Thursday, January 31, 2013


Not a good day.  I was about to say "at all", but the class-giving part of the day actually went fine. We did the Cat's Meow lab with the eighth graders, and that one is both fun and easy.  One of my soon-to-graduate student aides popped by to say hello, and it was delightful to see him again. 

Things took a turn for the worse after lunch.  Rather than go into details, I'll just say I've never had to deal with a hostile work environment before, and I've been working pretty steadily since I was 15 years old.

When I finally got to leave campus,  I had just enough time to get to my endocrinologist appointment.  Sadly, my Tg, the thyroid cancer tumor marker, is elevated again, from 3.4 last year to 4.9 this year.  As last year's PET scan was negative, the doctor this year is sending me for an MRI.  While the increase is troublesome, it does not indicate an aggressive recurrence.  I think.  We'll see.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

missed opportunities

Saw a beautiful sunrise this morning, but had no opportunity to take a photo, since I was running late as usual.  Not terribly late, just my usual 5 minutes, but still late enough that I didn't want to take the time to figure out where I could stop to get a decent picture.

Today was an easier day in some ways, more difficult in others.  I'm spending all my prep hours on calling parents. Most are supportive and say the right things, but so far I'm not seeing any improvement in behavior on the part of their offspring.   We'll keep trying.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

closing the gap

When something's bothering me, I obsess about it until I can find some resolution.  So sticking with the theme of how to deal with my attention-seeking students, I realized that I instinctively back off when a student starts grandstanding.  Invariably the student will pipe up with something off-topic and then go on and on and on, and I'm stuck at the front of the room, waiting.

Silly me, I don't have to be stuck.  Jones' prescription for disruption is proximity

So today, whenever a student got into "look at me!" mode, I purposefully, not quickly, moved toward the student.  This happened three or four times today, and giving the student what they wanted -- my complete attention -- turned out to be not what they wanted at all.  Every one of them faltered.  By the time I got to their desk, they had stopped, which gave me the chance to put my hands on their desk, lean over, and say to them very quietly, "You're making a choice right now to act this way... I know you can make a better choice."

I'm also trying very hard, and it is very difficult for me, not to answer the backtalk, but to stare it down as I move closer.  I'm have a little refrain inside my head: shut up shut up shut up, directed to me, not the student.  It's helping.

Nevertheless, my two seventh grade labs today were chaotic, and I ended up having to send several disruptive students out as they were not following the safety rules.  It's going to take a lot of hard work to get us where we need to be, but we're getting there.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Jones v Flippen

My thoughts keep returning to my classroom issues, and what I can do to diffuse them.  The number one issue, whenever a class goes all to pieces, is an attention-seeking, disruptive student.  Sometimes it's more than one, but one is definitely enough.

So I've been thinking about what I do when a student goes off, and whether or not I'm helping.  Let me rephrase: I've been thinking about what I'm doing that's allowing it to continue or even making things worse.  Last night I pulled out my stack of "teacher advice" books and looked through them all, yet again, to see what I've forgotten. I didn't find anything of much use until I picked up Fred Jones' Tools for Teachers.

Jones is very clear on what to do with disruptive students.  In his chapter on dealing with backtalk, he repeats this visually alarming mantra: Open your mouth and slit your throat.   The accompanying illustration is kind of funny and kind of horrifying.  The point is, if a student is giving a performance, the worst possible thing you can do is give him more material. If the student wants to derail the class by starting a conversation about something else, you don't have to participate.  Jones' method of dealing with backtalk involves breathing, remaining calm, saying nothing, and letting it die a natural death as you wait out the student with an expression of "withering boredom".

I do wonder if Jones dealt with as many barely socialized students as I have.

When students go off-task, Jones' advice boils down to staying calm, breathing, turning fully toward the offending student, moving in (proximity), and if necessary, camping out on the student's desk until he gets back to work.  There is no dialog involved.  I've used this technique and it works -- at times.  I have students who are so resistant to the idea of work that they don't understand that I'm hanging around because I'm waiting for them to get back to work.  "Why do you keep looking at me?!  You're creepy!"  Then I have to explain that I'm waiting for them to get back to work (because the tapping on their desk, pointing to the work, wasn't clear enough).

Jones' technique does work for backtalk, and it's probably the only thing that does.  Responding verbally to the student just prolongs the 'conversation'/distraction.  I realize that because the Flippen Group training has me doing just that.

