Sunday, August 31, 2008

A problem, and a solution

The tall boy with the easy grin in the back row motioned me over. I walked over to his desk, and his hand continued to beckon. He wanted me to crouch down so he could whisper me something.

"Okay, I've got a problem, and, I have a solution," he whispered, with a sense of urgency.

We were in the middle of our summer reading quiz. He seemed to have his speech memorized.

"I didn't really do my summer reading. See, what had happened was, I got the assignment late, and then I had a real busy summer, and, you see, I, uh, don't read that well, and I just couldn't read the books that fast." (Note: "what had happened was" is perhaps my favorite piece of Baltimore youth dialect.)

His eyes averted my gaze when he gave me that last fact.

I nodded, waiting for his "solution" to the problem. As a rule, I kind of hate the way we do 9th grade summer reading, at leat a bit. Before the 9th grade, I've never met these kids; I don't know what level they're at. I don't even know if they receive or understand the assignment. I definitely want the kids reading in the summer, but hate many aspects of how we bring that goal about where I teach. I wish our 9th grade summer reading assignment were one long book the kids have to read (this year, it was three, two for English and one for Humanities), and wish we had a departmental policy about students who don't receive the assignment. I get resistance with both of these motions.

Ironically, I kind of find myself in charge of summer reading for my department, mostly because no one else seems to want to do it. See, I do like the idea of summer reading, and like what I hear other schools doing. And I love studying the Summer Reading table at Barnes & Noble. With this in mind, I do my best to make the task as palatable as I can for the kids within the system under which I teach. I have integrated choice into the summer reading novels, so now students at least get to choose much of what they read from a list. I have de-emphasized their importance during the school year, so kids don't automatically fail if they haven't read the books. I have, at least in my own classroom, brought some sort of flexibility in terms of late additions or derilect parents who don't go to spring orientation and don't make their kids go to Summer Bridge. Not the kid's fault, so I try not to make it irrevocably hurt them. One they are under my care at the school, I can hold them accountable for things they do not do, regardless of parental involvement (obviously some will have to work much harder because their parents are completely uninvolved, and I tell them that - that they must work harder), but find it very hard, and a bit immoral, to hold them accountable for summer work if they never receive it.

I've never been totally successful with making summer reading a totally educational sound entity at my school, but like a lot of the direction that it's heading. Basically, I want the kids reading and thinking over the summer. This year's participation is much better than last year's, so that's progress.

Anyhow, I looked down at the kid, waiting for his solution.

He had waited for the first part of his memorized speech to sink in.

"So, my solution, is that I'm going to work really hard this year, and make sure this never happens again. I'll make up these points by working ahead and doing any extra credit. And I promise you I'll always have my reading done from here on out."

I've never heard a better solution. He'll be a little behind after failing the little summer reading quizzes, but we start Fences on Wednesday and I'm sure he'll be into that.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess...

Only nominally related to teaching, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Barack Obama's speech.

It was pointed, specific, poetic, unwavering, angry, and hopeful. This man will be the great leader this country needs right now. Wow.

I certainly didn't mind the part about higher salaries for teachers, either.

I am glad that he's not Kerrying back in fear at McCain's petty, lying campaign. His barbs tonight were on point: "If you don't have fresh ideas, you use stale tactics to scare voters. If you don't have a record to run on, you paint your opponent as someone voters should run from" and "McCain says he'll follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, but he won't even follow him to the cave where he lives." Damn.

Then it was back to his message about what America can be: "America, we cannot turn back. Not with so much work to be done. Not with so many children to educate, and so many veterans to care for. Not with an economy to fix and cities to rebuild and farms to save. Not with so many families to protect and so many lives to mend. America, we cannot turn back. We cannot walk alone. At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to march into the future. Let us keep that promise -- that American promise -- and in the words of Scripture hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess."


Like when all those ladies are bringing Cutty home-cooked food in Season 4 of The Wire...

Somehow, I've gotten on the good side of a former student's mother.

The student ran up to me on Tuesday, and told me her mother was preparing food for some teachers, and took my order. Now, last year, the student, a sweet Muslim girl with a whip-smart mind, shared some of her lunch with me a few times. I remember eating the sweetest corn bread I'd ever tasted, and she grinned at me and told me the secret was maple syrup in the batter. After that moment, she would bring things in to me from time to time. And it was never less than terrific.

So I gladly wrote my order down, hurriedly and a little confusedly in between classes. Phone number? Check. Dietary resrictions? I'm one of those vegetarians who eat fish, so I'm really a pescetarian. Spicy? Heck yes.

Yesterday, she brought me grits, scrambled eggs with tuna, and buttered toast. I was in the middle of teaching, was shocked by the kindness, and stammered a thank you and set it on my desk. I had two classes to go before I had a break and could eat it, and could smell the aroma wafting from being my computer. I stomach was growling by the time 10am rolled around (my current schedule, which is getting up at 5am, working out for 90 minutes, eating a Fiber One bar at 8am in a car on the way over to school, and then working for a couple of hours before any other break, contributes to my hunger.)

I thought it was a one-time thing, but, today, at 8:20 am, I was in the middle of the drill when I heard a knock on my classroom door again. Another tupperware container. Another meal of grits, scrambled eggs, and toast. The only change was, this time, she had plastic silverware wrapped inside a napkin. She grinned, handed it to me, and told me she'd see me tomorrow.

Talk about feeling appreciated. And, wow, that's some damn good food she's giving me. What a cook! I'm pretty sure she's making multiple deliveries around the school, although her current English teacher has not gotten in on the action yet. I asked. You know, "So, is Rabiya's mother bringing you a gourmet breakfast every day, or is it just me?". Ha.

