Posted by: Magistra | March 22, 2008


Last week I had another induction program seminar to go to (where once again, this program reminded us how much better it is than all the others – nothing says “superior” like dissing the other teams). Most of the video clips they show are of elementary classrooms. After such a clip when we are given some prompt to discuss, a moment arises where the high school teachers start complaining about how our students aren’t like that. They aren’t enthusiastic, they aren’t curious, they don’t listen. This time the focus was on hand-raising.

Now, I too complain about students. I have rough periods, I get frustrated when something I put a lot of time into is received with scorn or apathy, and I get tired of being on the receiving end of verbal abuse. My next door teacher, who has many of the same students I do, hears most of my venting (my mother also gets more than her share). I don’t think you will ever convince me venting does not have its place.

Granted, I don’t really know the people at these seminars (which is why they do not hear me vent). Maybe they’re using these seminars the same way I use my next door neighbor. But the cumulative effect of all these complaints makes me wonder, do they really not know why students don’t raise their hands?

There are times when I too would like my students to raise their hands. But I know why they don’t – my actions tell them not to. I don’t insist on it. I often react to what people shout out or mumble. I respond to comments called out. I even appreciate and praise unsolicited comments. I have absolutely no consistency about hand-raising. So, yeah, I wish my students would wait patiently sometimes, but I am under no illusion that they can’t do that or that they wouldn’t do that. I’m the one who can’t wait. And I know there are whole groups of students who aren’t effectively served by this, and working on establishing when it is okay to have an informal dialogue and when it’s better to have a formal exchange is on my personal list of “areas for growth.” But I cannot imagine the day I start complaining about a procedure to a group I know only through a professional association. It’s like they showed me their scarlet letters.

Posted by: Magistra | March 13, 2008


The third quarter ends tomorrow. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had one conversation bouncing around in my head, sometimes at the front, demanding my full attention, other times quieter in the back, whispering at me. I was talking to G (the initial having no relationship to his actual name). G has previously made comments about how the last time he learned any math was in third grade and that starting in fourth grade he stopped getting it. Turns out, I’m the first math teacher G has ever had. Think about that for a second. He’s in 9th grade and he’s never had a “real” math teacher.

When G was talking, he automatically overlooked his elementary teachers. There’s a good discussion to be had there, but I’m more interested in G’s perspective than a adult’s explanation of why that’s an incorrect assumption. After all, even if you leave out K-6, there’s still grades 7 and 8. Seventh grade he never had a “real” teacher. G’s definition of “real” is someone who isn’t a substitute (long-term or otherwise). 7th grade math was a series of substitutes. 8th grade math started out with a “real” (meaning full time, presumably credentialed) teacher, but she “freaked out” after a couple of months. She broke down in the classroom, yelling and crying, and was gone the next day. Now G’s got me, a first year teacher.

The other thing that’s been in my head, is that no student has asked me if I’m leaving this quarter. I first got asked the question towards the end of 1st quarter. At the time I basically dismissed it. It’s September, the year is barely starting, how can you think I’m leaving? When we came back after Thanksgiving (when the students had the whole week off), I overheard a group of students saying they were surprised I was there. At least I understood it then. Second quarter, in particular one student who has since been transferred, was not easy. Before winter break, students asked me if I would be there in January.

We’ll, it’s March now, and they’re still stuck with me. If nothing else, I have demonstrated consistency. I have been reliable. I have been the most consistent, the most reliable, and the only “real” math teacher G has ever had. I’m in my first year and if you made a highlight reel of G’s math education, I’d be in it. Hell, I’d star in it.

I want to be filled with righteous indignation for G, for my other students with the same story. But I’m tired. I’m tired of trying to teach Algebra and reinforce number sense, and maybe encourage problem-solving, and strengthen vocabulary acquisition. In the classroom, I see the bar I want them to meet, and I expect them to work towards it, every day. But after they leave, and I remember this conversation with G, and the other questions about will she still be there?, the bar seems monumentally unreachable, and possibly irrelevant.

Yet tomorrow morning they’ll be back and so will I. They’re stuck with me.

Posted by: Magistra | February 27, 2008

The Best and the Worst

Bomb threats are old. We’ve had multiple (all false) this year. It’s a waste of time, a waste of resources, a waste of just about everything. Every time, they find the students responsible. This time, they pulled them out while we were still evacuated. This time, it’s a couple of my students involved. (Or is it allegedly involved? Either way, I don’t think I’ll be seeing them for a while.)

