Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Today Reminded Me Of Why I Do This

You can't ever really predict how well a lesson will go. You can pretend: you can rehearse in your room, plan to use a timer, plan all your questions and objectives, print your handouts on colored paper, and go over and over your plan in your head thirteen times. But the plain fact of the matter is that sometimes it works and sometimes it just doesn't.

But today? Today, it worked. And really, I'm not even that sure what I did. But it did, because today was awesome. It was a bright spot in an otherwise fairly hellacious week for me (in my personal life, at least) and I really needed it to remind me why I freaking love what I do.

It all started with an article.

See, I was scoping out the New York Times opinion section for some persuasive articles to use for an APEL activity on Tuesday (that also went well, actually) and came across this article. I almost used it for that activity, but ended up using it in Speech and Debate instead. But then I decided to use it for APEL today as a warm up. To be honest, I wasn't really sure how well this article would be received. It's mostly logos-based with some ethos thrown in, which I knew my students would understand and appreciate, but even I was unprepared for the sheer number of nuances ready to be discussed by a room full of inquisitive and opinionated juniors.

We're working on rhetoric and argumentation, so I won't go into everything they had to do with it before we discussed it (hooray for the Toulmin model), but today was without a doubt the best discussion my APEL classes have ever had. Kids that almost never participate were practically falling out of their desks trying to have their voices heard, and though some of what they said was just completely weird (such as suggesting an organ harvesting machine that would allow the inmate to remain alive whilst the organs were extracted ... ick), it was just the best thing ever. I'm sure that for most of the discussion, I just had this huge beaming smile on my face (well, when I wasn't hiding behind my cardigan at some disgusting suggestion) because I love it when they're smart. Well, they're always smart. I love it when they embrace it and let their guard down and really dig deeply into what it means to be human and live in this world with other people. I would have let them keep talking the whole period -- and they would have been able to keep it going -- if I had had the time to spare. They kept coming up with new facets to the conversation -- and I was even able to work in a connection to Antigone. (This blew their minds. At which point, as we moved to the next mind-blowing activity, I told them to cram their minds back into their heads so they could be re-blown.)

But today's discussion -- and the following activity -- reminded me of why I love being a teacher. I love seeing them vulnerable. I love ripping into a moral dilemma through some kind of text and pushing kids to see both sides and hold them up next to each other and see that the answers aren't as clear as we'd like them to be. I love listening to kids think on their feet. I love watching kids' arms wilt as they wait desperately to share a thought that has occurred to them. I love poking their small experiences with the sticks of my not-much-bigger experiences and forcing them out of their comfort zones. I love that I get to teach English, this beastly monster of a subject that also allows me a wide latitude to throw an article in their face, under the guise of looking at how the article is built and what makes it effective (which we also discussed) when ultimately my true purpose is to spark critical thinking. Hold it up. Look at it. Tell me what it is. Tell me what it isn't. Tell me something else. But what about this? Or this?

Teenagers are smarter than we give them credit for in this overly-tested educational life of theirs, and somehow, this article, weird as it is, struck a chord with them and they just absolutely burst into a kind of nuanced thoughtfulness that you can't predict. You can't model. You can't capture. It just happens. And I just feel so blessed and lucky that this was my day today.

Today was magic. Pure, unpredictable, productive magic. And I hope they felt it, too.

And, amazingly enough, my sophomores just added to the magic by embracing the vocabulary story competition activity that worked so well two years ago, but fell completely flat on its face last year (... last year's sophomores ... ::shakes fist:: ). They were so focused (you know an activity is going well when your timer goes off and EVERYONE begs for more time).

Essentially what I did was have them, in groups, write a vocabulary story using as many vocabulary words as they could from their 90 from the semester. They needed to use at least 10, but every extra word added is extra credit. And, to make it more interesting, I told them that I would have someone in my life -- mom, brother, boyfriend (and boyfriend becomes a very distracting word to use in a sophomore classroom. ::facepalm::) -- to read them. This year's kids did what my students two years ago did: they asked GREAT questions about their audience. What does your mom like? Where did your mom go to college? What about your boyfriend? Do they like pirates? Ninjas? Star Wars? It was completely and totally hilarious and awesome. And the stories are priceless. There was even a Charlie Sheen story. Winning!

