Monday, January 31, 2005

The moon's not full...

but the kids were a handful today. A colleague passed me in the hall and said there must be something in the water...

But those days happen. And my lesson was one that is always really difficult - choosing partners and brainstorming testable questions for the Science Expo.

What pushed the day over the edge from just tiring to plain infuriating was the bad behavior of a group of adults who came to visit.

Last week, a couple of Local Instructional Superintendents who work with our LIS came by to see if they could bring anything that we do back to the schools they work with. Today, one of them returned with three or four teachers and the principal of one of her schools, which is apparently somewhat similar to ours but in its first year and struggling, I'm not sure of the details.

So, our AUSSIE consultant - who was not responsible for their visit - brings them around to my classroom a few minutes into my second period class. By that time I'd already figured out that it was going to be challenging keeping the kids reasonably quiet and on-task. These five adults come to stand in the back of my classroom, and then proceed to TALK TO EACH OTHER while I'm trying to teach, keep the kids focused, etc. I'm admonishing the students to be quieter, when I realize that at least some of the noise comes from the adults in the room!

A few minutes later, the group leaves, except for one woman, who is apparently a science teacher. I have the kids working with partners to come up with possible questions, but the room is loud because they are all with their best friends - they get to choose partners freely for the Science Expo. The visiting teacher came up to me and started asking me questions about what I teach, the school, etc. I was friendly and answered her questions as briefly as possible, finally handing her a binder full of projects that we've done, but inside I was just astounded that she would interrupt me in the middle of my lesson to ask - quite frankly - stupid, basic questions about the school that could have been answered by any number of other adults in the building who were not at that time teaching!!! Then she asked for directions to the other science teacher's room, and I had to walk her into the hallway to send her in the right direction. GRR.

She came back later in the day during health class and proceeded to ask me more questions while I was teaching. Again, I was friendly enough but shocked by the thoughtlessness - would she like it if I did the same during one of her lessons? This time, she also asked if I wanted any help. I know that was probably good intentioned, but by this point, all I could think was, lady, I just met you two hours ago, what gives you the right to offer to help when so far you've given me no reason to think you know how a classroom works?

I would have just let it go and chalked it up to my own so-so day, but then at lunch, I heard another teacher telling a similar story. That was that; I told our AUSSIE that we needed to talk and informed her of all that had happened and how it had made us feel as teachers. She was sympathetic and said she'd talk to the LIS about it so that future visits won't be so dreadful. I am going to draft a list of "visitor guidelines" to put in the "welcome book" that we are supposed to create now that we have been selected as a "mentor school." No one can really explain what it means to be a mentor school, because its a new DOE program, but we are likely to have lots more visitors over the next weeks and months, and we have got to communicate to them our expectations for how they will act during their visits, since, apparently, it is NOT common sense.

Just in case you ever visit a school:
  • Generally, no more than two people should observe in a classroom at one time, and one would be best.
  • If you have something to say to your colleagues, wait until you leave the room.
  • Don't come in and out - come in once, stay for however long you need to, then leave. Be discreet in how you open and close the door and how you move around the room.
  • Whenever possible, schedule your visit. This is not so that we can roll out a dog-and-pony show, it's so that we can let the kids know that we will have visitors, why they are visiting, and how the visitors' presence should be acknowledged (if at all).
  • There are times when it is acceptable to ask students what they are doing or to show you their work, but these are very specific circumstances and planned in advance. In my Region, we have "learning walks" where people visit and interact - discreetly - with students during the lesson, but there is PD that happens before these events and the teachers always know what to expect. In the past, I have invited guests to my classroom and encouraged them to help out with an experiment or ask questions of the kids in their groups - but these were always adults whom I had met before and trusted.
  • You can glance around the room at bulletin board displays or student work, but for the most part, your attention should be on the lesson. Otherwise, your lack of attention sets a negative example for the students.
  • Some teachers welcome visitors pretty much any time, if the visitors are respectful; other teachers get nervous when visitors arrive unexpectedly. Be mindful of that! How would you like it if someone you didn't know showed up and stood in the corner of your office while you worked?
  • Do not talk to the teacher while he or she is teaching. If you have questions or comments, they will have to wait until that teacher is free.
  • Finally, respect teachers' prep time. If a teacher needs her prep to plan lessons, make photocopies, or just decompress, she should not be expected to entertain you, answer your every question, give you a tour, or anything else, unless it was scheduled in advance.

Think "fly on the wall," not "elephant in the bazaar."

Oh, and did I mention that the school's boiler was broken, so we had no heat - NO HEAT - for the first hour or two of the day?

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Teaching the Kids to Teach

I finished most of the handouts that I need for the invertebrates project:
  • An assignment sheet which includes a checklist of steps to follow to complete the project, along with a list of exactly what they need to hand in. My kids are used to this sort of handout. After two and a half years, they are finally starting to actually use my assignment sheets to guide their work!
  • A syllabus that says what they should be doing in class each day for the next two weeks, and what each day's homework is. I've never given them something like this before - mainly because I want to have the flexibility to give them more time or less time based on how things go in class. I think they need to get used to looking ahead and sticking to a schedule, though.
  • A one-page handout - which will accompany a "mini-lesson" - on how to plan a lesson.
  • A one-page sample of the kind of lesson plan that I want them to turn in.
  • A rubric - they will use this to grade their own work, and then I will grade them. I haven't made this yet.

It's interesting trying to simplify the process of creating a lesson so that 8th graders can do it and to reflect the fact that their lessons will only be 15-20 minutes long.

Here's the text of the handout on lesson planning:


Teaching a Lesson

Teaching a lesson is not the same as giving a presentation. A presentation is a lecture; you talk, your audience listens. A good lesson involves the students in their own learning. There are many different ways to do this.

Start with an aim, objective, or essential question. This helps you focus on the most important ideas that you want your students to learn. For example, "SWBAT explain how amphibians are adapted to life in the water during some stages of their lives, and to life on land during other stages."

Decide how you are going to present new information to your students.
  • Have them read an article and take notes or answer questions or fill in a graphic organizer.
  • Lecture and have them take notes or fill in a graphic organizer.
  • Do an activity that helps them figure out the ideas that you want them to know. This could be an experiment, solving a problem of some kind, creating or building something, etc.
  • Show a short video or have them explore a website and take notes.
  • Your own idea - be creative!

Decide how you are going to have them practice or review what they've learned.
  • Review worksheets - crossword puzzles, review questions, etc.
  • Play a review game.
  • Complete an activity in a group.
  • Share what they've learned with the class.
  • Your own idea - be creative!

Think about how to make the lesson interesting to your classmates. You don't have to "entertain" like a singer or comedian - but you do have to decide what makes this information interesting and how you are going to get and keep your classmates' attention. You know as well as I do that eighth graders get restless very easily!

REMEMBER, YOUR LESSON SHOULD BE 15-20 MINUTES LONG. Think about how long it will take students to read or do each part of your lesson. If you're not sure, try it and time yourself.


And here are the prompts I'm giving them for writing their own lesson plan. I filled them in to provide an example, but I'll just include the prompts here.

Lesson Plan

Aim: (Write one sentence saying what you want the students to be able to do at the end of your lesson).

Objectives: (Write a more detailed list of what you want the students to know and be able to do).

Lesson Sequence: (Describe what you are going to do and how long it will take).

Homework: (Describe what the homework will be).


I predict they are going to have the most trouble keeping their lesson focused; hence the emphasis on aim and objectives. I think they will also have trouble with pacing. I'm not that worried about their ability to come up with activities.

Cunctating Again

Weekends are so bittersweetly brief.


Our next project: invertebrates. The kids are going to work in pairs. Each pair will get one group of invertebrates - cnidarians, flatworms, sponges, crustaceans, insects, echinoderms, you name it - and research it, then prepare a 15-20 minute lesson for their classmates, including homework and quiz questions (which they will submit to me to be compiled into one big test at the end of the unit). I've never done this kind of project before; should be interesting. If nothing else, maybe they'll get a sense of the kind of work that goes into teaching.