Anyhow, another great thing happening this week, in a rather wonderful week start to the school year.

Observation and effect about looking grubby in a grocery store

I live almost exactly halfway between the Harford Rd. Safeway and the Moravia Rd. Giant. I'd never been to the latter, though, and since I've been unhappy with the lines at the Safeway so much lately, I decided to check out the Giant. After an after-school hour nap so I could stay up to see Barack Obama tonight, I threw on a pair of sweat shorts, a white undershirt, and, because I couldn't find my sandals, a pair of dress shoes without socks. A pretty impressive sight. But I just needed milk and a few other things.

And, of course, at the grocery store, I see four students who graduated from my school last year. The former student of mine yelled across the store at me, making a big scene of waving at me. The three kids I didn't teach were a little more uncertain, saying "Hi" to me and waiting for recognition back. Since I didn't teach them, I couldn't offer any, so was just polite. "Aren't you the baseball coach up (school)?" one kid outside asked, after his friend sort of looked up at him like, "Why are you talking to this poorly dressed white man?". He was right, though, and they both talked to me for a while even though they had never had my class.

It was a good reminder to (a) look a little more presentable when I leave the house, because you never know who you'll run into; (b) I like living in the same area as my students; and (c) I love the fact that I've sort of set up these kind of roots in the city and at my job. It makes me feel part of the greater school community.


A great day with the 9th graders today. I'm teaching them text-marking and analysis for theme, and tomorrow we're going to turn it into an Observation / Effect thesis statement. You know, stuff like, Cisneros uses olfactory imagery and child-like similes to demonstrate the theme that a mother's love is the only thing that can keep you safe in a tough world. That's for "Hairs." One of my ninth graders, working ahead, came up with that one today. Not bad, for a ninth grader, eh? So far, we've only learned about four or five literary devices (metaphor, simile, personification, hyperbole, and today, the five kinds of imagery - visual, olfactory, auditory, gustatory, and tactile), but it's a start. We start Fences next week. I'm just running off some vignettes from Cisneros.

The first week of school can be frustrating a bit, because you feel like a paper pusher. So much paperwork that I just wish teachers weren't in charge of - emergency cards, textbook contracts (ironically, I haven't had textbooks for my class in six years), acceptable use policy sheets, syllabi, free and reduced lunch forms. I didn't get enough of any of them, and still don't have enough free and reduced lunch forms. So this year, I tried to be really tough, and say that I was only accepting these things the next day, and counting it for a grade, but, you know what? The kids still forgot them, and I still need them, and now I have to convince them other ways. And call home. And hope they bring them in. And then check them off. And then alphabetize them. And all I want to do is teach!

Today, I felt like I did, and didn't give up any of the time to do that BS. It felt awesome.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Fans and funny kids

1. So, the Superintendent of schools visits three bloggers in the BCPSS on the same day? It's not like the system is teeming with bloggers; in fact, we might be the only three regular updaters. Is Dr. Alonso trying to tell us he's a fan? Or is this a strange coincidence?

2. Day 3 was the Summer Reading Quiz day for the 9th graders. Pretty boring day, instruction-wise, but I'm starting to know the students better. At this point, I know the funny kids, the unique ones, the participatory ones, and, in one occasion, an overly talkative one. Yes, I have the kid who identified his name as "Wu Tang" at Summer Bridge, and now he sits in my classroom, constantly talking. Nothing rude, and he's a little bit funny - "Dag, (my last name), why couldntya sit me next to any females?" he asked me yesterday. I had to chuckle.

3. My Juniors will be okay. They just need to work really hard this year. I did something really stupid in my lesson today. We were discussing the Observation-Effect-Larger Implication thesis statement, where the observation is the writer's observation of a literary technique that a writer uses. Techniques are nearly limitless, and I had a list of about twenty on the paper. I didn't feel like the kids were listening very well as we were reading through the handout, so I asked them to read the list silently and mark any they were not familiar with. Then, I answered any questions they had. Well, they had tons of them, and we took way too long with them, and I didn't have nearly enough time to explain homework or complete the class activity that led up to it. I think confusion is okay, and that this struggle often leads to education, but I didn't want this much tonight on this assignment. I got a facebook message from an older brother of a student in my class. He's off at Georgetown now, and the younger brother had asked the older brother for help with the homework. "Dang, (my last name), are you already working them so hard on the second day of school?," he asked, softening it with a "LOL." Yup, I guess so. Hopefully they all do their best and come with something. Pretty abstract concept.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Day 2, Year 8

Day two was much cooler in the classroom. Even though my digital thermometer only read three degrees or so cooler than yesterday, I wasn't sweating profusely all day, and it felt a lot better. I think it was a combination of less humidity and a cooler breeze. Also, I think that my blue Oxford just makes me sweat more. Or something.

Otherwise, though, I'm still trying to get into the swing of things. Teaching really is exhausting, and it's hard to get into shape at first. I might hit the sack really early tonight, even before Hillary comes on. I'll be able to watch the clips in the morning at the Y on the eliptical, I suppose.

Things are gelling nicely so far. Good kids. Still the honeymoon stage. I stayed until nearly 6:00 tonight finishing summer reading quizzes, though, so I'm beat. G'night.

Monday, August 25, 2008

87.8 degrees and Dr. Alonso visiting my classroom

A couple of Christmases ago, my parents got me a digital wall clock that also tells the temperature, both inside and out. I used it for a bit, but I have a thermostat, so am never really wondering what the temperature is. I got the idea this year to bring it into my classroom, figuring the large digital features might help with timing, on occasion, and kind of totally forgetting about the temperature gauge.

