Crossing

Dear Terrence,

I know some of the materials — most of the materials — I give you are merely crossing your desk. I stand here at the hole punch, making three even holes in these Frayer diagrams, preparing them for a long and lustrous life in your binder, but I understand that this paper, like so many others, simply won’t make it there. You don’t have a pencil most days, and you often can’t remember your password to use our Moodle installation, so how can I expect you to keep up with a single sheet of paper? I just punch the holes out of habit, I suppose.

Yet it’s not asking that much. I’ve told you things like this before, but the only really significant thing that separates you from the kids in the “smart” class is not intelligence but habits. I have students in that class, Terrence, that can produce materials I gave them at the beginning of the year. I can say, “Get out the graphic organizer we used for project X because we’re going to add some things to it and reuse it for this project.” And a fair number of them — a majority, I would say — can produce the material in question. That’s why they’re in that class. They’re not smarter than you. They care to be organized, and they are, therefore, simply more organized than you.

For you, though, the materials just cross your desk and often end up in the floor. It’s like so many things in your life . Even your housing situation seems to be just crossing the arc of your life: you don’t speak of living somewhere, only staying. So with so many things in flux in your life, its little wonder that this too is in flux. It seems like yet another example of non-curriculum skills we need to be teaching you, but in the age of testing, testing, testing, it just seems to fall through the cracks for all of us as you guys are crossing through our classrooms on your way to the future. Perhaps we all just need to cross ourselves and try harder.

A bit cross with myself and with you, as well as frustrated,
Your Teacher

Gone

The Boy was playing CandyLand with K, and after he’d won the first game, he was eager to play another.

“I’m going to win again!” he proclaimed, and for a moment, it looked as if he were going to do just that. He shot ahead with double color after double color. Then K drew the gum drop and zoomed ahead.

“Oh, I’ll never win!” he proclaimed, frustrated.

“Yes, but you might draw another candy piece and move ahead, or Mama might draw the candy cane when you’re way past it and have to go back many, many spaces,” I reasoned. But as I often remind The Girl, there’s no reasoning with a four-year-old. He continued playing a bit halfheartedly. He drew a candy piece eventually, but K had shot so far ahead by then that his chances of winning really and truly were gone.

And with that loss, his desire to play was gone as well.

I remembered the whole time they played the new buzzword in education: grit. It’s really nothing more than perseverance in the face of difficulty and setback, but educators and researchers in education like new jargon. (I suspect it’s mainly from the latter.) And so “grit” is thrown around in education blogs and educator gatherings quite often these days. It was rewarding to see The Boy showing some of this perseverance. It took a good bit of encouragement, but he finished the game, learned the lesson (?), and we had a nice close to the afternoon.

The next night, The Boy and I are working with Legos. I was building a jail for him, and he was building a mystery. Not having a plan, he found the process a little slow-going and frustrating.

“I just can’t get it,” he fussed as he couldn’t get two pieces joined. He threw them down, and for just a moment, I thought the chances of a relaxing evening of Lego-ing were gone. But just for a moment. Seeing everything as a teaching opportunity — or at least trying to — I showed him how to get the pieces together, then pulled them apart and had him try again.

“I got it!”

Two opportunities to teach that could have disappeared but didn’t. The trick for me, though, is to transfer that to my students. Everything can be a moment to teach, a learning opportunity, for the at-risk kids in my charge. They lack social skills, patience, anger management methods, volume control, grit (there it is again), a growth mindset (another edu-speak jargon term that’s hot now). Every teaching moment can’t bloom — I’d never get to the curriculum some days. The balance must be there, but there’s so much they need before they’re gone off to high school…

Inspired by the Daily Post’s prompt of the day: Gone.

Motives

“I’m not putting it up.” The kid has a book bag on his shoulder at the start of fifth period — verboten in our school. “I told all the other teachers, too.”

How did this happen? How did no one come down on you like a ton of bricks for such insubordination? How come your mentor, who works in this building, didn’t say something? How come I’m making assumptions?

“Why?” I asked.

“Because my locker is beside Samuel’s locker, and it stinks, and every day my bookbag stinks, and I’m not going to have it stinking anymore.”

Do you not realize that most teachers are so imminently reasonable that they would find your reluctance reasonable and offer a solution? I explain this to him.

“Now, explain to me your problem just like I showed you.”

He does. I offer to let him lock his bookbag in my closet until we can work out a solution.

“Thank you,” he says on the way out.

That all problems could be so easily solved.

