29 March 2011

Defending Mr. Hand

Ok, most of us went to school in an era when most teachers taught like Mr. Hand. Who's Mr. Hand, you ask? He's Spicoli's nemesis of course. 

Mr. Hand was a bit of a hard ass, but at the end of the year he went to Spicoli's house to make sure he was ok, and that he had learned some U.S. History (good news; he was and he had). But for our purposes, we care about Mr. Hand and the way he taught. Mr. Hand was a lecturer. Now, I'm a big enough history nerd to be bothered by the order of what he talks about in the movie, but that's a far nerdier post for a far nerdier blog, if such a thing exists. Today, I want to talk about the lecture; and why it's fall from grace in educational circles is not fair, to students or to those loyal followers of Mr. Hand: the lecturers.

You see, starting in the 1980s, educational theorists began to recognize that the traditional model of school wasn't as effective as it had once been. There are any number of reasons for this, but that's (yet again) another topic for another day. These theorists began talking about students' multiple intelligences. They began to point out that not all students were gifted in learning in the traditional models. Many students were better when they were creating things, or moving, or working in groups.

These theorists wanted teachers to cater to these multiple intelligences. I could enter into a "I wish this wasn't true" rant, but that is reality teachers live in. That being said, as this new model of teaching came online, lecturers, such as Mr. Hand and myself, were villanized. We were the problem. Lecture was boring.

Students could never be expected to learn if the teacher was boring.

Bad lecture is bad. You've suffered through it, I've suffered through it. The lecturer is monotone, the material uninteresting, and the notes are hard to read. Perhaps the lecturer is reading his slides. Perhaps he's unprepared.

But bad lecture, despite what you've heard, isn't the only kind of bad teaching. In fact, all styles of teaching can be bad. But students don't complain about other types of bad teaching because in those situations students have the freedom to do things that are of interest to them. For an example we can look at group work. Many educational theorists love group work. They think that it's best if students pick their own projects, and then work in groups to complete them. I agree, these projects are great, but only when students are working hard on them. Too often groups dissolve into weekend recap groups. I think that's just as bad as a boring lecture, but students won't complain about it as often, because they weren't really forced to modify their behavior, unlike being in  a lecture situation.

On the other hand, good lecture is the way we as a society tend to deliver the most important information we have. Think about it. When you attend a religious service, it features a lecture. When the leader of the free world has something important to say to the nation, he doesn't divide us into groups to discuss why we are dropping bombs on Libya. He lectures. Lectures are the entire basis of the TED talks. Even smart people recognize the power of lecture.

So what makes a lecture good?

Well I think that there a five simple steps that teachers can take to make lecture good.

1. Be funny. You don't need to be a stand-up comedian, but you need to get at least some mercy laughs. People like to be funny, and so they pay attention to other people that are funny. Then, if you have a subject which is impossible to be funny about like the Holocaust, you have already built a rapport with your students so that they pay attention.

2. Be knowledgeable. No one wants to watch you stumble through a subject you're uncomfortable with. A good lecture actually ends up being a lot more like a discussion than a lecture, with a free exchange of questions and ideas, and that's not going to happen if you don't know what you're talking about.

3. Answer questions. Listen, people will need clarification, they will want to explore tangents. In most cases I find that you should let them. Learning should be a natural process, and by answering questions as they arise, you'll help to shape that learning.

4. If you have visuals, make them good. Don't read slides to your audience. Don't have images that are simply too small. Use the visuals to act as anchor points in your lecture.

5. Be willing to learn from your mistakes. Nobody is perfect, but ignorance is making a mistake and not learning from it.

I think these 5 steps are easy to take, and I think that most teachers could do them. I don't want lecture to dominate every class in every school, but personally, I'm tired of having lecture demonized, because I know just how good it can be.

That's all for now, so I'll sign off in the famous manner of Mr. Hand:


25 March 2011

In addition to which, GET OFF OF MY LAWN!

This week I'm on Spring Break, and that means I have lots of time on my hands to look for the end of the Internet. This morning, while dutifully poring through pages and pages of "news", I came across a facebook conversation between two of my "friends". They were engaged in an Internet argument over this article.

Ok, for those of you who don't generally click on the links here at the BlazeBlog, you can just skip to the picture of the chimpanzee at the end of the post, because my entire purpose today is to attack the basic thesis of this article.

I'm going to assume that by this point you're either done reading that article or you're not going to read any of this, and you've already scrolled to the bottom. Good? Good.

