Monday, February 22, 2010

Another Retiree

Another colleague annouced retirement today - and I found myself envious of her ability to do that. I'm so frustrated right now - and I can't quite pinpoint the reason.

1. #5 in the county English I scores
2. unclear instructions from the administration
3. lack of leadership
4. lack of focus on my part

I just don't know.

A few weeks ago, I was offered an out-of-classroom position in our school pending certain circumstances. Initially, I was excited about the opportunity, but as time goes on, I find myself less and less interested in the job. When all is said and done, the admin has presented it as a go-between between the admin and the teachers. I'd be the middle man - and I hate that. I detest the thought of having my words and actions skewed by either side.

The other side of that coin is that I could do good things for our school. I'm just not sure I'm willing to move out of the classroom to do them.

That being said, I question my committment to the classroom. There is a lot of confusion - a lot of areas to be considered. I find I function best when I follow a strong leader - maybe I need to step up and be a stronger leader. Maybe...

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Quiet the Chaos

Ok. It's been about 4 months. No, my search hasn't ended, just taken a hiatus.

This semester is very different for me. Long story short: I no longer teach journalism. I always loved the class. It offered me a break in my day. I got to work with students in a workshop atmosphere where they produced and I supervised. They got to lead the class. I liked to tease them and tell them that I was just a powerful figurehead who was choosing to remain silent. And then the class was gone...

And I LOVE it! I really thought I would miss them, the fast-paced production, the ever-present deadline, problem solving, etc. But the truth is I don't. I don't miss any of it. I finally feel like I can teach again. The constant mental chaos of that type of class is now quiet. I can think!

Now, I've spent some time analyzing exactly what this might say about me, and the only two options I can come up with are 1) I've grown too old for the fast-paced production class OR 2) I was tired of it. I like option 2 better, but I haven't abandoned option 1. :)

For the first time in about three years, I have found myself spending some quality prep time on my English lessons. I've done some things differently for the first time in a long time - and I'm enjoying processing and reflecting on my work. It seems that I can now focus on lesson planning instead of problem solving. For the past three weeks, I've been a much better teacher.

I wonder how many would-be-burn-out teachers could find some comfort if they could quiet their chaos. I didn't even know I HAD chaos. I'd gotten so used to the "noise" that I didn't realize it was there until it was gone. I see other teachers who complain about their job and students, and I wonder what's causing their chaos. I wonder if they even know it is there.

So, that's where I am right now - learning to enjoy the quiet. I don't know if this change of pace has solved my dilemma, but it has certainly given me a different attitude.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

So, Who's To Blame?

I posted my grades for the 2nd marking period today. In my first period standard class, 2 students failed. I expected it; they expected it. In my fourth period standard class - same material - 12 students out of 24 failed. Fifty percent!

The irritating thing is that most of them will be angry with me that they failed. They spent the past two days trying to get all of their missing work in or making up excuses about why they hadn't turned in anything. Fifty percent!

When that many students fail, is it the teacher's fault? In the past, when I've had large numbers perform poorly, I re-evaluated what I was doing, made some changes and saw results. This semester, with this class - nothing! I've tried so many methods and made so many variations of lessons that I'm exhausted. When is it ok for me to say, "You know what, it IS your fault. I've done all I can do."

I'm disgusted with them and with myself. I've tried to reach them, but the ones that have failed don't want to be reached - unless I am going to give them something for nothing. I've said before that I want to be the place where they stop getting passed along. Most of the time I'm fine with that sentiment. Today, however, when I saw those numbers, I really felt like a failure.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Conversations on the Lowest Common Denominator

On Thursday and Friday, I found myself in the midst of several conversations that all resonated the same theme: Catering to the lowest common denominator. I find the more I think about that topic, the more confused I become. Here's the background:

Thursday during lunch, a colleague and I were talking about how difficult one of her standard classes was because she had to constantly repeat instructions and couldn't depend on them to complete homework assignments - either reading or writing. Because of this, she was having to read all of a major novel in class. Time she believes would be better served in direct instruction. (As an aside, I tend to agree. I have done that for some standard classes with Scarlet Letter because I felt it was just too heavy for them to tackle alone.) Her comments revolved around something her father was fond of saying - the lowest common denominator.

