Friday, December 18, 2009

Making The Cut

One of the things the three seventh grade teams had to do before we left for our Christmas break was to select the twenty-four students per team that we wanted to invite on the annual camping trip in May. The trip costs money ($100 to be exact) and since many of our kids receive money for Christmas gifts, we wanted them to know about the trip in case they wanted to use their money to help pay for it.

Choosing the twelve boys and girls we want to take is not easy. Some years it is easier than others. The group of students we had last year was so unpleasant that we actually had the unusual problem of not being able to come up with 24 that we could tolerate and trust for a weekend. This year the problem was that we have so many neat kids that it was hard to narrow the list down to the number we needed.

We could, obviously, do it the easy way and just take a look at the kids' grades and work our way through the list of A and B students. However, this trip was originally designed to serve as a something special for kids that may not have a lot of opportunities in life and may not have ever done something like this. So, we tend to pick kids who have good character, who could possibly be leaders in the 8th grade next year, and who may not have a lot of economic advantages. (The $100 is paid for over a period five months so most of the kids can, eventually, scrape the money together - if not, the student council can help, and we've had donations from some of our PTO families and even a teacher or two has funded a kid's trip.) In short, nice kids. Kids you wouldn't mind spending an unpaid weekend in the wild with and who you know won't start a forest fire or create some other disaster.

I had the team email me the kids that they felt would be good candidates (including some alternates as some kids don't want to, or can't go), and came up with our original 24. This was not easy. However, when I saw the list, I liked what I saw - we had a good mix of kids with different academic levels, ranging from gifted to special ed kids, and including at least two who are in our remediation class. We had kids from single parent homes, military kids, and kids who live with grandparents. We had every sort of race and ethnic group represented, and we had a nice mix of personalities - quiet and steady, fun-loving and active, and everyone in between.

It is a really neat group of kids.

And as team leader, I got to hand them the letter inviting them on the trip and letting the parents know the details. (It also helps that I teach a subject that ALL our kids have so I see them all.) Mrs. Social Studies wanted in on the action so I'd pop my head in her door and she'd come out and join me in the hallway when I'd call the kids out for a discussion.

The first few groups of kids all thought they were in some kind of trouble when we called them out into the hallway. When they found out what it was for - "I'm invited on the Camping Trip! - the look on their faces was absolutely priceless. Eyes widened, mouths hung open, and they looked at those letters in awe. We impressed upon them that this was an honor, that we couldn't take everyone, and that we picked them because of their good character. In other words, don't come back to school in January acting like a heathen and getting in trouble or we'll take back the invitation.

They were pinging off the walls by the time we sent them back into the classroom.

By the end of the day, the kids in the last few periods had heard about The Letter and when we called them out into the hallway they were already bouncing and bobbing around. The last group could hardly contain their excitement as we handed them their letters. Mrs. Social Studies and I had a ball!

The next day I was nearly stampeded with kids bringing back the signed letters indicating they were going to go on the trip - these kids (especially some of the girls) are pumped!

I wish we could take them all. However, this group of kids this year looks to be very promising. It may be our best camping trip yet.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Just When You Need Them the Most

For about five years we had a wonderful nurse at The School. We loved her. Nurse Bee was a dream. She was warm, and fuzzy, and smart, and was just the perfect middle school nurse. However, she wanted to go on to school to become an RN so she had to leave.

And so we started a new school year in August with a new nurse.

Who, after our September flu epidemic, decided that at 60, she wasn't cut out for the fast pace of middle school medicine.

So we got a new nurse who was young and sweet and just a delight.

Who, having just moved to the area, had some childcare issues and had to quit to stay home with her children (probably a good idea economically considering what the cost of childcare is versus the wage of a school nurse.)

We are now nurseless.

The Guidance Goddess and Guidance Diva are doing their best to deal with the dispensing of meds (which is mindblowing) but if it's a headache, an injury, flu, pestilence, plague or anything else that a middle schooler may be experiencing, it's a call home so the parents can come fetch the little darling and haul their infectious little rear end home.

Where they should stay until they are are well and not able to spread their little germs everywhere.

