Tuesday, August 26, 2008

And so it begins

Tomorrow I report bright and early for the official start of the 2008-2009 school year. The students come on Thursday. I was in today for seven hours and accomplished maybe 1/10 of what I had wanted to do.

It was almost surreal being back in the classroom and seeing how fast the time goes. I suppose this is one reason I really enjoy my job. It totally engrosses me, to the point where I wish time would stop so I could do what needs to be done. I honestly enjoy about 90 percent of the responsibilities that the job entails. The other 10 percent? A topic for a future post.

One new thing I am doing for the start of school is providing students with a "map" of my classroom. It will explain where everything is, from the electric pencil sharpener and printer to the hand sanitizer and tissues. On the back of this illustration will be FAQs about the class. It will contain some procedures, reminders about the grading system, homework, weekly quizzes, etc.

I want it to be informative and user-friendly, unlike the syllabi and teacher expectations guide we are required to distribute, which I find too dense and verbose for students who are inundated with paperwork the first few days back.

Hopefully it will answer their questions, put them at ease, and allow them to focus on their assignments, as they're going to have a lot of work to do! (And, alas, so will I.)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Do you have my Chalk?

In the words of second year math teacher The Smallest Twine, if you haven't seen the movie Chalk, you need to get on that!

Filmed in the mocumentary style of The Office, Chalk chronicles the lives of three teachers and a vice principal through a year at their high school. It's one of the best movies on teaching I've seen. Why? Because it shows the profession as it truly is, and doesn't glorify teachers into superheros who do the impossible at a detriment to themselves or their family.

As you might remember from this post, I am not a fan of Freedom Writers or other films that suggest good teachers must be selfless miracle workers. Teaching is a job - a profession - not a higher calling by some divine energy. Teaching is also not a "gift." Good teachers are not "blessed" with an affinity for the job. They learn to become competent and successful over time through experience, good mentoring and support, professional development, and continued education.

It's a well established fact that individuals in the education profession need the above to become successful. Yet why is it that many mentoring programs (my school excluded - ours is legitimate and was extremely beneficial for my development) are superficial, that teacher support is undervalued by administrators, that school-sponsored professional development usually has no relevance or application in the classroom, and that teachers have to spend their OWN money to take classes that are either required or will allow them to do their jobs more effectively?

Why is it that the state will pay for police officers to take college courses and earn degrees, but not teachers? It's absurd.

Check out the Chalk trailer below, then head out to your local video store and rent it this weekend. If you share some of the righteous indignation about the teaching profession that I do, Chalk will resonate as it brings to light many of the job's absurdities.

It will also remind you of its importance, and why it's necessary to do it as well as you can.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Lessons from the Red Sox

Yesterday I went to watch the Red Sox take on the Texas Rangers at Fenway Park. This was the first game I'd gone to in a while that didn't feature Manny Ramirez batting cleanup. While explaining to my wife how David Ortiz benefited from having a premier hitter like Manny batting behind him, a fan sitting in front of me who overhead the conversation said, "What's the matter with Yuke?"

He was referring to Kevin Youkilis, the player who was batting cleanup the night we were there. "Nothing," I said. "Yuke's awesome."

"Manny sucks," was his reply.

Oh how quickly memories fade. You might recall this post from last summer about Manny being Manny. Manny certainly could be frustrating, but he was endearing, and without question was one of the most prolific hitters in Red Sox history. Just four years ago he was MVP of the World Series as he helped bring Boston its first championship in 86 years.

Now I don't condone Manny's recent behavior. He pushed a Red Sox employee to the ground. He slapped Youkilis in the dugout. He feigned injury when his team needed his bat in the lineup. As a result of these transgressions (and others shielded from the public), Man-Ram was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Pittsburgh Pirate Jason Bay. Just like that, the Red Sox were free of their idiot-savant slugger.

I think the Sox did the right thing, as Manny was undoubtedly a distraction, and negatively impacted team chemistry to the point where they've gone 10-3 since the trade. Amazing how the absence of one individual can have such a positive effect.

It's very similar - if not identical - to teaching. If students really want to be disruptive, they can, without question ruin the class experience for everyone. I feel it's important for teachers to have the authority and confidence to remove students from their classroom when they're unable to behave, just as the Sox were able to remove Manny.

Teachers need to be able to consistently draw the line and let their charges know what will not be tolerated. I once had a student yell out in class, "AIDS was invented when someone f---ed a monkey!" I told him that I just couldn't allow that comment in my classroom, regardless of context. (We were discussing Hesse's Siddhartha, and how the main character learns the art of love from Kamala the courtesan.)

He knew his comment was out-of-bounds, accepted that I didn't have a vendetta against him, and walked quietly out of the room without further incident.

There are just some behaviors that a teacher can not allow to occur. When they do, educators need to be able to pull the trigger and swiftly mitigate the situation. I am not a proponent of removing students from my classroom. I only send a handful out each year, and it is because they cross a very distinct line.

When students return to my classroom the next day, they're usually much better behaved, and we're able to talk about their transgressions and work out a plan so they don't happen again. Sometimes though, on rare occasions, every educator wishes he could execute a trade that would send a problem student away, never to return. Thankfully I've only had one or two of these students.

