A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tuesday Musing 13: the good, the bad, and the snowy

I saw a snowflake today. Did I mention I HAAAAAAAAATES snowflakes? But instantly all the kids were a-twitter with dreams of a Snow Day. And the students were pretty giddy, too.

So what about it? Are Snow Days a Good Thing? Or a they an evil plot by Mther Nature to force us to be in school in penance when the days are finally warm and beautiful?

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tuesday Musing 12: Gratitude

For your consideration: as we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, let's concentrate on those things, people, and places for which we are truly thankful.

I am thankful that I have a healthy family. I am thankful for the relationships I have with my students. I am thankful that I belong to a wonderful faith community and that I am employed doing something I love that also helps society.

What are you thankful for?

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Monday, November 22, 2010

Making us all look like schlemiels

I am sure that every teacher who reads this or other education blogs works in place that has rules. They may be called "expectations," or "behavior markers," or even dopier things like "the Panther Path" or the "Warrior Way" or the "Cardinal Code," but whatever you call 'em, there they are.

Until they're not.

We have a bunch of these behavioral prohibitions ourselves. Some are mandated by state law: no smoking on campus, no gambling, no fencing of stolen merchandise, no assault-- you get the picture. Then there's more minor rules: no use of cell phones or mp3 players, except during lunch. Wear your IDs. Follow the directions of adults on staff. No obscene language.

Now the enforcement of these prohibitions can be spotty. But here's what gets in my craw: During announcements, it was proclaimed that students were not allowed to leave campus once they were on campus-- not even to dash across the street to smoke. This policy was henceforth going to be rigorously enforced! Consequences would be meted out with justice for all!

It lasted one day.

The next morning they had moved behind some bushes, so that at least our incompetence was not paraded in front of the entire world. The day after that they were back where they had started. The next day, they were openly standing in front of the main entrance. There they were puffing on their "gaspers" and creating clouds of smoke that could patch the hole in the ozone layer. Our Dear Leader not only shrugged it off, but snapped at those who dared bring it up.

So here's the deal: Listen, toots. I don't care what the rule is, if you are not going to enforce it, then at least don't draw attention to the fact that you cannot handle all aspects of your job. Worse still, I especially hate it when YOU make a big deal about something and then promptly back off.

It makes us look like schmucks. It erodes any sense of authority. It makes it clear that the inmates are running the asylum. It also encourages kids to keep pushing until they finally find out what the boundaries are, if indeed there are any. Now your excuse is that there are bigger problems going on around school. That is true. But, there's this thing called the "broken windows" theory. I'm too annoyed to go into it fully, plus my martini is getting warm, but basically it's this: when you stop enforcing smaller rules, the community begins a death spiral toward major lawlessness.

Your momentary twinge of enforcement merely draws attention to the fact that not much is enforced around here. So you want to know what would make teachers morale improve?

How about this: Pick one rule, no matter how tiny. Something that would actually make a difference around this place.

And then enforce it. Firmly, subtly, consistently.

I dare you.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Student confidentiality versus a teacher's right to know

It's the time of year when students begin to face the reality of finishing up for the semester and positioning themselves for a strong finish. At least most of them. There are a few kids, however, that just, um, how to say it? go PLUMB CRAZY and do really stupid things.

So there have been a few instances when teachers have been stonewalled when a student of theirs has been disciplined. Frankly, refusal by administrators to inform teachers regarding student discipline is not only unprofessional and wrong, it is against the law. Federal law.

There is a federal law known as FERPA, which stands for Family Educational Records and Privacy Act. It defines and limits the kind of information that school districts can reveal, and to whom. Our administrators are pretending or are deluded into believing that FERPA enables them to hide information regarding students from teachers.

Apparently, the ability to read something all the way through is not merely lacking among our students, because the law also CLEARLY states that educational professionals can be informed of what is in students' records even without parental permission. This is called the "need-to-know" exception. Basically, FERPA is very clear that teachers who are responsible for direct instruction of a student have the right to know about the educational records of that student, and this includes discipline.

Beyond that, however, this bizarre claim of counterproductive confidentiality also blatantly violates state law where I work.

