Category Archives: pet peeves

Free Reading Friday: Unshakeable

unshakeableMy principal gave me this book a few weeks before winter break and told me to read it if I got the chance. Unlike the Fish! book about improving morale, he wasn’t going to make Unshakeable by Angela Watson a school-wide book study. However, he’d liked it enough that he’d gone ahead and ordered a copy for every teacher in the building to read (or not read) at their leisure.

Although I am always a bit wary of books about education, I decided to go ahead and commit to reading it. I know it probably sounds odd for a teacher to say she’s wary of books about her profession. I mean, shouldn’t books about how to improve as a teacher be very important to my growth and development as a teacher?

In my experiences, I’ve found that they can be at times. But so often educational tomes are written by elementary teachers and while the advice and strategies offered are no doubt wonderful for elementary teachers, they have very little carry over into the secondary world.

I’m glad to say that Unshakeable did a better job of meeting my expectations than many education books do. While a large portion of the advice is definitely geared at elementary teachers, there are some gems in here for secondary teachers as well. Many of those gems I am already incorporating into my teaching, so it’s nice to see someone else confirm what I already believe to be best practice. Like Watson, I feel it is very important to be genuine with my students. I think they need to see the real me and know that I am not putting on some sort of educational three-ring circus in my class. I use humor and anecdotes about my life to connect to my kids. I respond to their journals and ask questions about their lives and interests and most share them with me. I take the time to get to know at least one important bit of information about every student I teach and that is hard considering I have nearly 150 students this year. But it’s important and I think it matters to my students, so I do it.

While I definitely appreciate her enthusiasm and some of her ideas, I do still see a huge elementary influence in this book. One of her early suggestions is to take time to call each parent to introduce yourself as a teacher and mention one positive note about their child. She suggests doing this in the first week or two of school. This is an awesome idea…if you have a class of 20-30 kids. She mentions that it took about an hour of her life and it was worth it. I don’t doubt it was. However, there is no conceivable way for me to do this for 150 students, especially since in the first week or two I’ve only spent a few hours with them and don’t know them (or their habits) very well yet.

I think her idea of having family festival nights or of having parents drop by the classroom before school starts is a great one, but again, with 150 students there is no physical way I could host these kind of events. The same is true of her idea to be outside the classroom and greet each student indvidually. This is a great practice and I try to do it as often as possible, however, my classes are 85 minutes long with five minute passing periods. Those passing periods are the only time I get to go to the bathroom, so as much as I’d love to stand outside my room and engage each one of my students, that’s not possible. I usually barely make it back to my room before the bell rings.

There is definitely merit in a lot of Watson writes and so much of her book is about having the right attitude while teaching, which is essential to loving the job. I just wish more secondary teachers would write these types of books because the difference between being an elementary teacher and a high school teacher is almost like the difference between being a lawyer and a judge. Yes, our jobs center on the same ideas and basic principles, but our roles and the way we apply those ideas and principles are so very different.

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Teaching Tuesday: Spring break stretch

The stretch between spring break and the end of the school year is the longest block of time in the year. Unlike every other quarter, this particular time does not contain a single day off…at least not on our schedule.

In the first quarter we get Labor Day just about half way through the grading period. During second quarter we get Thanksgiving break, which makes winter break seem like it is right around the corner. During third quarter we get MLK Day and President’s Day, which initially eases us back into school and then gives us a nice break at the midway point.

But during the final stretch we get nothing.

At this point we’ve only finished 3 full weeks of the quarter and it feels like it might never end. I know this is due primarily to the fact that the end of the year is so clearly in sight. We feel like we are creeping toward it though, not sprinting.

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Wildcard Wednesday: Housework

I saw a post on Facebook the other day that had one of those cutsie signs which read, “Please excuse the mess my kids are making memories.” This was crossed out and below it it read, “I suck at being a housewife.”

This sign, totally hit home with me. I am a good mom. I am a good teacher. I am a good wife. I am a good friend. I absolutely, positively, without a doubt, suck at being any sort of housewife.

