Lunch Duty

I am going to be teaching solo again tomorrow and Wednesday, but today I had the privilege of lunch duty. As it's summer school here at LoLMEECoA, all of the students get free lunch at about 11:30, which is halfway through their third hour class. Why the bearded wizards in administration conjured up a split class rather than just allowing half of the students to eat before and half after 3rd period I am not sure, but it's on par with Napoleon's decision to go all the way into Russia. In the winter, of course. All I'm saying is that not much learning goes on after lunch is over.

Lunch is a strange time in middle school. You see the cliques, the outcasts, the lovebirds and the mortal enemies. One thing that has been seen, though not by me, every day since summer school began, is pizza. The cafeteria has basically given the students the choice of eating pizza or going hungry. Oh, the students could also get a prefabricated graham cracker peanut butter sandwich and a string cheese, but that sounds about as appetizing as, well, a prefabricated graham cracker and peanut butter sandwich with crappy, Crystal Farms string cheese. That's a tautology, but I don't care.

So, students are currently on day 11 of the pizza feast. It's like the Irish potato famine, but exactly the opposite. Students are clamoring for something, anything else, but the school cafeteria is no place for innovation. Or so I thought. The students are learning, innovating. And in their innovation, the students are revolting.

It would seem, at least to me, that pizza isn't the kind of food that needs a lot of dressing up. Some people like parmesan cheese, some like red pepper. And, sure, Papa John's has their dipping sauces, but those are really just a secret government conspiracy to make Americans obese. (From what I've heard, we'd totally be thin if it weren't for the garlic butter sauce.) My stuffy, old-school brand of thinking is not shared by the student body, however.

These effervescent little echinoderms are taking their pizza and jazzing it up a bit. They aren't so stodgy in their thinking as to believe that pizza can't be improved. These wonderful little wallabies are taking the quart-sized squirt containers of ranch dressing and hot sauce and splurting those ingredients together in ridiculous proportions onto their trays and then dipping their doughy, soupy pizza into that unholy alliance of condiments. I understand that they're trying to do whatever they can to make their food palatable, but it's depressing to see them create a sorry-looking pink paste of hot ranch into which they can dip their pizza. I even saw one dip his mushy pineapple cubes in this evil concoction. Truly, truly I say to you: the students are revolting.

So Damn Unprepared

I thought I was ready.

I worked with my teachers to create a lesson plan, determined what standards I wanted the students to reach, and wrote a lesson that used the classroom's available technology.

Then the bell rang.

Yesterday, I used the word "disaster" and was careful to note that it was a SF Earthquake of 89 disaster. Today, I can unequivocally say, it was dust bowl 1930s.

I'm a pretty genial person; people I meet generally like me within minutes of talking to me. These kids, though, they just... These kids, though, they... These kids.

I know what I did wrong, which is everything. I didn't keep my class in control; I didn't teach the lesson quickly enough; I couldn't keep them interested. I'm pretty sure I know how to fix the first, I can definitely fix the second, but the third is a problem.

I observed another teacher and determined a better way to keep students in control. Most of what it comes down to is that I need to be a complete hardass. No smiles, no happy looks, nothing that would even approach the level of good cheer I'd deal out to a waiter or barista. Nope, it's complete and total hardassery, 100% of the time. It's the only thing these kids understand, and the only way they'll respect me.

The second is just a matter of setting a schedule and sticking to it. No big trick, really. I just need to be sure I'm keeping the class occupied.

The final problem, about keeping their attention, is tough. Today we were working on rounding, and I held them for about three minutes. After that, they didn't care, weren't interested, and were actively trying to get on my nerves. I didn't crack, but I also failed to really inspire them. There was dead time because the technology froze, but I did too much talking. The best way to keep students out of trouble is to keep them engaged.

Engagement is an issue for every teacher, but as a first-year teacher I will have less of a schema to work with when trying to figure out how to grab their attention. I need more visuals, more interesting experiments, and I need to push their buttons--but in a good way. We'll see how that works out for me.

