Sunday, September 30, 2007

Foolish attempt

At the start of every class, a student is randomly selected to go to the board and fix a sentence. Most really, really, really don't want to be selected, but they reluctantly go if chosen.

After struggling for a couple of minutes, one seventh period student heads back to her desk. She's usually a cheerful student, volunteering answers and sparking class conversations. But she looks dejected after her turn at the board. I overhear her comment to a friend, "I just made a complete fool of myself."

I want to make her feel better about herself, but I don't want to make a production of it. If I say anything out loud, she might feel worse. So I grab a Post-It note, quickly scribble a comment and place it on her desk. She smiles.

What would you have written? My comment to her is in the comments ...

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Strike two

When I was a kid, I envisioned my life would be a certain way when I was in my 30s. Of course kids don't know squat, so I was wrong about just about everything.

I remember hanging out in neighborhood parks in the summer, watching buddies playing 16-inch softball, jammed fingers in one hand, beer in the other. Some big guy with a big belly would crank a deep fly ball that some wiry guy would race a mile to snag for the final out. There was lots of cheering, lots of good-natured yelling. Laughter. It looked so fun. "That's going to be me someday," I thought, envisioning a big social circle, games in the late afternoon, beers and barbecues afterwards.

Well, I was right about one thing. I'm involved in 16-inch softball. I coach my school's boys team. I was totally wrong about the fun part.

My players don't know the game. Don't know how to swing a bat. Don't know what to do on the base paths. Don't know where to throw the ball, or when to throw it, or how to. They argue. With each other. With me. They show up to practice whenever they feel like it. Some can't be bothered to make it to games.

There have been highlights this season. Like, I didn't know where to play one of the new guys. Our pitcher had shown up late to the game, so I told the new kid to pitch. He ended up making some unbelievable defensive plays, snagging one popup with one hand, then later falling backwards while fielding a groundball but still throwing out the runner from his back. Things like that. But before he made those plays, things were not so good.

At the start of the game, he was so nervous it almost broke my heart. I had to remind him to breathe. He'd make a pitch that fell miserably short of home plate, get the ball back from the catcher, make another bad pitch, and I would be like, Oh my God, he's not even breathing. I called timeout and headed to the mound.

I said, "Hey, kid, how you doing?"

"Not ... so ... good."

"You nervous?"

"I'm terrified," he said staring straight ahead. Total tunnel vision. I looked over at the other team. Big kids, most of them looked like they were 25, looked like they'd mug us right after they got through with killing us on the field.

"Oh, come on," I said. "It's just a stupid game. It's supposed to be fun. Just take a deep breath, release the ball, and see what happens. Try to let them hit it. You do have a defense behind you."

As soon as he started pitching better, our opponents started hitting. Their first six hits went straight at our players. And our players dropped every single ball. Four errors by our shortstop in the first inning, two in the outfield. They scored 11 before we even got to bat.

I don't mind giving up a lot of runs, I don't mind losing if we have to, but I do mind my team's reaction. They just pouted. The shortstop threw a little tantrum. He started blaming everything on everyone except himself, yelling at the catcher for the way the tossed the ball back to the pitcher, at me for the way I run practice, at God and all His creatures.

Eventually, I kicked him off the team. Just told him to hand in his uniform right then and there. He actually listened. He was actually the second starter I kicked off the team. The first guy was one of these kids who thinks he's hilarious, who doesn't listen to a word I say, who doesn't show up to a game and then lies to me about it, saying he had told me he wouldn't be able to make it.

"Hand in your uniform," I've said twice. I don't really have the luxury to do that, considering I only have 10 or 11 guys that have their paperwork in order, that are allowed to play. And twice the kids have handed in their uniforms. And then, twice they've come back to practice the next day, asking if they can be on the team.

Being the lousy coach that I am, both times I've said OK. I kick kids off the team. Then I let them back on. I wouldn't if I worked at a school where dozens of kids want to play. But I work at a school where we don't hold tryouts, we beg students we know to come out and play.

I was talking about our shortstop with my assistant coach. He thinks we should just bench the kid, or kick him off and keep him off. He can't stand the kid's cursing and negativity and poor skills.

"Yeah, but he's special ed," I said. "That's his disability. He loses his temper."

"Whatever," he said, "There are no IEPs in sports."

We laughed about it. An IEP is an individual education plan for special education students. The plan lets teachers know what the student's disability is and sets benchmarks for performance. So, it might say that a kid will be able to get an 80% on a vocabulary quiz. If the kid does, then he deserves an A. But there are no IEPs in sports.

"Maybe if there was one for him," I said, "it would say that he'll only say 'motherfucker' three times per inning."

"Or stomp off the field once per game."

It's not funny, I know, but sometimes you have no choice but to laugh.

When the shortstop did return to practice, I ended up having a 30-minute conversation with him, during which time he never apologized because he couldn't imagine what he had done so wrong as to get kicked off the team.

"There are no IEPs in softball," I said, "but I want to make one thing clear: If you ever lose your temper again, in practice or in a game, that's it. There will be no more coming back."

I'm not sure if he paid attention. Probably not. I think he'll never learn because, well, because he reminds me of me. I too am a sore loser. And I don't learn from my mistakes either. I say "never again," but then I do the very thing I know will make me miserable.

You'd think that after two weeks of coaching softball, I'd be done. But here's my strike two: A couple of days ago, I was asked if I wanted to coach the bowling team. Take a wild guess what I said.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Better late than never

One terrible thing about making a mistake during the first week of school is that you can never take it back. At least not during that school year. Sure, you learn from past mistakes, but you just end up replacing those with new ones.

My big mistake this year was when I apparently told students that they can show up for class whenever they feel like it.

This is the way I remember saying it: "My door is unlocked. So if you're running late, don't stand there pounding on my door and making a big production of it. Just come in quietly and get to work."

This is what a good third of my students heard: "Want to stroll in two minutes after the bell? Three? Whatever!"

I also remember saying: "If you do come in late, you don't get a stamp, which then means you don't get those points on the weekly quiz. So, don't ask for the stamp, and I won't hassle you too much about being late every once in a while."

They heard: "This little stamp thing is the least important thing in the world. But if you really want one, just beg enough and you'll get one."

Oh well. Tardiness is a problem at my school anyway. But I quickly found out I was starting lessons with only half the desks filled. That meant 18 kids were still somewhere out there in the Black Hole that is anything outside my classroom. Yes, have I mentioned that my average class size this year is 34? That it's 39 in one class? At some point in the next month these classes will be leveled, I'm told, which will cause yet more disruption to the learning that's supposedly going on.

About a week ago, I had enough of the tardies. I had enough of saying stupid things like "you're not late for today, you're early for tomorrow." So I put up a notebook near the door and instituted a new sign-in procedure. If you're late, fine, but write your name and state your reason for the tardy. If I see your name three times in one week, I'll write you up. That was the threat. I haven't followed through on the threat yet, but today I decided to read through the reasons. And, here's what I love about teaching in the city: Most kids don't try to BS you. You tell them you want the truth, and they give it to you, even if you can't handle the truth. Which leads to a new list:

My Favorite Reasons Why Students Are Late to My Class
  • because I was walking slow
  • I have/had a headache
  • don't know walking around
  • don't know walking slow
  • bathroom emergency
  • separating a fight
  • just came out lunch went to locker
  • principal was talking to me
  • only 30 sec. after bell
  • ????
  • I was late because my art teacher
  • hard time opening my new lock
  • walking slow -- leg hurts
  • being on time is for squares!
  • PeePee!
  • just got here
  • punctuality is overrated
  • I'm just no good
A couple of days ago, I was taking care of something during my lunch period. "Taking care of something" usually takes a lot longer than I'd like, which is why I so rarely leave my classroom. So, the bell rang, I fought my way through the masses, but showed up to seventh period just after the tardy bell. Every single student, in an almost unanimous voice, demanded that I sign in and declare my reason.

"Fine," I said, writing my name in the notebook. For the reason, I wrote: "Writing up tardy students."

