Sunday, September 28, 2008

CTA goes for your wallet, and you need to ask them not to

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Last year I watched in horror as the site reps in my local union voted to raise the union dues on our membership without taking it out to a vote.  Furious, I let them know in my own diplomatic way that I thought they were doing a strong injustice to hard working teachers by basically stealing from them.  They response I got was, "It's in the bylaws". 

Last week I received a message from our union about a little money grab that the CTA is now a party to, one that fills the coffers of the organization while slyly making it necessary for you to ask to be removed from this "voluntary donation".  The CTA is "voluntarily" collecting a $20 "donation" from CTA members that don't opt out of the contribution by a paper form that your union should have or by going to the CTA web site.  Be warned, you need to sign up for the CTA site with your CTA card number and go through a variety of confirmation process before you click "Refund" under the voluntary donation link on the web site. 

Anyone else see a major problem with an organization whose expressed message is to protect you, but instead uses manipulation to take money from its membership?  I don't know about you, but I didn't receive any message at all, including a ballot, that stated that a dues increase was going to be taken from me. 

Go sign in to the CTA and get your money back. 

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The T-Shirt

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You can count on a student to push the boundaries of the First Amendment every so often, and here is the latest example of the argument between the golden amendment and the right's of the public good.

Apparently Daxx Dalton, a fifth grader at a school in Colorado, wore the above shirt to school (the one on top), got into scuffles with kids, was asked to turn it inside out, refused, and was suspended. The father then called the school officials a bunch of "liberal loons" and is going to sue the school. The edublogosphere is going nuts over the topic, which I caught at Joanne Jacobs (see blogroll). I can't really post a response there because some of those commentators are so out of touch with reality that it is scary. Let's analyze the issue a little more objectively, shall we?

The issue would fall under the court decision Tinker vs. Des Moines, which basically says that a school district can't infringe on a student's freedom of political expression unless it threatens the learning process at the school. What does that mean exactly? Well, it isn't something that can be nailed down. However,the precedent is there that would defend the right's of the student to wear the shirt. In 2003, Bretton Barber wore the above shirt (the one on the bottom) to school and had a similar situation occur (although without scuffles) in which the kid was suspended for refusing to get rid of the shirt. Barber won his case in federal court. In fact, most of the these cases are going towards the student's right to political expression. So the issue of whether or not the shirt is legal is pretty simple.

The main difference, and the real issue of the shirt, is whether or not it disrupts the learning environment, something that can be interpreted in a very broad spectrum. Obviously it created a problem, but there actually has to be intent to cause a disturbance and a history of that image/symbol/shirt causing a problem on campus. This comes from a myriad of court cases regarding the Confederate flag, which is allowed in some schools and banned in others based on the intent and history stated above. While you could probably easily could prove intent, the history part is much more foggy and will be difficult to justify. In this case, the kid still has the right to have the shirt.

I would argue that neither the kid nor the school district is the real problem here. The problem is Tracy Barber (mom of Brett), and Dann Dalton (dad of Daxx). Both have managed to show that parents can be complete jackasses when it comes to the simple idea of common sense. Fine, the shirts are legal, but neither shirt has a real place at school and neither were worn for any reason except to create a commotion that distracts from learning. Bretton Barber's shirt is not anti-war, it's a little kid who is trying to stir up controversy because he hasn't learned how express himself in an academic setting. Daxx Dalton's shirt is much worse. It's a father taking advantage of his 5th grade son to promote a political agenda because the father doesn't have the testicles to to protest for himself in a public forum. That shirt isn't more disturbing because of the message or that it's Obama, it's disturbing because the kid is a tool of an absolute moron.

Look, you're not going to get a bigger supporter of First Amendment rights than myself, especially in the classroom. But along with those rights comes something that I try to impress on kids, responsibility. While both shirts are acceptable under the law, the parents failed to act in a manner that promotes the responsible protection of the First Amendment. Instead, both made a mockery of it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Yes, it's teaching

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During the first week of my teaching credential program, I walked up to one of my college professors to ask that I leave orientation about 30 minutes early because I was going to coach my Bidwell Junior High School team in our own tournament. She made the comment, "Now might be the time you need to choose whether you want be a coach or a teacher." I hung my head, missed the game, and sat through orientation.

