A Packed Bus, Organizational Woes, and Preventing Failure

As we dive headfirst into Autumn, which sounds much more poetic than Fall, the school year is very much underway, regardless of whether or not students or teachers want to believe it.

Let's hope we stick the landing.

If the school year were a giant red, white, and blue bus taking off for a long journey, I would say that by now, the second week in October, the wheels are spinning at nearly full speed. Many of the students are safely and quietly seated, as they had been instructed from the first day; yet some are still just now getting to their seats as the bus sways and bounces them around the narrow aisle. Even worse, a handful of students are still clinging onto either sides of the bus and bus entrance, trying not to fall off. I also feel like I need to add the few students that seem to be blatantly clawing to exit this bus, into this lovely, albeit chaotic metaphor.

Over a week ago I attempted to describe how after the first few, calmer weeks of the school year, students throughout our middle and high school started testing the boundaries of what they could get away with. Now, after a few more weeks, similar problems persist, but have taken a backseat (keeping with the bus theme) to students who are flat out failing their classes.

Exactly.

When I say failing their classes, one might think, “Oh I know the feeling of failing a class, I got a 62 once in Blah Blah”, or “I remember failing that tough Chemistry test in high school”. No offense, but these thoughts cannot compete with some of the epic failing that is going on right now with some students. A few examples of the types of bombing that some of my kids are encountering a mere month into 8th grade look like this: 8.2% in English, 16.3 in English, 35.1 in Social Studies, 23.3 in Math etc. Take those numbers in for a minute.

Today I helped check a few students’ grades online and the looks of utter shock and awe on their jaw-dropped little faces was so sad that it was almost funny. But after I went back to think about it, and realized that these students don’t even have their passwords to check their grades because they are that oblivious and spacey, I came back to reality and understood that it is not funny at all. Sometimes all you can do it laugh, have one more pep-talk with them about coming for extra help for their organization, and attempt to call their parents again.

Sorry quaint, home-town suburbs, but you are a cake-walk compared to that dirty beast in the background.

I want to take this moment to state something that I don’t think that I have deliberately said in the history of this blog. It takes a really unique, specific teacher to successfully teach in New York City’s Public Schools. I, by no means, believe that I am this teacher at all (the most kids I teach at once is 12), but I’ve come to recognize a few major differences between a great teacher in the suburbs (where I grew up), and the city. This statement will hopefully be connected to my following thoughts.

Back to the major frustration that is currently resting on my mind, a great deal of our students (and students in low-income areas all over) have not developed the study skills or organizational habits to succeed in middle and high school. Not only are a majority of these kids behind in their basic math, reading, and writing when they arrive to middle school, but possibly even worse, they have not yet learned how to complete homework, study for a quiz, test, or even keep a folder for each class separate and neat.

Typical backpack. Add the incredibly popular "Draw-on-each-other-in-Sharpie" distraction and you have a recipe for trouble.

In the wealthy suburbs, if a teacher comes to class with an engaging and effective lesson, assigns homework, and gives reasonable tests to assess his/her students, you’d consider this teacher proficient because most of the students would DO THEIR WORK. In my experience working with students who are that much farther behind in the numerous aforementioned fields, the same teacher in a poorer area could have a very nice and well-behaved class, and still wind up with over half of his students failing because of lack of homework, lost materials, and poor preparation for assessments.

I’ll wrap up this post without with a magical strategy that works for all city teachers in improving their students’ school habits, but solely with a hope that people reading will understand how much of an uphill battle it is to actually reach the majority of a struggling class. It’s amazing how many more obstacles to success there are when teaching students who have never learned the ‘right’ way to succeed in school, and who often have very little support at home.

I know that all of my students will improve (can you really get worse than 8.2%?) over the next few months. I think that the trick now is to continue to be creative and persistent in keeping my students afloat while the leaves change color and fall in the coming October weeks.

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Time Warp Whirlwind

Yup. I sleep on a wooden block.

