Four awards, including all A’s.
Four awards, including all A’s.
The Girl apparently is anxious to get one — they’re all the rage at her school. Everyone’s got one, and they’re so fun.
It’s the same at our school — the now-ubiquitous fidget spinner. They’re marketed as aids for kids with attention issues and hyperactivity issues. Supposedly they’ll help these kids to focus by giving them a little outlet for their hyperactivity.
What ends up happening, though, is that the kids who have them become fixated on them. They’re just another in a long line of distractions that keep them from staying focused for more than a few moments. The kid in the front row who can’t keep his eyes on his work for more than two seconds now has to contend with this little gadget in his hand and, when he starts sharing it, who’s got it and when he can get it back.
A similar trend (in our school anyway) is the fight with the eternally-in earbuds.
“Take the earbuds out,” I tell a student.
“You tell me that every day,” he says.
Not only that, but I’ve referred the matter to the administrator a couple of times and he’s sat in ISS (probably with his earbuds in ) — but every day, there they are again.
What do these to things have in common? Simple: they’re symptoms of the current generation’s need to be constantly stimulated with something.
L is starting to develop those symptoms as well. She loves to have something playing on her little CD player at all times. She wants to read with it on, do homework with it on, color with it own, play on her tablet with it on. However, what she’s playing on it is somewhat different than what the kids walking down our hallways have blaring into their heads. (How much rap can you take before you go insane? How much misogynistic, materialistic machismo can you listen to before you realize how empty it is?) No, no music for the Girl: she’s always listening to a recorded book.
I’ve had enough experience teaching now to realize that my worries about returning to school after spring break — potential laziness, potential mutiny, potential problems of every sort — are almost always unfounded. The first week back is almost always painless. But it’s busy, getting used to the schedule again.
This week was the last week before testing. Our school has decided to do the state-mandated testing a little differently this year, and I applaud the decision. Instead of having a week of eighth-grade testing, where we test day after day after day (math, then English, then science, then social studies), followed by a week of seventh-grade testing and a third week of sixth-grade testing (divided by grade because we still don’t have enough Chromebooks for the whole school to test at the same time), we’re testing one day a week for four weeks. Next week we begin, and once those four weeks of testing are over, the school year is almost over. Perhaps that’s what makes the transition from spring break always a bit easier: we all know we have that final push until the big break.
It’s also the time of year that students who are at risk of failing a given class — students who throughout the whole year have usually done very little other than disrupt class — decide they might want to try to do something to save themselves. There’s always one or two who don’t, and they usually move on the ninth grade anyway through this or that administrative and summer school magic. I’m not putting down our school: it’s a phenomenon that occurs throughout the country, I suspect. But I do have mixed feelings about it.
On the one hand, what will keeping these students back accomplish? It’s not like they’re going to behave any differently if they repeat. Because our district — perhaps state? never cared enough to check into it — has a policy that a child cannot fail two years, they’re just going to get pushed on, and if they have already been held back, they know they can’t be held back again, which probably prompts a lot of the apathetic behavior. (Students have told me, “I’ve already failed one grade: you can’t hold me back again.”)
On the other hand, isn’t this just teaching them a wonderful lesson for the future? “I can do nothing and still succeed!” What happens to them when they get to high school and the rules change? I’ve told several students over the years, “When you get to high school and fail freshman English, they don’t say, ‘Well, he was close. Let’s give it to him.’ They say, ‘Try again.’ And if it looks like you’re going to fail a second time, they don’t say, ‘Well, he’s already failed once. Let’s move him on.’ They say, ‘Nope. Try a third time.'” And by then, they’re old enough to drop out, and they do. What happens to them when they try to keep a job with that kind of thinking? In short, they don’t. They can’t.
So this is the time of year all of this swirls through my head, and I find myself thinking about my own responsibilities. It’s much easier for me, regarding paperwork and the like, just to move the kid on as well. It’s much easier for me to make my class almost impossible to fail. I think to myself, “They’re still kids: they’ll grow out of it.” But I look around at some millennial young adults and find myself thinking, “Well, maybe not.”
