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updates for 12.22.2011

9 new posts today

The reality of it is--

Every Christmas candy within my reach is being devoured. It is making me ill, and yet I continue. Reeses! Peppermints! Kisses! Stomachache. Funny that self-control is one of the biggest character buzzwords in my classroom. Funny I don't have it. On the phone my aunt said my voice sounded a little small. That's her euphemism for asking what's wrong. I want to say, Auntie I had the best day ever! So I do, and I explain to her exactly how I distributed my kids' Christmas presents. In the middle of my story I hear music, and when I ask her what's up there's a delay. My aunt loves me, undeniably and thoroughly, but any desire to explain anything (which was forced to begin with) dissipated. I want to explain the joy my classes have been full of for the past three days, but my eyelids keep drooping and some gray cloud won't get out of my line of vision. What the hell are you doing, cloud? Get outta here. The thing is, really, that Christmas is in four days. I finish teaching on Friday, drive up to Marks, MS to pick up a fellow CM for the trip up, then drive to Kalamazoo. I'll arrive in the wee hours of Christmas eve, just enough time to get gifts (whoops) and catch dinner with my aunt's family. But I haven't talked to anyone in my immediate family in over two weeks. After my year of hell (read: last academic year), I feel like I should be closer to them. That we should have a regular time or day to talk, that we should make an effort. Don't worry, I'm catching my own bitterness, and acknowledging that I don't answer phone calls with any more urgency than they do-- but something hit yesterday or today. I am jealous of the kids who have their moms bring in stuff for our parties. Jealous of my friends whose parents call them. Angry at myself for feeling like my own family feels more like a rock to burden than a rock to be stabilized by. Angry that no immediate relations have made it to Arkansas, nor do they have any concrete desire to. I'm self-sufficient, I always have been, but the older I get the more I want -- Last night I was deciding how to wrap my students' presents. I decided not to. Instead, I stocked five of my personal journals into my school bag, and put stacks of their gifts in as well. In the morning, we had 20 full minutes of silent reading time and every single student was reading. I started on the first Harry Potter (late to the boat, sorry ELA teachers). As we finished reading, I handed each student the card I wrote to them. Last year when I did this, it my kids were interested, but I found many notes crushed and ripped on the ground at the end of the day. Today, though, my kids immediately asked, "Did you write something different for everyone?" and "Can I share this with my friends?" and "Is everyone's card this long?" with wonder in their voices. I saw students re-reading their cards multiple times through the day. Kay declared she is going to tape hers to her door at home. After cards, I made them clear their desks. In the next ten minutes, I asked them what journals are, who keeps them, and why. I then showed (skimmed! briefly!) my students a few of my different journals. This one I mostly wrote lists in, especially lists of what I was eating and how far I was running because I was training. This one I wrote the date a different way each day, to be more creative. This one is just straight writing throughout the whole thing, nothing fancy. This one I didn't use any dates, I just titled each entry with one or two words. This one has a lot of pictures and doodles... Only after showing them my own did I tell them their gift: their own journals. I gave each student a super tiny $0.50 notebook, a pen, some candies, and stickers. After 10 minutes of decorating and chatting, I had my students write, draw, scribble, or list in their own notebooks for 10 minutes. Watching them made my heart swell. Because this happened in the morning, for each activity my students were asking, "Can we bring our journals?!" Today was Christmas parties, so I had my homeroom for the entire day. They brought their journals to the auction (where they spend their Bobcat Bucks on prizes), to recess, and to the choir concert. They asked if they were allowed to keep writing through the movie we watched. Yes, students, yes yes yes! I challenged them to write as much as they could about anything they want over break. By lunch I had girls saying, "Look! I wrote 10 pages!" I felt excited but a tinge of nervous discomfort. I can't explain why-- something about not understanding the overall impact of journaling in general. I explained to them how keeping journals has been one of the most important things for my brain to stay healthy, but I also think journaling can do the opposite if you're not careful. This could also just be some silly manifestation of overall anxiety. Lastly, as a sort of disclaimer, I don't enjoy using this blog as an outlet for personal issues (ie family), but for some reason it seems appropriate tonight. Michigan in two days.  


