Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Settling In for the Long Haul

We've now gone through two and a half weeks of school. I'm getting to know my students better and better and we're coming to know what to expect of one another. In another couple of weeks we'll have settled in quite nicely. The good news is that the place where we're settling is a good one in which to be, while the place I landed three weeks in last year was no where close to what I wanted.

While not every one of my students is listening and completing their work, I feel that the few problems I'm experiencing with management can be dealt with. Last year at this time my class and I had settled in for a repeat of WWI- trench warfare for the rest of the year. Because the tone set was one of struggle and me fighting to take control of the class, that was the routine we settled into the first month of school and it was one I had to deal with the rest of the school year. On most days the students and I fought to gain ground while in the long run very little progress was made. We spent the entire year charging across No Man's Land, them throwing paper balls, pencils and pens and me firing angry directives back at them, what seemed like all day every day. It as exhausting and it ground us all down.

The bad news for first year teachers is that if you've gotten off to a rocky start, you have to wait until next year for a brand new one. The good news is that it's not too late to really dig in, make sure things are consistent and get to work. While the year is going to be a trying one, your learning curve can be drastic and your students can certainly learn a lot. Make sure you're talking to colleagues and always working to make things better. Start developing procedures and ideas with your students and, even if they don't seem to be working, stick to your guns as you get bigger guns.

If you're doing anything like I did last year, you may be trying a thousand different things right now simply to get the students quiet and working. That's a mistake. Pick a couple strategies and stick to them. The students need structure and if you are trying a new management strategy every two days they know that if they ignore you enough whatever "rule" you're trying to push on them will go away. Working to improve does not mean trying a thousand new things with your students. In part it means working to get your game face on and to keep it on, as well as figuring out your teacher persona. As you do that, variation will decrease and your management will improve.

Today's Wine: Laurel Lake Chardonnay Reserve. This was a wine we had on Saturday's wine tour. I haven't posted much about white wines because the big reason for posting about wine is to promote good health and the white wines don't do nearly as much for you a the reds. That said, when I come across a white I really like it's something I usually tell my friends about. This one fits the bill. It's smooth, hardly acidic and you can really taste the vanilla and fruit.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Here's to Cultural Sensitivity

Today New York City public schools get the day off for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews. There is such a large Jewish population in New York and there are so many Jewish teachers in the public schools that the city has to recognize the holiday, or there wouldn't be enough subs to go around. Back in Kansas there are many fewer Jewish residents, so few in fact that when I was growing up I hardly realized that things such as antisemitism still existed, as I didn't realize there were sizable Jewish populations left in the U.S. While I can't be certain, I don't think a single one of my students is Jewish. There's also no way I can be certain their knowledge of the holiday, but I would guess that it's pretty minimal.

Today I'm taking the time to run errands and relax a bit. While still getting a few things done, it's important to take time out when it's given to you even at this point in the year. One nice thing about getting the federal holidays and the Jewish holidays off is that you get to run around and enjoy the lunch specials in the city that people with other jobs often get to take advantage on a daily basis. I'd like to chalk this one up to getting to know the city a bit better and thereby improving my ability to teach "local culture."

Today's Wine: Jelu Malbec 2005. This is a decent red, but you can probably get a better Malbec for the same amount of money.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

First Year Mentors

Something that got me through the first year was the ability to rely on veteran teachers to advise me on how to fix the problems I was experiencing. During the two weeks leading up to school I was still suffering from the syndrome that struck a lot of us at the School of Ed: a confusion between enthusiasm/knowledge of new ed theories and experience in the field. I was also stricken with a bit of the assumption that being fresh out of college gave us unlimited advantages over our elderly colleagues.

After the shenanigans of the first day of school last year and a second day that wasn't much better, I trashed my carefully planned first unit and went on hands and knees to my mentor. I asked her to give me a lesson- any lesson that could possibly work in front of the students. I admitted for the first time perhaps in my entire life that I had absolutely no idea what to do to solve a problem. "Eating humble pie" seemed like an understatement.

