Mississippi Teacher Corps. 'Nuff said.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Switching to Vox

I am switching my blog host to Vox. My reasons are that Vox is technically superior, specifically in the areas of privacy, multimedia, and blogger communities. I plan to include more photos in the future, as well as use real names, rather than pseudonyms. You will need to be registered as my friend on Vox in order to read my sensitive posts (such as those mentioning real names).


If you are already a Vox member, please add me to your friends, and I will add you. If know me but are are not a Vox user, please register and I will add you to my friends, so that you can see all my posts. All you need to do is submit your email & password, confirm, then add me to your friends.


This blog address is officially discontinued. I will no longer update here. I have transfered all my archived posts to Vox.

Good to Gone

This is a required blog post. I chose two related topics from the list of several “suggestions”: What should be the goals of MTC? and What are the qualities MTC should look for in an applicant?

I believe the number one goal of the Mississippi Teacher Corps should be to train dedicated, top-notch, career teachers. I mention the “career” part quite pointedly, as that is precisely what we are failing to do. I think it starts with recruitment. I sometimes wonder if we are recruiting the wrong sort of people, at least on that front. Most of our recruits are too young to know what they want to do, so they just end up trying teaching for a test drive before they know any better. They never really chose teaching. They simply had no better ideas, so they ended up here. Therefore, even if they have a good experience, which is not altogether likely, because teaching is tough and these schools are tough, our chances of retaining them in the teaching profession are slim at best. Frankly, I think our recruits are too young for this mission. They are great people, with great academic and service records, but for the most part, they have no idea what they want to do with their lives, and they certainly feel no commitment whatsoever toward teaching as a long-term career. So why, then, does the State of Mississippi invest thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars on each one of them to receive a teaching degree so many of them will never even use? The applicants should be asked tougher questions about their reasons for joining Teacher Corps and their future plans: “What brought you to the decision to apply to Teacher Corps? What other opportunities did you apply for or consider? Where do you see yourself in five years?” If the answers to those questions are insincere or inconsistent with an honest desire to make a career choice out of teaching, I believe Teacher Corps should pass on that candidate. Doing something because you have nothing better to do—even coupled with some vague desire to help people—is not a good enough reason, no matter how good you look on paper.

Yes, Teacher Corps is a pipeline supplying good teachers to schools that otherwise have a lot of trouble recruiting decent teachers. That is an important function. But as it stands, the benefit is short-term only, in most cases, and the investment is completely wasted once the teacher leaves for some other career. The fact is, good teachers, especially in certain subjects like math and science, are in short supply, not only in Mississippi, but all over the world. Therefore, the true benefit of Teacher Corps is measured by the average quality of its teachers times the number of teachers it trains times their average length of service in the teaching career. The last factor is decidedly lacking in Teacher Corps. It could be much better if Teacher Corps redirected its focus in that way.

Dr. Mullins often encourages us not to leave teaching altogether until we at least try teaching at a better-run school. I agree with that advice, and I plan to follow it myself. I also feel strongly that Teacher Corps needs to redouble its efforts to support the teachers it has. Some support is there, I give you that, what with the second-year mentoring and Ben occasionally calling people, and whatnot, but it is far from enough support in extreme cases. Mullins is fond of talking about “improving the percentages.” So Teacher Corps should do the same thing. The better it supports its own teachers, the better the chances that those teachers will not only finish the program, but remain in the teaching profession. I wrote a recent blog entry in which I praised Teacher Corps in supporting me through my depression, but I also critiqued the administration for doing nothing to support its teachers who are going through state evaluations at their schools. I still feel just as strongly today. Since Ben and Dr. Mullins are so fond of Good to Great, I will mention a principal from that book. This is my “red flag.” You need to get on this, Teacher Corps. You need to be proactive. You need to support teachers who go through tough times, even before they ask. You especially need to recognize special circumstances that place unusual strain on your teachers, and you need to get informed about the situation, starting from day one. You need to call those teachers—before it ever gets so bad—and counsel them. And stop blaming them when they finally leave! Everyone has their limits, and bad feelings only harm the organization. Look at your own responsibility, when you had the resources to help, yet you stood by and did nothing. Dr. Mullins never even spoke with her!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Fast Times at E->st Side High

