Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Fun on the Tech Committee

So as any teacher knows, you tend to get a lot of unneeded emails. Our school has recognized this and has the technology committee spearheading a new folder system in our inboxes that will simply post a message to a separate folder. This folder will be for selling items or other trivial things. In any case, the tech committee was supposed to test it out so here was the post I put in there:

Subject: Time Travel Tickets available to the year 1492

Due to a conflict in schedule, I have two tickets to the year 1492 if anyone is interested. Shoot me an email if you would like to take these tickets off my hands. My only request is that you bring me back a signature from Columbus.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Back to School

Today was my first day teaching in my new school. It was somewhat of an early start, but I've been eager to get back in the classroom. Since this was my first year teaching 6th grade, I wasn't sure what to expect. The students seem pretty excited to be there. Today was all sorts of hectic because I had to assign lockers, hand out a million forms, take attendance and also fit my first days activities into the class as well.

Even though we blocked off two hours of time to get all of those things done with my students, I still felt short on time. The first hour didn't go as smoothly as I would have hoped. Chalk that up to me not pacing myself enough or allowing the students enough time to fiddle with their locker combinations. I eventually got everything sorted out but I felt exhausted after the first 2 hours of the day.

The rest of the day progressed much more smoothly. However, I'm still not used to teaching the same class five times a day. To be honest, I was getting a little tired of the whole song and dance by the fourth or fifth time I had done it. While the students are all different, I didn't have the energy to give the same speeches and announcements each time. In that way, each class was different.

I am very thankful for the wonderful staff I work with. They were all extremely supportive of me during and after the school day. I teach on a team of four other teachers and I've found the math teacher to be the most supportive so far. This is not to say that the other teachers aren't supportive, but she's just very good at the whole unofficial mentoring thing. I really admire the presence she has not only in the classroom but outside of the classroom as well.

It probably needs to be said that I'm the only male teacher on my team. In fact, out of 15 6th grade teachers, there are only 3 men. You know, I'm fine with that sort of ratio. I've always been more comfortable around women. Most of my close friends tend to be women, so having the majority of my coworkers be women isn't a problem.

I'm currently working on the writer's notebook and deciding where to direct the class. It's tricky but I have a pretty good idea of where I want to take things. Tomorrow is another day. I can't wait to start again.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Getting Enough Sleep

So far, today has been a pretty good day in front of the class. I haven't had any issues and the students have been enjoying the work we've done so far. I think part of the reason has to do with the amount of sleep I got last night. I got 7 hours instead of 4 or 5. As much as I hate to admit it, my overall health, both mental and physical affects my teaching. If I'm coming into the classroom shortchanged on sleep then I'm less likely to be patient or thinking in a reflective manner. The problem is I'm an night owl. I hate going to bed before midnight, but I really may have to readjust my lifestyle if I want to continue to be an effective teacher in the classroom. Next year, I'll be teaching at a school which starts even earlier than my current one. In addition, I have to worry about traffic and travel time. So goodbye, midnight chats with friends. Goodnight, late night walks. So long, sleep deprivation.

This is all common sense, but I need the reminder from time to time.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Abstinence Only Education Misses Out

My school recently brought in a public speaker who spoke on the dangers of having sex outside marriage. To illustrate her claim, she described how she contracted HIV the first time she had sex. She didn't find out about this until after her current husband proposed to her. She decided to get tested for STDs just to be sure she was free and clear. As it turns out, she was not. It's an unfortunate story though not an unfamiliar one. The gist of her talk was to not have sex until you're married, because sex should only be shared in a committed (married) relationship.

It's not that I think abstinence education should be disregarded. Rather, abstinence only education is ill advised. I live in a realistic world where my students, some as young as 14, are having sex. You can talk about the dangers of teen pregnancy and STDS till you're blue in the face, but that's not going to stop teenagers from having sex.

