Thursday, June 30, 2005

Survey of Bloggers at MIT

Just a heads-up: when you press the submit button, nothing happens, but that doesn't mean it didn't submit. That's how I ended up with 7 copies of the login-code email.

Take the MIT Weblog Survey

Graduation Love-Fest, Part 1

So, I left you with an account of my second rollercoaster ride ever.

The rest of the week leading up to graduation was intense. Ever planned a graduation before? Ever planned one when there are no traditions yet, no boilerplate to use, when you're making it all up as you go along? Yeah. I spent all my free periods and hours after school designing the program using PrintShop. Actually, most of the hours were spent copy-editing the program. We listed all the high schools the kids will be attending on the back of the program; that list had to be checked and re-checked (can you imagine if we left out someone's school?!). Fonts and styles had to be played with and adjusted. We dedicated it to a couple of parents who passed away while their children were in our school, and to our injured colleague, and to another sick parent. All of that had to be checked and re-checked.

Meanwhile, my colleagues were printing names onto diplomas, slicing the diplomas a bit so they would fit in their cases, and checking and re-checking that each one was spelled right and no one was missing. And then they needed to be put in the correct order to be handed out at graduation.

Meanwhile, we had to get awards printed and ready for the 6th and 7th grade awards night. While we only had to do about 60 diplomas, we had hundreds of awards - for achievement in each subject area, for improvement in each subject area, perfect attendence, citizenship, and "scholars" awards to the kids who made honor roll every marking period in all four major subjects. Whew.

Meanwhile, we were teaching classes. I pretty much just played games with the kids for the last week, but I tried to keep it structured and at least a little educational. I taught the 8th graders the rules to Go, as an alternative to chess. A few of them really took to that. We also played a game of mixed pictionary/charades using science and school-related words. And I let them sign yearbooks or help me clean up the classroom, as long as everyone was occupied and speaking at low volume. When I say love-fest, it really was. Despite the long days and hot weather, when I sat with the kids, I felt incredibly proud of the adults they are gradually becoming. And they wrote nice things in my yearbook. One boy, who was always very quiet in class, not a problem but not a great student, either, wrote "This is the only time I've liked Science!" I think I value that comment above all the others, because I never would have guessed that he liked my class. I didn't think he disliked it, but I thought it was something he endured, as so many children endure so much of school. I can only hope that his high school teachers keep him interested.

I also handed out "Ms. Frizzle's Report Card" and had the students evaluate me. I'll share the questions I asked and a few of the results in another post (my eyes are starting to glaze over).

Oh, we were also running graduation rehearsals. Now, I doubt you've ever experienced anything quite so much fun as trying to get a bunch of hot, cranky 8th graders, just a few days from graduation, to practice singing and doing hand motions and swaying to a handful of songs. Especially kids with no experience singing with their classmates, as we have no chorus or anything like that in our school. We hired a "graduation planner" to help with this. In the end, as you'll see, they pulled it together for graduation. I don't care to relive those rehearsals in any greater detail, and I was only at two (out of about 8!).

Graduation Love Fest, Part 2

We held our 8th grade graduation ceremony in a nearby school which has a beautiful new building. (When are they gonna build us OUR new building, yo?) Saturday morning was sunny and HOT. I helped line up the girls to march in. Must remember to bring an extra pack of bobby pins next year to help with the mortarboards. The girls let out a big shriek when the music started, but as we shoved them through the door into the gym, they calmed down and began marching in step. Everything that we'd practiced went better than it had in rehearsals.

The ceremony began with the Star-Spangled Banner, then an introductory speech by our principal and a keynote address by the president of the non-profit that helped start our school three years ago. He was a little longwinded but what can you do? The kids sang "I Believe," a corny song about believing in oneself, which the kids actually really liked singing. They got shy, though, and could barely be heard. Then we had two speeches by students. Instead of the top-ranking students speaking, we asked kids who wanted to speak to submit speeches and then chose a couple of speakers from among those who were interested. Interestingly, these two girls both joined us in seventh grade, a year after the others started; I think that speaks well of their classmates' ability to integrate new students and really make them feel welcome. They nailed the "graduation speech" genre, which meant they were very sweet but a little cliched, but I think for 8th grade that's just about right. Come high school and college graduation, they can find something innovative to say! I helped hand out diplomas, and then the kids - with help from everyone in the audience - sang "Stand By Me" and then graduation ended in a flurry of photographs, thank yous, introductions to extended family members, and more photographs.

Most of us on staff met at an Italian restaurant, Mario's (MAArio's not MAHrio's, just so you know), for a celebratory lunch. That's when I gave this t-shirt to Ms. Pascal, who is leaving for the business world and an MBA. (Another math teacher friend recommended one that says "FOIL - keeping algebra fresh" but they were out of stock last week and this week I can't even find it on the web).

