Saturday, December 29, 2007
"Yeah," I said, "I've got a bunch of hungry students to bribe." In my classes earlier that day, I asked students if they wanted to have some sort of holiday party before break. I said I'd bring in snacks if they would, too.
"You're a teacher?" the cashier asked.
"Yeah," I said, and told him where.
"That seems a little amazing, a teacher having a party for students," the cashier said.
"Really? Why?" I asked. "Where did you go?"
"Where did I go? I'm still a student," he said. "I go to Lane Tech."
"No kidding," I said. "That's where I went."
"When did you graduate?"
"A long, long time ago. Back in 1989. The last great graduating class of the 80s."
He smiled, finished ringing me up, told me to have a great holiday. "Thanks," I said. "And make sure you tell your teachers, especially your English teacher, that the teachers at my school throw parties for their students." One of the main differences between a place like Lane and the school where I'm at is that we often have to beg our kids to just show up. Hence the party. Usually on the day before a two-week break, attendance is very weak, especially in the afternoon.
As I moved to pick up my groceries, the bagger looked at me. "Do you remember me?" she asked. "I graduated two years ago. We met at the hostel." I never taught the girl, but I had chaperoned a field trip/service learning project at the downtown youth hostel.
"Oh yeah," I said, not remembering her. "How's it going?"
"Great. I work here and go to school part time."
The cashier pointed to another cashier and said, "She went to your school, too."
"Oh hi," I said, not remembering her either.
I left the store, wondering about all the kids I've taught or come into contact with over the years. If I stay at my school any longer, every person I run into in the neighborhood will be some sort of connection. Soon, my students will probably be children of former students.
It's the end of another year. Life goes on. People move on. Change. But as I reflect on who I am and what I have and haven't accomplished in the past eight years, I get that old feeling of stagnation. All the people I know, former students included, have progressed. New jobs. Promotions. Weddings. Babies.
Not I. I'm still just the Chicago Teacher Man.
Sunday, December 23, 2007
On the day before Christmas break, I always get some cards from students. I'm usually happy when they spell my name right, so I actually pay attention if there's an actual message. Just this morning I actually opened the few I received, and here's something a girl wrote:
Thank you for all you've done. Thank you for always believing in me. Thank you for pushing me hard. Thank you for dealing with all my stuff. Mr. P, I really appreciate you and the things you do for me. May all your wishes come true. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
You know what they say about this job being worth it if you get one little sign of gratitude from a student? Well, they're right.
Friday, December 14, 2007
If you've ever seen me speak in public, like at a wedding, you know three things:
- I get really nervous.
- I usually drink as much as possible before the speech.
- I then deliver a somewhat funny speech that lasts way too long.
And then I started telling little stories. Instead of telling boring facts about my school, I talked about some of my experiences with students. If you read this blog (which I guess you do), you know the kinds of stories I was going for. And the amazing thing was the audience actually got into it. They started laughing. With me. I didn't say too much, but when I finished, a couple of people actually applauded. Going back to my seat, one of the reps, a football coach, said, "Wow, that was great."
We then went to the gym, where our displays were up. And as the students and parents walked in, they walked right past me and straight to the magnet schools. Darn.
Eventually, though, some came back.
One Latino dad, with his cute wife and daughter, came over. "Your speech was really, really great," he said. "Thank you."
"Well, thank you," I said. "Do you have any questions?"
"Yes. My daughter is in seventh grade right now. I wonder, what can we do," he said, pointing at himself and his wife, "to get her ready for high school?"
At first, I thought that was a cool question. So I talked about making sure she keeps her grades up and researching all these high schools, checking out web sites, visiting, that kind of thing. But then the question sunk in. He was really asking so much more. He's probably an immigrant, most likely did not attend high school or university in the States, and he wants help. My help. Like I know how to raise kids. Like I even know anything about the different high schools and options.
"Well," I said, finishing up. "I think you're already doing everything right. You're interested. You want what's best for her. Just keep doing that. Make sure she knows you support her, that you love her. And you want what's best for her, so that's why it's important to you who she hangs out with and whether or not she's doing her homework."
