Monday, March 31, 2008


In today's Tribune, there is a story about a group "soliciting nominations for the nation's 10 worst unionized teachers, and says it will give $10,000 to each of the 10—if they agree to stop teaching forever."

Not a bad idea. I'd agree for $5,000.

They only remember the really unimportant stuff

I'm trying to respond to an email from one of my students. Maybe if I write out my thoughts here, I might be able to come up with something.

Her message to me:
She sent it Friday afternoon. It's now Sunday evening. And I just checked my email. And my initial thought is: What is she talking about?

I have no idea.

Whatever it was, she felt it was important enough to send an apology. What could it have been? Did she say something inappropriate? Ask a rude question? Respond in a sarcastic way? For the life of me, I don't remember. But since she apologized, I have to remember ...

Let's see ... 5th period Friday. ACT review. Strategies practice. Think-aloud of a passage. No real opportunities for someone to say anything horrible ...

Hmm ... what were the passages about? Something boring. All ACT passages are boring. Why are they so boring? If they were interesting, maybe students wouldn't fall asleep taking the darned test. Oh yeah, one of the passages was about some Japanese guy climbing a mountain. The next one was about ... something college students do, some college tradition like stuffing people in a Volkswagen Beetle.

Did we end up talking about college life? Possibly. I often get side-tracked by college talk. Thing is, so few of my students have any first- or even second-hand knowledge of what happens in college, that it's my job to inform them. I tell them about being able to schedule your own classes, so you get to choose what time of day works best for you. About applications and financial aid. About being able to go to the bathroom without asking for permission. About lecture halls. About Frisbee. Anything and everything they've never experienced.

Oh yeah!!! Wow, now I remember. And she was a little rude. But hilarious. And I totally forgot about it:

I don't know how we got on the topic, but someone said something like, "Everyone always thinks about sex," and I said something like, "Well, maybe teenagers do," and someone said, "You used to be a teenager," and I said, "Yeah, used to be. Now my thoughts are pure." Something like that. A total throwaway conversation, something meaningless that no one would ever remember.

But then Julia said, "Well, that explains why you're single!"

I said, "What's that supposed to mean?"

And she said, "The only thing girls think about nowadays is sex. And if your thoughts are pure, you're boring."

And the whole class said, "Ooooh!"

She continued, "And no one wants to be with some boring guy."

A throwaway conversation, one I should have avoided. One I should have nipped in the bud. One that would have embarrassed me a few years back. But that was then, this is now, so instead of quickly changing the subject or threatening to write her up or blushing, I looked at her and said, "Who said anything about me being single?"

Another "ooooh!" from the class.

"You did," Julia said. "That one time you asked if our mothers were single!"

Wow, that's something I said at the beginning of the year. A stupid joke, with this punchline: "Can you imagine calling me Dad?" But people remember the stupidest things. In fact, I often wonder if students ever hear anything important I say. Anything about writing or literature or college life. It seems like they don't. Ever. They sure don't take notes. But a stupid joke, that's what they remember.

And now that I remember that stupid conversation from Friday I need to remember to yell at her about it tomorrow.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Boring pictures

I decided to show my students some of my spring break photos, something I do whenever I return from a trip, something I do for two reasons:
  • to get them interested in the world outside of their neighborhoods
  • to use up valuable class time
Of course during second period, as I was mid-way through my slide show, the principal walked in. Probably was wondering why it was so dark and quiet in my room. So I scrambled to come up with an "educational" rationale for my photos.

"And who does this picture remind you of?" I asked the class, clicking to the one of me reading on a rock. Lucky for me, several kids yelled in unison: "Christopher McCandless!"

"That's right," I said, "the guy from Into the Wild." I actually had taken this self-portrait with the intention of looking like the character in the book we had just read.

The principal, of course, got into it and started asking about specific places I visited and talking about East Bay restaurants he's eaten at. The kids eventually got bored.

But there was one picture that they enjoyed, one of a street scene with the Bay in the distance. And one thing they could easily understand--something neither the principal nor I could do--was what's written on the side of the van.

