Thursday, November 29, 2007

Float on

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

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

"Yeah, that one," I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Do you have any friends?"

The whole class laughs.

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

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

Nothing but the truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I wouldn't either," she agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Seven Types of Students That Annoy Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustrations stolen from The Boy Least Likely To.

So is this ...


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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what do I want to remember about today?

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

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

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

Saturday, November 24, 2007

I'm a sucker, part 4 of a million

Sometimes I wonder why I ever step into the hallway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He mumbled his apology.

"Look me in the eye," I said.

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

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

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

Thursday, November 22, 2007

I'm a sucker, part 3 of a million

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

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


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

"Well, do you laugh at her?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What did you do?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Small comfort

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

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

"Not bad," I said.

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

I smiled. "I'm fine."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning UPDATE in comments ...

Saturday, November 17, 2007

I'm a sucker, part 2 of a million

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm a sucker, part 1 of a million

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

"Something incredible happened," she repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Report card pick-up day

I used to look forward to them.

I used to dread them.

I used to think they could change student behavior.

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

I used to think they were so important.

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

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

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

I figure everyone could use a little positive reinforcement.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


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

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

2: you Juan
from: Me Monique


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

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

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

First quarter report card

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

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

Attendance: A-

Punctuality: A

Quality of instruction: C

Quality of comments on student papers: C-

Lesson Planning: F

Dreaming of Being a Better Teacher: A+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opportunity cost, part 2

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Opportunity cost

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

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

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

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

She nodded.

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

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

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

"Oh wow," she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"But isn't that cheating?"

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

She smiled. "Thank you!" she said.

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