Friday, January 30, 2004

Fish Bowl Blast Puts Out Fire; Fish O.K.

EAGAN, Minn. - Trinity Lone Oak Lutheran School teacher Linda Krienke says fire broke out on a desktop in her classroom around 1 a.m. Saturday, causing enough smoke to set off the school's alarm. But when firefighters arrived, they found only glowing embers on the desk.

The heat had caused a fish bowl on the desk to explode, and the water put out the fire, Krienke said.

One of the firefighters spotted the fish, named Dory, still alive on the floor and hollered for a glass of water.

"She's a Beta, so they're used to breathing air," Krienke said. "They're a Chinese fish and if they're in China they just live in puddles. If one dries up, they flop to the next one."

The children are very excited about their hero fish, she said. "Each of them wrote a story from the fish's point of view, how his Friday night went. He saw the fire, and then he got real hot and then his vase broke and he fell on the floor and the fireman came in and saved him."

Krienke said the smoke damage destroyed her computers and everything in the room and heavily damaged the seventh and eighth-grade room next door. Both teachers have been relocated while the damage is being repaired.

And Dory is swimming around in a new bowl, "happy as can be. I suppose she's thankful to be alive," Krienke said. "She's quite a survivor!"

Um... exactly HOW did a fire break out on a desktop? And why does the teacher call the fishbowl a "vase"? Hmmmmm....


My mention that I started teaching through Teach For America led to an email from a student considering applying to TFA herself. I am happy to answer questions about TFA, but I really only want to do it once, so I'm posting about it. My comments assume that you already know a bit about what Teach For America is and how it works.

Overall, I'd say that TFA is a well-run organization. In my experience, they ask for feedback regularly (at least from Corps Members) and act on it. They seem to have a true commitment to recruiting a diverse corps of teachers as far as gender and race are concerned; while not perfect, I do believe they strive to get better and better. I would recommend TFA if you are
  • interested in teaching but not absolutely sure of it as a career choice
  • strongly committed to teaching in under-resourced schools (urban or rural) and looking for a way to get started

Summer institute is a miserable experience for nearly everyone. You live in a god-awful dorm, wake at the crack of dawn to teach in a very hot summer school, spend part of the day struggling with the baby steps of teaching and the rest of the day in classes and workshops, and spend your evenings planning, grading, meeting with various people, and fighting for the copier. Oh, and by the way - all that planning and teaching is done with a randomly assigned team of three new teachers. And the food isn't very good. If you have lots of experience talking about race, class and other "diversity issues," you will find yourself frustrated and annoyed by the most basic things other corps members don't seem to understand. If you're brand new to these topics, or skeptical of their value, you'll find yourself overwhelmed and occasionally attacked. Welcome to Institute.

Teaching - In the fall, you will be placed in a teaching position somewhat similar to what you hoped you'd be teaching. The first few weeks will be a whirlwind from which you'll wake up to find chaos in your classroom. Some corps members will rapidly restore order and never miss a beat afterwards, but most will continue to struggle with the many demands of teaching the most needy (and often the most difficult) students in overcrowded schools with few resources and few real sources of support. You'll have a program director at your regional office who will observe you occasionally, answer your questions, constantly challenge you to do better, suggest ideas for increasing student learning in your classroom. You will find teachers in your school who will understand what you're going through and offer support and advice. You might have a mentor (if you're in NY, that mentor could be me! Hi C. & B.!). At the end of the first year, you'll reflect on what worked and did not work and come back in the fall ready for round 2... and many will find year 2 soooo much easier than year 1, but many will still struggle. I was still struggling - a LOT - after two years. Those who stay after finishing their 2 year commitment often become truly great teachers.

During these two years, you will have moments - maybe even a lot of them - when you love your students, love your job, wouldn't want to do anything else. You will learn and understand things about poverty and race in the United States that you could never understand from a college course. You will help a kid get free violin lessons or pass his first reading test or learn to use a microscope or [insert inspirational story here]. A few kids will start coming to help you in your classroom during lunch because they like spending time with you and talking with you about their lives.

TFA, like every organization, has internal politics that can be annoying or worse. I don't think the internal politics at TFA are that bad, given what I've come across in schools and other organizations! But you might notice that some corps members seem to be "stars" while others, well... aren't. There's also a "Corps Member Improvement Program during Institute which was very controversial while I was there. The program directors and other staff members do their best to help you while maintaining very high expectations of your work and commitment to your students' learning - the P.D.'s will listen and offer advice, but they will not encourage whining or hold your hand. How well you get along with your P.D. can make a huge difference in your TFA experience; it can be helpful to get to know other regional office staff if you aren't clicking with your P.D. TFA is going through an expansion right now at the same time that many cities are setting up their own alternative certification pathways that compete with TFA. I've heard about problems finding placements for corps members in the last two years. There were also some Americorps funding issues last spring, but I don't know what the final result was.

I would say that if you are interested in teaching in the kinds of schools where TFA places corps members, you would be wise to apply to TFA. You will get more support and advice through TFA as you would through any other program to my knowledge. I highly recommend pursuing a master's in education during your TFA years, especially if you are planning to stay in teaching, because you'll need it for certification, you'll probably get a discount, and you'll want to know more about teaching than Summer Institute alone can provide.

I hope this doesn't come across as too negative; I think it's crucial to understand that teaching - especially in the TFA program - is really, really hard. Know what you're getting into! Do it because you're committed to educational equity, not to pad your resume (there are easier ways!). Spend as much time as possible observing schools before you apply, so you can think realistically about what teaching entails.

Feel free to email me any more questions about TFA!

Thursday, January 29, 2004

How I started teaching.

(Since it came up in the comments). Teach For America. Taught for two years in a large (HUGE) junior high in the same neighborhood in the Bronx where I still teach. Then got a great opportunity to help start my current school; jumped at the chance, for obvious reasons related to ambition and having a more positive, civil workplace to go to every day.

He loves me, though we only met yesterday.

I'm currently sharing my apartment with a 1/3 fluffy white fur, 1/3 blissed-out purr, 1/3 catnip junkie named Miles. His person is my roommate's brother, who will soon drive back to Chicago with Miles, ending our brief relationship (don't misconstrue the "our" in that sentence; I am refering to the cat).

Miles is extra-friendly, like no cat I have previously met. Yesterday night, he sat next to me, purring his little head off, while I graded papers. Today, he has jumped up on my bed and is purring, rubbing his head against me, and batting me with his claws. I think he is more than a little jealous of my computer for the attention I am lavishing upon it right now....

Last night, he jumped up on the kitchen table while I was out of the room. I came back in, shooed him away, and figured he was just exploring. This morning, however, I realized the true attraction of the kitchen table: the little parcel of catnip that Miles's person bought yesterday. Miles knows enough or has enough of a nose to trace that weed straight to the top of the table. I found the bag on the floor under the table this morning, catnip scattered everywhere. For a few minutes, I imagined Miles lying in a stupor somewhere in the apartment... then he strolled out into the room, slipped under the table, and rolled around in the 'nip for a few minutes.

O you are such a junkie, Miles.

Hee hee...

Lord of the Right Wing

I guess this might not be funny if you're a Republican... but I laughed soooo hard!

Thanks, Rachel & the City.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

"A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort." -Herm Albright

Who was Herm Albright? I have no idea. Searched google, but just kept finding the quotation.

I am a Sonnet

I am the sonnet, never quickly thrilled;
Not prone to overstated gushing praise
Nor yet to seething rants and anger, filled
With overstretched opinions to rephrase;
But on the other hand, not fond of fools,
And thus, not fond of people, on the whole;
And holding to the sound and useful rules,
Not those that seek unjustified control.
I'm balanced, measured, sensible (at least,
I think I am, and usually I'm right);
And when more ostentatious types have ceased,
I'm still around, and doing, still, alright.
In short, I'm calm and rational and stable -
Or, well, I am, as much as I am able.
What Poetry Form Are You?

Little Boxes

Started the day at ten am - TEN AM - with french toast and coffee at the little diner down the street. By this time, the sun was shining and the streets were clear enough for regular traffic. Everything had an extra-bright look like a clorox ad or a sunny day after a snowstorm.

Took the train uptown to check out an apartment that V. is considering buying. Then walked around Harlem and the upper Upper East Side to get a feel for which areas might be good places to live - decided that most of Adam Clayton Powell between Central Park and 125th St. isn't for me, Lexington is better, especially between 90th and 100th St. That neighborhood is called "Carnegie Hill" and seemed perfect. Close to the train, shopping not too far away, plenty of neighborhood shops, little restaurants, buildings seemed kept up (at least on the outside). In judging neighborhoods on a walk-through like this, I look at the number of broken windows, boarded up buildings, and shops, as well as who is out and about and what they are doing. I like neighborhoods with families, people taking their kids out, people on little errands. I try to go by what I see, not what I imagine.

