Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Christmas Truce- Cookies All Around

As a follow-up to the epic battle in my classroom the day before, my students took part in a  Christmas Truce a la 1914 Western Front.  Basically, British and German soldiers on the Western Front had a cease-fire, sang songs, and exchanged whatever gifts they could scrape together (cigarettes, etc.).  Instead of tobacco, I gave students the cookies I bake every year to give to their enemies, which allowed me to tie them into the curriculum as the young, courageous soldiers exchanged gifts on the battlefield in No Man's Land, where just the day before they'd attacked one another furiously.

While a few people have told me, "I wish I had done that in school," after hearing about our near-mortal combat, it's important that the action isn't simply "playing war", but that it ties in neatly with the curriculum and is followed up with the practice of a skill.  If not, the simulation for many of them is just seen as an easy day of goofing around in history class.  In this case, the students practiced letter writing and we reinforced a paragraph structure that has been taught cross-curricularly by our entire team.  To do this the students had to write a letter home to their parents from the perspective of a WWI soldier.

We also debriefed the simulation and had a short discussion about how it reflected combat during the time period: why the combat was so defensive, how the development of certain weaponry and tactics went hand-in-hand with the war (tanks for example), and also how each roll of the dice reflected something the soldiers actually had to deal with.  By the end of the debrief, it was clear the students saw the difference between playing Call of Duty and the conditions soldiers face in combat- something past students in my class never seemed to grasp.  As it turns out, soldiers on our front lines have never just sat in beanbag chairs drinking soda and eating refined sugar while in the thick of it.

The Christmas Truce angle helped take the simulation into another class period, which helped nail the point home.  Because the attendance is so poor in our high school and in many across the city and because standardized testing leaves everyone with the impression that history is simply a series of events, dates and names we should all know, history teachers tend to encapsulate each lesson into a small package that can theoretically be handed to students at any time in one single class period.  The result is that students don't understand major driving factors in history, such as economics, government regulation, the fight for personal liberties, etc.  It's assumed that if we build these themes over time, students with poor attendance will be more and more lost and therefore will do more poorly on the exam, which in turn would increasingly affect the teacher's job performance ratings.  I don't think that the former approach is very wise, personally, but I also don't have to deal with a standardized test at the end of the year that might determine whether I keep my job or not. 

Anyway, throwing things, wearing gas masks, and eating cookies will also help to drive the major historical concepts home, I hope.  The Christmas Truce went rather well, regardless, and we all enjoyed a favorite James Family cookie on the day before winter break.  My lieutenants from the previous day met first in No Man's Land, shaking hands to show their troops it was safe.  Then the sergeants lined up the troops on either side, distributed the presents for exchange, and ordered their two squads- one at a time- to exchange gifts and shake hands with the enemy.

Finally, we connected the simulation to the collaborative work we've done with four other schools this year, thus attaching it to a major theme being studied and developed as the year progresses.  Once a month our students discuss what justifies war live on a discussion platform with students from one or more of the other schools. The frequency gives teachers time during other weeks to tie it back into their own, more specific curriculum (everything from the back half of U.S. history to global history to a current events course), providing additional framework for the students to fall back on and with which they can tie history together more easily on their own- not in a sack of bundles brought around by Santa Claus.

Of course, if the kids don't come to school, they have not developed any opinion about what justifies going to war within the scope of U.S. history, nor have they received any cookies from me or their enemies.

Friday, December 24, 2010

At War in My Classroom

This week my students engaged in mortal combat.  Some of them perished, some went (more) insane, and others survived to tell the tale.  Hopefully they'll do just that.

The following military maneuvers were carried out in conjunction with our World War One unit, which included a Trench Warfare Simulation. The following is the battle plan for the lesson:

General:    Classroom Teacher- overseas entire battle
Colonel:    Any other adult in the room.  One reads the battle commands rolled by the lieutenants.
Lieutenant:    Rolls the dice and commands his/her side of the battlefield.
Sergeant:    Help carry out orders from the Lieutenant.
Artillery Gunner:    In charge of any artillery fired.
Soldier/Private:    All other students.