This is the matter of reason: how can we work with students if we do not know if they are prone to certain behaviors, or, unfortunately, even violent? We spend more time with students by a factor of hundreds each school year than do administrators. This is also a matter of worker safety, frankly. Finally, there can be no communication and cooperation between administration and teachers if we do not know what is going on in students' lives. This harms the productive functioning of the school.

After one recent (unknown) incident, we were called into an impromptu faculty meeting to be told that something bad was going on and to ask to keep an ear out for rumors or information that could help in the administrators' investigation. One brave soul actually asked "Look out for what?" The repeated response? "I can't tell you due to confidentiality, but let me know if you see or hear anything about this incident." Once again-- what incident?

That was helpful. And an idiotic -and insulting!- waste of my time. The very clear implication is that we are not to be trusted with information that would make us more productive. What do they think we are going to do-- go around and gossip? And here's the stupid thing: this ridiculous and illegal denial just stirs the rumor mill even harder. Dolts.

I mean seriously, this is high school. If we reported every rumor we heard kids spreading, we would be doing nothing but reporting all day long. How long has it been since these people were in a classroom? Never mind, I know the answer.

The school district will get away with this kind of denigration of teachers' rights as long as we LET them get away with it.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tuesday Musing 11: Surveyitis

For your consideration: how many surveys are you asked to fill out by your administration per year? How are the results treated? We are asked to fill out surveys all the time at our little slice of heaven, and yet we rarely get feedback on the results, or, if we do, the results don't seem to jibe with what we recall being the general consensus among faculty members.

La Cornelius just got finished filling out one during her precious planning period that took 25 minutes and included over 100 questions--- and had no place to write comments on it, to boot. I got more and more annoyed the longer it took, and it was on computer and designed so that you couldn't see how long it really was.

Do the PTB care what you think??? Respond in the comment section, s'il vous plait.

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Words of wisdom from Morning Prayer

I was praying morning prayer today, and this was one of the readings. How ironic! I especially liked the first two verses.

James 3:1-12 (NRSV)

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by
a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue-a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Redux: When High School is like... a Divine Comedy

I just felt like it was time to revisit this former post again... Why? BECAUSE I MISS SUNLIGHT. DAMN YOU, STANDARD TIME.

For me, the school year is in full swing-- inasmuch as one can be when Winter Break seems a million miles away. For those of you who have forgotten, or who now look back upon your high school years through the rosy mists of fondness for that halcyon era when your head, not your back, was covered with hair and your tricep didn't flop around like a Tibetan prayer flag in a good stiff breeze, high school is organized into concentric circles of despair and Sisyphean drudgery which align quite nicely with the Nine Circles of Hell our friend and eternal optimist Dante Alighieri described so fully.

Circle 1- Limbo, the Home of the Innocent: The freshmen have already had most of the pranks pulled on them-- like looking for a swimming pool on the roof, or looking for the smoking area, or being told that we have open campus for lunch, and so on. They've lost a bit of that dazed look-- unless it's a permanent condition.

Circle 2-The Lustful: The "veteran" freshmen on the two- or three-year-plans are already falling back into their habits of trying to evade class as much as possible and still somehow be able to finagle enough credits to achieve sophomorehood. They lust for a way to get over. Those who lust for each other have tried to discover just where the security cameras don't work.

Circle 3- The Gluttonous: Last year's freshmen who made the cut to sophomores are hoping to have grown some-- the girls hoping to be able to fill out those teeny tanks they wear and the boys hoping to get closer to making that dunk on the basketball court. The boys can eat the weight of a newborn elephant in one sitting. Sophomores bear the grim visage of those who realize that they still must slog through an eternity of high school, and that as long ago as they were seventh graders? That's how long it will be before they graduate. The mathematically inclined have computed this sentence in Hell as the equivalent of 19.7% of their lives thus far.

Circle 4- The Hoarders and the Improvident: Most of the juniors are engulfed in a tsunami in post-high school planning, as the last deadline to register for the ACT was on last Friday, and they are frantically collecting honors to list on their applications and recommendations from harried staff. Those who swear that they'll NEVER want to go to college or trade school or sit in a classroom again are sneering at their classmates who are wigging out. They can't wait to get out of school so they'll never have to do what anyone tells them, EVER AGAIN.

