Sh*t, Grit, and Motherwit:

A commentary and reflection upon my life and times in MTC.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Comparative Reflection

The first few weeks this year have been so much smoother in comparison to what I dealt with last year. I know the processes of my school - not to expect to go to lunch at the same time everyday, constant interruptions, third block will extend at least an extra 15 minutes, my planning period will be cut in half at least every other day, etc. - and thus can much more readily adjust. It's amazing to compare my classes with all new students to the classes with some students that I had last year. My new classes are angels. They're so scared of me. It's great. I came in this year not trying to be anyone's friend (huge difference from last year) and determined to have them obey me, and it worked wonders. The students that had me last year tried to set the tone on the first day of school (talking out of turn, making snide comments under their breath), but were completely surprised with how direct I was in my correction of their behavior. I'm so much more organized, although I still have plenty of room for improvement in that department. I think most importantly, my lessons have an overall unifying theme to them, and I know what gets the students' attention vs. what completely bores them. I've only had a couple of students go to sleep on me, and with my new classroom management skills, it's pretty easy to reprimand them. Despite all these wonderful changes, many things are still, regrettably, the same. Students are still, for the most part, lazy. Administration is I think less organized than last year (in part because we're missing one counselor and the other newly hired one is insane). Parental support is lacking. Essentially, the same problems that the students brought last year exist, but my ability to handle and deal with them has evolved. So far, so good.

RG Update

So some of you (if there are any of you) that have been following this blog may remember several months ago when I posted about a student, RG, who had a rough home life and who had a lot of potential but was always getting in trouble at school. Well today RG showed up for the first time today because for the past nine weeks, he'd been in boot training with the Army in Georgia. I wasn't even aware that you could enlist if you were underage, but apparently if it looks like you're going to graduate and you get some recommendation letters, then they'll let you. So RG came by today after school to talk to me about what he went through this summer. I've never seen someone mature so much in so little time. It was like he was a new person. He no longer tried to defend his defensive actions (I spent hours arguing with him last year about how it wasn't important to defend your pride every time it's insulted) or showed anger at people that insulted him, but tried to discuss with me why these people do these things. He told me about how he got into a fight with another soldier at the beginning of the summer who said "I hate black people," but later simply tried to show this soldier through his own actions that black people did not live the stereotype he saw. He told me about his daily routine and the discipline and determination it took simply to stay awake at times. This student (I can no longer say kid), at 17 years old, was a platoon leader -- in charge of 60 men, several of whom were twice his age. He talked to me about how he no longer was attracted by of his previous vices: smoking pot, drinking, or playing around in class. He talked with scorn about his other classmates who have no idea what the real world is like. He described his newfound habit of taking notes in class because he always needs his body doing something. He even told me about some of the physical abuse they had to endure and how stoically he took it. The transformation was amazing. I have to admit, I teared up a little at one point. This was the ultimate teacher moment for me so far. I think I may have been the first adult to listen to his stories and fully recognize his change, and I could tell that he respected me for my time and my attention. This school year is already going much better than last, but RG's newfound outlook on life has made it that much better.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Tips for 1st Years During the School Year (AKA How to Ensure Your Sanity)

1) Learn to recognize which, among all the bullshit your school will inevitably tell you “has” to get done, in actuality, you “have” to get done. Your school will bombard you with deadlines for all types of menial tasks: countless homeroom headcounts, lesson plans, intervention plans, etc., etc., etc. Despite what anyone tells you, NOT ALL OF THIS HAS TO BE COMPLETED. At least not by you right that moment (or even when by when they initially say they need it). You have to figure out which of these things are the most important. Typically, anything the principal tells you directly to do gets priority. Typically, anything that can be emailed quickly I try and knock out of the way. But if you have 30 essays to grade, 3 lesson plans to write for tomorrow, 15 parents to contact, and grades are due by the end of the week, then get some of your stuff done first.