Today, though, I concentrated on that little number every period. At 7:45 am, I had come from a decent workout (6:00-7:30) at the YMCA, and, despite my shower, was still sweating a bit. Taking two loads of crap up the four flights of stairs to my classroom didn't help matters, and, by 8 am, the time the students arrived, I was pretty much drenched in sweat.

That's sort of my m.o., though; I'm always sweating when I teach, especially in September and October. Last year, one young man, when doing a parody of 9th grade teachers in his drama class, portrayed me by running across the hall to the drinking fountain, drenching himself with water, and then teaching. I try to embrace it, I guess, knowing there's nothing I can really do about being high-energy and naturally sweaty in a 90-degree environment. I wear tons of antiperspirant and carry around a sweat towel and drink tons of cold water but I'm still a hot mofo.

The thermometer didn't help matters. Every hour, I saw it inching upwards. 83 degrees at 8am. 85 by 10am. It did not go above 90, but hit a high of 87.8 degree sometime in the early afternoon. It felt hotter, though - no breeze through the windows, considerable humidity.

I was drenched in sweat, then, when Dr. Alonso, the Superintendent of schools, stepped into my classroom at around 1:15 pm today. We had heard rumors over the last few days that he was going to visit, but I thought the rumors had passed, so certainly was not expecting him. I just looked over, and, all of a sudden, there he was - shorter than I'd imagined him, a little thinner, smiling at me in the doorway. With him was an entourage - my principal, an older woman who I didn't recognize, my department head, another adult figure I didn't know - and, as always when something like that happens, I didn't quite know what to do. Go over and shake the hand of a man I'd come to respect quite a bit over his year running the schools? Ignore them? I decided on a nod and a smile, and continued with the students, who were busily finishing up their summer reading quizzes.

I don't know why they were there, other than to check out the first day of schools. I have gained some considerable interior decorating skills in the years that I've been part of these dog-and-pony shows, and definitely made sure to have my "Core Learning Goals" up, but, beyond that, I'm pretty proud of my classroom anyway - barely an inch of wallspace is uncovered, with posters of authors and literary terms and Negro League baseball players alluded to in Fences and "words to use when writing about literature" and "transitions" and calendars and just about anything else you can think of - and only heard good things later when my department head recounted the "Thank you for being ready to go" praise we later received.

Otherwise, he first day of school was as it always was - exhausting, with equal parts dullness ("Oh, let me read through this syllabus for the 5th time while my students sit in a heat-induced coma") and excitement ("Oh! All my new students! And all my old students shouting 'Hey!' down the hall!"). Thank goodness the Charles Village Coldstone Creamery seems to be employing about half of the female seniors at our school; they always hook us up with deeply discounted ice cream and today was definitely a day for ice cream after work.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

First day school eve

Tomorrow is the first day of school.

I still get that nervous, jittery feeling. I still lay out my clothes (or, at least, pack my gym bag full of them, something I don't generally do other days, which is why I sometimes end up at school wearing sneakers or without an undershirt, because I forget them in my morning mad dash).

When I first started teaching, my department head - who, at the time, doubled as the Advanced Studies Coordinator, the Assistant Principal, and the Scheduler, and now is pretty high up in the BCPSS, and who, in a way, taught me how to teach - said that on the first day, that you should go over policies and such, but that it's important to have some sort of learning activity, and some sort of homework. I've subscribed to that every year. My 9th graders tomorrow are getting about a 10-minute run-through of the syllabus, but then we're taking some notes on the literary term theme, then listening to a 9-minute tape of Langston Hughes' "Thank You, Ma'am," then discussing the theme of that story, and then starting a handout on the theme of the summer reading texts that they'll finish for homework. My Juniors will actually take their summer reading quizzes, then get started on their group presentations for said summer reading. The first day of school is paradoxically both exciting (because you get to see all your friends, because you meet all your teachers) and dull (because every class is listening to rules and regulations), so I'm trying to jump right in without the dull part.

I'm excited.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Saturday in the classroom

The classrooms are set up, but the copies are not yet made. Our department copier has been used by every department in the school, it seems; Science apparently has no copier, so they've been coming down, and Foreign Language has as well. Now we have no toner, and I'm not sure how we can make the copies today. Maybe we'll have to get ourselves over to Social Studies, if they're still stocked up.

I'm pretty excited about today, when I'll head into school and get as much forward planning done as I can. They're opening the building from 9 to 4, and I'm excited by it. Working all week has been great, but also full of distractions and capped with a 2.5 hour-meeting in a sweltering libraries yesterday.

Sara Neufeld on vacation for another nine days

I really miss Sara Neufeld over at InsideEd. I'm glad she's coming back in about a week. She might be the most important journalist in Baltimore.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Receiving class lists

Today was one of my favorite days: receiving class lists. I have no idea why I get so excited about it; I don't really know the kids yet. I guess it's just nice to know, though. My classes are, as of now, 33-32-30-29-30. Not bad, not great. I expect a few more to be added in the coming days, but, so far, my keeping of 36 desks in my room probably was overdoing it.

I get more excited looking at others' class lists: my former students and where they end up. My 9th graders from last year were some of the most memorable of my career, a large group of wonderful kids who I will track for years to come. I love the conversation with their new teachers: "Oh, wait until you meet Tre. He's huge but also goofy and sweet; you'll love him. Oh, and Teshae? So smart and so argumentative, but also sweet. You'll love her." (Truth be told, Tre just came up and visited from football practice, telling me how much he loved Octavia Butler's Kindred, his summer reading. I'm lucky to be around such cool kids year after year.)