So the basic thesis of the article is that it's not so bad that half of twenty-somethings are still supported in some way (housing, food money, tuition) by their parents when they're twenty-four. In fact, the hook of the article, and what I read to be the thesis, is that these "late bloomers" may be better off having leeched lived on their parents' dime. The article goes so far as to note, and I quote (because it is too ridiculous to ignore), "most are weaned from such support by their early thirties". Hang on, there's a blood vessel in my forehead that's about to burst.......

Ok, I went for a walk to bring my blood pressure back down. The life expectancy in this nation is in the mid 70's. If you don't move out of your parents house until you're thirty, you will have spent 45% of your life being supported by your parents. Assume that you work until you can draw social security at 65, and then you retire. That means you will spend 5 more years working than you did draining your parents.

A week ago, the BlazeBlog talked about how the Internet was infantizing our entire society. It seemed natural to blame the place that society demonstrates so many adolescent behaviors for those behaviors. However, this new knowledge (which I found on the Internet), suggests that parents, unwilling to see their children suffer, are at least partly to blame for the regression of society to a nation full of 13 year old boys. 

Think about it; parents don't have to accept these grown children (and their families) back into their household. Nevertheless, many parents do take their grown children back into their homes. Parents should assess the situation, and I believe in many cases, say "No".

I don't think it's uncommon for recent college graduates to spend a little time back at home after graduation. You should graduate at 22. You should be gone by 24, which is when, according to this story, 50% of children are still getting help from mom and dad! 


I understand that in all of these cases, there are what seem to be perfectly acceptable reasons to live at home. Tragedy strikes. The economy is in the crapper. Nevertheless, I find it hard to accept. I just can't fathom how these people can get help from mom and dad and still have Internet, data plans on their phones, children of their own. 

Many of these children, it is implied, are pursuing higher degrees. I have found that the majority of people who pursue higher degrees do so because they don't know what they want to do with their lives. Is this because their parents, now supporting them, never forced them to make hard decisions, and now they are paralyzed by indecision? I don't know, but I think that it's a decent thesis. 

This is a societal problem. We have the means to protect our children from any sort of pain, and want to do so. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, this is admirable. Just because it's admirable doesn't make it the right thing to do. Your children need to, on occasion, suffer. They need to live in a crummy apartment, to have to figure out how to make tough financial decisions. By bailing them out, parents allow their children to both have and eat their cake. The problem comes when those children aren't eating their own cake, they're eating their parents' cakes.

No one thinks that being sore from going to the gym is bad. We can recognize that soreness as a sign of growth. We know that being sore is good, it means that we're improving. Somehow, parents need to recognize that their children need to experience that same kind of pain, perhaps fiscally instead of physically.

Now, these numbers and this article probably have massive problems. There are probably problems with the way the data is being presented. There are almost certainly problems with the sample size. Still, that half of the 24 year olds in this study were still receiving aid from their parents is crazy to me.

The worst part is that I might count. I was married at 25, and my parents presented us with a very gracious wedding gift. Would the study count that as "support"? I hope not. I lived at home for 4 weeks before I got my first teaching job, would that have counted?

You know what, I take it back. That's not the worst part. The worst part is the title of the story. "Gen Y not slackers, just slow starters." No, please, headline writer, go ahead and title this something that the story doesn't prove! After all, the story is about children not working hard and not being forced to struggle, why should you work hard?

And now, the promised chimpanzee picture:
 Your author, hard at work

24 March 2011

Teachers should encourage growth

So, I've been banging my fingers randomly against my keyboard since August, and you've been faithfully clicking on links since they started appearing on facebook pages. Today, I am going to do something new. I'm not going to talk about my experiences in education. Instead, I'm going to take a request.

Now I know that this might seem impossible, since this blog is obviously not "live", and therefore taking requests might seem impossible. However, through some back channels, I recieved a story out of an elementary school, and the author wanted to know what the BlazeBlog thought about the situation. So, here I am, responding to a request!

I think that the easiest way to do this (but I don't know, since I've never done this before), is to quickly summarize the situation, and then follow up with my thoughts on said situation. If this format doesn't work for you, please feel free to propose an alternative in the comments section.

The Summary

There is a program out in the wide world of educational assesment called "Accelerated Reader". This program is intended to be used as a tool to encourage students to read outside of class. However, in this school, the AR program is used as a part of the students' reading grade. In this case, a student had read Harry Potter 1 at home, and wanted to use it to complete his AR testing, since he hadn't been reading any other books at home. His teacher wrote home, concerned that if he took the test now, and didn't do well, that might hurt him in the future, because you can't ever re-take an AR test for credit. She also has concerns about the student reading content that he "isn't ready for" yet in the book, since the student in question is a second grader.

