Thursday, September 30, 2010

On the Same Side

The other evening was Back to School Night and it's always kind of interesting to meet the parents after knowing their kids for a couple of weeks. Sometimes there are surprises, but generally it's nice to put a face to the moms and dads. As for myself, in the very short time we have, I try to give an overview of my course and leave them with a good impression along with my contact information.

The next morning, one of my students was insisting that he hates writing. I asked him to give our class some time to change his mind, and then I mentioned  that I had met his parents the night before. He rolled his eyes and sighed. "I know," he told me. "My mom said she liked you."

"Uh oh," I answered. "I liked her too. Guess you're in trouble now."

He went back to his desk and started to write.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Battle of the Sexes

By some random act of computer-generated scheduling I have one class this year that has 13 boys and three girls and another one with 12 girls and four boys. They meet back-to-back, immediately after lunch, first the boys, then the girls.

For a variety of reasons I won't go into, there's been a lot of contention surrounding the master schedule this year, and at first I didn't think that my little disproportion was enough to request a change over. It was true that neither of those classes ran quite as I expected, even after I had taught the exact same lesson three times before I ever saw them. The boys were silly and rowdy: they didn't keep their hands, feet, or even their shoulders to themselves, and they took at least ten minutes to wind down from being outside at lunch. The girls, on the other hand, were constantly minding someone else's business-- questioning, directing, and correcting, and openly competing with me for the class's attention. Because I didn't have these issues in my other classes, I was pretty sure it might have something to do with the gender imbalance. Duh.

Still, I felt like it was somehow wrong to complain, that it showed some kind of teaching weakness and might even be considered to be whining. I thought that a veteran educator such as myself should easily be able to accommodate these different group dynamics, so I decided to approach it from a research perspective, noting the differences and varying my instructional strategies to address them. Well...

Let me state for the record that all of my English classes are heterogeneously grouped, by my choice. I have found that diversity of all kinds is a strength in our reading and writing groups, and maybe that's why I'm still struggling with these classes. Those guys are still pretty goofy and those girls are still really bossy, and all that social energy is beginning to impact the amount of work those classes get through.

I haven't decided exactly what I want to do next, but I will confess that I pulled up the schedules for every child in each of those sections, and it was pretty easy to find a two-for-two switch with a couple of other teachers that will create a little more gender diversity in my 5th and 6th periods.

Should we do it?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Second Annual RSVP

Like we do each year, we gave the students a writing prompt today to get a baseline of their writing skills. Their pieces will be scored holistically by the whole staff using the state rubric. We'll give them another prompt in early June to measure their progress for the year.

The topic today was the same as last yearYour principal wants to invite a celebrity speaker to your school. Think about the celebrity you would choose to speak; then write a letter to persuade your principal to invite this person. Be sure to include convincing reasons and details to support your choice.

Here's who the kids chose to invite, in loose order of popularity:

President Obama
Lady Gaga
Justin Bieber
Michelle Obama
Taylor Swift
Selena Gomez
Rick Riordan
Michael Jackson
Katy Perry
Bruce Lee
Taylor Lautner
John Cena
Michael Phelps
Mia Hamm
The "Head of the Nutritious Department"
Brandon Mull
Steve Carrell
Thomas Jefferson
Alex Ovechkin
Andrew Clements
RL Stine
Martin Luther King, Jr.
LeBron James
Tom Brady
Jeff Kinney
David Bowie
Adam Sandler
Neil Armstrong
Mr. T
Kurt Cobain
James Cameron
Donovan McNabb
Muhammad Ali
Lionel Messi
Jon Scieszka
Billy Joe Armstrong
Seth McFarlane
The Rock
Paul Langan
Lea Michelle
Ellen Degeneres

Monday, September 27, 2010


When the Tolerance Club met this afternoon one of our tasks was to frame our mission statement. The process required the assembled group to answer four questions:

Who are we?
What do we stand for?
Why is that important?
What are we going to do to accomplish our goals?

In order to gather our thoughts, we used the tried and true technique of collective brainstorming. Members of the group called out their thoughts and responses to our guiding questions and we wrote them on the board. Here's what the kids came up with:

Who are we?

