Saturday, April 23, 2011

Ranting Through the Break

Spring break is here (and has been).  At one point I was certainly looking forward to the seven weeks of uninterrupted class time that ended last Friday, but recently added responsibilities and my desire to determine whether or not I can teach two extra classes during the school day took their toll.  To say the least, I was tired and crabby going into the break- something that certainly was setting me, and my students, back in the classroom.  

During my first year in the classroom I did plenty of unloading on others.  Most "first-years" do.  It's a coping mechanism a new teacher almost has to adopt in order to survive what is- to the majority of people- the most difficult year of their lives.  The whole affair is terribly demeaning, feels impossible, and has little immediate redeeming value, though the long term benefits of surviving the year are substantial if you stick with teaching.  One of the things I learned to do less of as my second year ended and my third year began was to complain about the job itself, recognizing first that I made the decision to take on this career, and second, that now is not the time to play into the stereotype being pumped across the airwaves by newscasters and politicians: that teachers have it easy and complain too much about their cushy, secure jobs.   According to CNBC, for example, teaching isn't even one of the ten most stressful jobs in the U.S. (real estate agent, architect, advertising account executive, senior corporate executive, public relations executive and, of course, newscaster all made the list).

Two major rants happened over the break that helped me to reorganize and reorient my thoughts about the job.

The first rant was fired at Austin from Boston last Saturday, just as the break began.  I was at a party in Williamsburg with a roomful of musicians and yoga instructors, most of whom I was meeting for the first (and most likely the last) time.  A couple hours into the party- well after the happy birthday had happened- Austin from Boston struck up a conversation with me about teaching in the city, a fairly normal thing for people to do when they first meet someone who teaches here.

And then, to his surprise, I quickly and skillfully unloaded a freight train on top of him.  

He was certainly a supportive type, but did not realize at all that he'd opened the flood gates of the combination between a grueling spring schedule at school and the recent attack on my profession by the media and politicians.  What began as a two-person conversation quickly turned into a soapbox monologue to the nth degree.  After what was probably an eternity for Austin from Boston, he ran away into the night/across the room to watch old home movies of the birthday girl.

And a lot was off my chest and in the open.

Several days later I got a second shot at discussing my job with someone in another line of work.   This one was locked into a booth with me at a restaurant and was no mere stranger, but a good friend's new girlfriend- Erica the Architect.  In order to keep her from running away from the both of us, I decided to take a different tact with the description of what I do. First, it was made clear from the get-go that the job is one I want.  As our conversation went forward I was able to better verbalize the frustration I demonstrated to Austin from Boston, but also talk about how I wanted to move my career forward in this profession.  This conversation helped remind me why I spend so much of my time working to educate kids, rather than serving as a dumping ground for disgruntled ideas and misconceptions about the field.

In the end, I still talked a ton more than Erica the Architect, but she didn't seem to want to run away, which was nice.  

There are a lot of professions out there that are extremely difficult, taxing and at times thankless.  The recent attacks on my own job will hopefully subside at some point, but regardless of what happens, it's important to move forward with my students without getting caught up and frustrated with the misinformation permeating the populace.  With three full weeks of state testing still to come, we have our work cut out for us as we head into the home stretch of the school year.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

No Pants, No Service

Lately we've been having a real pants problem at our school.  Basically, some of our students seem to have forgotten how to put pants on or have lost them altogether.  Either way, the lack of adequate pants or the lack of ability to properly wear the pants is alarming.

The issue I deal with in the eighth grade is that boys only put their pants on part of the way.  I remind them regularly that my three-year-old nephew has already mastered his pants!  While they do not seem very impressed by this statement, I generally continue to explain how important it is to learn to wear pants before attending school.  From there, I tell them that pants are not designed solely as knee warmers, moving on in some cases to sounding the alarm bells and telling them that with their butt just hanging out there, anything could happen to it. 

After I get the eye roll enough times, I move to another tactic: Pants 101.  At the beginning of a class, I'll teach the kiddos how to pull up their pants.  This generally just involves me hiking up my pants quite a ways, but has been effective a couple of times.  In order to show me up, some of the boys tried to act like they were also hiking up their pants to grandpa status, but in fact actually just put them on exactly as they are designed to be worn.  Who knew it would work?  Lastly, I've begun reciting the mantra, "Your pants go up, your grade goes up.  Your pants go up, your grade goes up."  As it turns out, all of the boys doing a terrible job with their pants are also doing terribly in all of their classes.  Perhaps a study should be done on the correlation between the height pants and GPA.

