Monthly Archives: December 2011

A NORMAL HOLIDAY ASSEMBLY (FOR ONCE)

When I worked back at my old school in Detroit, the Christmas choir performance / Holiday Assembly was always a stressful affair. This stress came from the fact that assemblies were chaotic events. Most students saw this break in routine as an opportunity to screw around. Other students would skip out on the assembly and roam the halls with their friends, and a select few would sneak into the locker room and get high.

Often, the students who remained in the auditorium didn’t fare much better. Constant disruptions were the norm. On more than one occasion, the choir teacher stopped mid-song in an attempt to silence the audience. There were a couple times when he actually cancelled the whole assembly and told the teachers to take their students back to class. This was a failure because a majority of the students, already out of class and a mere 30 minutes away from Christmas break, would simply walk out of school instead of returning to class and finishing the day (in retrospect, maybe that’s what the choir teacher was trying to do in the first place, ha ha ha). I remember one student skipping out on the assembly and saying, “I’m going home. They won’t suspend me because then it would be, like, 4 weeks without going to school.” (He was right – the administration was reluctant to have suspensions go past Christmas break for fear that the students would simply go to school somewhere else.)

So, this year at my long-term sub job, when I got a memo that there would be an assembly during 6th hour on the last day before Christmas break, I went into “battle mode.” I was anticipating the skippers and the disruptions. I was anticipating the possible fights. I was anticipating anything – except a normal, high school holiday assembly.

It turns out that my fears were totally unfounded. It was a normal holiday assembly. I got down to the auditorium and was greeted by the principal, who was dressed like Santa (which never would have happened in my old school). The Spanish club led the school in a bilingual sing-along, another club organized a candy-cane eating contest (though I think an eggnog chugging contest would have been more entertaining), and the choir performed two songs. The 450+ students in the audience were so respectful that the choir teacher was able to make announcements from the stage without using a microphone.

If you’re a teacher in another district, or you grew up in a functional suburban high school, and you’re reading this, I know that what I described above might sound pretty average to your school. But for me, this successful holiday assembly was a revelation in just how different this school operates in comparison to my old place of employment.

Overall, working in this particular district has been an eye-opening experience. I’ve worked there for over a month and I’ve regained some of my enthusiasm for teaching. I’ve also gained a better understanding of the gap between well-funded suburban schools and under-funded urban schools. Don’t get me wrong, I always knew there was a gap, but I don’t think I fully understood the degree of the gap until now. And I’ve also come to the conclusion that the gap is not totally financial.

The success of the Christmas assembly is a perfect illustration for the gap between my new school and my old school. The staff at the new school doesn’t have to spend a majority of their day enforcing rules. Therefore, they don’t mind giving the students a little freedom to organize events. In turn, the students follow the guidelines and the event goes off with no problems.

At my new job, it’s almost like there is this subconscious social agreement (which may, or may not be fully recognized) between the staff and the collective student population. It’s like, “Let me do my stuff and you can do yours.” (You know, I let you talk in the last five minutes of class if you remain silent during my lecture, etc.) There’s this foundational respect or code that’s somehow been instilled throughout the school. And it’s also something that really puzzles me. How does the staff create this environment?

Somehow, students at my old school couldn’t collectively embrace this concept of “give-and-take,” or “subconscious social agreement,” or “trust,” or whatever you want to call it. There were students who understood this social agreement and would try to organize spirit week, or dances, or assemblies. But often the student-organized events would get cancelled because other students wouldn’t go to class, or the principal would decide that the most recent “disruption” (aka “fight”) in the lunchroom was reason enough to pull the plug on student-organized events. It’s this gap of understanding that seemed to be part of the problem with the social environment of my old school.

In my classroom, even this concept of give-and-take was totally foreign for some of my students. I would say something like, “Look, if I see your iPods/mp3 players out, I’m supposed to take them. But that’s a hassle for me. If we get through today’s lesson with time left over, you can listen to your headphones or respond to that text message that’s “supposedly” from your mother, or whatever…” and so on. Despite this announcement, which I would make frequently, I STILL had students breaking the rules. It was totally baffling.