To completely change subjects, my small learning community (SLC) rocks. I was randomly put in the right place and I’m loving it. Teachers talking about students, teachers planning overlapping or complimentary assignments, students starting to notice we want their best inside and outside any particular classroom – it’s great. The school has its problems, but my SLC has completely spoiled me. I can’t imagine ever wanting to return to a traditional comprehensive high school.

Posted by: Magistra | February 24, 2008

Friday Fight

Friday morning, two of my students were suspended for actions they took in my classroom. Let’s call them Frank and Bob. Bob walks across the room to get his work. I didn’t see this, but on the way back Frank says Bob looked at him. The first one I hear speaking is Frank, essentially saying, “You wanna piece of me?” (only in more current slang). Bob responds, but much more quietly so I am not sure what he said, but I assume it was in kind. Both boys are now standing up, staring at each other, speaking this garbage. I put on the Teacher Voice and tell them to sit down and stop talking. Although they stop advancing on each other, they don’t stop talking or sit down. I really need to break their eye contact. So I walk over. The way their desks are, I have to get up close to break their eye contact. After they are forced to look at me and not each other, each boy sits down. Of course I now have to leave the immediate vicinity to get back to the telephone. In the time it takes me to call the office and say I need assistance immediately, both boys are back up, Bob’s friend is now also standing up, and the obnoxious girls in my class (none of these students is officially a gang member, but if pushed, most would pick Frank’s side) are now joining in, telling Frank he’s doing the right thing. Bob is starting to move towards the door (I later find out it’s because he’s telling Frank he won’t fight him in the classroom, but he’s ready to go outside to settle this), so I encourage him and his friend to step outside. Just as I’m getting them outside (with me standing in the doorway), one girl says, “I know where they live.” At this point, I use the Teacher Voice on all of them and tell them to stop talking and sit down. At first they just switch to whispering, but after the second command, they got the message. It felt like an eternity, but it was probably less than a minute before security was there. I sent Frank and the girl to the office first, and then later Bob and his friend.

Up to this point, I’ve been calm. I wasn’t really aware of feeling anything. Now that the moment is over, I feel the adrenaline racing through my body. If I hadn’t had 30 students watching me, it would have been really easy to just let the tears come and get it out. But there are 30 students, so the tears get shoved down and I do my best to hide my shaking hands behind my back. I tell them (again in Teacher Voice) that fighting and threats have absolutely no place in this classroom. When some of them start trying to defend Frank, I tell them we’re not going to talk about it. Now some of them want to know if I’m mad, or if I’m sad, and I’m not ready to tell them I’m both, neither, and way more than either. One girl says that just because two boys messed up, it’s not fair to take it out on all of them. Now I jump straight to being mad. Mad that they think tearing people’s names off their work (as has happened to Bob’s friend), jeering at students, and cheering Frank on weren’t a part of what just happened. So I tell them that we all contribute to the environment of this classroom and I paraphrase the line from the Holocaust. “First they came for the Jews, and I did nothing because I am not a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I did nothing because I am not a Catholic. Then they came for the Gypsy’s, and still I did nothing because I’m not a Gypsy. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to do anything.” I’m sure I bungled it up, and I purposely left out homosexuals because I just couldn’t add that to our conversation right then, but it served its purpose. Whether they stopped talking because they saw my anger or because they understood the point I was trying to make, or a little bit of both, I don’t know. At the time, I didn’t really care.

It was nice when, later that day, I spoke with the assistant principal and he started the conversation by asking, “How did you stop them from throwing actual blows?” I don’t know how I thought the conversation would go, but it was unexpected and very nice to be complimented on handling the situation and to see his confidence in me go up. It was in great contrast to how my induction program advisor responded when I saw him. His first reaction was to ask if I was afraid at any point. I said no. Neither boy was going to hit me. Certainly, if I’d been between them and they’d really wanted to go at each other, I could have been accidentally shoved or tripped, but neither boy was going to attack me. Bob, in his messed up way, even showed respect for the classroom by saying the fight had to happen outside.

Then my advisor asked if even a part of me was thinking about leaving and if I was, he’d be happy to write me a letter of recommendation. At this point, I laughed. Leave? Because two teenage boys were idiots? I did remember to thank him for offering to write a letter, but his reaction still seems bizarre.

Writing this, two days later, I feel like I should make some larger point. After all, every high school teacher can tell a fight story. And maybe my advisor’s reaction is that point. That teachers deal with a lot of bad behavior and at some point, a line must be drawn. But I’m not seeing a meta-story here. I’m seeing two 9th grade boys, one of whom will become a father any day now, and the other who has a B- now after never even getting to 60% last semester. Two boys who messed up, and might keep messing each other up, but two boys who need to, and can, be better than that moment.

