Category Archives: problems with society

Teaching Tuesday: Parkland

I have more thoughts and feelings about the most recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida than I am currently able or willing to express. I’ve spent way more time over the last few days engaging in debates with people who haven’t set foot in a school room since they themselves were in school about the “answers” to the problem of gun violence in schools. I don’t want to turn this post into a rehash of those debates.

For the moment, I will only address one, which was from a gentleman who declared that we really need to stop blowing this out of proportion as there have not really been 18 school shootings in 2018. In his opinion, if the firing of a gun was not during school hours and did not result in death, it should not really be called a school shooting. In his opinion there have really only been three school shootings this year. He then went on to say that we needed to stop making a big deal out of school shootings because kids shouldn’t be having panic attacks about going to school, especially since students were more likely to be attacked by a shark than to be involved in a school shooting.*

I side with Everytown for Gun Safety when they define a school shooting as “any time a firearm discharges a live round inside a school building or on a school campus or grounds, as documented by the press and, when necessary, confirmed through further inquiries with law enforcement or school officials.”

The reason I use this same definition is because any time a gun goes off in a school, whether it is with the intent to directly harm students or teachers, an accident which happens because someone brought a gun illegally to school or an accidental discharge from a gun carried by school personnel, there is the potential for real harm to come to students. Whether that harm is physically from a stray bullet hitting a student–like in the case Castro Middle School in LA where a student brought a gun to school which accidentally went off and injured four people–or emotional from a child hearing gun shots in their school and worrying that someone is trying to shoot up their school, the potential for damage is still there and it is still great.

So while there have only been 7 intentional shootings at school during school hours–five of which resulted in injuries or deaths–there have been 10 additional shootings on campuses across this country, four of which resulted in injuries or deaths. According to many, these 10 shootings, which resulted in three deaths and four injuries should not be classified as school shootings because they didn’t take place during regular school hours with the express intent of causing injury. Of course, since four of those 10 shootings took place on college campuses, it’s harder to identify “school hours.” After all, students are on those campuses 24/7 and just because no one was injured doesn’t mean no one could have been injured.

People who are arguing against the label of 18 school shootings seem to want to downplay the reality of guns in schools because in some cases no physical harm was done and even in the cases when harm was done, it was often only to one person and often just an injury, not a death.

As a teacher, I find this idea appalling. The idea that anyone wants to downplay the mental of physical damage done by guns on our campuses is disgusting. Just because miraculously no one was hurt in some of these shootings that have gone on this year, does not mean we turn a blind eye and pretend they didn’t happen. Nor should we only count mass tragedies like what happened at Parkland as a school shooting.

The reality is that we have too many guns being brought onto our campuses. Each gun brought into our buildings, regardless of the intention of the person who brings it in, has the potential to do both physical and emotional damage to our kids. Rather than make semantic arguments about what constitutes a “school shooting,” we need to be addressing the bigger picture and making sure that our students and our teachers are safe.

*I did the research on this and according to National Geographic, the US reports about 19 shark attacks per year and has one fatality once every two years. This is an average for the last several years, but even so, so far there have been 23 people killed by shooters on school campuses this year and we haven’t even completed 60 days yet, so his logic is ridiculous.

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Teaching Tuesday: Snow days part 2

Thanks to the glory that is an e-Learning day (electronic learning), even when we have snow/ice days, my students still have access to all of their work and instead of losing a day and having to make it up on MLK Day or Presidents’ Day or Spring break, we get to count it as a school day and we don’t fall behind.

I LOVE the concept of e-Learning days. They are not always the most effective instructional days, but we can get some extra skills practice in and I don’t feel like we’ve lost much time.

My only complaint is that since snow/ice days mean power can go out or services can have interruption, students aren’t required to have all of their work completed until they return to school the next day. Now, if we miss a Monday and are back on Tuesday, that’s not much of an issue for me. However, we missed a Friday. And not just any Friday, the Friday before MLK Day, which meant my students got a 4 day weekend.

Now, I have no problem with my students getting a 4 day weekend. I got one too and was pretty happy about it. The only problem I have is that technically their material, which they should have had no difficulty finishing on Friday (since there were no power outages in the area) wasn’t due until Tuesday when we went back to school.

