Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Short review of today's guest speaker

The guest speaker was awesome. Kids learned a lot.

What she did:

1. Rose Maxson monologue in two different ways / ensuing discussion about how actors use tone, speed, gestures, props, etc, to create meaning

2. Queen Margaret monologue in two different ways / similar discussion

3. Discussion of Shakespeare and Language and how to construct meaning

4. Shakespeare in a Can

Monday, September 29, 2008

Guest Speaker

I am really running around like a madman lately, but hopefully it will be all worth it.

I organized and chaperoned a field trip with 50 ninth grader alone on Friday. On Saturday, still exhausted from Friday, I got up at 5am to make the trek with 155 students down to Virginia Beach to canvass for Barack Obama on both weekend days. Last night, I got home at around 12:30 after dropping the last student - a huge basketball player from Carver who I met the moment I offered him a ride home because it was pretty clear that I could get home much quicker that way than waiting for his guardian to come pick him up (he had called them, literally, 30 times, and it was now nearly an hour after everyone else had left). This young man was very courteous, and I enjoyed our discussion of Nelly's latest shoe song and Kanye West's awesome new single on the way to his house, but he had just moved to his new place and wasn't exactly sure where it was. A west sider his whole life, he was now an unfamiliar east sider, but it seemed like from his description that his house was near mine. We just sort of drove around until he recognized something familiar. It wasn't that bad, but still a late night.

Today, I sleepwalked through the day. I got more sleep than most of my fellow chaperones on Saturday night, because we jetted off and got a hotel room, but the lack of a weekend and overally lack of sleep since around Wednesday, along with the drives, still kicked my butt pretty good. There wasn't room for us on the nice big busses, so we climbed into my colleague's little Sentra for the trek down to Virginia Beach and back. The rides were long and the weekend was hard.

But, as exhausting as it was, I'm so glad that I did it. That we did it. I think the kids will remember it forever and, on November 6th, it will all seem worth it. I'm praying.

Adding to my huge flux of activity right now is a guest speaker that is coming to speak to my classes tomorrow. A professor from American University who I worked with at the Folger Library during the Teaching Shakespeare Institute this past summer, Caleen Jennings is a dynamic and passionate teacher that I think my kids will both really enjoy and learn a lot from. She will be running a 1:45 workshop that brings Fences and August Wilson together with Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet. She planned the whole workshop, and I just finished my parts of it just now. I'm really nervous about it, because I've never quite done anything like this before, and I'm really hoping it goes well.

To handle the logistics of it all, I combined my classes together, which means that my 1st period is staying an extra period, and my 2nd period is reporting to my 1st period and staying through their period. It took lots of handouts and mountain moving to make this occur, and, mostly, I hope that none of the kids forget about it.

I'm picking her up from the train station at 7:16 tomorrow morning. She's coming up totally on her own. I hope everything goes well.

Canvassing with Kids

8 chaperones, 155 kids, lots of disorganization, several hours driving, but plenty of canvassing done for Obama in Republican country in Virginia Beach. If Virginia Beach goes blue, then Virginia almost certainly goes blue, and it's almost mathematically impossible for Obama to lose if he gets Virginia.

The weather was mostly beautiful and the canvassing was fun. I paired myself with a 9th grade boy both days. As we walked around beautiful subdivisions on lake drives through Virginia, we were quite the odd couple. But we kept track of undecided folks we felt like we made a difference with. Most people were cordial, even if they were Republicans and didn't want to take our survey. A few slammed doors and all, but that's to be expected. I think we swayed some folks. We registered others to vote.

We did good work. I'm so proud of our students, who put up with several particularly rude campaign staffers and who were so much more respectful than the kids who came from the richest county in the state. All came down and lived through pretty harsh conditions (slept on a crowded dirty hard church floor) for this cause they believed in. They worked hard. I left feeling inspired about America. But no weekend and little sleep will make for a tough week, that's for sure.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Long Friday, longer weekend

I took 50 ninth graders on a field trip today, to see Cedric Jennings speak. They were not very good. It was all capped off by a student who asked the question, "So, I was wondering, did you like how the book turned out, because you kind of came off like a jerk sometimes?". It was a valid question, one that I think has some truth to it. But, wow, he sure asked it poorly. The entire auditorium booed, and the woman running the event snatched the microphone from him and said, "Well, we'll end this on a positive note." Pretty crazy. Overall, the kids didn't behave that well otherwise, and it was a long, stressful day.


I'm waking up tomorrow at 5am and going with 60 students to Richmond Virginia Beach to register voters. The Obama campaign was funding it, but apparently the fund guy has disappeared, so now all the kids have to drop $10 to go and all the teachers $50. One teacher is fronting $2500 for the trip. It's going to be a long weekend of sleeping on YMCA floors and going door to door, but at least it's for a good cause.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A miniature Will Smith

I'm so thankful that my 10th period is such a nice class. Today, I got a message to send down a copy of my project assignment. I looked around at all the kids, busily working, barely paying me any mind at all because they were so involved in their group assignment. I just couldn't bear to interrupt them to ask one of them to run it down. So I did it myself. When I returned, not one student had moved; they just continued preparing their Fences group project and working steadily. I just stood by the door, listening to them. Finally, one boy finally noticed me, and he said, "Yo, Mr. ________, come over here and listen. I'm like a miniature Will Smith or something." I look him up and down, emphasizing his 4'11" height, and respond, "Emphasis on the miniature, right?" and listened to him for a bit. And, gosh darn it, he was Troy Maxson. Blue braces and all.