During that same conversation, another colleague said something to the effect of: If you cater to the lowest common denominator, the denominator keeps getting lower.

Friday, the principal and I spoke briefly about a new program instituted by our county office. Without going into too much detail, around $200,000 has been spent on a dropout prevention program that allows students to use a credit recovery system to get credit for a class they fail. Now, I like the credit recovery plan. I do agree that it has helped keep some students in school. My concern is this: When do we spend money on the students that want to excel? It seems that in our efforts to pull up the bottom, we are simply letting the top slide down too.

During youth group about 25 years ago, I remember our youth leader saying that it was easier to pull someone down than to pull someone up. She illustrated this point by having someone stand in a chair and another sit on the floor. The person in the chair was pulled down. Her point was for us to make good Christian friends. Now, I'm seeing that scenario in public education. The people on the bottom are pulling down those on top.

So, now I sound like an elitist and that most certainly isn't my stance. I just find myself irritated that the lowest common denominator (the immature, the apathetic) get to set the standards for everyone else.

Which leads me to the final conversation of this topic. Another colleague in another setting commented that she was done dealing with the kids that disrupted her class and her students. She's just sending them out. She wants to focus on the ones that want to be there - and she wants to teach such that they all want to be there. Is that the balance, then?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Updating on a not-so-good day

I haven't written in awhile, but it is only because I didn't really have anything new to share. School is school; work is work. I've continued thinking about other career options while trying to improve my teaching. I've had some success and felt pretty good about some things.

But today was a day that my patience and my fortitude was truly tested.

On the way to work, I prayed that God would guide me to be a good leader, a good friend, a good teacher. I walked in the door and was slammed from minute one. One of our department was out sick and there was no sub. Normally that doesn't bother me, but I feel like I've had to go to other departments and ask them to cover so much this year.

As I was trying to arrange for 1st period to be covered, I had seniors coming in wanting to know if I'd graded their senior project papers. Then, I couldn't find the person I needed to cover the first half of first period. When I asked an administrator if he could help me for 5 minutes, he told me he had to do a uniform check and would try to get there.

My response was, "Nevermind. I'll handle it."

So, I go to my room and get my kids started then go to the other room down the hall and work with those students. I'm running back and forth between classes for the first 15 minutes of the period.

Ok - enough whining. I guess I just felt stressed and pressed all day. I couldn't seem to catch a break.

I even tried using the CPS system in my 4th period class. I'm looking for anything new to help those kids and keep their attention. They were great - as far as trying something new goes. They were little craps for cheating on the quiz I gave them using the CPS. I was too frustrated with the day to even care. But, I did tell them that I wouldn't use it for a quiz again - and they were disappointed. They really like that system. Oh well - I have to be the bad guy because I can't stand a cheater.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Next Part: The Down

Last week, I posted an UP - very proud of that. I actually have had several ups this week that I'll mention later. Right now, let's get to the DOWN.

Research. Even now, I just sigh with despair. How to teach 16 year olds that research does not equal google or wiki? That is the question. Over the past few years, I've used the term "academic research" in place of the antiquated "research." Our instant-gratification-society has all but eliminated the idea that you have to spend some time doing anything, much less spend some time looking up something that wikipedia already has a page on.

At the end of last year, I decided to eliminate the one big research project of the semester. Instead, I would have students do mini-research projects all along. All of these projects would be designed to lead up to them being able to do a research paper. So three weeks ago, I initiated the first research assignment.

Students had to look up "talking points" of the health care reform debate. They had to identify the source their "talking point" came from and decide whether it was a liberal, conservative, or neutral source. HOLY CRAP - WHAT WAS I THINKING?!?!?!?