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Random conversations


Before class, a bright, happy-go-lucky girl asks her friend: "Is there anything I can do to stop being so hyper?"

Her friend is no help. I walk over.

"Is there anything I can do to stop being so hyper? I'm always hyper."

"Well," I say, "you can start by not drinking that." I point to her almost-finished Starbucks something-uccino with whipped cream.

She flashes a smile. "No, I can't give this up! Are you serious?" She sees I'm serious. "OK, maybe I'll have it with less sugar tomorrow."


Groups are supposed to hand in something by the end of class. As with any group work, there are group members that mess around, there are those that gossip away, there are those that ignore each other, and there are those that try to motivate the others. "Come on, let's hurry up," one girl tells her very apathetic crew. "The sooner we finish, the sooner we'll be done."

I love that advice and use it for the rest of the day. "Get to work," I say as I race around from group to group. "The sooner you finish, the sooner you'll be done." Most just laugh at me.


Once a week, students take a 15-minute quiz to prepare them for the ACT. It's a paragraph with errors they must correct. The topics are interesting to varying degrees. The first one was about Mark Twain. "He was weird," one girl says. "Yeah, he's the one who wrote 'The Diary of Adam.' That was really weird," her friend responds, and I'm thinking, wow, they're making connections. The second quiz was about turning metals into gold. The next day, a weird kid walks into class early and declares: "I've decided I want to be an alchemist." I'm thinking he's referring to the quiz. "No, I read up on it last summer," he says. "These guys were the fathers of chemistry and other sciences." He goes on a rant about how incredible they were. "You're so smart," I say without sarcasm. "Why don't you do better in school?" He glares at me. "Because I hate school! I only like what I'm interested in."

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Non-teaching day

Hey, just to get my non-teacher friends' blood boiling, a quick announcement: No students today! Yeah, it's some weird teacher institute day or something. Kids get the day off. Teachers sit around complaining about how hard their lives are. And for the rest of society: A regular day of working for the man. Too bad for you.

Still have a softball game this afternoon, though. Anyone want to make a prediction?

The perfect PLAN

All freshmen, sophomores, and juniors were subjected to either the EXPLORE or PLAN test this morning. These are pre-ACT instruments to measure academic growth. Or something like that. Also subjected to these standardized tests were teachers--those of us lucky enough to be homeroom teachers had to administer them to our students.

While the tests might be boring and difficult for students, they are downright torture for the administrators. We have to read the directions, keep track of time, monitor the examinees, and ... and nothing else. Not allowed to read or grade papers or log onto the computer or review the new contract or anything. So it's more than two hours of just existing.

Are you capable of just breathing and doing nothing else for extended periods of time? I've never been good at it.

Today I decided to watch my students. Carefully. While this was probably against the official rules, I took notes on what I observed.

Test 1: English: 50 questions in 30 minutes
Out of 25 in my room, the number of students I saw:
  • sniffling/requiring facial tissue: 3
  • playing with pencils while reading: 4
  • looking up at the clock every couple of minutes: 4
  • wearing sneakers or gym shoes: 22
  • not wearing their shoes during the test: 2
  • biting fingernails: 2
  • bouncing one or both legs: 2
  • pointing out to me that there are 5 minutes left and that I need to announce that there are 5 minutes left: 1 (actually, there were 5 minutes, 15 seconds left, so he was early, nyah!)
  • done at the 5-minute warning: 2
Test 2: Mathematics: 40 questions in 40 minutes
I'm not necessarily supposed to look at the questions, but I like to glance at a few, just to see what the kids are up against. In the math section, I think I got the first six without trying very hard. Then there was one about renting a bicycle for $5 for one hour and $7 for two. At those rates, how much would it cost for seven hours? I thought about it, and I immediately thought about the times I've rented bicycles, and I couldn't remember a single time when the pricing structure worked like this. It has always been per-hour or per-day, none of this sliding fee scale or whatever it's called. And then I thought, this is why I wouldn't do so well at the math test; I know it's all just phony, made-up crap. So instead I paid attention to my students, and saw:
  • quietly saying "bless you" when someone sneezed: 3
  • counting on fingers: 2
  • chewing on the pencil I lent: 1
  • not covering mouth while yawning: 2
  • erasing answers: 1
Test 3: Reading: 3 passages, 25 questions, 20 minutes
On the board, I write the start and stop time, plus when the 5-minute warning is, and a couple students point out that I've written the wrong time. Darn, I guess I can't tell time. "Please use your own brain on this test," I respond, "not mine."

No one looks up at the clock once this test gets going. It's a killer. The passages are long, boring, and there just isn't enough time. Kids have various strategies. Some read the passage slowly before hitting the questions. Some of these kids even underline things and take notes. Others look at the questions first and then skim through the text for the answers. I watch as one girl just randomly bubbles answers in 3 minutes and puts her head down.

I'm not supposed to communicate with students during the test, but I write her a little note on a Post-It and slap it onto her desk. She looks at it and laughs. It says: "Quitter!" She puts her head back down, but in a couple of minutes she's up again and actually reading. Maybe she'll change some answers, I think.

A boy finishes early and just sits there, looking bored, looking fried. I open up my manual to the "Test Irregularity" form, and put his name in it. Under "description of irregularity" I write: "Took off shoes during test. P-U! ... J/K." I show it to him. He quietly laughs. One of the keys to this kind of test, I think, is to keep a light mood in the room, take some of the edge off, relax the students. Earlier, when reading instructions, I slipped in a few comments to get a laugh or two. One sentence I read said something about me walking around the room to make sure they weren't cheating or filling in other tests, so I added, "As I walk around, my shoes will squeak extra loud, just to annoy you while you're testing." Again, prohibited behavior on my part, but whatever, I'm sure I'll have the highest scores once the real ACT rolls around.

Test 4: Science: 30 questions in 25 minutes
I see students:
  • catching snot before it lands on the answer sheet: 1
  • playing with hair: 5 (3 girls and 2 boys)
  • looking at a question and saying "shit!": 1
  • pounding eraser into desk: 1
  • looking bored/tired/spent with 1 minute left: 7
After collecting the test, I shared my notes with my students. They had a great time, laughing about being the ones sneezing or cursing or yawning. Then, I got serious: "I also wrote down the top test-taking errors I noticed many of you committing. Some of these errors, every single one of you made. And if you want to do well on the ACT, you've got to learn not to do them."

"What? What? What?" they wanted to know.

"Oh, don't worry, I'll tell you all about the errors. On Friday. Right now I want you to guess who almost had a giant snot land on his answer sheet."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

One thing that got me into teaching

Don't know if it's true, but it's a little story I heard a long time ago from a friend in Japan:

A boy was misbehaving at the playground. His mom tried everything to get him to stop messing around, stop acting like the little troublemaker that he was. Nothing worked. Finally, exasperated, she shouted, "I'm telling your teacher!"

He quickly settled down.

The Ain't-Got-My-Preferred-Customer-Super-Fresh-Values-Card Blues

Sometimes, dealing with high school kids outside of school can be a little aggravating.

Was just at the supermarket, loading up on groceries and booze to get me through another week. Got in a fairly short line that quickly started moving a little too slow. The cashier appeared to be a new hire, a fresh-faced high school girl that hasn't learned to swipe item after item over the scanner in one, quick motion. Each item got a slow, two-handed scan, then a look to see if it registered correctly.

The customers ahead of me, two girls together, didn't have a "preferred customer super fresh values" card, so the cashier handed them an application form. I waited as they started filling it out. When the cashier found out the girls weren't 18, she told them they couldn't get a card, but that she'd swipe the dummy card she had. Fine. Get going.

One of the girls then had trouble with the credit card keypad and asked, "What did I do?" The cashier, in her own world, ignoring the question and following her instructions to a tee, said, "You saved two dollars." The customer figured out the machine on her own.

My turn. I didn't have my "preferred customer super fresh values" card either, so I typed in my home number. "I'm sorry, that's an invalid number," the cashier told me. "Can you give me another?" I gave her my mom's number, knowing she's got a card. That one's invalid, too, I was told. She kept scanning my items.

