First Impressions

Dear Teresa,

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.

Regards,
Your One-Period Sub

Planning Help

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.

Field Trip

Last night, L and I went to see the last performance of Matilda the Musical here in Greenville. She’d read the book earlier and was eager to see the show, and K gave me tickets for us as the sweetest and perfectly thoughtful birthday present I’ve received. And so we headed out in the late afternoon and came back in the late evening completely enthralled with what we’d see and talking about what we might see next. (Junie B Jones is coming later, but I think I’ll let K take the Girl for that particular one.)

Ironically, we went on a school field trip to the same venue this morning.

1-DSCF8314

Odd, the difference between taking your own daughter to a show and taking 250+ thirteen-year-olds…

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.

DSCF8087

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.

DSCF8099

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.

DSCF8101

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.

DSCF8095

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.

DSCF8114

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.

2-DSCF8214

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.

1-DSCF8223

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.

Reading

I give the students the same information every year, but this year, I decided to break it down in a letter. Dear student, you recently took the MAP test, which measures your reading progress. And so on and so on. It’s a mail merge, so “student” is replaced with the kid’s name, and all the details are individualized. Like the winter score. Like its grade-level equivalent. It’s bound to be a disheartening moment for some: I’m not sure they’ve ever been told point blank, “Your reading scores indicate that you’re reading at a second-grade level.” How do you take the news that your skills are six years behind where they should be?

1-DSCF7873

There are a number of reasons one could posit for this, and for each, a exception: For some, it’s a question of limited English exposure at home. But I have Latino students in my honors high school courses as well. For others its a question of limited access to books. But I have such students in my honors high school courses as well, and they solve the problem by basically camping out in the school library. No role model in the immediate family to provide the support necessary. But I’ve had students in my honors high school courses who’d never even met their biological father.

2-DSCF7877

At times they seem like excuses, at times they seem like legitimate — and tragic — explanations. Whatever the case, they’re my charge, and I’m tasked with reversing the trend. Some days, though, it just feels like I’m making the situation worse still.

First Day Returning

The first day back can always be stressful: you walk back into the school wondering what kind of day the kinds have packed in their book bags and hauled to school from Christmas break. Some years, they unpack a chattiness and an unwillingness to work that in a lot of ways is understandable. Other years, they haul out their books and their attention and make the day slide by almost effortlessly.

It occurred to me that I could help them pack their bag by having them leave on a good note, hence my opłatek efforts at the end of the year. Through most of the day, I thought that perhaps it had worked, that perhaps ending the year on a deliberately positive note helped bring them back with a positive outlook. They worked brilliantly, and not a complaint as I introduced and modeled a new weekly assignment, the article of the week, based on Kelly Gallagher’s ideas.

The final period of the day rolled to a close, and one young lady who was absent the final day asked me if I’d saved a cookie for her.

“Excuse me?”

“The cookies you gave everyone before the break.”

Here it was — definitive proof that what we’d done together had made an impact, for someone had clearly told her about the experience. Obviously it had struck something in their souls, made them resonate as one for a moment, showing them the oneness of humanity and all the hopes and dreams of everyone who has ever set out to create a utopia.

“Oh, yes,” I replied. “How did you hear about them?”

“Oh, everyone was just saying they were really tasty.”

A utopia for the taste buds, I guess, is better than no utopia at all.

Monday Afternoon

Yesterday was such a busy day that I didn’t even take the time to share everything that happened. The Christmas tree got a mention but little else, and the promise of the lights we put up around the house was about there was of the final product. So it would be tempting just to post those pictures and call it day. After all, there is continuity with the pictures and the day’s before.

“That tree is enormous” seemed to be the general consensus — certainly the biggest one we’ve ever brought into our house. “Remember that first tree stand we used?” K mused as she held the tree later that night while I, sprawled on the floor, loosened all the screws holding the tree in place and reinforced it with planks of wood. He might have held a tree half the size of the one we have in our living room now, but it would just laugh at the tree we brought home Sunday.