So, of course, this week we have an outbreak of stomach flu. Not just the "I feel icky" kind of stomach issues, but the real "I have to go to the bathroom now to barf!" variety. Fortunately all my children have made it to the bathroom and we haven't had any incidents in the hall or the classroom - so far.

Honestly, you know this is real. You can't fake green pallor after all. (Even Skater Goober with his make-up can't look this ill.) When they come up to you with That Look, you simply point to the door and tell them to run like the wind.

"I need to go to the nurse," one of the kids will say, clutching the edge of a desk, or wiping their hand across a sweating brow.

"We have no nurse. You'll have to call home." And off I go to fill out the phone pass so they can go up to the front office to call home. (I hope they are disinfecting the phone between calls.)

This works out okay as long as you can get a hold of a parent. Sometimes you can't. (It helps, I might add, to have a working phone number on file on the emergency card when the kid can't remember the parent phone number because they're too busy losing their lunch in the front office restroom.) If we can't get a hold of a parent, they're back in class, looking like death warmed over. At this point I just tell them to chose an isolation seat (my kids all sit at tables which are great for group work and passing along germs) where they can sit and put their head down.

Three more days...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Have I Got a Deal For You!

I love the last week of a grading period. That's the time of year when forlorn little seventh graders come sidling up to their teachers begging, pleading, and in some cases demanding, extra credit in order to bring their grades up to a passing level.

I hate to tell them this, but no amount of extra credit is really going to save most of them. I mean when you have a 43% and 70% is just doesn't compute.


Because I like to have fun, I put a note on the PowerPoint agenda that is broadcast on the Big Huge Screen in my room for the first nine minutes of class (four minutes in between class periods, and another five once the bell has run.) The note said "Today Only - turn in Twenty Reward Tickets and earn 10 points of extra credit!"

Now from the very first day of school one of the things I tell my students is that they Need To Read the PowerPoint When They Walk Into Class...this slideshow tells them what our standards are, what we're doing, what's due, any messages I need to get to them, plus a daily quote and a science trivia. And, of course, every day I have some knucklehead asking me "What are we doing today?" when it's sliding by them on a Big Huge Screen in full color.

Any guesses on how many kids actually read the message about the extra credit and took advantage of it?

Out of 97 kids?


As my grandmother would have said, "if it had been a snake, it would have bit 'em!"

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Could be a Vampire Thing

As a seventh grade teacher you tend to get a little immune to weirdness.

Especially if teaching middle school is your second career and you've already spent a lifetime dealing with the weirdness that is corporate life (which is perhaps why the movie Office Space is one of my favorites) along with helping hubby deal with the general rock'n'roll public with his music business. You want weird? Hang out at a record and CD music show in any big city and see what comes strolling in. Green and pink hair is nothing new.

Oh, and I grew up in L.A., so there's little that phases me these days.

Which is why I wasn't completely freaked out, or even remotely concerned, when one of our boys, Skater Goober, started to wear really heavy foundation makeup.

Mrs. Aide was the first one who asked me about it. "Did you notice that Skater Goober is wearing really heavy makeup?" she asked me the other day.

I had to think about it for a minute. "Yeah," I finally said. "I did notice that. Didn't pay much attention truth be told."

"Really? Isn't that a bit odd? I mean for a boy?"

"Well, I had the glam rock kids a few years ago where the boys were wearing eyeliner (skaters again, interestingly enough) and I've had the goth kids, and now we've got kids who want to be vampires, so no, I guess I didn't think it was odd."

I'm not sure at this point she didn't think I was nuts.

(On an aside, Skater Goober has done a pretty impressive turnaround. He's passing all his classes but one, which is amazing since he failed most of his classes last year and was on that path again this year. He's doing great, and I've got to give him credit for that. He's matured and learned that - amazing - when you study, you pass!)

Mr. Math, youngster that he is, thinks it might be a medicated thing for acne. Could be. After all this is seventh grade where the hormones are raging and making life miserable for my kids, not only emotionally but with the curse of acne, stringy hair, cracking voices and just general overall misery.