I don’t want to start psychologizing here, (or spend time debating if “psychologizing” is even a real word) but is this understanding of a social give-and-take between adults and students the real difference between failing and successful schools? Can it be that simple?

For a variety of reasons – some reasons more valid than others – a lot of my students in Detroit expressed doubt toward authority figures (parents, other teachers, police officers, etc.) and I’m left wondering if it’s even possible to develop that type of social trust between students and staff when the students have already developed a sense of mistrust. Is it totally lost by the time a student is 16 years old?

Furthermore, over the last four weeks I’ve been wondering what would happen if the entire staff and administration at my new job were suddenly transplanted into my old building. Obviously, a dedicated staff is important. But is an excellent staff enough to conquer the social attitudes of the students?

Today, I guess I have more questions than answers.

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“I ALMOST KILLED MYSELF OVER THE WEEKEND” – A CAUTIONARY TALE

For some reason, the weirdest classroom chatter always occurs on Monday. Perhaps it’s the combination of the students not seeing their friends for two days, plus all the free time that students have over the weekend to do anything except homework. So, when a good-natured student walked into class on Monday and excitedly declared, “I almost killed myself this weekend!” I was taken aback.

This particular student is comical, outgoing, and slightly annoying. Therefore, he is sort of like me in high school. Anyway, given his personality, I knew that the phrase “I almost killed myself over the weekend” was going to be a set-up for some sort of bizarre story and not a cry for help.

“So, what happened?” I asked.

“Okay. It was totally crazy. I almost killed myself by huffing. Do you know what that is?”

Shaking my head, I say, “Of course I know what huffing is; I listen to the Ramones*. Why were you doing that?”  (*Aside: I didn’t know what huffing was until I read the liner notes for the first Ramones album. In the liner notes, Joey Ramone explains that members of the band would spray bathroom cleaner and glue into a bag and “huff” it to get high because they couldn’t afford booze – which sounded extremely desperate to me. The Ramones reference flies right past this student. Anyway, back to the story… )

“Well, it was a total accident. I had a spray can of compressed air, like the ones that you use to spray the dust of computer keyboards, right?”

“Go on.”

“So I started playing with the can. At first I was spraying the compressed air in my cat’s face. My cat was really digging it and thought it was a game and she would try and bite at the air.  It was really funny! And after a while I was like, ‘I wonder what this feels like?’”

“Of course! I mean if the cat was having fun, you wanted to know if you were missing out,” I sarcastically quip.

The student – completely missing my sarcasm – says, “I know! Right? Anyway, so I start spraying myself in the face with this compressed air and after about five minutes I start feeling really calm and really dizzy. I’m also starting to black out a little bit but I’m telling myself not to panic. I calmly call to my mom and say, ‘Mom, I really don’t want to die.’”

“So what did your mom say?”

“Well, she comes running into the room and she’s like ‘What are you doing? Are you okay?’ and I’m like, ‘I was spraying myself in the face with keyboard cleaner’ and my mom is like, ‘ARE YOU KIDDING ME? YOU WERE HUFFING?! THAT’S COMPRESSED CO2! YOU COULD DIE FROM THAT!’ and I’m like, ‘Well I know that NOW, mom.’”

“What happened after that?”

“So, after a couple minutes, my vision came back and I felt fine. I then spent the rest of the day convincing my mom that it was an accident and that I’m not huffing.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re okay. Let’s get started with class now.”

I proceed to take attendance and then I try to get class started. Before I can explain the assignment for the day, the student who I was just talking to raises his hand, and in front of the whole class says, “Since I almost died this weekend, can I be excused from doing work? I’m still recovering from the trauma.”

The whole class, who has presumably heard this kid tell the story multiple times throughout the day, responds by laughing.

This job never gets old.

