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?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Because I can

NOT an educational field trip

On Friday, I told my students that I wouldn't be at school Monday.

A student asked: "Where will you be?"

I answered: "Out of town."

Someone else said: "You're always going out of town."

"Yup," I said, remembering that I've told my students about recent trips to Madison, to San Francisco, to San Diego. Now Denver. I usually try not to miss any school days, but this time it couldn't be helped.

Another student asked: "Are you rich?"

"No," I said. "But I do have a job."

"Yeah, but you're always going somewhere. How can you afford it?"

"Well, I'm addicted," I said. "Some people spend their money on drugs. Or partying. Or nice cars or clothes. I save up and spend money on travel."

"That's cool," a girl said. "I want to do that."

"Tell you what. Go to college, then get yourself a good job that will allow you to live however you want."

I am always trying to talk up college. Which is why I don't mind telling students about my life. "Partying is dumb when you're a teenager," I say. "Wait until college, then you'll see what partying is. And wait until you have a real job and can afford to go places, to see and experience the world. That's what I call a world party." Does it work? Who knows.

Anyway, I'm always thinking of escaping Chicago, and I know some people with education-related connections in Denver, so this weekend was a good chance to see what's there. Apparently, there are jobs, as one friend told me, for "someone like you." So I have to put Denver near the top of my list.

The main point, however, was to party. One of my students, walking out the door Friday, said, "Get drunk for us, OK?"

"For you?! Why would I do that?"

"Because we can't ... and you can."

So, it wasn't my fault. I drank for my students. And I drank because I can.

Saturday night was spent on a double-decker bus, driving around the city to random bars. Everyone on the bus had to be in costume. It looked a little like this:

I wore a beer keg costume. It was cheap and easy, and proved to be a hit, although some people called me Tin Man and several women asked why I had a penis pump on my head. How I bought the costume is a student-related story, as just about every single one of my stories is these days: Last week, I went to Target to see what they had. One of my current students works there, took me over to the costume section. There was only one adult costume left, the beer keg. I thought, wow, destiny. At checkout, a former student was the cashier. She looked at the costume and asked, "Mr. P., is this for you?" I sheepishly nodded. "It's very appropriate," she said.

Anyway, at one point Saturday, I switched costumes with a friend. Here he is, wearing my costume (I don't have any photos of myself that aren't potentially embarrassing to someone):

Sunday night, some friends and I went downtown to see if we could sneak into Game 4 of the World Series. We could have ... for about $500. So, instead, we went to a rooftop bar across the street from Coors Field:

We laughed when we saw a Japanese news crew at the bar. Guess they couldn't get in, either. Always ready to make international connections, one of my buddies went over to interview the interviewers:

Well, it's back to work tomorrow. And back to planning the next trip. Let's see, Thanksgiving weekend is coming up ...

Friday, October 26, 2007

Where in the world is Chicago Teacher Man?

Note to my 13 loyal readers: I might not post until next Tuesday. Will be out of town until Monday night. But feel free to comment on previous posts. And check in, as I might post something if I find a computer.

Anyway, here are a couple of pictures I took today. Can you guess where I took them?

This second one has a clue as to my destination.

Answer is in the comments.

Motivational sign for our students

What does that make today??

Thursday, October 25, 2007

How To Bust A Cheater

Paranoid Teacher Man presents the first in a series of guides to the profession.
Today: How To Bust A Cheater

"But I work for CPS," you say. "My kids don't cheat. They don't really care if they pass the test or not."

True that. But remember, as a teacher, your livelihood depends on certain idealistic ideals, such as thinking that you can make a difference in someone's life, that your students remember anything about your class for more than 30 seconds after the bell rings, and that they care so much that they will do anything to get an A. Without these dreams, what do you have? A big paycheck? Ha!

So, you must assume certain things:
  • Your students really want to pass today's test.
  • They formed study groups in the past several days, met at local libraries, and studied until closing time.
  • They brewed pots of coffee, sat in front of computers all night, bleary eyed, in chat rooms and on the Internet, looking for more knowledge.
  • They have created an ingenious and never-before-created system of cheating.
  • You can, and must, defeat these cheaters.
Got it? So ... when you start passing out the test, and about half the students say, "What? We got a test today?" (and the other half appear to be not even paying attention), realize that their reaction is really either A) the result of being so tired from pulling an all-nighter, or B) part of the cheating plan. That's right. They are trying to get you to let down your guard. Don't be fooled.

Look around the room. Every single adolescent has something up his or her sleeve, figuratively and probably literally.

How do students cheat? They signal questions and answers to each other when you least suspect it. Here are a few tell-tale signs to watch for and solutions to the problems:
  • Coughing in bursts. Count the coughs. Each one represents an answer choice. Example: Three quick coughs mean "C" is the correct answer. SOLUTION: Give a zero to any student that asks for a cough drop.
  • Sneezing. And, worse yet, saying "bless you." Listen carefully. You're not that old. Your hearing is still sharp. They're not really saying "bless you" when someone sneezes; in fact, it's probably something like "sixteen" or "Shakespeare." SOLUTION: Give every sneezer a tissue with a big red F written on it.
  • Stretching. Is that kid that's been writing an essay for 15 minutes really shaking out his hand? Or is he sending coded hand signals? You may be thinking it's impossible to send hand signals during an essay test. Oh, really. Is it? SOLUTION: Instruct students to stretch their fingers inside their pockets.
  • Wearing glasses. Isn't it just a little suspicious that the girl that's always squinting at the board is all of a sudden wearing glasses on the day of the test? That's because those aren't regular glasses. They probably have some sort of video camera attachment. SOLUTION: Only allow students to wear contact lenses.
  • Falling asleep. You might be shocked to see a couple of students quickly scribble something on their paper and place their heads on their desks and go to sleep. You are so gullible. As soon as you turn away, thinking the danger of cheating has passed, these "sleepers" open their eyes and cheat their way to a perfect score. SOLUTION: Kick out sleepers. Let them roam the halls for the remainder of the period. Put a zero on their papers.
If all appears quiet on the testing front, sit at your desk, and without looking at anyone in particular, say quietly but confidently, "I can see what you're doing." The guilty party will look up. If several heads look up, you have just uncovered an entire ring of cheaters. Once uncovered, these cheaters must be busted.

Follow these steps, and you should eliminate all cheating in the room. Plus, you'll have very few papers to grade tonight.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Two minutes of terror

One of the greatest things about having a student teacher (other than sitting on my butt doing nothing) is that I can closely observe students. It's weird. When you're up in front of a class, you try to monitor everyone, and by doing so, you rarely focus on anyone. If you do keep looking at one kid, he or she will eventually say, "I didn't do it!"

Today, before handing in some assignment, students were asked to briefly explain what they had done. The first pair of guys, athletes, proudly stood up and talked. When finished, one of them said, "We'd like to thank our classmates for listening to our presentation." A couple of kids laughed.

Next, two girls were asked to present. They didn't want to. I looked over. Both were nervously smiling, trying to hide behind their papers, mouthing, "No!"

"Oh come on," the teacher coaxed. "It's no big deal. Just tell us what you found out."

By the way the girls acted, though, it was a big deal. A very big deal. Both are usually quiet. Their spoken English isn't the best. The worst thing in the world for them is to be forced to talk in front of the class. Eventually, though, with a little more coaxing, they spoke. They stammered. They giggled nervously. They were barely audible. But they spoke.

