Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Good news about Robotics!

I got our IR Tower working, loaded the firmware, even loaded a program as a test. It turns out that I had to install Robolab while logged in as an administrator, in order for all the separate parts of the program to install properly. (I'm still a little confused about why it didn't work from my laptop, though, but since it's working from a school laptop, I think I'll just be grateful and not worry about it... this week. I am so relieved; Robotics tomorrow promises to go much more smoothly. It is still astonishing how much prep time is required, even by a coach determined to keep prep time to an absolute minimum (ie, have the kids do everything).

Also, a big package of batteries arrived today, which I ordered from a supplier that offered a special deal to FLL teams. We won't be lacking for batteries for quite a while, if ever.


Sure, it might be a small study, nothing conclusive yet, but this is by far the biggest news of the day, in terms of its implications for Earth's climate systems: Study Shows Weakening of Atlantic Currents. This is one piece in the scenario that leads to an Ice Age, or at least, a significant and potentially devastating, cooling trend. What is it going to take for the US to do our part to slow global climate change?

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Political Expression, part 2

So here's the end - well, really the middle - of the story about the boy who's science comic book plot centered around sending President Bush to the Earth's core where he would be squished by the pressure and burned up by the heat...

First, I took the boy aside during class, when the other students were working quietly (ostensibly) on their revisions. I told him that I liked the comic book, that the science was fine and the drawings incredible. Then I said I had another concern about the comic book, and asked him if he had any idea what it might be. No.

I had hoped to have an actual discussion with him about political humor. You see, while I am personally for freedom of expression, I'm not a judge, I'm a teacher. I think a part of my job is to help guide students to express themselves better - more clearly, more effectively, more responsibly - and yes, that is a judgment call on my part. In this case, while I would absolutely support his right to produce material like this as a citizen of the United States, I think he could make his point more effectively. I also want him to think about the implications of joking about another person's death; even though the violence depicted was pretty mundane for a comic book, it's an opportunity to talk about how we use our freedom of expression. I wasn't going to force him to agree with me, or lecture him, I just hoped to spark some reflection, whatever his ultimate decision.

Regarding the fact that the Secret Service has visited high schools to investigate reports of threats against the president, I am horrified that this is how we are using government resources, and even more horrified that members of the community would turn in their students/classmates/neighbors for this kind of expression. I strongly believe that concerns about students' artwork ought to be raised with the students themselves, their teachers, or school administrators, not the federal government (unless they reveal an immediate threat of violence). For heaven's sake, this is starting to sound like the USSR or some Orwell novel! And for those who would argue that the students' work in those schools posed an immediate threat of violence, we are talking about a Bill of Rights poster project and a cover of Bob Dylan's Masters of War.

So, I'm not trying to tell my student to self-censor out of fear of speaking his mind freely. At the same time, I want him to know what the law is and what the realities of the political climate are. That way, he can decide whether he really feels strongly enough to want to risk having the Secret Service show up (not that I think anyone is going to turn him in, this is now in the realm of the hypothetical, you understand). Anyway, what I am trying to say is that I see this as an opportunity to teach decision-making skills, and explore the question of how we use our freedom of expression.

Or at least, that's how I, an adult with an interest in these issues, saw it. My student, an extremely bright kid who, like many bright kids, swings wildly from one obsession to another, was just not that interested anymore. He didn't have much to say to the questions I asked, the questions that were supposed to get the conversation started, to draw out how strongly he felt. In the end, he had so little to say that I feel like I did end up lecturing. So, I brought up a lot of the stuff above, but it didn't lead to any real discussion. He interrupted to ask whether he could toss the comic book and just write a story with a similar plot - I think he's a little worn out from these comic book projects, which really do take an immense amount of energy. I don't think his lack of a response was because he was suppressing his own opinion or felt censored or rebellious - I think it was just a bigger event to me than it was to him.

So, we'll see what he does for the final draft. I encouraged him to stick to the comic book format because he's quite talented.

Also, one of the benefits of working in a small school is that I can just drop by the social worker's office when she has a free moment to discuss things like this with her. I asked her this afternoon what she thought, and she said that I should take it in context - comic books are often filled with fantasy violence, and it was very true-to-genre in that regard. She said, "You have to allow them freedom to express themselves." She wasn't worried, but asked to look at the final draft. My principal felt the same way when I mentioned it to her. It never hurts to get a second opinion, but I also appreciate being able to check-in about something like this without starting a Byzantine referral process that might make the kid feel pathologized for something pretty minor.

You thought your teachers had it all pulled together, but...

in reality, they planned things like honor roll ceremonies the day before, frantically designing awards certificates, learning to mail merge* the names into them, printing them out, checking to make sure no one was missing, and getting teachers to sign them... all in a couple of preps and an hour or two after school. Or at least, that's how I went about planning tomorrow's awards ceremony. It's pretty casual; we are gathering the kids in the auditorium during homeroom, congratulating them, and handing out certificates. Next marking period, now that we've mastered the art of the mail merge and the certificates are complete with cheesy subject-related clip art, we will invite parents and have an honors breakfast before the event.

And if all goes well, another generation of kids will think that these ceremonies were carefully planned over weeks leading up to the end of the marking period... LOL.

*I did it! It's actually quite easy.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Thoughts & Updates

I have to make about 100 honor roll certificates for the sixth graders, for various subjects and for our "scholars" - students who achieved honor roll in all four major subjects for the marking period. We're having a little ceremony in the auditorium for them on Wednesday morning.


My AP & Principal responded positively to the proposal I wrote for the extra 37 1/2 minutes; I have scheduled meetings with my AP for the next few Wednesdays to iron out the details. I warned them that it might be all for naught, if the DOE comes up with some plan that supercedes this one. My principal said, basically, that we aren't going to wait for them to come up with something we DON'T like and then react, we are going to come up with something we DO like and then negotiate. Amen!

And yes, it is very much like a sixth period. The 37 1/2 minutes always has been, except of course that a period with ten students is a far cry from a period with 30. My goal was to come up with something that teachers in my school would like, and that would be better for our students. The teachers I work with would much rather do a little extra planning in order to lead a cluster on a topic they are passionate about than do (more) Math & ELA Test Prep. You're right, though, it's not for everyone or every school. Before we implement anything like this, we will meet as a staff to discuss it and make sure everyone is on board and it is set up to run as smoothly as possible. And it is that process of making important decisions together that makes people happy at work, at least, in my experience.


Does anyone out there teach in a middle school that offers Regents-level Science courses in 8th grade? This looks like something we might be doing in the future, and I'd really like to discuss it with someone. Please drop me a line in the comments or via email.


Somehow I ended up doing a little review of how to punctuate dialogue today for my mini-lesson with the 7th graders. I think I might be going a little too far in integrating literacy into the Science curriculum. The thing is, I want their stories to come out really well, and they had much more trouble with punctuating dialogue than they did with including Science facts.


I'm trying to change my yoga routine a little. Last week's class with a substitute teacher showed me that I've fallen into a rut in my yoga practice; I still love the Tuesday and Friday classes that I've been attending for months, now, and I still have a lot to learn from them, but I need classes that will challenge me in totally different ways. So, I took Bryn's class at Laughing Lotus this afternoon. She can be a little overwhelming - really high energy, very out-going teacher, extremely fast-paced classes, tricky sequences of asanas (poses) - and in the past, I've stayed away from her classes. But today, although I just barely kept up, her class felt just right. So, I might be switching to Monday classes, at least during weeks when we don't have PD.


To work!


Oops, well, okay, one brief break to share my latest musical obsessions: the one am radio, which I discovered all by myself because I thought the cover art on an ep was pretty, and Dios (Malos), given to me by a friend. If you buy just one song on iTunes, try Don't Panic by the one am radio or The Uncertainty of How Things Are by Dios (Malos). All really mellow but kind of intense at the same time.

Classroom Rules

Or, So you want to leave a comment...

I am not into censorship, and I'm not going to take down a comment unless...
  • it is a nasty ad hominem attack on another commenter, me, or someone else;
  • it contains excessive profanity (the occasional curse is okay among adults, but these words have more power when used infrequently);
  • it is racist, sexist, or discriminatory in some other way (sometimes I will leave comments like this up and let your own words condemn you);
  • or it is spam.

Every now and again, things get heated around here. I respect your right to a strong opinion, and I hope you will respect others' right to disagree with you. That said, here are some guidelines that will help keep disagreement civil and focused on the issues.

1. Read the post and other comments carefully before responding. If you get really upset by a post or a comment, read it a second time to make sure you're not imagining things that aren't actually there, and to make sure you can respond clearly and thoughtfully.
2. Agree and disagree with ideas, not people. Don't attack, don't belittle, don't mock.
3. When possible, provide evidence to back up your opinion. This can take the form of a link to another website, a personal anecdote, a reference to something you read or experienced off the internet. It doesn't have to be formal, but it will strengthen your case immeasurably.
4. As a blogger who writes anonymously, I understand the need for anonymity. Nevertheless, I encourage you to create a Blogger identity and use it when you post. This helps keep everyone accountable for their words and opinions, and it also makes it possible for commenters to "get to know each other" or at least, to become familiar with each other's perspectives.
5. Avoid generalizations. Just because one person posts a particular opinion does not mean that everyone in the same category as that person feels the same way or behaves the same way. Avoid statements beginning with "All liberals...," "All conservatives...," "All union members...," "All teachers...," "All administrators...," etc.
6. My comments are not the place to promote your own blog, website, or product. One way to build an audience for your blog is to read other blogs and leave cogent comments in response to the posts. When you sign in to comment, you are asked to provide your URL, so it will show up with your comment. If you have interesting things to say, people will be curious and will follow the link to your blog. Saying, "Please visit my blog, it's really awesome," kind of rubs me the wrong way.

