Summer’s Here Swiftly: A Late Reflection on the Close of Year 3

School’s out Biebs, no need for those fake nerd glasses.

That. Just. Happened. I can’t believe it either everyone!  Juster Bieber’s album is actually really, really good. Oh right, the other exciting thing I wanted to write about… Exactly one Wednesday ago marked the final day of school for over 1.1 million New York City public school students and 90,000 of their weary teachers. Although I’m told every day that I still look like a student, it’s pretty nice to realize that I’ve just completed my third year teaching humans who were born in the mid to late 1990’s! *Rowdy Applause* *Jerk in the crowd yells “That’s not that cool”*

If you, at any point in time, got into a routine of reading my posts during the past two years, you’ve noticed that I’ve neglected the blog since the beginning of 2012. I had one meager post in January, and then another in April. The latter was the epic one where I confidently announced my return from writing-hibernation. Obviously, that was all a giant lie, and you were all duped. Currently, I write to the high-speed internet world three months later with a great deal to reflect upon. Hopefully I can get started with a very basic summary of the final three months (if not for your enjoyment, then for my own sake and sanity). Then, I wanted to share a few education-related topics that I’ve been wanting to write about. Because I have more free time, and there are so many topics to consider, I’m thinking that readers can comment and choose the next topic for me to write about. I’m aiming to post once a week or two in the summer (I know it’s lofty given my previous record), but when I post, I hope to publish on Wednesday Nights at 8 PM.

Woooooooot Wooooooot!

Let’s get started: SCHOOL’S OUT AGAIN!!!!!!!!

I know what you’re thinking (if you’re not a teacher), “What the what!? Why does school end during the steamier part of June? Doesn’t that seem like way too late! What a bummer for everyone involved!” Well, I’d tell you that you’re absolutely right, but sadly, public school education runs a month or two after the shorter college semesters have finished up. As I’ve written about in a blog entry last year, the final weeks of school are essentially just contractually obligated appearances. They are filled with final exams, notices of summer school, movies, field trips, Stepping-Up ceremonies, celebrations, and lots of crying (in no particular order besides chronological).

We finished up on a pretty mild note compared to other years, with no memorable student blow-ups or major meltdowns. After my first fun-filled New York City week of Summer 2012, I can now sit back and truly appreciate how smoothly the last month came to a close.

“The heat makes me crazzzzy”

In years past, the final month of school (June) has been the equivalent of  being trapped in a musty sauna full of angry woodland creatures. Let me try to re-phrase. I’m not saying that our lovely middle and high school children turn into rabid animals with foamy fangs right as the temperature climbs near triple-digits. I’m saying that in my previous experience as a human being, everyone has the potential to turn into a frustrated, tense, irritable being when he or she is  trapped and physically hot. One of the key reasons that our school year ended on a much more calm and tranquil way might have had something to do with the fact that only four out of the twenty-or-so days in June reached the dreaded 90s. At least two of the weeks were uncharacteristically mild, and it seems that many of our students acted in accordance with the weather. Thank you Sam Champion.

In addition, and on another positive note (I know I can’t believe this post is so upbeat either) my relationship with my class of students was healthier than usual by the end of the year. That is to say, not AS many of them cursed my existence as was the case in years past. During the last couple weeks we had field trips to the Planetarium to hear Whoopie Goldberg’s voice talk to them about the scale of the universe, as well as an adventure to Prospect Park to run around in the sun for activities known as Field Day. Because middle school final exams high school Regent’s testing wrap up a few weeks before the school year ends, these remaining days are a good time to get the middle school students active outside of the school.

On one of the last days of school I even took my smaller class of thirteen students to see the Avengers and then meet their Pen Pals from a Law Firm. After a fair amount of popcorn throwing, my students seemed to have enjoyed the superhero flick (this was gauged by the large amount of ogling and loudly giggling at the beefy Captain America). After running around the concession stands at the nearly empty theatre, my students had to quickly get their act together and meet with their lawyer Pen Pals at a fancy law firm in Manhattan. For two or three months prior to our meeting, thirteen lawyers generously participated in a program designed to improve my students handwriting, written expression skills, and motivation. The students had to draft letters about themselves, revise, edit, and send them out to a female lawyer at a very successful law firm. The lawyers sent pictures and letters back, and wrote to the students about their lives and the skills they use every day. We all read a fable about a donkey who survives a near death well experience by never giving up, and it sparked a nice conversation about motivation, success, failure, and work ethic. In addition to exchanging letters with the students, the lawyers graciously invited us to one of their conference rooms where everyone met their Pen Pals over a pizza lunch.  It was a real treat and I think that all of the students appreciated the experience.