2) Make friends with the people who have any type of control over you. The librarian and the secretary saved my ass so many times. Many people disliked these particular employees, but I was always as polite and nice as possible, making sure to wish the secretary a good evening every night as I left for the day, and making sure to make small talk with the librarian. In return, my copies were (almost) always ready when I needed them, I didn’t have to wait in the office for more than 15 minutes to speak to someone (this is considered good), and I had access to the computer labs and/or TVs last minute whenever I needed them. A well-placed “thank you” or a card of appreciation goes a long way.

3) Watch who you associate with. I think because I hung out with a lot of the “trouble-makers,” even though I rarely caused trouble myself, I caught a lot more flack from the higher-ups than I probably deserved. Generally, the people who aren’t ass-kissing, who state their opinions, and who don’t always follow district policy tend to be the more liberal, and thus I naturally gravitated towards that circle. So when I was seen in the halls talking, it appeared to others as if we were “conspiring.” (It’s unbelievable how paranoid principals are.) I’m not saying don’t hang out with these people, but be aware of who’s watching you and what it looks like. Hang out with the others too.

4) Grow thick skin. Your students are astute and very perceptive (at times). They’ll figure out what annoys you or even hurts you, and they’ll use it over and over again. It’s not personal (even though they may personally attack you), that’s just what kids do. You did it too when you were in high school or middle school. Get used to it, and understand there’s a reason behind that child’s words. Don’t hold a grudge. Same thing goes with your principal(s). He/she has a job to do, a lot of stress, and may not always give you the benefit of the doubt. He/she may ream you out in front of students, parents, faculty, or by yourself. Be prepared to accept it in public (I know it’s hard for some of you to swallow your pride) and handle it professionally, even if he/she has not.

5) Please remember why you’re here. Even if kids tell you they hate you and don’t like you or your class, you’re helping. Don’t lose your ideals.

What should I be doing these next few weeks if I’m a first year?

Working. Organizing. And working some more. I know it sucks, especially considering you haven’t had a break from lesson planning and teaching since the second week of June, but it will make things so much easier for the Fall. In fact, I wouldn’t so much work on lesson planning right now as I would organizing and writing out a 9 weeks (or even a full year) syllabus. This is the most important thing you can do, because it will give your lesson plans and classes direction. If you already know what you’re teaching, contact the principal or curriculum administrator at your school and find out if there’s a pacing guide for your district/school. Find out if you’re required to lesson plan with the other teachers who teach the same subject as you. (It would suck if you worked so hard on these lesson plans and then you find out you’re not able to use them, or not able to use them until February.) Your principal will be very impressed with your assertiveness. Think about what overarching concepts you want your students to be able to know/identify/apply at the end of the year and think about how you’re going to incorporate those concepts throughout the year. Think long and hard about how you’re going to teach vocabulary, give tests, or assign homework.

Then, when you’re done with all that, work some more. Research how your school discipline structure works. For this, I’d try and contact someone who worked at your school previously in TeacherCorps or another teacher that currently works there. Again, you would hate to do all this work creating classroom rules and procedures on beautiful poster board and then you find out on the first day of school that because your school has a specific bathroom policy plan, you can’t use the brilliant one you came up with.

I’m not saying work all the time all day, but formulate ideas in your mind and actually write them down (I can’t count how many good ideas I had at one point throughout the school year that eventually got lost in the crevices of my mind). The more work you put in now, the easier the first nine weeks will be. The less likely it will be that you’ll want to kill yourself or your students. I can preach because I know first hand. My time off was spent at BestBuy, Finnian’s (a local pub), or on the foosball table. And I suffered in the long run. I came in with half-assed, poorly-thought-out lessons and strategies and my kids could tell. I’m so much more excited about next year because I’m actually writing out a week-by-week plan of what I’m going to teach for the entire year. Granted, I’ve had a year teaching it, so I know much better than you do what works and what doesn’t, but at least I can see where my year is going.