Snap (v. trans.) (us. followed by “on”): To speak harshly to an inferior; to reprimand with an aggressive tone; to lay into; berate; put in one’s place; chew out. Usage: “He fi’n’ ta snap on you!” Ever since my first year or so teaching in Namibia, I have intentionally used yelling and aggressive tones of voice toward my students—no matter how seemingly well-justified—very rarely. I enjoy employing the calm and rational side of my personality more, and it seems more effective on a routine basis, anyway. My feeling, based especially on my first year of experience in the Peace Corps, is that yelling and slamming things very quickly loses its power and becomes a joke to the students. That said, I also recognize that among my black students in the Mississippi Delta, a student who otherwise ignores my warnings and acts in an argumentative, insubordinate manner will often shut up and listen respectfully as soon as I “snap on” him. I think it has to do with a difference between my white, middle-class culture, and their black, lower-class culture. The tone of voice, volume, and assertiveness in speaking can be more powerful in conveying the meaning of a reprimand than the actual words spoken. Sometimes I wonder if perfecting my timing and technique of snapping on students might be the next step in my evolution as a Mississippi Delta teacher. The Algebra I teacher next door to me, who is very well-respected around the school, seems to use the “snap” as her primary tool of classroom management. She has the ability to affect such an imperious, matriarchal tone of voice when she says, “Excuse me!” that her students very quickly fall into line. I know because I hear it through the wall during my planning period. However, I also know that snapping on students can be over-used. My students often complain about one of the English teachers for snapping on them too much, even on the students who are normally well-behaved, and I feel she loses some of the respect they otherwise feel for her because of it.

Because I am still not completely comfortable knowing when and how to “snap” for maximum effect—and because speaking so aggressively feels like a weakness to me, an ambiguous fit, if you will, to my conscience, experience, and personality—I plan to continue using gentle yet pointed verbal warnings and detention slips as the bread and butter of my classroom consequences. I most often call students to “step into my office” or “come sign your warm fuzzy note,” so as to speak to them as an aside. I find that more effective than writing naughty names on the board, as I did last fall, or bringing the detention slip to them at their desk, as I did last spring. When I am at the board and a student is talking out of turn, I sometimes even find myself saying, “Thank you, ________, for not talking while I’m talking!” No one can argue with that. The point is to lower the stakes of any potential confrontation; the issue is between me and that particular student, with less opportunity for the student to demonstrate their toughness to the rest of the class.

“Hobbes” (as I shall call him) is if one my most ridiculous students ever. First of all, he’s fat. The other students tease him for it, which I try my best to squelch, but honestly, he has such a jolly personality, he’s as likely as not just to laugh along with their teasing. He’s not ugly for it, just goofy-looking. Not only is he fat, but he’s hyper, and on top of that, he has a booming voice. The other funny thing is, he has this obsession with decorating things—from coloring his assignment with markers to papering the door for homecoming weekend—but he does a terrible job of it. He just over-does everything and makes it look untidy and cluttered. Again, the other students tease him for doing so much work to make something look so ugly. I just chuckle inwardly and let him do his thing. Honestly, I love him, but Hobbes can really be a bit of a handful because he is, as I say, quite energetic and loud, and like many students, he always seems to have to have the last word. He’s good at heart, though.

So I had an eventful Friday and Saturday. During fourth block, which often gets disrespected on Fridays, a student was called out for something or other to do with the band. It was Hobbes. He was gone quite awhile. When he finally returned to us in the computer lab, the period was mostly over, and he had a can of soda and a bag of chips in his hands. I told him not to come in with that stuff, but another student apparently asked him for the rest of his chips. So, without further ado, he grabbed the other student’s backpack and ran out the door! I went to have a word with him for leaving the classroom without permission, but just as I began to speak, he spotted another student down the hall, breathlessly asked permission to speak to him, and without waiting for a response, he ran down the hall to chat with the other student for about 30 seconds before returning to me. Well, when he got back to me, I really laid into him like never before. I let him know in no uncertain terms who his boss is when he gets in my class, and it sure as heck ain’t him. Every time he opened his mouth, I just raised my tone of voice another notch, and I let him know in every precise way how he was wrong. Then we went back into the lab, and after just one more mention of his name, he almost completely finished his assignment, despite being absent for a large chunk of the period. When another student in the room, who was apparently allowed to be in there, although she was not a part of my class, began to talk out of turn, her friend warned her, “Mr. A gonna snap on you!”

