Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Usage error

Gotta love the students that get English teacher jokes.

"Last weekend, I was cycling on the bike path heading to the Botanic Garden," I tell a student before class, "and I took this picture. What do you think?"

She looks at the picture, then at me. "A picture of a porta-potty?" she says. "You need a hobby."

I try again later.

This student looks at the picture and laughs. "What a dumb ass!" she says and calls over a friend. "Hey, check this out. Look how someone wrote the word here."

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Dear Readers of Mr. P,

I am the kid who lost his laptop at school. We've never met, but I would like to thank you all for what you are doing. When I first found out my laptop was stolen I gave up on the world, but now seeing what all of you are doing for this one thing I'm filled with joy, and I plan on doing selfless things when I get older. I'm overwhelmed and I want to do something great with that money. I plan on keeping everyone who donated posted through it all because without you I wouldn't have this opportunity. All of you are wonderful, and again I want to thank you for everything.


'You've restored my faith in people'

A group of my awesomest juniors sat in my room after school today, waiting for my big announcement. I took a deep breath, and I told them.

I told them that I do a little writing on the Internet, but that I'm anonymous, so don't try to google me.

I told them that I recently wrote about one of my students having his laptop stolen. That I had posted something about hoping to replace the computer.

I told them that there had been an amazing outpouring of support, that in just a couple of days, people--many of them complete strangers--had donated close to a thousand dollars.

I told them that someone I did not know, a lawyer from New York, had emailed saying she would donate a laptop to the cause. I told them that in subsequent emails, I learned that she represented cool rock bands, that her parents had gone to this very school, that, in fact, she was in town for her father's funeral when she offered to donate the laptop. I told them that the laptop wasn't here yet, but the UPS tracking information says it'll be here on Wednesday.

I then told them that there was money to now consider, that I thought half of it should go towards a scholarship fund for D and the other half should go to somehow make their school and/or community a better place. I told them that I had plenty of ideas how the money could be spent, but that I much preferred to have them figure it out, with D in charge.

Then, I handed D a printout of some of the messages written by people who donated money and told him to read them out loud.

He read them all. Slowly. Sounding like he might choke up once or twice. And when he finished, the entire class erupted in applause. The students--D's friends and peers--were genuinely happy for him. They offered their congratulations. One girl turned to me and said, "You've restored my faith in people."

I looked around the room. "So, what do you think?" I asked. "Can you all come up with a positive way to use this money? Possibly a way to make it grow and help even more?"

Yes. Yes. Yes! They wanted to try.

"Unless," I said, looking at D, "unless this guy would rather have all the money for his college fund."

"No," he quickly replied. "I want to do something good with it."

The class cheered again.

Later, he wanted a list of all the people who donated, so he could thank them individually.

"Sorry," I said. "Some of these people want to remain anonymous. And please don't make me separate out who wants to be anonymous and who doesn't. Maybe you can write something, and I'll post it here. But take your time. Collect your thoughts."

Eventually, after everyone left, he stuck around. We talked about how devastated he had really felt when the laptop had been stolen, how upset his family had been, how his mother had wanted to sue the school for not having better security.

"But this whole thing today has really made me think about people and the world," he said.

Eventually, there was a slight awkwardness.

"I just really want to ..." he started.

"Wait, stop," I said. "If you want to say something, do it publicly. But here's the thing: Don't feel like you have to change because of this. I don't want you to all of a sudden not call me jerkface."

"Fine," he said, trying to sound sarcastic, but failing. There was definitely a softness in his voice.

"And another thing," I said, trying to sound mean, but failing. "You better do your homework tonight!"

It was a great afternoon, one of the better ones in my teaching career. And I would like to thank every one of my readers once again for making it happen.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Buried in extra-credit rice

"I think we donated so much rice that all those poor people around the world are going to get fat," one of my students announced the other day.

"Good!" another student declared emphatically. "I hope so."

They were referring to, the cool website game I've been forcing students to play. It's a fun way to learn vocabulary and donate rice at the same time. Some of my students were really getting into it, so I offered this extra-credit opportunity to all my classes: For every 1,000 grains of rice they donated, I'd give one extra-credit "stamp." It would be too complicated to explain the whole thing here, but basically, some students needed quite a few stamps to get an A on a recent assignment.

Donating 1,000 grains of rice means they'd have to get 50 correct vocabulary words, which could take, I don't know, 15 or 20 minutes.

But here's something that never fails to amaze me: Some students will do anything to get an A on an assignment. Sure, the vast majority won't, but those who want an A live and die by the promise of extra credit.

Out of all my classes, about 25 kids did freerice for the extra credit. Ten of them donated more than 10,000 grains each. One student donated 30,000 grains himself. (Which means he got 1,500 words right!)

"How long did it take you?" I asked the top rice donor.

"I don't know," he said, "maybe three hours."

"Well, I hope you learned some new words!"

Later, I heard two students talking rice. One was a girl who always pretends she doesn't care about her grades. She had donated 8,000 grains.

"You're such a nerd," her friend said.

"No, it was just for fun," she said.

"You did all that just for some extra credit!"

"No, it was fun," she said. "And anyway, I was just sitting around, bored."

I walked over, smiled, and said, "Oh, I always knew you cared about your grade in my class."

"No, I don't!" she said and darted out of my room. "I hate you!"

I'll have to remember to tease her about it in front of the whole class.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Things that make me smile, #130

I had been helping a student revise a personal statement for his college applications. He had made major changes, worked hard to perfect it, and finally left one afternoon satisfied. The next morning he came in, looking slightly concerned.

"I printed it on some paper my Dad had at home," he said. "But I think there's something wrong with it."

I took a lot at it. It was fine. The printing was nice and crisp. On quality paper.

"What's wrong with it?" I asked.

"I don't know what it is," he said, "but there's some kind of writing on the paper. You can see it if you hold it up to the light."

I held it up, and of course! "That's the watermark," I said. "It probably means that this is a high-quality paper."

"So, there's nothing wrong with it?"

"No," I said. "In fact, when you print out your resume, you want to put it on thick, nice paper like this, not on plain white paper."

"OK, but why do they put it there?"

Word puzzle

What do the following words have in common?

