Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Certification Check-In

This one's for the good folks running around in Schools of Ed. If you plan to leave your state, venture out into the great wide open and teach the children far away from the homeland, you should have an idea by now of how you're going to do it. One of the big things you're going to need to know is what kind of certification you'll need to teach in your state of choice.

My road to certification was a long, perilous one that ended with a phone call from the city saying "Nick James will not teach tomorrow if his certification is not complete." Yep. My paperwork had not gone through by the day before school, which meant I had to take a trip down to the headquarters of the NYC Department of Education to see what was going on with the paperwork I had submitted in a timely fashion many weeks prior to the beginning of school. I'd actually begun the process more than six months prior to the beginning of school.

Going from Kansas to New York things can be tricky. States often have what's referred to as certification reciprocity, meaning that some states only accept teachers from certain other states. Now, I believe New York got rid of excluding certain states from reciprocity, but the process a year and a half ago left my head spinning enough that I'm not really sure what New York State wants from it's teacher candidates before they teach. They wanted me to pass four certification exams, take trips to the NYC DOE offices numerous times, call the state office in Albany a few times, dance around with a tutu, sweat for the several weeks leading up to school and finally pull strings most people don't have to push my certification through in time to teach. Pretty sweet, right?

Some good advice I took away from my advisor at the School of Ed was to go ahead and get the certification my home state offered at the end of my teacher program. While I applied directly to New York State, having a Kansas certification helped the process along considerably, even though it was impossible to tell that would be the case by reading the certification requirements. If my certification had not gone through and my principal had kept me in the classroom anyway, things would have gotten way worse if I'd not been certified in any state. Getting certified in two states ended up costing more money of course between processing fees and three additional certification exams, but it was worth it.

If you haven't checked out what you'll need to be able to teach you should still have plenty of time, but get on it. You can find most certification requirements online. I was contacted recently by the journalist working for the website certificationmap.com, which is a pretty decent starting point for anyone leaving their state to teach. You can find some preliminary information and links to state's certification requirements.

Sweet Interview
The site also has a blog on which they're interviewing teachers about their craft, why they went into the field, etc. The man who contacted me asked me to fill out a few questions and then put my answers up as a post on December 28th. Nice!

Today's Wine: Franciscan Cabernet 2006. This one was recommended by Betty in an earlier post. I couldn't find the Cabernet in New York, but I found it on a trip back home. While a bit more expensive than what I usually buy, it was a great bottle of Cabernet. Very well-balanced and complex on the palate. Between the recommendation, the great bottle and the fact that my father picked it up for me, I was living large last night.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Low Attendance Days

Attendance is a major issue for many of our students. It's the major issue with our school's progress and it oftentimes leaves our administration and staff scratching our heads about how to increase our numbers. Right now we're averaging about eighty-five percent as a school, although the high school averages in the seventies while the middle school averages a bit higher (our seventh graders in particular never miss school, which makes me very excited about teaching them next year). The numbers are averages, so of course there are good attendance days and bad attendance days. The numbers also drive us to plan around them, which is both smart and dangerous.

Last year I did not anticipate one of the the lower-end outliers: Halloween. It was really poor planning on my part, but my lack of experience and inability to accept the fact that students oftentimes don't do what they're supposed to do led to a major project almost falling flat in front of my administration.

On Halloween (a Friday) I planned a work day during which the students were to complete speeches for a rally the following Monday. They were writing speeches about the presidential race, either supporting Obama or McCain (I did actually have one student write one supporting McCain, though it was a bit sarcastic). It had begun to dawn on me that Friday's had lower attendance rates, but last year on Halloween the attendance in the eighth grade bottomed out at around twenty-five percent. When that happens the motivation of the students who do come to school plummets and the amount of work that is completed is abysmal. Come the following Monday, I had to give students the first half of the period to finish speeches before they were given. Smiling nervously at the administrators who had come to watch, wondering if the whole thing was going to fall apart, the students who I hand-picked to give speeches actually did fairly well.

The day before Winter Break this year showed something interesting about which students tend to show up on days before a break. Because our classes are highly tracked we have been able to see the dramatic differences between low and high achievers at our school. The turnout on Wednesday was as we expected, but was not perhaps what people off the front lines expect: the high-end students and the low-end students show up; the students in the middle do not.

The reasons for this are numerous, but if you simplify it completely: high-end students come because they are motivated to succeed, the low-end students come because they oftentimes have no where else to go and they want to be in a warm, familiar place before they head into a break that will be less than spectacular. The middle of the road students, on the other hand, have neither of these incentives working for them. They know that the day before break most teachers aren't going to plan anything major and there is the assumption that other students will be absent, so they can be as well. They may also simply want to extend their break by a day.

Fridays in general mean a sharp decline in attendance. Students look for that three-day weekend, some feeling that they've done enough work by showing up at least three days of the week (perhaps they even followed directions!). While we should try to boost attendance on Fridays and other low-attendance days, we also need to plan for the fact that many students will not be present. On one end of the spectrum, the day before break this year saw our high school teachers taking their students to the movies, which meant half their students stayed home and the other half were doing nothing academic. Our ninth grade science teacher complained that the teachers allowed the students to dictate what was going to happen that day, as the teachers made the assumption that absolutely nothing academic could be done on that (whether that was true or not is debatable). The other end was what I did in my classroom, which was a huge gamble, though less of one because I teach middle school and not high school.

I did plan something academic this year before break. I've done my best to push the students academically and somehow, with an hour left before ten days of break, my high-tracked class (which had been reamed out all day for goofing around), buckled down and for the most part finished five-paragraph essays about working conditions in the early 1900s and what the government and individuals did to improve those conditions. While I got a number of pretty awesome presents for Christmas this year, that one trumped them easily. I'm still trying to figure out what happened, but I'm happy as a lark about it.

As a first year teacher something that happens a lot is that students dictate the tempo of instruction. I struggled so much last year with this, thinking that "students aren't going to do s*** anyway, so why plan for it?" This is dangerous. On low-attendance days allowing students to dictate what is going to happen empowers them to take control on other days. Of course there is a balance to be had- planning huge assessments or assignments for low attendance days is also not the answer (it'll be like pulling teeth to get my students who were absent for that essay to actually complete it), but if you expect that the students will not produce anything that day, they won't- and many of them won't even show up.

Today's Wine: Louis Martini Cabernet and a cheap house wine at a bar. These were had at a local establishment out in semi-small town USA. The cheap something may have been the strangest red wine I've ever had. It was bad, to be sure, but it tasted as if they'd left the grapes out. It wasn't light-bodied, it had no body. The waitress was very gracious, taking it back and asking what "flavor" we'd like to try instead. I've written about Louis Martini before and knew it would be just fine, so I chose that flavor.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Winter Leave

Tomorrow we start winter break. Last year it was like entering some kind of cloud- an alternate universe that was my life prior to starting work on the front lines. Here are a couple quotes from what I wrote in my journal about the break:

The first four months of school were certainly startling... My students knocked me on my knees, I hit survival mode on the first day of school and was reeling backward, literally trying to stay alive during the first couple weeks of school. Everything I believed about education and about what I wanted to do with my life came crashing to the ground around me and as I sat sorting through the pieces the school year marched on dragging me along by my heels. It took two months for me to stand up and move forward to catch up with my students and the massive beast that was my classroom and my piece of the education system in New York City. During that time I appeared to everyone in the setting as a meek, skinny white guy from the Midwest trying very hard to survive in a setting that was entirely foreign to most human beings.

By the time the break rolled around last year, I felt as if my feet had hit the ground, but barely. It was my major accomplishment. While things certainly weren't fantastic in my classroom, I felt as though I was vertical and moving, and I'd begun to roll with some of the punches. That said, it was still ridiculously unclear what in the world I would need to do to be successful by my own standard.

It's felt that I never left, really. I'd been in the city for five straight months (save a weekend in Houston) and it feels like I was just here (Kansas) yesterday. It'll be interesting to see how long that feeling lasts. July will probably be the next time that I visit the Midwest.

When I was sitting on my parents' couch last December it felt as though everything I'd done in the four months prior was a thousand miles away (according to Google Maps, it's 1,223) or that someone else had done it and I had simply watched them closely. Perhaps that meant I was really back in my element. New York had been so jarring that it certainly could not be considered my element. If your time in the classroom has been less than stellar, getting out of the city is important if for no other reason than it helps remind you that things can be sane and normal (according to your own definition).