About half of my kids did the work on Friday. I was able to then grade it and feel pretty excited about having all of my grading done. However, as the weekend stretched on, only three additional kids did their work. The rest were waiting until the last possible moment on Monday (or even early Tuesday morning) to finish their work. So, instead of being able to use that extra time off to truly get caught up on grading, I had to wait and once again get behind on my grading.

Because if we had had a regular school day on Friday, all of their work would have been turned in to me and I could have graded it over the weekend, then come to school with a completely blank slate.

Instead, I got to start the week off behind (again). This is particularly frustrating to me because my own children got all of their work done on Friday.

If my 10 and 7 year old can do it, why can’t all of my 17 and 18 year olds?

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Teaching Tuesday: Grading over break

It may be the most wonderful time of the year for many people, but now that the holidays are technically over, I have to kick my grading into high gear. Yes, that’s right, along with visiting loved ones, opening presents and ringing in the new year, I have also been grading essays. Lots of essays.

Miraculously, I was able to get all of my Advanced Composition grades done before I left school for break. I decided to ignore everything else that needed to be graded in all of my other classes in order to get all of these grades finished. Unlike my Advanced Placement English classes, my Composition class is only called “advanced” because it is for seniors. We also have a plain Composition class which is for juniors. It’s more like Comp I and Comp II than anything actually advanced.

I like teaching Advanced Comp, but since it is a course that every senior at my school has to take in order to graduate, I get a wide variety of ability, interest and motivation levels in that class each semester. And that means it is always the class students are actually in danger of failing. And since those students are always seniors, I do my utmost to get their grades in as soon as possible so that students who do not manage to pass can be put into some sort of remediation to get them back on track for graduation.

Unfortunately, this year I had quite a few students who were straddling the line between passing and failing. For far too many their fate was tied up in their final. Thankfully all but two managed to pull it off. One of my kids passed with a 59.5%, but it still counts as a D- in our grading program, so thanks to the last minute effort he put in on his final, he did it. I was grading until about half an hour after the teacher dismissal bell rang, but it was worth it to walk out of the building with one set of grades completely finished.

That big push to get all my Comp grades finished meant a LOT of essays to grade for both my juniors and seniors in Advanced Placement English. Since these students are actually advanced and taking the equivalent of college level classes, the requirements for their essays are heftier, my expectations higher and the amount of grading is double my regular Comp class.

So far I’ve only managed to get two sets of finals graded. That means I have a heck of a lot to get done in the next few days. I have to make sure I have it all graded by Friday as I still have to leave some time for planning for the next grading period. While I may have the entire year sketched out, I don’t have the day to day for every class finished yet and that is what I have to get to work on. I have a feeling the next few days are going to be crammed with reading essays until my eyes start to cross and the words run together.

It is moments like this when I am reminded of the thousands of casual comments I’ve heard non-educators make over the years about how lucky teachers are to get so much “time off.” While I will absolutely acknowledge that there is a difference between having to get up at 6 am every morning, drive in to work, teach for a full day and then drive home, and the ability to schedule my work time when I want to do while sitting in my pjs and taking breaks whenever I want to, I’m still going to spend a large chunk of my “time off” working very hard to make sure my students receive the best possible feedback on their work as well as the best lessons I can put together for them.

My “vacation time,” is almost never actually a vacation. At least not like it was before I got into education or in that year I took a break from teaching to work at a book store and then in publishing. Any time I had off at those jobs was exactly that: time completely off.

While I wouldn’t trade teaching for either of those careers, I will admit that I do get nostalgic from time to time about having real vacation days.

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Free Reading Friday: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (almost)

Never weird on internetI feel the need to be perfectly candid about something upfront in this review: I love Felicia Day. Although not a “gamer girl” myself, I have been immersed in geek culture my entire life, so I relate to her in so many ways. It probably also doesn’t hurt that she was on one of my all time favorite TV shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, AND in my favorite web min-series Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, AND my favorite web series, The Guild. Although I was not overly enamored of her awkward character Vi in Buffy, I simply adored her as Penny and Codex/Syd. I’ve also loved seeing her on Supernatural.

So when I saw her memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (almost) in the display window of my school library, I texted our librarian (school was over at the time) and told her I wanted it first thing the next morning. By the time I’d hit my car though, I was searching the online public library to see if maybe, just maybe, there was an audiobook.