I Apologize...

I know what you’re thinking: “he missed his regular Sunday post- something’s up. He must be writing an apology for that post about TFA’s Master Plan!” And you would be half write…I mean right ;-P I am apologizing; however, this apology is for my students. Today, I did something perhaps slightly unprofessional and un-TFA. Today, my students completed their second quarter district exams: 25 questions (reduced from 50 last year) on everything from electromagnetism, Newton’s Laws of Motion, and global winds to analyzing weather maps, plate tectonics, and the hierarchy of the universe. Confused yet? Honestly, I am proud of my students for how they’ve performed this year and I think they were prepared for the test, in whatever form. That said, I also told them I was sorry that they grew up in an age where they were tested ALL THE TIME! I hate standardized tests. Let’s get that straight. I know they are a necessary evil, but these things are overplayed and the people who make them are over paid. Continuing the trend of sabotaging my career prospects, I now bid adieu to Pearson. I always feel like I'm having to cut out material or stop student-generated conversations because "it's not on the test!" The real kicker is when the topics you prioritize aren't even emphasized, so then you feel like a fool. I also owe my students a second apology for the revisionist history I’ve believed in my mind. It is true that I decided after 8th grade to no longer become a teacher. You can decide whether my current position is poetic justice, cruel and unusual punishment, or simple irony. Nonetheless, I based this decision only partially on the feeling that teachers deserved more respect. It was also based on a frustration with increasing “learning standards” and testing. I remember telling a favorite teacher and mentor that I wished we could have a “critical thinking class.” I had the opportunity to take a Gifted and Talented math class in 5th-8th grade that served this purpose for me. I LOVED solving tough problems and creating “new” solutions to scenarios! I’ve actually been working with a special education student on a challenging engineering problem I tackled when I was in middle school and he loves it! “This [building things] is what I like doing, Mr. B!” This is the love of learning I want to foster in my students. The ability, attitude, and motivation to solve any problem that is thrown their way utilizing only their minds and whatever resources are available. Now that, my friends, is an EDUCATION! After testing in the morning, I felt free as a teacher, albeit for one day. My mentality was like: “one day, all teachers in this nation will have the opportunity to provide an excellent education.” I told my kids to act like we were covering the objective written on the board if our classroom had an official visitor. To be fair, we did review part of the test. However, I was focused on picking their brains and having them learn and reflect on ant rafts and a 1000-mph car courtesy of Scientific World Magazine. We also made use of Brain Pop as a hook for analyzing the structure of cars and impact of global warming. Was there differentiated instruction? Yes, you bet there was. Students who were failing or irritating me were assigned makeup work in our awful textbook. I also taught my 7th Period a brief Spanish lesson on the alternative to calling your friends “my N-!” My boys are much better at catching themselves when they slip, but I figured rather than harping on not using the N-word…again, I could give them some fun alternatives from my favorite Spanish language. Once they realized I wasn’t cursing at them, they got really invested in words such as “hombre, amigo, muchacho, and chico, etc.” Maybe I should give them a multiple-choice quiz tomorrow; or, not so much. Tomorrow, we have our Christmas program and the final full day before breaking for the holiday. I’m reworking my lesson to allow the kids to do something meaningful and at the same time have some fun. I may have them design their own prototype for a fast, efficient car, which is similar to an entire unit/project when I was in 8th grade (we had to design a solar-powered car and then build a prototype). I’m saving a mini-project where the kids design their own cell phones for after our state science test in May. I think it’ll be fun. They may also design their own “perfect Christmas gift.” Any other ideas? All in all, I understand the rationale for standardized tests, but I also understand the reason people drink beer. Everything in moderation. What has more bubbles, bud light or a 25-question, multiple-choice test?


Christmas is not even a real religion.