When looking back on the mini-program, I’m a huge believer in that students need more quality out-of-school experiences. A lot of the time students (and teachers) are kind of trapped in this kind of boring box. Learning can happen in many more ways than sitting and facing a board, and too much time is spent focusing on one kind of learning. At the end of this year, I was happy to help facilitate our pilot Pen Pal program that had them communicating outside of the school.

In the experiences that I’ve had with so many of my students, it’s clear to me that the obstacles they face on the road to school success are enormous. Many of their circumstances at home are completely beyond their control (such as parents working multiple jobs to get by, having added responsibilities at home, etc.), and many students will tell you themselves that they lack positive role models in their lives. In my opinion, its essential for students to go on more, well planned field trips. They need to meet and correspond with more role models outside of the classic teacher-student relationship. I also think that public school systems should focusing on increasing partnerships with organizations that focus on supporting students with extracurriculars and out-of-class activities. More to come on these thoughts later.

Lastly, here is a list of potential topics that I’ve thought about writing about. I’m not going to teach forever, and I don’t want to forget about my experiences and takeaways from the classroom.

I believe this is Mr. Nibbleworth playing Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.

The extra needs of students with disabilities

The role of parenting in urban education

The top three things about public education that I would change

Teacher statistics from our 8thgrade team this year (phone calls/etc.) Co-teaching

My wonderful tenure experience

Individual student stories that I don’t want to forget

I know that’s a lot, and if you’re not in the education world some of that might not be that appealing. I promise to add pictures of funny animals like this one to mix it up. Please comment if you’ve gotten this far, and I’ll gauge interest.

Congrats!!

Lastly, I want to shout out my father, who retired last week after teaching history for 38 years (22 of them with the same school). He worked tirelessly and dedicated his life to teaching students and providing them with the skills necessary to succeed. He’s always inspired me to change the world for the better, and has always told me that while teaching, you never know how many great people you will have helped shape. I’m sure he’ll be back in education in some way during retirement, but I obviously wish him the best.

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Blogging My Memory: Off the Bench and Back to Writing

I'm also a robot sent from the future, and will someday govern California.

Heyooooooooo awesome blog perusers!!

I know I’ve been on the proverbial bench for over three months now, but to be perfectly honest, I went through a stretch where I lost the will to blog. I know this fact has been extremely disappointing the majority of the world, but fear not earth, my rambling, semi-edited chronicling a of teenager-teaching life has returned.

Since I last posted my School Lunch Experiment, so much has happened at school. I can remember a few times where I sped home around 5 PM, passed out for my half hour nap routine, and then forced my dazed self to write a post. Each of these two or three times, I managed less than three meager paragraphs. I can vaguely recall the culprits of my blogging inefficiency. Each time I sat down to type, I was sucked into the many entrances of the black hole of distraction; either magnetized out of my apartment to play basketball at the Y (which I’m literally addicted to), or compelled to hit click on another webpage on the internet. The latter always resulting in the opposite of productivity – my brain turned off, and my eyes transfixed on most important articles on fantasy baseball mock drafts, videos of puppies wresting cubs, or even the newest pictures of Blue Ivy! So hopefully everyone can relate to this common predicament.

Looking back in during the last few days of a much-needed ‘SPRING BREAK 0-12’ (which should always be shouted like a frat boy), there is absolutely zero excuse for me not to write a little blog post. The toughest part is that so much has happened since my last post “The School Lunch Experiment” in mid January.

No need for blogging. When this little guy becomes a teacher, he'll never forget his weeks yelling at hallways of loud adolescent elephants.

I’ve been thinking about memory recently, and my fear is that if you don’t give yourself time to sit back and reflect on your day, week, or, as it has crept up on me, your month (s), than all of the things you could have appreciated or learned from could be lost.

So off to my handy iCal, which will hopefully jog my fading memory and allow me to summarize some of the more gripping events of the past few months at school.

The end of January, through my 8th grade teacher eyes, could be defined by my attempts at preparing my students for their midterms. Our school’s second marking period ended at around this time, and most of the students grades were even more jaw-droppingly low headed into these cumulative tests.

To give you a depressing and way-too-dramatic visual, try to follow me here: Imagine yourself of showing up in the morning to wherever you work, and putting your briefcase or work satchel in where-ever you store your personal belongings. You walk into a room with a giant, clear wheel propped up on a platform made for a human being to enter and walk on. You step into the wheel and begin running full speed (anywhere from 6.0-10.0 depending on your level of treadmill fitness). You continue doing this for seven hours straight, and then you stop, get out of the giant clear wheel, and head home to pass out face down in your bed.

