Thursday, October 28, 2010

Here comes the pain

Know how a teacher figures out when report cards were mailed out?  When the smiles turn to grimaces, and the e-mails and phone calls start pouring in.

So far I’ve had only one phone call, one e-mail, and one student meeting regarding grades.  All went fairly as planned and followed the typical outline:

-Student or parents are shocked that the grade is so low.

-Student or parents insist that this is the first time the student as ever had a grade that low.

-Student or parents are told why the student has a poor grade.

-Student or parents ask for make-up work.

-Student or parents get slightly irritated when they realize that I won’t budge on make-up work, or budge on insisting that students actually produce excellent work for an A.

-Students or parents pause to read information, and if together, will look at each other wondering what the next step will be.

So far, the next step has been the insistence of working better, which is the right way to go.  I’ve made the class pretty transparent in its ability to but the responsibility in the hands of the student.  We are after all, talking about Seniors in high school.  The problems come when AP parents have the attitude that my class is not going to come between their child and Stanford.  Senior year here at Ukiah High School is focused much more on fun than rigor.  What is not acknowledged is that students have to make choices, and the best figure out how to manage those choices in the most efficient manner.  Guess what, the best usually go to Stanford and I never have meetings with their parents.

Senior teachers have an interesting task, especially when dealing with students that have college in mind.  What happens if your class is the only class that gives the mediocre grade?  What about the really bad grade?  Do you look at the greater picture of their 12 year progress, or does a student that slacks off their last semester take the “D”, thus possibly taking them out of higher end college admissions? 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Punished for lack of children

I’ll state first that I hate the idea of the national health care plan in its present form.  Let me get this straight, I’ll have a higher tax (since I have “good” insurance) put on me to help people that make unhealthy life style choices?  Um, how about not.  When we have a country that has more obesity, more diabetes, more heart issues, and more high blood pressure, I’m not interested in creating a nice fat incentive to maintain those ills that can be solved by making better personal decisions.  While we’re at it, pass health care and legalize marijuana within a year of each other?  Please.

Well, now I’m going to have to pay for people having children as well.  Up until this point, the cost for each dependent was $70, and families only had to pay for up to five dependents.  Well, dependent costs are now going through the roof, and I received this in the mail:image

Something seems totally not right that a family that decides to have more children will actually benefit more than a family that focuses on their career and doesn’t have children.  If you decide to have five children, pay for them to have health insurance.  Don’t have kids if you really can’t afford them.  That’s not being mean, that’s called an affluent society. 

What I’d really like to do is opt out of my insurance.  I basically pay for insurance that I never use because the deductible is $1,000 a year, and on top of that my wife’s insurance covers me much better.  With the money I save on this insurance, I can buy supplemental insurance that is better, and save money for extra incidentals that might occur.  For some reason, I’m constantly told that I don’t have a choice, I can’t opt out.

Is that true?  In California, do you have to stay with the insurance of your employer?      

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Just crazy enough

I wasn’t even supposed to be announcing the varsity game. 

I’m currently the voice of the Ukiah JV Football Wildcats (and Varsity Boys Hoopsters) and I ended up doing the varsity game between Rancho Cotate and Ukiah because the normal guy was down with the flu.  I didn’t realize that a technical error was going to make me a songbird. 

With about 1:30 left on the clock, I inserted the Star Spangled Banner cd into the machine and fast-fowarded to song #10, the instrumental of the National Anthem.  The 700 plus crowd and football players were all standing facing the south end of the field where the flag was slowly waving.  The noise that came out of the speakers was that horrid choppy sound of a skipping cd.  I quickly stopped the cd, took it out, and rubbed it on my shirt hoping to dislodge potential particles on the surface.  I glanced outside and saw hundreds of people looking at the announcers booth, waiting for the traditional song to be played.  While I prepped a second attempt, my colleagues in the booth were silent and the local radio announcer mentioned that the anthem had “technical difficulties”.  My mind started to whirl about alternatives to the cd not working.  Probably wouldn’t happen right?  The cd went in, forward to #10, and it started to skip again.  A silent stadium looked up at the announcers booth, this time with a slight annoyance.

I’ll be honest, the first thought was to turn on the mic and call a girl that I knew was at the game up to the announcers booth.  She had done the National Anthem last year a couple of times and was excellent.  But that could take five minutes or more, and hundreds of people kept looking at me for a song.  For some reason, I calmly sat down, pushed the mic button, and obliged. 

