Friday, March 8, 2013

Closing the Door, You Leave the World Behind

I've been hiding. Whaaaaat?

Yes, I was hiding all last year. If I had been blogging, I would have been complaining about the hardships of life and school, and I just couldn't do that to you all. So here I find myself wondering, "Where are we?"

Texting and Facebook are out of control, kids watch way too many R-rated films, One Direction is worshiped by 10-year-old-girls, and Michael Jackson died  3 1/2 years ago.

Okay, I think we're caught up.

Today in class, we were going over a page in the students' homework about similes. The similes were started for them, and they had to finish it. For example:

As tall as a ______________
As smart as _____________
As cold as ______________

When I called on a student that said, "As cold as ice," I couldn't help myself. I felt it swelling inside of me. I couldn't stop the surge. I broke into song: "You're as cold as ice, you're willing to sacrifice....[trails off]."

The students looked at my crazy eyes with confusion, and maybe some fear that I had completely lost it. I told them, "It's a song! Have any of you heard it?" I knew damn well that there were no Foreigner fans in the audience. Not one student had heard the song, so...yes, I did it. I plugged my iPhone into the speaker and played them the first minute or so of the song.

I am an educator. My job is to educate and I feel it is necessary for future generations to know that Foreigner DID actually write some songs that weren't just about getting drunk.

I hope everyone out there is navigating their way through these times that move at light speed and lack Foreigner fans.

Peace out.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Oh, It's THAT Bad

When I drove home from my first day of school this year (back from summer vacation), I was cruising along the 580 freeway with the windows down and the stereo blasting. Suddenly a song came on the radio and I really started singing along. My spirit felt uplifted. Then it hit me. Oh, crap! This is that stupid Pina Colada song. What the heck am I doing? I make fun of this song. I have ALWAYS made fun of this song! Now I'm singing along to it, bobbing my head and feeling happy? I have seriously lost it.

First I wanted to blame the students in my class. Thought bubble says, "Well, it WAS the first day back and the kids were tired, I was tired, and it was really hot today too. So the fact that I sang along to the Pina Colada song could have just been pure delirium."

But no matter how many excuses I tried to create for why I would sing the Pina Colada song, it really just didn't quite explain it. I think I have to chalk it up to age. The painful truth.

When I first started teaching I felt like I had my finger firmly on the pulse of pop culture. I prided myself in knowing the latest musical artists, TV shows, even some video games. But I have fallen WAY behind in the last few years. I have no clue what's going on any more with today's youth. I still buy CD's, I still have my paper address book, I prefer a phone call over a text, I know how to (really) type, and I don't have WII, XBox, PlayStation, or Nintendo DS. I think the new "Call of Duty" video game should never be sold to children. I'm old.

Now I find myself listening to an "Oldies" radio station sometimes. "Oldies" are now the songs I listened to in Jr. High and High School. I'm one of those adults that listens to the songs of my youth, replaying memories associated with different songs.
For my parents' generation it was the Four Tops and the Spinners. For me it's the Police, Journey, Fleetwood Mac, and the likes that are now Oldies.

Last weekend I was hanging out with a 20-something year old and she was talking about all the great Hip-Hop music when she was a little kid. Well, she's talking about my favorite era of Hip-Hop (though true music aficionados would never call it "Hip-Hop"). While she was a little kid, I was changing careers, after already burning out on career #1, and listening to the ancient sounds of TLC, R. Kelly (before we knew his preferences), Tevin Campbell, Boyz II Men, Bell Biv Devoe, etc. It made me feel ooooooold. That music is Old School now. In my mind it was just a few years ago. Again, a sign of age.

Once you pass a certain age, old is just old. 10 years might as well be 100. Whenever I play a song for my students at school, I like to quiz them to see if anyone knows the artist. The other day, a student was playing with a rubber band in class, so as I took it away from him I said, "We're gonna call you the Rubberband Man! Does anyone know that song?"

Blank stares.

I break into song with, "The Rubberband, Rubberband Man. Do-do do do do do-do do-do."

Blank stares.

"I'll bring it in tomorrow."

And so I did. When I played it, I asked if anyone knew the group that sings it. Well, as I said, old is old. The first guess is almost always Elvis Presley, then The Beatles. A little before my musical prime, but at least they know that music existed before Justin Beiber.