It’s also the time when thoughts and plans for summer are solidifying. This time last year I was getting a little nervous about the huge project that was looming on the horizon. I didn’t know what all was behind the walls, what all awaited us. And now I know what’s behind the walls because I put it there, and the only thing that awaits us in the kitchen is a bright, open space now.
But plans are just that, and now it’s time to get planting, get mowing, get weeding — all the joys of spring that just leave you exhausted but strangely satisfied.
And time to play guitar with your neighbor.
When did a response to “Good morning” become optional? When did manners become a matter of personal preference?
For you, considering all that has passed between us, my behavior likely seems two-faced. You think, “Here he is trying to be all nice to me, and when I get to class, he’s going to be on my back about everything.” That’s not an accurate interpretation of my behavior, though. You see, I won’t deny a simple fact: despite the fact that your behavior often is the most irritating aspect of my entire day, despite the fact that your behavior disrupts the whole class, despite the fact that your behavior often descends into outright disrespect (never mind the fact that disruptive behavior is itself disrespectful) regardless of how politely I redirect you, and despite the fact that some of your behavior seems downright spiteful, I try to approach each day as if it were the first day you and I ever encountered each other. I try to give you the benefit of the doubt each and every day. In short, I try to start fresh daily.
It seems only fair. You are, after all, only a kid. Your personality and behaviors have not completely congealed, and there’s always hope that you will mature during the school year and come out the other side a different kid. It does happen. And so I want to foster that possibility, however remote, in your behavior by starting anew every morning, and the simplest way I can do that is simply saying as cheerfully as I can muster without sounding false, “Good morning.”
Ironically, this type of behavior extends even into the adult world. There have been plenty of times, in both my teaching career and in other jobs I’ve held, that I’ve come to work with a sore spot for some colleague or other. It’s hard to leave it all behind, and sometimes that sore spot gets irritated just by seeing that person, and the last thing in the world I want to do is to be cheerful and polite. But that’s part of the game. It’s not being false or two-faced to hide those true feelings; it’s called being professional. It’s called being an adult, realizing that these little rituals like “Good morning” are just that, rituals that really mean nothing more than “I acknowledge your existence this morning.” True, it is a shortened form of an older greeting, “I wish you a good morning.” But even my worst enemies I wish a good morning: if things are going well for them, they’re not likely to take anything out on me.
So let’s try this again. I’ll say “Good morning, Terrence,” and you say, “Good morning, Mr. Scott.” And we both know we’ve started our day off with each other on a positive note.
First practice is tomorrow morning.
Snow days — those make sense here in South Carolina. Most municipalities don’t have the equipment to clear snow properly and effectively. Add to it the lack of general experience drivers here have with snow and it’s fairly obvious why everything shuts down. The snow starts falling in the morning on a school day, and everyone realizes it’s likely only a matter of time before the announcement. At our school, it’s usually something like this: “Teachers, please check your email.” And there we find the procedures we will follow for early dismissal.
Rain, though? I remember there was a kid in the apartment complex we lived in when I was in kindergarten whose mother would keep him home if it rained, but I thought that was a one-time thing, an exception. Today, I found otherwise. By the end of fifth period today, probably a third of the school had already gone home. Early dismissal. To be fair to parents, there was supposed to be a horrible storm passing through: flash flooding, potential tornadoes. Nothing to take lightly. But what ended up happening was so much less dramatic: a few parents began taking their kids out of school, and every other kid, realizing the possibility, texted home. Probably something like this: “Everyone else is going home. Come get me — please!” And soon, there were so many parents waiting to pick up their kids that instead of calling individual classrooms as with the standard procedure, general announcements echoed through the school.
“Will the following students please come to the office for early dismissal,” and then ten, twelve, fifteen names. Five minutes later, “Will the following students please come to the office for early dismissal,” and then ten, twelve, fifteen more names.
