from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The first two weeks of school - looking back 

Dear readers, I have not been able to spend much time with you, here or at other sites, because this first week of classes has been all-consuming, more than any other year in my teaching experience, of which this is the 12th year. There are some unique aspects to this week, which I will discuss further down. And as always, soccer practice had begun before the students arrived for classes this week. The previous week of teachers’ meeting already had days stretching from 7 Am until 7 PM. But now I also have papers to correct, and my days typically run at least 14 and sometimes 16 hours. This posting will give a sense of what the past two weeks have been like, how I try to connect my teaching with the real world, and the unique occurrences this year that have made this more exhausting than usual.

Teachers report back to school the week before students do. In our district, Prince George’s County Maryland, we reported back officially on August 14 for four days. We get the keys to our rooms, meet the teachers new to our building (including my student teacher from last year, whom I am delighted to now have as a colleague). We have required training sessions - sexual harassment, child abuses, homeless children, dealing with situation involving blood-borne pathogens (we each receive a kit with plastic gloves, plastic bags, and the like for minor situations and are strongly instructed NOT to deal with any major situations but to immediately call the custodial staff for cleanup purposes). We have tons of policies to review, mostly to assure that we remember, in a few cases new mandates imposed upon us all - this year we will in our building have common (by course) midterms and finals, which we will construct.

Some departments have out of building meetings: say all algebra teachers in the county get together (because there is a state-mandated high school exit exam in the subject). We have multiple meeting within the building by department. We have (not enough) time to set up our rooms, which in many cases have been used extensively during the summer: our building is one of the main sites for summer school, and is also used to training the teachers new to the system ( this was the week before, and unfortunately means many room were left a mess). One benefit of being in an outside temporary building is that my room was not used. In fact, I even had access during the week the rest of the building was off limits because it was the site of new teacher training. This was important because starting on August 15 I had to be outside by 3 PM for soccer practice every day, and thus had less time for room setup.

For our department (social studies), we had several thousand new textbooks. For each book we had to stamp it with the school name, place a barcoded county inventory label inside the back cover, and also uniquely number the book on across the bottom of the pages. I was able to organize this in a efficient manner so that we accomplished the entire task in less than two hours. We worked together to distribute books among the classrooms in the building in which books could not be left during the summer lest they disappear while the rooms were being used. We helped one another get our tvs, our overhead projectors, our lcd projectors to connect with our computers. We assisted one another with putting up wall decorations. And we stood on endless lines for our two copying machines for the 150+ teachers as we prepared materials for the first week. New teachers had to receive training in using various computer programs, sing out their laptops. And once we received our preliminary class lists on Wednesday, we all had to set up our gradebooks and seating charts.

We are allowed in the building Monday through Friday, but the County only pays us for the first four of those days, perhaps knowing that almost everyone will still be in the building on Friday. We are barred from the building on Saturday and Sunday so the custodial staff can complete its tasks, some of which were necessary because of the heavy use of the building during the summer. On Thursday morning we have the 9th graders in for an orientation - it gives the buses a chance to run their schedules, and for the students to have an opportunity to get a first chance to walk the building, which is huge and also has 21 outside Temporary buildings. This year we invited parents of 9th graders to come to building to meet people on Thursday evening, in return for which our principal also paid for teachers to have a common dinner to meet one another - each year we have perhaps 15-20 new staff. I unfortunately had to miss the dinner because of soccer, and since I do not teach 9th graders passed on the evening events.

Our students arrived for classes this past Monday. I teach 6 periods a day. My first 3 classes are the state-mandated government course, my last three are AP US Government. The AP class is allowed to substitute for the state course, so I have mainly 10th graders who are taking a college level course. I will not have them functioning fully at a college level for perhaps a month or so: were I to immediately attempt to get them to that level many would likely panic. I already have a reputation as a very demanding (as well as totally crazy) teacher, and I prefer to bring them along in a way that prevents unnecessary emotional conflicts. There are a smattering of juniors and seniors taking this as an elective, some of whom I have taught before. Of the 175 students on my roles as I begin instruction, I have previously taught, coached in soccer, or worked with in musical theater about 20, and there are at least another dozen or so for whom I have taught siblings. I have the son of the woman who was my co-sponsor of last year’s freshman class, and I have the twin sons of a woman who was in my cohort of achieving National Board Certification status.