Mom complains, student takes test, doesn't do all that well.

My take

Ok, let's tackle AR first. I did some exceptionally cursory research (read: googled "Accelerated Reader Criticism") and found that the program has had decent results, especially among older readers, when used as an extrinsic motivational tool. Our own Dr. Johncock has written extensively about motivation, and in fact created his NBR and STFU systems in response to what he felt were foolish attempts to incentivize behaviors which should be second nature to students. I'm not going to delve into that too much, but I think the major problem here is the pressure created by using AR as a part of the reading grade.

If AR were just an ancillary program, designed to encourage reading outside of class, then I don't think any of this conflict would have happened. You see, the only reason that Mom pressures teacher into letting student take the test is that he needs to get a reading score. Also, as the student progesses, he'll have to continue taking the test, so the teacher is concerned that taking the test now will stop him from being able to take the test later, so she's worried that his later reading score will also be hurt by taking this test now. The test being a part of the school's reading grade is really the root of this problem.

This is indicative of a larger problem in American education. We love to implement programs that authors say will change student learning and achievement or behavior. However, many times school districts fail to use the programs the way they were intended, which leads to situations like we see in today's BlazeBlog. 

However, there's a secondary problem: the teacher's concern about the material in the book for a second grader. This is a problem for me as a teacher. I firmly believe that the role of teachers, among many other things, is to push students' comfort zones in regard to content. One of the great, untestable values of public school is the constant exposure to ideas and views that are different and uncomfortable for students. I don't think this is important just to make students uncomfortable, but because that discomfort is often a sign that growth is taking place.

I can't speak for this teacher. I don't know why she thought the content of the book was inappropriate. I suspect that she either believes this herself or has in the past been badgered by people who believe that. Either way, I think she's doing a disservice to her students. Parents have every right to teach their kids familial beliefs at home, but they should expect a good school to expose their children to different believes. The school shouldn't pass judgement on which of those beliefs are correct, however, and that's what this feels like to me.

Well, that's that, then. I feel a little uncomfortable, since I think I just sided with a parent, and I once wrote a 3500 word diatribe about parents. Who am I, and what have I done with the author of the BlazeBlog?    

23 March 2011

Spring Break Haiku

So, in the spirit of the BlazeBlog's "Sno-kus", I offer to you some Spring Break Haiku

I'm not home today
Sipping a frozen "Dad-pop"
Relaxed on a beach

Honey do list? Yes.
Sleeping until eight or nine.
Time to write haiku

Grading papers?No.
Time for me. This is how the
Other two thirds live.

That's all for today, I'm off to run errands. Perhaps I'll check back tomorrow with a tale of woe, from the other side of the desk.

21 March 2011

How to fix the respect problem

As state budget crises have become the dominant domestic news story, teachers and teacher pay have once again moved into the forefront of the public discussion in this country. As a public educator, I am torn; I want the nation to have this discussion and I'm terrified by the way the discussion will go.

But the one thing we can count on is that everyone will talk about how much they respect the work that teachers do. However, there will almost certainly be a disconnect between those words of respect and the actions the talking heads want us as a society to take.

Many people have talked about the problems of respect for teachers. In fact, I think I have in a previous post. (Well, to be fair, I didn't talk about it in the way I thought I did. Still, I think this is in the vein of "respect") What will fix the problem? More money? This article lays out the case for paying teachers better in a much more researched and logical way than I could. I think that more money would, as Kristof argues, attract better people to teaching. It would also allow teachers to consume products that our consumption society equates with success, which, it could be argued, would lead to more respect. 

But I've got another idea.

What about uniforms? No, not Twisted Sister or the Road Warriors (although I do think that "Teacher of the Year" should win a championship belt). I don't need teachers to wear Smokey Bear hats like Marine Drill Instructors or aviator sunglasses like power-crazed local cops. But I do think that we could come up with something for teachers to wear that would signify their status as public servants.

You think I'm crazy. You know that the unions will never stand for it (not that silly things like unions stand in the way of "the public will" anymore). You think that teachers won't subordinate their personal freedom of expression to dress in a uniform. You point out that we often can't even force kids into uniforms at public schools. I know that all of those points are true; but this is my blog, so indulge me.

Think about the discounts you see at restaurants: police, fire, military. These are all professions that make similar money to teachers. What are the key differences between the people that politicians like to call "our finest" and me?

