Thursday, September 11, 2008

Dharma Wants You

For anyone who's interested, I'm volunteering with the Dharma Initiative this fall and have created a test to assess basic temporal reasoning.

Take it here.

Year 2, Semester 1, Week 1

This week was incredibly busy for a number of reasons, as is every first week of school. The first day of school is always the worst, for both teachers and students. Students are understandably nervous about their new classes, new teachers, new classmates, and in our case, a new principal and an entirely new system of schoolwide policies. I find the first days to be the most awkward because there are so many things you don't want to teach but have to in order to establish any sense of order later on in the year. Nobody likes going over the syllabus or the class rules, but it just has to be done. There's really no way to make it interesting though, no matter how hard you try.

I always try to do something to grab the students' attention, even if it's just for a minute or two at the end, and even if it's only vaguely related to science. One demo involves taking a bite out of a “candle” made out of string cheese with an almond wick (which lights up just like a real wick), and talking about the need for careful observation in science. The other demo involves making a mixture with acetone and water which, when poured on a dollar bill and lit, will engulf it in flames without actually burning it. That one's a little more of a stretch to relate to class, but the students never seem to mind.

My physics class is great so far. There are only seven students, and I know about half of them pretty well from last year. A couple of them were in my Earth Science class last fall, and were some of the top students. All of them are really excited to be taking physics, and have already asked if we can have an “advanced topics in physics” class next year if they all pass the state test their first semester. Our first week was spent building up our “physics toolkits,” which means making sure everyone has practiced the necessary math skills, knows how to graph and interpret data, and has basic lab skills. We've done two labs so far: one finding the density of several objects and relating it to floating coke cans (diet coke floats and coke sinks), and one testing what factors influence the period of a pendulum (exciting to physics people because it can potentially be used to find the acceleration due to earth's gravity).

Physical Science is good overall. My first period class is a little quiet, but we're working on getting people to talk. Whenever I ask questions or for someone to offer an idea, everyone just stays silent and looks at me like I'm going to get uncomfortable and give in without calling on them (I don't). By the end of the week things were a little better. I think it's because they're all sophomores and spent last year in a sectioned off part of the building for the school's STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) charter initiative. They're integrating all of the STEM students into the high school this year while still supposedly keeping them in the STEM program, so they're essentially like freshman as far as the juniors and seniors are concerned. The STEM students though seem a little intimidated by the chaos of the school as a whole.

Fourth period physical science is a larger class, and usually has a little more energy, which is good, most of the time, provided there isn't too much. The students range from 10th to 12th grade, and their abilities span the entire spectrum from EC (“exceptional children” - the new term for special education) to close to gifted. They're doing well though, and I'm better able to differentiate their assignments now that I know how to do it. Also, not dealing with chronic behavior problems helps. We haven't run into any of those yet, and are hoping not to. I thought it was going to be my toughest class to win over, but it's actually going very well so far, and the kids seem to be enjoying the work and have been completing massive amounts of homework so far (which is something I've never had happen before, even in physics).

I still have lots of energy from the summer, and I've been getting to bed early so that I'm actually able to get things done during the day. I'm sure that as the semester goes on I'll start staying up later and putting things off, but for now it feels good to be effective and efficient.

For the most part, the other TFA teachers seemed to do really well. There were a few problems with discipline, but overall, things seem to be headed in the right direction. The one exception was our biology teacher. She had been having difficulties from day one, but was asking for advice on how to improve and implementing it the next day. The trouble was, when something didn't immediately work for her, she'd get frustrated and try something else. To be absolutely realistic, things aren't going to go perfectly in your first few weeks of teaching. (Actually, if they're going even moderately well, you're lucky.) I was encouraged by the fact that she kept reaching out for help, but somewhat worried by the fact that she was so frustrated and impatient with her students. Friday afternoon we talked about solutions at lunch, and she said something to the effect of “I've had enough and don't want to come back next week.” I knew this wasn't just the frustration talking, and planned to sit down with her and Ms. Rosenberg (our 3rd year TFA English teacher) after school and talk her through it.