I'm in the middle of a clothing purge. I had one of those days when you look at the jeans you're wearing (4? 6? years old and at least a size too big) and swear to yourself that you will never, never wear them again. And suddenly you realize that Clinton was president when you bought a lot of the clothes in your closet--and they look it.

Goodbye, socks with holes in the ankle.

Goodbye, jeans-from-before-I-lost-weight. Yes, even you, my favorites. It's been fun.

Goodbye, shirts that have lost their shape and show my bellybutton in the winter, when that's not a good thing.

Goodbye, sweaters from when I lived in New England and needed to fit three layers underneath my sweater and anyway, I didn't really want anyone to notice my figure so I wanted them oversized...

Hello, shopping trips.

Hello, credit cards.

Hello, gift certificates from Christmas-time.


Here's another project I'm working on. My afterschool drama class is going to do "Charlie & the Chocolate Factory" - someone turned it into a children's play, and then Roald Dahl liked it so much he helped get it published. And, best of all, the book doesn't say anything about royalties!

I'm going to see if I can get one of my eighth graders - a particular boy who's very good at this sort of thing - to update the Oompa-Loompa songs with a little hip-hop twist.

Johnny Depp ain't got nothin' on us!


I wanted to do the Idiotarod. I even had a few friends interested. But none of us wanted it quite badly enough to get organized, acquire a shopping cart, think about what to wear and the best route to travel... oh, and none of us are in very good shape right now... so in the end, all I did was watch, from a cafe on Avenue B. It looked like so much fun that my friend S. and I have promised each other we will do it ONCE in our lives. Corie did it.


And on that note, I would really like to learn to play the drums. Maybe when I'm 35 and have quit teaching to do some kind of writing/editing job that allows me to work from home so I can raise my kid and still have a career... maybe in between burping and proofreading I could take drum lessons?


Gosh, the title of this post sounds obscene!


Tomorrow, my friend S. and I plan to get some exercise.


S. and I had one of those "only in New York" moments today. We both want haircuts. Her short haircut desperately needs refreshing, and I just have too much hair. Being cheap, we were thinking that tomorrow we'd go to a call for hair models at bumble & bumble - you let their hairdressing students use your head, they give you a free haircut. So today, we were out shopping - thanks to the clothing purge - in Union Square, and this guy approaches S. He says, I'm a hairdressing student at bumble & bumble, and I have this cut that I need to practice that would be perfect for your type of hair... do you want to set up an appointment?

And with that, S. got herself a free haircut.

(He told me I could call him next month, when he has to practice cuts on longer hair).


My roommate redesigned her blog.


Saturday, January 29, 2005

Campaign Promises

We're holding elections to form a student government. Here's a highlight (as best as I can recall it) from a sixth grader's speech:

I wake up in the morning, I go to school, I come home, I do my homework, I go to bed. I'm a regular person just like all of you. ... When I'm president, we'll have better parties. No more movies and pizza, we'll have real parties! ... This is not a fake election like the one between Bush and Kerry, this is a real election. ... Remember, a vote for me is a vote for you.

This little boy wrote this speech the period before the election. He had come in third in the primary, but then another candidate dropped out the night before the speeches, so he ended up in the race at the last minute. What a speech!

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Why I'm Still Up

I finally finished writing my students' test for tomorrow. Some teachers write the tests at the beginning of the unit, but I usually wait so that I make sure it fits the reality of what I actually taught, not just what I hoped or planned I would teach. I started writing this test last night, got too tired and gave up. All day I've been putting off working on it... for some reason, I just couldn't get going on it. I'm second-guessing the things I want the students to know. I definitely want them to know about metamorphosis in amphibians, and all the various adaptations of reptiles to life on dry land. But is it important for them to know which types of animals have single-loop circulatory systems versus double-loop circulatory systems? It doesn't FEEL that important... maybe it's enough to know that there is variation in the type of circulatory system? Eventually they will learn about the efficiency advantages of a double-loop system - but since they only have a sketchy idea of the function of the circulatory system right now, I didn't go into why a double-loop system is more efficient. Whatever. It's done. It probably isn't too hard but it's harder than the last test, which was ridiculously easy.

I was talking to some students today and said, "When everyone gets a 3+ (that's like an A- in more traditional grading systems) that means the test was too easy."

One of the kids said with a huge flattery-will-get-you-anywhere grin, "No, no, Ms. Frizzle, it means you're a great teacher!"

That was our brief version of the debate over grade inflation.

I meant to post this on Sunday, but never got around to it...  Posted by Hello

Anurans Presentations

None of the big shots showed up for my students' presentations on anurans... not even the guy who invited everyone! This was just as well because they were good, but not fabulous. I don't think the kids had enough time. I often cut off projects too soon, I think. I try to set deadlines and enforce them in order to motivate students to keep on task, but sometimes one more period might be all it would take for them to be really polished. Then again, if I'd given them one more period, I suspect most groups would have spent it adding bells & whistles to their PowerPoint presentations, rather than practicing their speaking skills or making sure every member of the group understood the material or proofreading the slides. I've done a number of group presentations like this one, and my questions now are the same as ever:
  • How do I ensure that every member of the group is responsible for understanding the material? With this type of project I don't see an easy way to give kids both group and individual grades, which is one method of holding everyone accountable. I did include "every team member understands the material" as an item in their rubric, but it might have been too little, too late, since they only saw the rubric two days before the presentations.

  • How do I improve their public speaking skills? At this point, most of the kids speak loudly enough and at least attempt to make eye contact. But they come across as wooden and unenthusiastic, and there's a lot of reading directly from the slides. Again, these things were all included in the rubric, but they remained a problem. More rehearsal time might have helped, but as I said, it's hard to ensure that kids are using their time to rehearse rather than fix up their slides when they have to have the computers present in order to practice speaking.

  • What to do about kids who are absent the day of the presentations, and what to tell their group members about how to handle a group member being unexpectedly absent? Sometimes I mark kids down 1/2 grade from their group's grade if they were not there to present. But then what about the kid who legitimately gets really sick? I could put off the presentations, I guess, but we're on a tight schedule and you never know if the kid will be back the next day, either. Also, I think kids need to get used to the idea that "the show must go on."

Several good things came out of this project. They did some critical thinking as far as piecing together a theory is concerned. They attempted (with mixed results) a larger scale experiment design than they ever had before. And we made some headway with accountable talk.

One problem I've always had during presentations is that there is a lot of lag time between groups while the next group finds & opens their slide show - which often involves the projector randomly shutting off, the classroom wireless flickering in and out a couple of times, etc. The other kids don't have much to do, so they start talking and then it takes more time to get them ready to be a good audience, and it's stressful for me to try to help one group get set up with a noisy classroom behind me.

This time around, I solved that problem. It was really an attempt to get them to reflect on their work - their own, and their classmates' - something I've been stressing recently. I gave each team one rubric for each of the 6 teams in the class, including themselves. In between presentations, they had to discuss and grade the presentation they just watched. This kept them busy and focused, involved them in the process of grading, and - unexpectedly - produced some terrific dialogue between students. They used the rubric carefully, justified their grading decisions to each other, came to agreements. I will definitely do this again for future presentations.

I also heard accountable talk during the question-and-answer period that followed each presentation. Some of the kids asked really great questions that required the team presenting to clarify the choices they made about their theory and experiment design. They listened to the answers and asked additional follow-up questions. Often, only one hand would go up at the start of the question-and-answer period, but the first question would generate several more from other students. That was cool and showed that they did care about the topic and are beginning to be metacognitive about good experiment design.