1-DSCF7437

But to leave today’s story at that would be leaving out the wonder of today. For example, a girl in my most challenging — and as a result, often most rewarding — class left the room without asking permission. It’s not the kind of thing I would have expected her to do. I went out to talk to her and determined that she’d removed herself from a stressful situation so that she wouldn’t say something she regretted. It turned out, she’d already kind of said that anyway, making a comment under her breath that probably shouldn’t have even been said at all. “But she was off task, and being distracting,” S protested. I suggested that she really didn’t need to say what she said, no matter what M was doing, and after some thought, she agreed. We went back into the room and I suggested that to be really mature, to take the situation to the next level, she might want to apologize to the girl in question. And she agreed. And in a few moments, the two of them were in the hall together, working out their problems like forty-year-olds instead of fourteen-year-olds. So to leave that out of the day’s story would be a minor tragedy.

But there was still the Boy and our time exploring before dinner.

As I was putting on my shoes, E pointed out that the giant ladder truck that had been mine at his age and which Nana and Papa had saved was in sad repair. “It’s not new and shiny like it was when you got it,” he observed rather philosophically. “Did you get that from Santa?” he asked after a pause, and I thought, “Well, here it is.” It’s a moment I knew was coming, was surprised that never came with L, and yet while dreading it in a way, paradoxically never really gave it too much thought.

But it reminded me of something I wrote on a blog I used to run, now almost ten years defunct, in which I dissected the statements of leaders of various religious groups that all clung to the same beliefs I grew up with after the church in which I grew up declared its own beliefs heretical and moved to Protestant orthodoxy. When L was born, I struggled to find the time and motivation to keep it up, so in August of 2007, I resigned:

I’ve been struggling—to find topics for this blog, to maintain my interest in all things Armstrong, to find time to care.

Truth be told, to care.

Jared said it best in a recent comment:

[A] moribund XCG is [not] entirely a bad thing either. After all, there’s only so much one can say about Armstrongism before you’ve said it all. (Source)

I don’t feel like I’ve said it all—there are thousands of words that could still be written about the phenomenon of Herbert Armstrong and the sect he formed. Yet, I really no longer have the interest or time to write anymore words about it.

I feel like Chicken Little, for our common XCG sky will continually fall. David Pack will talk about his web site statistics until the day he dies. Rod Meredith will provide critics with still more reasons to call him Spanky until the day he dies. Those in the upper echelons of the dwindling WCG will continue to talk about their amazing transformation until the day they die.

But I will not be commenting on them at that point, and I certainly won’t be commenting on them when I die.

About six months ago, I started preparing a final post, but I kept putting it off. I thought, “Maybe I’ll just write a little here, a little there,” for a while. Several have noticed and commented on this, and I have remained silent as to the cause of this dip in output.

My initial draft of this post might provide clarification:

Certain things in life force us to see things in a different perspective. Births, deaths, marriages, divorces, conversions—these are the kinds of things that make us stop and reflect on where we are, what we are, and most importantly, what we’re doing with the short time we have on Earth.

We have twenty-four hours in a day. We work at least eight of them; we sleep six to eight of them; we wash, shave, cook, eat, clean, drive, exercise and a million other forms of maintenance for another three or four a day. That leaves us with precious few hours a day for ourselves.

What do we do with that time?

Until recently, I spent time looking at, analyzing, and even mocking the beliefs and actions of a group of people I no longer have anything in common with.

Recent developments in my life now make that a less-than-ideal way to spend my free time.

The “certain event” I was referring to was the birth of my first child.

Since then, I’ve been of thinking about what I want my daughter to know about my own religious past. Truth is, I want her to know as little as possible. Because of shame? Embarrassment? Certainly not. I don’t want her to know for the simple reason that it no longer impacts my life. I can’t see much positive coming from me ever going into any detail with her about what I used to believe, about what her grandparents used to believe, about the fact that a true handful of people in the world still believe it. I don’t believe it, and that’s that.

And so, to quote one of my favorite authors:

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.”

To talk of many things—but not the XCG. And not here.

I appreciate all the support I’ve received during this little two-and-a-half-year adventure. I thank all the fellow contributors who, throughout these last nearly thirty months, have helped to make the discussion here a little more balanced. I am grateful to all you regulars. You really kept the site going.