One issue that may be raised in the next couple of days is why the English department seems to have become the mule of the school. For example, there are 10 sections of English I, and 13 sections of Humanities I and 13 sections of Biology I. I'm not sure why the same group of kids is being parsed so differently. My friend over in Social Studies has 109 total students. I have over 150 and so does everyone I know. It's strange.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Getting prepped

The thing I'm most excited about now is classlists. Who will be in my class? Will any of my classes be under 30? I'm waiting in anticipation.

Otherwise, lots of meetings, lots of time setting up classroom. Mine looks great. 90% done. Now I have to finish up my syllabi.

I love this time of year!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Last day of summer vacation

Ah, the last day of summer vacation. I went into school today to set up my classroom, and I must say, it looks great. It's 80-90% done, which makes me feel great. This is good, because I'm sure my department head is going to make me do all sorts of things not related to setting up my classroom, like cleaning out a storage room and moving around books. Her wish is my command.

(I joke, but I really don't mind.)

Otherwise, though, it was a day filled with turmoil at the school, and all over facebook, and spreading like wildfire elsewhere. Personnel decisions. I don't know what is going to happen, but it's not a happy way to start the school year.

No longer “the teacher who works at Dunkin Donuts after school just to make ends meet.”

At around the 4:48 mark in this speech, Barack Obama speaks of “the teacher who works at Dunkin Donuts after school just to make ends meet.” When he spoke this same line in Baltimore this past May, a large cadre of students around me started chanting my name. Because I was the teacher at our school with a second job. It wasn't like I spoke of it in class, but you tell one kid you can't meet with him on this Tuesday after school because of your waiting tables job, and another kid comes in during a Sunday brunch shift with her family, and you keep the job for five years, and, well, the word spreads.

But last night was my last shift ever. It was a bittersweet night, as the owners were there and pouring things down my throat that made me even more emotional than I would have been otherwise. If you walked past our restaurant at around 11pm last night, you would have heard the Motown music cranked up so loud that the windows were shaking, and me and the owner dancing together in the foyer. She said they were in denial, but I haven't worked very much since last baseball season anyway, so hopefully they're okay.

It'll be nice not to divvy myself up anymore. None of my colleagues really know me without two jobs, and a whole cycle plus of students don't either. It will be nice to be able to pick up on a weekend and get out of town if I want, or to stay late any day after school that I want. And not be on my feet so much (I'm pretty sure I have to have knee surgery this fall, after tearing a ligament playing softball). And have my Sunday nights back. All these things. But I'll sure miss the second job as well - the lifelong friends I've made, the curse of always tipping over 20% wherever I go, almost ways having cash on me. But it was time. Se la vie.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Banging out the curriculum

My friend and I teach all the same classes, heading up the Junior IB English team and the Freshman English team. She's been in Europe all summer, only returning to the Baltimore area tonight. We have been ordered by our department head to have a lunch date tomorrow, and, there, we will bang out our final curriculums for the year. We have some flexibility with our curriculum, and one of our focuses for the 9th grade is getting our texts more international.

This is my preference for those 9th graders:

September: Fences
September/October: Romeo and Juliet
October/November: To Kill a Mockingbird
November/December: excerpts from The Odyssey, Life of Pi
January: In the Time of Butterflies
February: Twelfth Night (excerpts... it's the school play)
February/March: A Lesson Before Dying
April: Persepolis
May: maybe spot for one more... or finish anything we haven't finished yet. Good time for a poetry unit, too, though we'll be integrating that all year.

We'll see. The more interesting battle will be over the Juniors, probably. I'm still finding Unbearable Lightness of Being to be fairly unbearable, but think I could teach it nonetheless - Kundera does some interesting things throughout that may be fun to analyze. I don't know. We'll negotiate. That's what it is.

We're both passionate and hyperbolic lovers of literature, so sparks may fly. But we're also good friends, so all is well.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The year is shining like new money

Tonight, on the eve of my 31st birthday, I was driving home from an especially life-affirming workout at the gym, and was struck by just how excited I am about embarking on a new school year.

My birthday always falls right before the start of the new school year, and always gives me a sense of rejuvenation, of rebirth. Teaching is the best job in the world because you have this every year, a sense of shedding the travails of the past years and starting fresh. This year, my 8th year of teaching, all at the same school, all in the Baltimore City Public Schools System, has an even greater sense of starting fresh than usual. Sunday marks the last shift at my second job, the same second job that I've worked for over five years. My MAT has given me a significant raise, probably the biggest raise I'll have in my career (I was at Step 9 last year, with just a Bachelor's Degree, now I'll be at Step 10, with a Master's Degree), and I'm ready to give up waiting tables and start pouring the energy I expended there into things that are better for me: a healthier social life, a more consistent exercise schedule, quicker turnaround on grading, more cohesive planning with other teachers and departments. It's a sad thing to leave the friends I've made waiting tables, and I genuinely enjoyed it throughout almost all of the five years, crummy tips and all, but it is time to move on.