Wondering how the others were responding, I scanned the classroom. It seemed that only five students were actually listening. Three had heads down. Two played with their pens. One was secretly checking her cell phone. A few were trying to finish up their own assignments.

"Stand up," a girl said to the two. "You have to stand up to present!"

The girls shook their heads. "You don't have to stand if you don't want to," the teacher said.

In less than two minutes it was over. They finished, were told, "good job" and got a half-hearted smattering of applause. The world hadn't changed. But at least their little crisis, their two minutes of terror was over, and they could return to their silent anonymity.

"Hey," one of the football players said. "No one clapped for us!"

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A social studies teacher asked when the Great Depression took place ...

... and one of her students replied, "Last week, when I got my progress report."

This was a good joke from our principal at our last staff meeting. He followed it with four or five lamer ones. As the school year moves on, I am realizing that I work for Michael Scott on "The Office."

I bet everyone works with or for a Michael, which is why we can all relate.

Monday, October 22, 2007

I don't know

It's that time of the year. The juniors don't believe me, but the seniors are already filling out college and scholarship applications, getting letters of recommendation, writing personal essays. So far, I've had a couple of former students stop by for help. One kid has already shown me four versions of his personal essay. With each one, I say, "It's good! But to make it great, you need to ..." He follows most of my advice, adds, deletes, changes things around, and eventually he'll have a really nice essay. I wish more students were like that. But this kid is something else.

Get this: He was born in Tanzania, then lived in Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and India before moving to Chicago. His dad works for the Indian government, so he moves all over the world with the family. Those are the kinds of students I am lucky enough to work with.

Now get this: Despite this student being very worldly and coming from a very educated background, he still knows very little about what is possible when it comes to college. When we last spoke about his essay, I asked him where he was applying. Loyola. U of I. Places near here.

I asked him, "Are your parents telling you to study somewhere near Chicago?"

"No, not really. They said I can go wherever I'm accepted."

"Then are you applying to Chicago-area schools because you're in love with Chicago?"

"No. I don't know."

In my room was another student, a Filipino girl in the same exact situation. Her family moved here last year, her parents will let her go anywhere she wants, and she's applying to local schools.

"Do either of you love the winter here?" I asked.

"No, last year was so freezing," she said.

"I don't mind the snow," he said.

I sat them down in front of a computer, and we started looking at possibilities. California for her. Vermont or Colorado for him. They were worried about out-of-state tuition. I showed them that private schools like Loyola have no such thing. "There are schools like Loyola in every state," I told them. "You should choose a school based on what you want to study. And where you want to live for the next four years."

Their "homework" was to research schools and states. Then, tomorrow, they have to report back to me.

I was reminded of this conversation yesterday when a friend of mine asked me why I had chosen to go to Northern Illinois University. When I answered "I don't know," he said that that wasn't a good enough reason. But I've been thinking about it. And I really don't have a good reason why I chose that school and not another.

Neither of my parents had gone to college, so they were no help. My brother was off in boot camp when I was deciding. I went to a giant high school where I met with a counselor exactly once in four years. So, when it was time to apply to college, I didn't know what I was doing. I actually did apply to the U of I but was rejected because I had filled out the application wrong. Oh well.

When I look at my students now, I can understand how little they know about the whole process. And I try to help. And while I can't go back in time and choose to attend school in California or Vermont or Colorado, I can push my students in those directions. Maybe they'll still choose badly, but hopefully they won't say "I don't know" when they're asked about their major life choices.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Looking out for Number 1

Teachers burn out. Teachers turn cynical. Teachers start treating their job as a job, swiping in and out at the bell. Teachers become union people, thinking about their paycheck and job security. There are a million ways that teachers go bad. I'm on a mission to keep it positive, to focus on the students, to avoid the pitfalls of the profession.

Are you, too, wondering how to keep the flame of idealism lit? Just follow these steps:

1. Walk to work. Or take public transportation. Or, if you must drive, park several blocks away and walk from there. Become one with the city, the neighborhood. The sounds, the smells, these are the things you want to preserve. Say hello to the dog walkers. To the students showing up early for before-school activities. Feed a squirrel. Read the graffiti and see if you recognize the handwriting. Clear your head. Think of all those papers you neglected to mark last night and come up with an excuse for the students. Make it a personal excuse. They love hearing things like, I had a fight with my girlfriend/wife/lover.

2. Show up to work early. Avoid the teachers in the main office that arrive right before the school day begins. They are the ones that get your day off to a rotten start with comments about the lousy parking situation, the noise in the hallway, the asthma they have because of the crumbling walls in their classrooms. In fact, if you can, swipe in, empty your mailbox, and head out of the office before the principal's secretary or some assistant principal can spot you and ask for your lesson plans. Run for the safety of your classroom.

3. Turn up some loud music. Make it something that will wake you up. Make it something annoying enough that will prevent your co-workers from stopping by. And something cool enough to repulse all but the coolest of your students. Lately, it's been the Clash for me, but also the new Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem, Daft Punk.

4. Drink way too much coffee.

5. When students start trickling in, insist on high-fiving them. This will warm up their hearts and get blood pumping into their hands, which they will then use to write fascinating yet error-filled essays and poems.

6. Never, ever take yourself seriously. Understand that if you take yourself seriously in a room full of teenagers, there will be exactly one person in the room who thinks you're a serious and intelligent individual. Be willing to laugh at yourself when you spill coffee on the front of your pants--"Whoops! Looks like I've had an accident!"--or when you trip over a power cord. If you're laughing, their laughter won't hurt.

7. When you discover that not a single student is listening to you, realize that this is excellent practice for your next role in life: The Crazy Guy On The Bus Talking That Everyone Pretends Not To Hear. Start saying outlandish things. One or two kids will listen and laugh, and the rest will wonder what they're missing.

8. Eat your lunch in your classroom. Avoid the food and people hanging out in the teachers' cafeteria. They will poison your sandwich with gossip about pregnant girls and losers and drug dealers and drunks and hall walkers. Instead, invite those castoffs into your classroom during lunch and have plenty of tissue on hand for when the tears start flowing--theirs and yours.

9. After school, sit at your desk and grade some papers. Until one or two heads pop in your room. Then, talk for hours about dreams and goals and college life and girls and the weekend. Teenagers will keep you young. They will make you realize that you wasted your youth, just the way they are wasting theirs. And you will realize that, maybe you're wasting your adulthood on adult things. So you will leave work with a new sense of purpose to experience new things, to go out there and live, to never again regret wasting a beautiful or even not-so-nice evening.



Walking out of school today, I ran into this really great colleague of mine--an older guy that's always smiling, always looking on the bright side of things. He's a career-changer. Has only been teaching for a couple of years. He coaches several teams. Sometimes he rides his bicycle to work.

"You know, sometimes I think about these kids," he said, pointing at a group of girls putting up an activities calendar near the cafeteria, "and I realize, they actually pay me to do this job."

I thought about my pain-in-the-ass kids. And then I thought about the vast majority of my kids that crack me up, that want to learn, that give my life a purpose. And I thought, for a teacher, there's a lot more good than bad. It was a good way to end the day.

All tied up

The first few students that saw me today gave me odd looks.

"What's the occasion?" one asked.
"Why are you all dressed up?" someone else said.
From another: "Wow, big date later?"
And then, my favorite: "Oh my God, you look like a Republican!"

