Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Lucky me

"You know," I say to one of my advisees, "you guys are really lucky I'm not in charge this year."

"I know!" he says. "We were just talking about that."

We're walking up to my classroom from the library. I've pulled him out of study hall because I'm too curious, I need him to give me some details. Now. And he has just complimented me. He doesn't know it, but it's the nicest thing he's said to me all year.

"What do you think will happen?" he asks.

"I have no idea," I say, "but I know what I would do in this situation – suspend you. All 30 of you!"

He gulps. Last year, I tried my hand at administration, and one of my goals was a get-tough-on-crime approach. And I think it worked. Sure, we had a few disciplinary cases, but not a single alcohol or drugs offense. Kids either didn't party or (more likely) they hid it well.

But this past weekend 30 students were discovered to have been partying in a hotel. Six of them from my advisor group. Which means that I have, quite by accident, the cool kids in my advisor group. Their biggest crime, as far as I'm concerned, is that some of them were mixing vodka with Coke. No wonder one girl had to go to the hospital to get her stomach pumped! Their other crime, more serious, was drinking enough to get caught. When one person goes to the hospital, everyone else signed out of dorms for that event gets called in and busted.

Funny, sad, true story about the girl taken to the hospital:

The staff member who went with the girl informed the doctor that the girl had drunk a lot of vodka.

The very Indian doctor asked, "Oh. Is there alcohol in vodka?"

"Can you please help her? She's been throwing up a lot!"

And he asked, "What has she been throwing?"

I had to laugh when I heard that. And I couldn't restrain myself, I had to laugh in class.

"What's the matter with you guys?" I asked one of my classes. "I know it's Monday and all, but you all look absolutely hung over today!" This didn't get the laughter or applause it deserved. Later, some girls accused me of being mean, of bullying the poor wretches.

In another class, my advisee asked me to repeat something. "I'm sorry," I said, "I know you killed some brain cells yesterday. So ... do ... you ... need ... me ... to ... speak ... more ... slowly?" His friend laughed; nobody else did.

But my philosophy this year is different from last year. I don't need to worry about the safety of all the students and the reputation of the school anymore. I can laugh. And, really, these guys will laugh about this someday, too. Maybe when they return from their one-month suspension. (Well, that's what I would've pushed for.) Maybe at graduation. Or five years from now. Who knows when, but they will see the humor eventually.

"It's not like you guys killed somebody," I tell my lucky group of six. "So relax, you'll be OK."

But they're worried about their parents' reactions. About missing school. About losing leadership positions. About a blemish on their transcript.

"Well, you should have thought about all that when that booze came into the room. And anyway," I say, "you want to know what a college admissions counselor will say if he sees you were suspended for partying? Probably: 'Oh, he's guilty of being a teenager.'"

I don't really know if this is true, but it makes sense to me. Every university official knows teenagers drink. And maybe it's better that kids get the partying and trouble out of the way during high school. If a high school junior gets in trouble in the first quarter, and then is clean after that, well, that's a sign of growth! Of learning! Maybe he or she won't drink to excess during the first week of college life. Maybe. I don't really know anything about that (although maybe I should remind my advisees that two years ago, a group of juniors was busted drinking and they were suspended. Today, they're all in college). And anyway, I do know that I drank less after the age of 21 than before. I also know that I wasn't ever stupid about drinking, that I slowly built up my tolerance before getting completely smashed.

Well, that's not entirely true.  But the only people who really know about my first drunken experience aren't around anymore. No, they're not dead. I just don't know them anymore.

These kids today, they don't want to snitch on their friends – there's a code of some sort – so they won't reveal who provided the alcohol, and so they will probably all face the same consequences. When I tell them that their friendship rules are stupid, they are horrified. "So, what's your definition of friendship?" one of them asks.

"I don't know about definitions," I say, "but I'll tell you this: Out of my very best friends from high school, the guys I thought would be around forever, well, I don't keep in touch with them anymore." And it's true. On facebook, I'm friends with four or five people from high school, and I keep in somewhat regular contact with two. "You'll go to college, make new friends," I continue. I'm on lecture mode now. "Then you'll get a job, move, meet new people, forget about old ones. And the people you're protecting today, you'll forget all about them. Probably."

High school life, I guess, is so immediate. So eternal. With so little perspective. So everything seems like such a big deal. But they'll all survive this. They'll laugh about it. I just wouldn't want them laughing at the school, which is why I think they should get strong consequences. They need to laugh at themselves, at their stupidity, their own foolishness and naivety. But we'll see who laughs last. I'm just lucky I'm not in charge.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Must write

Comments. Must write five sentences (at least) about every single student I teach. How many different ways are there to write, "I'm unimpressed"? Just kidding; many students are actually quite good, but comment-writing always brings out my inner bitch.
Anyway, here's one way I'm procrastinating: Great piece in the New York Times Magazine called "What if the Secret to Success is Failure?" It's the perfect length to forget all about unwritten comments. And the headline alone gives me an idea for my next comment: If the secret to success is failure, then your son is well on his way.

