Saturday, December 22, 2007

Seven Lords A Leaping...Actually Just a Meme

I've been tagged by Ms. Whatsit, to write down seven random things about me. Considering that my train of thought has been pretty random, this should be easy!

  1. I collect scottish terrier items. I had two scotties as a kid, Angus and McDuff, and began the collecting when I was five. I still collect, although I've gotten pickier over the items as I've gotten older. My favorites are items from the 1930's and 1940's when FDR had Fala, the first scottie in the White House.
  2. I was a tall flag twirler in High School (back here they call them color guard) and actually marched in the Rose Parade one year. The two things I remember the most about it was how bloody long the parade was and the absolutely horrible food they feed us afterwards.
  3. I love to knit. My grandmother taught me when I was five, I did it a little as a kid and picked it up again in my 30's. I don't like knitting sweaters, however, because I get bored by the time I'm half way through.
  4. I absolutely love W.E.B. Griffin novels. I read and re-read at least one series a year. I think my favorite is The Corps.
  5. I have absolutely no music talent whatsoever. None. Can't sing. Took piano lessons so long ago that I can't even read music anymore. I do appreciate it however, and would love to learn to play the violin or guitar one day. I listen to lots of music however, and I'm probably the only person in America who doesn't own an MP3 player or an iPod.
  6. I may teach science but I'm also a huge fan of history of well. I think hubby and I own well over 2000 books on various eras of history. I've been reading a lot of Rev War and WWII lately.
  7. I've lost 20 pounds since school started this year. The holidays are kicking my butt, but hopefully I'll get back on track when the new year starts. Going down two sizes was wonderful.
Hum, who should I tag now??? How about Elementary History Teacher, Princess Lionhead, Ms. Cornelius (check out her post on that dip Jamie Lynn Spears), Mrs. T., Darren, Teacher Girl, and Ms. M. Enjoy!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Gifts for Angels, Hot Cocoa, and Horns!

It's actually been, amazingly, a pretty good week. Perhaps it was because the kids, for whatever reason, lost their minds last week. When The Principal tells you that it's been the sort of week where she wanted to toss her purse up on her arm and walk out the building, you know it's a bad week. In between the 13 eighth grade girls who got busted with slam books (the contents of which were described as "disgusting beyond belief"), the bipolar student who threatened suicide and attempted to run away, and the chaos of the holidays and basketball season, it was a doozy. Which is why this week, which was oddly calm, was so nice.

A few weeks ago my third period (which is also my advisory class), decided that they wanted to adopt one of our angel families. Angel families are the families that we help out at the holidays with Christmas gifts and food; they all have at least one member of the family that attends our school. Every year the student council, various clubs, the PTO, the faculty and staff, local churches and other groups put together Christmas for well over 100 families. It is quite an undertaking, but the amount of good that it does for the community is beyond measure. In any case, I was talking up the canned food drive when some of the kids said they wanted to bring in cans but they really wanted to have a family to shop for. We had a pretty serious discussion about commitment, (I wasn't going to get stuck holding the bag, in other words), and they voted and decided they really wanted to do it.

To say I was impressed with these kids is an understatement.

I went to guidance and got our family, which had three boys, ages 7, 10 and 14. We knew their first names, sizes, and wishes. I sent out a letter to the parents to let them know what the kids were doing, and stressing that even a single dollar would be welcome. (I had noticed that at least two of my students in that class were actually members of Angel Families themselves.) The toys, clothes, and gift cards began to arrive and this week we spent two days wrapping them all up. I couldn't believe it! We had over 30 packages for our family! It was amazing! The kids, who can't wrap much better than I can, had a blast, and we all trooped over to guidance to deliver our packages. It was nice to hear the kids' conversations this week as they talked about buying presents for other people, and not just conversations about what they wanted. We had a fun discussion on how good it feels to do something for other people, and many of them agreed that they tended to be a bit selfish. They did good.

