Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Trading Places

So last week The Principal catches me in the hall and says, "Just the person I need to see."


Mrs. Squirrel is retiring, bless her heart, and after a pretty extensive search The Principal hired a replacement, although we all know that Mrs. Squirrel is irreplaceable. The new AP, Mrs. Sparrow is currently a sixth grade science teacher at another school in the district. I've actually run into her in the past during science in-service stuff, and it's nice to have a former science teacher added to the admin staff.

"Mrs. Sparrow needs to spend about a week shadowing Mrs. Squirrel, Mr. Enforcer, and myself to get a feel for the building," continued The Principal, "but her principal isn't wild about paying for a sub for a whole week, let alone having Mrs. Sparrow gone. Well, Dr. Big Wig, actually suggested that you go over there for three days and introduce her sixth graders to some seventh grade science."

Whoa. Dr. Big Wig? The Director of Middle Schools? The Principal's boss? Actually he's a real cool guy (and the first to tell you that as a child he was labeled "at risk' at one time), and he's out in the buildings quite a lot and knows most of the middle school teachers by name - which is saying something in a district this size.

"He said that since our seventh grade science scores are the highest in the district, he thought it would be good to have one of you visit Mrs. Sparrow's class and he suggested you."

(At last! A confirmation that we really were the highest in the district! Take that all you rich schools!!)

So, I agreed to spend three days at the Rich School Across Town, while one of our aides took over my class. I got with Mrs. Sparrow last week to get the lay of the land over at The Rich School Across Town, and to fill her in on what I was going to do. I actually asked my current seventh graders what they would have wanted to know about seventh grade science before they actually got to seventh grade and they all said the same thing: cells. So, with their input, I put together a three day introduction to cells.

Today was my first day there and I'll have to admit, it was a lot of fun. I have to keep reminding myself that these kids are sixth grade, not seventh, so they're even more immature than what I'm used to (but not by much). Mrs. Sparrow has her kids in desks in rows, which I haven't had for years in my room, so that's taken some getting used to as well. It's kind of nice to see different styles and procedures and ways of doing things.

The kids themselves were really nice kids, and seemed excited to have a visiting "real teacher" and not just another sub. They were really concerned about who was watching my class so I had to explain how we had aides in our building who helped teachers so one of our aides was taking care of my class. The idea of aides was new to them, but then again, this is a school that does not have 60% free and reduced lunch like my school does. They don't get funding for aides. The other thing that they were really intrigued with was how I do notes - I never have kids get out paper and take notes, we always do foldables, and they'd never seen these before.

One thing that struck me...compared to these kids, my students look like a bunch of ragamuffins. These kids obviously come from better backgrounds financially, and they show it by how they dress. It's not that they have designer clothes so much, but they are cleaner and just seem to take more care in their appearance. Their hair is combed and neat, they have clothes that are obviously clean, and they just carry themselves better. Many of my students wear the same thing day in and day out, are sloppy in their dress, and don't do as good a job with personal grooming.

Then again, I have kids who've lived in cars, and these kids all have a roof over their heads.

One of my girls that comes to mind is a quiet little thing that I have in my Fourth Period Class From The Very Depths of Hell Itself. Quiet Girl is one of about ten kids (his, hers, theirs) and there's not much money at home. I think she has maybe four outfits. Her hair is limp and stringy, her clothes aren't always clean, and things don't fit quite right. She's smart as a whip, but doesn't do any homework as she's responsible for babysitting all the younger kids when she gets home, because mom and dad are always out "shopping". We're not quite sure what they're shopping for since they don't have any money, so we're wondering if she means "shoplifting", or "shopping for drugs," as there's some anecdotal evidence that there's drug use in the home. It's sad. She's raising herself and her siblings, and is barely taken care of. Quiet Girl would stick out like a sore thumb here with all these kids at The Rich School Across Town.

That being said, it's nice to visit, but I think I'll stick with my ragamuffins. They need me more than these kids do.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Oh Yeah, By The Way...

Tuesday morning I'm walking through guidance after picking up my mail and I run into Mrs. Squirrel and wish her good morning.

"Oh good morning," she says brightly. "I'm so glad to see you. Has anyone mentioned that I'll need your help on Thursday and Friday?"

"Uh, no," I say wondering what kind of help she's talking about.

"Well, The Principal and The Enforcer have to be out at a conference and with Friday being 8th grade field day, I'm afraid that we need someone else acting as administrator just in case things get crazy and they lose their minds."

