Monday, June 28, 2010

End of Days

Today marks the end of the 2009-2010 school year in New York City. In school this year and last year I felt my last days were pretty anti-climactic, if not surreal. The feeling is due in part to the fact that we've already had our 8th Grade Promotion Ceremony (Graduation), the 8th Grade Formal, etc. The other is that I don't feel like I've finished teaching- as if there is much, much more I could possibly tell my students about U.S. History that I simply did not get to.

Last year this feeling was especially bad. In the waning minutes of the last period of the day, I kicked into high gear, making everyone's head spin in the classroom, nearly panicked that I wouldn't get another few semester's worth of material into the last five minutes of dialogue I'd have with the students. Alas, all of that information was not passed on, though to be honest not a whole lot was during regular class periods over the course of my first year. Luckily that was not the case this year, as my students were far more knowledgeable about social studies when they left me on the final day of instruction.

If this was your first year in the classroom and you're still breathing, congratulations. A ton of people walk out in the first days or weeks of school, never to be seen again. Still others wait a few months, stubborn (though not enough), quitting sometime around mid-year, perhaps making up an excuse about an emergency they need to attend to across the country, such as the invasion of their town by martians. And then there are those like you who have stuck through what most veterans say will be the most difficult year of your entire life.

Well done, indeed.

Today's Wine: Any kind of champagne.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Irritable End

If you've read any of this blog, you probably could predict that the end of my first year was anything but pretty. I dragged myself across the finish line after having limped for a considerable amount of time due to what I thought was irreparable damage done by the first year in the classroom. I was way off the deep end waiting for rest and a break from everything that was my first year of teaching. To say the least I was jaded and I was irritable with everyone and everything around me.

The obvious feeling I had was being sick of my students. Had my School of Ed Self read this past sentence, I'm sure he would have reeled in the disbelief of those who ever spoke ill of students, but there it is. For ten months they'd ground into me, pushed me every second of every day, and oftentimes succeeded in pushing me over the edge to where I was a screaming, unbalanced mess. The last thing I wanted to do was extend my time with them and I was certainly looking forward to a break wherein I could forget all about the exhausting effort I'd expended every day for what was approaching 300 days nearly without respite. Even with the few I'd enjoyed teaching and depended on to help keep the class in some semblance of order, I had no desire to interact with them. I was irritable and wanted nothing to do with any of them.

It's certain that my students held similar sentiments. They'd seen me for nearly a year, standing at the front of the class demanding attention, not getting it, then demanding more still. They were tired of their first-year teacher, someone who lacked the ability to command a group of thirty students in the setting they lived and went to school in. While they were unaware of the fact that it was my first year, they knew I was not familiar with what they were used to and that I did not yet belong in that setting. Their sentiments came out in their frustration with my inability to deliver instruction in a way they most needed and they were tired of me trying the only methods I had up my short sleeves. They were as sick of me as I was of them.

Lastly, I was incredibly tired of meeting with, talking to, and generally working with other teachers in my school. Even the ones that had supported me all year began to get to me with their very well-intentioned and sincere advice as to how I should close out the year. At this point I was tired of dealing with anyone and willing to just wait it out until the end of the year- a state I'd never resigned myself to with any other undertaking throughout my life.

And so it was with my first year. It was unlike anything else I'd ever been through and unlike anything I'll probably ever go through again (hopefully). My colleagues and I speak often of how the one thing we wouldn't wish upon anyone is teaching the first year in the city. It's absurd, monstrously difficult and if you simply survive the year without running for the hills it's highly likely that your efforts were laudable. Near the end you may very well be irritable with everyone and everyone may be (or at the very least seem to be) irritable with you.

If you're in you first year and still in your classroom teaching, I applaud you. Much like a soldier on the front line, no one- regardless of their experience with K-12 education- can know what you've been through unless they have done the same. Not a single other person on the planet can commiserate with you unless they've been there, much like many professions I suppose, but is very arguably (and I say this not trying to be self-aggrandizing) more difficult than the vast majority of other professions. Make it through the next several days and then we'll talk about the summer, relaxing and preparing for next year.

Today's Wine: Mark West Chardonnay 2008. My father was nice enough to pick this up for me while we were in town to visit for my brother's wedding. The bottle bills itself as "uncomplicated," which I woudl agree with. It was a pretty fruity, not at all buttery.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Post 100

This is my 100th post. Over the past ten months I've averaged about ten posts per month, though in recent months it's slowed down a bit due to my desire to heap everything I possibly can onto my plate. Initially in this post I was going to try to post something magnanimous and terrific, but instead I'd like to use the opportunity as a general check-in with how I feel about this year.