She told me to stand up and walked me step by step through a very basic lesson plan that with which the students would be familiar and that they might actually attempt to complete. It was in that first week that nearly all the arrogance was washed out of me (not all of it, but close). I was so tired and defeated that there was no way that I could think that I was a hot shot of any sort, especially as a teacher.

Things got better in large part because I started asking questions. I asked a lot of questions. In addition to the mentor that the school assigned me (one of the best teachers I've ever met and one of our most senior staff members at the ripe old age of 38), I took on two other mentors- the woman who taught my course the previous year and the assistant principal who actually went through my School of Ed back in Kansas fives year before I did and who had my job a couple years prior. This team of mentors propped me up throughout the year, gave me feedback, lesson plans, and unit plans and saw to it that I survived. Without them it's quite likely I wouldn't have made it.

My advice to newbies is to find a mentor or two who you respect and trust at school. If the mentor the school assigns you is not helpful, which has been the experience of a lot of my friends, do what you have to for them and find another one to actually talk to, bounce ideas off of, and from whom you can get the support you'll need. Make a habit out of talking to them and running ideas by them. They should be able to give you ideas on management and planning that you probably won't think of otherwise.

Today's Wine: Yesterday I went on another wine tour out on Long Island to celebrate the birthday of one of my mentors. We had a lot of wine of course, but I thought I'd slip in a dessert wine to mark the celebration: Duck Walk Vineyard Boysenberry Fruit Wine. It was really tart, but really good and would go well with any fruity dessert.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Very, Very Tired

After a couple weeks last year I was aching for more sleep and wondering how it was at all possible that the teachers at the school didn't look like zombies. Going into the year I thought that working harder would do the trick when it came to planning and management. Incorrect.

Last year's journal quote:

At the end of the second week I'm experiencing am exhaustion I've never experienced before. It's worse than the semester in college during which I was averaging about four hours of sleep a night over the month leading up to finals week; worse than fourteen hour shifts at a short-order restaurant during which I tried to convince sixteen year-old potheads to clean coffee machines while at the same time being hounded by the elderly for more jelly packets they intended to steal.

I came home on Friday with the very real intention of drinking a bottle or two of wine to numb whatever I could feel. I made it through most of dinner and half a glass of wine and passed out with my head on my folding table and slept nearly through the night.

This year I'm a bit tired, but the reduced stress level and the fact that I'm not yelling at all in my classes has helped me keep from being fatigued. Last year I hit a level of exhaustion that wasn't healthy. While I'm pretty tired writing this right now, and a bit stressed out about getting everything done for this unit and for Friday, I know that I'll at least get something planned and that it will most likely go relatively well. Last year I was scrambling every waking hour to try to make my life at school better. That just made things worse.

Tonight's Wine: Charles Shaw Cabernet. I'm going out to Long Island again this weekend for a birthday wine tour, so I should pick up a few things that are a bit more interesting. The catch is that I need to drink more Charles Shaw to be able to afford those more interesting things.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Follow Through

Last year as I began the year I was wrestling with a lot of assumptions that were based on my experience student teaching and substitute teaching. The problem with these assumptions were that many of them were wrong and/or applied to a vastly different setting. The result of many of these assumptions and my presumed success as a student teacher left me incredibly confident. That, paired with my inexperience with the urban population my students were part of, led me to make a major mistake: telling students how I was going to act and what I was going to do to help them and being able to follow through with those statements.

It is impossible to know exactly what to do on the ground if you haven't already been there. Telling students exactly what you are going to do for the entire year when you have no real experience is ludicrous. It writes your own sentence on the wall and paints you into a corner that's very difficult to get out of.