A great day overall. Students were busily preparing, and, tomorrow, they will be presenting. Somehow, though, I have a field trip in the middle of all that. I have so much going on right now, that I'll be shocked if I make it through to Wednesday without dropping something - a field trip tomorrow, a 48-hour trip with student to canvass for Obama from 5am Saturday to 10pm Sunday, a guest speaker on Tuesday that is making me combine classes and get other teachers' permission - it's all so much right now. I even missed the gym trip this morning.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Readin' and Writin'

I'm planning these big elaborate writing workshop lessons for my IB Juniors this week, whose first essay is due a week from Thursday. Today - thesis analysis. Tomorrow - how to break down quotations. Thursday - how to write introductions and conclusions. I have student models ready, and they're set to bring their own writing in to work with as we go.

Today, though, as I graded their most recent quiz, I'm finding that the majority aren't even doing the reading.

Screw writing. These kids got to read.

I think the first set of progress reports will be a wakeup call. It's expected that 9th graders need that wakeup call every year. But Juniors, especially advanced Juniors? Disappointing.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Burning the candle at both ends...

That's what it feels like.

So far, one of my favorite new teaching strategies is that the students must place their homework in the appropriate bin as they enter the classroom. I've tried variations on this before - sturdy folder with each class marked - but have never done something so solid. I would always misplace the folders or take them home and forget them, and that was that. In this new system, I've got a 12-slot (4 across, 3 down) wooden organizer (purchased from Target for $19.99), with each slot designated for a class. It's worked great so far.

As soon as the students put the papers in there, or shortly thereafter, I transfer them into my filing carry case. There are about 20 available slots, so theoretically I could keep it well organized, but so far, I haven't been successful. But, no matter. I take this carry-case with me wherever I go, along with my laptop, and can do my grading wherever.

That doesn't mean I'm staying on top of it, though. In fact, the carry case just gets heavier every day, and carrying it around is a tactile reminder of my workload. I know it's going to happen, that the work is going to pile up and I can't get to it like I'd like to with a student load of over 150. But, sometimes, assignments that are almost a month old get lost in the files, and I'm not giving my students quick enough feedback. So, I've got to figure out a slightly better system for my file folder. Still, I'm happy with the advent of the homework station. Baby steps, I guess.

In other news, I'm just flat out beat. Not much of a weekend last weekend, and in this coming weekend, I'm trucking down with 60 or so ninth graders to Virginia and Pennsylvania to help register voters. The Obama campaign set the whole thing up and just needs chaperones, and I'm not the contact person or anything - thank goodness - but I will be staying with students from 5am Saturday morning until 10pm Sunday night. And the week will be a beast - a field trip on Friday (hoisted on me last Friday... it's a good thing, a trip to meet Cedric Jennings, and free, but still a bunch of work) and progress reports due on Thursday. It will be a busy week, capped by no weekend. Good thing I love my job!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Two 1st year teachers in Baltimore, two different paths

Tonight, my college roommate and former Baltimore roommate, now a math teacher in rural Georgia, called me and said, "You know, man, I think I'm done with this teaching thing."

He went on to describe his low salary (much lower than the Baltimore pay scale), his long commute, his choice to take on an extra $5,000 in salary by doing "extended day" (no prep period), his constant taking of work home, and the lack of desire he's feeling to motivate the kids. He sounds pretty bad. Wants to be an accountant now.

J and I moved down to Baltimore together from Michigan upon graduation from college in 2001. Almost literally, I threw a dart in a map and ended up in Baltimore (they offered me a job at a job fair at Michigan State), and J, who was looking for a change, followed along. We were both hired as wide-eyed college graduates into the Baltimore City Public Schools.

I lucked out with my placement; I had a pretty nice online teaching portfolio, and a pretty decent high school in Baltimore City needed an English teacher on the fly, and they had hired another Michigan State graduate a few years back who had worked out very well. I was hired after a brief phone interview and a check with my references.

My roommate got placed in a rather low-performing middle school. His classroom was a trailer in the parking lot. He said the school treated the children like cattle, being herded from one place to the next. He came home every day feeling beat up and wore down. He resigned after a month or so, after lots of long talks in the evening on the front porch or over epic games of ping-pong.

My first year was no walk in the park. My classroom management was terrible, and I recall, pretty vividly, that my first formal observation ended with the sentence, "I do not believe that any of the students learned any of the objectives that Mr. _________ set out to achieve." I just looked at my journal/blog entry from that day (still online, from 9/19/01, believe it or not), and wow was I ever a clueless, snotty kid then. I had no clue about teaching, yet here I was disagreeing with the comments that my veteran instructor made to me. The nerve. I was probably not much worse than the average first year teacher, but, looking back, it's hard not to feel embarrassed by some of my classroom practices at the time. The kids ate me alive. Luckily, they kind of liked me so they ate me up with smiles on their faces.

Thankfully, that department head took some pity on me, or she saw something in me, and did very well by me. I remember something so vividly; one time, she came in, looked at my lesson plan, which were (and still are) strong, and told me to sit back, that she would teach my lesson to my students. I watched her, and learned so much. She is still in the system, in a way-high-up position, and I still thank her for saving my career in that first year, and I give her a big hug whenever she comes and tours my school. When she retires, I'm going to write her quite a letter. Maybe I should do it before that. I also had a close-knit, fully functional department, all of whom offered lots of tips and support. They all gave me the space to figure things out on my own while being there when I needed it. It was a superb place to learn how to teach.