The occasion? I wore a tie today. This was the first time wearing one--and probably the first time tucking in a shirt--all school year. Usually, I'm Casual Man. Sweater or polo, pair of khakis, and Doc Martens or Chuck Taylors. Today, I was going on a field trip to the Steppenwolf to see a production of "The Elephant Man." And I felt like looking good. So I put on a shirt and tie.

Students weren't the only ones to comment. "Ooh, don't you look nice?" said just about every female teacher in the building. Guys started talking about the politics of wearing a tie.

"It's a symbol of male authority," said one teacher that always wears a tie.

"It's too intimidating to the population at this school, so I don't even wear one for report card pick-up," said another.

"Hey, you look GQ," said a fat guy that always wears a too-tight, short-sleeved shirt and tie.

Since everyone started asking what the occasion was, I decided to have some fun. "I have a job interview after school today," I started saying to anyone who asked.

"What? Why?"

"Because I want to work at a school where students are respectful ... and turn in their work on time."

"Are you serious?"

"Of course I'm serious. I want to work somewhere where students take me seriously."

Kids were divided. Was I serious? Or just kidding around? And why would I spread rumors about myself?

I went off to the theater, came back, and ran into some students that hadn't been on the field trip.

"Where were you today?" one asked. "And why are you all dressed up?"

"Oh, I just got back from a job interview," I said.

"Really? Are you leaving?" a girl asked.

"Yeah, he's telling the truth," a boy answered. "I heard earlier that he's leaving."

That rumor was easy to start and spread. I just wonder who might have given him that phony information.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Not to be confused with the video game

I taught this one kid two years ago--a big, slow kid who had a hard time showing up to class, an even harder time staying awake when he did. He failed.

Imagine my surprise when he showed up in my class again at the start of this school year. Same kid. Still big, still slow. But it seemed he was finally determined to do his work, to pass, to graduate. He had an agenda book, and he diligently wrote down assignments and due dates. Three weeks into school he asked me about a zero I had given him. I keep my gradebook online, and he was one of only a few kids to actually check it to see his grade. Anyway, he was working hard. He was on his way to succeeding.

Then he disappeared.

I tried to call his house, but the number was disconnected. I thought about talking to his football coach, but I couldn't track him down. Was this kid injured? Sick? Or finally sick of school?

He showed up today. Stuck around after class to find out what he was missing.

"So, where have you been?" I asked.
"Um, I was locked up."
"You were? Why? Oh wait, nevermind, it's probably none of my business. But is everything OK?"
"Yeah, I think so."

I tried to keep it professional. I tried not to be curious. But of course I broke down and asked why he had been locked up.

"Well, I was just hanging out with the wrong crowd," he said. "Wrong place at the wrong time."
"What happened? What did your friends do?"
"They picked me up. We were driving around," he said. "Then my friend got pulled over. Turns out the car was stolen."
"What were you charged with?"
"Grand theft auto."

As I pried and he filled me in on the details, I couldn't help thinking, yeah, it's not your fault. You had nothing to do with any of it. You're innocent, your friends are the bad ones. But then again, with him, maybe it's true.

"I've been trying to be good," he said.
"I know. You've been doing great this year."
"And these guys had drugs. But I don't even smoke anymore. Because I'm on the team."
"So, let me ask you this: Why did you guys get pulled over?"
"Because my friend can't even drive. And he was high."

We actually laughed, thinking about some stupid kid that can't drive, swerving around while stoned.

We chatted for a few more minutes. I learned this about my student:
  • he has no prior convictions.
  • he doesn't have a lawyer.
  • his court date is in a few weeks.
  • he has been charged as an adult.
  • he has no idea what might happen next.
Oh man. He had been doing so well. I'd like to believe him. I'd like to believe that he didn't know the car was stolen, that he was just sitting in the back seat, oblivious, sober. I'd also like to believe that he won't become just another statistic. But it really seems like he's heading in that direction. Straight to a dead end.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Gut check time

One thing about city kids is that they can be brutally honest. They never try to kiss your ass; instead, they do the opposite. They kick your ass with blunt, merciless, painful truth. Lecture for more than five minutes? You hear the yawns and see the heads plop onto desks. Tell a stupid joke and someone will say, "That was a stupid joke." Ask the tardy students why they were late or the slackers why they didn't do their homework, and they'll tell you, "Because I didn't feel like being on time" or "Because I didn't feel like doing it."

This is in direct contrast with what I saw in the suburbs, where I did my student teaching a long, long ago. I can still remember hearing so much B.S., fielding so many insincere compliments, dealing with so many attempts at extra credit. Maybe things have changed, maybe kids everywhere are honest nowadays, but I'll take my honest city kids any day.

I am reminded of a bit of painful truth a student dished out a couple of years ago as I read about National School Lunch Week on mothertalkers. Among other facts discussed there today are these:
  • Children born in the year 2000 will be the first in our country's history to die at a younger age than their parents.
  • More than 35 percent of our nation's children are overweight, 25 percent are obese, and 14 percent have type 2 diabetes, a condition previously seen primarily in adults.
Apparently, there's some connection between all this unhealth and school lunches. Anyone who has ever been to a public high school cafeteria knows the connection. Here's my anecdotal evidence ...

Several years back, after class, as students were heading out of my room, a guy hung back and said, "Can I give you some advice? Don't ever wear that sweater again."

Later on I looked in a mirror and saw what he meant. It was a fairly snug black sweater that perfectly accentuated my skinny frame and quickly expanding waistline. I looked horrible. I had to act fast before I had a gigantic gut.

In about three months, the gut was all but gone. I don't have a flat stomach or anything, but I don't have a major gut either. Maybe if I exercised more, I could get rid of another inch or so, but the main thing is, I got rid of the gut. My secret diet?

I stopped drinking Coke.

I stopped eating school lunches.

At night and on weekends, I continued eating pizza, drinking beer, being lazy. But by bringing in a lunch from home and not eating the slop that's forced onto students and teachers, I quickly and easily lost two inches from my stomach.

Students no longer tell me not to wear certain sweaters. Instead, every once in a while, someone says, "You look pretty good for your age." And I know they're telling the truth. So I ask, "Do you maybe have a single mom or aunt who might be interested?"

And they roll their eyes and say, "That was a stupid joke."

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Wake-up calls for all, part 2

I have a broken alarm clock in my school bag. For some reason, it's been crushed by books and folders and my laptop these last couple of weeks. For some reason, I've forgotten to take it out, so there it is, crushed and now broken. For some reason? No reason? No wait, there was a reason I packed the alarm clock and took it to work. There had to be.

I remember seeing a student for the first time in a week. This was two weeks ago. I remember asking him to stick around after class, so I could fill him in on what he had missed. I remember talking to him briefly.

"So where have you been?"
"I've been oversleeping."
"Do I need to call your house, talk to someone about this?"
"That's the problem. No one's home. My dad has been away. He usually wakes me up."
"Your dad's not around? Who you living with?"
"No one."
"Can't you set an alarm clock to wake you?"
"I don't have one."
"How about your cell phone? It's got an alarm."
"I don't have a cell phone."
"Can't you buy a cheap little alarm clock?"
"Can't afford one. Really."
"OK, tell you what. I'm sure I have some sort of alarm clock at home, something I take with when I travel. Tomorrow, I'll bring it in and give it to you. You can have it. I just need you to start coming to school. Otherwise, you're going to fail the semester because of attendance before it begins."

