Thursday, January 31, 2008

Just When You Least Expect It

It's 5:15 am. I've been up for about half an hour, my hair is wet, and I'm watching the local news and waiting for my steel cut oatmeal to cook. My cell rings. It's Mrs. Eagle.

"Have you heard anything about us closing?" she asks.

"No, there's nothing on the news, but I checked The National Weather Service and it said we had a chance of snow and sleet. I didn't think that was forecast until late tonight."

"It wasn't, but it's snowing like mad here," she replies. She lives in the western part of the county.

I look out on my back deck. Nothing.

"Nothing here, but that just means you're at the beginning of the storm," I reply. I check the scroll at the bottom of the news and see that a few school districts west of us are closing. "I don't see us on the news yet," I tell her.

"Well," she huffs and I can tell she's outside, "I need to chase down the dogs, so call me if you hear anything."

So I watch the news for a bit and more schools start closing. I look outside and start to notice a few flakes falling down onto the deck. I check the news station again. And finally, there it was...

We're closed! We have our snow day!!!

And the funny thing is that after two near misses in snow days, where my students obsessed over the weather reports, this one snuck up and caught us all by surprise.

I hope my kids have a great day off. Me? I will too.

P.S. And for those of you up in the Great White North, I know you don't think snow days are a big deal...but for those of us in The South, they're rare and treasured like jewels!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Wishing, Hoping, Praying

My students have taken to our weather unit with a passion I rarely see out of them except when they're talking about video games, the opposite sex, or the latest movie they've seen. They are obsessed with weather reports.

"Mrs. Bluebird, can you show us that weather service site?" they ask nearly every period. So I indulge them and show the National Weather Service page for our town on my big screen. We've spent a lot of time reading weather maps and station models and they can work their way through this page like pros.

"Ah, man, look at that dewpoint. It's not high enough," I can hear one of them exclaim.

"Yeah, the air isn't saturated," someone pipes up. "And if it's not saturated, there's no precipitation."

"And the temperature. It's going to start falling in a few days," another chimes in.

"Yeah, but not too far," another adds.

They discuss cloud cover, air temperature, and dewpoints. They look at high pressure areas and low pressure areas and ponder what, exactly, we can expect in a few days.

It has absolutely nothing to do with my teaching, the quality of my lessons, or the material being presented.

Pure and simple...they are praying for a snow day.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Whoo-hoo! It's Carnival Time!

Forget that it's January! Forget that it's supposed to 9 degrees tomorrow morning! Warm up with some hot news over at The Median Sib, who's hosting this week's Education Carnival.

P.S. I hear there's hot chocolate involved, so hurry!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Banging Our Heads Against the Wall

I've had a student in my homeroom the past year who I'll call Sharpie Boy because, among other things, he is constantly giving himself tattoos with Sharpie markers. He's fairly bright, reads well, and although he's identified as special ed with a severe case of ADHD, he tested proficient on all his Big Deal Government Mandated Tests, so he was put out into science and social studies this year. He does not have an ideal home life. His mother, while agreeable enough on the telephone, has never graced us with her presence. There is little money. He has some older brothers who aren't exactly living squeaky clean lives and are definitely not a good influence on Sharpie Boy.

That being said, I've never had a behavior problem with Sharpie Boy. He's a little chatty at times, but I have many who are worse. He does have a problem with organization (which is typical of most of my special ed kids), and rarely has a pencil. Out of all the pencils I've handed out this year, over half of them probably went to him. Academically he started out great with a passing grade of 72% the first nine weeks of school. Granted, he gets modified tests and they're read to him, but that isn't bad. However, the second nine weeks he earned a whopping 17%. He pretty much decided to do absolutely nothing, and that's exactly what I got out of him - nothing. I'd talk to him privately about it, ask if he needed help, ask what the problem was, and I'd get a happy little answer that things were fine and he'd really try to do better. Mom was understanding but nothing changed. Mr. Social Studies had similar results.

However, apparently Sharpie Boy had behavior issues outside of my room and Mr. Social Studies' room. If a class was slightly unstructured, such as Art, he'd lose it, get in a fight, or do something else to get in trouble, and wind up in In School Suspension. While up there he'd mouth off, sleep, and generally get into more trouble which would earn him an Out of School Suspension. He was up there for the two weeks prior to Christmas and did not do one assignment that I'd sent up for him. He'd ditch school (and get caught, he isn't very good at being sneaky), talk back to other teachers, and generally act like a pill. He was racking up the discipline points with abandon and was a candidate for alternative school.

On Thursday Mr. Social Studies and I, along with Mrs. Tropical (one of the special ed teachers who knows Sharpie Boy very well as she had him last year for two classes and this year for two classes), Mrs. Squirrel and Mrs. Saint, had a meeting to come up with a behavior plan for Sharpie Boy. He'd just gotten two referrals from ISS, and was most likely going to wind up in alternative school. One of the referrals was for writing a note to another boy up in ISS discussing the various sexual positions his (older) girlfriend and he had tried over the past weekend. According to Mrs. Tropical, Sharpie Boy, who is all over 13 years old, has always been a little more wise in sexual matters than a kid that age probably should be. He's also very wise to the world of drug use (see older brothers). We had to discuss whether or not his behavior was the result of his learning disability.

