Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lost It Again- Dangerous Conversation

This past week I lost it again. It wasn't off the handle and uncontrolled to the point that I was shaking or to the point that it ruined my day and evening like it used to, but it was losing it nonetheless. While losing it I dropped myself into an especially precarious position that could have taken the rest of the year to crawl out of. I openly challenged a group of students on whether they respected me or not. Such a challenge last year would have been something I lost every time had I tried it, and it wasn't terribly smart this year either.

It was detention and the seven or so kids who were in there simply would not get quite. During detention I do everything I can to run a tight shift, generally standing at the front of the room with a list of detainees on an index card on which I take notes about further infractions they perform while serving their time. Throughout the forty-five minute period I stand and watch them, sending the message that anything they do other than sitting there other than nothing is not acceptable. Needless to say, a handful of students acting nuts on my detention shift does not make me happy.

It was apparently apparent that it was coming on. Another teacher in the room who was their getting some information from me quickly got the hint and left as I threw a few futile efforts out there to get the students quiet. On the list on this particular day was an all-star line-up: a student who has been pushed to the brink of insanity by his home life and has the strong desire to physically confront adults and students alike; a whiny little lil' Wayne wanna-be who feels all teachers are complete morons and should be listened to at no cost; the loudest student in the eighth grade, who may well be the least mature as well; a student who rivals that student for least mature, but who craves positive male attention because from what I can gather his father is less than soft and cuddly when calls are made to the home every night; and, probably our most sporadic and unpredictable female student, who is pretty smart though faces a tough home life herself and dates brink-of-insanity boy to boot.

After numerous firm attempts to get everyone seated and quiet I stopped for a couple seconds, which gave them the impression that I might stop asking them altogether. I relaxed all the muscles in my face, which is a trick I picked up in a professional development once to made myself look both indifferent and a bit stern in additional to helping calm me down a bit. Then BOOM- I erupted into a choppy, less than eloquent monologue about how they should be acting in my detention, that at this point in the year I thought we knew one another better than what their present behavior was telling me and that it was blindingly apparent that they had zero respect for me as a teacher or as an adult, let alone for themselves.

Silence. Even brink-of-insanity boy was left blinking, wondering where that came from. One muttered that what I said wasn't the case at all. I fumed a good amount and then just got quiet and kept standing at attention at the front of the room, unable to do much more than that and not wanting to break the rule of silence in my detention room any further. Little lil' Wayne thought that was comical and giggled quietly to himself (which for him showed more self-control than usual) and all but one of the others settled down for the most part until the end of the period. That one student was suspended.

In retrospect I was playing with fire. Respect is the most important capital teachers on the front line have. To gamble what little I might have with my most difficult students could have ended in a disastrous management problem for weeks to come, if not until the end of the year. Perhaps I'll change my mind once I get more experience, but for now I'm going to cool it with calling out students on how much they respect me.

Today's Wine: Sebastiani Zinfandel 2006. On the vineyard's website this goes for $15, but the store near us has it for around $10. It's from Sonoma County, California, which I preferred for many of the reasons presented in the article linked here. It's less hyped-up, more laid back and seems to produce pretty similar quality wines for my buck. Perhaps I'm not buying in the correct price-range though...

Friday, February 26, 2010

Black History Month

Last year in February a student in my classroom raised his hand and asked, "Why aren't we talking more about black people during Black History Month?" My response was fantastically eloquent, well-supported, understandable and acceptable: because the state doesn't require it and we're way behind with the things they want you to know.

Really? The second after that plopped out of my mouth the aftertaste blew my mind and woke me up to what I'd believed six months prior- that the last thing I thought I'd be doing was teaching to the test when I finally got my own classroom, but here I was justifying why I couldn't teach something really rather relevant to my students (African American history) by telling them the state required me to teach other things.

This issue with a disconnect from the curricula is a common problem the folks on the front line see. We're given our curricula and we do our best to deliver it to our students. Where we and the state falls down is in the fact that our students' ancestors are not readily included in the history we're teaching them. The version of American history I teach seems at times to come off to them like Portuguese history would come off to a Nebraskan. Many of my students simply don't care about what white people did to build this country up to what it is now; others are recent immigrants not by choice so much as a parental decision to make the move and really just want to go back to the country from which they were brought; still others are part of a population that hasn't been able to crawl out of the inner city and a long history of discrimination for various reasons. On top of all of that, my kids don't read very well, which makes studying any history in depth pretty difficult.

