Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Summer School Review

Summer school has been a successful endeavor. It has gone smoother than I expected, and has proven to be a more positive experience than I thought possible. Here are some things I think are responsible for its success, and a couple ways we can make it run even smoother next year.

Already Great
First year/second year partnership. The pairing of first years and second years is the strength of the summer session. Second years get a much-needed break from the front of the classroom, thereby freeing them to impart their wisdom and observations to the first years. Everyone is a winner, stronger social connections are made, and as boring as it can be to just watch others teach in a classroom, the lessons I witnessed were more interesting than the majority of Teacher Corps classes.

Food. Every school lunch was palatable. I enjoyed having salad every day, and the hot lunch was far superior to what Simmons High serves. There was also breakfast provided. This was pretty unappetizing, but the croissants we had one morning were a delight. The lunch ladies were similarly delightful.

Need Improvement
Administration. Every school needs a central figure who installs and helps maintain the bottom line. We did not have one this summer, which was problematic. Teachers could not be confident that unruly students would receive discipline if they were sent to the office. Mr. Chase told students to let their teachers handle it, but there are some situations where an administrator needs to step up and get a teacher’s back.

Second Year Power Struggle. Some second years who were not lead teachers seemed to be slacking off. I had a great view of the library from the art-room window, and I noticed a handful of second years who routinely spent three or sometimes four periods a day in there. I tried to give Mason Cole more responsibility than that, because he is every bit as capable as me of giving our first-years valuable feedback. Next year, make expectations of all second years known in the beginning, and don’t treat non-lead teaching second years like second class citizens.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Randy the Robot

Randarious, or Randy, is one of my favorite students. He isn’t the brightest of students—he finished the year with a C-average in English I. But no student provided me with more entertainment, both intentionally and unintentionally, than Randy.

Randy talks like a robot. He shoots his words out like a data processor. He wastes no breath, keeping his statements as concise as possible. Occasionally, when he gets excited about a writing assignment, he shoots his hand up vertically. “I read this?” he asks. When I give him the go-ahead (he never does anything without first asking permission), he accelerates his rate of speech, shooting out the words in a quicker yet still robotic fashion. The students have a hard time abstaining from laughter when he talks—so do I. But he never gets upset. He will just rationalize that, “Them kids are crazy,” and sit down with his scowling face.

Randy has a scowl on his face most of the time. He loves propriety, and the ridiculously inappropriate behavior he witnesses at Simmons High disgusts him. On one assigned essay he had to tell about a time when he did something better than he thought he would. He wrote about attending a dance, where he watched, “Them kids acting crazy” better than he anticipated.
“How did you watch them better?” I asked curiously.
“I didn’t blink.”
“You didn’t blink for the entire dance? How long were you there?”
“Fo hours. I just sit and watch them act all crazy.”

I often speculated what conditions it would take to produce a child like Randy. I often pictured Randy going home at night to an over-bearing, stringent father who would whoop him if he even thought about doing something out of line. One day I was proven wrong.

On parent-teacher night, a man walked through the door who looked like Randy. I was confused though, because he was smiling—Randy did not frequently smile in the beginning of the year. He introduced himself as Randy Sr., and as he spoke in a quiet, comforting tone free of harshness, I was amazed that this man produced a children as rigid and obedient as Randy.
“I try to get Randy to smile, to have fun, to go over to friends’ houses, but all he wants to do is play them video games.” I told him he was a perfectly behaved child and an average student who works hard. He shook my hand, and I was pleasantly surprised and pleased to have met the father of Randy.

There are a million other things I could write about Randy. But to close, I want to talk about one of Randy’s greatest passions: running. Randy talked about running endlessly. In keeping with his robotesque personality, he believed there was some secret to running fast. If he learned this program, he would be the fastest in the school.
“Mr. A-bear, I move my arms like this, I go faster, so fast I win the race.”
“Mr. A-bear, sir, I got this new bracelet, it make my blood faster, it make me unstoppable.”
Nearly every week Randy had a new secret. Later, when I coached him in track, I discovered what I suspected all along: the secrets did not amount to piss on snow. But anything that made Randy the Robot excited brought a joy to my heart. He was the best-behaved student I’ve ever seen, he had a character all of his own, and he entertained the class with his unique personality. I could not have asked for a more enjoyable student, and I hope all the first-years have a similar character in one of their classes.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Ours not to reason why