Not that housewife is a term I take too seriously. Considering that over 60% of households are two income households, I don’t know how many women can be the housewives that our moms and grandmothers were.

I spend 8 hours a day at work. On top of that, my commute is 1.5-2 hours. Luckily my kids are in the car with me, so I get to spend time with them (and sometimes they even want to talk to me). At least three days a week I try to stop by the gym on the way home and get 30-45 minutes in (they have an awesome childcare facility and my kids love playing there). I do pretty much all of the cooking in my house, which I’m not complaining (much) about, since I like cooking and my husband does like 80% of the dishes. But, that means once I get home, I usually sit down for 10-15 minutes and then start dinner. That’s at least a good 30 minutes of work. Then, I have to sit with my kids and make sure homework gets done.

By this time it’s usually at least 7 pm, which means about 40 minutes until we start getting ready for bedtime. This is time I usually try to sneak in some grading or reading or talking to my kids. Baths and bedtimes are usually done around 8:30, which leaves me about an hour and a half before I get ready for bed. Sometimes my husband and I watch a TV show and sometimes I grade. I also check social media and personal emails during this time.

Even if I wanted to clean (and I NEVER want to clean), there really isn’t any time. At least not if I want to keep my sanity and do at least one thing that’s just for me each day.

I know the weekends should be my time to clean, but, it’s just so hard to get motivated. I have to get all the laundry done (which I know is a type of housework). I also have to get all the shopping done and run all the errands we didn’t get around to on the weekdays. My husband leaves for work on Sunday at 7:30 am and doesn’t get home until 4:30 pm, so getting cleaning done while trying to take care of my kids isn’t always easy. I usually get a general straightening done, but as to deep cleaning…yeah, that rarely happens.

Usually the only time deep cleaning gets done is when I look at a room and realize I can no longer live in this filth! To be fair, it’s never actual filth, just a general need for a good bleaching/mopping/vacuuming/scrubbing.

I know some people find cleaning therapeutic, but I will never be one of those people. No matter how much I’d like a clean house, I just don’t want to be the one cleaning it. The thought of scrubbing the shower down or mopping the kitchen floor makes me quickly start looking for any grading I can possibly do. It has me running toward the gym…and I hate running. I was just not made to be a housewife.

 

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Teaching Tuesday: Lunch duty

For the past several years, my principal has decided that teachers don’t have enough to do, so instead of being able to utilize our entire prep time to grade and prepare for our upcoming classes, we have to do special prep duties. Initially these duties required us to spend time in other teacher’s classrooms, helping out when needed.

In theory, this was not a bad idea. Many of our classes are fairly large. Last semester I had a class of 32 and my poor co-worker across the hall had one of 39. Several members of our social studies department have classes over 40 and some of our PE courses number in the 50’s. Those are classroom management nightmares even for the most experienced teachers. So, the idea was that with an additional teacher in the room for some combination of 120 minutes a week, teachers could break the class into smaller groups and each teacher could supervise the smaller groups. Or, the additional teacher could work one on one with someone who was struggling. Or maybe the additional teacher could supervise students who needed to make up a test so that the rest of the class could keep moving.

Again, in theory, this didn’t sound awful. The problem, is that many teachers didn’t actually need any additional help and even for those who might, the “helper” teacher giving prep duty time wasn’t well-enough versed with the particular information being taught on a daily basis to help.

Now, I know what some people are thinking: if you are a teacher shouldn’t you be able to teach any topic in your subject area. Yes, with the right amount of preparation, you pretty much should be. The flaw, however, is that we were already giving up preparation for our own classes and to expect us to do all the reading to prepare for someone else’s classes is a beyond ridiculous. For example, I have read the Odyssey several times. I taught it for about 8¬† years. But, that was 12 years ago. I haven’t read or taught it and while I know the basic story, there is no way that I can walk into someone else’s classroom and just start teaching the excerpt the kids are working on. Not without actually reading and analyzing it ahead of time. About the only help I was able to give was supervising small groups, which didn’t need to happen 120 minutes each week.