"Oh, sure," I say because, well, what else do you say to that?

"Oh that's fantastic!" she says. "We'll get your classes covered and you can help me out."

On Wednesday, The Enforcer went through the stack of referrals sitting on his desk to fill me in on what their status was, gave me his super secret computer passwords, and left his cell number just in case. This morning, after going over my lessons with the aide who was going to cover my classes, I moved into The Enforcer's office for the day and started pounding out referrals.

Oh. Good. Gracious.

Due to The Very Big Deal Government Mandated Tests, referrals had not been worked for a week. We close ISS during that week as the ISS teacher spends her time administering make-up tests. We also don't suspend kids because it's too important to have them here taking their tests. The result was a huge pile of referrals.

Which I got through.

Then went to guidance and discovered a stack twice as high and more rolling in.

Mrs. Squirrel spent her morning in the office with a hysterical parent (girl drama in the form of two best friends who got into a cat fight yesterday), so I didn't even see her for a few hours.

I spent my time calling kids, counseling kids, handing out discipline, filling out paperwork, calling parents, and although my "done" pile was growing, my "to do" didn't seem to get smaller.

What was strange is I was starting to see kids who had brand new, never been used, discipline files. Kids who had made it nearly all the way through school all year but, for whatever reason, were starting to lose it. I had a friend once tell me that this time of year in middle school was like a long road trip with a bunch of kids in a station wagon. They all like each other for the most part, but after a while, they're just sick and tired of each other and even the good kids do things they shouldn't. Especially on the bus. Good gracious, I had more bus incident reports than anyone should ever see floating across a desk!

It wasn't all bad, however. I got to get after two sixth graders who were caught kissing in the hallway. The boy informed me, before he even sat down, that "I'm through with girls for the rest of the year!" I suggested he make that until he was 30 and he agreed.

We'll see how long that vow lasts!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Party Time!

Sunshine and mild temps.

700 hot dogs and buns.

36 pizzas (cut into smallish squares)

1600 sodas.

400 bottles of water.

Dozens and dozens dozens of bags of candy.

A popcorn machine.

A cotton candy machine.

Nail painting, hair spraying, and temporary tattooing.

A dance.

Three inflatables in the parking lot.

A movie in the theater.

Door prizes ranging from MP3 players, iTunes gift cards, bathroom passes (like gold for a middle schooler), homework passes, McDonald's gift cards and more.

1000 middle school students who were on time every day and didn't miss a single one of The Very Big Deal Government Mandated Tests, and who earned "bucks" for exhibiting good test taking skills and were given the chance to spend them.

Three hours of the most amazing party The School has even thrown.

It rocked.

The best comment of the day came from the Guidance Goddess and Guidance Diva who were, for probably the first time all year, alone in the glass fronted office without a single kid waiting in a chair to see someone. "We sort of feel like the shop keepers in a town where a riot is going on and we've shuttered the windows and are peeking out now and then to watch the riot go by."

That's exactly what it seemed like. Inside guidance, calm, quiet, and peaceful. (Rare indeed). Outside? Running, yelling, screaming kids.

We fed them junk food, let them yell, run, scream, and hyped them up on sugar.

And then put them on buses and sent them home.


I'm having a beer and watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Twenty two and a half days...

Friday, April 17, 2009

Sometimes I Even Amaze Myself

Finally. Freaking. Done. With. Testing.

It has been a long, long, long week.

The kids did great during the actual testing part of the day, probably because they wanted to earn their pay, and because they knew I'd probably go psycho-postal if they so much as made a peep. I think the thought of me being psycho-postal is enough to scare even the most hardened seventh grader.

The challenge was keeping these turkeys quiet during the time between when all the testing material was collected and when I was allowed to dismiss them to their first period class. Not everyone was testing on the same schedule. Some grade levels were doing different subjects, with different times, and then there was special ed extended time, read aloud, and later in the day, the make-up testing. And then there's always the rooms around us who may have started a few minutes after us, or before us, so perhaps weren't done. After being so wonderfully quiet for the test, they wanted to really let off some steam when they were done. On Wednesday they got really loud and I was about ready to hit the psycho postal stage, and the look in my eye scared them and they quieted down. I knew, however, that it was only a momentary fear.

On Thursday I had, amazingly, a stroke of genius. I have no idea where it came from but it came, thank goodness.

