Wednesday, November 30, 2005

and the winner is...

The group who won today's haiku-off (the prize: cookies!) submitted the following:

I hate seventh grade.
Seventh grade is like a fish;
it goes by real fast.

(Semicolon mine.)

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Day in the Life

Hello, everyone who has gotten my name from someone else and emailed me to ask what it is like to be a teacher. (And Hello anyone else reading this as well.) Thought I’d fill you in as to what it is exactly that I do all day long.

I haven’t lived out tomorrow (Monday) yet, but I’m pretty sure it will go something like this.

5:30AM – Wake up. Shower, breakfast, print out lesson plans for the day.

6:45AM – Leave for the train.

7:15AM – Walk into school. Take off my coat because it is approximately 100 degrees. Clock in. Learn that the copy machine is broken. Kindly ask elderly teacher to step aside so that I can put more paper in the copy machine. Say good morning to office assistants. Perhaps learn that I will be covering the class of another teacher who is out.

7:45AM – Write “Do Now” “Aim” and “Homework” on the board. Prepare classroom.

8:00AM – Learn that someone is out and needs me to cover their homeroom.

8:15AM – Students begin arriving. I can hear them coming up the stairs and then they’re shrieking in my ear – “How Ya Doin?” “What’s Good Miss?” The day has begun.

8:20AM – Half-hearted attempt to get kids who are not my own students to quiet down for the morning announcements and stand up for the pledge of allegiance. Kids put their jackets in their lockers. People who aren’t in uniform take a moment to fix this. Gum is spit out for the first of 45 times throughout the day.

8:30AM – 10:50AM – 8th Grade English and Social Studies.

Next week’s test taking skill of the week is “analyzing figurative language” – this is a boon, because it will be way more fun than say, “drawing conclusions and making inferences,” or the woefully vague, “finding facts and details.” I have been told point blank that “the skill of the week trumps everything else,” so I know that as long as my kids can analyze figurative language by this Friday, I will have done what is expected of me.

**** Tomorrow’s 8th Grade ELA/SS lesson plan goes a little something like this (my notes in italics):

Aim: How can we interpret figurative language? (Aims must always use the word “we.”)

Do Now: “Joseph was a beanpole: legs like pencils, fingers like twigs – he looked like he could fit through a drinking straw.” -- What image does this sentence bring to your mind? (During this time I say, “Almost everyone is doing the right thing right now. Thank you to all the people who are writing. You darling – spit out your gum. You darling – take off your jacket. Class has started and we are working.”)

Mini Lesson: Shared reading of Skill of the Week poster – students should add to their notes.

- Students complete Figurative language worksheet.

Read Aloud: Henry Ford’s Biography passage –
Students should take notes using the “Who/What” format. Share out notes and review teacher’s notes. – Then, students complete the Short Response.
(Ahem – Blatant Test Preparation – but this will tie in to what we’ll learn in Social Studies later on.)

Reading Workshop: Poetry Unit p. 187 – 196 – Students should begin the unit by re-reading and answering questions for “Mother to Son” and “Advice to the Young.”
(This is here because I planned this lesson for all the 8th grade English teachers to use. My kids do the 802 lesson.)
Then students should do independent reading with Figurative Language worksheet.
802 - Teacher works with three students on figurative language worksheet while other students read. (I work with three kids and spend most of the time saying “Almost everyone is reading. Thank you. I see a few people off task and they need to get back on. Don’t forget to fill out your worksheet because I am taking them up for a grade.”)
HW - Read and do 3 Ars (Active reading responses. I don’t check these often enough, so most people don’t do them regularly.)

Social Studies:
Review rules for group work. (The kids made these up and they include such winners as "No Fighting" and "Mind your own business.")
Say – “At the point in history we’re learning about, factories were starting to become an important means of production. Few people worked in factories before this time, but suddenly, factories were springing up all over the place. Today we’re going to pretend that this classroom is a factory – three factories, actually. Each row of students will be its own factory. The factory that produces the most products at the end of twenty minutes will reap the rewards of success (candy.)

Pass out Origami project and paper to each row of students. Students have twenty minutes to complete as many products as possible. Students should experiment with different techniques to make as many as possible without getting out of their seats.
(I have a distinct feeling that this is going to be total bedlam, because by this point we will have been staring at one another for two hours.)

Then – discuss the assembly line and the advent of industrialization.

Essential questions for Industry / Industrialization on overhead – (802 – Worksheet?)

