Category Archives: education

Free Reading Friday: Sous Chef

Sous ChefAlthough I am not generally a fan of reality TV, I am slightly obsessed with cooking shows. From Chopped, to Iron Chef, to The Next Food Network Star, to Cupcake Wars, if there is competitive food creation, they’ve grabbed my attention. My son always tells me that I should be on one of the food shows because he thinks I’m a great cook. While that is definitely flattering, not only have I come to cooking a bit late in life (really only after he was born), but I am also very much a recipe girl. I need solid directions I can follow and add just a bit of improv to. I randomly forget my cooking basics like how to boil an egg or corn on the cob. I definitely get more than a bit flustered when trying to put together a complicated main dish and any sides at the same time and timing is NEVER my friend in the kitchen.

That being said, I am fascinated by those who can do it all and do it well. Aside from dishing out popcorn at the local movie theater, I’ve never worked in the food industry, so it is a bit of a mystery to me. I’ve had several friends who have been members of wait staffs in restaurants, but most of them were in college and did not take their jobs very seriously. What goes on in the actual kitchen remains a bit of a mystery to me.

Michael Gibney’s book helped clear up some of the mystery.

From movies, TV and my one Facebook friend who actually works as a chef, I knew chefs put in long hours. However, until I read Sous Chef: 24 hours on the Line, I had no idea just how long those hours are. I did not realize that my 8 hours a day being bombarded with questions from teenagers and the additional two hours or so I spend each night working on grading and lesson planning pale in comparison with life on the line in a kitchen. The idea of going into work at 9 am and not finishing up until after midnight is appalling to me. Although Gibney explains that the early hours before the restaurant opens for business (in his case dinner M-F and additional brunches on the weekends) are a bit slow and contemplative, the constant barrage of work that descends on everyone in the kitchen mid-day is enough to make me thankful I’ve only ever been on the dining room side of the experience.

The kitchen hierarchy was fascinating to read about. All the individual jobs I had no idea even existed are knowledge I am glad I now have. I also like finally understanding what a sous chef really does.

Reading his first hand account of the craziness that does not manage to burst into complete chaos once the tickets start rolling in has given me a better perspective on why it sometimes takes longer than I think it should to get my food. It also helps explain why sometimes things on the plate are not perfectly executed. It has also made me rethink my stance on sending food back to the kitchen (although I rarely do).

While I haven’t actually eaten at a restaurant since finishing the book, I believe the next time I do, the knowledge Gibney has given me will not only improve my experience as a customer, but also my empathy for my fellow human beings.

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Teaching Tuesday: Fall break

Starting school at the end of July is more than a little depressing. The weather is at its summery height, people are posting vacation photos, few stores have their school supplies completely out and almost all of my fellow teachers are starting their countdowns until school starts. Already having two or three weeks under my belt before they’ve even clocked in for their first teacher work day is upsetting.

The trade off comes at fall break. Sure, no matter what school I’ve worked at, I’ve always gotten a fall break. But up until my school switched over to the balanced calendar, that fall break was always just two days. At my first school it was a Monday and Tuesday. In Florida we lost it due to the make up days we had to spend because of hurricane closures. At my current school we got our four day weekend in the form of a Thursday-Sunday break.

But when we switched to the balanced calendar four years ago, suddenly those two days became 10 and it’s pretty darn glorious. Our summer may have gone from 10 weeks to 8, but those 8 extra days off during the first quarter are worth it.

Since our grading periods have always been 9 weeks, our fall break was still toward the beginning of October, however, when we returned from it we usually still had two weeks left in the grading period. It was a nice break, but most of it was spent catching up on grading so that I could get ready to head into finals. If we were lucky, our old grading period would end on a Friday and we’d have until the following Wednesday at 8 am to get all of our grades in. Basically fall break was a lot of grading.

A few times our grading period ended on a Wednesday and we’d start the next grading period the very next day, which meant grades were due by Monday morning at 8 am, so those years fall break just meant I got to sleep in until 9 or so and then grade non-stop.