IBM, Omar, Alma, AM, Abba, Bomb, Boom, Burma, Amy, BMW, Emma, eBay

I'll post the answer in the comments tomorrow. Until then, guess away. Extra credit for the first person to come close.

False alarm

Tried to announce the laptop fund to D and some of his classmates today. But it didn't work out.

Couldn't do it in class for various reasons, so I asked the entire class to "stop by after school for a very cool announcement. Trust me, you'll be blown away."

After eighth period, they stopped in. Most of them. I said, "Hang on, I have to run to the office to see if UPS has stopped in yet. I'm expecting an important package." Just my luck, UPS hadn't been there yet. "They're usually here right about now," one of the office staff said. Darn!

I ran back to my room, prepared to announce the scholarship fund for D anyway. But ... he was gone! A bunch of other kids were still there, wondering about my announcement, but he wasn't.

"Sorry, everyone," I said. "False alarm."

Four girls stayed behind and demanded I tell them what all this was all about.

"It's very cool, I promise," I said. "But I can't tell you today."

"Did you get a new job?"
"Did you publish a book?"
"Are you going to be on Oprah?"

The questions came fast and furious. As you can see, my students know about all of my hopes and dreams for the future. (Or not.)

"No, it's not like that. It's not really about me. I mean, I'm connected to this whole thing, but it's really not about me at all," I said. "I'm sorry. And I promise that I'll tell you all about it on Monday."

Friday, April 25, 2008

ACT daze

You know you've done an OK job when you see some of your students after the ACT, you ask them how it went, and they say with a smile: "Not bad!"

Then you ask them about the essay, and they say, "It was hard!" So you realize that maybe you didn't do such a great job after all.

(I was actually bummed when they told me the persuasive essay prompt had something to do with requiring students to take classes on saving the environment or something like that. Out of all the prompts I created, I missed the obvious question about GOING GREEN. Darn, that was supposed to be in my lesson plan!)

Gang humor

Not teaching any classes because of the Prairie State, I got to hang out with colleagues, which I rarely ever do during normal school hours. During lunch today, heard two pretty funny jokes dealing with one of the gangs in our building, the Gangster Disciples (also known as the GD's).
  • "One kid said he was going to run the GD's. I told him that, because he's in special ed, the only thing he'll probably ever run is the LD's."
  • "Some students were talking about getting out of high school and getting a GED. One kid said, 'Well, "I've already got the G and the D, so all I need is the E!'"
Not really all that hilarious, I know, but when you're dealing with gang members and drug dealers and all sorts of misfits, eventually you have to laugh. Or it'll just wear you down.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Back to the regularly scheduled program

Thanks for visiting! If you're here to check the latest on the stolen laptop fund drive, please click on the "laptop" label below, and you'll get all the posts related to that, in reverse chronological order. I'm going to get back to my regular day-to-day blogging about teaching until there's something more to add about D and/or the laptop.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Welcome to the Prairie State

In honor of Prairie State testing, which begins today, I present a post I wrote two years ago on a different blog, one that was meant to be a cross between the Onion and the Daily Show (in other words, this was supposed to be funny):

Standardized test taking deadly toll

CHICAGO (ap) -- Local high school students' chances of attending a prestigious university are about to be squashed as they begin the two-day Prairie State Achievement Examination. Today, juniors around the state are taking the ACT, a standardized test that is a hundred times stronger than heroin and can kill college chances in an instant.

"It's an American tragedy," said Richard Gunn, a photographer and publisher, whose son Tommy's college chances died last year with a disastrous ACT score.

A 19-year-old woman, who has fierce eyes but no future, spoke about her experience last year. She did not pass out during the testing, as some test-takers do, but she knew something was wrong from the moment she sat down with her two sharpened number 2 pencils.

"The most scariest part about it was I couldn't catch my breath," she said. "That lasted a long time."

The ACT, in an overdose situation, seizes muscles at the rib cage, causing instant spasms.

Chicago Public Schools students, with slim chances of finishing college even if they're accepted, are entering today's test undaunted. "Yeah, whatever," said one student, hardened by months of ACT preparation. "If we do well, our school gets off probation. That's all I know about it."

Nationally, the average ACT score is 20.9 on a 36-point scale. In Chicago, the average is 16.7.

CPS teachers are not too concerned about the poor showing by their students. "I've got tenure, so what are they gonna do?" said one teacher who plans to do Sodoku puzzles as she proctors the test.

Maybe it's the sound of the drill

My number one biggest irrational fear in life is going to the dentist. Don't know why. I'm just scared. I can have a filling fall out, have the tooth start rotting away, have pain shooting up to my brain, and all I'll do is swallow an Aleve or two and hope it'll all get better.

I understand it's irrational. I can't even pinpoint a specific experience that made me fear dentists. It's just the way it is.

So, yeah, it's been a few years. But do you want to know what finally got me to make an appointment? My students.

In the run-up to the ACT (which is, gasp, tomorrow!), my classes were practicing writing persuasive essays. I threw every prompt I could find at them--from ACT prep materials, from the official ACT website, from old tests--and when I couldn't find any more, I made some up. One prompt I wrote turned into something of a hit, and lots of students wrote some pretty good essays. It was based on the recent findings that one in four teenage girls has an STD. The question I asked was, Should all teenagers be required to be tested for STDs at least once a year?

Surprisingly, about 95% of my students argued for the yes side.

With each essay, I like to photocopy a good example, pass it around, and have everyone discuss what worked and what didn't work. (This, by the way, is the single greatest strategy I have for the teaching of writing. Have them see a peer's essay, comment on it, and then fix their own errors.) The sample essay I showed off started something like this: Do you know the old saying "what you don't know can't hurt you"? In the case of STDs, this isn't true. What you don't know can hurt you, A LOT!

As we discussed the prompt and essay, of course someone had to ask me, "When's the last time you were tested for STDs?"

The class laughed, but I didn't mind answering. "I get tested every time I go to the doctor for a physical," I said. I don't mind answering personal questions like this because I want them to realize that it's OK to get tested. And that I'm human. They don't know that I don't really have many reasons to get tested these days, but I let them think I'm a "player" or whatever.