The principal was gone all week. Apparently his mother is on her death bed. So the halls have been a little less well-patrolled during class breaks. I spotted a former student of mine pushing a girl down the hall between third and fourth block, so I shouted his name and wagged my finger sternly at him until he let go. There was as a strange electricity in the air and a gathering crowd around the main hallway intersection. No other teacher was around at the time, so I did my best to shoo the students toward their classes and felt vaguely fortunate to do so without incident.

After school, one of my repeating Transition to Algebra students came to me, asking to get the hat belonging to his friend (whose face I recognized but not his name), which was left in my classroom. They caught me while I had a heavy case of calculators in my hand, so I told them to wait while I put those away in the library. When I returned, they were arguing over a CD player in their hands, which according to district policy they should not have had at school in the first place. When I began speaking to them, now outside my locked classroom, the friend of my student was acting kind of strange and disrespectful. He started out mimicking me, repeating what I said, then he began pretending he couldn’t hear what I was saying. So finally, I told them, “Bye, talk to me on Monday.” I wasn’t about to deal with that crap on a Friday afternoon to help them retrieve something that I never even took from them in the first place. I still had to get my things out of my classroom before I could leave for the day. So as I unlocked the door, this other student tried to push his way inside to get his hat. Maybe I could have backed down, avoided the confrontation, let him take his hat, and written him up for the whole thing afterward, but just because of his rudeness, I felt stubborn and wasn’t about to let him trespass into my room! I stood in the door and held it firmly with my arm blocking the way, as he tried to push his way past. I kept telling him over and over to leave, but he refused and kept trying to push me out of the way. He didn’t give up until I finally pressed the intercom button and told the office staff I had a student in my room who refused to leave. He kind of sulked off after that with a belligerent look on his face. When I saw him in the hall a few minutes later, I asked him to tell me his name, but he just shook his head rudely and muttered something stupid, like, “I don’t remember.” Of course I wrote a discipline referral about it all, and Mr. Bic, the assistant principal, told me he would suspend the student for a week, maybe more. Still, the incident was a little bit upsetting, just because it was the first physical confrontation (besides the odd thrown pen or roll of toilet paper) I have experienced toward my person since I have been at the school.

I was scheduled for duty Friday night for the football game. It was my first time to work the back gate, which turns out to be quite a different experience than the front gate, for several reasons. First of all, you can see the action on the field better. It is also much less busy, and the ticket sellers and ticket takers are positioned much closer together. So it works out to be a bit of a gab session, as you might imagine. (And if you don’t imagine, then you haven’t got a clue.) An ambulance came at one point, then left. Apparently the player turned out to be okay. On the baseball field next door, a crowd of young boys began playing a disorganized version of tackle football with an empty plastic bottle. I was about to call Coach C to let him know, just in case we should chase them off or something, when the other teachers scoffed and told me not to bother. Next thing we know, the sheriff deputy who earlier had muttered something resentful about “babysitting” was over there, shooing them away like pigeons. And one of the teachers mentioned that during fourth block that day, 5 girls and 6 boys were caught in the girls restroom in the science building. The other lady shook her head, laughed, and exclaimed, “That means one of them had two!”

Saturday morning, I got up early to meet two of my best students for the drive up to Oxford. I met “Sonya” first. After some fumbling around trying to make out the mostly-missing addresses in the predawn darkness, I finally managed to wake up the right dog, who barked at me loudly, and her mother came out. She asked if she could follow me to the other girl’s house, just to see us off. I said, sure, no problem. When Sonya came out, she acted embarrassed, but explained it was because of “what happened with the other teacher.” When we got the Gretchen’s house, once again it was a little hard to make out which house it was. I called her cell phone, and she clearly had not woken up yet. She claimed her alarm never went off. So, after waiting in the car and watching the darkness turn to dawn, listening to the early morning music turn into the weekend news on NPR for about 20 or 25 minutes, Gretchen finally appeared, with her hair done up all nice and pretty.

