Tuesday, December 23, 2008

How the Grinch stole Christmas with a dumb schedule

I survived 2008 in school, all without holding a holiday party in my class.

Someday, I'd like to figure out why BCPSS decides to conduct a 2-day week. I realize that a few other counties in the area do it as well, but, wow, is it ever dumb. When I went to IB Training last week, with teachers from around the country, BCPSS was the only school represented that did not dismiss on Friday, Dec. 19.

This isn't a teacher who wants less work (indeed, I'm a proponent of yearlong school). After all, these are easy days, because so few kids show up. They're just wasted days. It's such a bummer that we are allotted only 180 days of instruction and BCPSS, through an unfortunate calendar decision, decides to make two days so inconsequential. Simply put, it's bad for the kids.

Having to drive 13 hours on Christmas Eve in order to make it home for Christmas kind of sucks, too.

That all being said, the school year has been pretty terrific. Instruction feels aligned and organized, and the kids have been mostly great. I need this break, though. Woah.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


I know I've been having a 9th grade love-in lately, and it's true: I really like freshman, especially when I'm in the middle of a really great unit. But another reason I love it is because I can have conversations like this:

Student: How come like every book we read, the movie comes on tv like all the time whenever we're reading it?

Me: Oh, it's because I call up Comcast and ask them to play the movies to match our curriculum. It helps them with ratings and they send me a check every month.

Student: Really! Cool! How much do you get? Can we have a pizza party?

They're so easy. Unfortunately I can't keep a straight face very long around them for long.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Getting grades up

My excitement for the upcoming baseball coaching season started a little bit earlier this year. After losing two key players in the middle of the season last year due to grades, I decided to start early on my players this year. I pulled several kids' report cards a couple of weeks ago.

Unfortunately, early ended up being not early enough. I was shocked to see my best player (best pitcher, best catcher, my best hitter who hits #3), a senior who has a pretty decent chance of playing college ball somewhere, had failed three classes in the first semester, and three of his other classes were borderline. He's never been a bad student before, but (he says) he was suspended this fall for some sort of weird fight involving eggs (I don't know) and he never really caught up from the work. A regular B-/C student for most of his high school career - and it's not that hard to maintain those grades in high school - he didn't put for the effort required to catch up, and ended up failing way too many classes.

I like the kid a lot and I'm determined to help him get those grades up, and that means walking around and talking to his teachers a lot about his progress. It means calling him up on Friday nights to double check that he's studying. It means making him report progress to me every day. It means making him go to Coach Class every day, and making him get as much face time with all these teachers as he can. That way, if he's borderline, they'll be more likely to lean one way and not the other. One course he is failing is Honors Japanese I, a class he was randomly placed in as a Senior with no previous experience. He thinks he can't catch up in there because he missed so much class time and missed so many of the formative Japanese language tools that he was supposed to get early. I talked with the teacher, though, and hopefully the constant Coach Classes will help him catch up. Thankfully, the teacher is from Japan, where baseball is a way of life, and he loooves baseball. Maybe that will help him want to help the kid more.

I'm worried about a couple of other kids, too, and have been following them around like a specter lately. Their numbers are programmed into my phone and I will be checking on them throughout the winter break.

I kind of hate being that guy, the coach worried about his kids because of grades. And it's not because I want to win - I just know what it feels like to not play sports your senior year, and how that is something that can really be a regret for a very long time. I did it for a job, not grades, but it was still there, and I regret it. Plus, this crop of kids has a chance to play college ball and to use sports to get scholarships into college - something that last happened two years ago - but only if they're playing.

We'll see how it goes. Next year, I start even earlier. I'm still trying to work out how I'm going to help them maintain their grades during the season. I guess probably daily study hall with starting practice later than usual.

Leading up to break

School couldn't be going better right now. First of all, I'm teaching To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time in a few years. Last year, it was made summer reading, which was a bad move because so many kids just don't do their summer reading. The year before, I taught 10th grade, so it wasn't part of the curriculum. So now we're eight chapters into Mockingbird and I'm reminded how it feels to teach this book. I wrote perhaps my best unit plan ever - the MYP Unit Planner helps with that - so everything is focused on that question of why and how people grow up, and who guides them along the way. The students are really engaged, so much so that yesterday, after I was told I was "the only teacher who is making us do anything today," there was only a few seconds of grumbling before we got right back into the discussions we've been having.