Apparently after school was too late, because when I went across the hall to her room, our human resources director and principal were speaking with her and she had signed a letter of resignation. It's hard for me to comprehend exactly what went wrong – whether things were genuinely so bad as to drive her away, or if she just “didn't like teaching,” (her own words) and made an extremely selfish decision without considering its broader implications.

Teach for America has a very spotty record in Weldon over the past few years. 2006 was the first year they placed teachers in the district in over a decade, and that year three out of the six teachers quit mid-year, for a number of reasons. Last year we lost three additional TFA teachers mid-year, bringing our attrition to over 50%. It's not that Weldon schools are harder to teach in than any of the surrounding schools – it's just that we have had very bad luck. At this point, having a TFA teacher quit reflects poorly on the organization as well as on the other TFA teachers still teaching in the system. We worked very hard last year to give the organization a good name, and it's really frustrating when the snap decisions made by one person set us back so far. More importantly is the impact it has on the students, who are now left without a teacher in a state-tested subject that they are required to take to graduate. I may be teaching Biology next week, like it or not.

I'm really confident that the other TFA teachers will do well though. They're incredibly grounded and remain optimistic, even when things aren't going well. Many of their students were in my classes last year, so I know from experience that they've got some challenges ahead of them. Regardless, they seem to be approaching things exactly how they should, and having a stricter schoolwide discipline system in place helps immensely.

Our football team scored its second win of the year this week, this time against rivals Roanoke Rapids (who make up the “district-within-a-district” that's a result of the gerrymandering that went on several decades ago). The score was 40-22, and even though the coaches said they were playing sloppily, that's still a pretty solid win.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Year 2, Semester 1, Week 0

Today marks the day before school starts, and despite all the planning, meetings, and back-to-school events, it really hasn't sunk in yet. Then again, it never really does until I'm in my classroom with twenty or more kids in my homeroom class staring at me. Or, more likely talking and running around the class.

We started off our workdays on Tuesday with the district's convocation ceremony, which is a mix of standard welcome-back speeches and southern baptist hands-in-the-air, can-I-get-an-amen preaching. The separation of church and state doesn't exist in our district, and is only sometimes acknowledged with an “I know I'm not supposed to say this, but...” followed by either a prayer or a sermon. The church is such an important part of the community, nobody even thinks twice about it. Still, it was a little different this year, since I knew what to expect. The convocation was followed by lunch – which, of course, was fried chicken, green beans with bacon, potato salad, and sweet tea – the same thing we've had at every social gathering thus far.

There have been a lot of changes in Weldon High since last spring, the most notable being the a completely new administration. Our new principal, Mr. Dixon, has lots of ideas in mind, most of which I'm willing to support. He's emphasized beautification of the school and has managed to do a surprising amount in the short time he's been here. Last year's philosophy seemed to be “the worse the building looks, the more likely we are to get a new one,” whereas now it's more along the lines of “let's do the best with what we have.” We now have a large school logo on the sidewalk in front of the entrance, freshly pained walls in almost all of the hallways, and new paint and furniture in many of the classrooms (which means the decade or so of graffiti is now gone). We also have a school-wide discipline system in place, which is going to be a struggle to implement consistently. Thankfully he's backed it up with a slew of positive incentives (for students and staff), but there's going to be lots of limit-testing going on in the first few days. Regardless of it's effectiveness, it's better than the system we had last spring, which essentially had two options: “handle it in your classroom” or “get a student suspended for three days.” We now have an Immediate Recovery Room (which collapses nicely into the hard-to-pronounce-without-sounding-silly acronym IRR) where students can be sent if they're disrupting your class, but not so severely that they need to be suspended. I was skeptical at first, but I'm impressed with how much has been accomplished in such a short time. I'm hoping that the changes aren't just cosmetic and that they last past the first few weeks of school.