Most of all, I’m heartened by some of the comments of the past, folks telling me that I have helped them in some way. I appreciate you sharing those thoughts, for it gave me a certain joy that I will truly never forget.

But the time has come.

Best wishes to all, ill wishes to none, and I leave with the hope that if we ever meet again, we’ll have so much more to talk about than the XCG.

And since then, the Girl never once asked about Santa for me (for we didn’t celebrate such heathen festivals), and I’d really forgotten about it. Of course I still write about the phenomenon, as evidenced by a post earlier this week (and as the thirtieth anniversary of Herbert Armstrong’s death is just a little over a month away, I will likely write about it again in the near future). But I hadn’t thought about what I’d say to the Boy or the Girl about my religious upbringing. It just didn’t seem important at all in a way. Until E asked me if Santa had brought me the ladder truck. I thought about it for a moment, realizing that a philosophical/theological treatise was certainly not required, and simply answered, “No, buddy, Santa didn’t bring it to me.” Maybe some day, he’ll ask about it again. Probably not. We’ll cross that little relatively insignificant bridge when we come to it.

Showing, Not Telling

What do you do when you come into work to find that a tool you’ve used for almost ten years, a tool you’ve created yourself and spent probably thousands of hours over the course of almost a decade, a tool you use now daily as a result of the initiative of your principal and his vision of turning your school into a true tech academy — what do you do when that tool is suddenly, inexplicably, and without any notification made completely unavailable to your students? It was the situation I found myself in this morning, as my first group of students filed in, logged on, and one by one said, “Mr. Scott, the site is blocked.”

My first reaction, of course, was fury. For the briefest of instants, I took it personally, as if my web site was specifically targeted for blocking. That took only a few moments to clear up in my mind: surely it was just a new filtering rule that had been applied, and like dolphins caught up in a net trawling for tuna, my poor site just got dragged into the mix. In the end, I’m really not sure what was going on, and I’ll likely never know the cause. What’s most important is not the cause but the effect: one of the most useful tools in my classroom is unavailable because of the actions of unknown people who work for the same organization as I.

At this point, the astute reader is probably thinking, “Surely that is a mechanism in the school district through which teachers can request that a site be unblocked.” Indeed, there is. I’d made such a request a couple of years ago and another one at the beginning of the school year. According to the district records, those requests are still pending. There are many different ways to explain this, but none of them are particularly complementary of the school system’s mechanism for unblocking web sites. Still, I filled out the online form, and even sent an email, CC’ing my principal, explaining the situation and the fact that “all of my requests [for unblocking] are still pending” and my worry ” that it might be several months before any action is taken on this issue,” requesting that the powers that be “process this request immediately,” and expressing how much I “appreciate [their] prompt help in this matter.”

As a third fail-safe, I called the help line and explained my situation. The lady with whom I spoke explained that she had no power to unblock web sites, which was what I expected. She mentioned that she saw my email, which was what I expected. She explained that she’d forwarded it on to tier three, which I didn’t quite understand as I don’t know how many tiers there are in this particular case, but it was still a little unexpected. It sounded like progress. I asked if I might have some kind of contact information for someone in this tier three, and the help desk attendant explained that she didn’t even really know who they went to, simply that they went to tier three, which I somehow expected.

But how to turn it into a teaching experience? My second class filed in, and by then, I was in a white-hot righteous fury of epic proportions. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got, which sounds about right for me. Yet the students could not discern how angry I was, for I did my absolute best not to manifest it at all. In that particular class, I’m blessed to have a co-teacher, and when she entered, I explained to her what happened, then explained to the class what had happened. I went so far as to say that I was extremely angry about it. But I excused myself, went to the restroom, ranted for a little bit, washed my face to freshen up, and went back to the classroom and carried on as if nothing had happened. Students were finishing up summaries of a reading we’d just finished, and I and my co-teacher went from student to student, advising, helping, praising, encouraging — all the things we try to do on a daily basis to build the self-confidence of the students in this class, all of whom read below grade level. A corollary to this low reading ability for many of them is a low level of self-control. Several of them say what comes to mind when it comes to mind. Many of them, when they come into the classroom angry about some excessively emotional interaction that occurred in the hallway — “drama” they call it — enter the classroom already doomed: they will sit and stew about it the entire class, refusing to work, refusing to calm down, often disrupting the class further.

