Category Archives: bad days

Teaching Tuesday: AP Scores

AP scores were released at the end of last week. As usual, I was on edge all day. My student scores did not get released until 8 pm, so I watched the message boards as teachers across the country posted their reactions long before I got even a hint about how well my students did on the test. My nerves were up even higher than usual since Trevor Packer’s (the head of College Board’s AP program) tweeted with the score breakdowns almost a week before we got to see our scores. When I saw AP Lang had 57.4% of students who got a 3, 4 or 5, it got me wondering how my students compared.

Even though I shouldn’t, I can’t help but compare my student’s AP scores with the national scores. I also find myself comparing their scores with the scores other students at our school get on completely different AP tests, which is really quite ridiculous. I know I shouldn’t feel inferior when I see my own school tweeting about how wonderful it is that 95% of our AP Spanish students got a 3, 4, or 5 on the test. I should not let that diminish how well my students did or make me think less of myself as a teacher, but at some point, it always does.

My AP Lang students did not do as well on the test as the AP Spanish students did. It’s pretty hard to. But, 78% of my students got a 3, 4 or 5 on the test. However, no one in the district is tweeting about it. This is more than a little discouraging. Especially since last year, despite the fact that 82% of my kids got a 3, 4 or 5 on the Lang test, I was not one of the teachers recognized for having a history of excellent AP scores–even though my AP Lang score has never fallen below 78% and one year all of them got a 3, 4 or 5.

Now, I realize that neither 78% or 82% sound anywhere near as impressive as 95%. However, this year, 88% of all students who took the AP Spanish test (60,000 kids worldwide) got a 3, 4 or 5 on the test. Last year, 89% of the kids who took the test got a 3, 4 or 5 on it. That means, that students at my school did 7% better than the national average this year and 9% better last year (there was a 100% rate last year). This is impressive, however, this year just under 600,000 students worldwide took the AP Lang test. That is ten times as many kids as AP Spanish. Of those nearly 600,000 kids, 57% scored a 3, 4 or 5 on the test. Last year, nearly the same number of kids took the Lang test and 55% of them got a 3, 4 or 5 on the test. My students did 21% better on the test this year and 27% better on the test last year than the national average, which I think is darn impressive and worthy of celebration.

I also had nearly twice as many students take the AP Lang exam as took the AP Spanish exam.

Do I think I’m a better teacher than our AP Spanish teacher? Absolutely not. She is an amazing teacher. Those kids work to earn those scores and both she and her students should be celebrated and congratulated. But so should mine.

And that’s where I get hung up, even though I know I shouldn’t. When I first saw my student scores, before I’d seen the scores of anyone else in my building, I was pretty happy with my kids. Six of my kids got 5’s, six got 4’s and no one got a 1. My kids did 21% better than the national average. Fourteen of my students improved their AP Lang score (from their AP Lit score last year) an entire point. Two of my students improved 2 whole points. That is HUGE progress and a cause for celebration.

But then I saw those AP Spanish scores, the tweets from the school and the message of congratulations on the school website just for that class and it got me down. I wanted to send emails to everyone in my administration office as well as the district administration office explaining just how awesome it is that 78% of our kids got a 3, 4 or 5 on the AP Lang test and why it is every bit as impressive, and maybe even more impressive, as that 95%. I also wanted to include Packer’s message that unlike all the other AP tests, “the knowledge/skills measured by this exam [AP Lang] have a very strong relationship to overall college success.” On the test that specifically measures all those skills kids need to be college ready, our school not only got an impressive 78% of kids with great scores, but those scores are 21% above the national average. We should be shouting this from the rooftop because our kids are amazing and they will succeed!

Instead, I wrote an email to my students and told them how proud I was of them. I told them not to be disappointed if their score was not quite what they hoped for. I reminded them of all they accomplished and how amazing they are. I wished them luck next year, which I seriously doubt they will need. Because even if the district isn’t singing their praises and bragging about them, they are all going off prepared for college. Even the 22% who got a 2 on the exam are not going to struggle in college. They may¬† have to work a little harder, but they are all going to be ok.

And I have to keep telling myself that that is what really matters. Not a number on a website.


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Teaching Tuesday: book count

book count.jpgThe most tedious end of the year task I have to do is the book count. Every year before we can leave the building, we have to count every single textbook and novel in the English department. This may not sound like that bad of a task, after all, there are ten teachers in my department who are all equally responsible for completing this count. However, as the largest department in the school, not only do we have more textbooks than any other department, but we also have so very many novels.