Go get drunk. Go explore your city (or town, or village, or hamlet). Go hang out with the rest of MTC. But those early Sunday mornings when you’re watching Sportscenter and drinking the Bloody Mary to recover from the even earlier Sunday morning, pull out the ol’ laptop and start typing away.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Required Blog #2

Of all the lessons I've taught so far (like how I used the word "all" to make it seem impressive?), the lessons on essay writing - particularly organizing thoughts during the prewriting stage were most successful. I think this can be attributed to a number of reasons: 1) It's easy. There's not much writing involved. It's simply writing whatever comes into your mind, organizing it into good or bad, and then choosing the three most quantifiable subjects. 2) It was the first stage of writing, so the students hadn't had time to become bored yet. 3) I did examples with people they liked: Michael Jordan, Tupac, etc. I feel like I also did a good job of explaining what happens in my head when I'm organizing thoughts.
My worst lesson was probably the one on using context clues. I think most of this boils down to preparation. It was something I hadn't taught before and had to sort of throw together at the last minute because things we had originally planned for that period didn't work out (pre-test, procedures didn't take as long as anticipated, etc.). Also, the lesson was fairly lecture-oriented, and I still haven't figured out a solution to keep students' attention for 50 minutes when you're just talking to them. (I'm not sure one exists.)
My instructional procedures tend to mimic those that I used most commonly during the end of the regular school year: heavy on the set and heavy on the examples. For me, so many terms and concepts in Literature and English are defined very vaguely, that the only way to explain a concept is to give example after example. Also, I've found if you lose a kid at the beginning of the lesson, it's twice as hard to get him back. For these reasons, I usually run out of time when I'm allowing for independent practice and I consistently squeeze my closure into about 30 seconds.
I differentiated instruction by doing a lot of activities. Typically, I'll over dozens of verbal examples and samples throughout a lesson. Also, I've made it a goal to provide a visual handout for almost every lesson so that students can organize their thoughts. I've done a lot of group activities, allowing students to move around the room and build things with their hands. I think mostly though, I've given students lots of freedom in their assignments to choose what interests them. I realize that's not technically a "learning modality," but I still feel like differentiated is all about freedom of choice, which I'm definately trying to provide.
I think students' performance would be enhanced with more consistency among teachers. Because of the need to have four teachers teach so many lessons, it's extremely difficult to have the same teacher teach the same concept thoroughly. For example, I started a lesson using characterization in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" only to have it completed by two other teachers. Although I think there are definately benefits to this tactic, the students become confused by three different teachers' methods, priorities on what's important in the story, and different interpretations. To make it even worse, those teachers weren't in the room the entire time when the other was teaching because we were planning or conferencing. I think more time would definately also be an advantage, but I guess that's not the intention of summer school.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Required June Blog 1

When I sat down and began to think about the curriculum that we would teach this summer for English I, I had several doubts about my ability to make such a huge decision considering I taught English III and IV this past year. The more I looked at the frameworks though and discussed content with other MTC English teachers, I decided that the most beneficial lessons for these students would be those that they could bring back and apply to their English II (state tested) classes next year wherever they are. I wanted these students to be able to re-use and re-apply strategies learned this summer in whatever English classroom they end up for the school year, regardless of the learning environment or teacher's competency. Thus, the main ideas that we focused on stressing for the first few lessons were a good grammar basis, good organizational processes and strategies (especially for essays), and general reading comprehension/test taking skills. I also thought that since the students would be in the same class, same seat, same teachers for 4 hours each day, it would be best to try and vary the lessons as much as possible to keep their attention span; therefore, our lessons generally teach four completely different concepts/ideas every day. We tried to cover at least one of the four themes: essay writing (students will compose their own informative essay by end of the week), grammar (students will apply rules of Subject-Verb agreement and commas vs. semi-colons in multiple sentences), reading comprehension (use of context clues and active reading), and literary (starting off with characters/characterization in one of my favorite short stories, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"). I imagined that, and for the most part found it to be true, that students had at the very least heard of some of the terms/strategies/concepts we discussed (bubble map, four square model, FANBOYS, etc.), but did not know exactly what they were or how to apply them. We made sure we were very explicit on when and how to use and apply these skills. The students will need to demonstrate competency in these areas in order to pass the state test and graduate in English II next year. I believe one of the students' favorite lessons (and one of my favorite to teach) was the inductive strategy (Unguided inquiry) where I had students explain to me how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The first student told me to open the bag; I did so, but did it by ripping the bag open from the bottom, allowing most of the bread to fall on the floor, instead of untwisting the ties and opening it from the top. This continued, with students not being specific enough and my assuming things from their vague directions until we had thoroughly messed up the peanut butter and jelly making process. After this, I believe the students understood the importance of organizing your thoughts, being specific, and following the correct steps, which easily led into the lesson on prewriting.