The Tolerance Club

What do we stand for?
  • Helping people make friends
  • Building self-esteem
  • Spreading peace
  • Helping people feel accepted
  • Helping people accept others
  • Making school a safer, happier place

Why is that important?
  • It's not fun being lonely
  • People should feel good about coming to school
  • There should be a positive atmosphere for everyone to learn and grow
  • If you're not helping, you're part of the problem
  • Prejudice is wrong

What are we going to do to accomplish our goals?
  • Invite people to join us
  • Spread the word
  • Reach out 
  • Talk to your friends about how they act
  • Accept responsibility for our school
  • Stand up for victims of bullies
  • Look at yourself and your actions and choices
 And here's our mission statement:

We the members of the Tolerance Club pledge to spread peace through our school by helping people feel accepted and encouraging people to accept others, because it’s important for everyone to feel good about coming to school so that we can learn and grow. We understand that if you’re not helping then you’re part of the problem, and we invite everyone to join us and to take responsibility for your part in making our school a safer, more positive place by talking to your friends about their choices and actions and by looking at your own behavior, too. Stand up, reach out, and spread the word. Prejudice is wrong. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Ruh Roh

It's that time of year when the days grow crisper and more colorful and pumpkins and mums are on every front porch. And that can only mean one thing... it's time for the new Scooby Doo straight to video release! This rite of autumn started for us when my oldest nephew was six. He and I were shopping at one of those big box stores when his eye fell upon a huge stack of VHS boxes, and he literally gasped. It was Scooby Doo and Zombie Island. "Aunt Tracey," he told me earnestly, "this time the monsters are real."

I did a double take myself at this nugget of information; child of the 70s that I am, it was hard for me to believe that the mystery wouldn't be resolved by the yank of a mask from the face of a bound bad guy revealing the all-too-human culprit. And what would that villain's response be? "And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn't for you meddling kids."

My nephew's enthusiasm along with this intriguing premise of real monsters landed that movie right into our cart, but not for long. He insisted on carrying it for the rest of the time we shopped. At the check-out line I noticed another little boy watching us enviously. As his dad pulled him forward to the cash register he pointed at the box my nephew eagerly clutched. "Can we get that?" he asked. His father brushed him off by saying that they already had lots of movies at home. "But Daddy," he told him, "this time the monsters are real!" His dad looked at me, and I nodded and pointed to the display.

"Stay here," he told his son and headed over to grab the video.

After that, the annual release of the feature length Scooby became a fall institution: October always included the corn maze, the pumpkin patch, and the Mystery Inc gang.

Twelve years later my nephew is a freshman in college and this weekend we're putting together a care package for him-- homemade cookies, a Starbucks card, and what else? The latest Scooby Doo, 'cause, like, you're never too old for tradition.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Happy Accident

I find that Saturday mornings are a good time to get lost on the internet. With a little of that extra weekend time, I'll follow this link or that like so many bread crumbs and I usually end up in some pretty interesting places. This morning was a good example. I actually started out on facebook marveling at the juxtaposition of my libertarian tea party friend's status with those of my much more liberal-leaning buddies and wondering how I became the fulcrum that balances such opposing views when I noticed that one of these characters had liked something called Coiled Comics.

Did I click on the button to get out of the sticky middle or was there genuine interest there? It was a little of both, to be honest. Over the last few years, I have been working to introduce more opportunities to create graphic pieces in my class and so I do have an interest in comics. Plus, kids love reading them-- In my experience, both the Bone and Diary of a Wimpy Kid series can be classified as genuine gateways to more text-based selections for many kids.

Anyway, I was not disappointed this morning. Coiled is a weekly serialized web-based comic that has a sixth grade boy as its protagonist. It looked like something my students would like as readers, but also something that I could use as a model text for them as writers. I was only concerned that, since it isn't finished, the series might take a turn for the inappropriate either in terms of violence, language, or even sex.

With that in mind I promptly e-mailed the co-authors. It was only a few hours later that I received Peter Gruenbaum's reply: My personal philosophy is that people should be able to tell good, exciting stories without the level of violence that are found in many young adult novels. The prologue is as violent as it will get, and the story will have no sexuality or swear words in it -- they just aren't relevant to the plot. He also invited me to stay in touch as to how the kids like it.