We stopped at Cracker Barrel in Batesville along the way, because that’s my favorite place to eat breakfast (no matter what time of day it is). I always get the same Country Boy Breakfast there, with steak, scrambled eggs with cheese, biscuits with gravy, grits, and fried apples. The server who seated us made a big deal about Gretchen answering so emphatically, “Non!” when he asked us “smoking or non.” I think he was trying to flirt with her, but she pretty much ignored him. The girls wanted to know such pressing questions as, what kind of music do I like, and would I go for the art teacher (if she weren’t married with three kids already!). After seeing the campus, we had some extra time before the game, so we browsed the Square in downtown Oxford. Gretchen gawked at the $200 jeans in a boutique, and somehow, we got to talking about what they like to read, which are of course the trashy gangsta novels so popular with the kids nowadays, the ones with such mystifying titles as G-Spot and the like. I was beginning to see my first hint of their real, um, teenager sexuality. I naively thought of them as being a bit above all that, you know, more sheltered and everything. But everyone has their trashy side, I guess, especially at that age. I was a little relieved to hear Gretchen say she didn’t plan to have kids until she’s 27.

Dr. Mullins was able to meet us at Ole Miss and show us the chancellor’s office, brush the cockroach off the James Meredith monument, take a photo op with us, and rattle off statistics about African-American students at the university. Afterwards, Sonya commented that he seems like a nice man, and I agreed. “He’s a great man,” I added. Despite that, I felt more self-conscious than ever about the whiteness of Ole Miss. Nearly all the fans gathered there, every student in the band, every cheerleader save for one guy, every tailgater, and at least 95% of the student portraits hanging in the Student Hall of Fame were white. I even spotted a flag featuring black and white stripes, with a red cross-out circle over it. I wasn’t sure the precise meaning of the banner, but it seemed ominously anti-integration, and it made me cringe. The girls didn’t say anything, but I wondered at times if they were noticing the same things.

The game was a bit of a dud, and the girls, not being football fans particularly, were eager to leave by halftime. Afterwards, several of us Teacher Corps brought our people together at a pizza place on the Square. My girls, who were a little disappointed to see there were no boys of their own age and maturity, “dumped” me to sit at the other table. I had fun with it. We talked about the goofy Teacher Corps alum who used to teach at my school, told the students he kept his son in the dumpster, went to Japan for a year, then came back and teaches at the same school with a couple of my classmates now. I told my story of the time a couple weeks ago, when I arrived at school in the morning to find my door wide open, a window open, and my computer still on. A mysterious thick fluid lay in spots on the floor beside the computer, and confirming my suspicions, I found some pictures (through a proxy site) of a black woman sucking on the penis of a black man on my Internet browser history! Afterwards, the girls commented that “the future Mrs. A,” as Sonya called her, was "really nice," but her boys "had no manners" at all. They said it looked like one of them spilled his tea on her on purpose, and they thought she was gonna snap on him, but she just said, “What happened?” As we finally made our way back toward the car, the girls told me how much fun they had and said we should do it again every Saturday. I laughed and told them I enjoyed it, too, which is true.

Gretchen must have had a late night. Not only, she slept through her alarm that morning, but also through most of the game, and most of the way home, too. That left me lots of time to talk with Sonya on the long drive home. I started out by asking her what she likes to do, besides homework, that is. She’s the only student I ever saw who actually cheers when homework is assigned or a quiz is announced! Well, she started telling me about her boyfriend, and for whatever reason she really opened up to me. It came out that her boyfriend “goes both ways,” as she put at first. He’s bisexual. His mom kicked him out of the house when she found out, he dropped out of high school, and now he lives with some guy he’s involved with. Hearing about that situation, I told her to make sure she protects herself with him, “You know what I mean, right?” She kind of squirmed a little bit and admitted that although she tried to use a condom, he has sometimes “put a hole in it” so that it breaks. I said, “What?!?!” I tried to be understanding of how she feels, but I couldn’t help myself from telling her, over and over, that she really, really needs to get away from that guy. He clearly does not have her interests at heart, if that kind of stuff is going on.

