Category Archives: teaching life

Great Moments in Teaching: When It Had to Be You

Teachers who work with a large population of Asian students occasionally describe a student as “not getting the memo”.  High achieving or just hard working, the bulk of eastern and southern Asians all got the word: school is important.

Taio, who has been in my ELD class for a year or so, is a tall, plump fifteen year old who spent all of last year on his phone. I’d take it away, and he’d just sit impassively. Miko mentioned last year that the kid had said I talked too fast, which amused us both, but when I mentioned to Taio that I’d try to talk more slowly, he was shocked and got out his phone for Google Translate. “I like your class very much,” the text said. Huh.

Taio would do work sheets, and occasionally write a sentence or two. But he hated to talk and would sit, sullenly staring at me, as I gave out sentence starters again and again.

Another conversation with Miko, asking if we needed a parent conference. “His dad is the only one here, and he works three jobs.”

I sighed. “How are these basically indigent people getting here from China? And why come here, with rents what they are?”

Miko shrugged.

Taio improved  with the new school year. The class was motivated, I had some curriculum, and last year’s experiences gave the returning students a bond that build more camaraderie.  He was still on his phone every chance I gave him, but he participated more, would occasionally speak unprompted, and even wrote brief paragraphs. But he still hadn’t had any kind of breakthrough, and while he wasn’t at all unintelligent, I couldn’t get a sense of his abilities.

I assess all my ELL students in their math abilities. You would weep at how commonly they are placed above their skill level. Just today, a new student from Pakistan arrived. Because he’s a freshman and it’s second semester, he was placed in Algebra I. But he has no idea how to use negative numbers, and no understanding of fractions.

Now, I’m not faulting the registrar–I have no idea how these decisions are made. It’s just that ELL students spend close to half their school day having no idea what’s going on in their classes. Teachers often have no idea how to adjust their curriculum to meet ELL needs, and still grade the students using the same standards. We put them in “sheltered” history and English classes but we only have one each of those a year. We finally started a sheltered science class, which is very popular. Other than that, ELL students take electives: art, PE, photography, cooking. We don’t yet have a sheltered math class. Most ELL kids with any math ability are put in mainstream classes. The problem arises with those who don’t.

I’d assessed Taio last year and earlier in the fall. He knew algebra basics, and was taking our non-freshman algebra course. His teacher, new to the school, told me in October that Taio was doing very badly in his class, but Taio told me he was doing great. He had a B, which isn’t that spectacular for a deliberately easy course (taught by a teacher who was having a horrible time managing his class). But it was a passing grade, which was better than two of his other classes, so I quit wondering.

Then Taio made a big mistake. We were playing Wheel of Fortune: I form them up into teams, come up with a puzzle, they spin an online wheel for points, and guess. The teams are grouped so that weaker students can watch stronger students mull over their choices. I wish I could remember what the phrase was, but they were down to just the tricky consonants. Taio was on a team with two strong English speakers who were moved to ELL 2 just a week later.He rarely participated in these games, but I noticed he was watching closely, and suddenly I saw him say, softly, “K”.

As it happened, “K” was a missing letter from the puzzle–which I can’t remember, but I do recall there were only two letters left, both of them difficult.  The other two didn’t hear him and were discussing other options.

I looked at Taio and said, softly, “Louder.” He smiled, and shook his head.

“Hey, guys! Check with Taio.”

Taio’s teammates looked at him. “K”. They shrugged. “K”.

“Yep.” I put in “K”, and Taio, unprompted, guessed the puzzle.

Why, the little weasel. He’d been holding out on me.

I started watching him closely and realized that Taio simply didn’t like to speak English. He understood far more than he let on. I discussed with this with Miko, who agreed but said he could not figure out how to motivate him to work harder. He’d passed Algebra with a C, but was failing Miko’s class for not working, and his art class as well.

A few days later, after the semester had ended, I saw Taio’s algebra teacher, an Indian gentleman new to American schools, in the copy room, and asked again how he’d done.

“Oh, terrible. He’s in my Discovering Geometry class now, too. Never does anything, zeros every day.”

“That’s so weird. Taio’s not a liar, normally, and he tells me his tests are all A.”

“Oh, they are. He does well on the tests, but no classwork. On his phone all day, doing nothing.”

I stopped dead in my tracks and said–literally–“Wait. What?”

“Yes, he’s fine on the tests, but no homework, no classwork, phone all day. Same thing now. He got an A on the test, but no homework all week. He has a D.”

“So….he has an A average on the tests, but because he does no homework or classwork he gets a C.”

“Yes. Is that a problem?”

In less than a day, I’d contacted Taio’s counselor, had him moved from Discovery Geometry to freshman Geometry. This is  much harder than our 10-12 Geometry class and it was taught by Chuck, which gave me pause. So I emailed Chuck, hoping he’d reassure me. Instead, Chuck wrote:

As you know, Geometry is requires vocabulary and syntax (if/then). My experience is that Geometry does not appeal to most EL students because it requires language skills. Geometry provides students the opportunity to practice, but most students who are not motivated and/or not confident typically won’t put themselves out there when verbalizing logic is required.

I crossed my fingers and hoped this wouldn’t make things worse. Miko thought it was a great idea, even better since the change meant Taio was in the sheltered science class instead of PE, which he hated.

Unfortunately, he still failed Science. However, he’s passing Chuck’s extremely rigorous  Geometry class with a B. He’s talking more in my class. Taking lead in class discussions.  Passing Miko’s class, which he wasn’t before. He’s even talking to Giancarlo, a Guatemalan, teaching him Chinese and learning a little Spanish. He asks me for help with math homework. So now I have to go talk to his science teacher and see how to get him moving.