As we continued the discussion, somehow we got on the topic of fears. I admitted I was afraid of dentists. "In fact, I haven't been to one in a few years," I said. "I've got insurance. I'm an adult. But, I don't know, I'm just scared I guess."

Of course that led to a challenge: Go to a dentist.

And so I did. And I just got back. And, really, it wasn't that bad. I found a very gentle, very understanding dentist. He found a couple of cavities and a wisdom tooth that needs to go. And now I'm hoping that I find a way to turn this whole thing into a learning experience for my students.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Answering your questions, part 1

A couple of people, believe it or not, have wondered about the photo in the About Me section at left. What does that sign say, and where was it taken?

The sign says, "Whoso entereth here leaveth all hopes behind."

It hangs above my classroom door.

Just kidding. Although I wish it did. The picture was taken at Dry Tortugas National Park, which is on an island off Key West. That's me waving goodbye as I walk into a dungeon. A few of my students wish I had stayed.

Another statistic

A few minutes into seventh period, there's a knock on my door. I see Gerald standing in the hall, wearing a dress shirt, hair pulled back into neat corn rows. Just got back from court, I realize.

During class, he's quiet. Thoughtful. But not his usual joking self.

When the bell rings, I go up to him. "How'd it go?" I ask.

"Not good," he says. "They actually used the letters against me!"

"I was afraid of that," I say.

"They said that the letters prove that I have potential. But that I'm wasting my life outside of school!"

A couple of weeks ago, he asked me to write a letter for a judge. He had a case coming up, and he was told that a few letters from teachers might help him get parole. So I wrote the letter. And I tried to be honest: Attendance spotty at times but hard worker when present. Lots of potential. A team player. Helps others. Wants to do well. Is proud when given positive feedback. I included a couple of anecdotes showing how memorable this kid can be.

When I met his mother at report card pick-up day last week, she was nervous. Almost defeated. She loves her baby, but this time he might have gone too far.

When I handed him a copy of the letter on Friday, Gerald perked up. "I can smell freedom," he smiled. "Thanks so much." And I thought, I've got you now! You'll kick ass the rest of the school year.

So his court date was today. He showed up afterwards, actually came in to class. But there were no smiles today.

"What did you tell the judge?" I ask.

"I said that I was trying to be good. That, really, my mom doesn't have the money. And some of the money I was making, it was going for school supplies. For things I need."

"Do you have a lawyer or a public defender?"

"Public defender."

Over the years, I've met a few public defenders. And overall they seem like hard-working people who really want to help. But they are so overburdened. And when I think about Gerald, a poor kid from the West Side, I can't help but wonder what would happen if he were from a wealthy suburban family. Would he have to rely on a public defender? Would he have a bench trial instead of a jury? Would he face prison time for a possession charge? Or would he get to learn his lesson another way?

"Listen," I say. "I don't really know all that much about this stuff. But make sure you apologize. Make sure you show how you've learned from your mistakes, how you want to graduate from high school and be a productive member of society. Somehow you've got to prove that you've changed."

He looks defeated. And as he leaves, I'm left wondering if just another statistic has walked out my door.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Where have all my good books gone?

A couple of days ago, I heard the most magical words I've heard as an English teacher: "Can you recommend a book for me to read?"

It was after school when three girls walked in my room. I looked at the one asking the question. "I thought you hated reading," I said.

"I don't!" she said. "I mean, I used to. But I just want to read something for fun."

I walked over to one of my classroom bookcases, thinking about how hard it is to get kids to enjoy reading. But it's possible.

A few years back, I attended a presentation on brain theory and how it relates to teaching. One of the points made really stood out: If you want your child to do something, you must do it. When it comes to eating, if your child sees you eating healthy things, he or she will do so, too. When it comes to reading, if your child sees you reading for pleasure, he or she will do so, too. That's because, for the most part, children want to imitate their parents.

This idea was reinforced in the book Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dunbar. In one of the chapters, the authors explore the question of what it means to be a good parent. They ask something like this:

Which children will score higher on standardized tests?
  • The ones whose parents constantly read to them? or
  • The ones whose parents constantly read?
According to the data in the book, the second choice is correct. The reason is the same as described above, children do what their parents do. But there's more to it: Parents who read are probably educated themselves, so they will value education and pass that on to their children.

At least that's what I think I read in Freakonomics. I can't check because I don't know where my copy of the book is. As with just about every good book I've read in the past several years, my copy has walked off, never to return.

The thing is, I constantly lend out books. And I never remember to whom. So, if you've ever borrowed a book from me (or money or whatever), chances are I've already forgotten about it. And I don't mind so much with books. Chances are I won't read them again, so hopefully those who've borrowed them will read them and then pass them on to others to read.

In fact, I've tried to apply what I've learned about reading to my teaching. And I think it works.

My students usually don't want to read the novels I assign. But if they see me reading something, they want to read it too.

Here's what happens: I leave a book on my desk. Eventually a student will ask about it. I'll say something like, "Oh yeah, I just read this. It was amazing." Then I quickly describe it. Nine times out of ten, the student will ask to borrow it.

Or: At the start of class, I read a passage from a novel. Then I'll ask, "Isn't that amazing?" And someone will ask to borrow it, and I'll say, "No way, I'm not done yet." Weeks later, someone will ask, "You done with that book yet?"

So, children want to read because their parents read. But I think it's equally important that children see their teachers reading. And they'll want to read. Not because they have to.

Another way to do it is the old-fashioned way. Force them to read something good, and maybe they'll want to read more on their own.

When the girl last week asked for a recommendation, she had a requirement: "I want something that's like The House of the Spirits."

The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende, is a sprawling novel about several generations of a Latin American family that comes with this money-back-guarantee from me (at least this is what I tell my students): "If you actually read this book all the way through, you will fall in love with it."

So this girl, a self-proclaimed non-reader at the beginning of the school year, did finish it. And loved it. Says it's the best book ever. And won't read anything else unless it's as good.

And so I went over to a bookcase to find something for her to read. And I wondered, where have all my good books gone?

I did find a couple of good selections, read the first couple of sentences from each, and she finally settled on Life of Pi, by Yaan Martel. As she walked off with it, I thought, "I better write this down or I'll never see that book again." Of course I didn't. And I probably won't. But that's OK.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Double wow

Want to hear a nice addition to the laptop saga?