And I looked at the girl. "And you need to always remember that your parents want you to succeed. So listen to them."
They left. The other reps started packing up. I did a quick count. Gave away nine or ten of my school's folders.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
I was thinking about that yesterday as I headed off to work. Here we do think about the weather, so I was bundled up. Sweater, gloves, hat, winter coat. "Come on," I thought to myself as I walked out of my building, "this isn't so bad."
Literally five steps later, I slipped on a patch of ice. Didn't fall. Didn't even almost fall. But I felt my left leg slipping forward, almost bending my knee the wrong way. I felt just a little achy the rest of the day.
After school, one of my colleagues stopped by and we chatted about winter break. "I think we've decided on San Diego," he said about himself and his girlfriend.
"Wow," I said, "I was just looking at airfares there last night. The best I found was $250 there and $99 back. On Southwest. Funny how it's so cheap to fly to Chicago in the middle of winter."
It's a week and a half before winter break, and I still don't have plans. And I guess that sounds bad. But then again, at least I've got two weeks off coming up. I need a break from the kids.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
1. Between fifth and sixth periods today, I heard a commotion in the hall. I peered out of my room to see a mass--a critical mass, you might say--of kids walking fast and loud in one direction. It looked like they were heading to watch a fight. But they weren't. They were just walking along as a group, loudly and happily trying to do something uniquely goofy.
And it worked. Soon, other kids were racing to catch up, following along, trying to see where everyone was heading. A couple of security guards came hustling up nearby stairs; they must have heard of a possible disturbance. From my vantage point, I could see this growing group just sweeping everyone else up along the way, including a kid from one of my classes. I called out, "Hey, where you heading?"
"I have no idea!" he smiled, and hurried down the hall. This is a kid who loves to pretend he's a leader in class, loves to show off and say funny things, to have the spotlight on him. But I guess he loves to follow, too.
About 15 seconds later, the leaders of the group switched course, and the whole mass of kids came charging back past my room, laughing, shouting, cursing. I'm going to predict that these kinds of group walks will become more commonplace in the days leading up to winter break.
2. Seventh period, students were quietly finishing their reading journals, preparing for a test tomorrow. Softly, almost to himself, a student started singing something along the lines of: "Questions, answers, have to answer questions ... la, la, la, la, la."
The kid next to him, a long-haired classic rocker, snickered, quietly said, "Hey, I love that song. Wasn't it at the top of the charts a while back?"
The singer stopped singing, probably a little embarrassed, probably wondering if he really had sung out loud. "Yeah," he said, "but I think the song just gave me a headache."
Well, here's what this former student of mine, who is currently in her second year at UW-Madison, did:
- She emailed the girl.
- She phoned.
- She visited her here in Chicago.
- And then, she invited the girl to visit Madison for a three-day weekend.
Her classmates were amazed. Hearing about the classes and the dorms and sorority life, one girl said, with just a hint of jealousy, "That ... sounds ... so ... cool."
So, anyway, I'd like to say a great big THANK YOU to Summer. I think you've inspired an entire class of high school juniors with your generosity and time.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Everybody knows that school cafeteria food is downright nasty. Every day, it's the same old slop that is so unappetizing that most dog owner would never feed it to their best friends. Is it any wonder that kids these days are getting unhealthy and lethargic?
Instead of eating the "food," Chicago Teacher Man suggests the following uses for the lowly (and disgusting) school lunch pizza slice:
And, if you get really desperate, round it off with a handful of fries and fancy ketchup, and you've got yourself exactly what hundreds of thousands of our kids eat five days a week:(With sincere apologies to my school's lunchroom ladies, who do their best with what they're given, and especially Doris, who gives me extra fries even when I don't want them.)
Monday, December 10, 2007
Feds uncover Chicago teachers' '10 Commandments'
CHICAGO (ap*) -- Federal investigators have found what they say is a "Ten Commandments"-style code of behavior for Chicago teachers at the hideout of the Chicago boss.