The second major pants problem actually is a complete lack of pants.  This is the specialty of our high school girls.  In fashion now is this long shirt/tights combo that, according to some sources, requires no pants at all whatsoever.  To say the least, not a lot is left up to the imagination of our young lads and to be frank, it's extraordinarily inappropriate.  

One might say, "If they can't wear pants appropriately, send them home!"  I would agree with this.  The problem is that the parents of many of these students have absolutely no problem with their children running around using their pants as knee-warmers or worse completely pantsless.  What is more, if we send them home, the last thing they will do is change and come back.  It would be more likely for them to text their friends to take their pants off and get sent home so they could have a party.

This leaves us with quite a pants dilemma.  If we allow the students with the pants problems to attend our  classes without checking the issue, it clearly sends the message that pants are not necessary.  If we send students home or refuse to let them in, our attendance drops even lower, as does student achievement, and the school is penalized.  Their is no real repercussion for the student or parent in this case, though I think that most will agree that it is not the school's role to teach the usage of things like pants, shirts, and undergarments (though I will gladly teach a kid to tie a tie).

I've heard a lot of talk lately about holding parents and students more accountable for students' learning.  I think that it should be the family's role to teach students to put their pants on.  This is by no means a financial issue, as the students all have pants.  Perhaps it is the first step for the community to come together and share the responsibility of educating the children.  

New golden rule:  No Pants, No Service.  Maybe this will even be the beginning of the long-awaited revolution in education. We can call it The Pants Movement. 

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Big Words Hard. Reading Good.

In the past few days I've really enjoyed reading English.  I'm reading a book written by a former dean of Yale Law School who switched over to the humanities, presumably to write deep thoughts with very complex language just for the heck of it, called "Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life".   It has been a large departure from my normal on-the-job reading, which consists basically of writing which is the opposite of the way this book is written, being that it's mostly work created by eighth graders who struggle with reading and writing.  Point being, because of my normal reading regimen, this dry, slightly lifeless book recommended to me by a familiar old sage has become a sort of delightful re-acquaintance with the language that I think I used to speak and write fairly well.

A common complaint I hear from veterans in the field is the loss of their ability to write and speak advanced, academic English fluently.  When I was in college- ready and willing to pretentiously demonstrate my ability to slip unnecessarily large words into conversation- the pride I had in my ability to use jargon mostly reserved for white-tower academics and doctors treating insomnia was worn on my sleeve.  Now I'm sheepish at best when it comes to using the language in highly academic settings, as the words simply don't come as easily.

This regression is the result of a number of things.  When you go into the classroom, one of the first things you have to do is make your verbal language more understandable for your students.  Something they hate and which alienates them to certain degree is high-level vocabulary being rocketed at them in class.  Many of them put on their best defense (which in many cases is a good offense, where their "passing game" shines) and they shut down as best they can.  As it turns out, most eighth graders, but especially those reading two or three grade levels behind, have a tough time keeping up with a kid/teacher out of college who is used to regurgitating the glossary of the text he's reading about adolescent psychology or something else extremely important.  Couple the language disconnect with a lack of solid academic skills and you have a dramatic increase in students who don't give a sh**

Anyway, for many teachers, part of surviving the first year is the alteration of the very way they speak.  They must differentiate their speech, relearn how to talk on a level closer to that of their students, and then learn to code switch between the alpha and beta language.  Before you develop the ability to switch back and forth, you're left with this feeling that you are simply becoming less intelligent (academically, at the very least).  The words used in conversation by your friends attending law school and med school are some that no longer leave your lips, though your vocabulary of slang, misspelled words, and half-words expands considerably, which can be thoroughly entertaining for several minutes at dinner parties with those friends.  Of course, in those first couple years it does not help that you're being slammed by management issues and sent through the wringer in such a way that nothing you think or do seems coherent.

In the past week or two then, reading a book in English has left me thinking about how at one time my brain was well-fitted to digest and process such verbiage and has thereby left me relishing the words and sentences in the work that seem to have a particularly nice ebb and flow.  At times I'm pleasantly surprised to find that I can even understand what the guy is saying, while at others I find myself enjoying a verbal roller coaster, screaming with excitement as I turn the pages back to figure out what's going on, becoming reacquainted at the same time with vocabulary that I thought had left me forever.  

As I continue reading, I'm left wonder how many of my students will experience anything like this fifteen years from now.