Finally I explain that it's the Spinners.

They asked to hear it again, so I played it again. My memories of listening to it as a child rushed back to me and remembering my next door neighbor that did a baton routine to it. It's a very catchy tune. The students started singing and dancing along, so much so that we got a call from the teacher next door wondering what all the ruckus was about. It was a great time...and I think I've redeemed myself for singing that darn Pina Colada song. But here it is for all of you dorks!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

I'm moving to a classroom that actually has windows and lets in natural light. Imagine that! So, it's a lot of work to pack everything up and move it - even though it's only next door. Schlepping all of my stuff falls under the "I asked for this" category, so I can't complain. The benefits will far outweigh the pain I'm going through now.

I've been really surprised that so many of my colleagues are also at school setting up their classrooms this week. I always end up going in a few days early to get everything done, but a full week? Really? Really.

Being at school a full week before it officially starts seems WRONG. Wrong because no teacher is getting paid for this time. But, we go in early because it's necessary. Really. When I'm not moving rooms, I could probably get by with two extra days of work, but I know that the ONE paid day I get to prepare for students is not enough time. Here's some of what I've done the last two days:

- moved 3 file cabinets and 2 tables
- unbolted a cabinet from the wall and moved it to another wall (thanks J-Mac!)
- scraped crud off the floor with a putty knife
- repaired a table (hammer and nail style)
- beautified numerous walls with colored paper (thank u wallpapering goddess!)
- moved 34 student desks into place
- replaced a few desks that were tagged with the "F word" and "B word"
- ran a 30 foot Ethernet cable to the computer (yes, ETHERNET = public school)

I could go on, but I won't. That there is some serious physical (and time consuming) labor. I'm tired...and there's still more to do. Lots to do in fact. Lots that will have nothing to do with moving rooms. Lesson planning, gathering new materials for the year, and making copies!
Making Copies 3

I have an idea. Why not call a teacher's schedule what it really is? YES, we DO get more vacation time than the average hard-working American, but it's not the three months off that's always being quoted. Our "time off" actually offers many work opportunities! We have trainings to attend, classrooms to clean-up at the end of the year and set-up at the beginning of the year. We grade papers on nights and weekends, and do Report Cards for each student, 3 times a year. (3 x 32 students = 96 reports cards a year; each of these 96 cards have 40 boxes to mark and comments to write.) Really. I'm not complaining. I'm just sayin', let's call it what it is. I'm making the conservative estimate that I spend an additional 15 days of my "time off" doing schoolwork. (I'm leaving teacher trainings out because if it's on your time..."they can try to MAKE you go to trainings and you say NO, NO, NO!" - A.W., RIP)

So let's just put those 15 days on the teacher calendar as acknowledged work days. I'd feel better about that. It seems more respectful of my time. My pay's the same, my job's the same, we'd just be speaking the truth. I like that.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


The new school year is about to begin. Children fill the aisles of office supply stores, picking up binders, pencils, erasers, and the likes. Teachers shop for the sales to outfit a class of 32+ with markers, crayons, pencil sharpeners, pencil boxes, etc. The state standardized test scores for the last academic year are being published this week. Schools, teachers, and principals will be judged on this data. Some principals and districts will be chastised by the state if the student test scores didn't grow the required amount. Some teachers will grin for the students that performed at the "level of proficiency" and will shake their heads for the kids that they KNOW are wonderfully intelligent human beings, even though the test labels them as "Far Below Basic". My mind suddenly drifts back to a student in my class as we took this big test in May. Smart kid, great kid, funny kid, sensitive and sometimes sad kid.

It was testing time and the classroom was quiet. All the little 11-year-olds were reading and bubbling answers. At one point I was circulating the room and noticed that most of the students were about 1/2 way through the Reading test (ELA in teacher lingo). As I walked past one student's desk I noticed that he had put the test aside and appeared to be done. I stood by his desk for a minute, thinking about the facts as I understood them: 1) No one in the class was more than 1/2 way done; 2) He was not the best or fastest reader in the class; 3) He was "unofficially diagnosed" with a severe case of ADHD.