When we came back from Thanksgiving break, I had four straight weeks of teaching staring me in the face.  Just 1.5 days to go now, and it still seems a little impossible.  These past four weeks have been anything but easy, even though it's definitely not October anymore and I swear a lot of people promised me the worst was over.  (A spoiler for soon-to-be new teachers:  I'm pretty sure that all veteran teachers lie to you and keep changing the name of the month when things magically get better. First I heard September, then October.  Several weeks back I heard December; now I'm hearing rumors about a wondrous turnaround in the month of January.  Nice try, but I'm on to you). At the start of middle school staff meetings we are always asked to add new concerns to the agenda.  I'm at the point where I regularly say "pass," not because I don't have any concerns (believe me, I have several hundred at any given moment) but because they are the same old concerns and I know my school will not help me address them.  Even so, a few noteworthy things have occurred this month: -In the past week, the sixth grade has expelled 3 male students, all of whom started the year in my class.  One was switched to another section two days into the school year, which luckily allowed me to appreciate his sense of humor a lot more.  We had one especially memorable conversation at lunch about his opinion on the Kardashians' morals.  Last week, he burst into my room and announced to the class, "Ms. S., check out the new epidemic- it's called WEARING SHORTS IN WINTER!"  And yes, he was wearing shorts in below 20 degree weather. Of the other two boys, one was not technically expelled- his parents switched him to another school- but I'd bet he was dangerously close to expulsion considering that his last write-up was for karate kicking a female student in the back.  The third boy was expelled in the middle of the day today, not for any specific incident but apparently because the school had finally had enough.  I could write an entire book about his issues, but instead I'll just say that I actually am disappointed he's gone- actually that all three of the boys are gone- because I'll always feel like I could have done more.  Interacting one-on-one with any of these boys was always a bright spot in my day, because it was easy to see how much potential they had.  Here's hoping they transfer to public schools with the right systems in place to help them. -I finished my first semester of grad school, as required by my TFA region.  I could probably spend 3+ hours making  a list of all the things I hate about this awful, awful institution, but I'd rather not spend another second thinking about it until I'm forced to attend classes again in February. Ugh. -We had an engineer visit our classroom and answer questions about careers in engineering!  Actually, the engineer was one of my close friends who is a very talented engineering major but not technically pursuing a career in the field of engineering.  However, the kids did not need to know this tiny insignificant detail and thus were pretty excited about it.  We even spent some time brainstorming good questions before Ms. D. arrived.  A sample:  "Are you bad at engineering?"  "Does Ms. S ever ask you to fix anything for her?"  "Could you engineer iPads for all of us?"  "Do you know how to fix faces?" -We got our first set of return pen pal letters back from my mom's 1st/2nd grade class- complete with pictures!  Sadly, the pictures prompted my students to waste a good 5 minutes speaking in Somali, pointing and laughing at the adorable gap-toothed 7 year olds.  Then, about half of my class threw a good old-fashioned hissy fit when they realized that many of my mom's students had included sentences in their letters like, "I am so excited for Christmas!"  or "What do you want for Christmas?"  My students might not be too enthralled with math or reading, but man oh man are they defensive of perceived attacks on their religion:  "WHATTTT IS THIS?! I CAN'T READ ABOUT CHRISTMAS!"  "Christmas is so stupid! I'm not going to write a letter back to this stupid kid!"  (My very favorite remark was the one I used as my blog title, which was yelled at me by a boy who is usually very quiet and respectful.  That one earned us a lecture on respecting other religions and appreciating the opportunity to educate others about our own culture). -I started using a Scholar Dollar system for positive behavior reinforcement. Basically, students are given raffle tickets or "Scholar Dollars" throughout the day as reinforcement for working diligently, following directions, setting a good example, etc.  At the end of the week students enter all of their dollars in a raffle and the winners get a fabulous prize.  We used a system like this at Institute and I actually dislike it because it's a huge pain to keep up with throughout the day.  However, 1.5 weeks in and a handful of my kids are responding well so far.  If nothing else, it's a great way to keep the hard workers motivated even when they have to sit through all the behavior lectures that the rest of the class inspires.  Last week the grand prize was one free homework pass, 10 minutes playing games on the iPad, or a package of candy.  I honestly thought they'd go nuts for the iPad, but little did I know that boxes of Bubble Yum from the dollar store are actually the most exciting thing ever, in the world. -WE ARE GETTING LOTS OF BOOKS!  Thanks to DonorsChoose, some very nice friends and an anonymous donor, my class is getting sets of The Hunger Games, The Giver, Hatchet and Frindle.  They should be arriving shortly after winter break, and I could not be more excited that we'll be rid of our horribly boring reading textbook. -We took our second round of standardized testing for the year, and of the kids who actually put forth effort during testing, there were some pretty solid improvements.  One kid jumped up 2.5 grade levels in both reading and math since he took the test 3 months ago.  Either he bashed his fist down on the keyboard randomly during the first testing session (knowing him as I do, it's pretty likely), or I'm just the most transformational teacher ever.  I'm going to go with the second option.  