Prohibitions include speaking to the media and taking credit for student successes, while members are urged to vote and treat their own aldermen with respect.
The list was found during a raid on the offices of Richard M. Daley, the current boss and mayor-for-life of Chicago. Investigators were there searching for clues regarding a number of corruption scandals that have rocked the mayor's office in recent years.
It is thought to have been drawn up as a "guide to being a good public servant." Similar lists are expected to be uncovered for police and fire department employees.
Although it has long been established that teachers report directly to their principals and Local School Councils, the document makes clear that the one true boss of Chicago schools is Daley, who says, "I am the Board of Ed." Activities apparently beyond the pale for Chicago teachers are complaining about charter schools and blaming anyone other than themselves for the failure of their students on standardized tests.
The document also makes clear that the union representing teachers must remain incompetent.Investigators say that the documents seized during the raid--including the Ten Commandments--will give them an insight into how the Chicago Public Schools system operates.
* Read the original article about the mafia's 10 commandments.
Sunday, December 09, 2007
Thought this would be the easiest post of my 12-days list, but a quick scan through my iTunes found very few songs about teachers or teaching. So it took a while to scour my entire music collection (and the Internet) to find ten songs--songs that mentioned teachers, teaching, or school. Then, I had to find one more to make this list one louder, as in Spinal Tap:
Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?1. Van Halen: Hot for Teacher*
Got it bad, got it bad, got it bad,
I'm hot for teacher
2. Pink Floyd: Another Brick in the Wall, part 2
We don't need no education.
We don't need no thought control.
No dark sarcasm in the classroom.
Teacher, leave those kids alone.
Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone!
3. The Clash: Stay Free
We met when we were in school
Never took no shit from no one, we weren't fools
The teacher says were dumb
We're only having fun
We piss on everyone
In the classroom
4. Beastie Boys: Fight for Your Right (To Party)
You wake up late for school man you don't wanna go
You ask you mom, "Please?" but she still says, "No!"
You missed two classes and no homework
But your teacher preaches class like you're some kind of jerk
5. White Stripes: We're Going to Be Friends
And we don't notice any time pass
We don't notice anything
We sit side by side in every class
Teacher thinks that i sound funny
But she likes the way you sing
(Also covered by Jack Johnson, probably the only song of his I'll ever own)
6. Urge Overkill: Dropout
What's the matter with you?
You've been down all day
What happened to you
To make you feel that way?
Baby ain't that a shame when they call you those names
Dropping out from school
Guess it wasn't so cool
7. Ramones: Rock 'N' Roll High School
Well I don't care about history.
Rock, rock, rock' n' roll high school
cause that's not where I wanna be.
Rock, rock, rock 'n' roll high school
I just wanna have some kicks.
I just wanna get some chicks.
8. The Replacements: Fuck School
Laugh in the middle of my speech
Swingin' in the hall out of reach
What a bitch
Fuck school, fuck school, fuck my school
9. Rufus Wainwright: The Art Teacher
There I was in uniform
Looking at the art teacher
I was just a girl then;
Never have I loved since then
10. Fountains of Wayne: Hackensack
I used to know you when we were young
You were in all my dreams
We sat together in period one
Fridays at 8:15
11. G.G. Allin: Teacher's Pet*
I was never that teachers pet, no
I was a radical outside the rest, you know
You never follow the fucking rules
'Cause the teachers were a bunch of fools
Have I missed anything good? Feel free to add songs to this list, which will be turned into the Chicago Teacher Man compilation CD, available in time for the holidays.
* OK, I admit, I don't own songs one or eleven. But how can I keep G.G. Allin off this list?
Saturday, December 08, 2007
Working for the Chicago schools, dealing with Chicago kids, you are likely to go through certain moods swings. I know it happens to me every year, as sure as the seasons change, as sure as every gain on the ACT is followed by two years of declines, as sure as every promise to come on time is followed by three tardies.
Mood: Giddy Anticipation.
Questions: Will this be the year I finally have good classes? ... the year I'll make a difference?