"Can't you just swipe that card?" I asked, pointing at the one she had used for the other girls.

"No, I'm sorry, I can't do that for every customer."

"But I have a card, I just forgot it."

She finished scanning and gave me my total. "That girl wanted to apply for a card, but she wasn't 18," she explained.

"I understand," I said. "So that's why you shouldn't have given her the discount. I have a card, so that's why I deserve it. I just don't remember what phone number I wrote down when I applied 15 years ago."

She just stared at me. I guess at training last weekend she was told not to give discounts to customers without cards. I suppose the store has secret shoppers that bust cashiers handing out discounts to undeserving people. It's possible even that she's under surveillance at all times, and any undeserved discount she gives comes out of her paycheck. I don't know.

"Fine," I said, "I guess you'll have to void this entire order, because I'm not paying full price." Yeah, I'm sort of a cheapskate about certain things. I'm definitely not loyal to any brands, so if some eggs are on sale and others aren't, I'll get the cheaper ones. (Well, as long as they're brown, cage-free, organic eggs.) So pretty much every item in my order had some discount coming its way.

She looked surprised as I put my credit card away and started moving to leave.

"Maybe you can ask the next customer if you can use his card," she said, then asked him. "Can he use your card?"

Of course the guy said yes, and I got my discount. I quickly paid and moved to get out of there.

"You saved $22.96," she said as I left. "Do you need help outside?"

Monday, September 24, 2007

Walking the gauntlet

After work on Friday, I got to do what an assistant principal calls "walk the gauntlet." After school, dozens, if not hundreds, of our finest students walk down a quiet residential street to the Red Line. Usually, there's noise. Sometimes, there are scuffles. Occasionally, as on Friday, there are full-on fights that result in swarming school security guards and police squad cars.

But I had to take the "L," I had no choice, so I pushed my way through the throngs. I rarely make this walk, so I quickly realized why many neighbors are a little concerned for their safety around 3 p.m. I hoped that if any fights erupted I would at least be recognized and spared. I shouldn't have worried.

Saw one of my students, a guy with possible gang affiliations. "How you doing?" I asked when he saw me.

"Oh, man, I'm not involved in any of this stuff," he said. "I'm good."

"I didn't say 'what' you were doing, I asked how you were doing."

"Oh! I'm fine! How about you?"

A few yards further, a student with definite gang affiliations spotted me. "Hey, how's it going?" he asked me.

"Great, how about you?"

He saw my backpack. "You going to the L? Don't you have a car?" Apparently, it must be shameful for a teacher to take public transportation.

"Yeah, I have a car," I said. "But I'm heading to the airport."

"Oh? Going out of town?"

"Yup. A friend's getting married."

"Feel free to stay a few extra days," he said. "We'll see you Wednesday or Thursday, OK?"

"Sorry, I'll be back at school Monday."

And so it was off to the Bay Area for a wedding, where I was expected to stand up and say a few words during the ceremony. Over the years, I've developed something of a reputation as a decent wedding speaker. I don't know why. But I do know why I'm getting better at it. I spend every day of my working life trying to entertain and educate groups of uninterested teenagers. Doesn't matter if I'm joking around or trying to be serious, rarely do they pay attention. Weddings, on the other hand, are easy. A large group of people that are in a good mood, ready to listen to stories about the groom.

Another reason I gave a decent speech was because I practiced. In front of one of my classes. We had extended homeroom on Friday, so I asked if my class would indulge me and listen to my planned speech.

"No!" several students yelled out in unison. "No wedding speeches!"

"Come on," I said. "It's good. I promise."

Eventually, I said my prepared remarks. And, this was almost scary, most of them listened. And liked it. "Damn," I thought. "If a bunch of teenagers like this stuff, then it's golden."

My secret was this: I read, from my high school yearbook, what the groom had written to me 20-some years ago. The thing is, it was funny. It was well-written. And it said a lot about him. So, of course, the people at the wedding loved it.

No real point here, I guess, except maybe: If you ever have to speak at a wedding, dig out those old yearbooks. There's great material in there. Of course, I'm sure whatever I wrote when I was in high school was mediocre at best, so please don't ever use this advice against me.

Friday, September 21, 2007

All I know is that I don't know nothing

Fourth period. Students are moving to sit with groups, slowly getting ready to work. I see a group of girls looking through some photos instead of their books.

"Put those away or I'll shoot," I say, approaching, rubber band stretched on my finger.

"You shoot that rubber band at us and I'll shoot it right back at you," one of the girls says.

"Oh really?"

"Yeah, I can do that," she says. "You're just like a big kid."

It's the third week of school, and some students have already figured me out. Some are already realizing that, wait a second, he's a human being, with his own weird sense of humor, his own little moods and all those things. Some. Most students still think of me as that Teacher Man up there, yapping away about college and whatnot. It might still be months before I make any significant personal connection with these students.

From the same group, a few minutes later: "So, what kind of person were you when you were our age?"

I walk over. "Well," I say, "when I was in high school, I was a dork." They laugh. "No, really, I went to a giant school where it was hard to fit in, so I just had my group of friends and we hung out, listened to music, slacked off, and did dumb things."

"You went to Lane, right?"

"Yeah, 5,000 students there."

"What kind of music did you listen to?"

"Oh, I listened to terrible music. Iron Maiden. Judas Priest."

"You were a headbanger!"

"I suppose."

"But you don't listen to that anymore? Your musical tastes have grown up?"

"Yeah," I say. "I now listen to college rock."

This conversation could last for a while. I realize they're partially interested but mostly trying to avoid the assignment. So I tell them to get back to work and walk away. Walk away thinking, I really haven't grown up yet. I am still a kid. Is it the job that keeps me young? Or is it my hope to stay young at heart that has drawn me to this job? There are people that wish they could relive their teen years. Not me. I hated high school. But I guess I want to make it a little better for these students.

When I tell them that they should enjoy these years, they don't believe me. Being a teenager is hard. Everything matters. Plus, when you're 16, and you realize you know everything there is to know about life, that's a burden. Now that I'm older and I realize I know very little, maybe life is finally getting easier. So I can admit that I used to be a dork. That I still am.

"Get working," I say, passing that group again. "If you don't, bad things might happen."

"Like what?"

"Well," I say. "if you don't apply yourself now, you might end up going to college and majoring in English. Then, the worst possible thing might happen to you: You might become a high school teacher."

"You don't hate it!"

"Are you kidding? I'm stuck in high school ... forever!"

Things that make me smile #2

On a quiz, a student struggled to spell "succeeded." In the margin, he created this list:


He finally settled on "succeded."

Next to his answer, I wrote: So klose

Making headlines

Hey, I made the news! Check out this article in the Chi*Town Daily News about blogging teachers. Don't I just sound intelligent?
While this high school English teacher hashes out the occasional bureaucratic complaint, CTM does not focus on administrative ranting. His blog entries are a means of remembering his teaching experiences.

"So much happens everyday that I forget about it," he says.

"I want to remember what happens. I think that my students are kick-ass people and I think that people need to know that."

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Softball update 1

Lost a doubleheader yesterday, both games by slaughter rule.

Game one: 15-1

Game two: 21-11

After the second game, I told the players I was proud of them. I was being sincere. "Hey, after only two days of practice for some of you, and no practice for a couple of you, this really wasn't that bad. The other team has been practicing for the past three weeks. We actually put some runs on the board and hung in there the second game."

For once, the team was sitting quietly, listening. Most didn't feel all that great.

"Oh, come on," I said. "Raise your hand if you got a hit today." All hands went up. "Raise your hand if you scored a run." Most hands stayed up. "See?"

"Oh yeah?" the team wise guy said. "Raise your hand if you made an error!" Hands shot up.

Someone else added, "Raise your hand if you made a bunch of errors!" There was laughter and some cheering.

"OK," I said, "Let's hear it for the errors!"