And while I still end up grading over fall break, since I get to spread that grading over 14 days, I never really stress out about my grading. I get it done at a far more leisurely pace while sipping tea or in between trips to the children’s museum or even on car rides to Disney World.

Not only do I get time to do my grading, I actually get a break from school. I get to do things I enjoy. I get to read books for fun. I get to hang out with my kids. We go on family vacations. In fact, I just got home yesterday after spending my first week of fall break visiting my best friend in Athens, Georgia (she’s a professor at UGA). I did some of my grading while she was teaching classes and then when she got home, we got to hang out.

Having time off in early to mid-October is awesome. It’s the off-season for most vacation destinations, so prices are lower. The weather is still nice enough for travel, especially for going to places like Florida or Georgia where I can pull out my capris and short sleeves and frolic on beaches or in gardens. Plus, since most schools are still in session, crowds are much smaller and easier to maneuver. Our two Disney World vacations have been about 25% cheaper than if we’d had to take them in the summer.

If all this wasn’t reason enough to love the balanced calendar and our wonderful break, when I return to school next Monday, it’s a brand new grading period. No matter what mistakes students may have made in the first quarter, it all starts over fresh. The kids come back refreshed and so do I. Before fall break I am usually about at my breaking point. Kids are getting antsy, whiny and beyond annoying, but it is amazing how two weeks can change it all. They come back relaxed, recharged and ready to start it all over again. Discipline issues, which were on the rise in the two weeks prior to break, are back to start of the year levels.

Plus, everyone is generally excited that there are only 9 more weeks until winter break. And that includes two wonderful days off for Thanksgiving.

 

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Free Reading Friday:The Pretender

The PretenderI have a policy that if a student asks me to read a book they either love or really want to read for a project, I always read it. This has lead to some wonderful literary finds.

It’s also lead to some real stinkers.

My most recent student inspired read is The Pretender: My Life Undercover for the FBI by Marc Ruskin. As part of my AP Language and Composition class, students have to read four works of non-fiction and do a variety of essays/projects based on them. The only catch is that the book has to come from a list of non-fiction books I’ve read. I do this in an attempt to not only curb cheating, but also to be able to provide them with helpful insights and discussion should they find themselves struggling when reading or when trying to figure out what to write/do a project about.

The list I’ve come up with for them to pick from is fairly extensive. There are about 200 books on the list (and I’m always adding more). Although a large chunk of them are memoirs, I also have everything from sports to politics to cooking on there. I have some great books that deal with social issues as well as ones that offer insights into other cultures I’m sure my students are completely unaware of. My goal is to broaden their horizons and make them view life through a different lens.

So, when one of my students brought me Ruskin’s book because she wants to get it on my list, I was eager to read it. Most of my knowledge about the life of FBI agents comes from The X-Files, so I figured it might be time to learn something slightly more factual.

The premise of the book intrigued me. I was excited about the prospect of hearing the ins and outs of undercover life. I wanted to know everything from all the background work that has to be done before an undercover agent goes on assignment all the way through sentencing the guilty parties.

This book definitely covered a lot of the backgrounding elements of the cases and even had some fairly specific details about the actual undercover experiences, but I found it lacking in follow through. Each chapter relates to a case Ruskin worked. After finishing each chapter, I was left with a lot of questions. Some of those questions probably couldn’t be answered due to confidentiality issues with other agents or case information which is still not available to the public. However, the majority of the missing info seemed like it was just oversight and bad story telling.

Ruskin admits right off the bat that he’s an FBI agent, not a writer. And that is very apparent. While many of his stories were probably fascinating, I got so distracted by his writing style at times that I found it hard to concentrate. I wanted him to tell the story, not tell me that he was going to eventually tell the story (especially since he rarely fully delivered on those promises). Ruskin has a nasty habit of starting to tell a story and then stopping and telling the reader they’ll hear more on that later. But he doesn’t mean later in the chapter, he means sometime much later in the book. And these attempts at foreshadowing are not effective as they completely distract from the story he should be telling in that chapter AND are set up to be hugely important bits of information that he doesn’t fully elaborate on later.