Battle Plan
Class is divided into two armies.  Each army will have a lieutenant, who rolls dice to determine what command he or she will give.

On each side of the room, desks are arranged in a row that simulates the trench.  These are spaced far enough apart to create a “No Man’s Land” in the center of the room.  On one end of each row of desks will be a group of circular desks that represents a dugout in which students can sit outside of the elements (rain and snow), but with the companionship of rats, fleas, and lice.

Across the center of the floor in No Man’s Land is tape clearly dividing the room.
*******Students are forbidden from crossing this line at any time*********

Only approved projectiles may be throw in the classroom.  If any unapproved projectile is thrown, the person will receive an immediate 30-minute detention and a call home- in this case on Christmas Eve.  Each army will be furnished with a case of approved projectiles.

Each Lieutenant will roll the dice and determine what action to take against the enemy.  He or she will also divvy out the responsibility of charging the enemy, etc. to his or her own soldiers.  The following are possible battle actions:

2.     The Lieutenant is killed by a sniper from the enemy army.
3.     Four of your soldiers die from spoiled food and dysentery
4.     Rats eat the feet off two of your soldiers and they must be discharged.
5.     Gas attack on your enemy!  Anyone in their dugout without a mask dies.  The rest of the soldiers have 30 seconds to get a gas mask on or climb out of the trench into No Man's Land* or they die.
6.     Two of your enemies are killed by friendly fire**.
7.     You wait around and nothing happens.
8.     IN SLOW MOTION: Seven of your soldiers charge into No Man’s Land* and kill three enemy soldiers.  Five are killed on the way back to the trenches.
9.     An artillery shell lands on your dugout.  Everyone inside is killed.
10. An artillery shell falls on your front line.  The two soldiers closest to it die.
11. One of your soldiers goes crazy and has to be sent off the front line.
12. IN SLOW MOTION: Your entire line charges the enemy* and is promptly gunned down by the opposing side’s machine-gun fire and rifles.

*Any time a soldier enters No Man's Land the opposing army may open fire with ammunition.
**Students open fire on their own comrade.

During the Course of Battle
  • Once you are out, you must stand at the front of the room until the next round.
  • The winner may be declared by the general at any time.
    • Large bin of paper balls, collected lovingly from the floor and desks of the classroom over the course of  the two months prior to the simulation. 
    • Two large foam balls, which will serve as artillery shells.
    • Two dice
    • A dozen gas masks procured from an army surplus outlet/website.  I got a bunch of Russian surplus masks to hand out to the kids.
    • 1 (or more) sweet WWI replica helmet(s), purchased online or at the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.
    Closing Remarks
    My hope is that after the paper balls are silenced and they returned home to their families, these brave soldiers will remember what they saw and did here.  My hope is that their deeds are recounted to those who have come before them and the countless others who will come after them.  Then- and only then- these shenanigans will not have been in vain.

      Tuesday, December 21, 2010

      Oh My God the Germans

      Every day a group of ten children drive me insane.  I willingly do battle with their intellects, quick wits, and insatiable desire to talk and talk and talk and talk.  This group I refer to lovingly as "The Germans" because I'm supposed to be teaching them the language.  What actually happens is an entirely different story.

      Last spring, I piloted a German course.  As far as I know, it was the only German course in the South Bronx. A group of students was rounded up that was willing to sit through my excruciating lessons and a slow, five month long train wreck ensued.  Of the six students, three were willing to do the work, while three did their damnedest every day to screw around and give me a hard time.  As the spring wore on, the student who tried the hardest and was most proficient was kicked out for encouraging wildly racist behavior (think gigantic swastika in the cafeteria) and the one female/reasonable student finally gave up at the quarter, as the other four boys were derailing her mental stability considerably.  With three months left in the year, four young men and I stayed after school and had at best an experiment in human behavior, learning a few German phrases here and there whenever they screwed up so badly that I lost it completely, which in turn made them feel bad enough to give me their attention for several moments.