Abstinence only education relies on fear and guilt. The message is don't have sex because you might get an STD or get pregnant and that would be shameful. Sex education that acknowledges other options such as condoms and birth control drops the guilt aspect but relies more heavily on fear by explaining in detail all the wonderful conditions your genitalia can experience. Bonus points for any sex ed that uses full color pictures.

I have yet to really see a pragmatic sex education approach that relies on maturity and respect. Ideally sex education should neither vilify or glorify sex. The inherent problem with teaching sex education is that it is tied so heavily into perceived morality that any discussion about consequences and responsibility gets lost in the implicit morass of tongue clucking, head shaking and finger waggling.

Ultimately, I don't think schools have enough leverage with students to influence a their decision to have sex or not.

Humans become sexual mature in the early teens, but only hit emotional maturity later on in life with some never reaching it at all. Until the day our physical maturity slows down or our emotional maturity speeds up, we're still going to be faced with this difficult task of teaching sex education to minors. Not teaching it seems irresponsible, but only teaching a narrow perspective on the issue seems just as bad.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Good and the Sad

I was recently hired to work in Parkway Northeast Middle School in Creve Coeur, MO near St. Louis. I'm excited about the job and will be teaching 6th grade communication arts. The administration seems really supportive and I'll also be working with a friend I went to college with. We'll be on the same middle school team. Unfortunately, I've had to tell my current students this and it's been rather heartbreaking. They haven't taken the news too well and seem to think I'm abandoning them because I don't like them. Oh that's simply not true at all. I am really going to miss seeing them and I want to know what type of adults they end up growing up to be. The easiest and most honest thing I can tell them is that my current job was a temporary one year thing. But you know, I would have stuck around for a few more years if the school had offered a contract. The pay isn't as high, but it's a great place to work and I am going to miss it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


It's always nice to find out that your students are thinking about the things we learn in class. During a field trip today, one of my students remarked that the hotel/arcade we were visiting reminded him of the book Fahrenheit 451 because of number of TVs and flashing lights meant to grab your attention. Very astute observation, and one that I didn't even make myself. He's a surprising student at times. He's bright, but his mind doesn't work in a very sequential fashion. None of the work he does has any polish, but it has a lot of heart if you can understand that. He also has an uncanny ability to see around problems to a solution and I have to applaud his unconventional learning style. His work habits could use improvement though.

He doesn't know it, but he's given me their writing prompt for tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Teaching isn't a 50-50 Split

Pretend for a moment that I'm a parachute instructor. I'm going to show you how to pack your parachute, jump out of a plane and, and make a safe landing. Now I want you to do all of this yourself, flawlessly of course. You will also need to provide your own plane and parachute. Now don't try and complain because I'm going 50-50 with you. I'm meeting you halfway aren't I? I showed you how to do it, so now it's your turn. Shouldn't you have the gumption and determination to pick up your end of the slack and get with the program?

This sounds crazy, but we ask this of our students all the time, and when our students jump out of the plane and reach terminal velocity because they didn't pack their own parachute correctly, then we blame them for their failure. Why, it's not my fault, we intone, we did after all show them how to do it.

Teaching should never be about equity of effort and work. There should never be a tally sheet or ledger where we demand that students do equal work. Students learn and move at their own pace. They also develop self-reliance and self-motivation at their own pace too. It's not that we should do 100 percent of the work, but if we go 90 and they go 10, then that's fine if 10 is all they can go.

It is not a student's job to get an education. It's their opportunity to learn. As teachers, it is our jobs to show our students the benefits of learning and that may mean from time to time the effortload is uneven. Let's face it, there will be many days when we are putting in more effort than our students.

I'm not espousing a system where everyone passes or even a system without accountability, but rather a system where student potential is taken into account. It's easy to write a student off and say that it's not worth your time and effort to help them with their essays or provide a bit more structure on an assignment. It's easy to refuse a student the chance to make up their work and let them fail the semester. It's easy to let a student fall through the cracks. But it's also easy to catch them before they fall. It's easy to take some initiative and work out an individualized education plan. It's easy to give a damn about the eventual success of your students even though it seems as if they are failing in all aspects of their life, including your class.

