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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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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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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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