And not just for the courses we currently teach. Right now, we house about 50 different works of both fiction and nonfiction that are not currently being used in any course. Some of the books have been in the book room (and not used) for at least two decades now. Some of the books have only one class set being stored in there, or half a class set. Some have three or four class sets. These means we have a couple thousand books to count.

It may seem silly to keep books that no one is teaching. In some cases I agree. However, the reason we keep them is that they’ve all been school board approved. If any teacher in the department wants to change out one of the novels they teach, they can easily do it. In addition, if we decide to develop a new course, like we are doing this year by adding 20th Century Literature, teachers have a lot of options to help them build the course.

Still, it means several weeks of counting before the end of the school year. The books are stored in rooms that are hot and the books are stored in cabinets where even I need a step stool to reach (and count) many of them.

Some years we are able to get students to help us with the count. Other years we get stuck doing it entirely on our own. In theory that means everyone contributes equally, but in reality that is never the way it works. Since I am department chair, it falls on me to make sure it gets down. If anyone doesn’t get their share done, the expectation is that I will do it. And since everyone in my department knows I can’t leave the book count unfinished (both for insurance reasons and because it is one of my duties to make sure it gets turned in), I usually end up doing more than my share.

This year I got started on it early. I had a few wonderful students who offered to help me during their study hall time. I made sure to close off the book rooms a few weeks before the end of school. I knew this would mean that a great many teachers would end up still having books out to their students and books in their classrooms, but the policy is anything in your personal classroom is 100% your responsibility. This year I got smart!

Since my students were working on projects, I collected their books as early as possible as well so that my study hall kids could help me count the books in my room (I store all the AP Lit and AP Lang books in my classroom). Since I have the largest number of books used for my classes, my personal count always takes awhile. But, with some student elbow grease, we got it done in two days.

When I left school on the final day, only two teachers still hadn’t finished their personal book counts, but I let my principal know that two were still finishing up (without throwing them under the bus) and he gave me the green light to leave.

Book count is one of the many things neither college nor student teaching prepared me for. In my four and a half years in the teaching program, I never heard even a whisper of it. While I am not saying my education didn’t prepare me to be a teacher, in many ways it really did, it still never ceases to amaze me all the unspoken duties teachers have.

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Throwback Thursday: My nana’s basement

centipedeGrowing up, I thought my nana’s house was like a castle. From the outside, it looks huge. Or at least it did to my childish eyes. My grandparents were the only people I knew who had a formal living room that was dedicated to all of her antique dolls and furniture. All the really good antiques, the ones she didn’t want anyone to touch, were in that room. The rest of the house was also decorated with antiques, but they were the the every day common ones. Everything about her house screamed museum, which is why I found it so mesmerizing and palatial.

As an adult, I saw a very different side to the house. Yes, there were still all of the antiques, although most were more than a little worse for wear, and it still had the gigantic formal living room which even she rarely ventured into, but as a grown up, I realized how small it was. I think it might have been buying my own house, which looks small from the front, but when you walk in actually has 2000 square feet upstairs and an additional 1450 in the finished basement, that made me realize my nana’s house was kind of small.

Unlike mine, her house looks big from the outside. In fact, it looks like it is two stories. However, the second story is really just an unfinished attic that runs over 3/4 of the house (and is hot as hell AND has the most dangerous steps I’ve ever been on actually leading up to it). While the formal living room and the family room are pretty big, the rest of the rooms, including the master bedroom, are pretty small. And, there are only two bedrooms and one bathroom. It does sit on nearly an acre of land, but it’s land that is right in the middle of the small city she lives in, so suddenly the “estate” seemed pretty small.

basement stairsIn all my years visiting my nana, I knew she had a basement, which is another bit that technically makes the house seem larger than it really is. However, in all of my 43 years, I’d never actually been in it. It wasn’t until yesterday, when I went up to visit my mom and finalize some paperwork for my nana’s estate, that I ventured down there.

When my nana passed away at the end of April, my mother inherited her childhood home (my nana lived in the home for 78 of her 98 years). My mom, who lives in North Carolina, has no desire to become a landlord and definitely no desire to move back to her small hometown, so she got the house cleared out, cleaned up and put it on the market.