For the most part, I ended up just sitting in the back of a classroom, not helping anyone and not getting further behind in my work.

These issues were looked into and my principal amended prep duty to cover a much larger variety of activities and reduced the time to 100 minutes a week. While this was much better, it still meant a lot of work I had to take home with me. Still, I was pretty ok with this plan. I always did my prep duty work and actually got some very meaningful collaborative projects created with our librarian and some of my fellow department members. I was also able to create some great resources for other members of my department.

When we came back from winter break, we found out that prep duty time was changing once again. This time, it would be cut down to 75 minutes a week, which sounds so much better in theory. However, we no longer had any say in what we would do during this time. I was assigned lunch duty.

So, every other week, I get to spend 30 minutes each day supervising lunch. While it is technically 150 minutes of duty time, since it is every other week, it works out to only 75 minutes a week, so it balances with other teachers who have bus duty or hallway duty for 15 minutes each day.

The problem, aside from the several very nasty confrontations with students that have required me to get a security officer AND the fact that I am the only staff member in my group who shows up on time to do their duty, is that because of the way they “every other week” schedule is put together, those of us on lunch duty actually end up doing an extra week of duty time each grading period (75 additional minutes each quarter). AND, because the administrators schedule everyone who has lunch duty on the rotating schedule to duty time during the first week of the grading period to help with the transition into the new grading period, it means that I am doing 3 weeks of lunch duty in a row.

I had to do lunch duty the week of finals. So, rather than getting to use my prep to get my finals together or grade them, I got to take that work home with me over spring break to complete. I also have lunch duty all this week since it is the start of a new grading period. AND, my group was picked to be the first rotating group, so I have lunch duty all next week as well. Losing 150 minutes of grading/prep time for three weeks in a row is a pretty serious issue. I am having to take more and more work home with me just to keep up. My regular 55 hour work weeks are becoming 60 hour work weeks and that is starting to seriously impact both my family and my morale. It’s hard to want to create innovative teaching materials when my time is being eaten up by lunch duty and grading.

Last quarter I wasn’t able to introduce a single new project or assignment. I did the exact same thing in all my classes that I’d done the year before. I have a feeling the same will be true this grading period. I really wish that my extra duties to the school would actually benefit my students. I have no problem giving extra time to improve my students’ education. However, I seriously resent my time being taken from my students.

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Free Reading Friday: The Glass Castle

The Glass CastleIt’s very hard to read memoirs of absolute deprivation, especially when they involve children. Even before I became a mother I found it hard not to cringe when reading stories of abused, neglected or forgotten children. Now that I am a mother, I find it even harder. I cannot imagine anything that could induce me to allow my children to suffer. I would give up everything I have in order to keep them from experience true hunger or pain. When parents are not willing to do the same, I find it hard to understand.

I knew nothing about Jeannette Walls’ life when I bought The Glass Castle. In fact, other than the fact that her memoir had been turned into a movie (which I have not yet seen), I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I picked her book off the shelf in the airport bookstore. However, I was getting ready to board a flight to South Carolina to spend a long weekend on the beach with friends and I knew I’d need something to read. I also knew that my Pop Sugar book challenge for 2017 included a book bought on a trip, so I purposely did not bring a book with me on the trip so I could buy one. Ok, I’ll admit I brought my Kindle, but I didn’t bring any paper bound books with me, so I would be more inclined to read whatever I picked up at the bookstore.

Since I am always on the lookout for interesting non-fiction books to bring back to my AP Language and Composition students and since I knew some of them might see this movie and want to read the story behind it, I picked this book over several other interesting looking fiction works.

I’m glad I did.

While stories of abuse and neglect are hard to read, I think they are important to read. I think it is vital that we read stories like Walls’ so that we develop better empathy for our fellow man. Stories like the ones Walls tells help to make it harder to dismiss the homeless woman we see digging through the dumpster, or the children who come to school dirty and without food. Stories like these remind us that small acts of kindness toward those who may be in need go a long way.

