Category Archives: life as a teacher

Wildcard Wednesday: Fitbit Charge 2

fitbit charge2I’m not quite sure how long I’ve had a Fitbit in my life. Even before I upgraded to the super fancy digital version, I’ve had some sort of pedometer strapped to my body for at least a decade now.

Although I would never call myself a health nut (I’m eating Lays bacon wrapped jalapeno chips as I type this), I do make an honest effort to get in a minimum of 10,000 steps each day, in large part so that I can eat things like bacon wrapped jalapeno chips.

As much as I loved my old school red pedometer I bought at Target, which clicked every time I took a step, it was highly unreliable. I’m a pretty animated talker and sometimes I’d be in the middle of an intense conversation with nothing but my arms flailing, and I’d hear the “tink, tink, tink” of my pedometer. Other times I’d be sitting at my desk nervously jostling my leg and I’d once again hear, “tink, tink, tink.” And don’t even get me started on how inaccurate it was on the rare occasions I decided to jog. Still, it was a good start for me and even though the “tink, tink, tink” drove me nuts at times, it was was still comforting.

About five years ago I decided to take a real leap forward and buy a Fitbit. When I bought my first Fitbit, there wasn’t much in the way of variety. I had a choice of one that could hook onto my clothes, which was only a tiny step up from my Target version or the Fitbit Flex which offered to not only count my steps more accurately, but also to help me track my weight, caloric and water intake, sleep patterns and gently wake me up vibrating alarms. I doled out the big bucks for the Flex.

For the most part I was pretty happy with my Flex. Since I work on the second floor and my house has a basement, I was a bit annoyed it didn’t count steps. I also didn’t like the fact that unless I logged on to the computer (and later my smart phone), I couldn’t see the exact number of steps I’d taken. Sure, if I tapped it, little dots would light up and flash to help me estimate to the nearest 1,000 steps how many I’d taken, and while that may have made me feel a bit like a Cylon, it also left me frustrated.

Even though there were elements of my Flex I was not fond of, when it fell off in the Kroger parking lot (because I’d ordered cute knock off bands with inferior clasps) and was run over by a car, I still decided to replace it with another Flex.

Fast forward to last month. While I was still wearing my Flex religiously (this time without the knock off bands), I was getting frustrated with it. It wasn’t holding a charge for long and I often had trouble getting it to charge at all, despite leaving it in the charger for 8 hours. I think something in the connection was just failing. I definitely wanted an upgrade. After trying a knock off fitness tracker I bought at Target, I decided I needed a new tracker, but this time I wanted one with a few more features. I definitely wanted to be able to see the exact number of steps I’d taken, I wanted a watch function, a heart rate monitor and an alarm function. I’d grown very accustomed to ditching the alarm clock for my Fitbit.

After a ton of research, which included quite a lot of feedback from my friends, I decided on a Fitbit Charge 2 because it was the only tracker I found that met all my other guidelines and had the alarm option.

I LOVE IT!

I love that I can see the time and date as well as every little step I take, including the ones I take when I’m pushing the cart around at the grocery store, something my Flex never did. I love that it tracks my stairs–so far only 3 today, but some days I do as many as 11 flights. I love that I can track specific times for my exercise routines and that it has a variety of routines to pick from. I love that I can see my active and inactive alarms so that I can make sure an alarm is actually set without having to get on my phone or my computer. I can also enable or disable my alarms from my Charge, which is fantastic! I like that it gives me little reminders to move every hour so that I’m at least taking 250 steps an hour. I even like the guided, meditative breathing function it has. It’s amazingly relaxing, which I know is the point.

When I had my Flex, I was sometimes really pushing it to get in all 10,000 steps. Some days I’d felt like I’d walked all over creation and it was still barely registering 8,000. Since I’ve had my new Charge 2, the only days I haven’t hit my minimum are days I’ve been on vacation. I’m actually averaging closer to 12,000 each day. I don’t know if it’s the added accuracy or just a burst of new pep in my step thanks to my new tracker.

fitbit bandsPlus, unlike my Flex, I’ve been able to order cheap, knock off bands for my Charge 2 and they are amazing! Thanks to the design, there is no way my Charge 2 will just fall off of my wrist. They are high quality and 12 of them only cost me $15. I actually just ordered another band that has adorable owls on it for only $8.

Unfortunately I did not think that the face of the Charge 2 needs a bit more protection than the Flex did. I have a tiny scuff on it, so I also found myself ordering protectors on Amazon today. Once they get here, I have a feeling my Charge 2 will be the perfect accessory.

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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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Throwback Thursday: Another friendcation

As much as I want to write a full blog, I will hopefully be on the road before this blog even publishes, hurtling down the highway at a speed just fast enough to shave some time off of my trip, but not fast enough to get me pulled over, on my way to visit my best friend.

Due to an unforeseen incident with my husband’s job, our fall break plans had to be put on indefinite hold. Since my kids and I have two weeks off, and I definitely need a break from this town, we are going to visit my best friend in Georgia.

I’ll have plenty of great pictures and no doubt some travel stories to share when we return. For now I am just super excited about my fourth friendcation this year. Even if my kids have to tag along on this one, I get 6 full days (and two partial days) with my best friend and that is one of my greatest joys.

So, TTFN. Look for me when I return!

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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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Free Reading Friday: Replica

Replica 1I am a huge Lauren Oliver fan. My best friend and I share a love of YA fiction and she suggested Oliver to me several years ago. I started with the Delirium series and have been hooked ever since. I especially appreciate that Oliver has not gotten herself stuck into one type of writing. While the Delirium series is dystopian, Before I Fall and Panic all take place in the real, modern world. She hasn’t even pigeon-holed herself as just a writer of YA fiction as she also has her adult novel Rooms, which is a ghost story of sorts, but securely set in the very real world.

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect with Replica, but I was instantly pulled in by the cover. Not only is the book decorated in a really cool duel toned book jacket with bright butterflies, but depending on how the book is flipped, it tells two different, but intertwined stories. I’ve never read a book like this before, and even if Oliver had not written it, I might have picked up a copy because the concept was so cool.

One half of the story is the story of Lyra, a “replica” living at the Haven Institute. From the very start of the narrative, Lyra tells the reader that she is not human, but a replica (clone), made at Haven. Lyra’s story chronicles her life in Haven as well as her escape from Haven and her connection to Gemma, the main character of the book’s flip story.

Gemma is a teenage girl living with very strict parents in North Carolina. She and her best friend April call themselves “aliens” because they’ve never quite fit in with the other kids in their class. She feels ostracized from her peers in part because of her history of childhood illnesses, in part because of her parent’s strict eye on her and in part because she is teased for being overweight and a “freak.” Gemma also feels disconnected to her parents, especially her father, who she feels has never really loved her. After a strange incident that links her father to a mysterious place called Haven, she goes on a quest to find out just what her father may be hiding from her.

Although the two stories stand alone as completely separate stories, they also intertwine in very key moments to make a bigger, more complete (and compelling) story. Although I liked both stories on their own, I definitely felt pieces were missing at times. I was particularly dissatisfied with the ending to Lyra’s story…that is until I read Gemma’s and both stories were completed.

Well, as completed as the first book in a series can be. Oliver definitely sets the book up for more to come.

Although readers can technically read the stories in either order, there is definitely a reason that the words run down the spine correctly when Lyra’s story is the first one (and the reason there is a bar code on Gemma’s story). The book is more complete and more rewarding if Lyra’s story is the first one.

I cannot wait for our school library to get a copy of this book because I know my students will be lining up to read it. I also cannot wait to read the next book in the series, Ringer, which just came out.

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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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