Saturday, December 29, 2007

The more they change, the more I stay the same

Last week Thursday, on the eve of the holiday break, I went to a nearby Dominick's to pick up some things for classes the next day. The cashier, after ringing up three boxes of fudge mix and an assortment of cookies and treats, said, "Looks like someone's having a party."

"Yeah," I said, "I've got a bunch of hungry students to bribe." In my classes earlier that day, I asked students if they wanted to have some sort of holiday party before break. I said I'd bring in snacks if they would, too.

"You're a teacher?" the cashier asked.

"Yeah," I said, and told him where.

"That seems a little amazing, a teacher having a party for students," the cashier said.

"Really? Why?" I asked. "Where did you go?"

"Where did I go? I'm still a student," he said. "I go to Lane Tech."

"No kidding," I said. "That's where I went."

"When did you graduate?"

"A long, long time ago. Back in 1989. The last great graduating class of the 80s."

He smiled, finished ringing me up, told me to have a great holiday. "Thanks," I said. "And make sure you tell your teachers, especially your English teacher, that the teachers at my school throw parties for their students." One of the main differences between a place like Lane and the school where I'm at is that we often have to beg our kids to just show up. Hence the party. Usually on the day before a two-week break, attendance is very weak, especially in the afternoon.

As I moved to pick up my groceries, the bagger looked at me. "Do you remember me?" she asked. "I graduated two years ago. We met at the hostel." I never taught the girl, but I had chaperoned a field trip/service learning project at the downtown youth hostel.

"Oh yeah," I said, not remembering her. "How's it going?"

"Great. I work here and go to school part time."

The cashier pointed to another cashier and said, "She went to your school, too."

"Oh hi," I said, not remembering her either.

I left the store, wondering about all the kids I've taught or come into contact with over the years. If I stay at my school any longer, every person I run into in the neighborhood will be some sort of connection. Soon, my students will probably be children of former students.

It's the end of another year. Life goes on. People move on. Change. But as I reflect on who I am and what I have and haven't accomplished in the past eight years, I get that old feeling of stagnation. All the people I know, former students included, have progressed. New jobs. Promotions. Weddings. Babies.

Not I. I'm still just the Chicago Teacher Man.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas break

Wow, time flies around the holidays. I'll try to post every day or so once the new year rolls around; until then, I'll try posting every few days, whenever something pops up. Here's something I just discovered today:

On the day before Christmas break, I always get some cards from students. I'm usually happy when they spell my name right, so I actually pay attention if there's an actual message. Just this morning I actually opened the few I received, and here's something a girl wrote:

Mr. P,
Thank you for all you've done. Thank you for always believing in me. Thank you for pushing me hard. Thank you for dealing with all my stuff. Mr. P, I really appreciate you and the things you do for me. May all your wishes come true. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.


You know what they say about this job being worth it if you get one little sign of gratitude from a student? Well, they're right.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The recruiter

One of my buddies at work asked me to sub for him at a recruitment fair at a local elementary school yesterday. I didn't know these things existed before last night, but basically Chicago high schools have to recruit incoming freshmen, so they send reps to schools, where students and their parents can find out about the various programs. My school actually has a nice little display board that someone created (with pictures of students that graduated four years ago) and a folder with information. In addition to my little neighborhood high school, there were a couple of private Catholic schools and several of the heavy-hitting city magnet schools. Their representatives could talk about great test scores, great graduation rates, and great results on AP tests. I didn't even know that I'd have to talk. So when the elementary school's principal asked us to speak in the auditorium to the gathered kids and parents, I got nervous.

If you've ever seen me speak in public, like at a wedding, you know three things:
  1. I get really nervous.
  2. I usually drink as much as possible before the speech.
  3. I then deliver a somewhat funny speech that lasts way too long.
I didn't have access to alcohol, so I had no way to calm my nerves. So I listened to the other reps, and tried to formulate a quick speech. It didn't look so hard. The reps spoke. The audience sat there, unimpressed. Huh, I thought, similar to my classroom. So when I went up there, I wasn't too scared.

And then I started telling little stories. Instead of telling boring facts about my school, I talked about some of my experiences with students. If you read this blog (which I guess you do), you know the kinds of stories I was going for. And the amazing thing was the audience actually got into it. They started laughing. With me. I didn't say too much, but when I finished, a couple of people actually applauded. Going back to my seat, one of the reps, a football coach, said, "Wow, that was great."

We then went to the gym, where our displays were up. And as the students and parents walked in, they walked right past me and straight to the magnet schools. Darn.

Eventually, though, some came back.

One Latino dad, with his cute wife and daughter, came over. "Your speech was really, really great," he said. "Thank you."

"Well, thank you," I said. "Do you have any questions?"

"Yes. My daughter is in seventh grade right now. I wonder, what can we do," he said, pointing at himself and his wife, "to get her ready for high school?"

At first, I thought that was a cool question. So I talked about making sure she keeps her grades up and researching all these high schools, checking out web sites, visiting, that kind of thing. But then the question sunk in. He was really asking so much more. He's probably an immigrant, most likely did not attend high school or university in the States, and he wants help. My help. Like I know how to raise kids. Like I even know anything about the different high schools and options.

"Well," I said, finishing up. "I think you're already doing everything right. You're interested. You want what's best for her. Just keep doing that. Make sure she knows you support her, that you love her. And you want what's best for her, so that's why it's important to you who she hangs out with and whether or not she's doing her homework."

And I looked at the girl. "And you need to always remember that your parents want you to succeed. So listen to them."

They left. The other reps started packing up. I did a quick count. Gave away nine or ten of my school's folders.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

California dreaming already

At some point every winter, I start thinking about moving somewhere warm. This year, I've made a concerted effort to be positive. I even joke around about it with one of my students. He moved to Chicago from San Diego six months ago, so this is the first winter of his life, and I've started asking him, "How's the weather treating you?" He's a good sport about it, and usually shakes his head sadly and says something like, "Man, I never knew how good I had it. When you live somewhere like San Diego, you never even think about the weather."

I was thinking about that yesterday as I headed off to work. Here we do think about the weather, so I was bundled up. Sweater, gloves, hat, winter coat. "Come on," I thought to myself as I walked out of my building, "this isn't so bad."

Literally five steps later, I slipped on a patch of ice. Didn't fall. Didn't even almost fall. But I felt my left leg slipping forward, almost bending my knee the wrong way. I felt just a little achy the rest of the day.

After school, one of my colleagues stopped by and we chatted about winter break. "I think we've decided on San Diego," he said about himself and his girlfriend.

"Wow," I said, "I was just looking at airfares there last night. The best I found was $250 there and $99 back. On Southwest. Funny how it's so cheap to fly to Chicago in the middle of winter."

It's a week and a half before winter break, and I still don't have plans. And I guess that sounds bad. But then again, at least I've got two weeks off coming up. I need a break from the kids.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Two kinds of unique

Gonna take a break from the 12-Days series today ... Don't think anyone will mind.

1. Between fifth and sixth periods today, I heard a commotion in the hall. I peered out of my room to see a mass--a critical mass, you might say--of kids walking fast and loud in one direction. It looked like they were heading to watch a fight. But they weren't. They were just walking along as a group, loudly and happily trying to do something uniquely goofy.

And it worked. Soon, other kids were racing to catch up, following along, trying to see where everyone was heading. A couple of security guards came hustling up nearby stairs; they must have heard of a possible disturbance. From my vantage point, I could see this growing group just sweeping everyone else up along the way, including a kid from one of my classes. I called out, "Hey, where you heading?"

"I have no idea!" he smiled, and hurried down the hall. This is a kid who loves to pretend he's a leader in class, loves to show off and say funny things, to have the spotlight on him. But I guess he loves to follow, too.

