Saturday, November 29, 2008

Teaching Tasks for the Weekend

I have had a mostly fun and relaxing weekend so far, so much so that I feel the need to make myself a list of teaching tasks to complete before Monday.

1. Create a week of lesson plans for the 9th graders, especially since I'll be out Wednesday (jury duty) and Friday (a conference)

2. Create a week of lesson plans for the 11th graders, especially since I'll be out Wednesday (jury duty) and Friday (a conference)

3. Write six (three are due on Dec. 1, the other three by Jan. 1) letters of recommendation.

4. Finish The Unbearable Lightness of Being and write a quiz for Monday.

5. Run to Red Canoe and pick up my 100 copies of To Kill a Mockingbird

6. Complete my Directed Reading activity for my Reading course, due on Monday. I could probably just do something really easy and move on with it, but I'm doing King Lear.

7. Write my King Lear unit (starting in about a week, so can put that off).

8. Figure out the website. I really want my 9th graders to be doing some of the technology-driven things that my juniors do, but I don't think the site is the best place to do it on. I need to experiment with more sites that aren't blocked at school (I do most of my thinking and planning at home, though, so it's hard to know what is blocked and what is not blocked.)

Not bad.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving, finally, has arrived

Thanksgiving has finally arrived, and not a moment too soon.

Sickness has spread around the school like wildfire. The woman who teaches right next door to me got so badly sick and dehydrated that she was hospitalized on Tuesday. Kids are sick all over the place. And I left during my last-period-planning-period twice in the three days, as I felt pretty crappy myself.

My school was brilliant in making Thanksgiving arrive more quickly. They scheduled a fire drill for 2:55 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, fifteen minutes before our actual dismissal, and then just sent the kids away from that. Worked out perfectly.

I still have no idea why Baltimore City Public Schools feels the need to have us work a full day on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and to keep us in school right up until the last day possible before Christmas. Days of instruction are lost to the pre-vacation flutter (only three-fourths of the kids attend school, if that, and the hall-walking is rampant), and sometimes violence erupts as teachers from out of town take off early. I don't do that; I resign myself to the fact that I simply can't spend Thanksgiving with my family. But I sure wish our schedule would be changed up a little. Sending us to school on Monday, Dec. 22, and Tuesday, Dec. 23, really strikes me as just mean, and not very good for the kids. Ditto the day before Thanksgiving, when nearly every other school in the area has either off or has truncated into a half-day. I'd much prefer to work longer into the school year and have more breaks throughout than jam-packing it all into as few days as possible.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Deleterious is the vocab word of the day

I entered my classroom prepared for the worst, but apparently the leak has been fixed. I say "apparently" because the fixers left their ladder in the middle of the floor and didn't clean up anything, so the room itself looked terrible - broken tiles everywhere with grime and sand (where does that come from?) across the floor. The heaters still don't work so I allowed hats, coats, and gloves today in the room - at least for first period, before I decided to take all my classes down to the library.

I put a sign on the door saying Due to the deleterious conditions of the classroom, all Mr. _______'s classes will meet in the library today. You know, never miss an opportunity to teach a new vocab word!

As for my classes, they went wonderfully, after first period. I'm trying Recriprocal Reading, something I researched a bit for one of my Reading classes this fall (I'm not ready to give the classes any credit, though, so don't think I'm going there - tonight was my 2nd to last meeting for one of the classes and it will be so nice not to waste three hours of my life every week after next Monday). I put them in groups of three, and had them read The Odyssey stanza by stanza. One kid was the reader and questioner, one kid was the summarizer and dictionary look-upper, and one kid was the literary analyst and device finder. Hopefully, in a couple of days, I can wean them off the small groups to having them read it independently. I had a few whines of "I can't read this, I don't understand anything" once they realized we weren't going to do the whole-class-reads-and-I-and-the-smarter-kids explain thing, but they got it eventually. The Fagles translation is very modern so there really is no excuse not to comprehend it as they are reading.