The heart of the Capturing Kids' Heart model is to engage with the students.  Very little was said about appropriate limits to that engagement.  In my efforts to acknowledge, respect, and listen to my students, I've put myself in a position where I let the more aggressive few talk all over me.  I'm not blaming the Flippen Group for this problem, because it's not something that came up.  What did come up was dealing with garden variety off-task behaviors, which are handled using the four questions, which begin with, "What are you doing?"  and "What are you supposed to be doing?"  These questions put the responsibility for the student's behavior where it belongs, with the student.  They work well when the social contract is place (especially since the social contracts all emphasize trust and honesty.)

The problem is, the Four Questions invariably start a conversation, directly contradicting Jones' Open your mouth, slit your throat edict.   I know Jones' advice works, but I've seen the Four Questions work, too.  I'm trying to figure out a method to get the benefits of both methods -- acknowledging the student, but at the same time discouraging the conversation.  I'm thinking of a series of statements/questions, like this:

1. I can see you really want to talk about this.
2. Is this something you and I can talk about quietly, so the rest of the class can get back to work?
3. Do we have to do this now?
4. I always have some time in my lesson plans for discussion, but we've already used that up.  Can we postpone this discussion and get back to the lesson now?

It amazes me how I forget things that actually work.  I've used, "Can we talk about this later?" countless times, but recently it has fallen out of my playbook.  The students sometimes complain that "later" never comes, but then I remind them that they can talk to me at lunch or after school, and then they beg off, because whatever it was is not really so important after all.

This is probably the sixth or seventh time I've gone back to Jones' book.  I should just make myself re-read it once a month, or at least leaf through it to make sure I haven't let any good habits fall away.  There are times for the four questions, but there are just as many, as if not more, situations that call for Jones' methods.  I always talk too much.  If I can hold onto that image of cutting my own throat, maybe I'll stop.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

holidays 2012

Apple, Pumpkin, Pecan & Cranberry Ginger Pear 

Thanksgiving 2012

We had a great feast.  On Wednesday (blessedly a half-day of school), I prepped most of dinner and made the pies.  

If you've ever read a woman's magazine, or a cooking magazine, you'll have read the advice not to try something new for a big event.   I knowingly ignored that advice this year, because on a whim I picked up the Cook's Illustrated Holiday Baking issue.  The pecan and cranberry ginger pear pie recipes came from it, and were spectacular.  

But the biggest change was the pie crust recipe.  I've been using the basic pie crust recipe from the Fannie Farmer Baking Book for 30 years now, and it's a fine, fine recipe.  But the Cook's Illustrated intrigued me: chilled shortening and butter, vodka, and a food processor?  Sounds fascinating, so I decided to go for it.

Unfortunately, I didn't realize when I started that what this method absolutely requires is chilling time.  Fortunately, I managed it anyway.  The crust is phenomenally flaky and tender, and I didn't have to worry about over-rolling and gluten developing, because the alcohol in the vodka puts the brakes on that process.  So overall, the new pie crust recipe was a win, but I might just try making my usual recipe with vodka if I don't have time to thoroughly chill the dough.  

I also made the cloverleaf rolls, which were OK.  They had so much butter in them it wasn't even funny, but they just ended up too dense for me.  The family liked them well enough, but for me they were too labor-intensive for the result. 

Now, the turkey:  for the past few years I've been cutting up the turkey and brining the pieces, and then baking it on a flat sheets covered with aromatics (onion, celery, carrots) and a bit of chicken stock to prevent charring.   Here's how it looks going into the oven: 

22 pound bird, ready for the oven
It comes out fantastic in about 2 hours, give or take.  I brush the whole thing with melted butter and roast it 400 degrees. Yum. 

The back roasted while some of the pies were cooking, and then goes into the soup pot.  The soup was awesome, too.

DH says a 22-pound bird isn't big enough.  We were out of leftovers by the third day, which was OK with me, but not with him, apparently.  
The kids' Christmas recital was the first weekend in December.  DH's parents came out for a short visit, and we packed a lot of stuff into their few days.  We went to the Luminaria at the Desert Botanical Garden for annual "holiday cultural event" and had a great time.  The kids all played beautifully at the recital, and thankfully we were able to get a good Christmas card photo when they were all dressed up. 
This is not the Christmas card photo!  It's on another computer...