10:50AM – 11: 30AM -- This is my professional assignment period. Tomorrow I have a meeting with all of the other 8th grade teachers where we will likely find out that we will be the ones grading all of the practice tests that our students will be taking Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. This isn’t technically my lunch period, but I have to eat now or I will faint.

11:40AM - 1:13PM – 7th grade English

I collect my children from the cafeteria and send one particularly ambitious girl up to write my “Do Now” on the board because I teach in a different classroom than the one I was in this morning and I’ve been in a meeting during the time when I could have written it myself.

***** 7th grade lesson plan for tomorrow goes a little something like this:

Aim: How can we interpret figurative language?

Do Now: “Joseph was a beanpole: legs like pencils, fingers like twigs – he looked like he could fit through a drinking straw.” -- What image does this sentence bring to your mind?

Collect Region Mandated Homework Assignment

Mini Lesson: Shared reading of Skill of the Week poster – students should add to their notes.

- Students identify similes and metaphors in Langston Hughes’ Poems “A Dream Deferred” and “Hold Fast to Dreams.”

Read Aloud: Langston Hughes’s Biography passage –
Students should take notes using the “Who/What” format. (Kaplan made up this format and it sucks.) Share out notes and review teacher’s notes.

Groups: (Twenty minute rotations for each.)
Starting at Editing/Writing – Ruby Group (Test Prep and more test prep)
Starting at IR – Sapphire Group (Independent Reading – everyone’s favorite group.)
Starting at Multiple Choice – Emerald Group (Test Prep with me.)

HW: Write a poem about a dream that you have. Use figurative language to describe your dream and how you plan to achieve it. Your poem should be at least five lines long. It does not have to rhyme, but it can if you like. (Hooray for figurative language week!)

1:14PM – 2:50PM : debrief, deflate, eat junk food. This is my official lunch period followed by my prep. period so I have the rest of the day to make copies, grade papers, or sit in the library and stare off into space. Tomorrow I’ll probably be working on Grad. School homework or my homework for:

2:50PM – 3:50PM: Professional Development
Every Monday, I sit for an hour and learn skills and strategies for achieving student potential. Much of this information would be quite helpful if I wasn’t also being told to teach a straight test-prep curriculum. Sometimes this means I get a bad attitude, like last week, when we were learning about how some children are audial learners, some visual, some musical, some kinesthetic, some artistic, etc., and I raised my hand to ask if my artistic learner got to draw a picture on the standardized test. I got a teacher look from a teacher for that one.

4:00PM – 6:20PM – Take the train to Brooklyn College, eat something for dinner, and prepare frantically for:

6:20PM – 8:00PM – Structuralism and Semiotics class – during which I am supposed to present on my paper for 10 minutes. I’ve done a bit of research, but not enough, so this should be interesting. Many other kids in the class are just regular grad. students who show up in sweats and spend all day in the library, so I always feel a bit guilty for not putting in my best effort. Sigh.

8:30PM – 10:00PM – Take the train home and do prep work for Tuesday – most of my planning is already done, but I usually have to whip up a couple worksheets and finalize lesson plans, maybe grade a couple papers, etc.

10:00PM or earlier: Sleep.

5:00AM: Repeat!

The Test Prep. Blues

[So. I haven't been quite the intrepid reporter one might have wished, largely because during the time when I'm not working, I enjoy sleeping. But I have been directing a number of people interested in teaching to this site, so I figured it was probably time for an update. Another is on the way.]

“Miss, when are we going to write poems?”

-- “Maybe after the test.”

“Miss, are we going to read a whole book?”

-- “Maybe after the test.”

“Miss, when are you going to teach a lesson that doesn’t make all of us want to pull our hair out?”

I teach test prep. Not just the hour after school on Tuesdays specifically set aside for 8th grade Kaplan-scripted lessons, or the two and a half hours every Saturday set aside for 7th grade Kaplan-scripted lessons, but every week, every day, every lesson I teach. Test prep. The high stakes tests (coming soon, in January) that my kids have to pass to prove that they are learning something useful in school and that I am Leaving No Child Behind, basically ensure that my students learn very little that is legitimately useful to them from August through December.

My major struggle of late has been to find a way to teach something as soul-suckingly dry, “corny,” “whack,” and “boring,” as multiple choice skills while still being the kind of teacher I want to be – the kind of teacher who is invested in her material. How can I be the kind of teacher who opens young minds to new ideas when I’m only allowed to read short non-fiction passages that are similar to the ones my kids will encounter on the test? How can I teach good writing skills through the tiny funnel of awful, repetitive five paragraph essays? Why am I forced to waste time teaching kids bad note-taking skills, bad paragraph writing skills, and bad paper writing skills that they’ll just have to un-learn as soon as they get to college (or even high school?)