On Monday, I’ll be able to debrief them about how I dealt with my anger. “Please notice,” I’ll begin, “that I didn’t take it out on you and that I didn’t refuse to work. I dealt with it and moved on. Was I still angry at the end of class? Very much so. But I kept it from controlling me.” Will it help? Perhaps. Teaching by example is always better than teaching by words. Show, don’t tell. Who knows — that might turn out to be the most valuable session we had all year for some students.

Good Day

DSCF7036Have you ever had a good day? Well, I did today!!!! It was a really good day.

  1. When I got to school today my teacher told me to go to the library so I can be the leader of the month. So I went on the morning news, and said my name, grade, and teacher. Then I got a picture, sticker, and two coupons.
  2. We had a sub in P.E. ( she was my P.E. teacher last year and I got to see her again).
  3. We got to start reading groups.
  4. We ONLY had half a math sheet and spelling for homework!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  5. We got to watch Goosebumps for recess ( it was raining all day).
  6. E (my brother), mama (my mother), and I went to McDonald’s for ice cream (that was one of the coupons).

That was my good day.

Break

K informs me that I work probably fifty to sixty hours a week during the school year. Grading, planning, grading, planning in the evenings, on the weekends, in the evenings, on the weekends. It adds up, she tells me. I never keep track, but I’ll go with her assessment. That’s why, when summer break comes around, it’s an absolute relief, at least for the first couple of weeks.

And it allows me to do things like cleaning up a trampoline we got for free from a family whose boys have long outgrown it and doing it in the early afternoon of a Tuesday.

1-DSCF4080

Which is also good, because as L helps, she gets tired, which bodes well for a restful night’s sleep.

2-DSCF4081

3-DSCF4082

So we all get breaks.

Change

It was bound to happen, because it happens to all children these days. L came home crying that her friends — her best friends in her class — were bullying her. I don’t think she used that word: it was a label added afterward. The first moment K and I had alone when I came home that day, she said, “Well, some kids are bullying L at school.” And while at first blush, it sounded like it might not necessarily be bullying (we’re so quick to call everything “bullying” these days): some of the Girl’s friends were chasing here around the playground, grabbing her, not letting her go. But with each new detail, it became more likely “bullying” was not a misapplied label in this case. The girls, it seems, had recently decided that, because L had wanted to play alone during recess for a couple of days, that they didn’t want anything to do with her. They were ganging up on her, chasing her, and then holding her by force, squeezing her arm so that it caused pain, and doing it all despite L’s requests not to, despite L saying that it hurt. What was worst was that she took her entire free time one day in class to write cards of apology to her three friends, the instigators, basically saying, “For whatever I’ve done to make you angry at me, I’m sorry.” One girl ripped the card up in front of L while another took some makers and scribbled all over it. L was literally in tears as she told me, and she had been in tears earlier in the day when she told K.

So many questions running through K’s and my conversations about this. Do we know that the Girl, normally a sweet girl but capable of mean streaks like everyone, didn’t in fact antagonize a bit? Does she know, for that matter? At what point do we get the teacher involved? What do we tell the teacher? She didn’t want to tattle on them, for she still hoped to salvage the friendship, but she realized she needed help.

The most pressing question, though, was, “What do we tell the Girl?” In the end, we suggested that she hang near the teachers when they go out to recess, and when the gang begins to approach, move as close to the teacher as possible, then when they try to chase her, don’t move. “They can’t chase you if you aren’t moving, right?” And then when they begin the squeezing, the plan was to say loudly, “Stop — that’s hurting me.” The plan was that the teacher would hopefully hear and intervene, and technically, the Girl still wouldn’t have to tattle.

The next day, the debriefing: “We’re friends again.”

K and I smiled. It’s still coming, but it just hasn’t quite made it.