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Graduation Love Fest, Part 3

Monday, field day. Normally, we take the kids out to a nearby park for an all-day event. The 6th and 7th graders had not behaved very well during the past week, so we reduced it to just Monday afternoon, in our schoolyard. Eighth graders who came to school on Monday (most did not, having graduated on Saturday) helped run the events. We played class vs. class tug of war, three-legged relay races, and they rotated through stations of push-ups, sit-ups, 50-yard-dash, and hula hooping. The day was oppressively humid, to the point where several of us felt faint by noon, and rumor had it that a teacher from the elementary school below us had fainted. So when a light rain started just as we began field day, no one complained. It felt great! We did all the activities in the drizzle. We ended the day with a whole-school water balloon toss - each child stands opposite a partner. One tosses a water balloon to the other, then they each take a step back, then they toss the balloon again. When the balloon breaks, you are soaking wet and eliminated. It's hilarious, and a better way to do water balloons than just handing them out and saying "go!" We dismissed the kids and then discovered a bunch of leftover balloons: Staff water balloon toss/fight!!!! I left for yoga completely soaked.

Tuesday, the last day of school, a half day, I spent hanging out in Ms. Pascal's room with the 15 or so eighth graders who came in for one last day with friends and teachers (or because their parents made them). I told them since I would soon not be their teacher, I could now pull out all the stops and kick their tails in SET, and that is exactly what I did. It was too humid for Jenga. I told them some of the more gee-whiz stories from Phantoms in the Brain, a terrific book I've been reading about neuroscience. Two of the girls headed for specialized high schools asked if they could see it, and pored over it, giggling, for about twenty minutes. The other kids talked and surfed the internet, showing each other animated cartoons of babies with cats' heads, Michael Jackson singing, a rapping cat, and more. Then they started googling each other, and us, their teachers. I have never been so happy to blog under a pseudonym!

Finally, 11:15 rolled around, we gave them final hugs, and sent them off into the world. I got a huge hug from this boy whose mom passed away - actually, I got huge hugs from him at both graduation and on Tuesday - and I told him to do great things first for himself, second for his family, but third, he'd better make me proud! He wrote in my yearbook, "Thanks for putting up with my laziness." I wanted to collar him and make sure he understood that laziness was not at all my main impression of him. I think he was refering to my decision, at the start of this year, that I could no longer tolerate his never turning in assignments.

It's hard to express how much these kids mean to me.


Every teacher has a Braveheart moment on a certain day in June. Mine is happening now.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Peer Pressure

The first time I rode a rollercoaster it was a very small rollercoaster at a small amusement park in New England. I was in high school. I screamed such unpleasant things at my best friend, who had convinced me to try the ride, that she thought I was serious and we weren't friends anymore.

I consider myself morally courageous. The rest of you can keep your scary movies and your rollercoasters.

Yesterday, I rode a rollercoaster for the second time in my life.

There is really no peer pressure quite like a group of 50 eighth graders whipped into a frenzy by their Social Studies teacher who has been talking about getting you on a rollercoaster for a whole month.

My legs were gelatin by the time we got to the front of the line for Superman. I thought the restraints were going to crush my chest. I opened my eyes for all of four seconds. But, I have to admit, it was almost, kind of, a little fun. I would do it again. And I might even open my eyes.

One of the highlights of the 8th grade trip for the students, apparently, was hearing a curse - just one! - escape my lips during that ride. I told them to cut me some slack, I thought I was going to die. By this morning, the rumor circulating around the school involved multiple curses...

The rest of the day was spent on the swings and the log flume and the ferris wheel and the tea cups and squirting kids as they went by in the Congo Rapids ride and Skull Mountain and paying more than a movie ticket for a lousy salad and fries and eating cotton candy and watching the kids burn their money, er, play games on the boardwalk and keeping the couples from kissing and signing autograph books and counting and recounting children and applying and re-applying sunscreen and trying to stay awake on the bus home.

Have I mentioned how much I love our students?

Sunday, June 19, 2005

A little something from the 8th grade picnic... Posted by Hello

Oh, I forgot to mention!

As I was getting dressed last night, I discovered that I still have the jewelry I wore to my high school prom! "If not now, when?" I thought, so I put it on. It was a hit. One girl ran up to me, "Ms. Frizzle dressed up!! Make-up and jewelry! She's like us, she never dresses up, but she dressed up!"

Ms. Frizzle Goes to the Prom & Other Reflections

Er, the "graduation dance." We have been emphasizing that the prom is something you attend in high school, and since all of our students will be graduating from high school, this is only the 8th grade graduation dance. Sadly, many students in the Bronx drop out of high school and never attend a real prom, so the culture of the area is to go all out for the 8th grade dance.