We also were fortunate enough to get four new Teach for America recruits, all of whom we felt very positively about during their interviews last June. Two of them are replacing the old science teachers, pushing me to the position of department chair. Essentially, this just means that I get to sacrifice a few afternoons a month going to additional meetings. I've heard rumors that we're paid an additional stipend, but I've also heard rumor that the district isn't that careful about allocating funds to pay it. We also have a new history teacher, who's taking the place of TFA's last ill-fated attempt, and a new English teacher who'll be teaching freshman.

With the new teachers have come lots of struggles to find places to put them. Our school was assessed by the state last year to determine whether we needed a new building and someone determined that we were “not taking full advantage of the space.” I imagine this means that we didn't have teachers teaching in kitchens and closets, and now that we've corrected this problem, I'm hoping they'll revise their original judgment. Our new TFA history teacher, Mr. Allen, is floating between classrooms, and is being abnormally gracious and resilient about it. He's also taken very nicely to his cart (he is planning on naming it and dressing it up in costumes according to the period of history he's currently teaching), and remains unflinchingly optimistic. His other option was to teach in the kitchen, which may have offered some stability, but at the expense of throwing ovens, washing machines and fridges into the mix of possible things students might misuse.

I had been hoping for a new classroom, and had seemingly confirmed it with the new principal at our beginning of the year meeting. When I showed up for workdays, another new teacher had apparently “claimed it,” and was violently refusing to move. (I later found out that she reserved it for herself by placing a few markers in the desk drawer.) I wasn't aware that we had resorted to clandestinely marking our territory, and I foolishly assumed that the room assignments would come from the administration. Apparently not. Returning to my old room has been a blessing in disguise though. I left it extremely clean when I left for the year, and have managed to make it look a lot more inviting than it was last year. It's no longer like a prison classroom and doesn't look as institutional as it did. I now have a vocabulary wall, a small lending library (which may or may not get used by anyone other than me) and bulletin boards that aren't quite as bare as they used to be. The lights are still pretty dim, but I'm willing to work with it. I'm crossing my fingers and hoping that it looks as good in two weeks once the kids have come back.

It's hard to say exactly what my classes will look like yet, other than that I'll be teaching one section of physics and two of physical science (an easy version of physics and chemistry for the lower grades). The district's internet servers went down today, which means that the online scheduling software they use to create the rosters has been unavailable. I'm just hoping that I have my rosters before my classes actually start. If not, I'm not too concerned – it would take something on the scale of a natural disaster to phase me after all the schedule changes and shifts that I went through last spring semester. Still, it would be nice to know exactly how many students I have to squeeze into my room. If it's more than 24, they'll have to double up in their seats.

I did get to meet the parents of several of my physics students during Thursday night's open house. All of them are extremely supportive and happy that their students are able to take physics. I didn't get a chance to meet any physical science parents, but that may have been because the rosters didn't exist at the time. The turnout for the open house was incredible. It's likely just because of wariness and curiosity surrounding the new principal, but having so many parents show up that they're literally spilling out the doors of the cafetorium is great, regardless of the reason. (Cafetorium, by the way, was a portmanteau coined by our principal last year.) I was expecting approximately three parents to show up, as was the case last year, but instead the hallways were packed for nearly the entire duration of the night. I'm not sure that involvement will remain as high throughout the year, but it's good to be off to such a good start.

Attendance wasn't quite so high at the Friday night football game, presumably because we were anticipating an easy win against KIPP Pride, the local charter school (which focuses on academics over athletics). I didn't stay for the whole game, but at halftime the score was 60-20 in our favor. Football games are always fun, and every student at the game inevitably notices you and lets you know they saw you the next day in school.

I'm getting used to lesson planning again, and falling into the routines, and I think it's shaping up to be a good year so far.