This year I really need to get out of the city as well. The amount of agitation, disrespect, city attitude and nutso people in these parts have really gotten to me lately. They are a minority and I have certainly defended New Yorkers as people who are just as nice as any other group of people once you get to know them, but the callousness that permeates crowds here has started to get under my skin. While last year I needed to get away to show myself again that the world hadn't gone completely insane, this year I simply want a short break from the city so I can appreciate it a bit more, relax and get ready for the spring.

Today's Wine: Charles Shaw Shiraz. Again, not as dry as their Cabernet, but a bit peppery like Shiraz oftentimes is. It also supported the fact that for the price, Charles Shaw is incredibly acceptable.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

"Happy" Holidays

Ah, the holidays. Last night it snowed here in the city and it's very white outside. It reminds me of the years my parents would pile all six of us kids into an ugly Buick station wagon (the kind with the fake wood paneling) and make the trek from Kansas to Minneapolis to visit the rest of my relatives. We'd be jammed in so tight that we couldn't move for the eight hours we were in the car (it was probably planned that way by my parents), and to get out to go to the bathroom took agility and skill in order to keep tons of suitcases and presents from crushing you, your baby brother or any innocent bystanders outside of the car.

Once up in the Twin Cities, we'd go to a Christmas dinner at one grandparent's house on Christmas Eve and the other on Christmas Day. Both were pretty fantastic in their own right. My mom's family kept kids in ties and dresses and we sat around a single table with cloth napkins eating Norwegian meatballs. After dinner I'd run around in a pair of wooden clogs brought from the old country. My dad's family was quite the opposite. Their were thirty plus grandchildren, eight sets of aunts and uncles and other family friends (topping twenty five adults sometimes) all crammed into a single-story rambler surrounded by a hundred feet of snow. Everyone always had plenty to eat, plenty of toys by the end of the day and plenty of cousins to goof around with. While the journey up and down the middle of the U.S. wasn't our favorite, my brothers and sisters and I always loved the holidays and getting to see our whole family.

I'm not too sure, but before those breaks our behavior in school probably changed. Knowing full and well that all you have to do is "survive" another couple days doesn't always motivate you to do astounding things academically. We acted the way we did because we were excited that we were going to get a break. We acted that way because school was going to be out and, while we might complain about being bored once or twice before the New Year, winter break was something to be appreciated.

Something I found out last year is that this is not the story for many of our students. While I knew that none of them would be driving to Minneapolis and many wouldn't be getting a lot of presents, what I didn't know is that some of the the students hate the holidays- especially the ones causing all of the trouble in your classes just before the break. How they feel about the holidays is usually reflected in their behavior. The continuum of student behavior ranges from those who do far better than normal to increase their present potential to those who know the holidays are not going to be a celebration at all. Most students are somewhere in between, but the ones at the extreme ends are the ones who are, as usual, the most interesting/back-breaking.

The behavior of the students on the worrisome side of the spectrum starts going downhill a couple weeks before the holidays. The stories range from students who will not have enough to eat for a week and a half to children waiting for an estranged parent to bring them a promised present, which simply won't happen. Unfortunately many of the students who have a parent absent in his or her life don't give up hope they'll come back for holidays until he or she is in high school. Many of the students are also anticipating a lack of structure for a week and a half that is difficult to deal with. There are a hundred reasons why they may not like the holidays, the point is that they rough if you're not used to spending quality, healthy time with your family.

As for the students who acquired the abilities to smile, listen to you and complete an assignment for the first time in anticipation of their respective gift-receiving holiday, enjoy it while it lasts, call their parents to let them know they're working hard and hope for some residual effect come January.

Keep in mind that as you're struggling to keep your classroom in order before the break, your students may be struggling with the thought of a rough couple weeks ahead of them. Many of the ones you've been battling all year are the ones who are actually going to miss your classroom the most. For the past four months you've been showing up every day (or very nearly every day) to do what you can for them. Whether or not they're responding, listening, working or otherwise, you've done that for them- and you'll be back for them after the holidays.

Today's Wine: Mulled Wine/Gluehwein/Gloegg. This is, of course, spiced, fortified wine. There are a lot of recipes out there for it, but I use the toss-it-together method, which works out just fine. For each bottle of not expensive red wine, put in a splash of vanilla, an orange cut in half with some cloves stuck in it, a cinnamon stick, a healthy splash of Grand Marnier if you have it and some sugar (start with a quarter cup and add more if you want). Heat and drink.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Holiday Parties

When I started writing this post it was my intention to tell you to take no part in holiday parties for students. This was because the thought of mine last year makes my stomach churn a bit. I was very, very frustrated after a day we tried to give the students who came to school a bit of a break but during which we were handed loads of discipline problems and headaches. What changed was my giving a draft of the post to a fellow teacher in my school who told me how her holiday party went last year.

These are some of the things she said:

In order to have a successful party, or even easy day, you have to have the time be particularly structured. If the students have a positive community and respect for their teacher, celebrations can worthwhile and fun.

We fell down right there last year. We didn't have a structure to the activities we did, only the day itself. Just like the classroom has to be structured, celebration time needs to be as well. My classroom (and two of my teammates') were also not as a rule positive communities where respect for the teacher was to be found.

Students have to see the value in what they're doing. Watching a movie for the sake of watching a movie is transparent, while watching a movie after you've read a book is desirable. The kids know what to expect and have been likely looking forward to watching the movie ever since the reading of the book began.

We showed a movie last year, but we showed it just to show it. That meant "do whatever we please time" to most of the students, which ended in half the students present being kicked out of a movie room for the rest of the day into a detention room that was monitored in shifts, which was less than entertaining for the teachers doing the monitoring.

Holidays are a little different, but I even had a nice holiday party last year. I sugar-coated it as a "Publishing Party" and it seemed scholastically oriented and viable. Since there was a structure to the day, there was a structure to the party and things went off without a hitch.

We tried to teach some small lessons in the morning and show a movie in the afternoon, but even the class schedule was completely different than what the students were used to. By the time the movie rolled around in the afternoon they would have been a little nuts on a regular day, to say nothing of the day before winter break.

You have to have student buy-in. You have to put them in charge sometimes so that they feel what they are doing is meaningful. Have a plate passer-outer and juice-pourer and a napkin-giver. All of a sudden you have an entire classroom working for the party! And THAT is what having a successful party is all about.

Last year I ran around like the waiter I used to be brewing hot chocolate for students, popping popcorn and handing both to the students in the movie room. At this point in the year my trust in the students had been so shattered by their lack of participation and terrible behavior in class that I flat rejected offers to help with handing these things out- probably not smart.

This year I am planning no holiday party. The teachers on my team (two of four of which are new to the school/team) and I are all having some kind of culminating project in each of our classes (mine was today- a rally for modern progressive issues topped off with a few bags of chips), but we aren't going to try to have a grade-wide celebration.

If you're still struggling with management and getting a handle on your class, plan something that's educational, but not incredibly difficult. Stick to all daily routines you have in place. Last year two days before the botched holiday bash I brought in for each of my students two of my favorite cookie and one of those small candy canes wrapped in a gift bag with ribbon. Unlike most of the other things I'd handed out last fall, these were not based on merit or performance or behavior, which meant everyone got one. I can't tell for sure, but the gesture may have been something of a turning point in the relationship I had with those kids. Whatever did it, things started to get better after break.

Today's Wine: Misterio Malbec 2006. This made for smooth drinking and, as is usual with Malbecs (for me), a nice bottle for the table.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Start an After School Program

Sometime in early December last year I was having a particularly bad day and was down in the dumps about the fact that many of my high-end students in my classes were standing on the deck watching as I was drowning and many of their classmates were swimming circles around me. They were probably wondering when and if I was going to get it together and start teaching. To say the least, the work load was getting to me and I felt like all of my options for controlling my classes were exhausted.

That's when my assistant principal walked in and told me I should start an after-school program. I' m not sure what the look on face was when he said that. It was probably either blank, as if he'd just spoken to me in Ukrainian, or I gave him a look that sent him the message that he'd fallen off his rocker and smashed his head against something hard on the floor. By the time he was done talking, however, I was on board.