Circle 5- The River Styx; the Wrathful and the Sullen: The seniors have slogged their way through all these levels only to discover that they are merely on the verge of true Hell. They've figured out to take AP and honors classes their first semester, and as soon as the transcripts are mailed off to their fifteen dream colleges to "drop them like it's hot" and coast through the rest of the year. The ones who SWORE that they would never want to go to college or trade school have lost a bit of that sneer as they are slowly coming to the realization that after antagonizing Mom and Dad for the last six years, what with the brushes with the law and the suspensions and the phone calls from school and the poor grades, their parents are COUNTING the days until they can tell their offspring that their bedroom has become an exercise room, and seven bucks an hour at TWO part time jobs at fast food joints minus something called FICA and social security will get them a run-down one bedroom apartment with three roommates, rides to work on a bus, peanut butter sandwiches, no vacations EVER-- much less three months in a row off, no health care, and tennis shoes from K-Mart, not Foot Locker. No bling, no phat threads, and no pimpin' any rides. Suddenly four years of sitting in a classroom listening to someone drone on and on about 18th century British literature or the principles of accounting doesn't sound nearly as stupefying as fifty years of soul-destroying repetitive labor where you come home at the end of the day with the smell of fried food permeating even your HAIR, which you now have to get cut at Great Clips four times a year. They've asked their uncle about that job at the Ford plant, but it's shutting its doors in 2009 and outsourcing to Mexico under NAFTA, and soon their uncle may be delivering pizzas and competing with them for jobs-- and he, at least, has a history of showing up to work on time and following directions, which gives him a big leg up on them.

Gosh, is it too late to take the ACT?

Circle 6- The City of Dis; the Heretics: The teachers have once again realized that no matter how thick the student behavior guide is, that the assistant principals have pretty much no interest in enforcing the policies on tardiness, dress code, attendance, cell phones, smoking in the john, or insubordination unless it's directed at them. These teachers will "dis" these administrators with considerable bitterness. They are already huddling in circles in the hallway, disputing the diagnoses buried in IEPs and 504s, and mocking memos from administration. They have their own vision of what the school should look like, but theirs is not a theology bearing the imprimatur of the powers that be, so they just appear out of touch with reality. Those who work hard and strive to inculcate their students with a love of learning are nonetheless vilified by the public and even some of their peers. Those who think that students should be accountable for their shortcomings are considered to be child-hating misanthropes.

Circle 7- The Violent: Many of the parents have already had all the phone calls from school they are going to tolerate. They have blocked calls from any building in the district. Others have been lurking malevolently in the counseling office since the end of July demanding that their kids' schedules be changed about five times, or that an entire class be created to fully meet the needs of their son or daughter. Already two hundred of them have tried to enroll their children in our district by claiming the address of the UPS store down the street, and if they don't get what they want, they will try to intimidate anyone within hearing, including our sweet little white-haired registrar.

Circle 8- Malebolge, The Fraudulent: The counsellors and principals fall into various categories listed by Dante. They either spent two years in a classroom and are 24 years old, or they spent two years in the classroom twenty years ago. But no matter what, they are experts in good teaching methods and writing curriculum, or so they assure the staff. Among them are:
Panderers, who just want to be the students' "friend;"
Flatterers, who will tell you that they think you're a great teacher only to dump more work on you;
Simoniacs, who shower dispensations for referrals upon kids, in a bid to supposedly "save" them from the "Heretics;"
Hypocrites, who will merely counsel a kid who calls a teacher that word for "a person who would engage in carnal activity with his maternal relative" but who suspends a kid for six days for calling the AP a sexual deviate;
Sowers of Discord, Scandal, and Schism, who hang out all day with their favorite staff members in their office, trading gossip and innuendo regarding the rest of the staff-- they think that teachers are all incompetent, hyperbolic, child-hating misanthropes.

