Monday, August 31, 2009

A Dell's Demise

I love technology. If I could find a computer that would brush my teeth for me, it would be mine as soon as possible.

I love technology in my classroom. Every yearly plan since I started teaching has included awesome variety of lesson plans using software, blogs, typing programs, movie making, and a list of websites that almost rivals Larry Ferlazzo's. Just kidding. Nobody rivals Ferlazzo.

Here's the problem: my computer is about to crash. It's SOOOOO slow that it took me 30 minutes to print 3 seating charts from Excel today. No, not to MAKE the seating charts. Those were already done. To. PRINT. them. You know, select the cells, go to the page setup, fit to 1x1, print, OK? Yeah. 30 minutes. Seriously, I'm already making funeral arrangements - do you think white carnations are too passe?

I'm preparing for the inevitable by saving EVERYTHING on a flash drive AND uploading it to Google Docs in order to make it as non-panic-inducing as possible, but when THE CRASH happens, I'll be stuck. I probably won't get another computer, even though there are a bazillion new computers sitting in the district warehouse, because the school budget can't cover it. It really doesn't help that more than half our staff has suffered the loss of their computers in the last year. (All of these machines are 5 or 6 year old Dells. Surprised?).

When teachers lose the use of their computers, we have to spend the rest of the year (and possibly the year after) using machines from the laptop carts that were SUPPOSED to be for student use. Of course, these laptops were bought at the same as the teacher computers, so they're no better than what we have. This practice leads to days like today, when I was planning on using 18 machines from a cart...and I ended up with 6 kinda-sorta working computers. So much for teaching students how to use technology. How much can they learn when 6 kids are crowded around one ridiculously slow machine?

I won't even start on Dell chargers, except to say that I will NEVER EVER EVER buy another Dell because of how terrible their chargers and power supplies are.

I'm tempted to go get myself a netbook (can't afford anything more), but will it run the Promethean software for my board? Can I even GET that software? Of course, the district won't allow me anywhere NEAR the wireless internet with my own machine, which means I'll have to haul out my Big Ol' CAT 5 cord (I'm already asking for a 50' CAT 6 for Christmas). Besides, I was promised a teacher laptop when I signed my contract, and golly-gee-willikers, I think I should have one that works!

Which brings me to another point: The district won't let us do FREAKING ANYTHING to our computers. I can't install or uninstall software, even programs that are horribly outdated behemoths I never use. Not a chance!!! I can't even change basic options, like Power Management configurations. All of those awesome videos and free software resources? Not a chance! You might download naughty things and show them to all the poor innocent young children!!! They've locked down the machines "for our protection," but what good does that do when I've STILL managed to get the DownandUp virus? In order to get anything fixed on my compuer, I have to put in a work order and hope that CreepyStalkerGuy comes to fix it. By the way, CreepyStalkerGuy knows less about computers than I do, and I took the majority of my computer classes before 2000.

So, sorry Scott McLeod. You have awesome ideas to go with your strong opinions but, unfortunately, neither does me any good. I had the best-laid plans for my students to collaborate online, communicate, learn and grow and become part of the global community. Instead, thanks to the idiocy of our setup, the only thing my students know about technology is how frustrated their teachers are.

Photo Credit Kevin on Flickr Creative Commons

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Photo credit Delicious Monster on Flickr Creative Commons.

The Baltimore Sun published an article today about looping, that ridiculously underused and highly successful strategy in which a teacher stays with the same students for more than one year. The article highlights just a few of the advantages of looping, and someday I'll write more about my own observations.

But today, I write about one of the difficulties of looping. You see, unlike a circle or a super-cool infinity sign, a loop eventually ends. Like a roller coaster, it has it's highs and lows, and sometimes your hair stands on end, but eventually everyone gets out and goes onto the next ride.

My students are entering 8th grade this year. In 180 school days, they'll be entering high school. They look more like adults and think more like rational human beings. The little mug shots I took in 6th grade to try to learn their names aren't even useful anymore, because they've changed so much. They've finally learned my name and no longer tap my back and call me "teacher" any more (not that I miss that!).