This could have gone on for a while: Raise your hand if you struck out swinging (in softball!). Raise your hand if you got caught in a rundown. Raise your hand if you threw the ball away wildly. Raise your hand if you got picked off base. And on and on. I really didn't mind the mess ups too much. Kids these days just don't know baseball. (True fact: Earlier this year, I asked one of my classes how many of them liked baseball. Out of 25 kids, not one admitted to it.)

Later, most players were fairly happy, I guess. Most were excited because one girl had shown up to watch them, and she's not even anyone's girlfriend. (I actually persuaded her to come, saying she was our manager.)

In the end, the team agreed to do the one thing I didn't want to do today: Practice after school. It's a little before 6 a.m. right now. I'm already tired. Sore. Plus, I had promised I'd sponsor the school photography club. Our first meeting? Today after school. Guess they'll be taking pictures of guys making errors.

I just want to get home before 6 p.m.


Wrote a post yesterday about a fight that started in my classroom. Today, when I walked into my classroom, I realized I could talk about irony.

"There was a fight in here yesterday," I told my class. As if they didn't know. "And do you know what I had put up just a couple of hours before the fight? That sign right there."

I pointed to a framed print that looks like this:

Live * Laugh * Love

When I put it up, I thought it might add a little positive spirit to my room. I'm so tired of walking into classrooms and seeing signs demanding respect or telling students to act one way and not another. But I guess it takes more than just a sign to change behavior.

"The only thing more ironic," I said, "would be if the two people fighting had knocked it over and broken it."

I wanted to stay positive, but also wanted students to know I wanted peace. They were working in groups. I walked up to each one. "Can we all get along?" I asked.

"I don't know," one girl said, pointing at her neighbor. "I really don't like this one."

The other girl turned with a giant smile. "Oh, but I love her!"

"Do we all need a group hug?" I asked. Girls started hugging each other. Guys smiled.

"OK, let's get to work," I said.

Students started studying their parts for their assigned Shakespeare plays. "Look," one girl told another. "I get to kill you!"

"Yeah," the other responded, "but not before I poison your drink. So you die, too."

Students were trying on little props required in their plays, laughing. "Hey, I get to call you a lusty wench," I heard someone saying.

"What's that mean?"

So, here we were a day after a fight, getting along, learning (hopefully), laughing, and getting ready to kill each other and call each other names. I guess it's OK when it's Shakespeare.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Fighting words

All righty. Teaching is one of those professions where you're never bored. Where just about every day you can say, huh, that's never happened before. Where you end up saying things like "all righty."

In eight (or nine) years with the Chicago schools, I've broken up my share of fights. I've taught a few thugs, a few gangbangers, a few kids that probably didn't like me all that much. Despite that, I've never felt threatened. I've never felt like anything could happen in my own little secure classroom.

A few years back, I had this little joke that I successfully pulled off a couple of times. When a student was really upset with me, really starting to show his anger, I'd challenge him to a fight. "Come on, tough guy," I'd say. "You want to fight? Just you and me?" If he acted like he did, I'd say, "OK, let's take it outside." He'd get up, and I'd walk with him to the door. I'd open it for him and stand aside to let him out first. Then, I'd slam the door and he'd be locked outside. The whole class would laugh, even the hapless guy out in the hallway. I'm not sure if any of them really would have fought me or if they were just playing along, but a joke like that could really ease the tension.

Anyway. Whatever. Today my peace was shattered. There was a fight in my classroom. Between two girls. At the start of fifth, after the tardy bell rang, one of the girls walked in. The other came in behind her, shouting something about "now that I'm not pregnant anymore, I'll beat your ass." I raced over and split them up before any punches were thrown or hair was grabbed. The loud, not-pregnant-anymore one sort of tried pushing me out of the way. Some friends ran into my room and pulled the other one out to the safety of the halls.

My class sat in stunned silence.

I stood in silence. Stunned. Pissed off.

I eventually wrote up the one that stayed behind, asked a security guard to get her to the discipline office. But ... in the confusion of going to the bookroom to get books, she took off, too.

So I gave the class my little anti-violence speech that always ends with: "And if you're ever in a fight, and I try to break it up, and you touch me, I'll have you arrested. THAT ... is assault." Very dramatic stuff.

After class, it was my lunch. I took a peek on the computer to see where the two girls would be. Both of them at lunch also. That could mean only one thing. I jogged down to the cafeteria. Too late. They had already fought at their lockers, and both were scratched up and breathing hard when I caught up to them--one in the discipline office and the other in the health center.

At a time like that, I don't yell at the kids. I don't criticize or lay blame or threaten. I calmly talk to them. And I do my best to make them cry. To make them feel as lousy as I feel.

I got 'em both.

The not-pregnant-anymore girl was easy. I asked her why whatever the other supposedly said to her was such a big deal. And when she said she had better things to care about, I said, "Like your baby."

"Yeah," she said. "I could've dropped out of school. But I didn't. I'm here because I want to make something of myself. I want my daughter to one day be proud of me."

I stared into her eyes. "And do you think she'd be proud of you right now?"

As the tears started flowing, I went on the attack: "Like you said, you've got more important things to worry about. For you, the number one priority should be your baby. And what if you got hurt? Then what? Then who'd take care of her?"

Yeah, I'm brutally mean in my own sweet way.

The other one was tougher to break. She was acting tough. I asked her why she was in my honors class, and she said she didn't know, she never wanted to be there. That she wasn't even any good at English. I asked if she planned to go to college, and she said, no, that she doesn't "have papers."

"So what are you going to do when you get out of here?"

"I don't know, get a job."

"And what kind of job are you going to get if you can't read or write well?"

"I don't know."

"So, you're hoping to meet a guy and just start a family, right?"

She smiled.

"Let me ask you this: When did you come over to the U.S.?"

"When I was 4."

"And, OK, correct me if I'm wrong, because I really don't know anything about you or your family, but your mom and dad probably came here so that you'd have a better life, right?"


"Have you ever even been to Mexico since you've been here?"


"Well, guess what, people are poor. And they don't have much. And your parents are here so that you don't have to live like that. And is this what you're doing?"

She started pretending to cover her face with the ice-pack.

"What kind of life are you going to have? The same as your parents? I bet they don't make all that much money, I bet they struggle. Is that what you want to do? And then you want children, and how do you expect them to live? Do you expect them to have a better life? Why not go for that better life yourself?"

I went on for a while. This is how I spent my lunch. But once I get on a roll, once I see the tears, I can't stop myself. I'm such a jerk. But I told her how, if you think about the world and how many poor people there are, those of us living in this country have hit the jackpot. Because we have possibilities. I acknowledged that many people in many poor countries are happy, but now that she's here and knows what's possible, that kind of happiness is impossible. And I told her that I wanted her to succeed, that I wanted every student in my class to succeed, and that I couldn't and wouldn't put up with people fighting because someone said something to someone else.

Both girls cried. In the end both apologized.

"All righty," I told each of them. "But I want you to know that I am mad. You broke my streak. I used to think my room was a safe place."

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The one

Spent a part of my weekend fretting about one student. For three days last week, ever since he showed up, he was a virtual tornado of destructive, negative energy. Every teacher knows about that one kid that can ruin an entire class. This one blindsided me, and I wasn't sure how to handle the situation.

Should I assert my authority and come down swiftly and powerfully? Should I try to reason with him? Is he capable of reason? Should I threaten to quit if he's not removed from my classroom, and, preferably, the school?

I stayed late on Friday, trying to gather info on him. Let's see: He's in my English III class, so this must be at least his third year. In that time, he has compiled a 0.05 grade point average; in fact, he has passed only one class. Was I going to let him take down an entire class with him?

Saturday evening, driving to dinner, I saw him walking down the street. Blood pressure shot up. Here he was, invading my weekend! For a fraction of a second, I wondered if I'd be punished or rewarded if I accidentally lost control of my car and rode up on the sidewalk. Can one student truly be so evil as to inspire evil thoughts? Yes.

Got into work early this morning. Picked up a stack of blank referral forms. You want war? I thought. Fine, I will write you up every single day until you are suspended for a day, five days, the rest of the semester.