About 15 seconds later, the leaders of the group switched course, and the whole mass of kids came charging back past my room, laughing, shouting, cursing. I'm going to predict that these kinds of group walks will become more commonplace in the days leading up to winter break.

2. Seventh period, students were quietly finishing their reading journals, preparing for a test tomorrow. Softly, almost to himself, a student started singing something along the lines of: "Questions, answers, have to answer questions ... la, la, la, la, la."

The kid next to him, a long-haired classic rocker, snickered, quietly said, "Hey, I love that song. Wasn't it at the top of the charts a while back?"

The singer stopped singing, probably a little embarrassed, probably wondering if he really had sung out loud. "Yeah," he said, "but I think the song just gave me a headache."

and a thank-you

About a month ago, I emailed a former student with a request: Can you contact one of my current students and give her a pep talk regarding college? I was hoping she'd email the girl and say something about how studying in high school is worth it. I told her that it would be meaningful if it came from her.

Well, here's what this former student of mine, who is currently in her second year at UW-Madison, did:
  • She emailed the girl.
  • She phoned.
  • She visited her here in Chicago.
  • And then, she invited the girl to visit Madison for a three-day weekend.
And these past two days, the girl has been chattering away nonstop about how incredible college life is, how she can't wait to go, how hard she's going to work this school year and next. She spoke to her class about how friendly everyone is, how amazing the classes are, how she even took notes in Arabic class and a literature class. "The class discussion was similar to your class," she told me, "but so much cooler!"

Her classmates were amazed. Hearing about the classes and the dorms and sorority life, one girl said, with just a hint of jealousy, "That ... sounds ... so ... cool."

So, anyway, I'd like to say a great big THANK YOU to Summer. I think you've inspired an entire class of high school juniors with your generosity and time.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

On the Ninth Day at CPS Arne Duncan gave to me ...

... Nine Lunch Food Uses.

Everybody knows that school cafeteria food is downright nasty. Every day, it's the same old slop that is so unappetizing that most dog owner would never feed it to their best friends. Is it any wonder that kids these days are getting unhealthy and lethargic?

Instead of eating the "food," Chicago Teacher Man suggests the following uses for the lowly (and disgusting) school lunch pizza slice:

1. Doorstop

2. Paperweight

3. Window insulation

4. Home plate

5. Eraser

6. Bookmark

7. Mouse pad

8. Locker freshener

9. Protractor

And, if you get really desperate, round it off with a handful of fries and fancy ketchup, and you've got yourself exactly what hundreds of thousands of our kids eat five days a week:
(With sincere apologies to my school's lunchroom ladies, who do their best with what they're given, and especially Doris, who gives me extra fries even when I don't want them.)

Monday, December 10, 2007

On the Tenth Day at CPS Arne Duncan gave to me ...

... Ten Chi-town Commandments.

To enlarge, click on the image of the document discovered in Da Mayor's office.
Feds uncover Chicago teachers' '10 Commandments'

CHICAGO (ap*) -- Federal investigators have found what they say is a "Ten Commandments"-style code of behavior for Chicago teachers at the hideout of the Chicago boss.

Prohibitions include speaking to the media and taking credit for student successes, while members are urged to vote and treat their own aldermen with respect.

The list was found during a raid on the offices of Richard M. Daley, the current boss and mayor-for-life of Chicago. Investigators were there searching for clues regarding a number of corruption scandals that have rocked the mayor's office in recent years.

It is thought to have been drawn up as a "guide to being a good public servant." Similar lists are expected to be uncovered for police and fire department employees.

Although it has long been established that teachers report directly to their principals and Local School Councils, the document makes clear that the one true boss of Chicago schools is Daley, who says, "I am the Board of Ed." Activities apparently beyond the pale for Chicago teachers are complaining about charter schools and blaming anyone other than themselves for the failure of their students on standardized tests.

The document also makes clear that the union representing teachers must remain incompetent.

Investigators say that the documents seized during the raid--including the Ten Commandments--will give them an insight into how the Chicago Public Schools system operates.


* Read the original article about the mafia's 10 commandments.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

On the Eleventh Day at CPS Arne Duncan gave to me ...

... Eleven songs 'bout teachin'

Thought this would be the easiest post of my 12-days list, but a quick scan through my iTunes found very few songs about teachers or teaching. So it took a while to scour my entire music collection (and the Internet) to find ten songs--songs that mentioned teachers, teaching, or school. Then, I had to find one more to make this list one louder, as in Spinal Tap:
Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?
1. Van Halen: Hot for Teacher*
Got it bad, got it bad, got it bad,
I'm hot for teacher

2. Pink Floyd: Another Brick in the Wall, part 2
We don't need no education.
We don't need no thought control.
No dark sarcasm in the classroom.
Teacher, leave those kids alone.
Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone!

3. The Clash: Stay Free
We met when we were in school
Never took no shit from no one, we weren't fools
The teacher says were dumb
We're only having fun
We piss on everyone
In the classroom

4. Beastie Boys: Fight for Your Right (To Party)
You wake up late for school man you don't wanna go
You ask you mom, "Please?" but she still says, "No!"
You missed two classes and no homework
But your teacher preaches class like you're some kind of jerk

5. White Stripes: We're Going to Be Friends
And we don't notice any time pass
We don't notice anything
We sit side by side in every class
Teacher thinks that i sound funny
But she likes the way you sing
(Also covered by Jack Johnson, probably the only song of his I'll ever own)

6. Urge Overkill: Dropout
What's the matter with you?
You've been down all day
What happened to you
To make you feel that way?
Baby ain't that a shame when they call you those names
Dropping out from school
Guess it wasn't so cool

7. Ramones: Rock 'N' Roll High School
Well I don't care about history.
Rock, rock, rock' n' roll high school
cause that's not where I wanna be.
Rock, rock, rock 'n' roll high school
I just wanna have some kicks.
I just wanna get some chicks.

8. The Replacements: Fuck School
Laugh in the middle of my speech
Swingin' in the hall out of reach
Teacher
What a bitch
Fuck school, fuck school, fuck my school

9. Rufus Wainwright: The Art Teacher
There I was in uniform
Looking at the art teacher
I was just a girl then;
Never have I loved since then

10. Fountains of Wayne: Hackensack
I used to know you when we were young
You were in all my dreams
We sat together in period one
Fridays at 8:15

11. G.G. Allin: Teacher's Pet*
I was never that teachers pet, no
I was a radical outside the rest, you know
You never follow the fucking rules
'Cause the teachers were a bunch of fools

Have I missed anything good? Feel free to add songs to this list, which will be turned into the Chicago Teacher Man compilation CD, available in time for the holidays.


* OK, I admit, I don't own songs one or eleven. But how can I keep G.G. Allin off this list?

Saturday, December 08, 2007

On the Twelfth Day at CPS Arne Duncan gave to me ...

... Twelve Moods A-Changing

Working for the Chicago schools, dealing with Chicago kids, you are likely to go through certain moods swings. I know it happens to me every year, as sure as the seasons change, as sure as every gain on the ACT is followed by two years of declines, as sure as every promise to come on time is followed by three tardies.