Later in the afternoon, an apologetic email from the principal: “I understand that very little teaching can take place due to the announcements,” it began. But what was to be done?
I sent a text to K during lunch: “L is going to be sad because she didn’t get early dismissal. Kids are leaving here in swarms.” Something along those lines. K texted back: “I’m at home with the Boy. He had early dismissal, too. We’re going for L soon.”
And so what do you do with an unexpectedly free afternoon, that rarest of all gifts?
There was a movie, of course. The latest from Netflix, another Studio Ghibli film, Pom Poko. (We as a family have grown to love those films. Not a bad one in the bunch.)
There was a bit of playing, of course. The Boy can find entertainment anywhere. Just add some cars and he’s set.
And K finally got some time to work on a project that’s been haunting us for years: pictures for our living room and kitchen. What to include? How to arrange them? What, sadly, to leave out?
Tomorrow, everything goes back to normal, but only for two days as we near Easter and spring break.
One of the Boy’s favorite books for a while was My Cold Went on Vacation, which tells the story of a little boy who catches a cold and recovers, only to wonder where the cold has gone. He loved it because in each picture, the cold — a green-faced, long-nosed, always smiling circle — was visible somewhere; I loved it because of the style of the illustrations. It was an educational book for the Boy as well: we got to talk about how colds are spread, and he told me about kids in his pre-school class who had gotten ill throughout the year. He reminisced about his own colds and giggled each time he saw that the cold eventually returned home to visit with his sister a while.
So went our week as a family. The Boy started us off with a stomach virus on Monday that kept him home Tuesday as well. He let it take a leisurely stroll around the neighborhood before letting it back in Thursday to lay me out all day Friday. And then last night, K was complaining about being more tired than she should have been, and I knew where our family virus had gone after it left me.
As a result, most of this week has been kind of start-and-stop. The Boy got sick and everything slowed down; he got better and everything returned to normal. And so went the cycle.
It’s something of a short metaphor for this time of year: the end of the school year is within sight, but it’s still off in the distance a bit, just a little way down the line. We can see it, and we’re all ready for it. We’re ready to close the year out, pack our bags, and fly to Poland for a few weeks. But it just keeps chugging.
And so do we. But that light — it’s there, in the distance…
Three events today, happening within moments of each other, reminded me just what challenges some students in my class face, and how I am often really not teaching what I thought I would be teaching to thirteen-year-olds.
We’re working on a cross-curricular unit that incorporates Sean Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens as the anchor text. Since I’m the literature/reading teacher, the unit starts in my room. To make the process simpler and faster, as well as to hit more standards, I’ve designed a unit that includes a jigsaw reading of the article: independent groups read one chapter of the book, then present their chapter to others who read other portions of the book. Each group gets a habit.
I copied the book to make my life easier: we don’t have enough books for two classes to use them simultaneously, and because I have a class-set of Chromebooks due to an elective I teach, I told the other English teacher that I could just scan the book in for my students. I scanned them in two pages at a time, which meant that, because the first page of each chapter was on the right side of the page, there was always a page from the previous chapter as the first page. I knew it might be confusing for some, but I thought that most thirteen-year-olds could figure out that it must be part of the previous chapter, especially since I’d already shown the kids how to read the PDF versions of the novel: Left page, right page, scroll down; left page, right page, scroll down. When I found that some students were having trouble with that and were in fact treating the first page visible as the first page of their chapter, I was frustrated, disheartened even.
Later, as I was moving around the room, I noticed some students having problems with Google Docs’ outline feature. It turned out that, instead of turning on the automatic-numbering outline feature, they were manually adding numbers — like it was just a typewriter instead of a computer. Since I had showed the students how to do this, since we had spent time working as a class, working as groups, working even as individuals with simple outlines, I thought everyone knew how to do it But if a student is not paying attention, if a student is more interested in most everything else other than what is being taught, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Yet it happens to these students time and time again, and they can never figure out why. What are the chances of someone who can’t pay enough attention to learn how to use a simple outline feature ever going to keep a job? Perhaps these students will learn some focus, but they’ve made it this far without paying attention: what’s in it for them to start now?
