Not in Teacher School

Things they didn't teach

31 notes

The Funny Papers

I gave an assignment last week. Students had two options: they could make a map of the process for writing under time, or they could make a comic strip showing the steps for writing under time.

A girl came up to me. Nice girl. Smart girl. Works hard. She showed me the rough draft for her comic strip. It had lovely panels and drawings, but no words. I gave her a couple of suggestions for how she could include the necessary text and then I said something like, “You know, like they do it in comic strips.”

And she smiled a little and looked chagrined. “Actually, Ms. S, I have never seen a comic strip before.”

Never? Really? Here? On this planet?

I used to LOVE the comics. My parents never had a newspaper subscription when I was growing up but my grandpa used to save them up for weeks and then mail them all to me in a manila envelope, with a stick of gum and a dollar. I used to pour over those pages for days: Charlie Brown, Doonesbury, Cathy, even the saccharine and eerily preachy Family Circus.

How could a girl grow up without the comics?

Then I thought about how long it had been since I had purchased a newspaper. And I was a journalism major. Print journalism, actually. I am fully trained for a profession that, apparently, scarcely exists anymore.

I mean, if seemingly perfectly normal and stable young women have never even looked at the comics before, the future of the print media is surely in peril.

What does that mean, really? Is the sky just now suddenly falling? Students being uninterested in current events is hardly a new thing.

When I was in middle school, I came home one day to a tearfully elated mother.

“The Berlin Wall came down today!” she exclaimed. “The Berlin Wall!”

I must have looked less enthused than she might have hoped because I have never gotten over the disappointment in her voice when she said, “You don’t even care!”

However, one might think, that with the world wide webs ever more readily available, literally in their pockets, students now might have more interest in what is happening in the wide world. But one would be mistaken.

Over the years I have tried to get my students more involved. The first year Obama ran for president, I put a question about the news on the board every day and the students who arrived on time could answer it for extra credit, if they knew. That ended when I was outsmarted by technology; students in earlier periods were texting the question to the ones who had me later in the day, who were in turn Googling the answers. Or tricking history teachers into telling them.

This year I tried having my class do research and write news articles. We read a lot of samples. They learned about interviewing. I even let them write about weed, if they wanted to.

But they still did not really care. I created no future news junkies.

It would be accurate to state that even an entire missing AIRPLANE could not raise the generally torpid interest level.

But why? How could a person not be fascinated by the political machinations of the situation in Ukraine? By the implications of the employment reports? By news of two giant earthquakes in rapid succession in the Southern Hemisphere?

I guess because if my students want to hear about power grabs and potential violence, they need only go home to their own gang infested neighborhoods. If they want drama, they need only read one another’s Tweets about prom. If they need to worry about the future, there is plenty to worry about starting with the day after they graduate in May. How can I expect my students to embrace a world far greater than the one which easily overwhelms them every day when they walk out their doors?

Okay, I get that.

But seriously, never even a Dennis the Menace?

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Grading vocabulary tests this afternoon, I came across this amazing gem:
Internal Conflict: I hate myself because I am ugly.
External Conflict: I punched him in the face for calling me ugly.

Doesn’t that just say it all? All of human miscommunication, anger, resentment, encapsulated in one amazing example.

You’re welcome.

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I was always a good student. I liked getting As. I liked feeling like I was making progress. Even in college and graduate school, I needed that approbation. I craved that pat on the head. Going to school makes sense to me because it is a system of rewards. It is a system where hard work is recognized.

Working in a school, however, is not.

Working in a school means one toils and toils and NO ONE notices. Rarely does someone come by and say, “You are doing great things here, Ms. S.”

Parents don’t call and email to say, “Thanks for always posting grades in a timely fashion.” The higher ups at the district office never send letters to compliment me for my early Common Core implementation. My administrators have never had time to stop in and say, “Ms. S, thank you so much for all the extra work you do.”

And that kinda sucks.

I want an A. I want someone to give me a sticker. I want an awards ceremony where my mom takes pictures of me holding a certificate that says, “Exceptional Teacher.”

Furthermore, teaching is a profession where the only option for upward mobility is to STOP TEACHING. If I want to get promoted and make more money I have to get out of the classroom, get a new degree, become an administrator, learn to walk in heels.