The problem is that this is the reality of my job: as long as my kids have to pass the test, I have no choice but to teach to it. Things are made all the more difficult by the fact that my school had exceptional test scores last year, and the law requires us to show a significant amount of improvement each year – so this year, we have to do even better. And the pressure is on in a big way.

A few weeks ago, almost all of my seventh graders failed their first practice test. I got a firm talking to, they got a firm talking to, and nobody was happy. Then I found out that they hadn’t actually failed, but rather, somebody had graded all of their tests wrong. They hadn’t done exceptionally well, but they had done alright. The pressure was off me for a while, but I was told not to tell the kids that they hadn’t failed. “Keep them a little scared.” Right. So they are still quite unhappy and frightened that they might end up in summer school (which they will, if they don’t pass the test.)

To say more would be to belabor the point or – heaven forbid – to bore the reader as much as I am forced to bore my gifted twelve-year olds when I teach the finer points of bubble filling. How I am going to carry these forty young souls across the Scantron finish line remains to be seen. But I suppose my major point is this: that when we vote for accountability in schools, we should be very careful what we are wishing for. Having high standards is not a bad thing, but it will take more than announcing that those children who don’t pass one test are failures to improve the public schools. We might be better served by finding a more holistic and fair way to assess children’s learning so that they can actually spend their time in class doing just that.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Words and Weapons

I love the kid, I really do. But there are no two ways about it: bringing a knife to school was a bad idea.

My class runs a lot more smoothly now that my honorary King of Disruption has been suspended (who can say for how long.) But I am sad.

This is the same child who told me not to wear my keys around my neck on a chain, because he had been "jumped" on the way home from school and his chain had been ripped off his neck. Apparently, his walk home was often scary. Apparently, the knife was for protection. Apparently, he won't be going to a decent high school and may even face juvenile detention.

The following is the document I had to submit for his suspension hearing. Obviously, all names have been changed:

To: Ms. Dean of the Middle School
From: Ms. Star
Re: Dequon Jones Superintendent Suspension Hearing Documents

Test Scores: Dequon does quite well on essays in my class. He is one of the few students who regularly receives scores of 4 on essays, and he hands in most of his work (though not always with all necessary steps.) He has even had a few essays posted on the bulletin board. He is a talented writer but does not spend enough time polishing and revising his writing.

Class Behavior Anecdotal: Dequon has a serious problem controlling his talking. For example, during one class period he had a loud conversation about the Video Music Awards across the classroom while I was teaching. This went on for the entire period and Dequon ignored all of my requests to be quiet. He is often not talking to anyone in particular on occasions like this - just to anyone who will listen. He has also regularly refused to spit out gum, stay in his seat, and, occasionally to do his work. When assigned consequences for his behavior, Dequon often becomes quite angry and refuses to do work for the rest of the day. I have once had to call his house from class because he refused to stop talking, and even then, he did not stop.

Dequon is quite intelligent, and has shown me that he is capable of doing good work in both English and Social Studies classes. However, his behavior is such a constant distraction that is often impossible for me to teach other students while Dequon is in the room. He seems completely unable to control his need to “perform” for other students, and this shows in the way he deals with authority figures. Dequon is quite reasonable when I speak to him one on one, but completely unreasonable when I speak to him during class.

At the parent/teacher meeting for class 802, I gave Dequon’s father a letter stating that I was concerned about Devon’s inability to control his behavior in my class. His father signed this letter and returned it to me. When I spoke with Dequon’s mother at parent/teacher conferences, I emphasized the same point. I also spoke with her by phone on several occasions when I assigned Dequon Friday detention because of his inability to control his behavior.

Dequon was quite upset about being assigned Friday detention. He told me that, if he stayed after school to serve detention, he would not be able to walk home with his friends and would be unsafe because of this. He reported “getting jumped” after school a few times previous to this. Because he wanted to avoid staying late, he told me that his mother was aware that he was staying, even though I had yet to reach her (I had left messages at home, which he later told me he had erased.)

When I spoke to his mother, I noted that most teachers probably said the same thing about Dequon: “He’s so smart, but…” I said that I hoped that soon teachers would be able to say of him: “He’s so smart, and…” I continue to hope this, but it has yet to happen.

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