Have I taught them enough? Will they make it in high school? Will they get a spot in the ever-shrinking freshman class? Will they get the scholarships they need? Will they be good enough people to make it through life doing good instead of making dumb, harmful mistakes?

Will I ever forget them?

Photo credit Steve_C on Flickr Creative Commons.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cockroaches, Workbooks, and Plans. Oh My!

Although I told my loving and tolerant husband that I would stay home today to do housework, I spent the entire day working in my classroom. The darling man forgave me, and even came to the school on his lunch break to eat with me. And to help me move a bookshelf (but he didn't know that part until he got there).

Even better, he moved a stack of boxes for me when I discovered a play group of fat little roaches underneath them. I'm not a wimp, but hey, I was wearing sandals!

I used to stomp on cockroaches. When I moved into my classroom, I discovered that the teacher before me had oh-so-kindly left her centuries-old Special Ed materials in my classroom. ALL of them. Now, this classroom has amazing storage space - the entire back wall is lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves that are at least two feet deep - but her junk, I mean, precious irreplacable resources, took up most of the space! I threw out what I could, but come on, I had just moved 2,000 miles and started a new job. By the time I was exhausted with cleaning, her stuff only inhabited 1/4 of my shelf space.

I lived with it for way too long, but toward the end of that first year, I decided that we'd have a Class Cleanup Day during Advisory. Each of my thirty 8th grade students had a job to do, and those wonderful angels hauled the rest of that **** to the dumpster for me.

And uncovered a NEST of cockroaches in the closet beside the shelves.

Did you know that roaches build nests? Neither did I. There had to be at least 100 roaches, all in a swarm, some dead, some alive, some mutating into a super-cockroach species that would have taken over the earth if my kids hadn't stomped on them. And stomp they did! On of the girls, a kickboxer, jumped into the fray with reckless abandon, stomping with such fury that the other kids backed off for fear that she might mistake them for her prey. When the battle was won, she calmly wiped the sweat from her forehead and went back to her seat, leaving her classmates to scoop many dustpansful of aftermath into the trash can.

For the next year or so, I tasked my students with stomping on the buggers and disposing of their carcasses, but then I realized how smushy and gross they really are, so I reached and agreement with the little nasties.

Before I get a piece of chart paper, move a box, or in any other way subject a cockroach to sudden light exposure, I'll make some noise and rattle things. In return, they'll run the other way, doing their best to keep their presence hidden from myself and any other humans in the room. It works for us.

So today, when my loving husband shifted the box and heard the scrabble of a bug fulfilling its end of the bargain, he looked at me in panic. I could just hear his thoughts. "She's not really going to ask me to squish those things with my wingtips, is she? Please?" Imagine the look of relief on his face when I related to him the terms of my agreement with the roaches! He didn't have to go through his afternoon appointments worrying about bug guts on his cuffs!

Tomorrow, I get to find a home for the hundred million extra workbooks that my dear principal keeps bringing to my room. Note: this principal actually lifts and carries things himself, rather than calling and shouting through the speakerphone that I need to come to the office and get them as quickly as possible.

After the workbooks have been placed in loving family situations (or shoved into the amazingly spacious shelves), I need to continue with the Planning of the Lessons. I've just discovered that my wonderfully high-tech classroom blog, that I was going to use for everything from literature circles to grammar review to classroom connections with other students, is BLOCKED by our ridiculous "Websense" program, so I have to find another solution. I could put in a request to have the website unblocked, but that would require interaction with Creepy Stalker Tech Guy, and it's just not worth it.

Sorry friends, but Creepy Stalker Tech Guy is another story for another day.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The time it takes to do simple tasks

30 new sixth grade students.

40 minutes.

1 timeline assignment.

Create a timeline.

Place 5 events from this list on the timeline.

Think we finished it?

Think again.

Why does it take so long to accomplish simple tasks? Even my least-needy class, the ones who could fold a piece of paper in half without asking me to check and make sure they did it right, was agonizingly slow in gluing the three pieces of paper together to make a long strip.

My instructions were clear and carefully sequenced. My supplies were ready. My tools were adequate, with the exception of a couple of rulers made by idiots who didn't think to make the quarter-inch lines slightly longer than the eighth-inch lines.