So here's a challenge to my readers. Who can actually read the graffiti? Don't cheat by asking a teenager. First correct response in the comments gets extra credit.

click on picture to enlarge

Friday, March 28, 2008

Someone remind me of this

... when I'm all cranky and hating my job in the near future:

Two of my students got a 30 on the Reading portion of the recent practice ACT. Two 30s! I focus way too much on the English portion of the test, so I didn't want to take any of the credit for their Reading scores. So today I asked if they wanted to make a short presentation to the class about how they were able to do so well. For extra credit.

"Sure, I'll do it," the boy said, "but all I really did was follow your advice."

"Me too," the girl said. "Your strategy really helped."

"Really?" I said. Really! That's incredible, I thought. But ... what strategy were they talking about? I had no idea what I might have told them, so I asked, "Which strategy are you talking about?"

"OPP," he said.

"Yeah," she agreed. "Order of personal preference."

"Before starting on the test, I did what you said," the boy continued. "I read the first sentence of each passage. I decided which one was most interesting, which one was least interesting, and I worked in order."

I said, "Really? So you got down with OPP?" Wow, they listened. And it worked.

"I started with the prose fiction, that was the easiest," the boy said, then asked the girl, "How about you?"

"I don't remember. I just know that the strategy works."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Significant events

Quick: Think of a significant event in your life. Something that changed you or shaped you into the person you are today.

Not so hard, is it?

Easier than being asked to come up with a topic for a research paper, right?

OK, maybe it's not the easiest thing in the world, especially if you're 17, and you're not sure if you've ever accomplished anything in your life. The thing is, my students have been reading about significant experiences. They've been talking about what makes an experience significant. They've brainstormed possible topics for their very own personal essay.

And today was the deadline to submit their top three experiences. I would then help them narrow down their ideas, help them choose the one that would make a really great paper. Something they could maybe include next year in their college applications. So ... I collected what they had come up with.

And ... this is why I go from loving my job and my students to hating it and them:

The most popular topic was: My first day of high school. How interesting can that be? "The school was big. It was noisy. I was scared. I didn't know anyone. Then I met some friends and it was OK." Then there was: Graduating from eighth grade. And let's not forget: My first job. My first boyfriend. When my grandma died. The time my sister/my cousin/I got pregnant.

And gathered here are some of the more "interesting" ones from just one of my classes, seventh period:
  • The frist day I get my dog.
  • My first time doing it (sexual intercourse)
  • My nintendo 64
  • The time I had the stomach flu (I learnd it sucked)
  • When I first shaved
  • When I got my rabbit
  • My first ride on a roller coaster
  • another day with the "shrink"
Some, of course, got maybe a little too personal, some too painful, and thrown in the mix were some intriguing ones:
  • I got robbed in the suburbs
  • when my mom stopped beating me
  • war in Croatia
  • my first time going to jail
  • When I found out I had cancer
This was going to be the easy essay of the year. The fun one for them to write and me to read. Now I wonder.

Especially when I consider this last submission. From a kid who silently sat working most of the period:
Yeah, can't wait to read his essay.*

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


"I've noticed you always make fun of us."

"What are you talking about?"

"You make fun of us all the time. You say something really sarcastic. And the funny thing is that no one even notices. They all just sit there."

The third quarter is almost over, and a student is finally paying attention. And he's partially right. I often say something outlandish just to see if anyone will notice. They usually don't. Except for this kid, sitting in the back of the room by himself, laughing along with every stupid thing out of my mouth. Still, I can't admit to him that he's right.

"Oh, come on," I say. "What have I ever said that might qualify as making fun of students?"

"Well, like today when you said that you wouldn't want to kiss anyone. That was pretty rude."

"What? You want me to say that I want to kiss you guys? That's the best you've got?"

"No, wait, you said something yesterday. I can't remember, but you made fun of us."

"I was probably just trying to motivate you," I say. "Now, if you concentrated on your work as much as on what I do or don't say, maybe you'd pass my class."

"See? You just did it again!"

"Shouldn't you be going to your next class?" He starts towards the door. "Wait," I say, "here's something for you," and I toss him a Hershey's Kiss.

Yes, today I was giving those kinds of kisses to my seventh period class students. Just yesterday the scores came in from the juniors' second practice ACT. The scores are still way too low, but there were sings signs of improvement.

