Sunday, January 20, 2008

Moving - again

I don't know if I still have any readers at this blog, but I want to let you know I'm moving - again. I've finally gotten my own site and blog up to speed, which was what I was working toward (and one of the reasons blogging was light here).

Hopefully I will have more to say over there. So pop by and say hello. I'm at Catching Sparrows.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Dumbing Up, Dumbing Down

I know it's not polite to refer to it as "Dumbing up, dumbing down." I'm sure I should call the practice "modification" or, since that became a Bad Word in our school last year, "accommodation." Or even "differentiated learning strategy" which is being tossed around our school a lot this year, yet no one seems to actually know what real differentiated learning strategies look like.

But I'm getting very frustrated with the lack of concrete strategies offered specifically for on-level students. I teach on-level students by choice. I've taught pre-AP in middle and high school, and I have nothing in particular against them. I've just found that I enjoy the on-level classroom more.

On Monday's professional development day I went to two different meetings which both presented strategies intended for other levels (one higher, one lower) and was treated yet again to the advice to "accommodate" my on-level students with a modified version of the strategy that would be appropriate for them. For instance, Writer's Notebook tasks and ideas for elementary school children, reading strategies for learning disabled students, and a grammar activity for AP students that would have to be completely disemboweled for the on-level classroom.

It isn't that I don't think ideas from other levels and sources can't be valuable. I just wonder why the perception of on-level students is that they are either slightly advanced middle schoolers, or slightly slow gifted students, rather than individual learners.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Consistency Is Not A Bad Word

I've always thought the quickest way to undermine student trust is to enforce rules which students must follow...but teachers don't have to.

Case In Point: I recently went to an ARD proceeding in which the parent brought her attorney (this after a long history), and in which she demanded neuro-psych testing for her child. Our school's diagnostician was called in to explain why our school does not offer this (very complicated). The diagnostician, young and enthusiastic, was wearing a skirt which was out of school dress code. Sitting a little away from the table, she crossed her legs in front of the parent and attorney, and we all got a panty-shot. (I suppose I should be glad she wore underwear.)

Fast-forward to today:
One of my inclusion teachers is a first year teacher who has expressed to me he wants to switch over to classroom teaching, but he's in an alternative program and hasn't had any student teaching. Since he's in the same class twice on different days (A and B days), I've offered him the opportunity to re-teach certain portions of the lesson after he's seen me perform the day before to experience real-world classroom teaching.

Today was one of those days. He went up to the front of the classroom to review homework and begin the journal. The kids gave him a good-natured ribbing. One said, immediately, "And who are you?" though he's been in the class since day 1. We all laughed, but the same student said, "I don't know if I'm comfortable with you teaching me. What are your qualifications?"

We all laughed again, but it was a valid question, and one which this teacher will have to get used to if he intends to walk into a full-size English classroom next year with little-to-no preparation. Darwinian classroom survival continues to be the method by which education trains its teachers.

Our school policy forbids students from having food or open drinks in the classroom. To start off the new year, I re-wrote these directives in very big letters on the board. So it was that I noticed the teacher was standing right underneath NO FOOD, NO OPEN DRINKS with an enormous, open Styrofoam cup of coffee in his hand.

I didn't want to embarrass him. But by the same token, I won't subject my students to policy they are expected to follow which conflicts with what is modeled in front of them. I said to him, "Mr. R, do you have an open drink in the classroom? Because that's against school policy. If you want, you can put your drink over behind my desk where it won't spill, and pick it up again on your way out." (Which is how I often negotiate on a first offense with students.)

He laughed (we have a very amicable relationship), moved over near my desk and said quietly, "It's my drug of choice for getting through the day."

I said, "Well, you're going to have to shoot up before class starts then."

Luckily, he thought that was funny.

Great Quotes

I love this quote I ran across today. It describes teaching quite a bit as well.

"People ask me how far I've come, and I tell them twelve feet: from the audience to the stage."

-David Lee Roth

Thursday, January 10, 2008

And The Beat Goes On

I was teasing one of my classes for being slow today - not picking up their handouts before the tardy bell rang, not getting their journals out in time (they were tired, I have a good relationship with the class). I was getting them going (and laughing) by marching around saying things like "GET that homework out! GET those journals out! NO more Ms. Nice Kudu! You don't have your handouts yet? That doesn't make me happy! Haven't you started your journal yet? That doesn't make me happy!"