Anyhow, my college roommate didn't have that support. I never heard about his department head. Or any sort of mentor. He didn't go out for Happy Hour on Fridays with his co-workers. He felt totally alone, and ineffective, and depressed. He resigned after a month, and ended up as a substitute teacher in the county for the rest of the year, because the county pays about $20 more per day ($75) than the city ($55) for subs.

After the year, my roommate moved down to Florida, to try the teaching thing again, this time in Orlando. He has done much better the second time around. He's moved just over the border to Georgia to be closer to his son, and has started teaching in a tiny town there. For the aforementioned reasons, he's frustrated. He doesn't think he can afford to ever buy a house as a single parent making less than $40,000 a year, especially with the private school pre-K and the commuting.

Today, he sounded miserable, sort of like he did during that first month in Baltimore. I ask him about teaching salaries, if he can do any better in a nearby county - but teaching salaries in the south are pretty much bad all over. I tell him to think about administration, because there's a salary increase and no work to bring home. He thinks he wants a total change, the chance to make nearly six figures, like some of our friends who went into Packaging make. One guy got a job at Welch's fruits and now makes over six figures in the factories.

We talked for a while, discussing about the possibilities that the teaching schedule has - summers open for classes, etc, but I feel for him. His life is sort of mine in a parallel universe. If I had not received the support that I did during my first year of teaching, if I was not on a block schedule with a whole new batch of kids in January (giving me, effectively, two first years within the first year of teaching), then I could be in his boat. Instead, I still really love my job, and feel rejuvenated every year by the kids. Eight years into my career, I feel ready to go another thirty-two. Maybe not exactly where I am, and hopefully always growing and changing and rolling with the punches. But I think it was that first year that did it for me.

My friend has figured other aspects of his life out much better than me - notice I said he had a kid, which is something I'd always thought I'd have by the age of 31. But I'm sad that the teaching thing isn't doing it for him anymore, and the slogging through for a low salary isn't enough for him. I hope he's able to find an accounting job or something like that and feel a lot better about his situation.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

10th period

One reason I like teaching 9th grade so much is that the learning curve is so high, and you can see results really quickly. We are four quizzes into the school year - two summer reading quizzes, and two course content quizzes. I'm beginning to get a sense of what I'm teaching well and what I'm not teaching well, along with which kids are listening and learning and which kids are not. I have about 120 ninth graders and had about ten A's on the last quiz, which was not an easy one. That's not bad. I'd like some more. I also had a large amount of kids just flat out fail it, so did my best today to give a stern, honest talk about high school expectations and strategies for success.

My favorite class that has emerged so far is my 10th period. The class is small, as well as calm, both of which are good things because it's the last of three straight classes in a row. I haven't taught back-to-back-to-back in a couple of years, and it's tough. My lunch this year is at 10am, much too early for lunch, and then I teach after that break straight on until 2:15. So I'm hungry and thirsty and tired by the end of those three classes. The 10th period is so good, though, because I can sort of sit down a lot while I teach them, and they don't go crazy. Really a lot of wonderful kids in there so far.

Still, they didn't do so hot on the quiz. One 'A', and about five or six 'B's, a couple of 'C's, and the rest failed or came close to it. One of my favorites, Dimitri, raised his hand to explain it to me: "You know, I'll tell you why we do so bad in here. It's close to the last class in the day, it's way long after we ate lunch, and, man, we just be tired. And hot."

So, that's why they're so good, huh?

I tell them that I don't necessarily want quiet if it gets in the way of their intellectual curiosity, their desire to learn. They look at me like I'm crazy and go back to blankly copying the notes about tragedy and tragic heroes. I'll get them.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Finishing Fences

The students are finishing Fences tonight.

I've never started the year with it before, and think it's working out great. It's a high-interest text, probably the most high-interest one they'll ever read in high school. There are some clear symbols and metaphors that students can analyze. I'm using it to teach some writing skills that I'm not sure any other text would have provided better opportunities for.

That being said, I'm having to hold myself back from letting them act it out too much in class. We did Act I.1 in class, but otherwise it's been all at-home reading. This is different than previous years, often when we did not have the texts, when we read it all in class.

Much of this is from the Folger Shakespeare Teaching Institute from the summer. One of the early examples of bad teaching was doing the whole 'read-it-in-class' thing.

Next week will be the first real test of some of the ideas I garnered from the institute: I'm going to try to use performance in different ways than I ever have in the classroom. This is the light at the end of the tunnel I've been offering to students as they beg and beg me to let them act it out in class - we will, I say, but, for now, you need to read and understand the plot at home while we analyze and write about it in class. So far, it's working. They finish it off tonight.

By a show of hands, most of the kids have already finished it on their own. I don't blame them. I wouldn't have been able to put it down, either.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

New Baltimore Education Blogs

Thanks for linking to me:

One Room To Teach All: "Blog of a first year Elementary Technology teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools."

Zeek and I: "I am a Baltimore City Public School Art teacher, my son Zeek is in fourth grade. This is our fourth year living in Baltimore, before we lived here we lived in Michigan on Lake Superior."

Both added to the blogroll. Thanks!

The White Boy Shuffle

This is a call for any ideas, thoughts, or lesson/unit plans about teaching Paul Beatty's The White Boy Shuffle.

I was really excited, but now I'm getting cold feet. It pushes the bounds of high school curriculum more than any book I've ever taught except for perhaps The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which of course has the 'classic' label... and no F-bombs). I think the kids deserve to read a literate and raucous modern satire on race, especially after hearing the same thing from the white perspective in the 10th grade with Huck. It's a superb book, highly-praised and poetic. The kids will love it and get a whole lot out of it. But I want to know if anyone else has tried this. Please email or post. I've gotten one google hit already earlier from "teaching The White Boy Shuffle", and this is a blatant attempt at more. And some help.