He also spends a lot of time complaining about all the aspects of his job he didn’t like. I totally get why he did it, but it not only got really annoying at times, but truly interrupted the flow of his story. I wanted to hear much more about what happened on the cases and less time about the red tape he got caught up in.

It also got harder and harder to swallow that he was the only one who really knew how to do things right. I realize that in many situations his life was in serious danger. He was completely in the right to demand that he was protected and to be very angry when he was not. However, his voice in the narrative is so cocky at times that it gets harder to sympathize with him when the Bureau leaves him in danger because I knew it was going to be paired with a huge excoriation of the Bureau that left him looking like the only competent person working there.

I’m interested to see if my student ends up using the book for one of her projects. She asked me for my honest opinion when I finished the book and I gave it to her: the stories were interesting, the writing was frustrating.

 

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Teaching Tuesday: Finals week

My school is on a block 4 schedule. Five years ago, when I was getting my master’s degree in education, I looked at different types of scheduling as part of a massive research paper. During my research, I found out that of the 348 public high schools in the state, we were one of 13 schools in the state still on block 4. With the start of this year, that number has dropped to single digits. Our school librarian believes we might be the last holdout.

I am actually not a huge fan of block 4 scheduling for a myriad of reasons I don’t have the time to delve into in this current blog. The only real positive about this schedule right now is that this is our finals week, which means that at the end of this week I am halfway through with my current group of students. Considering all of the whining and complaining they’ve been doing alongside the drama they are creating over a group project (which they had the option and time to do on their own), I am really ready to wrap this grading period up.

Sure, when we get back from fall break they’ll all be right back in my classroom, but hopefully the marvelous two weeks we get off for fall break (we are also on a balanced calendar), will help cool some tempers, stop some fussing and generally make me remember that at one point I really liked this group.

First I have to make it through finals though.

It’s not so much the finals themselves that make me slightly crazy. I use the same basic final each year–I just tweak it based on the amount of material we covered and the examples I used. In my Film Literature class, one section of their final requires them to watch a 30 minute clip of a movie and then analyze it for all the elements of film we’ve learned about over the course of the grading period. Every year I switch it up with a new movie clip, so that keeps it kind of fun for me.

There are two things that make finals a stressful time for me. The first is the schedule changes that happen. Rather than just keeping our already really long blocks just as they are–they are 85 minutes each–final blocks are 2 hours long. Since students only have 4 classes at a time, they take two of their finals on Thursday and two on Friday. In order to make sure there are 4 solid hours for testing each day, the other two blocks have to be shortened and we have to get rid of our student resource time, which just happens to be the time my newspaper class meets. So not only do I lose two days of class time with my newspaper kids, but since I teach the same class 1st and 4th block, tomorrow I will have one group an hour and the other for two. Sure, I’ll get the opposite of that on Friday, but for my 1st block class, they’ll have already taken the final, so I have a full hour and not much for them to really do. On top of this, to make the testing times work, instead of going to blocks 1-4 in order like we always do, tomorrow we’ll start in block 2 (which the kids will forget), test in block 2, then go to block 4 (which messes up everyone’s normal lunch time and therefore causes chaos) and then finish the day with block 3. Even after having this schedule for about 7 years it still confuses me.

Aside from the schedule shift, the other truly annoying part of finals is the rapidity in which the kids expect the finals to be graded. At our school, all the work they’ve done for the grading period is 80% of their grade. The finals they take in our classes make up the other 20%. Far too many kids slack off during the year and then they expect to pull some Hail Mary magic on the final in order to save them from failing. This is particularly frustrating for me as nearly all of my students are seniors and failing their senior English class means not graduating. The week of finals I get a steady stream of kids asking me what percentage they have to get on the final in order to get their desired grade in my class (and for far too many of them, that grade is a D).