Monday, June 04, 2007

What I Wish I Knew Coming Into Teacher Corps

1) How to be an Asshole. I'd heard it probably more than Ben's hackneyed "This is the hardest thing you'll ever do in your professional life" speech, but I still didn't really believe it: "Don't smile until Christmas." What does that mean? Why? The kids are like wolves and can smell happiness like a wounded animal? I didn't know. So I paid it no heed. Big mistake. And I don't necessarily think it's true, but I think way too many of my classroom management problems (and let's face it, those are the biggest problems for virtually everyone) stem from the fact that I was cracking jokes and singing Coolio in class from the get go. I'll admit it: I wanted to be the cool teacher. But somehow there's a mixed message in telling a kid to sit down now while also making fun of the sag in his pants. I should have been a hard-ass. And when it finally hit me (about December) that my style wasn't working, it was almost too late to turn it around... especially with my worst class. I wish I could have taken pictures of their faces the first time I told them "I don't care... sit down now" when they started in on their lits of excuses why they had to get up out of their seats for the fourth time. I thought that by being understanding and appealing to their sense of reason while also showing them that I'm young and hip enough (I know, I think my intention was lost by just using the word "hip") to sympathize with their situations that they would respect me. They don't respect compassion or humor, they respect fear. At least at first. It's quite an over-exaggeration not to smile for 6 months. But I'd say for the first 5-6 weeks, be an asshole. That doesn't mean you make a kid cry (although there'll be plenty of days when you want to). It just means be curt, blunt, crude, and straightforward in telling students what you want them to do and doling out the consequences when they inevitably don't do it. Don't explain yourself more than you have to. Don't be understanding in front of the class. (Tell the kid that's about to tear your head off for giving him a writing assignment he can see you after class if it's that big a problem.) Don't give second chances. Let them see you as an authoritarian dictator and let them adjust. Then, as the weeks wear on, crack a "yo mama" joke. Laugh at yourself for tripping over the wires around your desk. Do an impression of another teacher. Let them see your human. But please wait until the point where they're scared and wonder if they should laugh at all.
2) How to Teach to the Level of My Students. Going in, partially because I was teaching juniors and seniors (two of which were Honors classes), I tried to make my classroom as much as a college setting as possible. Bad idea. Your students are not college students. The majority of them will not go to college, at least not a 4 year college. A large percentage of those who do eventually enroll in a 4 year college will not graduate college. So by doing what I did, you're preparing the minority. My biggest tips to getting kids to actually learn the material: Review as often as possible. Stop every 20-25 minutes and review what you've just gone over. Review at the end of class. Review every day at the beginning of your lesson. Review before tests. I know it may seem tedious and weary, especially to you, the teacher, someone who's been trained to memorize minute facts in very little time, but these students' brains do not work like ours -- they haven't had the conditioning. They need things repeated and reiterated over and over again. It's something I'm still working on, especially since the level of comprehension in my classes is so wide, but it's something I feel a lot better about now than I did when I started.

