Saturday, December 21, 2013

Exams--Or Why I Want To Beat My Head Against My Desk

Indulge me while I sound like your Grandpa for a moment.  When I was in high school, I had to study for my exams.  I am certain there was a certain amount of reviewing, but nothing like what I spent the last ten days doing.  I gave my students a study guide that literally had every single thing they needed to know for the exam.  Now, they should have had everything they needed to know already in their notes, but we then spent a week working on the study guide in class just in case. Then, the last class before the exam, I gave them a practice quiz that had the actual questions on the exam, we graded it, and I gave them the correct answers so they would know what to study.  To ensure that they actually filled out the study guide, I told them that if they brought the completed study guide to the exam, they would receive a 100 point test grade.  I would say 10% showed up without the study guide.  Another 10% showed up without the study guide filled in.  I cannot begin to tell you how many times I heard the words "What study guide?"  or "I didn't bring a pencil."  These are moments that try teachers' souls.

Another teacher came to me with his study guide and his exam and said, "I need to show this to someone who understands--here is my study guide and here is my exam.  How is it possible for people to be failing my exam?"  I looked at the two--basically identical.  If you took any time at all to look at the study guide, you had, in order, the questions on the exam.  It was even more straight-forward than my study guide.  I told him that the answer was simple; the students either took the opportunity to study and do well or they blew it off.   It is, as my friend Andrea would say, a metaphor for life.

So what can we do at this point?  The only option is to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.  Here are some of my favorites from our exams.  We laughed so we wouldn't cry.

Mine was primarily on The Odyssey. The epic starts with Odysseus telling of his time trapped with the beautiful sea goddess, Calypso.  They basically had a torried affair that last years and now he's back peddling, since he has a wife at home.  What's a man to do?  He claims in a very Bill Clinton-like way that he was trapped in her "smooth caves" and "never gave consent in his heart."  The kids loved this.  The boys in particular could relate to woman trouble.  They loved the very dirty and evocative metaphor of the "smooth caves."  I might have sarcastically said "dem caves" at one point.  Never did I dream someone would use that in their essay.  Does this student think that is the actual name of the caves?  No clue.

Odysseus was an epic hero.  He was brave and bold, and the essay I had them write asked that they give examples of that.  These essays are my two favorites.  On the left you can see a discussion of
how Odysseus has no qualms saying "F___ that!" when the circumstances call for it, and on the right, how he has the balls to fight the Cyclops with confidence.  To give my student on the left credit, he didn't actually write out the F word--but I knew what he meant.  So here is my challenge, they clearly get the qualities of an epic hero, they read and understood the story, but their language is completely inappropriate.  Frankly, I'm just glad they studied.  We can have the "you don't write a paper with the same language you talk to your friends" convo when we get back in January.  P.S.  These are my Honors English students.

Here are a couple good ones from my frustrated Social Studies teacher buddy:

Question:  How did the Hebrew people change religion?
Answer:  They were Jews.

That makes me laugh for days.  It is also amusing that this person goes on to say that the Jews were Polytheistic.  Here is another good answer to that question on the right.  Trade.  How would trade change religion exactly?  They traded a bunch of gods for just one?  Please take a moment and look at the answer to #3.  Do you recognize that word?  We didn't and we really spent some time trying to figure it out.  If you have a guess, please let me know.  It might boost that person's grade a bit. 

Remember that episode of "Friends" where Chandler says that he can't find a girlfriend because his  standards are too high?  One of the reasons he gives is her mispronunciation of the word "supposedly."  Do you think this could be that person's relative? 