Thanks so much, and I hope you don't take this as discouragement from commenting - I like to read what you have to say!

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Two Events For Teachers in NYC

Friday, December 2nd
NYC Teacher-Blogger Happy Hour
Email me - ms [dot] frizzle [at] gmail [dot] com - if interested!

Friday, December 9th
5:00-6:30 pm
The Teacher's Voice Poetry Reading
Bowery Poetry Club
Happy Hour Specials!
Open Mic if time permits (and you just never know who might read)
A shout-out to Nani for organizing this one!


When you try to be reasonable and moderate, everyone disagrees with you.

I am going to start working by 3 pm, really I am...

It is so hard getting back into the swing of things after a long weekend, and this is the merest taste of what it's like after a full week off at Christmas-time or in the spring.

I don't have much to do, which may be part of the problem. I'm waiting for time-pressure to kick in, and it hasn't yet, and probably won't for another hour or two. Er, I mean half an hour. I am going to start working in 30 minutes. I am.

Aside from editing the seventh grade projects - described below - I'm in pretty good shape for the week.

The sixth graders are going to spend a few days typing up their collisions labs in PowerPoint. I've decided to have them do this in partners on our school computers for a couple of reasons:
1. I am really fatigued with grading lab reports, having just done two sets in close succession. Having them work in pairs and edit during class will reduce the amount of editing and grading I have to do at home.
2. They are also fatigued with lab reports... this time I will trick them into enjoying the work by letting them play a bit in PowerPoint. Computers make everything more fun.
3. I'm asking them to explain why in their conclusions for the first time. They rolled marbles and gumballs at each other, observed the collisions, and now have to explain what happened in terms of the transfer of momentum. A lot of adults would have a really hard time with this, so I think it's only fair to allow the 10 and 11-year-olds to work in pairs and with teacher support.
4. Working on this in class will give me a chance to present some basic conventions of typing in my mini-lessons. It's time the babies learned how to center things, rather than just space-space-space-space-space-etc. as so many are doing now. Same thing with tabs and one space following a comma, two spaces after a period.
5. Most of them are getting the idea of how to write a lab report, but working on this in class with a partner should provide scaffolding for the five or six who are really clueless.

The seventh graders will be working on revising their stories at home, but in class, we are switching gears to do a unit on density. They really should have done this last year in Physical Science, but, well, they didn't. We have discovered that they really can't measure length, use a triple beam balance, measure volume in ml, calculate density, or explain the concept. This makes it really hard to talk about why the Earth's core is iron and nickel, how it formed, and how convection in the asthenosphere drives plate tectonics. So, we're putting the brakes on and teaching all these skills, which are in the end more important than any particular fact about erosion or earthquakes, and hoping to lay some groundwork for the rest of the year. Plus, the density unit will allow us to include more hands-on stuff and assign at least one full lab report. If we don't get them writing up experiments soon, the Science Expo is going to be a real nightmare in a couple of months.

It is so frustrating that this group is so far behind! I feel like they weren't even at our school last year, I want to go back and do sixth grade over with them.


On a related note, I found a link to 826NYC at The Mystery Behind Mr. E. This is an organization originally started by Dave Eggers in San Francisco (826Valencia) that provides writing and research tutoring and workshops for kids. I am in the process of setting up some classroom visits during the weeks leading up to the Science Expo so that I can have help as the kids research their chosen topics and write their background information reports. If it works out, this could really make my life easier during that time. (I will confess a cynical anxiety that it won't work out because no one ever wants to come all the way to the Bronx when there are perfectly needy NYC schools right in one's own hip neighborhood in Brooklyn/Manhattan). Just another example of how blogging - and reading other teachers' blogs - has connected me with resources I otherwise would not have known about.

Political Expression

The main project for the day is to look at and comment on the first drafts of the seventh graders science fiction stories. This time, they wrote about a journey to the center of the Earth. They are supposed to make up a story, but integrate facts about the composition, temperature, and depth of each layer. These stories seem better than the last, so far. I allowed a few kids to choose to do comic books again, those who did a good job last time and one or two others who looked at the ones posted on the bulletin board and felt they could do as well.

One boy's comic book - remarkably well drawn, we're going to be buying these things from him before long - involves tricking President Bush into going to the core as a way of getting rid of him. I am going to sit down with the author and talk about the problems with bumping off the president in a school assignment. It's a tricky one. First off, his work really isn't that different from lots of grown-up humor out there about the administration. And this boy really does intend it to be both humorous and a form of political expression. And it's highly fantastic - it would be more problematic if it was a realistic depiction of killing the president, but this is clearly in the realm of the imagination. On the other hand, the work doesn't include any real political content except a dislike of our current president - no criticism or satire of policies, for example - which discredits it as a form of political expression, in my eyes. And it's just not okay to make killing someone a joke, especially not when you're still a kid, especially not when it's a school assignment, especially not when the victim is the current president of the US.

Anyway, the conversation should be interesting, and I do intend it to be a conversation - "What makes something good political humor?" "What are the risks of depicting the president's death in a work of art, even if you don't intend it to be serious?" - not just a teacher cracking down - "You're not allowed to do this, start again!" We will have to find some kind of compromise because he already put a huge amount of work into this project, so I don't want him to have to start from square one, especially if he's invested in this project as it is now. I'll let you know the outcome...

Here's an article discussing some of these questions in regards to a novel (written by an adult). I think I'm going to print it out and share it with the student. I am in favor of almost-complete legal freedom of expression, by the way, but I am also in favor of thinking carefully about how you use that freedom.

(And by the way, the project does integrate the necessary Science facts!)

PS. Hi FBI/CIA/NSA agents, welcome to my blog! It's all pretty innocent here, just working out some ethical issues in my classroom... you can go back to googling terrorists, now.

Are you (or your loved ones) at risk?

Glitter-lung is on the rise among elementary school art teachers:
"When art teachers spend so much time in confined quarters with inadequate ventilation amid swirling clouds of glitter, it's only a matter of time before their lungs start to suffer negative effects," said Dr. Linda Norr, a specialist in elementary-school-related respiratory diseases. "Those sufferers who are not put on a rigorous program of treatment often spend their last days on respirators, hacking up a thick, dazzling mucus."

But that's not the only workplace health hazard faced by teachers:
Epidemiologists note that the increase in glitter-lung cases is occurring simultaneously with a general rise in other classroom-related diseases. Macaroni elbow, modeling clay palsy, crayon flu, and googly-eye are sidelining thousands of teachers each year.

Thanks to The Onion and Joanne Jacobs for bringing this issue to our attention!

Friday, November 25, 2005


I'm a good New England girl in the sense that I associate holidays with snow, snow with holidays. And I am a good New England girl because I remember there being more snow when I was a little girl than there is now. I happen to think it is true that winters have gotten less snowier, that a White Christmas is a rare event, but regardless of the reality of my perception, to gripe about this is quintessentially New England. In high school, I was a cross-country skier, and we never had enough snow. Race after race was postponed due to bare ground (except for the races that were postponed because it snowed 11 inches the night before the race and they couldn't get the course groomed in time...).

When I was packing to come home this weekend, I looked at my winter boots and thought about bringing them. They're Timberlands lined with fluffy wool - soft and warm, sensible and rugged, and my kids are so impressed the first time they see them - and I don't get to wear them enough in NYC, but they're also really heavy to carry around if I'm not sure I'll need them. So I paused and decided that I didn't need them - there's never snow on the ground in November nowadays - and I left them behind in my closet.

My dad neglected to mention that it had snowed a little bit this past week. And what none of us anticipated was waking up Thursday to find thick flakes falling all morning and into the afternoon. The neighbor's grandkids were sledding down the little hill behind their house on plastic sleds. It felt like a real holiday! But I wished I'd brought my boots.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Among other things, I'm thankful that I have a small community of loyal & supportive readers!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Things I like...

*Hearing from another teacher that my students are telling her, "Ms. Frizzle always tricks us into doing lab reports! She says, 'oh, you'll see, don't worry,' when we're doing the experiment, then the next day she gives us an assignment sheet!" Yep, that's me, always got an assignment up my sleeve.

*Pretty much everything at Esprit. Someone in their design department tapped into my consciousness; I like it all. The sparkly sweaters. The little black dresses. The jeans. Well, everything except the slouchy 80's t-shirts and those weird little half-sweaters. Did I mention the corduroys? And the fancy tops? Santa, are you listening?

*Heart-openers. We had a substitute yoga-teacher today, which normally throws me off - you have to get used to the new person's way of explaining poses - but she was awesome! I love Betsy, my normal Tuesday teacher, but I think I was getting into a rut with her classes. This was a whole new sequence of poses and all stuff I really needed. My shoulders and back are all stretched out. This showed me that I might need to switch to a different class for a while for a change of pace. I wonder what the implications are for our kids, who see us, the same old teachers, day-in and day-out?