I grabbed my packet of white paper for the printer. "Okay, everyone, here's the deal. I'm going to let you all talk all you want, but there's a catch. You have to write it down."

"You mean we can write notes?" one of the kids asked, incredulously.

"Exactly," I said as I put white paper out on each table. "You're going to write notes. You can write notes, play hangman, play tic tac toe, whatever, as long as you do not speak a word or make a sound."

A murmur went through the class. This is so cool! She's going to let us write notes!

On particularly paranoid hand went up. "Are you going to read them?"

"No, as you leave the room you're going to put them in the recycle bin," I answered. Frankly at this point, I didn't care what on earth they'd write as long as they'd be quiet.

"What if we want to write a note to a person at another table?" another asked.

"Then you raise the note in the air, and wait for me to come get it and I'll play mailman and deliver it." Why not? At this point I was simply waiting for the clock to tick away as well so I could go deliver my testing materials to the check in point.

They loved this idea. Heads went down, pencils scratched, notes went into the air, and I delivered mail all around the room. They played hangman, tic tac toe, and drew pictures of their favorite Japanese cartoon characters. The key thing is they were quiet.

Score one for me.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Gimme More (fake) Money!

The Principal, and the team leaders, came up with an idea to hopefully motivate our kids to try to do their on The Very Big Deal Government Mandated Tests. Sad to say, but most of our students could give a rip about grades, testing, their future, or anything remotely important, so we have to come up with ideas to motivate them because apparently hard work, doing well, and all that cool intrinsic stuff doesn't cut it with these knuckleheads.

We were moaning about it at a team leader meeting and I made the comment that these kids don't get the idea of getting paid to do a job. They're so used to the entitlements - the free and reduced lunch, the free school supplies, getting a jacket from the guidance closet if they don't have one, and so forth and so on that they don't get the idea of work. My corporate background reared its ugly head and I said that our team was thinking of actually paying kids for their work next year - we were sick and tired of getting after the kids who do nothing (which is a huge waste of energy as they don't care and it makes us cranky), and were more inclined to reward them with Bluebird Bucks or something equally stupid that could be redeemed for things like pencils, erasers, paper, and once a month, a bunch of goodies like pizza, hot dogs, cookies, and that silly trinket sort of stuff that these kids love.

And so we thought, hey, let's have them earn money for doing good test taking strategies and have an afternoon party where they could spend it and run off some steam.

The kids can earn up to four bucks each day of testing - for being on time, for being prepared, for using good testing skills (highlighting, underlining, crossing out bad answers, etc.) and for taking their time and rechecking their work. If they are at school all four days and take all four tests on time (no being tardy to school this week!), they get a bracelet that gets them into the party and they'll have $16 worth of bucks to spend. The party does have free things - a movie, a dance, and inflatables, plus they can spend the money on food, video games, and drop them in the box for drawings for things like gift cards and homework passes. Each day at the end of that day's test we hand out their bucks, they write their names on them, put them in their zip lock "party pack", and then we lock them up (they love watching you unlock and lock these as if they were real money.)

It has actually worked.

I have never, in six years of giving The Very Big Deal Government Mandated Tests, had kids take their time like this group is doing. And keep in mind, this is a group that during the year will blast through a 30 question test in ten minutes and then wonder why they failed. They are highlighting, they are crossing out things, and amazingly, they are checking their work. I've asked each day how many of them have found a mistake and at least half the class raises their hands. They couldn't wait to tell us about how they double checked everything and found - gasp! - mistakes. It's absolutely amazing to watch this.

Good gracious, we may be on to something.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Very Big Deal Government Mandated Tests Are Here!

Tomorrow starts Testing Week...the week where we basically do nothing outside of administering The Very Big Deal Government Mandated Tests which are Really, Really Important. You know, the tests where the teachers are 100% accountable for how our students learn and the parents and the kids themselves are let off the hook for any accountability whatsoever.

If I sound bitter it's because I am. After spending a year with some of the kids I've had this year and their mostly absent parents (you know, the ones who refuse to pick up the phone, come to a meeting, or do anything remotely related to parenting), I'm really not wild about being The Only One Who is Held Accountable.

Which brings me to my three darlings in alternative school. Just as a reminder, that includes Pinball Boy (whom I adore although he can turn a class upside down), Spicoli Boy (who was, at one time in his school career, advanced and an A student but has since discovered illegal substances), and Duh Boy who really can be quite bright but appears to have also discovered illegal substances (hence the visit to alternative school) and who's parents rewarded him with a new dirt bike because, as his mother told me, "he's a good kid at heart and just made one bad decision."