We had pizza and a movie for the Military Support Group this week where, in addition to pizza, we offered a shoulder to one girl whose boyfriend had broken up with her that day. I loved seeing these kids, who all have a parent deployed, rally around her and help boost her up and get over the sobbing. Halfway through the afternoon she was giggling, eating pizza, and playing with a Rubik's cube. Mamma's Girl was there, and was beaming as she'd heard from mom earlier that week. Another girl got a wake up call that morning and it was her Daddy who she hadn't heard from in three months. She said it was the best day ever and the pizza was just icing on the cake!

The Christmas Store was open again this year although it may be the last year. Our very active PTO mothers are moving on to High School this next fall and there doesn't appear to be any go-getters to fill their shoes. Stocking the Christmas Store is a lot of work and requires a lot of manpower (to go to the clearance sales and buy the stuff at dirt low prices, wrap it up so it looks nice, and to man the store), plus storage. It's such a great thing for the kids, however, and many of them would come up to me with a dollar in their hand and ask permission to go to the Christmas store. Talk about empowering.

Today was a half day which can be hell on earth. It was, however, the nicest day before break we've ever had. For one, we had a lot of kids absent. I think because Christmas is during the beginning of the week, rather than the end, that many people headed out of town early. Usually we have a few absent, but today we had a lot. I think maybe ten kids showed up in my homeroom (then again, I have one suspended, one in alternative school, and one in the hospital).

After a locker clean out, the annual student/teacher volleyball game was held and I had volunteered to watch the kids who didn't get to go (admission is two canned food items for the canned food drive). I had color pages, suduko puzzles, and crosswords ready to go. They came in, sat down, colored, listened to Christmas music and were so well-behaved (surprising considering some of the characters that were there) that I was able to get all their tests graded from the day before (and they did well!)

Earlier in the week we had the kids sign up for what they wanted to do during the half day - they had a choice of game room, or three movies. The kids fixed a plate of food (many had brought in bags of chips and cookies) and went to their assigned room. They did great. They were well behaved, didn't spill anything, and weren't running around being pills. I had bought hot chocolate mix the other night (on sale for a dollar!) and made some using the microwave in my room (we had some team money to use up or lose so we bought a frig and microwave; it's in my room so we can use the excuse that I need it for science labs). The kids loved the hot chocolate and sat and watched Shrek 2 (they sang along to the songs and actually recited all the dialog which was a bit cute and freaky at the same time).

Then at the magic hour, 10:45, the bus riders were dismissed and those of us who had walkers in our rooms headed out to wave the buses goodbye. Waving the buses goodbye takes place two times a year - before Christmas break and the last day of school. It is one of my favorite traditions, and we got to introduce it to our new teachers this year. Mrs. Language loved it - she had never seen anything like it. It really is the buses start to roll out (pretty impressive anyway, considering how many roll by), the drivers lay on the horns and the kids wave at those of us along the sidewalk who are waving back at them and yelling! It's a great way to end the first semester.

And now...two weeks of rest and relaxation!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Trials and Tribulations of Technology

One of the first things I learned when I stumbled into the world of education (after a stint in the world of corporations) was that when you have a 42 year old building and 21st century technology, things don't always work.

And that's being nice.

The District is building a lot of new buildings, due to our regional population explosion, and all these new buildings come with what they term Model Classrooms. They're awesome. They have document readers, sound systems, DVD players, big fancy screens, you name it. These work wonderfully in the new buildings because the buildings are designed to handle this equipment. Last year I was one of ten teachers in our building to get a Model Classroom (because I happen to be one of the ten teachers that was considered a "tech head" by the administration). This meant that they had to fit all this fancy technology in a room that not only wasn't really wired well, but wasn't even square.

When I came back to my room that August, I discovered that all the wires and hook-ups for the Model Classroom were on one wall, and all my network wires and hubs were on another wall. This is not an ideal situation. No one has ever been able to tell me why this was done this way and everyone that walks into the room, and sees this comments on how "this doesn't make any sense." This meant that my phone and printer were on one side of the room, but my computer and document reader were on another side of the room. In addition, the only way I could get my computer hooked up to the network, was via an airport.

