Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Mr. Smith Papers

Warren came to help the kids with multiplication and asked for a multiplication table. You know, the basic multiplication table. This guy:

Most of the kids had never seen one before, so they didn't know it was called a multiplication table. They just knew that Mr. Smith gave it to them to help them with their word problems. So the next day, when they were trying to do multiplication, they came and asked me for a "Mr. Smith Paper."

That's what they're called now, in my class. It's the accepted name for them. I'm a little worried that one day I'll be talking to other teachers and they'll ask me how I help the kids learn their multiplication facts, and I'll say, "Well, I let them use the Mr. Smith papers until they memorize them..."

Report Card Madness

Report cards come around way too often. OK, maybe they really only happen three times during the school year, but they sure feel like they're always looming over my head. It doesn't help that the report cards are huge (17¼ x 11 inches - too big to work on at a coffee shop, on airplanes, or at my desk) not even counting the separate comments section. Nor does it help that they are made of four layers of "carbonless" paper, which means that every time I fold them or lean on them, let alone make accidental marks, I have to correct four copies.

The main problem is that I am not at all convinced that any of the parents read the report cards, or understand what they mean if they do read them. Some of the fields are measured in numbers (1=Far Below Grade Level, 2=Below, 3=Approaching, 4=Proficient, 5=Advanced), some in symbols (check, plus, and minus), and some in initials (EA=Early Advanced, and so on. And there's a lot of fields to be measured. All of the report cards have to be in English - the best we can do for the Spanish-speaking parents is to give them a blank report card in Spanish so they can see what the different headings are. There's nothing to help any parents who speak any other languages. Yes, I know this is America, but it would be nice if we had some ability to help parents who were showing an interest in their child's education.

And they take a LOT of time to do. I finally looked at a "sample comments" paper a colleague gave me a while back. Never thought I'd run out of creativity with report card comments, but I've been sneaking some looks. There are all sorts of gems like:

XXXX’s attitude toward school is [excellent/very good]. She/he is a [very] good worker and an attentive listener.

XXXX has worked hard to adjust to our class. His/her performance has been up and down, and is often distracted by others in the class. He/she often draws in class instead of paying attention.

He/she needs to read as much as possible to increase his/her vocabulary and comprehension.

XXXX is a bright, intelligent student who enjoys school. He/she works hard to do a good job, especially in Language arts/reading/writing/spelling/math.

Read every day [as much as possible] [frequently] to develop/increase vocabulary and improve comprehension.
I never thought I'd stoop to copying and pasting these things but I'm more tired this year than I've possibly ever been. It might be time for a break from teaching. In the meantime, I'll have to be careful that I copy and paste correctly. It would be awful if I put in the comments: "Billy is a great/hyperactive/psychotic/smelly student. He/She should keep it up/be tranquilized/be committed/be bathed.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Rainy Day Routine

In this district - at least at my school - the rainy day plan is simple:

Cross Your Fingers and Hope It Doesn't Rain

That's the official plan. Every time it does rain, all the administrators (and there have been many of them during my tenure) get these shocked looks on their faces and scramble to make a plan. The general attitude is that of, "It's raining? It's raining?!? What the hell is it doing that for? How dare it RAIN? Oh my goodness, what are we going to do???" You'd think that at some point these people - some of whom are very intelligent - would figure out that it actually rains in Northern California. Quite a bit. And that we will still have students, even when it rains. But no, they tend to stare up at the sky as if betrayed by the heavens.

The methods of coping vary. Some administrators try not to call a rainy day recess until the kids come sopping wet into the office to complain. Others do the opposite, and declare a rainy day recess when there is only the tiniest bit of a threat of rain. I think the logic behind that is so you don't have to go try to round up all the kids once it starts raining, but the reality is that each teacher is stuck with a roomful of kids who start complaining. "It's not raining, why can't we go outside? I really really wanted to play outside!"

The reason why the rain throws such a wrench into administrators' plans is the teachers' 30-minute duty-free lunch. The duty-free lunch is a point of contention between teachers and administrators. In our contract, (and I think in the contract for every other school district in California that I've heard of) teachers are guaranteed a 30 minute lunch period with ZERO responsibilities. No matter what. Right. If you believe that happens, I have more than a few bridges I'd like to sell you.

But we fight for our duty-free lunch. Although 30 minutes isn't enough to do much of anything, and 95% of us spend it making copies, correcting papers, calling about field trips, calling parents... you get the idea. It's the principle of the thing. Also the knowledge that if we give up even one minute, the district will swoop in and our lunchtime will be GONE.

They are sneaky though, those district administrators, and they do their best to pick away at our lunchtime. The latest ploy has been to give the kids 30 minutes for lunch. Well, anyone can figure out that if the kids have 30 minutes, and we have to walk them to lunch and wait while they go through the line and sit down... ain't no 30 minutes left for us.