Now, Sonya is the most quiet, shy, unassuming, responsible student you will ever see in a high school. I told her the good I see in her, what a blessing she is to our school, and what a bright future she has ahead of her. But that $#%! I just told you, that’s not even the half of it! We got to talking some more, and it turns out that she was the very student who Mr. _______ got fired for earlier this year. It happened at a football game. He said something about, if she were his age, blah blah blah, and then they got to flirting, and then he invited her back to the ISS room, and they made out back there, and according to her, they did just about everything but actual sexual intercourse while a male student stood watch outside. Eventually, someone convinced her to report the incident, and now she worries that Mr. _______ must hate her now, and what’s gonna happen if she sees him at Wal-Mart. She said it’s not really his fault, and I told her, no, it is. It is his fault! As a teacher, he knew it was wrong. He knew better. He way, way crossed beyond a line he should have never gotten close to. Every teacher knows it is not only unethical but illegal. I asked her if it ever happened with anyone else. She said it happened with a couple other girls last year, but they never reported it.

“I’m so weak,” she said. “I wish I had you over my shoulder when I make those decisions,” she said. And I went home that night feeling like somebody kicked me in the gut. “So much goes on around here, I don’t even know!” I told Gretchen after dropping Sharon off. “Tell me about it,” she said. This is one of my best students ever, and I’m worried she might get HIV/AIDS.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

World of War

This has been the best week of the school year for me. It all changed when I decided to stop playing World of Warcraft. I was fooling myself to think I could somehow indulge my computer games addiction while balancing it against the demands of my profession, etc. Playing that stupid game every available and unavailable hour of the day was sapping all my energy and perpetuating my depression. Computer games are my only addiction, I tell you. Always has been that way for me. Now that I have deleted WoW from my hard drive (and stopped taking Lexapro), I have started to catch up on sleep, my energy levels have returned to normal, and my outlook has improved quite a bit. I have been productive during my planning period, grading papers and whatnot, for the first time in quite a while. I still have a long way to go to catch up to where I should be in various responsibilities, but at least I am now moving in the right direction.

As the year marches along, people occasionally ask about my plans for next year. As it stands, three alternatives stand out in my mind:

  1. Teach in New York City. I love cities. I love subways and skyscrapers and urban grit, and ever since adolescence, I have felt drawn to the Big Apple as our biggest, most important, most cosmopolitan city. I want to live there for at least a few years before I die. It would also be a good way to finish off my student loans by teaching in critical needs schools for three more years. It could be a public or charter school.
  2. Teach in an international school, anywhere in the world, from Cairo to Bangkok to São Paolo. I refer of course to those private schools that typically cater to the children of diplomats and the like in capitals and other important world cities. I think it would be a blast! I would meet more of my favorite kind of people: world travelers. I would travel and see more of the world. I would probably even become a better teacher and at least get a different perspective teaching children of more educated parents, in a well-run, ambitious school.
  3. Join the Marines. Crazy as it sounds, I am still thinking seriously about the military. I am something of a moderate pacifist, at this point. I opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning, but recently I have come around to believe that, now that we got ourselves in there and overthrew the previous government, we have a responsibility to leave it in peace, not in chaos. What draws me is the danger, the adventure, the challenge (completely different in many ways from teaching), and the moral ambiguity of it. The way I justify it is this: The war is happening, with or without me. People are going to be holding those M-16’s in their hands, with or without me. Might as well be me. I think I have a slightly more developed sense of moral conscience than the average G.I. Joe. I might have something important to say at the end of it all, and I have the writing skills, as well as the conscience and the passion to do so. So it might as well be me.

Teacher Corps has been very supportive of me as I have struggled through my recent depression. I am grateful to Dr. Mullins and Ben Guest for taking an interest and helping arrange for me to seek treatment. Even Dr. McConnell sent me an encouraging note. I commend them for this.

That said, I take issue with Teacher Corps. We recently lost one of our best teachers. Much as I teased her for being “perfect,” the fact is she was not. None of us are. But as a pure classroom teacher, you will find none better, anywhere, ever. I respect her as a friend and a colleague. Now she is lost to the teaching profession forever. Anyone who questions her decision to leave, I say, you go and become the best teacher in Teacher Corps, then get put on an “improvement plan” (in truth a preliminary step toward firing lazy, incompetent teachers) for completely scandalous reasons, then let’s see how you feel about your job! It burns me that some of my colleagues feel judgmental toward her leaving. It also burns me that Teacher Corps as an organization is apparently doing nothing to support our teachers who are going through state evaluations. This became abundantly obvious when Ben was asked last Saturday if there is anything we should know if, say for instance, the state were coming to take over our school. He had no effing idea! The Teacher Corps administration has left some good teachers to the wolves, and they bear some share of the responsibility if things go badly. In my opinion, losing one of our best teachers to the profession entirely is a far greater harm and a greater tragedy than the loss to a few students when she picks up and leaves in the middle of the year. Teacher Corps should have been supporting her and her colleagues from day one, before it ever came to any of this. Our professor is just a phone call away from the state superintendent, for crying out loud! How does this happen? You should do your homework and support your teachers, Teacher Corps—even if they are too proud to ask—just like you supported me. Not that Teacher Corps necessarily could have prevented this. Ultimately, it was always her decision to leave. But it is also clear that the Teacher Corps administration did nothing to help and likely only made the experience more miserable for her once she decided it was time to go. And that, to me, is a damn, damn shame!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