1. They risk their lives in a more direct way than teachers. (this is not a small difference, but the vast majority of their day is not life threatening)
2. They wear uniforms.

That seems to me to be the key difference. In our society, we have decided that people who wear uniforms are respected. Two days ago I was flying from Denver to the Central Valley of California (which is a nice way to say "Fresno"), and while I was waiting 3 hours for the plane to get fixed several uniformed members of the Army came and went through my gate area. In all of their cases, at least one person thanked them for their service. Had they not been in uniform, they would not have been accorded that graciousness. 

I don't begrudge them the thanks they received. In one case, the Sergeant had been to Iraq for three tours. He deserves the thanks of the citizens who voted for the guy(s) who sent him there. 

So do teachers. They may not be forced overseas, or relocated, but they do spend their lives committed to public service. I think that many people genuinely do appreciate teachers, but they don't know who we are. Because we don't wear a uniform, because we don't have a standard for facial hair, tattoos, or piercings, we're hard to pick out of a crowd. I, for one, would wear a standard teaching uniform if it meant that I could get the same kinds of discounts that military, fire and police often qualify for (and the random thanks of strangers, awkward though it must be).

(At this point, I could go flying off the handle on the undue respect accorded to the other portion of our nation that wears uniforms. Athletes. I'm not going to, though. Another day, another post. I only give it to you a little at a time, like a drug dealer. I'm getting you hooked on the BlazeBlog. And yes, this was an entire parenthetical paragraph! I clearly have no editor.)

I don't know what this teacher's uniform should look like (though there should clearly be a "dress" uniform option for parent teacher conferences, media interviews, and prom). Perhaps Project Runway could use this as a challenge next season. I shudder to think what they would come up with. However, even with that fear,  I don't really care, as long as it looks traditionally "sharp". 

Oh, and don't make me look like the postal service. Those uniforms aren't getting anybody any respect.

18 March 2011

Someday we'll all smell like feet

This week is the best week in America. Two great American traditions are combined: The NCAA men's basketball tournament and Spring Break. Today, my history kids seeded a tournament of the most influential Americans while a tournament game played in the background. When I was in high school, we had the same arrangement. There was one key difference: I had to watch whatever game CBS had on, and it was fuzzy, because my teachers were getting the signal over the air, on a coat-hanger wrapped in tinfoil. My students got to glance at a game in glorious HD.

Did I spring for an HD antenna? Does my school have HD service? No and no. We used the Internet to watch the games.

This is a great example of the best and worst parts of the Internet. The Internet was where I found the bracket of American history; a great, topical way to have kids review major historical figures. It also provided a distraction, for me and for the kids. But I think you all are smart enough (and good looking enough to boot!) to already see where that argument is going. I'd like to try to explore a different issue with the Internet. Namely, the way the Internet has turned us into a society of 13 year old boys.

So, let's first gain a basic understanding of the things which are acceptable for 13 year old boys to do that are probably not great for a society writ large to do:

13 year old boys love to do most of the following:
Make fun of each other
Poke girls
Stare at girls
Talk to people who think the same things they think
Hang out with their friends
Not shower
Know everything
Complain about how adults just don't understand

So, what do we do on the Internet?

Well, according to Optnet 37% of the Internet has nakedness. So, I suppose the first way that society is becoming like a world run by 13 year olds is the poking and looking at girls categories.

While I once confiscated a phone during class that a student was using to look at porn, I don't think that this impacts schools all that much. Young people have always been interested in what the other half looks like in their birthday suits; all this has done is change the way they find out.  

We make fun of each other: This article at Slate is an interesting look at how me make fun of people on the Internet. He points out the reality that we all understand, that the people we are mocking for any number of foolish things they've been caught on camera doing are real people. I'm just as, if not more, guilty as anyone. I ran student responses that were patently ridiculous. I think the perceived anonymity of the Internet makes it easier to say things about other humans we would never say in person.

I understand that this argument is hardly a new one. However, I think that this impacts education, which is what this blog is theoretically about. You see, students have become more and more focused on cultivating this ironic sense of humor. They spend much more time trying to be funny than actually learning.

We check up on things constantly - Like impatient children in the back of the car, we're constantly asking, "are we there yet"? We check our status, our email, the comments on our blog.

In school, students and parents now have what amounts to constant access to constantly changing grades. This seems like it would be a great thing for student accountability. However, in reality, this just means that students are more likely to hound teachers to grade late work. In the past, there was a "day of reckoning". Students used to have to act like adults and self-monitor their progress. Their parents, in most cases, were kept in the dark. Students either took care of business or got punished. That's how it works for adults. But now, thanks to grades on the Internet, parents never let their children fail.

