried about being next. Finally, someone spoke up, "Come on, just let 'em go."

"Fine," I said. "I'll let them go. Listen, you guys have a choice. Either do the Chicken Dance right now with me or get out and don't come back until you're awake and ready to learn."

And with that, both of them went to their desks, got their stuff, and walked out.

"Hey, you can't leave! Come back here and dance! I am not kicking you out, do you hear me?" I shouted at their backs. "Fine, then, since you're leaving, go to the principal's office, and tell him that your mean English teacher won't let you sleep in class. Tell him that I should provide you with pillows and blankets and maybe coffee for when you do wake up!"

They just kept walking, who knows where. Teachers kick students out all the time, and kids end up roaming the halls, but I never do. I think the real punishment is keeping students in the room with me, where they might actually learn something (like the Chicken Dance!). When they really misbehave, I make them leave their things in the room and just stand outside the door until I get the class working on something and can go talk to them. That's supposed to be considered a conference. The next time I'm supposed to call their house, and on the third time I'm supposed to write out a referral, which will get them suspended or whatever. But I'm too lazy to keep track of all that stuff, so I just talk to them and hope it doesn't happen again.

Anyway, class ended, and I sort of forgot about the whole thing. Until later in the day, when a student from another class asked me about it. "I heard some kid complaining about you in the hall," he said. "He said you kicked him out because he wouldn't dance with you. What's that all about?"

"Oh, nothing, I think he was just embarrassed because I can dance better than he can," I said, smiling because I knew this could lead to a reputation: Don't sleep in what's-his-name's class ... he'll make you get up and dance.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Things that make me smile #1

On a quiz for The Kite Runner, a novel about a boy growing up in Afghanistan who flees to the U.S. with his father after the political upheaval only to later return to rescue his nephew:

Question 1: Explain how Hassan dies.
Answer from one of my seniors: Shot in the back of the head by a member of the Tally Band.

I gave her full credit, chuckling about the possibility of Osama bin Laden and his Tally Band of Terrorists.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Bring on the ice and snow and pizza

As I wake up today, I see it's icing outside. Ice and snow, with forecasts calling for up to 12 inches by noon. The first major storm of the school year. Plus, it's Friday.

Attendance will be down.

Makes me think back to being a student, praying that school would be canceled because of snow. "If there's no school tomorrow," I'd promise God, "I promise to go to church every day of my life and do your work." Whatever. I don't remember if my prayers were ever answered, but probably not, considering I don't pray anymore ... for anything.

I do believe in miracles, though. If we get a snow day, for example, that would be a minor miracle. In my seven years with CPS, I can remember one snow day. One. The reasons we don't get more, I've heard, are that we have to keep the kids off the street, and we have to feed them. True. Think back to the nastiness of cafeteria food, the same old burger and limp fries or the cardboard pizza, and imagine it being your only hot meal of the day. For many kids in Chicago, this is the case. Unless if they show up early. Then they get a breakfast, too.

So yeah, attendance will be down today, but the cafeteria will still be dishing out pizza and fries. And plenty of hungry people will be looking forward to it.

AFTER-SCHOOL UPDATE: It wasn't that bad. Well, first period was pretty deserted, and fourth was missing almost 50 percent, but fifth had 100 percent attendance for the first time in a long time. So ... not bad at all. And further proof that kids will do what you least expect.

The kid from Ethiopia who had never been to the beach

Riding home today, I try to observe the lakefront bike trail as if for the first time. I am inspired by a kid I met on Saturday, a kid from Ethiopia who had never been to the beach before.

Saturday was a national beach clean-up day, and I was a somewhat reluctant chaperone of about 140 inner city high school students out to get six service learning hours each. As small groups fanned out to pick up bottles and cans and cigarette butts, a student approached me and asked if I had a Band Aid. I didn't.

"I don't," I said, "but I'll take you to the people in charge. I'm sure they have one." Osterman Beach seems like a pretty small beach, but when you're walking with a quiet teenager holding up a bleeding index finger, it starts to feel larger.