We were having a grand old time. And, from the back of the classroom I heard someone murmur, "This class makes me happy."

Me too, kiddo. Me too.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

How They Keep Me Sane

The arrival of a note releasing a kid from class is always worth a moment of silence. Reverence and longing, you know.

The note came. It was for a student who was not in my class. (Probably got the room number wrong.)

One of my students, very dry humor, name of Christopher: Ms. Kudu, who's the note for?

Me: Don't worry about it. It's not for you.

Chris: It might be, and you're hiding it from me so I'll finish these embedded quotes first. C'mon. It's for me, isn't it?

Me: Only if your name is Kristina.

Chris (completely deadpan): That's pretty close. I should probably go.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

I Have Now Been Professionally Developed

Yesterday was a professional development day. Let me share with you how it went.

School upon arrival: blisteringly hot. The heaters were on over the holidays. In Texas, this is completely unnecessary. The temps have been in the 70s, except for 2 or 3 days right in the midst of the holidays when no one would have been at the school. In an attempt to fix this the system was turned off, whereupon we lost any air whatsoever until noon today. Very, very hot.

Breakfast: promised to be delivered by the Army - four baskets of breads. And some napkins. Nothing else. Nothing. No cream cheese for the bagels, fruit, water, nada. Four. Baskets. Of. Bread. We ran out.

"Differentiation" strategies learned:

1) Two teachers holding hands and touching a modified lightbulb can complete a circuit and make the lightbulb light up. Two hundred teachers stretched out around a cafeteria cannot. Time to get teachers in circle? 10 minutes. Time to try it four times, just in case someone was not actually touching the person next to them? 10 more minutes.

2) If you hold your arm out straight and think positive thoughts, it's easier to keep your arm up longer. If you think negative thoughts, your arm gets heavy. No. Really. We learned that as a differentiation strategy, which you will no doubt recognize as an engagement strategy, and a dumb one at that.

New Policies: No Homework? Why Not?

Students who do not do their homework will be held unaccountably responsible for not doing the work. Strategies to get them to do the work should include: having students call parents right during class and tell their parents in front of everyone that they don't have their homework.

HOWEVER. We want to give students who may have good reasons for not doing their homework every opportunity. After all, that student may not have had breakfast that morning, or is living in a hostile environment.

SO. No homework? Why not? Call your parents in the middle of class in front of peers. "Hey Mom. I didn't do my homework because it was really upsetting to see Jimmy beating the snot out of you last night."

Games Played: Drug Awareness Jeopardy.

Not one moment for us to work in our rooms. They kept us from 8:30 until 4:05. When we all got back to our classrooms, we found out they'd sent an email which required a responsive action by 4.

Later this week I want to write more about two strange trends I saw coming, but seem even stranger now they've hit our school: the No Homework, No Problem trend, and the Dumbing Up, Dumbing Down to get to on-level teaching strategies.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Top 10 Signs You're About To Go Back To Teaching

The top 10 signs it’s nearly time to return to school after the holidays.

10. You realize you’re going to have to have some kind of anticipation set for the first day, and a journal about New Year’s resolutions seems to fit the bill. Of course, you try to come up with an angle to make it unique. There are no unique angles to a journal about New Year’s resolutions. Some television show/Youtube/MySpace page somewhere has done them already.

9. You carefully re-examine all gifts received and begin parceling them out into things you will keep, and things which will be incorporated into later lessons. (Great-great-aunt Maddie’s knitted pot holders: an excellent example of the types of home-made crafts made necessary by the Great Depression?)

8. You carefully re-examine all gift-wrapping for useful bulletin board coverings/accents.

7. You carefully re-examine the imperative to have a brand-new bulletin board ready on the first day of the new semester.

6. You wonder if you couldn’t use the old bulletin board to teach some lesson about the past and the future.

5. You have seen “Juno” three times already, and you consider writing the film makers to 1) congratulate them on a very cute movie, and 2) offer your expertise for future film efforts regarding “real” teen dialogue.