I woke up this past Saturday morning having slept about eleven hours straight (much more than I’m used to sleeping). Nevertheless, I awoke feeling a heavy, dazed, (and amazingly, a non-alcohol induced) aura of fatigue. This almost indescribable, tired feeling is something that put the profession of teaching into a new perspective for me this year. It’s how I’ll start my first real recap of the 2011-2012 school year, and the second official year of Mr. Jeromy’s teacher blog.

I’ve titled this entry: Time Warp Whirlwind. In your mind these three words might produce images of Doc Brown and Marty and  Back to the Future, the spiraling black and white time machine from Austin Powers, epic tornadoes, or even the Tasmanian Devil. Mash all of these images and their associated connotations into a foggy dream-like hallway seething with wall-to-wall students, and you might just understand how I feel after two weeks of being back to work.

I’ve wanted to reflect and write a blog entry about nineteen times since September 8th, and the fact that its taken me this long should say a lot about how busy this year has been.

Even without having to go to those dreaded graduate school classes, or complete additional education class homework this year, going from absolute zero work activity to one-million work activity (I patented the ‘work activity scale’), has fatigued my mind and body.

No matter how prepared you are at the onset of the school year, I think it’s nearly impossible to transition easily to the hundreds of little things you need to do as a teacher in the big city.

It's sort of like this game...and the man represents the teacher...and it's more fun.

The first few days of school went relatively smoothly. Meeting new co-workers and students was the highlight of a fairly bland introductory week that felt much more routine this year than the past two. The students’ first two days were on a Thursday and Friday, so the real test was the first full week.

Would the new students understand all the new rules and structures? Had the returning students matured a little over summer break? Which kids would be the first to test the boundaries and start-up the age-old grade school game ‘Let’s Disrupt the Class and Enrage the Teacher’?

The answers to these questions were only flirted with the following week, but everything was still relatively calm and easy going. Students seemed to begin feeling out their classmates, teachers, and school atmosphere, while teachers only just began to cover actual material in the classrooms. It was only until last week, the second week of school, when the many stresses of school began surging back all at once.

"Oh. My. Gawd. That drama is so ugly and deformed!"

Last week incidents between students in and out of class began sprouting up like ugly deformed weeds from the ground. As class rosters were finalized, select students in many of the grades (and I can speak specifically for the 8th grade), began bringing random, pointless drama into the class.

Where students in the first week maintained decent grades because their homework was to bring back a form or to complete a ‘Getting to Know You’ activity sheet, the second week brought to light how far behind so many of our students are in basic organization and school-related skills.

Many students began the trend of being late everyday, a few cut classes and were suspended, and many have fallen behind as teachers are pressed to continue assigning work and teaching the material to those who are able to keep up.

Some of them are like that poor little bird. And is anyone else weirded out by how the birds are walking from right to left?

Beyond worrying for my students who are falling behind, even smaller annoyances such as fire drills in the middle of lessons, or technology problems with Powerpoints, came together to metaphorically slap a few teachers (myself included) in the face and say in a snarky tone, “Welcome back!”

I hope that when I spill all this onto blogosphere that it doesn’t seem all bad.

When it comes down to it, many of these concerns, frustrations, and problems are so part of the job description. Many of these teenagers have really tough lives and all these issues are par for the course. What’s been most difficult has been trying to get back to form in order to mentally deal with it all again.

This all being said, I’m very glad that there is a four-day weekend on the horizon (What’s up Metropolitan Jews?!). It’ll give everyone a chance to catch their breath, and maybe even allow people look back on how things have been going in school.

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Holy ‘Your Favorite Expletive’: Kids Come Back to School Tomorrow

The snooze dream is over once again.

Last year I posted after the poop-filled events of the first week without describing my thoughts before the year actually started. This post is dedicated to the shrinking, shriveling final hours before another school year kicks off for the public schools in New York City.