THE HONEYMOON IS OVER

(Let me start by apologizing for the length of time in between recent entries. This long-term sub job requires a bit more preparation than I first realized. As stated earlier, I’m currently leading two classes of 10th graders through the process of writing a research paper. In the future, I’ll try to shorten the length of the post and post more frequently.)

As I’m becoming more comfortable in the class, the façade of politeness that some of the students were showing me is now coming down. I think the students were used to the idea that if a sub is in the classroom, then they don’t have to do work. But, I’m not that guy. Over the last two weeks, I’ve been setting deadlines and making down for missing work – just like a “regular” teacher. Some students are totally on board, but others say things like, “You’re not a real teacher” (My reply? “I am certified so I am a real teacher.”) or “These deadlines are too hard to meet” (“They’re not hard to meet if you’ve been doing your work.”)

I’ve also had a few students say to me, “I hate you/this essay/this class.” I should clarify that these students, like most teens, merely use the word “hate” to mean they’re annoyed with something. It’s not like they “hate” me like the way Hitler “hated” people (or at least I hope not).

If fact, if a student says they “hate” me, I usually interpret it to mean that they’re at least comfortable enough in the classroom to criticize me. And that’s some sort of progress, right?

In other news, I was asked to attend the staff Christmas party (woo hoo!) and the weekly staff meetings. I view these invitations as a welcoming act – which, as a sub, I didn’t experience very often.

The staff meeting was pretty laid-back. The biggest point of discussion was when the assistant principal announced that there have been 18 out-of-school suspensions since September. Last year at this time, there were only 13 out-of-school suspensions. A few teachers stated their opinions as to why there had been the increase (“the junior class is crazy this year”) and others offered ideas to solve the problem (“can we change the process so that they’re not missing school”). I found this conversation sort of humorous because I used to work in a school where there would be 20+ suspensions every week.

Another thing that I didn’t anticipate about the steady work was the fact that I would have to buy a couple new pairs of dress pants. Somehow, I “mysteriously” gained, like 25 extra pounds since my old teaching job ended back in June. I could give a number of excuses for the added bulk (lack of gym membership, the absence of a regular routine, etc.) but basically, I just ate too much crappy (aka “delicious”) food over the summer and didn’t work out as much.

Anyway, before this blog turns into a grainy black-n-white montage from “The Biggest Loser,” I’ll get back on topic:  I’m stuck with a limited wardrobe. Due to the added “muscle” I’ve packed on, I only have three pairs of dress pants that fit properly. As some of you know, I’m somewhat of a cheapskate, so the thought of not being able to fit into half of my dress clothes really burns me. This was not a problem when I subbed in different buildings. Barring any sort of stain or visible grime, I could easily wear the same outfit three days in a row to three different job sites. Obviously, I can’t do that now. In fact, the wardrobe issue was probably the only upside to unemployment / under-employment. How many people can get away with wearing the same thing three or four times a week?

THESIS FOR THOUGHT

It’s now been a full week since I started my long-term sub position and things are going really well. As I mentioned earlier, I go to work around noon and do most of my prep before 5th hour starts. I teach 5th & 6th hour, grade all the work from the day, and walk out the door by 3:30.

Since the students are working on research papers, I’m not spending a lot of time lecturing. Most of the students work independently and are turning in work at every stage of this lengthy research assignment. I enjoy not being worried about classroom management because that allows me to focus on the individual needs of each student. In the past week, most of my time has been devoted to working with students 1-on-1 and giving each kid direct advice on his or her work.

I think the biggest difference between the students I currently work with, and the students I used to work with in Detroit is that more of these students are self-motivated and have a better understanding of how to manage time. Most of these students also have better writing skills. However, nobody’s perfect, as the following examples prove. These are actual thesis statements that I came across when the students wrote their outlines last week:

1) “The JFK assassination changed the life of the American people themselves, and the country itself, in more than one way.”

(I myself was deeply impacted by JFK’s selflessness to America.)

2) “The Apollo moon landing were an inspirational happening that pushed American achievements beyond what we thought could be achieved.”