Only 56 days until the Science Expo... and counting.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

long days

5:45 am wake up

8 am letting students enter the school building - emergency door duty since the teacher who normally does this was stuck in traffic

8:15-12:15 teaching and planning health lessons and putting together a calendar for the science expo

12:15 department chairs meeting

1:15 teaching

2:35-4:30 afterschool program

4:30-5:30 photocopying and cleaning desk

5:30 PTA meeting

7:00 pm leave school

8:30 arrive home

9:00 blog; write test on vertebrates, plan lessons on alcohol & peer pressure

10:30 iron clothes, shower, bed (except this is more realistically 11 or 11:30)

5:45 am wake up


Tonight was the first "real" PTA meeting we've ever had, because we just formed our PTA since we just became an official school this year. The meeting was disorganized, it started late, I was the only teacher present, and only about 6 parents were there. My principal was there as well, and 3 students. We talked for a long time about how to get more parents to attend. A lot of the flyers that we hand out never actually make it home, so even though two notices went out about this meeting, my guess is that many parents had no idea it was happening. So, for next time, we are going to call a lot of parents and remind them. Then we talked about fundraisers. They are going to do a Valentine's Day carnation sale, which was my idea and should be really fun (assuming it does not lead to catfights...). All the parents at the meeting are great, but the whole thing took a lot longer than it needed to. If they want parents to attend and to come back, they're going to need to tighten up the agendas.

Monday, January 24, 2005


Well, not quite.

Today was a good day, though, which was important because it's the first first-day-of-the-week since Christmas break that has gone well. I thought I'd lost my touch for Mondays. There's nothing like a little sunshine (reflected off snow!), a little exercise, and not being sick to make you feel competent and emotionally stable once again. Although, science tells us that January 24th is the worst day of the year. Personally, I have good arguments to make for several other days in January...

Thanks to the snow, after school PD was cancelled, which meant an unexpected free afternoon. The only thing to do, really, was to sit in my classroom and finish grading the science exams. In the end, I'm pleased with the results, though still aghast at some of the things my student did not manage to learn - or that I did not manage to teach them. Density is apparently a really, really hard concept. I knew it was hard. I just didn't know HOW hard. Anyway, the performance section of the test was worth a total of 50 points, and we averaged about 40. The highest score was 49, the lowest 24. I have no idea how this stacks up against other schools in the city or state - these results get buried in the overall ILS exam results - but if any of my NYC science readers know, please speak up in the comments.

After work, I went out!

Before I tell you where, and for what, I have a confession to make: I have a bit of a history with spelling bees. I did this one. Twice. I didn't do fabulously, but I was there. And until recently, I'd put that chapter of my life behind me. Spellbound brought me back, but honestly I love that movie because of everything it had to say about America, not so much because of my own experiences. And then I was surfing the web looking for music one day, and I found the Williamsburg Spelling Bee. It sounded fun. So my friends and I met up there tonight and I entered the Bee. It was three-strikes. The words were hard. There were 11 contestants. I spelled 11 words right and three wrong. I don't remember most of the correct words--it all happens so fast--but I do remember the ones I got wrong:

cunctated - procrastinated (throw that one into everyday conversation, why dontcha?)

plexor - the little rubber hammer with which the doctor taps your knee. I spelled it plexer. Once I knew the correct spelling, it was so obvious. Isn't that always the way?

hippogriff - all right, all right, I know this one is inexcusable for a middle school teacher to miss... and yes, I HAVE read Harry Potter. But surely hippogryph is a reasonable alternate spelling? (Actually, it is).

Anyway, a couple of really good spellers came in first and second. It was friendly, nerdy fun. I might go back in a month or so and try my luck again.

And finally... I got a letter from the US Dept. of State:

"The peer review committee has recommended you for an exchange if a match is found. We are currently in the process of matching U.S. and foreign applicants and will notify those candidates for whom we find matches beginning in March and continuing through the end of May."

One step closer to teaching in Turkey. Or someplace. It doesn't feel real.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Oh my.

Tuesday is our Herpetology Summit. The students have developed theories for the decline in anuran populations, and designed experiments that they could do (given college degrees, funding, and a lot of time) to test their theories. They are writing PowerPoint presentations to share their work with each other.

Our district has been working with a researcher at a local university on inquiry-based science. This researcher is a great guy and has asked me several times to invite him to visit my classes. I know he has a lot of respect for me, and I have a lot of respect for him, but to be honest, I usually forget to invite him. On Friday, I thought, Dr. Inquiry would like this project. So I sent him an email invitation.

Today, in my inbox, I find that he has forwarded my invitation to everyone at the Region involved in Science Ed, plus the local instructional superintendent, plus the superintendent of the whole freakin' Region. He said really complimentary things about me and invited them to attend. I know he meant well, and I really appreciate the compliments, but suddenly I feel a lot more pressure for the kids' projects to be awesome. We have one day left. I don't want to beat the kids over the head with "people from the Region have been invited" -- I want them to do good work for the sake of doing good work, no matter who is in the audience. But I feel the "VIP visitors" sword hanging over my head. These are smart and very busy people; they probably won't come, and if they do come, they will probably be impressed, even if the kids aren't as prepared as I'd like them to be. So, I know on one level that I shouldn't worry. Still--eek.

Snowed in...

Being snowed in is a state of mind.

On Friday, when I heard about the coming storm, I fervently hoped to spend Saturday stuck at home with just the right people, doing basically nothing. And that is exactly what I did. Around 6 we ventured out to Benny's Burritos for dinner and strawberry daiquiris--what better for a snowy day?--and later to a nearby cafe for s'mores. The day ended with Sunset Boulevard: "I am big. It's the pictures that got small."

Today, brunch with friends. Then we trooped up to Central Park to see if we could find Christo & Jean-Claude, or at least some of their work. Alas, no sign of anything wrapped except the streets, in snow. It turns out we were too early; the gates will unfurl on February 12th. Lots of people with sleds. If it weren't for climate change and the lack of space in my apartment, I'd buy a sled.

Then home, dinner, grading fish projects. It turns out that the proper writing style for the "Design a Fish" project is roughly National Geographic meets film noir:

"I was in the Florida Keys when an ordinary day turned into anything but ordinary. ...I had been assigned to take pictures of marine life in the only coral reefs of North America. ... Well, I was sitting in my boat with a see-through floor when I observed a school of bluefish swimming by. I immediately grabbed my camera and net, jumped off the boat (as I was already in my scuba diving suit) and swam down. ... That's when I spotted the most beautiful yet strangest fish I had ever seen. It was no longer than 1 foot long and it swam incredibly fast. It caught up with the bluefish, which were no snails themselves, and ate them." -from an eighth grader's fish design project.

It's been a relaxing weekend. I've gotta say this, though: why waste a foot of snow on a weekend?

Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Devil

I administered the state science exam today, at least, the first part, the performance exam. It took me 3 1/2 hours to set up the classroom with fifteen stations on Wednesday afternoon, and another hour or so after school today to disassemble the stations. So far, I have spent about an hour grading exams.

The test went smoothly in regards to bringing the kids into the classroom, giving them the instructions, rotating among stations, and keeping everything on schedule. The kids left exclaiming about how easy the test was, and I felt confident based on what I'd seen as they worked.

I did notice, flipping through some of the completed booklets, that nearly all of my students got the last question wrong (it was easy to check, since it was on the back page of the booklet). But it was one of the hardest questions, relating to an abstract concept, so I didn't sweat it. I also noticed that some kids forgot to do the entire last page of the test. The previous page did say "go on" in the bottom corner, but the questions were printed on the back cover of the booklet, which is unusual, so I think it was a combination of carelessness on the kids' part and poor test design on the state's part.

I started scoring the first station feeling pretty confident... but I've had my confidence shaken. The station was worth 15 points, and I'd be pretty happy with scores of 12 or higher. What I found was that my students lost lots and lots of points due to careless errors. I can't explain in much more detail due to test security, but many kids did all the fundamentals right, but reversed the answers from the way they ought to have been written, and made other mistakes along the same lines. We had lots of scores for that station in the 8-11 range, which I suppose is not awful, but it is not up to MY standards.

Maybe I should be happy that the errors weren't really to do with science, for the most part, but with following instructions and paying attention to details. But it's frustrating, because observing details are a part of science and a part of doing anything well. I've emphasized attention to detail in previous assignments, and the one thing I stressed above all on this exam was reading the directions carefully. I'm just not sure how to get middle school kids to pay closer attention to detail.