How long it lasts: Until the end of the first full day of classes
Questions: When will my program be set so I can set up my grade book? When will we be able to get textbooks? How the heck does this new attendance system work? What was wrong with the old one?
How long it lasts: Six to eight months
Questions: Don't you kids want to kick butt on the ACT? Aren't you ready to show the world what you're made of?
How long it lasts: Until the first practice ACT, where you see half your students asleep after 15 minutes
Questions: When are you guys going to start doing some work? Second quarter? Good grief. When am I going to start taking my life seriously?
How long it lasts: Until the day after report card pick-up
Questions: What do I want for Christmas? How about some effort? Or can you at least pretend you're interested?
How long it lasts: Until winter break
Questions: Won't that kid be surprised when I call home to show how serious I am this year?
How long it lasts: Until the sixth disconnected number in seven tries
Questions: What did I do in my past lives to deserve this fate? Where did I go wrong?
How long it lasts: Until the next lifetime
Questions: How will I prepare these kids for the Prairie State? Why won't they take this stuff seriously? The test is next month, isn't it?
How long it lasts: Until the day of the test
Questions: Is the school year over yet? How many days left? Should I start a countdown calendar?
How long it lasts: Until you decide you can't be bothered to find a calendar
Questions: Should I quit? Will I be missed? Should I just tell everyone that I am out of here?
How long it lasts: Until you realize that summer break starts next month
Questions: Those are the ACT results? That's not a misprint? What the--?
How long it lasts: Until the alcohol kicks in
Questions: Why isn't there air conditioning in this building? Why did I agree to teach summer school? What's wrong with me? Am I that desperate?
How long it lasts: Until the next regular school year begins
I'll present the days in reverse order, so that when it's complete, you'll see it from the first to the last day.
Thursday, December 06, 2007
I make my way around the room, get back to him. Pick his quiz up off the floor, plop it back on his desk, and he pushes it off again. Says something about pride again. "Pride?" I say. "You're too proud to take the quiz? Or your pride will suffer if you do poorly?" He doesn't say anything, just stares at me.
Ten minutes later, I pick up the quizzes. His is still blank. Still on the floor. "Fine," I say. "One less to grade."
Minutes later I'm rearranging students, asking them to change seats for today's lesson. Quiet kid doesn't move.
"Move here," I tell him. He doesn't budge. "Fine, move there instead." He still doesn't move. "Well, you can't sit where you're at."
I end the standoff by telling him to move or get a write-up. He tells me he'll take the write-up. I open my door, look for a security guard. Of course one's not around. "Well, go to the discipline office," I say. "I'll send the write-up later." He leaves.
"I think you handled that very well," one of my troublemaking boys says. "Couldn't have done it better myself."
"Well, I wouldn't have handled it that way a few years ago," I say, wondering what is up with the quiet kid. "When I first started teaching, that would've probably turned into a huge argument. Or I would've just let him sit there."
The lesson continues. The day ends. After school, the quiet kid shows up. Again says, "I've got pride, you know."
"Yeah, I heard you in class," I say. "But I have no idea what you mean."
"Maybe I'm not translating it right," he says. "In Spanish, it's ..." I have no idea what that means either. He explains. Turns out he was offended by the way I tossed his quiz onto his desk. Thought it was disrespectful.
Oh my God, I think. Now I can't toss quizzes on desks? What next? But I say, "Hey, I'm sorry. I meant no disrespect. It's just what I do."
"Well, I don't know you, and you don't know me," he says.
"You're right. But by now, I'd hope you know that I never purposefully try to disrespect anyone in my classroom." I then explain that I toss papers, do random weird things to lighten the mood. "Lots of students hate these quizzes," I say, "think they're boring. Or they get nervous about tests. So I try to make it a little less serious. A little fun."
But ... I am once again reminded that perceptions vary. So I apologize and promise that I'll never toss a quiz onto his desk again. He accepts my apology. And apologizes for leaving the room instead of moving to where I told him to go.