Must have walked five miles... took the train back downtown and walked most of the way home from Union Square. I realized part way that I need a whole bunch of those little translucent plastic boxes that come in different colors and sizes. Looked at a bunch of different stores but could not find any. So, I took another train over to the West 3rd Bazaar, where I've seen them in the past. One of the things I love about being a teacher, especially a science teacher, is that I get to go to ordinary stores and buy large numbers of random items. Like today: When the man asked what I needed, I told him, "Six of every size you have!" I walked out of there with a giant shopping bag full of plastic boxes, which will be measured in cm and then filled with water to compare cubic centimeters with milliliters. Hopefully, we will find that one cubic centimeter equals one milliliter. I am determined to show my students why scientists love the metric system. They will NOT grow up to be metric system complainers, if I have my way!

Just because teachers and students love snow days does not mean we dread school, by the way! (Though some do). Snow days have a special exciting feeling about them which is not quite the same as scheduled holidays... plus you can play in the snow.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004



it's just as exciting for "adults" you know!

Just one hour left...

before Mayor Bloomberg will make a decision about whether to cancel school tomorrow or not! *expectant grin*


So, I found myself standing in front of my first period seventh graders today making the statement, "I want you to know that in my entire life, I have never cheated on any tests or copied someone else's homework."

True? I'm pretty sure. I definitely haven't cheated on any tests, and if I ever copied anyone else's homework, it was a long time ago and I can't recall it today. I suspect I would remember it if I had copied, since I'm sure I would have felt a niggling guilty feeling for a while afterwards. I can't say I'm this honest in all parts of life - I've told my share of lies - though even the idea of shoplifting makes me a little crazy, and I'm more honest than most people I know. When I have lied, I've felt bad, that's for sure.

Cheating and dishonesty are among the highest sins you can commit in my classroom. Today's statement came after I caught two students with identical homeworks. They'd had to measure various things at home - soup cans, their thumbs, their shoes, etc. - and they had identical length thumbs, identical length forks, identical length arms - let's just say it was easy to spot the copying. I have to admit that I ridiculed them a bit in class for this fact: "You have the exact same length thumbs??? And arms???" I don't know if it was the best way to handle the situation, but cheating of any kind - no matter how small - really raises my blood pressure.

I took them aside after class to speak to them more about it. One boy steadfastly refused to say anything except, "I didn't copy anyone's homework." After he repeated that grimly for a while, I realized he was trying to turn in the other boy without actually turning him in... Then when I looked him in the eye and asked him if he had allowed someone to copy from his paper, he was able to say yes. The key was to phrase it so he was not tattling on his friend. After that, I looked the second boy in the eye and asked him if he'd copied. He knew he was caught, so he nodded.

I talked to the boy who allowed the copying about letting other people get away with not doing their work and profiting from your hard work... I told him how much that had bothered me when I was in middle school, even though I had been pressured by friends... I threw in some honesty & character stuff. He looked like he was on the verge of crying, so I made a comment on his weekly progress report but gave him credit for doing the assignment (and a warning that if he allows people to copy his homework again, he too will receive a zero). The other boy got a comment AND a zero.

In college, I was on an Alternative Spring Break trip my junior year, studying & volunteering on Children's Issues. Everyone on the trip wanted to change the world, help kids, etc. Some had impressive records of community service, activism, and leadership, one girl in particular. On the last day of the trip, she was driving our group back home from L.A. We stopped in a mom-and-pop convenience store a few hours out of San Francisco for snacks. I wandered into an aisle just as she was putting several snacks into her bag. She looked at me and signalled, "Shhh..."

I could not believe it. I had mistakenly assumed that commitment to social change meant high moral ideals! She showed me otherwise. Somehow, she did not connect this small moment of dishonesty and theft to the more disturbing forms of dishonesty and theft against which she was working and fighting. I was horrified.

But, I didn't say anything. Perhaps I should have confronted her about it. I knew that would ruin the rest of the trip and lose me a lot of friends. I didn't know what to do, and I didn't have much time to think about it; only a few minutes later we were back in the car and headed home. I have always resented the way she drew me into her dishonesty with that "Shhhh...."

The next year, she was honored by the university as a public service scholar. She may well go on to hold public office, run a non-profit organization, practice law... she might be someone's teacher.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Want a job?

We are looking for three new teachers for next year:
  • a science teacher - preferably with a chemistry or physical science background

  • a foreign language teacher who can also teach art, or vice versa - experience in both a major plus - any foreign language will do

  • a physical education teacher who will also teach health and possibly electives such as chess in order to have a full schedule

If you think you might be one of these teachers, and you're interested in teaching in a small, public middle school in the Bronx, send your resume to my email address given at the bottom of the sidebar, and I will forward it to the real me, who will contact you with more details. Your resume is an indication that you are serious; I will not reply to inquiries unaccompanied by (teaching) resumes.

Onwards to Length!

Finished up the lesson relating mass, weight, and gravity. Some kids got it, some kinda got it, and some looked at me like I'd just come flown in from Mars... (nice rocks they've got up there!). I'm happy to be moving on and although today was slightly frustrating, some lessons are done to plant seeds rather than to ensure that every kid gets a concept 100%. The problem was how long this particular activity dragged on. Next time I do this lesson, I'll plan more realistically. One change I know I'll make is that I will provide pre-numbered graph paper, since learning to number in one-hundredths was just too time-consuming relative to its educational value. Don't worry - the kids will do the numbering themselves for probably every single other graph they ever make in my class!

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Letter from the Union

A letter arrived on Friday from Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers our New York City teachers' union. Here are some excerpts:

The new year has brought some changes, including the so-called economic recovery that Messrs. Bloomberg, Pataki and Bush are now trumpeting. That has led the negotiating committee to some rethinking and a plan that reflects the current circumstances.

But first, in case you missed it, the current issue of the New York Teacher contains a letter to you from Chancellor Klein. In it, he talks about his administration's activities, ... and asks you to share your views about how things are going. I urge you to use this opportunity to tell him the many concerns that you have conveyed to us.

His request is strikingly similar to the action the union launched earlier this month when we urged members to e-mail the chancellor and mayor on all the issues that have affected your ability to work with children in the best way you know -- be it the new management "style," curriculum, safety, overcrowding, professional development, class size, testing, discipline, special education, materials and supplies, or workday schedules and assignments.

Many people have said to me, "Why bother? They didn't respond when thousands of us rallied in October; why would they respond now?" Two reasons: First, when we began our campaign on school safety, we were similarly ignored at first. Although it will take more work to make all our schools safe, our persistence ... caused the mayor to reverse course and admit that the administration had messed up.

Second, the chancellor still believes that it's only a few activists who are complaining. Therefore it is essential that he hear from you and your colleagues. As with safety, the e-mails might open Tweed's eyes and encourage them to rethink aspects of the reorganization and its implementation. You can reach the chancellor at Two more requests: Please send a copy to us at, and forward any response you receive -- that is, if you receive one.

The rest of the letter goes on to outline the union's plan for contract negotiations, how they expect the city to respond, etc.

Okay, here's your opportunity: What would YOU say to the chancellor of the NYC schools if you had the chance? Limit your answers to THREE action-oriented, concise and civil bullet points and possibly a paragraph or two of explanation. You may answer on your own blog (leave a note here with your URL) or in the comments.

There will be plenty of opportunities to talk about the UFT later.


1. Judge Judy. Talked to my principal about the whole abusive email situation. She said that the girl's mother is in denial* that her daughter regularly lies and steals, and told me to just disable the girl's account, no explanation necessary. Then when the girl tried to log in and asked why she couldn't, tell her, "The same person who got into {boy's} account must have gotten into yours... until we know who that was, I don't think we'll be able to fix yours." You can see the bind this places the girl in. I wasn't fully comfortable with this response, but after talking to my principal about it, I did what she said. I have not heard anything else from any of the kids or parents involved. I think that you can't teach children to be honest unless you are honest with them. Of course, sometimes the only way to learn not to lie is to be lied to yourself, and feel what that's like... Anyway, I'm uncomfortable with the situation where it stands right now, which is partly why I haven't given any updates recently. If anything new develops, I'll let you know.

2. South Beach Diet. I started losing weight after one week on the diet, and I have no weight to lose, so I stopped the diet... Unfortunately, after spending a week thinking about food 23 hours per day, the pendulum swung the other way for me and I have been the laziest eater on Earth for the last two weeks... popcorn for dinner last night! Hopefully I'll pull myself together this coming week.

V., on the other hand, is sticking to the diet, and has lost about half the weight he set out to lose, at a rate of 2 lbs. per week, feels like his energy levels are much more stable than they used to be, and can easily overcome whatever lingering carb cravings he has. South Beach seems to be working for him!

3. How do I find time to blog daily? Er... I don't have time, but I enjoy it, so I do it anyway. Plus, I'm young, no kids of my own, few responsibilities outside of my job... And, luckily, I'm a fast writer.

*Her daughter has been found, more than once, in possession of items - money, lunches, school supplies, etc. - that other children were missing, and which her mother admitted she had not purchased or given her daughter. Yet it took HOURS to convince her mother that she'd stolen these things.