However, considering the raging popularity that are the Twilight books, and how the kids are all of a sudden obsessed with vampires, I'm seeing quite a few kids, mostly girls, who are trying to look a bit more pale than normal. I figured Skater Goober might just be in the vampire camp at this point.

Too bad he doesn't sparkle.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

He's Baaaaack!

I was cruising through Guidance the other day (it is, after all on the way to the bathrooms and mailboxes) when the Guidance Goddess flagged me down.

"Mr. History is going to want to talk to you," she said. "Bully Boy is back."

This stopped me in my tracks.

"He's back?" I asked, although it didn't surprise me. I figured he'd come bouncing back one of these days, I just prayed it would be after he'd done his time in seventh grade and wasn't my potential problem anymore. After all, he'd bounced back twice last year.

"Yes, he enrolled yesterday. He's apparently now living with Dad and Dad's girlfriend."

"Really?" I raised my eyebrows at this one. "So now Dad wants him?"

"Apparently so. Dad's Girlfriend has a daughter in 8th grade as well, and from what I can tell, this girlfriend has managed to put a foot up his ass. Which he needed. However, Mr. History will still want to talk to you."

He better. This kid is a holy terror.

Some of my former students, now 8th graders, managed to come by and fill me in with this joyful news later on in the day. They were less than thrilled. This kid is so mean, and so hateful, that even the other bullies can't stand him. The 8th grade populace was not happy to see this one bounce back among their midst.

Unless Bully Boy has been completely reformed (doubtful) Mr. History and his 8th grade team are in for a quite a journey.

And just remembering some of his stunts is starting to give me hives.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009



Guess who showed up with a nice new twenty dollar bill to put into his lunch account?

Lunch Boy!

Wonder if The Principal finally got to the parents and Made Her Point?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Take Care of Your Kid, Already

Every day my fifth period class comes into my room, puts their things down on the tables, and then we line up to go to lunch. And every day Lunch Boy is standing at the head of the line, and just a bit to the side because his job (for some reason) is to "walk with Mrs. Bluebird."

I'm not sure where this comes from. In the past (last year comes to mind when I had the Lunch Group From the Very Depths of Hell Itself) I've used the "walking with teacher" bit as a way to control a kid who can't control himself or herself in line. It's either shape up or walk with Mrs. Bluebird. It usually works. For some reason, this year Lunch Boy has decided that he needs to walk with me, and not with the class, on the way to lunch. I think, honestly, that he wants a grown up to talk to.

Because his parents don't give him one bit of attention. At all.

Our conversations usually run like this.

"How's your day been?" I'll ask him.

"Oh okay," he'll say. And he'll mention something that happened in math or some gossip about some other kids (I learn a lot from this kid).

I'll then ask about lunch. "So, you have money in your lunch account?"

"No, not today. I asked them (them being his parents) for money last night and they forgot again."

"So, what are you planning on eating?" I'll ask. "Did you pack anything?"

"Oh, probably nothing," he'll say again. "Mom won't make me a lunch." At this point I'll remind him that we have crackers and apples for the kids with no money or lunch and all he has to do is ask the lunchroom aides for help and they'll take him aside and at least give him a piece of fruit.

This is a daily ritual with us. He never has lunch money in his account. He currently owes $9 in charges on his account and has been cut off by the cafeteria management. We have sent home several forms to request free and reduced lunch and although Lunch Boy says they've been returned, no one has any record of them ever coming back. (We doubt they've been returned. In fact, we doubt they've been filled out. We suspect that the family may not qualify.) Mr. Math, his homeroom teacher, has called and left message after message about the fact that Lunch Boy is not eating lunch and needs money in his account, and has never, ever received a return phone call.

And the Lunch Boy will make comments about his mom playing video games. "Oh Mom was busy playing World of Warcraft again yesterday," he'll say. "She's too busy playing on the computer to give me lunch money."

I am so sick and tired of this nonsense. It is absolutely ridiculous that this kid is going hungry. If his parents can't afford to feed him, there's a program out there to make sure he's fed. In fact, none of our children in school should be going hungry. So really there's no excuse for the fact that every day this kid is not eating lunch (and goodness knows about breakfast).