Now, this is the type of situation where I feel the most challenged. How can I investigate this and get the best possible result? "Hey, John, are you finished?" I whispered as I crouched down next to his desk.


"Hmmm." I replied, with a puzzled look on my face that I purposely exaggerated to make a point. "Did you read every story and question?"

"Uh huh." He nodded, as he averted his eyes from mine. (The TELL!)

"Okay. Let's see." I flipped through his booklet and found a stand alone question that did not require reading a passage. "What did you choose for this one?" I asked as I grabbed his answer document for verification.

He looked at the question and then said, "Um, well, I think I skipped that one."

I felt my pulse quicken, so I knew I needed to say this softly: "Did you skip any others? Because no one else in the class is done."

His eyes turned sad and he nodded. I called him to the back of the classroom and asked him to honestly tell me if he had done his best work. He admitted that perhaps "skipping" half the test and just randomly bubbling answers might not be the best strategy. He agreed to go back and give it a second look.

This is the only student I discovered that did this, but I know he's not the only one.

My students were prepared. I taught them about personification, dividing fractions, good sentence structure, verb tenses, and the Order of Operations. But one day, while I was teaching (prior to the testing), I noticed a few things about the "learning environment" of my classroom. One boy was very focused on drawing a giant block letter "T" on his paper (the first letter of his name). One girl, who had recently been absent for 5 days in a row and then another 3, was absent again. (Attempts to call home for her resulted in NO working telephone numbers.) My future "random bubbling boy" was under his desk frantically tapping a pencil on the floor. The girl next to him looked at me and shrugged her shoulders. She wasn't sure what he was doing either. I'd like to think that all of these students were still absorbing the fascinating lesson. But I don't think that. Instead I think about the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that has everyone scrambling to meet an unrealistic goal - ALL students must be proficient in Reading and Math by 2014. If they don't gain ground in their test scores, the school could lose money, more testing mandates will come down on the school, and teachers and principals can lose their jobs.

There has been lots of talk about whether or not NCLB works. I, for one, say it doesn't. One test can't be the way to measure whether or not a student is growing. For any of us that have ever bombed a test because we were nervous, tired, depressed or just plain "off" that day, we know that putting all our eggs in one basket regarding intelligence and ability is ludicrous. Most recently, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been looking into the idea of schools getting wavers to the rigid guidelines of NCLB. The question now becomes, "how do we still hold schools, teachers and districts accountable?" Duncan said that one of the provisions to the waiver is a requirement that all schools demonstrate "adequate yearly progress," or AYP, on reading and math tests by 2014 or face possible closure. He wants to focus more on recognizing programs that measure and boost achievement of individual students over time and less on the law's current priority of comparing test scores from one grade to another, year to year.

Sounds reasonable, but there is SO much red tape wrapped around the politics of our school system that I foresee just another type of test. I see the value of testing certain skills, but what we still seem to be lacking is a way to "measure" the important progress in human development. Students are being socialized in the schools too. I spend an enormous amount of time modeling and teaching these kids to be productive members of our society - how to solve problems non-violently, how to use their natural talents and strengths to take on life's challenges, how to express themselves, and how to find the support they need in order to thrive (or simply survive). These goals are not written in any State Standards, nor are they measured on any tests.

In the weeks approaching the standardized test, I "fixed" a pair of eyeglasses (if scotch tape counts as a fix), bandaged knees, fingers, and elbows. I tasted a homemade cupcake from the fingertips of a child. I saw tears flow because someone missed mom, and I heard stories of sick and dying family members. I also had many discussions with angry children about respect for one another.

These interactions are preparing them for a test too - the test of their lives, and the test of their character. Because if they don't learn about respect, love, and compassion, it won't matter that they scored "proficient" on a standardized test.

Friday, December 31, 2010

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Yes, it is that time again. Saying goodbye to the students for winter break and graciously accepting gifts from a few students and families. My first year of teaching I remember the feeling - that excitement of what could be hiding under the seasonal wrapping. After discovering a well-used stuffed animal and a mugful of hard candies, I remembered that I didn't get into teaching for the perks. It truly is the thought that counts.

A friend of mine teaches in a very affluent school district and told me about the $100 Macy's gift card she received. This was the same year that I received the mug (pictured) full of hard candy. A few problems with the mug:

1) It had lace super-glued around the edge and I could not get it off. Therefore, no using this for drinking.