And then they didn't completely fall apart when we got to Antigone. They're getting it, it seems. They discussed when I asked them to discuss, they answered questions. Overall, really, it was just a really rather awesome day.

And now, it's 8:15 pm and I am completely and totally exhausted but I am just still feeling so completely and totally happy that today was such a career-affirming day.

I really needed it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

March Madness. And Not The Basketball Kind.

So, for those of you not exactly in the "know," March is pretty much the worst month of teaching. We were discussing this notion at lunch today: how every. single. year. we all forget that March is just a giant epic suckfest of awfulness because the kids are restless, we are restless, the yearly state tests loom, Spring Break seems so awfully far away, and there are no holidays, assemblies, or any other breaks in our routines. So, yeech. Which also means that I have the life sucked out of me every day just trying to wrangle all of my students and not actually kick them. Or yell at them. Because that's just too exhausting.

There have been many posts I've been meaning to write. One about Chelsea. That will happen when I'm in a better, less negative headspace. I want that one to be more positive. One about standardized testing. But I'm way, WAY too hopped up on standardized test-driven ire to make that one come out in an articulate, meaningful, and objective way. So I think the direction in which I will head relates to last Monday's Daily Show where Jon Stewart added his voice to the now-politically-correct, new American past time of teacher bashing.

As was this part. (These were just two clips split up, but are part of the longer intro segment.)

But many of the clips of "legitimate" news stations shown were not so much poetry -- well, okay, perhaps poetry, but the kind of lame, sad, acrostic poetry a second grader might make for their dad on Father's Day. THAT kind of poetry.

But there was one moment of that particular clip show that has stuck in our heads and made us angry. That's right. Angry. And that is the notion that teaching is nothing but "a part time job."

::pause for effect::

Um. Really? Part time? ... Really?

Later in this post, I'll do a little math to demonstrate that this is horribly, terribly, awfully, ridiculously, pathetically untrue that is, but first, here's why fighting these kinds of misconceptions can be frustrating and troubling: it can often be really, REALLY hard to combat them when you do actually have to concede to the following two facts:

1. Teachers get summers off.
Well, okay, first of all, that depends a lot on your district, or even your school within your district. We have six high schools in our district and one of them is actually on a modified year-round schedule. Several of my friends are on year-round or modified year-round calendars and do not, in fact, get months and months and months of the summer off. And to add insult to that misconception, many of the teachers that I know that do teach through the summer do so without air conditioning in their classrooms, a luxury that I'm sure is afforded to this so-called political pundits sitting in newsrooms.

However, sure, I must concede to the fact that I have the summer off.

But does anyone ever ask me whether I prefer it that way?

Because honestly, I don't.

Actually, I'd much prefer to be on a year-round calendar, and most teachers I know who are not currently on that system would love desperately to be on a year-round system. Our traditional school calendar, where we start in August/September and end in May/June is just as antiquated, irrelevant, and outdated as a lot of what we still do in education, and I will be the first one to say sure, hey, take away my eight, nine, ten weeks of summer if it means that I might not only be able to have more frequent, regular vacations like the rest of the working world, but also, I might be able to do some awesome teaching that would actually stick because it wouldn't go falling out of students' brains while they sit at home and play Modern Warfare for hours at a time while their parents are working.

Plus, as an additional but no less important last thought, I worked my ass off this summer and didn't get paid for it. I rearranged and reorganized my classroom for two weeks before school started in panicked fear about the forty-plus class sizes I was looking at. And I'm really, REALLY glad I spent that unpaid time in my not-yet-air-conditioned-because-it-was-still-summer classroom because otherwise, I have no idea how I would have survived even the first two weeks of school. I also modified a ton of curriculum, heaved boxes and boxes of books home and revamped quite a bit of stuff to accommodate for increased numbers of kids and the sheer anxiety of having to grade that much. Oh, and there was the 8 hour day Andrea and I spent at my house planning out our APEL year. And we didn't get paid for that, either. Billable hours, what?

