Category Archives: pet peeves

Teaching Tuesdays: A fear for the future

Sometimes after a long round of grading I find myself seriously worrying about the future of our country. Tonight was one of those nights.

I spent about 5 hours this weekend reading over outlines for research papers. Although it was only one set of outlines for one class of 30 kids and only 27 of the kids actually turned in an outline, it took me just over 5 hours to grade them. That’s right, I spent about 13 minutes , making extensive comments and suggestions on each outline.

This might not have been so distressing if we hadn’t just spent the last three weeks almost completely dedicated to the research process. Although kids did not have the full 85 minute class period solely to work on their research papers, they did get between 15-30 minutes every single day just to work. The rest of the class time was spent going over how to find credible sources, how to take notes, how to write a thesis statement, how to put together an outline and how to avoid plagiarism. They had three straight weeks with about 60 minutes each day dedicated to the research process in some way.

I also might not be quite so disheartened if these weren’t seniors who have been through the research paper not once, not twice, but thrice before this year. Yes, that’s right, every single student at my school goes through the research process every single year. At this point my students should have written at least 3 other research papers, which means they’ve been taught how to find credible sources, how to take notes, how to write thesis statements, how to put together an outline and how to avoid plagiarism at least 3 other times. And that’s just in their English classes.

I also might not be as discouraged if I had not provided them an outline template which told them every single piece of information they’d need for their outline, gave them a structure they could use and had reminders like for every A there must be a B. All I asked was that they delete the instructions and my sample content from the outline before using the template. Out of the 27 kids who turned in their outlines, 7 of them turned in outlines that still had part (or all) of my instructions and sample content on them.

Only one of my students turned in an outline that I am sure will lead to a really good first draft. The rest were so lacking in details (and all but 3 were lacking any real research) that all of my contents had to be generic ones about the purpose of their papers because I wasn’t sure what their actual content really was.

Now, I know some people will argue that outlines are archaic and teaching kids to do formal outlining is old-fashioned. While that might be true, when kids don’t do any pre-writing or organizational activities, as most will not do unless forced to, their writing is even more of a train wreck. At least these tragic outlines give them a bit of a starting point. I could point out areas they’d need to expand on, or areas not mentioned in their thesis, or topics that need to be grouped together. I teach my students how to outline in the hopes that they will at least sit down and gather their thoughts and research together. My hope is that they will look at how their information is connected, see patterns and group like material together. It doesn’t always work out well (like the outlines I just graded), but when they don’t have an outline to work from it is so very worse.

My hope is that they will take all of my outline comments to heart and their first drafts, which are due on Thursday, will be marked improvements. Sadly, I know that in order for this to happen I will have to make them open their outlines in class and have them read over all of my comments right in front of me.

What worries me is that of my 30 students, 24 of them are college bound in some way. I don’t know what they are going to do next year when their professors do not have to be as patient or kind.

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Teaching Tuesday: More testing woes

Today was yet another preview of the ghost of testing future. Every junior who failed either a portion of the ISTEP+, which they have to pass in order to graduate, had to take the Accuplacer test today. Since about half of our students failed at least one portion of this test (and we did well above the state average), that meant that instead of being in class today, students had to miss first and second periods to take the test. Since Accuplacer isn’t directly related to the ISTEP+, I’m not sure why they had to take it, but they did.

Instead of being in class to read through The Crucible, they were answering math questions, which means they will have to read Act 3 on their own, without the benefit of our discussions as we read it together.

I was actually lucky as only a handful of my students had to miss class. Since it is Advanced Placement, most of my students passed. Some of my fellow teachers were not as lucky. They had over half of their students missing and had to completely cancel their lessons.

The sad bit is that this is just a preview of what is to come. This is only the second of what will be a crazy season of tests before we get to winter break. I hope we all survive.

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Teaching Tuesday: PSAT blues

I hate standardized testing. I mean, I really, really, really hate it. Not that I actually know a single teacher who is in favor of standardized testing. At least not in the quantities we have to do it.