I wish I could post pictures: the kids looked fantastic. The girls wore beautiful gowns made of shiny fabrics with lots of glittery jewelry and 4-hour up-do's. The boys wore everything from traditional suits to island style linen suits to dressy hip-hop style suits. A parent who is also a professional DJ handled the music, everyone danced and for the most part cooled down the grinding, parents did most of the work of setting up and cleaning up so that the kids and teachers could just enjoy ourselves... it was so much fun.

At one point the DJ handed the kids the mic to make speeches. The second kid to take the mic started giving shout-outs to all the different ethnic groups at our school. He was inclusive of everyone, but it was the kind of speech that makes you cringe. Better he get it out of his system now than at his best friend's wedding some day... when the next girl to get up brought up race again, the parent running the event took the mic and told them not to ruin the day for each other, to make speeches about memories and friendships.

Then one very out-going girl took the mic and made a nice speech about how much everyone meant to her, and announced that there would be an after-party (lots of cheering). Then she said, "Oh, careful, don't want the teachers to know, um, there will be a Bible study after party at so & so's house....!"

More dancing. Then an hour later, another boy took the mic and announced the details of the after-party: "For those of you who don't know, there will be an after-party at so & so's house on Findlay Ave., his parents don't know but that's okay, everyone come, there will be dancing and music!"

We crowned a king & queen in a very low-key kind of way, they had a dance and then other couples joined in. And then it was over. We lingered to help clean up and make sure all the kids got home safely (the block where the dance was held was a little sketchy). The kids whose parents had organized the event sat on the tables in their princess dresses and impeccable suits and counted how many cheese puffs they could fit in their mouths at one time (I believe the record was 16... ewww).

And then we went home.


Lately, I've begun to think a lot about race & ethnicity and how it plays out at my school. The kids are really strongly identifying with their ethnic groups right now, especially the Dominicans. When they break off into little "best friend" groups, most are friends with others of their ethnicity, yet if you look at our kids in group settings and in class, it seems like they all get along pretty well. Occasionally, though, they say or do things that make it very clear who belongs to which group; because Dominicans out number everyone else at my school, their voices are strongest.

I'm completely fine with them being proud of their ethnic identities, of course, but I hope that the stuff where they show that pride by putting down other groups is just a phase. I think for many of them it will be, for others, maybe not. For many, it is what they see & hear at home and in the neighborhood.

We have a new teacher at school who is Puerto Rican. It's been interesting to watch kids open up to her who never open up to any of the rest of us. I'm glad they feel comfortable around her, and she is very professional about it and talks to them about some of these issues of being proud of your identity without needing to take down others. Some of them invited her to the after party, "C'mon Ms. -----, we know you were holding back out there!"

I grew up in a small town that was virtually all white. I grew up without even knowing most of society's stereotypes. That's not to say that I don't have my prejudices or whatever, it's just to say that I grew up knowing that stereotypes exist but pretty much clueless about what they actually are, because it wasn't a part of my experience. "She's very Dominican," or "He's so Puerto Rican" - I can't tell the difference just by talking to someone, but many people in New York can. And the truth is, for every kid who strongly identifies with one group, there is another kid who doesn't flaunt any particular ethnicity, and others who are 50% this, 50% that but have been raised as or just plain chosen to be one or the other.

My school feels incredibly close-knit. At the same time, I know that when it really comes down to it, I don't know too many of my kids very well. I know who they are in my class, in school, maybe I'm friendly with their parents, but that's it. There are a thousand things about them that I don't know, that they haven't, won't, or can't share with me. I've begun to see the role that culture plays in that. While the kids are friendly and respectful, and many seek out the attention of their teachers no matter what our backgrounds, we inhabit two overlapping but different communities. I can't explain it better than that. It's not like I ever thought ethnicity wasn't playing a role, it's just something that's been on my mind lately as we celebrate with the kids and prepare to send them on to the next phase of their lives.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

7 school days and counting...

1. Dissecting frogs is really, really fun. I put it off until the end of the year because, frankly, it made me nervous and I wasn't that attached to the idea that middle school students even needed to have this experience (we didn't dissect anything until high school and I got a good education). It turned out to be a stroke of luck. Can you think of anything else that could keep 25-30 kids on task, abuzz with science talk, after their tests and high school acceptances and everything else, during the last two unbearably hot weeks of school? Yeah, neither can I.

2. It is really hard to change the way you relate to important people in your life, be they your sister, your ex, or an old friend.

3. I have been accused of being the least observant science teacher on Earth. It might be true. Unless I'm leading the way, I hardly ever notice where I am. I am the last to notice relationships between students. Suspicious bruises, new hair-dos, uniform violations, bad breath... other teachers see these things, I don't. Isn't observation one of the skills you teach? Yeah, yeah.