Finally, I had a vivid reminder of how poorly some of the students read. A student was struggling to figure out what to put as a sub-point in his outline. To his credit, he had figured out that the heading immediately above would be a main point and knew that something below it must be the sub-point. The first paragraph after the heading was short:
“Synergy doesn’t just happen. It’s a process. You have to get there. And the foundation of getting there is this: Learn to celebrate differences.”
I sat down by the student and quickly assessed the problem. “Read the first paragraph under the heading,” I said. He read it. “Tell me something about ‘synergy’ from the paragraph.” “It’s a process,” he said after a moment’s hesitation. At this point, I was thinking that another helpful question or two and I’d be on my way. “And what is the foundation of that process?” He made a wild stab — something completely outside the text. “No,” I reminded him, “no, it must be in the text. It’s right there in the text.” Another wild stab. “Find the word ‘foundation’ in the text,” I instructed, growing a bit frustrated with my ineffectiveness. He found it. “And what does it say is the foundation? What’s right after it?” Another wild guess. I sat there, wondering what was going on in his head, wondering if he was seeing, what he was thinking, what even he was feeling.
This evening, I called the Girl to the computer and had her read the paragraph. “What is the foundation of synergy?” I asked. “It’s a process. You have to get there,” she began. “No,” I redirected, “one thing. It’s in the text.” She re-read, then said, “Learn to celebrate differences.”
I don’t say this to brag about our daughter. I point this out to show the level of reading of so many of my students, students who should have responded like L, for she is, according to testing, reading at about an eighth-grade level. The level my students should be reading at. What’s most frustrating about all of this is the shortsightedness of these same students. They don’t see how far behind they are — and how could then? They divide school into two, fatalistic groups: the smart kids classes and our classes.
Add to this all the students lacking social skills who need instruction in this simply to reach a state of mind in which they can functionally work with someone. No, that’s not even correct — to get them to the point that they can stand to be in the same group as someone they find irritating. Several students in my lowest level class are incapable of getting along with much of anyone. “He annoys me.” “She gets on my nerves.” “He’s a pain.” “We might fight.” So on top of basic reading, I have to try to teach them how to deal with each other. Given their fatalistic worldview, that’s nearly impossible. “When I’m mad, I just react. It’s just how I am.” For them, it’s as immutable a fact as the inevitability of tomorrow’s sunrise. There is nothing they can do to stop it. Is this laziness? Learned victimhood? Personality? Nature? Nurture? All the above?
It’s not that I’m feeling pessimistic about my chosen profession. I’m just not sure those who don’t teach, who don’t interact with such kids on a daily basis, really know the extent of the problem we face in the American education system today, and all too often, those very people are the ones making the decisions, about funding, about testing.
Every year, my students begin Romeo and Juliet with certain preconceptions, both about the play and about the character of Romeo. It’s a Shakespeare play, they reason. Shakespeare’s hard to read, noble and magnanimous and all that. He writes about noble ideas, noble dilemmas, high-minded philosophy. They don’t expect it when the play starts out and within a few lines, characters are saying things like this:
I take them through the text enough to get them to realize that these two characters, like Donald Trump, are fond of locker room talk that involves suggestions of sexual assault. (No, I don’t bring in the politics, but the thought crossed my mind to make the connection at least today.) I don’t point out to them what Sampson really means when he says, “Me they shall feel while I am able to stand,” but I suspect some of them get it.
Then there’s Romeo: He’s going to be a good guy, they reason, because the play is the most famous love story of all time, and the most famous love story of all time can’t possibly have anything other than the ideal man in it. So we begin reading and find this passage in response to Benvolio’s queries about what exactly is making Romeo’s days so long:
Well, in that hit you miss: she’ll not be hit
With Cupid’s arrow; she hath Dian’s wit;
And, in strong proof of chastity well arm’d,
From love’s weak childish bow she lives unharm’d.