He promised he'd be back the next day. So I packed a little alarm clock, brought it with to school the next day. He wasn't there. The alarm clock stayed in my bag. That was two weeks ago. The alarm clock is still in my bag. I haven't seen the student again.

I now have a broken alarm clock in my school bag. For some reason, it's been crushed by books and folders and my laptop these last couple of weeks. For some reason, I've forgotten to take it out, so there it is, crushed and now broken. For some reason? No reason? No wait, there was a reason I packed the alarm clock and took it to work. There had to be.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Everyone has a story to tell

One lesson I try to drill into my students' heads is that they should stop by before or after school if they have any questions or problems. "Please don't wait for me to recognize that you're struggling," I say to them. "You don't even realize how many relationships I've lost because I'm so bad at making basic observations."

Very few students take me up on the offer, so when one does, I try to be as helpful as possible.

Last Friday after school, a girl I taught last year stopped by and asked if I would take a look at her personal essay. The essay is a requirement senior year, an essay that might be included in a college application that tells the admissions office something that might not be in the official transcript.

The girl is a pretty weak writer. Her essay showed that she apparently didn't learn much about writing in my class last year. Still, it was sweet, and basically said that she really wants to go to college because she's a hard worker even though her ACT score is pretty low.

"This is pretty good," I lied, "but it's not exactly what a personal essay should be." I explained that this kind of essay should tell a story that will reveal something about the writer without having to say things like "I am a hard worker."

"If you really are a hard worker, write about a time when you really worked hard and accomplished something," I said.

She looked at me. "Oh man, you're going to make me think, aren't you?"

"What did you expect when you walked in the door?"

I told her about essays students have written in the past. About the kid who was shot while playing basketball in an alley with his friends. About the girl that had to save her father's life. About the girl who lives with her brother and works full-time in addition to going to school.

"I don't have a story like that," she said.

"That's what everyone says. And then I'm always amazed by the stories everyone has," I said. "OK, listen. I'm going to ask you a few questions. I want you to answer with the first thing that comes to mind. Try not to think about it. OK?"

Here's how I get my kids to write. I ask then to tell me about a time they were really excited. A time they were scared. A time they were so happy they cried. A time they cried because they were sad. Things like that. They write a sentence or two, we move on to the next item. After five or six, I ask students to share. Each one will usually have one story that sparks interest in the class. I tell them to write about that one.

In this case, we were on the fourth one, and the girl saw what was coming. "You're going to make me write about one of these, aren't you?"

"Yup. Now, which one seems the most interesting to you?"

She decided to try to write about the time her mother won the lottery: $20,000. Her mom paid off some bills and put the rest in the bank.

"So what lesson did you learn?" I asked.

"I learned the importance of valuing what you have, about not just wasting money," she said. "And I also learned not to come in here on a Friday after school. My brain hurts."

"Good," I said.

The End.

(Is that sweet enough?)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

You know you work for CPS when ...

(Homecoming edition)

... there are no announcements about homecoming until the day before the event.

... at the homecoming pep assembly, the fire alarm goes off during the posting of the colors.

... students are told to remain in the auditorium, that it's a planned test.

... during the screeching alarm and flashing lights, the JROTC leads the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance.

... when things finally settle down, a fight breaks out in the middle of the audience.

... everyone stands up and cheers.

... the two are separated and escorted out, and an assistant principal tells the audience that the fighters will be arrested and possibly expelled.

... you later learn that one of the fighters was this big, quiet kid in your seventh period class. He now has a five-day suspension.

... as the various fall sports are introduced, the audience just sits there, bored.

... they finally do cheer when one football player is introduced: a 4-foot-6 freshman, who is lifted by his teammates and tossed in the air.

... some girls are introduced as the cheerleading team and cross country team. Same coach, same practice.

... the tennis coach leans over and says, "This is the one day I dread every year."

... the cheerleaders do not even perform a routine.

... after the assembly, kids roam the hallways screaming "08" and "09" and "08 killer!"

... a couple of the cheerleaders are in your class so you ask why they didn't perform and someone says, "Because they suck!" and one of the cheerleaders says, "Yeah, we do, but you didn't have to announce it like that."

... the homecoming game starts at 3:30, just so kids can attend.

... your team is the "visitors" on the scoreboard.

... about 150 kids attend the game but just sit there, bored.

... a few of them cheer after the quarterback throws an interception. (Maybe they liked the tackle the wide receiver made?)

... a couple of students in the stands ask you to explain the rules of the game.

... your team is penalized for having too many players on the field. Two plays in a row.

... you notice one of the players is wearing a golf glove.

... you realize your school doesn't have a golf team.

... you remember one teacher is the golf coach, and wonder if he gets paid even though there is no team.

... the cheerleaders sit in the stands during the entire game.

... one girl tries to lead the fans in a cheer, loudly clapping and shouting, "Let's go team!"

... she is ignored, even by the cheerleaders.

... you spot a kid who borrowed $3 from you earlier in the week eating nachos.

... you ask for your money back. He doesn't have it.

... you leave early with your team losing, but later learn that they made a comeback and crushed the opponent.

... on the drive home, one of your colleagues comments that this is the nicest homecoming he's attended in the five years he's been at the school.

... you wonder what he's talking about.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Small victories

After class, a girl comes up to me, absolutely beaming. I can feel her enthusiasm as she smiles and excitedly starts talking. "I talked to my mom about what you told me last week," she says. "And she agreed with everything. And on Sunday, she wouldn't even let me out of the house! So I stayed home all day, and read, and did homework. And I really liked the book. I'm not finished yet, but I love it, and I'll finish soon."

"And I bet it felt really good to actually be a student," I say.

"Yeah! I actually understood everything. It was great."

Last week, I had taken this girl aside to find out why she just wasn't doing that well in my class. We ended up talking for 20 minutes, while a friend waited impatiently for her in the hallway. Turned out she wasn't doing well in class because she was working too much. From 5 to 11 p.m. every day at a donut shop.

Why was she working so much? Because she's supporting herself and a sister while mom's working to provide for the other siblings. Still, I wanted to know, did she need to work that many hours? Isn't it illegal to keep a 16 year old out on a weekday until 11?

I told her that an intelligent girl like her could win tons of scholarships worth a lot more than her job was paying. "Yes, it might mean you have to do without so much stuff right now," I said. "But you have to think about your future. What's more important? A little happiness now? Or a great future with a great education?"

That was on Friday. I didn't expect much. I mean, I have these kinds of talks all the time. And they usually end in failure. It's hard to think about the future when you have so many needs in the present.

There was no school Monday. Then, on Tuesday, she came in on time, took a test on the novel, and then later we had that talk. It's Thursday evening now, and I'm thinking about that conversation, thinking that it's the highlight of my week. Maybe the school year so far. It's not so much that she listened to my advice. It's the absolute joy on her face when she told me she spent Sunday studying and that it felt great. Great to be reading amazing literature. Great to be gaining knowledge. I don't know if I ever had a realization like that when I was in high school.

"So what are you going to do about money?" I ask.

"Well, my mom wants me to quit. I called and gave my two-week notice. But my boss wants me to stay, says I can work just on the weekends."

"So you can have the week to be a student."