I'm not "details-oriented" in the sense of being particularly "anal" or focused on details to the exclusion of the big picture... but I do tend to note & remember the specifics of how something is supposed to be done, what it is called, how a word is spelled, etc. On my more misanthropic, half-empty kind of days, I look around me and see a lot of carelessness in our culture as a whole - does anyone really pay attention to detail these days?

It seems like two things are required in order to be in the best state of mind for following instructions efficiently and precisely. First, you have to want to do something really well, to take pride in your work. Second, you have to be fairly calm and focused.

I know the kids wanted to do well. Some of them may have been rushing, worried about running out of time. Others may have been a bit overconfident, skimming instructions instead of reading them carefully. And others may have overthought the questions, believing they were more complex than they really were. *sigh*

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

My bed was the scene of a photo shoot tonight. Valentine will be the February pin-up in a cat calendar! Posted by Hello

And here's the photographer at work... Posted by Hello

The model was enticed to pose with catnip... Posted by Hello

Shy? Posted by Hello

Today's "It Cat"  Posted by Hello

Sunday, January 16, 2005


A debate is raging over at Jenny D's blog, about a teacher who forced a female Muslim student to read first, after she explained that her religion required that a boy share first.

I posted a comment there, but I have a few more thoughts on the issue.

From a purely practical standpoint, I think Nancy is right:

I would have probably honored her request, only because it would not have been the proper forum to address whatever feelings I have about gender roles in her religion. Doing so would have made the girl feel humilated maybe, embarrassed, unaccepted, not to mention it would set a poor example for my other students.

This raises some side issues about coercion in schools. There are circumstances in which I have forced students to answer questions even when they did not want to, usually to make a point about paying attention and participating in class. It still doesn't feel good, and I know at times it has been at least a little humiliating for the student. I have never been in a situation like the one Jenny described; when my students don't want to participate, it is usually because they are unprepared. I know teachers who never call on a student who does not want to participate, and others who regularly do. In the end, does forcing someone to participate truly encourage them to engage in their education, or does it encourage them to look like they are engaged while harboring resentful feelings towards school and the teacher? Personally, I would like to make my lessons more engaging so that students naturally want to participate and I would like to provide multiple ways of participating so that students who aren't comfortable with one way of showing that they've learned can show it in another way.

What about the overarching ethical questions?

A caveat I try to remember in discussions of this sort is that people often seek a single rule or procedure that they can apply as broadly as possible. There's a value in seeking "universal rules," but it can also lead to simplification of the issues and neglect of the subtle ways in which situations are NOT the same. I don't have much experience in the rules of argument, but I have a nagging feeling that there is some logical sleight-of-hand going on in this discussion.

Here's one statement made in the comments:

The teacher should have explain that the constitution of the US does not allow the school to consider her religion and the teacher should have forced the girl to go first. Someday, those muslim boys are going to adult citizens of the US and they have to understand that they cannot treat women as second class citizens.

I'm not convinced that the constitution does not allow the school to consider her religion.

I think the constitution does not allow her to try to impose her religious beliefs on the rest of the community - just as it does not allow Christians to try to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of the community. I would have a huge problem if she told the teacher that not only could she not read first, but neither could any other girl in the class. I would have a huge problem if a group of Muslim parents tried to convince the teachers always to call on boys first. But I have little problem with her choosing to allow boys to speak first as an individual choice, and asking her teacher to respect that decision.

Here's a related idea from another comment:

It's interesting that public schools have, on the one hand, expunged Christmas but would bend over backwards to allow a girl to be a secondclass citizen.

Again, these situations are NOT equivalent. An individual student should be free to perform a Christmas carol at a school talent show, but schools should not force students to perform carols if they do not practice Christianity. The difference lies in imposing one's religion upon others versus expressing it for oneself. The separation of church and state, as I understand it, forbids the first but protects the second.

I consider myself a feminist and a strong supporter of women's right to an education and equal rights under the law. I also strongly support respecting a person's right to freely practice his or her religion up to the point where it infringes upon other people's rights. The troublesome conflict in this situation is between preventing gender discrimination and preventing religious discrimination. That's why no answer feels completely right; I come down in favor of respecting her religious belief, but I deeply wish that her religion did not make her a secondclass citizen.

The girl is a high school student. She clearly and calmly articulated her own belief. I would be uncomfortable if her father or brother came in and told me never to call on her before a boy. I would be uncomfortable if she were in third grade rather than high school. At this point in her development, however, I think she is capable of making this choice; she has, surely, seen that other girls feel free to speak before boys, yet she still chooses to respect her religion's views on this issue. I can live with that, even if it's not the same choice that I would make for myself.

There's also the fact that if the teacher had asked a boy to speak first, he'd have been giving that boy the message that a boy's voice - any boy's voice - is, in some sense, more valuable than the girl's. He opted instead do defend the opposite view. Seems fine with me.

The teacher could prevent this by calling on another girl, then a boy, then the Muslim girl. Or by calling on a boy first in this case, but in other cases, calling on girls first.

In Turkey, the state - in the name of secularism - has gone so far as to ban women who choose to wear headscarves from entering college campuses. The result? Women who want to practice Islam and pursue a modern career end up having to make a choice. This means that there is a group of women who wanted to be DOCTORS who ended up getting kicked out of medical school for sticking to a religious rule that they consider important. I fail to see how this promotes meaningful equality for women.

Jenny writes in her own comments section,

If the girl had said, I cannot vote because my religion says so, America would say, yes, you can vote here regardless of your religion. You don't have to, but you cannot take that right away from yourself.

A person can choose not to exercise his or her right to vote for any reason - including a religious belief. So what is the difference, really, between choosing not to vote and taking that right away from yourself? We don't require people to justify their reason for not voting.

Saturday, January 15, 2005


Last week I read Pedro Paramo, by Juan Rulfo, a Mexican author. It's a small book, a quick read. It's not well known like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, yet it's credited as one of the sources of magical realism. Someone recommended it to me years ago, but I never could remember the title until I stumbled across it in a bookstore a few weeks ago. It's a ghost story. It's a collection of voices that made me think of a lecture on the many voices in The Waste Land. The author never published another novel, although he apparently wrote and destroyed one.


Has my cat made the connection between the silver box lighting up and the room filling with rhythmic sounds?


It's silly to be depressed by it. I mean one thinks of it like being alive in a box, one keeps forgetting to take into account the fact that one is dead... which should make a difference... shouldn't it? I mean, you'd never know you were in a box, would you? It would be just like being asleep in a box. Not that I'd like to sleep in a box, mind you, not without any air - you'd wake up dead, for a start and then where would you be? Apart from inside a box. That's the bit I don't like, frankly. That's why I don't think of it. (from Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead)

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Teachable Moment

I must devote some space to thanking Jason Giambi and numerous others in Major League Baseball for providing me with my health lesson on steroids. On Tuesday, the seventh graders read some basic factual information about what steroids are and how they affect one's body, and then I gave them a page of quotes from ballplayers about steroids in baseball. My classroom full of Yankee fans were familiar with the scandal surrounding Giambi's admission of using steroids. I had them write a one-page opinion piece with three choices:
  • how should MLB handle steroid use by players?
  • how should high schools handle steroid use by student athletes?
  • your friend confides that he or she might start using steroids; write a letter to him or her giving advice about steroids.

The kids, being my innocent, nerdy, justice-obsessed middle school babies, took a hard line on steroid use in professional sports and in high schools. They also came up with some compassionate ideas, like providing counselling for high school athletes caught using steroids. Then again, one of them recommended execution or punishment by the gods (I'm not making this up!) for MLB players who test positive for steroids... hmmm.

And one girl wrote a letter to a friend advising her to avoid steroids because of their health effects, like growing facial hair, deepening of the voice, etc. She made up a name for her friend - and just happened to use the first name of the seventh grade social studies teacher! The thought of this teacher using steroids is completely hilarious; we both got a good giggle out of the letter and the fact that the student chose her teacher's name (it's not a common name).