Friday, January 23, 2004

Teaching Methods: Just going in circles?

If you read Number2Pencil or Joanne Jacobs or ReformK12 regularly, as I do, you hear a lot of anti-constructivist, anti-ed-schools talk. They don't like the "new" (somewhere between 10-100 years or older) ways of teaching math and reading. You might think teachers who use these methods have no idea what they're doing and are just parroting their ed-school indoctrination.

Well, I got indoctrinated (so to speak) before & during ed-school, while I was teaching in a tough, big South Bronx junior high school. Sometimes, the constructivist methods seemed so far from reality - I just wanted the kids to sit down and learn something, anything - that it was easy to scoff. But I did my best to try out the stuff I was learning in my classroom. I did hands-on, group science activities, I incorporated student choice into my curriculum, I thought about ways of doing the same activity that make it more student-centered vs. more teacher-centered, and what difference that makes to student learning.

Some of my experiments taught me a lot: my students planned a one-day itinerary for people visiting the Galapagos, which required them to do tons of research, work together, learn about Darwin & evolution, etc. Since real people were going to follow their itinerary, my kids got so excited! I've never seen such motivation! At the same time, I had concerns about the amount of time the project took, and reflected on ways to improve it in the future. A unit on asthma in the Bronx had similar results and taught me important lessons for future projects. The idea that authentic, contextualized projects get kids working hard and caring about what they learn, and help them remember what they learn - that made sense to me.

At the same time, I kept in mind an article I had read in college. Unfortunately, I can't remember the author's name right now, or the title of the article. If it comes to me, or someone recognizes the article from my description, I'll post it. The author may have been Lisa Delpit or one of the people she often writes with. She argued that many "disadvantaged" students get far along in their education without being taught certain important basic skills - fundamentals of standard english grammar, for example, or how to cite sources correctly. She said this lack of explicit teaching of basic skills left these students at a profound disadvantage; more privileged students tended to be exposed to these skills at home or along the way somewhere, while the less privileged hit a brick wall at some point, or got passed over for promotions, awards, honors, admission to grad school, because they'd never been taught these things.

This also made sense to me.

I try to combine the two approaches in my classroom. Certain skills must, eventually, be taught. Directly, explicitly, formally. But when kids figure something out for themselves, they are much less likely to forget it. And when they take their knowledge and DO something with it, they will probably NEVER forget it!

Anyway, a schoolyard blog eloquently describes how different philosophies and methods of teaching can be combined in a classroom - and how "real life" can get in the way.

What's Important?

If this level of traffic keeps up, I'm definitely going to have to learn not to take comments too personally... but I thought this one deserved a response:

I must say that I find your grading style extremly obnoxious. The child no longer cares about the graph as a whole with a certain purpous but as a combination of meaningless parts.

I am definitely open to criticism about my grading or any other part of my teaching (though I certainly hope nothing I do is truly "obnoxious"). I think there are good reasons why I should lighten up on the obsessive graph grading, but "the child no longer cares about the graph as a whole with a certain purpous but as a combination of meaningless parts" is not one of those reasons.

A graph is meant to convey a numeric relationship in a visual format. Let's take a look at those "meaningless parts": The title is a guide to help the reader understand what they are going to learn from a graph. A good title "unlocks" the graph; no title leaves the reader without any idea what they are looking at. The same is true of the labels on the x- and y-axis: without them, how do you know what the graph shows? Ditto the units. When kids tell me a number without any unit, I usually ask, "Fifteen what? Bananas?" As for the numbering, it is crucial that the students learn to number their axes consistently; otherwise, one section of the graph gets stretched or squished, distorting the meaning you get by looking at it. A skill you learn somewhere between middle school and college is to describe relationships between variables based only on the shape of a graph (not the specific values). That doesn't work if the graph's shape is distorted by poor numbering.

The parts of the graph are not meaningless; the graph itself is meaningless without the parts!

Thursday, January 22, 2004

More Graphing....

Big time focus on graphs this week. Today and tomorrow, the kids are using spring scales to measure the mass and weight of density cubes (fun little blocks of the same volume made of different materials - some are super light, others super heavy). They convert the masses from grams to kilograms, then graph mass vs. weight (in Newtons). The problem is, the x-axis has to have a really tiny increment - like 0.005 kg, because none of the blocks has that much mass. We're doing the graphs together. I was very proud, though, of one sixth grade group that figured out the correct increment on their own! Based on that, I'm pushing the other groups to do the same.

When the sixth graders finally get to decimal arithmetic next month in math, they'll already be awesome at it!

The teacher next door to me (a Communication Arts teacher) looked at some of the graphs I'd handed back and told me "I've been looking at your obsessive-compulsive grading." It's true, sort of. I am a technocrat - I set up systems and follow them. Your graph better have a title (5 points), labels on the x- and y-axis (5 pts. each), units (2 pts. per axis), evenly-spaced numbers on the axes (5 pts. per axis), your heading (5 points), and be reasonably neat (2-5 points depending on your baseline level of neatness and how egregious the messiness). Anyone paying attention can see that even if you lose ALL these points, you've only lost 39 points, and it would be tough to lose all the points. Homework is meant to result in GOOD grades, as an incentive for doing it. Of course, there are also points taken off if you just blatantly put points in the wrong places, but few kids lose those. My colleague decided in the end that someone needs to hold them accountable for these things. The way I see it, you screw up this stuff, your graph is all but useless as a form of communication. So, I obsess. More important than the points, for me, is the opportunity to write little comments on the graphs, pointing out the good parts & the problems. I pray that they read them and learn.

But we keep practicing, just in case the comments don't do the trick!

For homework tonight, they are calculating their mass in kg, weight in N, and weight in N on other planets (different gravity = different weight). Cool, I think.

One boy wanted to know why, if more mass means greater gravitational pull, pens don't fly towards fat people.

Holy Heck!

Blogger featured my site! I'm in the same league as MadPony! Ohmigod. LOL!

35 visitors in just a few minutes?

Hmmmmm. I just got like 30 visitors in the last few minutes. Unknown referrals, or a google search for my site exactly. Some sort of automatic system got stuck? Google featured my site? If you are one of these visitors, please post a comment and let me know who you are!

Soldiers, Leaders, Teachers

Like a schoolyard blog, I like this list of leadership lessons from a soldier in Iraq. I'd say it applies both for administrators leading teachers, and for teachers leading students:

1. In my classroom, I've been known to tell groups that were arguing, "You need to work this out by talking and listening to each other respectfully. I'm going to go help another group now, but I'll come back in a few minutes to check on you. By that time, I expect you to have found a solution." It would make my life soooo much easier if kids learned to sort out their problems without resort to the referee... er, teacher.

My principal lets us all take on projects, make mistakes, correct them. She's not perfect, but she definitely gives us both the latitude and support to take risks and learn from our mistakes.

2. I would translate this for the classroom: Don't say anything you aren't prepared to back up with action!

3. No student should EVER fail without some notification in advance that she or he is doing poorly. We send mid-semester progress reports home to inform parents and students of where they stand. Not every child responds, but some definitely kick into high gear, looking for extra credit opportunities or just cleaning up their act in general. It's only fair to give families of failing students enough warning to prepare themselves and perhaps change the situation. And, if anything, it covers your ass!

In my old school, I never knew what my administration thought of my teaching (honestly, I don't think they thought about my teaching very often!). I got observed once or twice a year, and official reports were typed up based on those observations, but I really wanted more constant, reality-based feedback. Formal observations were treated as a performance - my AP told me my first year to invite her to observe my best class on a day when I had a very good lesson planned. That was important for a good formal observation, but I would have liked her to drop in from time to time and give me some lower-stakes feedback. In my new school, we get more of that, and we are pretty open-doors, but it's still not enough. One of the best things about the Teach For America program is that the summer training includes tons of observations by peers, mentors, and supervisors, so you get pretty comfortable having people in your classroom and accepting constructive criticism. I wish all schools were like this!

4. I'm not so good at keeping my politics a mystery, especially when it comes to environment-related lessons - but I never create lesson plans just to "preach." If kids get an environmental message from my lessons, it's because they put together the information and saw its implications. When they bring up an environmental issue or a political issue, I tend to ask guiding/provocative questions. It's not totally non-partisan, but I never just get up and say, "This is what we should do." And when we do draw conclusions about something, I tend to point out what other people think, if anything to keep my young idealists from being completely disillusioned as they bump into people who disagree with them.

5. Yup. True of classroom policies, for SURE. And since kids are growing & developing, they change their attitudes towards school, behavior, etc. over the months of a school year. In NYC, it is widely accepted that sixth graders enter very innocent and sweet, but get feistier as the year goes on, becoming seventh graders, who are considered the toughest to deal with, but they slowly mature into eighth graders, who have mellowed out and know how things work and how to get along in a school. Your school environment modifies the degree of these changes, but the overall outline has been true in both schools where I have taught. So, you definitely have to review policies frequently. We've had to crack down this week, because the kids came back from the long weekend and had forgotten what school is supposed to be like!