In fact, I have a bulletin board dedicated to their scores. A couple of months ago, I posted the average ACT English score for each of my five classes. They ranged from a high of 18.8 to a low of 12. That was on the first practice test. On the second one, each class went up by at least 1.7 points. My first period class is now averaging 21.6 in English. But I was happiest with seventh period--they went up 3.2 points to 15.7. Like I said, it's still low, but I'm after improvement.

"What these numbers show," I said to each class, "is that improvement is possible. That if you all take it seriously, you can move those numbers up some more. Now, we've got a month left before the real test, so you're really going to have to work hard."

"You should give us some kind of reward, cookies or something," one kid in seventh period said. "A reward for improving the most." There was a chorus of agreement.

"In fact," I said, "I'm so pleased with your scores that I'd like to give each of you a kiss." I walked over to a row of boys. They all shrank back. I pulled out a bag of Hershey's Kisses. They laughed, and I walked around the room dropping a couple of Kisses on each desk.

"No offense," I said, "but I wouldn't really want to kiss any of you."

Kids were busy unwrapping the chocolates. Except for one kid in the back of the room, who took note of that comment.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

German teens for Obama

Even on vacation, I run into students. Not necessarily my own, but 16 year olds are 16 year olds, so I consider them my students, even if for just one day.

While in California last week, I decided to leave my friends--all of whom were blogging or working (but not both)--and travel a bit on Highway 1. If you've never driven Highway 1 down the California coast, I had been told, you must. And now, having seen at least a small chunk of it, I have this message: If you've never driven Highway 1 down the California coast, you must.

Just south of San Francisco, literally 20 minutes out of town, you hit some of the most amazing scenery you've ever seen. Cliffs plunging into the ocean, waves crashing into the shore, the road narrowing and winding and begging you to pull over. To wander. To wonder.

I didn't go far, having planned to stay at a couple of hostels 30 miles apart. Both were at cool, old lighthouses. Both were literally on the edge of cliffs. Imagine sleeping to the sound of the surf. Imagine waking up to a million-dollar view. Imagine paying 20 bucks a night. Not bad. Oh, and imagine meeting some interesting characters along the way.

A couple of middle-aged bird watchers from England.

A guy from Wisconsin, having just returned from a year abroad not quite ready to go home, to go back to the grind.

A German family of four driving the biggest, baddest SUV possible, bursting into the hostel kitchen with many bags of groceries, chattering and laughing and infecting everyone with at least a little good cheer.

The Germans spoke perfect English. Turns out they moved from England to Germany a few years back, and the kids go to an international school, studying in English. At the kitchen table, as I sat lazily eating a bowl of soup, the kids sat down with bowls of Cheerios and chatted away.

"Dad will let me drive through Death Valley, watch," the boy told his sister.

"No way," she laughed. "Why do you think so?"

"I just know it."

"You wanna bet?"

They never bet, and I tried ignoring them, my nose in Haruki Murakami's Dance Dance Dance. But then they changed topics, started talking about Obama and Clinton. Wondering if Obama's speech on race would help or hurt him. I put my book down.

"Excuse me," I said. "Can I ask how old you are?"

"Sixteen," the boy said.

"And you're from Germany?" I asked. "And you're talking about Obama?"

"Well," the boy said, "my friends and I at school are really interested in global warming and issues surrounding that. And so we're trying to find out as much as possible about the candidates."

"Wow," I said, thinking about my students back in Chicago, wondering how many of them listened to Obama's speech, wondering how many of them are interested in global warming and issues surrounding it.

"So, who do you like?" I asked.

"I think they're both pretty good," the boy responded, slightly hesitating. "So far I think I like what I've heard from Obama more."

"Don't worry," I said, "I'm an Obama supporter myself." He looked relieved. "And if you think his speeches sound good on TV, you should hear them in person."

He looked excited. "Really? You've seen him speak?"

I said I was from Illinois, that I saw some of his speeches when he was running for Senate, even made it to his victory celebration. He had been popular then, but the days of just showing up at his events and getting in are over. And we chatted some more about politics, about the school in Germany, about learning to drive.