An example of something I promised last year was that I wouldn't be absent a single day. Because I hadn't missed a single day as a student teacher or substitute teacher I made the assumption that I could make it the entire year without missing day. Clearly this is a stretch, especially for a first year teacher who will almost definitely become ill at least once during the year. I had to leave school early and call in one day last February because I was deliriously sick. I barely made it home from school, nearly passing out on the train and on a platform when transferring, which could have been pretty bad news.

It may seem pretty commonsensical, but make sure that you do not make a single promise unless you are absolutely sure you can keep it. Don't say things like all papers will be graded and returned the next day or that you're going to take every student who finishes all their homework to the movies. That's unrealistic, and the first time you don't follow through with what you say you're students will call you out on it and their trust in your word will be shattered, sometimes permanently. Many of these students have been lied to by adults all of their lives. If you follow suit I can guarantee you'll lose those students and the chances of you getting them back are slim.

Today's Wine: Dry Creek Old Vine Zinfandel. A lot of people hear the word "zinfandel" and assume the wine is a terribly pink, terribly sweet beverage that a lot of "wine weenies" (as my own parents have dubbed themselves) drink to show their friends they can drink wine like adults. Zinfandel is in fact a legitimate variety and the old vine zins that I've had have generally been pretty good and spicy.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Push Back

Week one this year was quiet. The students came in ready to get started; attendance was very high and there were very, very few discipline problems school wide (including a day with zero suspensions school-wide, which is the first since I started working there). While celebrating a smooth start that will help with the rest of the year, I prepared myself last weekend for the counteroffensive by the students. Based the intelligence I gathered from their teachers from last year, to whom they ran downstairs to talk to after school each day last week, they think that the eighth grade team "means business" this year. Intelligence is good and fine, but the students' actions speak more poignantly.

This week the students began their push back. Caught off guard by the organization of the staff from the outset, many of the students on the cusp, those who need one or two others to get the ball rolling to take part in the shenanigans, have kept quiet and done their jobs in class. Even still, the individuals with chronic behavior problems are testing boundaries, as are the whole classes. The important thing to remember is that there are solid policies in place and that the staff (myself included) needs to stick to those policies without exception.

Exceptions to the rules get teachers in trouble. I approached last year with a "benefit of the doubt" mentality that dug a hole so deep that I was crawling out all year. It dawned on me eventually that the term differentiate was not intended for disciplinary action. If a kid screws up they need to know it. Period. Making little exceptions to appease certain students ends up snowballing into a complicated, difficult-to-enforce code of conduct.

My advice to First Years and Newbies: Get help developing appropriate classroom guidelines for your student population. Stick to those guidelines no matter what, no matter how much paperwork they entail initially. If you don't it'll create a lot more paperwork and headaches down the road.

Tonight's Wine: 3 Buck Chuck

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Parent Association- Meeting 1

Tonight was the first Parent Association of the year (not PTA- something to do with Title I funds doesn't let us call it that). These are once-a-month meetings that all staff and parents are invited to so that they might talk about getting parents more involved in the education of their children and to connect with the community.

On the ground they drag along for what seems like hours when the only part that is really essential for teachers to attend is at the very end- talking to the parents. These meetings at our school last more than twice as long too, as every word going through the mic has to be translated into Spanish for half of our parents. Don't get me wrong, this is incredibly necessary and needs to be done, but it certainly doesn't make the meeting more exciting.

Don't be fooled, connecting with parents is incredibly important. A lot of people disregard this part of the job because it takes too much time. That's true, it does take way too much time. It's one of the things that gets put on the back burner and is never pulled forward. It's one of the million things that should be done very well and all the time but is not because when you teach kids there are dozens of these things that could be done and really should be done to get students the education and support they need, but are impossible if all or even most are attempted in any depth (especially for new teachers).

In spite of this fact, it is important to attend meetings like this these. Word gets around. If one parent tells another parent that they saw you at a Parent Association meeting, that's powerful. Last year I attended the first few meetings and then stopped because they took up a lot of time and it took over an hour to get home on the train. The last thing I wanted to do was sit through a meeting to say hello to a couple parents and to simply tell them that their child was doing well or needed to improve behavior. When I stopped going new parents showed up and asked where I was.