And now, the players' union has decided to tighten up its drug policy. Fantastic timing!

More on Accountable Talk

Our AUSSIE consultant visited my classroom twice this week. She usually works with the language arts classes, but I'd asked for her help - or at least a bit of diagnostic work - with the accountable talk idea, since this week's lessons provide what seems like a really good opportunity to experiment with student discussion.

The first day she came in was Tuesday afternoon, after the ELA test. She agreed with me that we were pretty far from the kind of discussion shown in the PD video, although we both recognized that after spending the morning in enforced silence, the students were inevitably going to be chatty and difficult to keep on task. We ultimately decided that all the eighth grade teachers need to talk about working together to introduce the norms of academic discussion, and come up with a plan to scaffold the students towards greater ability to talk and listen to each other in order to learn.

Yesterday, another test day, I was on my own, and again the classroom was very loud, the students weren't listening to each other very well, and most groups had one or two extremely dominant voices.

A couple of Local Instructional Superintendents came to observe some classrooms today - they have some doubts about the teaching model the region wants us to use, and so our LIS offered to show them how we use it in our school. I was chatting with them and with our AUSSIE, and just joking around about how after yesterday's deafening "discussion" of anuran population declines, I was convinced that this accountable talk stuff was bunk. I'd done a mini-lesson on "sentence starters" that I would be listening for, such as, "I agree with you that..." and so on... but I didn't hear a single one of the sentence starters in the entire 30 minute discussion time! Then again, I couldn't really hear anything... They thought this was amusing, and - mercifully - spent the day visiting language arts classes rather than science (usually I'm welcoming of visitors, but today's lesson didn't seem likely to impress on them the merits of the region's teaching model). I'm proud to say that my colleagues' teaching absolutely blew them away, especially when they realized that one of our language arts teachers has only been at it for five months.

I'm happy to say that today's discussions went better. It really is amazing how crazy a day of testing can make a child who is otherwise perfectly capable of following instructions and speaking (sort of) quietly!

Our AUSSIE came in during my sixth period class. I was called out to meet with the father of one of the students who has been particularly silly and mean in the last few weeks, so I didn't get to give many instructions... the task before them was difficult: they had developed theories for anuran population declines, and now they had to design field or lab experiments that might provide additional evidence for their theory. They've designed experiments before, but never field experiments, and never on topics of this scale. So I was nervous about what I would return to when I came back from my meeting with the parent. I was thrilled to find the room a little louder than I would have liked, but not at all deafening, and most of the groups well on their way to absolutely workable experiments! They still have a long way to go as far as listening to each other is concerned, but teaching them these skills felt like a more reasonable task today than it did yesterday.

And my AUSSIE commented that it's hard to stick to the rules of civil discussion when you're really excited about something - and she saw that the students are really, really excited about this project. I can't complain about that - better that the discussion be overheated due to passion than insipid due to boredom....

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Accountable Talk?

On Monday, our AUSSIE consultants led a PD workshop on "accountable talk." Basically, this is when you teach children to discuss material in a rigorous way in order to understand it better. We watched a short video of a small group of high school students discussing connections between Sartre's "Existentialism" and a short story, "Sonny's Blues." The video was an example of accountable talk because the students

  • listened to each other attentively
  • built on each other's ideas - and challenged each other, respectfully
  • referred regularly to the texts, notes, and a dictionary
  • provided evidence for their opinions and theories
  • asked questions to clarify each other's ideas

and so on....

I think it would be amazing to get my students to the point where they could really listen to each other and use conversation as a way of building understanding. These skills are important and, I think, rarely found even among adults; how many college discussion sections are nothing more than each student saying some random thought, without any real give-and-take?

This week's lessons, the Missing Anurans project, seemed perfect for practicing accountable talk, or at least looking for how it happens in the classroom and why it often does not happen. The students have multiple "clue sheets" that they have to read and discuss in order to come up with a theory and a way to test their theory. Each student only reads one or two of the clue sheets, but there are eight total, so the students must share information with the others in their group in order to piece together a theory.

My students haven't had much "training" in how to discuss something on their own. In our PD, we talked about teaching them "sentence starters" such as, "I agree with you that..." or "Yes, and also..." or "I disagree, because..." or "Can you explain what you mean by..." Another teacher in my school - who teaches language arts - does a lot of work with her students on how to discuss a text. She records everything they say in a conversation, then has the class review and compare their conversation to a rubric. She has small groups present a snippet of discussion in a "fishbowl" format, where the rest of the class observes and then they de-brief what happened during the conversation. She sometimes leaves a tape recorder on one group's table so that she can "catch them" using accountable talk (and, she says, the mere presence of the tape recorder tends to raise the level of discussion for that group). She teaches them about the various helpful and unhelpful roles that people play in group discussions, such as encourager, insulter, organizer, notetaker, joker, etc. She says that she's made progress with the students in their ability to discuss what they read with each other.

It all sounds amazing, and a little intimidating.

The conversation in my room today was deafening. I have six groups of 4-5 students, so in theory, only 6 people should be speaking at any given moment, but that is never what happens. The students made good connections between the various clues, and they did develop theories, and I think most of the kids understood what their groups had come up with... but we were really, really far from the kind of respectful, intellectual discussion that the accountable talk idea is driving at. I don't feel like I have the time to invest in all the intensive training activities that my language arts colleague has put in. Hopefully, now that the test is over, the eighth grade ELA teacher will be able to do some of that work in her classroom, which I can then support and build upon in mine. After all, the job of language arts teachers is to teach communication (in its many forms). That is a PIECE of my job, just like reinforcing reading and writing skills, vocabulary development, graphing, measuring, and other math skills, etc., etc. are all pieces of my job... but in the service of teaching science concepts. I think each of these skills is hugely and legitimately important... but this accountable talk stuff feels HARD, and that makes the list of skills that I try to reinforce in my teaching seem longer and more overwhelming.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Evil Cold 3, Ms. F. 2

This blog has veered into excessive negativity of late. Yeah, I think I'm a little depressed - it's the lack of sunlight, lack of exercise, and all the energy spent on coughing. And the kids - the kids whom I love soooo much and have so much investment in - well, they've been a tad mean-spirited since we got back from vacation. Yesterday, when I was discussing one boy's chattiness and nasty attitude with him, he told me,
I don't know how to say this, but I know I'm not the only one who thinks it. You've changed, Ms. Frizzle. You used to be one of the good teachers, not like the others, well, I won't mention any names, but not like some people. But you've changed, we all agree. We used to like doing your work because of the way you were but not anymore. Now you're all mean.

This wouldn't have gotten to me except that it's partly true; I have been a little arbitrary and even - gasp! - bitchy at times lately. But it's a cycle; the kids' behavior has also been pretty difficult to deal with, and I'm not feeling that great physically or emotionally, and unfortunately I sometimes find myself dragged into a cycle where their behavior pushes my buttons, and my response pushes them to worse behavior. Anyway, that comment hurt.

And then, in the middle of a discussion with the kids about WHY I need them to meet certain behavioral expectations and WHY I'm so annoyed when they don't, a group of boys started snickering. Again... if I were in a better frame of mind, this probably wouldn't have bothered me that much, but it was rude, and hurtful, and I felt like the kids - my sweet kids - were ganging up on me. It doesn't help that I know that the kids involved are pretty much beyond our reach as far as changing their behavior is concerned - over the last two and a half years, we've tried pretty much everything. My goal for this handful of kids is to manage their behavior so that it doesn't get any more disruptive, they can learn, and the other kids can learn... and hope that they wake up one day a little bit more mature.

I got the kids out of the classroom and on to their next class, and then I burst into tears. I do have to say, I felt much better afterwards.

And today was a good day... thank goodness!