6. For school purposes, I'd translate this: The better you plan, the better your lesson will go.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Judge Judy

Spent a few minutes today addressing the issue of the nasty email that one student sent another on Friday. The evidence:

1. The boy who sent the email called me Friday night to tell me he couldn't log in to his account. He didn't leave a number, so I didn't talk to him about it until today, but when he tried to log in today in front of me, it was rejected. Using my site admin. privileges, I found out that his basic account information (ie, password) was last modified 15 minutes before the nasty message was sent. I believe that he didn't send it.

2. On the other hand, it is widely known among his classmates that on Friday afternoon he was spouting off about his password, and someone was able to guess it. I have the names of the students who were part of the conversation - only four, including him and the girl who claims to have received the email. One of the others looked genuinely mystified when I asked her to change her password - I believe that she honestly has no idea how to do it. The fourth girl has never had any issues with this boy that I know of, and has never really been in trouble with anyone. I would be extremely surprised if she did something like this... but I can't rule her out. She probably has the computer skills.

3. The girl who received the email forwarded it to me exactly three minutes after it was sent, which was approximately 15 minutes after the boy's password was modified. She definitely has the computer skills to log in as someone else, change their password, and send herself a mean email. Furthermore, she used to attend the same school as this boy, and has had issues with him before (going both directions). Finally, she has stolen things from other students' bags numerous times and lied quite glibly to cover her tracks. I would bet a lot of money that she sent that email to herself. She didn't say much when I spoke to her about it today.

4. The boy's mother called me tonight. We've had some issues in the past, not a common thing for me - I normally get along fine with parents. She doesn't like or trust me, and frankly, I feel the same way towards her. She also is incapable of speaking in any volume below a bellow. So, she calls me and tells me her son's entire schedule to prove to me that he didn't send the email. I assured her that I did not think it was him, and that we were close to figuring out who did it. She told me hacking is illegal and she is going to press charges. I told her that her son was talking too openly about his email password and might lose email privileges for one week as a result. She asked me why I was punishing him when he didn't do anything, and repeated his entire Friday schedule again, complete with the address and phone number of the sports camp he attends... she also assured me that they are church-going people, but not everyone is, and they feel sad for those wicked people who do not have Jesus... and so on. She prays over her son's teachers, and encourages him to as well. Oy vey! This was about a twenty minute conversation. I think I said twenty words! In the end, I told her that when we knew who had done it, we would call both mothers in to discuss the issue, with the principal. Now I need to call my principal and warn her about what's to come... she knows none of this, as she was at Regional meetings all day.

Updates will follow....


I have been having trouble getting the forms filled out for my pay differential for my master's degree... I am well-educated, intelligent, and responsible, but I have a major mental block against filling out forms correctly. The more important they are, the greater the chance that I make some kind of easy mistake. Particulary if the Dept. of Education is involved. I think that getting screamed at the first time I turned in a form was probably at the root of this mental block.....

Anyway, a colleague & friend has been having the same problem (only worse), so today we resolved to Just Do It. We got our forms together, raced out of school the minute the kids left, and drove down to Brooklyn to 65 Court St. This address has to be near the top of famous and formidable addresses in NYC, if not the US: The NYC Board of Education.

Once we got there, it turned out to be super easy (You have nothing to fear but fear itself...) and the woman in charge was friendly, did not scream at us, and gave us a booklet with tips for next time. We drove back to Manhattan and went out for dinner & a drink to celebrate!

This must have been good karma, 'cause when I got home, there in my mailbox is my provisional certificate from the state! I am now soooo close to being a Real Teacher.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Chaos Theory

What a great name for a studying-to-be-a-teacher's blog! Not sure what subject the author plans to teach, or grade level for that matter. Perhaps that will become clear after a few more entries. Welcome to the world of teacher-bloggers & good luck to you!

Weekends Should All Be This Good...

Friday night, post-cellphone-drama, lovely dinner, lots of wine, Das Boot. The mother of all submarine movies.

Saturday afternoon, three friends came over and we learned to play mah-jongg over three beers, chips, and gummy bears. Hilarity ensued. Future mah-jongg parties to come.

Saturday night, friend's birthday party. Merriment.

Sunday afternoon, another traditional Danish lunch complete with pickled herring and acquavit. Merriment redux.

Monday... laundry, grading, etc. followed by watching an episode of Eyes on the Prize at an old friend's house.

Ms. Frizzle on the MTA

Friday morning, I forgot to wear my watch, so as I was waiting for my train, I reached my gloved hand into the pocket of my bag and pulled out my cell phone to check the time. It all happened in an instant: the cellphone slipped from my fingers and onto the tracks of the number 4 express train. Less than a minute later, my train pulled in. I had no choice but to board, but I could see the front, back, and battery lying, un-squished, on the tracks below.

In the afternoon, I returned to the same station: Yes, my phone was still there, still in three complete and re-assemble-able pieces. I told my story to a lady in the booth. All she heard was "this morning" and started yelling at me, "Why didn't you report it this morning!!!" I could not convince her that the phone was not lost or stolen, it was still there, could someone please help me get it? She sent me to the police station. The police officer, of course, sent me back to the booth. I went to a different booth. The man there very nicely sent me to a third booth, closer to the Site of Cellphone Loss. The man in that booth was also very nice, made a phone call, and informed me that I needed to go down to the platform, stand near the phone, and wait for two men in vests to come help me. I had learned the secret of getting my problem solved: state the problem very simply and clearly. You might think that I'd know this from teaching, but I forget that it applies to adults, too. I was no longer mentioning that the phone had been on the tracks all day. "My phone is on the tracks - please help!" That got results.

About an hour later, as I sat mournfully on the bench, rubbing my toes to keep frostbite from setting in, two good-natured trackworkers walked by, peering over the edge of the platform with a flashlight. "I think you're here to help me!" I said. I showed them the phone, they took their picker-upper tool and grabbed the pieces for me. They were really helpful and not at all grumpy about spending their Friday afternoon rescuing my cellphone. They were a little grumpy that their boss had sent them downtown from the Bronx, but they weren't blaming me for that!

I did not put the phone back together in front of them, and it's a good thing, 'cause it didn't work. Not giving up hope, I went home and charged it. Still nothing, although it beeped when I plugged in the charger, so I took that as a sign. The next morning, still not working. I got the feeling, though, that the problem was with the power button - it just didn't feel right. "I think I need to drop it again!" I told my boyfriend. "Is that a good idea?"

"Go for it..."

I dropped it on the floor.

I picked it up.

I put the three pieces back together.

I pressed the power button.

It's been working ever since.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Performance Test

The NY State Intermediate Level Science Exam includes a performance test, in which the students complete three short labs, using different science equipment, on their own. To help them get ready for this, and because it's just a good way to assess their ability to "do science," we had our first practice performance test today. They had a regular every-other-week quiz, but one part was a performance task using the triple beam balance. I set up six stations around the room, and the kids took turns completing that part of the quiz. It went very smoothly, the kids enjoyed it, and I suddenly got a very clear image in my mind of my students, a year from now, confidently completing the science test.

Thank god for the AUP!

Well, it happened already: One of our boys sent a classmate an email telling her she's the "uglyest" girl in the school, and that he's going to email her everyday. She - doing exactly what she should do - forwarded it to me. Luckily, the kids were warned against doing precisely what this boy did, and even re-wrote the AUP in their own words - so he just lost his eChalk privileges. Ah, the joys of being site administrator!

Thursday, January 15, 2004

1000 grains of rice

The day began with a 6:30 am IM from another teacher-blogger in NYC... we were both on-line hoping to find that school had been cancelled or at least delayed due to snow & extreme cold. I don't think we should have had a snow day, but a 1-hour delay would have been helpful. Attendance was about 50% today among students. One sign of the dedication of teachers at my school is that we all arrived (narrowly) on time!

Thursday is my light teaching day - 3 preps, 2 teaching periods. I got a lot of grading done and made one beautiful bulletin board showcasing the best graphs from earlier this week, with little text-arrows pointing out the features that made these top-notch graphs.

I had been planning to give the sixth graders one day of free-review time, and it worked even better with class sizes of 12, because each student could get lots of personal attention. Don't know how the kids who stayed home will fare on the quiz, though... I set up three stations so that students could choose to review whatever they felt they most needed to practice.

But it was last period that was truly remarkable: one of those transcendent lessons that just makes you think, "This is why I like teaching," and "This is what they mean by 'teachable moment' and 'student-centered inquiry.'"

We were going over the vocabulary sentences, and I asked the kids to suggest some things that might have a mass close to five kilograms. The responses: Two of our chairs, 2 bottles of water, and 1000 grains of rice. Hmmm. I reminded them of an earlier discussion about what the mass of a newborn baby might be - probably between 2-5 kg. The children re-thought their estimates and decided that two chairs would be more than 5 kg, they weren't sure about two bottles of water, and 1000 grains of rice was probably not quite 5 kg, but they weren't absolutely sure.