      This fall I'd hoped to regroup, restructure, and move forward with the effort.  I dropped all of them but one- one of the brightest students we have in the school- and put him on an independent study track with my old personal laptop, some language software, and weekly language check-ins.  Then, over the summer, the best students from last year were recruited and encouraged to join- and join they did.  In August I was extremely excited about the prospects of a reformed German I class.

      And then, with a sort of awkward trip into the school year, most things went wrong.  The largest miscalculation was that these students were all extremely good friends.  In the first week it became apparent that I'd created a ten-student beast of a management problem.  These students were used to being the buffers for the misbehaving, miscreant classmates with which we're all too familiar.  They rarely sit near one another because of that- and never more than two at a time.  Now I'd taken them all and put them in a single room alone, creating a need for buffers for the buffers.  The fact that this was an extended-day elective did not help the problem at all.

      Several additional problems then cropped-up: I expected them to be able to just "pick up" the language, much like they had picked up history; supplies ordered at the end of last school year never arrived; and, the online software we piloted sucked.

      After the entire first marking period was a wash, I've finally begun to deal with these facts in the past month.  The supply issue is still not fixed- nothing to be done there, so we're moving on.  We've officially abandoned the online course platform, which was not cheap, but created huge management problems while at the same time not teaching the children any German.  I then accepted a fact I told them at the beginning of the year, but apparently didn't believe enough: we all had to actively engage in the language to learn it.  Many of them have learned both Spanish and English at home, which gives them the impression that they can simply acquire the language via proximity to a German-speaker (presumably me).  I've made it clear now to both them and to myself that acquiring a foreign language is completely different than picking a language up via family members.

      And so, the Germans and I have started marching through the text at a decent clip.  I've gotten serious about planning, prepping and holding them accountable for their work and we've finally pulled ourselves onto dry land and started moving in the right direction.  While we still have our rocky days, it's finally apparent that some German is sticking- they know the numbers very well and can FINALLY conjugate regular verbs (holy god, don't get me started).  In a month they'll decide whether or not to continue their German journey or switch out to another elective.  I'll post an update when the results are in, but I expect a few to stick around.  That will allow me to continue my first year as a real foreign language teacher: an alarmingly life-like, one-tenth scale replica of my first year as a U.S. history teacher in the South Bronx.

      Image: http://verydemotivational.memebase.com/?id=56661

      Saturday, December 18, 2010

      Teacher Tenure/Black-Balled from the Boy Scouts

      The article in the New York Times this week about teacher tenure made me think that the new plan for tenuring teachers is pretty reasonable.  Its goal is to making the tenuring of teachers less automatic and more thorough, really taking a look at the abilities of each individual teacher.  This issue brings me back to a similar situation I faced ten years ago as a member of the Boy Scouts of America: I was black-balled from speaking at Boy Scout functions because of my views on how easy it was to attain the highest rank in the organization.

      In the Boy Scouts of America, the highest rank is Eagle Scout.  It's assumed that if you are an Eagle Scout, you are a capable leader with a large base of knowledge in the ways of scouting, including things such as camping, first aid, survival skills, and the ability to contribute to the community.  When I joined my troop in a suburb of Kansas City, the adults and older scouts were doing a great job of holding younger scouts accountable for acquiring these skills as they progressed through the ranks.

      As I became one of the older scouts in that troop, something struck me and my peers as alarming- the troop had begun to turn into what we referred to as an "Eagle Factory".  This meant that the adults were trying to pump a ton of scouts through to the top rank, mostly in order to pat themselves on the back, ignoring the consequences of doing so.  Never mind if a number of the new Eagle Scouts couldn't start a fire or that recruiting dozens of kids a year led to astronomical dropout rates.