Reading the statuses of my teacher-friends on Facebook on this humid and drenched September night, reminds me that most teachers have another strong, mutual understanding. On this very unique night, I think that we all have similar feelings of a weird uneasiness; a jittery, nervousness that to me, feels like slowly shuffling forward on the edge of something very high up in the air.

Many are hit with various degrees of pre-first-day teacher anxiety laden nightmares.

I hate these guys. Ahhhhhh, get back in your seat!

Mine usually consist of students not listening to me, turning into weird gibberish speaking creatures, and then me getting fired (there has to be some Freudian explanation of that one). Some teachers know so well that they are going to have trouble falling asleep, they choose to fight it off with a few drinks to ward off first day demons. I say whatever works is fair game.

I remember as a kid I felt the same way, but I was more focused on seeing my friends who had been at sleep away camp for the summer (alright, I know they were mostly Jewish – so am I). I always felt nervous, but really excited, and I wanted to look fresh and fly and cool with my new trapper keeper, shirt, and sneakers.

Fly

I think that those all still apply as a teacher (let’s go blue J.Crew khakis!), but as a part of the responsible party in making the school run smoothly, the first day is so much more important because there seems to be an added weight.

I think that ultimate unease and fear, especially for younger teachers such as myself, is that you’ll flat out forget how to teach (or if you’re brand new, that you have no idea). The idea that you’ll lose the focus needed to maintaining order in a class is pretty terrifying. On the night before the first day, so much time has passed since you’ve taught a lesson, that it all feels really strange (even if you are as prepared as Smokey the Bear).

This was a hard picture to search for. I almost settled on a stick figure.

This all being said, I’m certain that after a week, most teachers will be back on his or her game in the classrooms dominating their students. I’ll soon be dying to report the funniest stories on the interwebs. With hours left before hundreds of pairs of adolescent feet and legs come stampeding up the stairs, I guess the best bet would be to slow down, breathe in the last couple breaths of fresh, worry-free summer air, and brace for another adventurous marathon.

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Summer Fades and Reality Lurks: Year Three on the Horizon

My last blog entry was about the gloriousness and bliss associated with summer break as a public school teacher. This one is about how this same  majestic summer of 2011 seems to be vanishing – slipping right out of my hands before I’m ready for it to be over.

"Nooooooooo!!!!!...Ohh Nooooooooo!!!!!"

In my summer soaked mind (which has become so accustomed staying up late and waking up, well – whenever),  it’s starting to feel like one of those cliché action movie scenes where the summer is tumbling off a cliff and I’ve dived and caught it by one hand at the last second. Our hands are gripped tightly, but of course, with sweat appearing to loosen us at our fingers, we’re gradually slipping away inch by inch.

On September 9th, when students begin to ascend those grey concrete stairs to the fourth floor once again, summer’s sweaty metaphorical hand will have left mine, and it will fall, and be pronounced dead until next June. R.I.P.

Alright, I admit that got a little weird. Sorry, I hope we can move on. You get the point though – summer has been lovely, albeit fleeting, but it’s now time to look forward to teaching.

My third year as a teacher (believe it or not) is right around the corner, and quite frankly, it still hasn’t actually hit me yet. We’ve had some of the most beautiful days I’ve ever seen in New York lately, and the thought of being back in front of the class saying “I’ll wait as long as I have to until we’re ready to start the lesson” seems as foreign to me as Amharic (the Ethiopian language that sounds like made-up clicking).

I'm trying not to curse. This blog is family friendly.

In addition, a wave of uncontrollable and instantaneous anger fills my body when I see a JC Penny Back-to-School advertisement, or hear a Staples radio bit. No lie, it has actually taken me minutes to snap out of this intense feeling, and remind myself that I’m supposed to be an education advocate, dying to get back in there and continue fighting against the achievement gap with my students. This is what the summer has done to me, but I’m sure that it will only take a few days to get back in the swing of things, but it’s so odd to be away from it for so long.

This past week I attended a bunch of professional development classes (teacher classes that we are paid to go to – score). The result was that I started to get my brain semi-ready for school by attending some wonderful meetings about curriculum and reading strategies! More importantly, I started the process of re-learning that I hate having to wake up early.