In my mind, this was a simple project that would allow them to find out information about a very relevant current event. I even got them started in class by modeling what I expected them to do. I wanted to cry after the first 15 minutes in the library. The next day, I addressed some issues/questions that everyone had about the assignment, and off we went to the library again. I wanted to drink heavily after the first 15 minutes in the library.

I've spent a great deal of time thinking about the assignment and looking at what they turned in. I still can't decide if it was the multiple-step assignment that they didn't understand, if it was the concept of a talking point that eluded them, if it was the idea that they had to read the websites that frustrated them, or if they are just not able to do the work. (I typed and erased "if they aren't smart enough for this level of thinking." I honestly don't believe that in my heart of hearts.)

Overall, the total project was a failure. The kids learned just about nothing; I was frustrated beyond belief. Before I gave the assignment, I told them my goal for academic research lessons for the semester. They knew that this was a minor assignment designed to gauge their research skills. Afterwords, I told them that I was very disappointed in the way the assignment turned out, and that the majority of the disappointment lay with me and my lack of planning.

I really am trying to examine this fiasco and learn something from it, but I just don't know where to start. I did give them another research assignment that was much simpler, much more focused, and much shorter. I even felt it was too simple - find 5 facts on transcendentalism and cite your source. The facts had to come from 5 different websites - no pedias or dictionaries allowed. Some students had difficulty with "a fact!"

Needless to say, I'm feeling frustrated with this. I really need some guidance on teaching academic research!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

An Up, A Down, A Let's Try Again...

I haven't written in awhile which does not at all fit in with my original plan, but I've had to really process this one. (That's for you Ali.)

An Up:
Two weeks ago, my class moved into Romanticism. I always begin by showing "Rip Van Winkle" and discussing the shift from logical thinking to imagination. It's a great introductory lesson. I've used the same lesson for a number of years, and I feel very good about it's purpose and follow through. I haven't ever, however, felt that way about teaching the next piece "The Devil and Tom Walker." I've tried numerous activities and methods to make this story work. The problem is that the students have to read the story - and they rarely do that. None of the activities work unless they read the story. I've tried the CD and had them follow along; I've tried having them read it aloud and/or silently; I've assigned it for homework; I've given pop quizzes; I've given read along guides - NOTHING.

This year, I decided that I was going to try yet another method to teach something I really like to kids that had no interest. I spent hours - literally - looking up different teaching techniques for this story. All to no avail. I had to dig in and rely on my own creativity. The first time period we study is Puritanism with a strong religious focus. While Romanticism is the third time period, it comes pretty quickly on the heels of Puritanism. So, I thought, "Why not let the Devil be a starting point?" I found a couple of video clips from The History Channel's documentary on The Devil and showed them in class. The main concept was that people have been making pacts with The Devil since the beginning of time. We then discussed the Faust legend and recalled recent movies with that same theme. From there, we began reading.

I had them read the first paragraph (which is kind of long) silently while thinking about the focus on the past. Then, I read aloud to them. I pulled out all of the stops - they especially liked my devil voice. I only read a couple of pages to them. Then I stopped reading and told them the next portion of the story. We skipped a page or so of reading!! They then read a few paragraphs on their own. I told the next section, and then I finished reading the story aloud.

NO ONE FELL ASLEEP! Every student that was there understood the story. I was elated. They all said they liked the story. Wow!

At first my English teacher instinct berailed me for not reading every word. I felt some guilt about it; I guess I still do. However, I feel so proud that I kept EVERY kid with me for a 90-minute lesson which was mostly devoted to literature. Usually, I try to pare down my lit lessons to 30 minutes. The nature of this story doesn't allow that luxury. It has to be read in one sitting or the mood of the story is lost.

So, I feel good. I still have it - the ability to re-create lessons to keep the kids interested.

Tune in next time for the next part of the post - A Down, A Let's Try Again.