"Yeah, there's this club I'm going to join that meets on Mondays. And then I can go home every day and do homework."

"That's really great. I'm really proud of you."

I didn't realize just how proud I was of her until that night when I graded the test she had taken. It was pretty straightforward, except for one really tough question that demanded thoughtfulness and attention to detail. Only one student got it right.

My happiness didn't last too long. Today, she didn't make it to class, which is first period. Showed up late to school. I saw her briefly later on.

"Why did you cut my class?"
"I didn't cut. I came late."
"That's a cut."
"Sorry. But I heard you told the class that I was the only one to get that one question right."
"You did. But you still failed the test."
"Why? What did I miss?"
"Maybe if you came to class you would find out."
"I will. Sorry."

Looks like we'll be having another talk. I'm hoping for another small victory.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Know your rights

We're looking at poems that provide varying perspectives of America, and I decided to bring in a song to liven things up a little. Instead of just sitting around reading, students can listen and see that musicians can be important in shaping public opinion.

To really wake up my students, I brought in "Know Your Rights" by the Clash. How cool is that? Punk rock in your second period English class.

The students, of course, hated it. They thought it was a quaint little song, and they mocked the music and singer and didn't really care about the message. Proof once again that an adult can never, ever be cool.

Later, I'm talking to the only white kid in the class, and he says, "I just can't get into rock music. It's so boring." I guess he's into hip hop, but I don't know or care. There used to be a time when I'd say, "Oh really, what do you listen to?" and then ask if I could borrow a CD. These days, I just say, "You just don't know good music."

I tried the same song during fourth and fifth periods, too, and in those classes, there were a total of two kids that had heard of the Clash before. Fifth period was a little eye-opening.

In the song, Joe Strummer sings about three rights--the right not to be killed, the right to food money, and the right to free speech. In each case, he twists it to reveal the hypocrisy of society. Example: "You have the right not to be killed / Murder is a crime! / Unless it was done by a policeman."

Some students thought this was a positive message about the country. "He's saying that murder is against the law, so this is a safe country," one student said. What?!

The second "right" was harder for them to understand:
You have the right to food money.
Provided, of course, you don't mind a little
Investigation, humiliation,
And if you cross your fingers,

Eventually, someone said, "He's talking about welfare!"
"Yeah," someone else added, "the Link card!"
"That's right," I said, "and what people use the Link card?"
Three or four hands shot up. "I use it," one girl said. "Me too," another said.
"No," I said, a little embarrassed for them. "I meant, what kind of people in society have to rely on welfare?"
"Poor people," someone said.
"People living under the poverty line," someone else added.
"That's right," I said. "And how does society treat the poor?"
"Like it's a crime?" one student guessed.
"Yes," I said, "isn't it humiliating to have to rely on the Link card?"
"I don't think it's humiliating," said the girl who earlier had said she uses the Link card. "Shit, it's free money for food. I'm proud to use it."
"OK ..." I said, "really? Well, in that case, let's move on to the third right--free speech."

Homecoming bulletin

In our school's homecoming bulletin, there are several warnings listed regarding the dance:

My student teacher wasn't familiar with the term, so I had to explain that "juking" is sexually suggestive grinding on the dance floor. Turns out she went to a Catholic school, where they had similar warnings, although put in a slightly different way. I loved it, so I wrote next to the NO JUKING: "Leave room for the Holy Spirit."

In division, I read the bulletin to my students, and they absolutely loved it, though they were confused about who might have hand-written the extra message. A couple of girls started dancing close to each other, leaving just enough room for the Holy Spirit to squeeze in. There was laughter, and I heard a girl say, "I just love this class."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Motivational phrases that pay

Over the years, I've picked up little motivational clich├ęs that may sound stupid, but I swear they work just about every time. They work because they mess with students' minds. And there's nothing I enjoy more than messing with young minds.

Today, at no cost to you, I present my first-ever list of Top 10 Phrases That Pay! (Use at your own risk. Not responsible for lost or decreased respect from your students. Side effects may include laughter behind your back, laughter in your face, rolled eyes, yawning, and threats of physical violence. If you experience any of these symptoms, welcome to the teaching profession, sucker.)

1. When a student says, "I don't know the answer."
I say, "I understand. You don't know the answer. But if you did know the answer, what would you say?"

2. When a student says, "I don't know how to do it."
I say, "You're not allowed to say that in my classroom. But you can say, 'I don't know how to do it ... yet.'"

3. When a student says, "Wish me luck."
I say, "I don't believe in luck. I believe in working hard and succeeding."

4. When a student asks, "What grade did you give me?"
I say, "I have no idea. What grade did you earn?"

5. When a student says, "This is boring."
I say, "This is practice. Practice sometimes feels repetitive. But think of this as practicing making free throws. The test is you standing at the free-throw line during the big game." (This, obviously, changes with the sports seasons or the student's preference. I might say, "But think of this as practicing your guitar in your bedroom. The test is you performing on stage at Lollapalooza.")

6. When a student says, "School is for fools."
I say, "Oh yeah? Well, work's for jerks."

7. When a student says, "I'd rather go to work than do homework."
I say, "Why do you want to work so bad? You'll be doing that for the rest of your life."

8. When a student says, "Sorry I'm late again."
I say, "No big deal. Just do me a favor: Go home and ask your mom what would happen if she went in to work five minutes late every day."

9. When my softball players say, "We're going to lose tomorrow."
I say, "If we win tomorrow's game, you can shave my head at Thursday's pep rally. On stage."

Well, some of these are more effective than others. But it's after 11, and I wanted to post something today.

Oh yeah, I realize that there are only nine, and I promised you 10 Phrases That Pay. Number 10 can be found in the comments.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Wake-up calls for all

I am a morning person. Most students are not. (Hell, most people probably are not.) This difference, as you can imagine, can cause quite a bit a friction in the teacher-student relationship.

Students walk in just before the eight o'clock bell, groggy, heads down, barely grumbling a hello as I race around the room, making last-minute preparations for the day, humming along with some song I have blasting on my computer.

Me: Hey, happy Monday, how's it going?
Student: OK.
Me: How was your weekend? Do anything cool?
Student: No.
Me: I had a great weekend. Want to hear about it?
Student: No.
Me: What's the matter with you? You OK?
Student: Yeah.
Me: Then why aren't you talking?
Student: Leave me alone.
Me: You sick? Bummed out about something? Need to talk?
Student: Please, just leave me alone! Go bother someone else!

(Note: This conversation is not made up. I've had a variation of it just about everyday for the past eight years.)

The bell rings, and if I'm lucky most of the students are there. Very few are talkative, but that's OK, that's what I'm there for, right? After the bell, as the class gets underway during the next 20 minutes, the usual stragglers straggle in.

I used to get completely bent out of shape by tardy students. Used to force them to explain. Used to threaten to call home, but nothing seemed to work.

Then, I tried to get generous. At the start of this year I offered my first-period students free coffee or tea if they showed up at 7:45. Many seemed intrigued by the idea, some even asked if I was serious. "Of course I'm serious," I said, "even though coffee is terrible for your growing brains, you might as well be doing drugs. But if you come in early, and you're tired and need a pick-me-up, I will give you coffee."

Want to guess how many kids have taken me up on the offer?

That's right, zero. Maybe when it gets cold out.

