Jan 31, 2011

The [Winter] Phase of Teaching

We're at the peak of winter. The end of a semester. But, the sun decides to show it's face on this occasion. Rays glimmer through the trees and onto the tennis court. "40-15!!" I yell moments before tossing a tennis ball into the crisp air. "Wuuuubiiing" "Game!... what is it now? 2-3?"


It's teacher buy back day. Our campus sans students becomes one giant playground during our hour-long lunchtime break. Your forget how cool your co-workers are and how fun it'd be to chill during the daily grind of teaching. As a good teacher friend in the Bronx once put it: "Eat, teach, breathe, sleep... repeat." You also forget how beautiful the campus can be. Someone sweeps leaves off the court. I like the sound. Redwood trees stand like giants overlooking our impromptu tennis match. The air smells fresh.

After it was game over, another teacher friend and I decide to change gears and shoot hoops right across the way. "Let's play P.I.G." "But, we gotta get back to the meeting. We got like 3 minutes." "Alright, howbout I.T." ".... Fine."


While at school sans students, springtime teacher talk begins to infiltrate our conversations. I'm talking the type that goes like "so, you planning on coming back next year?" "you looking around for something new?" "did you know you could make 10 grand more per year if you taught at ____ district!? Oakland, man, I'm tellin' you... Oakland. [SMH]"


Monday. Start of a new semester. Excited to see my students. Happy to see my students. But am brought back down to reality when frustration meets me. "y = -3x + 2"... simple enough, start w/ the y-intercept. Down 3, over 1. "y = 5"... oh no, now you doin' too much Mr. G.

You forget the level of patience required to teach. You forget the subconscious mantras you must repeat: "They're only 15. They're only 15. You can't expect them to act 25." You forget the never-ending bell-to-bell flurry that is one period of teaching, juggling a multitude of tasks while meeting the needs of each student and maintaining composure in front of your soul-hungry audience. They're ready to throw tomatoes at you at any second.

And you remember the friends you came into teaching with. You remember how they've laid down the ultimatums: "This is it. This is my last year. I mean, 4 years is more than good. You can't blame me." For a second, you wonder how much greener the grass feels on the other side. It must feel so soft on your feet to run barefoot.

Then, you feel pressured to do better. To teach better. To plan better. You're challenged for not putting in enough effort and you question everything about your teaching self. The CST's are looming, your students grades can be higher, and you're wondering quite frantically what more can you do. Have you put in your all, Mr. G? Have YOU?? Really!?

Copy room afterschool and you can't help but participate in a venting session with another young, like-minded teacher. It's a tough time of year, we conclude. A tough time of year. Fittingly, in the copy room is posted this sign:

[Edit, graph should not be titled 'first year' of teaching for this happens annually]


Though, you must accept that this sort of winter to springtime thoughtfest is part of a teacher's natural cycle. Start at August. End at June. Teachers have the liberty to rethink and readjust paths each summer. That's a good thing! Coming back for another go round makes it that much more meaningful.

As for me, I'm 95% sure I'll be back on this campus overlooked by giant redwoods. No doubt though that I've stepped into a disillusionment phase and am looking forward to getting past.


Jan 29, 2011

Tiger Moms

Amy Chua, love her or hate her. Regardless, I still think "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" is a great little read. (She's pretty funny too. Ruthless, but funny.)

Pushing aside all those moments where my jaw-dropped, my eyebrows furrowed, and I mouthed "WHAT?!" in shock during my first read of this essay, this resonated with me:

"Western parents worry a lot about their children's self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't."

I agree.

...for the most part. Two days ago I experienced a little taste of Tiger Mom action. A parent greets me as she arrives to pick up her son from the classroom. She asks if her son gave me the pancake fundraiser form. I say no. She calls her son over. "Why didn't you turn in the form?" He replies "I don't know... I forgot." Uh oh... I knew what was coming. Run, Maddoxx, run!

She looks at him, pissed, and says "This is EXACTLY what I was talking about." She then goes on to tell me how he has been driving her crazy at home. How she reviews all his work and can't believe when he gets -1 on his papers instead of 100%. She then tells me that every time he gets a problem wrong, he has to write "I will double check my work" FIFTY times. She says she does not understand why he keeps missing problems. She takes away his toys, does not let him watch TV, and makes him stay up late redoing his work. She then says, "I even thought about having him stay with my parents for a while because I can't stand him right now."

Poor kid is standing right there throughout this whole verbal bashing. I get that she expects him to do well because she knows he is capable of it. But as I stood there and listened to her talk, I couldn't help but think, "minus one ain't that bad!"