I emailed my information to the woman who said she'd donate a laptop to my student. She replied that, get this, both of her parents went to (and met at) the school where I teach, where D attends. Coincidence? (The sad part of this story is that the laptop donor is currently in Chicago for her father's funeral.)

I'd like to thank everyone again for their very generous contributions! I am going to put together a list of all the contributors (with names or aliases) and post it in the next couple of days. Several people have told me that I'm doing something wonderful, and I have to disagree. The heroes of this story are all the people who came forward with their money and well-wishes. None of this would be possible without you, so thank you again.

I really can't wait to break the news to D and his class. Next Friday!

Now, after a lot of thought, I've narrowed down the options for what to do with the donated money, since we're good on the laptop. First, yes, we'll make sure the machine is insured and has the proper software. As far as a printer goes, I have a brand new one sitting in my closet, unused. I'll give him that. The bulk of the money, though, will go to one of the following:
  1. Give D the responsibility to decide how to best use the money to make his school and/or community a better place. The project(s) or donation must somehow deal with education. Hopefully, the project can become longterm and self-sustaining. Possible name: D is for Difference.
  2. Put the $800+ into some sort of college fund for D. It was, after all, donated with him in mind.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Or this

Why am I up so early? Excitement from all the good things happening on this blog? Or was that an earthquake I felt shaking my bed this morning??

Last night, I received an email from someone offering to donate a practically new Dell Latitude d620. My initial thought was, yes! But I quickly wondered about all the donations. Initially, the donor suggested I see what you all think.

Then, she emailed back with these suggestions: "I'm from chicago and am currently here because my dad just passed away from complications due to MS. If there's a conundrum regarding the $$ donated, why don't you take the laptop and donate the dollars to the illinois MS society? Or go to and pick a school project to donate it to? or keep it and offer your kids incentives for performance?"

Any thoughts?

(If you're new to this discussion, just scroll down through the last couple of days of posts ...)

Now the fun part

So I'm thinking ... because of the amazing generosity of so many of you, when I add my $300 I might soon have enough for a really nice machine, something the other kids will really envy, something like an Apple MacBook. His loss will become a gain. Wouldn't that be cool?

Or ... maybe I should just kidnap him after school next week and take him to a computer store and say, "OK, pick one."

Any thoughts?


I'm rarely at a loss for words (at least in writing), but this is one of those times. As of 9:30 p.m., the amount donated is $745.

Thank you.

A couple of quick questions to everyone who has contributed, and anyone who is still thinking about it:
  1. Can I use your names--first and/or last--when I thank you publicly here on the blog? Or would you rather be anonymous, like I am?
  2. When I hand the laptop over to D, as he'll be known here, I'd like to have a print-out of messages you might have for him. Please either email me or post in the comments anything you'd like to share with him.
Thank you all so much. Your support makes everything I do every day seem so worthwhile. And for all the struggling first-year teachers and burned-out fifth-year teachers out there, let this be a lesson for all of us: People do care about teenagers and about what happens in classrooms.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Putting my money where my mouth is

I'm really hoping I don't have to put it all up, but I'm willing to donate up to $300 to replace my student's stolen laptop. See the original post for details. If you can and want to donate, one way is through PayPal. You'll have to enter my email address, If you'd rather donate another way, please email me and we'll figure it out.

Official PayPal Seal

Please understand that I'm really hesitant to ask for anyone's help. This is my first time asking for money on this blog; in fact, this is my first time asking strangers for money since probably 1995, when I was a telemarketer for the Art Institute. That gig lasted less than a week: "Can I count on you to donate $1,000? No? OK, how about $900? No? OK, I understand times are tough. Can I count on you to donate $850? Thank you, sir, $100 would be a generous offer. But we need as much support as possible. Can I count on your donation of $750? No? $700? Hello? Hello, are you still there?"

My hope is to buy the best possible computer and give it to my student next Friday, April 25. (BTW, if anyone knows the student, can you please do me a favor and NOT tell him about this? I'd like to surprise him.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Hate to say I told you so

Some students believe you when you warn them against certain things, like leaving valuables in their lockers. Others need to learn the hard way.

Two students stopped by my classroom after school today within minutes of each other. The first, a senior I taught last year, asked, "Hey, are you going to be here next Friday?"

"Yeah," I replied. "I don't know, I think so."

"Good, can I leave some things in your room and pick them up after school?"

"Of course. What stuff? Your guitar?"

"Yeah, effects pedals and my other gear. I don't want to leave it in my locker."

"Oh yeah, for the talent show, right? Of course."

"Cool, thanks a lot." With that, he left. And the second guy came in, a junior I currently teach. Didn't say anything, just sat down.

"What's up?" I asked.

"My lock's gone."

"Your lock?"

"Yeah. Someone got my laptop. Left my bag there, but my laptop's gone."

He was very quiet about it. Sad. Not angry. Just sad.

Oh man, I thought, how many times have I told these guys not to leave valuables in their lockers? Earlier this year someone broke into one of my girl's lockers and had taken some cash. After that I repeated my warning. Several times. I have a closet with a lock in my classroom, and I often store students' things there. It's where I keep my things.

"Is anything else missing?" I asked.

"My jacket."

"They probably wrapped your computer in it," I said. "OK, listen, why don't you bring in your things from your locker? I'll go see if anyone can help out."

I went down to the security office, asked the dean of students if there's a working camera in my hallway. She clicked through about 20 camera shots in the building. Yeah, it's a fairly large building, but imagine that, 20 cameras are rolling all day, recording evidence. But of course there's no camera in my hallway, one of the main hallways in the building, a hallway with few other classrooms and rarely any security. So, no way of knowing who might have broken into his locker.

So I went back to my classroom. He was there with some friends and a pile of books. "Hey," I joked, "at least they didn't get these novels. Man, that would be a loss."

He tried to smile.

"The only thing we can do is have you fill out an incident report, unfortunately," I said. "But find out from your family if you guys have renter's insurance or something like that. Insurance might cover this kind of loss. Do you know where the dean's office is?"

"No," he said. Of course he wouldn't know where the troublemakers go.