How cool is that?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Learning Curve

This year on our team we have some students with disabilities with which I do not have much experience. We have triplets who are all blind and a girl with cerebral palsy who is confined to a wheelchair. Working with these kids offers a new lesson in perspective almost every day; I never realized how much I take my sight and mobility for granted until we started figuring out how to include these students in all of our lessons and activities. As challenging as it is for us, I am continually impressed by the independence and tenacity of these four children. They are amazing.

In support of the triplets we have a vision-impairment specialist assigned to our school who is blind himself. I have never had the opportunity to spend much time with a blind person, and I'm afraid it shows. The other day at lunch he asked me where the trash can was. "It's over there," I told him.

"Um, that's not very helpful," he said, and we laughed at my mistake.

"Well," I replied, "I pointed, too!"

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Like Any Other Day

Today I received the following email from a particularly conscientious student:

I am absent from school today because I'm sick. I will be back in school tomorrow. I was wondering if we did anything important today in English since I missed a class. Please let me know.

To which I replied:

Of course we did something important in English today, but it was nothing you can't make up when you get back. I hope you feel better. See you tomorrow!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Warm and Cool

One great thing about our school is that, in support of writing across the curriculum, we use one of our professional development early-release days for the entire teaching staff to holistically score expository writing samples from every student. Everyone is familiarized with the state rubric and team teachers meet to read and evaluate their students' writing.

Perhaps, as an English teacher, I'm biased in my perspective on this; no doubt some of my colleagues in other content areas might express another opinion. I have the sense that many non-English teachers feel that writing has a very limited place in their classes, despite lots of research confirming writing across the curriculum as best practice for instruction in both writing and content. (Bottom line: Like people who can read well, people who can write well are generally more successful in all academic areas than their peers who cannot.) Even so, every year we experience some push back and even resentment when it comes time to read and score those essays.

This year the English department was presented with a request from our colleagues. Since they are asked to not only rate each writing piece from 1-4 in composition, written expression, and correctness, but also to provide the student authors with a comment both praising them and offering a suggestion for improvement, our fellow educators wanted a comment bank from which to draw their remarks for the kids.


Oh, wait! I have one:

Nice initiative in trying to make this as easy and thoughtless as possible! Next time, try actually engaging with the task at hand to give our kids some authentic feedback.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What a Difference a Year Makes

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about the amazing new group of students we had. Flash forward-- for the first time in my career, there has been no personnel change at the sixth grade level since then, but this beautiful fall day found several of us veterans reminiscing about last September.

Don't get me wrong-- the kids this year are sweet and age-appropriate, they just aren't the kids from last year. Tuesday is the day when we meet with the counselor to discuss student concerns, and she left with a list of at least 20 kids who aren't doing their homework, aren't coming prepared, don't follow directions, can't open their lockers, can't make it on time, can't make it all. Oh, they love middle school, all right-- they say so all the time-- but middle school is sort of a challenge for them right now. Sigh.

At the end of the meeting, one teacher who has been on the team for seven years, but has thirty-plus years of teaching experience made an announcement. "Well," she said, "this makes me feel much better." We looked at her, momentarily perplexed. She shrugged. "I thought it was me," she laughed. "I was sure I had lost my sixth grade mojo."

Monday, September 20, 2010

Pinwheels for Peace

The awesome art teacher at our school introduced a cool activity last year: Pinwheels for Peace is an art installation project conceived of by two art teachers in Florida in 2005. Every year millions of windmills are created and displayed on September 21, in observance of the United Nations World Peace Day.

This year, our new Tolerance Club took the lead on the project, helping to organize materials and set up the display of over 350 pinwheels in front of our school for World Peace Day tomorrow. Tonight as I left the building, hundreds of colorful handmade pinwheels twirled in the soft breeze. Our school is a mixed-use facility, and I saw dozens of people there picking up their children, attending night classes, riding bikes, walking dogs, and jogging past. Few could fail to smile at the pinwheels spinning in the setting sun, especially after reading the banner...

Visualize Whirled Peace

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bunny Ears

Our school system subscribes to a password-protected academic internet service. Each teacher has a "course" with tools like a discussion board, blog, wiki, online assignments, etc. that students can access from anywhere they have an internet connection. One part of my English class involves giving my students the chance to write informally for an audience of their peers on our course's discussion board. I put up topics of interest like sports, music, pets, and video games and invite the kids to post at will. There are other more structured writing assignments, too, and we start the year with introductions. Each student has to write a couple of paragraphs introducing him or herself to the rest of the group. As a follow-up, they are asked to read and reply to at least five other kids.