Look at him making so much (figurative) progress!Tiring right? Seems pretty frustrating? Trying everything you possiblycan to help your students pass classes that they haven't done homework in for months is essentially this, a near impossibility with many an hour spinning your wheels like a jeep stuck in the mud.

This overly extended metaphor wasn’t meant to explain my entire livelihood at school for the past few months. It’s just me trying to represent the few weeks reviewing year-long concepts in preparation for a midterm.

Into February, my trusty iCal tells me that I was helping lead our 8th graders into a ‘promising’ 3rd marking period. One in which, if I remember my attempt at inspiring words correctly, was an “exciting chance to improve and show everyone that you are ready to enter high school!” These couple of weeks, I made a concerted effort to, and of course struggled at, getting students to come after school for help. (Now I just remembered it was then when I was about to write about this before getting distracted by the Jeremy Lin phenomenon). The school month of February went by quickly because we had Winter Recess and an entire week off to relax and recharge our injured motivations.

After break, March happened. This was the time last year, if you want to search through my old blog posts, where I almost broke down completely as a teacher. For all teachers on this public school schedule, March is the most dreaded and painful month. To new teachers, they say, “Just get through March, into Spring Break, and your home free”. This could not be more true.

What has stuck with me so much this year after the 7 week grind without a break from teaching is how emotionally unscathed and “used-to-it” I’ve become. I definitely want to separate this feeling in my mind from the neighboring feelings of complacency or even ‘not-giving-a-crap’, but I’ve definitely learned so much after a few years. I tend to look at things as being in my control or not, and I leave it at that.

Imagine these on middle school girls as a rewards celebration. It's weird I know - but they loved it. E-mail me if you want the real pics.

More of my thoughts on this to come in future posts, but these last weeks at school, our team of teachers have worked insanely hard. Our eighth grade team has made over 900 calls to parents this year. In addition, all of the teachers plead to students to come for help after school when they are confused. Basically, we’re doing our jobs with following up with students.

This whole year, I’ve had very honest and direct conversations about school and home lives with my students every day while pushing them to do their best. I’ve taught after school English Test prep on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and coached soccer on Wednesdays.

What I’ve learned after yet another 3rd marking period of failing students is that the majority of the reoccurring problems preventing student achievement are more strongly influenced by obstacles outside of some of the amazing work we do inside school.

Either way, we have to stay positive and keep our heads up as state tests begin this upcoming week! We can even celebrate some of the smaller successes with fun mustache rewards parties.

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Student Size Me: The School Lunch Experiment

Woke up in the late afternoon…

In late November, I had one of those lazy Sundays that sets you up to be very distressed at the beginning of your work week. Not only did I barely plan a lesson for Monday, but I left a laundry list of errands undone in favor of college-esque napping, football, TV, and goofing around.

Aside from leaving my laundry undone and my parking tickets unpaid, I totally forgot to do any grocery shopping. I neglected to pick up the essentials for my morning sandwich creation routine, including deli meats, bread, cheese, and of course, snacky-poos.

As I hungrily realized my mistake during third period, I knew that I didn’t want to spend 11 dollars on the one decent sushi place at the corner. I also knew that our school sits in the middle a neighborhood that is far from any worthwhile food.

All of a sudden, an idea swept over me. Why not go downstairs to the basement cafeteria, (where the children eat ) and order me some school grub? Few teachers have ever thought about this as an option (maybe because they cherish their few minutes away from screaming students, or that they are adults and can buy their own food). But in my heart, I knew I had always wanted to go through with the school lunch experiment.

Because I love getting excited about eating, I thought that consuming five straight school lunch meals and writing down my notes on them would be worthwhile. Maybe they would affirm or dispel some of  people’s assumptions about the free and reduced school lunch program in our city. Let’s see what you think.

Day 1 – Monday – 11/28/11

Breaded chicken patty, whole-wheat bun, pineapple chunks, fried potato wedges, chocolate milk. Other option – slice of pizza.

The breaded chicken patty was very processed, slightly warm, and a little too solid. It was your standard “That’s definitely not really chicken” patty, that you know was frozen in bulk for months before getting heated up. No condiments were offered, and even with added ketchup from the teacher’s room, it was super dry.

The whole-wheat bun was a nice surprise and was the best part of the sandwich. Healthy options were always a positive during this week.

The pineapple chunks were your standard canned sugary serving of vegetable in water.