Thinking about it later I realized asking about insurance was pretty dumb. The guy's family lives in section 8 housing. No way they have insurance.

And thinking about it later I wondered, why does this happen to the good kids? This guy comes from the same background as so many students in the school system--poor, African-American, scraping by. But he's such a good guy. Well-mannered. Intelligent, and not afraid to get good grades. Cool, but in his own way, not a member of any groups but a guy just doing his own thing. A reader. A thinker. In fact, the stolen laptop was a prize he had received from some organization honoring young African-American scholars.

And now it's gone.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Why I eat Pop-Tarts

After seventh period, one of my students pops her head back into my empty classroom. It's into eighth period already, but I let her come in, figuring she's here to work on an essay she missed. My assignments, of course, are a lot more important than other teachers' work. So I like to tell my students. Eventually, some of them end up believing. The girl today claims that her eighth period teacher is out of the building. "He just left," she says. "People are just standing around in the hallway."

"By the way," she says, walking over to my desk, "do you have any kind of snack?"

"Nope," I say, face buried in essays.

"I'm hungry," she says, really emphasizing the hun. I don't respond, so she continues, "I get so hungry sometimes. Then I get these headaches."

"Why don't you swing by Mr. A.'s office? He usually has something," I tell her.

"Nah. It's eighth period already. He runs out of stuff by seventh."

"Huh," I say, looking back to the stack of essays. (The stack is currently in my backpack, next to my computer as I'm writing. Mostly ungraded. Gotta finish this post and get going.)

"I don't think we have any food at home," she says. "So, I'll go over to our neighbor's place. It's like I have two homes. Whenever we don't have something, I just go next door."


"Yeah, I sure can eat a lot. And when I don't eat, I get into these really bad moods."

"You're lucky," I say. "One of these days all that eating will catch up to you."

"No way," she says. "You should see my cousin. She's 21, and she eats twice as much as I do. And she's as skinny as I am. Yup. My grandmother, too. We can just eat and eat."

And as she continues, talking about how fourth period lunch is too early, because then she ends up hungry by the end of the school day, I finally get it. She really is hungry. Damn, sometimes I'm slow. I reach for my wallet.

"Hey, listen," I say. "All this talk of food has made me hungry. Feel like sharing a Pop-Tart?"

"Oh yeah," she smiles.

I hand her a dollar. "Buy a cherry one," I tell her. And off she goes to the vending machines. A couple of years back, all unhealthy snacks were removed from school vending machines, replaced by granola bars and Rice Krispies Treats. The Flamin' Hot Cheetos were replaced by the much healthier baked Flamin' Hot Cheetos. I figure my dollar goes the furthest with the Pop-Tarts.

The girl comes back in a flash, hands me the package.

"And it gave me 15 cents change," she says. "So I looked in the other machines and found another 15 cents. Here." She holds out the coins.

"Keep the change," I say. I open the Pop-Tarts, take one out and give her the other one. "Weren't there any cherry-flavored ones?" I ask.

"No, I looked in all the machines."

"No big deal. Strawberry's fine. Now since you're here, why don't you work on that essay?"

"Oh yeah!" she says. "Almost forgot about that."

Monday, April 14, 2008


Third quarter report card day is here! This means another day of no classes. Instead, teachers get to meet the parents of all the A and B students. The parents of all the F students--and the students that rarely show up--well, these parents won't show up.

Maybe I'll put together another fun little "you know you work for CPS" post (homecoming and PD day editions so far) later. In the meantime, please read my post from yesterday ...

Ah, I don't feel like trying to be funny. A group of teachers is heading off for a much-needed beer, so I think I'll join them. A quick comment and I'm off: One thing that's always hilarious about this day is the reaction I get from my colleagues and students. Report card pick-up day is the only time I ever wear a suit (well, graduation day, too). Students laugh, wondering who I'm trying to impress. ("Your mom," I tell them.) Fellow teachers offer this backhanded compliment: "Well, you look really nice today." But I guess they're right.

Bell ringer

If you're a teacher and have got a minute, do me a favor and answer the following poll questions. If you're not a teacher, feel free to give feedback on your typical workday in the comments.

I'm just curious if most teachers (at least the ones that read this site) work more or less than I do ...

Non-teachers often tell me that I have incredible hours: the school day begins at 8, ends at 2:55. "You've got so much free time," they say. But when I add in the hours I'm at school before and after the bell, plus the work on the weekends, I'm pretty sure I work more than they do.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Professional development day

Today is one of my least favorite days of the school year--a day with no students. It's the end of the third quarter, grades are in, so we'll have a day of meetings, listening to colleagues bitching and doing nothing. The principal will try to get us to do something productive, but we won't.

I wonder, are there schools and/or districts that accomplish anything meaningful on professional development days?

Anyway ... I'll try to keep a positive attitude. I'll try to take good notes. Stop by this afternoon for an update. I promise it'll be either very funny or a total waste of time. (Hey, just like this blog on any given day!)

You know you work for CPS when ...
(Professional development day edition)
  • The parking lot is half-empty 15 minutes before the day begins.
  • In your mailbox is an IMPACT report listing all the days you neglected to input attendance on your trusty CPS-issued laptop computer.
  • You remind anyone who will listen that your CPS-issued laptop's monitor burned out months ago.
  • You try to get the attendance problems sorted out before the staff meeting, but when you try to log in you get an error message: "The system cannot log you in now because the domain is not available."
  • You decide to walk around the building and discover that several of your friends aren't even here. Smart bastards called in sick.
  • You finally log into the computer system and discover that you did enter attendance on most dates listed on the report. You hit the "save" button but still get a message saying the attendance is "not submitted."
  • As you walk into the student lunchroom for the staff meeting, a counselor asks you when you're planning to submit assignments for a homebound student.
  • When you inform the counselor that you personally handed the assignments to her two days ago, she looks at you like she's never seen you before in her life.
  • The counselor then calls over to another teacher, "Excuse me, Ms. D." That teacher is not Ms. D. In fact, that teacher and Ms. D. aren't even in the same department.
  • The principal takes the microphone and makes some joke about it being the first day of spring. Nobody laughs.
  • The principal encourages the teachers to please try to pass more students and informs us that our current graduation rate is something like 50 percent.
  • A couple of teachers sitting next to you chat away during the entire meeting.
  • When you ask one of them to keep it down, he gives you the finger.
  • Following another attempt at humor and good cheer, the principal announces that, because of the lower projected enrollment, eight teaching positions will be closed next year.
  • Which means that almost 40 positions will have been lost in the last three years.
  • The talking teachers finally shut up.
  • Someone asks the assistant principal about a recent code red. Very little information is shared. It wasn't a drill. But it wasn't real, either.
  • Following the meeting, teachers meet with their departments, where they are told about everything lesson plans will now have to include: a technology component, special ed modifications, something about GOING GREEN, a service learning component, as well as daily objectives and whatever else.
  • At said meeting, teachers break into groups to design common assessments for the remainder of the year, as well as the entire curriculum for next year.
  • In your group, one teacher spends the entire time talking about individual students, about who is and isn't wonderful, and you contemplate jumping out the window.
  • You cannot think of a single reason not to jump. Instead, you gather your materials and sneak out of the room, head up to the computer lab, where you spend the next two hours re-entering attendance for the dates you supposedly missed.
  • The Internet connection crawls.
  • Life crawls.