It was an interesting meeting. Mr. Social Studies stated his belief (which I agree with) that Sharpie Boy does not like being out in the general school population because he's not the big fish in that pond like he is in the special ed classes. Consequently, his refusal to do any work so he'll fail. Mrs. Tropical furnished the log of the 18 phone calls she'd made to mom, and the 6 different meetings she'd attempted to set up to discuss the problems with Sharpie Boy. She also filled us in on habit of inflicting pain on himself, as well as his deep dark depressions he would have at times. The kid has some mental issues but mom doesn't want to see it so therefore we have no diagnosis of anything. Although he really should be going to alternative school, we decided that isn't the best place for him because we seriously doubted his mother could get him there and he'd end up running the streets. (The District does not provide transportation for the little darlings who earn a slot at the Alternative School.) The decision was made to but him in the behavior modification class with Mrs. Saint, because he probably does have some undiagnosed emotional issues, and that way he would at least be in school. Mrs. Tropical calls mom, mom loves the idea as she thought alternative school would be a problem. All is well.

So, Friday he cleaned out his locker outside my room and headed off to Mrs. Saint's class. He seemed happy about it. We all thought we'd made the right decision for this kid because at least this way he'd get some attention and some help with his issues.

Four hours later he's being picked up by his step-father (first any of us had heard about a step-father) because he'd showed another kid the 4" switchblade he'd brought to school and as a result earned himself a 90 day stint at the alternative school.

So much for trying to do the best thing for this kid.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Throwing Down the Gauntlet

One of the big topics of conversation a few weeks ago at our in-service was ways to motivate our kids. A lot of our students come from families where education is not a priority. Many of my parents are high school drop outs themselves. A lot of these kids (and parents) just don't see the point of doing well in school so, consequently, they don't. They're more interested in becoming football players, hip hop artists, or rock stars. (Or drug dealers...)

Some of the better, and more successful, ideas that were presented had an element of competition involved. I love this idea because real life is, after all, competitive. I spent fifteen years in the corporate sector and I saw competition that makes reality TV seem downright tame. I worry when I see educational experts (and teachers) doing their very best to remove competition from kids' lives because that's going to ensure that they won't have the skills to deal with competition and failure. Both of which are very, very real.

So Mrs. Eagle, Mrs. Robin and I were knocking around some ideas the other day to come up with ways to motivate our kids and we realized that, for the first time, our class periods were all very similar. Usually one team was designated as the inclusion team so they got a lot of the spec ed kids, one team got all the band kids (which tend to be better students), and another team got the trouble makers. This year, however, with all the seventh graders on the same schedule, things were more evenly distributed. And even stranger, all our first period classes were very similar, all our second periods were very similar, and so forth and so on.

And we got to thinking...why not let each of the three seventh grade class periods compete against each other to see which of them ends up with the highest grade point average at the end of the grading period?

I presented the idea to the kids and they absolutely loved the idea. They weren't even all that concerned about what the prize would be, although they suggested a pizza party to the winning classes. (Which was kind of what we were thinking although we'll need to find a way to pay for it...fundraiser anyone?) They just loved the idea of beating the other teams and having bragging rights. Adding pizza to the mix just made it better.

So we put together some charts to track the weekly class averages and I posted the current week's results on my whiteboard.

And my fifth period class has an average grade of 68%.

70% is passing.

My fifth period, which has my biggest group of behavior problems and which is my loudest and most talkative class, was stunned.

"We suck," they said.

"I'm not going to disagree," I responded. "Although I might have phrased that a bit differently."

"That's embarrassing," they said.

"This is stupid," Sickly Girl said. "I'm getting an A this nine weeks. I got an A all year in sixth grade and the only reason I'm not getting an A now is I'm not doing anything and I got an F!"

Many heads nod in agreement. "Yeah, we can do better," a few others said. "We just need to study and do our work, and it's really not that hard."

"And shut up!" Hip Hop Boy declared. A stunning declaration considering that this child speaks at a yell most of the time.

"Well," I told them. "It's up to you. You decide where you want to be on this board. Winning or Losing."

"We want to win!" they scream. "We want pizza!"

The result? Kids who have never, ever turned in a single homework assignment all year....turned it in early this week. Even Shrek Boy.

Perhaps a little competition is all they needed...

Update!!!! This week's class average has risen!!! They are now at 70.2%!!!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Teachable Moment

We started in on our weather unit yesterday.

This is one of my favorite units to teach because I'm a weather junkie. Part of this stems from growing up in Southern California where the weather doesn't change much at all and can put you into a stupor. I fell in love with weather when I lived in the Midwest and realized that it can do some pretty amazing things beside be hazy and mid-70's with a touch of fog in the morning. This is also a unit that the kids have background information on so they can easily relate to the content. They can tell stories about the big hail storm they were in, or the tornado they saw when they were five, or the time they went sledding in the snow.