Their parents eventually came back. We laughed about the monstrosity of a truck they had rented. The dollar is weak, the euro strong, so Germans can splurge a little.

"You know," I told the dad as they were heading out, "Death Valley is a great place to learn to drive." The guy looked at his son, who burst into a grin.

"No way," the dad said. "You are not driving."

"See?" the sister squealed, and the family swept out of the kitchen, onto the beach, leaving their laughter and positive vibes and political curiosity floating in the now-quiet hostel.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Spring break

It's that time of year already. I'm heading west, in search of the elusive Mt. Kos. Will probably not post until school restarts, but who knows.

Have a great week.

Reader response

I took a group of students on a little after-school field trip yesterday to an art opening downtown. On the bus ride there I took out some photocopied poems by Pablo Neruda. After some hesitation, the kids read the poems and loved them. Well, at least the girls did.

"Can you imagine a guy writing a poem like this for you?" I asked, and they were like, "Oh, wow." And I asked, "Which would you prefer, a guy that wrote something like this for you? Or some really hot guy?" Unanimously, they said, "The poet!" and I looked at a couple of guys and said, "Hear that?" They hadn't.

I usually teach Neruda, but this year I changed the works a little and missed out on the poetry. So I wanted to share some of his work with them at least once. And it's weird how differently they reacted.

One girl sat there saying things like, "Oh my God, I bet this one's about Esteban talking to Clara after she leaves him." I had told her that Neruda was "The Poet" in Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, so she was talking about the characters in the novel.

The girl sitting right next to her read a poem and gave me an evil look. "Are you making me read this because of the reason I think you are?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," I smiled, knowing well that she and her boyfriend had just broken up and she was sad about it. "I want you guys to read some amazing poetry. But ... if a poem means different things to different people, that's great. Plus, if you're feeling a certain way, maybe nothing will make you feel better, but maybe it will be comforting to know that others have been in similar situations. And they've survived."

Her evil look changed slightly. She turned back to the page in her hand and continued reading. And now, while I'm at it, I'd like to share one of those Neruda poems with you:

I Do Not Love You Except Because I Love You

I do not love you except because I love you;
I go from loving to not loving you,
From waiting to not waiting for you
My heart moves from cold to fire.

I love you only because it's you the one I love;
I hate you deeply, and hating you
Bend to you, and the measure of my changing love for you
Is that I do not see you but love you blindly.

Maybe January light will consume
My heart with its cruel
Ray, stealing my key to true calm.

In this part of the story I am the one who
Dies, the only one, and I will die of love because I love you,
Because I love you, Love, in fire and blood.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Saved by the bell

Another in an ongoing series of notes I find on my classroom floor:

were u smoking? huh?

A lil bit. ={
And anyways whats this thing bout Danny

the bell's gonna ring

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Several years ago, the school where I work won a major grant from a private foundation. Much of the money went into staff development, and I have to say, I am the teacher that I am today because of the courses I took and the retreats that I attended in those years. This isn't saying much, but at least I'm better than I used to be.

The grant money is gone, but we're trying to keep some of the momentum going. One thing we're still doing is open-classroom visits. A couple of times a year, teachers invite others to sit in on classes to observe. Later there's a feedback session--no names, but we talk about what we saw, what worked, what we might try out. Last week, I opened up my classroom, and random characters from around the building showed up, people I don't normally collaborate with or even see. And I have to say, it's pretty scary to have colleagues in the room observing. I mean, it's one thing to have the principal in there to evaluate you, but something else to have some math teacher sitting there, looking bored.

Anyway, I didn't really plan anything special, just business as usual, but things went well. Students behaved. And the observers had some nice things to say.

After first period, a history teacher asked me, "Do you really do all those things every day?"

"Sure," I said. Then I thought about the lesson--bellringer, quiz review, reflection, small group work, essay writing--no wonder I'm tired at the end of the day.

During second period, a computer teacher actually stood up and participated in a group sharing of happiness quotes. Which reminds me: One of my favorite quotes on the topic is from Into the Wild, when Christopher is dying on the bus and finally has an epiphany and writes, "Happiness only real when shared."

