Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dear the Bloods

Open Letter to the Bloods,

Every year around Halloween the rumor goes around that your new recruits are going to slice somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty girls.  What "slice" means and the exact number required, I do not know.  I'm sure you have very detailed rules and regulations about what qualifies as a "slice" and the number required is directly proportional to the number of recruits you have in a given year.  Regardless, this practice or legend is something of a nuisance, especially when it is extended beyond the predetermined scope of the supposed ritual.

As far as I can tell, this legend of the slicing is somewhat unsubstantiated, but it is difficult to say.  It's credibility is somewhat beside the point, however, as my biggest concern is how it is impacting my students indirectly.  The threat of slicing people up on Halloween leads concerned parents to keep their students at home when they are supposed to be in school.  For students that use everything as an excuse not to come to school- from the weather ("it's too cold," "it's too hot," "it's too nice") to the expectation of a headache that day, and everything in between- adding this "holiday" is very unhelpful.  For the students who do report faithfully to school whether it is snowing outside of whether they have a bit of headache, it is simply not nice to make them afraid of coming.

This year I am particularly annoyed because it has affected attendance two days before Halloween.  To me this is not acceptable.  While I am no expert on the inter-workings of your gang, I do not believe that you keep bankers' hours.  That said, your initiation should not spill over into the normal work week simply because it is more convenient.  It is only a guess, but your members are probably not complaining about overtime on the weekends, nor are they making nasty phone calls to your headquarters for contract violations or unpaid overtime.

Because the myth is probably more about urban intimidation than real action, I understand that extending the intimidation period into normal folks' work week and the school week is preferable if trying to maximize its effect.  How else are you going to make people most afraid of you on this holiday?  All I'm saying is that it would be a bit less rude and more appreciated by teachers throughout the city if you could keep the slice fest (or legend thereof) contained to the day on which you're supposed to.  Of course, it would be best for us if the legend/initiation disappeared altogether- we are certainly not proponents of urban violence, but cracking down on gang violence is another discussion for another day.

If you do insist on letting this intimidation spill over onto days other than Halloween, can you at least send a letter to the DOE stating that our lowered attendance rates are due to your actions?  One of the largest issues on our report card is our attendance rate and this legend/initiation is really not helping.  While the system makes it clear that attendance (students coming to the school building) is the school's responsibility and no one else's, I don't think it is the school's fault that attendance is so low on this or these days.  Perhaps your union and our union can call each other up and discuss this matter further.


Nick James

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Field Trip in NYC

Last Friday we took nearly the entire eighth grade on a field trip to Ellis Island as part of our immigration unit.  Before this trip I had never organized a trip within the city with so many students, but I had told plenty of people that taking students on a field trip in the city is "easy."  To clarify, I meant getting one approved and organized beforehand is easy, as it only requires a one-line email to get approved and a request for travel vouchers for the subway the day before the trip. However, I found Friday that it can certainly be pretty difficult to actually carry out.  Here's how it went on the ground:

Step 1: Students Arrive at School

The students were to arrive twenty minutes early to school, as it would have been impossible to make the 10AM ferry departure time without doing so.  Getting eighty fourteen-year-olds to come to school twenty minutes early, especially when many of them rarely come on time, was a bit of a stretch, but it sort of happened.  Several came minutes before we headed to the train, which was very stressful, as we were trying to organize all of the students into their chaperon groups and take attendance, but in general the arrival was a success.

Step 2: Boarding the Train

This was done in waves for the students' safety.  Cramming eighty middle-schoolers onto a train platform is not the greatest idea, not to mention the fact that it's pretty tough to do physically.  I went with the first group, which included thirty students and three adults.  When we stepped out of the building we'd already lost track of a student, so I ran back inside and found the student refusing to join his group outside because he didn't prefer the students and/or chaperon in it.  Because we were already a couple minutes behind schedule, I simply told him and a school safety officer he would not be going on the trip.  And that was that.  Another student who had been on the waiting list because she had not brought in her permission slip on time came in twenty-five minutes late as I was walking out the door and asked what group she was in, to which I replied, "None.  You are staying here," and kept heading toward the door. Field trip in full swing!

