A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Middle School Math

Here's a real irony: me teaching middle school. Middle school was a total disaster for me -- I went from supreme confidence of being a Concert Master, soloist, star on a soccer team which had lost 1 game over the past 4 years, the only kid in the neighborhood to defeat the local chess master, the late Carolyn Mano, to juvenile delinquency, virtually overnight. My parents were caught totally off guard by how quickly I spiraled out of control after my 15th birthday.

When I stood before the judge at the age of 15, in 1978, the judge informed me that my juvenile record would be expunged if I stayed out of trouble until I reached the age of 18. Unlike many others, having previously had a clean record, I was given a chance to redeem myself. I'll never forget the words with which Mr. Gilbert, the Prosecutor, sent me on my way: "I hope I never see you again."

When my mom told me about how, several years previously, she had seen an article in the Washington Post about Georgetown University's generous policy of offering the children of employees free tuition, I was given a specific destination, a definite purpose. My mission became simply to get accepted to Georgetown University. That simple goal led me to take advanced placement classes across the board, and led me to struggle with ideas and general problem solving.

Recently, when I gathered a group of students who had failed the 3rd quarter, my message to my neediest students was tempered by my humility. My message to them was simple: "What can I do to help and what can you do to help yourselves?" Most of these students have been behavior problems, which is largely why they struggle, but I also realize that students generally act out when they do not understand and become frustrated. I told them about my past. I told one student who has not been turning in assignments, "you are my responsibility now." Having been at the center of trouble, having developed wisdom because of struggle, I am able to express my concerns with students using a compassionate tone, but without accepting any excuses.

We recently administered a district test in math. Students had difficulty with practical applications. Certain problems gave students fits: one asked, given a recipe for pie crusts, how many pie crusts could they make with a certain amount of ingredients; another asked, given a 15-1/2 pound bag of candy, how many 3/4 pound bags could they make? Also, number patterns that involved a pattern of changing rates, essentially volume discounting, was difficult for students, who almost invariably assumed that the rate remained constant. I would love to model the recipe problem with real ingredients, as well as the problem of dividing up a bag of candy. As I help students prepare for their state tests, I see my role as that of a coach. I am not a yelling coach, but I am direct and make it a point to know when students have zeroes in the grade book. Maybe this is how it was meant to be.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Team is everything

With the right people looking out for me,  I was able to  get up to speed quickly last week.  Twenty minutes was all I needed to save hours.  Within 20 minutes I had a whole planned.  With 3rd quarter grades due Friday,  a top 10 review session from practice SOL questions to prepare for Monday, a new unit to introduce Tuesday, and Tax Day around the corner, having a team to turn to enabled me to work at maxim efficiency.

Han made sure I knew how to use the Saffron - I didn't, and he needed help too.  Holly was there and demonstrated how to scan grades to identify the most frequently missed problems. I was able to ask how a top 10 lesson goes. She also explained the sequence of activities for the introductory lessons for coordinate planes.  Han mentioned that he would be playing Battleship later - Holly explained the process as she waited for her copies.

Last week,  reserved 2 carts and Carrie the pregnant lady reserved a computer lab for 2 days. Holly suggested that,  since students were taking longer than expected,  we should back off of introducing new material and take care of end of quarter and new quarter administrative details.

I was up until 4am last night doing my taxes and spent today with my family watching an Orioles game. Tonight, I still have to prepare for my Top 10 lessons,  grade test workspaces, and record grades, but I can do so efficiently,  knowing that my taxes are done.

Thursday, April 4, 2013


For most people, falling asleep on the couch is just falling asleep on the couch. For me, falling asleep on the couch could be fatal. Worse, my failure to put on the Darth Vader mask, i.e., my bi-level sleep apnea machine, could lead to the embarrassment of cloudy judgment, slurred speech, or a slow death march toward professional ruin. When I awoke this morning to the sound of talk on the television about the possibility of Mark Cuban drafting Brittany Greiner to try out for the Dallas Mavericks basketball team on the television at 4:20 am, I was more than a little alarmed. Hopefully all the recent weight loss has mitigated my sleep apnea a little bit. Since today I need to be up in less than an hour, I made the decision to not go to bed, and instead blab to the world about my faux pas on my blog, since I might sleep through the alarm. Not good! Not good!

When I was younger, the last thing I thought about was the need to take care of my self physically. Thus, what in earlier times had been a good habit, a positive adaptation, extreme mental toughness, aped from bushido and Forrest Gump, became a professional liability. I had developed the habit of running my body and mind into the ground, which is what people evaluating me saw at the tail end of my year of torture, last April, and might partly explain why my end of student teaching reviews were at such opposite ends of the spectrum, and why at this stage I am still just a long-term sub. Eliot was right, "April is the cruelest month."