Question:  Did you spend over a week prepping your students for the exams?
Answer:  Supposibly.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Fantastic Voyage

Real note I sent home with one of my Yearbook students:
Dear Derrell’s Mother,
Why doesn’t your son know who Coolio is? 
Slide, Slide, Slippedy Slide,
Miz Nilknarf
I was just so stunned that one of my kids would have no idea who the genius was who brought us “Gangsta’s Paradise,” that I felt it couldn’t possibly be true!  Full disclosure:  I have a great relationship with this kid’s mom.   Yearbook is so much more fun than it was last year.  I have such a creative group of students who blow my mind with their creativity.  Sometimes I embarrass myself (and them) by jumping up and down, hugging them, and yelling, “Oh! That is so brilliant!  I am so proud of you!!!” and then they tell me how white I am and I remind them that I know who Coolio is and they don’t.  
Moving on, I got another apple last week!  The student who gave it to me is a goofy, white kid, whose name is unfortunately, Melvin.*  I totally love him.  You have to imagine the hell of being a goofy, white 9th grader at my school named Melvin.   He works really hard, never is a problem, and is always very respectful.  Today, I received a request to come to a child study (an evaluation for a possible learning disability) at the request of his foster parent.  I died a little.  That sweet boy is in foster care.  My first thought was, “Ok, I need to ask Mr. Nilknarf if we can adopt him.”  I’m really bad about this.  I want to bring all of my needy students into my home, as if living with me would fix everything and save them.  I was relieved to find out from his counselor that his foster parent is a wonderful woman who really loves him. 
As teachers, we hear many negative things.  From the snide, “must be nice to get your summers off!” to “I could NEVER do that job,” the comments can get demoralizing.  What people do not get, is we don’t do it just because we love the subjects we teach.  We do it for the kids like Melvin.  Next time, instead of making a negative (however well-intentioned) comment about how much our jobs must suck and how you don’t know how we do it, just thank us for what we do for kids.  If you have time, ask to hear a story about a kid who made it worth it for us.  It will make us both feel better about teaching. 
*This isn’t really his name, but it is something equally white and old timey. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

And it didn't even have poision or a razor blade in it!

I want to start out by saying that a student actually gave me an apple today.  I’m not kidding.  Am I suddenly teaching in an elementary school in Mayberry in the 50s?  Not quite, but 9th grade has been a pleasant surprise.   

Several factors have made this year a little slice of heaven.  The first, 9th graders are kind of precious.  They are old enough to be funny, young enough to still have a little baby in them.  I dig it.  Second, we have a largely new Admin team this year and everyone has come together to crack down on these little darlings big time.  We are sequestered on the second floor—it is very peaceful up here.  Also, the minute the little rascals hit the top of the steps with their hats, inappropriate t-shirts, crop tops, and sagging pants, they are unceremoniously yanked into the office and dealt with. This usually involves making them wear a really long, ugly t-shirt that leaves them moaning in horror.  It is a beautiful thing.  Finally, unlike any other grade, the entire 9th grade staff meets as a team twice a week.  This is so helpful.  In particular, I love how we discuss the kids facing challenges (academically or behaviorally) and then strategize.  We have a great group upstairs, including my buddy Mr. B next door, who always fixes my computer, carries heavy things for me, and fills the void that Mr. I left by discussing Howard Stern with me.  I also love Mr. J and his endless supply of "Deez Nutz" jokes, which to paraphrase Ferris Bueller, is childish and ridiculous, but then so is high school.  Soooo…yes, I apologized to both my department chair and administrator for being a huge whiner about being moved because I really do love it.

I am getting to know my students and for the most part, I was totally in love by the end of week one.  I had them fill out a short getting to know you survey and their answers made me laugh, as well as gave me great insight.  A few of my favorite answers:

What is the one thing I should know about you in order to be the best teacher I can be for you? 

Don’t yell a lot, just when needed.  (I really try to never yell.  However, it is nice to know that when needed, I have the thumbs up.)

I struggle with school sometimes.  (Stuff like this kills me.)

I don’t like to be called on.  (Many say this, along with ‘I don’t like to read out loud.’  I honor it for a bit, but typically once they feel comfortable and realize I give out candy for participation, it becomes a non-issue.)