About a year and a half later, I teacher at Ukiah High School came up to me and said, "You need to focus on your reputation as a teacher, not a coach. If you get the reputation as a coach, you'll never be well respected." I nodded in quick agreement and made a half-hearted effort to keep the two separated, which could explain why I wasn't a very good coach for a few years.


Both these people were dead wrong and fed into the stereotype that coaches can't be effective in the classroom because they are too busy trying to get jocks to win useless athletic games. Very rarely is it taken into account that a vast majority of school populations participate in athletics, or that athletics themselves actually increase a student's academic performance. I would go beyond both facts and present to you this thesis; coaching is more about good teaching than classroom teaching is.


Yep, you heard me right. Think about something like basketball and let's look at the what the end result, or the (buzzword) OBJECTIVE, is. It isn't winning, and any good coach will tell you that winning is not the end all of athletics. If the coach preaches that philosophy, then the coach isn't a good teacher. That's something that isn't just in athletics. Examples of bad teaching are in plenty of classrooms so get off that high horse right now. The objective is preparing students for the challenges of society on an academic, mental, physical, and emotional level that is higher than standard physical education classes. Consider it Advanced Placement Physical Education, only the students put more time and dedication into these classes than the students in the classroom.
Now let's look at the planning, something that is vital to good teaching. My outline is set every day, created with a goal in mind and the flexibility to adjust with situations that might require some creativity. Those plans require that I understand student needs, facilitate learning to multiple modalities, evaluate student progress based on multiple assessments, and finally give a culminating assignment. The wonderful part of coaching is that you are doing this lesson every day, with assessment going on constantly, and culminating assignments occurring every time a game happens. Instead of waiting for idiotic, and quite frankly inaccurate, test scores that measure student progress, a teacher gets to watch the progress build in front of his/her eyes, and then compare to other students during game day. It is the most fulfilling assessment there is!


Then you add on all the external benefits of athletics; sportsmanship, character building, team building, perseverance, image......all those things that parents sometimes miss when raising kids, and you have coaches being the ultimate teachers. And again, I get that there are coaches that are the model of John Goodman in Revenge of the Nerds. Those people are bad teachers, just like those other bad teachers that don't happen to coach.

I bring this up because I was back on the court last week and dead tired, yet the kids seemed to give me that burst of energy and that flow that only comes from the knowledge that you know that the kids are "getting it". Then I watched the group of kids that I coached get out there and play some mighty fine defense (something I love to watch my teams do) and it was like I was on a high, back to the good old stomping grounds of the basketball court. Classrooms don't need desks, white boards, and STAR testing questions to be good teaching environments. When schools, and coaches, realize that coaching is simply teaching magnified, then athletics will get a better reputation than it's current state. Classroom teachers need to also see the value in athletics as something beyond the development of physical strength, especially since the student is more likely to do well academically if he/she is in a sport. Finally, community members need to realize that coaching is teaching, and that we get paid even less to put up with much more pressure from parents. While winning in competitive situations is a part of the curriculum of student athletics, the benefit is moot if the teacher isn't allowed to put it in its proper perspective.

Just like in the classroom, we are professionals.

Friday, September 19, 2008

U.S. News and World Report asks for my opinion

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Last week, Eddy Ramirez from U.S. News and World Report interviewed me about how I thought blogs impacted education policy, and why I decided to blog in the first place.  That article is now up at U.S. News and World Report

I like the article and stand by everything I said.  One piece of clarification on my comment, "A social science teacher at a rural high school in Ukiah, Calif., the 35-year-old says he has learned more about classroom management and lesson planning from other bloggers than from his school district colleagues."   That wasn't meant as a knock at my colleagues, who I've learned much from.  The next sentence I gave the reporter after that quote was the explanation that education blogs create the ultimate collaboration environment.  Think about it; I have access to hundreds of teachers that have thousands of ideas that I can incorporate into my classroom.  Hell, I even use ideas from a teacher that was a former student at my school when I started teaching at Ukiah High!  While educators complain about having to interact with teachers in the classroom next door, I interact with my colleagues, and then I use my own time to collaborate with educators who are as passionate as I with perfecting the art of teaching. 