Monday, May 21, 2007

To Hell and Back

So the past three or four weeks I've been teaching without air conditioning. That's right. It's May. No air conditioning. A little background: as some of you may be aware, JPS passed a bond referendum this past schoolyear. The vast majority (maybe all?) of the money my school is receiving is going to renovations, which I think is a pretty good move. One of the first things we're doing is fixing the air conditioning. Our current air conditioner blows. Not literally. Pretty much all the knobs are torn off, so you have to use either pliers or a key to turn the air conditioner on and off. The school cannot control the air either. We have to make a call downtown, get it approved, and they have to change it at central office, which usually takes at least two days. I don't know if they don't pay attention to our requests, or we don't make the requests, but half the time the air conditioner is doing the wrong thing. It was turned onto heat when it was still burning up in October. It was turned onto air in early March. So we're finally going to be getting control over our own air with this new system, but it takes 60 days to redo the old system. So we had a choice: no air in May, or no air in August. We chose May. This means that for about 3 weeks, starting at about 10 am, it was probably at least 85 degrees in my room. And I had to teach. To kids who had already taken SATP tests. And who already fall asleep when we read. It was fun. I mean, the kids already thought school was finished. And, apparently, they were finished with work in their other classes. So if I tried to teach a lesson, I got several variations of the same basic response: "Man, I ain't doin' no work when it hot." Sometimes it came with more vulgarities to preface it ("GawdDAMN, when you gowna leave me 'lone?"). Sometimes it came with just a roll of an eye or a swing of an arm in the general direction of my voice. But invariably, it came. I think I started to push my luck, and would walk around to poke sleeping students in the face with paper or pencils. Much to the amusement of myself, I don't think the joviality was reciprocated.
Nevertheless, at one point during one of the worst hot spells (and expectedly, during my last and hottest class of the day), the administration came over the intercom to make an announcement that went something like this:
"Good afternoon faculty and staff, and please excuse this interruption. There has been a water pipe in the building that has just broken. We are in the process of shutting off all the water in the building. Please do not allow any students to leave your class to use the restroom or go to the waterfountain. Thank you."
This was at about 2:15, which means we still had another hour and twenty minutes left in class. And we had just come back from lunch. And I had four pregnant girls in my classroom. Ah, the joys of teaching.

Sunday, May 06, 2007


After picturing in my mind what this event was going to be like for the past few weeks, getting my tux cleaned, inviting my brother (who was visiting me for the weekend), and talking smack to the kids about my dance moves, the event finally arrived last night. On the invitation, it said prom lasted from 8-11 pm. So my brother, another teacher, and I pulled up decked out in our best formal wear about 8:20. We were the only people there, with the exception of one poor couple, who, like us, apparently didn't realize that you weren't really supposed to show up until an hour after it starts. So we sat there out of place -- as if three white guys at an all black prom weren't already out of place enough -- and waited.... for forty minutes. Kids didn't show up until 9. And the majority of them didn't show up until 9:15-9:30. We had already ordered the De La Hoya - Mayweather, Jr. fight on Pay Per View, so we had to head out at 9:45. I got to watch 15 minutes of dancing. I got to talk to a handful of my students. I was disappointed. I'd been building this event up for so long and it fell so far short of my expectations, mainly because I should've known better than expect them to show up when I expected them to.
On the positive side though, it was a great opportunity to watch the kids in their element. I'm still amazed at how different the kids act towards you when you're not trying to teach them something. Kids that in class hate me came up to me and gave me hugs or handshakes or cracked jokes. I really wanted to get out there with them and make a fool of myself, but I was so conscious of an administrator thinking it was inapporpriate or unprofessional, that I stayed in my seat the entire time I was there. I still in a sense resent some of the higher-ups at my school that assume in order to be an effective teacher, you can't be friendly with a student. That's not my style at all. I think the more a kid sees you as a real person who is understanding and genuinely wants to help, the more likely they are to respect you and act accordingly in your class.
Anyways, we left by 9:45. I'm sure I'll catch hell from the kids on Monday. I guess I'll just know better next year. I'm going to have to attempt to start back teaching this week after basically having two weeks where I never saw the kids, so that's going to be fun. I've got the days marked until I'm done and I'm really looking forward to the summer. I guess it's not completely the end thought. There's still one more major event that can possibly live up to the pre-hype of prom: graduation. I really hope that one doesn't disappoint.