Filled up a referral form with all the infractions I could think of: Persistent tardiness. Use of profanity. Defying school personnel. Constant disruptions. Inspiring thoughts of vehicular homicide on the weekend.

"Say one thing out of line today and you're going down," I said. Out loud. Yes, I was now talking to myself. I should add that to the referral form.

Of course, as anyone who has ever taught could probably tell you, this kid showed up on time today. He sat quietly. He did his work. He politely asked for clarification. At the end of class, when the bell rang, and I still had no reason to turn in the referral form, I had no choice but to approach him as he walked towards the door.

"Hey, hang on a second," I said.


"Good job in class today."

He looked at me, probably expecting a sucker-punch.

I continued: "Let's have a good week, OK?"

He left. And I was left wondering: Is there hope? For a good week? A good year? Is he worth the effort? Can he be saved? Is he the one?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Football weekend lowlights

Dragged a friend to my school's Saturday afternoon football game. Perfect weather: about 65 degrees and sunny. And that was the only perfect thing about it.

Later, over beers, my friend told me just how depressed he was the rest of the day after the game. "See?" I said. "Now maybe you understand what I have to deal with each and every day at work."

Here are some of the highlights from the game:
  • Completed passes by our team: 2
  • Penalties: 10+
  • Injured players: 2
  • Hard hits: Tons
And the lowlights:
  • Number of parents at the game: 3
  • Teachers: 2 (counting me)
  • Alumni: 2
  • Cheerleaders: 0
  • Administrators: 1 (the principal hung out with the team on the sidelines)
My friend now thinks he understands the key to improving city schools: "Parental involvement." Get people to support their children, and you'll get better results, he thinks.

"You don't get it," I said. "That's the problem. It's Saturday, and parents don't come out to the game. And if so few people support their kids on the team, imagine how few support their children academically."

In the end, our team lost, 8-6, but then again, if our team wins or loses, and no one's there to see it, does it really matter?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Motivational signs

Seventh period Friday, my last class of the week. Didn't really feel like being in the classroom, so I decided to do some hall walking. I've got a student teacher that period, so I asked her if she'd be OK if I left. My plan was to snag all the kids coming into class late and force them to walk around with me.

Three fell into my trap. As they walked up to the door, three minutes after the bell, I stopped them. "Nope, too late, you're coming with me." Two of the guys have been late every day this week. The third is the quarterback on our football team, and he protested. "No, come on, I want to learn," he said. "This is my first time late."

"Sorry, man, you picked the wrong day to be late," I said, and off we went. We slowly walked away from the classroom. Got a chance to mingle with the real hall walkers. It's only the second week of school, but we've already got kids not going to class, just wandering around, trying to stay away from security guards.

I wasn't content with just walking around with these guys, so I pulled out some fliers I was supposed to hang on hallway walls. They're little motivational signs that say interesting things like "You can make today better than yesterday" and not-so-interesting things like "Be respectful. Walk" or "Why are you shouting? They're right next to you." I always hated the signs, thought they made the school look cheap. And scolding. But then I accidentally signed up to be on the committee that posts them.

"Here, guys, hang these up," I said.

"What? These stupid things?"

"Get going."

Two guys got rolls of tape, and the third had to hang them up.

"You know that no one reads these things. They're so stupid."

"I'm not the one hanging them up. You guys are, so don't call them stupid."

"You know they're just gonna rip these down."


"I don't know. Them. They just walk down the hall, have nothing to do, so they rip stuff down."

"Yeah," I said. "How does that make you feel? Here you are working so hard, and someone's going to come along and rip it all down."

We noticed one sign that's been up since the start of the school year that no one has touched. It lists all division teachers and their rooms. One of my guys pointed out: "No one's gonna rip that down, it's got the bell schedule on it."

We laughed.

The guy hanging up our signs all of a sudden started posting them high up on the wall. "No one's gonna rip down my signs," he said.

Teachers walked by, laughed. "Is this your idea of detention?" one asked.

The principal walked by, then hung out for 10 minutes. I think my teaching style amuses him. He chatted with the guys, lightheartedly making fun of them.

"So, have you completed a pass this season?" he asked the quarterback. "Interceptions don't count."

"Yeah, had a touchdown last week."

We all laughed.

A teacher poked her head out her door. She saw me. And the principal. Went back in. Five minutes later, she poked her head out again and whispered to me, "Trying to teach here ..."

We moved further down the hall.

"I have a question for you," one of the guys said. "If Bin Laden attacked us, and he's from Saudi Arabia, why are we attacking Iraq?"

And so it went, 46 minutes of talking about politics and war, the football team, mean teachers, how quickly the school year's going already, how it took me two hours to prepare the lesson they're missing, a plan to get to class on time on Monday, and then the bell rang.

"Here," I told the quarterback, "one more."

"Oh man, I'm putting it right here," he said and quickly slapped it up on the wall as students started filling up the hallway. "I'm not gonna let anyone see me putting these up."

Friday, September 14, 2007

Take me out to the ballgame

You know you're in trouble when the athletic director is happy to see you.

"Why, hello!" she said with a giant smile this morning outside the main office. "So the answer is yes, right?"

Darn it! I had been avoiding her since the end of August. That's when she asked if I wanted to coach the boys softball team. I had assisted last year, but swore I wouldn't do it again, swore I'd definitely never be the head coach. Well, the head coach left, and no one was claiming the job.

I thought I had successfully avoided the responsibility, but then the principal cornered me in the office last night.

"So, what about the softball team?" he asked.

"No, please don't make me do it. Please, I'll do anything, wash your car, anything, just don't make me coach again."

"Oh come on," he said. "You know you love it. And besides, the season has already started. You guys are supposed to be playing today, right now."

I told him I'd think about it. And in fact, I did think about it. I thought of a million excuses why I couldn't, why I wouldn't do it. But then I ran into the AD today.

"We've got new uniforms, new equipment, even new balls ready to go," she said.

"Even new balls?" I asked. "You mean I won't have to run to the sporting goods store before games just to buy the game ball?"

"I knew you'd do it. Come on to my office, I'll give you the forms."

One of last year's players is in my fourth period. "You gonna play?" I asked him. "Our first game's next Wednesday."

"Hell yeah," he said. "Who we playing?"

So, the next month will be spent in a frustrating cycle of begging guys to practice, begging guys to get their physicals, begging guys to take the day off work so they can show up for a game, begging them to do their homework so they stay academically eligible, begging them not to leave a mess after games, begging, begging. Yes, begging. Kids don't beg to be on the team. You have to promise them extra credit.

And all you get in return are memories.

I remember my third year coaching, we somehow put together a good team. We lost the first couple of games, then did OK enough to reach the playoffs. Something amazing happened. The players all started listening to us, the two coaches. We came up with a strategy for the first playoff game, and the players pulled it off. We were playing a much bigger and stronger team, but we frustrated them, scratched out just enough runs and made just enough amazing defensive plays to win that game. Our next two playoff games were easier, even though the teams were better.

We finally got knocked out by the previous year's champs, the team that had beaten us earlier in the season by the score of 30-0 or something like that. We lost the playoff game by 2. They had to make an amazing comeback to beat us. How we lost was the most aggravating thing. Our second baseman, the only guy on the team that screwed around during practice and never took us seriously, committed two errors in the last inning to let the tying and winning runs score. I was furious. And I was bummed. I actually was sad, because we had been doing so well, and it ended with a couple of errors. If we had won that game, only one team stood in our way before the city championship. (Chicago, I think, is the only city that even has 16-inch softball as a high school sport, so winning that would've made us national champs. Hell, world champs.)

What made me quit that time was the players' reaction. Ten minutes after the loss, they were goofing around, acting like fools, as if nothing had happened. I tried to make a speech about how happy and sad I was, but they weren't paying attention. So I said, "You know, the only reason you guys made it this far in the playoffs was because you listened to your coaches. And the only reason we're not playing next week is because some of you didn't want to listen."

"Yeah, whatever," one kid said. "We don't need you as much as you think."