We gave the first half of the state English Language Arts exam to the eighth graders. I am one of the two main proctors for this test, since I read well out loud (except far too fast) and have given the tests before (a long, long time ago, in a far away school, when I was a first year teacher...). Today they had multiple choice questions based on reading passages, followed by essay questions based on an article which I read out loud twice while they took notes. The kids felt pretty confident and the questions seemed very reasonable. They have another 90 minutes of ELA testing tomorrow (essays based on reading passages), and then they'll have one of the four 8th grade exams under their belt.

It started snowing during the second half of the test. I noticed it, and smiled inwardly. I knew it was only a matter of time before the kids spotted the snowflakes, and sure enough, a few minutes later, eyes started turning towards the window. The fact that it was snowing spread like an electrical charge around the room, even though the kids were silent. Snow will do that. I gestured for them to keep working, but I shared their excitement. The snow turned to rain by the time it got to the ground. If a blizzard ever started during a standardized test, I'd have to list it as a testing irregularity!

The test administration went really, really smoothly. 100% of our eighth graders came to school, even some who were not feeling all that great. That means no make up tests! And everything was really well organized and peaceful. The other grades went on about their business while our kids tested. I think that we created the best possible testing environment, and I'm really proud of that.

I've been planning my health lessons on a more-or-less "just in time" basis. I gathered lots of materials during the first marking period and have a better idea of what and how I want to teach health, but the process of revising my lessons means that I'm still doing much of it the night before the lesson. So you can imagine how happy I was to learn that NYC has purchased membership in HealthTeacher, an on-line service providing standards-linked lesson plans, background materials, etc. I promptly set up an account and logged in.

And that's when I discovered this week's most absurd bureaucratic problem: I could not access the site's sex ed lesson plans on the school computer (the computer intended for teacher use!). The department of ed's internet security decided halfway down the page of each lesson that there were too many questionable words, and blocked access to the remaining material. The right hand has no freakin' clue what the left hand is doing, at least not in this particular bureaucracy! I emailed my new health curriculum contact person to let her know about this problem, and she advised me to open an account (apparently I did not make myself clear). It's not a big deal, I can access the pages at home, and it should be easily fixed by the DOE IT department, but c'mon, people, get your act together!!!

Beyond that problem, I'm just not that impressed by the lesson plans. Some of them are very similar to what I'm doing anyway, and the others seem a little fluffy and not very inspiring. So for the moment, I'm going to keep doing this on my own. I do plan to attend the PD session they are offering in February; maybe the curriculum will look better when they demonstrate it and hand out print materials. Maybe.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Evil Cold 2.75, Ms. F. 1.75

Today was a really bad day. The details aren't that interesting.

But at least Glamour arrived in the mail. Tomorrow's looking up.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Evil Cold 2, Ms. F. 1.75

It's amazing what a few hours can do. I'm still coughing, but not as often, which means I have more energy... a positive-feedback loop! I think in another day or two I'll kick this thing. Phew!

The Case of the Missing Anurans

In planning my unit on Reptiles & Amphibians, I came across this project idea: The Case of the Missing Anurans. Anurans are a subgroup of amphibians that includes frogs and toads - basically, tail-less amphibians. Frog and toad populations have been decreasing in the last few decades, for many reasons. Since amphibians live partly on land and partly in the water, and because their skin is thin and very sensitive, they are considered "indicator species" that are harmed by environmental degradation earlier than other types of animals; when the anurans in an ecosystem are endangered or go extinct, the other living things may soon follow. This project has the students read "clue sheets" about some of the possible causes of anuran population declines, do additional research on their own, and then come up with a theory to explain these population declines. Then they write a research proposal - basically, an experiment to test their theory. I am having my students present their proposals in PowerPoint to the other herpetologists in the class in a "summit" on anurans. You can get some of the materials at the site linked to above; I will post the additional materials that I created at the Teachers' Lounge wiki.

Oh - and while I'm at it, I'll post my next unit plan, which is to have students research the various types of invertebrates (cnidarians and planarians and echninoderms, oh my!) and "teach" their classmates about them. I haven't developed the handouts for that unit yet, but they will be forthcoming on the wiki. This unit is my best shot at compressing a LOT of material into a very short time period. I'm a little sad because there are so many cool things I could do if I took it slowly and went through each group one at a time... but I do have 67 weeks worth of material to cover, so choices must be made.

And speaking of posting lesson ideas on-line, Jenny D. is posting the project ideas she comes up with for her undergraduates, who are studying to become teachers. She's looking for feedback.

Evil Cold 2, Ms. Frizzle 0.5

Things I have tried that have made next to no difference in my health:

  • orange juice
  • golden seal & echinacea drops (cod liver oil for the new millennium)
  • skipping absolutely every commitment I possibly can (even one day of school) and just resting
  • sleeping... a LOT
  • Ricola echinacea honey-lemon cough drops (okay, these make me feel better, but only for about ten minutes)
  • Advil, aspirin, etc.
  • grapefruit slices
  • tea
  • soup, soup, and more soup
  • lying around on the couch watching movies and reading to the point where I hate movies and hate books and am bored out of my freakin' mind

I am so tired of coughing so hard that I give myself a headache. I am so tired of sitting around doing nothing - or so-called relaxing things - and being bored and not feeling even a little bit better as a result of all this rest. I haven't gotten any exercise because you can't do yoga when you have to stop breathing to cough every two minutes, and the weather's been too nasty for taking walks, even if walking didn't suck up the last dregs of my energy, which it does. That, combined with the absolutely nasty weather all week until today, plus a healthy dose of boredom, has made me so miserable and depressed that I want to cry every night before I go to bed and every morning when I wake up and my throat is STILL sore. Everyone I know is sick. It's like a TB ward around here, except TB would be preferable because we can actually TREAT TB and make it go away (well, usually).

I am not a good patient. And I am starting to go crazy.

I gave myself 0.5 because the sun came out today and my mood has improved slightly. Yes, this is a BETTER mood than the one I was in last night.

Reviewing "Sharks"

Simile of the Year Award:
"I learned more about sharks than a cat knows about cleaning itself."

Well, At Least You're Honest
"For my opinion, I think this movie was very interesting. If only the forces of sleepiness hadn't overcome me I might have watched the whole thing."

Overall, the kids loved - LOVED - the movie. For you science teachers out there, it was The Ultimate Guide to Sharks, produced by the Discovery Channel.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Science Expo Project, anyone?

I got this on Eduwonk. It made me giggle, no mean feat given that I feel like death warmed over. Evil cold 1, Ms. F. 0.

Squirrel fishing.


The fish observations were a major success. The room - and the hallway outside - smelled fishy, but we all got over that quickly. I set a timer for eight minutes for each station, and when it beeped, the kids rotated. The lesson practically managed itself! I love that; it's rare but oh so beautiful. The kids were engaged, even when they forgot to write anything on their worksheet they did the activities and discussed what they were seeing with each other and with me. One boy discovered that gills come in multiple layers (somewhat maiming the fish in the process, but what can you do?). They poked and prodded at the two fish far more than I expected, which led to the fish looking a bit less-than-fabulous by the end of the day, but it was all in the name of science; they wanted to flip over the flounder, pull open the fins to look at them more closely, and open the mouth to see if fish have tongues and what the teeth look like (flounders and bluefish are both really toothy, by the way). It was awesome. I'm going to slit open the fish and show the kids their organs on Monday.

By the way, I attached several fish activities that I have done to the middle school science page of the Teachers' Lounge wiki; email me at the address in the sidebar if you have any questions.

At lunchtime, we had a bake sale, organized by a rockin' seventh grade Social Studies teacher; the money will go to the Red Cross. Kids and teachers brought in baked goods, and everyone got all sugared up for their afternoon classes... but it was for a good cause. The kids initially resisted doing anything to help the tsunami victims - the teacher opened up the discussion with them on Monday but didn't want to push them to do something charitable unless they actively wanted to. She was downhearted by the response, "Would they help us if it happened here? Why should we help them?" But in the end, the less cynical viewpoint won out, and the kids I talked to seemed enthusiastic about raising money to help others.

And tonight, I'm going to see some pirates. Except that I'm taking a nap first, and there's the very real possibility that I will not wake up before morning....

