Thursday, July 29, 2010

I Think We Have an Issue

Today one of the girls in my summer school class was wearing a tee shirt that proclaimed her mother "BEST MOM HANDS DOWN."

I told her that it was cool tee shirt, and she growled, "I hate this tee shirt!" I asked her why, and she said, "My mom bought it for me. I hate it!"


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Shared Love of Music

My summer school students amazed me today. I was nonchalantly chatting with them during our lunch meal and one of them asked me what music I liked. When you bring up music with me, you have opened a floodgate o' love, excitement, and enthusiasm, so I said I liked it all.

I discovered that either all, some, or at least one of them knows and likes the Beatles, Vicente Fernandez, Toby Mac, AC/DC, Hank Williams Jr. (but not Sr.), Aerosmith, Reliant K, Lady Gaga, the Newsboys, Johnny Lang, BB King, Eminem, Mana, Trisha Yearwood, the Who, Elton John, Queen, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis (but they didn't know his last name), the Bee Gees, Sheryl Crow, Gloria Estefan, and Jars of Clay.

Quite a variety. However, they do not know anything about classical music. They have heard of Beethoven but couldn't tell me much about it other than it was "symphony music." Almost every artist I mentioned had someone in the class who had heard of them and were able to give me proof by mentioning some of their songs or by naming the title of a CD.

I am impressed.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Poem in Your Pocket Week

It's funny how some memories stick in your head and won't let go.

Every year the elementary school where I taught had a "Poem in Your Pocket Week." Students would have to wait for a teacher to ask them if they had a poem in their pocket, and if a teacher asked and they did have a poem in their pocket, the child would then reach in, pull the poem out, and read it to the teacher. Most of the poems were written by the children, and children seemed hopelessly stuck in the "make it rhyme" rut, and consequently many of the poems were dreadful. Nevertheless, the teacher would then reward the student with a "Poem in Your Pocket" slip that they would rush to the office, drop in a big box, and at the end of the day a couple of names would be drawn from it and those students would each win a book of poetry.

Many, many years ago I asked a little girl if she had a poem in her pocket. She enthusiastically said yes, quickly pulled out a piece of paper, and then proceeded to make a Broadway production out of carefully unfolding it, holding it up, clearing her throat, and then distinctly reading this poem:

"Now I lay me down to rest.
I pray I'll pass tomorrow's test.
But if I die before I wake,
That's one less test I have to take."

Then she looked up at me and gave me a melt-your-heart grin. I asked her if she had written it, and she replied that she had copied it from a book, but could she have a "Poem in Your Pocket" slip anyway. I gave her three slips, and at the end of the day listened for the announcements hoping to hear her name. She didn't win, despite complicity on my part.

I still remember her name. I think I always will.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Two Conversations

Today I had two separate conversations with two very different mothers about their daughters, both of whom are my students. Considered separately, the conversations may be trifling. However, considered together, they raise many questions, including what is the effect of the inexplicable relationship between parents and children and can anyone really understand the enduring, philosophical question of nature versus nurture.

One daughter is a handful of trouble. Her low academic scores are coupled with an insatiable desire to be the center of attention despite the social and instructional costs to herself and everyone else in the classroom. I finally met the working mother on her day off, and we chatted. This was my opportunity to give the mother my concerned opinion of her daughter which I had been assured the mother had heard many times before from previous teachers. It was going to be a tough conversation. The mother began the conversation.

"How's my daughter doing?" she asked.

She asked, so I replied, "I had heard she was a handful. Other teachers told me that she never pays attention and could be very distracting to others in the classroom. I am finding this to be true because I can never get her attention regarding the subject we are studying, and she constantly tries to change the conversation. For example, we will be working on a math subtraction problem about how many marbles does your friend have after losing some of them. Your daughter will change the subject by saying, 'I have an uncle who collects marbles and he can bring them to class if you'd like so we can all see them.' I have to interrupt her to get her to quit talking about marbles, and I then I am unable to get her back onto the math problem at hand. All she'll want to talk about is her uncle's marble collection."

The mother broke into laughter and chuckled, "That's my little girl. She is so clever and funny!"

The next conversation was with the mother of a child who is one of the brightest students I have ever taught. Her high academic scores are matched only by her perseverance and dedication to the task at hand, coupled with a self-criticism that eliminates the need for me or any teacher to get on her case. Her mother began the conversation.