And find me a seventh grader that won't stare entranced at a video on tornadoes and hurricanes and massive destruction. They love this stuff.

So it's a real shame that I won't be able to teach this after next year because they've changed our standards and are moving this unit to the sixth grade.

In any case, we were only on our second day of the unit and had spent most of the period working on some of the terms we needed to know such as dew point, humidity, relative humidity, weather, and so on. We had five minutes left so I had them pack up while I showed them my favorite weather site, the one put out by The National Weather Service. I love it because it doesn't have ads and you can spend all day clicking on links and finding cool weather information. It's fast and it's accurate. It had been raining pretty much all day, so there were cool radar images to look at as well which the kids really like. And amazingly enough, nearly all our vocabulary words are used in context on the page - how's that for relevance?

So, I pull up the page for our town, and was going to show them how to read it and I notice that we are under a tornado warning.

I look over at Mr. Title, and say, "Wow, we're under a tornado warning!"

And at that instant the tornado alarm goes off in The School.

The kids stand up and look at me, probably wondering how I fixed it so we had a tornado drill during our weather unit. I bark at them to get down in the tornado position against the interior walls, go to shut my door, grab a kid from my first period who is at his locker and send him in the room. Mr. Social Studies is at his door, pulling it shut. "Not a drill, is it?" he asks. "Nope. Not a drill".

By this time Mr. Title has all the kids down on the floor and he looks over at me. I point down to the floor and we both get down.

This kids are kind of giggly and squirming for a minute or two and then it dawns on them, when the annoying beeping didn't stop, that this really isn't a drill. This is real. After a few minutes we could hear the sirens going off in the neighborhood, and then the rain got really loud and the thunder a lot more intense.

I can't believe we didn't lose power.

After about ten minutes the annoying beeping stops and The Principal comes over the loudspeaker and tells us that we're still under the warning but she wanted to give us a break from the alarm (bless her!) and we are to stay put in the tornado position until further notice. The kids are getting restless so I take the remote to my LCD projector, which gets cable television, and was able to get the local news station that does great weather reports onto the screen so they could at least hear what was going on.

After a total of 30 minutes the all clear sounded and we were able to get up off the floor and back into our seats. The Principal asked us to all stay in our 5th period classes until further notice, so Mr. Social Studies and I kept the local news so the kids could watch the storm's progress. By the time it was all over, and the 8th graders were able to finish their lunch that was interrupted by the warning, it was nearly seventh period. We dismissed at our normal time which was a relief because I had visions of being stuck at school with these kids until the storm system passed. Fortunately it wasn't too wide and it moved fast.

I hope this isn't a sign of things to come this spring when tornado season really begins in earnest.

However, how often can you be in front of your class talking about weather and watches and warnings and actually have one happen??? Amazing!

Friday, January 04, 2008

It's over

As of 8 o'clock this morning, Christmas break was over.

Because we had to go in for an in-service.

You can only imagine the whining, complaining, and groaning that this caused. The kids come back on Monday, after having two full weeks off, but we had to go in today. wasn't all that bad. We had a presentation on rigor and relevance, new initiatives by The District, and some other stuff that was actually worth the time. Thank goodness because if it had been one of those workshops that we've all sat through where you think a needle in the eye would be an improvement, the staff may have actually revolted.

The best part, however, was that Mrs. Eagle, Mrs. Robin and I did not have to attend the afternoon sessions because we had made other plans, with the full blessing and approval of The Prinicpal, of course.

A month or so ago, Mrs. Eagle and I were at one of the monthly science teacher gatherings at the local university, something Mrs. Standard puts on so we can all get together and talk about fun new things like our standards changing, when we met up with some of our friends who also teach seventh grade science at two other middle schools in The District. We all began commiserating about how much we hate in-services and how much we'd rather just have time to meet and brainstorm and share good ideas. You know, collaborate? Not one of those forced collaboration meetings that they've tried before which end up being a complete waste of time because everyone has to be there and some people, no matter how much you push them, just will not work well with others. You can't force people to collaborate. Part of the secret to good collaboration is having people who trust each other enough to share ideas and who actually enjoy each other.

And we got to thinking. And Mrs. Eagle and I went to The Principal and asked her if we could have our other seventh grade science friends come over and we'd do some top-notch collaboration - sharing our Big Deal State Test review activities, share some of our good labs and activities that work, and so forth and so on.

And, because The Principal is a visionary and actually believes in the whole idea of collaboration, she said, "go for it".

So while everyone else was doing who knows what, we had three other teachers in my room and we worked together to come up with some good ideas for the next semester. It was awesome. We all walked away with great ideas that are proven in the classroom and that we can use to help our kids.

And we all agreed that we'd like to get together at least once again this semester to touch base and share any new information that we've picked up.

Now that, my friends, is a good in-service!