Monday, March 19, 2012

Record breaking temperatures. The last week before spring break. Adolescent hormones.

'nuff said???

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Things to do before I retire....

Maybe it's because I'm having a tough year... maybe it's because I am getting old ( or have gotten old...).... but retirement has suddenly zipped onto my horizon. I always said I couldn't imagine retiring, I was going to teach for forever, or at least until it was no longer fun. I honestly couldn't imagine my life without my job. Thanks to a variety of reasons, I am rethinking those statements and considering my options. I even went to the state retirement website to look at the calculator for benefits! I couldn't log in because I don't have a user name and password, but I started the process. Will I do it soon? probably not.... but for the first time in my career, I am considering my options.

As I consider the reality of retiring, I am thinking of all the things I want to accomplish before I actually leave. What footprint do I want to leave behind at Tahquamenon Area Schools? What do I want to be remembered for here?

  • a lifelong learner, an embracer of new knowledge- I want my students to remember me as someone who learned alongside them, someone who was enthusiastic about what we were learning and was willing to learn new ideas with them. I want to be remembered as someone who embraced new ideas, tackled the tough tasks thrown at them, and was willing to admit when I was wrong and learn from those wiser than me.
  • a positive attitude - It is easy to get sucked into the 'woe-is-me' cesspool so I hope that overall, I am remembered as someone who stayed clear of the turmoils that impact education, at least in my classroom, and did not let those negative thoughts and attitudes impact teaching and learning in my day-to-day existence. I want my students to remember me as someone who greeted them at the door with a smile and a positive outlook and sent them on their way with a sense of accomplishment and purpose, a feeling they can go on to do great things.
  • caring and generous - I became a teacher because I enjoyed working with kids, and as time went by, I discovered a particular alliance with middle schoolers. I hope to have imparted this sense of self on my students, so they know that always, I did care about them, not just as students, but as unique individuals, with their own strengths, shortcomings, and interests, giving them unconditional love and support along their journey.
  • the ability to change and think on my feet - Life seldom falls into neat, tidy little plan books. I hope my students remember me as someone who went with the flow, embraced the teachable moments, and didn't get rattled when things went off course. I hope they learned how to let the things that don't matter fall by the wayside, and always focus on the goal at the end, the big picture, instead of letting all the little piddly irritations get them down.

I started this post yesterday but ran short on time, got busy with something else, and forgot to finish it last night. When I opened this morning and read my list so far, the first thing I noticed was there was nothing content related in my list. Does that mean I don't want to leave my students with more subject matter knowledge than they came with? NO! Not at all, I just think there are more important messages I want to stay with them. If they forget where Madagascar is, they can look it up online. If they forget how to find the area of an octagon, I sure google will help them. But I think there are more important things I can teach them than just the hard dry facts... things that will last them a lifetime, beyond algebra, beyond world history, beyond writing a memoir.... things that will help them embrace the challenges they are certain to find along life's path. THAT'S what I hope they remember.... THAT'S the legacy I hope I am leaving in my wake as I think about retirement.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Another long and frustrating day, which seems to be the norm lately.....

2nd hour geometry leaves me overwhelmed. The multitude of steps to remember to solve the problems, with their ever increasing complexities, are simply too much for many students to remember. When you are still struggling with the basics, the trig functions themselves, basic algebra, understanding/remembering a triangle's angles add to 180 degrees, etc.... Trying to use the apothem and perimeter to find the area of a hexagon is simply too much to tackle. But the reality is, these kids MUST master it, and master it by the end of the marking period, the end of the course, whatever. It is a constant uphill race of information slamming into them, day after day and I feel inadequate to help them, as the hill grows ever steeper and the pace quickens.