I put in a work order to have a network cord run through the ceiling and dropped down next to the Model Classroom wiring so I could hard wire my computer. I was told by our tech person (who shared us with 3 other buildings so you saw her maybe once a week) that "there' s no way I'm messing with that Model Classroom stuff because I don't know anything about it." Not the answer I needed. I would put in a work order every month or so and was always told that "we don't mess with that Model Classroom stuff, we'll have to contact the vendor." And it never happened.

I ran all of last year on an airport which worked okay (not great, but okay) because I had a Mac computer. It was an Apple airport. They seemed to communicate fairly well. The lab I tended to use was all Macs, so there wasn't any huge problem. Mild problems, yes, but major, no.

And then we got a new Big Wig in Technology and it was decided that we needed to be weened off of Macs and go to Windows systems and all of a sudden there were Dell computers everywhere. Our team got a lab assigned to us (which means one lab for 6 people as we share it with a special ed teacher) and it was a Dell, so when some of us with old computers were issued new ones, we could go with Dells or Macs, our choice. Mr. Social Studies and I, who were both used to Windows systems, went with the Dells. We quickly learned that most of our technology staff knew nothing about Windows operating systems or Dell computers, so we were left hanging quite a bit of the time. Not a good situation. About the only good thing I noticed was that our former tech rep apparently refused to work on Dells as well and was no longer with the District.

Keep in mind this is the same technology department who told us not to plug anything in at the beginning of the year because they'd send around "experts" to help us...and they screwed up the network.

It rapidly became apparent that running these Dell computers off of an Apple airport didn't work very well at all. Getting an internet connection was tricky in the first place, and then it tended to drop off several times during a basic 45-minute class period. This drives the kids absolutely nuts. They'd be working on something like Study Island (which is an awesome program) and they'd be in the middle of a game and they'd lose their connections. When you only have 45 minutes to do something, and you spend well over half of that trouble-shooting technology, even the kids tend to not want to use the computers. We were told by the Tech Department that we needed Cisco routers and they were on order and they were coming.

In the meantime, I was having major computer issues with my Dell. Because I was still running off an airport I was losing connections every period. My email wouldn't work. I couldn't use some of my favorite websites that I teach with, like Brainpop because the connection would be so weak, even though the airport was in my room. In order to get anything to work, I had to reboot my computer at least once a period, sometimes twice. And, yet again, I was putting in work orders to get a network cable run through the ceiling and dropped down to where I have to have my computer station because of the Model Classroom wiring. This time I actually had new tech reps who said it could be done, but it had to be done by an outside vendor and they'd put me on the list.

And then they'd close my work order saying the work was completed.

And no one ever came and fixed the problem.

So, I did another work order. And they'd close it. And another, and they'd close it. (See the pattern here?). One of them finally told me to stop doing the work orders because I was "on the list." I found out from Mrs. Talladega, who teaches our technology kids (groups of students who do some computer repairs and maintenance in the building and who, in my opinion, know quite a bit more than the tech reps actually hired by the District) that the reason they kept closing my work order was because they get in trouble when there's one there for more than 5 days. Considering I've been issuing work orders on this same problem since August of 06, I'm sure they weren't happy. Mrs. Talladega had seen all my work orders (she reviews them to see if we can solve it in-house or bump it up to District) and she was as frustrated with the situation as I was.

Finally, last week, I lost it. I couldn't show a Brainpop video for a review, I couldn't get my emails (was expecting one from a parent that was pretty important), and I had just had it. I sent Mrs. Talladega an email telling her to find a 40 foot network cord and I'd wire the damn thing myself.

The next morning I arrive at 6:15 to find the Guidance Goober (the biggest computer geek head I know) in my room, running an network cable through the ceiling for me.