Much of what occurs during the first week is predictable - I will distribute textbooks, explain classroom procedures, send home far too much paperwork, including a letter to parents that repeats all I have told the students and gives them my email and my webpage address (I post the assignments for the forthcoming week by Sunday evening). I also attempt to get some understanding of the levels and orientation of my students. In my non-AP classes I give them a baseline test to see what kind of prior knowledge they might have. This enables me to adjust my planned instruction appropriately. I also take all of my students through a couple of quick screening on Howard Gardner’s “Multiple Intelligences” theory - this is a concept that people tend to process using different parts of their brains. If you are verbal linguistic you might give someone directions of how to get to you house using a descriptive text, while if that person is visual-spatial they might prefer to have a map. I am trying to help my students understand why they react the way they do, to minimize some of the confusion that occurs when they have to work in groups. I do not really need to see their results, because I can usually figure out in general how they operate. Still, to have a class full of students for whom there is a real aversion to a verbal-linguistic style requires some modification in how I organize a class that has a heavy reliance upon verbal-linguistic materials!

The most memorable day of the first week is the 2nd day. Students come in to see a warmup asking them to write down their answer to the question “What is justice?” While they do so, I step out of the room, put on a black robe and a white peruke, and come back in announcing loudly that this is Court, I am Judge Bernstein, there will be order in the Court. The question before the court is the question of justice. I will solicit their ideas, an inevitably someone will say something like punishing those who break the laws. I might well respond with a further query - do they therefore believe that Harriet Tubman should have been punished for breaking the law when she ran away, then returned to Maryland to help others run away? For many that moment is their first encounter with the Socratic method, something essential to my teaching practice. We will in this session go through pieces of Plato, of Hobbes (“and the life of man; solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”), Locke, the Declaration (“deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”), the Preamble (“in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice...”). They will come to learn that the two themes around which I organize the course are the idea of justice and the idea of the social contract. By now they are certain I am completely bonkers, which is partly true, but has the pedagogical purpose of holding their attention.

Yesterday the AP kids got another taste of it. We were reviewing some material from John Locke’s writings. So I asked the question if anyone could give me the key to Locke’s thinking. If you didn’t catch it, KEY to LOCKE’s thinking. Yep, they learn that I will turn anything into a pun, so they had better pay attention.

I am already correcting homework. They have been given relatively brief assignments that enable me to see how accurately they read, their ability to summarize, how well they can write. I have to make these determinations in order to make my instruction appropriate to where they are in order to successfully enable them to get where they need to b e.

And by the end of the first week I can call on any student in his/her seat by first name without referring to my seating chart - this is important, because it makes the students feel known, and that human connection makes it far more likely that they will be willing to make the efforts I am demanding of them.

All is not smooth. There are students who are assigned to the wrong classes, there are students who decide to withdraw from AP. Some students are not yet registered - since Monday morning we have registered an additional 200+ students. I have yet to see 11 of the students on my rolls, and three students have been withdrawn from school because they do not live in our attendance area. I will in my non-AP classes continue to see additional students all year, but especially next week and in the week after labor day. When they arrive I have to simultaneously instruct the class and get these new students texts, forms, letters, ensure they know class procedures, etc.

And I have a “problem child,.” K has a major attitude problem. I have already had to send him to his administrator. When he backtalked me the first day, I mentioned to one of our security people that I had had a problem. I was asked the name. As soon as I said the first name the man told me the last - this has happened with other people on the security and administrative teams. he is one of the most difficult children in the school. last year he was sent home for the rest of the year in early May. I don’t want to give up on him, but I can also not allow him to disrupt the learning opportunity for the rest of the children. This will be an interesting early challenge.

Soccer has also been time-consuming and exhausting. We have already seen over 70 candidates. The varsity looks to be pretty much set, although we have some early injuries which will temporarily affect whom we carry. Both varsity and jv look to be fairly deep this year, even if neither has truly spectacular players such as those in recent years who have been first string all state. In never ceases to amaze us that as strongly as we inform those interested during a Spring meeting and in the paperwork they must complete of the necessity of reporting in shape how poorly conditioned most of the candidates are. By the end of the 2nd week we are getting those who have been out into reasonable shape. But people still keep reporting,. Yesterday I had 3 new players for the JV. One didn’t make it on the first run run around the large lower practice field, about 1/3 of a mile. A second lasted for about 35 minutes and realized he couldn’t go. The other has some possibilities, and was still there at the end of practice.