I think that the only thing better than the invention of the snooze button (which has to be on my top five inventions of all time) was the invention of the ‘I can sleep until I want to wake up button’.

Next week I’ll go back into school for the first time since June. Seeing all the co-workers will definitely be exciting, and I think that one of the most understated aspects of my job (in my blog), is how lucky I am to work in an environment where a majority of the faculty are good friends. I’m also pumped to meet all of the new personalities coming in to teach, as we are adding seven or eight newbies because our school is continually growing. Usually you can count on a handful of great new people, and a few wild-cards who may just provide some entertainment.

A smiling manatee for your enjoyment.

Hopefully everyone else is enjoying the summer while it still lasts, teacher or not. I’ll be posting as I prepare for the real first days of students. Until then, keep living it up, and thanks for all the support at the one-year anniversary of the blog!

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Vacation Bliss: A Teacher’s Summer Break

How can I fit my July into a blog entry? It will probably be the most challenging thing that I’ve had to do in weeks. That last sentence alone says a lot. But as Chris Kattan’s Antonio Banderas always said, “But I must”.

"But I Must"

School ended in the early part of the final week of June. If you haven’t read my last few entries, then I can assure you now that the 2010-2011 academic year had run its course weeks prior to the official end. Students left skipping (as middle schoolers routinely do) with smiles on their smaller-than-adult-sized faces, while teachers swept the classrooms and hallways of their belongings. A few hours after soaking in the serenity of a quiet, empty fourth floor, teachers began to exit the building in jovial fashion, with a communal feeling of freedom and relaxation.

Usually, I wouldn’t dare speak for all public school teachers in the city, let along the entire country. That would be irresponsible and wrong. I’m also pretty sure that what goes on inside my loony mind (a love for strange garage sales, Vietnamese spring rolls, and cute animals wearing costumes of other animals), would not be a good spokesperson for the average (and more experienced) teacher out there on the grind.

"Be quiet, moose in the bathroom!"

I can however, speak for approximately ninety-eight percent of teachers (leaving out two percent for the alien-teacher population of course), when I say that summer vacation is the most blissful time in the life of an educator.

I tried to choose my words wisely on this one, and notice I did not say “greatest”, “happiest”, or “most wonderful” time. In a perfect reality, those moments could, and should be shared with learning students in the classroom.

The word I’m using for two months of paid freedom is blissful, because that is exactly what summer break is for an individual who, by a majority of professional accounts is too often stressed, frustrated, and underpaid.

To me, bliss is this sense of earned euphoria. I know the word has this sort of spiritual connotation to it, and maybe that’s why it seems right to me. I believe our summer break is a fair and beautiful prize for the exhausting days you worked through without a single break, to the nights you sat down to watch a sitcom and realized that you needed a lesson plan for the next day. For exhausting days of trying to engage students’ interest in a topic they despise, to blockading school hallways to control loud and excited adolescent crowds.

Google-image search "Bliss" and you get 100 versions of this desktop background field. I guess it kinda works though.

All of the exciting and tiring work of teaching young adults from the beginning of September to the end of June results in a complete and absolute stoppage of work and class for the two steamy months in summer. I could go on about how our current system of having two months off is actually very detrimental to students learning, but let’s keep this post is about the positive. Either way, I have no control over the macro issues, and I’d rather rejoice in the summer.

These hot months (try 110 degrees hot) for teachers, mean that checks continue to come in every fifteen days (I wanted to try to start a holiday for July 15 for the Annual Teacher Summer Paycheck Day). The rest of one’s plans is up to their own desires. Personally, I’ve tried to fill my time with fun activities – Coney Island, Mets games, restaurants, sports, and enjoying family and friends. While I’ve had some graduate school stuff to finally finish up, as well as a move of apartments to nearby neighborhood, most of my time has been spent relaxing, having fun, and resting up.