Of course, those lessons don’t make Walls’ stories any easier to read. Her tales of her parent’s complete abdication of their parental responsibilities are cringe worthy. Like Walls, my children were also very precocious, however, the thought of allowing either of my children at age three to operate the stove, let alone cook their own meals is appalling. The idea of allowing my children to sleep in cardboard beds under roofs that are caved in and allow rain and snow to fall into their bedrooms is hideous. The mere thought of taking my children into a bar to help me swindle people out of money at pool and then allowing grown men to take my teenage daughter upstairs is disgusting.

But there are parents who do these things and as a teacher I am thankful to memoirs like Walls’ because it makes me look harder and with more compassion toward many of my students. Because of books like these, I find myself listening more intently to students I think may be being neglected or abused. I check in with those I know have difficult home lives.

Although a great many tragic events happen in Walls’ life and in the book, she manages to keep her memoir from being too dark. She does fill it with lighter moments. And while she clearly sees the neglect and abuse her parents committed against her, she also shows a sort of understanding for them and a deep love for them.

How she managed to write so kind a memoir after finding out what her mother’s land in Texas was worth is beyond me.

This is an engaging and well-written account of Walls’ life that I am glad I read.

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Wildcard Wednesday: Pot holes

Pot holes have destroyed my car.

Ok, that is an exaggeration. It might be more accurate to say pot holes are destroying my car.

Even that might be a bit of a reach. I guess I should stick with something closer to pot holes sound like they are destroying my car.

I’ve been driving for over 25 years now and I cannot actually recall a year when the pot holes have been this bad. And this is not just my imagination. Take a look at the official government website devoted to the gaping holes around Indianapolis.

Almost every day when I drive down the main road outside my neighborhood I am worried that I am going to get pulled over as a suspected drunk driver considering all the swerving I have to do in order to try to avoid the hazards that have invaded the road. Then, I realize the cop that wanted to pull me over would either be making those exact same swerves or be stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire if he tried to drive straight through them, so I figure I am fine.

I’ve actually gotten so used to driving my normal route to work that even in the darkness on my drive into school, I know where all the holes are and can still manage to avoid them. Driving anywhere else in this city before sunrise or after sunset is dangerous. I’ve actually found myself driving 10 miles under the speed limit and coming to almost complete stops on major roads to avoid being swallowed up by the holes.

Try as I did, I was not able to steer clear of them all. One of them hit me, and hit me pretty hard. It was near a railroad track (technically in another county) and since the railroad track was up a slight incline, I couldn’t see the pot hole next to it. My car dipped in before hitting the tracks, which caused an even bigger dip. I was only going about 10 miles an hour and it still felt like the end of my car.

This probably would not have been too tragic had there not already been a low hanging bit of plastic underneath the front of my car. The plastic somehow snagged on that pot hole and managed to come even looser. Now, instead of just rattling from time to time when stray rocks or gravel would get inside the low slung plastic, it was dragging, so there was pretty much a constant scraping sound as I drove. At least at low speeds. When I got going more than about 35 mph, friction or wind or something to do with physics would lift the plastic up and the scraping would stop.

The sound was awful, but I could deal with it.

That is until they started fixing the pot holes. Now, I know the fixing of pot holes should be a cause for celebration. And for the most part, I’d be dancing in the streets about it (if there weren’t still so many pot holes that I’d no doubt break my leg trying), if it weren’t for the fact that every time I drive over one of those recently repaired craters, some of the leftover asphalt gets kicked up into the plastic and makes it sound like parts of my car are actually falling off. I kept expecting to be driving and suddenly find myself with only a driver’s seat and steering wheel still held together as the car disintegrated around me, ala Looney Toons.

This morning when I was on my way to the grocery store, I was listening to an audio book. I had the book turned up to top volume and even at that volume, when I drove over a repaired stretch of road, I had no idea what Anna Faris was saying because the noise from the bits of road being churned up beneath my car were so loud, she was inaudible.

Something had to be done.