As for my Juniors, I'm steadily making my way through the essays. Somehow I have 15 left but, of those 15, I've started graded all of them. I just can't seem to stick with one bad essay more than a page or so before moving onto the next one. I have the patience of a saint but these try my patience. It's hard not to take the bad, sloppy writing personally. I mean, remember Ace of Base? That band back in the early 1990s, which had lyrics that seemed like they were translated from a different language by someone who really didn't know English very well? That's what the students' essays remind me of - bad translations. There is no fluidity and not much logic, and it's so disappointing. They have no voices. I can understand what they say when they talk to me, as there is a logical progression of ideas. Why is it so much harder with the writing? I know part of it is something I've certainly been guilty of before - peppering an essay I really didn't want to write with enough obtuse BS so hopefully the professor didn't read it too closely. That, I am sure, is part of it - they just don't know how to write about literature very well and try to get themselves up to the minimum word count by writing purposefully in circles. At other times, though, I'm mystified. My favorite comment to write on these papers is one that I cannot write, but only think in my head: "WTF?".

On the positive side of things, several students improved dramatically, and I gave my first grade over an 80. But there are several grades below a 50. I just have to remain faithful that they all will become decent writers by the end of the year, and figure out (more) ways to help them.

Another main weakness is the lack of devices. IB requires students to examine the effect of literary devices, and our students are unprepared to discuss devices as much as they should. I spent a good chunk of the weekend creating a document that listed a number of devices that will make it easier to discuss Unbearable Lightness of Being, and today we did an activity surrounding that. Hopefully that helps the next set of essays. It was good for me, too, to research the difference between all those terms dealing with dualism and opposition: antithesis, juxtaposition, dichotomy, foils, oxymoron, paradox, etc.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Leak

I'm still without the Internet at home, but am enjoying the wireless at Evergreen right now as I prepare to get through my stack of IB essays so I can return them tomorrow.

I realized that I missed the big news of last week: that my classroom is a huge mess.

I love my job, but teaching in a very old, crowded building definitely has its detriments. For about a year and a half, I have had a slow leak in a corner of my classroom. I reported it right away, and folks from North Avenue have looked at it a number of times over the last year and a half, but nothing has been done. When part of the ceiling crashed on a student last year in the middle of class, they came and looked at it again; I believe that at that point, they tried to duct tape the pipe to prevent it from leaking. It was also at that point that they moved some shelving from that corner and noticed a ton of mold/fungus/mushroom-type things growing on the ground - not very hygienic! Our building manager bemoans the fact that they were (almost literally) putting a band-aid on the problem instead of really fixing it, but apparently there were budget issues preventing more.

This year, I thought the leak had been fixed over the summer, as the first few weeks of the school year were dry. I even put my Free Book Library in that corner. I was saddened one day when the leak popped back up, destroying lots of free books carefully culled from weeks of going to The Book Thing. I also had to pitch the bookshelf that I purchased and built from IKEA, another $50 down the drain. I was pissed off, but didn't know who to be pissed off at. I just told my building manager, raided the janitor's closet for a mop bucket to catch more of the leaking, and re-arranged my seating chart so no kids were sitting near it. A couple of weeks ago, in an attempt to add some humor to the situation, I started putting my plants under the leak, so they would get water.

This week, though, it got much worse. I think the Biology class above me must have used the sinks much more this week, as they did frog dissection, because the leak quadrupled in size. On Take Your Parents to School Day, the school put a huge bin to catch all the water, and it got halfway full overnight, and I taught with the constant din of a surprisingly loud "kerplunk" as my soundtrack. Then, another leak, totally independent of the first, on Thursday started coming from the radiators, which were not working at all on Friday - meaning my classroom was soaking wet and freezing. I ended up with a huge icy lake in the middle of my floor, plus a huge bin of water in the corner.

I ended up teaching in the library all afternoon, and am sort of planning on having to continue being there until Thanksgiving. They tell me they're going to be working on the leaks all throughout the weekend, but I've heard that before. We'll see what happens.