School to Prison Pipeline

What do you know/think about the School to Prison Pipeline? Is it real? It is created? Is it a necessary evil? Can it be avoided? What role should metal detectors play in schools? Are there any stats that say an increase in security actually improves educational outcomes. If so many people hate zero tolerance discipline procedures, why are they still in place? If something isn't working, what can be done? Am I even asking the right questions? At my school (and I'm sure many of your schools), students encounter metal detectors and pat downs. They are forced to take their shoes off for checks when the enter the school. Some say this is actually to protect them. These procedures might just save their life. Others say that if you treat a child like a criminal they are more likely to become one. I'm apt to believe the second thought. I hate what I see. I hate what it does to the students I talk to. I am not a fan, but I know others are...and I want to know why. If you know of any articles, resources, stories, opinions, anything...I would love to hear from you. I'm tired of just hearing myself complain. I want to be informed! Any information helps! Thanks!  


On the Fifth Day of Christmas...

my school gave to me... FIVEEEEE SUSPENSIONS. Yep. That's right. Over the last three days of school, five of my students have been suspended. (Profanity to follow) 1. For calling a girl a whore and kicking her in the stomach during support. 2. For calling a girl a nappy headed bitch and hitting her upside the head during support. 3. For punching me. 4. For running the halls and riding the elevator and refusing to listen to authority. 5. For hitting me, kicking lockers, running the halls and disrupting the class. Now, my school, like many schools, do not suspend students often. The students are usually sent back to our classrooms with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. I also understand that if a child is not in the classroom, they cannot learn. However, I just cannot understand how we allow abusive, destructive students roam the halls and stay in the classroom when they threaten the education of the other 20 students in the class. You finally reach those 20 other students to become productive scholars, and the behavior of 5 students causes such chaos and disaster. You've tried phone calls, behavior plans, counselors... EVERYTHING, and nothing seems to work. The other students just have to suffer. You explain to those students just ignore, but they are only eight, and they try but cannot. They suffer. Well, at least tomorrow's holiday party will be a nice treat and with limited behavior problems. 1.5 instructional days left!


poll: seating arrangements

How do you arrange your desks, and why?