*Free time! Now it's Mr. Richter's turn to teach two seventh grade Science classes, while I only have one! This means I have more free time than I'm supposed to, which makes up for the last 10 weeks, when I had less than I was supposed to. It all balances out in the end, but boy am I happier now. I got two bulletin boards put up, graded all the remaining sixth grade lab reports, and am even thinking about applying for a Toyota Tapestry Mini-grant. I have time to think about helping our new teachers, helping Mr. Richter, actually having the energy to do the various leadership-stuff that I'm supposed to do around my school.

*I solved the mystery of the missing Legos. Turns out, as I suspected, that nothing is missing. The kids building the boat messed up and made it the wrong size, which meant they used a bunch of the wrong pieces. I spent an hour after school today taking apart the boat and putting it back together myself, and discovered the problem. I built it to about the same point they had, and will talk to them about it and let them finish the rest. Those Lego instruction diagrams can be confusing, though if the kids had paid a wee bit more attention to detail they would have caught the problem themselves. It's something we can discuss. Anyway, this problem solved plus the fact that I ordered a whole bunch more batteries ought to really help make our next session (a week from Thursday) more fun & productive. Did I mention how much I love having more free time? I feel like I can do my job really well, not just pretty well.

*Getting books of team-building & problem-solving activities in the mail!

*My friends got engaged! It wasn't a surprise or anything, but... yay!

*My radiator has been working and has not leaked for TWO WEEKS STRAIGHT. Granted, it's a little warm in my room - okay, boiling hot - but at least there's no flooding.

Monday, November 21, 2005

If I were the dean...

First, and this may seem minor, but I don't think it is, make sure your profs are walking the walk. They should be practicing the innovative teaching techniques that the school is advocating. Your students - future teachers - should be immersed in the kind of learning experience that you hope they will provide for their students. And by the way, I'm talking about ALL professors here - history & philosophy of ed, stats, you name it, not just the methods profs. Of course, professors should adjust the teaching methods to be age appropriate - no one likes to be taught "like you were a kid" - but at the same time, grad school does not have to mean lecture + section all the time.

Second, and again, this may seem minor but it is so symptomatic of some of the larger issues in education today, EVERY prof must be "in touch" with what schools are like today, and not just schmancy suburban schools. When I got my master's at Teachers College, I was horrified to find that I could make my professors' mouths drop open every single class just by mentioning something that had happened in my school that day - things that I had come to view as normal for the NYC public school system. It was unacceptable that the professors in a school located so close to Harlem could be so completely out of touch with the realities of our own schools.

Third, your students need to spend lots of time in classrooms (observing/teaching) or watching teaching through multimedia, right from the start of their program. Every student ought to be exposed to a wide variety of classroom settings so that they know the range of what is out there and how different teachers and schools handle similar situations. I wonder if you could film real-life classroom situations and then get a few different classroom teachers to comment on how they would have handled the situation - providing a diversity of approaches and raising ethical and pedagogical issues. There are many ways to be a good teacher, and many interesting questions to be explored.

Fourth, demand better as far as content knowledge is concerned! Teachers should have a major or double-major in something other than education. We need to be experts in both pedagogy and our discipline. Elementary school teachers, too! (By the way, I think you're on the right track with this article).

Fifth, train your teachers to reflect on their work, always, deeply. A lot of learning is going to happen on the job, no matter how well you prepare your teachers. In the end, the ones who make it are the ones who hold themselves to the highest standard, who look critically at their own work and strive to improve it, day in and day out.

Sixth, I found myself planning lots of "pie-in-the-sky" units during my time at TC. In the end, good teaching combines ambitious projects with a lot of rigorous basics. I wish I'd spent more time learning how to teach the basics, the stuff that provides the foundation on which I can build more ambitious projects. Enough articles on teachers who had their students plan community gardens, more about how they taught momentum, variables, graphing, etc.

Seventh, don't neglect assessment. How many times do your students get to look at real student work and think about how to sum it all up in some kind of grade/mark? We made tons of rubrics at TC, but we never used them, so aside from our prof telling us whether they were good or bad, we had no feedback.

Oh, I don't know. This all seems kind of basic to me, so I would imagine your school probably already does these things. On the other hand, many of my experiences with ed classes have been frustrating, so maybe not. Overall, the thing that will help the rest of us the most is if you can communicate to your students a sense of high professional and personal standards, so that they become the kind of people who will elevate the status of teaching in our society. Good luck!

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Valentine cavorts...

Here you are, Alex! (I haven't been taking pictures much lately, that's why there haven't been any posted in a while - I guess your influence is wearing off, slowly).

Sunday's Random Thoughts

Anyone else ever have a day when the only thing you can imagine eating for dinner is cheap brie on crackers?


My mom's jack o'lantern grows scarier by the day... (taken a week ago when I went home for the weekend).


Honey, I shrunk the futon cover...


Loving the songs by Shivaree that I downloaded... especially "Goodnight Moon" and "It All Got Black" - yet another example of why I do not understand people who never listen to the same song twice. I have listened to these songs 5 times this weekend alone.

This could be true
Or we could be all of an hour
I could still forget you
Have a cocktail and a shower
Like my mother said
It's true

Saturday, November 19, 2005

What to do with the 37 1/2 minutes?

I have written a proposal for my school to pilot Schoolwide Enrichment Model enrichment clusters during the new 37 1/2 minute period.* I have no idea how my colleagues will react to this plan, or whether the DOE will come up with something of their own that will make all my work a waste of energy. It really only took me about 2-3 hours of thinking and writing to put this together, which is not that much in the scheme of things, so I'm willing to put it out there knowing it might be for naught.

This is a summary of what I came up with; email me if you want a copy of the whole proposal sent your way.

First, I listed all the Mondays-Thursdays from February to June. I also listed the dates of the 6-8 Math Test, the 8th grade ILS Exam, and the 8th grade SS Exam. I saw that those tests divided the time up into four neat blocks, which I called Cycles.

Cycle 1 is from Feb. 1 - March 16th. All the students take their Math exams on March 14-15th. During this time, I think it makes sense to identify those students most in need of extra help in math, and have every teacher offer math tutorials. The students should be grouped based on their specific areas of weakness. This won't be popular, especially with teachers who aren't confident in math themselves, but it does make sense and is probably inevitable. What I have done to make it more manageable is proposed that we end our after school program on January 26th and pay teachers per session to stay after and plan cycle 1 (identify students, group them, prepare permission slips & parent letters, plan the curriculum). Then the first two days of the new schedule, Feb. 1-2, will also be spent getting teachers ready for these classes, planning, PD on math instruction, etc. I think it is crucial to build planning time into the new schedule, though I don't know whether the DOE will allow that or whether they will expect every second of that time to be face-time with students. Cycle 1 classes end Mar. 9, just before the Math Tests, and the following week is spent planning for cycle 2.

Cycle 2 is from Mar. 20 - April 27. The 8th graders will have Science Enrichment Clusters, as the ILS Written Exam is May 3rd. This is not the same as test prep; the idea is that the Science teachers, plus any other teachers interested, offer intensive enrichment classes on one topic, such as the Science of Music, Darwin & Evolution, Kitchen Chemistry, etc. Part of the planning week will be spent looking at the ILS Exam and identifying skills to integrate into each enrichment cluster. The clusters are not intended to go over every Science topic, simply to provide an engaging Science experience that will boost the kids a little before the test. We will not be able to provide this for every 8th grader, and the kids should be given the opportunity to choose their clusters from what is available.

Meanwhile, the 6th & 7th graders will have open-topic Enrichment Clusters offered by all remaining teachers. Topics could include Italian, Robotics, School Newspaper, Art & Math, whatever interests teachers and students. Again, students will choose to participate and will rank their choices of clusters in order to get a good match between students and clusters.

Cycle 2 will end April 27 so that the first week in May can be spent debriefing cycle 2 and planning cycle 3.

Cycle 3 is from May 8 to June 4th. The 8th graders will have SS Enrichment Clusters, as the SS Exam is June 7th & 9th. The idea is the same as with the Science Enrichment Clusters, except topics may be The Sixties, Exploring India (or some other country/culture), Archaeology, Anthropology, etc. Again, planning time will be used to look at the SS Exam and identify skills to integrate into the clusters. The 6th & 7th graders will have another round of open-topic Enrichment Clusters.

Cycle 4 will be open topic Enrichment Clusters for the whole school. The difficulty is that the time at that point is much shorter, with only a few weeks left until the end of the school year. It's possible that it would be better to extend cycles 2 and 3 rather than trying to offer a 4th cycle, although doing this will mean that the 8th grade clusters will no longer align with the dates of the Science & SS Exams. My other idea is that Cycle 4 Clusters could be focused on Physical Education and Art topics, which ought to be more motivating for both teachers and students during the nice weather at the end of the year.

Lingering questions include how to handle teacher absences, what to do about our existing after school program, and what to do about after school classes like my High School Prep class or the Chess Club, which don't necessarily make sense in an enrichment cluster format.

I'm curious what you all think of this proposal, and I promise to post more as my school proceeds with our planning for the new schedule.

*We have got to find a name for this.

Bits & Pieces

I'm fascinated by the intersection of genes and personality. And now they've found a way to make braver mice... personally, I wish the mouse that occasionally visits my kitchen were a little less brave.