Let me provide an example. For 7th grade, I crafted an assignment where my students had to write instructions for a skill they would present. This could be anything from how to tie your shoes, to how to assemble a clarinet. One of my students who struggles both in my class and socially asked if she could show how to make pizza. Now this is a student who I haven't had the best rapport with. At times she's told me she's hated my class, the reading, and everyone else. During my second week teaching, she blew up in the classroom and being the green teacher I was, I took her to the principal's office. I didn't know how to handle it. Anyway, I told the student that she could make pizza. She considered this for a moment and said that she only had cheese and a baking sheet. I thought about it and then told her to write down the other ingredients and I'd get them myself.

After class, I realized that this was an assignment that my troubled student seemed interested in. I had been accustom to listening to her yell "This is boring!" After school, I went and bought the stuff myself and also talked with another teacher in the school to see if I could flop rooms with her because her classroom had an oven and mine didn't.

The day of the presentation rolled around and the student not only presented the recipe but got some of her classmates involved in the process as well. The relationship with her classmates is not very good, but this event seemed to help things a little bit.

In any case, opportunities like this don't always present themselves, but when they do come about, it's best to be as accommodating as possible. I could have just as easily as said, "It's your responsibility to get all the ingredients and arrange a room. However, that would have been irresponsible of me. The student had already expressed what she was capable of doing and for her sake, I picked up the slack. By doing this, she eventually went above and beyond what was called for.

Now it's not always going to work out this way. I've been burned by students before in the past, but you live and learn. I try to give students the benefit of the doubt and even when they burn me, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt again, a chance to show that they've grown and changed. I suppose this means from time to time students will take advantage of me and my classroom. But it is my hope that students will also take advantage of the opportunity and change the 10-90 split from their 10 and my 90 to their 90 and my 10.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Why I Want to Teach Freshman English

I've known for a while that I wanted to teach freshman English, but I hadn't yet been able explain why, at least in short and simple terms. A recent conversation brought about a metaphor to explain my reasoning.

The English teacher who teaches honors English or AP English is a stone polisher. They take a finely cut stone and make it shine. The freshman English teacher is the gem cutter though. They are the ones who pulled the diamond out of the rough.

I'd like to be involved in the entire process, but if I had to choose, I'd cut gems any day of the week.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Facebook, Education, and Cyberbullying

It seems that a lot of my posts involve facebook and now I'm going to talk about it yet again. I have found another reason why it isn't in my best interest to be friends with students on social networking sites such as facebook. As you may know, many employers use facebook to snoop in on their employees. Schools are no different and some schools including the one I'm at, access facebook in order to gather information about inappropriate or illicit behavior from students. In order to do this though, they need some sort of in, meaning a student or faculty member who is friends with the student on facebook and willing to share that information. Let me blunt, I would not be willing to participate in those types of investigations.

An important part about being a teacher is building a trusting relationship with students. I can't in good conscious build this sort of rapport knowing that I may be asked to use this trust in order to access student's facebook profiles for investigative purposes. I suppose I could just refuse the administration access, but that wouldn't sit well with me either. The other option would be not telling my administration that I was friends with students on facebook which would also violate my principles. There needs to be a level of transparency to what you do. I'm not saying that you need to be the perfect teacher at all times or that you discuss every detail of your teaching with your administration, but if you are asked about goes on in your classroom or in what manner you are interacting with your students, you should be able to justify your actions.

In regards to my students lives and facebook, what I don't know, I can't reveal. My attitude is that I should maintain some distance from my students' lives. I don't want to know the details of their hookups or alcohol binges. Hell, I know they happen, but I rather not have to play the role of the narc. If I did know the information, I would feel obligated to report it.