And yet, in 40 minutes, the class just barely managed to read the directions, glue-stick the paper, draw their lines, and label century increments.

So, tomorrow, I'll spend another hour showing them how to place 5 events on the timeline, create sketches to accompany 2 of those events, and write 3-6 sentence descriptions of two events.

Will they finish in an hour? Probably not. But we're going to try!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The world is right again

Some yearn for the pitter-patter of little feet, but I look forward to the rustling of paper, the tapping of pencils, and the chattering of kids trying to find a solution.

New student orientation began today, and suddenly my classroom seems more familiar. Even with the awkward silences (oh, we're supposed to do that now?), the kids who can't fold paper into thirds (no, that's not a basic skill!), and the general sleepiness from those who haven't seen 8am for several months, the day went amazingly well.

Some of the kids were really funny. The first one I noticed was obviously a little sister of one of my former students; they're almost identical! Of course, big sister didn't have the best attitude (she actively tried to make my life miserable!), so I had to silently tell myself all day "she's Little Sister, not Big Sister. Let her be her own person. Assume the best. Lather, rinse, repeat." We'll see how that goes.

There's also Super-Student and her sidekick, Super-Planner. When I told them that they'd need to bring notebooks to class tomorrow, she looked around the room, raised her hand, and asked, "where will we keep them? Our desks don't open like the ones in elementary school." Super-Planner also approached me during the break to ask if they had to pay for lunch during the school year. Why can't all kids plan ahead like this?

Super-Student distinguished herself during the Scavenger Hunt, one of those annoying icebreaker activities. Kids had to find classmates who had broken a bone, travelled to another state, you know, the usual. Some of the questions asked who could explain content they should have learned in 5th grade. Well, Super-Student was the only one who could add decimals and name the Vice President of the USA. She might meet her match, though, when All-Around-Good-Guy gets a little less nervous!

Of course, we also have a My-Mom-Is-Forcing-Me-To-Come-To-This-School, an I'm-Too-Cool-For-This, and several of the Is-It-Morning-Already? genre. Who am I going to meet tomorrow?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Tamales, Julia Child, and the Obligatory Education Connection

Yes, it's 11:30 Friday night. Please make whatever comments you will about my social life, and then continue reading.

Beside me is the latest Time magazine, open to a review of Julie & Julia. On the TV, Alton Brown uses an ice cream scooper and a dinner plate to assemble tamales. In the kitchen, my husband is cooking up a late dinner. I don't know what it is, but I smell onions. I love onions.

I can't help thinking about the process of cooking and the process of education. I haven't seen Julie & Julia, but both title characters seem to show that cooking is about more than just providing nutrition. The first photograph of Meryl Streep/Julia Child tenderly frosting a cake, as well as a later shot of Amy Adams staring down a lobster, both depict a distinctly human ritual.

On Good Eats, Alton Brown consistently demystifies the creation of classic foods. He never fails to present foods in a way that makes me say "oh, I can do that!" Brown's episodes on pasta have forever changed the way I see (and eat!) spaghetti, and I've learned to take more risks and make dishes that I always considered too complicated for my limited cooking skills.

Here's where I get anxious. Tonight's rerun shows how absolutely simple it is to make tamales.

Simple? Not according to my friends and students, who have described with exaggerated gestures and eye rolls, the rite of passage that is tamale-making. Adults laugh about their grandmothers who didn't entrust them with filling the tamales until their quinceaneras, kids describe the clatter and organized chaos as they watch over the enormous pots, and everyone develops a glazed, far away look when describing Thanksgiving dinner.

Even our simple cooking-for-two has become an important ritual. My husband and I have developed our own favorite recipes, especially our sweet pasta sauce with slow-roasted tomatoes, that is unlike anything you can find in a jar. For us, dinner is a gift from one to the other, and we find joy in making each other's favorite dinner. Someday we'll teach our own kids exactly how to sift the fresh-ground pepper with the powdered sugar, when to add the garlic, and a million other little tricks we've discovered.