"My daughter is drivin' me crazy. Sometimes I think she is on another planet, or in another world, or just plain brain damaged! If I didn't know her and just started watchin' her, I'd swear she was mentally handicapped!"

"Well, you may think that because at times she is a little scatter-brained, but she shows all of the symptoms of a highly intelligent, wonderful girl, and you are truly blessed. Don't worry about her. She is going to be a successful person someday. She already is, for that matter."

"Well," she wearily replied, "she'll only grow up to be successful if I don't kill her first."

I am not in the mood to contemplate and then pontificate about these two conversations for you, the reader. You can do that yourself and come up with whatever thoughts may enter your head.

I will say that those are two very different reactions to two very different daughters from two very different mothers.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Learning Disinterested

I may be a cold-blooded, ruthless, unsympathetic human being and a merciless teacher, but I sometimes suspect that certain students are not "learning disabled," and we underestimate children when we label them as such. Perhaps advanced schooling is not their forte. Perhaps neither is "book l'arnin'."

However, after reflecting on the behavior and attitude of many summer school students over many summers, I cannot help but get the notion that some children are not "learning disabled." They are "learning disinterested."

This pedagogy is no longer the prevailing notion in our country. Instead, the school is at fault and the system as a whole is blamed for students' lack of interest because the curriculum is not presented in a way that sparks their imagination. I am not saying every teacher and their class is exciting; I am positive many are boring. I've been in them, and I made decent grades in those boring classes. I have taught those boring classes, and interested children made a good grade in the boring classes I taught.

What about the ones that don't? There are many wonderful, "learning disabled" children in schools today who will grow up to be productive members of our future society, but that doesn't alter the fact that they have no interest in math, language arts, or social studies. Even exciting, hands-on science activities quickly become a game, a distraction, from the actual learning of scientific vocabulary and the eventual ability to speak abstractly about or conceptualize the exciting, hands-on activity.

In many cases low academic scores come from a lack of communication skills. Too many children do not have the advantage of listening to adults speak to each other, of joining in on their conversations rather than dominating them by changing the subject, and of listening to adults who have a large vocabulary and are unafraid to use it in front of children. Lacking the ability to clearly understand the language spoken in the schoolroom, the student flounders, human nature "kicks in," and the student is very unwilling to speak up about their lack of understanding.

This is not a research-based, academic paper. I used anecdotal information and records to come to this conclusion. One of the more powerful pieces of anecdotal information is the look on many of my summer school students' faces when they listen to me or anyone else talk about the curriculum. The word lethargy comes to mind. Also narcolepsy. However, if someone gets up and talks about their vacation to Six Flags, their faces light up. That's only natural; so does mine. What bothers me is their complete inability to even act interested and their ensuing inability to learn the simplest of curriculum.

I don't want to accept the fact that their brains are ineffective in such a way as to prevent them from learning. I do not believe their brains are damaged. I believe that many of them are "learning disinterested."

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Speak No "H"'s

I overheard a conversation between two fourth grade boys today. Actually, I eavesdropped. What they were saying was secretive and not meant for adult ears. I was in close enough proximity to overhear every word, yet astonishingly, they continued to talk, and it was about a topic of immense interest to me. I immediately stopped whatever inconsequential thing I was doing, perked up my ears, leaned in as inconspicuously as possible, and overheard this exchange:

"Yeah, I can trick 'em. I do it lots of times."

"I like to get sick. If you get sick early enough, they let you go to bed and rest."

"I'd rather be in the bed than do homework."

"Yeah, me too."

"I just write stuff down most of the time."

"Doesn't your teacher get mad?"

"Nah. She doesn't even look at our homework. I just write stuff on the paper. It doesn't matter what. She never grades it or nothin'."

"I got a trick for you that works every time, but don't tell anybody."

"I won't."

"This works every time! I never say a word that doesn't have an "h" in it. Homework starts with an "h," so I don't use any words that start with an "h." That way they don't even think about homework. They won't say nothin' about it."

"Wow! I'll try that."

