Friday, May 30, 2008

Geometry homework

"My mother told me to give this to you. I don't know what you're talking about."

So long

Well, it's been a long and sometimes-eventful school year. Thanks for reading. I think I have one or two loose ends to tie up, then it'll be summer time.
  • Speaking of ties, a student asked to borrow a tie for some semi-formal event coming up. Must remember to bring one in.
  • I have a new job. New city. New students. New experiences. Come back in mid-July for more info.
  • I have been chosen by the seniors to speak at graduation next weekend. Darn them, they must know my fear of public speaking. Maybe next week I'll post my rough draft and see if anyone can help.
  • Speaking of which, I was at Jewel the other day and ran into a kid I taught two or three years ago. "I'll see you at graduation," he said to me. Apparently he's got a younger sibling graduating this year. "Great," I said, "I guess I'll be saying a few words." He nodded and said, "Yeah, I heard."
  • D has yet to come up with a plan for the donated money. I'm thinking I'll just put the whole thing into some college savings account for him. After a few glitches, he's got the laptop working. And he's storing it in my locked closet these days.
  • Two kids who graduated last year stopped by the other day while one of my current juniors was hanging out. One of the now-college freshmen said he loved my class so much that he wrote an essay about it this year. Comments like that make an entire year worthwhile.
  • A students said something really hilarious the other day, possibly the funniest thing I've heard all year. "I should write that down," I said. But I didn't. And so I forgot what it was. (Darn, I was hoping that if I starting writing about it I'd remember.) Just goes to show why I NEED to post every day ...

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Talk talk talk

I wonder if it was like this when I was a teenager. Been so long that I don't remember. But anyway.

During passing periods, I stand outside my room, welcoming students, monitoring traffic, listening in on conversations. And today it seemed that every conversation I heard was a typical he-said, she-said drama. Kids walking down the hall, pissed off and venting that someone had said something, that someone better mind her own business, that someone said something to someone about something. It was enough to make me want to scream. And it was enough to make me wonder if any kid walking past me had anything at all to think about other than what someone might have said.

It was one of those days. Got worse fifth period when one of my favorite students walked in totally venting about the same thing. "And they were just whispering," I heard her saying. "Why can't they just say it out loud, why do they have to whisper?"

This girl is super bright, usually super motivated, the kind of kid who yells down the hall, "How's my favorite teacher?" and I duck, embarrassed by this awesome kid. But today she sank a level.

"Why do you care?" I asked as I passed her before the bell.

Class started. I was ready. Most kids were ready. But this girl was still whispering to her friends about the kids in the hall that were whispering about her.

"This poem," I said, referring to what I had just read, "is about something important. About something that matters. Not about some stupid little thing someone might have said in the hallway." Yeah, I was looking at Whisper Girl, and she knew it, and she was pissed off about it.

"Why do you have to call me out like that?" she asked.

"Why do you have to care about some idiots in the hall?" I asked.

"Because they annoy the hell out of me," she said. "Just like you!"

The usually-chatty classroom fell silent, waiting to see how I'd respond.

"There's probably a million things I can say right now," I said. "But I'm just going to avoid this confrontation." And I got the class going on something.

A couple of minutes later, I asked Whisper Girl to come over to my desk. I chatted with her for a bit about the assignment she was working on. Then I asked about what had happened in the hallway that had upset her so much. Of course it was just a case of some girls talking about her.

"Why can't they just say it out loud?" she said. "Then we can deal with it." By that she meant, they could fight. About what? Who knows.

I tried appealing to her intelligent side. "You know," I said. "You're bright. You have a future. You're going to college. Why do you want to sink to that level? The level of kids that have nothing better to think about so they just talk about others?"

"I don't know," she said. "I've been trying to ignore it. Really I have. But they just get to you, you know?"

"So you're letting them win?"

We chatted like this for a few minutes. Resolved nothing. Although eventually I had to admit that it does matter what people say. That it's important to be liked. Or, more importantly, to not be hated.