There was. And even better, Day reads the audiobook! I LOVE when author’s read their own works. You get so much more than their stories when they do. You get the emotions that go along with those stories. In a way, it’s like listening to a good friend tell their personal stories. Because the author gets to relive the experience, so does the listener. Not that voice actors can’t do amazing jobs reading audiobooks. I’ve hears some spectacular performances, but an author reading their own work always excites me.

Hearing Day’s stories in her own voice was brilliant. She made me feel just as awkward and quirky and uncomfortable as she felt in so many of her childhood stories. And that was perfect, because I could relate. While I was not home schooled, I grew up in a very strange household myself and I found myself connecting on a very real level with her tales of social anxiety and awkwardness. It probably helps that Day and I are almost the same age, so many of her childhood and teen obsessions were also mine.

I still remember my step-dad bringing home our first computer when I was in 5th grade and the hours and hours and hours I spent playing video games on it. It was so much easier to play those games than it was to deal with real people sometimes. Especially when I was getting ready to start my 5th school in 6 years. Computers were far kinder to new kids than the other students were. Especially when those new kids were a bit chubby, had glasses and were insanely good at school (and serious, serious teacher pleasers to boot).

As an avid attendee of events like Comic Con, I loved Day’s stories of meeting other celebrities because they are so relatable. It’s lovely to see someone I look up to and know I would get a little tongue-tied to meet have the same problems. Her story about going out of her way to buy donuts so she could offer one to Matt Smith (of Dr. Who fame) was hysterical. Considering that until I was in my late 20’s I was the only Dr. Who fan (aside from my dad) I knew, I could see myself doing something similar. Heck, when I met John Barrowman I almost lost my mind. I loved hearing that Day did the same.

I also truly enjoyed reading about Day’s process of staying true to her inner geek by creating her own web series and then her own geek company. I particularly found her message to young, geeky girls inspiring. I wish I’d had someone like her to look up to when I was the only one in my 7th grade homeroom who had seen every episode of Dr. Who and could name all of his companions in order of their appearance on the show. It would have been nice to be able to feel proud of that instead of worried someone would find out just how odd I was. It also would have been lovely to know someone else was writing Fan Fic before there was a word for it. Yep, that’s right, I had notebooks full of Dr. Who Fan Fic back in the 1980’s and early 1990’s!

One of the most interesting and important parts of the book is Day’s account of her experiences during Gamer Gate. After hearing stories like Day’s it is hard to believe anyone could possibly still believe Gamer Gate was not sexism at its ugliest.

I am so glad I read this book and have already recommended it to several of my students, added it to my AP non-fiction list and look forward to talking to students about it.

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Teaching Tuesday: Final Stretch Melt Down

It seems like every year right before break one of my students melts down in a pretty epic way. Sometimes it is over a grade. Sometimes it is over lack of time. And sometimes it is because they get caught breaking the rules and they freak out that I actually hold them accountable.

That’s what happened on Wednesday, the day before finals began.

The tantrum actually has a bit of a back story the Friday before. I was out with a sick child and as always left very detailed, very clear directions for my students. Like every teacher, I hate being absent from my classroom as that is when chaos breaks out. Even the most reliable students get squirrely when a sub is around. Those students who need quite a bit of my attention and redirection when I’m sitting right in front of them often act like it’s Lord of the Flies when a sub enters a room.

I wasn’t entirely surprised that right in the middle of my second block class I got an email from one of my students asking for clarification on an assignment. He understood the expectations, but several classmates were trying to convince the sub of something different. Unlike his peers who were being shortsighted and only thinking about that class period on Friday, he knew that when I got back and found they’d not followed my directions, there would be consequences and he wanted no part of that.

It was in this email exchange that he told me one of his classmates, who is generally good-natured, but has the attention span of a fruit fly, had spilled a drink in my classroom. This would normally not be an issue as I have plenty of paper towels in my room and several kids had already grabbed them and were helping to clean. However, for some reason I still cannot fathom, the young man who spilled his drink decided to go behind my desk and break into my teacher cabinet, assuring the sub that he was sure I had cleaning supplies in there.

I don’t.

And my cabinet was locked, so break in is the right phrase. He yanked my cabinet hard enough to pull the lock and got it open. He then grabbed a can of Static Guard and caused even more chaos trying to clean up his mess with it. The sub finally got everyone calmed down, the can back in my cabinet, but could not get my closet to close again as it was now broken.