3rd hour - For the most part, we've finally found our groove and the work gets done. I can manage to keep zipping from student to student, prodding, pointing and keeping them going. I can keep them on task and working towards their goals for the day in most cases. Of course, there are always exceptions... the one girl who is worried about her upcoming hearing for probation, and the court ordered community service she will be doing. The other young man who got in trouble at home so is now grinding his pencil to a stub into his table.The one who won't/can't open his book to the correct page without constant supervision. The other one who is several assignments behind in several classes for a variety of reasons, but is suddenly wanting to get caught up so needs everything RIGHT NOW. The one who needs help with systems of equations but struggles to balance a 1 step equation. The one who is mad because he lost his computer privileges. The one who brings nothing to class and refuses to go get anything. The one who is researching Alaska for a project on the Iditarod, but thinks she can simply google the questions and find the answer, so that is what she does - and writes whatever pops up in google on the first link as her answer. The one who needs help with every single worksheet question of his history assignment. The one who left early because he was throwing up. AND, AND, AND..... our groove we've found in Guided Study is more like a razor blade riddled rut. But we're making it....

4th hour - Compass Learning for math should be easy. But again, one issue after another crops up. Either students click, click, click.. as fast as they can through a lesson, take that darned quiz at the end and are done... or they refuse to wear headphones, refuse to even try... or they spend the hour belching and farting, trying to be irritating as possible to those around them. I would honestly rather TEACH them math than do it on Compass. It is such a waste of time. Maybe when a motivated high school student is using Compass for credit recovery, and has some vested interest in their own success, maybe it can function as an alternative math program. But for this group, it is largely a waste of time. The only advantage I see is students are at their own level, instead of me trying to meet them in the middle somewhere and having them all floundering. I know that Compass is an individualized program but unless students are individually motivated for success, the chances of success with it are nil.

I'm just tired of the games, tired of the no accountability on the part of students, parents, anyone but me, for their success. I am one person. ONE PERSON. I cannot make them learn. I cannot make them want to learn. I cannot make them come to school. When they are here, I can try to help them, try to encourage them, try to find ways to individually spark their interest in learning. But my magic wand is out of fairy dust, long out of fairy dust.

Friday, March 09, 2012

The Met Life Survey of the American Teacher was recently released with the graph to the left included in the report. The report is full of interesting information but this graph spoke volumes to me personally. 2008 was probably the peak for me as far as job satisfaction, as well. It has plummeted since then for a variety of reasons.

My biggest source of personal frustration with my own situation comes from budget cuts which have eliminated our middle school progam. For years, our middle school was top notch, with top notch teachers who did wonderful things for kids. Then, due to budget cuts, we started getting whacked apart. We lost our principal. Now there is a K-6 principal and and 7-12 principal, who both run back and forth between buildings, but neither of whom spend the majority of their day with middle schoolers. This impacts behavior, discipline, instruction, curriculum, and most of all, morale. We lost programs that made middle school students feel safe, secure and valued. We went from a community setting where we were a family, where we supported each other, where kids felt a sense of belonging, where test scores were the highest in the district (That IS what school is all about after all, isn't it??).

Now our test scores are in the toilet, kids are out of control, content is sketchy at best, teachers are tired and frustrated, feeling unsupported in their efforts, and no longer does middle school seem like "It's Great to be in the Middle" which was our old motto and way of life.

We are take some of the blame for sure. When our last principal left, the last middle school principal... he left us with a story about each person holding onto their stick, reluctant to put it on the fire, and as a result, everyone froze to death because the first went out. I honestly think we all DID give up our sticks, tossing them onto the fire, trying to keep us all warm, trying to maintain what we all valued. But eventually, we all ran out of wood, and the fire died, and so have our spirits.

I spend more time running, chasing, trying to deal with ridiculous issues than I do teaching. I spend time trying to make kids care - kids that don't care - kids that have missed 30+ days of school, kids that are suspended for poor choices, kids that know they will always fail, kids who spend a large portion of their day in the hall or office kicked out of classes. I am not educating them. I am herding them. I deal with threats, accusations, bullying, insubordination, lying, etc... much more than I do with actual academics.