Today in class I had my students write their obituaries. Of course, this being the age of NCLB, I had to fit this into a standard or framework or anchor or whatever they are currently called, so I used the act of writing obituaries as an opportunity to study point of view. It was one of the most enjoyable lessons I have taught. The kids were involved and learning, and all of us had a lot of fun. This is how the lesson was structured:

1. Bell-Ringer. Talk to students about death. Ask them to write down three things that happened when a person dies. On the board, divide these into three sections:
Physical Ceremonial Other
2. Discuss obituaries. Ask which column they would fit under.
3. Read some example obituaries. In my class I used the obituary of an average person, in this case an engineer from Florida, and the obituary of a famous person, in this case comedian and Dave Jones lookalike Chris Farley.
4. On the board, have students write down some elements they observed in these obituaries.
5. Review point of view, specifically 1st person, 3rd person objective, 3rd person omniscient, and 3rd person limited. Ask obituary-related questions using point of view terms (i.e. what point of view are obituaries written in usually? why aren't most obituaries 1st person? etc.)
6. Now have the students brainstorm what they would like to include in their obituary. Will they list the family members they left behind? Will it focus on their personal accomplishments? Which point of view would they like it written it?
7. Students spend the rest of the period writing and sharing their obituaries.

This worked so well this summer I plan to make it a two-day project with all my classes in the fall. It was so fun, and it really helped drive home the differences among the different points of view.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A Visit With Mr. Act Right

Mr. Act Right is the name of the large wooden paddle my principal uses to beat children. We did not have a Mr. Act Right at the high school I attended in Vermont. At the schools I went to as a student, principals did not use anything to beat children: not their fists, not their feet, not even inanimate objects with comical names. But down here in Mississippi, lots of principals have a Mr. Act Right, or their own version of Mr. Act Right.

Lots of paddles are painted or have designs burned into the wood. One principal by the name of Macintosh, a large burly black man (like so many Delta principals), named his paddle the "Mac Attack." The name is emblazoned on the paddle in bright red paint. You can almost picture him chasing students into an assembly, waving the paddle and threatening, "Y'all get in there before you catch a Mac Attack."

The paddle is used to inflict physical justice on students of all ages and for all manner of infraction. This is generally left to the discretion of the principal. When students receive licks, they bend over a desk or chair with their butt pointed in the air. If no desk or chair is available, the student should place their hands against the wall. If the student is small enough, principals have even been known to pick them up with one hand and paddle with the other. This provides exercise for the principal, and is really doing the student a favor, since the principal will not be able to get his full force behind the thick wooden paddle.

Like professional tennis players, some principals paddle with a one-handed grip, whereas others prefer the two-handed grip. Unlike tennis players, however, a paddle-swinging principal should avoid unnecessary follow-through. The secret to a good lick is to minimize the length of time the paddle is in contact with the behind. Snap that wrist and bring the wood away quickly so the strike will not be smothered. Think of a football player snapping a towel in a high school locker room--think of the way a pit viper attacks its prey. This is how a principal should discipline a student.

Students have been raised to accept paddling, and do not seem to bear any greater grudge against the principal than if he had given them detention or a writing assignment. I have come to accept paddling as a part of Southern life, and like my students I shed no tears when the wooden handle of justice falls on someone else's behind. Maybe some life lessons are best taught with liberal doses of white-pine deliberance. After all, I'm not here to agree or disagree with the way things are done. I just advise my students to be diligent, respectful young people and avoid the wrath of Mr. Act Right.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

New Year's Resolutions

During this forthcoming school year, I will be a better teacher. Like George Foreman used to say when he was a Meineke muffler pitchman, “I guar-an-tee it.” A Teach For America teacher told me last year that he’d never heard someone lament, “My first year went great, but my second year was a nightmare.” Humans—intelligent ones, anyway-- learn from mistakes. So what mistakes did I make during my first year of teaching that I plan to rectify this year? Here are just a handful.

1. Raise your hands before speaking! I was a bit lax on this after I found the policy difficult to enforce. Big mistake. At times last year my insistence on students raising their hands rubbed my students the wrong way. I won’t care this year. Raising hands is necessary for my classroom to function the way I want it, so raise your damn hand.

2. You waste my time, I will waste yours—but not in a way that makes me waste even more of mine. Detentions stink because you have to serve them along with the chuckleheads who are fooling around in your class. I plan to hold them, because they are a necessary evil, but I will only hold them once a week. If you can’t make it, sorry, that is four demerits. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.