It's set for March/April, so we've got plenty of time.


Today, for the first time since the budget crisis of 2003, the English Department ran out of paper.

All week, we were told that our new shipment would come on Tuesday.

They hoodwinked us.

They'll deliver it on Wednesday. Hopefully. I had to borrow six sheets of paper from a Biology teacher to survive my afternoon class today.

Prop Joe, eyeglasses, geek chic, Mr. Bald, and Marlo

Last night, right before bed, I made the mistake of watching episode 4 of the 5th season of The Wire, which I've slowly been making my way through. For those of you who have not watched the final season, just skip ahead to the next paragraph. For those of you who have watched it, it's at the end of this episode where Prop Joe meets his final fate. For some reason, the final scene between Joe, Marlo, and Chris just haunted me. I just lay there for an hour or more in my bed, replaying it over and over again in my head. Joe telling Marlo that he'd treated him like a son. Marlo saying that he didn't want to be nobody's son. Joe's last plea. His eyes. Marlo telling Joe that it wouldn't hurt a bit, to close his eyes. Joe does this, reluctantly but dutifully. Marlo nods to Chris, and Chris shoots Joe. The camera closes on Marlo's face.

The vision of Marlo's face - somehow both calming and horrifying, and juxtaposed alongside Joe's last glance up at him - stayed in my head, unshakably, through most of the first hour of my many hours long insomnia last night. Haunted me. I couldn't sleep. This was compounded by the fact that I decided to work out for an hour on the eliptical while I was watching the episode, from 10pm-11pm, and by the fact that I drank a heckuva lot of water throughout the evening hours, so had to keep running to the bathroom.

I didn't fall asleep until it was almost time to wake up. I skipped the gym trip in the morning, and slept in an extra couple hours, waking up at almost 7 a.m. I still only got a few hours of restless sleep, though.

What does this all have to do with teaching? Not a whole lot. This is one of those entries that I might have put on my new more personal blog, Time Will Do the Talking, named after the Patty Griffin song, which I started writing dumb stuff in about a week ago, and where I'll continue to discuss things Baltimore, pop culture, and politics. But enough about that: this is about teaching, in a way.

Because I had to wear my glasses today.

I figured - correctly - that my eyes would dry out like crazy throughout the morning and afternoon, a day when I was very, very tired, and so wore my eyeglasses instead. Now, I hate wearing glasses, and much prefer contacts. Still, I got new eyeglasses over the summer, and I kind of like them. They're very old school. A colleague said I looked like I stepped off the set of the movie J.F.K..

I feel like teaching in the city can really make one both humble and honest. This was true today; my students' reactions were swift. This year's students were too scared, but last year's were not. I got called a geek from a smiling sophomore with big dorky glasses herself. I got called chic by Alexis, a diva of sophomore fashion. I was told I look nerdy by another. Another accused of wearing them only for fashion reasons. I was accused of not really having blue eyes, because they were harder to see behind the glare of the glass. I was accused of wanting to look smarter, but of not fooling anyone. Yes, they sure are honest.

Someday, I'm going to cause a huge ruckus with them all, and shave my head. It's really only a matter of time. While I am enjoying the salting of grey that is coming in at a few places, I think Mr. Bald will beat Mr. Gray by a few laps, and eventually I'll give in. I've spent the last several years wondering what I'd look like with a shaved head. Someday, soon, I'll know. And the kids will go crazy. Maybe best to make one of those big appearance changes over the summer, eh?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Manic Monday

The morning began, apparently, with me hitting the snooze button at least three times, making my 5 a.m. wakeup call come at 5:30 instead. That turned my relaxed 90-minute morning workout to a rushed 45-minute workout, and sort of made the whole morning harried. Gmail - where I always email myself my handouts for easy printout the next morning - was not working, either, so that was something else.

The 9th grade classes went okay - thank you, August Wilson, for writing a play that kids love more than anything else we read - but the Junior class turned into a class argument about a Neruda poem, and not a particularly pleasant argument. I want the kids to make radical analyses of literature, but I want them to have solid evidence for it, and that just didn't come through enough. I'll have to regroup them, and myself, tomorrow.

I could write a whole diatribe right now about my certification class, which I sat in from 5:00 until 7:45 after a very long work day, and the frustration of not learning anything because some bureaucrat somewhere decided that this is the ridiculous course that every teacher has to take every six years to remain certified, but I'll look at the bright side: at least it was air-conditioned this week and at least the professor didn't say anything about me grading papers.

The annual realization that keeping up is nearly impossible

I used to say that October was the roughest month for a teacher. It's the month where the optimism of the beginning of school has faded, just a little, and the month where you just have to accept that there is simply more work at this job than anyone can really keep up with in a timely fashion.

This year, I think it's happened sooner. I could sense a mountain of papers throughout the week, but felt like I really needed to plan more than anything else. I had to create a new document about incorporating quotations, this time for The House of the Spirits. I hemmed and hawed over that document for hours, and then emailed it to my colleague, and the two of use hemmed and hawed over it for hours afterward. I had to create adapt a document about Socratic Seminars, and the same process occurred. Re-inventing the wheel is one thing that makes teaching interesting, but it can leave an annoying sense of deja vu. Haven't I made this sort of thing before? Where is it? And then you find it, and you realize that it's not very good, and you have to adapt it, or, heck, make it anew.