I don't know about you, but if I'd done something as stupid as try to buy drugs from a kid at breakfast, in the school cafeteria (caught on lovely full color digital tape), and get myself sent to alternative school my parents wouldn't have bought me a dirt bike. In fact, I doubt they'd be buying me anything outside of paying for military boarding school or grounding me until I was 45.

Duh-Boy arrived back in school last Thursday, and this morning Pinball Boy and Spicoli Boy showed up. Spicoli Boy, I might add, has not changed one bit and has won the distinction of being the first kid I've had in alternative school in six years who didn't see a huge jump in grades. Usually they go there and you'll find a kid with a 50% grade jump to 90% or higher. Spicoli Boy beat the trend and earned a 61%. Pretty sad considering that 70% is required to pass.

Pinball Boy was, well, Pinball Boy. He was ecstatic to be back and honestly, it was nice seeing him again. However, yet again, he managed to turn the class into chaos because he is - surprise! - off his meds. Sigh. Screaming, laughing, running around the room, off his meds.

I had had a feeling that I'd see him before The Very Big Deal Government Mandated Tests so I'd touched base with Mr. Enforcer and expressed my concerns. Unmedicated, Pinball Boy won't do well on the test. Even worse, unmedicated, and in my room with 24 other kids, they won't either. He can be that out of control. Mr. Enforcer, who's dealt with this kid for two years, and nearly had mom on speed-dial, agreed. He came to my room during planning and said he'd called mom and she promised she was going to have him medicated by tomorrow, but considering the number of times I've heard that, and how often it hasn't happened, we needed a Plan B. So, we have one. We'll see how he is during homeroom, and if it's apparent that he's out of control, he's going to go cool his jets in guidance and make up the test in the afternoon during the make-up sessions (which may have a handful of kids and be in a small group setting).

Hopefully it won't come to that, but it's nice to know we have some options.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Ever Have One of Those Weeks?

Coming back from Spring Break seemed tougher than usual this year.

Perhaps it's because we have The Class From Hell, and needed more than a week to recover from the exhaustion most of us have been wading through the past month. The fact that the weather has been hot, cold, hot, cold, and just can't make up its mind hasn't helped any. And knowing that the Very Big Deal Government Mandated Test is right around the corner hasn't helped either.

Monday morning it seemed like the whole team had something wrong. Mrs. Social Studies and I both had headaches and neither of us could get in the swing of things. Miss Reading was losing her voice, Mr. Math had no sleep due to a late flight and a 2 year old, and Ms. Language was turning green at various times. I don't think any of us really felt well until Thursday rolled around.

So of course this would be the week that I had something scheduled for nearly every single evening. Monday an event at the local University that hubby and I attended which was very nice and over in time to catch 24. Tuesday my college girlfriend came in from California (she's doing a road trip through the South in conjunction with a convention in Atlanta) so we did BBQ and gossiped way too late in the evening. Wednesday is Knit Night with my local knitting group. Thursday, hubby and I went and saw the documentary Brothers At War (highly recommend it). And today I'm off for Good Friday but I've spent most of the day in the basement as we're having severe weather with sirens going off and all sorts of goofy things.

So I may was well grade papers while the storms rage.

However, a few things to note.

Remember Bully Boy? The kid we suffered through for five months, then he moved, then he was back (and put on another team praise Mr. Enforcer)? Apparently his mother up and moved yet again during break and he is now supposedly somewhere in North Carolina. He's another one of those kids who never stays long enough anywhere to get any help whatsoever.

And then there's Drool Boy. Drool Boy was moved to our team because his mother thought it would be a good idea if he was on the same team our basketball coach taught on since Drool Boy wanted to play basketball. Problem is, Drool Boy may have, at best, a 50% average and isn't going anywhere near sports until he learns to wake up in class, do work, and actually care about something other than his gang-banging friends. Of course Mom is now unable to meet with us, answer the phone, or generally communicate with us about the fact that her offspring is running with a bad crowd and failing yet again. The kid is capable but, like Spicoli Boy and Stoner Boy, I suspect he's smoking something funny every morning. Hence the name Drool Boy which comes from Ms. Language who swears that he's going to drool on his desk one day since his mouth is dropping open so wide.