We think people care what we think - The Internet has made it so very easy to publish your thoughts, and to let people read those thoughts. This means we learn to overvalue our own beliefs. We think that our thoughts are important. I'm just as guilty of this as anybody, obviously, since I'm writing a blog and hoping you're reading it. This is just like middle schoolers writing crappy poetry and songs. They think people care what they feel like. Now all of us feel that way.

This has always infected high schools. There have always been high school students who thought that the world wanted to know what they thought. But now, since adults continue to  believe that beyond adolescence, students feel even bolder about sharing their emotions. It's not a bad thing, but it can take away from the educational mission.

We insulate ourselves with people who think like us - The Internet has allowed adults in society to do what middle schoolers notoriously do. We have become very cliquish. This hurts society as a whole because we live in a democracy, and in a democracy people must understand other peoples' points of view. The more we insulate ourselves, selecting news sources that meet our predetermined attitudes, the less open we are to others. The less open we are to others, the harder it is to reach compromise, and the less the country is successful in moving forward.

Parents increasingly want schools to teach their specific beliefs as facts. All other facts must be subordinate to their beliefs. As a social studies teacher, I am accosted by parents who want to know how I dare to talk about issues which they don't agree with. I feel that the more society segments itself into these self-selected groups, the less parents will be willing to have their children exposed to new ideas, which may be in opposition to their beliefs at home.

Parents have access to never let their children grow up - I think that this is the biggest problem with the Internet and education. The more grades are available online, the more email allows for quick, easy, confrontational conversations with educators, the more students lack the maturity to self-advocate; the more education will backslide. You see, the more parents intercede, the less students are allowed to succeed, because they are protected from failure.

There is resistance to this stagnation, to this over-protection. Audrey Monke, of Gold Arrow Camp, has written about the movement here .

The good news is that the Internet hasn't caused society as a whole to shower less. Except for that portion of Internet users who use the Internet to mostly play World of Warcraft. They shower even less than 13 year olds.

15 March 2011

The STARS system of behaviour support

Friends, please allow me to apologize for my lengthy absence from our internet meeting place, the BlazeBlog. I have been on a semester-long sabbatical from my educational think-tank, Edu-tastic, working on a new way to revolutionize education in America.

I know that many of you are familiar with my attempts to return American education to the roots that made it great, so few years ago. I believe, as I have stated in places such as this publication, that students must be held accountable; both in behaviour and in academic endeavours. In fact, I have gone so far as to introduce the Octagon Of Punishment. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the OOP, I encourage you to peruse the linked post. It is a simple system, that when combined with the STFU method of student discipline, I genuinely believe will revolutionize education.

However, some prominent educational philosophers, as well as scientists from the Federal Government's Air and Space exploration program, private sector workers and public school teachers, have approached me, and have accurately pointed out that there is room in education for positive reactions to students. They argue, rightfully, that no matter how much I wish it wasn't so, students live in a society which rewards them for everything. This culture is what the OOP rebels against, but we must also recognize the reality of the situation. Therefore, in an attempt to counteract other programs, such as Positive Behaviour Support; which I feel is often an excuse to stop disciplining students, and instead reward them with trinkets, I have created a new system to help the progressive educator balance the need for rewarding good behaviour with the stated goal of moderating the effects of the "constant rewards for mere acceptability" society.

The cadre of professional educators and members of the business community with whom I developed this program spent long hours of discussion on the merits of our system. We evaluated, asked for feedback from other teachers, and revised our plan. It is with this knowledge of the hard work and time that went into the development of this program that I am proud to reveal to you, for the first time ever, the Student-Teacher Appropriate Reward System (STARS) of student rewards:

I will undoubtedly write more on the implementation of the STARS system in a later post for this publication; for now, I'm going to make several important points about the STARS system.

1. Please note that the system does not provide you with specific rewards. Instead, it attempts to categorize the different types of rewards. We have divided these rewards into two categories, Tangible and Philosophical. We believe that students should receive rewards on both sides of the star, culminating at the top where they are treated as adults, which is both a tangible and philosophical reward. 

2. Also, note that the star is not intended to be shared with students. It's shape, borrowed from centuries of Masonic tradition, should remind teachers that the STARS system must remain secret from students. Use it as a guide for how you reward students. If you publish it for student consumption, you move all rewards into the "transactional" category, because students will stop acting intrinsically, and begin to act to receive certain rewards, which is the problem the system attempts to alleviate.