The next season, almost all of the starters returned. But with two new coaches. They didn't even make it to the playoffs.


Wait, what is this? My Chicago Teacher Man post, or my speech to the guys that come out for the team tomorrow? Oh well. I'll try not to care. I'll try not to be the only one out there that really, really hates losing. I mean, it's supposed to be fun, isn't it? Winning isn't everything, right?

And even if we get killed, maybe I'll come away with a few good memories. Like this one: Our very first year with a team, the coach and I collected enough guys to show up for the first game. We had never practiced, so on the way to the game we just asked players where they wanted to play.

Our leadoff hitter actually got a hold of the first pitch, sending a line drive into the outfield. "Run!" we screamed. And so he ran.

With his bat.

Straight to second base.

For a second, I thought he was going after the opposing pitcher. But then I realized he thought he was playing cricket. Players run like that in cricket, I guess.

Needless to say, he was out.

I'm hoping that doesn't happen next week. But then again, I'm hoping something entertaining does happen. Because, sucker that I am, I just couldn't say no to the all-of-a-sudden happy athletic director.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Add it up

Today was my first grumpy day of the school year.

Arrived at work to find new rosters in my mailbox. "We're adding 10-15 students to both your second and fourth period classes!" the rosters taunted.

Great. I now have 167 students, divided by five classes, averaging out to 33 students per class. I was bummed. I put so much effort into setting a tone and getting students on track in the first week that any addition or subtraction is unwelcome. Classes were running smoothly. Too smoothly. Damn.

I've got a student teacher working with me for half the day, and she got to hear me bitching about all this. She tried to put a positive spin on the situation. "Now you can do those ice-breaker activities the other teachers were talking about at that meeting yesterday," she said.

OK, I thought. I can look on the positive side of things. But first let me see who rolls in through that door. I didn't get to meet the new kids in second period, because they got their programs after that class in division. Then, fourth period. It started OK. Three or four new students walked in, quietly took seats, and didn't even have to be told to start on the bellringer. I took a deep breath, hoping it was all going to be OK. Then, a pounding on the door, and eight or nine very loud, very obnoxious guys made their entrance.

"No!" I screamed. "Get back in the hallway!" I looked back at my class. "Be back in a flash."

I walked out of the room to confront my newest challenge. "You guys are late," I said, sternly. One started talking, and I interrupted. "Fine, I understand. You just found out today. You got lost. Fine. You can come in. Quietly. We're working in there."

They plopped down all over the place. Weren't about to do anything. So I had to give my don't-mess-with-me speech.

"As everyone can see, we have some new students. Fine. Everyone is welcome in this classroom. Just keep this in mind: You guys are juniors. Some are seniors. You should all know
by now what it takes to do well in school. Look around you. Seventy-five percent of the people in this room, hopefully more, are here to learn, have goals to go to college or get a good job after high school. And no matter what it is you want to do, my job is to make sure everyone improves their reading, writing, speaking, and thinking skills. Everyone. Got it?"

I realized these guys were coming from one particular classroom, from a teacher that I'll call Mr. Oh-No. I don't have the vocabulary or ability to describe just how shitty of a teacher this man is. Students do nothing in his room, unless if you count throwing things at him, telling him to "shut the fuck up," ignoring him, coming in at whatever time they want, and still getting an A. Some students actually love that kind of teacher. So I had to add:

"You know my name. Please do not ever confuse it with Mr. Oh-No, or anyone else. We learn in here. If that's what you want, you've come to the right place."

I looked over at my student teacher. "You mind grabbing all the new students and catching them up on expectations and what they need in class tomorrow? Everyone else and I will review yesterday's quiz."

The class split up. I'm lucky because I actually have a classroom large enough to accommodate 40 students. But I don't even want to get into how our contract caps our class size at 28.

I looked at my kids. "OK, let's look at those quizzes."

"Mr. P, I loved the way this class was. Why did they have to add all these guys?" one girl asked.

"I don't know," I said.

"You jinxed us," another girl said. "Just yesterday you said how happy you were that this class was nice and small."

I looked at everyone. They looked miserable. "How do you think I feel?" I said, looking just as miserable. "I don't want to deal with this stuff either. I mean, I hope things don't change, because I loved this class just the way it was, too. You've all been awesome so far."

We reviewed, and I overheard my student teacher getting good and stern with the new kids. Whip 'em into shape, I silently hoped.

That done, I passed around some books. "We're going to read a play together as a class today," I said. "And then in the next few days, you are all going to get into groups and perform one of the other plays. So this is practice, OK?"

I didn't have enough copies. So, some desks were moved for sharing. We all turned to the first play, "A Slander" by Anton Chekhov. "OK, who wants to be the main character?"

One of the new kids raised his hand. The ringleader. The loudest one of them all. Great, I thought, he just wants to screw around. "This character has the most reading. You cool with that?" I asked. He said he was.

We assigned the other parts, and another boy took the role of the main character's wife. This can be a huge disaster, I thought. But then something happened. They started reading. And they did a great job. No, a fantastic job. The lead character read loudly and clearly, he was cracking up, as was everyone else, and kids were calling out "oh no" and "that idiot" and things like that at the right parts. When the wife's turn came, the boy read it with a hilarious old lady voice, and everyone absolutely loved it. I thought there would be cheering when they finished. There wasn't, but everyone was laughing and talking about the main character, about how he's the one that slandered himself.

I revealed five questions they had to answer about the play, and no one complained; everyone started writing. Then the bell rang, and I heard one of my original kids from the class say, "This is my only class that doesn't drag."

They left, and my next big class came to take up the seats. I was tired. A girl walked in and said, "You're sweating." Yeah, I thought, I just dodged a bullet. Tomorrow I get to see if we can perform similar magic with all the new kids in second period.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sept. 11 conversations

Sometimes I think I don't say the right things.

After second period, one of my first period students comes into the classroom, saying that he forgot something. It's a plastic bag with something in it.

"Looks like it's still there," I say. "I didn't touch the thing."

"Might be dangerous, huh?" he asks.

"Sure," I say.

"Especially because today's Sept. 11," he says.

"Sure," I say. "Might be a bomb or something."

"Especially because I'm Muslim," he says.

"D'oh!" I walked into that one.

So, we don't really do too much to honor Sept. 11, although I notice on the official CPS calendar that today is called "Patriot Day." During division (now known as homeroom), a student reads a prepared statement about the day over the intercom, and then the school rings the bell several times, remembering those who died. My division students (homeroom students) stand respectfully during the bell-ringing and moment of silence. I'm at my computer, trying to enter attendance on our new system.

A girl comes over and asks if I have tissue or paper towels. She has tears streaming down her face.

"You OK?"

"I know that I didn't know anyone in New York," she says, "but I was just remembering that day, and how I didn't know where my mom was, and I was just so scared."

"Do you ... do you want to sit down and talk about it?"

"No, I'll be fine." Then she tells me about some people she knew that did die.

"Listen, do you want me to go get your counselor so that you can talk to someone who knows what he's doing?"

"No, that's OK."

"Do you want to go get a drink of water?"

"No, I'm fine."

"How about some candy? Here, I got these at a Korean grocery store."

"Yeah!" she says, smiling.

She stops by again after school. "You feeling better?" I ask.


"Do you want to talk?"

"No, but can I have another one of those candies?"

We chat a little about how the candy gets stuck to your teeth if you try to chew it. You've got to let it melt. She's smiling. She's OK. On her way out, she walks over to me, leans over, and gives me a quick, little hug. "Thanks!" she says. "Thanks!" I say right back.

Everyone could probably use a hug today.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A story about yesternight

My niece is becoming something of a celebrity among students. I wrote a few days back about how students see her picture and get all gooey-eyed. But then I made the mistake of actually telling a story about her in class. Now kids I don't even teach are coming into my classroom and talking about her.

When I started teaching, I made this solemn statement and vow: I hate teachers that spend class time talking about their own children and/or pets. I will never become one of those teachers.