Figuring out exactly what to teach to students has been one of the most difficult parts of the job. The state wants me to teach a laundry-list of line-item historical facts, which is difficult to do without teaching to a test that is based more on recall of information than the testing of real skills. It's a test promoted by the state board of education, which is appointed by elected representatives in the state legislature which is popularly elected, though I would guess few even know who is in Albany speaking for them on these issues. To be honest I had to look up my own state senator and assemblyman after writing this.

I'm sure I'll write a long, ranting post about how pointless the eighth grade social studies exam is and how that is sad, but it suffices to say that after last year I'm not entirely concerned about the test-prep part of my curriculum. That said, it is still very possible to incorporate Black History Month into your curriculum if you feel it's worth it. As a teacher in the South Bronx it is definitely worth it- my students are asking to learn about it (something that happens very rarely in my class, and then only by an individual student). If I didn't take that request and run with it I'd be out of my mind.

Today's Wine: Bodegas Franco Espanolas Rioja Diamante 2008. That's a long name. Diamante is a semi-sweet wine that was recommended to us after we said we were looking for a Riesling for my parents. It was a very nice bottle that they enjoyed and that I did as well. Generally the wines they prefer are a bit too sweet for me, but this one hit the spot.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Yo Mista, That's Racist

At one point I liked to cite the fact that my high school was the most ethnically diverse in the district of five suburban high schools, that meant that the minority rate when I graduated was about sixteen percent. While I'd tried to prepare myself mentally and otherwise for working with an urban, minority population, I knew that it would be different actually doing it. I didn't know if I should address issues regarding race or how to address them in a classroom. Aside from a fear of being labeled as a racist white guy, I had the sneaking suspicion that my complete disconnect with urban African American and Latino culture would be a problem. What I found was that some of my students are not at all racist, some are, and some seem oblivious to what racism really is. Many will call things racist as well even if they are in no way so.

This year I've been dealing with a student who is a white-supremacist (he was giving a Nazi salute in the hallways at school earlier in the year). This is clearly inappropriate and really, really stupid in the South Bronx. Why in the world would you preach white supremacy in an area where .00001% of the residents are white? This kid isn't even white! Our union rep and I were talking it over and he said I should document it to be safe. During that conversation he mentioned that every class of students has a Nazi in it, even in the South Bronx. Last year I knew there was a kid upstairs (in 10-12 grade) who was drawing swastikas all over everything. That young man was an African American who was openly a white supremacist.

My students last year had a terrible problem with calling everything racist. Some did it just to mess with me and some truly believed that everything that addressed race was inherently racist. It drove me crazy. My fear of being accused of racism changed to irritation and then to boredom as I realized the students were either giving me grief just to get a rise out of me or because perhaps they didn't really understand what racism is.

By the end of the year when a student accused me of being racist I just agreed with them sarcastically and moved on. I'd already given the following sarcastic speech to all of my classes:

Yes, I am racist. I'm the most racist person you will ever meet. I moved all the way from Kansas to New York City, where it's all white people, to New York JUST so I could pick on black and Hispanic kids.

That generally got them quiet and then we moved on with whatever we were doing that day. This year there has been much less of the racism talk in class. It came out once and I tried to drop that little speech on the class and it was lost on them. One kid just said, "That's wrong," which showed me that my sarcasm probably wasn't terribly appropriate last year- it just got the people screaming to be quiet. A major transition from novice teacher to veteran teacher seems to be preventing those fires and reacting less to the crazy/screaming students. While putting out fires you tend to say some things that you certainly wouldn't otherwise that can be misinterpreted by your good students. I can't help but to think that social studies should be used to alleviate problems like this instead of test prep that leaves our students with next to no real knowledge of human history when they graduate. I can't help but to think that social studies should be used to alleviate problems like this instead of test prep that leaves our students with next to no real knowledge of human history when they graduate.

Racism still negatively impacts minorities in the United States. While things have greatly improved for minorities in the U.S. in the past hundred years, there are still things that can be done by everyone to address the problems we experience here. At times I'm not entirely sure what my role as an educator should be when addressing this issue. Cutting the sarcasm and promoting discussions on it as we work our way through the curriculum is what I plan to do this spring, but it was impossible during my first year to really address these issues. To me such serious topics need to be addressed through conversation and having any kind of class discussion was impossible in my room last year. I think by the end of this spring we may be in a place where those discussions can take place.