As the school year approaches, I’ll hopefully be recharged, wiser, and ready for it to all start-up again in early September. What I’ll miss the most is my I-Cal schedule full of empty white boxes, free from the multi-colored, appointment/meeting/reminder clutter of the year. But for now, it’s time to continue to make the most of them.

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Deep Exhale, School’s Out

The Close of Year 2. The Glorious, Glorious End.

Whoopie!

The last week of school, aside from the mind-numbing proctoring (see previous post), was a week that can be summed up by three letters, two of which are the same letter : D. V. and D.

I shouldn’t really divulge too deeply into the truth behind the mysterious final week of the school because, quite frankly, it would be a bit embarrassing.

The school that I work at is a very productive and goal-driven school. The teachers work incredibly hard, and most of the students, many of whom struggle with major problems in school and at home, do improve and master grade level standards. I hope that this fact comes across in my blog (although I have the tendency to exaggerate the uncomfortable or challenging times).  At the end of the day, I am proud to be a part of the school.

This sappiness all being said, when our schedule called for teacher’s grades to be in a good week before the end of the year, there ended up being a good deal of potentially painful free time during the last week.

Our options as middle school teachers were as follows:

1) Press students to complete academic work while fighting student anxiousness for the beginning of summer.

2) Show Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Monster’s Inc, Shrek the Third, Tangled, Despicable Me, How to Train Your Dragon, and even such classics as Jack Black’s Guilliver’s Travels and the new Narnia movies.

The moment the giant DVD binder hit the table in the communal teacher hang out room, the decision had to have weighed heavily over many of us for at least five to ten seconds.

By choosing option one, the students would obviously be thrilled! They would surely be compliant with completing assignments that they knew could not effect their already submitted grades. And there would be no way their anxiousness for summer freedom would turn into frustration or anger toward teachers right?

While many classes I was a part of did a nice job of finishing up their work and completing portfolios of student work, most teachers absolutely choose option two. I knew this because of my incredible detective skills. The first clue was my raided DVD binder I tidied up at end of each school day. I also know most teachers chose DVDs by walking around to a quiet school lit only by the changing shades of blue hue and the sounds of projectors spilling out into the hallways. Most teachers chose movies, but not without caution.

The DVD option usually works for the occasional class period during the year, as a supplement to a unit of study, or to celebrate an academic success. But the major problem would be continued viewing of movies in multiple classes, multiple days in a row. This was a dilemma that most of us were prepared for, and I would say that a few days of watching movies with the students was a very calming way to end of the year.

Matter fact, I might throw this one in right now...

I remember last year where we had to battle our students until the final bell. While I know that I could have done a better job at bringing my classes to a more complete finish, it was difficult because many of my students are ninth graders, and were finished with school a week before. Like I said before, it was an interesting atmosphere during the final week of school.

My only regret is that we didn’t get to watch Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole – those medieval Owl’s look so wise.

I actually forgot that there were THAT many animated, Pixar, Sony, and Disney movies out there. But sure enough there are, and we showed them all.

On the second to last day of school, the 8th graders were rewarded for their hard work with a trip to the one and only  Six Flags Great Adventure (well not really because there are like ten of them).

I cannot say how much of a joy it is to go on a trip with students who are mature enough to behave themselves on a field trip. In addition, because we disallowed a few of the more combative attitudes from going on the trip, we only took those who had the ability to return to a designated spot at the end of the day at a theme park.

KingDa Ka is the green one...45 stories high

Besides a few students who we kept an eye out on, this trip to Six Flags was full of teacher and student fun. Myself, along with a few teacher buddies, overcame some fears to ride on the mighty KingDa Ka.

Sending them off to summer.

Finally, I had to make sure to say my heartfelt goodbyes to many of my students on a staggered basis. Since my high schoolers left earlier, I tried to see them before and after their tests to find out what their summer plans were. As the last few weeks seemingly came out of nowhere, I started to really recognize how much I enjoyed teaching and supporting my ninth graders. Most will be back for next year, and I know that it will be good to be around to help them out again.