Step 3: Taking the Train

Because it was rush hour, we had to take the train two stops in the direction opposite to what we wanted in order to catch the express train that bypasses the stop right outside of our school at that hour.  This involved getting the thirty students off the train, walking them down a set of stairs, through a hallway and up onto another platform headed the correct direction.  Once back on the train I was texting the other chaperons madly, making sure the next two waves of students (thirty and twenty students apiece) were getting out of the school and onto the platform safely and quickly.  These waves would follow the same process on the next two trains that came by.

I didn't actually hear from the third wave before our train went under ground to enter Manhattan, which of course cuts off phone service.  For the next thirty minutes we took New York's busiest subway line during rush hour, making sure our thirty students were still on the car and fine being crammed in with dozens of other commuters, not to mention I was anxious to know the whereabouts of the other groups.  This part was uneventful other than my stress level skyrocketing whenever we slowed down.  I wasn't sure exactly how long we would take, knew time was limited before the boat left, and didn't know about the two trains full of our students behind ours.  It was also slightly disconcerting seeing our students fan out amongst so many strangers, as people are not exactly predictable in this city (continue reading for an example).

Step 4: Security at the Ferry

When we popped out of the subway at Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, several texts came up on my phone saying everything was alright with the other two waves of students, which told me I could expect them soon.  They were by directly and joined the first wave in the security line that's been required since 9/11 to board the ferry to Liberty and Ellis Islands.  Pants, surprisingly, were the largest issue in this line for my group.  When one student took his belt off, down went his jeans.  Another student wears pants so tight she's uncomfortable taking her belt off because she's afraid they'll explode or something.  Luckily this non-removal of her belt did not prove to be an issue with the security agents.

Step 5: The Ferry

The students ended up loving this part of the trip, which for many was their first boat ride.  The one stress point was that the ferry makes a stop at Liberty Island (on which the Statue of Liberty sits), where passengers can get off and those already visiting the statue can get back on.  I went down to the lowest deck of three to watch the crowd disembark so none of our students got off there and caught two walking off with the crowd.  One of these tends to walk off during field trips (I'm told), but doesn't always know what's going on anyway, and the other simply likes to cause trouble.  While doing this, several tourists stopped to have their pictures taken with me. Because I was wearing a tweed jacket and a bowler hat, many people assumed I worked for the tour company.  It happened several more times throughout the day.

Step 6: Time on Ellis Island

The time on Ellis Island was stressful for me and one other chaperon, but that was due mostly to the students in our group.  In spite of the fact that our students are better this year, there are still a number of rascals in the grade.  And a number of them seemed to be in my group. 

Aside from these rascals, the students really seemed to enjoy it.  Based on what they're writing this week, the students also seem to have taken at least some information away with them, which is good because they were supposed to research for their projects and papers that are due this Friday. Check!

Step 7: Ferry Back

Not a lot to report here, either.  The students really enjoyed it, though they struck me as very loud.  Apparently they caught some guy taking pictures of them, which could have been for a number of reasons, but I told them it was simply because of their decibel level.

Step 8: Train Back

Getting on the train was like crowd control, as we did not have the students in waves coming off the ferry.  We made sure they all got there and because it wasn't rush hour it wasn't too tough getting them onto the train, though the ride itself was less than thrilling.  The first incident happened when a man who looked like a child-molesting uni-bomber got on three stops into the ride.  It was a sixty-year-old man who wore sandals, tight jeans and a shirt, a sport coat, those signature uni-bomber glasses, pink ear-bud headphones and looked like he'd had a face-lift.  He happened to stand in front of a large group of my female students and began to dance around slightly to his headphones.  This made me pretty uneasy, as it is not normal behavior for old men on the train (as hard as that is to imagine).  It continued for a while and the only thing I could really do was stand up and put some space between in him and a couple of my students standing up, though he was still directly between about ten who were seated. The fact that one of the standing students encouraged him by dancing along certainly did not help either.

Eventually a student asked me to say something to the man, as she was becoming increasingly uncomfortable.  Now, approaching someone like this on the subway is not necessarily the best idea.  If they are already acting so far out of accepted social norms, it is impossible to predict how they will react if confronted in an enclosed space on a subway car.  Luckily for me, ten seconds after the student requested such action and I was contemplating my move, the doors of the car opened and the man strolled off.