I've over being mad. I just want a new classroom; I have no faith at all that this will really be fixed.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Weekly update

A surge, or something, killed our internet at home last weekend, so I've been without internet access for a while. We're still waiting for the replacement - I have my fingers crossed it comes in the mail today, so I can plan my lessons for Monday without heading again to the library (where I am now) - but, until then, blogging will, of course, be limited.

News from the week:

* a charismatic former student I taught as a 10th grader was arrested for armed robbery in the county. He's a senior and has been suspended from school for 45 days. It sucks.

* On the other hand, another famously prolific hall-walker, also in the senior class, shaved off his braids on Thursday night. It was the talk of the school on Friday. He came in a dress shirt and slacks. He credited Barack Obama for the change, for a new his desire to live up to more than what he seemed destined for.

* Very teacher-centered week with the 9th graders, as we get through a few sections of The Odyssey. I hate that. Have to plan some lessons that get my students figuring out things on their own more.

* Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I was dreading teaching for months (it was my colleague's selection) and could barely make it through when I read it in the summer, has been a magnificent teach. The kids are really into it and the book is perfectly suited for IB English. I'm also finding myself loving the book on re-read. Strange, but good.

* I am busily planning my King Lear unit. That was sort of the compromise - I got Lear if she got Unbearable. My students are different from what I was expecting when I planned the curriculum, but I still think it will work. I am nervous because I have built it up in my head. We studied Lear closely this summer at the Folger TSI, so I want it to go well. My big goal is to get the kids to really like it, even love it.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Baltimore City High School Fair

I ended up helping to staff the table for our school at the Baltimore City High School Fair. I had no idea what to expect, a fact that became very apparent when I showed up in a shirt and tie to a large room that was probably 80-90 degrees. Everyone else was in t-shirts.

I talked our talk for hours, and it was a really great experience - lots of wide-eyed 8th graders checking out which high school to go to. During breaks, I walked around and checked out the other high schools, and, wow, there sure are some neat, innovative high schools in the BCPSS. The "small schools" and charter movement seems to have brought with it lots of great opportunities for the students, and it made me happy to be part of the system.

I talked so much that now I'm hoarse, though. You'd think my vocal chords were in better shape after all the talking I do during the school day. I guess raising my voice over the din of the swarms of people (it was really crowded) did it.

On another pleasant note, I shook Dr. Alonso's hand for the first time.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Busy Week

It's been a really busy week. I left school a short time ago, after open house, which is when prospective 8th grade students come in and see demonstrations by the kids and teachers. It's fun - I showed the film of Kiss of the Spider Woman for extra credit for my Juniors between 3:30 and 5:30 beforehand - but it makes for a long day.

It seems all of my other non-teaching hours this week have been soaked up by these ridiculous certification courses I am forced to take. Luckily, they are almost over.

Report cards came out today. I would not be surprised if I have the highest failure rate in the school. It's not on purpose, but my expectations are high and I find that rigidity in the first quarter is important for maintaining a very consistent policy throughout the year. It'll lighten up as the year goes on. I feel like I teach two very high-learning curve years, and the first quarter is a tough one. They'll come around.

Tomorrow is professional development day. We've got a very full schedule. Still, it should be good.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Custody issues and e-mail

The strangest thing has happened to me this year, now a couple of times.

Parents can e-mail me from the school's website, and do from time to time. I'm a big parent e-mailer myself, often jotting off quick "_______ didn't do his homework last night" e-mails to concerned (or even unconcerned) parents.

Twice this year, two different parents have emailed me to ask about the progress of a student. I, of course, promptly reply. And in both of these instances, I get a somewhat angry or concerned email or message from the opposite parent, saying I had no business e-mailing the parent who inquired because that parent does not have custody.

I have no desire to get in the middle of family disputes, and want only what is best for the youngster. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to take the second parents' word in both cases that I shouldn't contact the other one, or if I'm supposed to ask for some sort of proof. I want to get as little involved as possible, but I also want to contact the person who is going to affect change. In the first case, for example, I had been totally unsuccessful contacting the first parent and it wasn't until I contacted the second parent - who obviously went back to the first parent with some sort of a "Why aren't you making _____ do any homework?" accusation - that I got any response from that parent at all. Still, if I'm not legally supposed to share information about grades because of custody issues, I'm obviously not going to do that.