The big serving of fried potato wedges was very heavy and filling. They were delicious because of their dense, greasy potato insides, yet by far the most unhealthy and tasty part of the meal.

The chocolate milk was wonderful, and the pizza (which most students ate) looked very re-heated and unappetizing. Other students ate school option peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, food from home, or candy and soda substitutes.

Day 2 – Tuesday – 11/29/11

Beef burger with whole wheat bun, pickles, peaches in water, herb sprinkled potato fried and baked, milk.

The burger looked like one of the poorest pieces of meat I’ve ever seen. The lunch lady said that she, “Usually has what the kids like, but today’s menu was not the best”. It was clear the kids were staying away from this mystery meat patty, but I decided I had to experience it.

I placed it on the whole wheat bun, threw some of the many pickles they served with it, and dipped it in the giant dollop of ketchup they added to my styrofoam plate. I was much easier to chew than the over-microwaved chicken patty from Monday, and actually didn’t taste terrible. The pickles and ketchup helped out, but this for sure did not taste, or feel like a healthy burger during and after consumption.

The potato’s today were different, and somewhat of an oddity. After one small burger, I assumed I would be hungry after the meal. I was wrong. After these potatoes, which each had the weight of the entire burger, I was satisfied and full. They were seasoned, which was nice, but what stuck out as odd was their super heaviness They didn’t feel or taste baked. I assumed that they were deep-fried, and then thrown in the oven for a little.

Finally, I had my healthy fruit portion – the pears in water. I was full due to the brick potatoes, and I fought myself in front of my laughing colleagues in order to finish the slimy pears off.

Day 3 – Wednesday – 11/30/11

Pasta with meat sauce, whole wheat bun, fresh salad, pineapple in water, chocolate milk.

The surprise of the week so far, this meal was tasty and healthy all around.

The pasta was delicious and light. It was the first main course of the week that tasted fresh and healthy. The only problem was that I wanted more.

The salad was fresh and the lunch ladies told me that they had just made it minutes before I came down.

The whole-wheat bun, pineapples, and chocolate milk were  all becoming good friends to me by Wednesday.

Day 4 – Thursday – 12/1/11

Oven roasted chicken with duck sauce, crepe with spinach, pepper, feta cheese, fresh salad, chocolate milk.

This was by far the best meal of the week. Wednesday surprised with a nice salad, and Thursday continued the salad and added some really tasty chicken and crepe combo.

Not only was the chicken REAL, hearty, and hot, but it tasted delicious. I’m sure it was in frozen packages hours earlier, but what I ate could have passed as freshly cooked chicken anywhere. It had a sweet duck glaze sauce on it, and by this time in the week, the lunch-ladies were throwing double portions on my Styrofoam plate (score).

I asked where they make crepes, and they told me that they were also frozen. Nevertheless, with the salad option again on the table, I was very much impressed with the cafeteria staff and the lunch in general. Even when I showed some teachers back upstairs, a few of them commented, “That’s from downstairs?!”

Day 5 – Friday 12/2/2011

Fish sticks, on flat bread tortilla, fruit punch, and chocolate milk.

Coming off some stellar meals on Wednesday and Thursday, it seems the students and teachers aren’t the only ones that may run out of gas a little by the end of the week. I mean no offense at all by this, but this meal was pretty weak by any standard. The fish sticks were almost inedible, and I just regretted not ordering the pizza at least once during the week.

I’m was actually a bit scared to post this one because I could see parents or others getting upset. The lunch staff was so kind to me, and it is obvious that the group of five or six of them work extremely hard within the boundaries of their control to offer quality meals (sound similar at all?). I want to give a big Kudos to them all, but this particular Friday the kitchen had run out of fruit options entirely. They apologized and gave me an extra fruit punch to compensate. Nevertheless, this should not be happening in our schools.

To be perfectly honest, now is a good time to say that most students did not eat this fish stick platter. The majority of the students, on most of the days, seemed to order the standard slice of pizza.

The real childhood obesity problem.

Although a few days had lackluster meals (cough-cough gross burger and fish sticks), I was surprised by the ‘better-than-expected’ quality and variety of lunch options throughout the week. I thought that eating the school lunch would be a one time thing for me, but I find myself going down for lunch once a week since my experiment.

You could make the case that most of the meals did in fact have all food groups accounted for, though nutritional experts might be terrified at the sodium and sugar percentages of some of the frozen, processed meats and canned fruits.  In addition, I would strongly suggest that salads be offered as an option every day.

I think that increasing the funding for federal and state school food programs could only benefit the healthiness and variety of options for our students. Imagine if more of those canned fruits or frozen portions could be exchanged for fresh ones?

