Saturday, January 22, 2011

Teacher Quits, is Replaced

Over Christmas break, our math teacher moved to Hawaii.  This was of course a huge hiccup in our school year, especially given the fact that our grade had a functioning teaching team that relied on one another for support and backup.  Instead of writing my initial reaction, which I knew would fade given some time, I've waited to see how the whole thing would pan out.  Here is the progression:

Initial Reaction:
Shocked. Disbelief. Betrayal- morphing into an increasingly irritable and then extraordinary anger.  What the f*** do you mean you're LEAVING????????  There is no way in hell you can seriously be walking out on the best group of students this school has seen in a long time- perhaps ever.  I KNOW you're aware of how disruptive this is to the students' lives, let alone their education- especially the population we teach.  Hell, you were hired mid-year for the same, exact reason for which your replacement will need to be hired.  You can shove all of the personal bullsh** and issues you have with this city and this job.  It isn't about you and your g**da** feelings.  It's about the kids.

Go sit on a surfboard and rotate.

Secondary Reaction:
WTF.  If you were a bad teacher, I'd say- by all means, get the hell out.  If your presence in the classroom was dangerous to my students I'd be the one pushing the union, the DOE, and our administration for your removal.  As it turns out, though, you're half-way decent and could be a very solid asset if your head was in the game and on the team.  The students respect you and know that you are good for them.  That said, your commitment was for another full school year and is not over. What you're doing is really, really crappy.

And do you want to know what REALLY pisses me off about all of this?  A core group of girls- a group of students excited to learn for the hell of it not just because social pressure demands it- because it doesn't around here- with THAT group you started a basketball season with them, drawing in some of our girls from the fringes and getting them to finally do something productive with themselves this year.  And now that's falling flat.  They are extremely disappointed.  They are crushed.  You were told by our very reasonable guidance counselor that you SHOULD NOT start a season that you couldn't finish.  Now their team has all but fallen apart, the girls still playing are disenchanted and the fringe girls are back to where they started.

And another thing- don't feed me that "once in a lifetime opportunity" bullsh**.  Hawaii's schools have a reputation similar to the South Bronx.  You certainly could have gotten a job at a school out there sometime in the future- a future that is at the end of the school year and is not destroying something we'd been building for four months and the team has been building for three years now.

Go sit on a coconut and rotate. 

Current Reaction:
When the same guidance counselor found out that you were in fact leaving, she was not shocked or in disbelief.  The reaction had nothing to do with you, but with the many, many teachers that came before you.  Teaching in the South Bronx is anything but easy and those who haven't been there cannot begin to understand what it's like to be on the front line in education.  The fact that we call it the "front line" is somewhat telling.

Secondly, when teachers have left in the past, it has made my life much more difficult.  My first year in the classroom was nothing short of horrendous.  This was in part due to a lack of team dynamics, which was made worse by that fact that our English position was like a revolving door (those kids had six English teachers in two years).  Last year we had a similar, albeit not as serious, problem with the math position.  We'd hoped with you stepping into the position that the problem had been solved, but instead you stung us.  Had the prior experiences with teachers leaving not occurred, I probably wouldn't have been so pissed.

Lastly, your replacement is working out rather well.  He's competent, knowledgeable, and knows from experience what he's gotten himself into.  I'm sure, in fact, that there are a few things I could learn from him myself.

Rotating on something might be a bit harsh, but I still hope you have a SPAM overdose or are subjected to some unfortunately warm beer or something like that.

The whole thing seems to be turning out alright.   It's tough to lose a teammate, but getting a solid replacement certainly helps.  We were extremely lucky with the mid-year hire, as generally any teacher that is even approaching solid is hired before school starts.  If the replacement stays on, which I believe he will, the team will be more solid than ever.  This class of students will most likely do as well as we though they would or perhaps even better.  While I would probably defend my initial reaction (more because I'm stubborn than anything else), it was a bit extreme.

The whole incident also revived some of the bright-eyed ideas I had in the School of Ed.  Thoughts like, "What do you think we're trying to do here?" and "This isn't even about us"- large, generalized thoughts that are quickly cast aside in the first year in the interest of survival- resurfaced.  While I'd like to consider myself among the more optimistic teachers around, it's still easy to get caught up in the teachers' lounge-style grumbling from time to time.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Bedbug Follow-Up Sensation!