As we're finishing up, he still doesn't look too happy with me, but I can't worry about it because another student walks in, a senior who wants help with a scholarship essay. I then stay until 5 o'clock with her, working that essay towards perfection.
She leaves saying, "Thank you so much. I really, really appreciate you taking the time."
I smile. On the walk home, I can't help but think, you win some, you lose some. You can try, but you'll never be perfect.
Tuesday, December 04, 2007
Uh-huh. I wake up from my fantasy world and realize that A. my students are non-readers, and B. we don't even have enough books for all the students, so we have class sets that can only be read during class. Yeah, it's a waste of time, but you gotta do what you gotta do. So we spend plenty of time reading aloud in class. Sometimes I let volunteers do the reading, and then the class get to suffer through the stumbling and stopping and mispronouncing. Most times, though, I do the reading. I mean, I can make it more dramatic. And, really, having the students do it serves no real purpose, because reading out loud is not really a skill they need to develop. (Unless, of course, if they have children of the their own, which is sometimes the case, and they want to practice reading aloud to them.)
And while I do hate it, I have to say one thing about in-class reading: The vast majority of students love--absolutely love--to have a good story read to them. Don't know, maybe they didn't have anyone reading to them when growing up, so it brings out the inner child. Then again, which person, no matter how old and how educated, doesn't like to be read to?
Recently, four of my classes have started in on Beowulf. It was perfect timing, though totally unplanned, that I started the unit on the day the movie came out. I haven't seen it yet, but several of my students have, and it's actually very cool to have them say things like, "Hey, that's not the way it happened in the movie!" or "I really like this story. I mean, it's Beowulf!"
Then, there were these two back-to-back sentences from a boy today:
"Brad Pitt's naked in it."
"I saw it in 3D."
I looked at him and said, "Those are two sentences I never thought I'd hear you say." The class got a good laugh.
Oh, it's fun when you can have some laughs while struggling through names like Beowulf and Grendel and Hrothgar. To keep the characters straight, I insisted students pronounce them like this:
- For Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, I said the only way to say the name is to shake a fist in the air and speak in a slow, deep voice.
- For Grendel, the monster Beowulf comes to slay, you have to roll the "R" to make it sound sinister.
- For Beowulf, really stretch out the final syllable into an extended howl.
A few other kids sit through the whole thing, bored. "Man, this is the third time I'm reading this," said a guy who is taking English III for the third time.
"Doesn't it just get better each time?" I asked.
"No," he said. "Beowulf does the same things each time. And Hrothgar's still afraid that the beginning might not be the end."
My fourth period class is extra sluggish, so I've had to mix things up a little to keep them from falling asleep. Last week, I insisted everyone stand while we were reading. Surprisingly, they all stood. Nobody complained. And I think mostly everyone paid attention. Ah, you might be asking, but is that not a form of punishment? Pshah! These kids sit all day. Standing might be good for them.
That same day I asked my seventh period to stand up for the reading, too. They declined. "Fine," I said, "I have a better idea. Why don't we all stand on top of our desks?" I climbed up on a desk and said, "Come on, who's with me?" Two guys--both of them labeled behavior disordered--stood up onto their desks with their textbooks. "Isn't it great up here?" I asked, hoping for a Dead Poets moment. "Don't you gain a whole new perspective on life from up here?"
The two guys looked around the room thoughtfully and nodded. "Yeah," one of them said. "Things are different from up here." Yes, these guys were literally getting high on literature.
Today, I asked fourth period if they wanted to stand again while reading. "No!" one girl called out. "My leg hurts."
"Fine," I said, "so how about if we all just sit on top of the desks? Up out of your seats and onto the desks everybody!" They all did it. "Just remember this the next time you want to put your head down for a nap," I said. "Someone was sitting on that desk."
"No farting," someone said.
"Too late," someone else said.
We all giggled.
"Hey, what if the principal walks in and sees us sitting like this?" a third voice asked. Actually worried about what the principal would do?
"I don't know. I'll just tell him that you refused to listen to me when I told you to sit in your desks," I said. "No, just kidding. He'll probably think it's some innovative teaching method and have me talk about it at a future meeting."