This is something I've never dealt with before as a teacher. I think it's mostly a product of having public e-mail addresses for the first time in my 8-year career. I'm going to have to ask a few folks on this one...

Friday, November 7, 2008

Because I like to use the internet to spread probably ludicrous rumors...

A small buzz around the school towards the end of this week?

That Dr. Andres Alonso is on President-Elect Obama's short list to be Secretary of Education.




As far as my opinion goes, the jury is still out on Dr. Alonso, but I sure hope he sticks around to see what he can accomplish here.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Busy times

Despite the day off on Tuesday (which, to be fair, was such an emotional rollercoaster that it wasn't exactly relaxing), I've been exhausted all week. Now that I sit down at the end of the day, though, it's not hard to see why. This is what I've got going on this week:

1. Grades due on Friday. Thankfully, they didn't give us a time they are due. Hopefully 3:30 will be just fine.

2. Outward Bound, which I organized but am sadly not participating in, is on Friday. I've ran applications over to the facility, organized a school meeting with the instructors, called parents, and, tomorrow, I'm carpooling nine kids over during my first period class, assuming I get a little bit of coverage.

3. We're trying to plan a unit together with the Social Studies department. I've become the point person on the English side, and the point person on the Social Studies side just had a baby, so it's a bit of a mess. The unit is supposed to start Monday. I was called this evening about having an emergency meeting with the guy whose wife had a baby and all the rest of the Social Studies teachers at 7:55am tomorrow morning. It should be a really cool thing when it happens (they're teaching the cultural aspects of the epic, we're teaching the literary aspects), but it's taking some work.

4. I'm trying to finish up Romeo and Juliet so I can move on the The Odyssey. It means really tight, a little bit rished lessons. I prefer slow and steady.

5. Classes all across the city for my required Reading courses. I'm getting home after 8pm most night.

So, yeah, exhausted. I'm glad it's Friday tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Teaching in an Obama world

Pretty amazing being in school today with students so excited about national politics.

I didn't do anything different, except briefly ask students if they watched all the returns. Most did, some shared stories about crying or moms or grandmothers crying, some wore buttons or t-shirts. We talked for a while about witnessing history and going to see the inaugeration, about high expectations for Obama and the fact that now he has to meet those expectations, and then moved back to Romeo and Juliet.

I hope I can organize some sort of trip down to see the inaugeration. Could be easy - just jump on the MARC train and head down. It's probably going to be a big mess down there, but if I'm not driving and each adult is only responsible for a few kids, then it could work. I would even consider taking a personal day so I can do something like that; otherwise, I'm guessing too many other teachers would want to do it and substitutes would be an issue.

As a citizen, I've never voted for a politician before that I really trust to make sound decisions regardless of the situation. I've never voted for anyone whose thoughtfulness and reflectiveness, combined with his knowledge of the Constitution and communities and education, make me excited about the direction of the nation and its people, even as times darken around us. For those reasons, I'm thrilled at the victory of President-elect Obama.

However, as a teacher, my support has a different tint. From a policy standpoint, I expect a smarter No Child Left Behind, and am excited about the ideas about service in education that I have heard from Obama. However, the real excitement comes from a more subjective view - I teach primarily African-American students, and they are students who have often been beaten down by life. Most are below the poverty line. Many do not have stable home lives. And while most will be first-generation college students, the vast majority don't understand the connection between hard work now and future earnings later, and most just don't see education as the path to upward mobility that they should. The pull of the violent streets, or the pull of having a child young like their mother and grandmother before them, and the pull of instantaneous easy money all tug at them insistently. Seeing Barack Obama, a brilliant, bi-partisan and inclusive politician, ascend to the Presidency from humble beginnings, through grit and determination and inclusiveness and hard work, can give them a sense of hope that they might not have had before. They no longer have the excuse that they shouldn't try hard because society won't let them succeed anyway; rather, they see that hard work is a mandatory part of success, and that anything is possible.

