Monthly Archives: April 2008

Unit Planning

I’ve got one more grad school project due this semester, and it’s a doozy: the unit plan.  I’ve gotta come up with a plan for an entire semester’s worth of learnin’ (that’s 90 days) and twenty detailed lesson plans on one specific unit.  It’s essentially what I should have already done for myself back in January.  Again, I’m an idiot.

I’ve been holed up in the Marietta library for four hours now working on this thing, making realization after realization that I’ve been a lazy sack of Bad Teacher all semester.  Had I done this assignment from the get-go, I would’ve had a thousand fewer problems at school.  Sitting down to map out a semester allows a teacher, most importantly, to see that end goal that seems so far away when he’s taking things day by day.  In other words: this is where I need students to go with this unit, so here’s all the stuff I have to do to get them there.

If this makes complete sense to you, congratulations.  You’re a competent and proactive individual, but this grad school project is just now making me realize how I’ve got to function in the future.  Overwhelmed with grad school and hindered by my own laziness, I tried getting through teaching without a long-term game plan.  Now I see just how difficult but entirely necessary it is to get a plan laid out ahead of time.

Last semester, I was student-teaching with a mentor teacher who seemed to operate day-to-day.  She had more experience, of course, and never had the behavior problems I’m having now (though her students were genius angels–genigels?).  But she’d come in some days and would really have no idea what she was going to teach her students.  It wasn’t every day, but it happened.  And she didn’t get fired.  Again, fine teacher overall, but this wasn’t a great lesson to learn for an upcoming teacher with some procrastination issues to begin with.

I pass the blame  to no one, though.  Call it hindsight or learning from my own mistakes, but I needed to figure this stuff out on my own.  My students and I suffered for it these past few months, and I’m suffering for it now as I stare at this not-even-close-to-finished unit plan, but at least I’m coming out smarter.

Chillaxing all Cool

Tonight’s the prom. I’ve gotta be down there at 10 to–I don’t know–pass out those little party favors to departing prommies and suggest with stern facial expressions that they go easy on the alcohol and unprotected sex.

Due to early checkouts, my classes got smaller and smaller throughout the day. 4th period seemed surprisingly willing to get a little work done, but the last two periods of the day simply refused school work. I read to 6th period “The Monkey’s Paw” on a whim. “Stumbled through the story” would be a more appropriate description, really. I really need to work on my reading aloud, especially when I’m dealing with dudes like W.W. Jacobs, who love loading their work up with adjectival phrases that really only leave the reader with one appropriate way to stress the words (boring reflection!).

I was all set to make my 7th period do the work I already had planned, but when less than half of the class wandered in, I knew we’d just be hanging out. Surprisingly, it might have been one of the more educational days for the period, for me and the students. I got a chance to talk to the students that I’m normally just yelling at to sit down or do some work.  I explained the idea of connotation to one group when one kid said that the computer advertised in his magazine “raped” all other computers.  I found out one of my laziest, most smart-assiest kids wants to go to NYU for architecture.  And another guy was in an alternative school the previous year for bringing moonshine(!) to school.  We talked about New York (moonshine guy had visited once and plans to stay below the Mason-Dixon line for the rest of his life), local college options, and politics.  I had to explain (again) how Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with September 11th, and I think I made moonshine guy think twice about his “nuke ’em all” position on Iraq.  It was all quality conversation.

So we didn’t do much today.  I didn’t really cover anything on the state standards or the curriculum map, but I think we still learned some stuff–about each other (adorable!).

Spring Break

It’s been spring break all week long, and for the particular county I work in, that usually means the entire school heads down to Panama City to drink beer, get something pierced, and dry hump each other silly until beach patrol tells them to “move it along.”  If it’s their first trip down there, they’ll have delusions of an MTV-style spring break, where they can mingle with like-minded party dudes from across the nation.  What they’ll find, however, are the same boring classmates they always see and maybe a few kids from the next county over.  It’s a sad realization for them, but the colleges had their spring break about a month ago, and those high schoolers from across the nation have mostly abandoned Panama City as a respectable destination.

While my students are out learning this tough lesson, I’ve been at home, trying to work on this whole staying productive thing.  I’ve got a small hill of persuasive letters to grade and a mountain range of grad school work to complete as the semester winds down.  I was on a roll for a while, too.  Up until about Tuesday, I was knocking out assignments and getting papers graded left and right.  By Tuesday evening, I was pretty much done.  A trip over to Athens to see The Weakerthans was only the starting point of a marathon session of procrastination.  Time that should have been spent doing homework or planning turned into time catching up on my Legend of Zelda game.  Teaching is an extremely stressful job, and most advice-givers out there insist on new teachers setting time aside for their families and hobbies.  I may not be the best teacher, but I do believe I have that aspect of the job down already.

Throwing Chalk

[I actually wrote this a few weeks ago and just noticed it never went up.  It’s been dangling around in the “draft” zone for a while.  If I sound particularly hopeless and angry at the universe, rest assured things are at least 4% better right now]

I don’t know why I expect students to behave on their own, but I do.

Actually, I do know why I expect such things: I wasn’t a belligerent turd in the ninth grade. With the exception of the time I called Mr. Mattox a dork, I mostly just shut up and did my work.

Three and a half months into this whole teaching thing, I’ve learned that I was the exception, not the rule. I see the versions of my former self scattered throughout my classrooms, and we are indeed a rare species. The disinterested, unmotivated students are the prevalent force in my classroom, and while I will  admit that the majority of my management/discipline fiascoes are my own creation, I’m consistently baffled by what some teenagers think is acceptable behavior in a classroom (screaming, throwing things, swearing, blatant disrespect, the inability to sit down, etc.).