I do not want to do those things.

But I still covet a promotion. I really do. There is just no teacher equivalent to climbing the corporate ladder.

I would like to start working hard for an attainable goal, not just because I am damned to push the same boulder up the same hill for all of eternity. Here I am, twelve years into my career, and I am still staying late every night, still coming in on my breaks, still spending my weekends grading. And for what? There is no report card coming, no new title for which to strive, no bigger paycheck on its way.

The truth is, in this profession, I can work as much as I want to and try every day and every year to get better and still never be able to afford to own my own home. Ever.

It is a good thing there are other types of rewards to teaching. It is a good thing that every once in a while a student surprises me with a Jamba Juice (like a sweet girl did today), or a funny note, or an unexpected Tweet. It is a good thing I still feel immeasurable satisfaction when I read an essay and see that a boy who never wrote before finally got it. It’s a good thing I still feel a rush when I see those light bulbs go on in their young heads.

Because otherwise this poverty, this exhaustion, this constant quest for self-improvement in a vacuum of external reward might really get to me.

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Meanwhile…after school

Passing through detention, I ran into a student from my fourth period class:
Me: Hey, shouldn’t you be working on the outline for your essay?
Student: Yeah.
Me: But you are just drawing a robot.
Student: No, I am drawing a badass robot.

Truth? It was a pretty badass robot.

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Keeping Up

I do not want to be old. I do not want to have crow’s feet and saggy arms and creaky joints. I do not want to make out of date popular culture references. I do not want to wear mom jeans.

But it happens. One day you wake up and think, “I could use some Botox.” One day you mention the movie “8 Mile” and none of your students have seen it. And one day you go to the mall and think, “Who wants these low-rise skinny things anyway? I could use some pants that go right up around my waist, really hold me in.”

And one day you are not up to date on technology anymore. I used to be pretty hip, I swear. When I first started in this business, I was at the forefront of innovation. I had a computerized gradebook. I emailed parents. I was on it.

It wasn’t just at school, either. I had Friendster. That’s a real thing. Look it up.

But then…well…I just was not about to have a class website. That is not the Ms. S way. I am not a visual person. I do words. Hence the English teaching. And somehow, lots of other innovations seem to have passed me by while I was rereading Romeo and Juliet.

Then this year my principal brought in an educational technology consultant. My principal chose wisely. This tech consultant is not nerdy at all. She seems to own no Star Anything t-shirts. She has good hair and great shoes, but she is not too slick, too businessy, too Wolf of Wall Street. This consultant is a nice lady, like with a genuine Midwestern heritage nice. She is patient and kind and laughs at our jokes. And all she wants is for us to digitize everything, use technology in the classroom and Tweet things.

Somehow this seems impossible. Somehow the very idea is unsettling. This makes me feel old.

So, I am trying. Because even though I did walk to the bus stop uphill both ways in negative zero degree weather (for reals) and even though I remember vividly the day Kurt Cobain died, I do not relish the idea of being a curmudgeon.

As a result, I have been Tweeting my face off. I just Tweeted (Do I capitalize that? What are the rules governing capitalization of verbs derived from proper nouns?) a student to advise him not to skip school tomorrow because we have a speech club meeting after school. It made me feel good. Like I was changing and evolving. I expect it also will make him feel loved and cherished…I bet he will be excited…

In my classroom I tried this thing called “Poll Everywhere,” which allows my students to participate anonymously using their cell phones. What could go wrong?

Nothing. I did it in my third period and my fourth period and it was super cool. The students were able to text in answers. They were enthused. I was able to screenshot the polls and Tweet them out to the world. The whole thing went absolutely according to plan. Then, in my second to last class of the day, it went from awesome to uh-oh.

It seems the open-answered nature of my polling allowed for profanity. How could I not have seen this coming? I should have known. Less foreseeable, however, was the way they figured out how to use my last name as a verb in a bad, sad way.

But I will not be defeated. I created a shared Google Drive folder for all my colleagues where we can keep digitized copies of all of our crucial forms and paperwork. I am kind of hoping the nice consultant lady gives me extra credit.