In the article, an educator looked at former students and found that "only 33 percent of students who graduated from [his] middle school 10 or more years ago have graduated from a four-year college. That rate is considerably better than the 8 percent of children from low-income families who currently complete college nationwide, and it even beats the average national rate of college completion for all income groups, which is 31 percent."

However, "he noticed something curious: the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class."

So ...
What to teach? And when? Can "exceptional character strengths" be taught?

Maybe I should finish reading the Times piece to find out. And then start on those damn comments. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Free throw

Writing, I think, is like riding a bicycle. No, that's a cliche (which one avoids in writing), and it isn't true. Riding a bicycle requires a little bit of balance and a willingness to just let go -- two qualities writing shares -- but, ultimately, you learn to ride once and never forget. With writing, you get rusty. You forget and need to relearn.

So, then, a comparison as simple but more accurate: Writing is like shooting free throws. It's the easiest thing -- well, it's certainly the easiest shot in basketball -- and it's beautiful when you get it right. The audience hushes when you take aim and exhales only when you nail the point. Still, it takes lots of practice to get good at it, it's impossible to be perfect, it's frustrating when you miss, and if you spend enough time away from the line, you need to relearn the process. Back to the practice court for many, many hours of bend the knee, flick the wrist, release. Bend, flick, release. Back to the practice court just to get into the habit.

I am back on the line after some time. The hardest thing for me right now is listening to students and noticing: ah, I can do something interesting with that.

Lucky for me there is email. This morning I noticed a student had written at around midnight. Here's his message:
I am writing to you at this hour because I simply want you to know that I suck at managing my time. Please help me manage my time better. I had a week to read the book, but due to misplaced concerns and laziness, I was not able to read the book. I would like you to help me improve my time managing skills.
There's a quiz on Part 1 of the novel this morning. Let's see, he has class at about 11 a.m., so he still had almost 12 hours to go. But it was late, he was sleepy, and so he sent a last-ditch email to, what, get some sympathy? This guy's a basketball player, so maybe he'll appreciate the metaphor. He threw a last-second full-court shot, hoping for that elusive three-pointer at the end of the half. My response, though, is that the full-court shot isn't really a proper play. Sure, you hope it goes in, but it's not really a strategy for winning. A coach doesn't say in the locker room, "Let's fall behind by a point or two; then, at the end of the half, we'll pull out our secret weapon -- the full-court bomb for three points!"

A winning strategy is practice. Want to be a better writer? Practice. Every day. The same can be said of reading. You can't think that when you open a book for the first time that you'll just absorb the information. You need a quiet room with no one around, and for 30 minutes, you bend, flick, release. Bend into a comfortable position, flick through the pages slowly, and release your mind.

Ah, crap ending. I'm out of practice, you see.

So, let me finish this way: Ultimately, it's really disappointing that this kid didn't read. More so than any other. Because last week, when I handed out the novel, he stuck around after class to tell me that he remembers this book from when he was a kid. "I remember my family sitting around and talking about this book. For many days." That story blew me away. He actually has this childhood memory of people being so excited about a work of literature that they spent several evenings in deep conversation about it. And now he has the chance to read that novel and join the conversation.

He needs to get into practice. If he wants to nail that simple, single point and win the game, he'll need to practice.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Changing attitudes, changing grades

There are many teachers that get offended by the way students write emails. They start off with "Hey," they include shorthand and misspellings, and they just seem rude. I've never been offended, but I also want to teach students something more proper. So I recently presented my students with this offer: Send me a polite email -- one dripping with respect and appreciation -- and I will change one of your bad grades with a good one.

And so students sent me the most sarcastic emails I've ever received. I've always thought using satire and wit was challenging, but these kids nailed it. Here are some examples:

Thank you for being such a merciful and generous teacher.

Thank you so much for your kindness in allowing us to replace one of our bad grades with a better one. I promise that the bad grade will be my last and i will always give my best to achieve good scores on every assignment you throw at me.

I'm so honored to have this amazing opportunity to change my crappy grade to a better one.

Thank you so much for being such a great person in understanding students struggles and being kind enough to provide a second opportunity to increase our grades. In taking hold of this opportunity you provided,  I  kindly request you to change my grade for "Thank you for arguing" quiz, in which the result was 2 out of 10, 20% , in accordance with  my  recent essay plan which was 28 out of 30, 93. 3%. Thank you again for considering this small favor and thus helping me in saving myself from mental and physical disorders such as depression, constant head-aches, late night sleeps, sleep-talking, etc. By doing this you are not only helping me in the improvement of my grade but also lightening my burden of worry a little, which currently seems to be the main reason for all the disorders in me.