The minute they finish taking the final they start asking when I’ll have them graded. If I don’t get them graded before break (and I almost never do as we have until the Tuesday after break to turn grades in), I get emails over break asking about their grades. I get their full on sob story as to why they so desperately need to know their grades. Interestingly, they rarely elaborate on why it took them 9 weeks to actually get concerned over what grade might fill in that blank on their report card. Nor do they comment on all the 0’s in my grade book from the assignments they never bothered to do.

As excited as I am for the start of break, I am dreading the next two days of classes. I hope we all make it out in one fairly sane piece.

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Teaching Tuesday: Dumb questions

Whoever said, “there’s no such thing as a dumb question,” obviously was not a teacher. Anyone who has spent any real time in the classroom knows that there are many, many, many dumb questions. Teachers get asked them every single day.

Every year I try to head off the barrage of dumb questions by telling my students right up front that there are dumb questions and that they should avoid asking them.¬†For those of you who aren’t teachers, this probably sounds uncharitable and maybe even cruel. After all, we teach children, shouldn’t we be kinder and more supportive of their delicate egos?

Before you get angry, think of it like this: imagine your most annoying co-worker. The one who has a thousand questions that they should already know the answers to. The one who asks the same questions day after day and gets the same response every time, but just keeps asking the questions. The one you know just isn’t paying attention when questions are answered, so s/he interrupts whatever you are working on because they know you’ll have the answer.

Now, imagine that instead of one co-worker you have to interact with on a daily basis acting like this, you are surrounded by 138 co-workers like this. Seem a little less cruel now?

Ok, 138 is an exaggeration. Sure, that is the number of students I teach each day, but on any given day only about 1/3 of them ask me a dumb question. Of course, since the overwhelming majority of my students are seniors who will be going off to college, joining the military or entering the work force in less than a year, it’s a bit harder to take.

Believe me, my attempts to nip these dumb questions in the bud is really my way of making the world a slightly better place for the rest of you. I suffer so that hopefully you will not have to.

Now, you may be wondering what qualifies as a dumb question. Allow me to give you a sampling of a few I’ve had so far this week (keep in mind it’s only Tuesday).

1)What page are we supposed to be on?–This question comes after me clearly telling everyone to get out their books, waiting until their books are on their desks and then announcing the page number in a loud, clear voice no less than three times. Thankfully I rarely have to answer this question more than three times because by the fourth time another student gets so annoyed that they shout out the answer for me.

2) Did we do anything when I was absent yesterday?–It takes everything in me to suppress the sarcastic monster inside of me. The response I want to give is: “Nope, we just sat around staring at each other wondering what we should do without you. The sobbing stopped after the first 15 minutes, but as I looked around the room, lost as to how we could possibly go on, I noticed that most of your classmates still had tears in their eyes. Please don’t ever leave us again.” My decision not to give this response is only partially due to the fact that I might get a nasty email from a parent. The other reason I don’t give it is that I fear they may think I’m serious.

3) Did we have any homework last night?–I know these seems like another version of #2 on the list, and sometimes it is. However, it gets uttered a surprising number of times each day by kids who were, in fact, in class the day before. Now, I know this one may not initially seem like a dumb question. After all, kids forget. What makes it a dumb question is that all of my materials are available in Canvas, our classroom learning management system. I have a daily post that has all classwork and homework on it. I remind them of this every day for the first few weeks of school and then periodically throughout the year. Every one of my student also has a school issued Chromebook with wifi that they can check anytime they are in the building (and 85% of our students have internet access at home). See, dumb question.

4) What time does class get out?–The same time it did yesterday and the day before and the day before that. We have had the same class times for over 6 years now. Since most of my students are seniors, the majority have had the same start/stop times for over three years now. There is a large clock in my room and their Chromebooks have clocks as well.

