Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Pearls for Girls

So a local college had a young man's initiative day today.
Our young men went.
That left us with the girls.

We needed a plan.  The principal thought  we should string necklaces of pearls.   Because our girls are our precious gems.  My first thought- Pearls aren't gems.  My second thought- (with thanks to my mother for telegraphing it from above)- "you don't always have to be such a know it all,  keep your mouth shut - Teacherfish,"
.And remarkably I did.

At 9 am we assembled in the cafeteria, (which is as large and as cavernous as you think it would be) and waited around for instructions to make pearl necklaces.  First came the bag with a string of pearls.  (Okay - stringing pearls necklaces now morphs into attaching clasps to strings of pearls or glass pseudo pearls)  Then came the instruction sheet and after a really long wait, while the clasps were being located somewhere in the building- little sandwich bags with the clasps  and these two infinitesimally small beads that should be used to secure the clasps.I spent a lot of time looking for people's little tiny clasp securing beads, since they disappeared as quickly as you would think something that small would.

Kaitlin zoned it all out.  She had her SAT prep book and calculator out on the lunch table and was  working the  questions. " I got to get my score up -if I want to go to a good college," she told me.  So I  gathered her necklace equipment to the side and offered to help if she wanted it,  While we waited for further instructions various folks got up and gave inspirational talks as someone searched wildly for the missing clasps.  The principal came by and shut Kaitlin's book.  It was time for her to pay attention to the speakers.

An hour later most necklaces complete - we went into to the gym for more motivational speeches and dance performance.and a group picture of  our pearled population.

I don't know how the young men's initiative went, They didn't come back with jewelry.

A Different kind of  Pearl story.
Pearl is an eighth grader with a variety of learning disabilities that lands her in the somewhat chaotic eighth grade inclusion class.  I only co-teach in that class a few times a week. Yesterday we were listening to a rather confusing video on geometric transformations and I was having a problem figuring out how to do the worksheet that went with it.  The noise was deafening, there were two other teachers in there so I offered Pearl and few others the opportunity to retreat to the resource room and quiet.  There, on an old fashioned chalkboard I drew a grid- and Pearl and I were able to get all the transformations exactly where we needed them.  No confusing video- no smudged-grid worksheet.  Just a nice large grid to manipulate shapes and fire neurons that just wouldn't fired up  on small paper in a noisy classroom.

As I walked Pearl back to class, I confessed that I was having problems figuring out what to do from listening to the video.
"Don't feel too bad, Ms. Teacherfish,"  Pearl comforted me, "I didn't get it either."

Sometimes life gives you pseudo pearls.
Sometimes real ones.

Monday, March 26, 2012


I am sarcastic.
My old professor said don't be sarcastic- kids don't get it.
Perfect example.  We were reading a passage with a detailed description of pus. The kid reading it struggled through it.
"Yum," I said, as he concluded it.
"You would eat pus?"  he asked.
My old professor was right.  Kids don't get sarcasm.

Unless of course they do.
It's even worse when they are better at it then you.

Edison has long curled lashes, the kind I am jealous of.
I get to look at them a lot since I often sit next to Edison and encourage him to keep working.
Edison needs a little elf sitting at his shoulder reminding keep working.  He's not lazy, its just he keeps forgetting that he's supposed to be working.  Sometimes he giggles quietly to himself.  Another thing to be jealous of- there's just  not that many funny things during a school day that I can determine.

For lack of an elf, I sit next to him.  Today I reminded him like ten times in a fifteen minute period to keep working on a graph of an inequality.
Then finally he was done.

"Congratulations, Edison, I didn't think you'd get it done before I died," I said.
"Congratulations, Ms. Teacherfish, you are now immortal," he replied.

Sometimes kids don't get sarcasm.
Sometimes they do.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

On the road again

Eloise bought a travel pillow at the rest stop. (I had considered bringing one I had bought for for a seventeen hour flight to Asia- but decided it wasn't worth shlepping around for a three hour cheese bus ride to Albany.)  Our basketball team won  the city championship for the small school division and we were off to watch them play.
They lost.
On the return trip Eloise was surprised to find the pillow did nothing to make the incessant chatting of the surrounding students disappear.  She could not sleep.  And delivered a five minute loud monologue about it as we crossed the George Washington Bridge. My standing up and moving in front of her seat also did not interrupt  the monologue. Neither did my report that we were forty minutes from home.

It had been two years since Eloise, the former math teacher and the  others had left the city limits, together,  for points north.  I wrote about the last time here.   Eloise has acquired a job at a retail shop allowing her to make purchases like-travel pillows.  Audrey has passed algebra and geometry and is onto trigonometry. And the  former math teacher has gone on to the Leadership Academy and is training to be a principal.

On the outbound trip Audrey was complaining to him about trigonometry.  Someone asked how much longer to Albany.  We had just passed a sign that said Albany forty miles.

Mr.Former Math Teacher: If the bus is traveling 60 miles an hour, how many minutes will it take us to get to Albany?