As soon as I found out, I emailed the vice principal because as harmless as the kid usually is, I draw the line at breaking into my cabinet for any reason. Students know they are not allowed behind my desk and definitely not in my cabinet, which I keep locked even when I am in the classroom. It’s where I keep my purse and my newspaper equipment (including an iPad, digital cameras, Flip cameras, etc).

The vice principal agreed he’d gone one step too far, especially considering he was also failing my class so badly (due to work he’d never done and 15 absences) that he could not pass my class. She was supposed to place him in in school suspension for the remainder of the class. However, he was absent on Monday, so she assured me she’d talk to him upon his return.

But he didn’t return on Tuesday either.

On Wednesday we were rushing to finish up project presentations, so although I saw him in my classroom, I didn’t want to cause a fuss at the start of class. I wanted to get through all the presentations and then send him to see the VP.

Before I could do that, he pulled out his cell phone in the middle of class and started texting on it. My school has a strict no cell phone policy during school hours. Teachers aren’t even supposed to see cell phones sticking out of pockets or being used as music players. Students are definitely not supposed to be texting in class. If we see their phones, we are supposed to either send them to ISS or if they hand over the phone (which we give to the administration), they can serve a detention instead.

I am a rule follower. And, I’d had two other cell phone violations in my classroom where I’d clearly followed the policy. I knew that even though I didn’t want a scene, I had to follow the policy in order to be fair to all of my students. He refused to hand over his cell phone, preferring to take ISS. As I was writing his pass to ISS, I expressed my disappointment that he would have his cell phone out, especially in light of his behavior on Friday when he broke into my cabinet.

He didn’t even let me finish talking before saying, “I do what I want.”

I thought I misheard him, so I said, “excuse me?” Confusion filled my voice.

He responded quickly, “Did I stutter.”

At that point, I took a deep breath and told him ISS was no longer an option and that he’d be going straight to see the VP. He told me he didn’t care and that he didn’t have to listen to either of us. He then waved his hand dismissively at me and walked out of the room.

He definitely got his ISS wish as he spent the remainder of the school year in there. While his absence definitely made the final two days calmer and easier for me, I hate the fact that he chose to do something so foolish.

While I know not every student enjoys school, I don’t understand why students don’t want to do the bare minimum needed to get by and graduate. I already knew this particular kid wasn’t going to graduate (and not just because of my class), so I can’t help but wonder if he felt he had nothing to lose by being rude to me during the last few days of class. I also find myself wondering how successful he could have been if he spent even just a tiny bit of his energy in a positive way.

I also find myself contemplating what will happen to him in the next year or five or ten. I realize that failing one high school English class or even failing out of high school may not spell disaster for every kid out there, as there are still jobs that do not need even a high school diploma, I can’t help but wonder what will happen if kids pull the same attitudes on bosses that they do on their teachers.

On days like last Wednesday, after I get over the initial upset of the situation, I try to take a deep breath and remember something one of my mentor teachers told me, “life is a wonderful teacher.” Maybe I won’t be the one to teach a student how to achieve, but my hope is that someone out there will be able to get the message across. My guess is that for students like the young man in my classroom, those lessons may be very painful and may come from sources I’d rather they not, but my hope is eventually that someone gets through to them and they get their lives back on track.

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Teaching Tuesday: Retro pay

Due to laws that I do not even pretend to understand, bargaining for teachers’ contracts cannot formally begin in Indiana until after September 15th. For those schools on a standard school year, this means that bargaining for salaries and benefits cannot begin until about a month AFTER school has started. For schools on a balanced calendar, like mine, that means that bargaining cannot begin until school has been in session for 6-7 weeks.

For 4-7 weeks, teachers must work on a status quo contract, meaning everything from the previous year is frozen in place. There are no pay raises, even for those rated as the most highly effective. Teachers who are hired in brand new to the corporation can be hired in with extra benefits and bonuses, but those established teachers who have returned for another year have to start off financially with everything the same as it was the year before.

To make matters even crazier, negotiations for the new contract do not have to be finished until November 15th. So that means that in some school corporations, like mine, teachers will have been working for as many as 15 weeks on last year’s contract.

For a variety of reasons, my school was not able to settle our contract until the November 15th deadline. Even on that day, last minute fixes were being done to it. It was a serious mess.

The good news is that once the contract is ratified, schools then have to compensate teachers retroactively for the year. Teachers don’t actually lose out on any bit of their pay increase. Nor does the pay increase simply get applied to the remaining 18-22 pay checks.