While being a part of a weekly news magazine is cool, it doesn't mean anything unless society starts making education are real priority.  I blog because I think what I do is monumentally important.  Blogging makes me a better teacher.  Will it make society make better choices?    

An interesting quiz

Two weeks ago I gave an assignment where students read a section of their textbook, were allowed to place five bulleted facts on a note card, and use that information on a quiz.  The results were interesting and bring forth more light on how testing kids and blaming teachers is quite ridiculous. 

The first issue was the lack of kids who actually used the note card.  I'd say about 20% (and that was the high end) of my classes took advantage of the note card to use on the quiz.  This is usually a clear sign that students did not read the textbook.  Believe it or not, most students don't take advantage of "cheat sheet" style assistance, even on large tests.  I often hear the argument that students won't even bother to read the information in the book unless you offer the cheat sheet.  It gets them into the information.  I disagree.  The students that take advantage are students that don't really need it.  And don't tell me that reading text isn't necessary, because I read plenty in college.

The second, and more pressing issue, was the answers given for the question "Name one of the four countries that were included in the immigration to the American Colonies".  The correct answers included Ireland, England, Germany, and the Dutch.  About a fifth of the students gave me an answer that I hadn't expected, Mexico.  I was quite taken aback.  Mexico?  Didn't everyone know that the Pilgrims came from England?  Didn't everyone have those funny little Thanksgiving parties when they were young with funny little hats and fake pumpkins?  Well, the obvious answer is no.  And this is where the testing gurus don't get it.  Many students, even the underachieving crowd that might be lazy and unmotivated, have a deeper understanding of historical events because of years of exposure from everything including those elementary school parties to Schoolhouse Rock.  Kids that show up from another country with little or no English, and no historical foundation at all, are expected to already have good knowledge of the United States up through the Civil War by the time they reach 11th grade.  To some kids, the connection with the term "immigrate to America" creates a connection to Mexico that has been ingrained in a culture that often labels them "immigrants".  It was quite the awakening.  The quiz was a clear slap across my face that made me realize that pacing guides will be thrown out the door, irrelevant State Standards are going to get barely more than a mention, and these kids are going to get a foundation course in U.S. History.  I've slowed way down and I started with Columbus and I've moved through Colonial America and finished the American Revolution.  My first test will be Friday.  We'll see if slowing down works.  I think it will since I'm seeing students fully engaged and interested.   

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Day in the Life of a High School Teacher

For those that haven't had a taste of a high school teacher.

-Alarm goes off at 5 a.m. As usual, my wife and I lament at the fact that night was not nearly long enough for a good sleep. On the radio is the KNBR Morning Show and I stay in bed and listen for about 15 minutes.

-Shower and breakfast follow. Usually it's cereal, but this morning I fix two eggs and a couple of frozen waffles. I watch the morning news and e-mail a couple of documents to myself at the school. I wear a shirt and tie almost every day. But today I decide to wear khaki shorts and a history t-shirt that says "Ain't No Party Like a Boston Party" with a tea bag on it that has 1773 on the tag.

-Out of the house by 6:25. The radio says that there was an earthquake centered about 18 miles north of town, but I felt nothing. I head to Safeway for a sandwich and coffee. Unfortunately, I had no lunch stuff for today and had to spend the money.

-At school by twenty minutes to seven. I wander into F-6 and turn on the lights while moving towards the center of the room. They are on one of those motion sensors and won't turn on unless you go towards the middle of the room.

-Turn on an episode of Imus in the Morning where I listen to an interview with Tom Friedman while I make two quizzes, one for U.S. History, and the other for International Studies. I also start to look for a video reenactment of the Mayflower and find one from Discovery Channel's website. I'll use it as a prompt today.

-The first student wanders in 15 minutes before class. I'm moving my laptop to the cart that I use for my Smartboard while chatting with the student.

-The first bell rings and I wander outside to greet students and make my presence felt. I enjoy giving a smile early in the morning to the students and will often break out in song. Today it was "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" by Elton John.

-The bell rings and I enter AP Comparative Government. No absences. I get a good response from the t-shirt and I go right into the news (Newshour with Jim Leher news summary). The kids get a good laugh about the Department of the Interior trading sexual favors to the oil corporations. I prompt the period with the "Greed Is Good" speech from Gordon Gecko in Wall Street. We then discuss what "self-interest" means to a market economy, and then move into a power point about the evolution of the market economy. Good questions and fairly good energy for a Friday. Before they leave I give them a reading from Atlas Shrugged, and they are required to read it and type three questions for a Socratic Seminar on Monday. The bell rings and I head back outside.