I don't quite believe the kids about what they told me, but yesterday was the Holiday Assembly. It's partly my favorite day of the year, because the assembly itself is just so wonderful - the choir is amazing and gave a typically awesome performance, complete with a really goofy "12 Days of Christmas" and my favorite song (I have to hear it every year) "We Need a Little Christmas". A couple of former students of mine collaborated on a rap that sounded so good that it felt like it could be the radio, the Step Club was really cool, and even the artsy dance troupe was moving.

In the old days, it used to be the last day before the holiday break, so it was a great way to send all the kids off. Now, they're worried about attendance on that day, so they made it on three days before we leave for the holiday. That's annoying, which is why it's only partly my favorite day of the year. Regardless, I will corrall all those kids into my classroom on Monday and Tuesday and teach them; there is no time to waste on holiday parties.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

First Socratic Seminar of the Year (9th grade)

The week has gotten better. I attempted my first Socratic Seminar of the year with my 9th graders. I started small - 10 kids on the inside, using the passage when Scout comes home from school all upset and Atticus makes the compromise with her and tells her to walk around in other people's skin.

It went really well. Even my squirrelly 6/7th period did alright. My 2nd period was dynamic; that class might be one for the ages. Unfortunately, one of the stars of the class, and one of the stars of the seminar, got in a big old fight right after class in the cafeteria. Sigh... She's suspended until the new year. She's definitely one of my projects this year, a girl with a blazing intelligence and desire to do well in the classroom, but you can see a pull tugging on her, you can see it tattooed on her forearm with a tattoo that her mother just let her get (yes, I'm judging - that's not something a 14-year old should have), and you can see it in actions like this.

Cheering me up from that was a message sitting in my inbox tonight: Mr.______, i LOVE open discussion. I like taking my thoughts of the paper and putting them into a educated statement. It's so fun, and i think you can see that my classmates and I understand more! I'm so enthralled by it. Can we do that more often?:)

Awwww. And this girl is no teacher's pet, either - failed first quarter, currently failing 2nd quarter. Yup, I'm going to bed happy.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Arne Duncan named Secretary of Education

Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan apparently will be named Secretary of Education by President-Elect Obama.

I couldn't be happier. I've had my eye on this guy for years, particularly because the Chicago Public Schools has really done some innovative things, particularly his use of The International Baccalaureate as a way to increase student achievement in urban schools. He's done great things in Chicago. If I were ever to leave Baltimore City Public Schools, it's Chicago Public Schools where I would probably look first, for the things I've heard this guy implementing in that system. From the outside, it's not Michelle Rhee-style union-busting and scare tactics, but a real commitment to teacher and learning quality.

This is, of course, just my perception from 700 miles away, so I reserve the right to be wrong. But, seriously, the guy has impressed me for years. He seems to be a real reformer, and parent groups and unions have both given him praise. He could be too much of a testing guy, but I don't think NCLB will be as bad as it is now under him. We'll see, I guess.

Read Joanne Jacobs' Blog on the selection.

Here he is, testifying before Congress:

"For the love of God, does anybody else need a copy of this handout?"

Is it the Christmas break yet? No? Would you mind telling my students that?

Yep, it was a long day, my throat hurts, and I actually used the following sentence, "For the love of God, does anybody else need a copy of this handout?" because, well, they just weren't listening. That's a career-first phrase, though.

I can't believe we go all the way through next Tuesday. Thank goodness that tomorrow is quiz day. I'm writing it tonight and think I'm going to make it extra long to increase the time it will be quiet in my room.

I'll we'll all be back on our A-games tomorrow. Part of it, I'm sure, is my general exhaustion - a three-day conference (which did end up getting better) over the weekend meant no weekend for me. I came home today and crashed into a post-school nap deeper than any since the first week of school.

Tomorrow, no garish holiday tie for me. This is even though I have about ten of them and have about a week-and-a-half window in which it's somewhat acceptable to wear them. I even have two that play music (my sister buys them at the dollar store and sends them to me because she knows they delight me). But, not tomorrow. I do not want to remind them of that holiday.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Lame conference

I am not exactly sure what it is, but I have hit a peak of busy-ness and exhaustion that I don't remember having hit for a long time. I have spent two nights this week at school until 9pm, a number so incredibly crazy that it's hard to even type. But it was real, and I was really doing work for all that time, to the point where I had to be asked to leave the building. I didn't quite get all the work I needed to get done completed, but I nearly got there, and that felt good.

Part of the work, admittedly, came from being one of the volunteers to drive members of the GSA to see Milk yesterday. It just happened on a bad day, being out the next day and all. We went to the movies from 4:30-6:30, then I was back at school from 7:00-9:00. Still, I'm really glad I went. The movie was really good and the kids liked it a lot.