Once the contract is agreed upon, teachers get retroactively paid for those lost weeks before and during negotiations. While this can be a bit of a drag at first, if usually means at least one check that feels like a really nice bonus, even if it’s really just pay back for what you’ve missed while you were working.

Unfortunately since my district waited so long to work out all the contract details, our retro pay fell on the same payday as our extracurricular pay. Although many teachers do get small stipends for extracurricular work we do (coaching, sponsoring clubs or academic teams, etc), the law says those extras cannot be paid monthly, but rather distributed once in the fall and once in the spring, depending on the activity. For activities that take all year, like yearbook or student government sponsors, teachers get paid half of the stipend in the fall and half in the spring.

Our fall stipend pay usually falls the first payday in December and our spring stipend pay usually falls the first payday in June. Yeah, I realize those are really winter and summer dates, but accuracy in titles isn’t the real concern. What is a concern is how heavily our paychecks were taxed. Although it was all money owed to us for work we’d already done over the last 15 weeks, one or our paychecks looked categorically huge in relation to all the others and got taxed at a different rate.

Now, I’m not complaining about taxes. I understand their purpose and pay mine with little complaint as I believe in the betterment of society. My complaint (and it is a smallish one), is putting all that “extra” money on one pay check, therefore forcing hardworking teachers, who are already underpaid to pay higher taxes on money that was ours but simply being withheld from us due to rather arbitrary negotiating dates. My district could have done it in two separate pays, but decided not to.

Sure, it’s really nice to have that extra big pay check right before the holidays, but it would have been even nicer for it to be spread out among two regularly taxed checks.

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Teaching Tuesday: ISTEP is the bane of my existance

I know, I know, I have complained and complained and complained about standardized testing lately. It probably seems like I’m exaggerating or making the proverbial mountain out of a molehill, but I swear I am not. Standardized testing is a horrible blight on our educational system. Once again, it is actually keeping me from effectively educating my students.

I’m not even going to go into the many ways in which the ISTEP graduation exam is a shambles of a test. I realize that it is our current reality (until lawmakers who have never been educators tire of it in a year or two and throw something else at us) and therefore am doing my utmost to just cope with the nightmare of it. However, currently the ISTEP is a test sophomore take in March and then again in April. Why they take two different sections of it, I have no idea. I don’t teach any sophomores, so my life shouldn’t be impacted by this test, right?

WRONG!

I teach a small number of juniors and since we had a crazy number number of juniors fail the test (about 50%), there are a lot of kids who have to retake the test. Now, I know, that 50% sounds horrible, right? Actually, about 65% of our students passed the English portion of the test and about 50% passed the math. Still sounds bad, right? Well, considering that only 31% of students in the entire state passed both sections of the test, we’re doing pretty well at my little school.

But I digress.

Of the 40 juniors I teach, only 4 of them failed the math section of the ISTEP (none failed the English portion). However, because they did not pass the math section, they had to do remediation for the test, which meant they missed two days of my class back in October. In addition, since retesting started this week, they also missed my class yesterday morning. And they would have missed my class today as well, if we hadn’t changed our entire schedule to accommodate the juniors who have to retake the test.

That’s right, we changed our entire schedule for half the junior class. Because the test scores are so important to our school letter grade and our “success” as a school, we changed the schedule for almost 1400 kids to help fewer than 200.

Our schedule is completely topsy-turvy. Today instead of coming to 1st block, my kids started the day in 2nd block. And, instead of it being an 84 minute block, it was 120 minutes. However, 1st block, which was the second class of the day was only be 60 minutes. Tomorrow, we are starting the day in 3rd block and finishing it in block 2. My second block class happens to be filled with kids who are in our work study program, so they only go to school until 11:30 and then they leave to go to work. So half of my class will be missing on Wednesday, but I still have to go on with my lessons. On Thursday those kids will only be in my class for 45 minutes instead of the scheduled 75, because on Thursday we go to block 4 first…for two hours.

Not only do I think kids will not be able to keep it straight, but they are going to be missing vital instructional time two weeks before finals begin. And none of those students have to take the ISTEP. They are all seniors who had a completely different graduation qualifying exam when they were sophomores.

I wish politicians and lawmakers could see the actual daily struggles teachers go through in order to make room for all of these tests in our curriculum. Most days it feels like the test matters far more than actual learning.

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