4. Yesterday's 8th grade "senior picnic" was a lot of fun. The kids have reached the point where we can take 'em to the park for a few hours and just let them hang out, and they will break off into little groups and talk quietly, or organize pick-up basketball games, or chat with their teachers, and we don't have to worry about them. Then they drink soda and all that changes, but it's fun while it lasts!

5. Some of our kids like basketball so much they will risk all the KFC Crispy Chicken - that they paid for! - being eaten as long as they get to keep playing.

6. "Teachers always write the most in our autograph books..." "That's because it's our last chance to impart nuggets of wisdom."

7. A new small high school is taking over the top floor of our building next year, forcing us to move out of the sixth floor and into the other half of the fifth floor. They've decided to start construction before the school year ends, so this week all the teachers on the sixth floor had to pack up their rooms and move. The last few days we've had kids packing and carrying stuff downstairs, flooding at the water fountains, lots of coverages due to our colleague being in the hospital (he's doing much better, by the way, and is out of the ICU!), any number of 8th grade special events, yadda yadda yadda. Oh, and did I mention that we're interviewing people for various positions? And the seventh grade is doing a big interdisciplinary project on the Olympics which is really cool, but has resulted in scheduling changes to allow for fencing demonstrations, badminton tournaments, the decorating of classrooms to resemble Paris, London, and NYC, and much, much more. So, the inmates are NOT running the asylum, but it sometimes feels that way.

On Friday, with four of the strongest teachers out of the building with the 8th graders, and all of the above taking place, and Ms. Dean covering classes literally all day (sometimes even more than one at a time!), our principal decided to leave during the day to go visit our colleague at the hospital. Oh, and she took a secretary with her. Now, I'm glad she cares about him and wants to check on him, but during the school day? WTF??? We got back to school to find Ms. Dean so stressed out that she had actually turned somewhat grayish. She worked her *ss off all day while Ms. Principal took care of personal matters? Sometimes I do not know what people are thinking.

9. Tonight is the graduation dance. I have to start getting ready soon. I was giving advice about corsages to 8th grade boys Friday afternoon. I'm excited about seeing them dressed up and celebrating with them for a while, but I have to admit I'm not sure I can take four hours of it.

10. Batman Begins: Stylish, nice-looking movie. Christian Bale is a cutie! As for Katie Holmes, I didn't know Gotham City hired 17-year-old assistant DA's... Morgan Freeman is awesome. Lots of funny moments. Scenes where he develops his costume, test-drives his car, designs his wings are awesome. Way too much exposition. For an orphan, Bruce Wayne sure has a lot of father-figures. Totally worth seeing, LOTS of fun, but be prepared to wince at 75% of the dialogue.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Middle School Talent Show Universals?

  • Two best-friend girls lip-synching to a popular song wearing perfectly coordinated outfits so that one girl's shirt is pink, the other blue, one girl's shoes are blue, the other's pink, and so on.
  • Another girl messing up in the middle of her song, stopping, saying, "I messed up," and then finishing the song.
  • A ventriloquist act featuring bad jokes by a (slightly geeky) sixth grade boy and his puppet.
  • At least one poem about not being understood.
  • Parents recording the whole thing on (digital) video.

This was our first ever talent show. Next year, we're going to have a surprise performance by the staff. We weren't quite that coordinated this year.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Mental Filmstrips

There have been some debates in the last few weeks on various blogs about how much lesson planning teachers do, whether and how it is useful, etc. To me, the important thing is that I have a plan and that I can visualize that plan. I am not a recorder of information just for the sake of recording it; I only use a daily agenda during the summer and other unpredictable times, because I remember appointments in my head the rest of the time. So, for me, writing down every question I'm going to ask or every standard my lesson meets would be busy work. When I do planning far in advance, I often write fairly detailed lesson plans so that I can refresh my memory when it comes time to do that unit. When I am planning just before teaching something, I usually just sketch it out. I make a lot of my own teaching materials and find that the process of making a handout or assignment sheet tends to require that I think through the flow of the lesson and the types of questions that I am going to ask. I have a vision for the lesson in my head, and that is enough. Mercifully for my sanity, no administrator has ever required that I turn in detailed lesson plans or, godforbid!, use one particular format for doing my planning.

Getting ready to dissect frogs - for the first time since I did it as a high school student - reminded me of the importance of being able to visualize the lesson. I've been nervous about this activity all week, and although I initially planned to start today, I knew I wasn't going to be ready. I found other activities to fill my teaching periods today and put more time into reviewing on-line dissection materials and preparing a packet for the kids. Those extra two hours made all the difference. Now, I'm not just ready, I'm excited. Tomorrow, a half-day, I will have time to practice the dissection myself and prepare frogs for the kids to look at when they need a model. But even now, before doing that, I have a clear vision of what is going to happen in the classroom. I know exactly what supplies I need on each table. I'm going to have the LCD projector and a laptop set up so that I can show parts of the process. I bought plastic bags in various sizes to help with storage and disposal. Of course, things will come up that I did not anticipate, and I will have to troubleshoot as I go, but that's true of every lesson. Having visualized what will happen at each stage of the lesson, I feel confident and ready to go.