By this time last year I was becoming very cynical and angry about my job. I started an after-school program to help lift up my high-end students as much as to preserve my sanity. I drafted a letter and handed it to the few students doing well in my class inviting them to meet me after school to talk about starting a program. I called their parents to let them know I was creating an honors after-school program and that their child was invited to attend. When all was said and done I had about seven students who wanted to stay/were told to stay by their parents- about half of the students I invited. They stayed with me for the rest of the year, agreeing to do pretty much whatever for the small price of a granola bar or popcorn during the meetings.

By June the group had served many purposes. They reminded me that I love teaching. They taught me about themselves and their peers through conversations I couldn't have during the school day. They also helped me complete my master's thesis by serving as a sample population. In June I wondered how much they really got out of the program, though I was satisfied that it was an academic venture outside of school hours and was more educational than the video games they would have been playing otherwise.

I didn't give the program a second thought after school let out, figuring it was over and done with and that those students moved on to high school (most of them still at our school). It wasn't until several of them approached me in September this year and asked if I was going to have another program that I realized that they even really enjoyed it. One of the students whose parents had made him attend for fear that he'd be jumped walking home after school was one of those really pressing for it.

These students certainly caught me off guard. They wanted me to start another after-school program? What was more, these students were already scheduled to be in school from 8:15 to 4:00PM. Now they wanted to stay until 5PM? I thought they were nuts, but told them I'd think about it and perhaps start one after school got underway and we all were settled in.

After several more requests I ended up organizing and starting one two weeks ago. Instead of seven or eight eighth graders coming to learn how to analyze documents for U.S. history, I now have seven ninth and eighth graders coming to learn German (which is my second, random certification) twice a week until 5PM. I'm not sure if there's a nerdier, stranger bunch of students in the South Bronx, but I'm happy as heck to have them. I wrote a bit about this in my post titled Home Field Advantage. Having students coming back into my classroom on a regular basis to say hello has been an amazing feeling. My relationships with two of the biggest pains in my ass last year have done one-eighties, to boot. While my after-school kids are way too talkative and can also be pains sometimes, they think I have something to give them, which makes me think that I might.

It's incredibly difficult to differentiate if there are any behavioral problems in a classroom. Generally the extra attention and time that would be used to push high-level students is used to deal with the ones who are going nuts, throwing things and attacking your sanity. Starting an after school program provided an outlet for me last year to get some real teaching done for students who were committed to learning. It may be something to consider if you're struggling to justify your existence in your classroom, as I oftentimes did last year. If you're pulling out the rest of your hair right now and wondering what the hell has been going on for the past three and a half months, try taking a step back and finding a way to really teach a small group of students. It may really remind you why you're here.

Today's Wine: Charles Shaw Chardonnay. I used this while making a fancy schmancy wine reduction sauce for some pasta. I generally like to sip whatever it is I'm cooking while cooking. It's pretty standard quality for the 3-Buck Chucks- great value for the price, but nothing to scream from the rooftops about otherwise.

Friday, December 11, 2009


Last year I was asked to step in and cover a class for a teacher who was inexplicably absent. The students had been "my students" for months and while I wanted to believe that they would listen to me better than they would listen to a substitute, they didn't seem to want to go along with that fantasy.

When I walked into that room and could not get the attention of the class, I asked why they wouldn't get quiet and they responded with, "You're not our teacher for this class. You're a substitute." From there on all bets were off. I walked into that class hoping only for some semblance of order and as little headache as possible. I was given no lesson plan, had no computer and no resources other than what I could scrape together in the room. My grand plan was to look to the classroom library, hand out books and ask the students to read (which really pissed off the absent teacher when she got back, as she'd spent some time working on that library). Their grand plan turned out to be something totally different, although it did involve books from the classroom library. My version involved books in their hands, while their version involved books on the floor.

Today I had my first coverage of the year. Like last year, I taught the class the period before and then followed them to the next class. Like last year I started with a joke along the lines of "You guys are SO lucky that you get ME for two periods in a row!" This class is the class that had been tearing apart our math teacher. This class has been the root of rumors and the butt of numerous jokes. Walking into the room I was less than thrilled to be holding a one-paragraph lesson plan with seventy minutes between us and lunch (during which I'd be running lunch detention).

What happened next was miraculous and surreal. I read the email to the students, gave them some paper out of a closet in the classroom and told them to get to work. It took them about ten or fifteen minutes, but the students got to work quietly. This was probably due to a lot of factors that I'll spare myself the task of writing about, but the point is that with a very similar population it was night and day from last year. Last year the students hardly considered me their teacher outside of my own classroom and the period they had me. This year, even though this particular group doesn't care too much for me, they recognized the fact that I was in charge in the room. That's very encouraging for when I have them in my own classroom from this point forward.

It's also pretty nice to identify another thing that's gotten much better since last year.

Today's Wine: SIPranillo Tempranillo 2006 (Spanish). While I generally like drier wines, this one was really well-balanced and went incredibly well on the table with some cheese and prosciutto. It's full-bodied, but was pretty soft on the palate.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Get Off the Soap Box

Sometimes in the classroom I have verbal diarrhea. The sheer volume of the stuff coming out of my mouth is impressive, if excessive. It's as though I'm narrating what the class is doing, explaining directions, giving my opinion on any number of things in a never-ending string of gestures and phrases that is tuned out by most students after about twenty seconds and is not tuned back into until I change the volume of my voice from loud to incredibly loud, say something they really want to hear that has nothing to do with what we're doing in class, or threaten them with extending the period into lunch or past the end of the day.

In addition to this verbal phenomena, I also take the time out of my busy day on many days of the year to tell students about life's mysteries, what they can expect from high school, college, future employers (sometimes current employers), parents, siblings, etc. I talk about the psychology that explains why people act and tell them that their actions are going to affect whether they graduate or not. Sometimes my brain tunes out and my mouth just goes, spouting something that, while intelligible to my friends who have a decent graduate level education, is certainly not something my eighth graders understand.

Now, this desire to tell students the facts of school and sometimes life is derived from a very real concern about their well-beings, how well they're doing in school compared to the average American student and unsettling statistics about what will happen to them if they don't turn around their behavior and finish high school. The added stress of a semi-controlled classrooms with a few very unruly students draws out the lecture and increases the desire to cut the lesson about citizenship and simply "tell students how it is." This preaching to students, even if it does sink in with a couple of them in the long run, generally leads to a lot of eye-rolling and a dramatic increase in talking and unruly behavior by those who are most often guilty of . The irony, of course, is those talking and ignoring and/or mocking the advice/ideas I've talked about are exactly those who need to be listening. As you'll be able to tell in time, the idea of a State of the Class Address is difficult to pull off especially on semi-weekly basis.

When talking to a rather difficult class, less is generally more. Standing up on a soap box and telling a class what they're doing wrong, why it's wrong and how they're going to fix it; trying to make a speech about what things should be when they simply are not that way; and trying to tell students anything important when they are more interested in showing their friends how well they defy authority by showing you the finger is generally not incredibly effective.

Step away from the podium. Common sense says trying to talk down a class that is refusing to listen is not going to be effective. The impulse you developed in undergrad says that if you present a reasonable argument that the students are going to stop in their tracks, say,"Gee willikers, he's right," and amend their ways. If you've been on the front since September you already know that's ridiculous. For those classes that are giving you particular trouble, try to reduce the number of words you say to the bare minimum. If the students have a very short attention span for you when you're talking (whether they should or not), it's your job to place your instruction into that window and to try to expand it.

Today's Wine: Project Happiness Syrah. This bottle only has a yellow happy face on the front of it. Most of the reviews seem a bit down on it, but what I had of it followed the Charles Shaw Shiraz, so the Project Happiness tasted pretty alright.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Plan Your Time Wisely

My girlfriend asked me today what I did on my planning period. She'd noticed that no matter what I did during it, I always planned my lesson at home anyway. She was trying to tease out of me the fact that I might not use it as wisely as I could.

My planning period is right after my first period class. Last year it was often spent wondering how I could salvage for my other classes a meticulously-planned lesson that had just crumbled away before thirty eighth graders. That sometimes meant rewriting a PowerPoint or scrapping the whole thing and getting something new for the rest of the classes in order to preserve order.