And I will keep working on finding new ways to present old books, you know, to keep up with the kids these days. I will encourage e-assignments and two-way Tweet communication and digital citizenship. There may be nothing I can do about my laugh lines, but my attitude towards change, that I can still fix.

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Staff Infection

My sister had a meeting with her principal earlier this week. At this meeting the principal inquired as to whether or not my sister even liked her school. You see, my sister apparently seems “particularly unhappy at staff meetings.”

Yeah, my sister’s principal is concerned because my sister is not enthusiastic about staff meetings.

In other news, no one in my family has ever looked forward to a getting a root canal or having to replace the transmission on a car or going in for orthoscopic surgery either.

We are just weird like that.

Intrigued by this conversation, I took an impromptu poll. And, as the students would say, “studies have shown” that no one in the history of teaching has ever enjoyed a staff meeting.

For example, there is a math teacher at my school who has an actual physical reaction to staff meetings. If they go beyond thirty minutes, he starts twitching like a junky short a fix, at forty he is shaking like a man waiting on a bathroom stall, and beyond that he starts emitting strange animalistic noises at irregular intervals.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes staff meetings are useful because one can use them as an opportunity to get grading done. And sometimes staff meetings are useful because one can find new partners for Words With Friends. Back in the day, staff meetings were occasionally a good opportunity to start a lively game of tic tac toe with that elusive, cute history teacher.

Most staff meetings, however, are excruciating. And why? Obviously, there is a need for them. So, why do they feel so useless? Is there a formula that could be implemented to make them wonderful opportunities for collaboration instead of epic time sucks?

I like the staff at my school and I respect my administrator. I have always enjoyed any forum where I feel like I can voice my opinions to a captive audience. (Hence the teaching, the blogging, etc.) I am interested in proper Common Core implementation. And I care deeply about my school and its day to day workings. And yet, staff meetings are not something even I look forward to attending.

Maybe it just runs in the family?

Or maybe we as educators need to reexamine the way we meet. Maybe we need more small-group time. Maybe we need to limit our complaining to online forums and just use meeting time to get stuff DONE. Or maybe we just need better snacks.

But we need something. Because, despite what her principal might think, my sister is not alone in her distaste for staff meetings in their current form.


Filed under teacherproblems

137 notes

Staying Connected

My last class of the day can be a handful. There are a lot of strong personalities in there. And by the time I see them, the torpor of lunch digestion has given way to the giddiness of after-school rendezvous anticipation. There is a lot of time spent on me reminding them, with alternating politeness and sarcasm, that they are in my class to acquire skills and credits and not to socialize and gossip.

So, I have always appreciated R. She is quiet and smiles shyly at me from the front corner where she sits. Whenever I change the seating chart, I keep R near me, so she will not get lost in the sea of her more boisterous classmates. She does her work. A second-language learner, she does not write perfectly, but she is diligent and honest. I help her with her vocabulary words. When I give quizzes, I stop to remind her that she can do this, that she is smart.

Maybe that is why I never stopped her from keeping that one headphone in her ear, nearly hidden by her shiny hair. How could I begrudge her apparent desire to tune out the gratuitous noise of her peers? She is always bent over her assignments. She is always on task.

Then one day I noticed her lips moving as she worked on her essay. I watched closely. Was this a symptom of her English acquisition? No. I came to realize she was TALKING ON THE PHONE. Not loudly, not obviously, but constantly. She was conversing with someone while she finished her assignment.

I wrote, “Do not ever take phone calls in my class again,” on a Post-It note and put it on her desk. She looked up, with apparent chagrin, and seemed to acquiesce.

Until yesterday, when I caught her doing it again.

Normally, I would be angry. But I know a few things about R. I know she has a boyfriend who is omnipresent in her life. I know because she has written about him. I know because she has texted him every day in my class, despite my best efforts to stop her. I know because there was an issue last fall, where we had to have him banned from campus. See, he is an adult and he was coming to stand beside her every moment while she was on her lunch.

Now she spends her lunch standing against a wall, chatting with him by phone instead.

And he drives by all the time, just checking up, I guess. I have heard his car. She has verified that the speed racer with the souped up engine and the lack of muffler is him.