I firmly believe that planning should be defined as whatever is necessary for the teacher to develop that mental filmstrip of the lesson: it might be a lesson plan, it might be some research, notes, and reflection, it might be something else altogether. And it might be different in your first few months teaching than it is once you have a year under your belt.

As a staff, one of the things we do before the first day of school is to sit down and talk through the day: Okay, so the kids line up outside, at 8:00 we open the doors, they walk up to the fifth floor and go to their homerooms - oh, how are they going to know which homeroom to go to? We visualize the flow of the day together, which makes sure we are all on the same page and allows us to catch loose ends that we might otherwise have missed.

Creeping June

The lovely thing about June is that the daylight suddenly lasts so long into the night that one can end up losing all grasp of time. By the time it gets dark, I have to go to bed, usually before I've even turned on my computer. I'd rather be outside, or sacked out on the couch in front of the AC.

Less lovely is the stifling heat, though I still maintain that I'd take this over January's bitter cold any day. After I finish this entry, I'm going to order a window fan and have it delivered to school tomorrow. It has been so hot that we actually changed the dress code to allow shorts (knee-length) and sandals (must have a strap in the back).

Another lovely thing about June in New York is that everything becomes public. Yesterday, I sat in Tompkins Square Park for a couple of hours figuring out the Health grades and listening to some guys playing blues guitar & harmonica and singing. A small crowd gathered. No one wanted to leave.

Less lovely is that everything becomes public. Less lovely is the crankiness that people bring with them onto the sidewalks and into the subways. Less lovely are the smells. I will leave all this to your imagination for now.

Valentine has been shedding a small kitten's worth of fur every day. It drifts against the furniture and dances in front of the fan. When I come home, she brushes against my sweaty legs and leaves me covered in hair. Ewww.

There are fewer than ten school days left. May flew by. June is creeping. Each day is an eternity. I actually caught myself thinking, today, Tuesday, "Thank goodness the weekend is coming up." Oops.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Things That Happened This Weekend

One trip to a fancy restaurant, 'inoteca, for dessert & wine, one discovery that rose (imagine a little accent over the e) wines are perfect for those 98 degrees, 100% humidity days, one serenade of my friend W. by the cute Italian-looking bartender because Friday was her birthday, one hour (or two) spent dancing at this party and a few minutes spent on the roof with a couple hundred hipsters and a lot of pot smoke, one trip uptown to the leafy coolness of the Cloisters, one Ethiopian dinner because it's hotter in Ethiopia than it is here (though possibly less humid), one evening spent dancing, chatting, and sipping mojitos with a whole lot of friends, one visit from my lil sister, one discovery of a new favorite band, Stars, one so-so brunch at a place with one lush, vine-draped oasis of a garden, one surprise pedicure with two amazing friends, one phone call to tell me that my colleague can talk, a little, one call from a student asking if he can do a brochure instead of a poster for his project because his printer isn't working, one evening to come spent looking up frog dissections... life is good.

Friday, June 10, 2005


Picking up a meme from Up the Down Staircase:

Number of books I own: I have no idea. Several hundred, at least. I brought a lot of my childhood books to my old school for the kids to read, keeping only the most important to me for my (hypothetical) future children to read. My college books are mostly in boxes at my parents' house... and I sold back most of the books I got in college, again, I only kept the most important to me. I try to use the library whenever possible, as I'm not a re-reader... lately, I've been buying a lot of used books. And I'll be volunteering at Housing Works this summer, so my shelves are going to fill.

Last book I bought: Accordion Crimes, by Annie Proulx

Last book I read: I'm in the middle of Smilla's Sense of Snow, by Peter Hoeg, and I recently finished The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love, by Oscar Hijuelos.

Five books that are important to me:

1. Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott. This book has gotten me through the most difficult times. It can still make me cry.

2. D'Aulaires Book of Greek Mythology. I knew this book forwards and backwards when I was a kid. In second grade, when we were asked to draw what we wanted to be when we grew up, I did my best to recreate this book's illustration of Aphrodite (yes, I wanted to be the goddess of love... I was seven, fer chrissakes!). Problem was, I couldn't remember (or pronounce) her name, and my teacher (my least favorite teacher) couldn't make head or tail of my drawing. She described my version of the three muses waiting with a chariot pulled by doves as, "a wagon pulled by ducks." Later, I discovered that most of my closest friends were also obsessed with this book as children.

3. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, Twelve Pilgrims, all by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. I would say these books marked my transition into grown-up reading. At the end of my senior year in high school, we had to do an independent project, responding to five books. You could choose an author, theme, time period, basically anything that connected the books. I had read a short story by Garcia-Marquez in Spanish class, and I chose to read more of his work in English. It got me seriously hooked on his books, and from there, I discovered others.