Today's Wine: Bruni Poggio d'Elsa Super Tuscan 2008. We had this out at Cavatappo, the spot in our neighborhood I've mentioned before. It was a cherry up front and a spicier finish. It was also very good and went well with the seafood risotto.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Male (Dis)Advantage

Like it or not, we all crave male attention- I’ve watched enough Law and Order and read enough of the psychology text I was given in the school of ed to know that- just as we all crave female attention, albeit for different reasons. Being a male in the urban setting will both help and hurt you. I'm sure being a female is the same, but for different reasons and ones with which I'm not as familiar given the circumstances. The bottom line, however, is that being a male teacher can either be one of your greatest downfalls or it can help you considerably with some students.

If the students in this setting sense you are weak they want nothing to do with you. This is where being a scrawny white guy can really hurt you. If you do not assert your dominance in a positive, unwavering and respectful way, if you cave to student demands and let them get the best of you; they may see you as weak and will not give you the time of day.

Last year it took until the very end of the year to gain the respect of most my students and even then I didn’t get it from a good number of them. For many of the young men I worked with they either saw me as a push-over or as someone who wasn’t strong enough to look up to. I don’t think any of them looked up to me as their major male role model, as they saw day in and day out that I could be stomped and kicked around by a pretty small group of eighth-graders. If I were them I probably wouldn’t have thought, “Jeepers, I’d like to be like that guy!” Oh my, no. I probably would have said, “Sucks for that dude,” or if I could muster some level of empathy, “That guy gets stomped by these d-bags just like me, only worse. That’s too bad.”

In short, if the students run the show, your maleness will work against you multiplicatively. There will also always be students who have a problem with all males. In many cases this goes back to the fact that the fathers of many of our students are not present in their lives or the ones who are abuse them. The authority figure at home may be a mother or grandmother, so when a male tries to assert his authority they resist and resist. These are factors outside of the school building that cannot be controlled from within it.

On the flip side of the coin, being a male can also be a very powerful thing. It seems that with boys especially, many are looking for positive male attention instead of the negative or abusive attention they receive at home. Many others are simply trying to fill a void. In many respects male teachers can take on a father-figure role in a setting like this, which brings along with it additional responsibilities. It seems worth it though and the feeling it brings is one that motivates many to come into this field. The role of surrogate parent, while limited, is a considerable one.

If you are a strong male who shows students he knows what’s up you can set yourself up to be the strong male presence many of our students cannot find anywhere else. I cannot speak to the fact as to whether I should be considered a strong male presence, but I can say that my skin is thicker than last year. My first year was a rough one- full of anger, discouragement, and even self-pity. That came out while in the trenches and the students readily picked up on it. I was not a strong male to be looked up to, but instead a fledgling teacher trying to get his footing. From what I can tell, things are improving on that front. Hopefully they continue to and I'll be able to positively impact my boys.

Today's Wine: Villa Pillo Cingalino Rosso di Toscana 2007. This was labeled as a "super Tuscan" at the wine shop. It hales from Tuscany and also bears the label "IGT" for Indicazione Geografica Tipica- some measure of quality assurance slightly below the D.O.C. that people look for in Italian wines. I didn't pick it for anything that logical. There is a wild boar wearing a suit and holding grapes on the front. That paired with the idea of a "super Tuscan" got me thinking of some kind of wine-making pig super hero and I therefore had to purchase this specific bottle. It went well with the prosciutto and pea quiche we ate.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mid-Winter Break

In NYC teachers and students are given a winter break, mid-winter break and a spring break. The instructional days surrounding these breaks are especially important for a number of reasons. They may well be the most productive instructional days of the year and for that reason they should be well-prepared for. This week has been February break, which can allow for two important things to occur: resting for the coming period in which there are no long weekends and preparing curriculum, procedures and your classroom for a productive spring.

The first thing you should do over break is use it for what it is intended to be: a break. Instead of stressing out the entire break and only getting a few of the big things on my plate accomplished, the past five days I've been cooking, taking advantage of Restaurant Week (which was extended for a few weeks to help boost sales throughout the city), spending time with friends in the city and procrastinating on anything work-related. This has allowed me to catch up on sleep, get in some exercise and improve my health before I continue to douse myself with coffee to make it through my work days operating once more on around five and a half hour sleep regimen.

