Monday, November 24, 2008

Slice 'em and Dice 'em

We had our third After School Science Lab today.

It wasn't for the faint of heart (or stomach) as we dissected frogs.

Now, dissecting frogs is not in our curriculum. In fact, the kids don't even get to dissect until they hit high school biology. However, every single year the first question we get asked is "Will we be dissecting frogs this year?" The kids are obsessed with the idea of dissecting frogs. So, when we found a tub of frogs in the lab (bought a few years ago for a science club thing and never used) Mrs. Eagle and I thought it would be a good idea to reward the kids who've come to our after school labs and let them dissect. After all, they kept asking for it.

So, this lab was by invitation only - we invited the kids who've shown enough interest to come to the previous labs - and they all knew beforehand what we'd be doing. Mrs. Eagle and I didn't want some kid coming who couldn't handle dissection and would faint and cause a lot of paperwork. It had been so long since I've dissected anything that I ended up asking Mrs. Standard, our science consulting teacher with the district, to send me some handouts.

We had the frogs, the kids, the worksheets, and all the tools.

And we had a blast.

None of these kids had ever done anything like this before, and I was amazed at how well they did. They took their time. They made careful cuts and incisions. They referred to the worksheets to identify the various objects they saw. And they really worked those frogs over, just looking at stuff.

"Hey, look, ours is female it has eggs!" yelled one pair.

"Cool! You can see the liver right there!" was another comment.

"Man, eyeballs are hard!" exclaimed another.

They loved it. One student said she was glad she did the lab because she's been thinking of being a surgeon and wanted to make sure she could deal with it. The only complaint, really, was the smell, but believe me, it was a lot better than the smell of the frogs I dealt with in High School that were preserved in pure formaldehyde.

I can't wait to hear them talking about it tomorrow!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

What a Buck Will Buy

Fund raising is, unfortunately, a fact of life with our school. A lot of our funding got cut this last year, even our Title 1 funds, so we've been scrambling to figure out how to pay for things like, say, copies, incentives for the kids, and new materials.

One of our biggest fund raisers over the past few years has been our Fall Festival. Most of the schools around here have them, and they bring in a lot of money, even in our zone. They're kind of fun as they bring in the families, not just the students, so you see the parents and often times the siblings of the kids you currently teach. We also get a kids from the high school we feed into who come over to help run booths. They're mostly from the ROTC program and the Band and it's nice to see how some of our kids turned out after we've set them free from middle school.

So, Mrs. Eagle and I were wanting to come up with an easy fund-raiser for seventh grade science. We're in need of money to buy some materials to go with our new standards so we're submitting grants and doing whatever we can to get some money, realizing full well that it may take a few years before we get enough to do anything with it.

We've done hair painting int he past, but have grown bored with it. Besides, it costs money to buy the colored hair spray and you get tired of breathing in the fumes after a couple of hours. We let student council take over that booth this year. What we wanted was something that wasn't messy, that didn't cost hardly anything to do, and that appealed to the middle school mind. The middle school mind, after all, will spend money on some of the dumbest things.

We came up with the Pillow Fight booth.

All we needed were four pillows ($2.50 a piece at Walmart), some pillow cases ($1.00 a piece at Dollar General) and some football helmets (borrowed from a football coach). I had a timer, we made a sign, grabbed some chairs, roped off a ring with yarn and basically charged the kids a dollar each to beat each other with pillows for one minute.

We made over a hundred dollars.

Talk about an easy way to make money. The kids loved it, although some of them didn't think a minute was long enough until they actually did it. We probably should have sold bottled water to the combatants after they finished since most of them were panting and pretty worn out. It was pretty good entertainment, to be honest. Most of the boys just whomped away at each other, while the girls would start giggling so hard they could hardly swing a pillow. We had some sibling pairs duke it out, plus a few parents who let their kids beat at them with a pillow.

My favorite was an 8th grader who let his little brother, who may have been all of four, beat at him with a pillow. The little guy was going wap-wap-wap-wap with the pillow and every once in a while his older brother would tap him on the head with his pillow. Not often you see a kid that age being that nice to a little sibling. The little guy was beaming when he finished.

Gotta love it when you score a hit with the kids, and make money to boot!

Friday, November 14, 2008

It's All in the Fundamentals

Last night was the home opener for Middle School Basketball Season.

We played one of our cross town rivals. The school with the 8th grader who's 6'5" tall, an AB student, and an overall nice kid. He's supposedly better at baseball. Hard to believe. Of course, all he had to do all night was stand there and tip balls into the net, but still. He's the total package. Nice kid, good student, good athlete. He probably helps little old ladies with their groceries.