"You've changed, Mr. P.," one of my students mumbles. "You used to be nice."

"Me? I was nice? When?"

"Last year. You were nice."

"You weren't even in my class last year," I respond, possibly with a little impatience. "So, of course I was nice. I'm not nice to my students. At least not the ones who come to class unprepared or late or just sit there and don't put forth any effort."

She doesn't say anything else. The classroom, for once, is silent. I should say something else, something about the stress I feel because I'm doing my best to get them ready (for the ACT, for college, for life), and they're not responding. To anything. So, yeah, I don't give them points, even if they're only five seconds late to class. Or if they go to the board and "try" to figure out something but get only half of it right. And I hand out low grades on unrevised essays that very clearly were done in class in 15 minutes instead of at home.

There's a lot I can say, but I don't. I plug along with the lesson. They have so much to learn this school year. Sometimes it feels like we haven't even begun yet.

I try a little humor later. I've written a message for them: "There are 6 school days until the Prairie State. If you don't succeed, don't blame the guy in Room 230."

Half the students look up at the classroom door, realize that they're in Room 230, so I must be the guy not to blame.

"Then who do we blame?" one smarty says. "Our other teachers?"

"You can start by looking in the mirror," I respond. "In fact, I've got a mirror in the back of the room, go ahead and look in there. The person looking back at you is probably responsible for most of your successes and failures."

"What if I look in the mirror and see you in the background?" another wise guy says. "Then can I blame you?"

And I actually really like that point. I am in this kid's background. I am responsible for some of his successes and failures. Mostly, though, I believe in personal responsibility. So, instead of getting philosophical, I go a different route.

"If you look in the mirror and see me reflected back, you know you've got problems," I say. "And you can ask yourself, How did I get so ugly? How did I get so old so fast? Where has the time gone?"

A few hours later, after school, a student stops by.

"How's the PMS?" he asks. "I recommend Tampax."

"Is that what you use?" I ask him.

"Yeah," he says. "Anyway, the class was scared of you today. But I think you were right. We didn't do what we were supposed to, so we deserved an F."

"I wasn't trying to be scary," I respond. "I'm just trying to hang onto some high expectations."

"Whatever," he says. "I think Walgreens is having a sale on Tampax."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

After school

It's almost 5 p.m., I'm at my classroom computer doing quarterly grades, feeling cranky because I can't even play my favorite Internet radio station on my CPS-issued desktop computer, so instead I'm blasting some lame music off the Windows Media player that is installed on my machine, and I'm reading essays that were turned in a week late and hating them, hating life, and looking over my class rosters and wondering how it's possible to actually fail my class. I'm in this dark mood when one of my students pops his head in my room and tries to be funny.

"Still here?" he asks. "What's the matter? Your cat kick you out of the house?"

"Funny!" I yell. "I was just wondering if you were getting a B or a C this quarter!"

"Oh my God, that reminds me," he says. "I accidentally took my quiz before you entered it in your grade book. Can I get it from my locker? Can you put my grade in?"

He's right. He wanted to see what he got on a quiz a couple of days ago, took the quiz and never gave it back. So I gave him a zero. I mean, I didn't remember what he got. I decide to be a little sarcastic.

"Oh, so you actually want something, huh? I thought you were here to make fun of me."

"I'll be right back," he says, and runs off to his locker. He comes back with the quiz. "Can I just leave it here?" he asks, putting it on my desk. "Will you put my score in your grade book?"

"Maybe," I say. "If I remember. If it doesn't accidentally blow off my desk. Anyway, what did you say about me still being here?"

"You'll remember, right?" he asks.

Just then a girl walks into my room, someone I don't recognize. "Oh, I'm sorry," I say to her, "is my music too loud? Am I being a bad neighbor?"

"We were wondering if we could borrow your CD player," she says.

"What? No," I say. "I don't have a CD player. I'm playing this on my computer."

"Oh," she says and walks out. My student is still in the room, watching her leave, and I'm still feeling sarcastic.

"I don't even know her, and I'm supposed to lend her my CD player?" I say. "It's not like I was listening to music anyway, right?"

He just shakes his head and says, "You won't forget to put in my quiz score, will you?"

"Maybe," I say. After he leaves, I do put in his score and notice that it actually raises him from a high B to a low A. Lucky him.

As I leave my room I see some random man down the hall, peering into the dark library. "Can I help you find something?" I ask him. He doesn't speak English well, but he manages something about looking for his daughter. I walk him to the main office, which is empty. Along the way, I run into a Spanish-speaking student of mine and she translates. The missing girl is a freshman; her parents pick her up after school every day. Today she didn't come out of the usual exit. They've been looking for her ever since.

It's after school, almost 5, and I realize there's still a lot happening on campus. Is the girl taking the ACT class? No. Is she on the soccer team? Track team? Softball? No, no, no. Is she in a club that meets today? Tutoring? No. No. I wander around the building a little. There are kids all over the place. And people think kids hate school. We go back to the main office. I run into a Spanish-speaking teacher. We go into the secretary's office, figure out the intercom system, and make a couple of announcements in both languages for the girl to come to the office if she's in the building.