-While outside I talk to a variety of students who stop by and discuss basketball, Algebra, and other important topics. When the bell rings I head for my first U.S. History class. Two absences. I tell students to take out paper while the morning announcements are read. As soon as they are done, it's quiz time. They have four minutes to answer 6 vocabulary questions that are on the projector board. When they are finished we grade them as a class immediately. I note the number of perfect papers on the board, where the other U.S. History class perfects are also listed. The number is lower than past quizzes (they get 3-4 a week), but the over all class grade is rising. News, and questions about the President's issues in Pakistan. Another student wants to discuss Iraq, but I deflect the question because we have to move on. I try to play the Mayflower video on the project, but it won't work. I take about 20 seconds to refresh, but it refuses to play. No matter, I drop it and we move on. I string a butcher paper timeline on the side of the classroom and have the students create their own timeline. We add a couple of events we have already discussed and then move to a power point about the colonizaton of the United States. Full participation and good questions. No homework for the weekend and the bell sends them off.

-Break time. I head to the middle of the building in our communial area and talk nothing in particular with collegues.

-Third period beings with my second U.S. History class. Five absences. Silent reading for the first 15 minutes of class and I nose into The Stand by Steven King. I haven't read it in years and I find it engrossing. Silent reading ends and we do the quiz. Again, low perfection but better overall grades. News and a couple of questions, timeline and U.S. colonizaton. Again, good questions and good discussion. The bell rings and they are out of there.

-I head outside and watch students mill about. The bell rings and I head inside for International Studies, who immediately start a vocab quiz. Only one absence, and since today is Club's Day (Club's have boothes to make money during lunch), that's great. We grade immediately and the grades are much better than the first one. News and many more questions. We are beginning to discuss the United Nations and I prompt with a seven minute video of Ali G during his schtict at the the U.N. It's funny and the kids get a kick out of it. We then discuss the main premise of the of the U.N. and the conflicts with national interest. We end with discussion of what Model U.N. is and a preface of Stanford MUN. Interest is high. Note, a student added today to bring my International Studies numbers to 30. That is very good news. Students are respectful, but ancy to leave for Club's Day at the end of the period. The bell sends them off and I head to the communial area for lunch.

-Actually, I head out to the quad and buy a cookie from the International Club, who promptlly raze me for not buying more (all in good fun). I head back to the building and eat while checking my e-mail on my iPhone. Another teacher comes in and we talk about the weekend. Then another teacher comes in and joins in. A fourth comes in and brings up politics. We have a serious disagreement and lunch ends on that disagreement.

-Fifth period begins the third U.S. History class. 10 people are absent at the beginning. I beginning the quiz and four come straggling in during the quiz. We grade it and the grades are the best of the day. News and U.S. colonization power point. With 15 minutes left in the period, the kids are giggley and pretty rambunctious. Club's Day has worn some people out, a football game is tonight, it's Friday, and Homecoming is now becoming steadfast in people's minds. The kids are actually fairly respectful with only a slight exception and I end the discussion about 3 minutes early. I let them go about a minute early. Sue me. The kids were great for a vast majority of the period on a day when they have been given a half dozen distractions.

-My prep is sixth. I head on over to the admin building and chat with office personel, make some copies, and have a meeting with an admin about my teacher evaluation later this semester. After about 20 minutes I'm back in my classroom. I turn on the podcast of the KNBR Gary Radnich/Tony Bruno face-off and start creating my agenda for next week.

-I start updating my AP Comp Gov Engrade calendar for next week. I become interested in finding a command economy-to-market economy video and find a Frontline World video on the evolution of capitalism in Russia. I watch it and create question for next week. I finish the calender and start grading student blogs posts. Some are good, others need work. The varsity coach comes in and we discuss the forthcoming year, including our concerns about funding.

-At around 3 p.m., the teacher that disagreed with my about politics at lunch comes in and we talk more politics for about 15 minutes. We disagree again.