The second incident came when we were back in the Bronx.  I was chatting with a couple of my students when all of a sudden someone who had just walked onto the train thrust his hand into mine and shook it vigorously.  To my surprise it was a student that attended our school last year, who had chosen to attend a different high school.  While I didn't actually have this student in my class, we know one another and have a pretty positive rapport.  He asked about the field trip and noticed that the dance-encouraging, standing student, who happened to be one of the students I'd held back in my class, was on the train.

After finishing our conversation politely, he decided to chat up this young lady, who has the tendency to be less than couth in certain social situations.  What ensued was an escalating verbal bash that was extremely far from appropriate and that might have caused some fainting in the 1950's in certain suburban social circles.  Luckily I was standing between the students and know the students well enough that this barrage of profane remarks did not escalate into physical ones.  The former student got off the train and we got back to school just fine. Thank goodness.

In the end...

It ended up being an unfortunate way to end the field trip, though the reports coming back from staff and students are that the students had a great time.  While I was growing upset with the outcome of the trip as the day progressed, I knew that the success could only be judged by the staff and students after it was all over and by how useful the trip was to the students in terms of learning the curriculum we are studying.  Based on those reports and the work my students are doing based on their trip to Ellis Island, the trip can be pegged as extraordinarily stressful, but a success. Mission accomplished.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Square Peg, Round Hole

This piece by Sir Ken Robinson is pretty spot on.

Changing Paradigms

A random worksheet generator recently asked my students the question: Have computers caused a new social revolution, much as the industrial revolution did a couple of centuries ago?

I hope to address this idea with them throughout the year, as it's one in which I'm supremely interested and one on which much of the academic work I try to do is based.  Robinson talks about how the education system is incredibly outdated and that the standards movement is creating an even larger rift between the way we live and work and the way we expect students to learn things in schools.

Taken a step further, it seems important to realize that computers and the technology we use constantly on a daily basis has led, in my opinion, to a dramatic shift in the way children (and adults) perceive the world.  The idea that children can and do explore, create and experience so much every day outside of school through digital media- the same things adults do when they socialize and go to work- and then disconnect from what is actually the real world in order to attend school systems determined to hold onto the model of education developed hundreds of years ago seems positively ludicrous.

Some of the negative feedback to the piece comes when Robinson implies that ADHD might be simply made up by adults wanting to have more control.  Now, I definitely have students with a hyperactivity disorder, but it's a very small minority.  And over-medication is not necessarily a problem with our students, as the parents don't have the money to buy all of those drugs.  What seem to be more important are the parenting choices made, such as allowing children to play hours and hours of video games every day, encouraging kids to go outside (especially students like ours, who lack a gymnasium), etc.  A short clip in the most recent TIME magazine (October 25) sites "recent studies" that show students who spend two or more hours a day in front of a screen begin to develop "psychological ills," one of which is hyperactivity disorder.

...which was enlightening.  Who would have thought spending hours in front of mind-numbing, flashing lights every single day would have any effect on the way children act?

But that's both here and there.  Those running the system, most of the general public, and a lot of teachers seem hell-bent on standardizing everything, squelching creativity and disconnecting schools from emerging economic patterns in which people collaborate freely and create in ways they enjoy, which are profitable and which are extremely awesome.  While sometimes I see standardized exams as a necessary evil to bring accountability to the system, this is not one of those times. 

So, how do we close the rift between American education and real life- one that seems to be widening?  At this point it's more than predictable that if you base all teacher merit and student merit on exams, teachers are going to spend time- most likely a lot of time- preparing students specifically for those exams.  Whether that's good teaching or not, it seems as though it is what most teachers fall back on.  Adding some other way for students to demonstrate mastery of skills and content might help to alleviate this part of the problem.  Second, providing teachers with the necessary training and students with the necessary hardware to work with online and digital medias to collaborate, much like professionals do on a daily basis, could help to show them that screens are not only for games, but for work as well, and would in many ways reconnect their work in school to work they will do after high school.

From my perspective, there's not a group of stakeholders right now willing to take charge and show our children that difference.  I wonder if, because of funding issues when it comes to putting technology in schools, whether it's the responsibility of those providing the funds and distributing the funds to work to fix this problem.  Because it affects the education system so thoroughly though and because teachers are being held increasingly accountable not only for student achievement, but for student behavior that is a result of this digital home/school disconnect, perhaps it's the teachers' responsibility to demand the training and teach these new social mores- mores that are anything but hard and fast.