Anyway, we were in the computer lab on Friday to kick off this activity, and so I've spent a good chunk of my weekend reading sixth grade writing, some of it rather silly indeed. Not that I mind-- I find what they have to say to each other pretty interesting, and this assignment can really provide a lot of insight into their personalities, interests, concerns, and of course, writing skills. Sometimes what they write is hard to understand, which is a good lesson for them, because quite often, whomever it's addressed to will reply in confusion, giving that writer incentive to revise the message.

Today, I read a post that temporarily stumped me. It was in reply to a girl who had written that she was excited about all the field trips we might take in sixth grade. To that another student responded, REALLY, REALLY, Kim Positive can't wait for the exciting (with bunny ears) field trips? WOW! I understood the teasing sarcasm-- it was the bunny ears that got me. I read it again and was just about to click away with a shrug and a note to self to ask him about it tomorrow when I realized what they were... He meant air quotes! I was fascinated by the implication: he didn't realize that the bunny ear gesture actually stands for punctuation marks, much less that he could have written them directly into his reply.

Now, that is going to make a good mini-lesson.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Impulse Purchase

Today while out and about on weekend errands, we noticed that a new shop was opened not so far from our home. It's actually the second location of a place devoted to all things doggie, and since we've driven to the other side of the county to visit its sister store, we were delighted to drop in and browse a bit this afternoon. They had a fun assortment of things we really don't need-- dog beds and t-shirts, collars and leashes (remind me that one day? I really must write about Isabel's extensive collar wardrobe), but as we made our way to the back of the store, we stopped by the small book collection, and there it was... a book on teaching your dog sign language!

We laughed to begin with-- we have many friends who have taught their pre-verbal children to sign, and based on that alone, this seemed like the ultimate scam targeting DINKs like ourselves-- but as I've written before the desire to truly communicate with your pet can run deep. We decided to buy the book.

Our dog has a pretty good repertoire of tricks, none of which I can take credit for teaching her, and she is nothing if not a willing student, so as we plunked our hard earned cash on the glass top boutique counter, I knew that if any dog could learn sign language, it is Isabel, and if anyone could teach her, it is Heidi.

We'll see.

Friday, September 17, 2010

More Than a Rhetorical Question

I heard someone on the radio today describe teaching as being like a salesperson for a product that nobody wants but everyone is forced to buy. That made me a little sad, but I realized that it does speak to one of the most common pitfalls of teaching-- how to make the curriculum relevant to people who are not necessarily present in your class by choice.

The answer must lie in the fact that although no one loves every minute of school, everybody has experienced the utter exhilaration of learning something totally awesome. How can all of the stakeholders work together to make school like that?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Be Prepared

Today was the day when we set up English binders in my class. Last week, each student was asked to procure a 1-1/2" binder and five dividers to store and organize all the reading and writing work they will do in class this year. Last night, I went to the office supply store and purchased 10 binders and 20 sets of dividers. My deal is simple-- I'll lend those students without what they need today in exchange for a replacement as soon as possible. I ran out of supplies in the fourth of my five classes, despite scrounging through all the spare binders I've collected over the years as well as the generosity of the students who bought 8 divider sets and donated the extra 3 to their classmates.

This practice is considered wrong by some. To them, it is harmful to the students because it is enabling: as the theory goes, if students have enough advance notice for any given task, then accepting anything less than full compliance is reinforcing the idea that requirements aren't mandatory. Hm.

To those folks I say: Look. My students are ten and eleven. They are in a new school in a new position of greatly increased responsibility and independence. I think they're doing the best they can. Many of their parents work long hours and some have limited access to transportation. Add to that that today, new figures were released showing that one out of seven people in the US lives in poverty. I suspect that statistic applies to the families of some who come to my class every day.

Not one student turned down my offer; they want to have what they need for the class. I know I'll get back a few binders and some sets of dividers, too, but I won't break even, and I don't really care. We have our English binders ready to go!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I Thought You Should Know

Yesterday a student approached me right at the end of class asking for a moment. When the rest of the kids had cleared out on their way to PE and electives, I asked her what was up. "I just thought you should know that (and here she named another girl in the class) has been spreading rumors that you're gay." She hastened to add that she didn't believe such a terrible thing for a minute; she just figured I'd want to know.