(You’re right, I WERE inspired by this event.)

3) “Y2K is an underrated attack on America, that started an epidemic.”

(Ahhh yes, who can forget the tragic Y2K attacks on America? The attacks were so very underrated because nobody panicked. We, as a strong nation, banded together to fight off our attackers – those cursed machines!)

Of course, there are some students who goof off. And, of course there are students who miss deadlines. But I’m dealing with a lot less goofy behavior and fewer late assignments and I feel like I’m not as overwhelmed.

In the past week, I’ve also connected with certain students to the point where they feel comfortable enough to initiate small talk (“Hey Mr. S, did you see the Spartans last night?”), or tell a joke (“What do you call a mermaid’s underwear? Algebra! Get it? Alge-bra!”), or tell me about their hobbies and interests.

For example, a girl named “Elaine” – a self-described nerd – is a Jeopardy! fanatic. Elaine explained to me that a week’s worth of shows are taped in a single afternoon so contestants are required to bring multiple changes of clothes in order to give the home viewer the impression that each show is occurring on a different day. “However,” Elaine added, “sometimes a lazy guy will wear the same shirt and just change his tie or throw a vest on for each episode.” I found this tidbit of information particularly hilarious.

The students also ask me a lot of questions about my old job and what it was like to work in Detroit. Last Thursday, while I was taking attendance, a student named Jack (who is clearly the class clown of 6th hour) asked me, “What’s the worst fight you saw at your old school?” The question made the room go silent.

“It’s a long story, so I’ll tell it in the last 15 minutes of class if you’re still interested.” I said.

“Just tell us now, because I’m not going to get anything done anyway,” Jack quipped.

“How about this – Jack, if you don’t do your work, I won’t tell the story.”

This made the class laugh and it also put pressure on Jack to get his work done (which he did with no problems). Toward the end of the hour I told the class a story about “the worst fight I ever saw” which was probably my worst day at my old job.

Here’s the shortest version I can tell: In September of 2007, which was my first year as a teacher, the school district that I worked in was in some serious financial trouble. In order to get some quick revenue, the superintendent and the administration of the district decided to let a charter school from the east side of Detroit rent space in our high school. At the time, there was a wing of the high school with about 10 classrooms that were completely vacant.

The principal of this charter school claimed that their program already had teachers and security guards and only needed building space. There was no announcement made to the students. In fact, the teachers in my district were told about this on a Friday and then the charter school kids showed up Monday morning.

On Monday, there was a small fight between some kids from my school and kids from this charter program. The fight had a ripple-effect through the building and as the week progressed, tensions increased between the two groups of students.

To further complicate matters, the principal of this charter school embezzled the payroll funds from the charter school’s accounts and then left the state. As a result, teachers and security guards who worked for this charter school stopped coming to work because they didn’t get paid. The teachers in my building tried to cover a few classrooms, but scores of students from this charter school were left unsupervised…and you can imagine the result.

Everything came to a head in the second week when someone phoned in a phony bomb threat to the school. As per the district’s guidelines, the entire school was evacuated. As the two schools walked out of the building, a massive brawl erupted. Fifty or sixty students were fighting outside the school. The local police was overwhelmed and after about 15 minutes, the riot police showed up and launched tear gas at the students.

To be clear, not everybody was fighting. A sizable number of students stayed away from the action. After the riot police showed up, things were mostly under control. I kept most of my freshmen students (who looked at this crazy scene with confusion and amazement) well away from the mayhem.

As I told the story, 6th hour was completely silent. I have no idea what their take on this story was. My take? I think the events that I described to this class were so far outside their scope of experience that they didn’t know how to respond.

I also felt conflicted after telling my students about this particular event. By telling this story, did I perpetuate some of the stereotypes that my students have about the Detroit area? Do my current students understand the socio-economic issues that my former students dealt with? Furthermore, why did my students want to hear a “fight” story? Would they have sat through a story about how my old school was able to raise its ACT scores?

I’m eager to see what other questions these students will ask me as time progresses.