As of right now, I'm thoroughly exhausted and ready for some rest and perhaps six hours of sleep for more than two days in a row. The year is winding down and I'm trying to grade large exit projects and the last round of classwork assignments, help administer exams, grade my students' state exams, break down my classroom, get in final paperwork, finish writing an action research piece, set up summer PD opportunities, yadda yadda yadda.

In spite of the fatigue and a To-Do List that seems unnecessarily daunting, I'm looking back at this year feeling like my students and I have accomplished something. I did not feel at all this way last year, but instead was thoroughly smashed into the ground and at this point in the year was waiting for the ref to blow the whistle and end the tragic comedy that was my first year in the classroom. While the second year certainly wasn't perfect, it was a far cry from the first year and was what all of the veterans last year told me it would be.

Today was my last day of classroom instruction for the year. While this thing isn't finished yet, I'm in a much better place than last year and I expect many other second year teachers feel the same way.

Today's Wine: At this point any wine would put me to sleep immediately, so I'm substituting a black eye from Starbucks (a tall cup of coffee with a double-shot of espresso added) for my wine today. Cheers!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The 8th Grade Prom

This past Friday was the 8th Grade Formal/Prom. We referred to it as the “formal” this year at our school because we are trying to move away from the idea that the eighth grade is any kind of stopping point in our students’ education. Eighth grade graduation is a very big deal in NYC because many students and their families readily assume they will hit no other major milestone in the wide world of education. Sadly, many of them are correct, but that does not excuse a community mentality that eighth grade is any kind of stopping point and should be celebrated as such. The group of students I began my career with last year was plagued by this general disposition, in part because there were more low-functioning, over-aged students. This year the contrast in students made me think I was a middle school teacher again, as I’d felt while student teaching in a middle school outside of NYC.

The formal this year went off far better than last year. Our science teacher led the planning effort again and based on what we did last year knew how to pull the thing down efficiently and cost effectively. Last year we spent endless hours building plastic columns and arches from a kit that cost over a grand, logging over twenty man-hours apiece in the couple of days leading up to the dance with a large group of students just to get the thing ready (during which I got some sweet second degree burns when operating a very tricky hot-glue gun while sleep-deprived). While it looked impressive and the students really appreciated the whole thing, it was clear once it was over that things would have to change for this year.

After the dance started, the difference between the two groups of students was blindingly apparent and continued to be throughout the night. A few things contributed to this rebirth of a traditional junior high dance at our school. When I say “traditional junior high dance,” I guess I’m referring mostly to the way the students were dancing and interacting with one another. Last year our eighth graders were bumping and grinding like they were eighteen or older, practically making babies on the dance floor. I spent the better part of three hours prying students apart, our large intimidating math teacher (the only one who could have really prevented it) just watching and laughing the entire time as she had done most of the year when I’d tried to put my foot down. Personally, I thought the dancing was atrocious and unacceptable, but she was on her way out and couldn’t care less. The dance this year was a far cry from the writhing mess of last year- the students danced in circles most of the time and separated themselves naturally into groups of girls and boys, awkwardly approaching one another during songs that warranted it. We spoke to a couple students near the end who started to get a bit more ambitious, but even the couple of high schoolers who came as dates were very respectful and appropriate the whole time.

Our eighth graders this year are about six months younger on average than the group we had last year. While that might not sound a like a lot, the difference between a fourteen year-old and fifteen year-old in the South Bronx (and really anywhere) is incredible, especially if the student is of the type that has been held back. This year we also did a far better job of holding students more accountable for academics and behavior as we approached the end of the year, which kept most of the knuckle-heads on the “do not admit” list - students who would have caused the most trouble, danced in the most inappropriate manner, etc.

Another factor, something that was not at all present last year, was that two of the biggest male personalities at the dance were not very interested in grinding on all of the girls in spite of the fact that the girls outnumbered the boys two to one. While they haven’t openly declared it (and probably won’t as long as they live or go to school in one of the most homophobic neighborhoods in the United States), our entire team is all but certain that the young men are probably gay. While that certainly doesn’t mean they wouldn’t bump and grind, the more boisterous of the two (and also the most boisterous at the dance in general) led the effort to keep the energy level high, marching around the dance floor like a party planner, demanding the other students join him in jumping and screaming, taking pictures like nobody’s business and inadvertently breaking up most love-connections and couples who might otherwise “lose” themselves in each other’s starry-eyed gaze on the dance floor/grind and make babies. In fact, most of the evening it looked more likely that a mosh pit would evolve than any babies be made.