I came in with an unfounded ‘Supersize Me’-like notion that the cafeteria only offered fried food, and that none of the food was edible at all. I came out thinking that while a few things could most definitely be changed (like not having the pizza option every single day), students who eat the school lunch have much less to complain about than they voice daily. In a follow up to come, I may look at nutritional content and what other urban school districts are doing to combat childhood obesity.

On a final note, students come into school first period every day with handfuls of potato chips, sour-gummy candies, and highly sugary soft drinks in their artificially flavor-stained hands before we make them dump them away. After school, and even at lunch, students pig out on meals entirely consisting of junk food. I know the dangers of making blanket statements about anything, so I won’t. But I can say that during my personal experience with adolescents at my individual school, many of the health issues stem from eating habits learned at home.

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Passed Out, Quality Reviewed, and Labeled a Grinch

"A hippo wearing a hat!!!!" Oh man, it's just a bunch of boring words website..."

I’ve been overcome with blog-guilt the last few weeks. I feel like I would be lying by omission if I didn’t say that for a full week, I waited until I passed a milestone amount of view hits.

With a sad, sad understanding that many of the random hits on the blog are from elementary students typing “cute animals” into google image search, I nevertheless find it great that a solid group of friends and family read my thoughts on school life. This makes me feel a little guilty when I take a three-week hiatus from writing, so I must get some computer ink down on computer paper tonight. Now where do I start…

Since I last wrote about the dangers of phallic symbols in the classroom, winter has crept up on all of us in the northeast. There’s always a little melancholy feeling when the leafy season has come and gone, yet this year, the warmth has lingered so much that it hasn’t been too painful. This may be one of the reasons that this November-into-December stretch of attempting to control hormonal teenagers has seemed to fly by faster than my previous two.

This is me napping on my cubby.

In thinking back at the hazy, pass-out-for-a-longer-nap-than-you-expected-after-work-everyday three weeks since the end of November, a few moments stand out over the (its sad to say it) monotonous routines of life in 8th grade.

During the first week of December, I recall not even thinking about blogging, reflecting, or even writing down funny student interactions. Our school was undergoing the most highly stressful time of the year – our Mandatory Quality Review.

From the first staff meetings in August, to the day before the superintendent and her colleagues came dropping into our classrooms at random, our administration had been reminding and prepping us about this evaluation and its importance. It was a slowly building crescendo of  warning and preparation, and as teachers, we were expected to be on our A games.

The Quality Review is a big deal, and happens only once every three or so years for public schools in the city. It determines how well the school it doing on every level, and we are expected to have high level lesson plans and spotless classrooms. I’m afraid of going into too many details about the very official review (because I don’t want to create controversy) but in short, the superintendent and her assistants are given the job of grading every aspect of a school’s culture and effectiveness in a two-day visit. You can imagine how fair and easy that always turns out.

You can never be too prepared!

My classes were never seen by any reviewers, and for me it just felt like a lot of preparation with no exciting event. It was kind of like I was Harold Camping for a few days. I can only say that through the eyes of the powerful individuals in charge, our school is rated as still developing and there is need for improvement. I think that as a school we are better than we were rated, but if the rating can help us improve and contribute to us making our environment better, then cool beans.

Another quick thing that I feel the need to vent to the internet world about is a quick recap of how my students are doing. Many of our 8th grade students are STILL not consistently doing their homework. Today, five out of twenty-three students handed in a one page english worksheet about imagery. The absolute worse part about this was that I gave the entire class twenty minutes to complete the homework after a quiz today. Still, only five handed it in on time. After individual conferences, some of the kids themselves (without me forcing them), responded that the class was “irresponsible” and “didn’t seemed like they care”.

They have actually called me the ugly grinch.

After a bunch of phone calls home to remind parents of their students’ sup-par work ethic, I am official a giant Grinch before Christmas. It’s fitting though, because for the last month of so one of their nicknames for me has been “The Grinch”. I’ll take the funny nickname, and honestly, if turning into a meaner, heartless, green monster in the weeks following break will increase their motivation, I’m in.

Finally, another entry that I started to write, and one that most co-workers of mine saw me doing research for, is about school lunch at our school.

Due to the fact that I have never given the names of students, teachers, administration, or the name or location of my school, I think I’m in the clear to write truthfully about the free/reduced lunch that about 90% of our students eat for lunch each day. I came into my “Supersize Me”- like experiment with the same Morgan Spurlock mentality. After the week of only eating cafeteria food, I have all sorts of comments, reviews, and questions about our governmentally subsidized lunch program.