2) The script reads: "Con todo mi Am of". Obviously the word "amor" got lost in translation and became "Am of". So what
should have been "With all my love" became "With all my..." uh, no direct translation.

3) The picture was just bizarre. It looked like mutant blockhead Pooh Bear twins. Even if I HAD been able to pry
the lace off, I couldn't drink out of it based on its freakish nature.

One of my colleagues shared that the most interesting present she received one year was a used tube of lipstick. Again, it's nice to be in someone's thoughts, but sometimes the thought will suffice.

It'd be nice to always get $100 gift cards, but it's certainly not what I signed on for. This year I got a beautiful knitted scarf (by my student's grandmother - insert "ahhhh" here) that has kept me warm already. I may not get a holiday bonus in my check, but I am appreciated by many of the families at my school.

I've always thought that the perks for teachers should come from big corporations. After all, the fruits of our labor will some day feed their workforce. Every once in awhile I am shocked to find an educator discount somewhere. It's kind of like having a AAA card, but with fewer discounts. Apple has a 10% educator discount, but I have to say, 10% is really nothing. It amounts to about the sales tax. I'm not (totally) complaining...I'll take it, but it's a gesture, kinda like the "it's the thought that counts" sentiment. I would hope for more from a big corporation. I WILL, however, give props to Verizon. The best kept secret is that they offered me a 15% educator discount off my wireless bill when I switched to them in November. AT&T never did that! So here's a plug for Verizon, my educator friends.

Ironically, the people that DO get lots of perks are the folks that don't need it. They are the people with money. I knew a girl that resembled Alicia Keys and she would get meals comped at restaurants because people thought she was the Grammy Award winning singer. Movie stars, athletes, and socialites get lots of free stuff when they could actually afford to pay for it all. When I was flying this holiday, I thought, "Wouldn't it be sweet to have an 'educator upgrade' to first class?" But instead I was herded into economy like all the other schmoes. I think the first class passengers must watch a special "preparation" video that tells them NOT to make eye contact with the coach/economy passengers, because as we all parade by their luxurious seats to cram into coach, they avert their eyes. On my flight last week, I thought I recognized a guy - a director - from my old industry. It really looked like him except that it's been at least 15 years and he hadn't aged a bit. I tried to catch his eyes to see if he might recognize me, but he had clearly watched the video.

Not only am I NOT comped a first class seat, but I'm probably making bad karma for 'accidentally' tossing that mug into a landfill somewhere. But I'm working that off every day that I step inside the classroom and say, "Good Morning, ladies and gentlemen."

And, after seven years, I still get a chuckle from the chorus of 32 earnest kids responding in unison: "Good Morning, Ms. Carter."

Now that's what I call a perk.

Monday, October 25, 2010

From the Mouths of Babes

Here are some excerpts from the recent stories of 5th graders:

"The big dinosaur was a fossil, but it didn't die. It lost its soul."

"The only way he can hypnotize humans is he spits goop on human heads."

"You can get this for 6 payments of $10.99, that's right, 6 payments of $10.99."

"So they took as many pictures as they could. Then they went home satisfied."

"My favorite food is my mom's enchiladas. My favorite shape is a pyramid."

"Everyone asked for mercy but he never listened. The mountain king was the biggest and baddest mountain in the world!"

"All of a sudden Wall-E characters came alive, and then mass chaos happened."

"My favorite food is pizza, but that doesn't start with a K."

"So then they sold it to a person for $6,000 and the judges gave the money to me. And so I lived happily ever after with lots of money!"

And finally, this was written at the end of a student's story:
"I am sorry I ended there, but it would be very disturbing for your human mind!"


Thanks, kids. You are the reason we keep treading water in a sea of sharks.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

You're Not So Funny Anymore

“Nations like Finland and Japan seek out the best college graduates for teaching positions, prepare them well, pay them well and treat them with respect. They make sure that all their students study the arts, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign languages, the sciences and other subjects. They do this because this is the way to ensure good education. We’re on the wrong track.”