Amy Chua would probably look down at me for promoting "mediocrity."

I would probably look down at her for acting like a b*tch. (Must be that Western side of me!)

Jan 25, 2011

Taking Care

This semester (and forevermore), I promise to take care of my whole self, not just my teacher self.

This way, my students will have a more put-together teacher standing in front of them each day.

Finally, Effective Afterschool Sessions

One key piece still missing at my school is a space designated for peer-to-peer tutoring and peer-to-peer collaboration. Each time my math team comes together to brainstorm 'math intervention', it seems we are chasing an elusive white rabbit. I tell 'em "I say we set a time and a space where we get kids comfortable to visit and work collaboratively."


I've had a few attempts, but the most effective thus far is what I've seen these past three weeks. Tuesdays and Thursdays til 4:30 afterschool in Mr. G's room. Find yourself some tutoring.

In past years, I've felt aversive to tutoring. After all, it's unpaid, extra work with students who [some may claim] should've 'got it' if they had put more effort during class time. Don't get me wrong, I understand the effectiveness of one-on-one student to teacher time as much as the next teach. I just haven't found a way to make it a regular habit for myself nor my kids. Aside from this, the past 3 years of what some may claim "the teacher hazing process" would always leave me pretty exhausted and in need of non-school thoughts and nap time by the end of the school day.

But now, things are on the up. Now, we've got both. Each Tuesday and Thursday, I readjust the seats to accomodate group seating by 3:05 and students fill the space. What normally provides house to 54-minute algebra and geometry periods becomes a relaxed afterschool atmosphere where students are welcome to give and receive math help. You should hear the conversations in this place! Students are at the white board doing multi-step problems. Students are seated in groups of 3 or 4 focused on specific concepts and teaching each other. Not just current students, but ex-students as well. Not just students of Algebra & Geometry (the subjects I teach), but Algebra II'ers as well. This is what I call a community of learners:

What am I doing during this time? I'm sitting at the desks with them. And I help where I can. I advise students on how to become stronger students. Of course I can't conduct a 1 on 15 tutoring session, but I can pair students up where I see fit, and I act as the last resort "ugh, I really really don't get this... let's ask Mr. G" answer giver.


Lastly, these relaxed spaces for math help act as a relaxed space for fun, cool interaction. In today's session, for example, we had another one of those age-old dialogues concerning my youth:

S1: Mr. G, how old are you anyway? You must be like, either 25 or in your early 30's.
Me: Hah, those are two very different ages.
S2: So, you started teaching right outta college right? When you were 22!? What did the kids think about you then?
Me: They thought I was either 25 or in my early 30's.
S1 & S2: LOL.
S2: Here, tell me what year you were born. I'll do the math.
Me: 1968.
S2: Aright, what year is it? 2011... (3 minutes later)... No, you lyin'!

Jan 20, 2011

Chaos and Confessions

Chaos. Never before today have I been more thankful for the invention of the word 'chaos'. I'm in such bewilderment over the happenings of class that the only comfort that I can find in the day is in the fact that I have a word to describe said happenings.

OK, so I'm exaggerating a bit. By the end of class, no one was hurt, no one was in tears (including me), and I think I even succeeded in acknowledging and touching base with every student in the class.

Just to update everyone on my current situation, I am currently a pre-service science teacher. Last semester, I worked with 9th-12th grade chemistry students. To call what I did last semester "teaching" would be a bit of a stretch. For the past two weeks and for the next five months I have been and will be teaching (for real teaching) 8th grade physical science.

I have the best situation that I can ask for, really. The kids are generally motivated -- albeit, to different degrees -- they are curious, and they generally do their work (they even turn it in!). My cooperating teacher has given me free rein to plan as I wish, discipline as I see fit, grade as I deem fair, and so on. The classroom is interesting. The kids are sweet. My CT is patient with me. Everything's great.

Today, the problem was me. I had absolutely no control over the class. It hurts me to confess that I had no control today, particularly here in the open and to an audience of experienced teachers, but it is the truth. Kids were walking around, yelling across the class, using extremely offensive language (or at least, as offensive as you can get as an 8th grader still exploring your creativity with newfound derogatory words), climbing on tables....