But there was no resolution. And there's no point to this post. Just like there's no point to the crap kids talk about in the hallways, the crap that holds their interest, that gets them so worked up that they're willing to fight it out just to make it go away.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Trying to pay attention

My favorite librarian posted this video on her blog; it's a seven-minute message about the importance of technology in the classroom. Definitely worth watching (for teachers, at least).

Saturday, May 17, 2008


It's hard to get motivated to do anything these days ...

The weather's slowly getting better.

The students are restlessly staring at the calendar.

I'm tired. Tired of having the same conversation with seniors:
"So, if I come to class every day from now on and do all my work, will I pass?"
"We'll see."
"What if I do all my work? And some extra credit?"
"It's possible you'll pass."
"Possible? I want a guarantee."
"Fine. Let's talk about this tomorrow. In class. OK?"
"OK, I'll be there."
And then the kid is not there the next two days.

Ah, but I guess I'll miss most of it when it's gone. When I'm gone.

Just had an email exchange with the English Department chair at a school I will probably be at next year, and he wrote that one of my responsibilities would be to monitor study hall once a fortnight. The guy is from Ireland or Australia or something. Anyway, my English teacher question of the day is this: Without looking it up, do you know what "fortnight" means?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Connected at the Wii

Having participated in job interviews recently, and having talked to friends in the business who have participated in job interviews recently, I've come to the conclusion that one of the most important questions a teacher needs to be ready to answer is the one about reaching the student that has fallen behind. We all have them. The kid with bad attendance. The learning disabled kid who can't seem to function in class. The smart kid who sits reading Kafka but refuses to turn in any work.

I finally have an answer on how to reach some of these kids. So, go on, ask me: Chicago Teacher Man, how do you reach the student that has fallen behind and make sure he passes?

Simple. I challenge the kid to a session of Nintendo Wii.

Well, OK, I've only done it once, but it's worked so well that I'm considering buying one of those machines before the end of this school year to make sure every single one of my slackers passes.

A few weeks ago, one of my students started talking about Wii. Having recently played it for the first time, I told him how much cooler it was than I had previously thought. And the thing is, Wii is a lot of fun. Unlike most video games these days, the Wii doesn't require you to memorize a million sequences of button-pushing on the joystick just to serve a tennis ball or swing a baseball bat.

"Tell you what," Wii Boy told me. "I'll bring in my Wii and we can play."

"Bring it on," I said, hoping he would but not really expecting him to.

A couple of days later, on a Friday, he walked into my classroom half an hour before classes started. He had his Wii. So we set it up, hooked it up to my LCD projector, and played for the next 20 minutes. My first period kids came in, baffled.

For the rest of the day, during my free periods, I kept playing. Against the young teacher down the hall who caught on really fast and kicked my butt.

Wii Boy is in my seventh period class, so by the time he came back I was a wee bit tired. After class, he hung around. "What about your eighth period class?" I asked.

"Oh whatever," he said, "I'm failing anyway. What's one more absence?"

"Alright," I said, shutting my door, turning the lights low, and firing up the Wii. For the next 45 minutes, this kid thoroughly killed me at all the Wii sports, plus a sword fighting game. In a way, I guess you can say we bonded. But really, there's more.

Pre-Wii, this kid
  • either didn't come to class
  • or slept in class
  • or goofed off
  • and never, ever turned in any work
  • claiming that he hated school
  • and the only thing he was interested in was alchemy.
Yeah, alchemy.

But in that Wii afternoon, I noticed something interesting. He turned into a very serious teacher, explaining the games and giving me tips and even cheering me on when I got a point. And I thought, damn, why can't I be that kind of teacher, someone who patiently explains and gives tips and congratulates students when they succeed?

After that day, he's shown up. Even turned in work. Seriously. The class had a pretty major personal essay to write, and I knew he wasn't working on it and I knew he wasn't going to try. So I took him aside and figured out a plan. I had seem him doodling, so I suggested he draw the essay as a graphic novel. And he did. It was six pages long, with some interesting details and funny moments.

Lately, he's been talking about bringing in the Wii again. "Don't worry," he told me after class today, "we'll make a Guitar Hero out of you yet."