3. Bi-monthly Shout-Out becomes Students of the Month. I had planned to pick one student from each class to praise twice a month. Not a bad idea, but I found this to be one extra thing to worry about. This year, I’ll make it once a month, and be more consistent in my application.

4. Start tutorials sooner in the year. Some kids are so far behind, they may never pass the state test. I need to identify this struggling readers and start working with them ASAP. They may not want the extra help. If this is the case, I need to scare their parents into letting them stay after to get this help.

Next year will be better. These are four ways I plan to make it happen.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Five Teaching Gems

I've been telling the first-years all kinds of stuff about teaching, Teacher Corps, and living in Mississippi. If I could only impart five, as is the magic number in this blog, here is what they would be:

#1 Cover your butt. As a first year teacher, you'll be making more than $30,000 this year. Doesn't sound like much to you? It does to your students and their lawsuit-happy parents. You will have hundreds of thousands of interactions with students this year, and if just one of them ends up putting you in a vulnerable position (grades, breaking up a fight, being accused of racism), you could find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit. The NEA (National Educator's Association) offers insurance as part of its benefits package. Unfortunately, the NEA is also a politically-driven lobbying group that has been accused of being extremely pro-choice and pro-gay marriage . It also runs over $300 a year to be a member. For only $90, you can still cover your butt with over a million dollars in professional insurance if you join the MPE (Mississippi Professional Educators). They do not have political aspirations; they are just around to help protect teachers. To find more information or sign up, go to: or call 1-800-523-0269.

#2 Keep your sanity. Teaching is a tough job, but don't forget it is still just a job, no matter what your inner-idealogue tells you. Part of doing the best you can means acknowledging that you are a human being with interests that extend beyond lesson-planning, grading papers, and stressing yourself out with teacher-worries. Take time each day, every day, to do something that has nothing to do with teaching. Even if it is just for an hour, go for a run, read a book, watch a movie, play lawn darts, build a popsicle stick suspension bridge--whatever tickles your pickle. AND DON'T FEEL GUILTY ABOUT THIS----EVER!

#3 Pick your battles wisely. Your principal won't listen to you about making sweeping changes if you've only been at the school for a semester. Put yourself in his shoes: you wouldn't want some upstart telling you how to do the job you've been doing for years. Be patient, and if you must make a suggestion, or a request, keep checking in on it until you get what you want.

#4 No rules are set in stone. Teachers have different personas. What one person tells you is a teaching dogma may only be dogma to him/her. Example: some teaching "experts" say you shouldn't have more than 3 rules, some say 5, others say 6. I had 10 this year, and the walls did not come a'crumbling down. If it works for you, do it.

#5 Be a role model. This sounds obvious, but remember: your students are watching you. Even if you are the worst teacher in the world, you can STILL be an amazing role model. Don't lose your cool, be patient, don't hit people or play fight, say kind things to everyone, and never forget that you are making a difference. For two years of your life you are exposing these students to a unique person: whatever you do, they will remember you for it, so be a positive force in their young lives.

First Week, First Impressions

First Impressions of the First Years
Hope springs eternal at the beginning of your teaching career. I discovered this lesson last summer, and now I have the privilege of watching this hope fill the hearts and minds of this year’s teaching rookies.
My initial impressions have been favorable. I’ve met most of the first years, and as a whole they seem friendly, likable, and service-oriented. These are three qualities good teachers need. Of course, there are 1,001 other qualities a good teacher needs, and we will soon see which of these qualities the first years possess. I still haven’t decided if you can teach someone to become a good teacher, but I believe if there is any program that can do it, it would be Teacher Corps.

Living Arrangements
I’ve moved in to a house with seven other second-years. Aaron Thompson and I share a room, while Lily, Jess, and Meredith share another, and Ruth, Adryon, and Tiffany share a third. It’s a crowded house, but so far the living arrangements have worked out swimmingly. On the downer side: we need a pool. Oxford summers are soooooo hot, and this year has been on the mild side.
A couple days after complaining about a pool, Lily introduced me to Sardis Lake. The water there was warm, perhaps a little too warm, but the beach was clean and nice. Meredith, Lily and I spent our Sunday there playing Frisbee and lounging around. It was definitely a good place to spend an afternoon.

Summer School
Today was the first day of summer school. Overall, it was a rousing success. The students were well-behaved, and lessons went very smoothly. I feel good that Joe Sweeney observed me, and I got that out of the way early. I look forward to Thursday when I get to see the first years in action. All four: Landon, Chris E., Amy, and Jon are teaching that day. I can’t wait to see their teaching personas.