Coach Math, the new math teacher on The Team, is our new boys basketball coach this year. This is an added bonus. We were tickled to death to get a really good, highly thought of math teacher, but the fact that he coaches, well, that was just icing on the cake. Finding a good coach, one who can motivate the kids (and stand dealing with them for a lot more hours than most of us do), is not easy to do. The pay isn't all that great, and it makes for some really long days.

The rest of us on the team decided to make sure we all attended the game so we could support Coach Math. We also got him a card, wishing him luck with the season. He's had a bit of an adjustment coming to The School. He used to teach across town, at a school where most kids had both parents, both parents had jobs, and kids did their homework and excelled. He's used to a school where an F on a progress report means a parent phone call or email. Now he's with us, and he's figuring out that the parents of our students are, for the most part, missing in action. We sent home progress reports last week and not one of us on the team got so much as a phone call or an email. Nothing. It's a big adjustment when you're used to a lot more parental support and some higher achievers.

But if anyone can make it work, it's Coach Math.

We asked him this week at lunch what he thought of his team. "Well," he said, "they really need work on fundamentals. They play too much street ball. We may win some, we may lose some, but they'll know the real game when we're done."

It was a different team than we've ever seen play before. We're used to the kids playing street ball, with a collection of hotshots and a couple of kids who make the hotshots look even better. The hotshot kids always bothered me. For the most part they tended to be punks who only did well academically during the season, and let their true colors shine once the season was over when they did stupid stuff to get suspended and who knows what else. They had what I call the "PacMan Jones Disease" - people made excuses for their bad behavior because they were good athletes and the kids believed the were God's gift to basketball.

Coach Math put a stop to that. A kid couldn't even try out for the team if the first nine week report card wasn't satisfactory. That eliminated a bunch of the kids who thought they were superstars but weren't cutting it academically. It also eliminated a bunch of the troublemakers who caused problems for coaches in the past. Coach Math wasn't putting up with thuggish behavior. Two days after the team was announced, one of his players got a write up and was sent to ISS. Coach kicked him off the team. That really sent a message.

So what he ended up with was a team with no hot shot superstars, but some nice kids and some decent kids when it came to the grades. Nothing to write home about, but the raw talent was there.

The raw talent produced. They played team ball. They passed, they dribbled, they took their time, they listened to directions from the coach, they worked as a team. And, even with the Six Foot Wunderkid on the opposing team, they hung in there and the game was a close one all the way until the final buzzer.

When it was tied and went into overtime.

And for the first time in my six years at The School, the students who were there attending the game (who usually spend the games gossiping, socializing, and ingesting copious quantities of junk food and soda) were on their feet cheering and screaming and going crazy. All of the teachers in attendance looked at each other in awe. "Do you see that?" we all asked. "They've never done that before!" It was a sight to see.

And the overtime seemed to stretch forever with one team scoring and then the other, and back down the court, and another basket, and then we got fouled, and the toss was nothing but net and we, amazingly, astoundingly, won the game!

We cheered. We screamed. The boys looked stunned. Then they all jumped on each other and screamed and yelled and Coach was giving them high-fives and it was like Christmas and the Fourth of July all rolled into one.

Coach Math made those kids believe in themselves and worked some magic.

And it was just the first game.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Veterans Among Us

We had our annual Veteran's Day Ceremony this past Friday.

For some schools this may not be a big deal, but for our school, it is A Very Big Deal. In fact, this is probably the Biggest Deal Assembly we have all year.


Because over half our parents are either active duty military, reservists (who have been put on active duty) or are veterans.

Because many of our teachers, one administrator, our school nurse, a lot of our bus drivers, a handful of our cafeteria workers, and three of our janitors are veterans.

Because many of our teachers are spouses of active duty military or are the spouses of veterans. They've raised their own families, taught other's children, and did this all with their spouse overseas a huge amount of the time.

Because many of our students are going through the fourth and fifth deployment of one, and sometimes both, parents.

Because this year, for the second time, we lost a parent in combat.

Our kids know the meaning of the song Taps. It makes many of them cry unabashedly in front of their friends, forgetting, for once, to be cool. It will strike this gym full of middle schoolers into absolute, respectful, silence.

Our kids know to give a huge cheer for the Brigadier General and Korean War vet who came to speak, but saved the biggest cheer for the young Army Private who was one of our honored guests.

For our kids, veterans are woven into the fabric of their lives.

And I can't help but think how fortunate they are to have these people in their lives.