Usually my “Great Moments” series are about exciting classroom action. This is just a story about a Chinese kid who doesn’t want to be in America and hates school. He ‘s a loner who doesn’t even use school hours for socializing.

But Taio understands what I was doing when I put him in that geometry class. He knows I put myself on the line to make school something both interesting and challenging–but doable. I’m not sure he’s working and trying for his own sake. He just doesn’t want to let me down. Good enough. It’s a start.

The thing is, it had to be me–more precisely, it had to be an ELL teacher with the math knowledge to instantly realize that a new math teacher didn’t understand he had a student who was bored silly.  It had to be an ELL teacher with the knowledge of the math sequence who could make a recommendation to a counselor and have the standing to back it up.

I love having all my credentials, but it’s usually for the flexibility and variety they give me. Every so often, however, they provide insights that move me millions of miles further down a problem path.

As an aside: you ever notice that ELL discussions by outsiders always focus around immersion vs bilingual education?  Neither method is going to get high school ELL students anywhere past pijin. It’s irrelevant.

 

Food for thought.

 


Bob, Gwen, and Lines of Best Fit

I have no excuse for this article. Except the new Fosse/Verdon ads are showing up. Also, consider “lines of best fit” a descriptive, not technical, term.

“Hey, Gerardo. Take a look at this.”

Gerardo, my new TA, reluctantly removed his air pods. Like all my graders, he’d been my student for three classes before asking if I could take him in third block, but the rest of my TAs were chatty folks. Gerardo grades with fantastic efficiency, but the rest of the time he’d really rather be somewhere else working on his English essay.

“What the hell…heck is that?”

VerdonFosse1

“Well, this is an image from a famous dance. I took some images from it and started comparing movement lines for fun.”

Gerardo shot me a look. “Fun? You’re so weird.”

“Yeah. But it beats grading. So take a look. What do you notice?”

“You mean, what are the red lines telling me?” Gerardo did look, and think. But shook his head. “I don’t see anything.”

“Who’s taller?”

“What, that’s a trick question? The guy is.”

“Yep. The guy is Bob Fosse, one of the most famous choreographers in history, and Google says he’s 5’8″.  The woman is Gwen Verdon, his wife, and she’s 5’4″.”

“So what does….wait a minute. Gerry looked again. ” You’ve got the other lines at their butts and knees.”

“Yep.”

“And they’re, like, the same.”

“Exactly. So what does that mean?”

“She has to have really long legs. Yeah, I see it now. Look how far below her shoulders are. Her body’s a lot shorter.”

“Good! Try this one.”

VerdonFosse2

Gerardo was interested, now. “Okay, I get this. Her hips are way, way out. His aren’t. But what’s the line for…oh, I see. You have the lines right on their hips, and there’s all this space between her body and the line. But the line goes right through his body. So that means…he can’t push his hip out as far.”

“Nice. Now here’s two at once. What do they have in common?”

FosseVerdon3FosseVerdon4

Gerardo was hooked, now, leaning into my desk closely. Ideally, my trig students were getting some work done, but we were pretty intent on this.

“Okay, so the top red line on this one is about their height…it’s the same. How is that happening?”

“Good catch.”

“Their knees are lined up, their heads are lined up…wait. Their…what, hips? His is lower!”

“Look at his feet.”

“Oh, wow. He’s got way more give in his feet. So he’s using his feet to push up while his knees are bending down. Oh, you have it circled in the next one. So he’s able to bend down to her height on his toes using only his knees.”

“It’s unusual, because she’s clearly more flexible than he is in the hips, but he’s got very bendy feet. Try this one.”

fosseVerdon6

“Okay, those vertical lines are showing the distance.”

“Yeah. Later on I do slopes to show the difference.”

“What, you’ve got more?”

“You could always grade.”

“No, no. But on this one, I can’t figure out what it means. Her leg is straight up and down. His is all bent forward…oh, I see. He has to bend forward, to do that thing with the shoulder. But she can keep her whole body straight.”

“Neat. Next up.”

fosseVerdon5

“Oh my god. How does she do that with her leg? And she’s almost straight up. She is straight up. He’s kind of tilted just to try and get his leg up nearly as much. Not that I could lift my leg more than an inch.”

Despite his complaints, Gerardo had moved far in to check out the pictures.

fosseverdon7

“He’s way higher.”

“Yep. Fosse was a jumper.”

“But the other lines show his leg is below his waist. Hers is above…hey, she’s lower than he is in the air, but her leg is higher–not just relatively, but like higher than his. ”

“How about this one?”

FosseVerdon8

“These are getting easy. She’s standing straight up, while he’s having to bend to get the same results. And this one, she’s got the flexible hip thing going, while his is straight.”

fosseverdon9

“Here I was trying to show that she is turning faster. But I honestly don’t know if that’s a problem, if they’re supposed to time it perfectly, or what. I was just trying to show the turn.”

FosseVerdon12

“Yeah, you can see he’s barely started when she’s halfway around.”

FosseVerdon13FosseVerdon15

“So he’s having to bend to get the same positions that she can do standing straight up. What part of the body allows that?”

“Hips, definitely. Knees? Good question. Here’s a sequence of three that probably look strange, but it’s like a fake exaggerated run.”

FosseVerdon16FosseVerdon17FosseVerdon18

“Jeez, her leg is at 90 degrees, and her body is tilted over. What is she holding herself up with–just her foot?”

“And some pretty impressive legs and abs, I’m thinking.”

“He’s solid on that one, too. But in the next ones, her body is practically an L.  He’s balancing. Like throwing his weight forward to get his leg up. In the last one, he has his leg up as high as hers but tilts over a bit to do it.”