-After grading blog posts, I check my role sheets and add/delete students onto the online Engrade system. Then I add some assignment grades to the gradebook and add information to the white board agenda in the classroom. Finally I search for music and cartoon prompts for next week.

-Before I head out the door, I grab Lies My Teacher Told Me, Legends-Lies-Cherished Myths of American History, and A People's History of the United States. I want to find some stories to give to the my U.S. History kids next week. I then pack away two Choices Series lessons; one on Manifest Destiny, and one on the United Nations. I leave school at 4:30 and listen to my MP3 player on the short drive home.

-I get home and update the new firmware on my iPhone, which makes a huge difference in 3G signal strengh. I then download a bunch of podcasts which consist of Fantasy Football and wine lovers shows.

-Wife gets home and we talk and start dinner. We both make dinner and chat about the day. In the background is the ESPN Fantasy Football podcast. I'm lucky, my wife knows my fantasy players and we chat about something other than work.

-Dinner is fajitas and we talk about work during the meal. Afterwords we watch mindless Tivo'ed shows and sip wine. She heads to bed early and I read The Stand in the bathtub, trying to get the day out of my head. After the bath I watch the Giants beat the Padres, switch to Houston Hurricane Ike coverage, and blog to you.

As you can tell, the day is still in my head.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

New assembly, same message, nice guy.......except for the video game thing

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I swear to God that there must be some formula for safe schools, anti-bullying, be nice assemblies.  On my eighth year of teaching, I've seen some rather odd people come in and give messages that are supposed to get through to kids, but usually only last a few days.  MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) brought in a huge video program that was pretty to look at and trendy, but it was pretty flat with the message.  A couple of years ago the school went through Every 15 Minutes, which is the controversial program that recreates a fatal car accident, but the message was didn't seem to hit home at all.  Last year it was Rachel's Challenge and the massacre at Columbine.  Students were so depressed that they couldn't wait to get out and get a wiff of fresh air and sunshine.  Then there are the stand-up guys.  Men and women who use a comedic routine to pass along a message.  In one moment they hold the attention of students, and then pass a valuable message that kids listen to and internalize.  I've seen a couple pass through the school, and yesterday's Mike Pritchard was one of them.

I have to admit, the guy is actually pretty funny.  His sound effects and family anecdotes are a nice touch to a subject that can easily get depressing.  Mike definitely had the attention of the kids and successfully got his message across.  But the always present question is whether or not it is actually going to be effective.  And is it worth class time to listen to.

I don't like assemblies.  I find it kind of ironic that we need to cut down instruction time while under pressure from a society that seems to be screaming for better test scores to simply attend a meeting where the message is constantly, "be nice".  Fine, so the time cut is minimal in the grand scope of things.  However, we need to include the time to debrief the students (teenagers love to talk about it on the day of), or in the case of an event like Every 15 Minutes, it could take a week to get over all the emotional stirrings and class disruptions.  My question would be this; can't an atmosphere that is consistent and professional actually help solve a lot of these problems?  If every teacher brought forth an air of professionalism, explaining that the school is an institution where in everyone will be afforded respect, then the problems would be less likely to happen because the environment is less conducive for that to happen.  Of course, maybe I'm being naive.  Or maybe having a single person address 800 kids for 35 minutes and expecting results is naive.  At least he was funny.

Oh, and stop with the crap about video games creating murderers.  The students in my classes, almost unanimously, agreed that the idea that kids that play violent video games are more likely to go kill someone is starting to get tired.  I agree.  Having cut my teeth on Duck Hunt, I moved on to Wolfenstein, Doom, Duke Nuke'em, Quake, Unreal, and yes, I've played Grand Theft Auto since it first came out on PC's (I just can't pass Vice City yet on PS2).  Yes, they are all violent video games.  No, I'm not a person that thinks it's ok to go around the neighborhood car jacking people and hitting prostitutes with batons.  Are there people that might think like that?  Sure.  Is it the fault of the video game?  Are you kidding?  Here's a little statistic for you:

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Yes, that is about the time video games became super popular, you know, when violent crime went down.  Still not impressed?

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That would be the statistics for juvenile arrests due to homicide.  Looks a lot lower than the "pre-video game" days. 