When we sent them home (an hour earlier than last year- another brilliant move) the whole team agreed that it had gone off without a hitch and that it was the most pleasant dance we’d ever witnessed in the school’s history. The students and the staff had equally great times and it was a fantastic way to wrap up the year. It also sent (and will continue to send as the students talk about it next week) the message to those students who did not do their jobs this year that they can in fact miss out on great things because of their actions, even if being promoted to the next grade is not one of those things.

Today’s Wine: Martha Clara North Fork Cabernet Sauvignon 2007. The description says a lot of things and I only remember t being peppery. At any rate, this one was picked up at the Martha Clara Vineyards out on Long Island- part of a another wine tour we did this past weekend. We'd been to this vineyard before, which started to put some perspective on the size of the wine region on Long Island.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

I Want an IEP!

The past few weeks have been crunch time in the eighth grade at our school. While major projects have been assigned and unseen levels of students engagement have occurred, I can't help but to think that the work being done by our students has nothing to do with the desire to learn or to succeed academically, so much as the promise that if they do very well this marking period they will avoid summer school. There are a lot of tricks and loopholes that are being implemented for a lot of reasons, all of which get our students off the eighth grade rosters and onto the high school rosters. I explained some of this in my post NYC's Grand Grading Plan. Here is a bit more about the promotion process:

About two months ago a member of our administration gathered all of our failing students together and distributed what have been referred to as their "magic numbers" (without informing the teachers). These are the grades they must achieve in each class that will get them to pass for the entire year. For some, it is a 75% simply because they need to pass the semester with a high enough average. For those who failed the first three quarters of the year in a class, they were told that if they get a 95% in a class they'll be passed.

When I heard this I was indignant. You're going to tell my students that if they get an A for ONE quarter of the year then they passed my entire class?! Is that what you think of the work I do with these kids? AND you're not going to tell me about this conversation before having it with students? I suppose it's not that severe. The goal really was to give them a glimmer of hope and motivate them to do something this marking period. A friend of mine also pointed out that if they did not pass my class for the first three marking periods, the chances of them getting a 95% (currently one person in the entire grade is pulling that off) are essentially nil. Regardless, it was pretty special to know this is one of the "easy" ways to avoid summer school, though the strategy wasn't as bothersome and irritating as what some of our students wanted to do last year.

Around this time last year my students caught wind of an entirely different way to be promoted: an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). These are designed to give students with learning disabilities extra support as they navigate their way through the public education system. Their intent is outstanding: give every single student the support they need to succeed. The actual implementation? Most frequently we see some of the intended use of the IEP, but also the slapping of IEP's on behavior problems so those kids have excuses to fail academically. Now, our learning specialist is entirely against the latter. Not only does she understand what these tools are for, but she works to help each child grow so they one day do not need the IEP. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons (including job security and a desire to procure funding), the actual de-certification part doesn't always happen.

Anyway, one of the common provisions on an IEP is "modified promotional criteria." In layman's terms that means students will be passed to the next grade if they meet alternate, specified requirements. Unfortunately this is oftentimes abused to get students to the next grade who are floundering because of behavior issues- those who won't sit in their seat and do the work and are failing because of it. "Modified criteria" becomes synonymous with "is breathing" and the student is passed along no matter what they do. When this happens, most of them anticipate it, which helps their motivation to bottom out completely.

Well, several of our students caught wind of this last year and because of it and the DOE promising like mad that there would be a crack-down on eighth grade promotion (which did not happen), the panicked cry of, "I want an IEP!" could be heard in every year-end meeting we had with the students who were failing. Students were practically crying because they realized it was their last hope of avoiding summer school and perhaps being held back (again, for most of them- more than half of our grade was over-aged last year). Unfortunately for them, an IEP can't just be dreamt up and spit out onto a Word document in an afternoon, it takes a lot of planning and legal documentation (luckily, in this case). That was a relief, though, and while it may not sound professional to say so, it certainly felt like I'd finally seen some vindication for the students who had destroyed the educational process in my classroom every single day last year.

Social promotion is a beast of an issue- one I do not support, but I am also not the one charged with making the final decision on promotion. It's also easy for me to be against it, as I know that my students are going to be passed along and out of my hair regardless of what I believe. The immediacy of whether or not my students are going to graduate high school and/or find a decent job is not what it is in the grades that follow mine. I can still hope that if they're slipping up they can turn things around once they get to the ninth grade. In spite of whether I'm held accountable for their skills or not, it's tough watching them walk on by at the end of the year knowing that I said specifically that they were not prepared to go to the next grade and that the system is essentially set up to send them there regardless.

Today's Wine: Louise d'Estree Brut Sparkling Wine.
Because my school computer crashed and died, our two home computers are on their last legs respectively and because I've wrestled and complained about Windows operating systems for years, we bought an iMac this past weekend. The champagne is to celebrate!