We have also already had to deal with a tragedy. In our first set of scrimmages on Thursday, during the varsity scrimmage one of our goalies collided with a player on the other team. After the collision the right foot of the opposing player was pointing in the wrong direction. Apparently both the tibia and fibula were fractured, and the ligaments were torn. it was shocking. I immediately called 9-11, but it took almost 10 minutes for an ambulance to respond. His parents were there, his teammates - and our goalie - were in shock. We cancelled the rest of the varsity scrimmage but did play the jv scrimmage. It was a reminder that soccer is a contact sport -- football and hockey and rugby are collision sports. One of the referees had been there a few years ago when one of our goalies had been seriously injured in a similar collision and had been helicoptered from the field to a trauma center.

I said this year was somewhat different and somewhat more exhausting. This has to do with our mandatory state tests. This year’s sophomores will have to pass the tests in order to graduate from high school. Prior classes have had to sit for the tests and had the scores posted on their transcripts. That means we have had a body of data of what we might be encountering, and the picture has not been pretty. In our system we face the real possibility that if things proceed as currently planned our graduation rate could drop by over 30%. That is of course not acceptable. Our County Council set up a special blue ribbon committee to address the issue. It includes a representative from the testing office of the state department of education, our Chief Executive Officer of the schools (= superintendent), the head of the principals’ union (my principal). people from the County Council, the school board, PTSA, teachers’ union, and the like. In a district of over 130,000 students one name came up when they sought a teacher who could help them address the issue - my name was suggested from a number of people, both because I am a fairly well known teacher, and because I have some knowledge of educational policy issues including testing. I was originally scheduled to be the only witness on August 9th, but so many people were out of town that my appearance was postponed to the 23rd (this past Wednesday), but I was informed at the end of last week that my appearance would have to be combined with that of someone from the Civil Rights project at Harvard. Thus I had to condense down what had been planned as 45-60 minutes to only 20-25 minutes. I finished my prep work on Monday evening and took it in to make copies - of my prepared statement, and of the 40 + pages of supplementary material, illustrations, and the like.

I have to say it was an interesting experience. The guy from the state testing office ”lost it.” After the two presentations he made a number of ad hominem attacks on the two presenters. I am told by people who have attended the previous sessions that he had tended to be somewhat dismissive of the remarks of other presenters, and that this was the first time he had felt challenged or threatened. I did misread slightly one state document, but that error was relatively minor and did not go to the substance of my remarks. I received a number of positive remarks during the session from the other members, talked extensively afterwards with both members and attendees, have been asked by several attendees for copies of my statement, and have been asked by the panel to submit followup material. I met with my principal yesterday, just to be sure he had no problems with my followup statement, which has already been written. I am speaking for myself, not for the school, and while we do not agree on every issue, he told me he thought my presentation was very good, and believed the other members of the committee would also find my followup statement useful.

I awoke this past Monday at 5 AM, after about 5.5 hours of sleep. The next time I got more than 5 hours of sleep was last night. I am 60 years old, and this past week has been too intense. Had I known that my testimony would be after school had begun I probably would have declined the opportunity to appear. The first week or so of school is so intense already. I have not gotten to look at my morning paper until 7 or 8 at night, if I am lucky. I glance at my favorite blogs, and perhaps post a comment or two, but regretfully have not been able to participate further - my students have to be my focus.

This diary is probably not of that much interest to most readers who will encounter it. I am passionate about what I do. I teach government because I very much want to make a difference, and if I can encourage my students to become active participants in our civic processes then I will have greater hope for the future. I model that in my own participation, which is one reason I not only gave the testimony I did, but have told my students what I was doing and why.

I hope this has not overly burdened or bored those who chose to read this far. Today I will force myself to take a day off from school matters. I will do things around the house and yard, perhaps even spend some time on line. Tomorrow I will return to days of at least 12 and often 14-16 hours devoted to my school-related tasks. In a week or so things will settle down a bit. Next week I have 3 scrimmages, and must make final cuts, put players in position. By the Friday after Labor Day my classes should be relatively stable in their composition, I will know my students and what I must do to help them be successful. My workday will shrink -- to only 12 hours day on Monday - Friday. Then I might have time to again participate more fully in the blogosphere and in the political arena.

Thanks for reading.
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