It's important for me to get work back quickly to the students, particularly my 125 ninth graders, who need to see some immediate feedback of the work they're turning in. I was proud of myself in getting last Friday's quizzes back to them quickly, and hoped to get this Friday's quizzes back to them quickly, as well. Didn't happen. I took home stacks and stacks of work, and got through maybe one stack. I did create a pretty cool new document about incorporating quotations, this time for Fences and for 9th graders and not 11th graders, and that took a while. I also mapped out the rest of my unit for my two current texts. But grading? Didn't do that so much, despite my kitchen table being covered with stacks and stacks of grading to complete. Also didn't call home like I wanted to - since I make nearly all my parent calls on my personal cell phone, I was hoping to do that when the minutes were free on the weekend. Didn't happen.

And it's frustrating, because I want to be a teacher who can just get work back to the students right away, and I just wonder if that's possible with a load of 150. And then I wonder if I'm just using that class load number as an excuse, that I just need to work harder. And that's usually a dilemma I feel in October, not September 15th. Let's see if I can get out from under this mountain of work this week, though...

Saturday, September 13, 2008

First Socratic Seminar

Yesterday, we attempted to do our first Socratic Seminar in IB English 3.

The students told me they had never done a seminar before, so this was a big deal, and something I was worried about. Seminar is a pretty essential piece of an IB English classroom, because its roots in self-discovery and questioning align well with the IB Program's goals of independent thought and inquiry. I've rarely been totally satisfied with the experience as a teacher, though; there always seems to be something that's missing.

And, I admit that I had trepidations about this group doing a Socratic Seminar, as well, especially after they had told me they had never done one. We about halfway through Allende's The House of the Spirits, though, and it certainly was time to start talking about this strange and wonderful book.

I was pleasantly surprised in the kids' discussion, though: lots of insightful comments.

The issues were as follows:

* A few kids dominating the discussion.

* Lapses into street talk.

* No contextualization of the quotes used.

Still, not bad for the first time. In fact, I think it was a pretty darn successful lesson, one that could have been much better if the classes were a bit longer (I miss the 90-minute block schedule, especially on days like these).

I used Huff English's Socratic Seminar guide to help set up mine.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

7 years later

September 11th happened in my 2nd week of my teaching career. I remember I hadn't yet received my first paycheck as a teacher.

The news came slowly. I heard an off-hand comment from a skittish woman I worked with that the U.S. had been bombed, but had no idea that it was a big deal until shortly before noon, when the principal came on the PA. He explained, briefly, what was happening, and told us school was out, and that was that. Kids cheered. No one really knew that our world had changed.

I went home to my two roommates, also new teachers, and we sat in a coma of television coverage for hours. I welcomed the fact that school wasn't cancelled the next day; returning to a degree of normalcy was helpful.

I dug up my old blog and checked out my entry I wrote that day. It is not particularly insightful or well-written, but it certainly put me in that moment again. Which is important to do.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Djimon Hounsou as Troy Maxson

One of the challenging aspects of reading through some scenes in Fences in class is finding an appropriate Troy Maxson. I usually play him the first day, so the kids see the level of expression and intensity I'm expecting. But then I try to get a kid to do it, but sometimes it's tough. Troy needs a good reader, because August Wilson's language only comes alive into poetry.

My second period has about five boys in it. I don't necessarily have a problem having a girl read the part, but they have to want to, and they have to have the presence. Instead, they just all begged me to read it again. I relented. But, halfway through the reading, I handed the script to an African kid sitting up front. I knew he got the highest score on the quiz last week, so I figured he was a good reader. I also knew he was kind of shy, but that he was in Drama class, so I thought he would do it.

He was awesome. He has one of the thickest accents of any student I've ever taught, and made me look at the part in a totally different way. It reminded me of having, say, having Djimon Hounsou reading as Troy Maxson, in my classroom.

This year, more than ever, I'm requiring that the kids read the play at home, and analyze it, answer questions, etc, and we're only doing bits and pieces in class. At the end of the reading of it, they'll be put into acting companies and be required to direct and perform scenes. But we're still doing bits and pieces together as a class, and Act I.3 was a definite must-see.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Literature and Baseball and Fences

"See, hitters know where they like the ball when they're hitting. I like the ball on the inside part of the plate, so I can turn quickly on it and pull it down the line," I said, standing at the imaginary home plate in my classroom, with the imaginary bat, facing the imaginery pitcher. "Troy Maxson was also a big guy, though, but he liked the ball up and out over the plate - a fastball on the outside corner was his pitch of choice. That's why he says that 'death ain't nothin' but a fastball on the outside corner' - because it's something he can handle." I gestured with my imaginary bat towards the outside corner of my imaginary home plate.

And with that little moment, you can probably tell why I loved today. I got to talk about literature and baseball all day.

Fences has long been a favorite of mine. The story of a former Negro-League baseball star who was never able to make much of a living at the sport he excelled at, he is now a garbage collector. His son is being recruited to play college football, but he resists, saying and thinking that sports are a white man's game, something that will never bring success. Learn a trade, he says, like fixing cars, and forget about that sports stuff. He hides his pain, his bitterness, and his disappointment behind this protection of his son, but doesn't do a great job of dealing with it: he eventually drives his son away and, later, his wife, with an outrageous act of unfaithfulness, an act that he explains to his wife using baseball metaphors: "... you born with two strikes on you before you come to the plate. You got to guard it closely... always looking for the curve-ball on the inside corner. You can't afford to let none get past you. You can't afford a call strike. If you going down... you going down swinging. Everything lined up against you. What you gonna do. I fooled them, Rose. I bunted. When I found you and Cory and a halfwy decent job... I was safe... Then when I saw that gal.. she firmed up my backbone. And aI got to thinking that if I tried... I just might be able to steal second. Do you understand after eighteen years I wanted to steal second."