She will not stay the siege of loving terms,
Nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes,
Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold:
O, she is rich in beauty, only poor,
That when she dies with beauty dies her store.
“How has Romeo tried to win her?” I ask. We mark the text and make a list.
“She will not stay the siege of loving terms?” I ask, and the students figure it out.
“He’s used smooth words.”
“Nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes?” I ask, and the students get it.
“He’s been making eyes at her.”
“Good. Finally, ‘Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold’?” Here they stumble.
“No — how do guys use gold to win girls?”
Finally, someone gets it: “Oh, jewelry!”
“Right!” Then the question — should I pursue the issue further? Should I lead them to see just exactly what Romeo’s saying here? Some years, I don’t. This year, I did.
“And what about the rest of the line?”
They look at each other quizzically.
“What do you think he means by ‘ope’?” I ask.
“Open?” a student suggests.
“Correct. Now, she will not ‘ope her lap to saint-seducing gold’?” I see in some of their eyes that they’ve got it, so I suggest what I suggest every year. “We’ll have to behave as adults in this unit and not giggle and be immature about some of the topics. So what’s he saying?”
They get it. They’re mildly shocked. The girls are a little angry and disappointed that this supposed hero of the greatest love story of all time is a fairly typical male and simply trying to get Rosaline in bed — to spread her legs, literally.
“Nothing ever changes,” one student observes.
The Girl tonight hit on her own preconceptions and battled them mightily. Beans are nasty. She’s decided that already. Of course, at her age, I’d decided the same thing about a lot of things, most beans as well. But we have a rule in our house as Nana and Papa had when I was growing up: you have to try everything. In L’s case, it was about three bites of beans.
We jokingly took a picture with a time-stamp (that’s in fact illegible) to see how long it took her to eat them. Although she didn’t have to sit at the table the whole time, she had her final bite around ten minutes before bedtime.
I remember doing the same thing.
Nothing ever changes.
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.
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!
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?
We sit around a few tables during a planning period and talk about how to use the data we’ve received from this year’s fall MAP testing, a test which provides information about skill levels of our students. There’s a general score that summarizes everything called the RIT score. (I don’t know what it stands for.) That in turn can be correlated to grade levels by looking at national norms. For the longest time, eighth grade nation norms were 220 at the beginning of the year and 222 at the end. This year, the re-calculated norms have fallen three points. In addition, the data show that in a single, mixed-group classroom (something like science or social studies that is not grouped according to ability), a teacher can have a student reading at the kindergarten level and another reading at the level of a college sophomore, with all the other levels mixed in.
How does one teach a group like that?
There is a predictable corollary to that: the students who read at a second-grade level often behave on a second-grade level. Or perhaps worse, because they exhibit second-grade behavior in nearly-adult size bodies. A dangerous combination at times.
At the dinner table, we talk about our day. L tells us the latest adventures with Timmy, a student who moved here recently from up north and has been seated in L’s group. He refuses to work. He’s mean to other students. He cursed at a teacher today. He flagrantly disobeys. I suggest that he’s probably acting out because he doesn’t want to be there, and he’s hoping his behavior will somehow get him moved back up north. It’s a fairly logical assumption. But here’s the thing: his behavior is affecting my child’s education. The teacher is having to take time out of instruction to deal with him.
“He’s even worse that Demarcus, and I thought he was bad.” Demarcus has been the subject of a few stories, and I’ve found myself thinking that I have a few older versions of him in my classes. Struggling in class. Unable to work and so entertains himself. It’s a common cycle, a chicken-egg mystery by the time they reach my classroom: does the behavior cause the low academic achievement or does the low academic achievement cause the behavior? It’s probably a bit of both.
I kept my story to myself and let E tell how Jameson picked a scab in class and now it will bleed forever. I love how he’s always trying to join in “adult” conversations. He aims, shoots, and hits the target but generally only grazing it on the side.