August
Mood: Giddy Anticipation.
Questions: Will this be the year I finally have good classes? ... the year I'll make a difference?
How long it lasts: Until the end of the first full day of classes







September
Mood: Bewildered
Questions: When will my program be set so I can set up my grade book? When will we be able to get textbooks? How the heck does this new attendance system work? What was wrong with the old one?
How long it lasts: Six to eight months






October
Mood: Determined
Questions: Don't you kids want to kick butt on the ACT? Aren't you ready to show the world what you're made of?
How long it lasts: Until the first practice ACT, where you see half your students asleep after 15 minutes






November
Mood: Serious
Questions: When are you guys going to start doing some work? Second quarter? Good grief. When am I going to start taking my life seriously?
How long it lasts: Until the day after report card pick-up







December
Mood: Grumpy
Questions: What do I want for Christmas? How about some effort? Or can you at least pretend you're interested?
How long it lasts: Until winter break







January
Mood: Resolute
Questions: Won't that kid be surprised when I call home to show how serious I am this year?
How long it lasts: Until the sixth disconnected number in seven tries







February
Mood: Resigned
Questions: What did I do in my past lives to deserve this fate? Where did I go wrong?
How long it lasts: Until the next lifetime







March
Mood: Anxious
Questions: How will I prepare these kids for the Prairie State? Why won't they take this stuff seriously? The test is next month, isn't it?
How long it lasts: Until the day of the test







April
Mood: Listless
Questions: Is the school year over yet? How many days left? Should I start a countdown calendar?
How long it lasts: Until you decide you can't be bothered to find a calendar






May
Mood: Tired
Questions: Should I quit? Will I be missed? Should I just tell everyone that I am out of here?
How long it lasts: Until you realize that summer break starts next month






June
Mood: Shocked
Questions: Those are the ACT results? That's not a misprint? What the--?
How long it lasts: Until the alcohol kicks in







July
Mood: Lethargic
Questions: Why isn't there air conditioning in this building? Why did I agree to teach summer school? What's wrong with me? Am I that desperate?
How long it lasts: Until the next regular school year begins

Thanks for the shout-out and for the idea

Thanks once again to Alexander at the District 299 for pointing readers to this blog. His post gave me a great idea. And so ... starting today, I will present the 12 days of Christmas, Chicago Teacher Man style, called The 12 Days at CPS.

I'll present the days in reverse order, so that when it's complete, you'll see it from the first to the last day.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

One and one

Seventh period, I'm passing out a quiz, the same quiz for the fifth time today. I move quickly around the room, dropping or tossing quizzes on desks, trying to get to everyone as quickly as possible. Halfway through, one of my kids, a normally quiet and pleasant kid, shoves the quiz onto the floor. I look at him. He says something about pride.

I make my way around the room, get back to him. Pick his quiz up off the floor, plop it back on his desk, and he pushes it off again. Says something about pride again. "Pride?" I say. "You're too proud to take the quiz? Or your pride will suffer if you do poorly?" He doesn't say anything, just stares at me.

Ten minutes later, I pick up the quizzes. His is still blank. Still on the floor. "Fine," I say. "One less to grade."

Minutes later I'm rearranging students, asking them to change seats for today's lesson. Quiet kid doesn't move.

"Move here," I tell him. He doesn't budge. "Fine, move there instead." He still doesn't move. "Well, you can't sit where you're at."

I end the standoff by telling him to move or get a write-up. He tells me he'll take the write-up. I open my door, look for a security guard. Of course one's not around. "Well, go to the discipline office," I say. "I'll send the write-up later." He leaves.

"I think you handled that very well," one of my troublemaking boys says. "Couldn't have done it better myself."

"Well, I wouldn't have handled it that way a few years ago," I say, wondering what is up with the quiet kid. "When I first started teaching, that would've probably turned into a huge argument. Or I would've just let him sit there."

The lesson continues. The day ends. After school, the quiet kid shows up. Again says, "I've got pride, you know."

"Yeah, I heard you in class," I say. "But I have no idea what you mean."

"Maybe I'm not translating it right," he says. "In Spanish, it's ..." I have no idea what that means either. He explains. Turns out he was offended by the way I tossed his quiz onto his desk. Thought it was disrespectful.

Oh my God, I think. Now I can't toss quizzes on desks? What next? But I say, "Hey, I'm sorry. I meant no disrespect. It's just what I do."

"Well, I don't know you, and you don't know me," he says.

"You're right. But by now, I'd hope you know that I never purposefully try to disrespect anyone in my classroom." I then explain that I toss papers, do random weird things to lighten the mood. "Lots of students hate these quizzes," I say, "think they're boring. Or they get nervous about tests. So I try to make it a little less serious. A little fun."

But ... I am once again reminded that perceptions vary. So I apologize and promise that I'll never toss a quiz onto his desk again. He accepts my apology. And apologizes for leaving the room instead of moving to where I told him to go.

As we're finishing up, he still doesn't look too happy with me, but I can't worry about it because another student walks in, a senior who wants help with a scholarship essay. I then stay until 5 o'clock with her, working that essay towards perfection.

She leaves saying, "Thank you so much. I really, really appreciate you taking the time."

I smile. On the walk home, I can't help but think, you win some, you lose some. You can try, but you'll never be perfect.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

High on literature

One of my least favorite things to do is reading in class. Seems like a waste: Reading should be done at home. In class, the students and I should be engaged in discussion and analysis and debate about characters and characterization, similes and things that make us smile.

Uh-huh. I wake up from my fantasy world and realize that A. my students are non-readers, and B. we don't even have enough books for all the students, so we have class sets that can only be read during class. Yeah, it's a waste of time, but you gotta do what you gotta do. So we spend plenty of time reading aloud in class. Sometimes I let volunteers do the reading, and then the class get to suffer through the stumbling and stopping and mispronouncing. Most times, though, I do the reading. I mean, I can make it more dramatic. And, really, having the students do it serves no real purpose, because reading out loud is not really a skill they need to develop. (Unless, of course, if they have children of the their own, which is sometimes the case, and they want to practice reading aloud to them.)

And while I do hate it, I have to say one thing about in-class reading: The vast majority of students love--absolutely love--to have a good story read to them. Don't know, maybe they didn't have anyone reading to them when growing up, so it brings out the inner child. Then again, which person, no matter how old and how educated, doesn't like to be read to?

Recently, four of my classes have started in on Beowulf. It was perfect timing, though totally unplanned, that I started the unit on the day the movie came out. I haven't seen it yet, but several of my students have, and it's actually very cool to have them say things like, "Hey, that's not the way it happened in the movie!" or "I really like this story. I mean, it's Beowulf!"

Then, there were these two back-to-back sentences from a boy today:

"Brad Pitt's naked in it."
Pause.
"I saw it in 3D."

I looked at him and said, "Those are two sentences I never thought I'd hear you say." The class got a good laugh.

Oh, it's fun when you can have some laughs while struggling through names like Beowulf and Grendel and Hrothgar. To keep the characters straight, I insisted students pronounce them like this:
  • For Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, I said the only way to say the name is to shake a fist in the air and speak in a slow, deep voice.
  • For Grendel, the monster Beowulf comes to slay, you have to roll the "R" to make it sound sinister.
  • For Beowulf, really stretch out the final syllable into an extended howl.
A few students actually got a kick out of it and started saying the names like that. Then, I heard some kid say, "Man, what have you been smoking?" I'm not sure if he was talking to me or to one of the kids that was shaking his fist in the air, but I replied, "I don't smoke anything. I'm high on life!"

A few other kids sit through the whole thing, bored. "Man, this is the third time I'm reading this," said a guy who is taking English III for the third time.

"Doesn't it just get better each time?" I asked.

"No," he said. "Beowulf does the same things each time. And Hrothgar's still afraid that the beginning might not be the end."

My fourth period class is extra sluggish, so I've had to mix things up a little to keep them from falling asleep. Last week, I insisted everyone stand while we were reading. Surprisingly, they all stood. Nobody complained. And I think mostly everyone paid attention. Ah, you might be asking, but is that not a form of punishment? Pshah! These kids sit all day. Standing might be good for them.