Today was Parent-Teacher conferences, but I was at a conference/training elsewhere. I wanted to get everything done, so I could have grades posted for parents who did show up. In addition to these progress reports, my room's leak sprung again, so folks came into the room to fix it. However, since I wasn't going to be there, I had to change my sub plans so my students and my substitue met in the library instead of my classroom. There were so many notes on my door when I left Thursday night - one to the repairmaen, one to the parents, one to the substitute, and one to the parents. But I got it all done and was able to feel okay about leaving the students.

Unfortunately, after all that work, the training/conference was lame. I am ready to swear off big pieces of paper for all time. I've never used them as a teacher (do you know how much money it costs to buy one of those jumbo post-it pads? do you know how long one would last? about three classes), but am beginning to absolutely hate them as a presentee. I feel like giving us a marker and a big piece of a paper is just a sign of laziness in the presenter. And that whole thing where you go around the room and add to other people's big pieces of paper? Also lame. We did that twice in our three sessions, most of which was really lame.

I'm hoping tomorrow is better. I'm giving up my entire weekend to go to this training, and my school has invested plenty of money into it, but so far, I'm not taking much from it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Milk, Grading

I think it's pretty cool that I teach in a school where the GSA has organized a trip to The Charles to see Milk tomorrow afternoon after school. The man at The Charles always offers us a deal, and I think it's $5/kid. They asked me to be a driver. So that's tomorrow's task. I hope it's as great as all the reviews suggest that it is; I've been hankering to go to the movies lately and the weekend will be eaten up by a Fri-Sat-Sun training/conference so my free time in the next week is zilch.

Today's task was staying at school until nearly 9pm finishing up on all of my grading. I can now feel good about filling out progress reports. Now I have to plan tomorrow's lesson. I'm so exhausted I can barely keep my eyes open. Isn't it Christmas break yet?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bleaching the Desks

Kids write on desks. I try to stay on them, but it's sometimes hard. It's especially hard this year, when I have another teacher with a rowdy class who uses my room everyday. On Monday, she caught a young man writing in magic marker on a desk. I was already getting frustrated with all the writings and doodles on the desks - and it also includes several gang signs and callouts to gangs ("Crypt Nation", for example - but this was the straw that broke the camel's back.

I went out and bought a gallon of bleach and some Clorox bleach spray and soaked and then scrubbed the desks. By the end, they were gleaming, and the bleach got out everything but the very harshest magic marker.

Some of the kids were impressed today. Others just complained about the bleach smell in the room, which will probably be there for weeks. Still, it felt good. And I'm watching those desks like a hawk now.


Pretty exhausted this week; I feel like every day is a 14-hour day, as I leave the house at around 5:30am and return after 8:00pm. Still, my To Kill a Mockingbird unit is starting off well. My goal - get kids to love this book. There are other skills goals and stuff like that, but, really, I'm feeling the need to foster a love in reading that I don't think I have yet this year.

Here's my first assignment of the unit:

MYP English I
To Kill a Mockingbird HW #1
Description of Setting

Directions: Read Harper Lee’s description of Maycomb. Notice that its tone is nostalgic, meaning it looks back at the past with wistful reflection or longing. Read it with a slow, even rhythm and notice the following:
 How the punctuation she uses (particularly the semicolons and colons) helps to create this rhythm naturally. What would the passage be like with a lot of short sentences?
 How all the details she includes help to set the scene – you can see and feel the lazy and hot summer day. What details are especially important?
 Any choices of diction that are especially striking.
 Lee’s use of alliteration, visual imagery, foreshadowing, tactile imagery, personification, parallelism, and historical allusion*
* The last line, about having “nothing to fear but fear itself” comes from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address in January 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression.
Mark the following passage for the above devices and details:

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.
People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, ambled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to go see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.

Assignment: Write a similar 2-paragraph description of Baltimore with a nostalgic tone. It should sound like it was written by Harper Lee, but be about Baltimore, with details that describe Baltimore (or the people of Baltimore). After you finish, text-mark it for the devices that you use.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Conference thoughts

I spent all day yesterday at a Baseball Coaching Clinic, something I spent $75 out of pocket to attend. I usually love it, but have been less into it as the years have gone on. First of all, it's all lectures. The guys who do it are pretty engaging, but I am not an auditory learner, and with no visuals or ability to try out the things ourselves, I don't feel like I get much out of it. I remember really loving the vendors they had at these conferences, but they only had four this time, and that was another thing that hindered my enjoyment of the event. I don't think I'll go again, at least for a few years. I'm skipping today, as well - driving an hour down to Bethesda (aka the 7th circle of Hell) just doesn't seem worth it.