      Now, when you receive the rank of Eagle Scout, it is given to you at a ceremony called an "Eagle Court of Honor".  During this ceremony there are several speeches that are to be given by older Eagle Scouts to those just receiving the rank, to the audience, and to the rest of the troop.  In our troop, one of these speeches was called the Life Challenge.  The basic idea was to tell those who were one rank away from Eagle Scout (Life Scouts) that they should get a move on, complete the requirements, and finish the thing out in a hurry.  These scouts were addressed specifically because there was and is a huge dropout rate amongst those who reach this rank.  As it turns out, the final rank is a doozy and the young men generally are just starting high school as they reach the second-highest rank.  As you might imagine , there are many things in high school that distract potential Eagle Scouts from working toward the rank, especially given the fact that their main social event every week involves only other boys up until that point. 

      At one particular Court of Honor I had been selected by the rising Eagle Scouts to give this speech, but instead of encouraging the Life Scouts to hurry things along, I told them to do the opposite.  I told them that before they were granted the rank of Eagle Scout they should actually be experts in their field (scouting).  I told them that when I'd received the rank I did not deserve it- that I had not been an expert in the field and that it had taken two more years of experience to feel justified in calling myself an Eagle Scout.  Left unspoken was my supreme irritation that handing out the rank like detentions on Friday afternoons cheapened it dramatically.

      Because of this speech, the adults in the troop informed me afterward that I was no longer allowed to give that or any other speech at Eagle Courts of Honor, which in turn led to my disassociation with the organization soon thereafter.

      And so the article that showed up in the New York Times this week about teacher tenure struck a chord with me when it comes to holding people accountable before they are given a rank or status meant to indicate their expertise in a field.  In much the same way as boy scouts should be experts in their field before achieving their highest rank, teachers should be extremely competent before they are granted tenure in our schools. 

      Additionally, this profession is in the midst of an identity crisis and the last thing it needs is a system that rewards any undeserving teachers. While teaching will never be a profession that will make people rich- our tax base simply cannot handle that- it can draw the best people in through the perception that teaching carries with it prestige.  It seems to me that making tenure a difficult thing to get- making it something only the best teachers can be granted- might help to bring prestige back to the positions held by our best teachers.

      Of course, we'll see how I really feel about this if and when I'm offered tenure at the end of this year.

      Tuesday, December 14, 2010

      Ten Decisively Difficult Digits

      Calling parents is important, but extremely time consuming.  You'd think that calling three parents would take about ten minutes, right?  Between finding the right number and working to find a solution with a parent (regrettably, most phone calls are negative) or simply listening to a parent distressed by their child, calling a handful of parents can take far longer than expected. Given the amount of communications technology we all use on a daily basis, it should certainly be easier.

      Something that never occurred to me as a problem before I began teaching in the South Bronx was that phone numbers stop working.  It's usually due to the fact that the number given to the school was either a prepaid cell phone that's run out of minutes or the phone service at home has simply been shut off.    To be honest, there are not many good solutions, but endless frustration regarding the issue.  To say the least, tracking down numbers can be quite a hassle.  You start with the basics, like checking the information card the students filled out at the beginning of the year.  From there an email or text is sent to colleagues and after that a search is carried out for numbers on old permission slips or the various papers handed out during the year that required a phone number be listed.  When you find it, you may also have to wait for a family member to translate back and forth to the parent, which takes even more time.

      Last week I had a bit of a commiseration tantrum on my prep in the small teacher's work room on our floor.  I was coming down with a cold and was irritable not only because of that, but because a few boys I teach felt that it was a great day to demonstrate their skills in screwing around in my second period class.  When their home numbers didn't work, I got pretty pissed off, ranting that I shouldn't even have to make the calls I was going to make, let alone deal with numbers that don't work; that it should not be my responsibility to keep the number on the school-wide server up-to-date with the latest number for the household; that these parents have already been called a hundred times this year because their kids are bouncing off the walls and not a single one has called me to follow up or see if there has been any improvement or change in behavior after their presumed "intervention" had been implemented at home.  Somehow it is entirely my job to keep a hundred sets of parents up-to-date on how their child is doing in my class- even given the fact that they have my email, phone number, access to all of our lessons online and their child's grades in all classes.