“Well, keep in mind that on relative terms, she outranks him. Gwen Verdon was probably the best dancer ever seen on Broadway, and the rest of the best were trained by her. In her prime, no one was better at that time. Fosse was a groundbreaking choreographer and an excellent dancer, but not in the same league as a performer or star. I know nothing about dancing, so I can’t tell you how the two of them are rated by others, nor do I have any clear idea of who was “better”.

“So this was a long time ago?”

“Yes, Damn Yankees is sixty years old. Try this group of pictures of a sequence of two jumps.”

FosseVerdon19FosseVerdon20

“He’d have been a damn good basketball player.”

“I know, his vertical jump stats had to be amazing. ”

“You know what else? And you didn’t red line it, so maybe I’m getting good at this. He’s the one who’s straight up. She’s the one bending to balance and get more flight.”

“Whoa. I didn’t catch that. You’re right.”

“Unless maybe the middle picture is just her on the way down?”

“No, I caught the first two on the way up and the last one, after they’d switched sides, at as close to peak as I could. That’s another sign that he’s much more comfortable at jumping than swinging his hips.”

“Well. As it is for most guys.”

“Ha. True.”

FosseVerdon21

“This is obvious. She’s got a straight leg, up and down, and then just a tilt of her body. He’s tilting his body one way to get the hip out, then the other way for the…whatever you call it, the show. Hey, you know, this really is a good use of slopes.”

“Thanks.”

“What the fuck…oh, sorry. What is happening with her leg!”

FosseVerdon22a

“I love this one, because it’s related to the reason I became fascinated with this dance.”

“But man, look at it! He’s at his highest point and she’s got a whole additional gear yet!”

“And the funny thing is it makes Fosse look almost clumsy, which he wasn’t. Not many male dancers could do anywhere near as well.”

“How come you got so interested in this dance you’re breaking it down image by image?”

“My interest was first.  I made the images for math class, but much later.   I was watching a documentary once years ago where Gwen was talking about this dance and how Bob Fosse was always yelling at her to jump! because she can’t fly like he does.  I’ve been watching musicals my entire life, but I never really considered comparing dancers. When I was a kid, I always wondered why Cyd Charisse was brought in to dance with Gene Kelly…”

“Who?”

“Remember that movie we watched with Princess Leia’s mom at Christmas?”

“Oh, and then  she died! Yeah, the musical about silent movies. That was good.”

“So you remember how in the big dance number at the end, it wasn’t Princess Leia’s mom?”

“The brunette lady with the legs.”

“Exactly. I used to wonder why they brought her in. But when I grew up, I realized it was because Debbie was a  movie hoofer, while Cyd Charisse rivals Verdon as the best there is. So when I found the dance on Youtube, I analyzed the whole dance and noticed differences that went both ways.”

“You do that with a lot of dances?”

“No. Most famous dances with men and women aren’t doing identical steps–and most of the ones that do exist are tap dances.”

“So you made these pictures?”

“I was having trouble sleeping one night and  watched Cabaret, which he directed. That got me thinking about this dance, and wondering if I could capture their differences in a way a student could analyze.”

“For class?”

“Yeah, maybe. It was just a whim.”

fosseverdon23

“How does she hold that balance? Even for a second? I mean, he looks good, but normal.”

“Here’s another spin. This time, it goes from a spin into her going on the floor into a goofy tug and him pulling her by the leg. I should say that some of their spins were perfectly synchronized. I was more curious as to what it meant.”

FosseVerdon24

“Ha, I like that little arrow you put! He just jumps like it’s nothing.”

“Wanna see the actual dance?”

“Wait. That’s all the pictures? You mean, there aren’t like, five hundred?”

But Gerardo watched the clip closely, despite the clear implication that I’m a tad, oh, obsessive.

“OK, I get it now. If I’d watched this first, I’d say they were completely identical. But looking through those pictures lets me see the differences.”

“Thanks. Now. You’ve been a really good sport, but can you do me one more favor?”

Gerardo looked warily skeptical. “What?”

“These pictures are from a recreation of that dance from a new show coming out on their lives. I don’t have any red lines drawn, but do you notice anything?”

FakeFosseVerdon2

He snorted. “Yeah, right, like I’m going to see any  differences…wait a minute. Their hips and knees aren’t even. She doesn’t have the long legs.”

“And?”

Gerardo sighed, but complied. Suddenly he leaned forward, and smiled. “Got it. He’s the one dipping his hips! She’s holding them straight.”

I startled him, and the class, by thumping my desk. “I am justified.”

“What?”

“That’s the whole reason I asked you to look through those pictures. Because when the new trailer came out, all I could think was hey, they’ve got it backwards! and I wanted to have someone else know. Thank you, Gerardo. I’ll give you an A.”

“All TAs get an A. Is the guy a better dancer than the lady, or just more flexible?”

“Well, they’re both actors, not dancers. But Sam Rockwell, who’s playing Fosse, has danced in almost all of his movies and you can see he’s really loose-limbed, with hip action. Michelle Williams famously recreated one of Marilyn Monroe’s dances and got nominated for it, but it may or may not be significant that they cut away during a lot of the dips and weaves. Or maybe these few seconds aren’t representative, of course.”

(Note: I didn’t bore Gerardo with this picture, but hey, this is my blog so I’ll bore you. Here’s one example:

MichelleMarilyn

Williams, on the right, has to turn her entire body back to kick backwards. Monroe, who had been well-trained to use her body in dancing, can turn her head and neck, kick her leg back–farther, no less– while keeping her body straight.)