There are also sneaky "optional" lunch meetings. Or, to be more specific, "voluntary but highly recommended." Also known as "you'll look bad if you don't go; we can't legally force you to, but we'll never forget if you don't." Luckily, that trick hasn't been pulled lately. But we have had the "right before lunch and might spill over into your lunch time but we'll pretend not to notice" meetings. During the last one of those, the administrator said, "I can't make you stay through your duty-free lunch, but does anyone have any objection to staying?' That was a tough moment for me. I knew that if I said that yes, I had an objection - that I already worked my butt off for too little pay and not enough prep time or respect, and I wasn't going to give up my measly 30 minute lunchtime for a silly meeting that wasn't worth my time - I would never hear the end of it. I'd be classified as the one who wasn't a team player and made things difficult. The one who didn't want to work hard but just took the easy way out. I'm not exaggerating here, and that was more trouble than I wanted to deal with.

So I lied.

I said that I had copies to make and children's parents to call and field trips to check on. All true, but not necessarily needing to get done during lunchtime. I didn't say that I just needed downtime because I was tired. I didn't say I needed time to be away from kids or to eat. I didn't say that I needed to go to the bathroom. I didn't say that I might have wanted a few minutes to call my boyfriend or catch up on paying my bills or email some friends. I didn't stand up and scream that they were making me crazy and NO WONDER teachers burned out in California and specifically in Oakland, because they couldn't even have THIRTY LOUSY MINUTES to themselves! That wouldn't have been seen as a convincing excuse. So, I lied.

And remember, I like a lot of these people. But this is not OK. And it's getting to me.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Vacation Is Over.

I've had a week off and it's only today - NINE DAYS INTO VACATION - that I am not tired. I am finally not tired. It took me this long to decompress and recover from teaching these wonderful kids. And now I have to go back to work tomorrow. Pray for me.

Friday, November 24, 2006

No Child Left Behind

I've tried to stay away from NCLB in this blog for a few reasons: it makes me angry, it makes me have to explain a lot to people who think the name is great (after all, who wants to actually leave a child behind?) or who think I just don't like accountability, and because teacher's unions are so militantly against it (and I don't think teacher's unions are always actually looking out for teachers or students).

However, here's my brief overview. The best thing the Bush Administration did with NCLB is to name it. Seriously, "No Child Left Behind" - the name is brilliant. The main idea is that it provides accountability for schools, provides more of a focus on literacy, and provides parents with a choice when their local schools are designated as low performing or failing. Schools have to make adequate yearly progress as determined by the state, both as a general population and in specific categories of students such as African Americans, Latinos, low-income students, and special education students. Teachers are supposed to be "highly qualified" (meaning a lot more testing of teachers), and parents have more flexibility in choosing schools for their children.

Reality, in my experience, is different. Failing schools are not helped as much as they are punished, with "sanctions" (yes, that's really the word they use) imposed against them. I don't see the point of giving children - who have come from another country in the last few months and don't speak English, let alone read it - tests in English! It's well-known that one way to get a better "score" and get the school out of failing mode is to reduce the number of immigrant children in your school. Yuck. I don't know the details of the finances, but I believe there are all sorts of unfunded mandates. It's hard to tell what problems come from NCLB and what comes from my district.

Anyway, here's a petition that I don't think will do any good, but might make people think just a little bit. And here's a dentist analogy that, while being overly simplistic, does still show the inherent problems in NCLB. Check it out.

For the record, I don't think any politicians have done ANYTHING productive in my lifetime, so I'm not ready to go out and campaign for the Democrats either. But I have a particularly hard time with George W. who appears to have the same level of understanding for inner-city black kids on food stamps as he would for little green men on Mars. Actually, he'd probably just bomb the green men on Mars, so that might be easier for him...

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Science With Mr. Smith!

Warren came to teach the kids science a few weeks ago. It may or may not have started by me begging him to bring dry ice to the classroom, after remembering his "bubbling cauldron" made of water, dry ice, and 5 gallon buckets last Halloween. Or it may be thanks to his firm belief that kids need science experiments. Either way, we reaped the benefits at Mr. Smith's Science Time.

States of Matter is one of the science topics that is supposed to be covered in the third grade curriculum. It's often not, thanks to the standardized tests that have caused many schools to stick to teaching only the subjects that will be assessed at the end of the year. It's a shame, because children need motivation to learn, not just endless sound/spelling correspondences. For many children (and possibly adults??), there's something about the hands-on drive to satisfy curiosity that makes science different and special and might actually cause them to buy into school.

Anyway. We were fortunate enough to have our friend Mr. Smith come to teach states of matter.

Warren brought a camping stove, a big pot, a glass bottle, dry ice, some candles, a jar, balloons, baking soda, and vinegar. This is when the kids KNEW that science was going to be fun. He explained the difference in molecular activity of solids, liquids, and gases - using kids as examples of molecules moving at different speeds.

He showed the kids that air is actually a substance by making carbon dioxide gas with baking soda and vinegar in a jar. As the students watched, the - invisible to them - gas put out the candle flames. It was like magic!