"How'd you cut your finger?"

"Broken bottle."

"Oh. Gotta be careful." Ten paces. Twenty. Silence. "So, other than cutting your finger, are you having a good time?"

"Yes, very much," he replied. "This is my first time on a beach."

"First time, really? Where are you from?"


"No kidding, and you never went to the coast there?"

"Ethiopia doesn't have a coast. It's in the ... middle."

I didn't know that, but still, I said, "Oh yeah, that's right. In the middle of Africa. So ... what do you think of the beach?"

He looked around. "It's nice."

I looked around. At the vastness of Lake Michigan, the water ending in a curve on the horizon, and I wondered what it looked like to someone looking at it for the first time. I've heard people from New York and California are surprised by how large it is and say that it looks just like the ocean. But this kid had never seen an ocean either.

"How long have you been in Chicago?"

"Six ... months."

"So, you came in, what, March, April?"


"So, have you ever seen snow?"


"Wait until you seen snow. You'll love it." I was reminded of this Australian girl I knew in Japan, where I taught English. One day she came to work, all excited from a weekend trip to Tokyo. "I was on the train, when all of a sudden I saw all this stuff falling. I thought it was dust," she had said. "And then I realized it was snow! That's the first time I've ever seen snow. I'll never forget it."

So there I was on the beach with a bleeding kid from Ethiopia, who had never been to the beach before, and still hasn't seen snow. "Guess you'll never forget your first trip to the beach," I said.

And now it's after 9 p.m. on Monday in late October, it's dark and windy and cold, and I'm cycling home from downtown, trying to imagine what all this would be like for the kid from Ethiopia.

This is what I feel: Cold, biting wind, biting through my too-thin North Face jacket. My guess is that the wind in Ethiopia is never this cold.

This is what I hear: The constant swooshing of cars on Lake Shore Drive, an irritating sound, one that never goes away, although every once in a while, when I'm lost in thought, I'm able to ignore it.

This is what I smell: Nothing. Maybe it's too windy--and of course I'm riding right into it, a northerly wind, which explains why it's so icy. If I were cycling along the Pacific coast, I'd smell the saltiness of the ocean, but I can't think about that because the kid from Ethiopia has never been to the ocean so he doesn't know that smell, and I'm trying to experience what he might experience on this ride in the dark.

This is what I taste: Remnants of an oatmeal raisin cookie I bought for $1.25 earlier.

And this is what I see: Cyclists with their blinking lights, though not too many of them out tonight. A pair of rollerbladers, hand in hand. Two Asian tourists with a guidebook, looking like they want to ask me a question. I slow down a little. Ask me, ask me, ask me, no, too late, I'm past them. I probably don't look all that friendly with my own blinking light and all, scowling into the wind. Still, I like it when people ask for directions, I like to show off Chicago. What else? The lake, as far as the eye can see, is black. Here and there are blinking lights. Boats. Above, planes fly low already, making their descent into O'Hare. I wonder if the kid ever saw so many planes, heard so many cars in Ethiopia. I wonder if he comes from a big city with noisy, crowded streets, or a small village where people rely on animals for transportation. I wonder what a city, any city, looks like in Ethiopia. And what would the kid think about this bike trail? Does his country invest this much money on leisure?

What else is there to see? A guy standing next to his bike, peeing on the edge of the trail. An illuminated statue of an Indian on a horse, proudly holding some sort of spear, near Diversey Avenue. A little further north, a statue of a man, possibly an ex-president. Then, at Addison, a colorful totem pole. I hope the kid wouldn't get the wrong idea. We don't really hold the natives of this land in such high regard. Belmont Harbor is full of boats, and I wonder if the kid would think that they're fishing boats, or would he realize they belong to people with nothing better to spend their money on?