I told them if they wanted to count out 1000 grains of rice and bring them in on Friday, we would measure the mass and check. Then, I saw an opportunity to get a real discussion going and develop/review some math concepts.

"Are there any other ways we could figure out the mass of 1000 grains of rice without counting out all that rice?"

I made them all think for one minute before putting up their hands. I could see flickers of "I got it!" pass across many of their faces as the minute ticked by. For those who are not teachers, waiting a whole minute before accepting answers is extremely rare in classrooms. Average "wait time" as measured in classrooms is just a few seconds; schools of ed. constantly tell teachers to extend that even by just a few seconds to give students who don't know it right away time to think. For important or tricky questions, I tell the ones who get it quickly not to raise their hands at all until I say ok, because a bunch of hands waving around pressures the kids who are still thinking, and many of them let themselves "off-the-hook" knowing that someone else already has done the thinking for them.

The first child suggested measuring the mass of one grains of rice, then multiplying by 1000. The other kids agreed that this would work. Then I asked if they had other methods. Kids suggested measuring 10 grains and multiplying by 100, or 100 grains and multiplying by 10.

I was starting to move the discussion towards a close, telling them that we could try it all if they brought in rice on Friday, when a little girl who is extremely quiet raised her hand. She said that we could have 10 people each bring in 10 grains of rice. I asked the other children if that would work. "Yes... no!" I asked the girl if she could modify it slightly to make it work, and after much thought, she suggested 20 people each bringing in 50 grains of rice, or 10 people each bringing in 100 grains. Let me interject here to say that this little girl is years behind in anything to do with language, to the point of being refered for special education. She is much stronger in math - quite quick, actually - but her difficulties expressing herself made this suggestion of a new method quite an accomplishment for her.

I could see that I was starting to lose kids' attention (though up until now, most had been thoroughly engaged in the conversation), so again I started to wrap it up and go back to the vocabulary. Another boy - one who usually has trouble with math - raised his hand and suggested that we should take the 1000 grains and divide by the number of students in the class, and that would tell us how many each child needed to bring in.

So, I set them all to work calculating how many grains each child would need to bring in... which led to a discussion of using a decimal versus a remainder (in this case, using a remainder is more useful, since no one is going to bring in 38.4 grains of rice) and how many grains we would each need to bring in to be sure we had enough.

It was fabulous. The kids, because they wanted to know, were giving themselves more and more math problems, and these were real math problems, the thinking kind, plus some arithmetic.

Let's see how many students bring in rice tomorrow!

One little addendum: I talked to a colleague about this wonderful period. We agreed that low attendance, the fact that I was relaxed, the fact that the lesson plan was pretty flexible today, and luck all helped bring it about. But then she asked if I thought that the city's new math program, which is based on a lot of problem-solving and discussion of math, made it more natural for the kids to engage in this kind of discussion. I have no way of knowing, but it's an important question given how quickly people started criticizing the math curriculum for being too liberal/constructivist.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004


Check out my new name for permalinks! (Get it?).

I like astronomy, but...

Mars? A huge push for space exploration?

George W. Bush, you are no Kennedy. This is not the Cold War. Why not a national push to ensure that no children grow up in poverty? And how come when all those countries got together to try to forge an international agreement to prevent/reduce global climate change, we told them it was too much to ask? Why not join in that unifying vision? Or, if your oil-state background makes that impossible, here's another idea: I'll bet lots of people could get behind a nationwide or, better still, global effort to eradicate HIV!

C'mon, man, we're not gonna fall for this crap.

Teaching Ideas Round-up

First, Christopher has a great idea: using MadLibs to reinforce parts of speech. I'm going to suggest it to my colleagues.

Next, Mrs. Chew wrote me a letter responding to my gripes about teaching graphing to kids who should already understand it. She suggested that I make it into a more inquiry-based activity, where they kids take the lead, make graphs, and then compare and discuss different ways of graphing information to see what each has to offer. It's a good idea, and I may try it the next time graphing comes up. I've definitely done similar lessons - one terrific one last year where the kids made poster-sized graphs of the different characteristics of stars, then looked for patterns in color/luminosity/size. At the end of the day, I guess the kids need lots of opportunities to practice these basic skills in different contexts - sometimes drilling the basic skills and learning things explicitly, step-by-step, sometimes trying different ways of doing things to see what they can figure out.

Wednesday was a wonderful day - funny thing, last Wednesday was good, too. Wednesday is a very busy day for me, but it tends to flow nicely. Today we learned how to find the mass of a liquid by the difference method - measure the empty container, fill it with the liquid, measure the two together, subtract the mass of the container. The kids took to it really well; in every class, it took only a minute of thought before several kids figured out how to do it. I had them do 50 ml, 100 ml, and so on, in increments of 50 ml, up to 250 ml. When we finish the lab, I'm going to guide them in a discussion of patterns, hopefully discovering that 1 ml of water has a mass of 1 g. Since their results will not show this perfectly, I think it will be a beautiful opportunity to discuss sources of error. I always ask them to think about error when we do formal labs, but they are usually confused by it. I hope this lab helps more of them understand what is meant by "error."

I also gave them a challenge question: you get a petri dish, a small beaker of sugar, and a spoon. Figure out how much sugar has a mass of 1 g. Very few groups finished the water activity, so we'll finish the rest later.

For homework this week, they are making "instruction manuals" for the triple beam balance. I made a very spiffy brochure as an example, gave out a rubric and assignment sheet, discussed it with them, and let them go. Each day, I write on the board one step for them to follow for homework, in the hope that they will not wait until the last minute to do the project. I've had sneak peeks at some of the instruction manuals so far, and they look great! Making a "model" finished project is really, really important: whenever I take the time to do it, the kids' results are soooo much better. They need to know what they are shooting for - I believe this is a form of scaffolding. It takes them a little beyond what they can do now and helps them reach for the next level.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

"There is no such whetstone, to sharpen a good wit and encourage a will to learning, as is praise." -Roger Ascham

A little challenge to Alfie Kohn. [Who was Roger Ascham?]

The aspect of Kohn's article that bothered me most was the idea that kids actually lose interest in the activity itself if doing well is rewarded & praised. I definitely do not want my students to lose interest in doing their work well, learning & practicing science, or being nice to each other!

Still, when I am grading papers and a kid gets all the questions right, what do I do? I record a grade of 100% in my gradebook - it would be silly not to write that number on the top. But isn't the number itself a form of praise? The kids know that it means, "good job!" And converting kilograms to grams is work with a correct answer. You're either right or wrong. And kids do need practice with these problems. Not everything can be embedded in the kind of context where no grade or score is necessary, just feedback. Constructivist or not, I firmly believe kids need some skill practice. Okay, so I put the 100% on the paper. Do I then leave it blank, not acknowledging the achievement? Will "nice job!" undermine the whole exercise by making the kids work only because they can get praise? I am experimenting with writing more "observational" comments that point out that I have noticed the child's progress: "You obviously understand this very well!" By this I am trying to redirect their attention to their own achievement, but I have the sneaking suspicion it will register just like "nice job!"

Perhaps I am overthinking this. Many of the readers at certain other blogs would call it all crap, the kind of indoctrination you get from schools of education. But, I think Alfie Kohn raises an interesting issue, worth considering. Certainly not the most important debate in education today, but interesting: How do you help kids develop intrinsic motivation? Do adults work hard because we are intrinsically motivated to, or for the $$$ ---? It's easy enough to train kids to follow the rules for rewards/punishments, but how do you get them to follow the rules because they know and understand them and think they are important? Do adults follow rules for these reasons, or because we know we could get in trouble if we don't? As long as you're working hard or following the rules, does the reason matter? Who leads a more fulfilling life, the intrinsically motivated individual, or the person who does what will earn them the most rewards?

Hmmm.... blogging after 10 pm is dangerous!

Terrible Tuesdays

Lucky for me, my friend C. has started offering a Tuesday-night yoga class at a time & place that works well for me. Why lucky? Because Tuesday is fast becoming the night when I most, most need yoga. Last week was not a fluke.

First, as I pointed out last week, I have my weakest seventh grade class last period on Tuesdays, for a shorter period than normal, which is a set-up for frustration. They are talking to each other, slapping the tables with the rulers, and - if they were lucky enough to get the flexible kind - bending the rulers around their noses, while I am demonstrating, again, how to change grams to kilograms, and they are not learning it.

Today, the most difficult boy in the school claimed to have gotten hit by a spitball. Now, I've never had a problem with spitballs in this school before, and I couldn't find a shred of evidence that anyone was making them (usually you can tell because the culprit has lots of wadded up paper near his or her seat), and no one offered me any information confidentially, so... it's possible this was a figment of his imagination, or a new method of disrupting the class. Who knows?