In the last two weeks, I have met about 300 bright new 9th graders, of which I'll be teaching about 140 of them. To them, I'll be bringing the verve that comes with the completion of this summer's Teaching Shakespeare Instititute, a 4-week program that was both career-affirming and life-affirming, giving me plenty of practical ideas for the classroom and reminding me of the joy that comes with intensely studying literature. Indeed, this summer has been the most productive of my career. I saved money well for the first time, lived off the savings, made some money at the Folger Institute and invested it back into my classroom with an LCD Projector. I completed an NEH-granted program that, as aforementioned, brought me a great deal of personal satisfaction and professional growth. This was after spending a spring semester studying the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program, and completing a nearly 100-page curriculum for the 9th grade as my final graduate school project. I was learning as I was doing it then; now I know the curriculum like the back of my hand and look forward to bringing the grad school project to life in my classroom starting in a week and a half. Additionally, I have two years of teaching Junior IB English under my belt now, and am excited to again have one class of these kids. The grading is intense with this class, and having just 35 or so essays to grade when an essay is due is a great thing. My first group of kids went through the IB tests last May, and 98% passed; while most of the credit lies with their senior year teacher, I can say that at least I didn't screw them up too bad. I know and love the IB Program, and feel like it gives me great opportunities to teach materials and skills that no other program would allow me to do.

So, things are feeling great. Today, my colleagues were taking bets about when the new display television in the lobby would be stolen or vandalized, with the earliest guess being Labor Day Weekend. But I didn't participate. It's nearly impossible for me to be cynical about school or kids or teaching, especially in August. After all, I'm the one who cries at nearly all teaching movies, even Freedom Writers.

So the year is starting, and I'm more excited than I can even express. I hope this feeling in August never changes. I'm not naive; I know that when I get my classlists and count how big my classes are and add up my overall class load, that I'll probably feel some chagrin. And I know that by mid-to-late October, some of the shininess will be dimmed. I'll realize that I'll never really be able to stay on top of all the work no matter how hard I work at it; I'll realize that some of the kids just don't mesh with me; I'll realize the mistakes I've made and how hard it will be to change them. But, right now, on August 14, on my last day of being 30 years old, on the eve of what is going to be a pretty damn fun birthday pub crawl around Fells Point, at the end of my 2nd job career, at the cusp of a new school year, well, ain't nothin' gonna break my stride.

Being accused of being a heroin addict and using my teacher parking sticker to go free

Only nominally teaching-related, but I was lost in the Pigtown area on Saturday, looking for my friend's place right off of Washington Blvd., when I was pulled over. And I'm talking bad. I was on Lombard (right off of MLK Blvd.), looking for Washington, when the lights and sirens pulled sounded behind me, and, within one moment, I was ordered out of the car, onto the curb, with my hands behind my back and my legs straight out. It was in the middle of broad daylight, and all I could think about was whether one of my students would walk by or drive by. The doofus officers, younger than me, made me feel a bit like I was on Candid Camera, especially when they searched my car (!) and my person and said things to me like, "Well, we just don't understand it... here you are, a guy who likes to take care of himself, you have a dog, you have a baseball glove and a gym dog, and you're down here buying heroin?". I was simultaneously amused and pissed off at the suggestion; are there really a whole lot of 240-lb heroin addicts in the city?

And they kept at me for about fifteen minutes, checking out my story that I was lost and yelling at me to keep my legs straight and my back straight or they'd shove my face into the concrete. Apparently I was in the highest heroin-traffic area of the city, and they accused me of rolling a stop sign (my guess is that I was a white guy there, and they were looking for a reason to pull me over, and made that one up, because I didn't see any sort of stop sign so if I ran one I full-out ran one, didn't just "roll through" it). Eventually, I got to the point where I thought I might be arrested or ticketed or something, and my shocked bemusement turned to anger, and I began pulling out all the stops - telling them to look at the teacher sticker on my windshield, even telling them that my dad is a retired police officer. It eventually worked, but I don't think they ever believed me, even taking down my friend's name and number to "check" on my story about getting lost. They checked if I had warrants, and finally let me go, telling me that if they saw me in this neighborhood in five minutes they'd arrest me. I hightailed it out of there and made it to the Redskins game just fine, with a story to tell of a couple of farmboy officers with too much time on their hands and a high level of dumbassery.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Darn Bess, the Blocking Webpage

One of the big focuses of the Teaching Shakespeare Institute was using technology in the English classroom. I was hesitant, but ended up learning a lot, and was inspired to purchase an LCD Projector for my classroom for that reason. I also spent some time building a website for my classes, as well as setting up a wikispaces page for materials, online discussions, and resources.

Today, I was finally able to get online at school for the first time. I plugged in my laptop, checked my email, then immediately went to my googlespaces page I set up for school.


Then, I went to to see my class setup there.


Wow, was I ever mad. I really want to incorporate technology and prepare my students for college and the 21st century, but it's the question of whether my school system will allow it.

After telling my story to a colleague, he told me he heard that the system will soon block free email sites as well, like gmail and yahoo. If this happens, I have no idea how I will be able to ask my students for typed papers anymore. The common thing to do is for students to email the document to themselves and print it out. In fact, that's how I print out every single handout I've ever made for school... without a printer at home, I rely on my printer at school.

I'm going to brainstorm ideas. There's a long complicated process of trying to get a webpage approved through the central offices, but no one I know of has been successful.

Ideas welcome.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Good press and help

It's so nice to have some positive press about teacher surpluses and smaller class sizes in the Baltimore City Public Schools.

I have not agreed with everything I have heard or seen from Dr. Alonso, but he sure seems to be steering things in the right direction in a lot of ways.

I sure hope those smaller class sizes make their way to me. I have averaged 33-36 in the last few years, making for a very difficult grading load and a cramped classroom. According to the article, there is now a 25.2:1 student:teacher ratio in the high schools in the BCPSS. These numbers are often skewed by who is counted as a teacher and other factors that I don't understand (somehow, a webpage published our school's ratio as 18:1 last year, which, as far as I could tell, was just a little more than half as big as it actually was). Still, the fact that the ratio is decreasing has got to be considered a major step in the right direction.

