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.

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