Thursday, December 23, 2004

Merry Christmas!

I survived! The kids are gone. I like them but it is great to get a break. Today was a pretty boring day. I had caught up on everything, so while the kids were doing their work I actually surfed the web. Sure, I could have found something to do, but instead I found this great School Night Before Christmas reading.

The kids were pretty receptive to the Christmas Truce video. In fact, during my 3rd period class the choir was caroling through our hall and my students got up and closed the doors and turned up the television.

I'm almost packed and ready to go. We leave for Houston early tomorrow morning. My bag is full of goodies for my family and I'm excited about giving them. Actually, I think the most enjoyable gift I gave this year was to our hall's custodian. She is new and she is great! She actually unplugs things so she can move them and sweep around them. The district is classifying her as a temporary substitute, though, so even though she is working full time she does not get any benefits. Anyway, I gave her the same gift I gave all my co-workers, handmade pralines from Texas. She was so grateful and it made me happy. She put a little Christmas/thank-you card on my computer last night while she was cleaning and it was really nice. Isn't that really what Christmas is about?

I've struggled this year with figuring out what Christmas is about actually. I've attended very different types of churches throughout my 26 years and as a result I vacillate between thinking it is a very religious day, a day for reflection not to be taken too seriously, and a pagan holiday. History tells us it really started as a pagan holiday, but if people see it as religious now, then isn't it religious? Perception is sometimes more important than reality. Anyway,I wish I could just settle on a clear answer and get on with it. Sometimes it is very frustrating. In fact, last Saturday I told my husband "this is the worst Christmas ever." I literally had my bottom lip stuck out when I said it. The bah humbug feeling wasn't just a result of confusion about the holiday itself, but the fact that the school board only gave me a week and a day to spend time with my family. The gift giving, however, has helped me to snap out of it for the most part. By this time tomorrow, barring unforeseen travel problems, I will be watching my niece sing carols at their church service and I'm sure I will be filled with the Spirit of Christmas.

The only thing that stands between me and that moment is the plane ride. Did I mention I have a phobia of flying? Actually, I got it from my mom. As the youngest, I picked up on all of her fears and carried them on myself. And my mom got her fear, understandably, from her best friend in grade school. Her friend was over for dinner and helping out in the kitchen when all of the sudden she said she had to leave and took off out the door. It took my mom's family a few minutes to figure out that the television was reporting on a plane crash, and that her father was the pilot of the plane.

Regardless of how I got it though, it doesn't make life great for me or my husband. I once forced him to fly all the way to Italy without peeing because he had to stay in his seat and hold my hand so that when we crashed we would be together. He bought me a great book in 2000 called The Fearless Flyer. It truly helped but it did not calm my greatest fear, which even pre-Sept. 11, was terrorist attacks. I was determined to conquer my fear. I felt like it was an insult to God not to trust that He would take care of me, and that only if it was His will would I die, and even then he would take care of me. But my determination only got me so far. I tried a variety of things, but by then it was a physical reaction -- even seeing people fly on television made my heart rate rise.

So, after Sept. 11 and the American Airlines crash the very next month, I talked to the psychiatrist at my church. My mom had used medication when my dad was working in England and she had to fly by herself to visit. He prescribed some medication. In some ways, I felt I had failed God, but I think He knew I had tried. The medication is great. It made a complete difference. And the really cool thing is that last time I flew I didn't even need it. I was able to overcome the physical part, and now I can control the rest mentally. I still have 1 1/2 pills left if I need them, but I'm determined to continue trying to go without. An additional thing that I think actually helped was a dream I had. Usually a few days before I fly, I will have a dream about planes crashing. A year or so ago, I had a dream that my plane was crashing. My husband and I hadn't found seats together and were sitting across from the aisle from one another. We reached out and held each others hands and were totally at peace. Somehow conquering that part in my subconscious helped me conquer it in real life too. Probably partly because I'm not really scared of dying, but of the terror that people must feel in the seconds before a crash.

I apologize if this blog doesn't seem very Christmas-y. Really, it is though. It's about looking to the future and knowing that things can improve. It's about hope and peace. At least it's supposed to be.

So, if there are any readers out there -- I wish you peace and love this Christmas. If you don't hear from me in the next few days, I'm shopping with my mom and eating Tex-Mex.

I'm your dream teacher

One of my students had a dream about me the night before last. He dreamed that I got angry, grew tentacles, and then killed everyone in the class. This was a student from my GT class that had the dream. I tend to be laid back with them, but obviously they see me in a different light. I told the student that it was clear how he felt about me. He insisted that he really did like me. I said that obviously his subconscious doesn't feel the same. Anyway, it gives me something to tease the class about now. Anytime they get restless I can warn them that the tentacles are coming.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Dear Santa, Please don't bring me one of these...

There's an interesting article in the New York Times about a new toy on the market for pre-schoolers. It is basically a glorified timer, complete with bells and whistles (literally). Its purpose is to prepare your small child for standardized testing. Basically you use it to put time limits on things your child does, and as a result they acquire a better sense of time.