That same day I asked my seventh period to stand up for the reading, too. They declined. "Fine," I said, "I have a better idea. Why don't we all stand on top of our desks?" I climbed up on a desk and said, "Come on, who's with me?" Two guys--both of them labeled behavior disordered--stood up onto their desks with their textbooks. "Isn't it great up here?" I asked, hoping for a Dead Poets moment. "Don't you gain a whole new perspective on life from up here?"

The two guys looked around the room thoughtfully and nodded. "Yeah," one of them said. "Things are different from up here." Yes, these guys were literally getting high on literature.

Today, I asked fourth period if they wanted to stand again while reading. "No!" one girl called out. "My leg hurts."

"Fine," I said, "so how about if we all just sit on top of the desks? Up out of your seats and onto the desks everybody!" They all did it. "Just remember this the next time you want to put your head down for a nap," I said. "Someone was sitting on that desk."

"No farting," someone said.

"Too late," someone else said.

We all giggled.

"Hey, what if the principal walks in and sees us sitting like this?" a third voice asked. Actually worried about what the principal would do?

"I don't know. I'll just tell him that you refused to listen to me when I told you to sit in your desks," I said. "No, just kidding. He'll probably think it's some innovative teaching method and have me talk about it at a future meeting."

The funny thing is, the principal did walk in today. It was later in the day, seventh period, and we were just getting underway, so no one was sitting or standing on top of a desk yet. He sat down for a formal observation. Darn, I thought, no foolishness. But I still couldn't resist.

"Hey, where's Joe?" I asked. "I swear I saw him in the hall earlier."

"I think he got an early dismissal," a girl said.

"Oh, too bad," I said. "I brought in a goat for him to slaughter today. Is there anyone else willing to sacrifice a goat today?"

The principal gave me an odd look. I didn't bother to explain. I mean, if he had been in class last week, he would have known that we had read the part in Beowulf where Hrothgar's wise men start praying to the Devil to rid the kingdom of Grendel. At that point, I had said, "Isn't that a scary thought? The people are so desperate. They've been praying to God for 12 years and the monster is still attacking them, so they decide maybe they should pray to the Devil instead." I paused, looked around the room. "Now, how many of you are religious?" Most hands went up. "So, what would you say if I told you I'd give you an A in my class if you sincerely prayed to the Devil?" The kids were properly freaked out. "Well, the people in this story are religious. But that's how desperate they've become. Can you imagine that?"

A few kids shuttered at the thought. But Joe, of course, declared that he'd gladly pray to the Devil for an A in my class. "Great," I said, "I'll bring in a goat and you get to sacrifice it." He insisted he'd do it. But then he's been absent the next two days.

Of course when I finished joking around about that I looked up and noticed that my computer had mysteriously shut down. My entire lessons are done on PowerPoint, so I had to restart the machine. "See what you get for joking around about worshiping the Devil?" I said, waiting impatiently as my slow CPS-laptop booted up. "There are certain things you shouldn't make light of."

Back in seventh period today, the principal left after about 35 minutes. Several students breathed a sigh of relief. "What's the matter? Were you guys nervous with Grendel, I mean the principal in the room?"

"No!" a kid declared. "But you sure were."

"Me? Did I look nervous to you?"

"Oh yeah," said one of the kids that stood on a desk last week. "You totally held back today."

The bell eventually rang, and a student said to me, "I actually like this class."

"Thanks," I said, "but I think you're just responding to great literature."

"Yeah," he said, looking at me. "I guess so."

Saturday, December 01, 2007

A late policy

In my personal life, away from students, I have sometimes been accused of being just a tad melodramatic. Today, I got to share some of that emotion with my second period students.

Earlier this week I instituted yet another tardy policy. Anyone coming in to class would be handed a referral form, no questions asked. And they would have to write themselves up. How's that for making it hit home? Instead of me filling out the referral form, I have them do it. I then put the referral form into a folder. The next time they're late, I call their house and make a note of that call on the form. Finally, on the third tardy, I hand it in to the discipline office for a day of in-school suspension.

I think it's brilliant because it hits home. Several kids this week got their very first-ever write up. And to add insult to injury, they had to write themselves up. I loved it. The part that isn't brilliant is that I have to keep track of all these forms, have to stay organized. And I'll have to call homes just to tell parents that their little ones are running late.

But, quite unexpectedly, it's been an amazing success in the first week. Just about every single kid is now on time.

Except for one kid, a quiet, normally decent kid I'll call Mac. Mac has a problem. His girlfriend is in my class first period. He has me second. The trouble is he meets her after first by my door, then walks her to her class before heading back to my room. Which means he's late just about every day. This week, he was late Tuesday. He filled out a form. Wednesday. I called his house, left a message. Thursday, and I said, "That's it! You're the first one with three strikes!"

Today, he showed up on time. I let him start his work. Then, 10 minutes into class, I waved my folder in the air and said, "I hate to do this, I really do. But Mac was tardy three times this week. And if I don't follow through, no one will ever believe a word I say."

I handed him the referral form and said, "Go to the office. They're expecting you."

So off he went without a word. The rest of the class was dead silent. After letting it sink in, I said to them, "Please don't make me do this to one of you next week."

I saw Mac after school. "It was horrible!" he said.

"Again, I'm sorry I had to do it to you," I said. "See you Monday. On time."

"Thanks," he said. "Have a good weekend."

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Float on

"Has anyone ever seen the Simpsons episode where Homer and Lisa spend time in something called a float tank?"

A few heads nod slowly. "Is that the one where Lisa really trips out," one student asks, "and sees all these weird colors and lights?"

"Yeah, that one," I say.

"I don't watch TV," another student says.

"Hey, that's good," I say. "But anyway, flotation is this thing where you lay down in this box-like thing filled with salt water. There's no light, so it's completely dark in there, and there's no sound, so you can't hear anything. It's really cool."

A few kids seem to understand, but most wonder what I'm getting at. It's a few minutes before the bell, and I like to make small talk. Everyone seems to be paying attention.

"Well," I say, "last night I spent an hour in one of those tanks. Ever since I saw that Simpons episode, I wanted to try, and so last night I did. An hour of floating in complete darkness."

"I have a question," one kid asks. He's a kid who is rarely interested in anything I talk about.

"Sure," I say. Maybe he's intrigued. Maybe I'm finally connecting.

"Do you have any friends?"

The whole class laughs.

"I mean, shit," he continues. "You wouldn't catch me spending an hour in a tank like that. But I guess that's because I have friends."

The laughter continues. I join in. "Maybe you're right," I say. "Maybe I just don't have any friends."

Nothing but the truth

I'm finally getting better at telling students the truth. In years past, I'd often try to coddle them, stroke egos, pretend something was really good when it really wasn't. This year I've gotten to the point of just flat-out telling them they suck. Well, almost.

So, I had another student cry in my classroom after school today. At first I thought it was because I had her thinking about some painful memory. But eventually, after five minutes of using up my box of tissues, she said, "This is so frustrating!"

"This" is a personal essay she's writing for her college application. She is a student I've never even taught, just a kid who heard that I do a pretty good job of editing student work. So she dropped off an essay in the middle of the day and came back after school to see what I thought. I thought it was terrible. In fact, it wasn't even an essay, just a block of writing (no paragraphing, no structure) with very few periods or other punctuation marks. I skimmed through about half of it and had to put it down. "I like the first sentence," I said. "At least the first 15 words of it."

I launched into the same old line I give every senior about this kind of essay: It should tell a story. It should be about something other than what's already in your college application. It should reveal who you really are. Also, it should look like a story, have description and dialogue and characters. "Basically," I said. "I'd keep the very first sentence. Well, the shorter version of it. And get rid of the rest. Just cut it all and start over."