There were all sorts of other experiments and demonstrations, including blowing up a balloon with the carbon dioxide gas from the vinegar and baking soda reaction, creating a vacuum inside a plastic soda bottle, and others that I'm not remembering because I'm not looking at the wonderful write-ups the kids did. I will include those at some point because they show the excitement that was imparted to the kids.

But the best part, of course, was the dry ice! He explained a little bit about what dry ice was but mostly just showed the kids how to play with it. We saw the dry ice in a pot with hot water, and as it was a few days before Halloween, the kids called it "the witches' brew." They came up and ran their hands through the fog that was created. Then Warren added dish soap and a "bubble fountain" erupted!

See - science is FUN!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Gecko

Has learned to eat mealworms. He loves them. He eats them like candy. Somehow, that's grosser than crickets to me.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The More Things Change...

...The more they stay the same.

I found this email that I wrote to some close friends back in September 2003. I'm happy to say that things have gotten a little better. A very little. A very very little. And actually, now that I think about it, what's gotten better is mostly that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. And I haven't been killed yet!

(Actually, we do have some school counselors. That's an improvement! Anyway, on to the email.)

School is so hard. There are so many problems... injustices really, that I can't deal with. Some are so little and would seem silly if they didn't add up... not having enough pencils, no scissors, no time to get ready in my room, etc. Some are bigger - how we don't have a PTA so the other schools in the district have so much more than we do. How we get less money from the district because our parents don't fight for it. How we have no support for all the drug babies and kids who are scarred by violence or who have been physically or emotionally abused, or molested. (The school psychologist has now been cut down to ONE HALF DAY a week. That's 3 hours a week. With almost 800 kids).

And then of course the huge societal problems with the inequity of public education and racism that is still very blatant, etc. And I just can't seem to find a balance between not accepting all of this (as I don't think Christians should accept injustice of any kind) and staying sane and realizing that I can't change everything.

It doesn't help that so few people seem to care or want to help. I have had lots of wonderful people listen to me and pray and those who can have helped however they can, but I'm the only one I know who has that, and it's not even anywhere near enough.

Even just practically, I can't keep things going well - my room is filthy because the janitors have been cut so badly in our district, I don't have enough supplies and need about $100 more to just buy the stuff I NEED for school, let alone the field trips and supplies for projects I'd love to do because these kids don't get it, I don't have the technology to get the kids to learn what they will need to know about computers, and I have 3 or 4 kids who in other schools would have individual aides or parent volunteers with them full-time because of their emotional/mental problems. Why is everyone ignoring us? I just don't understand and I don't know if I can keep doing this.

I think I'm freaking out because I saw "Mike's" football game (remember "Mike"? The terror child that I love and had in my class twice?) and he had a head injury and was taken away in an ambulance and it was really freaky. I think seeing him being taken in the ambulance freaked me out a lot, and knowing the statistics and the murder rate, I just keep thinking about when it's going to be my students, because it's going to happen.

I wish I could just pray about it and give it to God or something equally trite, but I can't do it. And I don't want to always be going on about it like I'm trying to save the world or i have the most important job ever, cause that's not true. And I don't want people to get sick of me talking about it either, but it's probably already too late for that. :) Please pray for me and for the kids.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Did You Know...

That according to the district employee directory, there is one person whose sole job is to process TB test clearances? Not that it isn't necessary; everyone who sets foot in a classroom is supposed to have a clear TB test, so that's a lot of people and a lot of TB tests. But that's got to be the most boring job in the district. All TB tests, all the time.

Some days though, I would like to have that kind of a boring job.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Eating Lunch! Or Not.

We have a 30 minute lunch period. Thirty minutes. In that thirty minute time period, I have to walk the children to and from the cafeteria and make sure they get their lunches and don't hurt each other. That takes 7-10 minutes. So now I have a 20-23 minute lunch period. Let's go with the maximum amount of time left, just to give whoever came up with the schedule the benefit of the doubt.

In twenty-three minutes, I have to use the bathroom, as this will be my first and only time to do so from 8:30 am until 2:55 pm. I'm fast. There goes another 3-5 minutes. Now I have 15-20 minutes. Again, I'll go with 20.

Twenty minutes left. Still have to make the kids' homework. That can take between 5-30 minutes, depending on if anyone's in line for the copier, if it jams, if there's paper, etc. Now we have to go with the maximum amount of time left, because if it takes 30 minutes on this hypothetical day, I'm way out of time.

OK, everything's gone perfectly, and I have 15 minutes left. Remember, I haven't even thought about eating yet. I'll still run into about 2-9 children who absolutely NEED me for something. 2-10 more minutes gone there. I'll probably have to return a phone call from someone relating to school, go to the office to check my mailbox, or send an email about a field trip. Absolutely best case scenario, the heavens are on my side... I have about 5 minutes left. Plenty of time to relax and eat! Let's hope I haven't forgotten my lunch!

Did I mention that we have a 30-minute "duty free" lunch for teachers in my district? They always did have a sense of humor.