Christmas, not coincidentally, was a much more low key affair.  On Christmas Eve we went out to dinner at Baci. We had so much Christmas candy and cookies  from Trader Joe's and my students (a lovely surprise) in the house it wasn't even funny. I decided there were enough sweets so I didn't bake.  I was so busy in the run-up to Christmas that I didn't get a turkey, but settled for a beautiful spiral sliced ham from Trader Joe's (no bad stuff).  I can't even remember the rest of dinner at this point, although I do remember I made pancakes and bacon for breakfast, and DH picked oranges from our tree and all the kids took turns squeezing them so we could have fresh juice with our breakfast.  It was a lovely day.

Vacation was filled with various appointments for all of us, including the cats.  I'll get my thyroid cancer test results on January 31; all the others have come back just fine.  In spite of all the running around, it was relaxing and restful, and I did only the work that I absolutely had to do.   Isn't that the way it should be?

change is hard

Monday is MLK day, and I have utterly squandered this first day of the long weekend by getting up early and reading all 500+ comments on the Project Runway All Stars season 2 finale post at Tom & Lorenzo's.  I needed to be up early because we had an appliance maintenance appointment scheduled between 7-11AM; of course the guy didn't show up until 10:40, but the cat woke me up before 7AM anyway.

The quiet here is intense.  DH and DD are in Connecticut, a surprise visit for Papa's 85th birthday.  They'll be away until Tuesday, so it's just me and the boys until then.  The boys could conceivably be downstairs with me watching television, but the DVR died on Thursday night and the replacement won't be here until Tuesday the earliest.  So DS1 stays holed up in his room as usual, but DS2, who has picked up a so-far mild virus and is running a slight fever, is crashed on my bed watching television upstairs.

I have this vaguely unsettled feeling, as if something is not quite right.  Part of that is DH being away and the slight worry that always nags at me when any of my family is traveling without me.  Part of it is concern over DS2's illness, hoping it doesn't get worse.  I think he's just exhausted.  We are alike in that we disrupted our normal sleep patterns so thoroughly over winter break that even now, two weeks into the new semester, we're still not used to having to keep regular school hours.

The biggest part of my unease comes, I think, from my work situation.  I did not hear anything about the position I applied for in December, but it's just as well because I do not think I could have left my school mid-year.  I mean, obviously, I could give two weeks notice at any time, but I wouldn't do that. I have a strong feeling that it's simply not the right thing to do.  I won't do that.

At the beginning of December, my administration sent me (with very little notice) to a 3-day workshop run by the Flippen Group called Capturing Kids' Hearts.  While the name of the workshop is nausea-inducing, the content was not.  It was an educational and frustrating experience, because I learned a lot of valuable techniques but it took me out of my classroom for 3 days just as the semester was coming to a close.   Regardless, I was already using many of the techniques they recommend, and I really appreciate the concrete advice on how to help children grow into responsible adults.   When I returned to my classroom, I was able to use some of the things I learned immediately, but I put the majority of it on hold until the second semester.

So, what's unsettling me?  This new social curriculum I am implementing.  The first week back, my students in each class worked together to write a "social contract," an agreement on how we all wish to be treated by each other (including me, their teacher.)  The contract is now their standard for behavior in the class, and it closely models expectations for responsible behavior in any workplace.  So, the contract gives us a concrete definition of what the "practice for real life" that I'm always talking about, is. 

The problem is, enforcing the contract requires 100% commitment from me.   My students already know I care about them, but this is pushing me into an even closer relationship with all of them, and many of them don't want to go there.  On every single contract, the word "respect" is most prominent, but many of the students have no idea what that means in reality, so when they are disrespectful, I have to show them that.  I have had the "two wrongs don't make a right" (and it's corollary, "3 rights make a left") conversation more times than I can count.  We have a huge put-down culture on my school and every single contract says that they don't want to be treated that way, so now I get to police that and remind them that it does not come into my classroom.  I like that, because I have always hated the casual way they are constantly cutting each other down, but I get a lot of push back for making them apologize when they say mean things.  I even have a few holdouts who refuse to apologize because they won't acknowledge that what they did was wrong.

