Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Hanging by a thread

In my last post, I examined the concept of ownership as it connects to the school I teach at. Polski3 asked if I at least had ownership of my classroom.
The question made me pause. It came as an unexpected question, but one worth investigating. And my conclusion is no, I don't have ownership in my classroom.
One reason is that I don't have a classroom, I float. But I know that is not what he meant. Do I have sense that these students are "my students" is what I suspect he is getting at.
Would it be wrong to admit that quite possibly I have not invested myself completely into my students? A few of them, I know I have invested into; but on the whole, I don't think I have invested as much as I could.
The reasons are selfish. But let me share. In order to do this, though, I must temporarily suspend my New Year's Resolution of positivity. Please don't be offended.
Today marked the start to semester two. It was chaos. In the study hall I monitor with another teacher, we had a group of students, some who I have in other classes, arrive into the cafeteria and sit down, as if we were not present. They weren't supposed to be there. They were confused as to which study hall they had, and so decided to come to the cafeteria. Not one of them appeared on our list. Okay. We'll let them stay and figure out their schedules later.
What do they do? They wrestle, they drop "F-bombs," they blast their music, and then they refuse to follow our directives. They act like complete asses.
Security doesn't help.
During our recent finals, I had one student walk out, twelve not even bother to show up, three who didn't finish and didn't bother to come in to finish.
I've had a student challenge me to a fight because I wouldn't let him leave study hall ten minutes before the bell rang.
One young lady told me to fuck myself when I asked to see her pass.
I've heard more "motherfucker's," "pendejo's," and "puta's" than the dictionary has words.

So, the list could go on, but I'm being positive this year. Ultimately, I don't think I have ownership of my classroom because I don't know that I want to own it. What does that mean about me as a teacher?

Sunday, January 27, 2008


When I taught in the Seattle area, I often referred to the school as "my school." A sense of ownership existed within my mind, a sense of intellectual property. This ownership evolved for what two reasons. One, the school (and by school I mean the staff, students, and administration) partnered with me. And two, a mutual investment had been made.
Ownership in any form has signficant meaning. When I finally payed off my first car, a sense of pride welled up within me. I had partnered with the loan agency and I had invested time and money into the vehicle.
What impact do we have when we have ownership of our schools? For example, I rarely refer to the school I teach at currently as "my school." And the reasons are the antithesis to the reasons I felt ownership of my previous school.
First, I have yet to experience a partnership with my staff, students, and administration--though I have made strong recent efforts with the latter. There is a strong individuality that exists at this school. Most teachers want to be left alone in their classrooms to repeat what they have done for the preceeding years. The student body as a whole would prefer to go about their business, dropping F-Bombs, skipping classes, and performing the bare minimum to get by. And the administration occupies its time with their idealogies and pet initiatives.
At my previous school, though not perfect, I always felt that my colleagues were willing to learn from each other, that my students generally wanted the opportunities we provided, and the administration at the very least took our ideas under careful consideration.
But more important than the partnership I experienced while there was the investment into me. Because my peers and my administration invested into making me a better teacher, and because my students invested time and energy into learning what I presented, I invested my heart and mind into all of them. I desperately wanted to succeed because of their investment. It made me a better teacher and a better human being.
Unfortunately, I have not experienced that same investment at the school I currently teach at. I suspect that I was hired because the administration saw potential that they could use. But I won't reach my potential unless they invest time and knowledge into me.
I want to have ownership of where I teach. I want to experience partnership and investment. If schools want to succeed, they might begin to partner with their teachers, and invest into them.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Making Daddy Prouder.

No school today due to bus vandalism. This will throw a wrench into the midterm exam schedule--we were supposed to have our first exam period today. The day off does mean another day spent with my daughter. She has figured out the way to her English teacher daddy's heart--books.
I came home from a trip to the bank to discover Tate in her room reading. Well, she will turn 2 in April, but she was definitely telling the stories in her advancing vocabulary--I am very proud. It won't be long until she's reading the classics and daddy's top ten!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

How Full is Your Bucket?

I've been on a voracious reading streak as of late. The latest selection, How Full is Your Bucket? by Tom Rath (authored Strengths Finder 2.0) and Donald Clifton, is actually for my seniors.
This group of seniors are designated as Level 2, which is the second lowest designation at my school. All year, I've struggled to get much of anything in the way of actual learning from them. We tried short stories; they didn't connect with them. We tried a Business Writing Unit with a presentation; over half of the class did not do the presentation or the writing assignments. After Beowulf came out in the movies, they asked if we could read that. The results were mixed, and I had to do most of the reading because on their own they were lost.
After finishing What Great Teachers Do Differently, I decided to abandon my attempts at literature in the classic understanding for English teachers. Instead, I searched for non-fiction texts that my students might find valuable--meaning books with information they can actually use in their worlds. I narrowed the texts to two, How Full is Your Bucket? and Please Send Money: A Financial Survival Guide for Young Adults on Their Own. The class was divided, so we'll do two book clubs simultaneously.
I began reading How Full is Your Bucket? today. The premise of the book is that positive interactions benefit us in our daily lives. I figure that my students, most of whom come from poverty and a system that does not embrace them, will have gain valuable understanding from this book.
But, trying to come up with a unit plan has me stumped. I'll admit that unit planning is a weakness of mine. I think I am great at teaching lessons, but adequate at preparing them. At any rate, the one golden idea that I have is to have the group reading How Full is Your Bucket? present the material at one of our Professional Development days. The truth is that our staff and leaders need to hear the information in this book geared towards successful business leadership.
How amazing would that be? To have some of our lowest academic students (mostly because of poor effort) teaching our staff the importance of filling each others' buckets with positive thoughts? Now that would be a lesson.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Something Happened