I'm interviewing for the Fulbright Teacher Exchange on December 10th!


It looks like I will be getting reimbursed (finally) for Confratute! I don't expect the money for a while yet, but progress has been made.


I heard cheesy pop Christmas carols for the first time this season today. The horror!


I had fun with the Burning Questions thread... thanks! And by the way, the union newspaper says Dec. 15th for retroactive pay and new pay rates.

One more parent conference story...

This one I totally forgot until this morning, when I suddenly recovered a memory.

What would YOU do in this situation?

I'm meeting with the father of a nice but slightly-below-average sixth grader. I tell him that her lowest grade was on the quiz on measurement. I explain that it was a very hard quiz, because I required them to be very precise. I make a little joke about driving over the bridges these kids might build some day, and the need for exact measurements. He says he completely understands, because he works in construction or some such thing and they have to measure all the time, and if they are only a little bit off it could cause major problems.

So far so good.

Then he says, well, she probably had trouble because when measuring in centimeters you start at the zero but when measuring in inches you start at the one, and it's easy to think you should start at the zero line, in fact, he's always having to correct the young guys at work when they start measuring from the zero for inches.

And then he starts demonstrating with his hands holding an imaginary ruler and it's clear that he really means what I think he means. And suddenly I want to go back to his daughter's quiz and see if she was one inch off on all her measurements.

I smile weakly and try to get us past this part of the conversation as quickly as possible. Now is not the time for me to suggest to this man who is obviously hardworking and proud of his skill that he has been measuring wrong for his entire career, nor do I think that a five minute parent-teacher conference is likely to cause that kind of paradigm shift even if I tried to correct him. But I am certainly not going to say anything to suggest agreement, either. And I have a new understanding of why building projects end up going way over budget, given the number of boards they must cut that are one inch too short....


Thursday, November 17, 2005

Robotics, Session 4

Or, Are you SURE you want to be a teacher?

Before I talk about robotics, I have to explain what happened BEFORE robotics.

The day was going all right. Some visitors came to our school and dropped in on my seventh grade class. My door is usually open, but for whatever reason, this particular visit made me really nervous. Partly because I was lecturing about the layers of the Earth, and I suddenly felt this weird fear that they were going to tell me I wasn't doing enough hands-on stuff, partly because I hadn't seen these kids for several days and the flow of my unit was feeling really disjointed, partly because I barely keep it together with the 7th graders, and the last thing I need is to wonder what a bunch of strangers are thinking about my lesson. I like to shine, to really be at my best, when people visit, and this just wasn't it. In the end, it doesn't matter, the people whose opinions count have seen my teaching day in and day out. It was just weird to feel that anxiety about a visit when I don't normally feel it.

Then I did one of my favorite labs with the sixth graders, where they roll marbles and gumballs at each other in a track created by two meter sticks, and observe and describe the collisions. Then we talk about momentum, and try to figure out why objects sometimes bounce off of each other and other times stick together, why if you flick one marble at a row of four marbles, the marble you shoot will come to a stop and only the first of the four target marbles will roll forward, why if you shoot one marble quickly and one slowly, they will "exchange" speeds in the collision... it's really fun stuff, not least because the first time I taught this lab was the first time that conservation of momentum really made sense on a deep level to me. The experiment is riddled with imprecisions caused by slanting tables (and floors!), gumballs damaged by collisions with marbles, gumballs accidently stepped on when they land on the floor... but the kids definitely see the patterns and are eager to try new combinations and make predictions. The idea of conservation of momentum is still fairly abstract and hard for them, but at least they get to see it in action in a systematic way before we explore the idea.

So, all was going well when I dropped off my class in the cafeteria and headed up the stairs to eat my own lunch and run our sixth grade team meeting. Unfortunately, I ran into the third seventh grade class (which I do not teach) on their way down the stairs, and they were behaving terribly, complaining out loud, making disrespectful comments, talking loudly after being asked to be quiet, you name it. We have very strict hall policies, and a culture where no teacher turns a blind-eye to misbehavior, so I told them to turn around and go back upstairs, we were going to practice walking in the hallway until they did it correctly. (The teacher in charge of the class was in total agreement with this move, by the way).

Now, I was expecting some moaning and groaning, and was fully ready to ignore it until they got over it and realized the only way to get to lunch was to settle down and walk quietly. I was NOT prepared for several children to start shouting, "You're not our teacher!" while others sighed audibly, refused to walk forward, and let it be known in a hundred ways how much they hated me.

"You're not our teacher, you can't make us!"

That was a direct, public challenge to my authority, which meant I could not back down, or the next time I had these kids, I'd be in for it. I let a few of the kids who were behaving well go down to lunch, and then marched the class all the way back upstairs to their classroom, where we started over. And every time I started to let them walk downstairs, and someone complained or muttered a rude comment, we started over yet again. And again, and again. I hate being this kind of teacher, but I was going to make darn sure they knew that I might not teach their class, but I'm still their teacher. I let a few more kids go each time so as not to make new enemies among the good kids, but I'm sure a few who had not been bad got caught up in the misery, and I feel crappy about that. I hate punishing whole groups for the behavior of a few (or, in this case, a dozen), but I had to be very careful not to let any guilty parties go...

Ugh. By the end of it, I had won the battle but was totally exhausted. Every ounce of patience and toughness had been used up. I had ten minutes to run the meeting and eat. My principal also spoke to the class, she was so horrified when she heard the story. In the end, they probably won't be any nicer or better behaved, but at least they know who is in charge, and that will prevent some even more egregious behavior.

Then I taught another sixth grade class. The lab went well, but it's the most difficult of the three sixth grade classes, and I always see them at the end of the day, and they take a lot of energy themselves. So it was fine, but not fun.

Robotics. All 17 kids were present. And they were not in a good mood. One boy (maybe two) was annoyed with me for disabling his email account due to some inappropriate emails that he claims he did not send despite all evidence to the contrary (have I mentioned I'm site administrator, too?). All those with ADD tendencies were talking their heads off, no matter how many times, or how nicely, I asked them to listen to instructions quietly. A couple of kids who impressed me last week with how much better they behave in robotics than in class... well, that honeymoon was over.

We started with a group meeting again, and chose the team name "Hurricanes" - I'm hoping that's not in terrible taste this year, but that's what they voted for... We read over the project instructions, and divided into four small groups. Each group is going to do their own Ocean Odyssey research project, and then we will pick the best one to take to the tournament in January.

Then we tried to use my Mac to send the program they wrote to the RCX, but it still wasn't working. It started sending the firmware to the RCX, a process that ought to have taken a few minutes, and an hour later, when the session ended, we'd only finished 75%. Soooo frustrating!!! (I haven't had time to sort out the problem with our school laptops, but I was confident it would work on MINE). And yes, we covered the whole thing with a box to block out interfering light, and it still took all that time.

I realized fairly quickly that we wouldn't be demonstrating any programs on the robot today, so I divided up the rest of the kids into groups and sent them to work on one of three things: finishing the playing field, building a second practice robot, learning Robolab. We got a second robot kit, but naturally I'd forgotten to get more batteries, so the kids building the practice robot got stalled for a while trying to figure out if they put it together without batteries, would they have to take it all apart later to put batteries in. Meanwhile, the kids building the playing field weren't very motivated, and they insist that we are missing pieces. I tried to get them to lay out all the pieces needed for each step, to see if maybe we had similar pieces left over that could be used in place of the missing ones, or at least determine what and how many are missing... but they really didn't get much done in this regard. I taught the programmers the basics and set them to work trying to program a robot to go in a square (and they got about half done and were working together fairly well) but our hearts weren't completely in it because it was so clear that we wouldn't be able to test the program thanks to the problem with the IR Tower.

In the end, I guess we did get some stuff accomplished, but it felt really unproductive and frustrating. I wasn't in a relaxed, patient, or humorous mood - you know those times when you're calm but can't smile to save your life? - and the kids were all kind of irritable, and no one really had any fun.

I am going to make sure I fix a few of these problems before next time, and also tighten up my planning, because some of the little problems (such as not having enough batteries) were totally avoidable. That should help. The first rule of robotics at my school is, "If Ms. Frizzle isn't having fun, you're not having fun." It's time to return to the good times.

And having the camera there during this... well, I signed on for the movie project knowing they'd film it all, the good days and the bad, but I felt much more self-conscious today than last week.

Inflammatory Answers to Your Burning Questions

1. When do we get our retroactive money?

I don't know, but if I worked in the DOE, I would time those checks to fall just before the holidays. Makes good political sense.

2. How is your school going to use the 37.5 minutes in February?

We haven't figured this out yet. I am in the process of putting together a proposal to pilot Schoolwide Enrichment Model "Enrichment Clusters" during that time after the tests are over. I suspect that before the tests we will probably do targeted test prep. I'll share my proposal here when I work it out - hopefully by the end of the weekend.

3. Can you teach your students how to graph the dependent and independent variables and what makes them dependent and independent?

I introduced variables to the sixth graders in September, and we've been graphing distance and time for the last week or so, looking at how the shape of a graph can tell us something about a person's speed and acceleration. So, I'm doing my best. I've found in the past that the meaning of those variables is something some kids get right away and others struggle with, but if we keep going over it, their little brains eventually mature and they suddenly understand completely. Piaget should have included variables in his work....