Calling parents all the time about the bad stuff grinds on you. It grinds on you because you have to tell them that the student you are trying to educate is screwing up, sometimes very badly. It can feel like you're not doing your job, that you can't do your job, and that you're reporting that fact to other people. Calling parents every night about the bad stuff gets old and makes you not want to even talk to parents. Attending PTA (or PA in this case) meetings will generally allow you to interact with the parents that don't generally get the phone calls.

My advice: Go to the Parent Association meetings. You may hear some things about your school you didn't know and you might gain the respect and cooperation of a number of your parents. It also shows your administration that you are interested in doing more than the bare minimum (whatever that is).

Wine of the Day: Concannon Pinot Noir. It's smooth, light and dry. Went well with the sushi tonight. This is a pretty inexpensive bottle, too- about $13.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Home Field Advantage

This past week I experienced part of "it gets better." While I knew that I would see a lot of my students from last year, I was much more focused on preparing myself to receive my new students than to interact with my old ones.

The eighth and the ninth graders were both brought into our multi-purpose room where they were going to be called out by their first period teachers to be brought upstairs. When I walked into the room I was met not by my new students but by a dozen of my students from last year. There reactions were more than enough to loosen me up and get me excited about the year. Much to my surprise, all but one either said or very clearly showed they were excited to see me.

If that was not enough, my new students saw that my old students were excited to see me. I had old students coming into my room and asking to come back to my class who literally had to be pushed into my classroom last year.

Are you kidding me?! Students who I fought and struggled against and sometimes with for ten long months now indirectly convincing whole classes of students that I'm a good teacher (however true that is). Backed up by a lot of structure and increased self-awareness, it's no wonder that my students listened to me for at least three days.

The most important part of the year is certainly not over, however. This next week is going to be incredibly important, as I'll have to show students that I can actually back up what I said this week. In spite of that, the tables have turned considerably. Perhaps now my students and I are on the same side? That would be cool.

As for home field advantage, last year my students had it. This year I have it. And that's awesome.

Today's Wine: Really a wine from yesterday and my favorite of the fifteen or so that I tried. It was the 2005 Merlot from Roanoke Vineyards. I bought a bottle for $45, figuring I would splurge at at least one of the vineyards. Generally I don't drink that much Merlot, but this one really was exception. It was also a great tasting room and our favorite staff.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Surveying the Damage

Last night was the first Friday of the school year. This one was drastically different building-wide and was cause for celebration rather than recovery.

Last year at the end of the first week the eighth grade team had been smashed, trampled and burned to the ground. At the end of the work day on that Friday I was found in my room staring blankly at the damage that had been done to the room and to my ego. I felt so numb that to make any decision was nearly impossible. It was at that point that I was rounded up with the rest of the newbies and ordered to go to the staff's locale of choice: a bar off Arthur Avenue near what used to be our sister school.

The staff was exhausted and many of us were licking our wounds. My overloaded classes had blazed a trail for chaos and I was holding on for the ride. I had no idea where it was going to take me, but at the bar I was able to get some reassurance that I was still alive and breathing; that the rest of the staff was behind me and my deflated team. The principal of our school is very concerned about the staff (in a good way) and generally lays down a few fistfuls of cash when the staff goes out after major mile-markers during the year, the first Friday being one of them. Things took a while to turn around after that, but the staff that attended that night made it clear that they were behind the new teachers.

Yesterday I went to the same locale as last year not only to celebrate the success that was seen school-wide, but to see how the new teachers were doing. While some of them seemed pretty tired, there was no sign that the a group of a hundred students had trod them into the ground. It was nice to see.