And she told her history teacher she could not sit in the seat he assigned her, because she does “not want to sit next to other boys.”

So, when I caught her talking in class it just seemed like the next logical step. This man wants to control every aspect of her life, so now he is apparently taking her classes with her, too. I started finding reasons to look in on her other classes during my prep. There she is, headphone in. There is little doubt in my mind that he is with her electronically during those periods as well.

Her parents seemed unconcerned. When another teacher called home about her continuous texting and phone use, her mother said, “Yes, she is just like that at home, too!” Her parents know he has given their daughter a separate phone, one with which she can communicate exclusively with him. This does not bother them

It bothers me. But what can I do? I asked some other English teachers and discovered this is not an isolated phenomenon. Other teachers have caught girls Skyping and FaceTiming with their boyfriends during class. They do the work. They pay attention. They just do it all while their boyfriends sit there watching them.

This freaks me out. Domestic abuse is nothing new. Teenage girls with over-controlling boyfriends are nothing new. But the fact that technology has made it possible for these girls to be linked in to these guys every minute of the day is terrifying.

There is no opportunity for these girls to be individuals, to form social bonds outside of their romantic entanglements. One girl told me earlier this year that her boyfriend does not like her to have Facebook or Instagram, because he does not like her to have other friends, even virtually.

And that is dangerous. High school is the time in a girl’s life when social concerns have preeminence. If girls do not have friends now, where can they turn if, as is likely, these relationships go sour? Who will they have to help them out of these unhealthy and co-dependent relationships? What memories will they have of adolescence other than the time they spend with these dudes?

Teenage girls are forming their identities. And the phones in their pockets now make it more possible than ever for their identities to be formed solely around their attachments to their boyfriends. The devices they use are like electronic dog collars, ensuring that these girls never stray too far from the men who control them. If a boyfriend is possessive enough to want to listen to me lecture on the standards for reading informational text, then what aspects of her life do not concern him? My guess is none.

And that is truly unsettling.

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Stumbling Along With Steinbeck


Yeah, I feel like that sometimes. Especially when I am drowning in essays. But then there are little redemptive moments. Little moments like when I found this random cover sheet in the middle of my stack of Of Mice and Men essays. Or when I read these amazing lines…

Like the ones where students are just really right on and succinct with their ideas:

“Of Mice and Men has many lessons and ideas, but the main one would probably be that hopes and dreams can be crushed in America.”

Or the moments when they are masters of the understatement:

“George did Lennie dirty when he gave up on him and ended his life.”

“The theme of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is don’t get too attached to your buddy…”

Or when they are masters of the obvious:

“Most friendships have their ups and downs but it should never lead to murder.”

And they make me smile because sometimes they are so sweetly hopeful:

“George is always saying negative things to Lennie but maybe it’s to encourage him?”

But…if I never see another question used as the first sentence of an essay, it will be too soon. Far too soon.

“Have you ever been shot in the back of the head? Probably not.” No, definitely not.

“Have you ever felt like someone was wearing you down but completes you at the same time?” I think I saw that movie…

“Why kill the one you love when you know you need them the most?” Yes, why?

The last one being especially important to ponder this February 14. Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Black History Month

I will not be teaching special lessons this month for Black History Month. I will not be teaching special lessons because I think the whole concept is outdated and insulting and borderline tragic.

All this past week, my feeds and inboxes have been filled with messages exhorting me to think about or to download special lesson plans especially about Black History for the month of February. So, for the shortest month of the year, during which there are only 28 days, one of which is a federal holiday, I should focus on the accomplishments of a segment of the population about whom I otherwise do not think? Is the presumption that I ignore Black History the rest of the year? If February is Black History Month, then for whom are all the other months designated?

I know none of this is new. My outrage over this tokenism is hardly revolutionary. But right now I feel especially mad. If I teach American Literature, then I teach the literature written by Americans. All year. All the time. The literature written by black authors is the literature of America from August through June in my classroom. I do not see how it could not be.

The literature of Native Americans is also American Literature. As is the literature of Mexican Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Indian Americans, Chinese Americans, Jewish Americans. We are Americans. Period. Giving certain months to certain groups implies that we STILL do not accord them equal status.

