Wednesday, May 6, 2015

An exhausted blogger tries to write a post

I'm having a very hard time recovering from a grueling 27-week stretch at school. I've noticed this week that I'm having a hard time getting to work promptly. I'm still on time, but in the teachers' world on time really means before one has to be at work. I'm getting there when I'm obligated to be there, but not when I normally get there. Fatigue, momentum (inertia?) are powerful forces for students, as they are for teachers.

But there are some signs I'm getting things right.

The above Post-It was left on my desk by an intelligent and inquisitive young woman who has been with me all year. When stumped as to what to do for a Law project, and when she offered that she's intrigued by issues of justice across national borders, I recommended she watch Dear Zachary. This was the response. I love watching a student like this think for the next six weeks.

Compliments like this are pretty weighty.

The above compliment might be the most satisfying vindication of my work. I have made real strides making my classroom a more engaging place. I pride myself on the tone I set. I also took a lot of risks in what I permitted in my classroom this year. I appreciate how this student gets what I've been trying to do. Ironically, a step in the direction of "not treating [students] as 1st grade children" was going to an elementary school / home school supply store and getting bins filled with highlighters, Post-Its, and colored pencils.

A student's summation of what he learned from an online simulation as to how one can balance the federal budget. Lesson accomplished. 
That's all for now.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Just because I can doesn't mean I should

In the last nine weeks I have learned that I can teach three different courses in one day. I also learned that it's something I shouldn't do again for a long time. 

For many high school or middle school teachers, having three different courses at a time might be commonplace. In the jargon of teaching, we call it having "three preps" (though "prep" also refers to the period set aside to complete work for one's teaching . . . I have one of those per day and can only dream of having three). In specialized subject areas in my district, three preps might be common. In schools that are smaller and that feature 45-minute periods rather than 90-minute blocks, it might be more common. So I don't look for sympathy bringing up my plight. In my own corner of the educational universe having three preps is unusual. Two or just one is much more likely. And nine weeks of teaching three preps has shown me the benefits of the normal arrangement rather than this aggressive one. 

Since late January, my typical day looked like this: arrive at school, work through my scheduled prep period, then teach Intro. to Law (no one calls it Introduction to Law), supervise homeroom, eat lunch, teach AP Macro (again, we never call it by its full name), and conclude my day with AP U.S. History. 

There are some neat things to come of this arrangement. I wasn't bored. In fact, it was quite nice to not find myself repeating instruction more than once in a day. Also, I did a better job listening to the students and reading the classes' moods. Finally, I stopped formal lesson planning. There were, on most days, plans to what I was doing. But the sequence of activities and learnings were informally represented through a series of "detail sheets" and calendar posts in my plans. I might have shown myself that I need to question the time I might be tempted to spend next marking period engaging in formal lesson planning. 

The downsides are obvious, though. I could tell I was defaulting more into teacher-centered instruction by the end of the nine weeks, particularly in my AP U.S. class at the end of the day. Simply, I ran out of time to prepare good activities that would put the learning in their hands. Too easy, instead, to talk my way out of a class and period of history. I also noticed it in AP Macro where I wasn't able to find the time and space to do some of the simulations I typically do with the students. 

The end of the day, at 2:30, saw me very tired. I don't know if I was as good of a father, husband, and friend because I was spent. Heck, the end of a class saw me tired, and sometimes students would ask me very specific individual non-content questions I couldn't answer. 

If anything came up to disrupt my prep period, the lost time cascaded throughout my day and meant at minimum one of my classes wouldn't go off as well as it should. 

Having to grade a big assessment would upset the rhythm of what I was doing, too. 

I had to borrow pockets of time from all over the school day. I don't talk with colleagues as much when I'm so tightly scheduled. 

I haven't been able to post anything of substance here for nine weeks, and this blog is a useful release for me. 

Since I am the fella who makes the teaching assignment recommendations to principals, I have only myself to blame for my teaching assignment. About 11 months ago I made the decision to run this gauntlet for nine weeks, and I think the wisdom was sound then. I would make the same decision this spring, even knowing what I know now. But I am more appreciative of the costs of putting myself, or a colleague, in such a situation and will look for ways in which I can better position the department to make it unlikely I have to go this direction again. 

The most important observation I have to make, though, is that the students still are engaged and positive about the class experience. Despite my fatigue (and how it sometimes lead to me saying things out of turn in class) my students still seem to understand that I like them, like my job, and know what I'm doing. That all tells me that I can schedule myself as tightly as I did. But I probably shouldn't do it again any time soon. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Classroom, 3/27

These last nine weeks have left me with little to say. Teaching three different classes a day, each for 90 minutes, has worn me down. Not as much as I was expecting it would, but enough that at the end of the day I'm so tired of thinking that I the idea of writing a post fatigues me.