We all agreed that the school got off to an exceptionally smooth start. A few things put into place helped with this, especially a lot of planning and prep work by the administration and guidance team. The number of new teachers to the school and the field was also drastically smaller. I credit this in part to the economy being in the crapper during the past year- no one wants to give up there job, especially as the NYC DOE put a hiring freeze on what suddenly became decent jobs because of their security. I would give more credit, however, to the fact that our principal was able to hire a lot of solid candidates last year who didn't cut and run when they saw what the job is.

So, after surveying the damage, it looks like there was not a whole lot done, which allows us to move forward into the new year with a lot of life and energy.

Today's Wine: This weekend I went to a wedding out on Long Island near a bunch of wineries, so I took the opportunity to do some tastings and pick up a few bottles that I probably won't find otherwise. Out of respect for the victims of 9/11, today's wine is Lieb Cellar's "September Mission Merlot," which is dedicated to those lost during that day's tragedies. A portion of the profits go to the September Mission Foundation, which sets up cultural and educational programs to remember the victims of 9/11. The wine itself is pretty earthy and not bad at all. It also sells for less than ten bucks a bottle ($9.11). Only 200 cases were made.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Day 1 v. Day 1- It Gets Better

Today was the first day of school. At the end of the day I was left wondering what happened. My classes in the morning did absolutely everything I told them to do. My class in the afternoon did very nearly everything I asked- far better than almost every single class period I had last year.

Last year was a completely different story. Here are some excerpts I wrote in my journal:

I survived the first week. It was more difficult than I had ever imagined. On the first day, my second class went about as poorly as a class can... Upon entering the room, a student picked up my pile of handouts (three piles, about 60 copies apiece) and tossed them into the air. I watched in disbelief as the they floated back to the ground, the air filling with giggles from the other 37 students assigned to the class were slowly taking their seats and settling in to ignore me completely for about twenty minutes...

I asked a para(educator) at the back of the room to help take care of a student who was taking it upon himself to throw every object that was not nailed down across the room. When the para stepped away from the student he was monitoring, that student grabbed my briefcase and hurled it against the back wall of the classroom, the contents spilling all over the floor- joining my handouts.

At the end of the first day I sat in total exhaustion and disbelief, trying to make sense of what had happened and seriously wondering if six years of college, a year of successful student teaching , attendance at national conferences, hundreds of hours of what I thought was meaningful contemplation of what real education was, living and working in New York the previous summer and using every last dime I had to move to the city to teach these students specifically had let me down entirely.

The journal entry keeps going from there. To say the least, my first day was a rough one last year, as was the first week and to be quite honest, most of the year. The important thing to remember, however, was that it got better. I survived. If day one of your first year is terrible; if week one is horrific, if month one is the absolute worse, give it some time and keep putting in the effort. It will get better.

While Day 1 this year was the polar opposite to Day 1 last year, I got the picture enough last year to know that students often times put on the "Sunday Best" for the first day of school. They come in and take a good look at you to see what boundaries to start testing the following day. Just because today went well certainly doesn't mean I'll be lax tomorrow.

To the First Years and Ed Students
Here are a couple of things that helped me this year with Day 1:
  1. I lined up my students before they came into the classroom. They were not allowed in before they were silent and they did not pick their seats- I had numbered the desks and then handed each students an index card with a number on it directing them to a seat. I shuffled these so that when two friends were hanging out in line they wouldn't be seated next to each other.
  2. The "Do Now," or "Brain Starter" was done right on that card- no other supplies necessary- and it was writing things they knew (name, contact info, etc.)
  3. I made it very clear how the class was to get quiet.
  4. I made reading the syllabus a fill-in-the-blank activity, so they would read it and so they'd be able to handle sitting through it.
  5. I was confident and made sure they knew that with things such as speaking with an even tone, wearing a suit and not reacting to a single thing they wanted me to react to.
  6. Firmness was key. Smiling is a nice thing to do in public- not on the first day of school. No loss of temper, no stressing out and absolutely no jokes. Be cordial and polite.
Any questions about other reasons this went well? It would be helpful to me, as I'm still wondering myself. I'm sure there are other ways to get it to go even smoother.

