Monday, September 24, 2007

Death as Part of Life

In my first week of school I noticed a seriously disturbing trend. Students wear lanyards with pictures attached. It didn't take long to figure out that these are pictures of a friend or loved one who has passed away. I also noticed another trend of funeral programs stuck in the front covers of binders and being passed around. What's particularly disturbing is that most of the tributes I've seen are pictures of young people.

Today two students (at separate times) mentioned that they'd had bad weekends because a relative had been shot. In one case, the shooting was fatal; in the other, the student's relative is in the hospital with a 50% chance of survival. Both students declined the suggestion that they go talk with a counselor in the school's Wellness Center. Both said they'd rather be in class to have something to take their mind off of it. ...Certainly makes me reframe my concept of school as a safe space.

There are so many dimensions to all of this that make my mind reel. Of course there's the actual situation that two people were shot and one killed. The shootings themselves are horrifying, as is the frequency with which I see new funeral programs and picture lanyards. How are so many people dying like this? But the students' reactions--or seeming lack of reaction--is what's really scaring me. Death, particularly death of young people, should not be such a prevalent part of anyone's life. It's unacceptable that gun violence (or any violence, for that matter) has become so commonplace.

It definitely makes me rethink my priorities (and theirs) when I'm chastising them for talking too much or not turning in homework. Algebra is hardly a matter of life and death; what some of them are dealing with when they leave school definitely is. I am continuously amazed by how much my content area doesn't have to do with being a teacher.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Get Out

I know that classroom management is one of my weaker areas, so when I requested a teaching placement where I'd be able to work on this, Stanford responded in kind. Enforcing negative consequences is neither fun nor easy, and nobody really leaves the situation happy. Theorists will probably tell me I'm doing the wrong kind of classroom management, but there's a certain point where I don't know what else to do. Yes, I'm working on all the proactive prevention, the reasoning, the transparency, etc. but what happens when that fails?

Yesterday a student was texting in class. School policy, which we strictly enforce, is that if your cell phone is out the teacher will take it and give it to one of the deans. Then you can find the dean at the end of the day to get your phone back. When I told this kid to give me his phone, he said no. Most kids don't resist, but I was prepared. "You can give me your phone, or you can go to the dean's office and give her your phone directly. If you go to the dean's office, you'll get in more trouble; if you give me your phone, you can stay in class and we'll be fine. Either way, you lose your phone." At first he said no again, but after I repeated my spiel he finally handed it over.

I put the phone in my pocket. I didn't want to put in in the desk where it could get taken, and I didn't have a key for the locked cabinet, so my back pocket was the easiest. Phone Boy was fine, although not really doing his work (as usual). About a half hour later, I was leaning over to help someone, when suddenly Phone Boy got up and snatched the phone out of my pocket. Are you kidding me? Then he tried to bargain with me: "If I get to keep the phone, I'll do my work." Of course this whole time the rest of the class (which was already off the wall) was freaking out because half of them didn't see the phone and thought that he had just grabbed my butt. And on top of that, my CT was out in the hall dealing with two other kids who had been out of control. I called security to escort him down to the dean's office.

Today I taught an entire class period by myself. A student we'll call Disruptive Kid, one of the kids who my CT was dealing with in the hall yesterday, was being so great. Until we had a large group discussion. The kid cannot stop talking, which is fine when they're working in groups, but not when we're together as a whole class. I tried repeatedly to ask and tell him, nicely and not-so-nicely, to be quiet. He was so distracting and just set off the rest of the class. I didn't know what else to do, so I sent him into the hall. When we talked afterward, he knew why he'd been sent out, and he apologized earnestly. But he also admitted that he can't stop talking and he gets bored so he just talks. We'll be working on that some more.

I hate the way it feels to discipline kids, even when it's something as simple as taking away points from them. Part of it is because I like them so much. Phone Boy and Disruptive Kid are really fun, funny, nice kids in a lot of ways, but they're also extremely reactive. Disruptive Kid, who's over 6 feet tall, asks me pretty much every day if I "want some of this." It's hard to balance--with all the kids--making sure they know how much I like and care about them, while also being firm and consistent about my expectations for them. I kicked Phone Boy out because he broke the rules (so many rules, in fact) and was completely disrespectful to me. Disruptive Kid was not only being disrespectful to me and his classmates, but he was getting in the way of other people's learning. I hate that with some kids most of my interactions are negative. I'm sick of telling them to sit up, shut up, listen up, shape up without getting a chance to talk to them. I know, I know, I'm doing a lot of things wrong, and I've already missed my chance to start off the way I should have, and all that other stuff, but I'm also learning what my possibilities are. Luckily my CT seems to have found the balance. She definitely kicks kids out of the room, but also knows how to figure out what's really going on with them. Until I learn more from her, my classes, and other teachers, at least the kids will have one teacher in the room who they like.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Planning Ahead

Halloween is my second favourite holiday, and I couldn't be more excited about this year. To begin with, I missed it last year, so I need to compensate. Secondly, I will get to dress up for school, which is awesome. I've decided that for my school costume I want to be something math-related. I know it's super-dorky, but I am a math teacher after all. If I can't embrace the dorkiness (in an attempt to normalize it, of course), then this career path is not going to turn out well for me.