E’s problem is relatively insignificant; L and I, though, are facing the same issue from two different sides of the desk at two different ends of the same problem. What I can do as a parent is quite different than what I can do as a teacher.
But there’s a third role: citizen. This is an issue that is larger than just my school, L’s school, our district, our state. It’s likely the condition of the majority of schools around the country.
It’s hard not to be pessimistic about this reality.
You caught my eye from the very first moment I walked into the room. You were sitting at the end of one of the two-seat tables your teacher uses instead of desks, talking to your friend. It was obvious you weren’t supposed to be there: the lab tables are designed for two people, not three. When I moved to the front of the classroom, clipboard in my head, obviously ready to take role, you didn’t move back to your seat. I hadn’t said anything earlier because I didn’t want to assume you were being anything other than a friendly student who knew when to move back to her seat. So your behavior from the beginning was something that called attention to you.
When I asked you to move to your seat, you insisted that that was your seat. I’m a patient man, and I thought that perhaps you were just being a typical playful seventh grader, so I calmly and politely repeated that you needed to move to your seat. When you again insisted that you were in your seat, I saw the whole interaction unfold before me. I knew you were going to be defiant. I knew you were going to show an attitude. I knew that you were going to be disrespectful. I knew all these things because I’ve seen people behave like you behaved many times, and I know the behaviors that lead up to it. As I stated, I had my eye on you from the moment I walked into class because of your behavior: you called attention to yourself immediately.
Now, what was most troubling about our interaction was when I asked you what your name was. I asked you, and you said nothing. I asked you again, and you were silent. Your rigid body language said plenty, though. It said, “I will not respond to you. I will not reply.” However, someone in the classroom said your name. The problem with that is simple: I wasn’t asking the question “What’s her name?” to the class. I was asking you, “What’s your name.” So when you didn’t answer, you were being defiant yet again. And when I kept insisting and you finally said, “You hear my name. You hear them telling you,” I knew we were close to the end.
It was our discussion in the hallway that sealed it. You refused to look at me. You answered in a very disrespectful tone. You huffed and puffed, smacking your teeth. You all but flipped me off with your behavior. Your behavior screamed profanity, screamed disrespect. I’m very sorry that you didn’t see that. I’m very sorry you didn’t realize the horrible things your body language was saying. However, it was at that moment that I knew there was no way to salvage the situation. I knew that, if you stayed in the room, you would not have a positive impact on the class. so I asked the administrator to take you out.
Look at the situation from my perspective: I come into your classroom during my planning period to cover for a lacking substitute teacher. I simply asked you to move to your seat. And from that, you have created a very strong and very negative first impression. Should I see your name on my role next year, it will be hard for me to start with a clean slate with you. However, that’s just what I’ll do, for two reasons: first, because I’m an adult. Simple as that. Second, I don’t know what happened to you this morning leading up to our encounter that might have soured your whole day. I don’t think I deserved for you to take it out on me, but still, you’re a kid, and kids often don’t have the cognitive and emotional mental tools yet to deal with such situations. (Truth be told, many adults don’t either.)
So I just wanted to let you know that, should you still be a student here next year, I’ll do my best to let that first impression side. But here’s the thing: if that’s how you always behave, you’ll quickly create that same first impression with every teacher in the eighth-grade hallway, and you’ll find yourself in situation after situation like the one you experienced today. You might say to that, “I don’t care,” and perhaps you don’t. That would be a tragedy. But I think you do care.
If you’d like some help learning how to make better first (and second and third) impressions, I’d be happy to help you out. Just let Ms. Smith know, and we’ll figure out something we can do.
Your One-Period Sub
My students are about to embark on a paired-down version of the short story project I’ve been using for years. Paired down is hardly accurate: it’s radically changed. Instead of reading The Tell-Tale Heart and writing three analytic paragraphs about it, they’re adding on to something they did earlier this year. More choice. Less grading. Seems like a win-win situation.
Less is sometimes more for everyone.