25 October 2011

Friday U-boat, ed. 14

As per the somewhat usual occasional pattern for U-boats on this fine website, I present for your perusal and enjoyment, something that I saw at  school today.

Listen, I get the sentiment, and it's a good one. In fact, the same students responsible for this banner raised $3500 for the Susan G. Komen organization. However, the execution might lack a bit.

24 October 2011

Kathy Hooks

Every teacher who sticks with teaching for more than the national average of 3 years has someone to thank. In fact, we generally have many people to thank. But each of us has someone who had been there, and done that before us, and who was willing to reach out and help a new teacher. Last week, the world lost one of those people, and I'd like to try and pay a tribute to her in my own mediocre way.

But before I pay my tribute, I'll send you to read her obituary.

Last Sunday, Kathy Hooks, a former co-worker, mentor, and friend passed away. She was a teacher and mentor to me for the three years I spent at River Forest High School in New Chicago, Indiana. River Forest, by the time I got there in 2002, was not a great place. The school, which had once teemed with student life, was a shell of its former self. The building was full of empty rooms, full of dusty memories of better days. The first year I taught there it was the poorest per capita school in the state. The last year I taught there, a student broke in and lit the place on fire. 3/4 of the students received free or reduced lunch. It stood alone, proud in the community, but sad. 

You see, River Forest had been built in the heady days of the early 1960's in Northwest Indiana, a place called "The Region". The Region is a land of proud hard workers, on the South Shore of Lake Michigan. It had been booming with post-war prosperity; three steel mills were operating nearly around the clock. As workers fled Chicago, many made their homes in the bedroom communities along the South Shore Rail Road. New Chicago boomed. There was a need for a high school, and RF was born.

But by 2002, all of the mills had closed. The commuters had moved to St. John and Munster. The area was on the verge of ghetto. The people were tough, and stubborn, and proud, but that wouldn't make the mills re-open. River Forest High School stood alone, strong as it's mascot (the Ingot) as something left from those boom days. 

Kathy was in many ways the soul of River Forest. She had taught there since nearly the school's opening. She had been there when the steel mills were still going strong. In fact, she taught the best man in my parents' wedding. Even as the mills closed and economic collapse set in, she stayed and she taught.  Even as the gangs encroached on the district boundaries, and chaos was knocking at the front door, she stood firm, believing that ALL kids; not just those in good neighborhoods, not just those who had parents who fought to get them in charter schools, not just those with money deserved a quality education.

She didn't just teach, either. Many people in a situation like that (when I met her she'd "only" been teaching at RF for 35 years) are mailing it in until they can get their pension check from the state. Not Kathy. She was still a sparkplug. She was still in the halls. She was still hocking cookies during passing period to support the students she coached in academic decathlon and National Honor Society. That was where she showed me how to make a difference in kids' lives.

Every afternoon after school, the diamonds in the rough met in her room to train for academic decathlon. Kids came to her from a myriad of terrible backgrounds. Sure, there were some from middle class families, but they were the exception, not the rule. RF was the smallest school competing in decathlon, and by far the poorest. She could have easily bred a culture of "happy to be here" and be glad we're competing. But that wasn't the way she was going to do things. If they were going to do it, they were going to do it well. She was unwilling to accept an attitude of poor us. I watched her, year after year, inspire students and push them beyond where they thought they could go. She showed them what hard work could do for them.  They were rewarded. My second year with them, the team was the smallest to qualify for the state competition. I have no memory of how we fared, but I treasure the team picture of us. The look on those kids' faces is priceless. They, the refuse of The Region, the poor, the forgotten and counted out had done something. Kathy's work and dedication were the reason why.

Sure, Kathy received a pile of awards. Hell, the list alone makes up 1/4 of her obituary. But there's a line just before the list of awards starts that speaks more about her than any of those awards ever could. It is this simple sentence:

"Kathy was a retired teacher from the River Forest School Corporation with 41 years of service at River Forest High School in New Chicago, Indiana"

That's the sentence that attempts to summarize a life dedicated to changing lives for the better.  She taught students at one of the most down-trodden places in the world for 41 years. She inspired staff for 41 years. She changed lives for 41 years. She gave 41 years, fully 40% of her entire life and 80% of her adult life to a place and an idea. The place was River Forest, and the idea was that one person could make a difference. The place will never be the same without Mrs. Hooks in the downstairs science lab, and I can only hope that the idea will never go away. I feel confident that with as many lives as she touched, it never will. 

Rest in peace, Kathy, you've earned it.

p.s. Please don't think that Kathy was the only person doing this kind of thing at River Forest. She wasn't. Kirk Whiting, Sandy Mihalik, Jack Burton, Molly Krodel, Gale Robertson and dozens of others are giving their best every day for the kids that society wants to ignore. RF, and the family there, would make for a great documentary. Alas, America doesn't have the heart to watch that story.

10 October 2011

In which I figure out that change made me angry

I realize that many of you read this blog for the anger passion that practically oozes out of my BlazeBloggy pores.

I also realize that I haven't been posting as often as I did last year. Seriously, at points last year, I was posting three or four times a week. I was spewing forth opinions like a FoxNews anchor.

Now? Not so much. Even when I do post, the posts aren't as charged with anger passion as they used to be. Why? Well, I think that there are a couple of reasons. None of those reasons have to do with education reform, which is every bit as misguided and wrong as it has always been. The reasons don't have anything to do with me getting better at teaching, either, since that certainly hasn't happened. Seriously, you should see my test scores. They. Are. Not. Good.