The worst discussions are the ones where the students are literally shouting at me, "What, someone tells me I'm ugly and I'm just supposed to say 'thanks' and take it?"  And I have to explain -- again, for the tenth time -- "No, you tell them that's not cool, that there was no reason to be rude.  And then you forget it and forget them and get on with whatever you need to do."  It is helpful to remind them that hitting people is, in fact, illegal and can land them in jail, but they don't see that as a consequence that can effect them yet. 

I have students who have so few social skills that the only response they have is violence, or threats of violence.  They have no idea how to deal with someone who is making unkind remarks other than to tell him to shut up or to make him shut up.  These are junior high students who should have been learning these skills their entire lives, but in their culture, what they learn is "give back what you got", which of course only escalates the unpleasantness. 

Then, when there is a fight on campus, all the students view that as "entertainment", a good thing. 

On the workshop page, under "additional considerations", it says:
Experience shows that the optimal outcome - an intentional culture shift - relies on the complete support and involvement of school administrators. Consequently, they are strongly encouraged to attend as early in the process as possible.
 Our dean of students has attended the workshop, but our principal has not, and he commonly violates many of the most important terms of every single one of my students' social contracts.  He manages with physical presence and intimidation, and affirmations are few and far between (although I did get one last week -- in the year and a half I have been working with him as my principal, I think this is the second compliment I've received. I can recall no instances of encouragement.)

In my six classes, the contract is making a difference already in 8th grade, because those students are just four months away from becoming high school students, and they want that, they want to succeed.  The seventh graders right now are quite frankly just a mess.  There are too many of them who simply do not respect anyone, including their peers, who will therefore continuously disrupt the class and get us off track.  It's exhausting continuously reminding them how we agree to treat each other -- it simply leads to other arguments: "I didn't sign that contract,"  "I didn't agree to those words," -- when, in fact, they did participate in writing the contract, or if they did not, is was because they chose not to. 

At the end of the first full week of using the contract I am so emotionally drained I'm questioning whether I have it in me to keep it going.  I don't want to give up the contracts, and I'm hoping that it will get easier with time, but over the course of this week it did not.  By Friday the seventh graders were as badly behaved as they have ever been, for no reason anyone could fathom.  It's up to me to make this work, but I cannot succeed if I can't get the students to buy into it also.  The majority of the students want it, I can see that they are tired of the way some of their peers act, too.  I reminded them Friday that they have tools to help make the contract work and that they need to step up, too.  If the class as whole lets the off-task students know they should get back on track, that's a much more powerful message than one delivered by the teacher alone.

Then I wonder, is there any point in me doing this, when as soon as the students leave my classroom they go right back to their dominant, machismo- and honor-based culture, where put-downs, threats, and violence are the norm? I am the only teacher on campus who has implemented this, although the other teacher who attended the workshop with me is using parts of it.  For this to really work, we need all of the teachers and all of the administrators to use it. Right now I'm dealing with students coming to me, every single day, with stories of other teachers and administrators who use sarcasm, dress them down in front of the class, gossip, yell, don't listen, immediately suspect the worst, and so on.  In trying to help my students I remind them that they can say to an adult, "Hey, that's not cool," but even as I do that, knowing it should be true, I'm hoping that if they follow my advice to stand up for themselves in a respectful way that it doesn't get them into even more trouble. 

I don't know whether the students tell me these things because they trust me or they're hoping that the teachers who are mean to them will get into trouble.  I do know that they want the teachers who are mean to them to stop being so mean, so I suppose that's something.

In the meantime, I feel like my heart is breaking for a thousand different reasons every day, and it's taking a lot of energy to keep it together.  I'm not giving up, I don't want to give up, but I'm praying that something will "click" and it will start to get easier, because God knows I can't keep this up for the rest of the year.  Time passing does help, because they're getting older and growing up whether or not they want to, but it will go much smoother if they'd get with the program.

On Thursday, one of my eighth grade sections was exemplary.  It was probably the best class I have ever had at my school: we reviewed how to balance chemical equations, and then the students worked independently on a worksheet.  Every single student worked diligently and got at least some points; most got 100%.  Every time I teach this, the classes usually split 50/50, with half the class "getting" it and getting full points, and the other half completely lost and earning zero.  There were no zeroes in Thursday's class, and that has never happened before.  I was so proud of them that I gushed at them on Friday.  One of the  boys told me, "Do you know why we worked?  Because we want to go to high school." I won't ever forget that moment, that at least with that one group of kids, they understood what they were capable of if they just tried.