I’d like to tell you that Gerardo then asked me dozens of questions about movie lore, but instead he went back to modern music on his air pods. But I felt better for the validation, and got some grading done. While I told the story uninterrupted,I did take some time for student trig questions, pesky though they were.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, “Who’s Got the Pain” is a throwaway number from “Damn Yankees”. For years, it was considered a time-waster and often cut out of TV broadcasts. But dancers and choreographers treat the scene like the Talmud, studying it endlessly. And over time, “Who’s Got the Pain” became known as the only time Fosse and Verdon danced together in a production movie number. Definitely watch the dance all the way through if you’ve made it this far into the read.

 


Not Really Teaching English Once More

Have I ever gone through the steps that led to my teaching ELL?

Year 1

Back in August 2016, the day before school started, my principal walked into my classroom, which he rarely does, and I said, fearfully, “you’re not taking my pre-calc class, are you?” because I rarely get to teach precalc and principals only walk into your room when they’re asking for something you won’t like, and the only thing I wouldn’t like was losing my precalc class. The other upper math teachers complain, which isn’t fair, because the state tests show my kids do as well as theirs on average (their top kids do reeeeeeally well, but the rest of the kids do horribly, while my top kids do well, but everyone else does respectably.)

But no, he wasn’t taking my precalc class, he was taking my prep period. The non-tenured mostly ELL teacher who was on track to for termination in the upcoming year had taken a new job with less notice than is legally allowed. It’s not well known, but teachers aren’t allowed to quit without some degree of notice, usually between 30 and 60 days, unless the district gives permission. Otherwise, they won’t be able to teach anywhere else in the state. My principal and the English department felt the rejected teacher should be allowed to take a new job under the circumstances. English teachers hate taking extra preps, but they scrounged up two volunteers and suddenly, someone remembered I have an English credential.

So with no notice, I started ELL instruction. I had four classes planned for the following semester. But despite an ongoing hiring campaign, no one would accept the job. With a whole bunch of juggling,  Bart was handed one of my trig classes and I taught ELL the entire year. That was year one. Articles: The Things I TeachNot Really Teaching English,ELL isn’t Language Instruction

I expected it to be an anomaly. I loved the kids, and my first, large, ELL class remains my favorite both for the students and the experience. I’m currently teaching Marshall and Kit (from the Things I Teach), both of them juniors, doing well. Juan, Anj, and Tran are all academic rock stars, with several AP classes (including English) to their credit. But the political and instructional aspects of ELL bothered me tremendously, and I was happy to be out of it.

Year 2

Then almost exactly a year ago right now, an AVP walked into my classroom just a week before the first term ended, just as I had convinced myself I was actually going to get the pay cut of a normal prep period, to ask me if I’d help them out by teaching the ELL Connections class. She didn’t say why. In fact, I’d asked the principal a month earlier to confirm that there’d be no additional class coming my way, and he assured me there were no plans to use me. Which, well, wasn’t true. He couldn’t mention that he was in the process of firing the primary ELL teacher, the 20 year expert, which he achieved in three months from start to finish, including investigation. They collapsed two of her courses into one, and gave me the other.

The second year (2017-2018) wasn’t particularly enjoyable. The kids had hated the fired teacher, and had enjoyed three months of substitutes and movies. None of them had any particular interest in learning English. I had two Chinese boys who wouldn’t (and won’t) stay off their phones, one Afghani girl who liked (and likes) to cause trouble, a German girl who was seriously pissed off at her dad for bringing her to America (I hear she’s forgiven him), a Mexican boy from my previous year who went from being the weakest student to the second strongest simply because all the others moved on, a Salvadoran girl who was friendly and helpful and hardworking unless she wasn’t, and three Guatemalans who chattered constantly in Spanish, generally refusing to even try to speak English.

Simply getting them to enjoy being a class, to tolerate each other, took a long time, although I’m pleased to say that the Disney/dead animals day was the turnaround I took it for. But as far as actual progress in learning English went, there was none. In fact, I didn’t spend much time teaching them English at all, not directly. I taught content in other areas and got them thinking and talking, which trust me was more than enough of an accomplishment. But even if I’d wanted to teach actual English, I had no curriculum.  No books. All the stuff from last year disappeared from my old room (I was using the previous teacher’s room, until the kids asked if we could just stay in mine).

One significant improvement over the year before, though, was Miko.

Miko was a science teacher with an English credential. But he loathes the new state science curriculum. So he volunteered to be the permanent replacement that I’d been temporarily, and now he’s an English teacher with a science credential. He likes running things, he likes after-school activities, teaching drama, cheerleading, stuff like that. You might have noticed that between the two of us, we could open a school. He could be in charge, even.

So after the 20 year expert got fired, Miko was put in charge, and made changes that I’d advised the year before. He reduced the infuriating “three English classes” requirement, arguing as I had (but more successfully) that just two classes would give students needed time to build credits towards graduation. He was considerably more aggressive about moving students up into second year, ending the absurd practice of forcing highly educated students who read English at a 9th grade to learn “cup”, “stand”, “pencil”, and “sit”.  And, as a guy who likes to be in charge, he took a very hands-on approach to the kids’ status, so I had someone to talk to about behavior problems and frustrations.

I apparently impressed him, too, because he asked me to teach two courses of ELL in the next year (2018-19). How to put this politely? I demurred, saying that I’d be happy to help out if another teacher quits (hahahaha! What are the odds?), but that math was my bag, thanks.

I didn’t see much need for me. The other, brand new, ELL teacher was let go. The ELL specialist (non-teacher) was leaving and we’d hired a new one. The principal decided to use experienced English teachers, non-ELL, to take over the classes rather than try to hire new teachers again.  So Miko would teach first year and Connections, Karinna, who taught AP English, would pick up second year, and Joanne, also an honors teacher, would take third year.  A full-fledged ELD department would be created, with Miko and the newly hired ELL specialist, and Karinna and Joanne in both.