I like to be outside.  (Me, too!  Let’s start a beach school!)
Inspire me!  (No pressure, right?)

What language is spoken at home? (Amazingly, I have learned enough Spanish to make it work when I call home, but I do need a translator for some things.)

Spanglish.  (All righty, then.)

Do you have a preferred place to sit in the classroom?

In the middle, so I can have a good vibe with the front and back of the classroom. (I’m not sure what this means, but that’s cool, man.)

I like to sit alone, in a corner.  (Awesome.)

X and X don’t like me, please don’t put me near them and let this be our secret.  (This is the exact reason I put this question on the survey.  Can you imagine being seated next to someone who had tortured you in the past?)

What was the last book you read?

Some book about a rat.  (I don’t know why this amuses me so much, but I have been laughing about it for 2 weeks.)

Describe yourself in four words?

Weird.  (That’s not four words.)

Learnable, Teachable, Respect, Athletic.  (Heavy sigh…)

I need more words. (Well, that is four words.)

Quiet, Outspoken, Mean, Outgoing  (This young lady is the one mentioned above that the poor girl doesn’t want to sit next to.   I guess she wasn’t being paranoid.)

If you were in a terrible accident, had to have your arm amputated, and the doctor gave you the option of having your arm replaced with a baby-sized arm or a lobster claw, which would you pick and why? (This may seem silly, but it shows me how creative they are.  Also, I did not come up with the question.  If you are a teacher and you don’t read the blog called Love, Teach, you absolutely must).

Lobster claw.  So I can pinch mean people.  (If ever there was a good reason to have a lobster claw….)

Lobster claw, so people could be all, “Oh, he’s half lobster!” (I mean, technically, you’d only be like 1/8th at most, but I get your drift.)

I don’t feel comfortable answering this.  (This answer made me laugh the hardest.  This is an uptight, little, white kid.  I’m sure he thinks I’m insane.)

Baby arm, because a lobster claw is weird. (Oh, but a baby arm is perfectly normal.)

Lobster claw, because I can pick up heavy objects and crack peanuts.  (Good point.  Very practical.)

Baby sized arm, so I can still use it when I dance.  (True, but how awesome would it be to have the lobster claw at weddings when they play Rock Lobster?)

Monday, June 10, 2013

What fresh hell is this? Ninth grade...

Well, the end of my third year has finally arrived.  I now have "tenure" or continuing contract status.  Basically, this means I have a level of job security I did not previously have and I'm no longer on probation.  I am really proud to share that I had a fantastic review and received an "exemplary" rating in two out of seven categories (and apparently, Admin was told to be very sparing in giving them out).  Of course, with any pro there is a con, and the con is that I have been asked to teach 9th grade next year, the one grade I swore I would never teach. 

When I first found out, I was absolutely horrified.  I'm not a fan of middle schoolers, and our 9th graders are typically low on the maturity spectrum.  I ran in a panic to my administrator and said, "Ninth grade?!  WHY?!  Am I being punished?"*  I was buttered up with all kinds of compliments about my teaching and leadership skills and next thing ya know, I agreed to do it (not that I really had a choice).

There are some plus sides.  There is no 9th grade English SOL, thus eliminating that nightmare and my yearly SOL-induced breakdown.  I will be teaching honors for the first time and I am excited about that (although who knows what "honors" really means with this population).  Even though I will have to start all over yet again with lesson plans, I really like the text book.  I have unilaterally hated the other three from previous years.   I will be upstairs, which is much more quiet (downside, it is notoriously hot up there).  With a new principal, there is a slight, SLIGHT, possibility that these kids may actually come in a little nervous and inclined to "respect mah authoritah."  Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention closer proximity to my buddy Mr. W., who promises me that I will love 9th graders.

All in all, this has been a great year, with great kids.  As usual, I learned way more from them than they ever learned from me (especially if you look at their SOL scores!). I also maintain that my school has some of the finest educators in the business.  It takes a very specific type of person to work with that population  successfully and actually ENJOY it.  What a devoted, talented, crazy bunch I have the honor of working with!