Time to Think

I've been super sick for the last few days, and my time languishing in bed has given me a lot of time to think. One of the first things that I thought of, and then worried about, was how I'm pretty sure that somewhere in my contract with my school it says that if I'm sick for too many days in a row, they can fire me. The second part was that I won't have earned any sick days until next week, so I'm not getting paid for any of this time, and it's not like I'm exactly using it or enjoying it. Anyway, as today was my third day out, even if I had earned sick days, only Monday and yesterday would have been paid for, since my school only gives us two (yes, you read that right, TWO) sick days per calendar year. I've also been thinking a lot about the type of support I have, or have not, been recieving this year so far. In her note to me yesterday as a response to my doctor's note stating I probably shouldn't come in to work until Friday (have no fear, I'll be in tomorrow...), my director told me that our observer from the city had popped in unannounced while I was sick yesterday, and I have no doubt that all kinds of bad things came from that visit. I am all the more sure because this morning when I called to confirm that I would not be coming in again today, the teacher covering the desk made sure to mention it to me too. I have made some major changes to my classroom since the last time the city's observers came, but some things I haven't done. It's been a huge problem that my director is only at school once or twice a week, and so even when she says we're going to meet, or talk, it doesn't happen. If we do talk, it's sort of in passing, as she comes in to my classroom for a few minutes to tell me how I should change something. One of the major things that the city lady said last time was that I need to take all of the phonics stuff out of the classroom because it's not developmentally appropriate. I'm ok with that (I guess), but no one has told me exactly which materials need to be taken out, or how I am supposed to fill the empty space they will leave behind. In fact, no one has said anything to me about it at all. No adjustments have been made yet to the way my curriculum works, or the fact that the school is supposed to adopt a new curriculum that meets city standards. However, the thing that has most been on my mind is how to give my kids presents. I have enough stuffed animals to give each of my kids at least two (maybe more like five). However, I would really love to give books, or library cards or something. Some of my students have books at home, and regularly visit the library with their parents, but this is not the case for all of my students. One of my students who joined my class two weeks ago was reading a book when I told him to put it away because we were going to move into a new part of the day. He told me he wanted to keep reading it because he didn't have any books at home- it wrenched my heart. More than anything, I would love to give him a book for the holidays. I really don't know what to do about it, and it's been on my mind a lot during the last few days.


#11: Bienvenidos, y’all – San Antonio pt. 2

New San Antonio corps members, you might be asking yourself, "Where am I about to start teaching?"  Pfft, only one of the most important cities in the history of Texas education, that's where. Our Census numbers can be deceiving.  Though we do rank 7th in the US in population, we are a mid-sized metro area if you don't include Austin.  So, in the grand scheme of things, we shouldn't be that big of a deal. But we are a pretty large deal if I do say so myself.  A couple of big court cases come to mind:

  • SAISD v. Rodriguez (1973) - The deal: This is the district where most of you are teaching.  This is a case whose plaintiffs(1) who tried unsuccessfully to make education understood as a fundamental right in this country.
  • Edgewood v. Kirby (1989) - The deal: Still grappling with an unequal funding system, this case heard by the Texas Supreme Court led to a (now defunct) school finance redistribution system that sent money raised from property-wealthy districts to property-ones, the so-called "Robin Hood plan".  Because this ruling effectively created a de facto state property tax which is not constitutional in the state of Texas, this system has since been dismantled.
These are two landmarks you should know coming into San Antonio, and they are indicative of the active and engaged community we have committed to improving the educational environments for our kids. San Antonio is a relatively poor city, and that poverty is especially concentrated in young families.  Right now, just over 20% of our citizens have a Bachelor's degree or higher(2).   But our mayor has started a college-readiness initiative Cafe College and we have groups like Project QUEST working to combat our city's educational deficits.  And we have everyday citizens standing up for what is right in arenas big and small. All this is to say that you are coming into a city that needs more muscle in the war against education inequalities but is already fighting on multiple fronts as it is.  When you get here, get engaged with your neighborhoods and find avenues where you can have the biggest impact. NOTES: (1) These parents came from the district where I teach (Edgewood ISD). (2) Adults age 25 or older.

Join me 'live' on my internet talk show on Wednesday 12/21 10:00 PM E.S.T.

So it's been a while since the first episode of my live internet talk show.  That was 3 months ago and it was pretty eventful. You can watch the re-run of the first episode in two parts, since I got disconnected in the middle. http://www.spreecast.com/events/talking-ed-episode-1 http://www.spreecast.com/events/after-disconnect I'm hoping episode two, on Wednesday 12/21 at 10:00 PM EST will be even better. Feel free to watch or join in on the discussion no matter what your views are.  You can be from either extreme point of view.  You might love me, and you might just really, really like me.  Either way, you're welcome to come and chat or argue, or whatever.  There might be a few 'special' guests -- we'll see. New episode will air at http://www.spreecast.com/events/talking-ed-episode-two


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