On Saturday afternoon this past weekend, my fiancée was cleaning underneath our the bed and she found a bug.  Time stopped.  All hands were on deck and every man proceeded to the "bedroom" (we live in a large studio). After an extensive investigation, it was determined to be a bedbug.  Awhile back I wrote a piece about media sensationalism and how a single dead bedbug was found in our school.  Given a very personal, recent experience with battling the things, I would like to offer an updated opinion about how the discovery of bedbugs at our school should have played out.

When a bug was found in our school, the administration followed Department of Education protocol.  We informed the DOE, sent the single, dead bug to the proper lab and waited for the results with the strict instructions that we could not tell our students' parents.  When the the bug was confirmed to be a bedbug, the media found out before our school, which meant that even as a major city news station was reporting on the incident, our school could not notify parents because we'd not been given the go ahead from our district superintendent to do so. 

Given my new experience with the pests, the whole thing could have been an incredible inconvenience and could have caused real problems for the families who send their kids to our school- if there had been a real problem.  My fiancée and I called in an exterminator, are not sure who's footing the bill, washed/dried/sent to cleaners all of our clothes, cleaned and sprayed every nook and cranny of our apartment and crossed our fingers to make sure what we've done will prove sufficient.  It took two full days over a holiday weekend- nearly as much work as moving an entire apartment.  If a few hundred families in as many building across the South Bronx had to do the same, it would have been an incredible financial and psychological drain on the community.  What does that mean for the responsibility of the media in this case?

I still believe the reporter who blabbed all over the news that our school had "bed bugs" was irresponsible, unfortunate, sensationalist, and utterly irritating.  It was yet another example of individual schools being attacked when the NYC public school system is at fault (if there is blame to be placed) for whatever problem might have arisen- in this case it was red tape getting in the way of valuable information being given out to members of our community as quickly as possible.  Our hands were tied, for goodness sake!  We were damned if we told the parents and damned if we didn't.  The reporter should have submitted a story about how the school was unable to inform parents right away because we were ordered not to, which might have led to a problem in the community that we are very much a part of and strive to serve day in and day out.  The story would have been more appropriate had it been about how the DOE is like the Titanic headed toward and iceberg- it cannot avoid many disasters because its size prevents it from quick action.  Here, our school should have been allowed to act based on the administrations' best judgment, thus eliminating the lag in the dispersal of information valuable to our community (not the DOE's or the reporter's).

In sum, I can say now that with personal bedbug battle experience:  the media, the DOE, and bedbugs can be/are extraordinarily bothersome.  I don't much care for any of them right now.  

Friday, January 14, 2011

Seventy Percent Snow Day

 On Wednesday there was an undeclared snow day for seventy percent of our student body.  As the doors opened up, in walked a single student of the thirty in my home room class.  It was pretty surreal and set the stage for a day when everyone felt a bit confused and somewhat ripped off.

As the period continued, eight more students trickled into my home room and we spent the time putting up fliers about payment deadlines for our D.C. trip instead of reading silently as we do every Wednesday.  By the end of the period, we had less than a third of the grade in our classrooms.  With the math teacher out and the English teacher upstairs grading a Regents (state exit) exam, the science teacher and I hastily put together lessons that would both keep attention and provide for some talking points (a moderately educational class day).  Meanwhile, the students contemplated simply leaving and the reason why they came to school in the first place.

The sense that we'd somehow been hosed permeated the building, while at the same time there was an acknowledgment that we had to do something with our time.  Every single one knew that any lesson being presented would either be retaught or were not part of the normal curriculum.  Luckily, most of them also knew it would be easier to just sit and half-comply than fight it. This did not include my fifth period class, who fought and screamed and whined about being made to do any work, but then oddly devoured a National Geographic documentary that was far from extraordinarily exciting.

I'm really quite torn about what to think of the situation.  The whole time part of me wanted to say, "Screw it.  The city said their was school and the kids chose to stay home."  This is generally what I think the day before or after a long weekend or holiday when kids decide to extend their time off by a day or two.  In this case, however, the attendance rate was so absurd that to penalize all the students would be to shoot everyone in the foot (or at least stomp on most of the toes), including myself, right before the end of the semester.  Parents clearly played a larger role in the decision to stay home, sending a strong signal their opinion on keeping schools open differed from the Department of Ed.

Adding to this line of thinking, as a colleague of mine so astutely pointed out, the trash truck drivers were given the day off and the mayor declared a state of weather emergency in the city, while the teachers were still expected to report to their classrooms.