4. My high school has an opening for a full-time Living Environment teacher, know anybody interested?

Believe me, if I knew any unemployed Science teachers, I'd have hired 'em by now. We still have a vacancy, don't forget!

5. How did you vote?

That question will have to continue to burn. But in the end, I was still on the fence, and had to make a decision. I think the contract is a mix of good & bad. I wasn't ever an advocate of one position or the other; if I had been, you'd have read about it here.

6. Is there anything good that comes out of the DOE?

I'm not sure this question was asked in the spirit of really wanting an answer, but I'll take a stab at it.

Most of the changes that have happened since Klein & Bloomberg came in have actually been good for my particular school. Of course, I realize this is not a popular statement and not true in many, many other schools, and in no way do I mean to dismiss the astounding disrespect shown to teachers in many, many schools. Nevertheless, in my Region, two former districts were fused toether. By and large, people who were doing a good job (ie, making smart decisions, keeping the big picture in mind, facilitating rather than standing in the way) kept their jobs or were promoted, and most of the people who were micromanaging or always seemed "out to get you" were demoted. Can't argue with that.

I'm extremely frustrated by certain things right now, and angrier than I've been in a long time, but I don't think that every policy coming out of the DOE is bad. I think many (most?) of the policies are very poorly implemented, and that's why my answer to the next question, "Would your school change for the better or worse if all the educrat positions did not exist?" is probably for the better. They could cut some layers of middle management and empower teachers and schools to figure out the best ways to implement reforms, and it might make a positive difference. But teachers would have to be willing to take on very different roles within their schools. There would be no one else to blame, and a lot more personal responsibility for the functioning of the whole school, not just one's own classroom.

7. Do these educrats really think their jobs matter or are they just playing the part for a nice six figure salary?
Call me naive, but I think most people think their jobs matter, and most people think they are doing the right thing. Especially in education. How else do you live with yourself?

8. Three questions about the universe: The universe is, by definition, all the energy and matter and time and space that exists, right? So, if the universe is expanding, what is it expanding INTO? How do they know the universe is expanding? Perhaps it's staying the same size and everything inside it is getting smaller. How would they know the difference?

Okay, so the question about what the universe is expanding into.... well. That's one of the more mind-boggling ones. I don't really "get it" myself, but I think the idea is that outside of the universe, the idea of space doesn't exist, so there doesn't need to be anything for the universe to expand into. Sort of like the idea of time didn't exist before the Big Bang... Someone a bit better at advanced physics might be able to do this one justice... Anyway, apparently the string theorists are proposing that there are way more than 4 dimensions, perhaps more than a dozen, some of them "curled up" - and if you can wrap your mind around that, you're doing better than I am! I've been wondering whether string theorists really believe this stuff they come up with. I mean, it's fascinating, the math works out, it explains some stuff that we see and maybe predicts some other stuff, all very good science, but when they go to bed at night, just before they are falling asleep, do they feel in their guts that there are 13 dimensions? That's my burning question.

9. And what's the point of those funny looking letters I have to type in to post on these logs?

Comment-spam protection. Otherwise the comments would be full of non-sequiturs inviting you to visit gambling sites and the like. Sorry.

10. Are you hot?

Nani thinks so! And hopefully not too many pre-adolescent boys.... LOL

11. If you could say anything to the dean of the school of ed at a Research One, top 10, serious school of ed, what would you say?

Let me think about this one for a little while, and I'll get back to you.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Burning Questions...

Anyone got any?

Parent Conferences

Someone could do some interesting ethnographic work about parent-teacher(-student) conferences. What is said, how it is said, how meaning is constructed and what messages we send through the conversations we have: fascinating.

I spent about 5 hours today meeting with parents. I used to get very nervous before these events, but that has faded. This year, I was very pleased with nearly all the grades for the sixth graders, and felt that I had concrete feedback to provide, particularly to those who do need to improve. Of course, the parents of the two or three kids who are having the most trouble did not show up... isn't that always the way? As for the seventh graders, while I knew that some parents would be disappointed in their kids, I also felt completely confident that the grades were fair and that no one was going to be surprised. Surprises are the biggest problem in parent-teacher conferences. If a parent arrives and has no inkling that his or her child is doing poorly, that parent is going to be very angry, at the child and at the teacher. This year, no surprises.

I had many different kinds of conversations...

the "you should be very proud of your son/daughter, keep up the good work..." conversation (everyone's favorite!)
the "s/he's doing very well and is likely to improve as s/he gets used to middle school level assignments..." conversation
the "s/he is doing well but I wish s/he was less chatty during class..." conversation
and also "s/he is doing well, but snickers and smirks when other children are disrespectful, what is up with that?"
and "s/he is doing well but needs to participate more"
and "s/he did fine but could take the work to the next level by paying closer attention to the assignment sheets and checking that s/he is fulfilling all the expectations"
and "s/he got a low grade because s/he never handed in X assignment"
and "I can talk to your brother/father/sister/mother/aunt about this for hours, but in the end, what happens next is up to you... when you decide to buckle down and get serious, you have the ability to do much better"
followed closely by "your actions have real world consequences... which teacher would you ask to write you a letter of recommendation for high school next year, and what do you think we would write if you did ask us? you don't want to wake up in 11th grade in a crazy high school with metal detectors and suddenly wish you'd done things differently back in middle school..."
and also "I'm on your side, I want to help you, but when I come over to your table to work with you one-on-one, and you are in the middle of a conversation with your neighbor and just look at me and giggle, well, it seems like you're not doing your part to do better...
and "she's doing very good work, but every time I look at her, her body language and facial expression is that of someone who is doing something wrong and wondering when she's going to get caught, and given her track record of dishonesty, I have to say that she's digging herself deeper and deeper into a hole that is hard to get out of..."
and "here's a copy of the next project assignment sheet... it's due Thursday... if I don't receive it from your son/daughter, I will give you a call..."

It really is fascinating. Sometimes, I am talking directly to the student, sometimes I'm talking to the parent, but the message is for the student, and sometimes, I'm talking to the parent and the message is for the parent. And parents use the conference as an opportunity to communicate various messages to their children and to the teacher... I was going to write more... but I'm really tired. You get the idea, or you'll ask me in the comments what the heck I'm talking about and I'll try to do it justice tomorrow.

Quick Write

Here's a website that provides a word of the day. The idea is to free-write about it for 60 seconds. I was not impressed by today's word, but I could see teachers with access to technology using this site to spice up their warm-up or do-now activities and generate interest in free-writing. Maybe not every day, but once in a while...?

One Word

via Apples For the Teacher.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Robotics, Session 3

Today, the pieces started to fall into place.

We are developing a tradition or routine of starting robotics with a team meeting. We push the tables out of the way and move chairs into something approximating a circle. This gives me the chance to make announcements, take attendance, answer questions, and explain the day's tasks.

I started our meeting by creating clean-up crews. I had considered simply assigning each student to a group with a particular clean-up task, but in the end, I simply stood at the chalkboard, asked the kids to list the tasks that we have to do to clean up, and then had them volunteer for different crews. It was interesting to see that kids were drawn to different kinds of jobs, by and large exactly the same ones I would have assigned. But because they chose, they are invested in doing a good job. So we have a group that puts the furniture back and puts up chairs, a group that puts away Legos and checks for lost Legos, a group that puts the computers away, and a group that puts the mat away.

One of the students suggested, "Make sure there are no missing students," as a clean-up task. In the end, I assigned that particular task to myself. The kids kept reminding me not to lose anyone!

Next, I passed out a missions list and we read it and discussed it. The kids had a ton of questions about the missions and other stuff - what are we doing after the tournament is over in January? can we make a robot that reaches over onto the adjoining playing field to pick up the dolphin if the other team gets it first? should we make a really big robot? It was fascinating, because kids who rarely participate in class offered to answer each other's questions. They listened to what the others had to say and asked follow-up questions, made suggestions, offered opinions. Everyone was really focused and respectful.

Finally, we divided into groups for the day. I was a little worried about how this would go, but it ended up working really well. One group built our first robot, following a plan from the book that came with the robot kit. Another group continued working on the shipping container and the boat for the playing field (we are making excruciatingly slow progress, but progress, nonetheless, and a certain group has taken ownership of that part of the project). A third group helped install Robolab on a couple more laptops and did a short tutorial on Robolab with me.

The first group finished the robot in no time. What was fascinating was the way they worked together to troubleshoot various problems that they had. For example, the way they first built it, the wires that connect the motors to the RCX were chafing against the wheels. A student pointed out that this was going to damage the wires over time. I asked if they could change anything about the robot to fix the problem, and then I left them to figure it out. About 10 minutes later, they came over to where I was working with the programmers, eagerly holding up their robot, problem solved. High-fives all around! They put the robot on the table, turned it on, and it promptly plowed into all the remaining Legos, sending them careening toward and over the edges of the table. I asked them to move to the floor for testing, and they eagerly moved to an open space to test their robot. When they found that the motors were turning in opposite directions, making the robot turn but not move forward, they went back to their table and experimented until they figured out the solution. More high-fives!

Meanwhile, the group building the playing field struggled with missing pieces. I don't think anything major is really missing; I believe that what happened is that as we built earlier objects, we used identical pieces that came in different colors. So the kids might be looking for a red 2-by-8 and can't find it, but a black 2-by-8 is available because someone used the wrong color in another project. This is not a major problem and I am letting them figure it out mostly on their own.