      Now that I'm well and more reasonable, I still get frustrated with the amount I call for negative reasons and the time it takes.  For example, I promised the same second period class that if their temperaments did not improve, everyone with so much as a warning would receive a call home.  On the first two nights I followed through with the promise, I called over half the class.  On average, I spoke with about a third of the parents called, had no working number for three or four, and left messages for the rest, really having no clue as to whether they would make it to the parent.  Last night I called six students, as the class has simmered down a bit, and I spoke with approximately the same proportion.

      How can this be remedied on my end?  Perhaps emailing the parents would work, though the message does lack a sense of immediacy if the parent doesn't read it by the evening it's sent.   Perhaps incorporating more texting of parents into the school-home communication would be helpful, though the same issue with pre-paid phones would apply and if there is no response it's difficult to say if the parent ever got the message.  It's also really tempting sometimes to say, "An attempt was made to contact home, I wash my hands of this issue."  To be honest, it is said.  It would be impossible for me to call and get ahold of every parent for every single infraction that requires a call to be placed.  That said, minimizing this "I told you so/pass the buck" mentality is important, as the stakeholders should be working with one another, not ignoring one another.

      The mentors I had during my first year always told me that if you make a positive call between every negative call, they all become much less exhausting.  Unfortunately they do no become less time consuming, which means that if I were to follow through with that plan I would probably be on the phone a couple hours each night and half my weekend, which simply isn't feasible.  Instead, I'd like to begin capitalizing on the technology the parents do have in the house.  According to the kids, most the ones with faulty phone service still have reliable internet connections (how could the kids play Call of Duty without it?) or check their email at work.  There is also no reason I shouldn't be able to text parents with short updates on their kids.  The idea that a phone call and only a phone call must be placed in order to give a parent information might reflect the age of the education system itself, which is held back from innovation by miles of red tape and tends to continue doing business the way it's been done- even if the technology and resources are there to innovate and improve.

      Friday, December 10, 2010

      Epic Battles with the Sickness

      For two days this week I warded off the illness.  Who knows why it came traipsing in this time, but I let loose with a barrage of remedies and sure-fire tactics, giving the old college try and the what for.  Luckily the efforts repelled the attack on my immune system enough to allow me to go into work, but only just so.  It gets pretty rough down in the trenches when you feel like crap, that's for sure, and there's no telling what the source of the ailment even was, as working with children sometimes is like working in a cesspool.  Knowing how to combat the various bacteria, viruses and otherwise being passed around by students is important.

      On Wednesday morning I felt just fine.  I taught through my morning classes, noticing just a bit more than the normal fatigue in my fifth period class and by the time my prep period rolled around an overwhelming sense of dread was creeping upon me as an aching feeling began to spread through my body.  Couple that with a dull pain developing in the back of my head and I knew it was on.

      Going back into the classroom for my extended-day elective, all I could do was sit and watch it come.  In the meantime, I gave that class a stern lecture about how German cannot just be "picked up" like most of the content in rest of their classes (those students are my high-fliers from last year).  By the time they walked out the door, I was not only out of breath from my own frustrated bantering, but from the incredible, rapid surprise assault going on all over the inside of my body.

      My counter-attack was planned on the train back to the Upper East Side.  It involved a vitamin-laced smoothy, Tylenol, sleep, green tea, TheraFlu, more sleep and an astounding amount of vitamin C, all taken in a specific order to maximize their effectiveness before I had to take the train back into the South Bronx yesterday.  After slurping down the ice-cold Juice Stop "cold-buster" smoothy on the way home, I crashed for an hour knowing full and well the peril of taking a nap at 6PM while feeling ill, while not being planned for the next day.  It was two-fold:  first, I might not wake up until the morning, still having nothing planned; second, I could possibly feel worse in the morning.  The combination of these two things is a one-two punch, the recovery from which is extremely rare. 

      Luckily, I was able to pull myself out of bed after an hour, plan my lesson for Thursday and finish a few other necessary tasks for the week before drinking the sleep-inducing, store-brand TheraFlu and passing out a full two hours early (10PM).