So I left for summer thinking I’d be teaching two precalc classes, or even three, which I’d strongly requested, maybe a trig or algebra 2. Four blocks again, definitely–the 33% premium now for nine semesters running!–and no ELL. Alas, no history either. We’ve been hiring up in that area, so I won’t be teaching US History possibly ever again. Sad.

While I wasn’t crazy about the kids, I still felt the year finished productively, given where I started. At the time, I felt it was a good way to leave the topic.

Year 3

We teachers were notified of our schedule for the year by email, from yet another AVP, the week before school started. My note said:

  • Trig
  • ELL 1
  • Algebra 2
  • Algebra 2

WHAT THE HELL! I sent off a cranky–too cranky–note to that AVP and hurt her feelings, which wasn’t my intent and I apologized later, saying I wasn’t blaming her. I was just pissed off, having been reassured that my agitation for more pre-calc had been heard.  Why no pre-calc? Well, because one of the pre-calc classes was second block, and they needed me to teach ELL. OK, we’ll get back to that. Why no pre-calc? Well, because Chuck had though the fourth block class was mostly juniors and seniors and better suited to me than Wing, who got the pre-calc class. I gave her a look, and she thought it a good idea to give that pre-calc class to me.

Now, why was I teaching ELL again?

Well, the newly hired specialist had quit. Not quit, but gone…oh, I don’t know, fishing. I don’t remember the details. Off to another school somewhere. But we needed a specialist. So Miko stepped up. Told you, he likes to run things. He is still teaching the Connections class, and his drama class, but being specialist takes time, so he gets a block off. And so, here I am. Out of the tree, but still in the car.

I told Miko I wanted curriculum and a reasonably homogeneous class. I eventually got curriculum. I’ll discuss the class another day. But for all the frustrations, this year has been much more enjoyable. Miko is in charge, and moves over-qualified students out of my first year class at a gratifying pace. I have a curriculum with textbooks and workbooks, as well as an online program. We have an over-arching framework that allows us to focus in on kids who need a particular skill. For example, second and third year students who needed grammar focus get additional time in small group instruction, while others got practice time listening to long, involved stories and answering questions about it, just like they would in “real school”.

We’ve had several days of professional development which has been reasonably useful. And having a small department that allows us all to discuss the craziness that is ELL policy has been most cheering. I’m part of a group, one that considers me valuable as opposed to a dangerous renegade, which is a pleasant change.

Note well that the school hired two ELL teachers and fired both of them, then fired its 20 year expert, then hired and lost a specialist–all in less than two years.

I say again–hiring, not firing, is the pain point.

Here’s irony: As a math teacher, I am longest-standing ELL teacher at my school. I speak no languages other than English, yet I am the designated entry class for students who speak no English at all.

Apparently, I’m pretty good at it.

 

 

 

 

 


My Week, Part Two

Thursday, cont’d.

Part One ended on a knife chord. Thursday was already a busy day. Cullen, the professor in charge of the demonstration,  would be arriving at lunch to test the technology in a school network, which often blocks unexpectedly. The actual demonstration itself was after school, if anyone came. I was praying for non-zero.

Now Friday was shaping up as a catastrophe, one in which the price paid and the pain suffered was all on the students. No shows at the demonstration  became a second-tier worry.

My  ELL class, still much improved, read quietly  as I spent second block messaging with Regina, the director, miraculously keeping my temper and sarcasm in check, finding a line somewhere between furious outrage and craven grovelling.  Regina was apologetic but unmoving. Finally,  Bart and I surrendered to the inevitable, deciding to attend the competition and try to appeal the decision afterwards.  But how to tell the students?

“Wow. You have huge classes!”  My third block pre-calc class was finishing up the Wednesday test, leaving me little time to feel miserable. Then, suddenly, it was lunch time and Cullen was here with a box of eight Arduinos, stunned at a class of 36.

My Chromebooks wouldn’t recognize the microcontrollers, so  I emailed the tech guy, who  was there in under two minutes, earning himself more green beans when the Sunday seeds I sowed get around to producing.

Bart came by, looking like a bruised puppy, with even more bad news: because we’d not registered on time, we had to get to the competition on our own dime. No van voucher. I spent lunch switching from discussing work arounds to our school network obstructions to looking for vans on Expedia to running through the least horrible method of delivering crushing news to our three competitor teams.

A 12-person van cost $300 a day. Big expense for a competition our kids were doomed to lose. Only one company, one location.

Awesome tech guy decided to simply life by loading eight laptops with Arduino programming environment.  Cullen got set up and left to pick up some lunch.

My trig class was starting the linear and angular velocity unit, which is a favorite lesson, so I put all the looming catastrophes out of my mind and had some fun.

Cullen and his colleagues came back just before the bell rang, with the awesome tech quy and eight laptops in their wake. After profusely thanking the tech guy, damned if I didn’t see Will, chatting with the professor and Devlin, one of our competitors in the Arduino event. Two!

The colleagues asked me for a signin sheet and by the time I found a notepad,  suddenly, magically, seven students have materialized: five seniors, two juniors.

And of these seven kids, five were expecting to compete the next day: Devlin and two of his team members, Malcolm and Raj. Lorelei, who like Devlin had done all of the coding, was there with her teammate, Amira. I cravenly waited to break the bad news after the demo.

Despite my panic, the presentation on a compelling environmental issue in our immediate area snagged my interest. We live in an essential floodplain, or something (look, science isn’t my bag), and well, I lost some of the details, but the kids clearly didn’t.

Malcolm was so fascinated by the presentation he decided to skip a volleyball game in favor of learning the technology, and towed me over to his coach as evidence of his academic intent. On our way back, I got a text from Regina asking me to call.