Finally, we got Robolab installed on 3 laptops, and I demonstrated the basics to a group of 4 kids. I showed them how to write a program that would make the robot turn on two motors and move forward for 6 seconds. Then I challenged them to add to it so that the robot would reverse and move backwards for 6 seconds. They did it in about 15 minutes, and spent the rest of the time exploring the various options in Robolab, especially music. We will do a whole-group session with Robolab where I go over it more thoroughly, but it was awesome to see how quickly they figured things out on their own. For example, I showed them the "Stop A" and "Stop C" signs, and immediately a student suggested that the "Stop All" sign would be more efficient. Then another chimed in that we hadn't used motor B in our hypothetical robot, so we didn't need "Stop All." I clarified that it would still work, and then we talked about situations when you might choose to stop each motor separately and situations when you might choose to stop all.

As clean-up time neared, I realized that we had a working robot and a workable program, so I told them if we cleaned up in five minutes, we could try to test the program in the RCX. They cleaned up quickly, but then we faced the most perplexing problem of the day: the IR Tower did not turn on when plugged into the computer. I had purchased a 9-Volt battery as shown in the Lego instruction manual, but our IR Tower didn't have a space for a battery. I am still somewhat mystified - anyone out there know what I'm missing? I'm sure it's something obvious, but I just don't see it. Anyway, I have one week to solve this problem because I promised them we could test the program first thing next Thursday.

And I am as eager as they are!


Today was also the first day of filming for the documentary. That went really well, too. The filmmakers are really discreet. I asked the kids not to be shy or to show off, just to be themselves, and they did me proud. I think they totally forgot about the camera, even when it was just a foot or two above them or peeking over their shoulders. I had to wear a clip-on mic which was a little annoying, but not a huge deal. And the guy who wasn't filming actually helped out with the computers, which was so nice. I can do it by myself, but it is SO much better to have a second adult in the room.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Neighborhood, Part II.

Let me tell you about the first day that I visited the neighborhood in the Bronx where I teach.

It was mid-August, hotter than heck, everyone outside, on stoops, sidewalks, street corners. Tempers flare in this kind of heat.

I got off the train near Yankee Stadium, puzzled over the neighborhood map for a while, and set out for my school. I knew where I needed to go, but it was a long walk through unfamiliar territory. I'd been in New York City for only a week or so, and prior to that the biggest cities I'd spent any real time in were Houston and San Francisco. I grew up in a small town. I didn't know what to expect but I knew this neighborhood didn't have a great reputation. Everything felt strange and threatening, but I was on my way to my school, where I'd spend the next two years of my life! I knew that if I let myself be afraid of the neighborhood where I worked, of the community where my students were growing up, then I'd have already failed. But I didn't want to be naive or foolish, either.

A thought floated into my head, "99% of people are good, hardworking, and don't want to hurt you." It became a mantra as I walked the 12 blocks to my school. I repeated it silently, over and over, kept my head up, walked as confidently as possible with an air of "I know where I'm going," and found my school.

Later, that walk became familiar. I didn't need a mantra, because I knew first hand that the people I passed on the street were good, hardworking, and many were related to my students. Sure, there was gang graffiti on the walls - "MurdaSquad 163" - fights in the schoolyard, knives in kids' belts. But while I didn't hang out in the neighborhood by night, I didn't feel threatened or afraid on a day-to-day basis.

When I left that school to come to my new school, kids warned me that the new neighborhood - only a few blocks from the old - was a bad place. Tough kids told me not to go there. And sure enough, every year we lose kids once their parents find out where our school is located.

Still, I haven't felt afraid. Inside, our school is sparklingly clean, decorated with artwork, and a very safe place for children. We have not had a fight so far this year, and the fights we do have are small stuff compared with what I saw at my old school. Again, I don't hang around the neighborhood - but why would I? - but I don't feel unsafe cutting through the projects to catch a bus or waiting for 20 minutes alone at the bus stop. People on the street easily guess I'm a teacher and some say hi or ask where I work.

Of course, the kids are not safe, not on their way to and from school, and not in their own neighborhoods, depending on exactly where they live. Many, many of my students have witnessed violence, some in their own families. It comes out in personal essays and occasional crises or moments of confidence.

Last Friday, I wrote about a shoot-out that occured within clear sight of our school. Yesterday, there was a high-speed chase on the street next to the school, and it ended in a police officer being hit by a car. I didn't see it but other teachers say the police had to come out and clean up blood from the street. Today, another sixth grade teacher heard more gunshots.

I'm still not afraid. But I feel a lot less comfortable here than I used to. All these incidents happened in broad daylight. I suspect they were all conflicts between people who already knew each other, not attacks on strangers. But still.

And think of my children, who have nowhere safer to go at the end of each day. Several live across the street in some menacing housing projects. All the incidents above happened within a block of their homes, not to mention their school.

And there was gang-related graffiti on the walls inside our school today, in thick blue magic marker. Probably just some kids who think they're tough but know that the really tough gang members will never see this graffiti. A bad sign anyway.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Testing, testing... Ready to rant.

Let me first say that I am not opposed to standardized testing in limited quantities. It's one of many ways to gather information about students and schools. But what people outside of education might not realize is that we don't just give tests (which already use up about 4-10 days per year depending on the grade level). Oh no, we also have to give practice tests mandated by the city several times throughout the year.

There are so many tests, practice tests, and practice-practice tests that I am left wondering when exactly I am supposed to teach science!

Today, in our team leaders' meeting, we found out that we are giving full Math & ELA practice tests to every student in every grade.

Now, our kids get extra periods of Math & ELA and fewer periods of Science. Nevertheless, this test will more than likely be given schoolwide and so I will give up yet more periods of Science teaching to administer practice tests in other subjects.

As I said in the team leaders' meeting, "Can I give a practice Science test?" I wouldn't dream of asking other teachers to give up their teaching time so I could give a test, let alone doing it several times a year. When I give practice ILS exams, about twice during 8th grade, I do them in class.

But I'm used to this issue and have been pressuring my administration to administer practice tests during the appropriate subject periods. No, there's worse.

The official memo from the Region says that these tests must be scored by teachers, and suggests that we do it "during grade level meetings or after school."

So, they are mandating a practice test - and this is not just multiple choice, no, it includes essays and constructed response and the whole nine yards - yet they have no plan to pay anyone to score it??? These tests are no joke to score. Getting 225 Math and ELA exams scored is going to take several teachers hours of work. And apparently, we have to find that time in grade meetings - because we have nothing important to discuss with our teams? - or after school. It doesn't suggest paying per session for grading. It doesn't take into account the fact that most of us already work after school. No, it just says, give the test on this date and get it scored by that date, good luck.

Here are the options we discussed:
1. Grading it during a Monday PD, all teachers involved. (Fine, but so much for the workshops on differentiation and tiered instruction that we have scheduled. Also, that won't be enough time).
2. Cancel afterschool for a couple of days and have all the afterschool teachers grade the tests. (At least we get paid, but Robotics and HS Prep matter to me and to the kids, and what kind of message does this send about what's important? Also, one or two days won't be enough time).
3. Find some sort of educational movie to show the kids for most of a morning and create an assignment to follow it, put the whole school in the auditorium with a couple of teachers and the AP, and have everyone else score tests. (Do I really have to explain the problems with this idea? Not only do the kids miss classes to take the test, now they miss more while we score it?! Also, that won't be enough time).
4. Some combination of the above. (Solves the time problem; compounds the other problems).

It seems like this shouldn't even be allowed. Can they make me score these tests? Is that really something I just have to go along with???

Don't get me wrong; I'm not suggesting that I plan to refuse to grade them. My school will come up with some kind of plan, and I will participate, because we are all in it together. If I refuse, pretty soon the entire burden of grading them will fall to the Math & ELA teachers, which isn't fair or right, either. And I don't want myself or our school getting a reputation as a troublemaker. But this rubs me so much the wrong way that I am wondering whether we can fight back at the Regional level. Can they really just hand out a memo and wipe out hours of our teaching/afterschool/meeting time? And if not, what can we do about it that doesn't single out any individual teacher or school but that frees us from this ridiculous burden?

And where the HELL are my Science Exam scores????!!!!!

I am starting to feel really unappreciated. The thing I do best - teach science - gets shorter and shorter shrift, tossed aside for the slightest needs of the ELA and Math departments. It's not my school's fault, they are just following the orders handed down by the Region. Last year, Science had a strong presence within our Region, much stronger than ever before. This year, it feels like a giant step backwards.

If I ever leave for the suburbs, it won't be for the money, it will be for better working conditions (I am talking about physical plant, not hours) and because there are places where what I am good at actually matters to the people in charge. And the city wonders why no one can find any science teachers ---!

We do not count.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A Day at the American Museum of Natural History

It was a fun day. It was nice just to be appreciated for what we do, to be surrounded by other science teachers who share similar concerns about inquiry, deciding how broad and deep to make content coverage, how to bring certain topics to life.