Anyway, he started puffing out his chest and making comments about "slapping that person." This was going nowhere good. I asked him to step outside and calm down. More aggressive comments. Then I told him if he could not wait calmly for me to solve the problem, he would have to go tell our principal about it, which he did, but she was in an important meeting and sent him back (she did come in twenty minutes later). Ultimately, the spitball issue was left unresolved for lack of evidence and suspects - but I know it will return. This boy causes more problems than any other child in our school, easily, but godforbid anyone do anything annoying to him - he will not let go of it for months. Maybe years.

On top of that, I was grouchy because I was teaching my sixth and seventh graders a math skill that they should already know: How to set up the Y-axis of a bar graph correctly. We were graphing the average masses of various objects, with a large spread in masses, so it was a bit tricky, but still. Time after time, I get graphs where zero is floating somewhere above the X-axis, where the boxes on the graph paper have not been associated with any consistent increment (they number 0, 1, 3, 5... etc.), where the numbers on the axis are not associated with lines/boxes at all. It goes on and on. And many of the kids don't have the slightest idea how to plan their increments so that the whole graph fits on the page.

So, I taught them how to do it, step by step. It took the whole period. They have double homework tonight, because they are already working on a long term project, plus they have to finish their graphs. I know this skill is important. I honestly don't mind doing what I can to reinforce math concepts and to make up for skills missed in elementary school. But that doesn't mean I enjoy it! It frustrates me, because I know that while I teach them stuff they should pretty much know by this point, I am NOT teaching them something new, which someone else is going to have to make up for at some point down the line... this is an equity issue!

My colleague and I were talking about random things the kids have trouble with, which it seems like most kids their age should be able to do - cut in a straight line, spell basic words, write in cursive, use a ruler to draw a straight line. This is the bottom line: the world is unfair to these children. They grow up in poverty, miss out on certain stuff at home (let alone any physical effects of poor pre-natal care, poor nutrition, etc.), attend crappy schools that are overcrowded with kids who need extra attention, and just fall farther and farther behind. It starts with poverty and spirals from there. So, we give them lots and lots and lots of reading and math instruction. We fill little 5-year-olds' days with basic skills, pushing out the time that used to be spent on art, penmanship, social skills, physical education... and that's why I had to show a sixth grader how to draw a straight line using a ruler. It's not the kids' fault, but it makes me very grumpy all the same.

What's the answer? I don't know. I really don't. I understand the need to make sure the kids can read and add. Of course, it's doubly frustrating when the extra time is put in and they still can't read and add... And my heart breaks a little when I think of all the stuff that I remember from childhood that they are missing... all the arts & crafts, music class, fun gym games (in a real gym), the proud feeling of learning to write in cursive or play the recorder (well, technically I never felt that particular proud feeling, lol!).

Monday, January 12, 2004

Good morning, Ms. Frizzle

Arrived at school about 25 minutes before homeroom today, early for me. I'd like to arrive earlier, but I have a 1 1/4 hour commute... but that's another story. Anyway, I was the first teacher to arrive, the usual earlybird having had a boiler problem. There, at my door, was Jesus.

I have written about Jesus briefly, back in the early fall. He is, in many ways, my Charles: full of energy, generally good-intentioned though mischievous and impulsive (impulsive as heck!), spoiled rotten by his mother, perhaps a touch ADHD.

"What are you doing here so early?" I asked.

"I came up early to help you take the chairs down!" he said, grinning. Last Friday, when he was restless during homeroom, I gave him the job of taking all the chairs down off the tables before the other students came in.

"Um... that's nice of you. But how did you get in?" Usually the early bird teacher lets students in through our school's entrance - and not before 7:55. Kids who arrive earlier and don't want to wait outside can go to the cafeteria for breakfast, but again, the security guard at the main entrance doesn't let them come upstairs before teachers arrive - it's a big no-no.

"I came in through the other door." Pointing in many different directions at once.

"Which door? Our entrance, or the main entrance?"

"Yeah, that's it, the main entrance. On the side."

"Okay, well, Jesus, it's really nice of you to want to help, but you're not supposed to be up here before your teachers come in. If you get here early, you should go to the cafeteria and wait, or wait outside by our door."

"Oh. Okay. How will I know when you get here so I can come take the chairs down? Will you come get me from the cafeteria when you come?"

"Er.... no, I'm usually in a hurry when I arrive... you can take them down when normal homeroom starts, if you're the first one in."

I hate to squash a student's enthusiasm for helping like that, but students are simply not allowed to come up early, and I really AM in a hurry in the mornings. Still, Jesus got a lot done and was in a very pleasant mood all day.

In my old school, there were so many behavior problems that it was hard to sort out what to do about any one child. Kids like Jesus were just dealt with the way everyone else was - detention, calls home, etc. Here, where the chaos is less (and much more productive!), I can see what a boy like Jesus needs: as many opportunities to move around in positive ways as possible, as many opportunities to exercise his good intentions as possible, opportunities to apologize and make retribution* when his impulsiveness gets the best of him, and a teacher with the patience of a Zen master. Alas, that is not me - yet.

*For example, the other day, Melinda was bringing back to the school the candy she did not succeed in selling in a fundraiser, along with money for the candy she did sell. Before school started, Jesus took one of her candies and was playing with it, and the bag opened - and I genuinely believe he didn't mean it. When I talked to him about it - calmly - he paid her back a dollar to make up for the fact that she could no longer sell the candy. Case closed. Lesson learned (I hope).

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Donors Choose

Donors Choose is a wonderful funding organization which allows NYC public school teachers to post short (1-2 paragraph) grant proposals for small projects that they would like funded but can't or don't want to pay for themselves. Donors go to the site and browse the proposals, then partially or fully fund one that interests them. The teacher gets the project materials, and in return completes a thank-you package - thank you notes from the children, photographs of the children doing the project, and a thank you note from the teacher. I have had several projects funded through Donors Choose, including a small copier for my school before we got our copier from the district, materials for our drama program, air quality testing materials, and more.

My colleague is offering an after school photography class, but was having a lot of trouble providing materials for the student to use - she improvised by having her photographer husband take pictures and then teaching the kids techniques to alter them in interesting ways, and she paid for a small amount of film and development herself. She wrote a $3000 grant on Donors Choose a few weeks ago, but Donors Choose kept telling her it was too big, it will never get funded. (Most of the projects on Donors Choose cost only a few $100). Last week, she got an email: her project has been fully funded! She and her husband bought some real cameras, and enough film for each child in the class to borrow a camera each week with one roll of film, then get it developed! Wow. The results are going to be amazing...


Chett of ReformK12 has brought to my attention the fact that readers who link to me are not using my permalinks because they have been disguised as a # symbol. Sneaky permalinks, shame on you!

At his suggestion, I have changed the little # symbol to the word "permalink" so that you can link to me without losing the link when my blog archives... I'm a little unhappy with that word, "permalink," because it sounds like some 1950's domestic science invention. Teflon, nylon, permalink. "Perma-" is a prefix to avoid, in my opinion. Nevertheless, nothing else comes to mind right now, so we'll use it.

And what do we call links that go away? Tempalinks?

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Diet Update

So, some of you may be wondering how this whole South Beach Diet thing is going, anyway. As you recall, I have started it not because I am interested in losing weight, since I am already at the far-low-end of appropriate weights for my height, but because my boyfriend wants to lose a few pounds and has tried the simpler, do-it-yourself stuff like exercising & eating a fairly healthy diet. It seems that for him, it is necessary to make more subtle changes to the types of foods he eats. Also, I have a major sweet tooth and love carbohydrates more than anything else on Earth (except, of course, said boyfriend). I am interested in whether a protein & veggie diet, low carbs, would help me reduce that carbohydrate dependence. After all, even if I don't want to lose weight now, sometime in the future I may need to keep my weight in check if my metabolism changes as I age. In college, I weighed much more than I do now - teaching is extremely slimming!

The diet works like this:

Phase 1 - basically as much protein as you want, lots of veggies (but not corn, beets, & some other sugar-intensive veggies), and small amounts of fats & oils. This lasts two weeks and supposedly some people lose a lot of weight.

Phase 2 - start adding back "good" carbohydrates, like whole grain breads, whole wheat pasta, some fruit, etc.

Phase 3 - eat from a more extensive list of fruits, veggies, protein, whole grain & high fiber carbs, etc. Limit sugars & fats. This is basically how I used to eat, except with a much higher proportion of carbohydrates than is probably good for you.

Halfway through Phase 1, my boyfriend has lost some weight (hasn't stepped on a scale yet, so who knows how much) and I think, from the way my new jeans fit compared to how they fit when I bought them last week, that I may have lost weight as well, which is a bad thing. He claims that he has more energy in the afternoons, rather than "crashing" like he used to. Eating on the diet is easier for him than it is for me, since he has a big cafeteria at his work where he can buy almost anything - salads, eggs, you name it - while I have to prepare & pack everything I eat.