I understand the standardized diagnostic test we give to all students in the English department during the first week of school. Each grade level has a test that has been compiled by members of my department using a standardized test questioning website in order to gauge where are students are at the start of the year. We use a similar, skills based diagnostic at the end of the year to help us measure their progress. We use this data to guide our lesson planning, create additional practice activities for students who need them and so that we can address overall weaknesses we see in students both at the high school and middle school level. It’s a great way for us to make sure we are aligning our curriculum 6-12.

However, with in the first month of school we also use NWEA to test all of the 9th and 10th graders in the entire school. Students take these tests so we can get a broader picture of where all of our students are in English, math and biology in order to better prepare them for the state mandated standardized testing they will have to do later in the year.

Today, during the third day of our second quarter, we gave all sophomores and juniors the PSAT. In order not to leave 9th and 12th graders out, they also got to spend part of the day testing. 9th graders took a pre-PSAT test (yes, you read that right) and 12th graders took the ASVAB test.

Since today was a late start day (due to PLCs), we started testing students at 9:20. Even with the speed bubbling of the required student biographical information The College Board requires, students tested for 3 solid hours. And when I say 3 solid hours, I mean most classrooms started testing at about 9:45 and finished up at 1:00.

We then had 2.5 hours to get in 4 classes. If this time could have been divided evenly, instead of our normal 85 minute blocks, we would have had 37 minutes in each class. While this is an abysmal amount of time, even it would have been better than what we got. Since we had to figure in a 25 minute lunch period for everyone and our student body is large enough that it requires 3 lunches AND we had to have passing periods to get from one class to the next, 3rd block (which is our lunch period) met for 60 minutes and the other three classes each met for 15 minutes.

Wanna guess what can be effectively taught in 15 minutes after students have spent over four hours in testing rooms and not gotten lunch until 1-1.5 hours after their usual lunch time?

Yep, you guessed it: absolutely nothing! The best I could do was explain the homework they needed to do in order to prepare for the next class. Although we’d known about the testing for weeks, we were originally told testing would be finished by 12:30, which would have allowed for over double the class time we got. So we all planned for mini-lessons. As short as those lessons would have been, they would have meant some real instructional time. Alas, it was not to be and we had to scramble at the last minute.

Now, I should be clear that I do find value in the PSAT. However, considering that we have another week of NWEA testing coming up in December, and ECA make up testing for seniors who have not yet passed the test (they need it to graduate) and the actual finals we are required to give in each of our classes, this entire loss of a day is frustrating. Especially when coupled with the additional two weeks of NWEA testing we’ll have to do in the spring; the nearly four weeks of ISTEP testing that will go on in March andĀ  April; and AP testing, final course diagnostic testing and spring finals in May. And in addition to all of this testing is the fact that in order to prepare students for the ISTEP test, every single teacher in every single block has to do 11 constructed writing activities between November and February–even if we don’t teach students who have to take the test. Plus, all of our sophomores have to spend 15 of their 25 minute Student Resource Time every day completing math practice questions on Study Island. At times it feels like all we are doing is testing and teaching kids how to take those tests.

It’s no wonder so many kids dislike school.

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Teaching Tuesday: Grading over break

When most people who first meet me find out I’m a teacher, they make a few assumptions about what my life must be like. One of the biggest assumptions people make, and probably the one that angers me the most, is that my job is pretty easy thanks to all the vacation time I get. I cannot even count the number of people who have dismissed my job as far easier than theirs simply because of all my “vacation time.” Heck, even some of my best friends used to make comments about it.

What most people don’t understand about teaching is that while we may technically get more days when we don’t have to go in to work, it is very much balanced out by all the hours we put in for our jobs on our own “free time.”

My fall break is a perfect example. While it is true that I just finished up 10 days where I did not have to drive into school and actively teach students, I spent 7 of those 10 days grading, answering student (and parent) questions via email, responding to a plethora of emails from administrators, guidance counselors and other teachers about things that will need to be done in the next grading period and planning materials to teach in the next grading period. While I did not spend a complete 8 hours each day on these activities, I averaged at least 3 hours of my “vacation time” each day on these activities.