Twenty Years Ago

Twenty years ago, I was only a couple of months into my big adventure of teaching English in Poland. I came home from school and wrote this:

I had a bit of a run-in with Agnieszka today. While arranging the new seating today she got rather rebellious. She refused to sit with Greg because “I don’t like him.” She plopped down beside Iwona and didn’t acknowledge me at all. At first I was polite: “Please, move over there.” When she did nothing, I became a bit mad, for she was forcing me into a power struggle. “I’m not asking now, I’m telling: move to that seat.” She did nothing. I knew the critical moment had arrived: if I said nothing and let her sit there, I would have lost a major portion of my classroom control. If I continued in that fruitless way, I would have made a fool of myself. So I did the only think I could think of: “Could I speak to you in the hall?” I asked/demanded.

“Why are you making this a difficult situation?” I asked. We talked about it and reached a compromise. I explained to her the situation her stubborn belligerence (redundant) had put me in. And I told her that at the same time I didn’t want anyone to be uncomfortable unnecessarily. So we reached a compromise, but in the end I still lost a great deal of credibility.

I should have handled it differently.

I wish I could say that, twenty years on, I don’t have these moments. Twenty years later, I’ve learned something. Twenty years on, I’m not repeating myself.

I wish I could say that, but I can’t.

Curve

Recently, our school district changed its grading scale for all high schools and middle schools, switching from a seven-point scale to a ten-point scale. In the past, the lowest A one could get would be a 93; now it’s a 90. Not a big change at the top end of the scale. But by the time you get to the bottom, it’s ten points. To pass with the old scale, you had to get a 70; now, it’s a 60. There was a grading floor of 61 with the old scale — the lowest grade a teacher could give was 61. That’s now a D. The new grade floor is a 50, which is the lowest F as well. In other words, a student can do absolutely nothing for an assignment and be 10 points from passing.

How does that affect the overall curve? When I put my quarter’s grades into the handy-dandy spreadsheet I use to calculate the letter grade spread of the class, I realized that I hadn’t updated the look up table that determines whether grade X is an A or a B, and so before I updated that table, I saved the old version for comparison.

A B C D F
16 33 39 46 33 26 17 21 34 13

It more than doubles the number of A’s and cuts by almost 67% the number of F’s. On the bright side, look how much better kids these days are doing!

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Mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, a lot of the people getting D’s now instead of F’s might need a bit of a confidence boost that finally not failing might give some of them.

On the other hand, most all of the students who have F’s have them because they don’t complete a significant number of assignments. It’s not that they’re trying, struggling, and failing — they’re not even make it past the “r” in “trying,” let alone the rest of the sentence. So what does this teach them?

I can’t help but feel that this is just another example of trying to rig the system so that the results look better. How do we decrease the number of high school drop-outs? Lowering the standards for passing might be one way. But in the end, what does that do?

Zugzwang

I’ve begun a chess club at school. Today was our informational meeting, and around twenty students showed up, including three girls. We set up a meeting schedule — first and third Mondays of the month — and I had them take a little “quiz” to see if they knew how to use algebraic notation, had the instinct to do more than take the “free” pawn in the King’s Gambit, could recognize the next move of the Sicilian Defense, and knew what stalemate means.

One small problem: we don’t have any chess sets. PTSA to the rescue. And as I was talking to someone about how to fill out the paperwork to request the funds, I had an epiphany: why not use chess in the classroom on a regular basis? The benefits are manifold, especially the thought of encouraging such dedicated, focused attention for some period of time, weighting options and making a decision, and overall critical thinking. So with some careful planning, I might actually be able to pull it off.

Coming home, I discovered that the Boy wants to play soccer. A good sign. And out of the blue, he wants to play chess.

Sometimes life gives you zugzwang — a situation in chess in which one player would rather not move but has to move. And occasionally, it gives you the opposite.

My Percentage

Dear Terrence,

classdojo-iconToday you asked me a question that I’ve never heard you ask before: “Mr. S, what’s my Dojo percentage.” You’ve always insisted that Class Dojo is a waste of time and a generally stupid idea, and although I’ve never given up trying to convince you of its value, I never really thought you’d come around and see it for what it is: a powerful tool for monitoring and controlling your behavior. After all, everyone is keeping points on us in their heads for all the good and bad things we do. It’s called a reputation. But at least with Dojo, you get an idea of where your strengths and weaknesses are. Anyway, your question caught me off guard, because I really didn’t know. I had to check. And that was a good thing, because in the past, I could have likely guessed it without looking: “No more than 30%, I’d say.”

You and I have had our issues this year, and at least once you’ve stormed out of class insisting that you have to get your schedule changed because you’re sure I’m out to get you. I assure you, I’m not: your behavior, though, sometimes seems like it is, which is why I think Class Dojo could be such a powerful tool for you. It could help you see your weaknesses (talking out of turn) and help you build on your strengths (helping others).