Thanks, Teach!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Happy day-after Mother's Day

One thing that annoys me is when late students pound on the door, demanding attention. Of course they know it annoys me, so they do it.

Five minutes into seventh period today, a kid who has had terrible attendance lately decided to knock loudly while shouting something to his buddies down the hall. While I was trying to read a poem to the class.

I walked over, violently pulled the door open, and practically yelled, "Do you have your cell phone?"

"What?" he asked. His cell phone was hanging off a chain around his neck.

"Good, you have it," I said. "Get in the back of the room and call your mother. When she's on the line, hand over the phone so I can tell her about you coming in whenever you feel like it."

"Man, this is my first time late," he said.

"Maybe," I said. "But that's probably because you haven't been here in a week. Now go call your mother."

"No way," he said. "I'm not burning my minutes calling my mom."

I had to laugh. And it broke the tension.

I said, "Fine, today you don't have to. But if you're late tomorrow, or any other day this week, you're calling home."

As he headed to his desk, I said, "Can't believe you won't burn your minutes on your mom."

It was his turn to laugh. "Whoops," he said.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The stupidest email message ever

I recently wrote this email to a colleague:

What is your email address? I want to pass it on to someone, but I have no idea what it is!

No, I'm not a complete idiot. I don't think I am. But, yes, I sent an email to a person asking her what her email address is.

The problem is the email system CPS uses, First Class. When you compose a message, in the "to" field, you type the person's name, either first or last. The system then shows you a list of every person who works for or attends CPS with that name. You click on the name of the person you're trying to send a message to, and the system does the rest. Nowhere does it actually show the person's email address. I've clicked around, made Laura my contact, looked at all information associated with her, and there's no sign of an address.

So I had to send her an email asking for her email address, possibly the stupidest email message ever written. Just another way my employer wastes my time.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Wedding toast

Hey, it's my sister's wedding day today, so I've got to concentrate on writing a wedding toast. I'm known for making my wedding speeches good but way too long. But whatever, wedding guests are a good crowd, liquored up and in a good mood. I'm so used to being ignored by teenagers that I end up going a little overboard when I have people actually paying attention and laughing along.

Not sure what I'm going to say yet, but I know that I'll end with these two Polish words: Sto lat!

Friday, May 09, 2008

Words help

As students were gathering up their materials and heading to their next class, I called two girls over to my desk.

"Let me start with a question," I said. "Have I ever helped you out this past year?"

They stood there looking at me.

"Have I ever listened to your problems, tried to help you, anything like that?"

"Sure," one of the girls said. "Like all the time."

"Good," I said. "Because I was wondering if you could do me a favor? You know, since I've helped you out, maybe you can help me out with something?"

They stood there looking at me.

"OK, here's the deal," I said. "Just yesterday, I got an email from one of your classmates. I'm not going to name names, but I'm sure you'll know exactly who I'm talking about. In her email, she didn't name names, but I'm pretty sure I know who she was talking about. Anyway, her message was really sad. She said she felt that certain people were treating her like a piece of trash. That people were mean to her. And here's the thing. This girl, the one that wrote me the email, she's really a sensitive person. And she's actually really hurt by the way she's being treated. And so, I was wondering if you could do me a favor? Can you please stop it? I'm not asking you to be her friend, I'm not asking you to like her, but for me, could you please be nice?"

The two stared straight ahead. They looked like they felt really bad. I was afraid I was going to start crying, so I blamed my moodiness on the Vicodin I was taking, and continued: "I know a little about this girl's home life, and I can understand why she's sensitive. And that's why I don't want to see her hurt at school."

"Yeah, oh my God," one of the girls said. "When she talks about her dad, I get so sad."

"So, can you two do this for me?" I asked. "And here, let me write you a pass. You're late."

Later in the day, one of the girls stopped by on her way to her locker, told me that another girl in their class started crying when she heard about Hug Girl.

I saw Hug Girl after school. "How was your day?" I asked.

"Good," she said very seriously. "I talked to one girl. And she apologized about what happened yesterday. And I apologized. And then we hugged."