Do I still make a difference in the lives of students? Sometimes, I think I do. Other times, I am not so sure. I feel like I am so out of touch with their realities, I am forging my own new reality instead, for me and for them.

Another teacher commented that we've all become just a check off on their sheet that says all the boxes are filled in. It isn't even just special ed bean counting anymore that feels that way, it's across the board. We're just names to fill spots, no big picture in mind of how it should all fit together to best meet the needs of students.

Does it all come down to budget issues? I'm not sold on that excuse. I think we just make decisions that make it easy for adults, not really concerned with how those decisions impact our students. We put teachers in spots to fill the schedule, instead of looking at our kids and where their needs truly are. Schedules are complicated, no doubt, but creating a good schedule that works IS possible.

Will teacher satisfaction continue to decline? I think so, unless things change. It is easy to focus on our own school, our own situation, but I find it sad and telling that the issues exist across the board. We need to reclaim our schools, reclaim education, reclaim our students' futures. The question is, who is leading the revolution??

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The 'move' has been almost as treacherous as I imagined in many ways. In other ways, I guess we've survived. But tomorrow, we get to pack up and go back HOME and we will all be relieved.

Day one - one of my students got so stressed out, he ended up going home before lunch. Another was so tense he walked out of every class all day, upset about something not going the way it should go. Others were on edge, snapping at me, other kiddos, over nothing, anything, everything.

Between first and second hour today, I ran into a middle schooler on 2nd floor of the high school looking for Spanish class. "WHERE IS MR. WHITEHOUSE'S CLASS NOW?" she yelled. I pointed her up to third floor. She responded, "WHY IS HE UP THERE? HE WAS RIGHT HERE YESTERDAY!" I laughed and shooed her upstairs where he had been all along.

Lunch time, the one normal time of their day that hasn't changed, still was a bit weird it seems. Yesterday, I scooted through the lunch line but was snagged by several girls who needed to vent. I sat with them while they ate. This morning, another girl who'd seen me there yesterday, begged me to come eat with her today. I agreed to meet her at lunch. Unfortunately, she got in trouble before lunch and had to eat in solitare in detention. I promised her tomorrow....

The internet in the room I am sharing in the hodgepodge schedule works sporadically so Compass math was a nightmare. But thanks to our great tech person, we today had ethernet cords. What a HOOT! I don't think the kids ever realized you can get online like that. We huddled around the hub all attached, with them AMAZED at how fast their connection suddenly was with a cable linking them instead of air :)

So there... we are going to make it ... I think! We only have to survive the morning. A science assembly in the afternoon and then moving HOME :) YAAAYYYY!!!!

Monday, March 05, 2012

Stupid decisions abound in education.... no debate there. We try something new, it works, it doesn't work, whatever.. we move on. The next 'great' idea, we hop on board that train and on to the next station we journey.

But once in a while, an idea so stupid comes along that I am just speechless that we try it.

This week our high school juniors will take the ACT/MME tests Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Of course, those scores are important for them as they apply to colleges, and they are important to us as a school district because funding and teacher evaluations are now so closely linked to test scores. Wwwwoooohhhhooooo....

SO NOW, someone has decided we will disrupt the ENTIRE middle school to allow the test takes to test in the middle school instead of on 3rd floor of the high school as has been done in the past. (forget that we don't afford the same concern for any other level of test takers in our district... ) So for the upcoming 3 days, middle school teachers will be shuffled to various rooms in the high school, scattered from 1st to 2nd to 3rd floor. We will haul students and their locker contents over there last hour today. Oh wait, there aren't enough lockers to accomodate all of them so some of their stuff will be stored in a classroom. And for the next 3 days, students will mingle with high schoolers between classes, trying to remember their new scheduled class locations. Teachers will try to haul everything we need to our new classrooms, some of which are being shared by staff with staggering schedules, trying to make sure we have everything we need to help our students be successful these next 3 days.