Today's Wine: Goats do Roam Red 2007 from South Africa. I picked this one up at Trader Joe's a couple of weeks ago not really based on anything but the label, which is a highly-criticized way to pick a wine, but in my opinion is perfectly legitimate. It really boiled down to the fact that some adolescent vein in me thought the name was hilarious. And it was a decent drink. I had it with some really dark chocolate and could taste the "spiciness" they describe it to have.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Talk is Cheap

Last year at this time I was sitting in a my tiny basement apartment in Queens, trying to prepare myself as best I could for the major undertaking that lay before me- the first year in the classroom. I had a lot of ideas about what it would be like, but none of them quite lined up with what I got.

I really had no idea what was coming. As the first day approached I even grew nervous about the fact that I may not know anything about teaching in this environment. That didn't mean I didn't act like I knew about it. Most of what I knew about urban ed came from a lot of academic articles, a few site visits to schools in the urban Kansas City, Kansas district and the stories my best friend told about her stint as a student teacher in an urban setting. She certainly got her taste of it. Her cooperating teacher walked out the first day and didn't come back until the end of the eight week stint (at which time the students asked who the cooperating teacher was). My experience was nothing like that. In spite of that, I walked a fine line between spouting bullshit about urban education and bouncing stories off of others to get feedback about what it might be like. In retrospect it seems like I was doing more of the former.

Along with being an urban educator comes unique challenges just like any other profession. A lot of very intelligent, very dedicated people fail at it for a large variety of reasons. Movies like Freedom Writers make people think that if you smile enough and have the students write about their feelings the entire day that it will work out just fine. Like other professions, if you've never done this specific job there is no way to know what it's like. Whether you've read a thousand books about it, seen cheesy movies about terrific teachers fighting the good fight, and sat in a classroom from the age of six to the age of twenty-two, it does not show you what it's like being at the front of the classroom.

While I don't think that the "front line" analogy holds up in all circumstances, this might be one area where it does, especially in the first year. Many times soldiers and new teachers march to the front line confident and eager to serve their country, their ideas of service based on stories they've heard, a push to go and fight for freedom or whatever else they've become passionate about, and their own training. From what I can tell from the veterans of foreign wars I know, as well as the veteran teachers I know, nobody continues to say the same things they said about the experiences right out of the school of ed or straight out of boot camp. Once you hit the ground you realize you were watching from the bleachers instead of being on/in the field. There is an enormous difference.

In the classroom you struggle to survive your first year. It's a fact of life in this setting and nothing to be embarrassed about. I'm told that the second year is far better than the first and that the third is better than the second. It's left to be seen by me, but instead of being nervous about this year, I'm actually rather excited about it. In June I was very nervous I would still be bitter, angry and tired of school come September. I'm elated to say that I'm not.

Advice to First-Years: Be flexible. Don't adhere to what you think urban education is or what you think it's supposed to be. If you're coming from outside the urban environment, you're going to need to let go of your own experience in education and determine what's the best way to teach in the new environment. It will be require a whole lot of flexibility, especially at first. If you adapt to the setting you'll survive the first year, which is all most people in the field ask for and expect. Concentrate on that before trying to save the entire campaign.

Today's Wine: Jean-Paul Brun Beaujolais l'Ancien Terres Doree Gamay. Beaujolais is the region in France. It was light and dry, pretty standard for the reason, apparently.

Names like this used to be kind of a turn off. I saw a thousand words I didn't recognize and thought I'd stick to the common varieties from California (Merlot, Cabernet, etc.). Now I'm trying to tackle the many regions of France and Italy.
Any ideas about how to best learn about the different wines?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Quiet Before the Storm- Put on Your Game Face

Teaching in the city is a lot like being on a tropical island. It can be the most pleasant thing you can imagine or you can feel like you're in the middle of a hurricane. Sometimes this transgression happens in one day even. Imagine laying in a hammock with a margarita in the late morning, sipping away and watching the waves crash against the shore. Thirty minutes later a tidal wave rips through your little resort and leaves face-down and/or buried in the sand.