4. Your pets/children no longer think it’s really neat for you to be home in the middle of the day.

3. You no longer think it’s neat to be home in the middle of the day with your pets/children.

2. Sleeping in (and being home before dark) has only made you more aware of what the house looks like in the daytime. What the hell is that thing under the bed, the size of a small rabbit, with the wispy bits and crunchy center? You don’t even eat in the bed. What IS it? And how did its offspring get under the couch?

1. You open up your school email for the first time in 2 weeks and find the district’s NEW and IMPROVED spam filters have failed to protect you from 72 or more pornographic spam emails sent under the heading “Staff Development.” At this point it still seems funny. Come March, not so much.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Give 'Em The Ol' Razzle Dazzle - and don't talk about the elephant in the room

Via Joanne Jacobs: Student suspended for tearing up a Bible in a speech about Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Here’s a great way to snow people on an issue: just add Bible. I’ve got images of Richard Gere in a courtroom made to look like a 3-ring circus singing “Give ‘em the ol’ razzle dazzle.”

Couple of things are bound to happen when you include the destruction of a Bible in front of an audience. One group will talk about how the Christians over-reacted, and that if it had been X book instead nobody would have said anything. Well, no, and that’s why the student did not choose just any old book. He knew the importance and significance of the Bible, he chose it for its importance and significance, so to argue there should be little or less reaction to his choice is to completely trivialize the point the student himself was trying to make. He wanted people to take notice, which is why he didn’t choose, say, The Giving Tree. Give the kid some credit for a sense of the dramatic and being able to read his audience.

Then you’ll get a group claiming their Christianity, subtly but firmly condemning other Christians by saying THEY would never get upset about something like this, really, it’s those fanatics and they are NOT LIKE US. We’re more reasonable. We understand a symbolic act. Then there will be those who think the student got what he deserved, the little whippersnapper, these kids today, nothing like the kids we had back in my day, and get off my lawn! Then a group will decry the fascist hold of education on the minds and fates of the young, then a group will find the conspiracy in the principal’s reluctance to talk about the student’s other mishaps or the reason for the suspension, and another will point out the rich irony of the subject matter, the demonstration, and the result, and so on and so forth. But there hasn't been (yet) a lot of talk about another, more pressing issue, the one schools and society are both struggling with: what is a threat? What is a cry for help? When do we remove students? What happens when we do? How do schools deal with being damned if they do, and damned if they don’t?

I teach the essay every year, and I love it. I will say that when the students discuss it, they do inevitably begin examining religion. Personally, I don’t think the kid’s act was anywhere in keeping with Emerson’s ideas of non-conformity, who counted Pythagoras, Jesus, Socrates, Luther, Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton among the greatest of non-conformists. I suspect he would have seen such a display as almost a sort of proselytization of non-conformity, which would have defeated the purpose. It doesn’t sound like the student so much made a speech about the issues the essay raises as used the essay as an excuse for his display, and not very well. But whatever my interpretation of his display, there’s once again been far too much attention paid to the shiny and eye-catching accoutrement of the act - the Bible, the suspension - and not enough attention paid to the words that accompanied the act, according to an eyewitness:

“He said he was going to do something that our little stupid minds wouldn't be able to comprehend.”

There’s your problem right there, sir. I don’t want anyone near me who uses a blanket characterization like this of an entire group of people arrayed before them. One, he’s not seeing individuals. Everyone there has a “little stupid mind” to him, AND saying that they won’t be able to comprehend his act, yet demonstrating the act anyway indicates to me he does have some issues - most apparently with the fact that he and he alone CAN comprehend the significance of such an act. So he has reduced a group of individuals down to non-persons, and is trying to teach them a lesson he is convinced they can’t learn. This is worrying to me.

So often schools are taken to task for not seeing the cries of help students raise in various ways, but when a school does act on something which has the hallmarks of a cry for help (or at least some negative attention) they’re taken to task for jumping the gun. Maybe I've just become a little gun shy of late as violence has escalated in my school and we went through what was later characterized as a Columbine-style threat last year, but in this case I’d rather they erred on the side of caution, for the sake of the kid (if there is an issue that needs to be explored there) and the others involved.