It’s interesting that I sang this week because we discussed the War of 1812 in APUSH, including the background about Francis Scott Key, the actual length of the song (we sing only the first stanza), and played them the music from the drinking song “Anacreon in Heaven”.   I really wasn’t nervous at all, just focused.  In my mind, everyone in the stadium knew the cd failed, so the sound of my voice isn’t going to be that big of a deal.  Only thing to make sure….

DON’T SCREW UP THE LYRICS!

Yeah, Government teacher can’t sing Star Spangled Banner.  I wasn’t about to let that happen.  So I calmly sang the song, making sure to drop my voice before “bombs bursting in air”, and pulled it off.  I got applause, tips of the cap from the fans, and plenty of “atta boys”.  It was actually a pretty cool feeling.  Somewhere in my mind I felt like the anthem needed to be played and I was crazy enough to just belt it out.  So yes, I can add to my list “sang National Anthem in front of large crowd”.  

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Living the job

I have no kids and a wife that is a teacher.  Know what that means?  It means that I have a life that is surrounded by the environment of education.  Good thing or bad thing? 

I’ve noticed more recently that the teacher edu-blogs have become more and more introspective after the attacks from Education Nation.  The completely senseless attacks on educators has made many not rethink the profession as much as rethinking how much the profession dominates their lives.  Because Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada made such gross generalizations about teachers (pretty much all negative), those that care about their professions are taking inventory of their lives and asking, “Am I doing enough?” or “Am I supposed to do more?”.  The simple fact that teachers are feeling this way is a good thing.  Educators have been put on the defensive for years now and I’m hoping those that are introspective are going to find that they are competent and hopeful in the profession.  Hopefully they ignore the Rhee’s and the Meg Whitman’s of the world (she attacked teachers in the last debate) and look at how they teach with more perspective on their lives.

Which brings me to the topic of the “all encompassing teacher”.  Does the profession rule everything?  Mrs. Cornelius bristled at the idea that teachers should be constantly available to students at all times of the day.  Time off is time off, and the students that want constant communication are those that often don’t pay attention in the first place (something I’ve found to be too true).  On the other hand is Vicki Davis, who commented “You can't leave school at school - school does affect your life. Don't pretend that it doesn't”.  In my life this is also true.  But is it right?

I’m ten years into my career and I still love my job, although I’m more pessimistic about society’s view on Education than ten years ago.  It’s really to the point that dealing with classroom management, grading papers, and giving instruction isn’t that hard at all.  The hard part is doing things better.  Right now, “better” seems to be an issue of communication.  Some students and all basketball players have my cell phone number, and usually it is only used by basketball parents or AP students before a test.  I’m actually thankful for that.  My students have my e-mail, my Facebook page, and Edmodo to communicate with me.  When I’m home in front of the TV or grading I’ll have my laptop open to Facebook and my e-mail.  I’m constantly tweaking, twisting, thinking, doing something related to making things better in the classroom.  It is definitely a big part of my life.

The problem is that it should not have to be that way, and while I love the profession, I think the idea that every teacher must live the job is exactly why so many drop out.  The burden to do everything correct is on the teacher, which is like saying that everyone being healthy is the burden of the doctor, only society doesn’t see that.  People are obese because they make bad choices, and some die.  But in education people are all of the sudden stupid because teachers are doing it wrong, and failure is not an option.  Using that logic, teachers are trying to fix a problem with no cure because the patient is constantly being told they are doing everything right. 

Take the communication aspect.  80% of my student communication occurs after 9 p.m. on Sunday night, and the number one question is, “Did we have work due for Monday”.  Work is clearly listed online, on the wall of the classroom, and in the classroom in a spiral binder that is kept up by a student.  That question should never be asked.  But it is because the perception in many schools is that a teacher isn’t a professional, a teacher is simply “help” to reach the next level.  Regardless of the actual learning, the job of the teacher is to push to the next societal achievement.  I teach Seniors, most being “college bound”.  Parents could care if they learn their Senior year, they care about college, regardless if the kid has earned it or not.  That means that I’m serving a society that demands that I solve the problem of ignorance with the restriction that it fits within the entitled attitude of those people that complain that children are stupid.

In the end, it really is simple cost/benefit analysis.  I’ve spent ten years creating a structure that I think is beneficial for students.  It has taken much my life for those ten years.  The benefit was that I got to live my dream and teach kids who will go out and do great things and lead successful lives.  That fact that I’m looking back on that is a sign, I think, that I’m starting to find that the costs are outweighing the benefit.  I have the support I need from colleagues and from my site administration.  That rarely has been a problem.  But I’ve had to gather tools on my own that I should have had access to long ago.  I don’t feel like my district leadership is supportive and I don’t feel like the profession is moving anywhere in society.  I’m ten years in, I have the tools, I have the scores, I think I’m a pretty good teacher.  But I’m being told that it isn’t enough.  Ten years in and I still have to be concerned about someone complaining to the school board about failing a student, or worse, about basketball playing time.  Nope, I’m not willing to have it encompass my life.