“Hi, I talked to the other school and they’ve agreed we’ll just say the emailed project reports got stuck in my spam filter. But I can’t do anything about the van at this late date.”

I lean against the wall, weak-kneed with relief. “Not a problem. Thank you, Regina. Thank you. Thank you.”

“The rubric is online. Score them, send the reports and the scores to me.”

“Done.”

I texted Bart, sprinted for an administrator. Before I forked out $300 of my own cash for that van, I wanted to confirm the district wouldn’t come through. My boss gave it his best shot, but our district won’t give out buses without a week’s notice and they’re very expensive. I booked the van. From school to rental company to home is 50 miles. Street parking, so I could leave my car there.

I returned to the demo,  90 minutes in and going strong. Devlin and Lorelei were coding the sensor to respond, while the other kids are getting to “blink”, Arduino for “hello world”. I signaled the first two, told them to email me project reports immediately, then texted the club president to tell the freshmen team the same. Within an hour I had all three reports and the rubric printed out.

The technology lesson wrapped up at 5:30, with kids enthusiastically ready to proceed with afternoon meetings. The consultants were absolutely thrilled, and I take a moment to feel some pride. Yes, I’m ridiculously disorganized with a talent for missing due dates, but by golly I seized an opportunity that got seven motivated students to come learn a new technology and some environmental science on a late Thursday afternoon.

I called Devlin, Lorelei, and the others outside to delivery the now not terrible news.

“I have spent all day beating myself up. However, right there on the project spec you’ve used as a bible it says no reason will be accepted for a late submission.  Note for future–if someone else is responsible for delivery of your essential project,  nag endlessly. Get proof in writing.” These are bright kids, they realized I wasn’t blaming them, just handing on a life lesson. “And I will have to score these ruthlessly. Remember that whatever points you get are far more than what you were on track to get a few hours ago.”

Cullen’s gang and I briefly discussed the next steps; they left at 6. After scoring the three reports–Lorelei’s was disturbingly low, missing one key area the rubric valued twice as high as anything else.  Devlin and the freshmen team did much better–I sent all that in to Regina, left school at 7:30, had a quick dinner, picked up the huge van.

Home at 11 pm.

Friday

The morning went by in a blur.  My ELL kids got a movie. I designed a trig concepts worksheet for thhe fourth block class I’d be missing. Bart took care of getting our subs.

The drive itself was nearly 2 hours. My back was still pretty bad, so by the time we arrived, it took me a good half a minute to dismount from that huge van, and I could barely stand up straight.

“I’m done,” I told Bart. Emotionally, physically, stressed past my limits. “I need to find a place to sit and just chill for a while.”

We’d arrived a bit early, so sat quietly in the library. The students broke off into their teams and practiced in low voices. Never laid too low to opinionate, I’d offer the occasional comment–“Money. Mention money. Your solution is cheaper than others because it’s open source.” or “Don’t adjust your presentation on the fly just because a partner said your line. Just add, ‘As Areeka mentioned,’ and emphasize the same point.” Bart, now filled with energy, was dashing around helping set up.

Regina asked if we could be judges. I demurred, using my back as an excuse.

The competition was held in classrooms far away from the library with limited indoor seating. I just sat outdoors at a lunch table with a few slices of cold pizza and enjoyed the view. Periodically I came back to earth, wandered around finding students to ask how their presentations went–they had two each–and tell Lorelei my concerns about her project report. Lorelei produced her engineering notebook, which had all the design elements that were missing from her report. Arggh. I ran into Bart, who was judging the technology interview portion.

“Devlin’s team was weak,” Bart said. “Lorelei and the team from the other school killed it. Our freshmen were really the best of the five.”

“Dev’s team was weak? He integrated a microcontroller with Excel!”

“Something he never got around to saying.”

He went off with the other judge to debate scores. Regina came out to see me.

“Why was Lorelei’s report scored so low? She’s doing a great job!”

I asked if Lorelei could submit her project notebook as part of her report and take a scoring hit on length. Regina agreed, so Lorelei produced the notebook and I rescored.

The second round of presentations, the pitches, had ended, forty-five minutes after the events had ended, moving in on 6:00, and no decision, I peeked back into the judge’s room.

“Oh, hi, Ed. Come on in! We’re almost done!” The director and two teachers from the other school were in the room, no Bart and the other yet. Wait, what? How could they be almost done?

The results are on the board. Dev’s team is in third place, Lorelei’s in fifth. All of the presentation scores are in the high 80s and 90s. Dev and Lorelei have a 90+ score. My kids’ project report scores were from 30-60 points lower than the others. Lorelei’s new project score wasn’t taken into account.

This piece is long enough without my rendering a lengthy, detailed, conversation, so I’ll try to explain me instead. Most people who watch Twelve Angry Men find it a powerful reminder of the importance of assuming innocence, of sticking up for those with no voice, of  tolerance triumphing over racism. But some, the folks who use the movie in management classes, see it as a master class in argument and persuasion.

I’m Juror #8, but only in the second view. Not “I’m the righteous advocate for social justice” but rather “I’m the unmovable, persuasive master of argument who relies on neither social status nor authority to prevail, standing squarely between you and your objective.”   In both teacher and corporate world, I’ve been pulled into meetings by those who want my skills to either achieve their goal or stop another. It’s one of the most inescapable attributes of my personality. I often flatly avoid speaking out in large work groups because self-knowledge has (finally) taught me I won’t be able to back down, and in instances where those in authority have their minds made up, I become quite unpopular.