Turns out she had a first draft that was actually more along the lines of what this kind of essay should be. A story of her year of being "mom" to her younger siblings while their real mom was off in another state for her job. Why did she get rid of that and replace it with a rambling "essay" about nothing?

"My English teacher made me change all of it," she said.

"Well, did she give you a grade on this thing?" I asked.

"Uh-huh. She gave me a B."

"Well, you're lucky," I said. "I wouldn't give this a B."

"I wouldn't either," she agreed.

"Then do me a favor. Burn this thing. And start over."

She looked miserable. So I told her how revision is similar to practice in sports or art or any endeavor. "It might seem boring and repetitive," I said, "but it's how you get good. It's how you improve."

I asked her what her GPA was: 3.6--a very solid showing by anyone's standards. I asked about her ACT score: 17--not good enough to get into most universities. And I wondered which of those two numbers more closely reflected the kind of student she is. Probably the ACT score, based on her writing (plus based on the fact that she gets a B on an essay like this). But I wasn't brave enough to tell her that. I've come a long way as far as telling students the truth, but once they cry, I try to raise their spirits. I mean, I can't let her just give up.

"Admissions offices will see your ACT score and see that you're not a good test taker," I said. "And they'll see your GPA and realize that you're a hard worker. What you need is an essay that will show who you really are."

She left after about 45 minutes. And I left with a stack of ungraded papers. Maybe I'll get to them later. Maybe. More important, I need to go to the store to buy more tissue.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Seven Types of Students That Annoy Me


Name: The Text Messager
Notable Quote: "OK, OK, I'll put it away." Also: "What page are we on?"
Learning Intelligence: Interpersonal. These learners see things from others' point of view, as long as it's in proper text shorthand. They are great organizers and manipulators of facts.
Most Likely To: Have good vibrations in front pocket.

Name: The Obsessive Note Taker
Notable Quote: "Can you repeat that?" Also: "How do you spell that?"
Learning Intelligence: Intrapersonal. These learners try to understand the inner feelings, dreams, relationships, and strengths and weaknesses of everyone you mention, as long as they can fit it all in their five-subject, college-ruled notebooks.
Most Likely To: Go to medical school.

Name: The Extra Credit Hog
Notable Quote: "Can I rewrite this B+ essay?" Also: "Will I get extra points if I read?"
Learning Intelligence: Logical/Mathematical. These learners think conceptually in logical and numerical patterns, making connections between their current percentage and the number of points needed for the next grade up. Always curious about the world around them, these learners ask questions until they break you down, and you start thinking that they are conducting experiments on you.
Most Likely To: Make more money than you some day (soon).

Name: The Shout Out
Notable Quote: "Sorry for not raising my hand. But I was right, right?"
Learning Intelligence: Verbal/Linguistic. They excel at listening, speaking, writing, story telling, explaining, teaching, using humor, understanding the syntax and meaning of words, remembering information, and analyzing language usage, often better than their English teacher. They often forget who they are and answer questions asked of other students.
Most Likely To: Know every single answer in class but fail every test.

Name: The Going Problem
Notable Quote: "Do you have the key to the bathroom?"
Learning Intelligence: Bodily/Kinesthetic. These learners express themselves through movement; usually, they move right on out of the classroom. Their skills include dancing, physical coordination, using body language, acting, and miming, all to prove just how badly they need to go to the bathroom.
Most Likely To: Have a bathroom pass ready for you to sign.

Name: The Inside Joker
Notable Quote: "Do you get it?" Also: "What? I didn't say anything."
Learning Intelligence: Visual/Spatial. These learners build puzzles, create metaphors and analogies, manipulate images, and construct elaborate story lines, none of which you will ever understand. They say something and the whole class laughs, leaving you feeling sheepish and old.
Most Likely To: Not think this is funny.

Name: The Ready To Leave With 5 Minutes Left
Notable Quote: "I'm just putting my binder away."
Learning Intelligence: Musical/Rhythmic. These musically inclined learners think in sounds, rhythms, and patterns. They immediately respond to the beat of their own drum. Many of these learners are extremely sensitive to environmental sounds and can often hear the end-of-period bell five minutes before it actually rings.
Most Likely To: Be reading this over your shoulder.


Illustrations stolen from The Boy Least Likely To.

So is this ...


Remember

One of my students showed up to class a little excited today. "I was published!" she said.

We looked her up on the Chicago Tribune website, and sure enough, her letter to the editor had been published a couple of days ago. The letter was part of a class assignment last week, writing a persuasive piece based on a current event. To make the writing more real, and to give it an audience, I suggested students send it in to local newspapers. "Excellent," I said, "looks like extra credit for you."

For the rest of the school day, I showed off the letter to my other classes. Some students were impressed, and others realized that, darn it, they still have an assignment to do. Reading over it during the last class of the day, I was interrupted by the class interrupter.

"How much do they pay you if they put your writing in the paper?"

"Nothing," I said. "The point is that they're giving you a platform to voice your opinion. Several hundred thousand people can potentially read what you have to say."

He didn't seem impressed. But now, after school as I sit to churn out yet another post on this blog, I can't help but think: Wow, that's several hundred thousand more people than will read this. So ... as I'm sure every blogger has at one point asked: Why do I do this? Mostly, I think, because I want to remember. I want to remember the everyday things that happen in the classroom, things I'm likely to forget if I don't put down somewhere. If life is truly like a dream, then I guess everyday occurrences fade from memory just as last night's dreams do.

So, what do I want to remember about today?

Well, the girl being proud that she had been published is one.

Then, for my ego's sake, I want to remember the round of applause I got from two of my classes when I told them that the student teacher was done and that I'd be taking over. And, after the last class of the day, when I heard one guy tell another as they were walking out of class: "Man, isn't it so much better when he's up there teaching?" "Yeah," the other responded. "Class just flew today."

I want to remember that applause and that comment. I just hope they remember it when, in a few days, I'm up there nagging them about doing their work and showing up on time and all that.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

I'm a sucker, part 4 of a million

Sometimes I wonder why I ever step into the hallway.

During homeroom everyday, we stand for the National Anthem before hearing the announcements for the day. We don't have a moment of silence, but everyone everywhere in the building is supposed to stop and stand at attention until, at least, "the home of the brave." I usually hang near my desk so that I can check email or do attendance, but recently I found myself near the door. In the hall, a few guys were walking and talking very loudly.

I popped my head out my door. "Hey guys, stop for a minute, OK?" They kept walking. "Hey, I said, stop!"

One of them turned in my direction, said, "Man, why don't you go fuck yourself?" and kept walking.

As I saw it, I had two choices: 1. Go after him, show him who's boss, or 2. Go fuck myself. Neither sounded pleasant, so I hurried behind him and said, "You need to stop." He didn't. "OK, then, you need to give me your ID." He ignored me. So I grabbed his book bag. "So, you want to do this the hard way? Now, give me your ID."

He said something like "get your fucking hands off my shit," and when I didn't, he made a move like he was going to slip out of his book bag, leave me standing there holding nothing but that, and keep walking. So I made another grab, this time for his ID, which hung around his neck on a chain.

"Get the fuck away from me," he said.

"Fine, then give me your ID, and we can deal with this in the discipline office."

That was, of course, ridiculous. He couldn't give me his ID because I was already holding it. But I couldn't let go of it because I knew he'd bolt. One of us needed to act. He made the first move.

He actually pushed me, actually tried to give me a shove into some lockers. When that didn't work, he actually grabbed my sweater with both hands, up near my shoulders, then started trying to push me again. Now I had several options, and they quickly flashed through my mind.