My husband, who had initially suggested just having the guys at our local car shop zip tie the plastic up when they had my car up on the rack for an oil change next week, caved after I refused to drive my car and took his instead. As soon as I got home, he grabbed the jack, lifted my car, and with some zip ties and black tape, he wrangled the hanging plastic back into place.

I just took a test drive around the neighborhood and the silence was blissful. It’s like I have a normal car again.

And while I know I’m going to be cursing the pot holes tomorrow as I try to find a path that will allow me to get by mostly unscathed, for right now, I am so happy with my quiet car that I won’t even curse the city of Indianapolis for allowing the situation to get this bad for at least another few hours.

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Teaching Tuesday: ISTEP is the bane of my existance

I hate ISTEP. I mean, I really, really, really hate ISTEP.

I don’t understand how the powers that be believe a student’s ability to graduate high school should depend upon a single standardized test. I won’t even get into how asinine it is to boil every single kid down to one test and stake their entire educational future on that test. I won’t even talk about how absurd it is to focus this fate deciding test on only two academic subjects in school, completely ignoring all of the other knowledge they have accrued and the skills they possess. Nor will I discuss the fact that the people making the decision about the test have next to no educational background.

No, these are not the reasons I currently hate ISTEP.

I don’t understand why my effectiveness as a teacher depends upon a student’s ability to pass this test. I won’t bring up the fact that all teachers in the entire school, regardless¬† of what they teach, are judged by how students score in math and English. I won’t even dig into the ridiculousness of judging art or music or PE or history teachers on scores students get on math and English tests. Nor will I point out that at the high school level, only 10th graders are tested, so really, every single teacher is evaluated based on how one grade level does on tests in two academic subjects…even teachers who have never taught those students for a single day. Sure, I do teach one of the two tested subjects, English, but why is part of my evaluation (and therefore my salary) dependent on how students do on this test? See, I may teach English, but I only teach juniors and seniors. I don’t teach a single 9th or 10th grader. I don’t have any chance to help those students gain the skills they need to pass that test, but the state says that those kids’ scores help decide whether or not I am an effective teacher.

No, these are not the reasons I currently hate ISTEP.

Currently, I hate ISTEP because since we have no choice in when we give the test, the state has scheduled the test one week before our finals. I teach at a school that is not only on the balanced calendar, but also on a block 4 schedule. This means that students take 4 classes for an entire grading period for 85 minutes a day, basically finishing what would be a semester long class on a traditional or block 8 schedule in one 9 weeks OR a year-long class in one semester. So, right when I should be wrapping up my semester, getting kids started on reviewing materials and prepping for finals, BOOM! Here comes ISTEP.

Now, I know I just mentioned that I don’t actually teach any sophomores. I don’t. However, since only half of our sophomores are in an English or math class this semester (the other half took the classes first semester) and even those who are have their math and English classes spread throughout 4 different periods, we have adjusted our schedule to accommodate the 10th grade class.

That’s right, every single student and teacher in our school has had to completely change our schedule for four days to make room for ISTEP. That may not seem like a big deal, but our administrators decided the easiest way to make room for testing was to have all kids report at the start of the day to their SRTs (student resource time–sort of like a short study hall where kids can actually get help from their classroom teachers if needed). Instead of being the usual 26 minutes, these SRT periods are anywhere from 1:15 to 1:45. When testing finishes, kids resume a shortened version of our regular 4 block day.

This still may not seem like an issue, but one of my senior English classes which normally meets from 10:05-11:30 is now not even starting until 11:30 or 12:00. This time change means that my students who leave half day to either to go to vocational school or to go to the job program (ICE), still have to leave at 11:30.

What this means is that over half of my students will miss my class for four days the week before finals begin. We are currently half way through a novel, and my students are going to miss the bulk of instruction over the second part of the novel. They are missing classroom instruction that is critical to their final. Today in my class of 21, I only had 9 students. Until Friday, this looks to be reflective of the rest of my week. So, in order to accommodate testing for one grade level of students, we put other students at risk.

Have I mentioned that I hate ISTEP?

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