A minute later she shows up. Her parents look relieved. I'm still feeling cranky, so I scold her. "Where were you? And why didn't you tell your parents about it?"

She has no idea who I am, but she answers politely anyway. "I was doing a service learning project with Mr. A. And I did tell my mom about it this morning."

Mom, Dad, and daughter then chatter away in Spanish, and I head for the exit. It's after 5 now; hopefully I won't run into any more students. No such luck.

to be continued ...

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Late bloomer

I run into former students once a while. At Home Depot. At the gym. At outdoor beer gardens. And so far, none of them have wanted to kick my butt. So far, most of them have wanted to talk about themselves, how they're still in school, or heading back next semester, or how their cousin plays for one of the Final Four teams. And I'm usually left thinking, huh, we do an OK job with lots of our kids.

But what about the kids I don't run into?

I recently talked with a guy who graduated--probably barely graduated--three or four years ago. Back in high school, he was a classic hell-raiser. The kind of guy who probably made at least one teacher quit and had another contemplating pressing charges. The kind of guy who ruined school for his younger siblings, because everyone in the building judged them by his actions. He's 21 now, has another year of undergrad work, but has already been accepted to graduate school.

"What do you want to do with a master's in criminal justice?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said. "I just want to get as much education as possible. I'll work the rest out later."

Wow, I thought. On the topic of his girlfriend and starting a family and all that, he said, "I'm only 21. I don't want kids. I want to travel, see the world."

Double-wow, I thought, this kid should come back to the school and be a mentor.

Then again, my current students wouldn't listen. Most teenagers don't listen until it's too late, or until they grow up a little. Here's what I mean: A while back, I had a former professional boxer visit the classroom. A graduate of our school, he went on to represent the U.S. in the Olympics before turning pro. He spoke for about 20 minutes about the importance of having dreams and chasing them, doing well in school, those kinds of things. And the whole time, my students sat there, slouched over, unimpressed. When he left, they made jokes about him.

But maybe when they grow up a little, some of the lessons will make sense. Hopefully it won't be too late.

"Do you ever hear from any other kids from my graduating class?" my former student asked.

"Every once in a while," I said, "but only if I run into them. I know that Rodney recently joined the Navy. But that's about it. Why? What's up with your old group?"

He said he barely ever saw anyone from high school anymore, but there was a party recently where many of them showed up. "Julie and Lucy were there," he said, "with their kids."

"They have children?" I asked. "Are they still going to school?"

"No, they're done with school," he replied. "I think every girl I graduated with has kids by now."

And that's a shame. I specifically remember Julie and Lucy (it seems like yesterday!), remember long talks about college with them, talks about how they would wait until they had their degrees and good jobs before thinking about children and families. Back then, they were this dynamic duo, ready to move up in life, to get out of the cycle their families had been in. They were going to make it. Meanwhile, this guy was the problem, the one heading nowhere.

At some point, their trajectories changed courses. And I'm left thinking, this is why we shouldn't give up any kid, no matter how rotten, and why we shouldn't put all our hopes in just the "good" ones.

"What about you?" my former student asked. "You ready to have kids yet?"

"No, I don't think so. I'm still too young."

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Cancel my subscription

"Mr. P., can I ask you a question?"

It's after seventh period, my last class of the day, so I've got time. "You just did," I say. He doesn't think it's funny, so I say, "What's up?"

"Do you think I'm an OK student?"

I look at my student (I'll call him Gerald) and think, he's more than an OK student. He's a hard worker. A decent writer. Someone who volunteers to answer questions. Who asks questions. Who works amazingly well in groups, pushing everyone to see his point of view.

"Yeah," I say, "I think you're an OK student. Lots of potential. At least when you're on. I mean, sometimes you tune out or you're tired or whatever, but for the most part, you're excellent."

"Then can I ask you for a favor? Can you write me a letter? Sort of a recommendation?"

Oh boy, I was hoping he wouldn't ask that, but I say, "Sure, what's it for?"

"Well, actually, it's for a judge. I have a court date coming up. And the judge said if I'm doing OK in school, he won't lock me up. But if I'm not doing good, he's going to put me in jail."

And this is when I take a closer look. Come to think of it, Gerald can easily pass for a thug. Short, but very tough. Tattoos on his arms. A certain walk, the kind you don't mess with. But he's been a solid student all year long--this isn't a recent show he's put on to get me to write him a letter that might keep him out of jail. And I can see he's actually shy about asking for this. Very sincere, eyes almost on the verge of tears.

I ask him what he got busted for. Not that it's any of my business. Not that it has anything to do with his performance in my class. But I'm curious. And he doesn't mind answering. Heroin possession. He's from a tough neighborhood. Now under house arrest.

I ask him how he's doing in his other classes. Mostly OK. Definitely failing first period, though, because he never makes it on time.

"If you were passing everything," I tell him, "you probably wouldn't even need letters from your teachers. You could just show the judge your report card." He agrees, but says it's hard to get to school from his home on the West Side.

And there's no way I want this kid in jail. He does have potential. He can succeed. So I'll write him that letter.

But I also want to write something else. Something about statistics. About perception. About the portrayal of the Chicago Public Schools in the news lately.

Today's Sun-Times, for instance, has this striking page-one headline: 'ANOTHER PROMISING YOUNG SOUL IS GONE' with the subhead: VIOLENCE AGAINST CHICAGO PUBLIC SCHOOL STUDENTS.

The local media have been playing up their statistics: More than 20 CPS students have been killed this school year. And every headline, every newscast, somehow links the killings to the schools. And every reader and viewer sees that connection and probably assumes that the schools are unsafe.

But here's the thing: Even though every once in a while a killing does happen outside a school or maybe on a bus after school, they're not happening IN the schools. So why does the press insist on connecting the killings to the schools? Why not say it's a city problem? Or, if you want to be more precise, a poor inner-city problem? What do the schools have to do with it?

Following the logic of the headlines, it seems the schools need to do something to fix the problem. Which gets the rest of the city off the hook. The killing of young people is not a societal problem, it's something to do with the schools. Am I wrong?