1. Knock this scumbag to the ground.
2. Wait for security to arrive.
3. Go fuck myself.

I chose number 2. I stood there, trying to remain calm as I said, "Dude, you really don't want to touch me. Big mistake. You will get arrested for assault."

In a few seconds it was over. A little crowd of students had gathered round. The crowds love watching fights, and this could easily have escalated into one. A couple of security guards ran over, got the kid away from me, got his ID, and we walked down to the office together.

"Man, I thought you were going to drop him," one of the security guards said to me. "You had every right. I would've."

"Well, I might have," I said and forced out a laugh. "But I didn't want to spill my coffee."

And it was true. As we walked, I realized that during the whole encounter, as I held his bag, then his ID in one hand, and as he was pushing me, I held onto a white styrofoam cup of coffee in my other hand. How ridiculous.

In the discipline office, I gave my side of the story and listened to the kid's version. I guess like every criminal, he believed he was innocent. If you believed him, he was minding his own business when this bully came up to him, grabbed his ID, tried to choke him, and the whole time he just wanted to peacefully do the right thing.

The two uniformed Chicago cops that have an office in the building came into the room. "Want to press charges?" one of them asked. "We can arrest him right now."

I looked at the kid. "If I heard an apology, I might think about not having him arrested," I said.

"You need to apologize to me!" he snarled.

One of the cops asked me and the assistant principal to go into a separate room. "The kid is wearing an ankle bracelet," he said. "He was just released from jail yesterday."

"Crap," I said. "Then I'd just be sending him right back. And for what?"

"Why don't you let the kid cool off, come back next period?" the AP suggested.

I left, wondering: If I don't have him arrested, he'll think it's OK to act however he wants. On the other hand, what would jail solve? Would I be taking away this kid's possible chance for an education, his chance for survival? Was it really worth it? Did I want that on my conscience? And anyway, if he'd truly an idiot, he'll find his way back to jail with or without my help.

And I started thinking about statistics. Just a couple of weeks ago, I read a Sun-Times editorial saying that African-American students are much more likely to be disciplined than other students. Would I just be adding to those stats? On the other hand, he was walking with a Latino boy before the altercation. I told both of them to stop. One of them turned and had to say something. So was I singling him out?

I came back to the office 30 minutes later. "I think he's ready to talk," the AP said.

"Tell me you're sorry, that it'll never happen again, and I won't have you arrested," I said.

He mumbled his apology.

"Look me in the eye," I said.

He didn't want to. Did I see the possibility of a tear in there? Or was he a good actor?

"Fine, I'm satisfied," I finally said. "Not because I necessarily believe you, but I want you to believe something: Not every adult is out to get you. I don't know you, but you don't know me either. Ask any of my students, and you'll see I'm a teacher that wants to help every single one of my students. I am not out to get or to hurt anyone. If you're in this building because you want to learn, then I won't mess with that. But if a teacher ever tells you to stop, next time you better stop."

Lesson learned? For him, probably nothing. For me, one: Never, never try to be a tough guy with a cup of coffee in one hand.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

I'm a sucker, part 3 of a million

Seventh period Tuesday, I saw one of my students at her locker. "Hey, why aren't you in class?" I asked.

She looked upset. "Because Ms. Suchandsuch kicked me out!"

"Why?"

"Because she hates me!" she said. "Because she thinks everyone laughs at her, especially me."

"Well, do you laugh at her?"

"I ignore her! But she's so insecure, she thinks all we do is talk about her. I hate her! She makes me want to drop out!"

I looked at her. I knew she wasn't serious--she wouldn't really drop out, her mom wouldn't let her. But I knew she was seriously upset. And I also knew that no one was necessarily going to help her. I've heard about Ms. Suchandsuch from many students this year; even normally great, straight-A students have problems with her. Transferring out of her class is out of the question, because she's the only one that teaches this one course they need. And anyway, I've heard similar complaints about other teachers in that department.

So I launched into another standard lecture: "You have to learn to deal with people you don't like," I said. "For the rest of your life, you're going to run into unreasonable people. Could be a college professor. Or your boss. Or even your spouse. What are you going to do? Run away every time you have a problem?"

And when I was talking, I realized that I used to run from every roadblock that ever crossed my path. As a kid, I'd storm off the ball field when things weren't going my way. Even as a college student, when I was student teaching, I came so close to quitting mid-semester. I was student teaching in the suburbs with a cooperating teacher that tried but wasn't able to help me. Mostly because she herself was incompetent. And I was unprepared, having slept through many of my education courses. So when my university supervisor asked me what the heck I was doing, I had no answers. She suggested I quit. Said, "You will never be a very good teacher."

And I believed her. So I announced that I was quitting. Eventually, I was convinced to tough it out, by my parents, my "colleagues" at the school, some friends. And I learned a valuable lesson, something I now try to pass on to students having trouble with the Ms. Suchandsuches of the world: "This too shall pass."

When you're young, every problem seems insurmountable, every semester is a lifetime. With experience comes the realization that nothing really matters. And I don't mean that in a fatalistic, existential kind of way. I just try to tell the kids that Ms. Suchandsuch will eventually fade in importance, as soon as they're in college, if not sooner.

"The thing is," I said, "you can't let her stop you from achieving your dreams."

We chatted the rest of the period and she left in a better mood.

Then yesterday, seventh period again, the girl was back. "Mr. P, she did it again!"

"What did you do?"

"Nothing, I swear," she said. "I just walked in the room. I didn't even look at her, and she said, 'You can't be in here. Get out.' So I left."

She can't do that, I thought, she can't just kick out students. But I also realized that I was just getting one side of the story. And if there's one thing I've learned, it's that you can't really believe teenagers, even when they're talking about you. But still.

"Did she write you up?" I asked. "Or call your mom?"

"No, she just said that I can't be in her class."

"OK, let's take care of this."

I escorted her straight to the office. Took her to the assistant principal, but asked her to remain outside while I talked to him. "Can you do me a favor?" I asked. "Can you escort this girl back to her class? She's been kicked out two days in a row and hasn't been written up or anything. That's illegal. I mean, I'd take her back myself, but who the hell am I?"

He was very zen about it, asked for the girl's side of the story and then asked, "What do you think Ms. Suchandsuch will say you did?"

Later, I found out that the teacher still refused to let the girl in, but said that maybe they could start over on Monday. "That's it," the girl said as she was heading out the door. "I told [the assistant principal] that either I get a new teacher or I'm dropping out or transferring to another school. I can't handle this."

She looked at me, teary eyed. "Happy Thanksgiving," she said.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Small comfort

Before first period, one of my kids walked in with a big smile. "Hi," I said to her, "how are ya?"

"Great!" she said. "How about you?"

"Not bad," I said.

She looked at me and asked, "OK, what's wrong?"

I smiled. "I'm fine."

She sat down next to me. "Want to tell me about it?"

"Well," I said. "My cat's sick. I think I might have to put her down."

"I'm sorry!" she said. "Anything I can do?"

"No, thanks," I said, amazed to be comforted by a 16 year old. "I mean, it's not that big a deal. She's getting old. And, really, it's just a cat."

Kids love to hear about teachers' personal lives. They especially latch onto stories about pets and family and the like. "The most important thing you can do," our principal likes to say, "is make a significant personal connection with your students." I think the thinking is to comfort them in their time of need, not the other way around. Anyway, I try not to waste class time on my personal problems, so when the bell rang, I had a good class. In fact, the kids did some amazing work. I was proud of them. I was happy.

Class ended, and second period students started coming in. The first girl in the room looked at me and said, "What's wrong? You look sad."

"I'm not sad," I joked. "I'm mad about the Bears!"