I really can’t clearly explain how I feel about this topic because it sounds more negative that it actually is, except that it truly is a negative thought.  I love my job and I don’t intend to do worse at it, but myself (and my department) have often questioned “can we ever really meet our full potential when so much is wrong that we can’t control”?   

I’ve made education my life for ten years, pretty much all encompassing.  I don’t expect praise, I expect some help.       

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The bookshelf

Within my classroom is an 8 foot tall bookshelf that once belonged to a former colleague.  When he retired he asked if I wanted to keep the bookshelf for Sustained Silent Reading period, otherwise known as SSR.  I was thrilled!  The tall shelf is also a good 3 1/2 to 4 feet wide and can hold a whole lot of books.  The problem was filling it with the variety necessary to peak the interest of all my students, who ranged in reading levels from 4th through college.  What’s more, the books needed to be cheap. 

The answer ended up costing me less than $100 for hundreds of books.  The local hospice shop was the starting point.  The front of the store had a small book section that was occasionally restocked, but nothing very substantial.  My wife and I then asked one of the volunteers if we could go to a back shed where they stored the stuff that hadn’t been sorted yet.  We found a goldmine.  Dozens of boxes with books of all kinds were waiting for our inspection, which we preceded to do for hours.  We left with boxes full of fantasy, sci-fi, chick lit, non-fiction, and a massive collection of Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes comic books.  All for dirt cheap.  Then you throw in years of “Friends of the Mendocino Library” book sales.  Every October, the Mendocino County library has an insane book sale that brings out some beautiful gems for next to nothing.  This year it was Sophie Kinsella, some Economics in Action books, and the entire Ken Burns’ Civil War series on VHS, all for about $13.  Score!

Classroom libraries, even a small one, are essential.  They are always busy during SSR, but students will buzz around it on occasion between classes or before school.  My policy on checking out books is honor system; go ahead and take the book, just make sure and bring it back when you are done. 

Believe me, students are reading.  I just notice that teachers like to go around and around with students over content.  Apparently Twilight isn’t good enough for some teachers, kids have to be “exposed” to the great classics.  Let me tell you, from the standpoint of a voracious reader, a whole lot of classics suck.  I was exposed to plenty of books in school that made me shudder with horror at the thought of reading them.  The shelf is varied in content and students are never pressured into reading anything.  Only three rules apply in SSR; no textbook, no homework, no sleeping.  That means that if an AP level students wants to relax the brain on Garfield, go right on ahead.  I also have magazines for students that I get at home and quickly bring to the classroom; Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek, The Economist, and Wired.  I think the idea of “a novel must be read during SSR” is bullshit.  We are supposed to be promoting love of reading, not forcing content.  Don’t college students remember not having time for a good read?  S.I. was great because I could sit down at the breakfast table and read an article about Mickey Mantle in five minutes.  The reading wasn’t super high level, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.

Hopefully districts are starting to latch on to the idea that reading promotes literacy and that test scores can go up when you engage kids in the love of literature.  SSR is one of the best times of the days for kids.  Let’em read!                

GIANTS 2010 ANTHEM (yes, Coach Brown is growing the beard)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Willits Board President dresses in skirt, calls himself “Michelle”.

In a time when school districts need to come together and figure out how to deal with unprecedented economic times,  it's nice to know that a school board president takes teachers and throws them all the way under the bus.  I mean, what better way to boost moral than to call hard working teachers lazy, selfish, and money-hungry.

“It was interesting to note the excellent showing of Willits Charter School. They have led the way before with consistently high test scores.

They have smaller classes due to lower salaries for employees, but that can't explain all their success. There must be a dedicated team of professionals doing a heck of a job. How refreshing to have teachers that care more about their students than their paycheck.”

That quote was from Willits School Board President, Bob Harper.  Mr. Harper wrote an Op-Ed piece in the Willits News (the local paper), the only source of local news that is read by the multitudes in the town of Willits, a small community about a half-hour north of Ukiah.  Bobby must have just got back from some special screening of Waiting for Superman, because it really takes a special kind of naivety or ignorance to throw out a half-assed accusation of the very institution you are supposed to support.  However, I’m not really surprised at a rant from someone who worships on the altar of test scores.