This year when first period is over I first head into the hall and make sure it is cleared. That always takes a few minutes, as I help clear the hall of eighth graders and then of the ninth graders who pass through the same hall after the eighth graders are done passing (we don't have any official passing periods- an effort to reduce incidents in the hallways; students move directly from one class to the next). When that's all over I generally use the restroom and then head to a small science prep room that fits a couple desks and refrigerator. I pull up the detention log for our grade and write down the names of our detainees for the day on post-it notes to hand to the other teachers on my team so they can lasso the rapscallions who owe us time at lunch. From there I make any alteration to the day's lesson plan that need to be made for the rest of my classes, answer any emails that need answering and attend to any paperwork or errands I need to run around the school (talking to the secretary or an AP, making extra copies for my classes after my prep, etc.). Other than those things, I feel like I've been doing a lot of putzing around during my planning this year. I sometimes start planning the next day's lesson, but know full and well that it won't get done during that period, so I'm generally not as focused as I could be. This problem is exacerbated by the knowledge that I haven't taught that day's lesson to most of my students and therefore cannot know exactly what I'll need to cover the next day- I may change my mind about what to teach based on how my students perform on a given day in class.

From now on I'm going to try to get my grading done and entered during my prep period. Up until this point I've been dedicating about four hours of my Saturday to pouring over my students' work and getting an idea of what they have or have not learned in the past week. Grading every day will allow me to more easily catch those who are having issues with an aspect of the unit. It will also hopefully make me more productive during my planning period.

Advice for the First Years- Pick one part of your job that fits into the time you are allowed for your prep period. Make sure that thing gets done every day. Last year after school I retreated to my bunker apartment in Queens and the time I spent there was very unstructured, which oftentimes meant it took forever to get anything done. That's fine if everything gets done, but I should have used the structured part of my day- the time I spent at school- to organize my job and make it easier for me to complete.

Today's Wine: Domaine Vigouroux Gouleyant Malbec Cahors 2007. Lately the reds I've been drinking have not struck me as fruity. This is no exception. It was pretty good- smokey and herby. It hails from the region called the South West of France.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Lesson Writer's Block

Today I was trying to get a lesson together for tomorrow and had a major throw-back to last year. The urge to toss my papers to the floor and storm out of my apartment came way to close to fruition. I'm not even sure what brought it on. The lesson I was trying to come up with was just not coming to me, which probably aggravated the problem, but the issue of lesson writer's block has happened before this year. Luckily I had a scheduled break to go hang out with a friend of mine for a couple hours and to get my mind off of work.

There would be nights last year when I would bang my head against things. There would be nights when I'd get so frustrated that I'd throw my fifth grade New York State history text across my apartment and fume, thinking, "Why the hell am I putting this much effort into a lesson that my students are going to ignore, trample over and complete a fraction of anyway? What incentive do I have to do my job if they aren't even going to attempt their job?!! This is a crock of sh**." The mental block that got in the way of my lessons last year was that I imagined every part of it being torn apart by unruly students, as was the case most days in my classroom. It was as if my mind anticipated those problems and said, "Nope, that won't work. They aren't going to listen if you do or say that. Scrap that one." It pissed me off further that I knew I'd be able to write a lesson if they'd just listen for once. Today my mind remembered that feeling all too well, perhaps because a few of my students this year have gotten on my nerves lately.

Take a breath. Take a break. Walk away from the lesson and come back to it.

This was the time of year when things continued to get harder for me last year. While I'd grown numb to certain parts of the job, my self-assumed failure as an educator was still glaring at me every second I was in the classroom. It was getting pretty old by December. My mentors kept saying that things would get better, that the second year would be infinitely better and that I needed to stick in there. At this point last year I was about ready to tell them to shove it.

If this is your first year and things aren't stellar, get a grip and hold on tighter until after winter break. December is not the most glorious month for teaching. The sun isn't out, it's getting colder and things aren't great for many of your students at home in the winter. My mentors were right when they said it would get better. It has, and it got better after Christmas last year, but not until after.

If you are having trouble getting through the day-to-day stuff remember that the better job you do writing lessons this year the easier your second year will be. Remember (what you believe to be) the small minority of students who are actually doing their jobs in your classes and the fact that they deserve and need everything you can give them. You didn't jump into this job completely naive of the fact that it would be rough- just of what "rough" would actually mean. Take a deep breath, a longer break is around the corner and you'll be able to rest up and dig in again and prep yourself for the students after winter break.

Today's Wine: A very fine bottle of Charles Shaw Cabernet.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Pinch Lesson Plan

This past week I changed two lessons on the fly in class. The lessons I planned were not well-designed for the class in which I implemented them, which left me with the choices of drowning for forty minutes or taking a drastically different route than what I'd mapped out. It went as well as could be expected- no mutiny in the classroom, although a couple students tried.

Monday I planned a lesson to engage students in the vocabulary that they need to know for the unit that will unfold over the next month. We did an activity that helped them to review the definitions, and then were going to play charades to help them visualize the definitions and hit hard on kinesthetic learning. My first period class has been my most troublesome this year and at the point in the lesson when I was trying to explain how to play charades they wouldn't even get quiet. At that point it became deafeningly apparent that getting the students up in front of the group to act out words like "suffrage" or "labor unions" was going to be tough. Trying to talk in front of a group who isn't listening at all whatsoever is incredibly difficult. That task becomes infinitely worse when it's in front of a group of peers, of course, and I knew from a similar incident last year that if I asked students to come do anything academic in front of a crowd of their jeering friends, I'd have a classroom of eighth graders refusing to follow directions and shutting down my lesson, thereby shutting down my authority in the classroom. That incident last year resulting in an entire class refusing to come up to present because the rest of the class was talking to much and being rowdy.

It was at that point on Monday when even I couldn't get the group to listen that I switched gears and picked up the speed of the lesson. Instead of charades I told the students to turn the vocabulary handout over, make four boxes and then pick four words we covered. The students then created a graphic representation of the word (they drew stick figures), wrote the definition in their own words, and used the word in a sentence. The incredible thing was for one of the first times this year the class got quiet and nearly every student completed the assignment as directed. What is more is that I don't think they noticed that the lesson had changed at all.

T I was going to show a film (Iron-Jawed Angels) to help illustrate what the women's rights movement was all about in the 1800s and early 1900s. My first period class already lost movie privileges because they couldn't handle watching a film with some mild violence without laughing hysterically at very serious content. This time during my last period class the students would not get quiet to discuss the things we needed to in order to prepare for the movie. The general feeling in the room was far more talkative and rebellious than usual, so I told them if they were not quiet in fifteen seconds that we would scrap the movie and do another assignment, as I couldn't have students talking through the movie. They didn't and I couldn't balk.

I didn't say anything at the end of the fifteen seconds. I just started counting how many students were present with my fingers- something that actually got the students curious and quiet. I walked to the bookcase, stacked enough books for partners to share at the front of each row, told them to pass them back and as they did I flipped through the book hoping to god there was something I could do with women's suffrage. Luckily there was (if there hadn't been, I would have used a different activity from the unit), and I gave the direction to open the books to that page and complete an assignment distinguishing fact from opinion using a suffragette article. Done. They all completed it and one student even asked near the end of the period if that was the assignment I'd planned for them, which got some snide remarks out of other students. At least they were aware that they'd misbehaved and a privilege had been taken away.

Last year I was so terrified to switch things up mid-lesson and so bad at it that I very rarely tried it. Those times that I did it was so apparent that I was very irate that the students took the switch personally and didn't do anything, which meant a long period of floundering and a classroom full of students defying adult authority. That of course leads to a lot of issues down the road, which in turn made the situation even more stressful. Of course the goal is to not have to switch things up mid-lesson, but sometimes you realize that the students are simply not going to get anything out of the lesson for whatever reason. Try to be cool-headed about the switch, pick an activity that is ridiculously straight-forward (the text can be a decent option), and don't back down. If it isn't necessary don't immediately point out that they are being terrible and you are switching things up, just switch and try to get them working. If possible, to the end of the period you can have the conversation about what you wanted to do, why you couldn't do it and how to move forward from the incident.

If this happens remember that the breakdown is most likely due to their behavior, not an unsound lesson. Whether your management is an issue or not, the point is that if it's blindingly apparent that the students aren't really going to do the lesson and if they aren't going to follow directions, you need to give them something that they will do, regardless of how it compares to your original lesson in terms of educational value.

Today's Wine: Il Borgo Montepulciano D'Abruzzo 2008- pretty good red. It had some kind of a strange earthy feel when I drank it. It might have been what I was eating or something, but it was different from what I normally drink.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Parent-Teacher Conferences

Parent conferences have the potential to be terrible or awesome. There may be crying, screaming, yelling, praise of students or even a worthwhile conversation. It might be the first opportunity you have to tell a student and his/her advocate (parent, guardian, aunt, uncle, older sibling, you get the idea) what's what and that you care about them and are trying to help them. They can also be a waste of time; it depends on you and it depends on the parent involved.