She was wrong-- I didn't really want to know. Knowing forces me into a difficult position. I am gay, and for most of my life I have lived with a certain amount of shame because of it. When I was much younger, it was not acceptable at all, and although over the years being gay has become less of an issue, even for a teacher, I am not open about my sexuality with the students. For a teacher at our school, it's okay to be gay; it's fine if adults-- colleagues and even parents-- are aware of it, too, but we don't mention it to the kids.

In the rare cases that it comes up, as it did for me yesterday, we usually tell the students that it's inappropriate for them to discuss a teacher's personal life. That's not entirely true, though. Any of my heterosexual co-workers would have no problem telling kids that they were married, nor would they be discouraged from doing so. I know of one teacher in my building who happily shared the details of his engagement with each of his classes. He called it "building relationships."

So, what did I do yesterday? I told the first student that although it was inappropriate for someone to be speculating about my personal life, I hoped she understood that there was nothing wrong with being gay, and I was not insulted by the rumors. She looked at me with skepticism. "You should be!" she said indignantly, perhaps honestly believing that she was defending my reputation.

"I'm not," I said flatly, but I was lying. My day was ruined. My stomach ached as if I had been caught doing something wrong; I was worried that the rapport I was building with these new students would be compromised, and I dreaded telling the counselor and the other teachers on the team about the incident, but I had to.

I'd like to say I was back to normal today, but I was still a little off balance. We had a modified schedule for testing, so I didn't see either of the two students involved, and maybe that was for the best. Even so,  I'm sure it'll be fine when I do see them tomorrow. Internalized homophobia is insidious and damaging, and as I know all too well, damn near impossible to get rid of completely, but soon enough it fades back beneath the conscious surface. Until next time.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

Twenty One Preps

We have a class in our building for emotionally disturbed students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. It is behaviorally based with a counseling component, set up so that students can earn their way into less restrictive classes by doing well on their point sheets. Until then, one teacher is responsible for delivering an appropriate curriculum for every subject in all three grades. Sixth grade students are rare in the program, especially at the beginning of the year, but right now, they have three in there.

At 8:15 this morning, I was waving good-bye to my homeroom kids and greeting my first period class when I saw that teacher making haste down the hallway. We've been friends for years, and when he saw me too, he waved. "Hey, what do you do in sixth grade English?"

I raised my eyebrows and looked at him skeptically over my glasses. Where to start? "Nothing," I shrugged sarcastically.

"Yeah, me neither," he said, and we laughed.

"Listen," I told him, I'm happy to help you, but it's going to take a little longer than the two minutes my students have to record their homework and get out what they need for class."

"I get you," he answered, and hurried off to the science teacher next door.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Rah Rah Rah

Two interesting pieces about education in the NY Times today, one in The Week in Review section, called Testing the Chinese Way, by Elisabeth Rosenthal, and the other an opinion piece, We're No. 1(1)! by Thomas Friedman: whether intentional or not, to me they seemed rather companionable.

Rosenthal recounts the experience of her own children when enrolled in an international school in Beijing. It was, she writes, "a mostly Western elementary school curriculum with the emphasis on discipline and testing that typifies Asian educational styles." Her point seems to be that neither of her children suffered unduly under such a regiman, although her son did have a year when he required "endless parental cheerleading" and that when they returned to the States, the kids chose a more traditional program because they preferred the feedback that regular testing provided them. The question of whether such a test-centered approach actually benefited her children is left unanswered; it seems that the best she can say is that they were not harmed by it. To me the obvious follow up question is would we be able to say the same about those kids who may not have endless parental cheerleading?

Just a few pages later in the Sunday paper, Thomas Friedman addresses the fact that the USA is not even in the top ten of Newsweek Magazine's top 100 countries in the world. (We're number 11.) Friedman attributes the poor ranking to our education system, and cites Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson's opinion that when it comes to education reform the fault may not lie with "bad teachers, weak principals, or selfish unions," but rather with a lack of student motivation. In a recent piece Samuelson wrote, "Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don't like school, don't work hard and don't do well."

Where are those parental cheerleaders when you need them?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Dog Day

It was a gorgeous late summer day here; in fact the weather was much more like fall, and we wanted to spend some time outside. The last time we visited Mount Vernon we discovered a surprising fact: dogs are allowed on the property. Knowing so influenced our decision to upgrade our admission tickets to annual passes; at only ten bucks more, it would take just one more visit to pay for the additional cost, and being able to bring the dog along sealed the deal. So this afternoon, Isabel made her first trip to Mount Vernon.