Friday, July 16, 2010

An Off-Color Anecdote and a Nugget of Information

One of my favorite expressions that I ever heard and one that I will remember and cherish until the day I die was moaned by a twelve year old boy on a basketball court. Daniel, a behemoth of a fellow, threw a baseball at Glenn when Glenn was too busy yacking away and making us all laugh. He was good at that, and unbeknownst to him, he was about to achieve comedic immortality. The throw was low and smacked Glenn right in the ol' genital area. Glenn collapsed to the ground and tried to do what all boys do when such a tragedy occurs: you only breathe out, and you do that in excrutiatingly tiny exhales. Everything must be done very gently for at least five minutes, and you do NOT want to breathe in. Breathing in means increased pressure on the "sea bottom cavity," and thusly, increased pressure on the scrotum. Breathing in also means continued life, and at that moment, all desire to exist vanishes in a blinding fog of pain. After breathing out for about forty-five seconds, Glenn was heard to moan these words: "I got two balls in one socket."

I'm still laughin' about that. Of course, I am still about as mature as a twelve year old boy. Just ask my wife, Peggy.

In case you are wondering why I started this blog entry with that story, well, first, this is a blog about kids, and I was a middle schooler at the time. Secondly, it was a way of introducing an upgrade in the slang term for the male testicles. For years they have been referred to in foreign languages (e.g. Spanish: cajones), as squirrel food (nuts), gems (family jewels), or sporting equipment (balls).

The new term, as overheard "around the campus" is "chicken nuggets" or simply "nuggets." So if you hear your son or, heaven forbid, your daughter, referring to an item on the McDonald's menu, there is a good chance it is "naughty language," especially if it involves sucking on the nuggets, rather than actually chewing on them. I just thought I'd mention it. I mean, I am an educator, and this nugget of information is educational.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Have No Fear, Blog Ideas Here

I am teaching middle schoolers this summer......fifth graders who, through a lot of fault of their own, find themselves in summer school.

I was concerned that being older and more mature, middle schoolers wouldn't say those little cute things that fourth graders say, and I would lose my source for those cute blog ideas I get from fourth graders.

Have no fear. Blog ideas here. In one short week:

Summers school students tend to suffer from all the worst academic behaviors that students can have. One of them is the tendency to NEVER raise their hand in class. I had a student hurt themself while raising their hand. I heard their hand smack their desk and saw them wince in pain and cry out, "Oww! Ow. That hurt." Maybe with more experience..........

Me: "I want you to be able to know for yourself and be able to tell someone else what you learned in school today. What did you learn in school today, Sam?"
Sam: (spoken with a dazed look): "My parents go into the bathroom a lot."

Summer school students also tend to lack experience answering questions in class. Case in point:
Me: "Abel, make a sentence with the word although."
Abel: (after quite a long wait time as I patiently waited for his response): "My older cousin is one year old."

Me: "Abel, I have warned you many times to keep working. I will have to make you do your work during recess if you don't quit playing around in class. Do you want to lose your recesses?"
Abel: (looking up somewhat confused): "Yeah. that sounds great." (The entire class breaks out into nervous laughter)
Abel: "What's everybody laughing for?"
Me: "What do you think I just asked you?"
Abel: "You asked me if I wanted pizza for lunch."

Saturday, July 10, 2010


For those of you who consider yourselves horrible housekeepers, just think what it'd be like if you owned a one room house with about seven hundred square feet of living space. There is no kitchen so there are no dishes; everyone eats out. There are no bathrooms so no clean-up there; everyone potties somewhere else. There are no bedrooms so there are no beds to make up; everyone sleeps somewhere else.

However, your children spend five and a half hours a day, five days a week in your one room house. Oh, and one more thing. You have twenty-six kids, all the same age.

That is the formidable job a custodian has at a school. A great custodian does a splendid job, but they do have limited time to spend in your classroom. A lousy custodian means less clean-up. This leads to a subsequent build-up of chalk dust, dirt, grime, grease, sludge, droppings, drippings, oozings, excess mucus overflows, the creepin' crud, boogers, excretions, vomit, and germs that children instinctively propagate in such immense numbers so as to "get the most" out of their immune system.

For my classroom I would like a GEBLAT (GErm BLAcklighT) or a UGERG (Ultraviolet GErm Reveal Gun) that when turned on in a room makes all the chalk dust, dirt, grime, grease, sludge, droppings, drippings, oozings, excess mucus overflows, the creepin' crud, boogers, excretions, vomit, and germs glow-in-the-dark. I don't want a UGERG so I can see the germs. I want it to see the spectacle of light that would outclass our city's 4th of July fireworks display.