Last year the several hours before conferences began were kind of surreal. It struck me as strange that I was so young and inexperienced, having quite a lot of trouble in the classroom, and yet a bunch of parents were about to show up, ask how their child was doing and perhaps even request advice from me on what they can do as a parent to help their student. At this point in the fall I didn't feel like I had much more to give. I was run down, exhausted and very irritated with the majority of my students- probably not the best combination if you want to have productive meetings with their parents.

This year I looked forward to conferences. I felt as though I could really offer some feedback on what the child needs to be doing in order to pass my class. I have a much better understanding of what I'm expecting of students this year, which makes it much easier to relate to parents. As a result of the retreat I went on a little while ago, I was still a bit leery of trying to suggest what parents can do at home to better support their child, but did my best and had some good conversations.

From what I can tell, parent conferences in the city are much, much different from those in the suburbs. The only card our parents really have to play is their parent card- they are the parent, are doing their best with their child and know what's best for their child. That's fine; they should play that card. It means they are advocating for their child.

UNlike in the suburbs, the teachers (even brand new ones) are better-paid and have more formal education than many parents walking through the door. That can be pretty intimidating to the parent. Many of our parents also did not have the best go of things when they were in school, which means that when they come to a conference they often see it as another confrontation with another teacher. Some are in the country illegally and are very nervous to interact with any government institution, including schools. I've not been on the teaching end of suburban parent conferences, but the reports I get from my friends and colleagues back home are that many parents try to play the "I'm much older, wiser, and more powerful than you so you will listen to what I have to say and do for my child everything I demand" card. The degree to which this card is played by parents in that setting is probably variant on a lot of factors, but it's not been present, let alone come out, in the three sets of parent conferences I've had in the city.

My parents this year varied from crying in disappointment to nearly crying when their beaming student translated my over-the-top praise of their child. One aunt very angry at her niece came in, scolded her niece, asked, "Why you got a problem with this teacher? Just do the work and then you can ignore the teachers you don't like" and was out the door in less than a minute. The conversations I had with a couple I think will help and with others I can already tell were loads of hot air. The point is, however, that I have at least two students genuinely trying harder, and I think this year I know how to help them run with that just a bit better than I did last year.

Tips for Conferences:
  • sit around a table so that you're on the same playing field as everyone in attendance
  • have copies of the students' grades ready to hand to parents
  • type out a letter with your contact information and any updates for your class
  • when using a translator, look at the parent when you're speaking. A lot of people look at the translator, which alienates the parent. They might be able to understand some of what you're saying, and they'll definitely pick up better on your inflection

Today's Wine: Monte Degli Angeli Monferrato Pinot Noir 2008. The 2006 got a raving review on Snooth.com. I preferred this one to a lot of Pinot Noirs out there because many are really light reds and I prefer medium to full-bodied reds. This bottle wasn't too light and was really easy to drink. The label talks about a lot of fruit flavor, but I didn't find it that way.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Edwize X 2

I was notified that a second blog post from this thing is going up on Edwize and into the New York Teacher. It's the stuff I wrote on Flunking Students. After rereading the post I realized it's actually pretty tame, and I could have gone on a much larger rant regarding how I oftentimes feel about the students I have who flunk my class and why they flunk my class. I said at the end of the article "the students who tried really hard did well in my class while those who did not failed," but there were also a lot of students in the middle with grades swimming around arbitrarily and a lot on the cusp who I've passed that I wouldn't have in a thousand years before I came to the city.

I might have to amend the last bit of that statement as well, as it seems imply that if a student did not try very hard in my class they did not pass. That's not true. There were plenty that put forth very little and somehow still passed my class. I believe it's that way in a lot of places, however.

Anyway, while it's not the New York Times, I'm certainly going to take the publication. On Edwize.org they renamed the piece "Making the Grade". I guess "Flunk Them All?" didn't sound as much like a positive teacher trying to help students. There are certainly days when I want to hand out F's like Halloween candy, though.

Today's Wine: A house Cabernet we got with some really good Chinese food at a place called Ging on the Upper East Side.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Coming Down from a Conference High

Last year I was very bright-eyed when I hit the ground in the Bronx. With what I felt was moderate knowledge of what education should be and my experience teaching two different populations- rural/suburban Kansans and military brats- I thought I could probably handle another population of students, even if they were a bit more difficult (that was incorrect). That said, when I attended the NCSS conference last year I came back re-energized with my head back in the clouds thinking yet again about what education should be in my classroom, rather than what it was. That Monday was one of the most difficult days of the year for me.

Conferences have the power to fill your head with ideas. If you go to the worthwhile sessions you might very well see incredible educators sharing what they do to help their students learn in extraordinary ways. I once attended a session about a guy who created a cross-curricular unit on the Civil War that involved all major subject areas, a classroom management plan, students marching through hallways with regiment flags, real collaboration by teachers and students across an entire grade, and a unit finale that was a camping trip at Gettysburg. It was incredible, but not something I would dream of doing in my own school.

The day I got back from NCSS 2008, I walked into school with a smile on my face and with ideas of Socratic seminars and student-led discussions dancing in my head. Given the fact that I still hadn't taken control of my classrooms very well, whatever activity I did that day as a result of those pie in the sky thoughts was a total wash that ended in me yelling a lot and feeling more exhausted than usual. My mentor came into my room to check on me and could tell what had happened without even asking. She helped me realize again that education in the setting we find ourselves is not what it should be. Teachers like the Civil War guy above, as well as our former selves as students in schools of ed would be appalled at some of the teaching practices we use, citing the fact that they're archaic and do not promote critical thinking skills enough. Doing so is certainly easier said than done.

It's important to know what is possible in other classrooms, even if it's not yet possible in yours. That said, you've got to realize that it takes time to get to the point when you'll be able to implement many of the ideas you learned about in the school of ed or elsewhere. It may be impossible to use many of them in the setting we teach in. Don't get discouraged, but realize that even in a setting that's further back from the front it's difficult for new teachers to pull off a lot of the more hands-on, progressive, technologically sound ideas being developed in the field right now. Be patient, keep your head up and remain in the loop about what is happening in classrooms around the country. I'm certain that your time will come, but not overnight. I'm still waiting for mine, but at least this year it seems like it's on the way.

Today's Wine: Arden Woods Cabernet Sauvignon 2005. This one was just fine. It was less than ten dollars and was a nice bottle for the table. One of the people drinking it with me said it had the essence of camping. Now, having camped quite a lot I can tell you there are a lot of things that describe the smell of camping. I believe she was referring to the oak and perhaps a bit of a smokey flavor you could get from this one, not the any of the other crazy things that require long showers once you get home.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Conferences for Teachers

Conferences can be helpful and they can be excruciating. Sometimes it hinges on the food and drink provided, sometimes it hinges on how big and therefore how diverse the offerings at the conference are, and other times it’s purely the location that is a draw. I’ve had the opportunity to attend and present at the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) conference for the past four years and got to a Kansas World Language Association a couple years ago as well. I found the key to be squeezing what I want out of them rather than assuming amazing things will be handed to me just for attending.

The German educators conference was a trip. I only attended one day of the conference at Washburn University in our state’s “great” capitol- the banquet and the presentation about German art in either the eighteenth or nineteenth century (I can’t quite recall). The prospect of missing work to spend a lot of time in the city was not too enticing, but I decided to go at the request of my cooperating teacher in the fall of my student teaching year. She thought it would be good for me to network in anticipation of the job search that spring and I took it as an opportunity to practice speaking German. It ended up being a pretty good time. At the end of it I’d had my fill eat and drink and had even had a little nap during the presentation- my graduate work, student teaching and work as a waiter had taken a toll on my sleep schedule. After the conference I was practically handed my own German program at a high school outside Topeka and would receive several other inquiries from principals around the state (I was the only graduate in the entire state with a major in German ed, as far as I know). Overall it was good and fine, but the goals of the conference didn’t quite reach me.

The NCSS conference can either be a waste of time or a great place to learn about the latest pedagogical tricks of the trade. You can walk away with a lot of great free stuff and materials and ideas about what education can be, should be, and is or you can walk away thinking you wasted an entire weekend listened to the sound of hot air being blown from teachers using the conference as a therapy session. Like retreats, they can also provide some time away from the front line to think about what it is we’re doing in this profession.