Adios and Vaya con Dios
As for my summer plans, I plan on reading many trashy books, relishing sleeping in past 6:00 a.m. (if the dogs let me), and hopefully having my toes in the water and ass in the sand, so I can be ready for next year.

Life is good today. 

*Let me just say that having two of my own children go through those precious middle school years, were some of the worst of my parenting experience.  There is something very annoying, and faintly stinky, about middle schoolers. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

"You is Like my White Momma!"

Last year, I had the brilliant idea of making my students write letters to their teachers for Teacher Appreciation Week.  It was wildly successful and motivated so many teachers that I have done it again this year.  I always say something to the effect of, "I know I am everyone's favorite teacher, but if you have another teacher you would like to write to, please do.  I don't want anyone to feel like they have to suck up or be worried they will hurt my feelings."  Many write to me anyway, and I'm always and touched and amused by their thoughts. Last year, a student wrote "You is like my white momma!"  I will never forget it.  I am also shocked by who actually writes me.  It is often the person who I think hates me, or who has made little effort to interact with me, or this year, comes from the class I enjoy the least. 

Here are some gems from this year's letters (grammar and spelling intentionally not changed):

"Your really funny & whenever you get mad at people, it's even more funny.  Before the year is over, you should go in front of all the buses and start dancing."

"Your what I call a New School Party Animal with a spicy side if needed to be brought out." <what does this mean?  It sounds vaguely inappropriate!>

"I choose you as my favorite teacher to adknowledge because of your kindness, bad ass gangster coolness, and your humor and commitment towards your students." <this may be my favorite of the year>

"I feel comfortable in your class, which has definitely helped me since I am a newer student.  You know when to be funny and joyful in class which makes you that much better as my teacher."

"No matter how much you yell at me or give us alot of work your always here even when I'm failing your class."

"When I gave up on myself you was there and pushed me to do better."

<This one means so much because this student and I butted heads at the start of the year.> "Whenever I need help your there to help me.  Your a really nice teacher and you will always be there for your students no matter what."

"I appreciate the love you give to each and everyone of your students, especially me."

"I appreciate you because you didn't give up on me when I was straight up failing your class."

"At first I was like, 'Oh my gosh, this class is boring,' but now I love it."

Annnnnd a last minute entry that I just received at the end of the school day today (brace yourself),

"You always gives such good advice.  Member that time I was like Imma punch that bitch and you was like naw, don't do that?  I'm glad I listed to you." <I assume she means listened and I literally spit my drink out reading that one>.

Friday, May 3, 2013

How to Tame the Tigers

This year is my "tenure" year.  That means, that it is the end of my third year and that I have some job stability after this point.  Through this year, if there are cuts in my department, I am at risk.  Of course, the people who have joined the faculty more recently go first, but it happens.  As part of my tenure, I have to create this "justify my existence" binder that includes documentation in categories such as professional development, instructional delivery, and learning environment.  One thing that is to be included is my "classroom management philosophy."  It is ever-evolving, but as I end my third year, I feel like I have a decent handle on it.  So, for what it's worth--here it is:

Fred Jones, classroom management guru, says that you are either consistent or inconsistent.  There is no in between.  They key to successful management is a combination of clear and consistent expectations, and building strong student relationships.  The first day of school, I let my students know what the expectations are.  We review them daily for the first 2 weeks.  They never change.  I post my expectations in visible places around the room, as well as outside the classroom. 
Building strong relationships helps to reinforce those rules because a student will not behave for a teacher he does not respect.  If a student believes a teacher truly cares about him, he is more likely to follow classroom expectations.  I greet my students at the door each day, as if seeing them is the best thing that has happened to me all day.  I always say hello to them in the halls.  I compliment their clothes, nails, hair, and shoes.  I make an effort to know them—who their friends are, what their interests are, what their challenges are.  I attend as many school events as I can.  Many behaviors are attention seeking.  Especially with this population, students can be so desperate for attention that they do not care if it is positive or negative.  I reward positive behaviors (students are very motivated by candy) on a daily basis.  By giving positive attention, the negative attention-seeking behavior typically diminishes. 
I make a point to develop interesting lesson plans that my students will enjoy.  If I am bored teaching it, they most certainly are bored learning it.  I select literature and writing topics that are relatable and meaningful.  I change up activities every 15 minutes.  I do collaborative work often because not only does it give them a chance to engage and talk in an appropriate way, they really do learn from each other.  I use technology regularly –they love using the computers.  I have fully integrated Edmodo into my lesson planning.  I post handouts and power points, and use it for quizzes and tests.   An engaged student has far fewer opportunities to misbehave.
I believe that about 50% of behaviors can be ignored.  This is where good student relationships come in handy.  Typically, the class self-manages so other students will tell the offending student to be quiet or cut it out.  If there is an issue in class, I typically redirect or give a warning.  An ongoing or severe issue results in a student being asked to step outside.  Students will dig their own grave just to prove a point and not back down in front of their peers, so removing them gives them an opportunity to change the behavior without losing face.  Outside the classroom talks always come from a position of loving concern, never anger.  Our students see anger and hear yelling all the time and it has little impact.  I usually start with, “What’s going on?  You know better than that…”  I refer to the classroom expectations I have posted outside my classroom as a reminder that they do indeed know that is not acceptable behavior in my class.  I also throw in a “You know I care about you and your behavior really hurts my feelings…” That usually garners an apology.  High school is a difficult time and often their behavior is a direct reflection of some sort of stress unrelated to my class.  The outside conferences are always very quick and then we return to class.  If they need more time outside to calm down, I allow them that.  Then they can slip back in unnoticed while the rest of the class is working.
I develop parent relationships from Week 1.  I typically call every parent the first week of school to introduce myself.  One of my first teaching mentors told me, “There are few parent conversations that can’t be turned around by presenting your concern from the position that you want their student to be successful.”   I get emails and phone numbers and address any concerns I have upfront and document them.  MIRs* are also an excellent way to document a history of unacceptable behaviors.  This way, if there is a major issue that I have to turn over to administration, I have documentation of trying to address the behavior.
Finally, there are incidents of unacceptable behaviors that require immediate administrative action.  It is important to show the rest of the class that certain behaviors will not be tolerated, but with a minimal amount of disruption.  I try to stay calm and react from a place of stability rather than emotion.  There is nothing more satisfying to a student than to see that he has rattled a teacher.  Once the student is gone, I continue class like nothing happened.  The next time I see that student, I act like I always do.  There is always an opportunity for a fresh start in my class.  

*Minor Incident Reports--they serve as a written warning.  You get 3 in a 9 weeks and you get an administrative referral.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A sequel to "How You Gonna Fail Me?" entitled "Awwww HELL NO!"

Act I - in the Lecture Hall where Miz N is graciously spending her planning time proctoring an SOL.  Annie walks in and sees Miz N standing there.

Annie:  Awwww HELL NO!  I ain't goin' in there to take my SOL if she's gonna be in here!

Dr:  C:  Now Annie, you know you have to take this SOL.  Besides, Miz N is leaving with a smaller group of students; she won't even be in here...<quietly, to Miz N> She's such a delightful child, isn't she?

Miz N:  A dream!  Makes me excited to come to work!

Act II: Outside Miz N's classroom later that day.  Miz N is greeting her students.  Annie is standing there.  Miz N is ignoring her, partially for fear of incurring Annie's wrath and having another scene.  Miz N has had enough of scenes.

Annie:  Miz N, can I come back to your class?

Miz N:  No.

Annie:  <shocked, all innocent outrage>  Why not?

Miz N:  Because you are finished in here.  <walks into classroom>