The reason it's important to prepare for the coming weeks is that they are nearly uninterrupted weeks of instructional days. We have five weeks between now and spring break. From spring break to the end of the year there are eight weeks that are interrupted only for state exams and Memorial Day, which were less disruptive last year than all of the random days off in the fall. Also, at this point in the year you and your students probably know one another fairly well. It's more than half-way through the year now. They most likely know what to generally expect of you and you know what you can generally do with them. Drastic changes on either side are, while perhaps desirable, not as likely. Take what you have built, however large, and work with it. Move forward as best you can, still working to improve, but having a more realistic goal as to what you and your students can accomplish by the end of June. The solid weeks of instruction will work to your advantage, as they will in themselves give more of a routine than November, December, January, and February to this point have offered. If you're still struggling with routines, this is an opportunity to take another look at them.

Tonight I'm jumping back on the horse to get a few things done before my parents get into town tomorrow night. After they've headed back to the Midwest I'll have about a day left of break to get my act together for Monday- the beginning of this productive spring period. Luckily I already have the next couple weeks mapped out. If you've been working like mad this week to get things planned for your classes after break, take the next couple of days to really separate yourself from that work and relax. Come back to it on the weekend and make sure you're prepared for five long weeks that are full of potential.

Today's Wine: Cudgee Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2008. Something I've found a bit challenging is getting reviews on newer vintages. The link above is the 2006 vintage of this wine. To me it was another Australian wine that was incredibly fruity and not what I think of as a Cabernet. It was fine though with the white wine/duck cream sauce I served it with, which might have been over-powered by a drier or fuller-bodied red.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

NYC Snow Days

The glorious thing about snow days are they are unexpected breaks from work- especially in NYC. There is nothing you can do to prevent them and they almost always do decrease your workload, rather than increase it. In addition to that, you have an excuse to stay at home, not go out and do what you like. Personally, I took it as a chance to catch up on things and get prepared for parent conferences tomorrow, although we might get another day because of the weather.

Today I tried to keep a balance between school work, other work and no work. As of right now I still need to get a few odds and ends done, but I got laundry out of the way, planned my lesson for tomorrow, found out a doctor's office is closed, left a message at the amusement park our eighth graders will go to at the end of the year, dropped of some dry-cleaning and split a bottle of wine over lunch with my girlfriend. I've also spent a couple hours grading and doing other vaguely productive tasks and I went to get 25-cent hot wings across a very snow/slush-filled avenue.

We've been astounded all day by the way Bloomberg has handled this snow day business. Coming from Kansas and Michigan (two places with a history of being pummeled by winter weather and school closures), we were pretty confused by the way the mayor handled a snow storm in this city. Where we're from, school is never called off a full day before a storm begins. As it turns out, weather has a tendency to be somewhat unpredictable, so to pull an entire school system to a screeching halt based on a weather report the day before seems a bit silly.

Today Bloomberg decided he would be able to predict at 5:30 PM the conditions of the roads tomorrow morning at 5:30 AM. This is another thing that is different from what we're used to. School is never called until the morning of that school day. All things considered, I think that tomorrow is going to be a much worse travel day for students- especially who, for the most part, walk to school or walk to a bus or train- than today was, as the walk to school wouldn't have been that bad.

Ah, well. At least we got a day off and I was able to catch up on a laundry list of things, including laundry, instead of adding to the pile of grading and other things that need to be done.

Today's Wine: Tabor Cabernet Sauvignon Galil 2007. This one was under $15, very solid and from Israel. While the political situation over there is incredibly complex, whoever made this wine knew what was going on.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

NYC's Grand Grading Plan

During my first marking period last year I flunked just under half of my students and was told that was "normal" for the first marking period in an eighth grade history class. Coming from a setting where a handful of failing students is a real problem, I was flabbergasted by the thought that half of my students were failing and it was alright. How in the world does a school system function if it's expected that half of the students will be failing at any given time?

Well, New York has some handy tricks to keep its students headed toward an increasingly watered-down U.S. high school diploma. While I cannot say if each of these are official DOE policy, they certainly happen in the South Bronx.
  • First of all, it is impossible to receive less than a 45% in a class. Impossible. You receive a 45% if you are dead and still on the school roster. That's nearly half the points available in the class simply for existing.
  • Second, if you show up a single time you are awarded a 55% in a class. That means if you walk into the room, sit down for twenty minutes, scream like a maniac and then walk back out- never to be seen again- you are awarded a 55%. Now, maybe I'm crazy, but to say a students did OVER HALF OF THE WORK because they showed up once to class sounds like the most absurd thing to hit education since I don't know what- not to mention the students who do show up and do ABSOLUTELY nothing for an entire marking period and also get this grade.
  • Third, when calculating grades, anything below ninety percent must be rounded to the 5's (for example, a 74 would be rounded to a 75). This gives many students extra points just for fun.
  • Fourth- this is key- students cannot be given a 60% on their report card. This allows those with 60's to receive five additional points on their report cards, as the teacher must round up to 65% or down to 55%.
  • Now, in the eighth grade a student's first and second marking period grades are average together for a semester grade. That means if a student received a 55% and a 65% it would average to 60%, leaving the teacher to decide whether or not to round up to the passing grade of 65% or down to the failing grade of 55%. Pressure to post a decent pass-rate, the fact that you know each kid's story (home lives oftentimes do not readily support academic excellence) can definitely push you toward the 65%.
When I was first told last year about these rules and regulations for grading students I took them at face value simply because I was freaking out about pass rates and needed to know how to score kids. After a while though it dawned on me how little information a student needed to receive to actually and officially pass a grade: 30% of all possible percentage points.