My classroom is getting closer to the environment that I for a long time sought. It's a place with buzz, with energy. It's a place students seem to like coming to. I've made some real strides instructionally, both with and without technology. Perhaps you'll enjoy this photograph of my desk. It's a good snapshot of the eccentric academic forum I've been able to create. Today I received the latest gadget, a document camera (I swear, it's there on my desk) to get me even closer to where I want to be.

The only thing missing now is a laptop at every students' fingertips. But that, I guess, will just have to wait. But perhaps it won't wait for long.

Monday, February 16, 2015


Every once in a while I do arrive late at a party, and such was the case with the Five Thirty-Eight blog. Apparently it was big news back in 2008. And 2012. In fact, it was such big news at one point that the New York Times owned / bought licencing rights to it. And now ESPN.


I've seen more references to it recently amongst my circle of friends and it seems like its worth it for me to follow the blog more closely. But I want to know where it's coming from (funding, independence, bias, etc.) before I do so. Now that was a little hard to do given the lack of the typical "About" page on the site. I did enough poking around on Google to find what I needed to find.

But again, ESPN owns it? Seems odd.

Technically, ESPN owning it means Disney owns it. It's part of a conglomerate that includes ABC News.

There is something very interesting at work, I think, in ESPN's decision to acquire this property.

In the 2012-13 school year I noticed a much greater trend of my students following the news. This increase was especially pronounced with the boys in my class. Many of them were registered for text alerts from ESPN, ostensibly for sports news. But ESPN pushed out ABC News stories to them quite often, and that would prompt students to initiate news conversations with me. As a Social Studies teacher, I thought this was pretty neat.

Those students I taught that year are now in their early twenties. ESPN knows that cohort well.

ESPN must see potential profit in this, and if they see that, I think we should take note. Five Thirty-Eight departs from a statistical way of seeing news events, which I think has natural appeal to a lot of younger news followers. Perhaps today's novice followers of the headlines will come to see news the way they have come to see projections for RBIs, sacks, and playoff rankings. That will lend itself to a different way of keeping tabs on the 2016 general election than older folks like me who might look more into issues identification, financing links, and intra-party fighting. Maybe younger voters will get more engaged.

I think there's more to this than ESPN having a lot of money to burn. But my son has arrived here at the lodge fireplace, and we must needs play a game of Ticket to Ride.

Happy Presidents Day.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

A nine-week generalist

It's an interlude before I start to become a one-trick pony, er specialist. For nine weeks (one marking period) I am teaching three different courses at one time. Typically, in our block scheduling environment, I teach three out of four periods a day. One period is reserved for preparation and grading. It is normal for a teacher to have two sections of one particular class and then one of some other. With the exception of one marking period in 2008-09, that has been true for me. Now, however, I move from a Law elective to AP Macroeconomics to AP U.S. History.

It's work, but so far I'm enjoying it and think this will be a good nine-week departure for me. I get to work with three very different groups of kids in three distinct disciplines. Further, the Law class satisfies my appetite to discuss Constitution and government without getting into the stuff for which I have a strong distaste such as campaign finance reform. Also, I don't find myself bored looking at nearly 60 renditions of a given assignment: there are no more than 31 copies of anything to grade at one time.

This arrangement may also force me to better use my time, to better plan ahead. After all, in one prep period one hardly has time to adequately prepare for two different courses. Trying to get away with mapping out three is laughably impossible. So I do my mapping in advance, and I don't overdo that mapping.

It's likely that next year I'll be teaching all Macro all the time. This might be my last chance for a few years to see the variety of students that make up a high school. I should take the time to really listen to them and learn from them.

I'm invoking my First Amendment protections to comment on an issue of public concern regarding education

The Pennsylvania Assembly recently passed legislation regarding teachers and other adults in the school setting that has me profoundly troubled. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a story in December regarding this change to existing state law. The Commonwealth also has a website dedicated to the law: Also prompting me to write this is the knowledge that many school districts are purchasing or considering the purchase of finger-printing machines (at significant expense . . . it seems like they cost about $10,000) so as to facilitate compliance with this law. The district for which I am an employee has made such a purchase.

There are two main parts to this legislation on which I have very different opinions. The first of these involves expanded responsibilities for school employees as mandatory reporters, a measure that seems prudent to me. I entered this profession knowing I couldn't legally turn a blind eye to suspected abuse or neglect. The state has simply clarified that reporting instances of possible abuse must be made to law enforcement agencies rather than one of my in-building superiors. That's a measure that will make kids safer.

The other main part involves teachers on a regular basis renewing their criminal background checks. Demeaning. Ineffective. A threat to liberty. It's nothing more than overreaction and animus masquerading as an attempt to protect kids.