Bus riders:

Mr.FMT: If the bus is traveling 60 miles an hour, how many minutes will it take to go one minute?

Audrey:  We don't do ratios any more, we're in Trig..

So Mr. FMT, asked how that was going, and Audrey replied, not well, and anyway, she didn't see why she needed trig to be an actress.

I figured she at least needed to know if you get paid $8 to wait tables, how much would you get paid before your first callback, but I let Mr. FMT do the talking.

Mr. FMT:  What if you got a role to play a math teacher?

Audrey:  What are the odds of that happening?

And I reminded Audrey that was in fact a math question, that could be answered, by finding out how many aspiring young actresses there are and how many roles for math teachers come up every year.

Then I turned on the GPS on my phone.  33 minutes to final destination.  The discussion had taken seven minutes.

I've been playing the role of math teacher for a very long time.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Career Day

Mr. Teacherfish is tired.  He and Sisterfish both very kindly volunteered to share their professional experiences with the students at our school.  And I appreciated it.

Some things they found out:

  • Our school has no elevator even though its co-location position is on the fourth floor of a brick building.
  • Our school has no air conditioning- even though we are located on the fourth floor of a brick building
  • Adolescents get pungent after recess on  a hot,sticky, humid day
  • The same hormones that make that make them aromatic after recess make them poke each throughout the career day presentations
  • Four periods in a row  of presentations by people who are not used to talking to students, stretches everyone's attention span. Especially on a hot humid day.
  • And there is only one bathroom for an adult staff of 50 people which is not sufficient on a regular school day but when career day triples the adult population- professionals who think being able to use the facility at will is their right, in a professional workplace., find out that is not necessarily the case,
But at least some of the kids, picked their heads up off their desks, put their cell phones away and listened to the presentations.  

 I'm glad my students got to see who I spend my nights and weekends with.
And I'm glad the people who I spend my nights and weekends with, got to see how I spend my day.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

When I went to school every classroom had a picture of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.  Along with the pictures there were the stories- the classroom apocrypha that everyone knew.  Washington chopped down his father's cherry tree and confessed, Lincoln walked to school five miles a day in the snow (a story my father recycled every time there was a transit strike and we thought that a good excuse to skip a day).

As I  proceeded through school in the stormy sixties and seventies, the apocrypha expanded to include stories of the Civil Rights movement.  No matter your political bent, if you went to a New York City school in those decades you knew Rosa Park sat down at the front of the bus and that there were sit ins at the Woolworth lunch counters.

In ninth grade English class we are beginning a unit of Lord of the Flies.the general education teacher was trying to get a discussion going about society. Somehow the "discussion" and I use the term only in the general sense, I have seen adolescents willing admit to crimes more eagerly than people chose to volunteer opinions, cycled around and around to the idea that society is good because it provides law and order.

So I ask, "What about the Jim Crow south?"  Were the laws good there because they produced order?
And I give the example of the black young men sitting down a the Woolworth lunch counter.

Carlton responded that if the white people would come into a Black owned establishment he would punch them in the nose.  And I tell him not to raise his hand until he is mature enough to give a reasonable opinion.  Then Carlton looks so chastised , that I am angry at myself  for squashing the one person who actually picked his head off the desk and responded.

The discussion limped along until the bell rang.  Nekema suggested that all the White people owned slaves, and I suggested someone come in with the actual years and statistics. (I had sat in a workshop where the representatives of the higher than the school level administration, encouraged us to make sure every discussion was text-based).

This all happened early in the week. I would love to tell you the follow up, but we didn't have another English class together this week.

I told the story to the teacher of the African American Studies class.
"I'm not surprised," she answered. "Ask them what features are on the new IPad, they'll know all about that.."

Yeah- cause Apple does a good job of getting that info out there.

The truth is if I  asked them what the best strategies for choosing the correct answer on a multiple choice test, or how to approach an "open response" question as to maximize  the opportunity  for the most possible points, they could talk about that with ease.

Test prep- it's our new apocrypha.

Bring back the pictures of Lincoln and Washington.  Bring back the stories -then tell me what we need to do close the achievement gap.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Missing brain cells and human cloning

I am scheduled for resource room with the self contained ninth grade. Oh the joys of special education reform (as practiced by the DOE). Short version, the self contained group is self contained (or all by themselves with the special ed teacher) for English and math. For social studies and science they become collaborative team teach students (they squeeze in with an inclusion class with two teachers). And for the rest of the day they are just “regular” (as in “regular ed”) ninth graders.

But they don't go to Spanish class.
And after several months of them
a)driving the Spanish teacher crazy,
b) driving everyone else crazy after the Spanish teacher kicked them out of Spanish class
c) following their homeroom teacher around while she tried to eat lunch and go to the bathroom,
d) all off the above
the principal got the idea that they had to go somewhere when the inclusion ninth graders go to Spanish.

So twice a week I get them.
The first couple of weeks went like this:

Me: Take out your books.
Boy: Why are you looking at me?
Me: Sit down and start writing
Girl: I'm so done.
Boy:Why are you looking at me?
Girl: I am sooooo done.
Me: What are you done with? You haven't taken anything out yet?
Girl: You got a bugger up your nose.
Boy: You got an eye problem? What are looking at?