Thank you so much for this opportunity to raise my dismal mark in English to a slightly less dismal mark. I received a total of twenty-nine (29) points out of thirty (30) on the Leadership and Madness Essay Plan, which roughly translates to ninety-six point six recurring percent (96.6%). On a previous quiz, the first Train to Pakistan Quiz, I scored an abominable twenty-two (22) points out of thirty (30), which roughly translates to a horrendous seventy-three point three recurring percent (73.3%). It would complete my life if it were possible to substitute my twenty-nine (29) points in my Leadership Essay Plan into said quiz, which would bring the total points up on that quiz to twenty-nine (29) out of thirty (30). Thank you so much for the fantastic opportunity and for taking time out of your incredibly busy and fulfilling schedule to even consider my humble request.

And more than that, thank you for helping me (along with the rest of my class) brush up on my mathematical skills. I did more calculations trying to maximize my overall grade for English than I did in all my Math classes this semester. What an incentive! I can't help but wonder if you're secretly a mathematician at heart....

You are a very, very sweet person, and I would not complain about you to [your future wife] anymore.

Thank you for this opportunity, i will work harder and focus on the criteria and rubric next time, to create better paragraphs in every essay :)

I'm truly sorry for adding another annoying message in your inbox but if you could do this small thing for me, it would really brighten up my day. I got 22 out of 30 which is a 73 percent in the essay plan. I would like to replace my first  quiz on Train to Pakistan (I'm very sorry for not italicizing.I just can't figure it out how to do it) with the 73%. I promise I'll strive for the best in the upcoming assignments. If you're not in a good mood right now, please do come back and check this pitiful message again. :)

Thank you so much for reading this. Have a wonderful evening!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

I'm back to talk about back then

From Rueters: The military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law for gay personnel is slated to run out as scheduled on Tuesday, the armed forces said, ending a 17-year rule fraught with controversy.

Likewise, I am ending a several-year ban on my blog. Chicago Teacher Man is back, but he's still in India, so it really should be International Teacher Man. But I'm in the classroom, and even though this isn't the inner city and the day-to-day events aren't as fraught with violence and anger, there are still stories that I want to remember. Some poignant. Some funny. Some memorable. Some just plain and ordinary but worthwhile in their own way.

Like last week. Students were doing a Pop Oral Presentation -- a POP, I like to call it. I had given them a famous speech to read, put them in groups, gave them 15 minutes to prepare, and had them quickly present the speech to the rest of the class. One group had JFK's inauguration speech, another Gandhi's "Quit India" speech, and another had Mary Fisher's 1992 Republican National Convention address. This one isn't as famous, perhaps, as the others, but a pretty great speech, asking Republicans to fund AIDS research.

Here's something I'm slowly discovering as a teacher: Many students are actually better at writing and speaking when they don't have a lot of time to think. Well, they perform better. Or at least I'm more impressed with the results. Give students 15 minutes to prepare a presentation and the expectations are quite low, so when they do OK, that's impressive. Give them a couple of nights to do the work and the expectations rise -- they should be much better, right? Usually they're not. So grades on formal assignments are low while in-class work gets high marks.

The first POP group was great. One girl had somehow managed to research Fisher's speech and told the class that Fisher convinced the nation that AIDS was not just a gay disease but rather something that could affect anyone. A boy in the group said something like this: "You have to remember that, back then, there was a lot of anti-gay prejudice in the U.S."

The whole class nodded thoughtfully, and I was stuck to my chair. "Back then." For high school juniors and seniors, 1992 is "back then."

I've always hated when students say those two words. It's usually used to refer to something in 1947, or 1492, or some distant time in history, a time students don't actually know or remember, so they'll make some blanket statement about "back then." Back then people were dumb. Back then people didn't know about love. Back then the world was black and white. And I'm always like, come on, do some research, don't just fall back on "back then" when you don't actually know anything about it.

This time, though, the kid said "back then" about 1992. Back then, I was a university student. This means, ultimately, that I grew up "back then." I grew up in history. Am a relic. A man from the past, a time traveler. Old. For a 17-year-old student, 1992 is ancient history, a time he doesn't know much about, so he puts statements into context by saying "back then."

In this case, the student was right: Back then, the world was more anti-gay than it is today. Evidence: The U.S. military's don't-ask, don't-tell policy, which was passed 17 years ago, ends today.

The people who think growing up in 2011 is difficult, more difficult than when they were young, are wrong. In some ways, the world today is a little better. But history will have to decide. And if history doesn't, there will be some student 17 years from now talking about 2011, and he'll say, "Back then, people still thought blogging was cool."