There's this motif of baseball linked to tragedy throughout the play. It's not only that Troy Maxson is a classic tragic hero, a protagonist brought down by a tragic flaw, by his own errors in judgement. It's also that he emphasizes this point by constantly mentioning tragic baseball players: Josh Gibson, perhaps the greatest baseball in the history of the game, black or white, is mentioned twice in the first scene. Today, I told the students about how he hit more home runs than Barry Bonds, about how he died at the age of 35 under somewhat mysterious circumstances, just two months before Jackie Robinson broke the color line. Wilson has Troy mention Roberto Clemente in the last scene of Act I. The famous Puerto Rican star died during his playing career in a plane crash. Sandy Koufax, the first Jewish-American baseball star, is also mentioned, and it's pretty clear it's purposeful; Wilson wants us to see baseball as a metaphor for America here, as he's using the sport's racism as a critique of the American dream, and connecting that with tragedy.

I got so into it today. Wearing my Negro Leagues Baseball t-shirt, and gave my "lecture" - one of about five lectures the kids will hear from me all year - by running around the room as much as I could, adding pictures and anecdotes and the aforementioned invisible-batting-stance moment. My principal walked in at one point, and I thought I was in trouble, because he left, and my department head came down about three minutes later. In my head, I imagined him running down to her, and saying something like, "You better get your teacher in line. He's down there talking about baseball, that's it." But, instead, my department head stayed and watched me, and asked if she could video-tape me, to keep the lecture in the archives so she could show it in the future. We agreed that I'd come and be the guest lecturer in her class on Monday instead - an accessible and working video camera in our school school, as if - so that made me feel good.

I was worried that I'd bore the kids with my 15 or 20 minutes of discussing Negro League baseball, and the various baseball allusions in Fences, but several seemed really into it.

But Desharnae, a girl that I've had all of two weeks, was kind of right when she smiled and said, "I see what you tryin' to do... I like it. Using any reason to talk about baseball. I see what you doin'." Yup.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Leading horses to water cuz it's so damn hot

The temperature, which I thought was dropping for the season, hit 89 degrees in my classroom today, and the humidity was pretty stifling as well. I don't remember the heat bothering me so much in the past, but I was feeling so crappy today that I went home early, right after my last class at 2:30. It's not just the heat, I don't think, but also the deadness of the air. It feels musty, nasty, and hot, and it's making me ill.

After class, I attended my first of two re-certification courses that I must take this year before my certification expires in July of 2009. According to state law, I must take two Reading courses, or six credits, every five years to maintain my certification. Unfortunately, none of the courses I took in the Towson MAT Secondary Education program counted (I don't think, at least... no one at the certification office bothered to return my numerous emails). This is my 8th year of teaching, but, luckily, the fact that North Avenue initially lost my Michigan test scores meant I had to re-submit them five years ago when the budget crisis meant my job was on the line. This, in turn, meant that my paperwork was all re-submitted to the state, and I was given a brand new 5-year teacher certificate. It has worked out serendipitiously, but sure did scare the hell out of me at the time.

The class was much different than I expected. From friends, I had heard that the classes generally are under 10 people, and the professors are chill and relaxed. I've heard some really bad things about the course, as well, about professors who come an hour late every class period, about classes where you don't learn one thing. Beggars can't be choosers, though, and one of the solid things our union does is partake a deal with Coppin State University to take these classes for $50/each. Because I've got to do it anyway, I'm trying to keep a positive attitude, and, after the first day, I think my positive attitude paid off. Despite the fact that the class is around 40 people, I think the professor is pretty nice, and the Reading Strategies handout she gave us today was actually pretty interesting. I hope I learn something. I'm already a little bitter that I have the take the classes at all, and that things like my Performance-based Reading Shakespeare course this summer doesn't count, so I'm hoping I get something from it.

The big problem was the setting. It was at the Professional Development Building on Northern Parkway, a building I had not set foot in since the horrible pre-service training I attended there a little more than seven years ago. I thought I remembered the building air-conditioned, but, alas, it wasn't. So, I taught all day in a 90-degree classroom, then sat in a sweltering 1st floor room - with no windows - with forty adults, sweaty from working all day, in a room with two fans that blew around hot air. When I got up after the two hours, my back and chair were soaked with sweat. The professor says she's requesting an air-conditioned room next week, but one wonders why were were placed in that hellhole room to begin with. The classroom - like my own classroom - was noticeably warmer than the outdoor temperature, as well as the hallway temperature.

I don't remember the heat affecting me so much in the past. Perhaps it is a function of age, or perhaps it's because I'm trying too hard to wear ties to school every day. Whatever it is, I'm getting more and more upset about the simple physical conditions of my job. I don't think kids should be forced to learn in 90-100 degree humidity, and don't particularly feel that I should be forced to teach in it. I can't wait for the autumn to really come.

Hopefully this will be my last entry whining about the heat. You knew this entry would be whiny, though, from yesterday's entry about being wore down to start the week. I could have chosen any number of topics to whine about, though... it was one of those days. These are not limited to the following: the honeymoon period ending, with students texting in class and me actually hearing myself give the "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't force him to drink" speech, something I've never actually given until today. Some of these kids need to take a big swig, though. Indeed. At least Fences was fun, and a lot of the kids seem into it.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Starting the week wore down

Tomorrow, I will begin reading Fences with my 9th graders, and pretend I'm not the most tired human being in the world. I might be in bed by 8:30 tonight. And, no, I didn't have a particularly crazy weekend. In fact, not at all. The biggest excitement was going to The Charles to watch Hamlet, and then turning right back around because it was sold out and nothing else was playing at the right time.