But since Bobbo brought up test scores, how about we look at those demographics of both schools.  By the way, I don’t question the hard work of Willits Charter Teachers, I question the motives of a Board President that sits in on negotiations, and then uses the media to spew crap in a lame attempt to sway public opinion.

  Willits High Willits Charter
Population A little over 500. A little over 100.
Hispanic 22% 3.5%
English Language Learners 7% 0%
Students with Disabilities 13% 5%

What you see has little to do with teachers that supposedly care less about a paycheck.  You see the same old, tired formula about charter schools; pick, choose, call it even.  Mr. Harper likes to show himself as knowledgeable about charter schools because he doesn’t really have a damn clue how to deal with the real problems of education.  El Presidente not only insulted teachers, but showed himself unethical by trying to negotiate with teachers through the media, and extremely biased in the way he views public education.  But before he gets all Michelle Rhee on charter schools, he might want to actually address the fact the charter school in Willits does not serve the same population.  In fact, it isn’t even close.  And while I’m not excusing low academic achievement, I’d like to point out to Bob that those students that don’t know English will probably score poorer on an English test than those that have a grasp at the dominant language in the United States.  Wow, fancy that.

I use this example for two reasons.  One, I want to avoid this example in my own school district.  Board members, district officials, and teachers need to sit down and actually collaborate toward a solution to the financial woes hitting education.  Guess what, they aren’t going away and will probably get worse.  And two, this shows that problems with education are also a local government issue, not just a social image concern.  A board president that lip locks charter school test scores, manipulates information to his advantage, takes knife jabs at teachers, and promotes Gary freaking Hart is exactly what education doesn’t need.

Hey Bob, I know plenty of teachers that work their ass off.  Why don’t you get off yours and stop being part of the problem.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Am I the Homecoming Grinch?

“You crack me up.”

My colleague told me this while we stood on the football field watching about 30 Seniors celebrate the winning of the coveted Spirit Bell. 

“Why’s that?”, I responded.

“Your act about not liking Homecoming.  It’s funny.”, he said.

“But I really don’t like Homecoming.”

“Yeah, but you like this.”  My colleague pointed to the cheering, happy students.

Of course I like happy students.  But the happiness is meaningless and the lost week (much more like two) will end up creating an enormous amount of havoc in the academic realm.

For those that don’t know, Homecoming at Ukiah High School is basically seen as the best moment of the year.  For the complete rundown of the week, check out this post from two years ago.  The only real difference is that we don’t have a kiosk platform this year.  About three weeks ago students started to show up to class sleepy.  Two weeks ago the float and skit were in full force.  This week was a complete wash for many students.  My attendance was awful during the week, with Friday being a complete and total nightmare.  Kids were removed from class because they vandalized another class’s float.  Kids missed class to prepare for the Friday skit.  Kids missed class to work on the float.  Kids missed class to work on student government.  Kids missed class to dress up for the parade.  It was an embarrassing day for education.  And many students that came to school dressed like they belonged in front of the Crazy Horse in Chico on Halloween.  The girls, all the way to 14 year old freshmen, flaunted more lace, booty, and breast then what should be allowed while guys ran around with painted bodies in nothing but swim shorts.  Many teachers are frustrated, but hardly anyone wants to speak up because Homecoming is such a connection to the community.  Everything that happens is accepted because of one phrase; “It’s Homecoming, and it’s only one week”.

No, I don’t want to totally eliminate the idea of Homecoming.  But look at the week it terms of serving the students in the academic process.  It accomplishes nothing.  Kids are impacted for a month by Homecoming; planning, set-up, execution, and then everyone is sick the week after because they all stay up late, eat crappy food, and get hammered Friday night after the game.  Then I have to sit through idiotic meetings about EDI, “failure is not an option”, and supposedly doing a better job at helping students succeed.  All the while my phone is about to off the hook because student grades just went into a hole when Johnny decided that “Spirit Points” meant more than grades. 

Sure I sound bitter, I just watched my profession get bitch slapped on NBC while looking at sagging test scores and falling grades.  I’m on the one hand being held accountable for the academic progress of students in high school, while those students are being held accountable for being home by Midnight on a school night so they can work on the scene where Superman makes “Yo Mama” jokes about the Senior class in the Homecoming skit.  Then the parents will blame me for not being accountable for the academic end while the students are celebrating winning a dumb-ass bell that represents weeks of trashing other classes in school. 

Yep, I guess I’m a Grinch.  Hey, when my profession is evaluated by skit performance and floats, I’ll be the biggest Joe Homecoming ever.