Perhaps it's everyone's job, though, and we should stop pointing fingers and flippin' work together to educate our youth.


Friday, October 15, 2010

Slapping and Decent Academics

Given the previous post, I'd like to talk a bit about what's been happening at our school this year.  The teachers, who have not been panicked about the classroom, have been scratching their heads about how the students are acting outside of those classrooms and outside of our school.  As of right now, it seems that are students are working harder than ever in class, but fighting more than ever outside of class. We currently have more superintendent suspensions (the rough equivalent to an expulsion everywhere else) on the books this year than we did during all of last year.  

Case in point- fifth period last Friday.  During this period, my students had their first major online discussion with another school.  This is part of a major collaborative effort that includes four other schools, five teachers, a college professor and potentially an official from the Department of State in Washington.  I was more than pleased with the effort put forth by my students and was surprised as, for the first time in my teaching experience, my students very much held their own in a real discussion about an important topic (justifying war) with students from an entirely different location and background.

Just before fifth period, this outcome was all but certain.  My students stormed up to my door and lined up replaying a major altercation that had just happened between two of my students.  Based on reports given to me since then, two of my girls had a blow-out fight that resulted in them being arrested by the NYPD (the real ones, not the school safety officers) and given thirty school days at an alternate suspension site, which means they won't return to my class until December or so.  Needless to say, I was nervous about how much work the rest of mys students were going to do once I admitted them to my classroom.  Why would they want to talk about anything but a gigantic fight that happened before their eyes just moments ago?

The success of the discussion speaks to the transformation in students and management that has happened over the past couple years.  After a fight two years ago, it was all but impossible to get a class back during the period after the altercation.  That said, the disconnect between behavior in the classroom and the common areas/street this year are perturbing.  Perhaps it says something about the staff in general- that the teachers have their game together enough that the students feel like altercations cannot happen in the classroom and in front of their teachers.  Instead, they're taking their fights out of the classroom and oftentimes out of the building.  A neat little policy, unfortunately,  is that when a student in our building fights another student in the NYC public school system, it can result in a superintendent's suspension, even though it did not occur on any school property.

That counts against us, too.  For those concerned with such things, these events can contribute to a poor report card for the school, which at this point in time can lead to a school shutting down.  I seriously intend to address street violence through our collaborative effort and curriculum, helping students to draw parallels between justifying war and justifying fighting on the individual level.  Should it be assumed, though, that because it hasn't been explicitly covered in class that it's the schools fault the students fight outside of our building?  Or that such a discussion will have that much of an immediate impact?

Should we be held accountable for all fights our students get into?  Or even fights in our building for which the sequence of events clearly points to issues not involving the school at all?

I suppose that's a matter of opinion.  Physically aggressive altercations aside, I'm excited about what my students might accomplish this year.  Through that first discussion they showed academic maturity and critical thinking skills that, while still lacking to a certain extent, are more developed than in the past two years. 

Hopefully they all calm down as well and knock it off with the fisticuffs.


Monday, October 11, 2010

Another Post to Jinx the Year

What the heck.  My two years of experience in the classroom have told me VERY clearly that I'm supposed to engage in a wrestling match of whit, physical and emotional endurance, and sometimes physical restraint with my students before I can start to really get to know them, let alone like them.  It appears as though I haven't learned everything I need to know, however, in the two years I've been doing this job.  Shocker.

The veterans in the field have told me since before I entered the classroom, but especially since I landed in the Bronx, that the third in the classroom is where it's at.  With two years under your belt, there are no more surprises, you have a solid idea of what you are capable of and what you'd like to do in the classroom, and perhaps you've even built something of a reputation for yourself in your school.  Things that were literally impossible your first and even second year fall into place and your job satisfaction spikes delightfully.

Most of that comes simply from experience, comfort level in front of a class, the fact that you know what to expect and your new students don't (though you quickly show them what to expect).  This year, however, my students are set to support, rather than tear down, what I plan to build for them and with them.  They are at least a year younger on average than my first group, they're the size of eighth graders and they seem excited to learn.  Crazy.  When I came to the Bronx from Kansas to years ago, the rest of the staff was cringing for me before the first day of school.  They saw the bus coming to plow me over.  This year I'm hearing comments that make me think they're jealous  The seventh grade math teacher even looped with the students, moving up to fill the empty eighth grade position and to teach this group again.