Wow, I thought, amazing how observant and compassionate kids can be. My colleagues, on the other hand, didn't notice anything amiss. When I told one fellow teacher that I was leaving early to take care of my cat, he laughed and said, "Do you even have a cat?"

I left work, but when I got home, Chisai seemed fine. She even jumped into my lap for an extended purring session. Maybe she was saying goodbye. (Chisai, by the way, is Japanese for small. I got her back when I returned from Japan in 1999, back when I still knew a word or two in Japanese.) I went out for a late lunch. When I returned from that, there was vomit everywhere. Chisai was standing hunched over, moaning in pain. Usually, she's tough, even nasty when she senses danger, but she didn't resist too much when I crammed her into a carrier.

She's spending the night at the hospital. And for the first time in the past eight years, I'm sitting at my computer without her in my lap, without her demanding attention, making me scratch her head with one hand as I try to type with the other. In a way, it's nice. But it's not the same.

Morning UPDATE in comments ...

Saturday, November 17, 2007

I'm a sucker, part 2 of a million

OK, here's something that made me a little upset.

Yesterday, about ten minutes into fifth period, two guys walked into my classroom, just stood there. They were big, obnoxious, and probably dumb. I had no idea who they were.

"Thanks for dropping by, guys," I said. "Now get out."

They made no move to leave. Just stood there, started saying something unintelligible. I walked over, stood nose to nose with the smaller one. "Get out," I said, hoping to sound stern and intimidating. He didn't budge. Man, I don't have time to deal with this, I thought. So I slowly started pushing him towards the other guy, towards the door.

"Man, get your fucking hands off me!" he yelled. "Don't fucking touch me!"

I had both of them by the door. They weren't really resisting. I wouldn't have been able to push them out if they did resist. But they weren't going without assailing me with a few choice words and making a scene. As soon as they were in the hall, I slammed my door shut and walked into my classroom.

Fifth period is my honors class, mostly girls. They sat there looking at me, without the usual chattiness that greets me whenever I step into the hall for something.

I wouldn't say I was out of breath, but I was breathing a little hard. My voice was going to sound a little shaky, I knew. There had been no real danger, but the adrenaline had kicked in a little.

"Yeah, OK," I said, slapping my hands together a few times. "Who wants to save this school for those two guys? Because I sure as hell don't."

Everyone in the room knew what I was talking about. The day before, a plan had been released to shut down our school and turn it into four small schools. It's a plan being pushed by our alderman, who hates both the students and the teachers of our building. I'm not sure who she hates more, but I think it's the kids.

Lots of teachers in the building are now springing into action, hoping to mount some sort of defense against this proposal. I'm not going to write too much about it, mostly because I don't know too many details. But I'm also not going to participate in the effort to save the school. Tried that once. It failed, made things worse. So, I'm staying out of it. Whatever happens, happens. Hopefully I'll have a job somewhere. Most likely I will, I like to kid myself.

"But what will happen to us?" one of my usually quiet girls asked. Apparently, many teachers are talking to students about this, trying to mobilize them by repeating unsubstantiated rumors.

"I'm sure you'll be fine," I said. "I mean, most of you in this room are good students. You have good grades, good attendance. If this thing were to happen, even if they closed down the school at the end of this year, I'm sure they'd let you come back in the fall for your senior year."

They didn't look like they believed me. "I mean, look. The reason this school has a bad reputation and the neighborhood wants it changed into a high-performing college prep school is because of guys like that," I said, pointing into the hallway. "Those of you in here, who have hopes and dreams, who are working hard, there will always be a place for you."

"What about you?" someone asked. "Won't you be fired?"

"I don't know. Probably. But that's a good thing," I said. "If I'm a good teacher, I'm sure I'll get hired back. If not here, then somewhere. But all the lousy teachers, well, hopefully they won't get rehired."

I looked at the clock. Damn, another wasted 10 minutes. "Let's get back to the lesson," I said. "I really, really, don't want to talk about that stuff. Mostly because I don't know what I'm talking about. Everything I just told you is my opinion, based on no facts at all. So don't go around telling people that I gave you any information, because I didn't. All I really want to do is teach. You. Right now."

I'm a sucker, part 1 of a million

Walking home from school yesterday, I ran into an art teacher in a nearby park. She was waiting for a ride, surrounded by laughing and running children, none of whom will ever attend the high school down the block. I waved. She waved back and said something. I had to walk over.

"Something incredible happened," she repeated.

"Really? What? Are they closing down our school?" I asked.

"No, something really incredible. The kids were telling me about it." She smiled. "Apparently, you got really mad."

"Me? I don't remember getting mad. When did I get mad?"

"I don't know," she said. "But it made a huge impression. They said, 'You should have seen him. He was really mad. It was scary.'"

I thought about it. "Well, I must have been in such a rage that I blacked out and don't remember."

"You know," she said, in a teacher voice that sounded like she was about to impart some knowledge. "Back when I had a voice, every once in a while I'd really let the kids have it. And they knew it was serious because it so rarely happened."

"Yeah, me too," I said. "The thing is, I don't remember being angry in the past few weeks. I've been keeping on the sunny side of life."

I thought about the last couple of weeks. I've been busy. That's good. Too busy even to post on this blog. I thought about some of the things that I can write about, and yeah, some of them make me unhappy, even angry. But I don't remember actually losing my cool.

Anyway, thanks for your patience. Here are a few things you can look forward to in the next few days:
  • I almost got beat up.
  • I did get bitched out.
  • A student got arrested.
  • My school's gonna get shut down, and some people protested.
  • I'm coaching yet another sport.
  • I've lost some important report.
Does any of it sound like I might have gotten angry? Stick around ...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Report card pick-up day

I used to look forward to them.

I used to dread them.

I used to think they could change student behavior.

I used to think I could see student behaviors reflected in parents.

I used to think they were so important.

Nowadays, after enduring at least 15 report card pick-up days, the only thing I can say for sure is this: Make sure you have plenty of hand sanitizer on hand. Shaking all those hands can sure get you sick.

Today went smoothly. Parents are mostly concerned. Mostly overwhelmed. Raising a teenager is difficult, I suppose.

I have a formula to getting my point across to parents.
  • I say something nice about the kid. They smile.
  • I tell them I'm sure the kid can succeed in my class, with just a little effort. They're eating it up.
  • Then, I whack them with the truth. They believe every word. And the kid just shakes his head, thinking, "I'll get you for this!"
Today I added something new. Whenever a parent thanked me (yeah, it always feels good when they do that), I smiled and said, "No, thank you. You're doing a great job. Now if we could just get this kid to do a great job."

I figure everyone could use a little positive reinforcement.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Caught

One of my all-time favorite guilty pleasures as a teacher is picking up notes I find on the floor and reading them aloud to my classes. You know those little love letters you used to send? Do you like me? Check yes or no. That kind of thing. There's nothing funnier--or more embarrassing--than to have your teacher read a note you may have written moments ago.

I used to find a good one at least once a week. Then text-messaging came along and hand-written notes almost completely disappeared. So, imagine my surprise when yesterday I struck gold. On the way to the exit, right in the middle of the hall, there was a neat little folded paper.

2: you Juan
from: Me Monique

Jackpot!

I unfolded the note, read it greedily, and--as the students might say--damn, did I feel salty!
LOOK Well IM a dumb ass 4 reading this I dont even know whos paper this is im a str8 up nosy bitch im an idiot that have nothing to do. NO NO dont look around bitch you just got caught Hoe l.o.l.
admit it you nosy

Guilty as charged. I have to say, the writing's not the best, but the humor is almost sophisticated.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

First quarter report card

Wow, time flies when you're trying to slow it down by writing about it. The school year's first quarter has come and gone, and I'm starting to think that, one of these days, I have to actually start teaching something. This can't go on.