The difference between a desert island and the classroom is that often times the storm can be prevented or at the very least redirected.

This weekend is the last of the summer for NYC teachers. Many are out grilling during the holiday, or have traveled to some out of the way place. Most are preparing for the first week of school, whether that means gathering materials, planning curriculum or getting your game face on.

It's very difficult to know what your game face is, however, if you've never played the game. Last year during the few days before school new teachers were required to report before the rest of the staff, our principal tried to make us put on different faces. While I'm not sure how effective it was in teaching us what a game face is, I understand why she did it- if you can't look stern and serious, the students will not take you as such. While we all want to be respected and regarding for what we think and say, students don't necessarily think that way.

Like any major undertaking, you need to prepare mentally for the classroom in addition to finding your game face. You also need to relax before things get heavy and the work load skyrockets to eighty or ninety hours per week, up from however many you were working during the summer. Even with my thesis, writing an article and other little projects in the field, I didn't make it to a forty hour work week this summer. Aside from that, you get a bit rusty if you're not in front of students for two months.

The point in doing these things is to make sure you hit the ground running at the beginning of the school year. Students need to know you mean business- that you're calm, collected and have a handle on teaching. If you're green and nervous, they can sense it. Cool and calm, they can tell you've done it before and that you're not joking around. While the latter won't necessarily mean they'll never act out, it often-times gives you a couple of days to set up expectations as to how you run the show in the classroom. If you've been told anything about the first year, you've heard that the first week is crucial. That's true.

Today's Wine: Louis Martini Cabernet. This is an old favorite of mine, as we served it a the restaurant back in Kansas. It was one of the most expensive glass of wine we sold, so of course I recommended it to everyone. I suppose I just didn't break the habit.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Classroom Setup is Not Decorating

Setting up my classroom last year was actually a major anxiety factor. In the school of ed I was shown examples of fantastic classrooms that won awards for being local museums, classrooms where the teacher had painted maps of the U.S. across the entire floor with their students and then shellacked over it, as well as a number of cases where the teachers had built large structures to create "labs of democracy" and simulations for Cold War war rooms and the like. Of course I wanted to have something like these when I set up my own classroom.

I spent a lot of time contemplating how I would set up my classroom. I bounced ideas off colleagues and peers, talked to friends in the field, etc. When I swaggered into my school in the South Bronx I talked about putting rules on the wall that the students discussed and developed during the first few days of school. I talked about constructing a wall in the classroom to replicate the Berlin Wall and divide the classroom when I covered the Cold War. I talked about making a democracy lab, teaching students how to make real decisions about their education. I talked and talked.

I didn't get as far as any of those ideas. Last year my classroom at the beginning of the year was a terrible mess. I mean, it was clean and all, but it looked like some people tried to make the walls "look neat" and then tossed 36 desks in all helter-skelter, partially because there was not enough room for them. I'm not sure what I was thinking, but much of what I put on the walls remained unchanged for the year and was not utilized at all by students. The desks were in no apparent order other than a failed attempt to put them in "collaborative groups." I can count on one hand the number of times my students attempted real group work last year.

Something that I did that is generally a very good idea (talking to veterans and asking for advice), but turned out to be pretty detrimental, was that I relied on our English teacher at the time for suggestions on how to set up our room. I judged as a new teacher that not stepping on toes, setting the room up generally how I'd like and making a few concessions to an older teacher with experience would help set me up for a solid start.

This "veteran" certainly talked as well. At the beginning of the year he claimed to have taught in South Central L.A. He claimed that he'd worked with a very similar population. At the end of the first two weeks of school he'd changed that statement to having taught "near" South Central L.A. and by the end of the third week he'd left the state.