If the reason he isn't eating lunch is because mom and day are too busy playing video games, then that's just insane. And irresponsible. And just downright beyond belief.

But part of me is thinking that it just might be the truth.

Monday, December 07, 2009


Teachers aren't used to when we get it, we're usually, well, stunned.

It's particularly sweet when it comes from a peer you respect. So, you can understand that I'm very flattered and really quite surprised and very giddy to see that Mr. Teacher, one of my favorite bloggers, has nominated me for Best Teacher Blog for 2009.

I am humbled, considering what a great blogger Mr. Teacher is. (And you should buy his book).


Friday, December 04, 2009

There's Just Something About a Punnett Square

This week we started a new unit on genetics.

I absolutely love genetics. It's a totally cool subject and there are so many activities that you can do with it that I could, if I had the time, spend an entire month on the subject. (Unfortunately, I don't because we have that Carved In Stone Deadline of the Very Big Deal Government Mandated Test looming on the horizon). has been my experience that this is one of those units where you will actually see a light go on over a kid's head when they all of a sudden get it. We'll be going over (and over and over and over) how to do a Punnett Square (and better yet, how to interpret the results) and you'll hear a kid exclaim, "I get it now!" and off they go, crossing genes left and right. It's a lot of fun.

When the kids actually listen, pay attention and retain anything you've said over the past, oh, three or four days. Or better yet - actually learn their vocabulary words so they know what in the heck we're talking about.

We are using (over and over and over and over) the words genotype, phenotype, dominant, recessive, homozygous, and heterozygous. We have written these in notes, given example after example, worked problem after problem, and used these words over and over to the point that I'm seeing them in my sleep. I've had the kids throughout each class period raise their hands to indicate "got it", hand clenched for "kinda got it", and thumbs down for "completely lost". By the end of each period, all hands were in the "got it" range. So you'd think, hey, we're home free, right?


Some of them are still absolutely clueless. (The ones, interestingly enough, who rarely do work and can't shut up.)

I teach our study skills class during one of my planning periods on Thursdays and I used that time to - once again - reteach the subject. I had Mrs. Aide in there with me (this was a repeat for her as she had just come from Mrs. Eagle's study skills class first period where she did the exact same lesson - we do collaborate after all!) After I finished the review I gave the kids an activity pack called Zork Genetics (developed by Rodger Moore from Wooster High School in Reno, Nevada - go here for a link to the pages; you'll have to scroll down a bit) which is a ton of fun and really, really easy. The idea was to walk them through the first problem, put them in pairs, have them solve the next problem, class discussion, pair up again, and so on.

Except they couldn't even get how we did the first problem.

Homozygous? Didn't have a clue (and couldn't even figure out how to look on the handy little table and read down the "homozygous" column for the answer). Heterozygous? Even worse.

I was aghast. Mrs. Aide was shaking her head. These were the same kids who assured me that they "got it", the day before. Today they were completely blank. Utterly unable to answer a single question.

"So, just a quick question," I asked. "How many of you actually did your vocabulary cards Monday and started studying them?"

They blinked. Not a hand went up.

"So, you have no clue what I'm talking about?"

More blinking.

"Any suggestions?" I asked them.

Polite Boy raised his hand timidly. "I think we need to learn our words, Ma'am," he said.

"I think you're right," I answered. "Because if you don't know what they mean, you're never going to figure out what's going on."

It's going to be a long two weeks...

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Carnival Time!

Well it looks like the Education Carnival is back, but with a new mentor - please take a look and enjoy some fun, witty, and thought provoking writing!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

And They Thought We Were Kidding....

Once every nine week grading period we have to assign a writing prompt related to our academic content area. We collect it, grade it for content, then pass it along to the language arts teachers who grade it for all that language artsy stuff like grammar, spelling, and so forth. These then go into the students portfolios which follow them from grade to grade to grade.

(Can you just see some high school senior going through his or her portfolio and coming across some of the absolute garbage they churned out in middle school and asking themselves, "What was I thinking?")