My questions to everyone out there are: Should I continue with my next post? What should my boundaries be? And has anyone read any blogs or stories that would be similar. Please leave  a comment and I’ll post before the end of the year (we are off in two days!!)

And of course, have a happy, safe, and eventful holiday!

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The Winchester Penis Rifle

"This time...He put himself back together again!"

Blood. Guts. Gore. Murder. Mystery. Believe it or not, these are some of the most popular student interests this year in my 8th grade class. After giving out personal interest surveys asking them which TV shows, movies, and books they enjoy, I’ve received an overwhelming response of ‘Paranormal Activity 1-3’, ‘Fright Night’, ‘Scream 4’, and other psycho-killer-make-you-scream titles .

With this wealth of information about what interests my students, this year I’ve been trying to  make my class has fun as possible by using videos and readings that they can get excited about. If I can reel them in and engage them in the material, with the endgame being they READ and WRITE,  I’m fine with showing them a little PG-13 horror content. If you know me, you know very well that I myself have less of a stomach for this kind of stuff, but I guess it can serve as another way for them to poke fun at me.

On Halloween, we did a little research on Edgar Allan Poe and read a nice adaptation of “A Tell-Tale Heart” in kid friendly play form. The following week, I decided to continue the über spooky theme by planning the context of my lessons about ghosts. I showed them the classic Sixth Sense trailer, and followed with an activity where they did a little writing about whether they believed in ghosts and spirits or not. Interestingly enough, 12 out of 12 students in the seminar believed whole-heartedly that spirits and ghosts existed, and many said that they or their close relatives had had close encounters with ghoulish entities (A few related it to their cultural heritage – Caribbean or Mexican for instance).

So the kids are excited, I’m learning more about their lives, and all is well. This leads us to our most eventful lesson about the infamous ‘Winchester Mystery House’. The story of the Winchester Penis Rifle has been the funniest single moment this year, and it’s about how I came dangerously close to a disastrous drawing mistake.

To prep the class on an article about the story of the haunted ‘Winchester Mystery House’, the class watched a few clips from ‘Most Haunted’ and ‘Ghost Hunters’. Apparently all the kids these days love this stuff more than Selena Gomez or even Lil Wayne or Drake. The clips gave a good summary of the story of Sarah Winchester and her famous mystery house. I will recap shortly for those of you who do not know.

IHOM (International House of Mystery)

Sarah Winchester, born in New Haven Connecticut in 1839, was the wife of prominent gun corporation owner William Winchester. After their lone daughter tragically died shortly after birth, and then William of Tuberculosis in 1880, Sarah Winchester was insanely depressed. Aided by ‘mediums’ (psychics who communicate with the dead), she was absolutely certain that she and her family were cursed. Legend has it that a popular medium alleged that  spirits of all the men killed by the Winchester Rifle in the Civil War (so many ghosts!) had put a serious curse on her and her family. They told her to move to California to build a house for them to live, so of course, she did. In the end, the totally crazed Winchester woman moved to San Jose, built a mammoth, labyrinthine mansion full of odd and kooky staircases to nowhere and doors opening into walls. She spent over 20 million dollars of her inheritance and continued to build the house for almost 40 years to keep the spirits at bay until she died at the age of 83.

Ahhhhh, I felt like I needed to tell that story because 1) It’s awesome, and 2) I inadvertently drew the biggest penis-rifle in the history of the teaching profession while explaining the Winchester story.

My drawing looked nothing like this...

During the article, I needed to clarify how this lady was so rich, and why spirits from the Civil War would want to spook her. Off the cusp, as teachers occasionally do, I decided to use our fancy SmartBoard to illustrate the answer to both of these questions: The famous Winchester Rifle.

I started my drawing at what I thought would be the handle, and curved it up too quickly to the right. I extended a looonnnng line straight across the board, over two feet long, and drew another back to the left to signify a barrel of a long gun. Finally, I inexplicably wanted to emphasize the muzzle by boldly outlining the tip of the gun. As I finished my god-awful drawing of the rifle, I knew it immediately. The greatest moment was not my realization of my error, but the stunned and horrified face of my co-teacher sitting behind the students in the back of the room.

As he mouthed “Nooooooo!!!!”, slightly laughing with a face blushing red, I anxiously grabbed the SmartBoard marker to try to fix up the drawing before one of the kids made the connection. Of course, I went for the tip of the “rifle” again and wound of nervously making the bulbous head of the penis-gun more pronounced than before. I knew it wasn’t working so I tried to draw in a trigger near the handle. This didn’t work so well either. You can guess what the trigger ended up looking like. As my attempts to fix the drawing were increasingly backfiring, a few students confusedly yelled out, “What IS that?”, and just as fast as they said it, I snapped back “A Rifle!” With a giant sigh of relief, I erased the drawing by hitting the next slide on the Powerpoint.