3. As I mentioned, the STARS system is still in a beta phase, which means I will be happy to hear your suggestions in the comment section of this webpage.

Thank you for your continued support, and I look forward to sharing the specifics of the STARS system with you.

I remain,
Richard Johncock, pHd.

14 March 2011

Incentivize This!

Many conservative commentators, using Scott Walker's attack on teachers' unions, have gone back to the old trope of saying that schools need to be run like businesses.

This point of view is not new, of course. It's an old stand-by for those that like to attack public education. I could spend lots of time attacking it (oh, hey! I have!). But that's not what I'm here to do. In fact, I'm not going to spend my valuable time rebutting an attitude that most of the loyal BlazeBlog readers don't share. I'm going to do something totally unexpected, go off on a tangeant.

You see, many conservative commentators have been lashing out at teachers. One of their attacks is that we're part time employees. (here's Jon Stewart's very good take on the situation) Again, this is a fallacy which I don't intend to attack today, since I think you all realize that teachers are anything but part time.

Here's what really insulting: there is an implication that teachers don't understand how it works in the business world; that somehow we work in an environment free of consequence. If only we could be fired all willy-nilly, then education would get fixed. Do you want to know why that insults me more than calling me a part-time employee?

Because it shows even more ignorance of the situation than your throw-away lines about the number of days I work. It suggests that I can't figure out how "the real world" works. Well, sirs and madames, I've got news for you. Not only do I understand how the business world works in theory, but in reality. Why? Because, like most teachers, I've worked in the business world.

But that's impossible, you protest. How could you have worked in the business world? Well, the pay is so crummy in teaching that I kinda had to. To live a comfortable life, I have to work a summer job. In fact, I've worked any number of them, and I understand how these "incentives" work in the "real-world". Since I've gotten my teaching credential, I've done the following other things:

1. Worked in race-team relations for Goodyear Tires
2. Worked in Operations for a California Wilderness Experience Center
3. Worked in customer relations for a major retail chain
4. Operated a small business and consulting company

Watch this; I'll further explain: I understand that if you click on an ad, Google gets paid, and in turn they pay me. If I start writing really crummy posts, then you'll stop reading, people will stop clicking ads, and I won't get paid. Wow, it's almost as though I'm qualified to teach this stuff. What would we call that? Economics, perhaps?

So don't blather on as if teachers don't understand your great mystery of "incentives". We get it. We're just smart enough to recognize that it probably won't make schools any better.

11 March 2011

Thanking Ms. Zika

When I was in high school, I had an English teacher named Ms. Mary Zika. At the time, I thought she was way old. I have no idea how old she actually was. (I looked her up recently, online, since in this era of accountability teacher records are available online. She's been teaching for 36 years. She's been teaching longer than I've been alive. That's amazing to me. I've only ever taught in one school that was that old.)

She was single, told us she woke up every morning at 4 to exercise , and she had an honest-to-God Velvet Elvis in her classroom. I'm told that she wrote murder-mysteries for the staff to participate in.

Above her door, there was a simple stenciled sign that said "105 North Tower". The place Dr. Manette suffered for many years in A Tale of Two Cities. Generations of Northwestern High School seniors have "suffered" in her senior English class.

One of the key components of that suffering was a research paper that Ms. Zika made us complete. I did mine on the appearance of aliens in movies over time. Not when they showed up, but how they looked when they showed up. Bit of a nerd I am. (see what I did there? Yoda phrasing in a sentence about aliens. Clever, huh?). This project was one of the hardest I had ever done. I spent hours poring over movie stills (especially from the early part of the last century). I had to go to a college library to get tapes of old radio Buck Rogers shows. She forced us to do actual research, but allowed it to be in a subject where we had actual passion. It gave me skills that I used over and over again to get through college.

In short, she taught me.

She was mean on the surface, but underneath she was kind and funny. If you gave her candy corns, she would use them to turn herself into a vampire. She didn't take herself too seriously, though she got a kick out of suffering. This was a woman who referred to the dead in Beowulf as "crispy dragon nuggets" and Madame Defarge's "knit list". Oh, and that 105 North Tower sign. The image you see at the top of this page is above my classroom door; the Children Here In Labor Despair sign is a little shout out to Ms. Zika.

I doubt very much that she'll ever read this post, in her honor, but I'm going to write it anyway. I'm going to write it because my Student Council kids are collecting teacher appreciation notes at school, and I realized that I never appropriately thanked the people who ended up as influences on my teaching career. Ms. Zika is not the person who inspired me to get into education. (those two men were Mr. Lindgren and Mr. Lantz.) She isn't the person who inspired me to teach what I teach, since I'm a Social Studies teacher. However, much of the success I've had as a teacher is because of things she taught me.