All My Lovely Lovelies

I love my students. I've been noticing that a lot lately. Sometimes I call them my “beautiful chldren” and want to hug them all. I never used to feel quite that way about teaching. I used to be a lot more cool and strictly down to business, but starting last spring and continuing this fall, I have come into a more natural balance between inner affection and outward professionalism that feels just right to me. Now, seeing the good and the beauty in each of my students, watching them mature, learning their stories whenever possible, and coming to appreciate the uniqueness that makes them each human is one of the best parts of being a teacher. Oh, I am still down to business most of the time during class. The classroom is a busy place, so we don’t usually have a lot of time for idle chit-chat. I just like being around the students and enjoy the less formal opportunities that come along as they do.

For example, yesterday morning, just as I was about to start my first block Algebra II class, an announcement came over the intercom that all eleventh graders were to meet in the gymnasium to take some sort of test. As that removed 80% of my class, it seemed pointless to hold a normal class session. So after watching the Channel 1 broadcast in more blessed peace than usual, I broke out the games, and we spent the entire period playing Set, while one of my students got caught up on some of her homework. It was fun to interact with my students in the smaller group and more casual atmosphere. I learned that one of my good students in that class is extremely competitive. She kept having to play me over and over again, trying to beat me, talking trash and asking how I could sleep at night, finally resorting to calling me a “cheater” at the end for no other reason than because couldn’t beat me. It was all in good spirits, though. It was fun to see the other students, her classmates since grade school, chide her for her competitive spirit. They joked that she competes with her sister in brushing her teeth in the morning!

Part of enjoying my students has been feeling comfortable with them and allowing my sense of humor to come through. For instance, my students never cease to complain about the dark smudges left when I touch their papers, as my hands are usually covered dark with whiteboard marker dust. In return, I joke with them that my fingerprints are actually quite valuable, because someday I will be a famous criminal. Today, when someone complained that I left their paper black, I answered, “That’s because I’m black." That got a good laugh from everyone who heard it. (I must admit, I'm rather proud of that one. Given the context of race as a white teacher in an all-black high school, it was one of my best one-liners ever!) The next block, one of my students tried to play a trick on me. Several students had been asking for more graph paper. I was telling them okay, as long they bring me some of their trick-or-treat candy the next day. (I was kidding about the candy—mostly!) Well this one student, normally one of my quieter and more studious, started to ask for more paper, but when I got to the part of what are you going to bring me tomorrow, he said, "Nothing!" and whipped out his paper that he had saved from yesterday. I said, "Haha! You're so funny, you get detention for gum!" Which was true, he was chewing gum. But his neighbor thought my come-back was funny enough to repeat it to the rest of the class. I never used to joke like that. It sure makes the workday more fun though! I believe the students enjoy and respect it more, too.

I really do believe there is something good and beautiful in each student. Hey, don’t get me wrong, some students are certainly easier to appreciate than others! But a student who does nothing academically in my class sometimes gives me the best compliments and responds well to any positive remark on my part. Or the student who got sent to alternative school last year for beating up another student turns out to be one of my best, most respectful students, one of the true pleasures of my day. Even those students who give me nothing but a pain in the butt most of the time occasionally have their moments when I just feel like hugging and kissing them.