Heck, I even got a return email about my certification question from last week. I have never received a return email from someone at North Avenue before. The website is still pretty unmanageable and I had to ask around to find the correct email address for certification, but, once I did, it took less than a week for a reply.

(Not that it was good news, by the way. It looks like I have to take both of those dumb reading classes, unless - and I'm hoping this happens - one of my Towson MAT courses will double as one of them. Please, Towson, come through for me. They're reviewing my transcript as we speak. Or, rather, I handed it to a harried receptionist at North Avenue in the very busy Human Resources office about an hour ago, so it'll at least be on someone's desk in the next couple of days.)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Mosying and back-piecing

The kids took to today's lesson pretty well, and I think it worked just fine. Lots of good discussion in the groups, several little skills honed, even a last-minute mini-lesson on Cornell Notes I threw in there. However, the timing was off. It's an interesting teaching exercise to teach within in isolated lessons, unable to say to myself, "Oh, we can finish that tomorrow." As a teacher, my larger strength is my unit plans rather than the individual lesson plans. Teaching a fairly isolated 60-minute lesson to kids I may or may not be teaching for the school year is a useful exercise for me, because it makes me go at a rather rapid pace, something I'm not exactly known for in the classroom. I'm just rarely in a rush to do anything, whether it's teaching or in life, and tend to focus heavily on whether the kids are getting it rather than whether I'm getting through what I need to get through. That's not a bad thing - it's better to focus on the kids getting it than moving on just because I'm trying to cover "content" - but we all need balance, and this teaching exercise of isolated lessons (and no homework) offers that.


Teachers don't get our class lists until August 19th. In addition, while a few of my colleagues have received their schedules in the mail, I have not. Every day, I anxiously open the mailbox hoping that my schedule is in there. It hasn't been, yet.

However, the students have started receiving theirs. So over the last few days, a steady stream of kids have approached me and told me they have me as their teacher. I don't know them that well, but I know them a bit, so every time it happens it gets me a little excited. It also offers a kind of interesting back-piecing of my schedule together. For example, I know I teach 1st and 2nd period, and 10th period, and 6/7th period. That leaves 8/9th period, which I think will probably be my class of IB Juniors, and 3rd, 4th, and 5th periods, which are split periods and will probably be my planning time. That's slightly different from last year, which is a good thing, because I like a little variety; I'm teaching the same classes as last yer so I need to find it whatever way I can.

I admit I'm getting pretty excited about the start of the school year. The wax on the second floor should be dry by tomorrow, and I hope to start getting up there and setting up my classroom!

The lesson that will change all their lives forever... Or... At least it's finally done. Let's see how it goes.

I have sixty minutes to spend with them. They got to choose between any one of four books - Dandicat's Breath, Eyes, Memory, Marcus Zusak's The Book Theif, Daj Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, and Allan Stratton's Chanda's Secrets. My job was to create a lesson that got all the kids involved, that introduced and reinforced the concept of the Areas of Interaction in the Middle Years Program, and "covered" the summer reading.

I've been racking my brain for the last week or so about how to do this. Finally, I have come up with something. I have to do this lesson nine times next week, so hopefully it'll be perfect by time 4 or so.

8 minutes: Introduction to Areas of Interaction and Areas of Interaction in the English Classroom

5 minutes: Introduction to the genre of Coming of Age / Students take notes

2 minutes: put students into groups based on what book they chose

30 minutes: time to complete group activities. I have created one for each Area of Interaction that can be applied to all of the books.

10 minutes: present 60-second book "commercials," which was one of the tasks in the group activity

We'll see how it goes. I'm excited, at least.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

How it feels to be colored me

Today was our 'How It Feels to Be Colored Me' bag day, where we read the Zora Neale Hurston essay the previous day, focusing at her conclusion, in which she writes about seeing herself as a "brown bag of miscellany." The next day - today - we all brought in our own bag of miscellany and presented to the class.

Most kids remembered. Some put some thought into it. Some clearly did it just before class, as the girl with the McDonald's bag, in which she had her I-Pod (to represent her love of music), her pencil (to represent her love of writing), and her lip gloss (to represent her girly-girlishness). But others were very moving and revealing.

The one I remember most didn't bring a bag, though. He forgot. But as we came to this young man, this quiet kid with glasses who has come late every day this week, sitting in the corner, he stomped his feet, saying that it represented him being in school, and that's important, because of the pressure he feels to be the first male in his extended family to graduate high school. And that was cool, and gutsy, and made me pretty glad I'd done this slightly cheesy activity.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Unbearable, indeed.

So my colleague wants to teach Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being next year to Juniors.

Our curriculum is a constant give-and-take, push-and-pull. But we get along well and make compromises and such.

But I cannot stand this book. Lugubrious and Ponderous. And I think the kids will hate it.

I'm going to keep plugging away, but I feel a battle brewing.

To be fair, I'm only on page 30. But that's 8 separate sitdowns with it. I can't go more than a few pages at once.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


I taught in shorts today. Yes, that's how hot it was in the school. I'd never wear shorts during the regular school year, but, damn, was I ever glad I did today.

The air temperature hit at least 91 today, with humidity, but I'm pretty sure it was at least 10 degrees hotter in my classroom.


Today I taught that same lesson I started on Monday times #5, #6, and #7. Tomorrow, it's #8 and #9. That should be about the time it gets really good.