2. The school day ends at 2:30.
So, this is what is technically true for me, though I know other schools in our district end at 3:05, 3:35, etc. It just depends on the buses. (Really. The buses dictate everything related to time in the district.)

But yes. The students leave at 2:30.

Except they don't leave.


Today I had a line of at least seven students and it took me until almost 3:15 to get through all of them. While neglecting my after-school Speech and Debate class, which I teach Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 2:30 to 3:30. Then sometimes, even they don't leave. They want to stay and chat. Discuss their homework. Their lives. Ask me, the English teacher, for help with physics. (It's true. And I can actually help them. But that's sorta kinda besides the point, except, really, in the grand scheme of things, it's not besides the point, because I'm freaking amazingly well-educated and can ACTUALLY teach things I'm not NCLB certified to teach. Weird, huh? Anyway, I digress...) But they're a chatty, needy, hilarious, annoying, weird, quirkly, lurking bunch. And so though it seems like those claiming I work a part time job assume that all of our students Apparate home at 2:30, it's really not the case. At all.

We also all have email these days, so technically, my work day never ends. I mean, I guess I could be one of those teachers who only checks my school email while physically at school, but that's just not my reality. I'm available to my students via email, Facebook, and, this year, through Google Voice, which allows them to text me with short, simple questions if they're struggling. So, actually, I'm never really off-duty unless I make the mental choice to be. Or unless I leave my cell phone out of audible range.

And then there's the grading. Oooooh the grading. And the lesson planning. And the balancing of a life on top of that. And the grading.

These days, my lesson planning generally amounts to a few scribbled post-its and scrounging around on my various computers for the handouts I know I have so that I can look at them, modify if necessary, and make copies.

But sometimes, I get into a fit of "THIS DIDN'T WORK LAST YEAR I NEED SOMETHING NEW!" and will spend four, five, six hours at a time trying to devise a new lesson, and building a lesson from scratch ain't easy, folks. It requires figuring out objectives. Materials. Rehearsing so that you can figure out timing. Talking to yourself. Deciding how best to deliver the content. Making a Power Point or chart or overhead if necessary.

And heaven forbid you decide you want them in groups and THEN decide you want to pick the groups for them, because then you have to decide whether you want them in heterogenous groups, which usually means the poor, hardworking, good kids are going to have to limp the struggling kids along, even though you'd like to hope against all hope that a heterogeneous group will be what helps the struggling kids become unstruggling kids by listening to and emulating their peers, but let's be honest: this is high school we're talking about here, or in homogeneous groups, which usually means you get to spend a period ignoring the top 75% of your class and hovering over the two or three groups of kids all now piled together looking completely lost and befuddled and trying to explain to them, in small chunks, what you expect of them.

AND THEN, when you make that decision, you've now resigned yourself to at LEAST a half an hour (but usually more) of going through your class lists and trying to arrange the groups to your liking, but really, you're never going to do it right because someone always hates someone else, and someone can't work with someone else because they've gotten in trouble with them, or so and so just broke up with so and so, so they can't be in the same group, and after an hour, you really just want to throw the materials in the middle of the room and let them go at the assignment Lord of the Flies style to see which of the strong will survive.

And then there's the grading. Oh the humanity. I think if you ask a lot of teachers, especially English teachers, you'll find that many of them had some kind of TA experience as a young kid where they feasted on the power trip that was grading other students' work. We lurved it. It's powerful, dangerous, intoxicating to edit an essay with a red pen or grade a multiple choice test and hack away at the wrong answers like they've personally offended you by getting it wrong.

Except, it's only fun when it's not your grading. Grading your own stuff sucks, because you have to learn from the grading. Grading is not a passive thing. Grading, especially of an essay or dialectical journal or really any student writing, is an active, incredibly cognitively challenging adventure in...