5) Do I need to make up the test I missed?–Not, when can I make up the test I missed, but do I need to. And by test, I don’t mean a tiny pop quiz, I mean a huge test that covers a novel we’ve been studying. Again, I have to silence the voice in my head that just wants to scream, “No, everyone else has to take the test, but because you had an upset tummy yesterday, you don’t have to take it.”

See, there really are dumb questions.

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Teaching Tuesday: Sub plans

Sub plans: The bane of every teacher’s existence. After nearly twenty years of teaching, I have come to the conclusion that it is basically pointless for me to leave sub plans….at least not for the substitute teachers.

Recently, I took three personal days in order to meet up with my best friends (none of whom are teachers) for our annual best friend celebration vacation. As over the moon as I was at the prospect of spending 4.5 days basking in the sun and frolicking in the sand with some of the most important people in my life, before I could reach this little piece of friendship heaven I had to write three days worth of lesson plans.

Any teachers reading this blog are probably shaking their heads at the folly of this endeavor and screaming, “YOU FOOL!.” For those readers who are not teachers, allow me to explain. Taking even one day off of work is so much of a hassle that it is almost not worth it. I have come to school dizzy from vertigo, running fevers, feeling like I might vomit, and so exhausted from being up all night (from what turned out to be the beginnings of appendicitis) all to avoid having to get ready for a sub.

For a great many jobs out there, if an employee has to miss work, they have a list of other people who also know how to do their job and can substitute in for them. Many others are lucky enough to have the kind of job that if they have to call in, the work can just wait one day. When teachers call in, however, there is pretty much a minuscule chance that the person called to fill in for them has a teaching degree. On the off chance they do, the likelihood of the sub actually having a teaching license in the teacher’s content area is beyond remote. But, if for some reason they actually did have a teaching license in the content area, the chances of them actually being able to step in and teach the lesson…well, I’ve never heard of it happening (except for long term subs who take over the classroom due to long term illnesses and maternity leaves).

When I have to call for a substitute teacher, I know I am basically getting a babysitter.

And I’d be ok with that if they actually did what a good babysitter is supposed to: read the instructions I leave, give the instructions to the children, make sure the instructions are followed and then leave me notes about how well the instructions were followed. It sounds simple, right? I know from six months of substitute experience that if a class is well-behaved, it is, in fact, just that simple.

I realize that the discipline factor is the biggest variable in the situation. If your classroom is regularly a den of chaos, or even turns into a scene from Lord of the Flies every time you leave, getting even the best sub to follow the lesson plans might be asking too much. However, I have well-behaved classes. This is due in part to the fact that I teach mostly Advanced Placement courses and my kids are pretty much always on their best behavior, and generally afraid of breaking any rules. It’s also due in part to the fact that I have a really good rapport with my students. They respect me and know I’d be very disappointed with bad behavior in my absence, so they behave themselves. Nine times out of ten, my students actually complain to me that the subs hinder their ability to work by trying to talk to them. These are good kids.

So, before I could leave for my three day friendcation, I spent two prep periods getting all of my lesson plans in order. Every single assignment was put onto Canvas, our classroom learning management system. My kids use Canvas on a daily basis and know they just need to follow the instructions I leave them in order to get their work done. The only thing I actually need subs to do is record attendance and make sure no one gets hurt. They don’t even have to read directions to the students (which I tell them in my VERY detailed sub notes). The only thing the sub actually had to give the kids was a writing prompt handout and the access code to the online test. Before I left, everything was completely set up so that my kids would have no problems and all of their work could get done. It should have been a dream job for any sub.

What I came back to…UGH!

For starters, my AP juniors did not take the test. Despite giving the very easy to spell access code of Vacation, the sub apparently didn’t tell them it had to be capitalized. They were perplexed when it didn’t work and I guess no one thought that maybe, just maybe, it needed to be capitalized (as other test codes have been). He did, however, read the writing prompt–which was part of the test that they would do the next day– out loud to them. He even handed a copy of it out to a student who asked if he could see it, despite the fact that it was clearly labelled for handout the next day. He later offered to let several of my AP seniors get a head start on their writing prompt by showing it to them a day early. Luckily, they’ve all had me for two years and knew I would lose my mind, so they quickly declined and told me all about it via email.