Monday, November 10, 2008

I Should Have Worn a Disguise

My first teaching job was in a town of 9,000. This was back when I did the Big Deal Career Change and went back to school to become a teacher. I had a previous degree (B.S. in Business Management) and a pulse so I was hired by one of my professors, who also happened to be Superintendent of Schools, to work as a permanent substitute teacher when I wasn't in class.

I did this for three years and probably learned more about being a teacher by subbing than I ever did in a college classroom.

I also learned that with the job comes a certain lack of privacy, especially when you've probably been in every classroom in a small district and everyone under the age of 18 knows who you are. It got to the point that The Hubster and I would head east about 10 miles to the first town that wasn't in our district to do our shopping and eating out. We didn't have any privacy in the town we lived in - everyone knew what everyone did, where they ate, what they bought, who they spent time with. You couldn't work in the yard in your grubbies with your hair up on top of your head and dirt all over your face without having a visit from at least one student or parent in the neighborhood.

So, when I moved South (being an economic refugee from Up North, the Land of Taxes and No Jobs), one of the things I made certain of was that I didn't live in the same zone I taught in. I didn't want a long commute, but I also didn't want the lack of privacy I had before. Most of the time it works pretty well. I do run into kids at The Mall, and often at the Walmart near The School, but for the most part I live my life in relative obscurity which is how we like it.

And then I lost my mind this past Sunday and wanted to save some time and ended up shopping in The Zone.

Actually, my church is in The Zone, but it's a small country church and I never see students there, just the regular church goers and Mrs. Eagle and her family. So this past Sunday, after services and a quick trip to the gym, I realized I needed to get gas and go to the market. Now my usual grocery store is on the opposite side of town from where I was. It's not even that close to where I live, but I live in a part of town that's fairly new in terms of development so we don't have any markets near us. We got lucky and finally got a pizza joint this past year. We got a Walgreens a few months ago and people were ecstatic because they actually have some food items there and you don't have to drive twenty minutes to the closest market when all you need is some milk.

For a moment or two, I toyed with the idea of just going to my regular market. However, that would probably take an extra half hour and I was right near a Kroger, and one with gas pumps, and I could kill two birds with one stone so to speak. And after all, what are the chances of running into a student? It's Sunday morning, everyone is either at church, or breakfast, or somewhere else.

So, I did what I never do, and that's shop at the market in The Zone.

And ran into three students.

The parents are tickled to see me. One of the boys wasn't (he should be embarrased by the progress report that went out on Friday) but his mother made sure to come up and say hi and comment on how he should be embarrassed by his progress report. Hey, I was happy she actually saw it since many kids like to pretend they don't exist and don't show it to their folks. The other two students, both girls, giggled and smiled and commented on the fact that I was - gasp! - shopping.

Just like normal people do. Hell, I even use coupons because I'm on a budget like everyone else.

I think they believe we sleep under our desks.

It wasn't that bad, actually, although I know I'll have about a dozen kids come up to me tomorrow and comment on the fact that they heard I was at the Kroger store nearby. It could have been worse. I could have been buying liquor!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


The Team came back from Fall Break, rested, rejuvenated, and refreshed, only to notice that, one week into the new grading period, our kiddos were doing pretty much nothing. They weren't doing homework and even some of them couldn't manage to turn in in-class assignments.

My homework turn in percentage the past few years has been really high. For one, I assign it on Monday and it's due on Friday. I usually give the students a choice on which assignments they want to do (I'll list four, they do two). The homework itself is practice for what we've done in class, but if they have questions on it, I do have homework helpers that they can use during am homeroom, pm homeroom, or check out to take home - some of my special education students get the helpers stapled into their agendas or emailed home to their parents. It essentially gives the answers to the homework, so even if a kid is completely clueless, if he or she copies down the correct information, at least it was in front of them for that one time. (That idea isn't original - it came from an NMSA conference I went to a few years ago.) However, even with choices, even with four days to do the assignments, and even with the answers right there in front of them, they didn't bother to turn any work in - this is a huge change from previous years when I had nearly all my kids turning in work.

I wasn't alone. All the teachers in the seventh grade have the same problem, and even some of the eighth graders are exhibiting vast degrees of laziness. One of the eighth grade teams has implemented a homework clinic during lunch where the kids who owed work had to eat in a teacher's classroom and work on their homework at the same time. This seems to work pretty well as the kids started turning in work, rather than miss their social time, and at the same time their test scores and grades started to improve (especially in Math.)

Our Mr. Math was at another school last year that really targeted these kids who turn out to be, for the most part, our at-risk population. We took a little of what he did at his old school, a little what the 8th graders were doing, and came up with the Friday Homework Clinic.