I know that probably still seems like a pretty good deal, right? Only working 3 hours each day and from the comfort of my own home (or, as it turns out from my best friend’s house while on vacation with my kids) doesn’t seem like anything to complain about, right? Of course those 21 hours of work are in addition to the time I spent over the weekends also grading, answering emails and planning. Once again, I averaged about 3 hours on those weekend days as well. Since weekends should be completely my own, that’s an additional 18 hours that should, in fact, have belonged completely to me.

Now, I know what a lot of people will probably argue: I should have gotten all that grading done during the first grading period. I mean, that sounds completely logical, right? Except of course, that I was already putting in 50+ hour work weeks during those 10 weeks, so in order to get all the work I did over break done during the actual grading period, that would have meant working closer to 55-60 hours per week. Keep in mind, that those extra hours come with no additional pay.

And even if this sounds completely reasonable, it’s actually an impossibility. At the end of each grading period, we have to give final exams. Our last final goes until the end of the school day, so there is actually no way to end the grading period without taking work home. Even if I’d gotten everything else graded by putting in those 60 hour work weeks, I would still have finals to grade. And since I teach English, finals mean essay questions and 110 of those take a LOT of time to grade.

And of course, even if somehow I’d managed to get all of the grading done, I’d still have to respond to emails from students, parents, administrators and coworkers. And I’d still have to make sure my lessons were prepared for the next grading period. While I always have long-term goals established before the start of every year (for the entire year) and I even have pacing guides for every unit, the day to day details have to be worked out and those change depending on the ability levels of my students, the slight fluctuations in days per grading period, changes made due to school-wide testing, convocations, weather related incidents, holidays, sick days, etc. Planning and re-planning is a constant throughout the year.

So, just in case you happen to be one of those people who think teachers have it easy because we get a ton of “vacation time,” please take a few minutes and actually ask any teachers you might meet how much of their own time they devote to their jobs. Ask them how much of that extra “vacation time,” they get is actually dedicated to their students. Just because we may get to do that work in our jammies at midnight doesn’t mean we’re not working.

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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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Wildcard Wednesday: Packing

As much as I love going on trips, I hate packing for them. While I know I am not alone in my hatred, I also know that some people actually enjoy it.

For me, packing is stressful. I hate trying to account for every possible scenario that could happen in an attempt, which I know will end up being a failed attempt, to ensure I have everything I need for a trip.

Even though less than half of my trips generally involve flying somewhere, I am always stuck in airport packing mode. Tonight as I was packing to leave for a visit with my best friend in Georgia, I realized I’d forgotten to pack baby shampoo for my kids. I had a moment of panic because I couldn’t find one of the tiny travel sized bottles I usually have in their medicine cabinet. I looked all over for it with no luck. Then, I ransacked my bathroom cabinets for a tiny container I could pour some shampoo into. It took me five minutes or so to realize I could just throw the entire bag of shampoo in my bag because we are driving to Georgia and not only do I not have to limit my liquid ounces, the only reason to put my liquids in a baggie is so they do not leak all over my bag.

Oh crap, I need to find a baggie for my liquids so they don’t leak.

Aside from airport packing brain, my other big stresser is trying to figure out what I’m going to forget. Because I always forget something. Usually it’s pajamas. I don’t know why packing my pj’s is always gets left off my list, but it does. Considering what a fan of jammies I am, this seems like such a strange thing to forget, but just about every other trip I do. Did I pack them this time? Hold on…be right back.

Ok, pajamas are packed. What else am I forgetting?

Even though I realize that I’m not leaving the planet, let alone the country and that everything I can get at my local Kroger I can also get at the Kroger right down the street from my best friend’s house, I still freak out that I’ll forget something. Which is sort of pointless because of course I will forget something. As long as it isn’t one of my children, everything else is replaceable.

I know some of this stress could probably be avoided by packing just a bit earlier, but no matter how early I start packing, because I need my glasses/book/iPad/medicine/ whatever the night before I leave, I always have to wait until the morning of to really finish packing my bag and the panic sets in again.

Hopefully I have everything. Or at least all the major things. After driving for 10 hours tomorrow, I don’t want to have to hop back into my car and run to Kroger. I want to be able to bring our bags in, get my kids off to bed and just relax with my best friend.

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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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