"I got sick and tired of waiting for the Technology Department to do this, so I'm doing it myself, even though we aren't supposed to," he said. He had me hooked up and running by the time the kids rolled in that morning, and now I even have a phone on my desk (and not across the room). I have a good connection. I haven't had to reboot my computer a single time. I can show a Brainpop.

The Guidance Goober is a treasure. I know he's frustrated by the limitations we currently have with technology as we've both discussed blogging and wikis for the kids which is something we'd like to do in the future once we have the capability. He's actually testing out some things along these lines (on his own, mind you) and hopefully we'll be able to get something in place soon. Of course, my kids, as long as we don't have the Cisco routers which are supposed to solve all the world's problems, will still have the same connection issues I had with the airports, so I guess it's all a moot point until we can actually connect. It's frustrating.

Mrs. Talladega, The Guidance Goober, and I, however, have a little game going. We're placing bets on when the District tech people get to their "list" and actually come out to wire my room. I'm guessing April.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Just How Many Points is Breathing Worth?

Up until last year Mrs. Eagle, Mrs. Robin and I had the kids do a model during our cell unit. This involved making a model of a plant or animal cell out of any material the kid desired, doing a presentation, and getting a grade. For most students this was an easy 100 point assignment as they didn't have to memorize anything for a test, and they could display their creativity. We had some fantastic projects over the years and the kids, for the most part, looked forward to it.

However, there were some problems. Storage of the projects was an issue. There just isn't room in my room, or any other room, to store 100-plus projects. Kids who road the bus often had trouble getting projects to school (although I've had some creative kids actually use a tennis ball as the basis of their model and they simply tucked them into their backpacks). Many of my low-income kids used the lack of money as an excuse not to do the project since they couldn't buy supplies. I didn't consider this a valid excuse as I had such a student do his out of things he scrounged out of the wastepaper baskets at school - paper clips, a paper plate, and foil - and it was one of the best projects I ever saw. However, when we noticed that more and more parents were actually doing the projects, and not the kids, we decided we'd had enough.

It's amazing how annoyed parents get when they don't get an A on an assignment they obviously did for their kid. My favorite comment from a kid regarding this was "I told my mom the cell didn't have two nuclei, but she wouldn't listen to me." Mom didn't get an A, obviously.

We have since modified our out-of-class project assignment to an in-class project assignment. This way no one can use the "we don't have money" excuse to avoid it, the parents aren't doing it, and we can get a better idea of what our students actually know regarding cells. We feel that it's just a much better way to assess. We have them put together a four-part booklet on cells which includes a cover page and title, colored and labeled drawings of a plant cell and an animal cell, a vocabulary page which lists the organelles, their definition, their function, and an analogy for each organelle ("A mitochondria is like a power plant"), and then they go through magazines and find pictures of things that represent the organelles (a picture of a fireplace for the mitochondria, for example). We provide the construction paper, the drawing paper, the crayons, the glue, the magazines, the scissors. We also gave them three full class periods to complete their project and turn it in. Those that didn't finish in the three days had the option to finish at home and turn it in the next day.

Out of 110 kids, I had 28 that did not turn in a single thing.

Nothing. At. All.

According to the rubric, if they had turned in a scrap of paper with their name, class period, and date on it, they would have received points.

I didn't even get that from these 28 kids.

This absolutely freaking blows my mind. How in the world can you sit in a class for three solid days and have absolutely nothing, nothing at all, to show for it?

By the time I had finished grading the projects I was incensed. On Monday I printed out a progress report for a typical C student (removing all identifying information of course) and showed the kids the overall grade if this student had earned an 85 on the project. It was a respectable 82%. I then showed the same progress report if the student had turned in nothing and earned a zero. The grade dropped to a 62% which is quite a bit below our passing grade of 70%. They were silent. Some actually seemed surprised that choosing not to do a 100 point project would affect their grade. (What in the hell did they think it would do?) I told them that I could not believe that they sat in that room for three days and managed to do absolutely nothing. I had been in the room, as was Mr. T the student teacher, and witnessed them all working on their projects but obviously 28 of them didn't feel it was worth the effort to turn them in.