Lately, I’ve been reminded of those instances where my own public school teachers lost their tempers. Poor Mrs. Puckett would cry. Ms. Artigas would remind us just how miserable she could make our lives with homework. But no one stands out more than my 9th and 10th grade math teacher, Mr. Hebert. Now, I understand math because I had Mr. Hebert–he was simply a fantastic instructor [quick statistical anecdote: I had Mr. Hebert and a 100(!) average for my 1st semester of tenth grade Algebra 2; poor Coach Brooks and I could only manage a generous 72 in the second semester], but not everyone was wowed by geometry like me, and he would occasionally lose his cool. It always looked the same. He’d yell, turn around, and throw his piece of chalk at the board as if to say “to Hell with this chalk, and to Hell with the kids I try to teach with it.” It mostly worked, too. It took him a second to reconsider just walking out the door, I think, but he eventually got on with the lesson, and I learned me some triangles.

My problem: I have a dry erase board and no chalk to throw. Really, I just don’t like raising my voice or punishing students at all, and my students know this. When I’m close to hanging myself in front of thirty kids, I kind of just shut down. The day’s shot anyway, so I sort of just make a last attempt to steer some people on a task (any task) and just stand there, silent for the remaining ten, sometimes twenty minutes.

What’s weird is that students are surprisingly open about what should be done. They know. When I have a rough class period, my students can tell, and they’ll occasionally call me out on my sour demeanor. They know better than I do what needs to be done–“Just be mean to us, Mr. Harding.” “Start writing us up.” They’re asking for it, and I’m still reluctant to follow through, because it means me showing people that I’m angry, and part of me would honestly rather be trampled upon than do that.

This week, an extremely knowledgeable professor of mine said two things that scared me:

  1. Don’t quit teaching until after your second or third year, at least.
  2. Anyone with a college degree knows high school content. Teaching it is the hard part.

Now, I’m pretty sure my school’s gonna let me come back for round two (1.5, really) next year, and I’m sure it’ll be an improvement over how things are now. I’ll have a new group of kids, and they’ll be mine from day one. However, I don’t see myself being able to address what are serious incongruities between my personality and that of a competent teacher’s.

Also, much of my teacherly aspirations come from my love of the subject. Writing is cool. Reading is cool. I love thinking about this stuff, but a fascination with English is hardly what makes a good teacher. Teaching requires skills like articulation, long-term planning, and discipline that I simply don’t have (yet or ever?). When I interviewed for teaching positions, no principal asked me what my favorite book was, but every single one asked me how I’d handle discipline problems. For good reason, too, as students want a commanding personality to lead them through a course, not some brainy nerd who wrote some long papers about George Orwell.


How not to write

In order to let my students know what good and bad persuasive letters looks like, I had to write my own.  I composed one over the course of a few days and another in about ten minutes before class started the day I handed it out.  I was trying to emulate the perfunctory effort I typically get when students aren’t in the mood to try.

I gave the kids both essays, the good and the bad, and the same rubric I’m grading their papers on.  The students were harsher than I expected.  Everyone failed the bad one (“What idiot wrote this crap” is something I heard a few times), but a few even gave my good example a C.  Ouch!  I was actually trying on that one.

Here’s the text from my “bad” persuasive letter.  I think it’s pretty funny (for English teachers).  NOTE: WordPress won’t let me paste in the intentionally horrific creative font use.  Please download the attached file for added hilarity.

I think the school needs a new library.  I am not the only that think so.  90% of the school wants a new library, please think about it.

There aren’t any good books in the library.  And there aren’t enough comupters.  Everytime I go in there all, of the computers are full and I can’t get my work done.  Please do something about this.

Sometimes the librarian is mean to us students.  I feel the librarians should respect us at all times.  We should be allowed to talk to our friends, in the library if they are having for example a hard time with their boyfriend or parent.
Us students should also be allowed to get on my space in the library.  My space doesn’t not make any noise so it will not distract others and we students can still update our profiles.  This leaves for time for homework when I am at home so I feel this is a good idea the my space in the libarry.

You should listen to me.  There are not enough computers in the library.  The librarians are mean when my friends really need some one to talk to.  And myspace should be allowed.  I think the school food should be better to, like other schools.


Balancing Act

I still don’t know what the hell I’m doing as a teacher, but I am starting to realize one thing: teaching involves finding the magical balance between  a number of conflicting strategies.  One fine example of this is my everyday struggle between demanding that students do their work and just letting them suffer the consequences of their laziness.

My students have been in the computer lab all week long writing persuasive letters.  They’ve got a pretty elaborate rubric from me, asking them to include all sorts of persuasive/research strategies we’ve spent the last two weeks going over: surveys, anecdotes, analogies, research, etc.  So a week seemed like an ample amount of time to compose this letter.

Many students, however, used most of this quality computer lab time to goof off: playing games, “researching” guitar prices or shoes, Google Earth, etc.  But how much of that goofing off is my responsibility?  The slackers will suffer a lower grade for ignoring their project for so long, and that’s their own damn fault, to an extent, but is it not also my job to instill in these kids a better work ethic than that?  To demand that they stay on task?  Who shares most of the blame in a situation like this: the lazy kid or the teacher who’s unable to teach the kid the importance of not being lazy?  It’s an issue I’ve struggled with for a while now, and I think I’m too often landing on the side of giving these kids’ sense of responsibility way too much credit.