Just wore down. Think I'm getting sick. Hopefully a lot of sleep will do me good. Tomorrow, I begin the first of two Coppin State Reading courses for certification renewal, so it's a longer day than usual.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

"We need to... help bad teachers find another line of work!"

Did anyone else notice that McCain's line about bad teachers finding other lines of work got one of the biggest rounds of applause from the audience tonight at the RNC?

I really think that those on the right wing of the political spectrum have an active disdain for teachers, that they think we work from 9 to 3 every day, that there's nothing else to it except figuring out how to spend those three months we get off a year.

I'm not blaming McCain for this - I actually liked the line about getting rid the bad teachers, although it leads to opening cans of worms that generally scare the hell out of me. I mean, I pretty much know who the bad teachers are at my school, or have been, and would love it if they weren't my colleagues anymore. But who determines that? Test scores? Busy administrators with unknown or questionable motives? I haven't heard a good system yet.

But it was the applause that most struck me - a wild, frenzied cheer for teachers to lose their jobs. I just keep trying to imagine if the line was about another profession, like firefighters, or police officers, or soldiers, if the applause would have been anywhere near the same. I mean, obviously you can't have bad soldiers on the ground, right - they endanger the lives of people and the safety of the nation. But any politician would be slammed for attacking them, or attacking police officers, or some other professions. And immediately thereafter McCain brings up the word "accountability," which is a euphemistic buzzword for standardized tests.

No Child Left Behind is a good-intentioned but deeply flawed policy. It's not just flawed because it's unfunded, although that is a major reason; the dumping of so much limited resources into creating, distributing, and scoring standardized tests is one reason, I'm sure, that I have few resources in my classroom (not enough textbooks to send home, technology only if I buy it myself, etc). It's also flawed because it encourages states to make their tests as rudimentary as possible in order to produce Adequate Yearly Progress, because it discourages creative thinking, and because focuses too much attention on the short list of tested courses (English 2, Biology, Government, and Algebra). But I've never quite heard it framed like McCain did tonight; heck, the climax of that portion of the speech was about getting rid of bad teachers. And, gosh, the crowd sure did love it!

Some people in this country really hate teachers.

As it is, though, I'm glad McCain is pouncing on the issue of education. It's been mostly ignored for the entire campaign, and Obama didn't mention it in his brilliant acceptance speech. I criticize No Child Left Behind up and down, but at least it entered education into the national discussion in ways it wasn't before or after. When McCain said that "education is the civil rights issue of this century," it was hard for me not to get goosebumps, because I totally agree with him. Hell, Jonathan Kozol would agree with him.

Of course, my answer for that is to create an amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing equal public education for all, not on more testing "accountability." (And, make no mistake, I have nothing against accountability; I just don't think a standardized test is the end-all and be-all, or anywhere near it.) McCain also favors vouchers, which I oppose, and even campaigned against during my days as a rabble rousing college student in Michigan (but, because I teach at a magnet school, I have some dissonance about this, and think about a lot).

I'm glad that McCain is talking about education, though. I disagree with most of his views about it, but if this issue enters the national conversation again, we might see some change. Writing this, I'm thinking to myself, "Geez, well, last time this happened, yes, people talked about it, but it brought us No Child Left Behind." But I guess I have great faith in an Obama Presidency on the issue of education, and welcome a focus on it in the election.

Early heat dismissal

All teachers and staff received this email today from central office, today at 11:43:

Schools are closing half day today for students due to excessive heat and humidity (exact time varies by school according to the bell schedule). Transportation, food services, and the media have already been notified. Staff are expected to work the full day.

However, WBALTV.com, the website we were clicking over and over again to check on rumors of closing, had reported said decision much sooner than that, at around 11:10am. And they had reported that schools were closing at noon.

Of course, the rumors spread through the building like wildfire. My class of 9th graders meets from 11:35-12:25, and the plan today was the drill, a discussion of Friday's quiz, and then to take a writing benchmark for the last 35-40 minutes of class. I knew I had to bench the benchmark. Then, rumors were swirling about the early departure, so I confirmed it and gave the students 60 seconds to phone home for a ride. Then, I did my miniature 20-minute lesson, and waited for the dismissal.

No one really knew what was going on, and I looked down the hall, and all the teachers were standing by their doors, just sort of waiting. The hall monitors didn't know. The department head didn't know. Later, we learned (after we checked the email, which was much after we had seen the report on the WBALTV website) that the schools were on a staggered release schedule, and ours was one of the last. We were dismissed at 12:25, and not before my 8/9th period class had reported from lunch, meaning there were about 60 kids (two classes) in my room. They had cleared the cafeteria because they didn't want to dismiss from there, and made them go to their next period's class, even though there were still classes in there. Weird stuff.

It was a chaotic twenty minutes, but I enjoyed just talking with the kids around the room. I made them get out their flash cards to study after I realized the noon dismissal wouldn't happen, but the kids were kind of gone by then.

I'm very thankful for the dismissal. I was already starting to feel pretty horrible again. I'm pretty sure I have a heat rash on my forehead from constantly wiping myself with a sweat towel, and yesterday's lightheadedness downright scared me. I didn't mind having to stay; we actually did our monthly faculty meeting in the time slot in the afternoon, and we did it in the air-conditioned auditorium. Pleasant all around.

I guess the heat is going down tomorrow. Thank goodness.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Boiling at Back to School Night

One thing I've added to my teaching arsenal this year is a... sweat towel.