Back in June of 2007, I turned thirty. This event did not register with me as having any great significance. Today it registered.
To make money during my high school years, I worked at McDonald's. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. When you repeat numbers thousands of times, you tend to remember them. So the $3.17 price for the two cheesburger meal will always remain in my head--recalling it may become difficult in later years!
Today, I stopped at a McDonald's to pick up a quick late dinner. I wasn't super hungry, so I ordered three items off the dollar menu--one double cheesburger, a small fry, and a small drink. The price: $3.24.
Now for the "something" happening. I'm officially old. It's been said before, but as I drove away I said to myself: "I remember when an entire extra value meal cost less than this." I have begun to say things that old people say!!! AAAAAHHHHH.
Pretty soon, my students will figure out that I am old. I can see it now, I make a reference to the good 'ole days of rap, when guys like Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac ruled the airwaves. The kids will look up and say, "Who? Dude, you're old."

Monday, January 14, 2008

Great Teachers--Fake it.

"Even the best teachers may not like all their students--but they act as if they do." And so Whitaker takes on another aspect of what great teachers do differently from the rest of us. His seventh chapter lays the groundwork for improving the amount and quality of praise towards our students.
Praising my students is an area I need to improve on. It isn't that I don't praise; it is that I don't praise the little things. As an adult, it is easy to forget that sometimes the little things deserve praise. Like when Johnny brings a pencil to class. I don't think that is deserving of praise, but for Johnny, it is worth noting.

Friday, January 11, 2008

My Top Ten and a Teacher Moment

Finally, after waiting since September for that one teacher moment when I remember all that is good about what we do, the day arrived. One of my seniors, a young woman with a world of baggage she carries around, walked into class today for the fifth consecutive day. She hadn't done that all year. The moment demanded a spot in this blog.

And now to my top ten. In a discussion about why I bother teaching Beowulf, a student asked me to list my favorite novels (I include a play). I may have created a list like this before, but on this day it went as follows:
1. Godric by Frederick Buechner
2. The Tempest by William Shakespeare
3. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
4. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
5. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
6. Glittering Images by Susan Howatch
7. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
8. The Book of Bebb by Frederick Buechner
9. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
10. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

Every one of those stories created a sense of uneasiness and pleasure. I cried at times, and I laughed at times.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Great Teachers

In Chapter Six of What Great Teachers Do Differently, Whitaker writes, "Great teachers know who is the variable in the classroom: They are." Again, my first reaction was to quit reading. Variables are inconsistent, whimsical, and lack a bit of logic. I don't think that a great teacher is inconsistent as my initial reaction to the word might indicate.
But I wanted to give Whitaker the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he intended the word variable to connote the capability of changing. Which, if that is true, I can see his point. If we want to become great, we must recognize when our methods lack efficacy and change those methods. But, Whitaker's first paragraph under the subheading on page 37 reads:
How many of you could predict which teacher in your school will send the most students to the office next year? How about the year after that? When I ask a roomful of principals this question, pretty much every hand goes up. I then ask, "How can you possibly know this? Do you already have the student rosters made up?" The answer is very simple: They know because the main variable in a classroom is not the students. The main variable is the teacher.

So I remained frustrated with Whitaker. Maybe I am just not getting it, and if that is the case, I'd like clarification. But that example seems to show that teachers tend to have consistent behaviors, not inconsistent ones.
Throughout the chapter, Whitaker offers the premise that great teachers understand that student failure, in whatever capacity--behavior or academics, is the result of teacher action. Is it only because I am a classroom teacher that I find this belief incorrect? I hope not.
I take pride in analyzing my actions as a teacher. I feel aware of my failures. But, today when I tried to redirect my freshmen, when I tried proximity, when I tried direct statements and that one boy refused to take out a pencil to complete the assignment, I couldn't help but wonder how exactly that was my fault. Every other student in the room had his or her pencil out and worked actively. My behavior was consistent with my behaviors from the day before and with other students. So how was I the variable in that moment?
Whitaker is right, that great teachers anaylze their failures and change. But great teachers also understand that not every failure is their fault.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Great Teachers

It is easy to discount information based simply on whether we agree with the author or not, but if we did that, we'd be just like our immature students. I nearly stopped reading Todd Whitaker's What Great Teachers Do Differently because of the following quote:
"I believe that what I am saying is important, and of course, I want my audience to give me their full attention--but it's my job to gain, and to keep, their attention. If I'm not doing that, I need to change my approach. Just like in the classroom, we must always work to engage the students. If the students are not focused, great teachers ask what they themselves can do differently" (34).

It comes at the end of Chapter 5, and it was nearly the last I read of it. First, there is one serious flaw in Whitaker's analogy. People attending his speeches have paid money to attend; therefore, we can presume those attendees want to be there. School attendance, on the other hand, is mandated by the state or parents. Our attendees don't all want to be there.

Second, Whitaker keeps with the notion that our job is to entertain our students, only he uses the eduspeak word engage. I take issue with the idea that my job is to engage. It certainly is a part of my job, and there are plenty of teachers with great knowledge who just can't convey that information to the student.

And yet, I still asked myself some tough questions. What if my subject matter, as it has been traditionally taught, is not all that important after all? I mean, does a student with no desire, or chance, to attend college, need to read Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, or even Harry Potter? Maybe not. Instead, maybe we should focus on material that might engage students. Books like, Let's Get Real About Money! or the source of some recent posts of mine, Strengthsfinder 2.0.

Whatever the answer may be, I will hold firm in my belief that there are no close analogies that can explain the classroom. No system exists that is quite like it. Does that mean I can't be a great teacher? I hope not.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

In Their Own Words

The Washington Post is running a series on teachers trying to succeed with difficult students. I know the feelings.