Well, as in most things in life, never say never. I don't have any children, so I can't talk about them. I do have a cat, and I have mentioned her from time to time. But here's what used to bother me: I could make a tiny little mention about my cat, and then months later students would still be asking, "So, how's your cat?" But I think I've figured this out: Having a child, or a niece, or even a cat, makes the teacher a little more human to these students. And they are desperately looking for some kind of human connection.

Anyway, as most English teachers, I have a Word Wall up in my room. It's a place where we can hang newly learned vocabulary. To introduce my Word Wall and to get them to do some creative thinking, I told this story:

"I was talking to my niece recently. She's about three and a half. And if you have any young kids around you, you know that little kids just love to talk. But they sometimes don't know the right word, so what do they do? They tell you the story anyway."

As I'm talking, I can see most kids listening, smiling, making some comment, like: "Yeah, I've got a little brother. He just won't shut up." Things like that.

I continue: "Well, my niece was telling me about some movie, I think it was Cars."

Half the students are now chattering about Cars, about how they've seen it and think it's great.

"I asked her when she saw it, and she said, 'I saw it yesternight.'" I pause. "Now, is that a real word? If I open up ... this dictionary, will I find yesternight?"

We discover as a class that "yesternight" is not in our dictionaries, even though we can find it online, but it's not in common usage, so we can't say it's a real word, but we conclude that we don't care, because it makes sense, we understand what she meant, and in fact, we like it because it's specific. "She didn't see the movie in the day, when the sun was out," one student sums it up nicely. "She saw it at night. So, it wasn't yesterday, it was yesternight!"

This leads to a discussion about how little children are often smarter than teenagers; well, maybe not smarter, but definitely less afraid of making mistakes.

"When you're older, you're afraid of what people are going to think when you make a mistake," one tough-looking dude says, and I wonder if this guy is really afraid of what anyone else says about him.

"Well," I say. "Today, I want you to make mistakes. Retreat back to your childhood, and make something up. No one will laugh." The assignment is to create five new words in English, words that aren't in the dictionary but that make sense anyway. The best ones will go on the Word Wall.

After school, I'm hanging out with a student I taught last year, and he's telling me how much he loves A Clockwork Orange, and I'm wondering if it was really a good idea to tell high school juniors about that movie. One of my homeroom students comes in with two friends. I did not tell my "yesternight" story to my homeroom students, so she doesn't know about my niece, but her friends want to see my Word Wall anyway.

"There it is," one of the girls says, "yesternight!"

"Oh, I know," the other one says. "Your niece was talking about a movie, and you asked her when she saw it, and she said, 'yesternight.' See? And I'm not even one of your students!"

"I'm impressed," I say.

"I'm going to be in your class next year," she says.

"Yeah," I say, thinking, wow, some stories travel fast. "And I'm going to have to come up with new stories about my niece."

Oh crap

"So I hear you scared the crap out of one of your students."

I've walked over to a colleague's classroom to find out if the gossip is true. She looks startled. "What?"

"I heard you literally scared the crap out of someone last week," I say. She looks at me confused, so I ask, "Didn't some kid crap his pants in your classroom last week?" These are the kinds of things one hears. I try not to believe anything I hear, especially if a teenager tells me something juicy. But this one got me to leave the safety of my classroom, to brave the hallways, just to find out the truth.

"Oh my God," she says, and tells me the story. I thought it would be a funny one. But as soon as I figure out who the boy was, I immediately feel bad. This is an 18-year-old, very low functioning boy that I taught last year. Well, tried to teach. Something is seriously wrong with him, though I'm not sure what. Most kids steer clear of him, but I guess after the accident last week, right in the middle of seventh period, they've been merciless.

I don't know how I would've handled the situation. I've had kids pass out, have fits, bleed, run out of the room crying. But this? Just another thing that you can never be prepared for.

Monday, September 10, 2007

In their own private canoes

It's 1 a.m., and I just woke up from a dream about my students. First time this has happened this school year. Probably not the last. And this I deserve. Yesterday, I was talking to a first-year teacher, and she said that she gets these all-night dreams about her new job.

"Ah, first-week-of-school stress," I said.

"Yeah, don't you hate when that happens? You wake up tired, like you haven't slept at all."

"Nah, I love those kinds of dreams. They sometimes help me figure things out," I said. "But it doesn't happen to me anymore. No stress."

So, let's see if I remember what happened in this dream, which I'm gonna say has nothing at all to do with stress:

I'm out canoeing with one of my classes. It's a beautiful afternoon. At one point, I want them to gather together for a couple of minutes, just so I can tell them about their grades after the first week in my class. I'm proud because I thought of a new evil plan: I'm going to pretend I'm really mad at a few students. I'll call their names and declare that they are troublemakers. "These seven kids," I'm planning to say, "currently have an average higher than 100 percent in my class. And I want to know, what's wrong with you seven? Are you trying to ruin my reputation as a tough teacher?" In truth, there already are a couple of students failing after the first week, but I want to focus on the ones doing well. I want to acknowledge their hard work early on (too often we teachers focus on the ones not doing the work and just assume the hard workers will continue with no recognition). But I also want everyone to see that an A+ is possible.

The plan is to continue: "What's your secret to getting good grades? Are you paying me or something?" I'm hoping that they'll say no, there's no secret, that they just did the work. Funny as it sounds, the students failing probably just don't know how to be a good student. "OOOHHH ... I'm supposed to actually turn in those things you've been talking about?"

Anyway, this is all still in the dream. I really make plans like this in dreams, then hope I remember them in the morning, but I rarely write things down so I rarely remember. This one I should remember, even this part:

I'm trying to round up the kids, but they're all in their own private canoes, and only one or two stop to hear what I have to say. I'm upset because the rest are not listening. And because they're spoiling my planned rant. But then I realize that it's such a beautiful day, and it's my fault for letting them go off on their own without a plan. Oh yeah, I just remembered this detail: It looks like we're in the Florida Keys, canoeing around trees and vegetation, watching all sorts of sea life. Why would they stop to listen to me?

And that's about when I woke up.

I have a "dream" book in my classroom. I'll have to look this up, find out what a dream means when it's about canoes and students not listening. Meanwhile, is there a dream expert out there that can help?

24 Hours Later: Well, it's happened again. Fell asleep a little early last night, because I was tired from a long day and a lack of sleep, and now it's 1 a.m. again and I'm awake again. Don't remember any dreams this time, thankfully. Oh, but I'm happy to report that my evil little plan worked--the good kids were very freaked out when I called their names and said they're in trouble. Then, a big explosion of relief when I gave them my line about having a 100+ percent average. Students that really care about their grades are just so cute.

I break into the top 10

I recently learned that there are now only 10 teachers in my department. There used to be 15 or 16. Our school has had a drop in enrollment in recent years, so when teachers retire or quit, they're not replaced. Anyway, it takes me a while to find out about these kinds of things because I make up any excuse possible to avoid department meetings. But now that I know this little fact, I proudly tell my students:

"You are being taught by one of the ten best English teachers at this school. It's a fact."

Makes them feel better about being stuck with me, I'm sure.

Friday, September 07, 2007

I hate teenagers

This afternoon, just like every couple of weeks, this happens: A student comes over to my desk, sees a photo hanging on my filing cabinet, and says, "Awww ... she's so cute! Is that your daughter?"

"Nope," I answer. "That's my niece. I don't have any children."

"Why not?" the student asks. It's a girl asking the question, and at 16 or 17, the one thing she knows is that she eventually wants a child, or several. "Don't you like kids?"

"Oh, I love children," I say, "but then they turn into teenagers. And I hate teenagers!" I try to keep a straight face, look stern. But I'm busted anyway.

"No, you don't! You love us!"

If I do, it's definitely a love-hate thing. I mean, I hate them because they're young. And I'm getting old. And they're wasting their youth. And if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have wasted my youth. And I would've listened when some older person gave me advice. But I realize that, if anyone really was giving me advice, I wasn't listening, and so why should they?