But you’ve made a turn around — at least your behavior of the last few days indicates that. So I was particularly pleased when I looked down at my phone and saw you were at 83% for the week.

Keep up the good work,
Your Teacher

Learning

My job is about learning. It’s about teaching, too, but the more I stand on this side of the desk, the more I realize that teaching is learning. It’s not just the simple process — as if it were so simple in truth — of learning how to teach. There’s that, certainly. I’m better this year than I was last year, I hope. I’m better this year than I was five years ago, I’m sure. I’m better this year than I was fifteen years ago, I know.

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It’s not pedagogy and method that I have in mind, though. I’ve learned that learning is so much more than simply figuring out how to write a good paragraph, understanding how to do geometric proofs, seeing the logic of the scientific method. These things are all well and good — and important. But they all serve as simple means to ends. We learn to write a good paragraph to be able to communicate better. We work on proofs to be able to construct a scaffold of surety around our knowledge — to prove to ourselves what is is. (And to move on to higher and more challenging math.) We study the scientific method because it’s the best way to find out things about the physical world.

All this knowledge helps us in our day to day functioning, but it does very little to help with our living. I’m not more at peace with myself because I can write a paragraph. I can’t show compassion better because I can manage geometric proofs. I’m not more mature because I know the scientific process. My life can bump along just fine without this knowledge, and having this understanding is in now way insulation or protection against anything. I’m not a better person for this.

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I’m a better person when I connect with other people. I’m a better person when I understand that the most precious and instructive moments in life are those flashes when a couple of people connect in a real and meaningful way.

I teach my students how to make sense of Shakespeare (and, by proxy, many other challenging texts), and I show them how to organize a paragraph coherently, then how to string several paragraphs together in a logical order. Useful skills, but not life changing. Yet sometimes I get so wrapped up in the importance of those minutia (relatively speaking) that I miss the real teaching and learning opportunities. I forget that just because they’re not learning just what I want in just the way I planned it than my students aren’t learning. I forget that just because what they’re doing for a particular session has nothing to do with English than they’re not become better people. I forget that, at it’s base, that’s what all good teaching is about. There’s the subject matter, true, but all the teachers we really remember taught us more than just their subject matter. In some rare cases, we can sometimes barely even remember what exactly they taught us about English or math or Spanish, but we remember what they taught us about life.

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Today, I had the privilege of taking about twenty of my students down the street to a community center than has a trice-weekly seniors program. The plan was simple. The plan didn’t work as planned due to technical issues. And so from a certain point of view, it was a complete waste of time. It didn’t do what I wanted it to do. The plan didn’t behave properly. And in that mini-disaster, I learned once again — my students taught me once again — that there’s more to teaching and learning than nouns and rays and Erlenmeyer flasks.

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Sometimes lessons just come along than can’t be planned because the lessons themselves come simply from the messiness and unpredictability of life. Sometimes a room full of teens and seniors offers such individualized lessons that could never be planned, never be executed because life can often never really be planned. And that in itself is part of the lesson.

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In the afternoon, another lesson about learning: not all learning has any adults at all involved. The kids headed out for their quarterly (or is it more often? I can never remember) reward day, which consists basically of forty-five minutes of freedom outside. Some kids play basketball; some kids play soccer. Some kids walk around and gossip orally; some kids walk around and gossip electronically.

And some kids just do a little bit of everything. The lessons there? Countless, and completely unplanned.

Back at home, L asked K to help her with a traditional Polish dance that she’d like to use to try out for the school talent show later this year. Tryouts are coming soon, and the Girl is not quite sure what she’s going to do. This is the first year she’s eligible, so she’s feeling a bit stressed about making a good impression. She’d noticed that all the Indian students in the past who’d done traditional dances made it to the show itself, so she reasoned that a Polish Highlander dance might stand a good chance.

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So K began working on it with her. I’m not quite sure how this is supposed to work because Polish Highlander dances are really not solos — unless you’re dancing a male part. This bit of information prompted a bit of begging from the Girl, so K showed a few male moves. And E decided he wanted to learn them all, male moves and female moves.

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Another unplanned lesson.

They’re really all around us. The opportunities are endless. And the miracle of it all is that we really don’t even have to be aware of it.

Defining Up

Dear Terrence,

It really wasn’t that much I was asking you to do: put your head up. Simple. You began the class as you almost always do: head up but not really attentive. Within a few minutes, though, you folded those arms and dropped your head into the angle of your elbow.