And that might be true for open-classroom visits, too. A good lesson, like happiness, is only real when shared. So many times teachers get caught up with what's going on inside their own classrooms that they don't see all the good things happening right next door. As I've said in the past, teaching is a lonely experience because you actually do your job alone, with no colleagues there to support you in the middle of a crisis. But when you sit in another teacher's room, you can get ideas, share the experience, maybe find out how to quiet down so-and-so.

So if you're a teacher, or someone thinking about teaching, or maybe a parent wondering what's going on in today's classrooms, just visit a classroom. And your reaction might be similar to what I recently heard from a Northwestern University student observer: "When I first came here I didn't know what to expect. I mean, you hear so many bad things about city schools," she said. "And it's not bad at all. The kids are great."

Yup, I thought, another sucker. The kids end up driving you crazy, but they're also the ones that keep you coming back.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Email me

Today, one of my fourth period students asked me the one question that annoys me more than just about any other: "Do you have an email address that I can have to contact you?"

This is annoying because:
  1. I give my email address to students on the first day of class.
  2. My email address is on my syllabus.
  3. I periodically force my students to email me their work.
  4. I announce my email address in class at least once a week.
But this kid is one of my favorites, a really happy-go-lucky guy, so I pretended not to be annoyed. I gave him my email address, plus an easy way to remember it: "It's my last name and my room number at yahoo dot com." And then I asked, "Why do you want it all of a sudden?"

"Because today's my last day at this school," he said, "and I want to be able to contact you if I ever have any questions." Another one bites the dust. Turns out he's moving to Los Angeles, the lucky dog. He's following his girlfriend, who happens to be pregnant.

I guess it seems he's trying to do the right thing, trying to be responsible. But, still, I wanted to ask him if he's seen the movie Juno. Instead, I told him I'd miss him.

"I'm going to miss you, too," he said. "And your class. Plus, I was looking forward to seeing that movie."

"Well, rent the movie on your own, if you can find it," I said. "And have a good time in California. Maybe some day I'll see you there."

Movie adaptations

I spent parts of Saturday and Sunday running around to Hollywood and Blockbuster in search of Into the Wild, which just came out on DVD last week. My timing had been great--four of my classes had just finished reading (or pretending to read) the Jon Krakauer book, and I promised to show parts of the movie in class this week. My timing was good, but not perfect, because I couldn't find the movie anywhere.

Some students accused me of not really trying, and I was like, "I even checked at the Red Box outside of Jewel!"

Lucky for me there were a ton of copies at my local Hollywood when I checked after school today. So I rented it and just finished watching it. And my feelings, I have to say, are mixed.

I don't know if there has ever been a movie adaptation that I've liked. In fact, just today I was talking to one of my students about Like Water for Chocolate. The book is good, and one of my classes will be reading it next. The movie, though, is awful. My biggest problem with it is the lead actress, who is not at all like I pictured when reading. The only movie I think I like as much as the book is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, although I don't think that counts because I'm pretty sure I saw the movie first. (Which leads to today's challenge, readers: Name one movie that's as good or better than the book. And please don't say The Princess Bride, because then I'll have to disown you.)

The problems with Into the Wild are many, mostly dealing with the writing and direction. I hate how so much of the focus is on the relationship Christopher McCandless had with his parents. In the book, it's there, but not as the overriding reason why this young kid took off without a trace to roam the U.S. until he ended up in Alaska. In the book, he's an explorer, someone looking to live in the world. In the movie, though, Alex seems to just be running from his abusive parents. I guess Hollywood needs an easily explained reason for everything.

Another problem is the pace of the movie. And length. At 2 hours, 20 minutes, there's no way I can show enough of it in class. (To get a taste of how slow moving the movie is, check out the official website.) Which leads to my biggest problem: You really have to watch the whole movie to get anything out of it. In the end, it really is quite haunting, but not unless you've sat through the whole thing. Which my students wouldn't be able to do, even if I let them.

But I am curious to hear what they will have to say about it. The ones who did read were quite baffled. They just couldn't get their heads around the idea of someone giving up everything to just roam. These are teenagers who barely roam away from their neighborhoods.

When we were discussing the concept of exploring in one of my classes, one student said, "That's such a white thing to do." I wonder. Is it?