My old habits crept up on me yesterday, as I neglected to each lunch until after 3:00pm, after putting a Nutri-grain bar in my mouth I ran out the door to let Mabel outside to pee, because I had given every ounce of my energy to students throughout the day, leaving little fuel in the tank for myself but fumes. The brain didn't go to mush until I got pulled into a team meeting, for which I had been totally unaware, as I prepared to finally eat some lunch, only to find that I needed to wait just a little bit longer. Somehow, I managed to hold it together as I processed logistical details. Hopefully, didn't appear too discombobulated from low blood sugar. My need to prepare to avoid losing a student, cued up survival mode. "My little robot," developed from years upon years of habituation, took over, rescued me from the appearance of incompetence in my first team meeting with a group of women whom I had never met.

Dennis Waitley's description of the power of a person's subconscious robot, in the The Psychology of Winning, despite being a little dated, still holds true. It has taken 10 years and a full 10,000 hours to become "world class," to feel like I belong in the teaching profession, just like I read in This is Your Brain on Music, where the author cited evidence that a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice is needed to become a virtuoso. Finally, my little robot is "kicking in."

At the team meeting, I learned that I would not be subbing in the Art Room, as originally planned, but would instead be going on a field trip. Last night, after finally getting home after 6pm, because I needed to plan activities for 2nd period, which we will be holding before going on the field trip, and taking Mabel on a "long walkie walkie," instead of going directly to the gym I went to Staples. At Staples, I bought a battery backup as insurance so that my cell phone would not die, band aids, Kleenex, hand sanitizer, and those printer cartridges I will be needing this weekend, provided I am able to access the share drive from home -- all on the credit card, of course! Then I went to Giant to buy luncheon meat and extra snacks, since we will be brown bagging it today. I made extra sandwiches last night, just in case students get a little hungry. Never did get to the gym!

Unlike the time I lost Alex at the Smithsonian long ago, today I won't lose anybody.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The little things

Dale Carnegie has a chapter in How to Win Friends and Influence People entitled "Don't Let the Beetles Get You Down." The point is, even the smallest insect can fell the mightiest oak. That's what I am trying to avoid: I don't want the little things to pull me down.

Carrie, the mom to be that I am taking over for until the end of the school year, has assembled a binder with everything I need for the next two weeks, a folder on the share drive with two weeks of plans with activities for the SmartBoard, a crate full of copies in order, ready to go, and classes that were well managed. That really helped, because I was not able to take over until today, for scheduling / paperwork reasons, and I was not able to procure the binder until this morning. I struggled a little to interpret the plans on the fly, which can be difficult to do.

Probably the most difficult thing and biggest time and energy wasters were confusion about the block schedules. I spent all day worrying that I might not be in the right place at the right time, or might not know where to go in the future, because of all of the permutations with the schedule -- hours, I wasted while trying to get control over my calendar. To be honest, I still do not fully understand the block schedules, but at least I know what questions to ask. Why is it called an "odd day" or an "even" day? Can "odd" or "even" days fall on any day of the week, i.e., on different days of the week for different weeks? Fortunately, students were taking an assessment, so there really wasn't any teaching required, only administration.

Meanwhile, students turned in homework that was due yesterday, as they were absent. I'm not quite sure I have a complete handle on the paper flow.

Another thing was that I did not get my computer until this morning because of a paperwork problem with the central office, so I was not able to get to the share drive or review email promptly, or ensure that the online test was available for students to take. Fortunately, Han and other members of the team made sure that the tests were available, so it was smooth sailing as far as proctoring the exam -- I am impressed by how considerate the team has been.

Tomorrow, I'll get access to the share drive and other resources, so I'll be able to take better advantage of my planning time, instead of wasting hours upon hours just trying to figure out the block schedules. Actually, I have a ton of exams and "workspaces" to grade. The procedures were clear: per Carrie's instructions, I reminded students that they would get 1 point for every workspace where they showed work in the workspace, which meant either providing an explanation, working out the problem, or showing attributes or non attributes that justifiedtheir selection, as opposed to simply restating the problem or the answer choice.

With a field trip scheduled for Thursday, and with so much variance in the number of students who finished versus still need to finish, as well as administrative challenges of "bubbling" in practice tests, one teacher made a point that it made sense to not start the next unit next week. The Advanced classes, are ready to forge ahead, other than a few stragglers, so I am not sure what the team will decide.