Because it seems so unlikely that dogs would be allowed on the grounds at all-- it's a national landmark for heaven's sake, and you have to walk them through the visitor center both coming and going-- not many dogs are there, and most visitors are surprised to see one, so she was a celebrity all day. She herself was very interested in all the other animals. She has met horses before, but sheep, hogs, and mules were a different story. She enjoyed the gardens, the wharf, and the model farm, too.

I was pleased to be back just two weeks after our last visit, and as we left today, I imagined seeing the grounds in late fall, maybe on a winter Saturday afternoon, and again in the spring. That annual pass was totally worth it.

Friday, September 10, 2010


Today at school we got an email that there was a confidential memo in our mailboxes. Such an unusual chain of communication had the staff in a buzz, and it wasn't lessened any by the note from the police officer assigned to our building alerting us to the fact that a somewhat disturbed woman tried to gain access to our school this morning. She insisted that she needed to use the library to watch the children. It was clearly stated that there was never any indication of danger, but the combination of her instability and persistence made it prudent to let us know that she was around. We could recognize her by her Thomas the Train backpack.

Later I was talking to three of my colleagues about the incident. One wondered if it was the woman who lives in her car right down the street from our school. "Who?" I asked, and she described the car and the lady, adding that she had been there since last winter. I drive by that location every day, and I have never noticed either car or woman, but they are there-- I saw them tonight as I left. In my defense, I suppose I could say that my mind is always on the day ahead as I pull into the parking lot and my attention always turned towards home on the return trip. Still, I think there is a larger truth about the invisibility of people who are disadvantaged in our community.

Last Sunday at our local Farmer's Market, I was returning to my car with a bag full of fruit and vegetables. A fellow shopper stood chatting with a friend in the parking lot, and I noticed that her dog was very focused on something in the direction of my car. As I approached the driver's side, a woman was on the sidewalk ahead, and she was talking. I assumed that she was speaking to the dog, and I gave a grin and a nod to a fellow pet lover. "What are you smiling at you f--cking wh-re?" she asked in such a sweet voice that I was literally sitting in the car before I understood her words.  

Hey! I thought, and locking the doors, took a closer look at her. The bags that I had assumed were the result of running errands were stuffed with clothes and all sorts of other things that obviously had not been purchased that day. She picked them up and shuffled away from the bus stop where, had I bothered to think about it, I might have imagined that she was waiting for the transportation that would take her on her way to home or work or some place safe where people cared for her. She was talking to herself the whole way down the street.

Could it be that it is time for me to pull my head out of whatever hole it's in and pay a little more attention to the humans around me? Ya think?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Locker Day

You probably wouldn't think about it unless you were a sixth grade teacher, but when most kids come to middle school, they have absolutely no experience opening a combination lock. Receiving a locker assignment is no less than a rite of passage. Picture if you will, hundreds of 11- and 12-year-olds crowded in along banks of narrow lockers, gripping their combinations in sweaty hands and desperately twirling the dials on their padlocks. Right Left Right is a totally foreign concept to them. Skip the second number once before stopping on it? Ludicrous! What do you mean I have to start from the beginning if I miss one of the numbers?

Twenty minutes of utter chaos always marks the third day of school, but it's one of my favorite mornings of the year. To start with, the kids are so excited to be getting a locker at all. Four cubic feet of property to call their own in the vastness of our school must be very reassuring. The whole combination thing is challenging for most, but not so frustrating as to be impossible, and it's really easy for the staff to assist anyone who is stuck. 

By the end of the day, upwards of 80 percent of the sixth graders can open their lockers unassisted, and it will be everyone before a week has passed. Their faces shine with pride when they feel the lock give way to their tug and hear that satisfying click. They love their lockers, and they are very appreciative to those who have helped them learn a skill that is so valuable to them.