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Election

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I've been trying to get an idea of what my students are feeling in terms of the two tickets for President of the United States. Believe it or not, many students watched both Obama's speech and Sarah Palin's speech, with lower numbers watching either Biden or McCain, and almost no one watching the other speeches. The results are interesting, although not totally surprising.

Barack Obama's speech got the most reaction from the students. Not much of a surprise there. Most were impressed by his ability to give a speech, though some were not really sure about the ideas of "change". Apparently Obama did not give enough detail to answer the question about "change". Biden was considered "boring" by almost everyone I talked to. Sarah Palin was watched by the most students, but almost all of them had no clue about what she stood for. They all stated that it was about Palin, but didn't address issues at all. Most of the same was said about John McCain, who gathered some respect by the students who watched the speech, but was left with the same questions about issues. I'm guessing that Obama's energy and McCain's party affiliation will make students gravitate towards Barack Obama, and we'll find that out during our mock election on Election Day.

My thoughts are that if you read into the voting records of both candidates, you will find that both lie their asses off about a variety of issues. Barack Obama has yet to take on any real cause at all since entering the Federal government, and one needs to question whether or not he really has a clue about taking a definitive stand on anything. John McCain's message about alternative energy is so contrived that it is slowly making me lose much respect for the man. He's voted against alternative energy so many times that he might as well park the bus outside of the Chevron headquarters in San Ramon and ask for donations. Joe Biden might be the most sensible candidate in the bunch because he'll freely admit that he's a loud mouth, and I like that. Sarah Palin is not only a joke, but a frightening joke. It's a sign that the Republican Party has not accepted the idea that the country is more moderate and instead tries to side-slip that fact by inserting a young woman on the ticket that many of my students think is do-able. I follow politics like crazy, and the first thing out of my mouth was "Who!?!?!" when she was selected.

The Democratic Convention was a contentious affair that was more about the Clinton's than Obama, although his speech was by far the best out of both conventions. Still, all the back room talk was that the Hillary supporters are still pissed at Barack, and the Barack supporters are pissed that the Hillary supporters are pissed. Not good if you want a unified front. The Republican Convention was something out of the mid-1980's. I have to think that Joe Lieberman is looking back at his choice and saying, "I didn't sign up for this". After watching Romney and Huckabee, I was beginning to think that the Republican Party had officially lost it's mind. Every time I heard "Drill, baby, drill", I shook my head in disappointment as the party of strength turned into the party of denial. It has not been a good start for political parties.

I haven't decided who to vote for yet.

It's the energy, stupid.

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The amount of energy and resources that I used in the first two weeks is pretty staggering.  But based on the reaction I've received from the A-building and kids, it seems like the energy expended has been worth it.  The classes are all going smoothly with minimal classroom management issues and lots of critical thinking going on.  I've also got a nice idea about the overall atmosphere of each class as an independent entity.  I have good energy in most classes, a flat energy in one, and one class that could prove a little challenging as the year goes on. 

Most of the success comes down to the energy that I'm bringing to the classroom.  I've really limited the sarcasm that I bring to the environment, especially to the Juniors who have heard that I'm tough.  I've replaced it with a lot of smiles and a lot of positive reinforcement, although I'm still quick the discipline when necessary.  On Thursday I gave my first referral to a student that I caught texting in class.  The reaction that the student gave reaffirmed the referral and I think it sent the message that I mean what I say.  That referral has been the only real problem so far. 

My new attendance policy (no consequence for slight lateness, start quiz when bell rings) has worked very well.  The antagonism of 20 second tardies is not present, and the students that end up showing later are paying for it by missing assignments.  They are also usually the one's that won't take the time to do make-up work, which makes it easy to justify grades when mom and dad call and ask about their kid failing the class.  My attendance overall is pretty good, although I'm amazed that I'm already getting requests for Short Term Independent Study for kids going on vacation.  Note to those parents that actually think API and AYP mean something, neither category takes into account the fact that parents take kids out of school for weeks at a time for vacation.  And the second biggest month for parent-driven vacations is May, the month of the STAR test.

I'm also working on me.  I'm working on taking very little work home with me to keep the batteries recharged for a longer period during the year.  I had to grade some papers today and worked on a power point earlier in the week, but most of my work is being done at school, even if I have to stay late. 

So I would give high marks for the start of the year, and the question is about the energy, whether or not I can keep it up.