This quote comes from Diane Ravitch, an education historian who once advocated for the importance of standardizing testing and sat by G.W. Bush's side during the implementation of No Child Left Behind. Now she's had a change of heart. Her U-turn has some people upset, but I applaud her for seeing the error of her ways.

A former colleague sent me the article awhile ago from the NY Times if you want to check it out. (Thanks, Bernie!)

The current wave of education and moves toward privatization have me depressed. As a result, I've hit a wall lately with this blog. You might call it writer's block or you might say that I'm losing my sense of humor for education. After one of my last posts a friend said, "Hey, I thought your blog was supposed to be funny. It was a little grim."


It's all a little grim. As I watch our district/state/federal government push for higher test scores and lay more and more of the load and guilt trip on the teachers, as I listen to opinions about "bad schools" and "bad teachers", I can't help but lose my sense of humor about it.

The best thing about teaching is the kids...hands down. But the extra workload and lack of resources that teachers are expected to accept (because of budget cuts) has taken the wind out of my sails. I'm dancing as fast as I can, but even Gregory Hines wouldn't be able to tap his way through this mess. I keep picturing myself jumping around a room while someone from the federal government points a pistol at my feet and keeps firing, sadistically enjoying the dance I must do to stay alive:
BULLET #1: We're increasing your class size, but you still have to raise the test scores of all those children; BULLET #2: The standardized test is the end all, be all, so forget about that pansy art, music, science and history crap; BULLET #3: There's no time for "character education" in the classroom, but find a way to make these kids good citizens anyway. Perhaps you could work it into a lesson on dividing fractions. BULLET #4: How about we pay teachers more when the students test scores improve? Don't give us this crap about absences at school, lack of parental support, ADHD, homelessness, poor nutrition and all that other stuff. As Tim Gunn would say, "Make it work". BULLET #5: Yes, yes, we know...every student learns differently. That's why it's YOUR job to teach each of those 32 children in a personal and meaningful way. Um, no, sorry we don't have any support for their special needs or for the emotionally disturbed. Doggone it, just find a way.

Now in my imaginary gun, there are only 6 bullets, so there's one left. I'm just trying to decide if I should wait for them to shoot me in the heart or if I should take my own (teaching) life and get the hell out of dodge before it's too late.

I'm finding myself rapidly approaching that question that I knew I would eventually come to with this career: Can I continue to do this "for the kids"? Or have the politics and demands gotten too insane to continue for my own self preservation?

I've been reading lots of articles lately about the private donors for education, like Bill and Melinda Gates (Microsoft), and the Waltons (WalMart), and how their personal agendas drive educational policy for the schools to which they donate. These people are not educators, nor do they have any credentials around education. They should not be making policy decisions. But when the money starts to flow, people in education begin to salivate and their judgment gets clouded. Some of these donors (including the aforementioned) are big proponents of merit pay for teachers.

Here's the HUGE problem with paying a teacher based on student test scores: No one...and I mean NO ONE will want to teach in schools where the students aren't as focused as possible. No one will want to teach the kids that come to school hungry or dirty or lacking sleep, or the ones worried about their cousin that was just shot or the ones that are writing letters to their fathers in jail. These students are rightfully preoccupied with survival! And these students usually don't score as well on a standardized test. Go figure. Then there's the issue of a culturally biased test that gives them nothing in return. Instead, they are focused on wondering when dad is coming home, or what their next meal will be. They might be simply hoping that someone will hug them and take care of them when they get home.

I pulled those examples from my personal experience with students. But if I can't pay my rent because these students aren't "Proficient" in Reading and Math on the state test, then I've got to think about teaching somewhere else or maybe not teaching at all.

I have always wanted to work with the low income students and families to give them support and to help give them a voice. But guess what? No one with the power to make changes in education (or fund the programs) wants to support them. No one wants to hear them. If I had a dime for every selfish knucklehead that said, "Why should MY money/tax dollars pay for the education of somebody else's kid? I've worked hard for what I have." (Which translates to: I don't want to support poor and/or immigrant kids.)

So instead, districts give great lip service to helping the needy, but it's never done quite right.

It's all pretty exhausting, really. I'm especially exhausted by the letters I receive at the end of the school year stating "...your services are no longer required" because of budget cuts.

You know what? My services ARE required.

But worst of all, this blog entry is not very funny, because none of this is funny.