Even though she had professional cleaners come in and do a thorough cleaning specifically to get the house ready to go on the market, it never occurred to anyone to go down and clean up the basement. It wasn’t until the first person came to view the house and mentioned the cobwebs in the basement that the realtor asked us if we’d mind doing a little cleaning up in the basement. Wanting to help my mom, I said, “sure.”

How bad could it be?

Nana's creepy basementOH MY GOODNESS! It was a nightmare. First off, since the house had been cleared out of basically everything, we had no cleaning tools. What we had were a broom and a duster type tool. What the basement had was more layers of cobwebs than I have seen anywhere, even in professional haunted houses. How this basement didn’t have either dead bodies or psycho killer lurking in it is beyond me.

As I took hold of the broom and started to sweep away the cobwebs, I saw hundreds of insects that looked positively prehistoric hanging above my head. At first I thought they were just terrifyingly large spiders. And some of them were. But I soon realized that most of them had far too many legs to be spiders. They were centipedes. Hundreds of centipedes.

While I truly believe most of them were long dead, I forced myself not to think about it and just keep batting away at the cobwebs and hoping nothing fell on my head. While I have no direct proof anything did drop down on me, my skin was crawling the entire time. A part of me wanted to do a good job. I want this house to sell. The other part of me just wanted to throw that broom and run screaming up the stairs.

I am not usually squeamish about bugs. I trap and release spiders in my house all the time. When it rains, we get ants and I kill them, usually with my fingers, and move on. But for the rest of the night, I was positive there were bugs on me. I felt like some sort of stereotypical drug fiend on a bad trip in some horrible B movie. I just felt them crawling on me. They weren’t, of course, but that did not make my skin less itchy or my brain forget all those carcasses.

Even today I keep getting flashes of those bugs and phantom itches on my skin. I told my mom that I better be forgiven those 27 hours of labor she likes to remind me about from time to time. Just stepping into that horrid basement was a labor of love. Helping to clean it up a bit…that was above and beyond the call of daughterly duty!

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Wild card Wednesday: allergies

When I was five or six, I had a crazy allergic reaction to Mr. Bubble. My aunt was babysitting me at my dad’s house. She must have brought the bubble bath with her, because I’d never used it before. All I know was that within minutes I was howling to get out of the tub (which I NEVER did as I have always adored baths) because my skin was burning. Sure enough, I had a rash on a good portion of my body and I was itchy. She called my dad, who was on duty as an EMT, who brought the ambulance over to the apartment to check me out. I was, of course, ok, and after an antihistamine, I conked out. In the morning nothing remained of my bespectacled back side.

For years I refused to use any sort of bubble bath and despite Mr. Bubble’s claim that in 2008 a new company acquired the product and switched to a gentler formula, I am wary.

It’s sort of a strange allergy to have though. Whenever I’d go to medical appointments and they’d ask if I had any allergies, I’d get slightly red faced and reply, “only Mr. Bubble.” Doctors would usually smile or chuckle, assure me I’d be fine and we’d move on.

It wasn’t until I had surgery for the first time in my early 30’s that I discovered I am also allergic to Demoral. At least I think that’s what it was. In all fairness, I was pretty out of it with pain. All I know is that I had a button I could push for pain meds and when I pushed it, I was violently ill in seconds. Since I had nothing in my stomach, all I could do was dry heave. Dry heaving is bad enough, but I’d had surgery to remove some rather large fibroids and in order to get to them, they had to mess with my stomach muscles (my scar is basically a C-section scar). It was the most horrific pain I’ve ever been in. They quickly switched me over to morphine and my life improved greatly.

But, aside from Mr. Bubble and Demoral, allergies have never really bothered me, until last week.

I have no idea what toxic bit of nature my body has decided to rebel against, but on Friday I had my first bout with what far too many people regularly suffer from. It was terrible. I was so stuffed up I could barely breathe. My throat felt raw and also blocked from all the horrible mucus raging through my body. My eyes ached. My head ached. I had no energy. All I wanted to do was sleep, and I am not a napper. But I took so many naps that day.

Thankfully my kids were wonderful. They brought me many, many cups of water. They let me nap and kept as quiet as possible (without totally destroying my house). They agreed on some sort of truce, so they only yelled at each other like once the entire day.

I took some of my husband’s OTC allergy medicine, but it had almost no effect. Turns out I had managed to find an expired bottle. I didn’t realize it until the next morning when I still felt bad, although remarkably better, and went to take another pill. When I saw the expiration date, I realized why the meds had had almost no impact, so I searched through the medicine cabinet until I found a new box of allergy meds and took one. That batch actually did some good.