Monday, March 10, 2008


I'm going to stray from teaching for today's post to talk politics.

As you probably know, a Democrat beat a Republican in a special election yesterday to replace retired Congressman Dennis Hastert. This race held my interest for two reasons: First, I was bombarded by the negative campaign ads from the two candidates in the last few weeks, even though I live outside the district. During local newscasts, there were times when all four commercials during breaks were for the two candidates. "Can you trust Oberweis?" a voice asked, and a cow answered, "Noooooo!" The second, and more personal, reason was that my first job after college was as a reporter in that district, so I'd like to think I have some insight into just how Republican Illinois can be.

This happened 15 years ago, before the concept of "red" and "blue" America, but really not all that long ago, and this was only 40 miles outside of Chicago.

I was working on a story about local World War II veterans and decided to interview some old, retired state senator. I drove over to his place. He came out of his house and we shook hands, and then he walked over to my car, ran his hand over it, and said, "So, you drive one of them slick foreign jobs."

"It's a Honda Civic," I said. "And, actually, it was built in the U.S."

I'm not sure if he heard me. Or trusted me.

But after that, I opened my eyes. And saw, in every parking lot, that just about every car was American. There were no GM plants or anything like that in the area, but people were very anti-foreign cars. A few months later, I decided to move, and I got a job in Vermont. There, most of the cars were foreign, mostly Volvos (because of how safe they are when hitting a moose in the road, I guess). And there was an openly Socialist U.S. Congressman in office and Howard Dean was the governor. It felt more like home.

I sometimes tell my students this story to warn them that America is very different once you leave the general openness and diversity of the big city. The same is probably true once you leave the intelligent and engaged confines of the Internet; which is to say, I still have my doubts about this presidential election.

Saturday, March 08, 2008


I try to pretend that I can't stand standardized testing, that I'm a teacher because I love literature and talking about life and all that, but here's a confession: It's really, really important to me that my students do well on the ACT. Mainly, of course, I want them to do well because of what it possibly means for their futures. But secretly, I want my students to score higher than other teachers' students do, and I want their English scores to be higher than in the other subjects. This is for personal reasons. I'm competitive. I'm selfish. And at the end of the year, I want the students to know that at least one teacher worked hard to help them out.

And so we've entered testing season and I'm getting nervous because I know my kids aren't ready yet. But I think I've got many of them believing in themselves and in me. Yesterday they took a practice ACT. Today I asked them to fill out a quick reflection on how it went.

I asked them to compare yesterday's practice with the previous one. I asked which strategies they tried, which ones worked. I asked what their personal plans would be in the coming weeks. And the two questions that I was really interested in:
  1. Which test section was easiest for you? A. English B. Math C. Reading D. Science
  2. Which section was most difficult? A. English B. Math C. Reading D. Science
They responded exactly the way I was hoping. On the second question, not one student said that English was the hardest. Math won in a landslide. And on the first question, 87% of them responded that English was the easiest. They may change their minds when the results come in, but at least they're talking the talk.

I asked them to explain why they thought it was the easiest, and they wrote things like "Because we went over strategies & in my other classes we didn't" and "Due to all the practice we did in here" and "English is the only class I have that really did practice for the ACT" and "I actually learn something in English" and "Because you helped me with the strategies" and "English is awesome!!"

You're probably thinking they responded that way because I'm their English teacher, and they thought that's what I wanted to hear. But you have to believe me that my students are honest about this kind of thing. As evidence, I present the responses from this one smart boy I'll call Albert.

On the question asking to compare yesterday's practice test with the previous one, he circled C. About the same. His explanation: "All tests are equally mundane and irrelevent" (sic).

On the question asking which section was easiest, Albert didn't circle anything. His comment: "I don't pay attention to this type of thing."

My last question was: What thoughts, questions, concerns, or comments do you have about the ACT?

Other students wrote things like "It's going to be hard" and "It's pretty long" and "I am concerned that I will get nervous during the test and that I will forget everything" and "My concern is me being terrified because usually I freeze when I am."

What was Albert's final remark? "What does ACT stand for?"