I also want a special germ eliminator. I picture something like my bug sprayer that I use around the yard to exterminate bugs. However, this bottle would be filled with Agent K'vorkian Yellow or some other such product that would really knock those germs dead. Maybe something like an antiseptic, low-heat flamethrower that would burn up the gricky stuff without setting fire to any of the papers. Or how about a chemical warfare gun that could shoot out build-up killing gas. Maybe a special fire extinguisher hose that would come out of the wall except it'd be a germ hose and would shoot out some kind of secret Amway product that mystifyingly antiseptizes everything, and you just hose the place down.

I mention this because the summer school I am teaching at has a lousy custodiam. Like I said, a lousy custodian allows certain things to build up over time.


Monday, July 05, 2010

From New to Old

The first impression I have of my new position as a middle school math teacher has nothing to do with the students being slightly older, for I haven't met any yet. It isn't even my new principal or my new comrades-in-arms. Instead, the first noticeable change is architectural in nature. I have transferred from a very new school in a recently built suburb to one of the oldest schools in an already old, well established city. I have moved from an unused, bright beige, low-ceilinged, recently built school with modern fixtures and features to a well-worn, darker, wood adorned, architecturally bygone era.

The ceilings are flat cathedral, designed before air conditioning. I am on the second floor, and the ceilings are so high that the first floor alone shoves us at least fifteen feet in the air. There is a grand view out the huge windows that permit air and sunshine to enter and they cover the west walls of the classroom, and outside are huge oak trees that provide shade for the students and a habitat for squirrels and reportedly, an owl. The outside of the entire school is also impressive, as if the architect was not as concerned as modern Americans about financial requirements when paid to design it, and his clients were not as concerned about the cost to build it.

I have already heard multiple stories about Jackie Chan's recently released film that has my new, old school as the set in a few of the scenes, and everyone on the school staff and all the middle schoolers got to meet Jackie Chan. The school is photogenic, but they touched it up with CGI.

There is one drawback to my new, old classroom. A huge shaft runs from floor to ceiling in the outer middle of the room. The first thing I thought of when I saw this monstrosity embedded in my classroom was an image of twelve year olds screaming, grunting, and running around it until finally one of them was brave enough to touch it, as in the scene with the monolith in the movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey."

It also looks like it could be the chimney flue for the fireplace in Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane," but what is it doing crashing through the middle of my classroom, fer cryin' out loud? I'm not teaching at Xanadu.

It also looks like it could be a hyperthermic pressure release tube for the core of the Earth, and I expect every minute or so to hear the geological equivalent of Mount Vesuvius rushing through the monster and releasing its sulphuric hellfire upon the innocent victims shading under the oak trees just outside the window.

I quickly surmised that it was built as an air duct for the luxurious air conditioning (evaporative cooler) for this wonderful old building, and the only way to go to the ceiling above the second floor classrooms was to run it through what is now the center of my students' learning environment. My first decision upon seeing my room was to spend a lot of time designing a seating arrangement where no one, and I mean no one, is allowed to hide from me behind the huge shaft.

I have made a change, and the first advantage is the architecture of my work environment. I even like my monolith, as long as it doesn't turn out to provide an "Invisible Zone."

Friday, July 02, 2010

O Plumpy, Plumpy, Wherefore Art Thou Plumpy?

I was in that-store-I-ethically-wish-I-could-avoid-but-oh-my-gosh-the-groceries-were-undeniably-cheaper, and they had Candyland on sale for four dollars. That is definitely almost a garage sale price, with the bonus of not having to substitute the red gingerbread man with a thimble from a good-for-parts-only old Monopoly set.

I put it in the cart, and removed something of equal value (so I didn't get up to the register and have to go all Debra Winger on the cashier), and hurried through the rest of my shopping (seriously, when you are there it is called shopping?) to get home to play the game with Jake and Olivia.

You see, we have extremely fond memories of Candyland (Jake and I), as I am sure you all do. We played it all the time with my BF Tracy and her daughter. The four of us would sit on the floor in the living room of her castle outside of Florence. And the castle part is where the romanticism ends. Because no one on this entire planet--trust me on this one--ever hated, reviled, feared, and ultimately destroyed, Plumpy more than my BF Tracy's daughter, J.

We have one of the episodes on video for posterity. J and Jake are four, and as we are playing the game, J is so completely positively sure she is going to get Plumpy (who, we all remember, sends you back to the beginning of the game) that she cannot even wait for people to take their turns. As Jake draws a card, she beats her little hand on the ground to compel him to move it, move it, god move your piece so that I can just take my turn and draw the little monster.