By Monday I felt a lot better and thought that whatever had been in the air must be out of it. Sadly, I took comfort too soon. While I am no longer miserable and have been able to breathe freely for several days now, apparently my head is still full on congested because this morning I woke with some of the worst vertigo I’ve had in years.

I don’t get vertigo that often anymore, but for awhile, it was a regular occurrence in my life. I had high strength prescription decongestants and antivert, which doesn’t so much make me less dizzy as it does put me to sleep so I don’t care about being dizzy. But since I haven’t had an attack in a few years, I no longer have either of those two and my morning was really hard. I did have some generic Sudafed, which must have helped a bit because while I still get major waves of dizzy when I move a lot (or move my head at all), by mid-afternoon I could at least function.

I really  have to get this cleared up as I leave for the UK in 6 days and there is no way I can handle a whirlwind UK tour with 18 students when I feel like the floor might fall out from under me.

Although in many ways I know I have been lucky not to suffer from these allergies for the last 43 years, I am also very put out that suddenly, at age 43, my body has decided to plot against me and develop some new allergy. Stupid allergies!

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Teaching Tuesday: Final grading stress

The end of the school year is here. With it comes much cleaning and even more rejoicing. Unfortunately, it also brings in a TON of grading! And not just the run of the mill essays or vocabulary assignments I hadn’t gotten around to yet, but the dreaded F word: FINALS!

It is a requirement at my high school that all students take a final or do a final project that is worth 20% of their overall semester grade. As a rule I give my film lit seniors an essay final. My AP juniors and seniors complete a final project which requires them to create something based on one of the books they read for class, write an essay explaining their project and then give a presentation of the project. While I don’t technically have a final “test” to grade, what I end up with is about 100 essays (and 75 projects) to grade.

This is enough to make my stress level rise a few degrees, but what really kicks it into overdrive is that seniors take their finals on Wed and Thurs so that they can finish up a day before everyone else. This in itself is not a huge issue. However, since graduation is on Friday, all teachers with seniors have to have every single thing, including finals, graded before they leave school on Thursday evening. This means that teachers who give their seniors a final on the last block on Thursday have to stay after school and grade them all right then.

The administration’s argument is that they need to immediately know if a student did not pass and will not be able to participate at graduation. However, it’s not just the seniors in danger of failing whose grades must be done, because they also need to calculate final grades for Valedictorian, Salutatorian and Top 10. Since my AP kids usually make up about 90% of the top 10, I have to get those grades done ASAP.

Thankfully this year both of my senior class finals took place on Wednesday, so I got a bit of “extra” time to get all 60 of them graded. Still, that was 60 essays to grade in 48 hours (while still teaching the entire day on Thursday). I was WORN OUT when I left the building.

On the plus side, that meant that I had until Tuesday at 4pm to get grades for my 40 juniors done. So, I could shove everything of theirs that still needed grading off in order to conquer my senior piles.

As usual, I got it all done. And so far I’ve only had one student email me to ask if there was any way I would bump her grade up 2% so she could get straight A’s this grading period (the answer was no).

Now I plan to take a few days off from anything school related before jumping in to doing lesson plans for the College Board’s summer AP institutes.

I truly wish the myth of teachers getting 8-12 weeks off in the summer was real. My guess is I’ll get a week or two of no actual school work. I’m going to guess maybe a day or two where I have no administrators, counselor or student who emails me with something I have to respond to. So far we’ve been on break for one week and I have yet to have one of those days!

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Wildcard Wednesday: Missing my BFF

Saturday was my best friend’s birthday. Despite talking to her, texting her and posting notes for a happy birthday on her Facebook wall, I didn’t actually get to spend her birthday with her.

Not that I didn’t want to. I wanted more than anything to spend the entire day with her. Ideally we would have started the morning at our favorite coffee place where we’d split a scone. We wouldn’t want to eat any more than that since we’d have lunch plans, but as neither of us would have eaten breakfast and caffeine on an empty stomach is not something we deals well with, the scone would be a must.

Next, we would have headed over to the mall so we could hit all of our favorite stores. Since it was her birthday, I would have happily spent the extra hour walking around Athropologie, long after I’d exhausted all the things I wanted to try on, so she could make sure she looked at everything in the store. We definitely would have stopped at Godiva to at least get our free May piece of chocolate. Knowing me, I would have grabbed a couple extras as well.