Sometimes this sucks. Many friends have pointed out that this exchange describes me, and they’re not wrong. But the skill is a blessing far more than it’s a curse, and in many cases  I’ve simply spoken up and without effort achieved amazing turnabouts in group opinion. By the end of a 30 minute conversation, my observations about the many scoring irregularities I saw had won everyone over. Regina was texting some engineering professors at the sponsoring universities who agreed to review the project reports and other written deliverables, take the feedback on prototypes and “score” them again using the rubric. And no one was mad at me; everyone felt good about the outcome.

The event was supposed to end at 5:30; we left the meeting at nearly 7. I told the kids that no news was pretty much the optimal outcome, with a few details. I tried to be neutral, but Malcolm said “I know you probably convinced them to rescore, so thanks” and the rest nodded.

Got the kids back to school, then did the 50 mile trip to get the van back on time. Home at 10. Cheese and crackers for dinner.

Saturday

I slept in til noon. Only as I was walking to Starbucks did I realize that Regina wanted me to judge precisely because these events are like Olympic figure skating before they turned it into a numbers game. Favoritism is expected. Balance is needed. I can’t believe I was so obtuse, and making one last attempt to advocate, texted Regina, asking if we shouldn’t just declare a tie, since five projects from both schools were all declared excellent. But no, ties weren’t allowed. (I refrained from observing that rubrics were required and rescores were banned. Because so were late submissions.)

Checked the garden, which I’d ignored all week thanks to some well-timed rain. Three huge artichokes. Beans hadn’t sprouted yet, but weeds were. A glutton for punishment, I tried to figure out why shoveling had laid me low, and dug up some dandelions while determining that I’d been using my left foot to push and my right hip to balance, putting too much strain on my right hip. So I spent some time reversing the legs. Maybe that would balance out the pain, or something.

Later that day I went to a bar and wrote up the first half of the week. During dinner (yes, still at the bar, but I drink slow), I checked email. Regina had sent the results.

Devlin’s team was first. Lorelei and Amira were second. The freshmen were 2 points out of third.

I went to bed early, headed for work on Sunday. Grading had stacked up.

 

 


My Week, Part One

Sunday

I did some gardening, digging up a few rows to plant green beans from seed. I started my garden earlier this year, a reaction to last season’s late start, so tomatoes, peppers, and squash are already in the ground, lettuce and onions flourishing in the raised bed. Saturday night, I spotted a spectacularly huge artichoke in my five foot tall perennial that my housemate brother prepared for our enjoyment–from garden to plate in 45 minutes. Really, the only flaw was we had no eggs so I couldn’t whip up a Hollandaise. Still, it was sublime, and had inspired me to keep up the garden labor.

After that, I went to work, getting there at about 2:30. Grades were due the next day, and I was going to be out of the office for the calculus textbook selection committee. My classes only go up to pre-calc, but two of our calculus teachers were preparing their students for the AP test and besides, they hated committee meetings. The non-AP calculus teacher, Wing, was in China, leaving only Hank, the department chair, and me as upper-math options. Hank teaches Stats, and Monday was my birthday, so I thought it’d be nice to sleep in a bit and get out early without guilt. Plus, I like textbook selection committees–a bunch of free textbooks. And one of these days I want to teach non-AP calculus.

I was at school until 11:00 pm. First, I had to finish grading the Algebra 2 tests. Then I had to enter all those tests and the trig class’s tests and review grades. After submitting the final results, I had to prepare for the sub, which was irritating because most subs are a waste of time. I’ve found one sub who is better at math than I am, which is amazing, and one sub who’s an experienced teacher and at least gets kids working, which is a great second best. But neither was available on short notice, so I’d get an incompetent who’d sit on her phone all day, which sucks. But I was getting free textbooks.

Then I had to put flyers around campus, which I’ve never done before. A month earlier, I had seen an email from a district coach about middle school robotics and had emailed him, asking for information about Arduino or robotics activities for high school. As co-director of our school’s chapter for a well-known technology competition, I had discovered how many kids were interested in programming and robotics and was determined to start a club on either or both next year, independent of the competition. The district coach had forwarded my mail to a city government guy who had a grant to encourage community science projects, and was hooked up with a huge project to use technology to collect data about our local environment. (I can’t be specific here.) Next thing I knew, I was given $2000 for a six week project ($600 for me, $600 for another teacher, $800 for expenses!)  that would kickoff with a demo of the technology for interest students. Highly educated people from prestigious universities would be coming from out of town to give the demonstration. I told them that I was completely on board but couldn’t guarantee two things: first, that we could complete any technology project in six weeks towards the end of school and second, my biggest fear, that anyone would show up for the demonstration. I told them that I was pretty sure that I could get two or three kids, but even that was just a hope.

They reassured me: no problem, if no one came, they’d show me and we’d map out next steps. So I’d talked it up in classes, and in the after school club, and now I was putting out flyers, but inside I felt like an 8 year old terrified that no one would show up at Chuck E. Cheese for my birthday party.

I got home at 11:30.

Monday

My birthday. I woke up feeling slightly stiff from the garden labor, which was odd. Mattocking, which is basically a stand-up sit-up, can wreck a back without proper support, but all I’d done was turn over soil with a shovel, which shouldn’t have done any damage.

The calculus committee was much more interesting and relevant than I thought it would be, renewing my determination add calculus to my preps. First step, though, was much more pre-calculus than I’m currently teaching, which for reasons I’ve mentioned will be difficult.  I got six textbooks.

I had a doctor’s appointment with my allergist, who yelled at me for not starting my allergy and asthma regime in February, leaving it to March which allowed the congestion and breathing problems to take hold. I agreed, but pointed out that her regime had me in much better shape than I’d been in years past–save for last year, when I followed it from February on and never had an attack. Seriously, I don’t say this much, but this doctor actually helped me with a real health problem. Usually they misdiagnose me or tell me I’m perfectly healthy despite routine 20 second bouts of deep, unproductive coughing and the wheeze of a lifelong smoker.