Now, Barack, you can't let us, or them, down.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Wouldn't it be funny if a teacher thought it was Pajama Day at school when it really wasn't?

It's Homecoming Week.

As such, we have theme days every day. I try to show school spirit and participate. Last week, I saw the flier, and immediately registered the fact that Pajama Day was Monday. This is always one of my favorite days, because it's so darn comfortable to wear sleep pants to school! So I did, as I have for the last eight years.


I sort of realized as I drove up the parking lot that none of the kids were in pajamas. Hmmm, I thought. That's weird. Maybe just not that much spirit this year. Or maybe the advertising hadn't worked out.

But, it was Support Your Candidate Day, a day to wear political gear.

Oops. Kids gave me weird looks all day. I had to explain myself a hundred times. It was really funny. Totally a thing I would do, too. It was a long silly day, one in which I laughed at myself a lot.

It would be all in fun, except my Department Head was apparently "reprimanded" this afternoon about it. I hope she was kidding about that... my lesson today was tip-top and I literally had 9th graders that didn't want to leave when the bell rang. Yet, that's what I hear in the afternoon... ugh...

Apparently my science teacher friend did the same thing, and I saw a kid or two that made the same mistake. We just didn't get the message that it had changed (in fact, they're scrapping Pajama Day totally, for fear of girls wearing lingerie).

No school tomorrow, for Election Day. For the first time in my life, I'll be voting for a candidate with hardly any cynicism at all.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Slots, again...

I'm about 55-45 on the no side. But still open-minded.

Here is a miniature discussion with both sides commenting, over on the Inside Ed blog.

I've spent a lot of the last week talking to friends and colleagues about the issue. Here is a summary of what I have found:

Arguments in favor of slots:

1. The funds will go to education, which really needs it.

2. Even if the funds are diverted from education and used to patch other holes, the state is in a huge deficit and needs the money.

3. Concerned with taxing a "sin" - why aren't you concerned with alcohol or cigarettes being taxed? The state already makes a whole lot of money on "morality" taxes.

4. The people who would be gambling are already going to other states to do it, so all that tax money is filling other states' coffers.

5. We acknowledge that it's not ideal, but it's the only thing on the table in terms of bringing any new revenue into the state without raising more taxes on everyone. Without them, there will be draconian cuts to education and other state entities.

6. Sheila Dixon, who somehow has managed to put me strongly in her corner after her decent-so-far tenure as mayor, says that property taxes will dramatically decrease from the revenue of slots.

7. My environmentalist friend tells me that he figures if slots pass, that the horse tracks will be more successful, meaning they'll stay open instead of being bulldozed in favor of development.

Arguments Against Slots:

1. According to Adam Meisner, the language of the proposed law does not guarantee new money for schools, which likely would not get an increase in funding at all. He also discusses a scenario where slots operators realize that with the current tax structure, that they cannot even build or operate the slots without a tax break from the state, and that the said tax break will come out of the pockets of the schools.

2. Public perception - Few go beyond "we passed slots for education," but what if the education budget remains static, or even decreases, despite the passage? I mean, we are headed for dark economic times and this is perhaps even likely. Then, next time teachers or education advocates look to Annapolis for more money, they'll say, "Well, we already gave you slots. What more do you want?"

3. It's taxing the poorest and most vulnerable in society. The poor get poorer...

4. Gambling and all the addiction and pain that can come with it can be detrimental to society, and this is a government-funded addiction possibility.

5. They're advertising as pro-teacher. Is there any evidence that this is a pro-teacher plan? The teachers I speak with are about evenly split. I also was really put off by a misleading flier that attempted to connect Obama to the anti-slots movement.

6. Detroit did the same thing years ago with slots. Funding for education has decreased (because, although money does fill up the education fund, the education fund has been cut) and crime/addiction have increased. I've heard from Baltimore Diary that the same thing happened in New York.