Learning to pick out the worthwhile sessions to attend is incredibly important. Here's my advice when you're trying to figure out what to do with your time:
  • Workshops are very often a waste of time…and long
  • You don’t need to attend every session- take a little time to read through the descriptions and find some sessions that are going to support what you’re doing in the classroom
  • Be weary of poster presentations. Those guys usually weren’t accepted for a full-fledged session- sometimes for a reason that'll be obvious once you hear what they want to tell you
  • Take some time to go through the exhibition hall to collect free classroom resources (ex. the History Channel has given me a free DVD a couple times); Check out opportunities to do things like travel for free and get grants for doing things you might already want to do.
If you’re in a school of ed, shoot for sessions that sound interesting to you and are related to state standards. My first conference I had zero teaching experience, so it was hard to put the ideas into a frame of reference that was practical, so I simply tried to take in everything I could. Don’t sweat it if you can’t do everything that looks half-ways interesting. You might have a shot at using some of the ideas. That way in your first year, when you’re clutching the textbook at night wondering how you can possibly implement more entertaining lessons, you might be able to fall back on an idea or two that are simply enough to implement. Starting small with those sorts of things is important. My first year I went to the NCSS conference I went to some crazy and crazy bad sessions that, while perhaps interesting, were completely forgettable and which I've not used at all.

The conference can also be a time to make connections with other people. Start up some conversations with people at the sessions you attend and at any meeting you attend. This year the president of a non-profit organization attended my session and we struck up a conversation about how to incentivize families throughout the U.S. to spend more time on their children’s education. That led to him asking me to check out a beta version of his companies new online resource that’s not been released yet. If I give him some good feedback there’s no telling what might happen afterward.

Find a balance between the city and the conference and spending money to attend (if you have to) will seem far better spent. Aside from actually attending the conference, you should go out and see the city it’s in. So far all four cities (D.C., San Diego, Houston, and Atlanta) were new to me when I attended the NCSS conference. This time I’ve not been able to see as much of the city as I would have liked because of the schedule of the things I wanted to attend at the conference itself, but I got some great soul food Friday night, and went to the Georgia Aquarium Sunday, which apparently is the largest in the world. There are some pretty unreal fish there, to say the least. Going to the Jimmy Carter Library and to Ebenezar Baptist Church will have to wait for another visit.

Today's Wine: The Chuck- Cabernet

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Whole Class Punishment

Something I was guilty of quite a lot last year was punishing an entire classroom of students for the behavior of a few crazy students. When nearly an entire class is in an uproar and you're battling a group of thirty-plus students day in and day out it's hard not to get frustrated, accuse an entire class of being out of line and dish out a group punishment. If you think about it though, it is pretty unfair to punish the students, however few they may be, who are sitting through class always trying to do the right thing, but who are stuck in a room with way too many other students, many of whom are not in the right setting to be academically productive and who tend to act out each and every day in class.

Last year I found myself saying a lot of things like "you all need to understand that there are people out there that will ruin things and you need to learn to hold them accountable." This seems a bit misdirected. In a setting where keeping others accountable is not dreamed of, let alone embraced, punishing the students doing the right thing may only lead to them to acting out with the rest of the class in the future. The students doing their jobs depend on you to manage the class. Whether you do or not is not the issue. You are punishing those students because you are having difficulty managing the class. That's how they see it.

During the day I had an explosion last week I also had difficulty in another class, which was also on the verge of rebelling against silent reading. After trying to have another discussion on why it's important to learn to read non-fiction, a couple students starting goofing off and calling out to the class, ridiculing reading and the teaching methods in my classroom. As I was already irritable, I acted rashly. Instead of doing some role-playing to show what good interview skills are, I made them get quiet and write down PowerPoint slides instead- hardly sound teaching. The kicker was that a student pointed out that it was because of two students that twenty-eight were now having to write a ton of notes instead of doing what I'd planned for them.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't do what you can to help your classes realize their actions affect other students. Keeping a whole class a couple minutes into lunch until they are quiet so that they don't storm out into the hallway and the rest of the school being obnoxious is not a bad idea. I do that on a regular basis and the students then keep one another in check. There might also be instances when in order to preserve order and even safety in the classroom you'll have to shut everyone down as best you can and have them do something that is not very academic. In the case of the SSR near-rebellion, I didn't have much else planned to pull out of my hat to teach interview skills, so I made them write down what those skills are in hopes that some of it would be used. Had I been more calm and collected I would probably would have been able to gain control of the class and move forward with the lesson, but I made the decision to punish the class and then had to stick with it.

Be very careful about punishing a whole group of people. If you're pissed off and not thinking clearly, you may want to hold off on delving out large swaths of detention times and extra work. There are still times that I feel the whole class deserves some kind of punishment, but I'm doing my best not to act on it when I'm angry in the classroom.

Today's Wine: Kaiken Malbec. This one is out of Argentina. I need to pay more attention to the qualities of the wines I'm drinking. I got lazy with this one and simply thought "pretty good!" Perhaps that kind of review is enough though.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Sometimes I think I know a lot about education. Other times conversations with colleagues and other in the field leave me humbled and wondering if I really know a damn thing about this job. Generally I'm somewhere in between, but this weekend I experienced a lot of the latter.

I went to retreat this weekend with my principal, an ancient learning specialist (special education teacher), our parent coordinator, and two other teachers from our school- a magnificent English teacher and a third year math teacher who is brilliant, but is sometimes not well-received by our staff because he speaks so candidly. The invitation to attend the retreat was extended to the whole staff, but the three of us were asked specifically to attend. That fact went to my head a bit, so I used the opportunity to bring up issues that I've been thinking about lately. In reality I was probably only invited because they knew I'd be interested in attending, while the vast majority of the staff wouldn't be down for it, which means it probably wasn't the most appropriate place to blwo a lot of hot air about the major ed issues that have been bothering me.

Friday we sat around a table brain-storming ideas of what to do with the many hours we would spend together over the course of the weekend. Because our parent coordinator was there, I figured I would bring up my frustration with parents in the community and ask what could be done to help them help us to help their children in the school. Apparently I came off as wanting to save the Bronx and personally make all the parents in the Bronx better. Because of the way I came off, the principal, learning specialist, and the parent coordinator shut me down, saying that there is no way to affect the parents who might benefit from some extra support and ideas on how to engage their students.

From that point forward I was pretty hesitant to offer my opinion on the work at hand. I regressed a bit to sitting and listening, feeling like I don't have enough experience to really offer a valid opinion on how to run any part of the school. Perhaps it was just me being stubborn as well.

After speaking frankly with my girlfriend about the matter (she works in my school and hears some of the gossip I don't), it's gotten around that I have kind of an attitude when I discuss ed issues and matters about the school with my colleagues. I kind of addressed this an earlier post and thought that I'd fixed the problem. Apparently that is not the case. What I thought was my cutting-out-the-crap to speak candidly has left me coming off as condescending and insensitive.

Perhaps my second year is not only going to be about learning a great deal about actually teaching students in the South Bronx (rather than holding on for dear life), it's also going to be about learning to be a positive part of my particular staff. It may be time for a while to take a step or two back and listen more carefully instead of barging in with my opinion.

Today's Wines: On Saturday I went to a wine bar and then to a regular bar. I had wine at both places that were remarkably different. At Cavatappo I had something referred to as a Super Tuscan which was really good (Bruni Poggio d'Elsa 2008) and off the medium-bodied section of the list. After that we just split a glass of something more "robust" (Rosso di Montepulciano - Il Seniero 2006). It was more expensive, but definitely seemed to have more bang for the buck. From there we went to a bar next door and had some generic wine from behind the bar, which, because we'd spent money on some good wine with some well-paired appetizers, had that thick grape-juice taste that comes from the big jugs of wine.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Flunk Them All?

There were a lot of things I was anxious about when I came out of the School of Ed. One was the switch from being the graded to the being the grader. It was really an odd sensation to grade someone else's work in black and white. All that time at a liberal undergraduate school attending vegan potluck dinners, talking about how terrible judging people can be and now I was being paid to judge people every day.