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Take a look...

Mrs. Chew has a thoughtful post today about how to improve teaching, the dangers of relying too heavily on standardized tests, and more.

I also found this article on her blog. It's about the ways that testing influences what gets taught, and how. If reading and math are tested yearly, then other subjects - including science - tend to get cut, wholly or partially. I've seen this in New York. This means that many science teachers welcome science tests, because they put pressure on schools to focus on science as well as reading and math. I'm one of those teachers who supports the fourth and eighth grade science tests, because they increase the chances that students will actually get taught some science! I also like the tests because they have a mix of multiple choice, short answer (er, constructed response), and manipulative (hands-on) questions. Different types of knowledge and thinking are tested, and the kind of teaching that this test encourages is pretty good (although there is a HUGE amount of content knowledge included in the multiple choice sections). The pendulum can swing too far in the direction of tests, however, especially because yearly tests tend to be more content-focused and shift the focus of science teaching away from inquiry (doing science) to facts (knowing science stuff).

Tim of Assorted Stuff reminds us that 40% of new teachers leave the profession within 5 years. I'm in my fifth year of teaching. I like my job (previous posts notwithstanding). What could make me leave?

In four and a half years of teaching, I've already gone through several major changes in how the city, state, or federal government wants us to do things. I've done my best to consider each new idea with an open mind, figure out what is good about it, and learn to apply those things in my classroom. But I have to admit, I'm starting to feel some fatigue. If Bloomberg is out in the next mayoral election and the new mayor throws out all the changes in favor of another round of reform on a slightly different model, well, that will be really, really frustrating. I probably won't leave teaching due to any given set of reforms, but each "new" idea is another straw on the camel's back....

Lack of growth as a person could drive me out. I'm lucky to be at a school where I am supported by my administration and encouraged when I take on new challenges, enroll in interesting summer programs, or even apply for a Fulbright to teach abroad. I left my old school in part because I realized that every bit of improvement in my teaching was going to come from my own flailing efforts. I thrive on learning, but I can't do it alone. The need to constantly take classes in order to make more money, coupled with my discovery that many of the affordable classes out there are boring and not at all rigorous, is another straw weighing down this particular camel.

Those are the main reasons why I would leave. Another, I suppose, would be if particular reforms made it impossible for me to teach in the ways that I consider best for student development and science learning. Yearly content-only testing in science, or a scripted science curriculum, would be examples of the types of reforms that might make it impossible or extremely difficult for me to teach science the way it ought to be taught. I think that at that point, I would leave the profession, possibly for some kind of policy role.

I know some teachers, especially those in difficult "TFA-type" schools, just get worn down by the poor working conditions and the depressing amount of conflict and misery they see around them.

Good teacher, bad teacher

Good teacher: The kids liked the sharks movie. I've shown maybe ten films at various points in my teaching career and this is one of the only ones that wasn't boring me to tears even after I'd seen it five times. Shark mating seems fairly unpleasant; it involves the male biting the female's fins and pinning her down. Then there's a bunch of rolling around, during which time neither shark can breathe very well, since sharks have to swim in order for water to pass over their gills. Mercifully, the whole thing is over in about 2 minutes, at least in the species they showed in this film. Skates and rays have the most adorable little embryos, which develop inside egg cases also known as "mermaid's purses." The adults aren't much to look at, but darn those young are cute!

Bad teacher: The kids continue to be mildly bad. Today, two boys talked back to me. I'd dug myself into a rather stupid hole by asking a rhetorical question which fairly begged to be answered impertinently... but it was still really annoying, especially because I got the feeling from the rest of the students that they were on the side of the disrespectful students and were thoroughly enjoying watching a teacher go down in flames. *sigh* I probably pushed them further in that direction by being strict in a harsh way for the rest of the period.

Good teacher: The "design a fish" assignment is a good assignment! I keep reminding myself of that. The students have to take what they've learned in class about the different types of fish and their adaptations, along with additional information I provided about how fin, body, and mouth shape help fish fit into different environments, and create their own imaginary fish. They have to draw a picture of it in its environment, and write a one page description of their fish and its adaptations. The kids like the project; they keep coming up to me to show me sketches of their fish.

Bad teacher: I can't get up in the morning. It's too dark, too cold, I'm too tired. I sneak into school three minutes before the day begins, day after day. I don't feel motivated. My teaching feels like it's on cruise control - it's not awful, but it's not great, either. The workshop model has gone straight out the window, especially the sharing part.

Good teacher: I am asking the students to grade their own work on the fish project using a rubric which I provided. This promotes metacognition.

Bad teacher: I hate teaching afterschool. If I didn't have to teach afterschool, I would get all my work done in about 2-3 hours after school each day, then come home and live a normal life. But afterschool is important, it provides enrichment/remediation for the kids, keeps them busy in productive ways after school, and plus it provides my spending money for the month. It's not going to go away, and I can't quit, before you suggest either of those things.

Good teacher: I picked up two whole fish from the grocery store. The fish guys restored my faith in humanity by giving them to me at half-price since they are for my students to look at. They were really enthusiastic and encouraged me to take a flounder 'cause it is the only fish with both eyes on one side of the body (apparently this was the only question on the "Millionaire" game show that the fish guy knew the answer to). So I bought a flounder and a bluefish. I'm going to design an activity for tomorrow involving several stations. One will be observing the flounder - body shape, fins, etc. One will be observing the bluefish, particularly the gills. One will be reading some background material on the two fish. One will be using observations and the background material to write a short compare/contrast essay about the two fish. One will be observing our classroom goldfish to see how they use their fins to move through the water, and perhaps also how many "breaths" they take per minute. And one will be designing an experiment to find out if fish "breathing" rate correlates with water temperature. Oh, and one will be looking at a fish scale under the microscope.

Hmmm... on balance, perhaps I'm doing all right! That is not what my gut was telling me. The behavior problems and my inability to deal well with them was really getting to me. Hopefully, that will improve when I feel more energetic.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Hot & Sour Soup

And then there are the days you order in...

This week has been rough... and it's only Wednesday. I barely slept at all Sunday night, and so I was tired and rusty on Monday and the kids were mildly bad, just chatty because they hadn't seen each other in a week, I suppose, but added to the fact that I'd apparently forgotten how to teach... well, it wasn't an auspicious start. Sometime Tuesday my teacher-brain switched back on (this happened AFTER first period, which was a jumbled mess) but by then I wasn't feeling so hot. It got worse and I woke up this morning exhausted, sore, and barely capable of swallowing. I was planning to show a video on sharks today in class, so I tried to convince myself to go in since it would be such an easy day. I lay in bed going back and forth for half an hour, got up and put clothes on (already ten minutes late), and then saw the day stretching before my weary bones: I had no desire to eat anything but yoghurt, and you can't teach all day on nothing but yoghurt, so I would probably faint from hunger, and I also had no desire for coffee, which meant that I'd never fully wake up, and anyway, as soon as I turned the lights off in the classroom to start the video, I'd fall fast asleep. Realizing I did NOT want to spend the day fighting off sleep, coughing, and subsisting on peach yoghurt, I called my principal to tell her I'd be going back to bed. Since the video was in my backpack on my living room floor, I had to whip up another activity that I could email to school for the kids to do. In the end, I assigned the section on amphibians, which puts us a bit out of sequence. Nothing like missing a day of school.

Woke up at one and previewed the sharks video a second time (I actually fell asleep previewing it last night). Then a friend dropped by and we rented two movies - the old version of the Manchurian Candidate, which is a fantastic movie and very relevant right now, and Wimbledon, which is really, really sweet.

Now my throat feels a bit better and I've had a lot more rest, and I get a fairly easy day tomorrow thanks to the Discovery Channel. I am still waiting for a nature video that talks about animals without being melodramatic and overwrought - who writes these things? Instead of babbling on about "nature's perfect predators," why not just show really good footage of sharks doing what they do, give us some science background so we understand what we're seeing, and let nature speak for itself?