7th grade English class 'Holes' cover. Soak it in.

As close of a call my penis-rifle incident was, I think the moral of the story is that phallic symbols can arise at anytime, in any work environment. Being a male teacher at a middle school for girls is one work environment that could be considered the most dangerous one for this particular scenario. I think we should just have each other’s backs, and let naive children do the drawings from now on. —————————>>>>>>>>>>>>>

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Theodore Roosevelt Was Wrong: Failing is Cake

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “It is hard to fail”

"I love the environment, killing animals, and colonizing other nations! Celebrate me!""

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Mr. Rough-Rider Roosevelt (who also fought in a savage imperialist war on the Philippines) never met inner-city students living within our current public education system. For a healthy number of them, failing has been quite the easy feat this year. Actually receiving the failing grade has also not seemed to be a difficult experience for many of them as well.

In order to fail, you can do any number of simple and effortless things. For one, you can not listen to teachers directions during class. You could forget to do you homework over twenty times. You could  not study for quizzes or tests before you take them. Or easiest yet, you can show up late or not even come to school! The resulting failure is not hard to achieve, nor hard to swallow for some many (who have never been equipped with the skills or work ethic to succeed in the first place). Failure has been a naturally easy state of being, and something they have yet to get frustrated or pained about. Yet.

Over the past few weeks since I last wrote and reflected,  there continues to exist seemingly perpetual problems of student motivation. Most of us teachers have tried everything in the book to increase some kind of ownership over learning, but too many students persist in their immaturity. Many are still distracted, failing, and poorly organized as of the first two months of 8th grade.

We know that too many of our students have horrific home lives, live close to the poverty line, and in addition, may have added responsibilities of being grown ups at home. Nevertheless, most of what is in our control is what the students do within the friendly confines of our school. We’ve tried to adopt the attitude (as hard as it is to swallow), that we should just let many of them fail early on in the year, in the hopes that they can be shocked and make a change for the next part of the year.

"Say Hello to your failing grade!"

Today marked the first day of the second marking period. We’re trying to frame it as a refreshing new start to forget about the assignments you missed, or poor mark you received, and start over again. In addition, I would be straight out lying if I didn’t say that it’s also a little fun to say in an evil Tony Montana voice, “Let them all fail! They need to fail”. It’s brutal, but it may be the only way to see a turnaround.

Alright already, enough of the boring school updates! “We don’t care THAT much about your students Mr. J, tell me something worthwhile”. Alright.

I’d like to take this time remind all the people out there that life in a middle/high school is still entertaining (even though depressing problems persist). I feel like I need to get back to showing how funny following 12 and 13-year olds can be day in and day out. They still say the darndest things.

A few weeks ago I was helping out during a Science lab with the class of students that I’m usually with at least two or three periods each day. The lead teacher (my good buddy), has them doing an assignment in small groups to review for a biology exam. While I’m floating around helping groups out by quizzing them on Mitosis, an eccentric chatterbox of a student begins bombarding me with questions about my hair out of the blue. “You must have a hard time gettin’ a comb through all that nappy hair!”. Before I can react another girl responds, “He doesn’t have nappy hair you dumbo!” “Well, you know what I mean! It’s all long and it would be really hard to brush it right?” At this point I’m fighting a smile and I try redirecting their attention to the Mitosis concept. Not so surprisingly, interactions and comments like this tend to spout out of students’ heads like cartoon thought bubbles that are uncontrollably verbalized regardless of setting or context.

At random parts of my day, whether it’d be, “What’s that mark on your face” during an explanation of a homework answer in English, or “I don’t like your tie today it doesn’t match your shirt or hair” while attempting to begin my seminar, I always need to be on the look out for a distracting comment about myself.

Another day last week, another image stuck in my head that I’d like to share. After our biggest hallway fight of the year (which I just missed witnessing/trying to break up), I remember seeing the aftermath. Long strands of thick brown and black dreads lay scattered on the blue stone hallway floor. After the contenders were split up by teachers and school security had barred them into separate rooms, noisy students walking by had to be threatened to get back to their classes. I remember coming late to join the hubbub of this girl-fight, and shuffle-swept seven or eight pieces of weave-dread into the stairwell door with my loafers. I felt like pushing them away from gossiping children passing by who might hover around them might help settle down the crowd. It’s just your standard kicking-a-bunch-of-dreadlocks out of sight move. Ahhhhh teaching.