By this time we’d be actually hungry, so we’d head out to either her favorite Indian buffet or maybe to our favorite brunch place where we’d probably split some of their delicious cinnamon toast (what can I say, we are carb girls) and continue to gab away the day.

We’d round out the afternoon with manicures and pedicures before heading over to her house to hang out until her husband was ready to go grab some dinner.

We’d probably end the night watching a movie, possibly at a theater, but more likely at her house where it would be easy to analyze it afterwards.

Finally, I’d make it home, exhausted, but happy to have spent a perfect day celebrating the most important person who is not related to me.

But alas, four years ago she got her dream job in Athens, Georgia and as much as I wanted to spend this perfect day with her, driving nine hours there and nine more back this weekend wasn’t in the cards. Especially not since I had a ton of grading to do.

Instead, I had to make do with my phone and Facebook, two very poor substitutes for the real thing. Instead of spending the day with my person, I spent it doing chores, grading papers and running my daughter to a birthday party for her classmate.

I love my best friend. I hate that she is so far away.

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Teaching Tuesday: Student death

Late last week one of our students passed away. I didn’t really know the young man, but like pretty much everyone else at the school, I knew of him. My school has about 1300 students (1650 when the 8th graders who are currently housed in our building are included) and since I only teach Advanced Placement juniors and seniors, it’s rare I know freshmen or sophomores. Generally the only reason I know the names or faces of underclassmen is if they are related to my AP kids or if they cause trouble.

He was the latter.

I’d heard several of my colleagues express frustration at his antics. Granted, what frustrated them wasn’t horrific behavior. He wasn’t really one to get into fights, although if there was one in a 10 mile radius, he’d be there, watching and maybe egging it on. He wasn’t usually in your face rude or disrespectful, but he pushed the envelope to the far edge of acceptability most days. He liked being the center of attention and if that meant he had to mouth off a bit to a teacher, that was fine by him. If he didn’t like a rule, he pretty much ignored it.

That’s how I got to know him. He was in third lunch and every other week, I had last lunch supervision, so every other week, I saw him multiple times each lunch period and usually I was telling him to put his cellphone away or take his earbuds out (both are against policy). He only got angry with me once about it, but it was easy to see how he might be a handful in a classroom.


Wednesday night, I got a text from one of my coworkers telling me he’d been killed in a freak accident. She forwarded me an email sent out by an administrator at the middle school since despite being a sophomore, he had relatives and friends in the 8th grade who the administration was worried about. About thirty minutes later, everyone on our staff got a similar email and a request to meet in the school library the next day.

Thursday was a strange day. The young man had been fairly popular and had friends in every grade in our building. The hallways were flooded with kids embracing and sobbing. Our library became a giant counseling center for kids to gather and talk. Every time I passed by it was full. A young lady whose name I don’t know, but who I see on lunch duty was red-faced and when I stopped to check on her, she started crying and reached out to hug me. I watched some of the toughest kids at the school break down in tears. One of my good friends who often decried his antics in her classroom was on the constant verge of tears, because although he’d often driven her crazy, she’d liked him and his loss was devastating to her. It was a heartbreaking day.

On Friday morning, students wore red and released balloons in honor of him. The hallways were a little quieter than usual. The lunchroom was a little louder. On the surface, things were back to normal, but they clearly weren’t.

This is not the first time we’ve had a student die. In fact, in the 13 years I’ve been at this particular school, we’ve had five students die while still in high school (far more have tragically passed away at some point after graduation). Two years ago, we had a senior who passed away the night before graduation. His twin brother was one of my AP kids and my newspaper editor, so I was quite close to him. Although I barely knew my editor’s twin, he was a sweet, quiet kid. He was a big part of many of my kid’s lives, so after graduation practice, I had about 20 kids in my room hugging and sobbing and talking until I had to teach class again. It was a very hard graduation to get through.

Even when you don’t really know the kids who pass away, it is so hard because you feel like something is missing. While I may not have really known the young man, I know so many people who are grieving his loss. In a way, the entire school is. It’s just another way that teaching is so much more than a job. For many of us on Thursday, school wasn’t about teaching math or science or history or English. It was about being a safe place for kids to begin to deal with overwhelming grief and loss. I had so many colleagues who said they had to completely scrap their lessons, just over a week before finals, because they knew their kids could not learn. They did the only thing they could for their kids, gave them a space to talk and just be.

Teaching is such a rewarding job, but it is also a heartbreaking one.



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