That said, in reality the snow wasn't actually all that bad.  Yes, there was some slipping and sliding, as snow will generally cause, but this was no crisis.  The kids who did come got to school just fine, as did the teachers.  Given the political debacle that arose during winter break over the mishandling of a legitimate snow storm, the city was pretty on point when the snow started falling Tuesday night.  Heck, underneath our train station their was even a whole team of MTA workers with shovels just about to get back to work after standing around for a while. 

And so, there was plenty of complaining and confusion at work on Wednesday.  We came, we saw, and we were confused.  As much as folks complained, it was still practically a day off for those who showed up to school, which was nearly all of the teachers and forty-five percent of kids in NYC.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Why Bother in Winter?

Over the next month, our schedule seems to twist and turn and not settle down... ever.  Some people enjoy this, and it would be dishonest if I said I didn't count myself amongst them at times, but it's extraordinarily disruptive to the education process.  Having solid weeks with no days off is extremely helpful in maintaining order and routine, which our students in particular crave/require.

Here are the upcoming disruptions to deal with:
  • January 11th- Three grades in our building have a testing day and go home early.  This will trickle down in some way, shape or form to the the grades I teach.
  • January 12th- Predicted snow storm will bring down attendance- regardless of whether snow falls or not.
  • January 17th is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day- an important holiday, but I'm sure Dr. King, if asked, would say he'd prefer students to be in school (perhaps those in poverty in particular).
  • January 21st- A winter dance in the afternoon, which, while not taking up class time, certainly lens to plenty of distraction.
  • January 25th-28th is a testing schedule during which students only really report for the tests they take.  No "real" instruction occurs.
  • January 31st is the end of our first semester- no students report.
  • February 11th- Half day due to Parent Conferences, which is preceded by a school day going from 7:30-8:30, with Parent Conferences tacked onto the end.
  • February 21st-25th is our Midwinter Recess, which means no school.  This tends to irritate people in the Midwest until they've been released for summer for over a month and we're still in school.
The first two weeks of February each year have also felt as if classrooms are in more of a holding pattern than moving in a particular direction.  Many teachers are also prone to counting down the days until the next break, which seems to entrench the this holding-pattern psyche.  Instead of working (and sometimes fighting) toward something, those who adopt the mentality are weathering the storm and working to survive.

While it might be raining one everyone's parade, I crave the five-day weeks knowing full and well that the regularity will allow us to cover more material in less time.  Projects are not chopped up through the breaks like my next large one will be.  We're undertaking a massive school culture initiative with a nod from the administration, which will be more difficult as the research and work days will be scattered across a couple of partial weeks before the deadline we were given.  Hopefully our pitches for a school mascot don't boil down to a last-minute PowerPoint on vampires, lobsters or the Yankees.

With the staggered start and stop, students will also forget about the web of historical ideas we've carefully woven day after day (or what ideally has been a web).  In the next month it will be difficult to avoid teaching lesson-by-lesson with the hope that they simply retain some of it.

And it pains a guy born in Minneapolis to say this, but I hope it doesn't snow much for the rest of the winter...


Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Facebook Classroom Connection

As a classroom teacher, the influence our students have over one another through a blend of online and offline interactions is stunning.  What used to only be student interaction on the playground in school has exploded like nobody's business into online social scenes and live video game playing.  Very few, in fact, will argue that social networking sites (SNS)- in particular Facebook- are not playing a major role in our society, even if that role is difficult to define.  Students' lives and the lives of adults are now shaped in part by what happens on these sites.  To me that reeks of educational potential.

This image from the Huffington Post was sent to me by a colleague.  It is not a map, but instead a diagram of all the connections between Facebook users to one another.  As what can loosely be characterized as the third largest "country" on the planet, Facebook has attracted users in nearly every physical country across the globe- hence the Earth-shaped image.  Sites like it and LinkedIn, a much smaller (though substantial) SNS geared toward a world of professionals, have become the places to interact with friends and do business.  Because of them our social circles have grown extraordinarily and we interact daily, however superficially, with more individual humans than ever before.

On the ground in the classroom, we're trying to make sense of this shift in human behavior along with everyone else, while at the same time attempting the dual task of applying it to classroom instruction.  Some teachers, young and old, are extremely resistant to trying out new forms of technology in the classroom, while others jump in head first.  Regardless of the level of enthusiasm, it is important to test the waters before committing large blocks of instructional time (which is increasingly devoted to a mechanized, standards/test-prep style of instruction) to using such technology, but its incorporation into the working lives of our students seems like a natural next step, just as its organic incorporation into our daily lives has taken place. 