So, if a student decides to play his Play Station 3 every single day except one during each of the first and third marking periods and then shows up for the second and fourth and receives 60% in each respective marking period, they can "legitimately" pass with teacher discretion. That thought makes me dizzy.

If only I could show up four times a year and still get 55% of my salary, I'd get twenty more teaching jobs! It would be flippin fantastic!

And if you're worried about the students who don't quite get enough points to hit 60% any of the marking periods, don't be. They'll probably get passed on anyway. It's a good thing we base so much teacher/administrative accountability on promotion/graduation rates. It's having a friggin awesome effect on our education system. Pretty soon it will be teachers' jobs to walk around with picnic baskets of high school diplomas and hand them to anyone who can smile.

Today's Wine: San Camillus Pinot Grigio. The way we picked this one was incredibly scientific. First, we only wanted a white wine because I was cooking up a wine reduction sauce. Second, this was the only one in the store that had a cork, which we're compiling for some kind of art project. The wine was just fine, and went with the cream sauce, prosciutto and peas we were eating.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Brand New Semester

For the First Years

There are five months left in the school year. By now you should see how important the first two weeks of the school year were. While the next two are not as crucial, they are incredibly important. If you take action you can improve your classroom substantially. If you take no action you are making the decision to allow things to keep going as is. If you're alright with that, OK. Perhaps your classroom has turned around and become a place of incredible learning and growth, but last year at this time I was still struggling to get anything done with my students and even to stay afloat. I wrote a bit about starting over in my post, "The Day After Break," but this is bigger than that. This is not the day after a week-long break. This is the beginning of the second half of your first year in the classroom- what might be the most difficult year of your life. Here are a few things to think about:

Take Action
Treat this week like a new beginning, but do not expect that the students will react immediately. Re-establish the rules, re-establish classroom procedures and make certain that you stick to them. Teach, for goodness sake, but stick to every last thing you say. If you must reduce your lesson plans to teaching completely out of the textbook, do it. If you've not established some kind of normalcy in your classroom, this is the time to get it done.

That said, be careful. I got myself in trouble last year by assuming things would get better if I just followed the easy steps of laying out the rules once more. I expected way too much and then was frustrated when the small gain we'd made in my classroom dissolved into me shouting again. What could have been a better classroom turned into a bitter disappointment. Remember that it is going to take renewed effort and more work, but that it will be worth it.

Review Rules
and Regulations
If you have too many of them, ditch a few. If you have some that you've realized are inconsequential, ditch them too. Simplify your management plan and make it, well, manageable. If you've found you cannot stick to part of it, scrap it. You should know by now that if you do not follow through with what you say, you lose credibility- and quickly.

Don't Expect Miracles
Sticking to your management plan will not magically transform your classroom. It will still be very hard work to get students to where you want them to be. That might not be what you want to hear, but that's reality. Following through will definitely help, however. You have five months and while things probably won't turn into some gloriously progressive, discussion-based classroom situation, there is a lot of potential that things will get better.

Five Months Left
Keep going this marking period. My father always told me that when training for a marathon, if you can run half the distance you can make it through the entire race on race day. As exhausted as you may be and as much as your students might irritate you, they- especially the ones who've listened to everything you've said this year- still deserve everything you can give them. Dig in these next couple of weeks and make the second semester better for you and for your students. Remember that there are students who are on your side and who need your help to be lifted above the madness. It's your duty to help them no matter how few they are.

Today's Wine: Manta Sauvignon Blanc 2009. A dry white I used to cook with. It was just fine otherwise. I'm not as familiar with whites, as I stray away from them generally. Here are a couple different takes on this same bottle: Take One; Take Two.