* mind-reading: ("did the kid really mean that? Oh, wait, no, I see where they were going with that, but how did they get there? oh, they were looking at that quote... they must not have seen the rest of it. But ...oh, okay, this paragraph is about that! Oh! ... hmmm. That wasn't a very good topic sentence. Oh, but here's their evidence. Hmmm, I think they're trying to say this, but I think ... oh, okay, I see what they did there..."),

* handwriting deciphering (is that a k or a t? ... What the heck does that say?! Oh... it just says "flock" ... hmmm.),

* and lesson planning ("OMG, NONE of these kids got that answer right! What did I not teach this year? How come no one has discussed that quote we talked about in class? Oh, wow, these kids really don't know how to select effective evidence. I need a new lesson. Wow, and this batch of essays really missed the whole idea of weaving... I need a new way to explain that").

Not to mention that it's disheartening to look at a ginormous stack of essays on the edge of a table and realize that in an hour, you've graded three of them.

Keep in mind, too, that this grading doesn't happen during the school day. Oh no. Sometimes my friend Summer and I like to joke that our work gets in the way of our work -- that being an English teacher wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the pesky teaching part. Then we could spend our days at work at our teacher desks, basking in the glory of the grading. But we can't. We have to teach. Teach our asses off. For a new breed of kid called "technology native." So the grading has to wait.

Seriously, if I only graded during the "free" time I had at school, none of my students would get anything back EVER. First of all, there are too many distractions. Second of all, it doesn't give me the focus I need. And third of all, there's just too much of it to try and eke all of it out in the piddly 57 minutes I have of a prep three days a week. ... and if I graded, when would I photocopy? Do paper work? Meet with administrators? Meet with other teachers? Clean up once in awhile? It is absolutely, unequivocally, completely impossible to get everything I need to get done achieved during my 7:30-2:30 work day. It's as simple as that.

So yes. The bell rings at 2:30. But then my real job begins. And it isn't pretty.

Part time job? In case the grading aspect hasn't convinced you that I don't, in fact, work a part time job, here's a break down of my week last week, in terms of hours:

Monday: Arrived at school at 6:30. (And work begins immediately.) Left school at 3:30. [9 hours]
Tuesday: Arrived at school at 6:30. Left school at 3:45. [9 hours, 15 minutes]
Wednesday: Arrived at school at 6:30. Left school at 6:30. (Yes. That's not a typo. 12 hours. It included regular teaching, Speech and Debate, a fairly-epic department chairs meeting, and then room arranging/cleaning/planning/prepping) [12 hours]
Thursday: Arrived at school at 6:30. Left school at 3:45. [9 hours, 15 minutes]
Friday: Arrive at school at 6:30. At 2:30, dashed to my car to beat the parents out of the parking lot and headed to Carlsbad High School for the Speech and Debate State Qualifying tournament. I was there from about 3:30 until 11:00, actively engaged in helping to run the tournament. I got home around 11:30. By my reckoning, that was a 17 hour day. [17 hours]

Let's see. I might be an English teacher, but my ability to do math tells me that all total, my work week last week was 56 hours and 30 minutes. Oh, and that was just the time I spent "on duty."

You know, at school.

Around people.

Or actively preparing my classroom or self to teach.

And, pretty much every single one of those days, I went home and also did something work-related, whether it was:

* grading 90+ Gatsby quizzes, 80+ Julius Caesar Final Essays, and 90+ Gatsby Dialectical journals,
* planning my Promising Practices presentation for March 19th (my name's not there yet as a presenter, but I am indeed doing my first official county-wide teacher presentation),
* worrying about my Speech and Debaters performing in Poway's Got Talent on Friday night (while I was at Carlsbad with my other Speech and Debater),
* emailing kids and/or parents and/or other teachers when I didn't immediately respond during the day
* editing handouts and revising lessons for upcoming class sessions.

Part time job? ... I might get paid like it's a part time job, but it's not. It is an all-consuming, sometimes soul-sucking, often awesomely-rewarding, passion-driven, exhausting, frustrating, never-ending calling.

At the end of the day, it's not really a job at all.

It's a lifestyle.

And there's no such thing as a part-time lifestyle. It's all or nothing.