Seriously. I now bring a sweat towel into work so that I don't drip on kids when I'm standing over them. It can get real hot up there.

Today, though, might have been the worst day ever. The temperature in my classroom hit 96, and that's not even factoring in the humidity. I also wore a fairly nice dress shirt today, because it was Back to School night, so that made me even hotter. I was pretty miserable all day, feeling light-headed at times and just uncomfortable at others. Water was at a premium and it wasn't particularly cold when it was available.

As soon as my 10th period left, I stripped down to an undershirt and put my head down on my desk. I still had several hours to go - I left the school at around 8 o'clock - and knew that I needed to keep my shirt as fresh as possible for the parents. I also had to run across the city to the Baltimore Teachers' Union to register for my silly re-certification classes in the interim.

I did make it back in time, and had an okay time talking to the parents. I wasn't lying when I told them it was one of my favorite days of the year; I really like interacting with parents. I'm already becoming attached to a few students, and seeing from where they come - quickly and informally - adds to the narrative I write about them in my head. I also was very truthful with some of the cheesy things that I said, things like, "The students at this school inspire me every day," a line that I heard coming out of my mouth about five times tonight to the five different groups of parents I talked to, but, nonetheless, was true. Another little gem of fortune cookie filler was, "My expectations are very high, but my hopes are even higher." Yes, I actually said this, without a touch of irony. Ha! I'm the cheesiest teacher in the world.

A couple things that struck me:

1. Did a mother really let her son text throughout my entire ten-minute presentation? Really?

2. I'm so glad I don't teach elementary. Little siblings running around through much of the night... ugh.

I felt worse and worse as the heat remained and the day wore out. At the end of it all, a colleague came up to me and said, "Oh my god, (Epiph), I have never, ever seen you so red." That was my hint to get out of there. I came home, stripped, took a cold shower, drank about a gallon of ice water, and am starting to feel normalized. Tomorrow, it's supposed to go up to 94. I'm wearing a loose, moisture-free polo golf shirt. Hopefully, the day is a little easier to get through.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Hey, not so fast...

The three day weekend ended with a start today, as I just returned home well after 8:30pm, after attending a meeting that I thought was a SIT meeting but instead was something else entirely.

Tomorrow is Back to School night, so it will be another late night. I'm doing my best to make it to the gym every morning before school - so far I haven't missed a morning since August 6th (during summer bridge) - so with my alarm clock going off a little before 5am, it makes it a nice 15 or 16 hour day.

With the 9th grade, it was one of those lessons that would have worked perfectly in a 60-minute class, but felt a little rushed at 50-minute. My design was probably a little top heavy, and I needed more time with the assessment portion of the lesson - that means I'll need to spend more time than intended going over their homework tomorrow. It was one of those assignments that I ended up having only five minutes to explain and could have used ten or fifteen, and would have liked to have them get a good start on it at the end of class. Every single class period, I seemed to work out the timing just a moment quicker, but something else happened to throw me off - a phone call from the office, a lack of understanding with the drill, etc. Usually I can make it work great by the 4th time, but, today, I ended up at the same frenzied pace for nearly every period.

Today's basic lesson:

I. Grammar lesson - 5 minutes (will be less most classes, but it's the first week of Daily Grammar Practice)

II. Introduction to literary concepts of Imagery (the five types), Figurative Language (the most prominent three types), and Parallelism (I wasn't going to do this, but the piece we used - Cisneros' vignette about little girl's grandfather dying and her comforting her dad about it - features it prominently) - 10 minutes

III. "Find these things in the passage independently" - 5 minutes

IV. Discuss - 10 minutes

V. Take notes on writing an "Observation/Effect" thesis statement, construct one for passage - 10 minutes

VI. Pass out homework, go over it, start doing it - 5 minutes

That's only 45 minutes, giving me about 5 minutes to play around with... but every class seemed to soak up more minutes in one area or another. I have to be a little less regimented tomorrow. There was so damn much stuff I tried to cover, and it might have been too much.

The tone of tomorrow's lesson needs to be more reflective, and less about getting through the material and instead focused on the actual understanding of the material.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Wu Tang bringing the ruckus to 6/7th period

One of the things in the new school year that is really leaving me bemused is the different personalities my 9th grade classes are taking on. I teach four of them, and 1st, 2nd, and 10th periods are all the same so far: quiet, to the point of nearly having to pull teeth to get them to raise their hands. However, period 6/7 is a completely different story: the kids are chatty and the class is loud. I even had to threaten detention on Friday, a day I really didn't want to host detention after school. I haven't treated this class any differently than the others. My standards are strict and consistent. Yet, this class has been pushing my limits all week. Strange.

It probably has a lot to do with the young man who said his name was "Wu Tang" during Summer Bridge. He's brimming with personality and humor and he's always talking (often to himself). I like him a lot, and I can tell that he's testing me every moment of every class period. He will do or say something and look to me for approval or disapproval. Unfortunately for me, he makes me laugh sometimes, so occasionally I fail the test. I think he wants to do well, though, and I'll use his earnestness to my advantage throughout the school year. He also wants to play baseball in the spring, so that should help as well.

Wu Tang is not the only reason the class' personality is totally different than the others. There's also the kid up front who alternates between sleeping and chatting incessantly with the girl next to him. And the bouncy little girl who asked to change seats on the first day because she couldn't see the board, but now I think it was so she could sit next to her friends. Lots of personalities. And just at the perfect time for the blood sugar from lunch to start kicking in. I'll either crash and burn with this class or be envigorated by their energy every day. Probably a little of both.