“Terrence, put your head up, please.” Notice: I was polite. I was respectful. You can’t learn anything with your head down, so I needed you to raise your head and your attention. And you did. For a few seconds. Down it went again.

“Terrence, put your head up.” Notice: I was a little less polite. It’s hard to be polite with someone who’s being so disrespectful, and that’s really what it amounted to. When you don’t do what a teacher instructs you to do, it’s disrespect. Whether or not you agree with that is, sadly, irrelevant, because most of the world would accept that as a fair description of what you were doing. Your head went up, but this time, so did your arm, with your head now balanced on the side of your hand as you rested your elbow on your desk. So in a sense, you were obeying: your head was more “up” than it had been a few moments ago, but you knew perfectly well what I meant.

“Terrence, put your head up.” Notice: I was still polite. I tried to keep the edge out of my voice, because I was getting quite irritated with the whole situation and the disrespect you were showing in front of the whole classroom. The child in me wanted to respond in a similar fashion, with disrespect, with sarcasm. But thankfully I reminded myself that I am the adult, and while you could choose to act like an adult, you generally choose to act as you did.

It was at this point that you really crossed the line. But standing up and walking out of the classroom, you disrupted the class, you showed incredible disrespect, and you left me with no choice but to refer the matter to the administration. And you know that will mean an immediate three-day suspension. With your dreams of playing football — I eavesdrop in the hall, as do other teachers — that doesn’t seem like something you’d want. A discipline record and poor grades guarantee your disqualification from school sports. So it seemed very short-sighted of you.

See, here’s what you don’t understand: if I didn’t care about you, I’d just let you leave that head down. It’s much easier to let you sleep. So I ask you to put your head up knowing that I’m only making my life more difficult. I do it every day because I refuse to give up. You might force my hand as you did today, and if that’s the case, then I’ll do as instructed by my superiors and write you up every single time you do it. It doesn’t seem like a very productive way to spend my time, but I follow instructions. All I’m asking is that you do the same.

Still a little frustrated,
Your Teacher

Technical Difficulties

I was hoping to get caught up on grading over the weekend: a long weekend is good for that because I don’t have to do it all at once. I can tinker at it around the edges, so to speak. However, I am currently unable to access the Google Drive account issued by the school district because the district routes all log-ins through their servers, which apparently are experiencing some difficulties. The login page has been replaced by this page, which has no “Submit” button!

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So I cannot access my school Drive account, which means I cannot access my Google Classroom account. They’re both Google products, but because of technical problems at the district’s servers, I am unable to access them.

Technology is great until it doesn’t work.

Play Too Much

Dear Terrence,

I watch you walking down the hall, getting upset by the least little thing, and I worry. Someone bumps into you, and you’re upset. Someone says something to you that you don’t want to hear, and you’re upset. Someone doesn’t do this or that, and you’re upset. And then today, you’re about to get into a fight because — because why exactly? I could never get more out of you than, “He play too much.”

Of course, you’re not the first to say that. I hear it a lot. “You play too much.” “They play too much.” “Mr. Jones play too much.” I hear it a lot, but I’m not sure what it means. I’m fairly certain you don’t mean that literally: I don’t think it’s the amount of time this or that person spends playing video games that upsets you. We’re not playing any sport in the hallway, so you’re not referring to that. What you must mean is that the person in question plays mind games too much. That’s the only thing I can figure. But an odd thing about mind games: they take two to play. So if he plays too much, if she plays too much, it only means that you’re playing along too much.

So he bumps you and perhaps it’s on purpose: it’s only “playing” if you play along. So someone says something you don’t like: it’s only “playing” if you play along.

Why not try ignoring the people who play too much? If they have no one to play with, they’ll go look for a new playmate. Simple.

Playfully,
Your Teacher

The Jacket

Dear Teresa,

Women-Quilted-fitting-Biker-Leather-Jacket-13-240x340You looked really sharp in that leather jacket, I must say. It really worked well with your tight, curly black hair, and you wore it with a confidence that was surprising. In short, it looked great.

Sadly, it was also a dress code violation.

I know, I know — I get tired of the dress code myself. I get tired of enforcing it. I get tired of policing it. I get tired of dealing with it. But truth be told, we all have a dress code. I can’t wear anything I want to school, and while your dress code as a student is much more restrictive than mine as a teacher, I can sympathize to a degree. Still, it’s my job to police it (I choose that verb carefully and deliberately), and every time I have to approach a student for the first time about a violation, I’m a little apprehensive. I know some students can’t handle that criticism well, and it risks turning into a confrontation that I really don’t want to have.