I don't know how long it'll last. But I have to say, here's another reason why I love my job and my students. Most of them are willing to listen. To help out. Most of them are actually really sweet and wonderful underneath, and are often unaware of their unintentional cruelty, but when it's pointed out, they can change. Sometimes they just have to be asked.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Words hurt

Students stop by after school. To finish assignments. To take quizzes. To hang out. To talk about problems.

After the dismissal bell yesterday, a couple of kids were floating around my desk--a guy that wanted to talk about some poems he had written and a girl that often stops by to just chat. I call her Hug Girl because, at the start of the year, she insisted on giving and getting hugs to and from just about everyone. She'd chase the boys in her class just to get a hug. She'd corner teachers and demand a hug before heading for home. She's sensitive and sweet, and she wears her heart on her sleeve. Plus, based on what I saw at report card pick-up, she doesn't get much loving support at home. Still, I finally convinced her that all these hugs were somewhat inappropriate, so we've compromised and now high-five each other at the end of most school days.

Anyway, yesterday I had a 3:30 appointment with the dentist, so I hustled the kids out of my room. "I'll read your poems and talk to you about them tomorrow," I told the poet. "Email me and tell me what's on your mind," I told Hug Girl.

The trip to the dentist turned into a three-and-a-half hour marathon and required loads of anesthetic and then Vicodin. When I got home, there was the near no-hitter by the White Sox to watch, then some blogging and whatnot, and I didn't check my email until after midnight. And there it was, Hug Girl's message, titled: "Talking blah."

I quickly fired off a response. It was the kind of message from a student that demanded an immediate response. I'm not sure if my words could help. Today in class, she said she appreciated what I wrote, but I wonder if there's more I could have said. I asked her if it would be OK for me to share her message on my blog. She said OK.

So, if you've got time, read the following. If you are so moved, leave a comment for Hug Girl. I'll share anything you write with her tomorrow ...

Okay, here's what I wanted to talk to you about:

For some reason half the girls in this class do not like me. I'm not saying everyone should like me and all that la la la, but I feel as if they always think of me as someone bad and worthless off the street.

What did I do? Did I do something wrong? Did I offend someone and not even know it?

These are the very few questions that I ask myself when ever I'm near those girls. I know they don't like me. At all. I can feel it. The only thing that I am doing is being myself. Yes, I admit that I am not perfect and that I am not always nice to others when the mood hits me. But at least I'm honest about who I am and what I do.

I usually don't care what others think about me, but this is the kind of tension I have been feeling for as long as I can remember. I don't feel comfortable with this and every time I say something or do something weird, they would act as if I didn't exist.

This is something I do not understand. They would almost do the exact same thing and laugh as if it was the funniest thing in the world. The bad thing is, they don't even realize it. [A classmate] told me it was probably because they were so used to each other, they don't even think twice about any body else.

Why? I mean, if I don't like someone, I make it known. If I do like someone, I show it as well. There is no need to hide anything. It's not necessary to just stand there and look away as if I'm some piece of trash.

The sad part, is that this kind of behavior has been going on around me since second grade, getting worse with each new year.

The only place that I know that I have friends that do not do this is my ballet school. I have known a lot of them for a very long time. When there is someone new in our class, we welcome them with open arms and adopt them like one of our own. If we have a problem with each other, we show it and tell one another. At least that way, there isn't that backstabbing tension in the room and among us.

I honestly don't know what to do. I sure as hell won't change for anyone but I just want to know why is this?

Thanks a lot for taking your time to read this.

Vote early and often

Here in Chicago, we're known for stuffing the ballot box. So maybe some of you can help me out. I just learned that Chicago Teacher Man is nominated for the ED in '08 Blogger's Choice Award. You can vote here.


Monday, May 05, 2008

Happy when it rains

We were driving 40 miles per hour on the interstate in the driving rain, windshield wipers unable to keep up with the downpour, unaware that a tornado watch was in effect, when I asked the three guys in my car, "Is this crazy or what?"

"It's kind of cool," a voice from the backseat said. "Scary drive with great music."