This is a district-wide requirement. So, it was a tad disheartening to see that we had, maybe, about a 50% turn in rate on our first writing prompt this year. These are not difficult at all. We have a rubric, we have fairly easy prompts, we include a graphic organizer so students can organize what few thoughts they have, and we give them time in class to work on these. Apparently, churning out a decent paragraph for some of these kids is like pulling teeth. And what was infuriating was that we knew that they could do better. A hell of a lot better.

Mrs. Eagle and I were not happy with this at all. Some of these kids, if we let them, would have nothing but empty portfolios at the end of the year. This wasn't going to cut it.

So, based on Mrs. Eagle's brilliant idea, we asked The Principal if we could hold an after school detention for the kids who didn't turn in their assignment. She loved the idea and said, "Go with it." So we did.

When we assigned the prompt we told them this was a district requirement, they were going to turn an assignment in, and if not, they'd have to stay after school to complete it. One way or another, they'd get something in that portfolio. It may be crap, but it would be completed crap.

A few of the kids took us seriously and by the due date (Tuesday before Thanksgiving break) I had about 75% of the papers turned in. This was a big improvement over the last prompt, but I still needed 24 more papers to get my full 100% turn in.

On Monday the students who still owed the writing prompt had a letter stapled into their agendas informing the parents that their child still owed us an assignment that not only was a district requirement, but that was Actually Worked On In Class, and that if we didn't have a completed assignment in our hot little hands by the this morning, they'd be staying after school this afternoon. Parents were asked to sign the letter confirming that they'd pick their little darlings up at 4:00 pm should they fail to complete the assignment before detention. I also emailed a copy of the letter to the parents in question.

You should have seen the papers come flying into my in box the next day. I've never seen kids so eager to turn in an assignment and to make sure their name was crossed off the detention list. It was apparent, from the urgency of these kids, that not only did they not want to stay after school and write for over an hour, but Mom and Dad were Not In The Mood to have to take time out of their day to come pick them up from detention because they didn't do an assignment.

As of this afternoon I am only missing four assignments. One is from a girl who has been out sick and I haven't seen since before break. Another is from a girl who was also out sick and just came back today - her language arts teacher is going to work with her to get it done. Another is from a boy who's already staying after for tutoring and who was working on it this afternoon. The last was from a boy who was supposed to stay after, forgot, and who royally ticked off mom when he got off the bus this afternoon. She called me and asked if she could bring him back. I suggested she save the time and gas (they live on the edge of our zone) and I'd just email her the prompt. She loved the idea and he was going to spend the afternoon writing at the kitchen table.

Amazing. I may just make a 100% turn in on this. And what's even more astounding. Most of these writing prompts were, from a science standpoint, pretty darn good.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

When Bouncing a Ball is Too Much Work

A few weeks ago I had a chance to catch up with Coach Math who is now teaching P.E. and coaching full time, having achieved his dream of Finally Getting Out of the Math Classroom when some of our teachers moved on up to the Local High School, creating an opening. His morning hall duty station is nearby so I strolled on over to see how the basketball season was going to shape up.

"Oh man, it's not looking good," he said. "Very few of my kids from last year had the grades to play, so I'm having to go with younger kids with no experience but with better grades."

This was a surprise. Basketball is usually a Very Big Deal around here and there's usually no shortage of kids wanting a chance to play on the team.

"It's weird," he continued. "It's like they don't want to put forth the effort to be on the team and do the work it takes to practice and learn the game."

What? Not wanting to work? Lack of effort? These are the words those of us in the academic courses, not P.E....however, it appears that the perpetual laziness that we've seen in our classrooms have now permeated sports.

Many of us have used sports as the carrot to bribe some of our low-achievers into performing so they could play. However, from what Coach said, this isn't working anymore. These kids aren't motivated enough to keep up the grades to play, and they aren't motivated to run and sweat and actually work at developing their basketball skills. Apparently the only thing they want to do is go home, play on their video games or text their friends, and do as little physical exertion and thinking as possible.

Jeez, I know it's bad when kids down and out refuse to do academic work, but what's the world coming to when they're so damn lazy they won't even bounce a ball down a basketball court?

Is this just a weird little blip on the radar or are we raising a generation of committed slugs?