But what to wear? I am completely stumped as to what would make a good costume. I don't want to dress up like a famous mathematician because (1) even if I tell people, they still won't know who I am and (2) that's not fun. I also want to avoid just writing a lot of numbers on a shirt and being pi/the fibonacci sequence/whatever, because that's not so much a costume as it is a t-shirt with numbers on it.

Suggestions, please!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

How We're Smart in Math

Last week we did one of the best activities I've ever heard of in a math class. We gave all the students a bright yellow paper to stick in the front of their math binders that lists 26 different abilities that are involved in doing math--one for each letter of the alphabet, from Analyzing to Zipping through mental calculations. Then each student selected one of the abilities (or anything else they thought of and wrote out the sentence "I'm good at ____."

It broke my heart to see how many just sat there staring at their blank paper. We're taught to value modesty, so it's already difficult to praise yourself in any situation. And it's even more difficult when you don't think you have any skills. As we encouraged them, so many told us, "I'm not good at any of these things."

Finally everyone wrote something down, and that's when we really pushed them. They all had to put their names on their papers and then come up to the board one by one, read their statements, and tape their papers to the board. We did it "popcorn" style, so they just went at random until everyone had gone. Of course, they all freaked out. Can you imagine getting up in front of a group of people you'd only known for a week--and who you'd be working with for at least a year--and telling them what you're good at? Can you imagine doing it as an awkward 14 year old?

But they all did it, and it was beautiful. I loved it as we got down to the last few students and the rest encouraged them. I loved seeing how many different things people felt they were good at. I loved the kids who put multiple strengths. I loved the ones who came up with strengths not on the list we gave out. I loved seeing the kids who were speaking in front of the class for the first time, and that their first words were about how they're good at math.

Now we have all their papers taped up on a poster titled "We're SMART at math because..." Looking at the poster actually calms me down when a kid is driving me crazy. It reminds me that as obnoxious/lazy/disruptive/rude as s/he is at the moment, in the end s/he does care. How to get them to express that care in a productive way is, of course, what I'm still trying to figure out. But at least I can approach it by building on the math strengths I already know they have.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

On Their Toes

I was helping one of my students, D., with her math homework, asking her questions about the problems we were working on. Her friend K. who was sitting across the table, started feeding D. answers in Spanish. At first I ignored it, mostly because K. was giving her the wrong answers. Then K. realized she'd been reading the worksheet wrong and said, "Oh! Veinticuatro!" I smiled at her and said, "Yeah, I was wondering why you were saying 42." K. and D. both turned bright red. "You know Spanish?! How do you know Spanish?!" They were shocked. I told them that, no, I'm not fluent, but that they'll be surprised to find out what I do know.

Hehe, being a teacher is fun.

Saturday, September 08, 2007


Following an amazing Cedar Point trip at the beginning of the summer, there was talk of a reunion/reenactment/rematch between some of my Michigan friends. But we had to do it bigger than Sandusky, so the only logical next step was Los Angeles.

Unfortunately my tight STEP schedule meant that I couldn't stay for the full week that most people were coming for, but I flew down on Friday afternoon. Immediately we made a trip to the famous Grove mall (as featured on shows like The Hills). Following that was a drive down to the OC where we stayed the night with some friends who live down there.

Saturday morning started off pretty rough with the news of the Michigan football game. The game starting at noon in Ann Arbor meant that it was 9am in California, so our breakfast plans were thwarted by some of the guys demanding we find a bar so we could watch the game. The Big 10 bar we found was unfortunately packed with Michigan State and OSU fans, so while the guys suffered the pain and embarrassment, I walked around Newport Beach with some of the girls. On the upside, it's been almost two years since I was in a Michigan football environment of any sort (I don't count watching the Rose Bowl by myself on my Auckland couch last year), so it was good to have that back again, even if it did end so horribly.

The only got better, though, with a trip to Hollywood to be hardcore tourists.

If you look really closely in the back of this picture, you can see the Hollywood sign.

That night we went clubbing in Hollywood and although there were no celebrity sightings, I felt pretty special when my friend's party promoter cousin got us in to a club for free and we got to use the VIP line.

As planned, we relived our Cedar Point trip on Sunday with an excursion to Six Flags Magic Mountain. Unfortunately, the California heat wave that had been frying the Bay Area was significantly worse in SoCal. Trekking around an amusement part in 100+ degree weather is not an ideal combination. However, we made the most of it by drinking gallons of water and buying the flash passes that let you bypass the long lines. The rollercoasters were amazing--dare I say that some of them topped Cedar Point? In particular, I have to say that my new favorite rollercoaster is X, a coaster with seats that spin 360 degrees as you're going along the track. Another new favorite is Tatsu, a coaster that positions you on your stomach as if you were flying flying.

Perhaps the best, and most unexpected part of the day was the discovery of a carnival game where everyone who plays gets a superhero cape. Obviously we spent the rest of the day stopping every five minutes to take awesome pictures.

By Monday all I could do was attempt to recover, and as soon as I got on the airplane I promptly passed out and woke up when I felt the wheels hit the ground at SFO.

A truly amazing weekend, to say the least. Definitely a much needed respite from teaching, Stanford, and the Bay Area. More than anything, it was just a good reminder of what it feels like to be around people I know and people I have a history with. So much of the last year and a half has been spent meeting new people and making really great new friendships, but there's nothing like remembering why I love my old friends so much.