Tag Archives: middle school

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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Filed under General, School

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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Filed under Ridiculous, School

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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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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