Thanks to Dan - A History Teacher - I found an artist's renderings of the skeletal systems of cartoon characters. It's awesome. My favorite is Shmoo - take a look at that pelvis! It's also oddly appropriate, given that I spent last night reading and editing a friend's application to grad school in Physical Anthropology. It was all bones, all the time around here for the last few days.

The other thing I did yesterday was to look for a play appropriate for my drama class to perform. There are many plays available on-line, but I wasn't thrilled by any of them. Most of the plays written for kids actually require too many actors, since they are intended to be really inclusive of as many kids as possible. I only have a handful of kids in each of my sessions. Other plays are too long, too short, too cheesy, or too mature in their themes or language. I came up with a couple of possibilities on-line, but nothing fabulous, so I went to Barnes & Noble, only to encounter similar frustrations. And nearly all plays require some kind of royalty fee if you put on a performance (even if you do not charge admission), and you are supposed to purchase one copy of the book for each actor. I could probably get away with just making photocopies and pretending innocence of the royalty laws, but I don't want to be in that position - those laws are there to protect people's ability to make money as artists, which I respect. In the end, I found an adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which doesn't say anything about royalties. I've decided to offer my students a choice - either they can do Charlie, or we can brainstorm stories that we could adapt into plays ourselves, such as myths or legends or popular stories like Robin Hood. One idea I had is to take a bunch of poems by Shel Silverstein and have each child memorize and present one while the other kids bring it to life. Another of my ideas is to get a book of Norse mythology and act out some of those myths - every kid gets a healthy dose of Greek mythology growing up, but the Norse myths are less well-known and very interesting. We'll see what the kids come up with.

I feel like between being sick and sleeping all the time during vacation, I've begun to atrophy. This is my third week without yoga! My tummy feels a little floppy. Luckily I didn't make any New Year's resolutions (I make resolutions to do better at this or that practically every day... I don't feel the need for a special holiday to raise expectations of myself to unrealistic levels) 'cause I'd have definitely broken them already. On Monday, several of us arrived at school at the same time. As we were marching up the stairs, it got to the point where we were all puffing, we'd only made it to the third floor, and we were thinking, "um, where's our school?" Only three floors to go!

I'm rambling like crazy. The apartment's a mess, but if I start to clean it the fever will come back. It's only been three days, but I am so ready for a weekend.

(They don't tell you in ed school how ridiculously hard the first week back after a vacation can be).

Monday, January 03, 2005

Sweet potatoes and tofu, first boiled, then rolled in cornstarch, and finally fried in peanut oil. I was skeptical about the number of steps involved (mainly I was hungry!) but it did wonders for the texture. Posted by Hello

Peanut sauce with fresh cilantro... Posted by Hello

Carmelized onions... Posted by Hello

This would show you how beautiful and tasty it was, if only my hand weren't so darn shaky. Posted by Hello

All's well that ends well. Posted by Hello

New Education Blogs

Here are a few new blogs by educators...

Abigail teaches Social Studies, somewhere on the East Coast (maybe here in NYC?).

Jenny D. is a former journalist who is working on a Ph.D. with the goal of helping fix public education.

Randy is a soon-to-be-retired educator and A Family Guy with a brand-new blog.

I know there are lots of broken links in my sidebar, and blogs that ought to be added... but fixing it keeps getting pushed to the bottom of the To Do list.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Where I've Been and What I've Been Doing

I think I've finally learned how to vacate properly.

I spent the first part of the week in Massachusetts, celebrating Christmas with my family. It was fun and peaceful. Everyone in my family was pretty worn out from our various lives--perhaps a good thing as far as getting along was concerned. My uncle, two aunts, and grandmother came out for Christmas dinner.

I came back on Monday with my brother. We tried to go to the recently renovated Museum of Modern Art, but unfortunately it was closed on Tuesday. New York being a city of millions, there were about a dozen other people peering at the hours posted on the door, dismayed. So, we decided to go to the Whitney, but we passed Takashimaya department store first, one of my favorite places in New York City, so we stopped there. I've only bought something from Takashimaya once, but I love the place. You see, it's not like other department stores. Instead of perfume and handbags, the entrance opens into the florist shop, which smells heavenly and is serene, filled with little garden sculptures, absurdly expensive shears, trowels, and terracotta, and beautiful arrangements of flowers. On the floor below is a Japanese tea shop, where you can sit for a cup of tea or buy one of the dozens of exotic teas contained in baskets along the back wall. The floors above are filled with housewares, clothing, soaps, lotions, the usual. It's all too expensive for me, but it's the idea that a department store could be a peaceful and reflective place that draws me in.

When we left Takashimaya, I lost the Whitney. Yes, lost it. I've only lived here for five years, but when we got to 72nd and 5th, we found the Frick, not the Whitney (which, it turns out, is just a few blocks away on Madison... sigh). In the end, we headed to the Metropolitan and saw an exhibit on ancient Chinaa which was pretty interesting... it's fascinating to see bits of textiles preserved from 1500 years ago, and to realize that it was all handwoven. Leaving the museum, we made another New York City discovery: it's beautiful to walk down the main stairs of the Metropolitan Museum at closing time on a winter evening with a light snow falling in Central Park. You look down on hundreds of people moving slowly towards the doors. You look out through the windows at the snow and streetlights. And you see all the details in the design of the museum itself. I wish I'd had a camera, but then again, sometimes it's best just to see and remember.

We walked home through the park, through the snow.

The next day I put my brother on a train (or, really, pushed him out the door towards a cab to the train...), and then went to the Natural History Museum to see the Frogs exhibit. The exhibit closes this week, but it's absolutely worth seeing. They have dozens of live frogs - including lots of the bright blue poison dart frogs and the even more lethal golden frogs - and very helpful and engaging explanations of the anatomy, behavior, and environmental signficance of frogs. I really wanted to take my students to see this exhibit, but can't due partly to my own poor planning and partly because of the state testing schedule. I encouraged them to go and even told them they could meet me at the museum on Wednesday, but no one took me up on the offer (even though it was actually a student's idea!).

Most of the rest of the week I spent sleeping late, watching movies, and just... vacating.

Friday, V. called to tell me about his engagement. I feel like I'm watching a train wreck that is none of my business but involves people I care about and may, in some indirect way, have been caused partly by my actions. And that's all I can say about that here. So, I mopped the floors in my apartment and then went shopping with some money I got at Christmas - in the naive believe shared by so many of us that it would make me feel better - and then went out with really good people to dance madly to gypsy music. (All the other New Year's stories happened other years... I've had some fun ones, but overall New Year's is not my best holiday).

Yesterday I did nothing.

And today I planned the week's lessons. The kids are going to learn about how different body shapes, mouth shapes, types of fins, etc. help fish fit into different environments... and then they are going to design their own fish! I only started panicking - that wonderful last-day-of-vacation-ohmigod-I-have-to-go-to-work-tomorrow panic - a couple of hours ago. I need to plan a couple of health lessons and then go to bed. I've wised up some and no longer expect that I will plan the rest of the year every time a vacation rolls around. A week of good lesson plans seems perfectly reasonable, especially if I've soaked up the free time, caught up on sleep, read a good book or two, and spent time with family and friends. And I have.

And by the way - so many, many thanks to the readers who responded to my letter to Santa.

Au revoir, 2004

There are years that end standing on 45th and Broadway, wrapped up to the nostrils in scarves and down to the earlobes in hats, watching people watch other people watch the ball drop...

There are years that end in small Massachusetts cities, hearing Dar Williams and the Nields play and then standing with friends in the town square watching the ball drop from the tower of City Hall and then getting an ice cream cone together...

There are years that end in unhappy dinners after you've mentioned moving back to California one too many times...

There are years that end with bland Italian food after a nighttime flight back to NY from Puerto Rico...

And there are years that end with the news that your ex is engaged, and then you clean your whole apartment while playing music apocalyptically loud and eventually work yourself out of your funk so you can spend the evening drinking and dancing to a Balkan brass band in a boisterous bar...

au revoir, 2004.