A couple of weeks ago, I had another brilliant idea. "If you're having trouble waking up, I'll tell you what," I announced. "Just give me your cell phone number, and I will personally call you. I get up at 5:45, so anytime after that, I can call you and pester you until you get up."

Whenever I say anything like this, I get the typical laughter and sarcastic responses. This time, though, one girl did something hilarious. As she was heading out of class, she gave me a tiny, folded up slip of paper with her name and number and a note: "6:15 please." This was a girl who had made it on time maybe three times in the first three weeks. "Wow," I thought, "I got some digits!" I was going to use that joke, but then thought better of it.

That night, I set my alarm, then set a special reminder alarm for 6:15 so that I wouldn't forget. The next morning, I was actually nervous, not wanting to call too early or too late. At exactly 6:15, I dialed her number.

"Hello?" a sleepy voice answered.

"It's me!" I said. "This is your wake-up call!"

"Oh hi," she said. "I'm awake."

"You don't sound awake. Stand up. I bet you're going to put your head down as soon as you hang up."

"No, no, I'm awake, I swear."

We hung up. Later, in my classroom, I announced to the earlier kids that I had woken up their classmate, that this whole experiment was a grand success, and that she would never be late again. She walked in at 8:10.

"What happened?" I asked.

"I left early, I swear," she said. "But I missed the bus anyway."

I called her the next morning. She didn't pick up. She never made it in to school that day.

I didn't call the third day. She showed up on time.

"What is this, some sort of weird reverse psychology?" I asked.

"No," she said, "we moved. I was absent yesterday because we were moving. I live closer now. I should be on time from now on."

"We'll see," I said. And we will see. Tomorrow.

I just hope I make it on time. It's 8:30, and I'm heading out to see some band at the Empty Bottle. I know, I shouldn't be doing this on a school night, but I have to. Just recently, my brother so totally insulted me with a reality check that I've been acting recklessly ever since. I was complaining to him that I couldn't find anyone to see Peelander Z (some weird Japanese band) on a Thursday night.

"Grow up," he said. "You're almost 40."

I guess in a way he's right. I am almost 40. But I'll be damned if I ever let my age--or my job--dictate what I do or when I do it. That said, today was a day off so I did get in an afternoon nap. But if anyone is up at around 6 tomorrow morning, can you give me a buzz? I have a 6:15 wake-up call to make, and I want to make sure that I'm awake for it.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Many kinds of one-track minds

Last week, I told a couple of my classes that I'd be going to the Museum of Contemporary Art on Sunday afternoon for the Intonation/MCA Rock/Art show. "If you're interested in seeing some great art and independent music, it's free, and this is a free country, so let me know, and we can meet up," I said.

Here's what's cool about the school where I work: Nine students showed up.
Here's what's really cool about my school: The ethnic mix of those students:
  • One African-American
  • One Bosnian
  • One Ecuadorian
  • Two Filipino
  • One Indian
  • One Mexican
  • One Pakistani
  • One Vietnamese
Here's what I said to them on the CTA ride home: "You know, you guys are really lucky, with so many different types of people getting along so well. You just don't see this kind of diversity in society very often."

Here's what I thought: "I'm the one lucky enough to hang for a couple of hours with this kind of crew."

To the kids, on the other hand, it was no big thing, and they quickly changed the subject.

"I really liked that singer in the 1900s," one guy said. "She was great, and then when she started moving her hips ..."

Photos: Above, Califone; below, checking out the 1900s

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Friday night fights

After school Friday, half of the softball team is hanging out in my classroom. "Can we grab the bats and balls and do some hitting?" one of them asks. We weren't supposed to practice. I'm not feeling well, and our assistant is in the hospital with an infection.

"Yeah, go ahead," I say, "but not for too long. It is Friday, you know." I always pretend that I have a lot going on during the weekends so my students don't think that I'm the loser that I am.

"You coming out with us?" another kid asks.

"Sure," I say, "just let me put my stuff away."

It's after school Friday, a gorgeously hot autumn afternoon, and we end up spending an hour and a half playing "Piggy." The concept is that whoever catches the ball on the fly or one bounce gets to hit next. It's very informal, with good-natured taunting and competition. A couple of girls join us. A couple of guys I don't know join us. This is the way softball should be, for everyone. Fun.

The good times are interrupted by some shouts from the street around the corner. We see a group of students running back into the school parking lot. "Here we go," I hear one of my players say. Chasing the group are three or four gangbangers, wielding short metal poles, swinging wildly and yelling something.

I glance around at the kids with me. They're Latino, African-American, Asian, a mix. Most just stand there watching, but some congregate together into small groups. "Stay here," I say, "don't do anything stupid." I reach for my cell phone, dial 911, but while doing so I see the gangbangers already running out the way they came in. There are other adults in the parking lot, teachers and security staff, on their phones. I put mine away.

"Just another typical day," one of my guys says.

Another guy, the one at the plate with bat in hand, turns to everyone. "Can we just continue?"

I shrug, toss him a ball, and he cranks it. The kids in the field chase it.

I see a group of six or seven kids standing near the field. They're African, probably in the ESL program. "Hey guys," I say to them. "Come into the field. It'll be safer here."

They hesitate but walk over slowly when I yell for them to come over. "What is this game?" one asks.

"It's softball," I say. "Get out here and try to catch the ball. When you catch it, you get to hit."

They come out, join us, and now I've got a whole mass of teenagers running around, laughing and sweating.

Ten minutes after the fight, a couple of squad cars roll through the neighborhood, sirens blasting. I'm distracted, trying to remember the details in case they want witnesses. The thing is, I wouldn't be much help. What could I say about the attackers? They were pretty small, Latino, dressed in baggy clothes and baseball caps, swinging their metal poles like ninjas, though not exuding the calmness of ninjas. They hopped around in short, staccato motions. Looked scared and angry. One African-American guy seemed to have taken the brunt of the assault, and he was taken into the school, face bleeding.

"You know what," I say after a few more minutes. "Why don't you all head home now? With the police presence, at least it'll be safer."

"Yeah right," a guy says. "They'll just harass us, say we were the ones involved."

I don't care and take the balls and bats back to my classroom.

Heading out, I notice four of my players slowly walking down the street. I catch up to them.

"Hey, give us a ride," one of them says. "We'll fit."

"Sure," I say, "except do you see my car? I walked today."

"What kind of loser has a car but doesn't drive it?" I'm asked.

"It's a beautiful day for a walk," I say, and we walk a few blocks together. I wonder if it's a good idea. Would these guys act as protection for me if there were more trouble? Or could we be targeted? It doesn't matter, because we walk without incident, and I ask them about the fight we witnessed. They know a lot more about gangs than I do.

"Those were Latin Kings," one of them says.

"What about the other guy? The one that got hurt?"

"Oh him? He's just a punk. A wannabe GD."

We walk on, and their conversation quickly turns to girls. Eventually I turn down one street, and they keep walking.

"Have a good weekend," I say, adding, "A safe weekend."

"We practicing on Monday?"

"Monday? It's Columbus Day. No school. I'll see you guys on Tuesday."

Unnecessary friend

In the weeks leading up to the baseball playoffs, a couple of White Sox fans and I have discussed a way to introduce a new Cubs curse. The plan is to somehow throw a black cat into Wrigley Field during a game. One of my friends even suggested we make one of my former students the fall guy.