Of course she drew it; she often pulled it from the deck. My memory wants to promise you that she always drew it, but always is a dangerous qualifier and I do not want to exaggerate. She would sigh, make an angry look up to the ceiling (I so wish I could make that face for you now), and move back to the beginning. Hours after the game was over (with clearly a victory having gone to either Jake, Tracy or me), we would be rounding out a perfect afternoon with some neighborhood gelato. If asked how her treat was, she might say something like, "It's good." A long pause would follow with "But I had Plumpy." My BF Tracy would seethe, internally furious that her child was permanently destined to see the half-empty.

Apparently other children also hated getting Plumpy, because after we pulled off the shrink wrap, Jake gleefully rubbing his hands together to watch Olivia fall to the wrath of the Plumpster, we opened up the board and saw that in the place where he used to lurch, there was a cheerful Gingerbread Tree (wth?) who--the rules promised--sat there waiting to "welcome" all children. OH MY GOD, we are so afraid of our children's disappointment that we removed Plumpy? We now need to convince them that it is fun to go visit the Gingerbread Tree, moving to the beginning of (and inevitably losing) the game?

J was not defeated forever by the evil plum. She grew older and clearly empowered; one day she simply took him from the box and tore him into tiny pieces. She is today an accomplished student, with a stunning ability to rule a soccer field, and wins awards for community service and creative writing. A few years ago, I cruelly lovingly decorated her locker in a Candyland theme and made Plumpy into a magnet to tease her; I know she eyed him suspiciously every time she reached in to get a book.

Olivia has the same middle name as J, and therefore prophetically she drew the Plumpy-Wanna-Be Gingerbread Tree Lady. She hated losing. But she luckily missed out on Jake's and my personal favorite part of the game-from-the-old-days: the cheering, gloating Victory Dance we always performed when J flipped her card over to reveal Plumpy. Sigh. Good times, good times.

The game is certainly now made in China; perhaps they stopped printing him because purple doesn't require significants amount of cadmium like the other colors. Just know that our round of play yesterday was not the same, and I can guess what you are thinking--but I swear, it has nothing to do with the fact that we were no longer playing in a castle in Italy.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Peers' Thoughts On My Transition From Elementary To Middle School

I have just accepted a seventh grade math teacher position at a middle school, or what may be commonly referred to in your town or city as a junior high school. Most of my fellow elementary school teachers consider me "loco" in allowing myself to be put in such close proximity on a daily basis to a modern-day, American teenager. Here are some typical reactions from my fellow elementary school teachers after being informed that I was switching to middle school:

"You're kidding me, right?"

"You're what?!"

"Why do you have to do that? ( a pause while they listen) You mean you volunteered? This is what you wanted?"

"Aren't you scared a little bit? I'd be scared."

"Are you serious? (a pause while they listen) Oh my God. You are!"

"You haven't met my son."

"May God help you."

"What in the hell are you thinking?"

"You haven't met my daughter."

"But they're crazy at that age. They're absolutely out of their minds. Trust me on this. They're nuts!"

"Do you know what you're doing?" (a pause while they listen) "No I don't think you do." (another pause) No, you don't."

With a stunned, incredulous look on their face...silence.

"Well, you can always come back to elementary school when you realize what you've done."

"You obviously haven't met my thirteen year old son."

"Oh my God! I'd rather die."

"Great...No really. That's great. Somebody has to do it."

"Are you out o' yer mind?"

"I've heard teaching sixth and seventh graders has its advantages. You can say anything you want to in class, even cuss words, and they won't turn you in because they're never paying attention."

"You haven't met my fourteen year old 'drama queen.' "

"I've taught high school and elementary school, but I would never teach middle school."

"I have two teenagers. They are drenched in hormones and I want to kill them but I can't.

"My daughter's seventh grade language arts class had a student who threw a chair at the teacher and she had to go to the hospital for facial stitches."

"Will you be teaching at that middle school where the kids drove the substitute teacher crazy and she tied up one of them to a chair with duct tape?"

"They're hiring at my son's middle school because one of the teachers retired early."

"I don't think you're going to make it."

Are they correct? Have I naively and foolishly committed an act of voluntary stupidity? "Lost in Kids" will slowly reveal the real truth.