After the debacle, I got to watch another teacher teach the same material. I noticed that she kept students engaged much better by pushing through the material quickly. I was impressed by her, and I told her so. We teachers need ego boosts as often as possible. She will be a fantastic teacher when she gets her own classroom.

HOWEVER, did one of her students tell her that she was the best teacher and the nicest and that the student wished she could be her teacher forever? No? Oh, that's because one of my sweet little popinjays told me that exact thing. After feeling like garbage following my first solo lessons, I assume this was the universe sort of evening out.

In Praise of Drilling

Boys and girls, today we have a problem. I'm currently teaching division at LoLMEECoA, and it's starting to frustrate me. Dear readers, nobody has drilled these kids on their multiplication tables.

I used to think that drilling and repetition of things like multiplication tables, single-digit subtraction and addition, and the various other math drills that we halfheartedly repeated in elementary school were relics of a time when teachers didn't know any better. Problem is, those drills prepared us for higher math.

I can instantly tell you the product of any two one-digit numbers, and drilling in elementary school (along with my grandparents giving me a plastic game/contraption that had all the times tables from 1-9 on semi-opaque square buttons, and which would show me the product when I pushed down on each semi-opaque button). My students, well, let's just say that they have a hard time telling me what the word "product" means.

We're currently working on division in my classes, and it has been a disaster up till now. I guess disaster is a vague word. Let's say it's more '89 SF earthquake and less huge tsunami in the Pacific. Given that my students don't know their multiplication tables, they have a tough time with division. "Tough time," in this context, means that I can sit at their table for 45 minutes working on two simple division problems (I'm talking single-digit number into triple-digit number) and by the time they're finished they still don't know why the answer is what it is.

Monday was the first time I've been so exhausted by class that I just wanted to crawl into bed and pull my legs up to my chest and fall asleep afterward. Attempting to teach division to kids who can't do multiplication is like trying to teach the Hindenberg blimp not to explode: You know it wants to not explode, but it's just so full of hydrogen and there are so many damn sparks flying around, it's gonna explode eventually, and people will read about it in the paper. Put another way: I'm trying to show these kids how to write diaries in cursive before teaching them how to spell.

The average session attempting to teach division goes something like this:

Teacher (Me): Alright, what's 156 divided by 3?

My Precious Petunia of a Student: I don't know.

T: Alright, what's the first step?

MPPS: I don't know.

T: What numbers are we dividing?

MPPS: 3 divided by 186.

T: Well, no, you copied that wrong. Look at the board again. Good. We're actually dividing 156 by 3. Do you know what that means? We're trying to find out how many times 3 will go into 156. Okay, first step, can 3 go into 1?

MPPS: Yes.

T: You can put three gallons of water into a one gallon jug?


T: Then can 3 go into 1?

MPPS: Yes.

T: (Eyebrow raised in confusion)

MPPS: No, no.

T: Correct. Alright, so let's move over one place. Can 3 go into 15?


T: (Confused look)

MPPS: Yes, yes it can.

T: Okay, how many times can 3 go into 15? What's your guess?

MPPS: 20.

T: 20? (Head starting to hurt) 20? But that's bigger than 15.

MPPS: (Confused look) 30?

T: Thir...Ok, let's try to multiply. What's 3 times 30?

MPPS: I don't know.

T: Let's do it on your paper. Ok, 3 times 30 equals.

MPPS: I don't know.

T: Alright, what's 3 times 0?

MPPS: 3.

T: 3?

MPPS: Yes, 3! (exasperated)

T: Ok, then what's 3 times 1?

MPPS: 3.

T: So they're both 3?

MPPS: Yes. (Light bulb) No.

T: So what's 3 times 0?

MPPS: 0.

T: Ok, good. So where do we put the zero?

MPPS: (Puts zero behind a decimal point. Teacher is not quite sure where the decimal point came from, but realizes that the students have been learning about decimals, so the student has just decided to put them everywhere.)