It's funny, but my timing gets way off sometimes, probably because I'm finding the need to do things in radically different orders nearly every class period, just to make things fresh. I've also become notorious as the teacher who keeps the kids after the top of the hour, leaving a crowd of kids outside my room waiting for me to stop talking. You do it once, and it happens nearly every class period because it's a cycle that repeats itself.


I met the most interesting kid so far in Summer Bridge today. I wish I could tell you all his first name, because that was pretty interesting in and of itself. But, otherwise, he walked into my room, late, wearing sunglasses. As I am prone to do, I went over and whispered for him to take off his sunglasses and walked away without looking at him, so he didn't feel the need to challenge me on it and could take them off without saving face. Which he did, but he also apologized, rather profusely, and ended up jabbering through much of the first ten minutes of my class. At first, with the profuse apology and constant jabbering, I got the feeling he was some sort of insincere kid, but, after a few minutes, it all clicked, that he was really genuine, that he really wanted to do well. He couldn't shut up at all, but somehow ingratiated himself into my good liking by the time 10:11 rolled around. Seemed a good reader, had some really interesting things to say about the Edwidge Dandicat novel he read over the summer, told me he has to get up at 5:30am to catch the 6:15am bus to get to school every day on time. He's a bundle of energy and will probably take up half my energy every day in his class periods, but I think I'd still be happy to have him on my class list when I get them in a couple of weeks.

One of my favorite parts of that group was this young man playing off a white girl who also read the Dandicat novel. They don't know it yet, but they're both bright active readers who are my favorite kinds of kids. Both wanted to be heard a lot today, both raised their hands for every question, yet their other responses couldn't be more different. I love that sort of variety. Sign them both up for my class in the fall.

Also loved to see the little brothers of several kids I've taught before. Made me feel both old and good at the same time, emotions which, when combined together, make me feel ready for my 31st birthday, which is approaching in one week.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Certification and Aspiring Leaders

My Standard Professional Certificate I expires in June of 2009.

According to all the confusing websites I've been reading, and according to what I understand of it all, I have to take a Reading course sometime before 90 days past that date to get a new certificate.

However, a letter sent from the certification office to a colleague has gotten my hopes up. See, while I haven't taken any Reading classes in the last five years, I've taken lots of classes - including getting my MAT in Secondary Education at Towson University this past May. According to my colleague's letter, she needs four things to get her Advanced Professional Certificate - a conferred Master's Degree (check), a Professional Development Plan (a rubber stamp check), Verification of 3 years of satisfactory school related experience (check), and a letter requesting advancement to the next certificate (check). No mention of a reading course.

I'm really hopeful that I won't have to spend time this fall taking a silly Reading class, which, by all accounts, are kind of jokes. I've had several colleagues take them, and everyone's attitude is that they're jokes, including the professors. I'm sure I gained more about teaching reading in just a week of the Teaching Shakespeare Institute as I will from these reading classes.

My other current dilemma is whether to get involved in the Aspiring Leaders Program through Hopkins. In this program, BCPSS will pay half of your tuition to JHU to get an administration certificate. I have no interest in being a principal or assistant principal, but perhaps would like the chance to be a department head or curriculum leader of some sort sometime. It's a three-semester program of 18 credits. Would probably be tough and I probably deserve a year just to work on my teaching after five years with a second job and three years working on an MAT, but I'm still tempted...

Anyhow, some of the decision hinges on whether I have to take this Reading class this year, and hopefully that question will be answered in the email to the Certification office I sent this evening. I wonder what the chances are that the email will be answered? I'll keep you updated. The folks at North Avenue are not known for replying to requests for help. I've had horrible experiences with the Certification folks at North Avenue, and was pleasantly surprised to be emailing a different name this time - the other lady must have left.

Spiels and Hope

During Summer Bridge, I am teaching the same lesson nine times over the course of the week. In past years, I've been terribly bored with this schedule; it just gets pretty tedious to say the same things over and over and over again to different groups of incoming 9th graders.

While I still might get bored this year, I find myself a little more accepting of the schedule so far. First of all, I'm really in need of a vacation and some down time after the month of intense Shakespeare study, so not having to plan a new lesson every night gives me some time for myself and my own endeavors (including cleaning my office, which is stacks and stacks of junk after the month of being too busy to do anything about it, plus finishing up syllabi and course maps). Secondly, at least for the first few times through the lesson, I'm intrigued by how it takes shape.

See, I'm basically giving a lesson on A Hope in the Unseen. But I start out with a round around the room, where I hear from the students their name, their middles school, and their favorite book they read in middle school. Sometimes I'll ask them other things, like if they've had relatives who went to the schoool or whether they've done their summer reading. Then, we take a "practice quiz" ovfer the book, something I tell them is a way to figure out if they're ready for August 25 (the first day of schol). It's 15 questions, multiple choice, and we score it together; I never see their scores and tell them to take it for what it's worth.

Then, invariably, I go on little spiels about certain topics:
Spiel #1: "Dreambusters" - in A Hope in the Unseen, Cedric talks about dreambusters, the people who say "You can't" or "You won't," and how he has to ignore them and do his own thing. I tell the students that everyone has their own version fo this, and it's important that we all find the strategies to resist, whether those "dreambuster" come in the form of hallway hangers or forces in our neighborhoods.

Spiel #2: Not taking the easy route - I tell the sutdents that it's easy to float by through high school, to get a grade of a 68 or a 71 average, and do fine by those standards, to "pass" and that's it. You'll get yoru diploma, I say, but not much else. I tell them to work hard, to accept nothing less than an 80 in any class, and take control of their education by ensuring this.