I asked them point blank (very quietly which scares the hell out of them because when I'm quiet, I'm usually pretty mad) what in the world they did for three days that they had nothing to show for it. At this point most of the students were staring intently at their desks to avoid eye contact. Only one student in five periods had the guts to raise his hand to answer my question.

"We were probably goofing off and not doing what we were supposed to do," he said.

Ya think?

I gave them until tomorrow to turn in their project for half credit. Grades are due and I'm cutting them off.

As of today, Thursday, not one has managed to turn in their project. If Santa brings these kids anything, let it be a work ethic.

Post script - Mrs. Eagle and I did a brief check of project turn-in percentages when we did the outside "do a model anyway you want" project, and the do it in class project. Despite the 28 that chose not to turn anything in, we have a higher turn in percentage than we did previously. Sad. On some of our other projects, where the kids get choices as some people mentioned, the turn in isn't any better. We do a lot of projects where kids get a chance to present the information in a format of their choice, and most of them chose to do a poster or, at the most, a PowerPoint. Despite giving them the option of doing a video or a website, none of us have ever had a student chose these options. Perhaps if we had video equipment at school (heck, I don't even own my own video camera) and a computer lab they could use on their own time, it might change. Hard to say. Regardless, even when given choices they are choosing not to do the work, perhaps because they know, in the end, it doesn't matter. They'll all get socially promoted anyway.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

For the Scientist in all of us.

Mrs. Eagle and I attended our first NSTA (National Science Teacher Association) convention this past week. We had been planning this since August, but still were a bit surprised when we realized that it was this past week because things have been so busy and crazy at school. Sort of like Christmas creeping up on me (I still have pumpkins on my porch.) Mr. T is done with his student teaching so I was thrilled to be back in the classroom with my kids, but disappointed that I only had three days and then I was off again to the conference in Birmingham.

In any case, we got up way early on Thursday and drove down, registered, and started hitting the sessions we'd checked off as being of interest. We had two goals for this conference - 1) get more ideas on literacy and science and 2) get ideas on the new standards we'll be teaching in two years. The state has dramatically changed our standards so we'll be losing matter and weather and gaining genetics, rocks, minerals and some earth science, and simple machines. We'll also be looking at a new textbook beginning next year so we wanted to see what was out there currently.

The sessions were, for the most part, exactly what we needed. I can honestly say that we brought away at least one good idea (often more) from each session we attended with the exception of one that was geared a lot more towards high school teachers. Some of the vendor sponsored sessions were exactly what we needed as they highlighted products we weren't currently familiar with.

And of course all the free stuff was pretty cool too.

Mrs. Eagle won a $50 forensic lab kit. I didn't win anything but we were given copies of new textbooks, t-shirts, rock sets, cotton seeds, and more. In fact, there are about 3 huge bags in the trunk of my car with all the goodies that were given out to the folks at the conference. Of course we also shopped quite a bit (who can resist a stuffed Einstein doll?) and picked up some books on simple machines, minerals, famous scientists, and more.

We noticed that one of the trends many of the book publishers were featuring were modules, rather than textbooks. We actually liked this idea because most textbooks are geared towards a single branch of science. For example, most states consider seventh grade the year that life science is taught so there's lots of life science books geared towards this grade. However, as you probably figured out, we teach a little of this, a little of that, and finding a book that is a perfect fit is a pain. However, these modules would work out really well. Each grade level could use the books in the set that works for them. We'll have to see if this idea flies when we actually go through the textbook adoption process next year.

In any case, we arrived back home on Saturday afternoon. I have a ton of laundry to do, I haven't read blogs in a week, Christmas gifts to wrap and get ready to mail out, plus cell projects to grade.

And I can't wait to see the note from my sub!