Posted by: Magistra | February 21, 2008


  • pouring (both to describe a hard rain and the motion from pitcher to cup)
  • drizzle
  • niece
  • nephew
  • strategy

Those are some of the words two of my intermediate ELL’s and I have discovered over the last two rainy day breaks. Okay, granted I knew the words, but I didn’t know where Guadalajara was (telling moment, or, in teacher-speak, a formative assessment: the girl born in Guadalajara couldn’t find it on the map, but the girl from Tijuana could). I also made them laugh by trying to roll an “rr”.

Generally, I try to avoid giving advice to other teachers, but if I were to tell teachers one thing about making it feel safe for ELL’s and getting them to participate in class, I’d tell them to get over their own inhibitions and use whatever limited language skills they have. Might sound easy for me to say with 90+% of my language learners speaking Spanish and me having grown up in California (and it certainly helps), but if you don’t have them, get the kids to teach you words. For example, “handisar” means geometry in Arabic (please read phonetically, I am not going to figure out how the actual Arabic letters would be transcribed). My students push me to use my Spanish (seeing if I can say the number in Spanish is a recurring “game”) and always want to answer my questions about vocabulary, conjugation, and article/noun agreement. In return, I think they are more willing to ask me questions when I say “convoluted” or “blunt” or any of the other hundreds of words I speak a day.

When I subbed (and on the first day of class), I had a similar approach to taking roll. I call it “Butcher Your Name.” Before I took roll, I’d tell them that I always hated roll because reading my first name never helps anyone pronounce it, and it’s painful to hear your name butchered. I tell them that if I screw up on their name, they’ll get the first chance at the end to screw up mine. Then I confidently announce each name (confidence is key, even if you’re clueless) and when I get to the inevitable Zxygrieman s/he generally laughs and the whole class laughs at the end when the “lucky” students get to butcher my name.

I may be new to this teaching thing, but I already know that just because something works for one teacher, doesn’t mean it will work for others. Nevertheless, I still think teachers should push their language boundaries. I think that if you can show kids you’re comfortable with mistakes, they’ll be more comfortable making mistakes. Of course, this advice comes from someone who told a student to write down “my teacher’s a moron” today.

Posted by: Magistra | February 19, 2008

Time Flies

Today, with the help of my generous next door teacher, I made plans to visit my RSP students in their study hall. Ideally, this will help some freshmen boys get that doing work there matters (or at least get them to finish some work for my class), give a Geometry student some more time with me and the material, and show the other Geometry students that yeah, I mean it when I say I want you to be mentally and physically there, all the time (even outside my classroom).

Tomorrow I’ll miss a department meeting and (much worse) an opportunity to watch a playoff game, to attend an induction program seminar on meeting the needs of special populations. Right now, it’s really not feeling like a good use of my time.

Posted by: Magistra | February 15, 2008

Power of Seven

Today there were seven minutes in Algebra when I was afraid to breathe. Seven minutes during which I could hear students pressing the buttons on their calculators. At the end of class one student came up, trying to give me his completed assignment. I told him to turn it in. He looked perplexed, and he is new this semester, so I asked him if he knew where to turn work in. “No, I never do anything, so I never turn anything in.” And he was part of the seven golden minutes today. (By the way, strictly speaking, he wasn’t telling the truth, but pretty close to it.)

Those seven minutes weren’t the only miracle. I spoke with two girls who are consistently obnoxious. One wouldn’t stop making sarcastic comments after every thing I said or did today, so I told her to step outside (not her first trip). A couple minutes later, I told her I wanted her to come back to class, but she needed to stop making comments like that. She consented and went back inside. Ten minutes later when she made another comment, I asked her what the agreement was to stay in class. She said (without her usual grin), “to do my work and not make comments” and then she went back to doing just that.

The other girl just blew up at the special-ed aide, and I told her publicly that discourtesy would not be tolerated and to step outside and calm down. Again, I went outside and again had a good discussion. It wasn’t perfect, she was never willing to take full responsibility for her rudeness (blaming the aide for helping her when she didn’t ask for help and giving me a line about “speaking truth and truth hurts”), but we managed to talk about what exactly bothers her (physical proximity) and she reluctantly agreed that I would speak with the aide and that she would try to ask the aide politely to talk to her from farther away if it happened again.

As far as I can tell, there was nothing significantly different about how I approached the girls or the words I used.  My induction program advisor wants to put it down to consistency paying off, but I think a post-Valentine’s slump in energy or the hypnotic effect of  graphing calculators is just as likely responsible. Whatever it was, it was a good start to my day. I honestly can’t remember the last time Algebra started my day off well. There have been plenty of okay days this semester, but not a good day.

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