I think it's healthy to admit that there will occasionally be students you'll clash with, and that it is OK. The key is keeping collateral damage to a minimum while you do your best to work with what you've got. And when what you've got isn't working at all, give Theo Epstein a call. He just might be able to swing a deadline deal.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Is online reading "real" reading?

The New York Times article "Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?" has made its way across the education blogosphere in recent weeks as educators, students, and parents weigh-in on the merits and criticisms of reading Internet text.

There's little doubt in my mind that novel reading and Internet reading are different. Sure, both activities involve the processes of reading, yet most of the digital reading I do is efferent reading - reading done to elicit facts or information. When I sit down to read a novel, I am reading aesthetically - becoming absorbed in the world of the text as I attempt to recreate it in my mind and experience it as the characters do.

I don't think one is better than the other. I believe they're complimentary. It's also certainly possible to find aesthetic texts on the Internet - serial novels, poetry, short stories - and there's no doubt millions of efferent texts exist in print (textbooks, newspapers, encyclopedias, manuals, etc).

What is your digital reading experience like? Does it dominate or compliment your overall reading identity? Do you agree that digital reading is the "intellectual equivalent of empty calories" or is it "cognitively demanding" and legitimate?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Weighty sentiments and a vista

As I'm sure you've probably realized, I've been on vacation. Not only a vacation from school, but also a hiatus from blogging. Between a wedding, honeymoon, week-long hike on the Appalachian Trail in Vermont, and a new house I'm still moving into, I've been busy.

Unlike last summer when I blogged rather frequently, this year has been full of adventures, commitments, and activities outside the electronic realm. This is a good thing, as one benefit is I've been jogging nearly every day for the past few weeks.

Up until the past couple of years, I'd always been in relatively good shape. I ran cross-country in high school (my best mile was 5:10) and also played recreational basketball. I continued jogging and shooting hoops throughout college, my tenure as a newspaper journalist, and graduate school.

It wasn't until after my first year as a high school English teacher that I fully understood how much time, work, and dedication the job truly required if one was to do it well. While I've definitely made significant strides in my teaching from year one to what will now be year five this fall, I can't say the gains I've made in my body have been all that positive. I've probably put on about 20 pounds since I first started teaching.

One of my goals for 2008-2009 is to find a better balance between school's demands and my own personal health. This means continuing to jog and eat well. It also means getting to bed at a reasonable hour. My natural circadian rhythm finds me wanting to go to sleep at 2 a.m. and wake up at 10. When I was a reporter, my penchant for late nights meshed well with the job, as I usually went in to work around 3 p.m. and stayed until midnight or later.

During the school year, I usually wake at 5:00 a.m. I like getting to school just a little after 6:00, as I find I'm able to accomplish a lot in the quiet morning hours. The one caveat is that I need to go to sleep significantly earlier than I'm naturally inclined. I'm the type of person who needs a full eight hours of sleep to function, although I can get by with seven. More often than not, though, the past few school years I've ended up getting about five hours of sleep each night, coming home tired, eating something because I'm hungry because I ate lunch at 10:30 in the morning, taking a nap, then eating something again.

Obviously this is not a pattern for sustainable health. This year I will strive to eliminate afternoon naps and force myself to stop whatever I may be doing once it becomes 9:30 p.m., brush my teeth, and get to bed. My afternoons will consist of something active (a jog, a swim, a game of hoops, a bike ride), and I'll eat dinner at a reasonable hour. Rather than join a gym, I'm planning on getting a treadmill so I can jog in the winter.

The key to this whole plan is efficient time management. The unfortunate thing is, though, that even if I arrive at school an hour early and stay an hour late each day, I still won't get everything done that needs to get done. This is the reality that those who don't teach are oblivious to. They think, "Oh, you only work a 6.5-hour day, and you have summers off and all those vacations." It doesn't need to be stated here, on an education blog, that the majority of teachers are not "off" during those vacations.

There's always a stack of papers to read, a lesson to create, a continuing ed course to complete, a PDP plan to execute, a new pedagogy to read about, a new administrative decree to carry out.

I have resigned myself to the fact that there still will be some late nights, and that there will be times when my school commitment causes me to miss a jog or eat take-out instead of something healthy. The key will be to limit those nights, keeping them the exception, rather than the rule.

For the uninitiated, it might seem like I don't enjoy my job. That's not true. I sincerely love teaching. It completely engages me and provides for a creative outlet, and I am dedicated to seeing that my students learn the material and hopefully better themselves as a result of being in my classroom.

I think the overall point of this post is that the job is all-encompassing, and when teachers have a true chance to tune off their edu-lives and rejoin the rest of the world - if only briefly - it should be celebrated, not frowned upon. The time away provides us with the distance necessary to see ourselves, reflect, and improve our practice.

I suppose this dispatch signals my return to the world of secondary education. In two weeks from now, I will meet with incoming 9th graders to welcome them to our high school and encourage them to join the Leo Club, a community service organization dedicated to helping children, and Spotlight, the student newspaper, both of which I advise. A week after that, the first late bell of the year will ring, signaling the beginning of another adventurous ride. It's a ride I'm looking forward to, and hopefully with hindsight and another year of experience under my belt, I'll be able to steer clear of hidden rocks and unhealthy currents.

The image at the top of this post was from my honeymoon in St. Kitts, taken from one of the island's inactive volcanoes.