The second day I had a different sub who did not give out test materials early. She did, however, read the writing prompt out loud to them. Since it was about honor codes, she started asking them all about our school honor code, looking up information on honor codes and trying to discuss it with them, all while they were trying to write their essays. The information she gave them was of no use to them as they have to answer the essay based on the six sources they are given, but she did manage to both confuse and distract them as they tried to concentrate and write.

She also decided to go through my desk drawers in search of a nail file (which she used). She also searched my drawers for pens, even though I had several out for her to use. In addition, she decided to yank open the door on my lockable cabinet, which was locked, and actually pulled hard enough that it opened, which is how I found it. Thankfully I could sort of fix it when I got back, but man was I mad!

As much as I desperately needed the break with my friends, the two days it took me to prepare to be absent, followed by the barrage of emails I got from my students about my subs AND the two days it took me to straighten out the messes they made, almost made it not worth it.

It should not be this much work not to go to work.

 

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Teaching Tuesday: Tech Blues part 1

It’s not secret that for most people technology is both a blessing and a curse. I know in my life it certainly is. I have been guilty of spending too much time engaging online and not nearly enough time engaging with the actual people around me.

When my English department first went 1:1, about 10 years ago, it was hard for me to find a good balance between using the technology and being used by the technology. Thankfully, I’ve honed my skills and gotten pretty good about knowing when I really need the computers and when it would just be easier to use them. I’m all for using technology to help make life easier, but not so easy that it makes my students lazy and incapable of finding information on their own or completing simple tasks for themselves.

I’m especially against technology when it actually makes my life harder, which is what happened today.

Two years ago when my corporation switched to Canvas as our learning management system, I hopped right on board. It was very similar to Moodle, which I LOVED and found a lot of value in. I like being able to organize both LMS by topic. I like that my students have the option to turn most work in online, thus avoiding the myriad of lost or forgotten homework (on their part, not mine). I like being able to upload all of my resources online so that students can view them whenever they need them (again avoiding lost handouts and direction sheets). I like being able to give quizzes online and have them graded instantly.

My kids have been successfully maneuvering Canvas for over 5 weeks now, and last year’s group used it all year with no real issues (other than standard teenage user error). Recently, the word has come down from on high that every teacher needs to be switching over to Canvas. Obviously this is no problem for me. My pages were copied over from last year, assignments and resources all updated over the summer, and ready to go for the first day of school.

The powers that be, however, have decided that everyone has to add this special eLearning button to our Canvas pages. The only purpose this button serves is to provide a link to an attendance form (created for some odd reason as a Google Form), which can be used on eLearning days.

We’ve been utilizing eLearning days for three years now. In the past, teachers told the students their assignments (through email, Google Classroom or Canvas), students responded so that they could be counted for attendance and we input the attendance into Skyward. Easy peasy.

This year though, we have to add this button to our Canvas page so that students can access this Google Form. We still have to click on the Form to collect the responses. We still have to input the attendance into Skyward, but now with the added step of creating this button on Canvas.

Normally this would not be an issue for me. However, since none of the Canvas trainers who took us step by step through the process of creating the button use modules in Canvas, they not only could not give me the proper information about the button, but actually told me at one point I might have to completely restructure my classes in order to make room for this button.

HUH? Restructure over a year’s worth of work to create a button, that serves the exact same function as an assignment I already have on Canvas? I was livid.

After 30 minutes of extreme frustration, the realization that the trainers did not know the proper terminology, and actual tears from being told I might lose everything I worked so hard on, I figured out how to create the button. It took me less than 5 minutes to create it and copy it to all three of my classes.

Technology should not make our lives harder. Adding tech, or even just a tech button, just for the sake of having it, is a waste of time. Tech should work for teachers and students, not the other way around.

 

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