7. That slots simply bail out bad legislators who should have left plenty for the education budget without relying on this source of revenue to work within a budget.

I'm still capable of being able to be convinced either way. Most of my teacher colleagues are similarly up in the air, while others are vehemently in support (one did canvassing for slots (he posted this on my facebook: "From where I sit, including not having enough books again and having new students added WEEKS into the year PURELY for money reasons, I have to ask 'where is the money going to come from?' Think about how forthcoming people and politicians outside of Baltimore have not been sending money our way, even with a court order. I understand that the numbers thrown out there in support may not be entirely accurate, especially with the economy headed down the shiesshaus, but it will bring in something, some of which has been leaving the state already. Now ask yourself: If the slots issue is not passed, where will ANY of the money needed to pick up the short fall come from? As Ms. ________ said to me, 'We shouldn't HAVE to do this!' But I see no other option at this point in time, nor anyone even proposing an alternative other than letting the kids' education, particularly that of the ones in Baltimore, rot") or vehemently against (a colleague told me that addiction is already the biggest problem in Baltimore and this is just something that makes it much worse, and doesn't trust that schools will see any of the money).

Still don't know what to do. I'll be thinking long and hard for the next 36 hours on this. (I can't believe I'm an undecided voter on this issue.)

National Board Certification and Letters of Recommendation

1. It's official: I'm in for National Board Certification. I'm just doing Take One! this year.

2. I taught the Class of 2009 as 9th graders, 10th grades, and 11th graders, and, because of this, I'm writing a lot of letters of recommendation this time of year. I don't mind it, as I kind of like writing them, but they get harder and harder to make sound original as the year goes on. (That's one reason I really like writing them for my baseball players, because they end up being really different.) My most interesting dilemma this year was a young woman who asked me to write her one. I taught her for three years in a row; she didn't impress me with her work ethic last year, and, this year, her mother called me a "lying snake in the grass" because she received a failing grade in the 4th quarter. Still, she impressed me through much of her three years with me, and I'm not going visit the sins of the mother on the daughter, no matter how ridiculous her accusations are. Hers will be an interesting one to write. I try to write one every two days, because, last year, I ended up writing so many during Christmas vacation and that sucks; the deadline for most is Jan. 1. When the kids hand me the letter, I want them to give me a deadline, so that I start working on it quicker. I'm glad for Howard University, which had a Nov. 1 deadline, so I got that out in the mail yesterday and was able to scratch another one off my list.

3. Next week has to be very tight, because I have to finish Romeo and Juliet. I'm taking out a page from both Carol Jago and the Folger, realizing that it's not that the kids know every single plot detail from the play, but rather attain the skills. I'm just sort of assigning Act 4 and Act 5 as homework reading assignments while we continue to do cool things in class. We'll see how it goes. It's a truncated week, with Election Day on Tuesday (no school) and Homecoming Week culminating in the big pep rally on Friday (which will not be a totally academic day).

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Halloween as Romeo

Two years ago it was To Kill a Mockingbird, and I played Jem Finch.

Last year, it was The Odyssey, and I played Polyphemus.

This year, for Halloween, the English Department all went as Romeo and Juliet. We had 15 roles spread out, and did scenes around the building all day. The costumes were hard - all the Montagues and Capulets wore opposing colors, and I basically just put a bunch of sayings on my shirt like "Fate Sucks" and "Sprung" - but it was a very active and fun day. We ran all around, deciding when and where to do random scenes. We performed the balcony scene between classes as kids filed around me on my knees. The Mercutio/Tybalt death scene caused all the security guards to run up to the floor, thinking it was real. The Lord Capulet and Juliet monologue also caused a big stir.

A whole hell of a lot of fun. Also the first time I've wore jeans in my career (I just thought Romeo wouldn't wear khakis... I know it seems like I must be super formal for not ever wearing jeans, but I just plain old never wear jeans anyway, so even on dress-down Fridays I wear khakis and a school-related t-shirt).