By Monday afternoon, the teachers on my team have emailed me the names of all the kids with missing work for this grading period. I can cut and paste all this into an Excel spreadsheet (PowerSchool, our new grading program, makes this soooo easy), sort the kids by name, and have a print out of who owes what work.

On Tuesday morning I hand out to the kids a slip of paper with all their missing assignments listed. They have until Thursday afternoon to get this work made up and turned in, otherwise, they miss their first period elective class on Friday. Instead of doing art, or PE, or band, or computers, they are assigned to one of our rooms where they have to sit and work. We try to assign the kids to the teacher they need the most help with (for example if most of the work they owe is Math, Mr. Math gets them). This way they can get more individual attention. (I also make sure all my teammates have a copy of my Homework Helpers so that is available to help the kids as well).

The first week we did this, out of 120 kids, we had 88 who initially had to attend the clinic.

By Friday morning that number was down to about 68.

They were not happy. At all. However, they did turn in a lot of work. For some kids this was the first work we'd seen out of them all year. When I went home and graded papers this weekend, I couldn't believe how many students had managed to not only turn in their missing assignments, but managed to pull their grades up as well.

The Principal, by the way, absolutely loves that we're doing this. I got her blessing before we started. As she says, we have absolutely got to get these kids growing academically, and if it means having high expectations and accountability, so be it.

This week our number of kids missing assignments is 73. Of that number, about 20 of them are kids who owe one assignment and can, quite honestly, get that turned in before the Thursday deadline. That would give us about 53. That's still a high number, but better than the week before. It may take a few weeks for some of them to realize that we're serious.

At it costs us is a bit of time, and losing one planning period (we get two) to help work with these kids.

It's worth it.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Tale of C-Boy

We have just finished two weeks of benchmark testing. We had Math, Reading and Language Arts one week, and then finished up with Social Studies and Science this week. The results were beyond disappointing. I know we make these tests hard, on purpose, but we've never had a seventh grade test so low.

And I mean really, really low. We have our datachat this next week, so we'll see what kind of interesting ideas come out of it.

In any case, the kids hate benchmarks, don't see the point in them, and frankly could give a rip. We keep telling them that these scores become part of their record and that any teacher in the future could pull them up and see what they've done, but that doesn't make much of an impression. After all, for these kids, the future is lunchtime.

We had one fellow in my homeroom, who's really quite bright but working on being a completely clueless knucklehead because "It's cool!", who got a bit carried away with being lazy and instead of reading and taking his tests, decided to code all the answers with the letter C. He then proceeded to tell all his classmates who promptly dimed him out and told us. Of course, by then, he'd already taken three tests.

When Mrs. Social Studies saw that he had bubbled in all C's on his test, she went nuts. She yanked him out into the hall and gave him a piece of her mind. The Principal found out and gave him a piece of her mind as well. And, for good measure, Mrs. Squirrel, one of our AP's, did the same. And then it was decided that he'd end up taking his tests again. (We caught him at this by the time the Science test rolled around - Mrs. Squirrel came into my room and gave him a good long stare that dropped them temperature in the room about 30 degrees and scared not only C-Boy, but everyone else in the room as well.)

So, C-Boy, who thought he was being clever, ended up having to miss some of his elective classes and make up the tests again. He was not happy. The other kids all found out and got the message that it probably wouldn't be a good idea to goober up on a benchmark.

On Thursday, we're doing our review for our unit test, which is a PowerPoint with sample test questions, followed by the answers so the kids get immediate feedback and we can discuss the question. I always warn the little goobers that memorizing the letters and the order of the answers is pointless because I scramble them and they aren't in the same order as the test. This is met with a groan of dissapointment from those who were looking for an easy way out. However, the kids tend to like this review and it helps them see where they need to focus.

Anyway...we do a test question, and the multiple choice answer happens to be the one that goes with the letter "C".

Red-Headed Boy in the back raises his hand and when I call on him says, "Hey, I bet C-Boy got that one right!" and the class all cracks up, even C-Boy.


Every single time we get an answer with the letter "C", the kids start making snarky comments about C-Boy. He's pretty amused with the attention the first few times, but as the class period winds down, and his classmates keep teasing him, he's starts to get a bit disgruntled. By the time the period was over, he was pretty fed up with the teasing. He didn't say anything smart back (which was actually one of the smartest things he's done in a while), but definitely wasn't laughing.

The funny thing is, we, as teachers, could go on and on with this kid about what a stupid stunt he pulled on his benchmarks, and it would go in one ear and out the other. However, once his peers start picking on him about it, it hits home.

Bet he doesn't do that again. But you can also bet that I'm checking his answer sheets carefully.