T: Um, are you sure you want to put it behind the decimal? There's no decimal in the problem.

MPPS: Yes. (Studies paper) No.

T: Right, it has to go in front of the decimal. Actually, you don't even need a decimal in this one.

MPPS: Why not?

T: This time you don't, because there's no decimal in the problem. Ok, the zero goes there. So what's 3 times 3?

MPPS: (Looks quizically at paper)

T: Alright, let's count it up. What's 3 plus 3?

MPPS: 5. No, 6.

T: Yes, 6. And what's 3 plus 6?

MPPS: Why do we need to know 3 plus 6?

T: Because that's 3 times 3. We're doing 3 plus 3 plus 3, which is the same as 3 times 3.

MPPS: 3 plus 6 is 9.

T: Good, so what is 3 times 30?

MPPS: Nineteen.

T: Nineteen?

MPPS: Ninety.

T: Is ninety bigger than 15?

MPPS: Yes.

T: So can we put 90 into 15?

MPPS: No. Yes. I don't know. No.

T: (Mouth open)


T: Good. Okay, what you have to remember about division is that you can only use the numbers 0 through 9 for each part of the division. It can't be more than 9. So what do you guess? How many times does 3 go into 15? Remember, the most we can do is 9.

MPPS: 9!

T: No, I wasn't. ..I wasn't trying to tell you 9...

(This continues for twenty minutes. Eventually, the answer is determined, but the student doesn't understand why. It is at this point that the teacher seriously considers all of the great times he had at Mackubin Consolidated Widgets of Schenectady, New York. Since great is not an adjective that normally precedes times when referencing the Widgetorium, the teacher starts thinking about Battlestar Galactica, and how he should really finish up Season 3 as soon as possible.)

Third Day of Teaching

Ok, this is what I've been preparing for since day one. At the LoLMEECoA, I'm student teaching in three classes. Two of those classes, as I believe I've mentioned before, are eager, enjoyable, and easy to control. These two classes may have their missteps--some of the kids are often too loud and boisterous when they should be paying attention--but there is nothing insolent about them.

Another class, however, may be in the employ of Satan. I don't mean as a sort of demon or anything that dramatic. I just think the class is full of lower-level flunkies along the lines of the worker-bees at Mackubin Consolidated Widgets who deliver the finished-product widgets to the Widgeteers on pushcarts. These students are the type of flunkies who are so low on the food chain that they don't realize there is a food chain, but they still have some sort of Satanic influence nonetheless.

Having explained the general demeanor of the class, our Wormwood class had a lot of trouble on Friday.

First, one student of the fairer sex found it necessary to just keep letting them rip during class. I don't know if this is a ploy for attention or a sad statement about the level of nutrition in the community, but it was suffocatingly bad. Like sulfur mixed with half-solidified hamburger grease slopped over the edge of the frying pan and onto the burner. After a few minutes of this olfactory assault along with a quick verbal assault at the (actual, non-student) teacher, our precious petunia was sent to the principal's office, directly to the principal's office, without passing go or collecting two hundred dollars. She returned twenty minutes later with slightly less attitude but continued flatulence.

A student of the less fair sex then took it upon himself to declare the entire intention of the day's lessons, "multiplying" to be "fluking bluesclues." At least that's what I think he was saying: when I hear swear words they just sort of turn into nonsense syllables. That little proclamation by our wonderful begonia earned him a well-deserved trip to the principal's office. He didn't make it back in time for the end of class.

It is difficult for me to relate precisely how hard it is to see students acting this way and not do anything drastic. People are allowed to treat other people any way they want, but part of the social contract in society is that one spends most of his time trying to treat people as he wants to be treated. There are always missteps, but the ideal is that one would conduct oneself in a manner that mirrors how one would want others to conduct themselves. Many of these students haven't bought-in to this contract, and as such they treat their teachers and each other like second-class citizens.