This whole issue becomes further complicated when we consider the issue of cyberbullying. Schools are being urged to not tolerate cyberbullying, but how do we do this without violating privacy? At the moment, I think the best option is education about the issue. Students should be made aware what cyberbullying is and what one can do to stop it. Students also need to be made aware of how their actions live on in the internet forever. In the days of gossipy notes and writing on the bathroom wall, those pieces of evidence could be erased and destroyed. This is not true with the internet.

I see schools acting in the role of conflict mediator. If a student wants to volunteer their information in regards to how they are being ill-treated by classmates online, then that that's their prerogative. However, I don't think schools should be acting as the policeman or investigators for these actions. Just because we're faculty and administration doesn't mean we can't put on a great witchhunt.

I have a slightly different attitude toward attacks made on the internet while at school, regardless of if a student is using a school computer or internet connection. In that case, I see schools as within their right to review web history and actions made. It's impossible to ban a website because students can use proxy websites to get around the ban. To be safe, schools and teachers should monitor student internet use and have them sign a technology user agreement in regards to what is and isn't appropriate use.

I suppose this is just another reminder of the dangers of mixing your social circles when there is a disparity in power and authority. Of course, I can still see advantages to being friends with your students on facebook. If a student were to write a suicide note or death threat, then being friends with a student could potentially save lives. However, it's more likely that another student would see the note and report it. It's a cost benefits analysis for me. If I were to be friends with students on facebook, it would be for an educational purpose, not social. I wouldn't really want to look through their pictures or read their notes and comments.

In summary, I refuse to be used as a tool for investigating students. If something life threatening was happening and a student was talking about a school shooting or killing themselves, then I see that as a probable cause for the school to search cyberspace. Bring the student into the office and have them sign into their account. If they don't want to cooperate, then turn them over to police for official questioning. However, leave me and other teachers out of that sort of investigation. I don't want to be used as a front line defense to find and report student behavior. Hopefully, schools would use approved protocol, but if they decided to skip a step or two, and gather information through more shadowy methods, then it certainly wouldn't be my facebook account or integrity they used.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Failing Your Students into Achievement

People who never experience failure or difficulty in their early life, have a habit of crashing hard later in life when they are faced with challenges. Not developing any sort of resilience is detrimental to personal growth and the only way to develop this sort of personal fortitude is through failure. As Bruce Wayne's father says in Batman Begins, "Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up."

Students who never fall, never learn to pick themselves up. With that in mind, I wanted to talk about the power of controlled failure. Design a lesson where the intention is for the students to fail at it. Whether you tell them that your objective is to have them fail is really up to you. Afterwards, have the students share their failed ventures as a class and discuss how one can convert failure into success. What changes can be made to remedy the situation? Or, now that we've failed, where do we go from here? By having students fail in a somewhat controlled manner, students will be better able to handle future roadblocks. Instead of just lying on the ground and giving up, students will know that there is another option out there.

The thing is, students will fail to achieve all the time. Some students are quite used to it, while others have never tasted the bitterness of defeat. This type of activity helps both ends of the spectrum. It helps the students who have never failed experience a reality of life and it helps students who struggle know that there are alternatives. If you aren't comfortable with designing something where your students fail, go ahead and fail at something yourself and then discuss with the class how things could have improved. Come on, we've all had lessons flop on us? Did you just curl into the fetal position behind your desk or did you try something new to remedy the situation?

As teachers, our job isn't to pick up our students when they fall, but to show that they can get up themselves and move on. It's the difference between between guiding a rope and pulling a rope. The person who has been guided will eventually learn the paths and nuances, but the person who has been pulled, won't be able to find their own inertia to start.

I'm a pragmatic teacher and I don't expect every GLE or CLE or NCTE standard to stick like glue with my students, but if they can mature into responsible, self-guided adults, then I haven't failed completely as a teacher.