It get's easier with time. At first you might pour over your grades for a very long time, thinking about how many points a student really deserves based on their effort and the demonstration of their comprehension of an idea. You might come up with rubrics for the littlest assignments to ensure fairness and award points to papers only after covering up their authors. A lot of that will disappear under the shear workload that is grading. Really looking at students work takes forever! A very good friend of mine back in Kansas has over 150 students on her rosters. Think about it: you assign a two page paper in all of your classes and all of a sudden you have a 300 page novel to tear apart, comment on, revise and turn back to its many authors. Who has time for that?

In addition to time, it's really difficult to do any kind of grading if things are going poorly the first year. It's unfair to fail all of the students for not learning if you've not grabbed hold of the reigns and taken control of the class. While the vast majority of the students who failed my class last year were making very poor decisions that led to that failure, fewer would have done so poorly if I'd been able to give them the structure and support they needed. How many? Who knows.

A post on Joanne Jacobs' blog addressed this issue recently. It's really tough to figure out how to assign grades fairly in the first year as you're wrestling with the fact that the students aren't learning as much as they could because you're holding on for dear life and they're oftentimes in the driver's seat. Other teachers are going to throw in their two cents about how annoying and difficult it can be to flunk students in terms of paperwork. You'll probably hear arguments for and against social promotion stating how terrible it is for a child to hold him/her back and how horrible it is for American education in general to not hold them back. Your administration might also put pressure on you about grades and pass rates.

Things also become much less clear-cut once you realize that students don't do their work, that concessions are oftentimes made for students, that some students are going to shut down completely if you flunk them for a marking period and that there are a thousand external pressures "helping" you to amend and develop your own grading policy. My advice is to stick to your gut, assign grades fairly and very consistently (using things like rubrics for larger assignments) and don't stress about them too much. Last year in spite of all the pressures and b.s. the students who tried really hard did well in my class while those who did not failed. In the end, that is about as straightforward as it gets.

Today's Wine: Inigma Cabernet/Merlot 2006. There was a guy giving out free samples of this at the wines store, so I thought I'd humor him and the store so they kept bringing in people to give me free wine. It's from Australia. A lot of people knock Australian wines, but I think that a lot of decent bottles are produced there for easy table drinking. This one qualifies.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

EXPLOSIVE Unprofessionalism

There was an explosion in my class on Monday. Had I been a cartoon, my head would have been cherry-red and the top would have blown off, whistling like a steam engine. I yelled at my first-period class so loud that the para-educators’ and every students’ eyes went white and wide. As these were the students who were even more used to uncontrolled, raging adults than my other classes- this was the lowest-tracked class, the one arguably with the most difficult home situations and certainly the one with the worst behavior problems- the surprise soon turned to giggling.

It wasn’t a single action that set me off. I’ve been sick for the past week and a half and the amount of chatter has been steadily increasing lately. Those things, together with the SSR (silent, sustained reading) I’ve been trying to cram down their throats has left my students very unsettled on the days I’ve asked them to get quiet for twenty minutes to read non-fiction trade books (short, flimsy, concise readings on a large variety of things pertaining to my current unit).

So I was standing at the head of the class after one of these “reading” sessions that went particularly awry, stewing over the fact that this class was about to mutiny over reading (little did I know that the other two classes would do something similar the same day) and the students were simply not getting quiet when I asked. It was the first time this year that they just wouldn’t do it.

BOOM. I lost it. The discomfort the students felt turned into laughter, which of course was even more irritating. From there I did an about-face and sent them to work immediately copying something off a slide whole I collected myself. Most of them did that and I was able to talk to a few individuals one on one. Luckily the main instigator of the near-insurrection and walked out of the class to tell the dean she was having major problems in my class- not because of me, mind you, but because she wanted to beat the hell out of a ninth grader that I taught last year. She failed to mention that when I pulled her aside in class to ask what was going on.

This explosion was unacceptable. It did absolutely nothing positive. I even wrote a post just a couple weeks ago talking about getting very angry in class in which I talked about how destructive to the educational process it is.

Sometimes we need to step outside of the classroom- really take our mind out of the game and think about what it is we do. For many of my students I'm the closest thing they've got to a full-time male role model. The last thing I should be doing is getting angry at unruly fourteen year-olds and having a blow out in class over something like students not listening.

This situation is not irreversible. Things can be mended with this class. It'll take some time and it'll take even-tempered instruction and careful fielding of discipline problems for a while. I'll need to reach out to a few more students in this class, something I should have been doing already, as they are the lowest achieving of all my classes.

I'm not sure what else I can say about this topic. Clearly things like this don't just happen in the first year, but it's important to point out that last year by this time I'd completely lost it with a class at least a dozen times at school. This is improvement by any standard. While still not the way teachers should act in the classroom (of course, my students shouldn't be acting as they do either), it's good to know that things are getting better in the long run in spite of this weeks set-backs. According to reports from veteran teachers, the fact that the year started off well will generally allow me to re-establish a more orderly classroom in spite of a bad week.

Today's Wine: Barocco Primitivo Puglia. I couldn't tell from the label that this is was a zinfandel, nor could I tell from drinking it. I had a glass of this after a glass from another bottle and I've been under the weather lately, so I can't really comment on how good this one actually is. It is the first wine I've had from this region of Italy (Apulia: The Heel of the Boot).

Monday, November 2, 2009

SQR- School Quality paRade

With the dawning of NCLB and the standards movement really taking off, it's important to be aware of all the red tape, fake red tape, legal requirements of testing, reviews of your school, etc. Part of the whole accountability thing in New York is the School Quality Review (SQR) which takes place in every school every two years. From what I've heard (this year was my first and only experience with it), in most schools it's a ridiculous dog and pony show that really doesn't show anybody how a school is actually doing.

Principals Under Pressure
According to the people I work with, it seems that the only person to whom this thing matters is the superintendent and the principal. Reliable sources told me about their old schools and how much of a farce it was there. Apparently one principal created fake classes to show the superintendent, pulling all the high-end kids into a single classroom and creating a lesson for them to complete that would make them and the school look brilliant. At our school there was a push to complete the vacant bulletin boards up around the building, but everyone said things were eerily quiet in the admin offices. Your administrator may or may not let you know who the classrooms to which they'll try to direct the SQR folks, but that may not mean anything. My assistant principal assured me twice that I would be visited and it never happened.

Quality Review Day
On the day(s) of the quality review you'll prep your students by telling them there may be a visitor in the room. You'll make sure any graffiti is scrubbed away, any sketches of genitals are washed off visible surfaces and you may even tack up some recent work from students. The bulletins boards in the school will be redone and if funding provides for it new paint will be applied and the floors will be buffed. You administration should have prepped the students with some kind of inspirational speech and most of the teachers will wonder if their room will be the one into which the superintendent walks.

Does it Matter to the New Guy?
To be honest, if a superintendent wants to see how well things are going in a first year teacher's classroom and wants to use that as a measure of how well the school is doing, that superintendent is a moron. This is not to say he/she should expect chaos in all first-years' classrooms, but the focus should really be on the supports you're getting in the first year rather than if your students are adhering to and excelling with your curriculum. Your principal might try to feed you lines about what to tell this guy- what the school's mission is, what services you provide or "provide," etc.- and it will be your call when it comes to how much of the truth you want to tell. All I know is that if I'm working for someone who wants me to lie for them, they deserve to deal with the truth, but that's coming from the second year who didn't even get the chance to chat with the super.

Today's Wine: Chateau de Pennautier, Cabardes 2007. I haven't done many French wines on this thing. This one is from the Languedoc region, which is on the southern coast of France. In France people seem very concerned with precise locations of vineyards, and this seems to be no exception- the Cabardes region of the Languedoc region looks pretty small on the map at least. As for the wine, was pretty fruity and went well with the pizza I ate it with.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween for Our Children

When I was growing up Halloween was a holiday to which I definitely looked forward. It wasn't my favorite, but I liked getting dressed up in the costumes we managed to pull together and then going out to try to rake in all the candy we possibly could in our neighborhood. I remember the year that it suddenly became unsafe for us to take unwrapped/non-manufactured treats from our neighbors. There were legends of razorblades and poison in those candied apples, so they were to be thrown out straight away. In spite of scares like that, however, it was a safe holiday during which we wore our costumes to school, probably had a party and then had fun at night going door to door looking for free loot.

In most of this city it is not that way. It really varies greatly, though. Last year I was in Park Slope, Brooklyn for Halloween and I sat on a stoop handing out candy to the little kids coming by with their parents. Kids didn't ring doorbells, but they still dressed up and got their fill of candy from people sitting on stoops. This year I'll be on the Upper East Side where there is no Trick or Treating for some reason, but the holiday is not an unsafe one. I assume most of the kids go to swanky Halloween parties where their parents booze it up and "network." In the Bronx it seems to to be a different story altogether.