Do I agree that we need to focus on integrating the accomplishments of marginalized groups into our curriculums? Do I agree that we need to think extra hard about what has traditionally been left out of the canon and make sure we include it now? Do I agree that history curriculum has long overlooked vast and fascinating swaths of our shared past? You bet your ass I do. But I do not believe that we have the right to alleviate our national guilt about the deficiencies in our educational agenda by putting up posters and talking about the same few people for a few days once a year.

Real change, real progress, is only made when we think globally and do real and difficult work. Real education only happens when teachers are willing to think outside of our own comfort zones. It is our responsibility to keep reading, keep searching, keep learning, and to bring back all manner and variety of voices to our classrooms. It is our responsibility to learn about ALL the people who have made our country amazing and to pass on our knowledge to our students. When we teach them about eras of history and literature, we have to teach them about everyone involved every step of the way. We do not get to put a Black History Month band-aid on a broken curriculum and call it healed. We owe ourselves, our students, our future a whole heck of a lot more than that.

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Finishing Touches

Last week, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and all he did for our country, I had my students begin every day by responding to a different quotation by the great man. From this sprang some of the best conversations we have had in a long time. From this small exercise I also learned a great deal about my students.

For instance, at the end of the week as I graded the journals I noticed that one girl, normally a good student, had really just kind of phoned it in all week. Her sentences were short and generic. I saw her in between classes on Friday and I asked her about it.

She told me, “I don’t like that guy.”

“You don’t like Martin Luther King?!” I was incredulous. So we talked some more and she revealed that what she really meant was that the quotations were hard for her to understand and the concepts hard for her to grapple with. I felt better about that.

But our conversation caused me to realize yet again that the things I take for granted, like being able to understand a quotation that says, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” are hard for my students. Many of them read the quotation and got caught up on the part about the lives ending and ignored the second part. Some of them seemed to glean only that part of the quotation was about things that matter. Over half of my students did not respond to the whole quotation until after our discussion, when I was able to explicate it for them.

I have been noticing this happening with increasing frequency. A certain percentage of my students have always had trouble with not wanting to read “the whole thing” (insert whiny voice here). But lately, I have noticed that they do not always want to read even the whole sentence. They expect the information they need to be disseminated in increasing small packages.

This obviously interferes with their comprehension. After our warm up, every day this week was spent working with articles and perfecting the skill of writing an objective summary. To scaffold this, another English teacher and I had planned a series of lessons designed to help the students learn to identify the who, what, where, when, why, and how in what they read. I cannot tell you how many times last week a student would call me over and ask me how he or she was supposed to know the who or what in a given article. Then I would ask them, “Well, what do you think?” and then, more than once, he or she would randomly point to something in the first paragraph of the article and ask, “Is this it?”

I repeatedly had to remind the students to read to the end before trying to determine the point of the piece. And these articles were taken from a special book for teachers and had all been condensed down to one page, with easy to comprehend vocabulary and basic sentence structure. The students had not stopped reading because the reading was too hard. They had stopped reading out of habit, because they never go all the way to the end. When I ask them about it, they seem to indicate that they never have.

How is this happening?

I know my students are literate. I know they love to be online, where all communication is written. But they do live in a world dominated by messages that are 140 characters. They have long ago abandoned Facebook in favor of Instagram because pictures are more interesting than words. They text more than they talk on the phone because even social communication can be faster, more condensed. YouTube interests them more than a movie like “Wolf of Wall Street,” which for all its T & A clocks in at an insufferable 180 minutes.

These are the realities of the world we have created, into which they must mature and in which they must thrive. However, I cannot help but feel that we as educators must do more to reverse this trend. I have been saying for a long time that there is value in finishing a whole book but our new standards, both official and implicit, no longer place the same value on this. We do, however, believe students should at least finish sentences; we can all agree that they must read to the end of the line.

So what are we doing to reinforce this? How are we structuring our classrooms and class work to instill in them a value for reading rather than scanning? For finishing a paragraph, not just looking for key words?

I am not one hundred percent sure, but I am a hundred percent sure I will try harder than ever to make sure it happens. I am a hundred percent sure that this is one of those things that truly matters.