One of my students today told me I should have kids of my own because, he said, “You’re a good roll model for me.” I laughed at first, then thanked him. This particular student has a tendency to try to butter me up, and I’ve told him as much. Still, I guess I tend to believe there is a kernel of truth—whether irony or hyperbole—in just about everything anyone ever says. No matter how facetious or insincere, it still comes from somewhere. So I choose to believe he really meant the compliment, although I also take it with the appropriate skepticism. On a similar note, I am looking forward to taking two or three of my better students to Oxford this weekend with Dr. Mullins’ football tickets. My best student from last year already turned in her “why I want to go see Ole Miss” letter to me. She mentioned that one of her reasons is to go with her “favorite teacher.” Of course that makes me feel good! I really enjoy having these good relationships with my students who often are far from perfect, but altogether loveable.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Evolution of a Desk-Sitter

One big way my teaching style has changed is that I have become a much more relaxed classroom manager. The style I brought from my experience in Namibia was a very strict, shut-up-and-listen sort of approach born largely out of the fact that there, my students were speaking in their mother tongue, which made it difficult to impossible for me to judge the appropriateness of their talking. I am now willing to tolerate a fair bit of talking, as long as it remains appropriate and at a somewhat reasonable volume level, and the students listen while I am talking to them. Both ends of the spectrum have their advantages and their disadvantages, and the trick is to find the happy medium that is most comfortable and useful. I find that the stricter approach is easier to enforce consistently, while the less strict approach is easier to maintain participation and enthusiasm.

I was about to say I have allowed the classroom management pendulum to swing too far in the other direction this year, but that's not really it. Truth be told, my classroom management is none too good right now, not so much because of a stylistic shift, but because I am just barely hanging on in every aspect of my life. The depression mentioned in earlier posts is still very much in force, and it affects my productivity profoundly. It is all I can do most days just to show up, so the legwork (i.e. paperwork, follow-through, and phone calls) necessary to be a really good classroom manager are just not getting done. I think my style would be sound enough if I were more productive on the back end.

My teaching style has also changed in how I choose to spend class time. Basically, I spend a lot more time waiting for students to do something, and less time telling them how. I often alternate between an example that I work out on the board and a "try now" example, for instance.

Recently, my school purchased several Texas Instruments Navigator systems. The Navigator is basically a semi-wireless network for the TI-8x graphing calculators. My favorite feature of the Navigator system is the ability to do "quick polls," which are basically instantaneous question-and-response's you can send and collect at any time. All I have to do is point to a problem, press quick poll, and tell the class to type on their calculators what they think the answer is. Their responses show up instantly on my computer. It is sort of like using the individual white board panels to have students respond and hold up their answers, but with several significant advantages. On the Navigator, you have a way to mark the correct answer and get an instant count of how many got it right. Another huge advantage is that the responses are permanent, and you can see them all from one place. You can save the results to use as a participation grade. You can give very immediate, individual feedback without having to walk around the room all the time. In the time it takes to walk over and look at one student's paper, I can tell at least four different people exactly what they did right or wrong without even leaving my computer screen. It even helps me to distribute meaningful praise! Indeed, the Navigator system has changed the way I teach, as I now spend more productive class time actually sitting down, waiting for students to respond and giving them feedback! When combined with specific praise (writing names on the board as "stars" of the day works for me), this style seems to help the middle "third" of my students stay more engaged and more motivated during the lesson itself. And I stay more in touch with exactly how many students are "getting it."

Unfortunately, many of my TI classroom calculators were stolen while I was absent the other day, but I still have the Navigator system itself. Lots of theft and stuff has happened at the school lately. Other teachers had a laptop and a desktop computer stolen, and the library was broken into just yesterday. Frustrating!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Kill Yourself

Is Teacher Corps making a difference? My gut says no.

Have you ever heard of the Law of Thirds? The Law of Thirds says there are three distinct groups of people. (The relative proportions may vary, but we call them thirds for shorthand.) The law of thirds pertains to teachers and leaders of all sorts. According to the Law of Thirds, the first group of people will be successful no matter what you do. You simply usher them from one success to another. The middle third are the ones you can do the most to influence. They need your influence and are receptive to it. Then you have the bottom third. These are the one who cannot be helped. Some people are simply too stubborn or lazy or stupid to change, no matter what you do. You can sing in falsetto, and they won’t listen. You can parade naked ladies, and they won’t pay attention. (Of course, I exaggerate, but you get the idea.) A school is a culture, and cultures act a lot like people. They have to want to change! Teacher Corps attempts to help the students of Mississippi by sending new teachers to the worst of the worst schools—cultures of failure, to put it bluntly—and expects what, exactly?