4. The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy. Another book that I have found many of my friends have also loved. It's simply a beautiful book, and a heartbreaking story.

5. There ought to be a book of poetry in here somewhere, but I can't think of one particular book, so instead, another work of fiction: The Hours, by Michael Cunningham. I identified so strongly with so many of the emotions expressed in this book - even though my experience of life is very different.

If you want the meme, it's yours: take it.


On an unrelated note, good news about my injured colleague: he has moved at least a little on both sides of his body, a serious improvement given the probability that he will end up at least partially paralyzed. He opens his eyes and squeezes your hand when you talk to him. I feel like a huge weight is slowly lifting off my shoulders: he has a long way to go, but today brought really good news.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

And another thing!

Mr. Babylon points out one of the greatest injustices of teaching in the Bronx. And, lest you believe the commenter who insists that they start a day earlier, take a look at the official school calendar (it's for next year, but you get the idea).


Corie asks for cool thoughts to be sent her way: it has been in the 80s all week and so humid that every surface of our (un-air-conditioned) school is literally sticky. A fruit leather partially melted in my desk today! The children sit still and sweat beads on their foreheads. Their uniforms don't help; it has reached the point where we teachers have asked principal to alter the dress code to allow students to wear capri pants or shorts of appropriate length (I think she is the ONLY person in the building with any doubt that this is a necessary and humane change to our policy).

I showed "Tigers in the Snow" today, a National Geographic documentary about Siberian tigers. It's pretty cool - it shows biologists sedating and tagging the tigers, observing the behavior of both wild and captive tigers, and rescuing cubs born in captivity and neglected by the mother. I had to explain to the kids that sometimes a mother animal assesses the situation and decides that her offspring are unlikely to survive, and so she chooses not to invest any energy in raising them (at times mothers will even eat the offspring). This is fairly common among animals raised in captivity. They had a hard time with this idea. Anyway, seeing tigers cavorting in the snow in Siberia took my mind off the heat, at least for a few minutes. We'll finish the movie tomorrow.

My personal hot-weather strategy is to wait until it is absolutely unbearable, then use the internet to find a place in the world that is even hotter. Then I go eat food from that culture, figuring they've probably got it figured out. It's often Indian food - mango lassi...

One Statement to Avoid When Teaching About STD's

"Find another student who has the same disease you have, and start planning your PowerPoint presentation."

For those who want an update...

I don't have much good news. The doctors tell us it is more than likely that my colleague will be at least partially paralyzed. We are focusing on the smaller probability that he will not, that it is temporary, and on the fact that he is alive. We are continuing to support the family. We have posted the position and will probably interview candidates for it next week. I am slowly remembering the little routines of being a homeroom teacher, and we are all covering classes. I played "Dictionary" with a sixth grade ELA class today and had them help clean up the classroom, which was quickly getting messy with so many different teachers in and out and no ownership of the space. It felt really good to do something physical like throwing out trash and organizing desks - the kids were really good for the rest of the period, so I think they felt it, too. Everyone at school has a new interest in knowing more about the brain. It boggles my mind how such a little event - just a fall, really - can have such enormous consequences. It's best to keep my mind in the present; the really hard questions can't be answered yet, anyway. And we all find ourselves saying "Get home safe" at even the briefest departure.

The Test

Wednesday's science test wasn't too bad. Ms. Learned Helplessness herself (this is one of my students who just shuts down when under pressure) even told me it was easy! Some of the multiple choice questions were identical to ones from previous years, with slightly different choices of answers; since we did previous years' exams for practice, I'm sure this helped them. The constructed response section had a few really tough ones and a few which the kids just weren't "in tune" with - they didn't understand what the test was asking. For some reason, even in 8th grade, my kids have a hard time with the difference between "how" and "why" for certain science concepts. There were a few questions which I would say were completely reading comprehension. One in particular followed a passage about pollution, and then asked the kids to name two pollutants that blah blah blah. All you had to do was go back to the passage and copy them down. Given that they take a separate reading test, this kind of question irritates me, but on the other hand, it's easy points for my kids, so... I can't complain, really. Overall, I think they did well. The review work we did undoubtedly paid off, and I'm not sure more of it would have helped much, so in future years we will probably approach reviewing in somewhat similar fashion. I think I will get good feedback from the test as to what topics we need to teach better. It's nice to have it behind us, and it will be even nicer to grade it next week and have the whole thing over and done.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

In other news...

Tomorrow is the state test in science for the 8th graders. I'm feeling pretty positive about it right now. On the practice test I gave, they were averaging about 33 questions right out of 45 for multiple choice, and something in the high 20's out of 41 for constructed response. Mind you, I have no idea what those numbers actually mean as far as where they place on the 1-4 rubric, but getting two-thirds of the questions right can't be that bad...