And here's where a guy like Albert gets really annoying. I have ready responses to the other students' concerns and questions. And I know how to deal with nerves. But I just realized that I've been teaching to the test for eight years now, and I have no idea what ACT stands for.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Not bad, part 1

Today was the opposite of yesterday. In many ways.

First off, most of my students were doing their practice ACT. The only ones to come to class were seniors, kids who got to school late and weren't allowed in the testing room, and "demotes" that don't have enough credits to be juniors. So, about six or seven kids per class.

On a day like today, many teachers would just let the students do whatever, but I decided to do some vocabulary building by using the website. The site combines vocabulary with hunger relief. For every question you get right, 20 grains of rice are donated. Check it out for yourself. Basically, though, you get a set-up like this:

backlash means:

You click on the synonym/definition and move on to the next word.

I put the kids in small groups and we went around the room, seeing which team could get the most correct. It was low-key, laid-back, and fun. There was some good-natured joking when a team got a word wrong. Several times, I heard someone say, "I just learned a new word!" And it was a great chance to hear kids use some strategies to get the answers. They looked at the affixes. They considered roots. They tried changing the form, or saying words that sounded the same. They used process of elimination. One guy really made me proud when he said, "Well, backlash seems to be a negative word. So it can't be questionnaire or law."

Will they remember any of the words? Maybe not. But hopefully they'll remember a carefree day in class when everyone left smiling. Now if I could just get them to turn in some assignments.

Not bad, part 2

My IB students are really something else. They're a small group--only 22, which is down from 28 at the start of the year. Anyway, they're my first period class and my division, so I have two periods of sunshine every day.

Yesterday, when they learned that my birthday had been last week, they actually acted offended and demanded, "Why didn't you tell us?!" When I responded that, at my age, birthdays aren't a big deal, they acted even more offended. "We would've thrown you a party!" At the start of the year I heard that these kids always look for a reason to have a party.

So today they threw me a little birthday party after school. They walked in the room with a cake, singing Happy Birthday. The "fence" comment on the cake is a story for another time, and darn it, somehow my name got smudged in photoshop, but here's my cake:

And here's what the kids did to me when I tried to eat my piece:

It's their tradition, I'm told. Isn't it great that they have traditions? Anyway, after wiping the frosting off my face, I announced, "I have one phrase for you guys: Payback's a bitch."

Now I need a good idea for a prank ...

Not bad, part 3

One of my division kids approached me after the cake incident and handed me a birthday card. He's this really bright African-American boy who loves to read and is way-cool but still thinks he has to have a confrontational relationship with teachers. I'm fine with that because, quite frankly, he's right: he's a teenager and adults are the enemy.

I thought I'd share some of what he wrote in the card:
Happy belated birthday Jerk. You should have told us your birthday so we could party, you fool. ... Thanks for all the help even though it's your job. So screw you and burn in hell all of that. Next time tell us Jerk face.
Happy B-day
P.S. You suck at everything except being a great teacher.

Thursday, March 06, 2008


In the last couple of years I have become my school's go-to guy when it comes to standardized testing. Don't ask how or why. But when someone in the building has a question about the ACT, I'm consulted. When the students need a pep talk or some last-second strategies, I get called, like a volunteer fireman to the rescue. I'm not sure who to feel sorry for--the school, the students, or me.

Today, I felt sorry for me.

The real ACT is in about six weeks. In preparation for that, all juniors at my school will take a practice ACT tomorrow. And in preparation for the practice test, all juniors met with me today for a 45-minute strategy review session. So, instead of my usual five classes, I was privileged to give a presentation seven periods in a row. Seven periods of telling the same stories, reviewing the same strategies, watching students not care, nod off, sneak off text messages when they thought I wasn't looking. It's enough to make an English teacher wonder why he signed up for this profession.

The thing is, the students need to improve their scores. Not for my sake, as I said seven times today: no matter what they get, I still have a job. I won't get a bonus if their scores go up, and I won't lose my job if their scores go down. Well, I suppose the school could eventually get shut down if scores keep going down, but honestly, I'll be gone way before that happens. They need to improve their scores for their own sake.

As I said, they have a practice ACT tomorrow. This will be their second practice. Two months ago, they practiced. And the school's average on that practice was a 14. Yup. Fourteen. One-four. That's well below the state average, way below the city average. That's definitely not good enough to get into college. So, yeah, they need something. But ...