So the other day Drool Boy is in class and I'm reviewing elements, compounds and mixtures and I notice that Drool Boy is there with his hand in the air after I asked the class a question. A miracle! He's participating! I call on him and he blinks. Now this kid has some pretty slow reaction time, so after a minute I call on him again because his hand is still in the air. He blinks some more.

"Hum, Drool Boy, your hand is in the air," I say. "I'm guessing you want to answer the question."

Drool Boy blinks, slowly swivels his head to look up at his hand that's waving above his head, seems startled to see that, yes, that is his hand there, then slowly lowers it.

"I didn't know it was there," he mumbles.

Ah. Guess he didn't want to answer the question.

You can't make this stuff up. You honestly can't.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Who's There???

This is just one of those things that I have to share...

My cousin lives in Colorado and has the incredible talent (which I do not have) of being a wonderful photographer. She never goes anywhere without her camera, and considering that she likes to get out and hike, and travel off the beaten path, she gets some fantastic pictures. I've told her again and again that she should make some of her pictures into notecards and calendars but she's much to modest.

Anyhow, she sent me the above picture today which she took out at the family farm. This is the same farm that I spent all my summers at and it holds a very fond place in my heart. Sadly, it will most likely be leaving the family soon (after nearly 60 years) because there's no one to take over the operation. Both of my cousins have careers in Denver, and farming isn't an occupation either of them aspired to. Goodness knows, Mr. Bluebird wouldn't know what to do if we ended up with the place. (I'd fulfill my fantasy of running an alpaca farm and knitting all day, but that's all it is, a fantasy).

So here's a picture of an owl out at the family place. I think it's awesome!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

April Fool's

For the two or three of you who checked here yesterday you may have noticed something a tad weird...instead of a post by me, you had a surprise guest poster, Mr. Teacher! My post for yesterday was actually found on Ms. Teacher's site.

The whole surprise was the brainchild of Mr. Teacher, so head on over to his site and see the list of participants. And while you're there, pick up a copy of his book - it's a riot!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

It's All in the Decimals

We’ve been studying Measurement of all sorts for the past several weeks, and this week continues the trend. The week before Spring Break, we studied and practiced using a ruler to measure inches and centimeters. We also practiced estimation with other units like millimeters, kilometers, yards, and miles.

Sample question: Which is a better estimate for the width of a stamp? 1 inch, 1 foot, or 1 mile?

Apparently, we have some kids with pretty darn large mailboxes…

Estimating measurement can be a hard concept for these kids to grasp though, as was clearly evidenced in a memorable situation from my first year of teaching (chronicled in my ground breaking novel, of course! ;) ). A little girl asked me, “Mister Teacher, how long are you?”

Since the girl was ESL (English as a Second Language), I assumed that she had misspoken and was merely asking how tall I was. However, when I tried to correct her, she insisted, “No, how LONG are you? How BIG?”

Still giving her the benefit of the doubt, I started to answer, “Six foot four,” but she beat me to the punch with a guess. “Seven inches?” she ventured.

I may never know for sure, but I can only hope that her guess reflected her poor estimation skills of my height and not a more accurate estimate of some other measurement…

THIS week, we are moving on to a few other areas of measurement – capacity, weight, and temperature. Hopefully, the temperature won’t be too bad, because we’ve covered number lines, and a thermometer is really just a number line turned on its side. Guess and check is the mantra there. Sure, some kids only do the FIRST part of that, but we have to keep trying.

Capacity and weight are another matter. Most of these kids have never even heard the word “Pint” before (and thus pronounce it with a short i instead of its long i), and don’t know a Liter from a Meter.

This is not the first year that we have taught capacity in 3rd grade, but it IS the first year that it will be tested on the TAKS. A couple of years ago, I tried Star Wars references to help them remember things – “Use the quarts, Luke!” and “May the fourths be with you!” – but that was it.

Last year, I had the kids look for examples of containers and their capacities at home. A big bottle of Coke holds 3 Liters, a bottle of Hooters Hot Sauce holds 5 fluid ounces, and a thing of Maalox holds 355 mL. Then there were the examples of missing decimal points – 612 gallons of barbecue sauce, 277 gallons of mustard, 118 liters of Mr. Clean. Either they forgot the decimals, or someone owns stock in the wholesale club.
Later this week, we’ll be discussing weight and mass. I’ll be sure to write more about my experiences with tons of feathers and grams of elephants…