Circle 9- The Traitors: The central office administrators and school board. They will bizarrely give permission for five hundred kids who supposedly live at the UPS store down the street to attend schools in our district, and they will refuse to investigate reports that students are being dropped off at bus stops in cars with license plates from a neighboring state. They will overturn suspensions upon a whim. They will go to the National School Board Association meeting in Miami with their entire families while they tell teachers there is no money for raises and their deductible for health insurance will need to triple. They think that teachers are all incompetent, hyperbolic, child-hating misanthropes who are overpaid.

And how would our friend Dante describe this abode?

“And when, with gladness in his face, he placed his hand upon my own, to comfort me, he drew me in among the hidden things. Here sighs and lamentations and loud cries were echoing across the starless air, so that, as soon as I set out, I wept. Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements, accents of anger, words of suffering, and voices shrill and faint, and beating hands—all went to make tumult that will whirl forever through that turbid, timeless air, like sand that eddies when a whirlwind swirls.” [Dante, as he enters the Gates of Hell. Canto III, Inferno]

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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Tuesday Musing 10: the cost of overwork

For your consideration: have you ever had to resort to a "mental health day" merely to allow yourself to catch up with rest --or, even worse, to catch up with grading? How often do you indulge the need?

Myself, I could certainly use one now. That extra hour of sleep this weekend was not even a drop in the bucket.

Share your thoughts in the comment section.

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Monday, November 08, 2010

Cue Gloria Estefan.

If you are any kind of secondary teacher eventually the kids will confide in you. This is by far the most anxiety-producing part of the job for me. I seriously pray that I will not screw up when these confidences are shared and I have to decide what my response will be, but respond I will, and I let the kids know it. I will listen, I will offer advice if asked, but I do not promise to keep secrets if something I hear worries me about a student's welfare and safety. I tend to be of the no-nonsense, problem-solving practical breed of advice-giver: "What can you control? What CAN'T you control? Let go of it, control what you can, and have a plan for your life to overcome this obstacle in measurable steps."

There must be a full moon or something, because, today was a banner day. I carried the stories of THREE kids to the counselors today. I did this because they wouldn't go themselves. And go is exactly what they needed. And frankly they know this about me since I make no bones about it, so think they wanted me to push the point and get them there. Passivity is one of the worst signs of depression.

Despite my crusty exterior, once you are my student, you are one of "my kids." even sometimes if you haven't been my student, actually, as one of the kids from today's crises has never actually been in my classroom but is one of the kids I seem to be constantly chivvying in the hallway.

I am just saying this because, it is that time of year, friends. Five of my students are sharing with me that there is a divorce going on in the household. One has a dying grandma in a culture that especially reveres the older generation. Two are being watched for suicidal tendencies. One is being watched for an eating disorder. One is contemplating coming out, I think, even though he hasn't actually admitted it.

I would like to explain to all of the haters of public education that THIS is what we do as wll as convey information, cover objectives, assess learning, develop curriculum, grade, grade, grade, question, answer, raise ACT scores, tutor after school, support sporting events, increase vocabulary, write across the curriculum, take surveys, attend meetings, collaborate with coteachers, attempt to administer social justice, strengthen depth of knowledge and reasoning ability, teach how to take multiple choice tests, monitor the hallways, break up the occasional spat or fight, collaborate with colleagues and provide advice for new teachers, and prepare my students for career, college, and last but not least to pass the AP exam.

Because, really, kids, I would do anything for you.


Thursday, November 04, 2010

Where's Waldo?

I am keeping a running count of how long it has been since I have the principal out of her office. We are now on day...

And how long has it been since I have seen her in my hallway? We are now on day

And while that may be happy times for me, I am not so sure it equals happy times for her. In my experience, a disappearing principal always is a sign of trouble, not to mention that one gets completely out of touch with the tenor of the school. Unless that is what one wants....

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Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Tuesday Musing 9: the cost of suspensions

For your consideration: are out of school suspensions necessary? Are they overused?

I have heard of several school districts that have responded to the fact that the district loses money from the state for each student who is not physically present by drastically reducing the number and type of offenses that can merit out of school suspensions. Let me also note that all of the districts I have heard of that did this were distressed districts with high numbers of at-risk students and also a high rate of discipline problems.

What do you think?

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