Category Archives: teaching

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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Teaching Tuesday: Fall break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Free Reading Friday:The Pretender

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

It’s also lead to some real stinkers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Teaching Tuesday: Finals week

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

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

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

First I have to make it through finals though.

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Teaching Tuesday: Sub plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I came back to…UGH!

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

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

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

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

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

 

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