The funny thing is, the principal did walk in today. It was later in the day, seventh period, and we were just getting underway, so no one was sitting or standing on top of a desk yet. He sat down for a formal observation. Darn, I thought, no foolishness. But I still couldn't resist.
"Hey, where's Joe?" I asked. "I swear I saw him in the hall earlier."
"I think he got an early dismissal," a girl said.
"Oh, too bad," I said. "I brought in a goat for him to slaughter today. Is there anyone else willing to sacrifice a goat today?"
The principal gave me an odd look. I didn't bother to explain. I mean, if he had been in class last week, he would have known that we had read the part in Beowulf where Hrothgar's wise men start praying to the Devil to rid the kingdom of Grendel. At that point, I had said, "Isn't that a scary thought? The people are so desperate. They've been praying to God for 12 years and the monster is still attacking them, so they decide maybe they should pray to the Devil instead." I paused, looked around the room. "Now, how many of you are religious?" Most hands went up. "So, what would you say if I told you I'd give you an A in my class if you sincerely prayed to the Devil?" The kids were properly freaked out. "Well, the people in this story are religious. But that's how desperate they've become. Can you imagine that?"
A few kids shuttered at the thought. But Joe, of course, declared that he'd gladly pray to the Devil for an A in my class. "Great," I said, "I'll bring in a goat and you get to sacrifice it." He insisted he'd do it. But then he's been absent the next two days.
Of course when I finished joking around about that I looked up and noticed that my computer had mysteriously shut down. My entire lessons are done on PowerPoint, so I had to restart the machine. "See what you get for joking around about worshiping the Devil?" I said, waiting impatiently as my slow CPS-laptop booted up. "There are certain things you shouldn't make light of."
Back in seventh period today, the principal left after about 35 minutes. Several students breathed a sigh of relief. "What's the matter? Were you guys nervous with Grendel, I mean the principal in the room?"
"No!" a kid declared. "But you sure were."
"Me? Did I look nervous to you?"
"Oh yeah," said one of the kids that stood on a desk last week. "You totally held back today."
The bell eventually rang, and a student said to me, "I actually like this class."
"Thanks," I said, "but I think you're just responding to great literature."
"Yeah," he said, looking at me. "I guess so."
Saturday, December 01, 2007
Earlier this week I instituted yet another tardy policy. Anyone coming in to class would be handed a referral form, no questions asked. And they would have to write themselves up. How's that for making it hit home? Instead of me filling out the referral form, I have them do it. I then put the referral form into a folder. The next time they're late, I call their house and make a note of that call on the form. Finally, on the third tardy, I hand it in to the discipline office for a day of in-school suspension.
I think it's brilliant because it hits home. Several kids this week got their very first-ever write up. And to add insult to injury, they had to write themselves up. I loved it. The part that isn't brilliant is that I have to keep track of all these forms, have to stay organized. And I'll have to call homes just to tell parents that their little ones are running late.
But, quite unexpectedly, it's been an amazing success in the first week. Just about every single kid is now on time.
Except for one kid, a quiet, normally decent kid I'll call Mac. Mac has a problem. His girlfriend is in my class first period. He has me second. The trouble is he meets her after first by my door, then walks her to her class before heading back to my room. Which means he's late just about every day. This week, he was late Tuesday. He filled out a form. Wednesday. I called his house, left a message. Thursday, and I said, "That's it! You're the first one with three strikes!"
Today, he showed up on time. I let him start his work. Then, 10 minutes into class, I waved my folder in the air and said, "I hate to do this, I really do. But Mac was tardy three times this week. And if I don't follow through, no one will ever believe a word I say."
I handed him the referral form and said, "Go to the office. They're expecting you."
So off he went without a word. The rest of the class was dead silent. After letting it sink in, I said to them, "Please don't make me do this to one of you next week."
I saw Mac after school. "It was horrible!" he said.
"Again, I'm sorry I had to do it to you," I said. "See you Monday. On time."
"Thanks," he said. "Have a good weekend."