I had the volume almost at maximum, partially to hear the music over the pounding rain, partially to keep my mind off the potential flooded campsite, partially to introduce my students to a range of loud music, from Modest Mouse to Me First and the Gimme Gimmes to the Jesus and Mary Chain.

"How about this?" I asked. "What if I pay for a couple of hotel rooms and we just throw our sleeping bags on the floor and spend the night like that?"

We were off to our annual camping trip, twenty students and their gear piled into two cars and a 15-passenger van. The teacher driving the van is a lot more bad-ass than I am, because when I called her and suggested the hotel, she shrugged me off and said we'd see how the campsite looked.

By the time we arrived, the rain had slowed to a drizzle. We checked around, picked a spot, and returned to the cars for the kids. As soon as we had our gear in hand, the sky opened up one more time, soaking us. Maybe it was a baptism. We sludged our way anyway, and when we arrived at our chosen spot, the rain stopped. By the time we pitched the tents, there were stars above.

The two nights were cold, maybe in the lowers 40s. The day was fine, and without getting into all the details, the trip was an amazing success. Everyone had fun. With 20 teenagers, you'd expect some drama or fights, but there were none. You'd expect some laughs, and there were plenty.

I took some pictures, but I can't show faces, so you can't see any of the good ones, the ones with the amazing smiles. But maybe this will give you an idea of what you can expect if you take a bunch of teenagers camping:

They stayed up until 3, so they tried sleeping in,
until their evil teacher entered the tent:

D makes a new friend:

Scrambling up the dune (going down was hilarious):

Taking in the view from the top
(the lake's the other way, by the way):

Psychedelic pancakes (with M&M's):

There's more I can say (like me purposefully getting four kids lost on the hike back from the dunes, like the late-night storytelling around the fire, like sitting under a tree with one of my students and reviewing the novel we're reading in class, like me finding a tick on my hip a few minutes ago while taking a bath), but I'm exhausted.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Goin' campin'

It's become an annual retreat of sorts for the past five or six years: Take a bunch of city kids camping. So today after school, I'll be joining about 20 students in what hopefully will be an excellent adventure.

Some of these kids have never been out of the city. Others have never spent a night away from home. Most have never slept in a tent in a horrible thunderstorm on an unseasonably cool night in early May.

With the forecast calling for an 80 percent chance of showers, I'm thinking there is a 100 percent chance of fun and interesting stories. See you on Sunday!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

May memory

Two years ago today, I caught a mysterious illness, called in sick, and ended up caught up in a huge immigration rights rally downtown.

Sadly, as several thousand marchers make their way through downtown today, still seeking some respect and rights, I'll be at work. Where has my fighting spirit gone?

Random moody moments

A fifth period student walks in, scowls, and says, "I'm mad at you."

"Why? What did I do?"

She doesn't answer, just heads over to her desk. She's probably not really angry, but I'm curious, so I ask her what the problem is. "Yesterday, you said you were going to sit next to me," she finally says, "but you didn't. I even saved a desk for you."

Oh good grief. I've recently rearranged the desks into a circle. And now, instead of standing at the front of class, I'm sitting amongst the students, hoping for more of a workshop-style of learning. And here's the weird thing: The last thing most teenagers want is to have their teacher sitting right next to them (the desks are pretty much touching). But quite a few actually want to be near. It's a proximity thing, I guess.

And I guess I blew off this girl's invitation yesterday. And now she's angry. "Today, I promise," I say as other students come in, filling in desks. She keeps glaring at me and even invites classmates to sit near her so that I'd have to go somewhere else. And I now understand what it's like to be shunned by one of the popular girls in high school.


Three times in one day somebody calls me a liar. Once during fourth period, once during fifth, and again at the start of seventh. All three times it's a declaration, an accusation, and not really sounding like a joke. Each time it's about the same thing.

"Man, you're a liar," a kid says as he walks in the room.

"Why? What did I do?"

"You said you weren't going to use that thing again," he says, pointing to my LCD projector. And he's right, I had said I was going to teach in this circle, that since the ACT is done, I'm going to chill out and have less structured classes, more discussions, more independent reading and writing opportunities.