There is a pretty powerful urban "legend" that the Bloods have their initiation over the weekend of Halloween. Depending on who you talk to it's no legend at all. Supposedly the Blood's new recruits have to slice (or kill depending on who you talk to) thirty-one females throughout the city. Whether it's true or not may not even be the point. The rumor itself is so strong that it affects the community in a very substantial way. Perhaps that's what the Bloods really want- just to flex some muscle.

On Halloween many of our students are kept home by parents or choose to stay home. Safety is a very real concern on any given day, but on the day/weekend of Halloween there is added emphasis by parents and the community. Some students are afraid of eggs being thrown and of the threat from the Blood's while some just use it as an excuse to stay home. At any rate, we had an attendance rate of about seventeen percent last year, if I remember correctly. Even if the initiation is just a myth, it is a powerful one.

Today we had about half our students in class, which was an improvement from last year. I did hear that a couple of my students were going door-to-door, but they were going upstate to do so.

Today's Wine: Feudi del Duca Montepulciano. I couldn't find much online about this one, but it's pretty good. It didn't seem as acidic as many other Montepulcianios.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

First-Year Illness

Everyone gets sick their first year. This is something that you'll be told and it will probably be true. I only called out one day last year, but I felt near death as the result of some bug one of my students probably gave me. Teaching the children definitely puts you at risk for illness. The key is to deal with it and keep on trucking.

Last year I called out one time for a sick day, which I referenced in my post about Following Through. At the beginning of the year last year I made the assumption that I wouldn't be out sick, as I hadn't missed a single day of student teaching. Now, it did take an awful lot to knock me down, but the fact was that I had to leave school one day mid-morning and I called out the next day. If that day hadn't been a Friday I would have had to call out a second day.

I started feeling pretty terrible in the morning. The people I took the train with told me that I needed to just head back to my apartment and call in. I of course thought that was silly, especially since it was going to be a morning of testing followed by shortened classes. Getting to school I put my head down in my room until it was time to distribute testing materials. Before the test was half-way over I had to excuse myself twice to go get sick in the bathroom. I decided it wasn't worth it to tough it out until the end of the day, so I made my way to the train with labored breathing, heading home in the late morning. The labored breathing got worse and I nearly passed out on the train a couple times, especially when transferring to another train, and the walk home from the station that normally took three minutes ended up being about fifteen. By the time my girlfriend showed up at my place I was delirious with a fever and I still couldn't hold water down- sure signs that I shouldn't be headed to school in the morning.

People get sick- especially new teachers who move to a new city full of slimy kids who have different immunities to different germs than you do back in your home state. It's time to ditch the adolescent belief of invincibility and realize that you may get really ill during the first year. If you do get a bit sick, but can still handle heading to school, I recommend taking some over-the-counter drugs, perhaps an Emergen-C, and digging in until it goes away. If you get very sick, think of your own well-being as well as your students' (they don't need to get whatever it is you have) and take a day off. I know I also get pretty crabby when I get sick. Today I was screaming and yelling as a result of some congestion, a headache and a bunch of students who were not in the mood to listen. That's not great for management in the long term, either.

Today's Wine: Chicken broth. I was feeling pretty awful at school today, personally.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Keep It Simple, Stupid

This was an acronym that was introduced to me last year by one of my mentors. It rings true on many levels.

During my student teaching in Heidelberg, Germany, I was living and working on a U.S. military installation. The middle school I worked at was about 100 yards from the barrack-style apartment I lived in with the other interns stationed at the Heidelberg base. I spent many nights at the school. I would re-arrange the desks for an hour in preparation of a mass-production simulation or to create a stage in the classroom for skits the students would write and perform to make sure we could still fit the desks in the room. The lessons I created, individually decent (not an amazing curriculum overall, however- I'd never learned how to plan and entire curriculum), were well-received by the students, who, while opposed to working like any other batch of middle-schoolers, would eventually engage in the material and try their best. Some of these lessons were so complicated and involved that they would fly over the heads of several of my lower-end students, but I had no idea how to differentiate for that.

In the city such complicated, in-depth lessons can be really difficult to pull off. For the first half of last year I was fighting between trying to create such lessons and trying to simply get something into my students hands that they would attempt to complete. By the spring I was leaning toward the latter, realizing that no matter how amazing the lesson was, if the students did not do it they weren't going to get anything out of it. I didn't know how to push them in a way that would be well-received and they let me know that I didn't really understand that.

As painful as it might be, if your students are not completing or even attempting the great, in-depth, complicated lessons you are creating, you need to tone it down. Keep it simple. The strangest thing I encountered at the beginning of last year was when even my most difficult students would take up a pen and copy things projected onto the wall. The students will get silent. I was genuinely freaked out. They do it because it's straight-forward- Look at words. Write them down. I'm not saying at all that you should just have the students copy notes all period (that doesn't work either), but you do need to figure out what they are used to and build from there. If they've never been made to think critically and are used to copying notes then doing a reading and answer five question in a class period you need to start from there and build up. You may think that you're delivering very horrible instruction, but in the long run you and your students will benefit if you meet them where they are, keep it very simple at first, and then work toward more complicated, in-depth lessons.

Today's Wine: Gnarly Head Cabernet. I was very proud of myself in this one. The first thing I said I tasted when I started in on this one was a mouthful of cherries- exactly what the bottle describes. Now, I'm not saying this feat will be repeated, but it was nice to know that I could taste something some wine expert said they tasted. Cheers!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

You’re Going to Lose It

When I was visiting schools I could potentially teach at in the city I observed a couple classes at a well-respected middle school in the West Village. During the visit I observed a teacher scream at a student in class for perhaps the first time since I was in school. I was disgusted by the behavior. The student then told me how terrible the teacher was and how she was always picking on her. I took the side of the student, of course, knowing for certain that there was absolutely no excuse for yelling at a student in class. I couldn’t even fathom what would drive a teacher to act that way and wrote the teacher off as a bitter, unhappy person individual with anger-management issues.

When I student taught in Germany I raised my voice in one of my classes with a hint of irritation on the very last day I was there. A student was enormously surprised by that, saying, “Mr. Lawrence has never yelled!” It was day two in Bronx when I unleashed my already healthy vocal chords on my class. It was the first time they listened to me in two very long days. I screamed at them as loud as I possibly could, the order to take their seats ripping out of me like I’d never directed speech at a human before. Sure I’d gotten angry at each of my five siblings and my parents and had yelling matches with them. This was different though. I stopped short of throwing things, but barely.

There was a day last year when I’d given the students a project, which they’d been asking for, and it ended with hundreds of colored pencils covering the floor at the end of the day. After reaming them out about it, getting them to pick up several of the pencils and sending them home, I walked around putting chairs up- slamming them onto desks- irate that another carefully planned lesson had been so wholly rejected. Our English teacher at the time asked if I was alright because I was visibly shaking. All I could say was, “I can’t even give them colored pencils!” and kept slamming desks.

There are a thousand things that you can tell a new teacher about getting angry. If you teach in the city you’ll probably hear a lot of them. The important thing to remember is that screaming at the students in the long run is not effective. Yes, it will gain attention and can actually be effective if used properly once a great while. In fact, in order to gain your students' complete respect you’ll probably have to prove to them at some point that you have a set of vocal chords simply to show them you mean business. Be careful though, as yelling at all frequently will make it lose its potency. Students will stop responding and stop listening. It also goes back to the idea that you need to show your students that you are in control of your classroom. If you’re yelling and screaming all the time it shows you can’t control yourself or your classroom, which will lead to even more management problems and probably more yelling.

To cut to the point, you’re going to yell. You’re probably going to scream. You will get so angry that you’ll shake and be unable to speak. There will be days when you go home and “banging your head against the wall” ceases being a figure of speech. When you take the train or bus home some days you'll feel like the last place you ever want to be is back in the school. Remember that you're fighting the good fight and that it will get better. Remember that you chose this field for a reason. Hopefully that reason was the students. If it was, you'll head back to school tomorrow for another go at it.

Today's Wine: Santa Cecilia Malbec 2009. This is a great wine, as agreed upon by three others I shared it with, and I picked it up for less than $10. Couldn't really find a review online for it, other than this one of course.