Wish us luck!

Another page missing from the instruction manual to life...

How to make small talk with your colleague's family, whom you've only met because he's lying in the ICU swathed in bandages and connected to dozens of tubes. How long it's appropriate to stay in the waiting room with them. What to say after asking how he is, after asking them how they are, after offering to cook things for them to eat & help them get anything they need, after delivering the cards the kids made, after telling them how he was/is becoming a great teacher. How to tell how long is appropriate to stay. How to determine whether they have so many visitors it is overwhelming, or whether they feel better seeing you. What to say when you see him for the first time, still unconscious but possibly able to hear.

Everyone makes up this stuff as they go along, I guess. I think we are doing an all right job of it, but man.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Stupid, tragic, inexplicable things happen.

A young man - a kid, really, less than a year out of college, nearly finished with his first year of teaching - might be on his way somewhere on a muggy weekend morning, and for no apparent and certainly no good reason, faint on the subway platform. And this young teacher - a nice person who never had anything bad to say about anything, never whined, never complained about the kids behind their backs, even when they were rude to his face and groused about his strictness - might wake up in the ambulance long enough to call his roommate and his sister and let them know what happened, and might be awake during the wait in the emergency room, only to find himself facing surgery for a fractured skull. And then another surgery, and another, really scary surgeries, and a truly uncertain future... it's unbelievable how quickly life can change in irrevocable ways.

And that's how I found myself on the bus in the Bronx this morning half expecting him to turn up, turn off his iPod, and chit-chat for the last few miles to school.

And that's how I found myself explaining to a class of sixth graders this morning that I would be their homeroom teacher for the rest of the year because their teacher had a bad accident over the weekend and would not be coming back this year. And that's how I found myself listening and trying to figure out how to respond when mischievous little Andy Benitez raised his hand and said, "I feel kind of sad right now, because we all joked about something bad happening to Mr. -------, and now something bad did happen."

And that's how I found myself unable to speak at a staff meeting because I was so, so enthusiastic about working with this teacher next year on the sixth grade team, and now I have to slowly relinquish that hopeful vision and find another to replace it.

And that's how I find myself getting ready to post another position at our school.

And that's how I find myself thinking about what kinds of healthy dishes I can cook that keep well, don't require heating, and would appeal to his family, who are here for the foreseeable future in a strange, expensive, and intimidating city far from their home.

And that's how I find myself wishing that this put everything into perspective and made all the other petty little sadnesses vanish, when really all it does is make me feel a new, big sadness on top of the little sadnesses, and an uncomfortable guilt for the little sadnesses.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Mad Hot Ballroom

I took myself to see "Mad Hot Ballroom" tonight. It made me laugh, and, I have to admit, even get a little teary-eyed. There weren't too many people at the theater, and I think many of them were teachers, but everyone applauded at the end. If you liked Spellbound, you'll like this movie. If you want a little peek into the world I work in, check it out. I am going to urge my principal to see the movie, and I'm going to see if I can get the dance program to come to our school - it might be just the thing we need to help with character issues.

It also gave me a taste of what it feels like to finally see yourself represented accurately on-screen, if you are a member of a population that is not typically in the movies or on TV. There are lots of movies about kids, lots of movies about underdogs winning in the end, lots of movies about teaching. And although they are valuable and may have universal themes, I don't see the kids I teach represented realistically and positively all that often. Watching this movie, I felt like I was seeing MY KIDS, even though I teach at a different school, in a different borough. And that's why their success could move me, make me cry, make me applaud.

More on Yoga & Teaching

Here's an interesting post on how one yoga teacher responds to the needs of his students. Useful for teachers of other subjects, not just yoga. Useful for students, too.

My friend (and now roommate) made this for me on the Lego site earlier this week. Aren't I cute? She said, "All teachers need jet-packs." She didn't have an explanation for the Viking helmet; it just seemed appropriate. Posted by Hello

Where I am in life...

I'm having a little trouble with motivation of late. OK, I'm having a LOT of trouble with motivation. It's not just the pile of clothes that have been sitting on my chair since I washed and folded them last week or the fact that I don't feel like grading sixty Reebops assignments: I don't even feel motivated to do fun things, like go to First Saturday or go shopping for the new computer I'm buying myself for my birthday or go shopping for a, um, prom dress (ok, it's not a prom, it's a graduation dance, but still!). Hell, I barely even blogged this week! Anyway, I'm trying not to empower these feelings by giving them too much importance in my mind. I'm taking a "this too will pass" attitude towards it all and dragging myself to as many of these things as I can because once I'm there, I almost always have fun.