You see, one of the biggest things that teachers in the modern era have to do is communicate well with parents. More and more, that communication is in the form of email. Many times, principals will advise teachers not to communicate with parents via email, because of two reasons. The first is that they are scared to have you saying things in writing that can later be thrown in their faces. (Simple solution? Be honest and do what you say you will do.) The second reason is that many adults, even in education, are poor at communicating with the written word. Because of Ms. Zika, I'm a good written communicator. That has allowed me to build good relationships with my peers and the parents of my students.

Anyway, I just wanted to thank Ms. Zika, in public, using the tools that she taught me. Too often, we read appreciations of famous people, of the rich and famous, of the powerful. I'm trying to do my little part, to thank the  people who gave the most of themselves to help create me as the man (and teacher) I am today.  I just hope that I'm helping students the way Ms. Zika helped me.

So, I encourage you to do the same. Find a teacher who influenced you, and write them a thank you note. You think they won't remember you. I bet they will.

Thanks, Ms. Zika.

10 March 2011

Parent Teacher Conferences, the Running Diary

I've decided that this week will mostly be an ode to Bill Simmons. He occasionally writes running diaries of major sporting events. I'm adapting that, and offering to you a running diary of one of the most mind-numbing things a high school teacher can do: the parent-teacher conference. 

My school has 4 conferences a year: Welcome Back Night, 2nd Quarter, and then, in the Spring, 3rd and 4th Quarter in the same week. By this point in the year, parents are generally resigned to their kids accomplishing whatever they're going to accomplish, so attendance is sparse at best. Tonight conferences run from 4-7. 

Dinner was served starting at 3, so that's where we pick up the action. 

3:00 - And dinner is served. Tonight is a good night, Bar-B-Q. They even had non-mammal for the communists.

3:34 - As we eat dinner, a P.E. teacher shares the ironic fact for the day: He has a student who's parent is angry because the kid ineligible to run track. Why is the kid ineligible? Because he doesn't dress out in gym.

4 - And so it begins

4:05 - Whoa, a second meeting already. Of course, it's a kid who doesn't need to be here, since he has a 92% in AP U.S. History.  

4:10 - Dad wants to know what the "standard deviance" in my class is. I don't do math, so I can't tell him. I try to explain that the grades are on a bell curve. That confuses him. He wants to know if his daughter has turned in one missing assignment. I have 180 students. I have no idea if she turned one thing in. 

4:18 -Talked to a mom. Her kid doesn't ever advocate, never asks for help. Mom doesn't advocate for the kid either, just wants to talk about it. Apples tend to fall near trees, I suppose.

4:28 -Mom and daughter sit down. Kid knows what the problem is, I know what the problem is, mom knows what the problem is. The conference is quick, since generally you don't talk about problems that rhyme with barijuana.

4:30 - Mom has a daughter and foreign exchange student. Doesn't like either one of them. We have a conversation about many things, including how her mom was a bitch.

4:37- Hey, this is cool, a parent who just wanted to thank me for teaching his kid. That was nice.

4:40 - The parents of twins are here. Two-for-one!

4:49 - A kid who is panicking about having an 84% in an AP class. Calm down, it isn't the end of the world.

5:05 - A kid who I've had for 4 years is here. Her mom and I talk about where she's going to college (waiting to hear from Brown, Harvard and Yale). This is one of the few great moments of a conference night. When the parents of long-termers stop in. It's like talking to old friends.

5:16 - A parent who is worried about the effect of video games on her son becoming a valedictorian. It's not the video games that are holding him back, but who am I to be a truth-teller today?

5:22 - Talking about CNN's story about the Saudi Arabians. This is more exciting that my normal Thursday evening, which consists of sitting on my couch in pajama pants and watching 30 Rock. Woo.

5:29 - Mom and her two daughters arrive. I spend most of the conference telling her, and her mom that her 76% isn't acceptable. Mom agrees. That makes sense. This night has been free of drama.

5:36 - Across the gym, the gym teachers are learning to juggle from an engineering teacher. Yeah, us being here is a valuable use of time.......

5:40 - I have a rolly chair. I'm in a gym without anybody to talk to. I may be rolling up and down the length of the court. By "may" I mean "am".

5:45- Just got back from taking a tour of the cafeteria, where the English teachers are. Reassure girl from 5:29 that life will go on, even with a B. Turns out her math teacher said the exact same words I did. 