From my point of view, South Beach breakfasts are absolutely horrible - I can eat an omelette at 10 am, but at 6 am it makes me gag. Lunch & dinner are okay, and you get two snacks during the day. I have discovered that I like soy nuts in small quantities as a snack (and they're good for you!), and I also like vegetarian bacon, which I had never tried before. The desserts - various takes on the "ricotta creme" are pretty icky. After a few days you start to smell like a vegetable and feel like you might lay an egg at any moment. I strongly recommend adapting the meal plans to your own tastes, using their lists of okay/avoid foods. It definitely helps if you have a natural affinity for cottage cheese, but I guess few of us do, or we wouldn't need a diet plan to change our eating habits!

Despite all these negatives, this diet has made me appreciate carbohydrates and sugars more, and want them less. I have been cheating in small ways to improve my quality-of-life and because I'm not in it to lose weight nor have I ever been an extremist in any area of my life: I put a few teaspoons of milk in my coffee, and after two days of Equal (ugh!), one package of sugar. This works just as well for me as three packages of sugar used to! On Friday, my colleague brought me a Coke and a chocolate chip cookie, to "rescue me" from my diet, which she thinks is ridiculous. I ate them, but honestly, I really wanted only a few sips of the Coke and part of the cookie... I just don't need as much sweet stuff as I used to. And that was part of the plan. I have cheated a little every day, but in carefully considered ways: Does this small amount of sugar/carbohydrates make my life significantly better? That's a good way to think about all "treats," I believe.

Last night, we went to Caravan of Dreams, a vegetarian, organic restaurant near my house. It seemed like the only place where we could eat out without drastically breaking the dietary rules! I had a scrumptious house salad, a tempeh reuben, which I love, and a dessert involving bananas and soy ice cream, which was awesome, and we shared a bottle of wine, something totally not allowed during Phase 1. It was a good treat, and we were both able to return to the diet today with no problem, while appreciating the food last night. And my boyfriend will really be much happier & healthier if he loses a few pounds.

I know that I am looking forward to Phase 2, and may in fact skip to it so that I don't lose any more weight during Phase 1. The only reason I would ever go on a popular (do we hear "fad"?) diet is if the end result is a sustainable way of eating... which Phase 3 definitely is. And if it has provisions for vegetarians, which this diet does.

So, that's my take on the South Beach Diet for those who are interested.

Additions to My Classroom Library

Spent the afternoon at B&N, cheating on the South Beach Diet with a chai and looking for books for myself & my kids. Oh yeah, and grading papers.

I got myself The Elegant Universe, by Brian Greene, which is supposed to be an accessible, yet not watered-down explanation of superstring theory. I read the introduction, which is superbly written. Apparently the book was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize, never a bad thing. The funny thing is, as much as I complain that I don't really like physical science and thus have trouble teaching it, I DO like reading about physics... just not at the level that I can translate to great sixth and seventh grade lessons. When I read popular science books on Earth Science or Biology, I usually can find ways to tell the kids some of the more interesting bits or incorporate the newest stuff into the curriculum at least occasionally... but superstring theory, while fascinating, is so far beyond the parameters of middle school physical science, I can't imagine bringing it up. Hmmmm.

I also got a book called Down by the River, which is about a family caught up in the world of the narcotics trade, with terrible results and a cover-up by both the Mexican and US governments. Something about it just appealed to me. I'll keep you posted on whether or not this one was worth the money.

For the classroom, I got a copy of the MLA Handbook, more for my own reference when I plan citation/bibliography lessons than for direct use by the students. Also, a book of SAT vocabulary prep exercises, to use with my HS Prep afterschool class. Along the same lines, a slim volume called 100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know. I figure I'll slip it into the library and some kid may pick it up and decide to get a head start acquiring these words. And, last but not least, The Encyclopedia of North American Birds, with full-color photographs, for about $8.

Interesting Grassroots Fundraising Idea...

This Texas coffee shop proprietor is doing his part to get a Democrat elected President!

Friday, January 09, 2004

Triple Beam Balances

Back to fun activities again! Taught the kids to use the triple beam balances today. I am extremely methodical when I teach them to use a new instrument - we take it one micro-step at a time. I think I did a good job explaining how & why the balance works, not just how to use it. We are measuring the mass of various objects and making a big chart on the board. Each group measures a pencil, paint jar, paperclip, video, and other objects, and we will compute the average mass of each object and graph the results (squeezing in some math skills practice for good measure!). Next week, we'll learn how to find the mass of a liquid in a container, by subtracting the mass of the container... fun, fun, fun! The kids like it, too - I got at least one comment that it was fun. I am going to ask the school health clinic if we can visit and have a lesson on using their scale to measure our own masses in kilograms (that is, if they have a scale!). That will require some sensitivity and an opt-out clause, since kids may be sensitive about their weight. I am really trying to give my kids an intuitive sense of what a gram is, what a kilogram is, though, like we have for pounds... actually, I am still developing that sense myself!

Praise & Motivation, Constructivism at Work

Two articles of interest:

First, I Speak of Dreams has been reflecting on the value of positive feedback. She says an article by Alfie Kohn has made her re-think what praise really does to children. Kohn argues that children become dependent on praise rather than the intrinsic value of the activity or behavior, and even lose interest in the activity itself the more praise they are given. He suggests asking questions about a child's work, describing what you see without positive or negative judgment, and a few other things.

I am familiar with this idea, and just today as I went through a lesson on converting between grams and kilograms, praising kids left and right, I thought to myself, "Here I go again, making myself the arbiter of all knowledge! How do kids know if they're doing a good job in my class? I tell them...." I did at least one problem where I solicited three different answers, wrote them on the board, then did the problem with the class and agreed on the correct answer. More time consuming, but probably beneficial. I try, off and on, to wean the kids off of guessing from my tone of voice whether they are correct or not.

Second, and related, I got an email from Mrs. Chew, who has started a new teacher-blog, A School Yard Blog, which seems interesting so far, though she has few posts. She asked me to take a look at her essay, Exiting, which is linked to the blog. I did, and it's a fascinating read. I haven't even gotten to the part where the parents start complaining yet.... Basically, she started teaching a middle school math class using a new-fangled, constructivist curriculum. At first, the kids struggled very, very hard, resisting her efforts, blaming her for their frustration, but over time, they started to appreciate the kind of learning (and teaching) that was going on in her - their - class. One of the best parts of this essay is the way she includes multiple voices in her writing - her own academic voice, her more in-the-moment voice from journal entries, and her students' voices, in their comment cards turned in weekly. I am thinking very hard as I read this, trying to figure out what to make of it, how to learn from it, what to do next. (Finish reading it, I guess, but it's 50 pages long and my printer is spitting it all over the floor... I can't read that many pages on my monitor without inducing blindness and headaches). Whatever your current opinion of constructivist teaching methods, you have probably not read a description of it quite like this one.

Thursday, January 08, 2004


Number 2 Pencil posts about a 13 year old boy who sent the message "Hey!" to all the computers at his school. He got a 3-day suspension for it! That tells me a few things: first, that school must not have too many serious behavior problems, or they wouldn't be giving out 3-day suspensions for harmless pranks. Second, they didn't put in much time thinking about appropriate use as a staff and with their students.

We did an activity earlier this week, before I gave out the eChalk email addresses. We spent the entire period reading through our Acceptable Use Policy and discussing what it meant in real life. Then, each child rewrote it in his or her own words. This provided me with the opportunity to scare them a little, and no one can say they weren't warned if they break the rules.

The other thing I'm learning is to be a little flexible about the computer use... the kids are so happy to have email addresses, of course they spend every free second during class emailing each other, then checking to see if their messages arrived. I could crack down on it, or I could recognize how absolutely NORMAL it is, and just try to teach them to do it AFTER completing their work. I mean, WE check our email during free moments at work (well, ok, maybe we teachers don't, but most adults do)....

Speak the Truth, Sister Juice!

My afterschool students are trying to figure out a name for our literary magazine. It has taken us a long time to generate ideas - the kids started out with names like School Times, which were more appropriate for a newsletter. Although I showed them examples of literary magazines from my own childhood schools, along with Stone Soup, Highlights, etc., they don't quite have a vision yet of what this magazine will be like. Nevertheless, we generated a list of names a few weeks ago:

Inside Out*
Baby Blues
Spoken Word
Mood Ring
Speak the Truth, Sister Juice

and a few others which I cannot remember right now.

So, we took a vote. Speak the Truth, Sister Juice won overwhelmingly. Everyone giggled everytime they heard it. And it's not an awful name - it's fun, sassy, and what the kids want. Yet... some students had lingering doubts after the vote. And I pointed out that whatever we chose, that would be the name for all future issues of the magazine, even after they graduate, so we should choose something that everyone will like, even if they didn't come up with it. In the end, we tabled the discussion.