The highlight of the morning and perhaps the whole day was when astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson came out to say hello to all of us. He is everything I need my children to know about: an African-American scientist, a product of the NYC public schools, charming, a good speaker, a populizer of science, funny. I think I may invite him to be a science expo judge. He will probably say no, but maybe he will know of other people who are less famous and, therefore, have more time to spend visiting schools. Then again, you never know. The one thing I have learned is that people find it hard to say no to helping teachers, if you just ask them the right way.

He also told us about the asteroid that will pass very close to Earth in 2029, called Apophis after the Egyptian god of destruction. They know for sure that it won't hit Earth, and they can approximate its path. What they've discovered is that if the path passes through a certain area, nicknamed the "keyhole," then the next time the asteroid passes close to Earth it will definitely hit us, somewhere in the Pacific!. Apparently this is not bigger news because they discovered it right at the time of the tsunami, so it got buried. Anyway, the chances are still fairly small, but if it does hit, it could make the tsunami look like no big deal. Needless to say, they are monitoring the situation very closely, trying to make better and better predictions about where the asteroid is going to be on the first pass by Earth, and what the options are if it is in the keyhole. Curiously, my googling turns up articles from early September reassuring us that the asteroid poses no threat. So, perhaps today's news was really breaking news and the astronomers have refined their understanding of the asteroid's orbit once again?

The other highlight was a presentation on the dinosaurs exhibit. There is some amazing work being done in paleontology, and it is truly bringing together so many fields - geology, evolutionary biology, physics, you name it. The exhibit apparently has a model of a dinosaur skeleton on a treadmill, designed to show how dinosaurs might have moved. The fact that dinosaurs evolved into birds and first developed feathers for warmth, not flight, is old news, but did you know that they have found fossils of dinosaurs sitting on their eggs, brooding just like birds do? And if you saw the photographs of fossils showing the curled-up skeletons of young dinosaurs, it is just incredible how bird-like they are. Wow. Finally, scans of tyrannosaurus rex's brain - from fossils - show that T. rex had extremely large olfactory lobes, meaning that they probably hunted mostly by smell, not by sight as previously theorized.

We saw the Galapagos IMAX, although we saw it on a large screen but not in an IMAX theater. I love everything to do with the Galapagos, but this movie was a little disappointing. It touched on a lot of things but didn't go into depth on any, and while there were some fun shots of sea lion pups cavorting and schools of colorful fish, which would have looked fabulous on IMAX, overall the visuals didn't blow me away. It was very simple and straightforward, didn't make a lot of assumptions about the viewer's prior knowledge or vocabulary, so it might be quite good for middle schoolers.

I selected a workshop on celestial navigation, which was fun but didn't actually teach me much about celestial navigation. Whenever educators are looking for ways for SS and Science teachers to collaborate, celestial navigation is often suggested, but what most people don't realize is that actually navigating by the stars is hard, and not something you're going to be able to teach most kids to do with any kind of precision. You'd spend a lot of time fussing over details that might not necessarily add to their knowledge of science. If you stick to the basics and just introduce a few of the celestial objects used for navigation - Polaris, for example - you can stay focused on important concepts but I think it leaves people feeling like they still don't really know how to get anywhere, and wasn't that the point?

Overall, a good day.

Monday, November 07, 2005

In case you're wondering,

we are now a full week into November and the state has STILL not released the scores for the science exam which was completed FIVE full months ago and then almost-completely hand-scored by teachers, including me, on our own time, time squeezed from the school day, or - for the lucky ones - per session time.

I am so completely unimpressed.


There are evenings when I have SO MUCH schoolwork to do that I really have no other option than to curl up on the couch with the latest issue of insert serious publication here Glamour.

And tomorrow, I get to go to the Museum of Natural History for the day for a special PD session for science teachers!!! Imagine that, PD designed with the specific needs of science teachers in mind! I don't have to sit through another workshop on how I can help prepare the kids for the Math and ELA tests!

Excuse the exclamation points, I am very excited. Did I mention that it doesn't start until after 9 am and they will be serving coffee --!

A misuse of resources?

Someone wrote to me today asking,*

"...why, after graduating from an Ivy league school like Stanford did you decide to become a school teacher? Isn't it kind of a misuse of a very expensive education that many (me included) can't even hope to achieve?

Do you think it is an optimum allocation of educational resources and funds? Did you plan all the time on becoming a teacher or was it a mid-study decision?"

I felt a little defensive at first, but here's what I wrote back in the end:

I thought I might go to law school and become a child advocacy lawyer and eventually a judge. I wanted more on the ground experience working with the families whose rights I would be defending, and I wasn't ready to start a law program - needed a break from being in school - so I applied to Teach For America. Once I started teaching, I found it a real intellectual and personal challenge and also found that the types of cases I would work on as a lawyer were not in any way, shape, or form clear-cut or necessarily the best way to make policy regarding children. And I became involved in starting a school. So I decided to stay in teaching.

Teaching is a highly complex task with extremely important outcomes at both the individual and societal level. At the moment, it may be undervalued by society, but that doesn't mean going into teaching is a waste of a Stanford education. In addition, the field of education is one in which I have already begun to take some leadership roles - at the moment, within my school, but quite possibly on a larger scale in a few years. I will be paying off my loans for some time, true, but would I truly be happier having chosen a more lucrative profession simply because it makes better economic sense? That's not how I go about making decisions about what I do with my life. Obviously, economic reality plays a role in my choices (and just for the record, I'm not a trust-fund kid or anything, my parents are also educators), but it is not the deciding factor.

I would add now that I was raised to believe in - within reason - education for education's sake. I went to the school where I thought I would learn most, in and out of classes, and I think it was a good decision. My world is far, far broader and richer as a result of my experience in college. Of course, this is not to say that less expensive colleges couldn't provide a similar experience; I can only say that I do not, for an instant, regret going into debt to pay for college. I never saw it as an investment in my future earning potential, more as investment in myself as a human being and as a citizen. I hope I can share with my students the same commitment to seeking out opportunities to learn and to grow.

*By the way, M., if you don't want to be quoted, just shoot me a line and I'll take this post down.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Probably not a very good idea, but

A voter turn-out experiment

This NY Times article poses the question, "Why is voter turnout so high, given that the pay-off of voting (for the individual) is so low?" Then it discusses an experiment done in Switzerland, where ballots were mailed home to every citizen in an attempt to increase voter turn-out. Unexpectedly, voting actually decreased. Read to find out why.

On a related note, I am a registered democrat in this city, and I have received nothing from the Ferrer campaign: no flyers or mailing of any kind, nothing. I don't watch tv, so I haven't seen any campaign ads, and my shower radio is broken, so I haven't heard any radio spots, either. (I read the news on-line).

I definitely am one of those people who believes voting is an important civic duty. But with each election of my adult life, I feel less motivated to participate. The candidates whom I'm supposed to like are completely uninspiring. They propose so little in the way of actual policy. I am supposed to vote for Ferrer because he's the Democrat and because as a teacher and liberal in NYC, I'm supposed to hate Bloomberg. Anyway, the way the polls are going, Ferrer is a lost cause. I may abstain from voting in this election simply because it saves me from having to make a compromising choice.

I think I'll crawl back into my hole now.

Blogger Birthdays

Last night I went to Jules' birthday party, and there I found Nani, Ms. M., and Ms. Oh. It's funny meeting bloggers in real life. You have this image in your head based on their writing, and then you meet the real person.

Anyway, Nani made incredibly tasty cupcakes, which were so good that she got a free shot from the bartender in exchange for one!

Today: grading. Lots and lots of grading.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

I don't write a lot about the neighborhood, but...

I was meeting with Mr. Richter during first period yesterday, when we heard two sharp reports. I've heard gunshots before, and I was pretty sure that's what they were. I said, "That didn't sound good," but then we went on with our meeting, since our meeting times are very limited, and well, what else were we supposed to do? Run to the window?

Later, as I was walking down the hall, I ran into our parent coordinator. Turns out she had been standing by the laminator, waiting for something to laminate, and kind of absent-mindedly staring out the window, when she saw the exchange of gunfire. It was in a park about half a block from our school. I don't think anyone was hurt as lots of police cars showed up but no ambulances. Fortunately for our ability to conduct classes that day, most of the teachers and students had not really heard or registered what they were hearing.

If it was gang-related, which it probably was (who else shoots someone at 9 am in a park?), there is some danger that there will be more violence over the next few weeks in the same area. It's not bad enough that neighborhood thugs regularly jump our kids on their way home from school, now we can add shoot-outs to the list of things to worry about, even in broad daylight.

We are having a gang-awareness meeting after school next week. I have managed to avoid knowing much of the details about the local gangs up until now, but I would like to know more and it seems more and more relevant. We are concerned that a few of our students - and DEFINITELY some of their siblings and parents - may be involved. And of course, the problems with kids getting jumped spiked around the same time we heard that it was "gang initiation week," so there's probably some relationship between the gangs and that problem, too.... *sigh*

Thursday, November 03, 2005

A few more things all in one post...

First, it looks like the teachers here in NYC have ratified the new contract. I'm not sure how to feel about that (but please DON'T tell me in the comments). It was an agonizing decision, with reasons to vote for and against. I guess it's just another thing that's making me tired & anxious.


Second, posthipchick is letting us take a peek at some of the cutest pre-baby pics you've ever seen. Go share in her excitement, it will lift your spirits! Don't take this the wrong way, but I have to admit I'm a little jealous of the amazing transformation she's going through, the anticipation, the new directions life is taking for her... well, all of it. So exciting.