5:46 - Out of boredom I party-boy my evaluator. General laughter. 

5:57 - Discussion about professional dress. I support teachers needing to wear ties and dress pants to look like professionals. Teacher in jeans and a bowling shirt, amazingly enough, disagrees.

6:06 - Talk to yet another AP kid. At one point I offer to sell them my house. Also refer to my bullet-dodging abilities. 

6:10 - and. I'm. on. twitter.

6:14 - That didn't last long. I guess I'll go get a glass of water. Or gin.

6:33 - Back, sans gin. The book fair dropped off bags of popcorn though, so I've got that going for me.

6:34 - Just noticed that two of my department members are rocking sweater vests this evening. Jim Tressel would be so proud that he would hide the evidence for nine months.

6:40 - Just finished entering grades into the gradebook. Again, more exciting that a normal Thursday. The woman next to me is getting onto sporcle to play history nerd trivia games.

6:48 - I just completed a round trip of the gym on my chair, using the book fair popcorn as a drive-by weapon.

6:49 - Just realized that I smell slightly of B.O. So I'm rolling around in an office chair, throwing food at my peers, and I smell slightly funky. In short, I have become a freshman.

6:52 - there are 9 parents in the gym right now. There are 36 teachers. We have a 4:1 teacher to parent ratio right now.

6:54 - Not that I'm counting, but there are 360 seconds left, and then I'm done with conferences for the year.

6:55 - We're discussing the hotness of the girl in the T-Mobile commercials.

6:59 - No one come through the door! No one! Stay away!

7:00 - And. we're. done.

09 March 2011

Random Observations

Since I'm not really going to publish U-boats anymore, I thought I'd steal an idea from ESPN's Bill Simmons. Back before twitter, Simmons used to publish columns full of random observations. They weren't long enough for a whole column, but they were ideas he thought were worth sharing.

Therefore, I present to you, for the first and probably only time, Random Observations:

I can't believe how many parents of high school students sit in cars 45 minutes before school ends to pick their kids up. Why wait? To get a better spot, so your kid doesn't have to walk as far? Pitiful.

I sometimes think that trained apes would do a better job planning testing schedules than the so-called experts. Why should a student spend 45 minutes writing a rough draft, take a 5 minute break, and then spend 45 more minutes writing the final draft?

I had to watch Seniors for four hours while other classes tested. We may have watched Footloose.

I have a project where 11th and 12th grade students have to simulate living on their own. Ironically, they have to provide their own paper to print the project on.

The more you privatize education, the more the gap between haves and have nots will widen.

More kids believe they will be professional athletes than think they will get their doctorates. That's a sad indictment of society.

At lunch, I play Knowledge Bowl against the Knowledge Bowl team. They tend to win math questions, but I rule at everything else.

My student council sponsoring "Mustache March" was a great plan. High school boys thinking they could grow a good mustache was not.

The more students read, the better they tend to be at writing. Unless they read a lot of vampire books.

I think more and more students think that being done and being done properly are the same thing. The Soviets got to the Moon first. The Americans were the first to get there properly.

Several of my high school teachers would have been fired if they did what they did then now. I'm looking at you, Mr. Carter.

Dr. Dick should have called the Octagon of Punishment the Professional Octagon of Punishment. Then the OOP would have been the POOP.

Secretaries are the most important people in any school. They deserve more than a national holiday. They deserve their own nation. Except the mean ones. They deserve their jobs.

The internet is the best and worst thing to ever happen to education. At the same time.

You know what's missing from schools today? The smell of mimeograph. And accountability.

FoxNews contributors keep saying that teaching is a part time job. I wish Scott Walker could fire them instead of teachers in Wisconsin.

Eating lunch with mouth breathers means you're eating with people who eat with their mouths open. Don't blame them, they don't know they do it.

Pretty much every good teacher is either overconfident or underconfident. Very few are appropriately confident.

The crazier pop stars get, the more clothes teenage girls wear. At least until prom, when they get plenty trashy.

Nothing embarrasses a student more than talking about DBD in class. Unless you're talking about them DBDing, in which case they will be more embarrassed.

The more time I spend in schools, the more cynical I feel. Until graduation day, when all things are possible again.

Democracy is threatened most by an ignorant and uneducated populous.

Multiple choice tests are a great way to see if students know things, as long as you don't care if they know things. 

You want to know what DBD is. It involves what teenagers want to do at a dance. 

90% of students overestimate their own intelligence. The other 10% are asleep when you ask.

Well, that's all I've got for today. As always, thanks for reading!