If only all of teaching could be like that.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My Favorite Show

At our school, the morning announcements are shown on television. Various students anchor the broadcast, reading the important events of the day to students and staff, leading us in the Pledge of Allegiance, and directing us to observe the state mandated minute of silence. From time to time, they will have a guest, for example the principal, the IB Coordinator, or a student involved in some activity. They do a nice job, but it can be a little dry, and last year I noticed that not many of my homeroom students were paying attention. Of course I put a quick stop to any talking or whispering, but it's impossible to force someone to focus on something, and who wants a fight like that first thing in the morning, anyway?

My response was to start calling the announcements "my favorite show" as in, Yay! It's time for my favorite show! or Hey! Pay attention! You're totally missing my favorite show! Of course they rolled their eyes at me, but I didn't stop when it was over.  Wow! Did you hear that! The boys basketball team won! AND, they have practice this afternoon! Gosh I love that show! Don't you? Soon, the kids started watching the announcements just so they could make fun of my favorite show. It was excellent!

I started that routine again today with my new students. Obviously, they don't know me yet, and as soon as the announcements were over, one of them turned to me with concern. "So what's your second favorite show?" he asked.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Getting to Know You

One of the goals of the first day of school is always to get to know the students in some way. Over the years I have planned many different activities to help everyone feel a little more at home in our class. A tried and true method is to have each student share one thing about themselves as I take roll, but some kids don't enjoy being put on the spot like that-- I was one of those kids myself, and I still kind of hate having to share personal stuff in a meeting or class.

So with that in mind I devised an alternate approach. Rather than have the student tell me something, I told them I would guess a few things about them that they could either confirm or correct. I was like Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz. Spying a new binder and matching pencil pouch, I would confidently declare, Your favorite color is purple! The tall kids usually got, You play basketball! And, playing the odds, many kids heard, Your favorite subject is math! or Your favorite song this summer was California Gurls! Amazing!

Soon I branched out a bit in my predictions.

Me: You have an annoying... hamster!
Student: Close.
Me: Brother?
Student: Yes!

Me: When you grow up you want to be a professional... accountant!
Student: Football player.
Me: Are you sure?

Of course I was wrong as often as I was right, but then the kids just laughed at how ridiculous it would be if pizza was their favorite food instead of sushi, or if they had gone to the beach instead of NYC on vacation, and when the day was through, we ended up learning a lot about each other.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Annual Insomnia

I can never sleep the night before school starts. No matter how well prepared I feel for the next day, my rest is restless at best, and I always wake in the middle of the night, my mind spinning anxiously, my heart beating along. I can already tell that this year will not be an exception.

In an email from college, my nephew asked if I was ready to go back. No, but I'm ready to be back.It's the transition that does me in. My only consolation is that I know I'll sleep well tomorrow night.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Neighbors WIll Hear

One thing about the place where I live is that there's not a lot of open window weather; usually it's either too hot or too cold. I'm sure the building has something to do with it-- constructed in the mid-80s, the jigsaw design of the units offers the illusion of privacy, but the trade-off may have been that there was not a lot of attention paid to cross-breezes and natural ventilation in these townhouse-style condos.

Tonight is one of those rare times when we and many of our fellow residents have thrown open our windows and doors to welcome the first burst of cool, fresh, pre-autumn air. As I sat on my stoop grilling a couple of chops for our dinner, I could hear the sounds of my neighbors float through the courtyard. A child practiced piano; a couple chatted as they did the dishes; a commercial promised convenience and service; a dad announced that bedtime was coming.

Privacy? Oh, that was totally out the window, but the undeniable sense of belonging to a community completely made up for it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


At the open house the other night, I saw a former student who is now in eighth grade. She had been tapped to serve as one of our school's "Ambassadors," eighth graders who welcome guests and guide them through the building when they visit.

This particular kid had been an avid reader when she was in my class, and so I asked her if she'd had a chance to read the third book in The Hunger Games trilogy. She told me that she hadn't even read the second book, yet, so before the night was over, she ducked into my room and grabbed the book from my class library. The next day, I found it on my desk with a note-- Loved it! Can't wait for the next one! I know she'll be by before school starts on Tuesday morning to borrow that next book, and that kind of stuff always makes me smile, because I like being part of a community of readers and writers, and I love helping kids get their hands on books they want to read.

Last week we heard through the grapevine that our school system is implementing a policy that forbids teachers from having non-school-issued furnishings in their classrooms. Couches, rockers, bean bags, pillows, and their like will have to be removed. Such a rule bothers me, because beyond making me get rid of the ways I have personalized the room for my students, it smacks of other changes to come. How long will it be before teachers are not allowed to have any books that aren't issued by the school system in their rooms, either?