So, I've decided to give you the three reasons that I think I'm not as angry, and therefore not posting as much as I used to. Without further ado, here they are:

The first reason is simple. I'm living with my wife again, and she has a calming influence on me. She helps to put things in perspective. She reminds me to keep my blood pressure down. Also, since she no longer teaches, she no longer has fodder to provide me with. We don't talk about school and teaching at home very much, so I'm thinking about education less. When I lived alone; I ate, slept, and thought education 20 hours a day. (you might think I'm a loser, but I would point out that I didn't have cable, so I was not losing my life to useless TV) Now I think about things like walking the dog and going to the farmers' market on Friday. 

The second reason is that my new co-workers don't like to sit around a talk about education nearly as much as my old co-workers. I think that the school's architecture might have something to do with that, but that's a post for another day. I haven't had a 5 hour session over beers to solve the world's problems quite yet. Without that fuel, I'm just having conversations with myself, and since I generally agree with me, I run out of material pretty quickly.

However, the third reason is the most striking and the most important. I'm not writing as much because I'm not as angry as I used to be. Why is this? How could this be? I mean, I'm teaching 38 kids per class across the board. I have 4 sections of freshmen, including several that are the reason animals eat their young. I'm going to get tested, and struggle to still be a good teacher while knowing that my kids (and I by extension) will be judged by their performance on a multiple choice exam.  I should be spitting fire and breaking desks with the amount of fist pounding that ought to be happening. 

And yet. 

The BlazeBlog is without fire. Without vitriol. Almost without content. 

So, why am I so not angry?

I finally realized that I now work for a district that, despite being under fire for lack of improvement, doesn't go changing all willy-nilly. In fact, the organization we brought in to tell us how to improve basically said, do what you're doing, only better. This is such an amazing change. The last two districts I worked for were best summarized by the old cliche that the only constant was change. We changed programs every nine weeks. We changed schedules, graduation requirements, bells sounds and internet blocking settings as often as we could. It was all in the name of progress and improving student scores. All it did was confuse teachers and students. No one knew what acronym we were currently using. Bells rang that were complete surprises to everyone. All of that change and the speed at which it happened led to anger.

I was angry that we were never given a chance to let good things happen. I was angry that every new idea seemed to dumb down things further and further. I was super angry that we seemed to change just so we could crow to the public that we were changing. We got sick of it and so did we. 

Now I work for a school where I'm using a copy of the bell schedule from four years ago. It was the newest copy they could find.   There is a comfort to knowing that the bell will always ring at the same time. I already know next year's schedule. There won't have to be a series of staff meetings to discuss it. Instead, we can discuss improving as teachers. Our PLC meetings are more productive because we don't have to spend them deciphering what we're supposed to be doing. We don't spend our valuable collaboration time learning new acronyms, but do spend it actually writing good common assessments.

It turns out that teachers are like students; we (I) like a predictable environment. It makes us (me) more comfortable and when we're (I'm) comfortable we (I) are a lot less angry. 

Less change = less anger = less blog posts. So if you're angry about my lack of anger, I guess you should ask my current employer to change more. I don't think they'll do it, but if they do, you'll read about it here first!

03 October 2011

Gettin' Paid

In the words of innumerable rappers, and the incomparable ZZ Top, I got paid today. (I got a pocket full of cash).

Nope, it wasn't a paycheck. In fact, I should write about that, since pay here in the Central Valley seems to be significantly higher than anywhere else. I have more kids, and more is expected of me, but the pay is almost reasonable. I'm sure I'll have to examine that soon.

But today I got paid for this. Yes, that's right, you faithful few who click on ads rewarded me. Google finally made enough money on your clicks to pay me. $103. Doesn't seem like much, but it was awesome.


Mostly because it means that people read this. It means that this is more than a glorified diary.

So, thanks, I guess. You make this worth writing.

To pay you back, I supply to you my favorite 10 Blazin' Blog posts from the last 18 months, including at least one that is no longer available.

10: Celebrating VD Anytime I can suggest that you should buy a teacher Will Smith, I think I have to, right?

9: District Approved U-boat If you don't remember what my old district's benefits page looked like, or how true it was, you should check this out....

8: Best educational commentary  - This is still the best educational commentary of the last decade. Hands down.

7: Eulogize the living!  - This is a post that really captures the emotion of leaving the High Country to come to the Central Valley. It also has a powerful lesson about saying "Thank You".

6:The STFU method of behavior modification  - Dr. Johncock checks in with his plan for fixing behavior plans at number 6

5: My commencement speech  - I'm pretty happy that the first graduates of Vista Ridge asked me to speak. And since I'm vain, I'm pretty happy with the speech I came up with.

4: Parents  - This was, I thought at the time, my opus. I felt like this was the pinnacle for me. I felt like this was the piece that would cause me to break through, to get larger internet recognition. I was wrong, but I still like it as a post.

3:U-boat number 8  - You can't read it anymore, but it had a connection between Pearl Harbor and a guy's girlfriend claiming he was wearing boxers while he was actually free-ballin'. I've actually made it sound more sensible than it did as written. Some days it's too bad that I decided U-boats were too mean.

2:The OOP  - Dr. Dick's finest work. As an aside, I would not Google "Octagon of Punishment" unless you really like MMA.

1: A tribute to Ms. Zika  - She's retired now, and I'm sure cackling with Candy Corn teeth over a bottle of wine somewhere warm, but I know that she changed my life, and many others. The number of page views this post got, combined with the responses I got made me very happy. My brother sent it to her, and she responded very kindly. I'm happy that this blog led me to thank someone I should've thanked years ago. 

And so, again, I'll say thanks! Because without you all clicking, I wouldn't be able to say that I'm a paid educational commentator. Now, I can. Look out world, Dr. Dick and I will hit the road, and we will sell the OOP, STARS and NBR to the masses. We will change education, and your ad clicks got that ball rolling.