But what happens in this world where I can click to Youtube and find step-by-step instructions for making amazing paella? Does watching a 30-minute segment of Good Eats replace abuelita'scareful instruction? Are we missing something with our online recipes and Food Network specials?

How does this translate to education? The fast-paced world of standardized testing and intense pacing guides seems to prevent real learning. Teaching is a balancing act in a whirlwind; Alton Brown at best, but fast food at its worst.

What would Julia Child education look like? Are we missing a vital ritual?

But I'm out of time. My wonderful spouse has just brought me a plate of farfalle mixed with his own special sauce, which appears to include carrots, mushrooms, celery, and parmesan. He must love me!

The Once and Future Teacher

Summer, glorious summer, that Avalon of the teaching profession, that sinking out of sight of the rest of the world, doing who-knows-what until who-knows-when...

Except that we do know when. Monday.

I can already feel myself rising out of the mists, gathering my knights and sword (also known as my books and USB drive), throwing open the doors of my classroom for every lover of truth and justice.

My plans aren't finished, I haven't accustomed myself to rolling out of bed at 5:30 in the morning, and my wardrobe is in sad shape, but time marches on. This year should be exciting and wonderful, but...what kind of difficulties should I be anticipating? Will my revised homework plans be effective? Have the kids retained as much from last year as I expect?

I feel like I'm coming around the corner, walking down the hall, hearing the sounds of my classroom but unable to distinguish the "happy learning hubbub" from the chaos. Soon I'll be peeking through the window, then opening the door. What will I find?

To all the teachers, administrators, support staff, and other school-type people out there, I wish you the best of luck as we begin the 2009-2010 school year!

May you have the hindsight to know where you've been
the foresight to know where you're going
and the insight to know when you're going too far.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Get a Hobby!

I wrote recently about the interview process and wondered (without sarcasm or criticism, of course) why people never prepare to be asked about their greatest weaknesses.

After that, I spent an entire day focusing on one 40-minute lesson plan. Except you can't really call it focusing, not with my 1-hr break to watch Scrubs reruns followed by a marathon facebook updating session. Oh, yeah, and lunch and snack breaks.

At the end of the day, I had my lesson plan, but that was about it. The entire day was gone, consumed mostly by unimportant things, because there was just one job to do and that was it. This may surprise you (are you sitting down?), but I was tired, grumpy, and not feeling very attractive. These symptoms don't hint at a major weakness, do they?

Technology in general had lost its appeal, so I put away the computer, hid the remote, and stepped out onto my balcony. Look! The sky! Look! Living things! Look, my root-bound plants that still haven't been repotted! This sounds like a job for...Super Gardener!

Unfortunately, Super Gardener has not made an appearance since I killed my last plants (I think the mythical goddess is holding a grudge), so I'll had to step in and do the job.

After 45 minutes of mixing potting soil, clipping kalanchoes, and shooing my cat away from the lavender, I had one large pot of lavender and sweet basil, another of cactus/succulent type plants, and a third small container of "cat grass," a seed blend that's supposed to lure the felines away from houseplants.

She's waiting for her cat grass to grow...

And I felt awesome! For the first time all day, I had energy!

If everything goes well, I won't be interviewing for another position for a long, long time, but if I'm ever back on that not-so-sunny side of the interview table, I'll be able to answer the questions. My greatest weakness is not disorganization or a lack of focus, it's that I don't allow myself enough breaks to get outside, enjoy the sun, and dig in the dirt a little bit. What I need is to get back to my roots - not culture or ethnicity or heritage, but literal roots.

Without a hobby, I can quickly become as rootbound as that poor basil plant.

Is anyone hungry for pesto?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

How Proud I Am!

Earlier this year, I set some professional development goals for the summer. Ladies and Gentlemen, I am pleased to announce a status update.

I've made progress.

Yes, my friends, I can now use "actions" to make my McActiveFlipcharts more student-friendly. This skill will allow me to create documents that students can use without me hovering over their shoulders in case they get lost, making me more inclined to actually let THEM use the board instead of making it a great big wireless mouse.

I'm so proud. Do I hear applause?

Please don't ask about the whole reading thing.