Last night, I went out and met two other teacher bloggers at a pub. We chatted and had a couple of drinks (the place had Old Speckled Hen! my favorite!) and a lot of french fries. Talking to a teacher who moved here from out of town to do the Teaching Fellows and is finding the city a bit isolating, reminded me of myself during my first year here.

So today, I'm surfing around and find this:

Gemini: This is a good day to review where you are in life and whether you are headed in the direction you desire. Strengthen your plans if you are, and implement a course-correction if you are not.

Am I on the right course? I think I am, looking at the big picture, but I don't feel all that comfortable in my own skin right now. I've decided to strengthen my plans. I made a list of all the things I want & need to get done this weekend, and I'm working on attacking the list, one item at a time.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Testing Tweaks My Brain

Okay, now I know how the ELA and Math teachers feel every spring. I don't want my life or my children's lives to be defined by The Test. I want them to do well, though. And with only a few days to go, I have to admit I'm a little obsessed. *sigh*

I initially did not want to do test-prep. My gut feeling is, they've had science class for an hour a day for three years; they know what they know. Cramming can only make us all miserable. Anyway, to me the test is most useful as a measure of my teaching & the school's science program, and if we cram and get a few more questions right as a result, that won't help me get an accurate perspective on what I taught well or what I need to improve.

Then again, this is all easy for me to think because I have this confidence that they will do all right on the test. At least, I'm confident that they'll do well enough that the Region, City, & State will leave us alone for the time being, thus allowing us to strengthen our program slowly and as we see fit. (The test is not very high stakes for the students; as far as I know, it counts only as a back-up option for promotional purposes. That means that if an eighth grader fails the ELA or Math exam but passes Science, it can be substituted to allow him or her to graduate and go to high school. None of our kids are at risk of being held over due to test scores, so it's a moot point at our school).

In the past week or so, I suddenly started to doubt. Results of practice exams weren't as good as I'd hoped. They were missing questions that I thought they should breeze through. And anyone who's ever been to college knows that cramming helps... If reviewing some of the material in the last week before the test somehow helped them retrieve information stored away in their brains back in sixth grade, why would I deny them that review? So I got out the handful of test prep books that I have on hand - a couple that I bought at Barnes & Noble, a couple that were sent by companies to our school as samples.

Once I opened the books, I panicked. So much material! Where to start?! How to prepare them best?

I looked through the results from the practice exam I gave, figured out which questions the most students missed, and then looked at those questions, figuring they'd provide some insight into what to review. The result: review damn near everything. *sigh* The kids were bad at weather maps (no surprise there; weather isn't my strong point), astronomy (I taught a lot of astronomy, but it was three years ago and stuff like the seasons and phases of the moon is kind of hard), etc.

On Tuesday, we did a review packet on energy. It was like pulling teeth. I was bored, they were bored, the kids who most need the review sank into learned helplessness and refused to engage.

Tuesday night, I thought for a while and designed a game that would provide an opportunity for review followed by an opportunity for practice. I tried to structure it so that it would motivate all the kids to engage (the danger of games is that because of speed pressure, the kids who know the material best tend to dominate, so they often do not help those kids who need more time & review). The game turned out to be way too complicated, but it did motivate the kids.

Here's what ended up working best: I condensed the long review chapters from the Barron's book into 2 page study sheets, and gave each table 20 minutes to study together. I copied test questions (related to the review material) onto transparencies and put them on the overhead projector, revealing one question at a time. Every kid's name was on a slip of paper in a beaker. I showed them a question, provided time for everyone to read it, then pulled a name out of the beaker. If the student got the question right, his or her team got a point. And so on. Since the question was on the overhead, it was easy for me to explain it if it seemed like people were having trouble with it. Some kids still didn't engage, and I'm not sure how much the whole thing will help them, but it was definitely the most palatable way to review that I could come up with.

Today, I gave them a practice test. The idea was to have them start it today and finish it Monday, as it is a two-hour test, but a lot of students finished today and the rest will finish fairly quickly on Monday. I'm going to give each table a copy of the rating guide (all of this is public on the internet for past years' tests) and have them score the tests themselves. I'm hoping that will help them learn what kinds of answers get you points and what kinds do not. Finally, I'm going to have kids who got questions right explain their reasoning to those who got them wrong, with me as a back-up explainer. That way, the review can be targeted to the questions that each child missed, rather than me choosing a few to review as a whole class.

And on Wednesday, we take the test.

I was thinking of baking them cookies and showing "Real Genius" on Thursday & Friday, but I can't find that movie at the video store (and my friend thinks there's a questionable party scene in it). Any suggestions for other silly science-related movies that 8th graders might enjoy?


This is what tests do to teachers' brains: a kid can get 30 questions right and all I can see are the ten they got wrong that they should have known!


Question (paraphrased somewhat): What is the name of the substances that a paper factory might produce that could harm the environment?

Student's Answer: Sawdust.

(They were looking for pollution or something similar, btw).