Third, I gave one seventh grade class their quizzes back today, and told them they could raise their grades if they used the textbook to find evidence of the correct answer to each question they got wrong, and then copied out the right answer and the passage that proves it onto looseleaf. The idea was to make them work for a higher grade, while also making sure that they see the connection between what we read in the book and what I asked them on the quiz, that the correct answers were all accessible to them all along. They worked really hard on this. They even took me seriously when I said it had to be neat.

By the way, the jigsaw activity I posted about below was kind of a disaster. Most of the work they did just wasn't very good, and I don't even want to grade it. I will probably grade some of it and "forget" the rest. And the quizzes... I was going to give them each an individual and a group grade, but it just doesn't feel fair. They didn't take their roles seriously as experts, they didn't become teams dedicated to achieving more as a group, and I honestly do not want to punish the high achievers and reward those who did poorly by giving them the group average along with their own grade. So, I'm not going to.

I think the jigsaw idea could still work, done somewhat differently, but I will post more about that sometime in the future.

Tomorrow, all but about 20 seventh graders are going on a field trip to the American Museum of Natural History. That means I'm going to get a class composed only of those who don't get to go. We're watching a National Geographic Documentary on Natural Disasters. It isn't completely off-topic (actually, it will introduce plate tectonics rather well), it doesn't require much planning, and it has a lot of dramatic visuals and sounds. Perfect.


And finally, what is the right way for a father, newly returned from prison, to tell his pre-adolescent son that he has been away serving time for committing murder?

Robotics, Session 2

I am too tired to adequately express my excitement about robotics. Our team is up to 17 members, 15 smart, feisty boys and 2 sixth grade girls (not particularly feisty, but really smart, and one of them did First Lego League at her elementary school). We have a good mix of kids from each grade in our school, which means we have some kids who are probably more abstract thinkers because they are older, but we also have kids who will be back next year and the year after. And the only ones with prior robotics experience are the sixth graders, so I think when we begin learning how to program and build robots, the older kids will find themselves learning from the younger, and that will be good for everyone.

We started with a group meeting, everyone said their name, grade, and one thing they are looking forward to in robotics. Answers ranged from having fun to liking technology to winning the competition to making robots do cool things. Then I briefly summarized the way the program works for the new students, and we went to work building more of the props for the playing field. We are bogged down in the biggest building project of them all: the ship. We still need to finish the dolphin cage and the shipping container and the pipeline, too. The kids say we are missing pieces of the pipeline. I suspect they will turn up as we finish other things and the Lego storage box empties. One group of kids went to work installing Robolab on some laptops. Unfortunately, that was a very slow process and we really only got it installed on one laptop. They had a more boring job but it was some of the more patient kids tending the installation process, so they didn't complain much. I stressed how important it was to get the program on the computers. We also ran into some installation problems because our computers have student, teacher, and administrative accounts, and to fully install Robolab required the admin password, and it wouldn't accept what I thought was the password. So that was mystifying and frustrating.

Anyway, I think the kids had fun. I didn't exactly have fun, but I think that was just because the sheer number of kids was overwhelming. I will devise some systems to streamline things and that should help. I do enjoy those moments when the room is really chaotic at first glance, but upon a closer look, everyone is engaged in an important task.

We had a guest, someone who might film robotics for a documentary. He was awesome and helped out and talked to kids as they worked.... it is so much better to have a second adult in the room. What was interesting was that one of my sixth graders went right up to our guest and asked him some questions and then basically stuck by his side for all of snack time. It always amazes me how much certain kids - and all kids, really - crave positive attention from adults.

Next Thursday, when I will likely be on my own, is going to be really challenging. Systems, systems, systems. Hopefully my lunchtime helpers can finish the boat by then.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Juggling/Tree Pose

Not sure why the last two weeks at work have been so stressful. All I know is, I feel constantly like I'm on the verge of everything falling apart. I feel like I'm juggling too many balls, and while they are all in the air now, it is taking every ounce of energy to keep them there. And to add to the stress, everyone around me is also juggling and right on the edge of everything crashing to the floor.

Or it's like that moment in yoga class when you're trying to balance in tree pose by looking at one point straight ahead, only right in front of you where your eyes fall is another yogi, wobbling on one foot, and to each side of you, another, and it seems like it would be so easy to stay in balance if only everyone else weren't falling all over themselves... except that you also know that balance is internal, and you might be wobbling even if you were on your own...


Anyway, I don't want to post about school. It was a stressful day. So instead, let me mention briefly that my friend just made the most lovely vichysoisse, nearly worthy of that fancy french name for "leek & potato soup," and I made a raisin, apple, and cabbage slaw... yum.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

More about the seventh graders...

I appreciate the comments and suggestions in response to last night's post; they are helpful. Seventh grade has a reputation for being the armpit of middle school, when the kids are dysfunctional middle children who have just discovered the fun of being bad. I've taught 7th before - didn't love it, but I survived. The thing is, our current seventh grade class started acting like 7th graders back when they were still in sixth grade! I expected the behavior problems, as I knew these kids at least a little last year as their PE or Health teacher. What I didn't notice last year was how completely disengaged a lot of them are from school.

I started to take action on this today. I don't know whether it will help in the long run or not, and I did it more out of frustration than out of any kind of teacher instinct, but it was more successful than I expected.

I gave them back their stories and comic strips, along with copies of the rubric (which had been handed out at the start of the assignment). I told them in Soft Serious Voice that I was disappointed because I had worked hard to give them the support and feedback they needed to do well, and it seemed like they hadn't really used the supports provided. We went through the rubrics line by line, and I described how I would use the rubric to judge their work. As we went along, they graded their own projects. At the end, I offered them a choice: if they were happy with their score, they could staple the rubric to the paper and hand it in today. If they wanted to try one more time, they could rewrite it for Friday. I would say about half the kids kept their projects to rewrite. I won't know the real outcome of this strategy until I see what I get on Friday.

I do know that I will be making them grade their own work from now on before turning it in.

After we finished the rubric exercise, they studied in groups for their quiz. Especially with the first class, I managed to be very calm and go table to table offering to explain anything they didn't understand. (In the second class, they started throwing spitballs about 15 minutes before the end of the period and I enforced silent, independent studying for the remainder of the period).

One group insisted that they didn't need me to explain nuclear energy. I asked how they knew they understood it. It quickly became clear to them and to me that they didn't understand it, and they agreed to discuss it with me. This led to an interesting conversation. I pointed out that it wasn't enough to just write something down, you have to ask yourself, "Do I get this?" and if the answer is no, you need to find a way to make sure you learn it. I said that it was frustrating to discover that kids didn't get something the day before the test, but that it was really great if they spoke up along the way or asked for help. One girl, who struggles academically, reflected that she never asks questions when she doesn't understand. A second chimed in that their science teacher last year would say, "What kind of question is that?" when they asked for help. I pointed out that although I sometimes got annoyed at students, I would never put you down for asking for help, especially if you did it early on. I don't know if this conversation will lead to these students being more proactive, but it was somewhat enlightening.

Meanwhile, I had handed back old quizzes yesterday, and part of the homework was to get them signed by a parent. I only have about 60 7th graders; I caught about 8 who forged a parent's signature (or got a brother or sister to do it). Some forged their parent's signature to avoid showing them the quiz grade, while others simply forgot to get it signed and didn't want to get in trouble for missed homework. Either way, I spent my entire prep calling homes to check whether parents had indeed seen the quizzes. Most of the kids admitted to having faked the signatures when I quietly confronted them, but I called anyway to close the loop with their parents.

One girl was in big trouble for telling one teacher she was with me, while telling me she was with the other teacher, when she was really cutting a lunch detention. In the middle of all this, I discover that she had clearly forged her mom's signature. The worst of it all was that when I had spoken to her at lunchtime, asking her what teacher she was with, we'd had a conversation about trust and honesty in regards to another situation. So, she was lying to me while pretending to understand what I was saying about being honest... *sigh* Anyway, when I called her mother, her mom confirmed that since she was cooking when her daughter brought her the quiz, she told her daughter to go ahead and sign it using her (the mother's) name. I politely asked the mother not to do this because of the mixed messages it sends, but she was really not hearing me. Of course, in the next breath, she was asking me how her daughter was doing and warning me that she's sneaky.

It boggles my mind.

I did get a phone call from a girl who had insisted, even when I showed her the signature we have on file, that her mother really did sign the quiz. I told her to bring in a note if that were true and if so, my apologies for doubting her. Otherwise, she'd better have it signed for real tomorrow. She called to apologize for faking the signature and lying to me. I gave the usual adult speech about being in trouble for one thing versus being in trouble for two things. And then I thanked her for her apology and wished her a good night.


Agree or disagree with the idea of merit pay, there is a huge amount of very off-putting cynicism and negativity among teachers, at least to judge by these comments. I don't even want to read Edwize anymore because the comments are so divisive, cynical, and show such deeply ingrained resistance to change. Call me naive, but isn't there a way to express ideas without coming across as bitter and angry? Without attacking one's colleagues as "kiss @ss toadies" ---? This is an open forum for teachers to express ideas, and I respect people's right to strong emotions and disagreement, but I think the tone and language used in some of the comments makes our profession look bad.