For dinner, my mother and stepdad took me out to a Brazilian steakhouse.

Then I went home and found my password for H&R Block.  They bought the prior company I used, although I can’t remember what that was. It’s like with banks: stay with any bank long enough and you’re a Bank of America customer.

When I grade, I do the key and group the tests one day, maybe grade a couple. Then I come back later to do the rest. Similarly, with taxes, I always take one day to get all the forms in order, the login found, get started until I run into a roadblock and quit. Then I come back certain all the small stuff is handled. So Monday evening, I found all the tax forms dumped in my mail crate, logged in, started putting in information. H&R Blocked seemed to think I owed $4,213, which was unnerving. But then I couldn’t find my investment INT-99 forms or my rental property year-end report, so I shot off some emails and went to bed.

Tuesday

Tuesday morning my back seemed fine, much less stiff. The substitute’s note said that all my kids ignored her and had been on their phones all day. One girl left without permission and came back an hour later.  I yelled at the kids, banned phones entirely in every class with some pre-emptive removals just to reinforce the ruling, told everyone they’d have a test or quiz on Wednesday.  The  pre-calc test wasn’t even started, of course, but righteous wrath must out.

Our school has instituted an interesting innovation for advisory. Instead of 30 minutes with one of our regular classes, teachers create lessons on any subject they like, and the students sign up. This is a wrap-around of RTI–basically, what do we do with the kids who aren’t in intervention?–and is thus far pretty successful, two weeks in.

Today I was offering “ESL Word Games” for the first time. I put the kids in teams and play a variant of “Wheel of Fortune”. Surprisingly, some native English speakers were enrolled; apparently, our study halls were overloaded. So I assigned two of them as team advisors and one of them helped me come up with clues.

The session was a huge success. the advisors took their jobs seriously and had a great time giving hints and suggestions. The kid working with me thought up “WATCH READY PLAYER ONE” with the clue “something you do in your free time”. The kids figured out the movie name fairly quickly, but were driven to distraction by “watch”, which stumped even the native speakers. Great lesson, great learning experience, the ESL speakers had a ball, and the native speakers said they wanted to come back.

I stayed at work until 9:00. But there was a bright spot.

Got home and mostly finished my taxes. That $4,213 tax shortfall held all the way through to itemized deductions, which was confusing the hell out of me because all of my passive rental losses were rejected. Then the web application informed me that, since I’d reported $10,551,000, I would need $791,325 in medical bills before I could start to deduct qualified expenses. That’s when I realized that the $4,213 I thought I owed had a comma after it and was in fact four plus million dollars.

Note to H&R Block: If a teacher reports an eight-figure income, suggest they entered a comma instead of a period.

Result: $1056 refund. Yay.

Wednesday

It took me five minutes just to get out of bed. Why did it take my back three days to react to a bit of digging?

Easy day, generally, with three tests. Which was good, because while standing and walking was manageable, and sitting was pretty easy, moving from standing to sitting or vice versa took two or three tries and caused considerable agony.

The next two days would be busy. Thursday was the technology demonstration that had so much potential if kids would just show up. Friday was the second  half our our technology club competition. While the other contests had been held a couple weeks earlier, the Arduino project showdown had been delayed and moved from a Saturday to a Friday, due to the limited number of entries–just seven.  Three of those entries were from our school. That is, we had three groups of two to four students who had been working on Arduino projects since November, all of them learning to code for the first time, developing prototypes, writing project reports.  We’d done well in the other competitions, taking a first and two thirds. We had high hopes for the Arduino kids.   On Friday, Bart, my partner in crime in the technology club, and I were taking these nine students to a town I hadn’t even heard of, 90 minutes away if there’s no traffic, but there’s always traffic.  The organization would pay for us to rent a van. Our principal would pay for us to miss fourth block.  I would drive, because Bart considers time spent behind a steering wheel a usually unnecessary evil.

With all that on deck and a screaming back, I vowed to leave early and actually got out at four, after printing an algebra 2 handout I’d need. On my way out I ran into Will, a senior and a talented writer who wrote great stories for our school paper. I invited him to the kickoff tomorrow, saying whether he was interested in technology or not he could run the blog showcasing our progress, as a significant goal of this six week pilot was showing other schools how to get started. His involvement in this high-profile project would definitely be useful when applying for internships. He promised to think about it.

Went home, finished filing my taxes, and went to bed early.

Thursday

At nine in the morning Bart, my partner in crime, texted me in a panic, telling me that the director of the technology competition had assumed we weren’t attending the Friday competition. Why? Well, no good reason, really. The real crux of the matter was that the students were two weeks overdue on submitting their project reports. Why? Well, because the date wasn’t on the competition sheet, and the director had only sent out one note with the due date, as an afterthought on another email and we’d missed it. But our students were registered, right? Well, no, they weren’t because the student database was constantly out of date and Bart had kept asking for a clean copy and also, frankly, because Bart is terrible at deadlines. And no, I’m not blaming Bart because I’m terrible at deadlines which is why I gave the job to Bart, along with two-thirds of the stipend.

Before you’re too hard on us, keep in mind that this organization had changed the dates of both competitions, including putting one date right at the end of spring break, which made for brutal logistics and lost us several competitors whose parents belatedly realized that their kids would be out of town that day. Also keep in mind that the director understands we’re teachers, with other actual jobs, and is extremely nice on due dates.

I now had something much bigger to worry about than whether anyone would come to my birthday party.

So I’ll stop there, since this is pretty long.