      Yesterday I woke up feeling as though the onslaught had been repelled, but not stopped.  An Emergen-C (a super-vitamin fizzy drink) served as breakfast, as I couldn't stomach anything, but that unfortunately did not make me want to vomit any less as the train rocked to and fro on the way to school.  After chewing on a piece of sandwich bread I'd packed, the sensation subsided and I was able to carry out my normal morning routine.  In fact, as the day progressed and the blood started flowing again, I felt better and better.

      After school yesterday I had a stomach-ache and knew I needed to get some rest, but it seemed as though my battle waged against the sickness had been successful.  To be cautious I went to bed an hour and a half early and am feeling close to 100% today.  Tonight I'm going to roast a chicken, saute potatoes and have some red wine, just to thumb my nose at the intruders of yesterday and the day before.

      Sunday, December 5, 2010

      School Spirit at Bars and with Pies

       Our school has a spirit issue.  Without a gym, we lack the sport teams, mascots and marching bands that bind together many other schools (and sometimes whole towns) in the United States.  Because we're a small school and more especially because of budget cuts, we are not able to offer many electives, which are the main draw for many students in the U.S.  The four we offer really cease to be "electives" and become instead "requireds", as most students don't actually actively choose to take any of them.  For the same reasons, clubs are rare and the extra couple electives we added after school (including my German program) are on the chopping block for the spring.  Given the fact that many, if not most, students around the country don't show up to high school (and middle school) just to learn U.S. history and biology, this lack of activities has has led in part to a severe lack of school spirit amongst our students.  It seems more or less there is some essential ingredient- some kind of glue- that we lack in order to pull the school together as a community.

      It also seems as though the staff is well aware of this problem.  In order to combat it, we do host a number of events throughout the year that attempt to pull the school community together.  Some of these include a major science fair, a number of dances and, several weeks ago, a spirit week.  The latter included things such as wacky tacky day (I dressed alarmingly similarly to the way I dressed normally in high school), pajama day, dress for success day, twin day, and crazy hat/hair day (for which I supplied my whole team with fantastic hats).  Overall the week went OK and was pretty fun, but didn't seem to leave the us with a resonating, lasting feeling of pride for our school.

      However, there is one area where we've seen progress in our school community:  We've taken on the challenge as an eighth grade team to send our students to Washington D.C.  in June for an overnight trip.  During the process of planning and fundraising for it, we've seen the school come together in a few ways that we've not in the past three years (on our team, only our guidance counselor has been at our school longer than three years).  The first event was a fundraiser at a pub on the Upper East Side, around where I live.  While it sounds strange to mix a school event and a pub, we essentially directed the staff and their friends to a locale that would help fund our trip by directing our dollars back to the school, dollars we normally spend on a given Friday night.  Don't worry, no parents or children were even told of the event (though children did make posters for the undisclosed event simply appealing to the masses for donations).   Over the course of the evening a large portion of the staff was there, had a great time and were very cognizant of the fact that our efforts were going to support and improve our school culture.  In turn, the culture of our staff improved.

      The second fundraising event happened in our school.  We sold tickets to students and staff who wanted to throw a pie at the face of several volunteer staff members.  While not wildly profitable, the event itself saw a solidarity in attention and behavior I've not seen in our students before- especially in the lunch room with two grades present.  The idea of students throwing pies in faces was enough to get even the poorly-behaved students to follow directions and listen.  Everyone thought the whole thing was hilarious (except the custodian) and it became one of the most memorable moments of the year for students and staff alike (one veteran teacher even remarked that it was the most memorable experience she'd had at the school).

      Now, school spirit cannot be built solely on pies and beer.  And while many university students seem to think the latter helps considerably in this area, our 6-12 school needs to find something else- something to bind it together as a community.  Our students need to want to walk in our door every day for some reason- even if that reason is a solid elective or club.  Without a gym, practice fields or money to fund teams, it doesn't look like a sport will be a lasting institution to be founded in the school any time soon.  
      What else might it be?