It seems like in every section, I come to these spiels in different ways - they'll be a response to a student's answer to a question, or in my closing remarks - and I'll vary the examples and the way I tell the stories. But, otherwise, they'll be pretty similar. And, even though they weren't part of my rudimentary plan for the lesson, they seem to be doing well with it. Most of them come up with the question, "Why would we have chosen this book for you as summer reading?". What I don't want to hear is that "Oh, we're poor, and we're black, and you all want us to be like Cedric." No. Not true. Cedric was by no means a perfect student; he had no balance in his life, could not adjust well socially, and often was haughty and unaccepting of others. But, we all can take things from Cedric's story and apply them to our own lives, whether it's the refusal to give up, the hard work, the faith, the goal-setting. And, for our students, I hope they see the transition from middle school to high school could have some similarities to Cedric's transition from high school to college.

All in all, a good day, with some great (and still quiet) new kids.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The first reactions to summer bridge

1. They're so little!

2. If only they stayed this quiet all year...

3. Most did their summer reading! And they liked A Hope in the Unseen!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

First draft of Junior IB curriculum...

World Literature / Works in Translation:

Theme: Something about the aftermath of war

1. The House of the Spirits by Isabell Allende
2. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
3. No Exit by Sartre (Nov)

School's Free Choice

Theme: Male Angst and its Consequences

4. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (Dec-Jan)
5. The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty
6. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (Feb-March)
7. King Lear by Shakespeare (March-April)

Brief explanations:

#1: Funny, lively, epic novel. Introduces magical realism. Female author, lots of strong female characters. Students generally like it.

#2: None yet, except that it's a well-renowned novel and is on the World Lit list.

#3: Haven't read it, but have heard it's a good introduction to existentialism. Plus, it's nice to do a short, modern drama.

#4: Students generally love Murakami, and I think they'd really latch onto his novel. Now, it's 600 pages or so, but hopefully the students will enjoy it as much as they did his short stories (we've taught The Elephant Vanishes for years).

#5: Funny and smart satire about race with which a lot of our students will connect. The troubling Huck Finn shouldn't be the only satirical novel about race that they read. Paul Beatty could be the next great novelist; he's a superb poet. Though this is a risky teach, students will find it fresh and very funny.

#6: 19th century, female. I've never taught another 19th century novel that the kids were so into. Page-turner. Good introduction to Romanticism. Very accessible and not overwhelming in terms of structure. Plus, one of the signs of an educated person is knowing that Frankenstein was the doctor, not the creature. (Note: I usually am not in favor of the "English teacher as gatekeeper" argument, and have never been one to say that "all high school students must read __________", but, geez, this little fact is one that I think everyone should know. Plus, that "Wherefore art thou, Romeo?" does not mean "Where are you, Romeo?")

#7: I think the family drama, the question of fairness, and the themes of remaining true to yourself and to others will resonate with students. Honestly, I've never experienced such a page-turner as this one when reading Shakespeare. Kids at our school read Romeo and Juliet their 9th grade year and some combination of Hamlet, Macbeth, and The Tempest their 12th grade year. Still light on comedies, but I've yet to find a Shakespeare comedy that I much liked (the first two acts of Romeo and Juliet are a comedy, anyway). The last reason I wanted it on the curriculum is that I think I can teach the hell out of it, as a result of the Teaching Shakespeare Institute.

#2 and #3 are my colleague's choices - I haven't read them yet and could nix them.

#5 was my idea but she's all about it.

#1, #4, and #6 are longtime favorites from the curriculum. I'm more into #1 and #6 then she is, but she's realizing how hard it is to find female authors for what our curriculum is, so we need them.

#7 I had to twist her arm to do. Seh prefers Othello. I don't. (I have some huge issues with Othello and did not enjoy teaching it at all.)

We still have a couple of weeks to sure things up. I need to get to reading the Kundera and Sartre books in the next couple of days.

Another education blog in Baltimore

Just caught this one: The Smallest Twine, a funny little blog of an (almost) 2nd-year Math teacher in Baltimore City.

There are only five or six entries so far, but I'm already into the whimsical tone of it all:

After a year of teaching, I've matured a lot and realize that it's not really about me and if the students like me and think I'm cool (because let's face it, I'm not -- although I do have a song about myself to the tune of Fergilicious).

Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Summer Bridge

On Monday, Summer Bridge begins. I have taught in this program, which gets rising 9th graders ready for their freshmen year of high school, just about every year I've taught, and generally have enjoyed it. This year will be rougher than most, probably, because (a) I get no break between the Teaching Shakespeare Institute and the start of Summer Bridge; and (b) North Avenue has been their worst ever in terms of organization of staff for the program.

For the latter point, allow me this: our 9th grade classes are generally around 330-350 students. Yet, our allowance from North Avenue for Summer Bridge was 9 teachers. The reasons for this appear to be mostly about red tape - some students weren't issued student ID numbers by North Avenue, which puts their numbers off for staffing; others were apparently not counted for other reasons. Regardless, we're going to have that many show up, putting our class sizes for Bridge in the 40 range. From what I have heard, this is the result of a new staffing model from North Avenue, and it's kind of a bummer.

This is one of those things that you'd think would be greatly improved with schools having more independence in terms of funding. And, at first, North Avenue was going to let schools fund this summer program independently. But, somewhere along the lines, they changed their minds. And we're mired in some red tape or something else that is causing us to have some huge class sizes for this preparing-for-high-school couple of weeks.

Classes of 20 or 40, though, you still need bang-up lessons, which is what I've been trying to do all weekend while I fend off the cold from the end of the Teaching Shakespeare Institute. Back to it.