“No one else has said anything to me about it!” is a common refrain. Perhaps no one else noticed — after all, we teachers have a million and one things on our minds. Dress code sometimes takes a backseat.

“I wore it yesterday, and no one said anything about it!” is another common response. See above.

“I’ve worn it all year, and no one has said a word about it!” is one I hear every now and then. See above.

So when I see a dress code violation, I get a little nervous. I just don’t like situations that could escalate into a bigger issue. I always do my best not to escalate the situation, and I think I do a good job of keeping things calm. But there are some students who are determined — absolutely determined — to make an issue of it.

And then there are students like you: I mentioned the lovely jacket was a dress code violation, and you simply put it in your locker. I could tell from your body language that you were not happy at all about it, but still, you put it away without a word. I was more impressed when we talked about it: you said something like the responses above, with a few new twists, but you waited until the appropriate time to discuss it. That showed a maturity that is impressive.

Thank you for handling an unpleasant situation like a true young adult. It makes me feel even more fortunate to be your teacher.

Still smiling,
Your Teacher

Week One

73fx_blackWeek one is under behind us, and it’s been a start unlike any other. For one thing, I’ve been cycling to work, and except for Monday, which was a workday followed by meet the teacher in the evening, I’ve ridden every day this week. A total of 104 km or just over sixty miles. With my additional evening riding, it puts me at 240 km for the month, with another 120-ish on tap next week. (Add in the walking I’ve remembered to track and it rises to 350 km.) It’s by far the most I’ve ridden in a single month since K and I became parents, and it’s had a tremendous effect on everything else. Starting the day with a good bike ride gets me to the school more alert, awake, and energetic than I’ve ever felt when going by car. Ending the day with a good bike ride brings me home feeling I’ve really accomplished something for the day: not only have I spent my day well, working with kids, but I’ve got my exercise in as well.

Once at school, it’s been a start of the year unlike any other as well. Last year was a bear, a real challenge that left me questioning whether I really wanted to keep teaching. I knew it was only an off year, but when you’re only five days into a 180-day school year and you already see a year of hard struggle with behavior issues stretching before you, it’s enough to make you question your commitment. This year, though, one week in and I see that this year might actually be fun again, not such a struggle.

First Week

Dear Terrence,

We’re nearing the end of our first week of school. Where are you? Three days in and I’d always be able to tell who would be my Terrences and my Teresas this year would be. Last year, I could tell within three seconds. You probably think I’m being hyperbolic (exaggerating for effect), but it’s true: one Teresa (and there were so many last year) introduced herself with her actions and words before she even entered my classroom, and several of the Terrences made clear their priorities just as they’d stepped inside my room. This year, I just don’t know where you are. Granted, I’ve seen a glimmer of you in this student and that, but you — that attitude, that consistently disruptive behavior, that anger, that defiance — are nowhere to be seen.

While that does relieve me for the most part, I must admit that there’s a little part of me that’s somewhat unnerved by it. I’m used to seeking you out and working with you and your issues immediately, and the fact that you haven’t appeared makes me think that perhaps I’ve lost my discerning edge or that perhaps you’ve gotten better at blending in and will pop up later than expected. I enjoy the challenge, that’s true, but the fact that I still haven’t figured out who you are this year gives me a bit more hope about the future than I usually have. Maybe my cynicism and pessimism are misplaced. We’ll see as soon as the honeymoon period wears off.

In the meantime, I just want to thank you for keeping it cool. I’m still fairly sure you’re out there somewhere, but you’re blending in nicely now, and that makes my job a whole lot more enjoyable.

With beginning-of-the-year hope,
Your Teacher

The Note(s)

As I am going over the parameters of the practice test we’re about to take, I notice her pass him a spiral notebook. Kids pass notes that way these days: they would fill a whole spiral notebook with slang-filled (and profanity filled for some) notes if a teacher doesn’t confiscate it. I ask him to put it up; he continues writing. I continue giving instructions, then tell him to put it up. He continues writing.

I take the notebook away from him, and he pulls another sheet of paper from his binder, with a smirk. I tell him, “Mr. S, don’t do it.” He continues writing. I let him write the note as I continue addressing the class then take it from him as he folds it. He takes another sheet of paper from his binder and begins again.

How many times could we continue this? By handling it this way, am I not just building steam in him, potentially creating a bigger issue shortly? If I were the type of teacher to do something deliberately provocative, I could push the kid to an anger that would get the best of him and give me something I could easily write him up for. These kids are so easily provoked, so easily manipulated, so short tempered, so fragile.

In the end, I just send him out of the room before either of us provoke the other any further.