There is a mythology at play here that needs to be addressed. Popular culture circulates an unrealistic archetype of the individual altruist hero single-handedly turning an entire village, classroom, or school, on its head. It is an appealing notion. Send one Peace Corps volunteer to Africa and you can change an entire village. “Sustainable development” is the catchphrase. And you know what? It is complete hogwash! There is a kind of idealistic hubris to it, as if we select few know something the rest of the world does not, indeed the very secret to happiness. As if all we have to do is whisper it in someone’s ear, and all will be well! The lone, amazing teacher who changes everything is a feel-good story, to be sure, but it is the stuff of movies, not everyday reality. “Stand and Deliver” and movies like it are only loosely based on reality, at best, and only present the entertaining, Hollywood side of the story. Many of them are completely fictional, and those based on true stories are at best one in millions: Rare, and in some cases (such as Stand and Deliver) dubious upon closer inspection. Miracles are just myths, and no one can measure up to a myth. People and cultures are the way they are because of forces much larger than the influence of one individual (not to mention itinerant) outsider.

The fact is, every Teacher Corps teacher is temporary. The other teachers, the principals and superintendents, the parents, and even the students, will all be here long after we are gone. The thefts and the fights, the inane interruptions over the intercom and countless interruptions to the school day, students wandering the halls all day long, the aimless leadership from the top down, and the almost contagious apathy were here before us and will also remain.

As unpopular as the “troop surge” in Iraq has been domestically, it makes sense to me. If our soldiers are to be engaged in Iraq at all, sending adequate numbers is elementary. You cannot win a war if your soldiers are spread too thin to control the situation on the ground. I wonder how different Teacher Corps is. How much change do you really expect to make with 20-30 new teachers per year in an entire state? Each of us is but one of many teachers. We are one out of at most three Teacher Corps teachers at our schools. We are temporary, we are outsiders, and we are outnumbered. There is no way we are going to change the schools.

By the phrase “making a difference,” I think of something big, something lasting, something systematic and world-changing. On such terms, my answer is no. We make our differences on a small scale. There is no doubt in my mind that I am a better teacher than my students would have had for Algebra II without me. I also think I have made some positive influence (just by my presence, reminding them that “Kill yourself!” is not a respectful thing to say, teaching them how to play chess and Set, etc.) in the lives of a few students. I love my students (some of them more than others) and I think a few of them may even love me back in their own, mostly unspoken ways. But those are exceptions, and those students who love me most are probably the ones who would have succeeded, even without me. I have not set the world afire, nor will I.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

resignation U.S.A.

if i leave this voicemail on the wrong
machine, would you do me the kindness

to publicize it anyway? i never meant to
plead guilty, dog fighting is a terrible

thing, and i never used testosterone.
it’s a world of neurotransmitters and

decline of an empire: this is beer. she keeps
herself groomed. we used to read out loud in

bed and sing each other songs. because i’m
29, and you’re 20, you are entirely too young

to say “love of
my life” at all.


Probability can easily lay claim as the most misconstrued concept in mathematics. Random means random. Some number, between 0 and 1 represents the likelihood that an event will happen. Simple as that. Probability is the knowledge of uncertainty. It is not that hard, but it can feel a little counterintuitive unless you think very clearheaded about it.

How many times must we hear otherwise intelligent, educated individuals say things like, “Mr. ______ should go the casinos, he kept rolling 7’s!”? Complete nonsense! Past results have no bearing whatsoever on future results. Humans are super pattern-finding machines; we see patterns even when they don’t exist! Thus some people cling to irrational notions of lucky or unlucky streaks. Past results are next to irrelevant! We only use sampling to estimate true probabilities when the true probabilities are otherwise unknowable, which is far from the case with simple dice. Others cherish the ill-conceived notion that the numbers should “even out” somehow. Again, the past results are irrelevant. We would only expect the results to exactly match their true probabilities as the sample size approaches infinity. Because we will not be sitting here rolling the dice until the universe ends, you should not expect the numbers to “even out” necessarily!

I love probability as a concept, so it pains me to witness these fallacies uttered like ignorant grunts by my colleagues in education, some of whom actually teach high-level mathematics! Some mathematicians see geometry, ratios, or calculus in everything. I see probability. Randomness is everywhere. Randomness is beautiful!