I hate the ones that aren't wasting their youth, too, because they're reckless. Or stupid. Or do things I've never done. And they're definitely not taking education seriously, because they're out there living, too busy to read, to do homework. And, more than anything, I hate them because they sometimes won't shut up, especially when telling me about something I really don't want to hear.

Case in point: A couple of years ago, one of the nicest guys I have ever taught told me about prom night. This was a kid I had known for three years. He was polite. He was something of a mama's boy. A little shy. Soft spoken. Basically, he was the kind of boy I wouldn't mind my daughter dating if I had a daughter. But then again.

"Hey, so how was prom?" I remember asking him on the Monday after. He said it was OK, but there was something about the way he looked that made me think he had more to say. "What did you guys do afterwards?" I shouldn't have asked.

He smiled. He tried not to say anything, then struggled with himself. Finally, in a whisper, he said, "Um, we ... we had an orgy." I didn't say anything, but he continued, saying how there was liquor, then someone taking off clothes, then a whole mess of nakedness. The weird thing about him telling the story was that he wasn't bragging, he wasn't excited, or trying to get me to high-five him or anything. He had just done something remarkable, and he really, really wanted to tell someone. It's probably something he would never tell his mother. Teacher, though, why not?

The only thing I could think of saying was, "Oh man ... I hope you used protection." He swore he did, said he made sure everyone did.

I've gotten better at steering clear of certain topics. If I sense something is about to be said, I change the subject, cut the kid off, run out of the room screaming, something. I've also gotten better at lecturing kids, sounding like a parent, being a voice of reason. I scold them, threaten to call their mother, take the side of the family, or teacher, or whoever is being complained about. And then, on the weekends, when I talk about my job with anyone who isn't a teacher, I end up talking about "my kids." And so, that's the way it goes. Even when you choose not to be a father, you end up with something like 150 kids each year. Sheesh. I hate 'em.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Day 2 Q's

The bell rings, students shuffle out of the room, heading off to their next classes, except one boy, who comes over. "I have a question," he says.

All right, I think, I'm ready. He's going to ask if he can get an extension on tonight's assignment. Or maybe he's wondering if I'll really give him supplies for class--everyone needs a binder, notebook, paper, and pens by tomorrow, but I've announced that I've got plenty to spare if anyone needs one. Or maybe he has a question about his program, his classes, my class policies, the grading scale, the ACT, something, anything I've talked about these first two days.

Of course it's none of the above, but before I get to it, I have a few questions myself, here on Day 2. Questions like: Will the new multimillion-dollar attendance software system work anytime soon? Why are 25 of the 31 students in my honors English III class female? What are we saying about the boys in this school? Should I call the homes of all the students that made it yesterday but are absent today? What about the kids who refused to work today? Should I call them, make a statement? Should I vote for the new contract? And, as one union guy asked, am I ready to strike?

I can't worry too much about these minor issues of life, though, because a student has a question:

"Would it be OK for me to bring a gallon of milk to class?"

Milk? A gallon?? "Why would you want to do that?" I ask.

"I get thirsty."

"Yeah, but milk?" (I'm a soy milk drinker myself, so the idea of a gallon of cow's milk in my 90+ degree fifth period classroom sort of, kind of makes my stomach churn.)

"I drink a lot of milk," he says. Yeah, he's a pretty big kid, and I can't imagine anything less healthy.

"Why not water?" I ask. "Or juice? I mean, it's really hot in here. I mean, a gallon of milk?"

"Well, OK, how about half a gallon?"

I tell him I'll think about it.

Official school policy is that there are to be no food or drinks in the classroom, but when it's hot like this, what am I really supposed to say to a thirsty kid? And, well, if we have vending machines in the building, and the proceeds supposedly go to the school, shouldn't we actually encourage students to buy more and drink wherever they want? These are the questions I think about on Day 2. I have an answer for most of them. But milk?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Golden Rule of the first day

Ask a hundred teachers for their advice to the novice teacher, and 101 of them will say: "Whatever you do on the first day of school, do NOT smile." Apparently, you've got to act tough, no matter how weak you feel. As I am no longer a novice teacher, I too have advice, and it's only slightly different. I say to the novice teacher: "Whatever you do on the first day, do NOT smile ... at your own jokes."

Yeah, so today was the first day, the computer system was down so we couldn't take attendance (and we already got rid of the old blue books!), there were hundreds of sleepy faces to contend with, and I thought to myself, "They're still quiet, some are actually listening, what a great chance to test out some of my new material." Let's just say that teenagers are a tough crowd. There I was, sweating away in my unairconditioned room, pacing around, explaining my bellringer and how it'll improve their ACT scores, assigning seats, trying to remember names (of hopefully good kids as well as troublemakers), cracking jokes, and never once smiling. I was the bomb. Or did I bomb? Whatever.

My best joke (and also least politically correct one) goes like this: I ask how many students had part time jobs over the summer, followed up by how many plan to keep those jobs now that the school year has started. I ask them if they make decent money. Then I ask, "How many of you would like to earn $200,000 in the next two years?" This is me trying to be motivational on the first day of classes to a room of juniors. Some are interested. I tell them about the three or four kids last year that got full-ride scholarships. "At many universities these days, that means about $50,000 a year, making the scholarship worth $200,000 or more," I say. "And all you have to do is work hard this year, raise those GPA's, get a decent ACT score, and you can get that money, too. And you don't have to be the number one or two kid in the graduating class," I say. "Just about anyone can get that kind of scholarship."

Some kids seem interested, and I can almost sense a few making silent vows to actually buckle down and work hard. But then in every class, some kid has to say, "Oh man, I thought you were talking about $200,000 cash."

"What's the difference? This is better than cash," I say, "because this way, you get a great education. And you don't need a part-time job if you take your job as a student seriously."

Some heads nod in agreement, others nod off. But at least no one's disruptive, and I'm hoping that the troublemakers are seeing that this is a teacher not to mess with. So I have to go in for a joke.

"Hey, here's a homework assignment for tonight. Go home and ask your parents if they make $100,000 a year. Ask them, and then tell them that you can make that much this year and next. Heck, I don't make that much money." I pause, then appear to think things over. "In fact, if your Mom makes that much money, and if she's single, why don't you tell her about your cool English teacher? Then maybe I can marry her and quit this job."

I let that sink in. Then go for the kill: "Can you imagine calling me Dad?"

If there's one thing that is guaranteed to gross out a room full of tough, inner-city kids, it's the thought of their Mom marrying their Teacher Man. But they don't know how to react. After all, it's the first day of class, and I'm not smiling.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Just Go!

As I walk from the laundromat to my local bar, I am reminded that tomorrow is the first day of school. First day of school for the kids, first day of work for me. I am reminded by signs stuck in the median and on corners, signs similar to ones seen around election time. "Just Go! To School" these signs say. And I think, yes, what a great slogan for the city youth. Nothing about studying. Nothing about achieving. Nothing about striving for anything. Just go.

I am spending time at the laundromat because I am trying to wash my comforter, and it won't fit in my home washing machine. I am trying to wash my comforter because of something I saw on Oprah this morning, something about billions of dust mites living in my bed and causing me to wheeze. And this is why I am glad the summer is over and the school year is beginning: I've been reduced to watching Oprah and freaking out about everything I see.

And so a new year is about to begin. I should be writing lesson plans. I should be thinking of new ways of reaching my students, new ways of teaching to the test. But instead I'm worried about dust mites. Oh well, I don't really need to worry about my classes this week, as long as my students and I remember to Just Go!

I'm thinking, though, of ways the signs in the streets could inspire my students.

Just Go! ...

... and make your teachers' lives miserable! (Well, more so than they already are.)

... and get away from your parent(s)/guardian(s)!

... and get a free lunch!

... and get a 14 on the ACT!

OK, OK, this is a negative way to start the new year. So, now that it's out of my system, I will make a public vow: This year I will be positive. I will look on the sunny side of whatever life and teenagers throw at me. I will do my best, and at the end of every day, I will do my darnedest to write about it here, whatever happens.

All you have to remember is to Just Go! to this blog once in a while.