And that was a good day.
You can read more about life in the NYC special ed classroom here.

But their main teacher ate her lunch on the other side of the wall that created two special services classrooms out of one “regular” one and she would come in from time to time to yell at them.

So we got used to each other.
Camden wanted to do his science homework. The biology teacher is the definition of rigorous, high expectations teacher. And they are afraid of her. She had given them an article about a human cloning experiment in South Korea and had given them thoughtful questions to answer about both the ethics and science of the practice.

What followed was a lot of me drawing miotic and meiotic cell division on the board. (as well as some sheep, a diagram of a grossly not drawn to scale sperm and egg uniting and a loose representation of a uterus.)

The light bulbs went on! Someone could use that information to create a “race” of evil doers with that kind of technology, Rex, the ring leader suggested. And now they were shouting over each other to condemn human cloning.
“What if I had a dying a baby?” I asked. “Would it be okay to clone an organism that would provide liver cells? How about spine cells for a paralyzed child?”

Then more shouting over each other about those morality issues.
Then me begging them to take their books out and write down some of these very cogent arguments.
The bell rang. And they were off.

The next day I attended a workshop about assistive technology. While looking at some case studies about students with physical disabilities someone raised the question about what medical technologies would become available in the next decade to address their disabilities.

I have always thought about how students with emotional and learning disabilities somehow lose the “oh how sad,” factor on the “understanding” scale. Where a child who drools, walks with crutches and speaks with a slur is considered worthy of our granting that s/he was dealt a lousy hand, those born with fewer brain cells, or mixed up wiring are just our trouble makers or in my principal's case, those who we willingly don't hold to high enough standards.

But if ever there was a group of students who might benefit from a few extra cloned or otherwise brain cells, that self-contained class would be it.  They would find life so much easier with just a little bit more gray matter. But until then.....

I'm done. I'm sooooo done.
Time to remove the bugger from my nose.

Saturday, March 3, 2012


 The dessert at the Chef's Table Dinner on our cruise.   
February 20, was the 90th anniversary of my father's birth.  We were cruising the Caribbean at the time.  It was the perfect way to celebrate my father's life. He would have enjoyed, the balmy air and sunshine, he would have enjoyed the off colored comedy shows, but most of all he would have loved the food.  Not so much the kitschy (but delicious) dessert above.He would have preferred a generous slice of strawberry shortcake- he would have understood that, but the the unending supply of food  available at any hour, in any quantity.

My father was blessed with an appetite that allowed him to tell his family at home, as young soldier in World War II,  that he loved the army.  Army food was abundant and not necessarily kosher, two attributes he had never experienced before.  He had a  metabolism that allowed him to consume large quantities of it, throughout his life, without ever gaining a girth that would have made his army uniform snug.  (Just for the record- I have no such luck- I inherited my metabolism from my mother.)

Friday, I sat at my desk, catching up with paperwork, when Kenya, RC and Edwin were working with the young man who got the Resource Room for upper grades, when it was taken away from me.  The sixth graders were on a trip.

They were reviewing the Civil War.  The subject of dads came up.  RC spends every weekend with his dad, a cable TV installer.  He was talking about it.

"I wish I could talk to my dad."
I wasn't sure if it was RC or Kenya.

I wished I could talk to my dad too, I thought. I wish I could tell him some of the dirty jokes I heard last week.

Edwin said his dad was murdered when he was a baby,  Kenya said he never saw his dad.  Young Resource Room teacher said his dad played college basketball.

And then the discussion went back to the causes of the Civil War.

I marked sixth grade social studies test.

I got to spend forty years with my father.  I shared sunshine and off colored jokes and endless buffets.

And for that I am truly grateful,

What is rigor?

Larry Ferlazzo,  whose fascinating and  prolific blog activity leads me to believe he has found the secret of living life without sleep asks the question "What is rigor?"
This was my response in the comment section:

The principal asked that very question at a faculty meeting and the teacher next to me leaned in and said. “isn’t that what happens to a dead body?”

To me true “rigor” is the level of work just a bit above any student’s comfort level. It cannot be an arbitrary concept. I was in a science class the principal was observing. It was a “do over.” The principal wanted a lesson with more rigor then the original one she observed. The students were to read an article on Archimedes and write a summary. The principal had “encouraged” the teacher to pick a” rigorous” article. The students took highlighters and highlighted a variety of random sentences and copied or paraphrased many of them into their summaries. The principal walked around and encouraged them to write more, “good summaries include a lot of details,” she admonished. And they did. The lesson “looked” rigorous, lots of reading, lots of writing. The principal was happy.
I read the summaries- not one person mentioned the principal of displacement. No one could explain the relationship between displacement and mass. The article was above both their reading and science independence level, in my opinion.
So I am afraid that rigor is just a word, a trick, a distraction from the real work of education meeting students where they are and moving them up on the learning curve in a thoughtful, planful way.