Many of us on the ground have devoted hundreds and thousands of hours finding ways to effectively bridge the gap between students' mammoth tech-socializing skills and their academic skills.  After two and a half years I still have very few answers, though this year the team I'm working with outside of the classroom has found some success by incorporating an SNS into academic discussion forums.  Sometimes when we seem to be hitting a road block I wonder if devoting so much instructional time (most Fridays) to the work is worthwhile, but given this image of how the world is now and will continue to be connected, it seems worthwhile to continue looking for the questions and answers necessary to retrack education to reflect the social revolution taking place through these social networking sites, even if the answers are that we shouldn't move in that direction.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Happy Flippin Holidays

With the holidays all but over, it's time to reflect, regroup, and make sure we're ready for the kids tomorrow.  Thinking about what the break is really like for teachers and students helps to keep me grounded and away from the expectation that my classroom will magically change into something it's not in the New Year.

Students Go Nuts Before Break
Clearly.  Behaviors begin to change wildly and unexpectedly.  Some students slowly begin to act out and by the time break comes around they're angry, apprehensive and already prepared to return in January.  It's clear that for those students winter break is no break at all, but a time when they have to confront one or more major, painful issues in their lives.  For some it's a lack of food at home, while for others simply being around their family is emotionally (and sometimes physically) scarring. This all spills over into the week after break.

The time leading up to break was no different this year.  One student in particular astonished me with his about-face.  Nearly every single day up until December 13th he'd blurted out, said inappropriate things and made my life much more difficult.  He'd found the spot to which he could push, retreat, and repeat without being tossed out of class (which is illegal in this city anyway).  The result was extreme frustration on my part, especially since there was very little support at home.  Two weeks before the holiday, however, he became a perfect student:  no blurting out; working hard; asking for make-up work; and volunteering in class.  It was astounding, but also extremely irritating as it proved that it has been his decision all along to behave and perform poorly in school.

Students Check Out

While their behavior become more erratic, the students' academic ability seemed to vaporize altogether.  Even the brightest students left their brains at home in anticipation of the holiday.  Perhaps they were saving its use for endless hours of gaming they've most likely engaged this past week.  Whatever the case may be, plugging through what was a standard lesson became a struggle of epic proportions in mid-December.

World's Largest Babysitting Service
Thought you sent your child to a large daycare?  Try one that takes care of 1 million students in a day.  On December 23rd, a ton of classrooms around the city become a third to half empty, leaving those students in attendance with the impression that it isn't a real school day.  Pair that with the fact that their brains are no longer present and the day before Christmas Eve is anything but productive. 

Most cities and school systems do not hold school on this day for that reason and to allow families to travel wherever they need to be for the holiday.  In New York, however, we keep the schools open to make sure that the students who have rough home lives are not left to run amok on the streets.   We operate on a ten-month school schedule in part for the same reason. 

New Teachers Reach a Milestone

For new teachers, the holidays are oftentimes a major milestone.  From what I can tell and from what the veterans tell me, if you make it past the holidays you can usually make it the entire year.  As the weather gets warmer and the students realize they are in fact going to be dealing with you for another six months, they generally begin to soften a bit.  Couple that with the fact that you have nearly a semester under your belt and things are looking up.  Granted, if you've reached the very bottom, you have a long way to look before you see any light, but it's there nonetheless.

You'd Think They'd be Relaxing
Every year I go into the holidays with the notion that I'll rest up over the week I'm away and charge into January ready and rearing to go.  This is simply not the case.  Between traveling to two different Midwestern states and trying to see loads of family in both, coming back with a day to prepare and pull things together has left me trudging into the new year, waiting for the following weekend to get some R&R.  As it stands, this year has been no different, but I wouldn't trade the time with old friends for sitting around and napping.  Today I'm working in overdrive to prep this week, grade a mountain of papers, pull together a major project for January and perhaps help with the draft of a conference proposal.  Maybe next weekend can serve as a real winter break...

Anyway, during the next few weeks we should in fact pick up steam, especially compared to the week before break, when we babysit mindless zombie students with erratic behavior.  The days will get longer, the students will hopefully burn off some steam by going outside and there will be a few weekends to get some sleep.

Then watch out world, we're going to learn a thing or two.