The new requirements immediately put me and my colleagues under a presumption of guilt. Once every three years we have to re-verify that we're not criminals and haven't done anything criminal in the past three years. Please know that teachers have to submit to such checks upon coming into the profession, a measure I can't necessarily oppose. Oh, and the check must be done at cost by the teacher. So, every three years it's necessary to pay $50 to prove my good name is what it is. My good name.

All this will commence with very little benefit for protecting minors. The legislation was inspired, in part, by the Sandusky scandal, and I don't see how background checks for that perpetrator would've prevented his crimes. In fact, crimes involving predators sexually exploiting youth don't often come from someone with a record, say, for shoplifting, burglary, or assault. There's simply not much of a correlation between crimes that would leave a trail and the sexual abuse of children.

There is also a troubling threat to liberty posed by these new requirements. Do such background checks presume guilt? They might in that if I don't get that check my employer is obligated to terminate my employment. What other professions require such checks? Is there another kind of demeaning test I'll need to recurrently pass. Frankly, it would be far more effective to scrutinize what kind of websites teachers have searched for online rather than submit to these background searches. If we're setting the precedent that criminal checks and re-checks can take place, are we really that far from checks that are more invasive? We can be concerned that well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) crusaders can cloak intrusions on our liberty by claiming that laws are about protecting kids. I can't help but chuckle at the website in which the state has put up this legislation - keepkidssafe - knowing it's a shield for deflecting any criticism. For how can one be against protecting kids?

I also worry about strict, intrusive, and not-very-effective laws like this are stand-ins for more costly but effective measures to keep kids safe. Perhaps schools should have extra janitorial staff on duty outside of school hours, which would permit more eyes to catch criminal and exploitative behavior. Perhaps we should have more administrators so that teachers could be monitored more closely. If we're willing to better fund schools, schools wouldn't need to set ridiculous standards of how close one must be to school to qualify for bus transportation, thus reducing time students are vulnerable and in transition from home to schools' supervised environment. Oh, and we could have district employees drive buses rather than outsourcing companies' employees. We pinch pennies on the periphery of the school day, and thus make it more possible for crimes to occur.

If I could return for a moment to the purchase of finger-printing devices. This particular reaction of schools is troublesome. Are these purchases designed to make a buck? After all, schools can rent finger-printing services out to other entities Are these purchases designed to make it easier for schools to follow the law? Why would schools need to? After all, it's the employee who loses their job if the checks don't take place.

I dare school districts to say to Harrisburg: It's your law, you manage the paperwork.

I'm tempted to wait until December 24 to submit my materials, and urge every other educator in the state to do the same thing so as to create  bureaucratic bottleneck befitting this dumb, demeaning law.

I hope I see a school board and community offer to pay the $50 fee for each and every one of their teachers as a token acknowledgement that they trust them, don't think they're criminals, and that they understand how there's an additional burden for hard-working professionals that they can make more tolerable.

And I hope that all of us, as taxpayers in a society that values local control of public education, to look for more substantive means for protecting and honoring children than to put in place shoot-from-the-hip policies that react to crime.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Macroeconomic Family Film

Sam, Caroline, and I needed something different Friday night. We didn't feel more ambitious than TV viewing, but needed to see something we hadn't seen. So, I called up and looked for something. Our search ended with Millions, a film we watched over two nights.

Verdict: One of the more thoughtful movies I've shared with my kids in a long time.

Here's the review from Common Sense Media. Roger Ebert's too.

I had to pause the movie three times to explain what was happening, because there are some moments that defy a nine-year-old's grasp of how the world works. Heck, the premise of the film is set against an imaginative robbery of money that was set to be destroyed by government. Oh, but that's not all, there's a race-against-the-clock plot line that features the impending conversion of British Pounds Sterling into Euros. Oh, and the sly humor involving the just-barely proficient police and the evangelistic Mormons required some explanation too.

It's a British film, which means they take some things as PG that might make Americans perk up and be uncomfortable: there's a scene involving the boys and a computer as well as the dad's decision to invite his girlfriend overnight that made me momentarily uncomfortable.

Without being preachy, the film give me a chance to talk ethics and faith my kids. It presumes an intelligent audience: the film is for kids to watch with their dad or mum, and hopes that dad or mum will clarify what is confusing. It allowed me to suspend disbelief at several moments. It gave me reason to make predictions about how it would turn out, then defied my prediction.

It might be the first film I've ever considered showing my 12th grade AP Macroeconomics students AND my nine-year-old son, with meaningful lessons for both. I'll admit that I pushed the boundaries a little bit with my seven-year-old daughter . . . but I'm glad I did.