As luck would have it, with the way the Cubs are playing, Sox fans won't need any Curse or black cat to spoil the season for the lovable losers and their Lincoln Park fans.

Still, I was thinking about the plan on my walk to work this morning when I spotted an old friend--a little black cat I used to see last year. This was my first encounter with her this school year. She's a friendly little kitty, and she always comes over to say hi. "Guess I won't be needing you this year," I said as I scratched her behind the ear. I noticed she walked away with a limp. Wonder what that's all about.

A couple of blocks later, I ran into another black cat, which also came over to say hello. Wow, two in one day, I wonder if it's a sign. This one also had a problem. One of its eyes was swollen shut. Man, I hate people that abuse animals, I thought.

Still, if the Cubs do miraculously come back, and threaten to win it all, I do know where to find a black cat. The question is, what will be the charge when I'm arrested? Endangering an animal? Cursing the Cubs? Which is worse? And will anyone in White Sox nation offer me a safe house?

Friday, October 05, 2007

Culture clash, part 1

Imagine you're a 16-year-old girl. Originally from a different country, you've grown up here, enjoyed some of the independence promised everyone. You study, do your homework, start thinking about college, a career. In English class, you read about love, about possibilities and rebellion. You start thinking for yourself.

Then ... your parents inform you that they've found a partner for you. He's older, lives elsewhere, and even though they haven't met him either, they know he's from a good family. The wedding will take place as soon as you graduate. No, you can't put it off until after college. In fact, your husband-to-be doesn't need you to be educated.

Over the years, I've met several young ladies in this situation. I even went to a wedding that fits the situation I described. (In that case, the girl assured me that her parents had given her the right to refuse, but she spoke to the guy and agreed to the marriage even though it meant she'd have to move to London. I had a great time at the wedding, even though there was no alcohol served. Also, the groom was very awesome and a lot less traditional than his bride.)

Girls respond differently to arranged marriage. Many are resigned to it. Some panic, want to run away. Many justify it, say that these kinds of marriages often end up happier than "love marriages." A few ask for help.

My second year teaching, I ran into a former student. She was wrapped up in traditional garb, something she hadn't done when she was a senior. She told me she had recently returned from her home country, where she had married a man she had never met before. I didn't know what to say, but managed a "congratulations ... that is, if you're happy."

She started crying. Told me about some guy she loved but could never see again. "In fact, I shouldn't be standing here talking to you," she said. "If anyone sees me alone with a man, I could get in trouble."

I honestly don't know how to feel about the situation. On one hand, as an American, all this is foreign to me and doesn't seem right. On the other hand, I realize I have no right to impose my culture or beliefs on anyone else. On the third hand, I just read a poem by one of my students, and I know I feel bad for the writer. I'll share some of the lines with you, with a tiny bit of editing by me:

3 different minds in one family
father on a side mother on another and the
children on the side sticking together.
I feel like being born as a female is torture.
Can't shine, because we are told to get married at a young age.

I noticed that other parents want their kids
to go to college. But mine try to keep me
away from college. I just want to just
give up on everything and just say "fuck it"*

but soon I realized that giving up is
not a choice. I'll keep on doing
what I have to do to give my kids
the freedom that I never had.

I know my parents want the best for us,
but I feel like I'm not or never going to
achieve what I want to be in life, because
they already planned my future without
my permission.

But then again hey ... what do I know
I'm just a "girl" ...

* When I had assigned the poem--which was supposed to be about either the American Dream or contrasts with parents or both--the girl asked if she could include some curse words. Not knowing what she had in mind, I said, "Only if there's absolutely no other way to express yourself. Even then, keep it to a minimum." I think she's justified in saying "fuck it."

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Another defeat

Our best chance to win a softball game this year took place today. It was against a team we actually beat last year. Our players had been coming to practice, working on their hitting and defense, so I felt pretty good going into it.

We lost the first game 18-0. Or something like that. I lost track, and I haven't looked at the scorebook.

In the second game, we scored some runs but were down 23-7 in the fourth inning. I went up to the pitcher. "All right, kid, this is your last inning," I said.

"But why?" It wasn't his fault the other team scored so often. Our defense just couldn't catch or throw anything today.

"Because Tommy's girlfriend just showed up," I said. "I have to let him pitch, or she'll get mad at me."

"Oh, in that case, OK," he said. "But can I stay in the game, maybe play outfield?"

There wasn't any scoring after that, I don't think, and after one more inning the game was called. So far we've lost every one of our games by slaughter rule.

Afterwards, the team sat around me, dejected. I started my post-game comments by reminding them how they just haven't been listening to me, how they haven't been practicing seriously enough, how I can't teach them everything there is to know about baseball in two or three weeks.

"Watch some playoff games this weekend," I said. "I'm not even a Cubs fan, but I'll be watching. And if you have any questions about what's going on, you can ask me next week at practice."

I decided to make that a requirement. Watch baseball. Then maybe you won't make the same dumb mistakes.

Then I remembered Tommy.

"Oh yeah, one more thing," I said. "Did you all notice how Tommy started playing once his girlfriend showed up?" Some of the guys started laughing, saying something about hormones pumping. "So that's another requirement for next week. By next Wednesday, I want every single one of you to have a girlfriend. And she has to come to the game to cheer you on. Then you'll play better. And if you still lose, who cares, you can break up with her after the game."

All the guys were now laughing, and I was thinking, yes, finally, a team moment. Everyone's out here enjoying being a part of this. So I went on.

"And if you can't find a girlfriend, maybe you can bribe a girl to come to the game. Offer her a nice dinner, maybe at Old Country Buffet."

"No," someone called out. "Take her to McDonald's!"

"Yeah," someone else said. "You could buy her lots of nice things off the dollar menu."

More laughter. It felt good to be laughing, after losing yet again.

I looked at my players. Most of them couldn't get a girlfriend if they wanted to. They probably couldn't even pay someone to pretend to be their girlfriend. My players are the misfits. The chubby kids, the nerds, the wimps, the guys who can't play football or soccer. In other words, they remind me of me.

"Hey, coach," one of the guys called out after we had dispersed. I thought I might get a thank-you for the pep talk. Instead: "Can you wash my uniform for me?"

"What?" I said. "Me?"

"Yeah, that's what coaches are for, right?"

Thank goodness there's only one week of this left.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


There is a woman at my school, a 38-year veteran of the math department, who has occupied the same classroom for her entire career. In that time, you might say that she has grown quite accustomed to her room. There's one thing more than any other that I remember her saying: She will never teach in a different classroom. Her streak almost finally ended. At the end of last school year, she was told she'd have to move to make way for a new program taking over her wing of the school. When she heard the news, she cried. Literally spent the school day crying in front of her students about it. The program ended up not taking over her room, so she's back for her 39th year.

I would probably make fun of her, except that I'm quickly becoming the same way. I've been lucky enough to have had the same room for the past eight years. And slowly but surely it has become my home. The room number is part of the email address I give students to contact me. The room, actually, has become my co-teacher in lot of ways. It defines me. There has been talk of me being forced out to make way for a new computer lab. And, quite frankly, I don't want to leave. It's where I make magic happen, if that's what you want to call what happens there.

Today, I'd like to take you on a little tour of Room 230.

The Binders
All my students are required to have binders, to keep their work neat and organized. At the start and end of each period, they head over to this bookcase. As you can see, we've got to work on being neat.