As for the eighth graders, handfuls are moving on to new high schools next year, and it was sad to see many of them for the last time. It will be a great experience for many of them, and quite frankly, some need to have a new atmosphere. A few of my most challenging and comical students (who’ve I taught for two years now), will be missed. But in the end, I think that a separation for a while could do us all some good.

Happy tears

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A Case of the Proctor Jones

"Let me see...Ummhmmm yes.... Definitely a case of Proctoritis (Proctor Jones)"

Having a case of the ‘Proctor Jones’ is no fun.

Oh, you aren’t familiar with this age-old diagnosis? Well, since the beginning of time (and by time I mean ‘standardized testing time’) teachers have fallen ill to this brutal condition, also known as Proctoritis.

The vast majority of teachers have had experiences with catching the ‘Proctor Jones”, and I have heard tall tales from near and far that a few have never fully recovered.

But first, let me explain.

While taking a three-plus hour standardized test, a student’s brain is left strained, stressed, and fatigued. Every person who has had any form of formal education can remember the dread, fear, and anxiety associated with having a giant test booklet and scantron answer sheet placed on their desk.

Brain power

During this same period of time though, a teacher, (or the more properly reduced title of proctor) may have a much different, yet similarly painful experience. A proctor’s brain, during and after the administration of a state testing session, is left a giant melted stick of butter.

The directions for a proctor are to make as clear as possible the correct testing environment and seating. The proctor must distribute the correct materials and read the directions to the class. He or she might even write down a few pieces of information on the board before the timer begins to ensure the understanding of the procedures of the exam. This is all very stimulating activity, don’t get me wrong, but the diagnosis of the  ‘Proctor Jones’ happens just as the students begin reading the first question and using their brains.

As the students begin the long and treacherous road of taking the test, the proctor walks the aisles and checks to see if the students are writing their answers on the correct sheet. After looking right and left, and at all the student’s faces in the room four or five times, he might glance at his watch for the first time and notice only five minutes has passed. The proctor suddenly to come to the realization that THIS MIGHT BE THE MOST PAINFULLY MUNDANE ACTIVITY IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD.

I heard the inventors of this website quit proctoring tests to follow their dreams.

This realization begins to soak deep into the consciousness of the proctor. As time inches forward slower than a line at DMV, or even the service at the Atlantic Center Target,  the proctor beings to stare at his or her hands, shoes, or the wall for longer than they ever have before. In the past, proctors of long exams have stated that they actually rather watch paint dry.

Pulling out a computer, grading tests, or even reading a personal book are options, but are frowned upon and are against the proctor rules.

In my case, many of the tests that I have been proctoring have been for students with various modifications to their testing setting. Some of them get the directions and/or the questions and answer choices read aloud. In this case, doing anything but waiting for them to finishing answering is nearly impossible.

Now that you are educated about the deadly proctor jones condition, you might say,”That sounds kinda boring, but the average teacher must do that for only a few exams a year”, or even “Jesus Mr. Jeromy, you’re just such a complainer baby! Suck it up!”

To both of these I would have to agree, yet respond with a staggering statistic. I’ve done the math (actually while proctoring yesterday), and I have proctored over 35 hours of these tests in the last few weeks. Through a great combo of my responsibilities, luck, and flexibility, I have administered every major test given to the 8th and 9th grades this year. These include major finals, all state exams, all Regents exams, and all Regents Competency Exams. Many of them have been for students who receive extra time, and some even with the added fun of reading up to 70 questions and answers aloud!

With a newly developed pride for my record (which I doubt will ever be broken), it might take until mid summer to fully heal from my stage 5 Proctoristis. All I ask is for sympathy, and for exciting things to do in the future to combat the excessive boredom of the final weeks of school.

The next blog with be coming shortly, with a recap of the final days of school (2.5 days left!!) It is always a fun adventure for students and teachers alike. We are almost there!

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