I'm not saying, of course, that everyone has to treat me kindly, or even treat me indifferently. I am just saying that I have treated every student with respect, and those students have not always responded in kind. What do I have to do to get some respect around here?

The Second Day

So this is going to be an adventure. My saying that is so cliche. What isn't an adventure? Everything's an adventure to someone who spends half his time on the couch.

My second day of student teaching was similar to the first, except everything was magnified. Everything was so new the first day that I didn't have time to notice what was actually occurring around me. I spent so much time futilely attempting to learn names that I forgot to actually observe what was going on in my classroom.

You must remember that I was previously producing widgets for Mackubin Consolidated Widgets of Schenectady, NY, so I haven't had to do much thinking for the last two years. Because of this, I have to relearn how to think, how to interact, how to crack jokes, how to do just about everything. I'm Robin Williams' character in "Awakenings." Or, maybe that's Robert De Niro's character. There is a character in the book who wakes up after a long time down, and I'm currently that guy.

My school, Land o' Lakes Memorial Edifying Educationifying Center of America (LoLMEECoA for short), is not racially diverse. Or, at least, the summer school program is not racially diverse: the total number of non-minority children in my classes is one. And his family recently immigrated to the US, so I don't know if he would count as a member of the non-minority population, since he's probably ELL.

Of course, this is exactly what I signed on for. The achievement gap in America between white students and minority students is large, and our job is to close that gap. Our mission is to raise achievement standards for all students, but since most of my classes are going to be composed of a similar ethnic mix, I'm going to have more opportunities to close the gap than raise achievement standards.

The first class and the last class of my day are both rambunctious, but neither is what one would call a "bad class." The second class, however, will not make it onto my Christmas card list. There are two students in the class who don't like paying attention, prefer not to follow directions, and basically spend most of the class period trying to get under the teacher's skin.

I am sure I will write about them a lot in the future.

First Day of Teaching

This was my first week student teaching. Because our program moves at such an accelerated pace, I'm expected to be planning lessons by the end of this coming week, and within two weeks I should be leading a few days of lessons a week. This isn't something that I find particularly frightening, as I got into this field in order to teach. What is frightening, however, is that I'm going to eventually have to deal with not knowing an answer, with conflict, and with discipline.

My first day in the class, the students had a list of questions on the board to complete. I'm teaching a middle school math class, but in reality the students' level of math knowledge is more like 4th grade. However, I was stumped the first day. There were 5 questions on the board. The third, fourth, and fifth questions were along the lines of "write 'ten thousand two hundred and fifty-two hundredths,'" but the first two questions were a type of math I'd never seen before:

"What are two characteristics of effective groups?"
"What is an above the line action?"

I thought back to elementary school math. How did we group numbers? What would an effective group look like? Would it be whole numbers? Rational numbers? And what about above the line actions? Would that be something like putting a line over the final number of a repeating decimal?

I walked around the classroom attempting to read student responses, but none of the damn students knew any of the damn answers and I just thought, "Damn, damn, damn" in my head. It was a pretty frustrating experience. A student asked me to help him with the first question and I asked him what he thought the answer was. He, of course, didn't know.

Finally, the teacher started the class and asked for answers to the first question. "What are two characteristics of effective groups?" No hands went up. She prompted them, "Remember, we talked about this yesterday." Finally, one of the kids in the front raised a hand timidly:

"Talking quietly?" she hesitantly mumbled.

I felt bad for her. She didn't look like a dumb kid to me, but then again I didn't know what an effective group was, either.

"Correct," the teacher replied.

Wait a second, I thought. That doesn't make a damn lick of sense, because why would decimals care about talking quietly? And rational numbers? I can't see them caring about the volume of your voice. In fact, the entire set of natural numbers has contacted me by telephone--it was a party line--and they said that the volume of one's voice has no bearing on their being a particular subset of all numerals.

Then it hit me: This wasn't a damn math question.