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 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 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.