... how could I show them how to improve their scores if they weren't even listening?

... how could I convince not to be nervous if they weren't even awake?

... how could I motivate them to try something they don't care about?

Good questions, right? But those are the questions one considers every single day, during every single lesson, every single activity.

A few times today, when I was in the middle of my presentation and I looked around the room and saw half the kids totally ignoring me, I swear I almost quit. Almost walked out. I swear, being responsible for making the ACT interesting and important is too daunting. This is not why I became a teacher.

But each time I reached my frustration threshold, something happened. I noticed one or two kids really paying attention. Taking notes. Asking questions. Trying out some of the strategies on practice problems. Getting it. Actually, dare I say, engaged.

And that's what keeps a teacher going.

About halfway through the day, one of my colleagues stopped in and asked if I wanted lunch or something. No, I told her, I just wanted to get it over with, I just wanted to go home. Then, after my seventh consecutive presentation, two things happened:

1. I realized it was over. Huh, that was fast. It really wasn't that bad.

2. One student stuck around. A "typical" basketball player, a guy who always acts like he doesn't care, just sat there looking at the ACT booklet. "I don't get it," he said. "Why? Why is it D and not A?"

I looked at the problem he was talking about. Explained the reason. And reiterated the strategy I had used to get the D.

"Damn," he said, closing the booklet and getting up to leave. "This really isn't all that hard."

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


OK ... it's March already. I realize I haven't been blogging much lately, and I apologize, and I thank everyone for checking in anyway, and I promise to get back in the writing habit, but winter is winter, which isn't an excuse, but a fact; I get cranky during the long, harsh, dark, gray winter, I sleep more, I care less, and quite frankly, I dream of escaping. Chicago. My job. Students. Responsibility.

Here's an example of a not-too-good day. Today:

Towards the end of seventh period, the principal interrupts classes with an announcement over the intercom. One of our students, a freshman, died last Friday. No further details. But there is a collection for funeral costs. The family wants to send the boy's body to Honduras so that his mother can see him one last time and can bury him. Local charities are involved, but could teachers and students help out, donate? The school treasurer will accept donations in the main office during the next few days and pass the money on to the family.

In my room, silence. Every student, no matter how usually uncaring, can show respect at a time like this. Well, almost every student. All of a sudden, one jackass, a kid in class for the first time in three weeks, says out loud, as if to the principal, "Sorry, I gave to the AIDS in Africa fund."

A couple of kids snicker. Most look at him like he's a big idiot. I notice one girl, who is possibly a friend of the deceased, look absolutely stunned, ready to cry. I have to think fast, say something, tell this kid to shut the hell up, show that certain things just cannot be mocked. But it's been a long, harsh winter, so I have nothing intelligent to say. Instead:

"Why don't you shut the hell up?" I say. "If that's all you can think of saying after hearing about a death, then why don't you just not come back to class tomorrow?" I'm getting worked up, so I continue. "The boy that died, he was only a freshman, but I bet he accomplished more in his life than you will in your entire life!"

When I stop, the entire class is quiet. Everyone this time. I continue with the lesson, reading from Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild the part where a mother explains how her son's death has affected her forever. Yes, what happens in books we read in English class do relate to life.

As the bell's about to ring at the end of class, I notice the obnoxious kid looks upset. I feel a little bad about my reaction. I ask him to stick around. He glares, then gathers his things, marches out of the room, grumbling something how I don't know anything about him and what he has and hasn't accomplished in life.

The last to leave class is the girl who had looked stunned. She asks, "What would make him say something like that?"

"I don't know." It's a chance for me to redeem myself. Instead: "He's just an idiot. Try not to let him bother you."

And so another day ends. And I'm left wondering how to approach the next lesson in the unit: What is the meaning of happiness?

Saturday, March 01, 2008

It's your birthday

Here's a really awesome birthday card/painting I received from a couple of students (last year). Yup, February has come and gone, and so has another birthday ...

I think it's incredible that some kids can get away with being openly gay in high school. Is it possible that society is becoming more accepting? Or do people just not give a crap about anyone else?