March 28, 2007

collected notes

I had a dispiriting conversation with a co-worker the other day about what an awful environment my school is, especially for freshmen. I was saying that I didn't understand why certain students - the ones who end up in a lot of conflicts with teachers and are doing absolutely no school work, zero, not even moving towards getting a single credit - come to school. He said he thought that for some students, school is better than home. It's safer and less scary. To put this in context, in the three weeks since the head of the school district where I work announced a zero-tolerance policy for threats and assaults on teachers01 under which any threats or assaults get a mandatory 10-day suspension, one kid has been suspended for hitting me with a door and two more have been suspended for threatening me. Our bulletin boards get torn down within a week, and, in one hallway, there's at least one plexiglass window punched out of a door every week. There are fights between students every day, and constant casual violence that's not quite a fight. It's hard for me to imagine wanting to be there, but I think my colleague is right.


Today a girl asked if I was pregnant. No. Are you sure? YES.2 I told her I had my period, and she said, "Oh, that must be why you look pregnant."

To her, there was nothing weird about her teacher talking about her period. I can't even imagine being that comfortable with menstruation or body stuff at that age. It's a great virtue of a cultural pocket where lots of people get pregnant at all sorts of ages.


A friend from high school called on Tuesday night. Let's call him Kermit, which is clearly not his real name, but I can't come up with a descriptive pseudonym for him. I think it's because I've known him too long and in too many ways. Conveniently, that's also why I wanted to write about him. We've been friends for something like ten years. He was my prom date, he and I started a surprisingly effective single-issue political organization, he sent me letters when I was at camp in Canada, and yesterday he called to let me know that a political thing I passed on to him is going to pass. I was so happy to hear from him. So happy. And surprised, some, but mostly just happy. He's always been a really good friend to me, and I'm always a little surprised at how good a friend. Surprised? Because when we became friends, I thought of myself as someone who didn't have a lot of friends, and I didn't trust the world that much. Kermit is a prime counter-example for that.


He said, as have my parents, that he's proud or impressed or something about me teaching this year. I would feel better about that if I were doing something useful, not just baby-sitting my students through one more year of not learning any math.


Someone needs to leave a comment here.

1. As opposed to before, when they were tolerated. I wish I were joking.
2. Do you have any idea how not pregnant I am? I only sleep with my girlfriend who can't get me pregnant, I have my period, and, just in case, I got a pregnancy test last Wednesday so I could get vaccinated against HPV.

March 24, 2007

ill-fated advice

I'm writing from class, which is kind of ridiculous. Then again, so is class.

The people facilitating a 3-hour workshop on working with English language learners for my grad school class are currently off on a tangent about how important constructivist learning and teaching are. Constructivist educational philosophy essentially is about people constructing and developing their own knowledge and integrating real-world situations with learning. It's great. It's how I'd like to teach. But there are two problems, both of them recently voiced by people in this gigantic lecture hall, both of them worse for people who are first-year teachers in disastrous schools.

1. I teach math, and there are specific mathematical concepts I need to teach. While math is everywhere, and I completely, 100% believe that students learn math much better if they see it as a formal way of writing the math that they already do in their lives, it's hard to come up with concrete applications that make everything make sense. Now, if I teach math for 5 years, I'll have a lot more; and there's no excuse for the crappiness of my area and perimeter lessons. But when people say, "Yeah, it's a lot of work, but it's worth it," you have to ask, "For whom? On what time scale?" For me, this week, it's not. I promise. Next week, maybe. Next year, definitely. In the long term, no question at all. But for my own sanity, I need to accept that this year I will teach many crappy lessons that don't fully lead to understanding. I wish I had fewer lessons focused on why it's important for me to teach that way, and more help figuring out exactly how to do that.

2. Another teacher pointed out that our students are mostly used to a mode of teaching that's all about direct instruction and transmitting information. When we try to have them construct their own knowledge, they're like, "You're not teaching!" Martin Haberman wrote about the pedagogy of poverty as a set of teaching methods that rewards rote compliance, but he also pointed out that it has benefits (in terms of safety and ease) for students, and that students often push teachers to use it by complying with the pedagogy of poverty and rebelling against anything else. It takes a while to dissolve this. In an environment in which other teachers are also asking students to question, challenge, and solve problems, that resistance goes away a lot faster. The whole school environment needs to be oriented around learning and problem-solving, not just one classroom. And not just because I'm lazy.

Also. Can I just say. Next person who says "frontloading", "scaffolding", or "differentiation" as if I'd never heard the words before gets a plastic fork in the eye.