And by constantly playing up some connection between the killings and the schools, what are parents supposed to think when their kids reach school age? Oh, the city's fine, just keep away from those public schools.

And all the negativity rubs off on the students, too. Just last Friday, the Sun-Times actually had a positive story about the schools on its front page, something about gains being made in writing scores. There was a picture of an elementary school on page one. I asked one of my classes if anyone had attended that school. I held up the paper and showed them the picture.

"Why's it on the front page?" one student asked.

"Yeah, did someone get shot or something?" someone else asked.

And they weren't kidding. That's what they've come to expect from the newspaper.

But I'll tell you what: If Gerald ever gets gunned down in his neighborhood, it's got nothing to do with his school. In addition to me, at least two other teachers are writing him a letter. We care about him. We want to help. But he lives miles away. And he might be caught up in things that might eventually lead to violence. But they are things society needs to deal with, not just the schools.

Monday, April 07, 2008

It's the end of the quarter

One in a hundred

Every once in a while, people tell me that this blog makes them wish they were teachers. Well, it's actually happened only twice, but both are writers, people whose opinions I respect, so I'll just assume that others think the same way.

To all those who think teaching is the glamorous picture I present here--stories of cockroaches and kids borrowing my clothes and birthday cake in the face--let me tell you about this weekend. I had with me a stack of essays. It's the end of the quarter, so kids are turning in work, thinking it'll help. And I'm stuck reading. And wondering where I went wrong. And contemplating accidentally losing all those essays and just giving everyone a C.

Here's a typical paragraph:
"I'm scared" I thought. I was on my way to finishing elementary school. I was happy that me and my friends we were going finish elementary school after the 8 long years. We were having the best time, just having some jokes here and there, and having some fun with the teachers, acting out some TV shows like Jerry Springer that was real fun.

Let's say I just read 100 essays. My brain is scrambled. And in that entire stack of essays, only one student turned in something that on my rubric "exceeds expectations" when it comes to organization and technical command. The rest, it seems, can't tell the difference between our and are, lose and loose, might of and might have. Every single error that I've talked about, everything they've corrected all year long, yup, it's all in their writing. There are 100-word sentences with no punctuation, 40-sentence essays with no paragraphs.

Want my job? Take it.

Then again, in that stack, there is one essay that makes it all worthwhile. I was lucky to read it early on; it gave me hope that there would be more like it. There weren't, but still. This one essay sustained me.

Of course it was about something illegal. The kid is (was) a tagger, and he turned in a nine-page handwritten essay about breaking into an abandoned building and trying to paint his name on the side of it. And to be honest, he did such a good job, the essay was actually suspenseful. Funny. I was left thinking, This kid's a writer!

He wrote about how he broke into the building and took pictures, but when he had them developed, certain rooms came out looking blurry or smudged. He went through nine or ten rolls of film, and the same thing happened each time: Hallways and certain rooms came out clear, but other rooms always came out destroyed. He decided he was dealing with a ghost.

I was thinking of sharing some of it here. I typed a paragraph from the essay. But on its own, it's not that great. You'd need to read the whole thing. And I definitely don't want to type that much, definitely not after reading so many essays this afternoon. You'll just have to take my word for it.

I'm just left with one question. Am I obligated to turn in this kid for what he did a couple of years ago? Which, actually, leads to another question: What about other kids, the ones who wrote about illegally entering the U.S.? Do I turn them in, too? And do I call the homes of the kids who wrote about things they do with friends after school?

Which leads to yet another question: Does any of this make you wish you were a teacher?

Friday, April 04, 2008

On reading and writing

Just finished reading Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk. It's twisted, gross, imaginative, and has some intriguing thoughts on how messed up humans are. Reminds me of Vonnegut. In it, wannabe famous "writers" take turns telling really horrifying stories as they wait to be rescued, even though they're the ones holding themselves hostage.

One thing that stands out about the book is the "Afterword (or Warning) of Sorts." In it, Palahniuk writes about how one of the stories in the novel makes people faint whenever he does a reading. Not sure if he's being serious, but then he includes these thoughts about writing, which I'd like to share:

But the first time I read "Guts," nobody fainted. My goal was just to write some new form of horror story, something based on the ordinary world. Without supernatural monsters or magic. This would be a book that would be a trapdoor down into some place dark. A place only you could go, alone, when you opened the cover.

Because only books have that power.

A motion picture, or music, or television, they have to maintain a certain decorum in order to be broadcast to a vast audience. Other forms of mass media cost too much to produce to risk reaching only a limited audience. Only one person. But a book. ... A book is cheap to print and bind. A book is as private and consensual as sex. A book takes time and effort to consume--something that gives a reader every chance to walk away. Actually, so few people make the effort to read that it's difficult to call books a "mass medium." No one really gives a damn about books. No one has bothered to ban a book in decades.

But with that disregard comes the freedom that only books have. And if a storyteller is going to write novels instead of screenplays, that's a freedom you need to exploit. ...

[I]f you want the freedom to go anywhere, talk about anything, then write books.

He's right about so few people reading. But still, it makes me want to write. And I hope it makes you want to read.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

New colors

OK, this has nothing to do with teaching, but I have nothing better to do, plus I'm curious ...

Walking home today, I noticed that Chicago has color-coded the no-parking signs tied to trees for the week of street cleaning. Red equals no parking on Tuesday. Yellow, no parking on Wednesday. Green, Thursday. For as long as I remember, they've been orange.

Seems like a terrible waste of money, doesn't it?

First, of all, there's the added cost of the color. Or maybe that price doesn't change? The signs have to be printed on some color, so maybe the different colors don't affect cost.

More importantly, though, what's always bothered me about this system is the cost of having people walk up and down each street in the city, once to put up the signs, and then again to take them down.

So, I'm curious ...

Is this system cheaper than putting up permanent signs, maybe one or two per block, that say something like "no parking on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month"? We already have plenty of other signs and posts, so there shouldn't be too much extra cost in that.

It seems that every city I've ever visited has some sort of permanent signs up on each block. Signs that don't get ruined in the weather, that won't fall off and disappear, that don't require constant distribution and collection.

And are there other cities out there that actually have people attaching cardboard signs to trees and lamp posts on the day of street cleaning?