Then, there are sports facilities. At Recreation Drive, the tennis courts are lit up, mostly empty, but there is one group of girls practicing. Possibly a high school team, judging by the poor serves, but would high school students really be practicing so late? On every beach stand white posts, about ten feet high, at regular intervals. If I were the kid from Ethiopia, would I know they were for volleyball nets? Or would I be puzzled? Not being the kid; in fact, being someone wondering about the kid, I wonder what sports they play there in the middle of Africa? Certainly not beach volleyball, considering, as everyone knows, that there is no coast there. Later on, around Montrose and Wilson, are giant, bright soccer fields, also vacant, except for one where a group of friends is playing touch football. Looking at them, I run over some glass. It crunches under my front tire. Damn. Hope I don't get a flat. Still have a long way to go. To think. To marvel at the joggers, especially the women running solo. I wonder if they get nervous. I notice they don't make eye contact.

There are fewer people the further north I ride. Around Foster, a basketball court stands empty. And unlit. Even if someone wanted to play, basketball's off limits at night. The trail ahead looks empty, and I am deserted in my thoughts. Trying to think like someone else, I see so many things I normally miss. Maybe there's a lesson there. I also realize that I cannot possibly think like him, considering I know nothing about him. Or his home.

At an intersection, a car pulls up to the stop sign just as I'm heading across the street. Hope he sees me. I often wonder if this is how it'll end, all this night-time riding and thoughtlessness. I keep peddling, wishing I'm seen, knowing damn well that if I'm not, I won't win the collision. One of these days I'm sure it'll all end with my head going through a windshield. My family and friends will say that they insisted I wear a helmet, but I was too stubborn or too vain, whatever they say about me. And on my headstone will be something to that effect: "He should've worn a helmet." And I'll be mad about the whole thing because no one listened when I said I don't want to be buried, that I want to be cremated. No one listens anymore. If they did, all they'd really hear is cars swooshing along Lake Shore Drive, hurrying away from here.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

This is why I teach, part 1 of 184

School starts at 8 a.m.

In my classroom, six, maybe seven of twenty-seven kids are here when the bell rings. A couple more come in a couple minutes after eight. A few filter in a few minutes later, and usually, on a good day, when the CTA's running OK and it's not raining or snowing or sunshining too brightly, about twenty-two kids have made it by 8:20.

Today's a good day. We're learning something about Chaucer, only two heads have landed on desks, everything's smooth, we're getting stuff done, when all of a sudden a disturbance at 8:35 as the door swings open. In walks Junior, eyes glazed over, feet sliding along, not really strong enough to move this 16 year old's thin frame. He steps into the room and right into a desk. Smiles. Moves forward, sways, and stumbles headfirst into another obstacle, another desk, this time occupied by another body. A few more steps, a few more stumbles, and Junior lands safely in his desk. His head is too heavy for his neck.

It's 8:35 in the morning and one of my students is too drunk to sit. I step into the hallway, flag down a security guard. Junior is escorted out of the room. The next ten minutes are wasted. The bell rings, kids leave, laughing about the drunk kid in their first period class.

I've got time for a bathroom break, walk into the hallway, which is loud and animated and a living, breathing thing, this narrow space full of slow walkers and fast talkers, cell phones and curse words. Heading my way is the security guard with Junior. I approach, smile. Junior scowls. I put my hand on his shoulder.

"Hey, listen, sorry about busting you back there. I was just ... worried about your safety. I thought you might fall and get hurt," I say. "So, yeah, I hope we're still OK?"

He looks at me, breaks into a smile. "That's all right," he says. "You're still my favorite teacher!"

And he's off. And here I am, having received the greatest compliment a teacher can get, music to a teacher's ears. But I feel bad for this kid, the drunk kid who likes me despite me getting him in trouble. I only see him two or three times a week. He has only turned in three or four assignments, and it's already late November. I don't really know him. Plus, really, I'm not that great of a teacher. So, really, if I'm the best he's got, he's in trouble.

Later on I see the security guard. "I couldn't believe he said that to you," he says. "But it must be true. You should have heard him in the discipline office, he was saying how much he likes you and your class. You're doing a great job with these kids."

"Thanks," I say, doubting him but wishing it were true.