Anyway, with very little evidence of what has and hasn't been accomplished, it's time to review and assign letter grades. Here's my progress report, as far as I'm concerned:

Attendance: A-

Punctuality: A

Quality of instruction: C

Quality of comments on student papers: C-

Lesson Planning: F

Dreaming of Being a Better Teacher: A+


How I arrived at those grades (using statistics gathered by the international research organization FACT--Fabrications Andy Created Today):

Number of students I'm supposed to "teach" on any given day: 137
Number that are absent on a given day: 39

Number of phone calls I've made to find out where absent kids are: 9
Number of disconnected phones I encountered: 7

Number of quizzes taken this quarter by my students: 1,693
Number of quizzes passed this quarter by my students: 397

Number of pep talks I've given: 32
Percentage of students that stay awake during pep talks: 11

Number of students that have told me to "fuck off" in the hallway: 7
Percentage of times I've thought of quitting after being told to "fuck off": 100

Number of staff meetings I've missed: 7
Number of staff meetings I've attended: 17

Number of staff meetings I've attended where I actually learned something: 1
What I learned at that meeting: How to use statistics to make sense of a senseless world

Number of lives I've changed this year: 6
Number of lives I've changed for the better: 0

Percentage of days I've consciously tried to remain positive: 100
Number of times I've been successful: 4

Number of students that have surprised me: 12
Percentage of those that have been positive: 25

Number of high-fives given: 75
Number of low-fives given: 19
Number of too-slows: 3

Number of students that have promised never to be absent or tardy again: 11
Percentage that have succeeded: 0

Dollars spent on supplies and equipment this school year: $1,250 (roughly)
Dollars that have been reimbursed: $225

Hours spent on this blog instead of grading/planning/working: 93

Opportunity cost, part 2

I gave my "opportunity cost" speech (see below for details). Kids seemed impressed. Some of them at least.

One kid in particular seemed affected. Here's his story: He lives with his sister. Where are the parents? Who knows, but I think maybe in another state. He works most nights, at McDonald's. He has about a 50% in my class, with most of those points gained from small-group assignments.

After class, he came up to me and said, "I thought about what you said about scholarships and all that. And I want you to do me a favor."

"Yeah?"

"Can you please make sure I do all my work? Can you force me?"

"I don't know," I said. "There's only so much I can do. But here's one thing you can do: Read this book this weekend. We have a test Monday." I pointed to an unopened copy of The Stranger on his desk.

"Yeah," he said. "But I need you to push me to succeed."

It's always nice to know kids want to succeed. It's nice to think I can make an impact. It's nice to hope that, with some pushing, they can overcome the obstacles and roadblocks they face.

Well ... today was the test on the novel. I just graded the tests. My new hard-worker scored a 23%, by far the lowest in the class. In fact, even with his score, the class average was 86%.

It would be nice if the desire to succeed were enough.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Opportunity cost

After school, I noticed one of my students at her locker outside my classroom. "Hey," I called over, "how's it going?" She didn't respond; just kept staring into her locker. I asked, "Something the matter?" She shook her head, not looking over, hair obscuring her face. She's usually one of my all-time bubbliest students. "You wanna talk about it?" I walked over. She shook her head again, but I noticed from the telltale shoulder shakes that she was crying. "Tell you what," I said, retreating, "I need to talk to you anyway, so stop by my room when you get your stuff."

Walking back, I wondered what I was getting myself into. Problems at home. With a boyfriend. Fight with a friend or teacher. Pregnancy. These were all possibilities. My students often face problems I couldn't even imagine. Last week, a similar situation with a similarly usually-cheerful girl revealed this: She was upset because her American-born, three-year-old niece had been sent to Mexico while the family tries to sort out the little girl's father's immigration status. "They might not come back to the U.S. for years," she told me, crying.

But I can't help it. If I see a student upset, I have to ask what's going on. Today's student walked in, sat down in her assigned desk. (It's funny: In my class, I assign seats, something high schoolers hate, but when they come in after school, they usually gravitate to that desk anyway.) Tears were streaming down her face.

"Does it have to do with school?" I asked.

She nodded.

"Oh, thank God!" I said. "I was afraid it was something important."

She cracked a little smile. I walked over to my desk, came back with tissue and some Halloween candy. Then spent 45 minutes talking about her classes, her unfair teachers, her job (forced to work last night until 1 a.m.), her family--mom can't provide, dad's going to jail for some DUI-related conviction. I don't know if I actually helped her with any of her problems, but I said I'd talk to the other teachers. I insisted that she needs to concentrate on her classes, that she has the potential to get lots of scholarships.

Then an amazing thing happened. One of my students from last year, who is a senior this year, walked in to tell me about getting accepted to six universities so far, even though she's still waiting to hear back from her top choices. One has offered her $64,000 in scholarships, two others have offered $50,000 each. I looked over at my crying student. "See what I mean?"

"Oh wow," she said.

I had this bright idea, and asked the senior to stop in at the start of first period tomorrow. I want to talk about opportunity cost with the juniors. Here's my planned talk: Let's say a kid has a job making $6 an hour, averages 20 hours a week. She'll make $120 a week (minus taxes), equaling about $6,000 a year. That money seems good to her now, but if she quit her job and concentrated on her studies, she could earn a $50,000 scholarship. By working her current part-time job, however, her grades suffer, she might fail some classes, and get no scholarships. That means, by working, instead of earning $6,000, she's actually losing $44,000. Does that make sense? (And if it does, who says an English teacher can't do math?)

Anyway, as she was getting ready to leave, I said, "Do me a favor. Here's a copy of tomorrow's test. Can you read it over and tell me if there are any problems with it?" She looked at me weird. I said, "Just read it. See if it there are any spelling errors, if it makes sense." She started reading it. I asked, "Can you answer all of the questions?"

"Well, I don't know the answers to part one," she said.

"So you know what you have to study tonight, right?"

She looked at me. "Can I write something down?"

I said, "Well, you cannot take the test out of this room."

"So," she said, "can I write down the questions?"

I looked at her. "I already told you what you can't do."

"But isn't that cheating?"

My heart almost broke with the innocence and sweetness of that question. I thought about her grade in my class. Borderline D/F. If she fails the test tomorrow, she fails the first quarter. I really, really want her to pass. "Who showed you the test?" I asked. "Then how can it be cheating?"

She smiled. "Thank you!" she said.

"Just please don't share this with any of your friends," I said, almost secretly hoping she would. "Because ... that would be cheating!"

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Giving 'em the finger

Usually when I teach, my door is unlocked. Kids know that if they are running late, they should just walk in quietly, get to work, and I'll deal with it later.

Once in a while, I accidentally leave the door locked, and a late kid will just stand there. Eventually, someone will tell me, "There's someone at the door." When too busy to run over there, I say, "Give 'em the finger."

Invariably, three or four kids flip the bird, and I'm left shouting, "No! Wrong finger! The one-minute finger. Give 'em the one-minute finger!"

It's usually funny. The kids laugh. I pretend I was misunderstood. And life goes on. Unless ... if it's an adult at the door. Like today ... a very serious special-education teacher came knocking to check up on a student. Let's just say she was not amused about having the middle finger flashed at her by several of my kids. Of course I thought it was hilarious. But then it got me wondering:
  • Why are some adults so damn serious around teenagers? Is it even possible?
  • Why do special-ed teachers think they can barge in during the middle of class and expect me to answer their specific questions about one student when I have a whole class to deal with?
  • Will I ever get tired of telling my kids to "give 'em the finger"? Will I ever grow up?