Now, I'm sure that you read this, your eyes are picking up speed and skimming across my complaints because it's nothing you haven't heard before and nothing you haven't seen before. By that same token, I thought I too had seen this all before and that I knew what to do to bring everyone back together. I thought I had a full bag of tricks: I specifically called out people who were acting out. I rang the little bell/noise maker. I said that we would not begin until I had everyone's attention. I allowed for a little bit of give because, after all, they are only middle school kids and not high school kids. I waited and waited and waited. Lesson-wise, I thought I put together a string of activities/assignments that were engaging enough to keep the class at a busy level of calm.

The only thing that saved me today was the bell at the end of the period.

Despite the fact that it was my lack of management that caused learning to come to a stand-still, I still need to keep my focus on the students. I'm still learning how to be a real teacher, but I want to keep my learning student-centered -- not teacher-centered. Yes, that's right -- I just ranted for some six or seven paragraphs about what I did wrong today, yet my closing paragraph is about my students. It matters less what I say to keep the class calm, it matters less that I envision my class to be a room full of silent, smiling, learning kids, and it matters more that my students are safe, are learning, are curious, are applying their knowledge, and are thinking like scientists.

What does this mean?

It means that when I reflect on my day, I need to think about what works for my students and what it takes to get these specific students to learn science and to control themselves in the classroom. I can take notes and carefully study every teacher in the world, but none of this matters if I don't know my own students. They are my informants. In a way, I am experimenting with various methods of teaching and managing a classroom, and they are my data. When lessons fail or succeed, I need to look to them for hints as to what to change or repeat next time.

I'm exhausted, but I'm not defeated. Tomorrow is a new day.

= = =
P.S. My second confession is that I did not threaten the class with punishments for misbehaving. My third confession is that I do not know what the school policy is for misbehaving. My goal tomorrow is to become very familiar with this policy and make sure that my students are familiar with the policy.

Jan 16, 2011

As Seen on Postsecret

Came across this secret in this week's collection on Postsecret.

Wouldn't it be interesting to have a Postsecret: Teacher Edition?


Jan 14, 2011

Teacher Man

I've got these ideas and stories thirsting to get out of my system and onto this blog, but I'm on that "I'm feeling too self-conscious about my writing ability that my ass subconsciously refuses to sit and my fingers refuse to type" part of my blog cycle.


But fuck that.


I was sick last Wednesday. I slept from 6pm Tuesday to 1pm Wednesday. With maybe 2 hours of consciousness inbetween to eat, drink medicine, and create sub plans. The sub I requested went by the name of "Sheppard." Whatevs I thought.

He e-mailed me later that night, sharing that it was only his 2nd day on the job as a sub. He shared his history as an EE major with 4 years worth of calculus experience. He wanted input on his performance as a substitute for the day and he shared what went on w/ my students while I was out. Nice, I thought. A sub who cares about his work.


I knew Thursday would be a "lemme get through this" kinda day cus I was still sick. But my students are awesome and it was great to be back. I asked about the sub. The kids all shared that they liked him. I looked forward to relaying the message.


Just now, a bearded man (white beard) walks through my classroom door, lookin' like a nerdy version of Santa Claus. But a cool nerd, though. Smily when he talks. Made me feel happy right when I shook his hand. It's Sheppard.

What I thought would be a quick 5 minute check-in of his sub day becomes a more than half hour conversation of teaching, histories of our lives, and why we're now here. He's a man of 62. Previously a software developer who made bank, so he stepped outta work for 10 years cus "let's just say, he had enough money to do so" (his words, not mine). He looked around for a new software developer position when he felt antsy, but said it didn't feel right. He only half-liked his previous two jobs. He shared that the only interaction he got was w/ his computer and with "nerds" (his words, not mine). He wants something that's got a mission, that's got direction, that's got impact and purpose. He's got the bug to be in the classroom. He wants to be a teacher. He wants to be a teacher for kids like the kids we've got here in Oakland. So, after reading a few books on teaching and on subbing. He's here as a sub....

I'm a man of 25. Yet, this man 37 years older who's got the beard of a wise man is here now asking me about my passions for teaching, my methods, and picking my brain to see how he can better himself in the classroom. We talk about schools and kids and classroom management plans and etc. I applaud him for his desire to step in and teach. I share that I firmly believe a teacher is the one factor that can make the most immediate impact to students... to get them interested in school again... to get them interested in the content your teaching. I say, if there's a place that needs great teachers it's Oakland. He knows it. We're on the same page.

Jan 5, 2011

Happy New Year!

We've been stagnant on the edublog front. I've got posts in mind and hope to get around to them soon. But I would like to say I've got the best team of teachers and the dopest students on the planet. Teaching will always be teaching. The workload hasn't changed, but Mr. G is having a dandy good school year. Just wanted to share.