Let's not forget that middle schoolers by nature like routine, fairness, things that make sense and are logical. Let's not forget that we have many kiddos with ADD, ADHD, OCD, and other anxiety issues. Let's not forget that even a 'normal' middle schooler has days they forget which locker is theirs, or who their 3rd hour teacher is.

Today will be spent touring the high school, learning where rooms are, moving their stuff to their new locker, which they may or may not get, which they will be sharing with another student... trying to cram books, winter coats and boots, all into a locker too small for one, much less for two. The next 3 days will be chaos with us and the high school on different lunch schedules, tramping back and forth annoying each other. Many teachers are abandoning routine lessons in favor of movies or other "keep them busy" activities. Then we will move back. A week of instruction lost for 6th, 7th and 8th graders.

I hope for the juniors it is a great experience. Test scores will be higher than ever before and college scholarship offers will flood the local post office. In the meantime, these poor middle schoolers are stressed beyond stress. And the teachers aren't much better....

Thursday, March 01, 2012

It's been a crazy crazy CRAZY past week. I have been out of my classroom for 5 days in a row. Last Thursday I was at Project PRIME training, a math program to help teachers with the transition to the Common Core. Great stuff. I am totally geeked about the rest of the program.

Friday.. just an allergist appointment scheduled long ago..

Monday - School Improvement Team meeting, in house, looking at data, looking at where we need to head as we try to realign curriculum, trying to make decisions as we start the shift to the Common Core.

Tuesday - morning PBIS session working on our ODR forms for discipline referrals and our matrix of expectations. Then we left at noon headed to the Common Core Institute in Detroit.

One of the most difficult parts of living in the UP is how far it is to anywhere. Driving 6 hours to a conference just seems ridiculous. But that's the way it is. I won't go into all the excitement we had, though it would make an interesting post.. maybe another time.

The conference was Wednesday. The one obvious component was it was not put on by the State Dept of Ed but by a for-profit organization out of Illinois. They were trying to sell us their packaged program.

Lots of information, lots of good information... lots of overwhelming information.

The most interesting thing to me was the approach they suggest to make the shift to a curriculum driven by the Common Core rather than our current one which is supposed to be aligned with our state standards. Any other time I've done curriculum alignment, we've taken what we do now, and tried to see how it fits with the new game plan.

According to this model, no.. we need to start with the Common Core Standards and work backwards, plugging in things we have that fit, rather than the other way around, trying to make them fit.

What a concept... WHAT A CONCEPT. Honestly, how often have we gone about it the other way around, stretching to make our favorite lessons, the tried and true we already do, fit the direction we need to be going.

NO, we need to analyze what we SHOULD be doing and work backwards. We need to critically think about how to meet those new standards, their rigor, their depth of understanding of the material. If we have somethings in place that work, great. But we have to realize that we may be digging for new things, recreating/redesigning what we already use, because chances are, we are not going to be able to just slide those lessons into the new plan.

I am overwhelmed considering the magnitude of the task ahead of us, but I am also geeked at the possibilities of this blank slate we have been given to restructure our teaching to best meet the needs of our students.

Did I drink the Kool-Aid?? for their canned for purchase program, no, not at all. There are many resources online available for free for us to use to snag, adapt, use to fit our needs.

Did I drink the Kool-Aid for the Common Core Standards themselves?? Big time.. I am excited to be a part of this movement to increase student engagement and learning. I'm terrified of the process and the impending doom of trying to get everyone on board. I am terrified to think of the massive changes we need to make and the fact that the success or failure of our efforts will have an impact on my paycheck. But I know the direction we are headed, to a more individualized approach to learning, to a more in-depth level of understanding of concepts, to a more engaging educational experience for students, is the right direction to head.

Will it be easy? No. Rarely is something worthwhile easy.

Will it take twists and turns along the way? Probably. But it will be a learning paradigm shift for educators as well as students. Drink the Kool-Aid with me!!