"Well," I have to explain throughout the day. "I just want to show you guys a website that you'll use for research tomorrow. So, I'm not really using the projector for the whole lesson. So I don't think I lied."

"You should show us a movie if you want to use that thing."

"I'm not going to show you a movie. Of what? We have work to do."

By the third time I'm called a liar, though, I realize that students do listen, and do take you at your word, and expect you to follow through, and hate to have things changed up on them. Same thing with the girl I promised to sit next to.


Students also want to participate. Especially when it's for an extra-credit stamp.

Seventh period, there's a special education teacher in the room for support. Thing is, he's only here once a week, so he hasn't seen the new class layout or the new bellringer yet. As the bell rings, I ask the class, "Who wants to explain the new bellringer to Mr. G? For an extra stamp?"

And most of the hands in the room go up.

I laugh when I see one cute little girl practically jumping out of her seat. "Ooh! Ooh! Me! Pick me, pick me," she says.

Instead, Mr. G calls on someone he's trying to help pass. "I think I'd like to have Mark tell me," he says.

And I hear the girl, who is usually super happy and bubbly, slam her hand down on her desk and say, "That's bullshit!"

And I want to say, "Relax, it's only a stupid extra-credit stamp. What's the big deal?" But I look at her and realize it is a big deal to her. She really, really wanted to explain. So I don't say anything; I don't even reprimand her for swearing.

Mark explains the bellringer to Mr. G, and he's only half right, and most of the students howl about his explanation, that there's more to it than that, that he's an idiot, that he shouldn't get the extra credit. And I wonder if I'm teaching high school juniors or maybe third graders.

"Thanks, you get the stamp," I say, "but there's more to it. Does anyone want to fill Mr. G in on what Mark missed?" I look over at the unhappy girl, but she's just sitting there, arms crossed, upset. She refuses to speak for the rest of the period.


Years ago, I would have just ignored these little random moody moments. But the more I think about, the more I realize I must juggle the emotions and moods of every student in my room. What seems like a small thing to me can be huge to them. I mean, when I think about how moody I can get, it's so amplified for teenagers.

So, what I'm working on (and it's really hard for me) is saying something like: "You're right. I'm sorry. I'll try not to do that again." Even if I can't for the life of me understand what the big deal is.

Please practice with me:

Student: You're a liar!
You: You're right. I'm sorry. I'll try not to do that again.

Student: I'm mad at you.
You: You're right. I'm sorry. I'll try not to do that again.

Student: That's bullshit!
You: You're right. I'm sorry. I'll try not to do that again.

Make it sincere and you're on your way to being an OK teacher.

Honor Roll

Final Update:
A big THANK YOU to the following people who donated $875 $970 to replace my student's stolen laptop:

Anna Perkins




Ms. G


the Engineers

Mr. Christian

Mrs. B

Tony Scott

Harriet M. Welsch


Amber P

Bookroom Randy

Matt G


David T

Ann E

rich the photo guy

my favorite librarian

Nancy H


Chris T

Mrs. V

And for donating a laptop, thank you, Thank You, THANK YOU so much to Quinn Heraty!

The butchering of the English language continues

After school yesterday, a student and I decorated a bulletin board outside my classroom with copies of last year's literary journal, hoping to get some students interested in submitting work for this year's edition.

As we left, we wondered how long it would be before someone walked past, took a swipe, and tore down the hanging journals, which were arranged three-dimensionally with pages folded open and other journals hanging from a string. "I think they'll stay up maybe fifteen minutes into first period," he said.

"I agree," I agreed.

Well, no one tore down the display, proving once again that the majority of teenagers are not destructive (although maybe it just proves that they totally ignored our bulletin board). But I know that at least one student realized it was there.

"Hey, my poem's in there," one of my fourth period students said proudly as she walked into the room.

"Excellent," I said. "Are you going to submit some work for this year's journal?"

"I don't think so," she said. "I don't feel inspirated."

"You don't feel inspired?" I said, feeling like a parent correcting a toddler.

"Yeah, for some reason, I don't feel inspirated."