This year has been going, 'Sloth-in-a-box' good.

Finally, if you’ve read the last couple posts on my blog, you’ll know a few important things. One is that this year has been more comfortable for me in my third year. Here are a few fragments to shortly explain why this is so: No grad school. No tedious education assignments. Only one grade to focus on at school. More free time. The extra free time and much more reasonable schedule have allowed me to reflect more on the year so far, and to take a step back from the sometimes very cloudy school time-warp more frequently. Hopefully it can result in some more quality blog entries to come. Godspeed until next time.

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The Out-of-Control Dilemma: Homework, Study Skills, and Student Home-Life

As October comes to a too-chilly and weirdly slush-filled finish, I’ve tried to look back at my thoughts for the month in an attempt to slow life down and see if my perspective has changed thus far this year. These ideas and thoughts should be easily found here in the blog, right? But upon finding only one entry this past month, I’ve slumped my weary head down to my chest and have shaken my head at myself in lameosity (SMH).

Look at all these amazing distractions from blogging. So many theme parks, spas, massages.

Two weeks ago I did sit down on a Tuesday night and typed up some of my school related problems and ideas, only to tire and pass out minutes later without completion. Many a night I can remember having the option of formulating something nice to write down and share with my friends and family on the blogosphere. On almost all of these nights, the other options of watching TV, playing basketball, or video games have dominated my free time and squashed any chance of a blog post like a helpless little bug. This will end tonight, as I will squeeze a post together for the end of October.

First and foremost, last week was a week that I was looking forward to. The eighth grade had a trip to the Tenement Museum on Monday, and then a Middle School-Wide trip to a State Park on Tuesday.

Imagine two of these. Now imagine them in a row! BTW, is that the Hoff?

I know you just tripled back to read that last line over and over again because you thought that it couldn’t be. It’s true though, A DOUBLE TRIP!!! Consecutive field trips to start a week definitely have the disadvantage of being tiring, but nevertheless, they are incredible. I’d say that this particular scenario is almost as good as a double half-day or even equivalent to snow day in terms of happiness for teachers.

That said, I went on the Tenement Museum Trip with the students and it was a lovely and enjoyable trip in which the students learned about tenements and the immigrant story of New York. We spent the rest of the time walking around the Lower East Side and filling out a Scavenger Hunt at places like Katz’s Deli. When I got back home I was indeed exhausted. I took a standard half-hour nap, wasted some time, went out the dinner with family, and came home feeling like ten bricks had been stacked on my head. When I awoke, I had a raging fever, a sore throat, and a grade a headache. Because this post will not be about my sickness (because that would be really lame and full of talk of sweat), all I will say is that on Tuesday the doctor confirmed I had the flu, and I spent the rest of the week in bed recovering.

Thinking back to the other weeks in October since I last posted about my students already faltering grades, similar issues still permeate life at school and dominate my mind at work.  The most agonizing dilemma in trying to help many of my kids is that soooooo much of the reason their grades are so low is due to a lack of homework completion and study skills.

I always tell them, "If this owl can study, you can too". This owl example has failed to improve student study skills every time. Maybe because he looks arrogant.

Last week I did an entire lesson on what reasonable study habits should be (how long you should study for a quiz or a test, the various ways you can study material for individual classes, in what kind of environment should you study so you can remember material etc.). I learned a great deal about how much responsibility a majority of my students have at home taking care of younger siblings, and how loud and full of distractions many of my students’ apartments or houses are.

Many students in low-income communities have these same problems, and with many parents out of the house during the afternoon and evening hours, completing assignments or finding a quiet time to study outside of the confines of school is a major obstacle.

I think that I am aware of many of these distractions and do empathize with most situations, but then after this sympathy, where does that leave us as teachers? The bottom line is that if students cannot bring in their homework or study for a test, they will eventually fail. Too often, these same students are the ones who drop out of High School and become unproductive members of society.

I struggle with this dilemma all the time as I try to increase their habits at home and tell them a million times that although homework seems annoying sometimes, it all matters in the long run.

Believe it - I've gotten this excuse multiple times. In addition to, "My sister ate my homework!" and every other excuse ever.

I think that THE most frustrating and aggravating thing about not seeing the results that you want, are the things you can’t control. In this case, students’ with less support at home are always the most difficult to push toward success. The only thing that we can do is affect what is in our control, and this means we have to get funky with different ways of having the students buy into homework and studying. Hopefully we see improvement.

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