Friday, September 3, 2010


... and a couple of last marathon meetings (with fire alarm tests included) to end the week. It wears you down, that it does. I tried to make the best of the situation this morning by searching for the best metaphorical description of the alarm sound, "cicada from hell" was my favorite, and then by counting the earsplitting bursts in an attempt to find some pattern to the maddening din.

Of course I was hanging on the talking points of every presenter, too. Don't worry, friends, I did not miss a single word of that 2 1/2 hour meeting. I'll prove it: At about two hours in the principal went through a list of thirteen procedural items that were deemed so important that we had to initial a staff roster to verify that we had been there for her presentation. (Way more on the procedural trends later-- I'm just not ready to write about them, yet. It's that bad.) When she got to the part where we weren't allowed to use our smart phones to access any social networking sites during the contract day, I flipped my iPhone on and punched the facebook app, something I have never done at school before.

Had I not been distracted by an alarm or some other nonsense, I might have even posted an update: Missing: Two hundred and fifty work hours, value at least five thousand dollars. If found, please return to the students of our school system.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Good Night Bad Day

In his latest piece for The New Yorker, David Sedaris makes the observation that when certain misfortunes befall you (in his case complications regarding air travel) it seems like a national tragedy that everyone should know about, and "only when it happens to someone else do you realize what a dull story it is."  That's good advice coming from a master storyteller.

I'm going to risk it anyway and take a few paragraphs to describe how awful our day at school was today. We are still in preservice, working in our classrooms and meeting with colleagues to prepare for the students' first day next Tuesday. As I've mentioned before, our school is at the end of a year-long update which has entailed all sorts of outrageous inconvenience for every staff member in the building for what is, in my opinion, very little improvement. The project was supposed to be finished as of last Monday, but like the vast majority of renovations, the contract ran over.

The punch list is extensive: the a/c has been sporadic, which we have dealt with; yesterday the power went on and off at least half a dozen times, which was kind of a nuisance, especially if anyone was trying to work on the computer, but today, today was the day when they were testing the new fire alarm system, ALL DAY.

What does that mean, you wonder? It means flashing strobe lights and ear splitting alarms at unpredictable intervals five or six times an hour from 9 to 3. The lunch break only made it worse; just when you felt like you were recovering from the traumatic ordeal, it started again without warning. I'm not exaggerating when I say that the experience could have been modified and used as torture. Physically and psychologically it was so draining that I honestly can't believe they allowed the testing to go on in an occupied building. We should have left, but there's too much to be done to get ready for the kids.

And bless their hearts, it was the kids who came to my rescue tonight. We had our open house for sixth graders from 6:30-7:30, and when I left school at 4, returning to that building was the last thing I wanted to do. I had to, though, and it was still with a bit of a headache that I dragged myself into the theater at 6:25, but there must be something magical about eleven year old energy-- by the time I waved good bye to the last family, and for the first time since June, I had my teacher groove on, and  I felt completely revived and excited about the new school year.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Share and Share Alike

Sometimes I want to live in a collective. For example, I want a kayak, but storage space and the knowledge that I'm too busy to use it very frequently prevents me from buying one, so what I'd really like to do is share a kayak with some other people.

This notion could extend to many other possessions as well, particularly kitchen appliances and power tools. As a matter of fact, a couple of minutes ago, I wished for a dehydrator. There are certain things that I'd like to preserve that way (like shallots and chilies) but not enough to justify owning one. I know my sister has just such a device, and if only she lived closer than Atlanta, I would ask her to borrow it. Along the same lines, I myself recently purchased a pressure canner. It's not a super extravagance, but it cost enough that I thought about it for over a year before I laid my money down. It's in my attic right now; surely somebody could be getting some use out of that baby.

Wet saws, chop saws, reciprocating saws-- I know how to use them, and they would probably come in handy once a year or so, but if I owned any of them, they would join the pressure canner languishing in storage, declining in value.

Most Americans have too much stuff, me included, and there is a certain transcendence to using the right item for the job that is undeniable, but access rather than ownership might be the way to go. I think that sharing would be a huge step toward eliminating the consumerism that plagues many of us.

Who's with me? (I'm bringing a lot of sweet kitchen appliances to the deal!)