This combination of good students and a bit of experience has left me absurdly optimistic about what we can do this year.  In two weeks we're headed to Ellis Island for a day, last week we started a major collaborative effort with four other school across the country, and I hope to give them projects they can really run with some intrinsic motivation to do well.  Had I walked into this my first year I certainly would have had a very difficult time.  There are in fact about a half-dozen knuckle-heads who are going to make our lives more difficult, but they don't have that blind disregard for adults and other students the way many of my students did two years ago.

During my first year at this time I was panicked, depressed, confused, and trying to deal with the apparent reality that I was terrible at my job...and that there was no sign it was going to get better.  My weekly phone calls to my parents and best friends back in Kansas left them with the impression that I was close to giving up; that in order to survive I would have to give up what I'd begun.  Now that weekly phone call is quite a bit different and I can tell the first years what I was told: keep working hard and it will get better- perhaps way better- after a year or two.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Book Review: Shop Class as Soulcraft

While I'd like to, I don't take the time to sit down and read many whole books per year.  This past summer I was fortunate enough to find time for two, both of which I'd like to mention on Trying Teaching.  The first is Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford, which is a New York Times Bestseller for a reason.

The author of this book got a PhD in political philosophy and then worked for a think tank in Washington D.C.  He decided that he disliked being "compensated" for working to produce no tangible good or service, so he quit and became a motorcycle repairman.

While there is a lot of great stuff to take away from the book, a couple things related to education stood out to me.  The inherent value of working with your hands to produce something was one of these themes, which is felt throughout the book in the high level of distress at the loss of programs in schools that can train students for great jobs outside of academia.

Urban education is most guilty of the college for everyone mentality.  We strip all real electives out of schools, increase seat time in all core subjects and wonder why our students hate school and drop out.  It's tough though, as the public demands higher scores on reading and math exams and we assume those things won't happen unless there is a lot more seat time in those core subjects.

This past weekend I met the half-sister of a friend of mine while attending his engagement party.  This precocious sixth grader from upstate New York has six electives per semester- gym, home-ec, chorus, band, something else, and something else (plus being a member of the fishing club after school).  All of that AND a double-period of English to boost test scores.  Now, these electives aren't necessarily going to lead directly into a trade and to be honest this girl is probably going to college, where she'll do well, have a great time, graduate, and hopefully be well-balanced.  That said, the tactile things she experiences everyday are an extremely important part of her education.

Our students?  They get one elective per semester and most of them don't care at all for that one elective.  And clubs?  Practically non-existent.

A lot of quotes struck me in this book, but I'll leave you with this one: "if you are attracted to the most difficult books out of an urgent need, and can spare four years to devote yourself to them, go to college."  Many students in this country are not being failed by individual teachers, but by a system and a populace determined to set them up for failure.  It's like cramming a square peg in a round hole.

Sacrilege for the public school teacher?  Or does it simply make more sense than what we're doing?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Importance of Healthy Pregnancy

The cover story of this week's TIME magazine explores the effects of a mother's environment and actions on the life of her fetus.  While it's nothing new to explore how a pregnant woman's actions affect her baby's health, this article addresses the fact that what happens in the womb affects the mental development of the fetus.  The first thing that came to mind was the connection between the fetus, the mother's ability to care for it before and after the pregnancy, and the capacity of the children's brains as they enter formal education.  According to the article, what the mother does during pregnancy could perhaps be tied to test scores, which are about to start determining how much I get paid.  Maybe I should start sending leafy greens home with my students who have pregnant mothers...

When I showed the cover to my class (our weekly post-quiz ritual), we discussed how the polluted air in our neighborhood has led it to have one of the highest asthma rates in the country.  Instead of the condition only developing after our students are born, it's also a result of their mothers breathing in the special South Bronx air when they were pregnant. 

If I wasn't already concerned about the tension between new immigrants and Bronx-born natives as well as outing students with a medical condition, we might have taken a poll on who had asthma and who was born outside of the U.S.  That would have made it a bit more concrete, especially if the data had lined up.

Perhaps we'll do it anyway....