We returned to it today. Speak the Truth, Sister Juice had declined in popularity, although the kids who still liked it, really, really liked it. No one had any new ideas. Finally, someone proposed shortening it to just Speak the Truth. I liked that idea, but some kids weren't crazy about it. The originator of the name Speak the Truth, Sister Juice is a spunky girl who really, really likes me (she wrote a poem - an ode, really - all about her awesome science teacher - it made me blush intensely, it was so flattering) and came up with more name suggestions than anyone else, none of them particularly relevant to the material that will go in the magazine! (She came up with Versace...). She presented an impassioned defence of the Sister Juice idea, arguing that Speak the Truth reflects the serious, sad content in the magazine, and Sister Juice represents the fun content, and the name will get people's attention and make them want to read it. Fair enough!

A few more ideas were put on the table, we revisited our old list, and we voted again. This time, Imagine was chosen, narrowly. Again, rumbles of uncertainty and discontent. We just haven't found a name yet that feels right. So, the literary magazine naming discussion has been tabled again....

*My personal favorite.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Kids love email!

No surprise, there, but they do. Finally, all have eChalk accounts set up. I got an email thanking me for a thank you note I wrote to a girl for her Christmas gift... it was very sweet.

I have one particular seventh grade class at the end of the day on Tuesday, for a slightly shorter period than normal. They are the slower seventh grade class (by coincidence, not design) and are always very unfocused by the time Tuesday afternoon rolls around. Yesterday, they had only about 15 minutes to use the computers, and then we needed to put them all away, put all the chairs up, pack up school supplies, and go upstairs to their lockers... in a very short window of time. I was staying after to do some work, but I didn't want to put thirty laptops back in the cart by myself. So, I crouched down by the cart and started having kids bring me laptops. This took forever, the kids were really loud, and my homeroom was waiting outside the door to come in and get their coats out of our closets. My principal was teaching them that period, covering for an absent colleague. Did she stick her head in my door to see why it was taking us so long? No. Did she assess the situation and offer to help in any way? No. Instead, she got her own coat, put it on, her own bag, put it on, and then, at exactly 3:10, stood in my doorway and said in a bitchy tone, "Ms. Frizzle, these children need to go home." I was pretty stressed out by that point, but that comment made me livid. Yes, thank you, I am aware that the kids need to go home! But what most pissed me off was that SHE was the one who really wanted to go home, with all her belongings ready, not making any attempt to help, just adding to the pressure. Grrr!

So, I stopped what I was doing, told the seventh graders to line up, and took them up to their lockers. Then I came back upstairs and spent twenty minutes of my own afternoon work time putting laptops back in the goddamn cart. My principal was gone. Incidentally, official work hours for principals are until 5 pm.

Wanted: One really, really good school leader.

Monday, January 05, 2004

First Day, Frazzled Frizzle

Tasks to be accomplished this week:

1. Collect student projects. Some are models. Some are brochures. Some are presentations. Some are saved on laptops with no disk drives and no networked printers. Some kids were sick/on vacation when the project was "due" (the day before vacation).

2. Give each child his/her eChalk email account and teach the students how to send an email with their documents attached. Give students enough time to find & send me their projects if they are saved on aforementioned laptops.

3. Finish writing bibliographies and collect those via email. Pray that inbox does not crash.

4. Teach students rudiments of measuring mass using triple beam balance.

5. Find new (less sadistic) dentist, get tooth fixed (source of headaches & extreme anxiety, since I have never had a toothache before, nor even a childhood cavity). My current dentist did not notice the tears streaming down my face during teeth-cleaning.

6. Buy about 5 dozen eggs and begin South Beach Diet, not in order to lose weight, but to support boyfriend's effort to lose weight. Suffer through two weeks without any carbohydrates! Attempt to reduce mondo carbohydrate cravings....

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Frizzle & Ebert

I'll join the masses of movie-review-bloggers with my favorites. I used this list to help remember which movies I saw this year, in an attempt to keep the list from being hopelessly skewed in favor of the fall. I make it a point to see very view movies that I won't like, so I'm not going to bother with a worst list, but I am including a few additional categories.

Favorites of 2003:

1. Spellbound - A documentary about some of the finalists in the National Spelling Bee. I like this movie for several reasons - first, this movie is about so much more than a spelling bee, it is really much more about America. Each family portrayed in the movie captures one side of what we mean by "the American dream" - the hopes, the successes, the successes that are, in their own way, heartbreaking. In the midst of all the false patriotism bandied about this year, I think this movie captured something about America that nothing else did. Second, it's funny as hell. And last (and least important), I've been to the National Spelling Bee, and I was very skeptical that a movie could do a good job with the topic, but this was beyond my wildest dreams. I see very few movies twice. I see even fewer movies twice in the theaters. But I went back a second time to show Spellbound to my boyfriend.

2. Mystic River - Sean Penn's sexy & disturbing, all the acting's top-notch, it's gritty and complex and beautiful. Need I say more?

3. Winged Migration - Something completely different. Make every effort to see it on the big screen - I have the feeling museums and such will be showing it from time to time for years. Even if you aren't a science teacher, you will be blown away by the toughness, intelligence, and beauty of the birds (and the movie). Worth it just for the avalanche scene.

4. City of God - You could feel, when watching this movie, the passion of every person involved in it for their subject matter. I can't think of anything else to say about it, except that it was an incredible movie.

5. Master & Commander - I did NOT expect to like this movie, but I ended up liking it more than the people who dragged me to see it! I loved the plot about the Galapagos Islands, with it's suggestion that Maturin might have figured out evolution before Darwin, but for bad luck and Her Majesty's priorities. Actually, I thank this movie for giving me insight into what it must have been like for the scientists who got jobs aboard ships hoping to do some exploration of their own.

6. Bend It Like Beckham - Funny, hopeful, amateur in a sweet kind of way. I'll definitely rent this one whenever I want a good giggle. Better than My Big Fat Greek Wedding. This year's Italian for Beginners (gotta sneak that in there 'cause it's one of my favorite movies ever, but no one's heard of it).

7. Cold Mountain - The book was better, but the book was one of the best books I've read in years, so that leaves a lot of room for a pretty good film. This one is beautiful. I love Nicole Kidman - I think she's at the top of her craft right now and I hope she keeps picking good scripts. I love Jude Law (he's on my list of guys I get to go out with if they ever ask, even though I already have a boyfriend). At times the movie felt slightly detached, but its best scenes were intense and brought home to me how truly horrific the Civil War was - and all war.

Runners Up:

Seabiscuit - I confess, I only rented this one, so maybe I'd have been more blown away if I'd seen it on the big screen. Very enjoyable, you walk away happy and hopeful about the world.

Lost In Translation - Quite good. But not as good as the hype.

American Splendor - I wish more movies would experiment like this one does, by mixing animation, documentary, acting.

21 Grams - Another great Sean Penn film. But not quite as good as Mystic River, and even more grim.

Best Movie Experience: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. None of the movies were my favorite for any of the last three years, but not because they were lacking in any way. I was most blown away by the first in the trilogy, despite seeing it with over 300 students! I just think they deserve a category of their own. The trilogy has made the last three years a little bit different for moviegoers. Next fall will seem a little emptier for lack of a Lord of the Rings movie....

Movies I wanted to see but missed in the theaters:
Laurel Canyon
Raising Victor Vargas
Triplets of Belleville (still in the theaters, actually)

Worth Seeing Even If You Have To Take The Whole School:
Pirates of the Caribbean

Way To Ruin A Good Thing (granted, I'm saying that based on reviews, not on personally having seen the movies):
Cat in the Hat
Freaky Friday
Cheaper By the Dozen

Friday, January 02, 2004


Okay. I have an outline of lessons for the next three weeks, and the momentum to plan a few more weeks after that. I've decided to focus on mass, volume, and density, then the phases (states)* of matter, then mixtures, solutions, etc. That should take us solidly to February vacation.... The problem is that my head is awfully congested, has been since before the vacation, and everytime I sit down to concentrate on something like this, I end up with a splitting headache. And just how much TheraFlu should one person consume in a week? Also, I suspect it's not a good idea to combine the TheraFlu with nasal spray... the nasal spray alone makes me feel slightly high. Maybe that was Too Much Information for y'all. Sorry.

*I learned it as the phases of matter, but my kids' textbook says states of matter... I've certainly seen it both ways in various places. Is there a subtle difference, or is it just a matter of preference? Chemistry folks?

Back to Work...

Happy New Year! I'll let you know how long it takes me to remember the correct year on the chalkboard each morning...

Today, it's back to work for me. Not back to teaching, yet, but time to sit down with the textbooks and a calendar and start putting together a coherent chemistry unit. I have been procrastinating like crazy. Yesterday, I did virtually nothing: almost nothing fun, and definitely nothing productive. That's the worst, most frustrating kind of day. I did watch Pirates of the Caribbean, that's why I said almost nothing fun. Pirates of the Caribbean, incidentally, includes a scene very similar to one of the experiments that I may do with my students, so maybe I can count it as both fun AND productive?! The scene in question is when Captain Jack Sparrow and Will Turner escape by running out to sea, breathing the air trapped under a boat. I don't know whether 2 people could actually do that, but I do know that you can lower a cup into a bucket of water and trap the air in the cup.

No more blogging for me today, gotta get some work done, savvy?