My desk
Speaking of working on being neat, here's my desk. Oh well. A clean desk is a sign of a sick mind, or something like that. I pretend that I know exactly where everything is, which is why I tell students to never, ever place anything on my desk. They need to hand it to me personally and let me toss it onto my desk and promptly lose it.

My room
This is what it looks like from my desk. What can I point out? Map on the right, inspirational posters above. A screen in front, where all my lessons are projected. Clothesline overhead where I hang student work. Desks are in a sort of U-shape, with me usually pacing around in the center. Enough space to accommodate 40 students.

Four years ago, I started projecting all my lessons using PowerPoint. This was my projector. The bulb finally burned out last year. A replacement bulb would cost more than $450, so I just bought a new projector for $700. This old one now acts as a stand for the new one and as a reminder of how quickly technology changes.

One of my fans
I've got three fans strategically placed around the room. They're loud, but definitely necessary during the first and fourth quarters of the school year, when it can easily be humid and in the 90s in my room.

Dress code
In the winter, on the other hand, it can be in the 40s in my classroom. Students love to show up with their out-of-dress-code sweaters, claiming it's too cold to be in dress code. (Our dress code is a solid white top and solid-colored pants or jeans.) Well, I ran out and bought a few white sweatshirts, and anyone that's cold is welcome to wear one of them. It's gross enough to get them to remember to bring their own white tops.

The Rule
Many teachers waste their time posting class rules and expectations. I've got just this one. On the first day of classes, students must copy the Rule into their notebooks. Then, anyone ever breaking the Rule must draw it perfectly 10 times. What does it mean? Take a guess! What do you think my class rule is? OK, fine, I'll tell you: It's Japanese for "respect."

I have three bookcases around the room crammed with old classics and paperbacks. Every once in a while students actually gravitate to them and borrow a book or two. Sometimes they even return them. You might be surprised to learn that many students actually love to surround themselves with books. How do I know? Last week, I pulled 25 or 30 old books, put them in a box in the hallway with a sign saying "Free Books!" In an hour, they were gone.

Points and pictures
It's a hassle for someone as disorganized as me, but I try to keep my students updated with points they've earned in various activities. I also have pictures of each of my classes, plus individual pictures of kids I call my SuperStar Students.

The clock
One of the nicest things I've heard from students is when they say they can't believe that class is over already. I try to make the clock irrelevant. But when I look up and see it's after 5, I realize I need to get the heck out of here.

See you tomorrow!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Practice makes perfect

Back in 2000, during my first year of full-time teaching with the CPS, I constantly fought with students over the stupidest things. One argument I remember having was with an Auto Shop student over his resume. I demanded he fix a couple of small errors. He didn't want to.

"This is one assignment where you cannot have a single mistake," I said. "Not a missing comma, not a poor choice of words, nothing."

"Why?" he said. "Why does it have to be perfect?"

"Because if an employer has several people under consideration for a job, and your resume has a couple of errors, you won't get the job," I said. "The person with a perfect resume has an advantage over you."

"I don't believe you," he said.

What do you say when a teenager doesn't believe you?

You say: "I don't care. Revise it!"

Oh yeah, he was a stubborn kid, and at one point that school year, I threw away something of his right into the trash can. On purpose. One thing students really hate is retrieving things from the trash can. I personally don't care, I go through the trash all the time, saying stuff like, "Oops, I must have thrown away your absence note," and they're like, "Yuck, I don't want it anymore. Leave it in there."

I don't have the resume arguments with students anymore. Maybe I'm a little more believable these days. In fact, this is why I think I'm getting a little better at this thing called teaching:

Today, I spent my lunch period helping a current Auto Shop student revise his resume. He actually came to me with it after class, asked if I could take a look at it. Of course I wrote all over it, then we opened up the file, and I went at it, adding and subtracting at will.

What impresses me about some of my students is that, well, they have some cool things to throw on their resumes. This guy's a junior, maybe 17 years old, and he already has four years of work experience. He used to work at an uncle's auto repair shop, logging in 40-hour weeks during summers. Then, he joined the football team. Recently, he took on another job, at a DJ service, and he works 30 hours a week. After school.

Would it be excusable if he didn't always get his homework done? If he sometime fell asleep in class? Maybe. Thing is, so far at least, he has been a great student, with no absences and an A- average. He's even willing to stick around during lunch to do something that I couldn't convince my students to do seven years ago: Make something perfect.

As he left, he actually apologized. "Sorry for taking up your entire lunch period," he said.

"No worries," I said, thinking, it was one of my more enjoyable lunch periods this school year.

Things that are guaranteed to make me smile #3

A week-and-a-half ago, I found it humorous that one of my students tried unsuccessfully to write the word succeeded.

Today, the same students struggled with guaranteed. In the margin of his quiz, he wrote:

Whatever, people misspell words all the time. I admit I'm not the greatest speller myself. But the main reason this kid's error was really funny to me was because the title of the quiz, written in big, bold letters at the top of the page, was Success Without a Guarantee

Monday, October 01, 2007

'I wanna be ignored by the stiff and the bored'

About midway through The Hives set at the Metro tonight, I felt a small amount of teacher-guilt. This is the feeling a teacher, especially an English teacher, gets on a school night, when said teacher should be at home grading week-old papers but is instead out enjoying what normal people call "life."

I moved back against a side wall, where it was cooler and a little quieter, and looked at the all-ages crowd while the band launched into their hit song. The singer sang, "Do what I want cause I can and if I don't / because I wanna be ignored by the stiff and the bored / because I'm gonna," and I thought, hmm, I don't really understand what that means, but maybe it can be my teaching motto anyway.

Then, I thought about a bunch of different things, mostly related to my job. Didn't have anything to write it down with, so let's see if I remember:
  • This is an all-ages show. Please don't let me run into any students.
  • If I do run into students, who will be more embarrassed, me or them?
  • Nah, there's no way any of my students would listen to this music.
  • But if they did, would this make me cool? Or make them uncool?
  • Do I want to be the cool teacher?
  • Man, that bass player is old. Chubby, receding hairline, sort of resembling the old "time-to-make-the-donuts" guy in the commercials. He's probably pushing 40.
  • Which puts him in my age bracket. Do I look like that?
  • Why don't I ever wear earplugs at concerts? Will the ringing in my ears ever go away?
  • Whenever a student mumbles something, or speaks very quietly, I say, "Can you repeat that? I'm deaf in my left ear and I can't hear out of my right one."
  • It's not a stupid joke if it's true.
  • Why do I call this a school-night? Isn't it really a work-night?
  • Do any of these people here have jobs? If so, are they thinking about those jobs right now?
  • Hey, this new song is pretty good!
  • But at my age, shouldn't I be listening to jazz and classical music?
  • Screw it, 36 is the new 26. Or at least the new 34.
  • What the heck am I going to try to teach tomorrow?
  • I wonder if what's-his-name in fourth period will show up tomorrow. I hope not.
  • Do people with normal jobs fret like this on a Sunday night?
  • Darn, it's 9 p.m. and they're still playing. Maybe I should cut out early.
  • Come on, make this your last song.
  • In eight years, I think I've run into students at a concert only once. Actually, they were graduates. They said they didn't realize that I "rock."
  • So I bought them beers. Just kidding. But I did continue drinking mine. Said something about it being legal.
  • I really need to stop thinking about my job. Can't I just enjoy myself?
  • No, I can't.