I don't want to pass the buck to that teacher. I was just as responsible for not foreseeing the major problems that would happen as a result of a messy classroom. What I thought was that I wanted a lab for democracy, one in which students could take the problem of needing rules and order and come up with some pretty good ideas about what they needed out of a teacher. That is not how it turned out at all.

Basically the problem was that I was inexperienced with the urban population. I was relying on my success teaching with a pretty progressive agenda- one given to me on a platter at the school of ed. What I didn't know was that the students in this setting take liberties and any extra room given them and use them to rip new teachers apart. The term "give them an inch and they'll take a mile" doesn't exactly cover it. This is by no means majority of students, but enough to destroy the educational process and sometimes a classroom.

What I would suggest to a new teacher coming from a different background is to make sure the following things are true:
  • Desks and furniture need to look very orderly.
  • Rules need to be clearly posted.
  • Have a bulletin board for student work.
  • Have a bulletin board for materials related to the unit of study.
  • Add a couple small personal touches.
Start small in this setting. You need to learn about the students first before you put up anything major or crazy. Things need to be highly-structured and simple. If the setting feels like one in which the students will be able to do what they like, they will. Allowing for some generalization, the ones that are problematic are because they do not have any kind of structured home life. Sometimes if these students do get a lack of structure at school too, a place where they expect structure, they react poorly. That was something I certainly I knew nothing about...

This year I'm branching out a bit more, making things more organized and utility-oriented where possible. Part of this includes the fact that I'm going to concentrate more on immigration, as many of my students are immigrants and many more have parents that are. To make the fact that everyone in the U.S. is an immigrant or a descendant of one, I'm going to cover entire ceiling tiles with flags from the various countries represented by our students and by major contributors to the population of the U.S. in the past (Germany, Ireland, Italy, etc.). I hope to get a few of those "crazy progressive" ideas into the classroom as well when my students are ready for them.

There's a lot to be said about setting up a classroom. Any pointers?

Today's Wine: I went with a colleague to the Bronx's Little Italy- Arthur Avenue. We went to a place called Dominick's where there is no menu for wine or food. We were given a few options, picked something to east and drink and were told how much to pay at the end. The wine was something made in Italy specifically for the restaurant. It was a pretty good Merlot.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


When I walked into my new school last year as a first-year I was asked with the rest of the staff what my goal for the year was. I, of course, having had some mild success using a podcast and a blog before, very confidently responded:

I am going to set up a wiki site and use it extensively throughout the year. Perhaps they'll put podcasts on it, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

That's about as far as I got with the idea.

I was so badly shell-shocked my first month in the classroom that I was paranoid about using computers at all. I actually did the exact opposite of using a wiki- I killed about a tree a day making copies the ENTIRE year. Even after the first-year science teacher across the hall was using them semi-frequently, I wasn't convinced that my management was good enough to prevent a laptop from being thrown across the room. We only used computers during the last couple weeks of school to implement a pilot for our 1:1 initiative. Even that was like slowly wading into ice-cold water in the beach end of a swimming pool in May- carefully, painfully, and eventually accepting the fact that it's going to be miserable for a bit, but then it's going to be a great time.

This year things will be different. We have our 1:1 laptop initiative and I think that our teaching staff is strong enough to roll it out in a way that will be highly beneficial to our students. Even so, I wish I had made the decision to use laptops earlier in the year last year. While I was inexperienced and frightened by possibility of something going terribly wrong, I realistically could have used the technology much earlier than I did.

Advice for new teachers: Even if your classroom seems to still be in the crapper come third marking period, don't sell youself short on your ability to try a few new things before the end of the year. The first year is about survival, but you still want to learn as much as possible so your second year will go much better. That means you need to stick to whatever routines are working, but try new things out that go along with those routines.

Today's Wine: Cataldo Nero D'Avola. Same variety out of Sicily as a post a bit ago. This one was at Pescatore Restaurant in Midtown on the east side. The seafood salad in their tapas bar is amazing, and the prices are great.