The conference did get me excited about the upcoming season, though, and I spent a lot of time sketching out ideas, lineup combinations, and possible practice schedules. I spend the same sort of intensity on practice schedules as I do lesson plans, if not moreso (practices are 2-3 hours, so require a lot more planning than a 50-minute lesson plan).

I raced home early from the conference to attend an acting showcase at my school. It was really good, and I was especially impressed to hear Alanis Morissette's "Forgiven" as an intro to the scene from Doubt. That album came out when I was in high school!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Wanting to Blog Mockingbird but...

My To Kill a Mockingbird unit begins on Monday. What I really want to do is have students write about the book in something less than a vaccuum, like in a blogging situation. The thing is, I have no real idea how to do this, and I've spent a few days fiddling with Edublogs, but it doesn't seem very user-friendly and I just can't picture how it will work. I want students to all have their individual blogs but to comment on each others'. I want them all connected but independent. It doesn't seem that hard to set up, but I can't figure it out.


I'm at the Mid-Atlantic Baseball Coaching Conference right now down in Bethesda, MD. Getting excited about the season, which doesn't begin for nearly three months!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Michelle Rhee

The big talk in our English Department today was of the Time magazine cover story about Michelle Rhee. Some strong language was aimed at her. She's a former Baltimore City school teacher; did you know that? I didn't.

I do not know how I feel about it all. Another thing I need to sleep on. I didn't much like the bias of the article or some of Rhee's language (wow, she really just seems like an unpleasant person based on the article), but I agree with the sentiment that bad teachers exist and it's important to get rid of them. But who is the judge of bad teachers? I've not yet heard a satisfying answer, and there are a lot I-can't-expand-on-a-public-blog reasons for my worries in this area.

That being said, this summer I got to know Peggy O'Brien a little bit, and gained a lot of respect for her. She started the Teaching Shakespeare Institute, for example. Meeting her, it was clear she has a huge passion for teaching and learning, especially city kids. She one of Michelle Rhee's chief officers, and, well, I trust her a great deal.

So... I'm not sure. I'll be watching Washington DC very closely in the next couple of years. So will Baltimore. The post-it on the Time article, written in the familiar English-teacher hand of a veteran colleague, was, "Is this a sign of things to come?". Indeed, it might be.


P.S. - It's too bad you all aren't my facebook friend. You would be able to see the awesome pic I just posted of me dressed as Odysseus for Greek Theme Day last Wednesday.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Taking control of Homer

It sure was hard to get up today, but the day went super well; I meticulously planned every lesson for the week, and it's so much more satisfying knowing exactly my goals and direction than going fly-by-night, which sometimes happens. It's nice to be confident that my kids really learned and produced something today, and I know it's going to happen every day this week.

This has been a strange unit, as we are co-teaching The Odyssey with the Social Studies department. It was, and is, hard to get everyone on the same page because both departments are large and a key member of each has been out for important stretches of the unit. Overall it's been successful but it's also made me feel a little like I've been teaching without a rudder. I'm a control freak and like to have complete control and knowledge about where I'm headed with the children, specifically what my goals are. For the first time doing it, we did fine, but I look forward next time to knowing a bit more of our collective subject-related goals and assessments before we begin the unit.

I just decided to take control of what I could control in my classroom and wrote detailed lesson plans for the week. Part of it is necessity - I'm going to be out on Wednesday and Friday and needed to get my plans for my students just in case they don't have a sub (or have sweet, wan 86-year old Mrs. Mabel Smith, who wears a floppy wig and who the children take more care of than vice versa) so they know the expectations. But it was also about me, about knowing where I'm headed. It feels good.

I'll be finished with Homer and moving onto Harper Lee on Monday. Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird is like putting on a pair of socks warm out of the drier, so warm and comfortable. Yet I still seem to notice something new in this wonderful novel every year, (I'm thinking about getting this tattoo, or something like it, at some point in my life), or figure out some other way to approach it. I'm still playing around this year. I sort of want to do blogging about it, over at Edublogs. I need to educate myself more, though. We'll see if I can get it together this week; I'm hopeful that I can (too bad I have completely ridiculous, time-wasting assignments for my two required Reading Comprehension courses to complete this week, plus sit in the 3-hour classes).

Off to bed early tonight.