Here's the thing: I am a time-planner freak. Even in high school I would make detailed notes in my daily planner. 7-7:45 math homework. 7:45-8:00 break. 8:00-9:00 English, etc. People that don't have a sense of time drive me nuts. Really, sometimes I just think they are rude. They think their time is more valuable than mine, so I sit at the restaurant and wait while they run some last minute errand. Anyway, I digress into my frustration with non-time-freaks. My point is that I think I have a good sense of timing and pacing. I was never caught off guard during the SAT. My older sister, who was reared by the same parents in a similar environment, has NO sense of time. ( My mother actually lied to her about what time she had to be at the church on her wedding day. ) So, I'm not sure what causes some people to have that innate sense of time and others not to. Maybe if you time your child while he plays with blocks and watches Sesame Street he really will learn time management. What's the trade-off though? I'm afraid it might be that he never learns to have fun.

I am more and more worried about stress on young children. I can remember that my niece was very excited about kindergarten. She did very well adjusting socially and excelled in whatever they were learning. By halfway through the year, though, she would say things like "Oh I can't wait until Friday. I don't have to get up so early on Saturday." Why should any 5- year-old be saying things like that? She has to be waiting for the bus at 6:30 so she can spend a full day at school going to P.E. and music. I fully support teaching kids the basics of reading, but they do not need P.E. Just send them out to the playground or give them time to play on the swingset at home. I'm really afraid that forcing students to exercise at such a young age, or to sing, takes all of the fun out of it. They never learn to enjoy it.

Well, this is turning into a different blog on my problems with early education and Bush's plan to use standardized tests to measure Head Start programs. I'll save the rest for later. For now, I do not plan to buy the Time Tracker for any of the young ones in my family. Maybe for my sister, though.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Ask me how cold it was

It was so cold today that the only thing more bitter than the cold itself was the students. Yes, that's right. We awoke to single digit temperatures and negative digit windchills. A heavy dusting of snow and a few icy patches were apparently not enough to keep us home, or even give us a delayed opening. I was prepared to face the wrath of adolescents who feel they have a God-given right to a snow day now and then. Really, they handled it better than I expected. I think the chilling winds woke everybody up so that they weren't dragging their feet. My classroom thermometer actually hit 72 degrees today. That is by far the lowest it has been all year. It normally stays at 80 because I have no windows and a heater that has one setting: hot.

Anyway, I survived day one of the Longest 4 Day Week in History, as we are calling it. One thing that is making it easier is a bit of good news I received from my department head. I was scheduled to have an observation the week we returned from Christmas/Winter break (as it is officially called in our district). Because I officially started work in January of 2003, this would be my final observation before I was reviewed for tenure. I had been playing with my unit outline for sometime so I could have a great topic to teach, but every time I got it planned out I would get another memo about an assembly that week or something special we were supposed to be doing for our 1st periods. Finally, I emailed the AP and asked if we could move it to the next week so I had a little more leeway. She met with my department head and the principal and decided they didn't need to see me again. So, basically I will just have my yearly review, without the burden of the observation hanging over my head the entire break. (I have to admit, though, that based on what I have heard from other teachers, our observations are not that bad. They are actually <> POSITIVE! Still, they are not my favorite thing.)

The librarian taped The Christmas Truce off the History Channel for me today. I previewed it this afternoon while putting together bags of pralines for my coworkers. It's not as great as I had hoped. It is more morbid and depressing than I expected. I'm still going to show it though. There is a war going on right now and I don't think my students get it at all. Last Friday, my 3rd period students were talking about their futures. One student said he was going into the military because "I just want to kill somebody." Another student agreed and said "I don't care about the skills training and crap. I want to put a bullet through someone." Obviously I have my work cut out for me, but this is one of the reasons I chose the job. That, and the excellent hours and pay of course.


Sunday, December 19, 2004

Let it snow. Please!

I've been reading on other teachers' blogs about how their Christmas break has begun. Must be nice. I am facing a long four day week. At least Thursday will be fairly simple. My 10th graders are taking an exam. My 11th graders will be watching "The Christmas Truce." It is about how World War I soldiers put down their weapons on Christmas. It's perfect, seeing as how we are on a World War I unit right now.

What would really be nice, though, is a snow day. It is snowing right this instant, but not enough. I need enough snow to require a plow. At this point I would even go for some ice! I try to console myself by thinking of getting out of school a week earlier in June.

Even though I had hopes of a 3-day weekend, the one I had was nice enough. We took it very easy. We watched a couple of movies, made chocolate fondue, and I got a little Christmas shopping done. I went to Bed, Bath & Beyond, Target, the grocery store, the mall and Petsmart. Of all of those places, do you know which was the most chaotic? Petsmart! It was packed with dogs and their owners. And, if you consider how difficult it is to mix people's personalities in a crowded store, imagine how much harder it is with dogs. I was behind this one lady in line that was screaming at her poor dog every time he moved. He was moving a lot because the store was full of other dogs and little girls playing with squeaky toys. Finally she told him, "PAY ATTENTION!" Who says that to a DOG? Anyway, I survived the whole trip and am feeling pretty good about the gifts I've gotten. The only thing I have left is some pajamas for my dad.

I'm headed to do a little more knitting and then I'll turn in at my normal time because I just checked out the window and we definitely won't need a plow.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Conference Night

Tonight was Parent Conference night. This, ultimately, should be a source of hope for me. We have these once a quarter. For two hours all of the teachers are in their classrooms available to meet with parents. Parents sign up for 15 minute slots ahead of time or can just stop by when there is an open slot. The thing is, I know other schools in the area where such a night would be a flop. At our school, though, we actually run out of parking places. It's a good sign that parents are so concerned.

Parents are encouraged to bring their students, and that's what makes things particularly troubling for me. Parents walk in and the first words out of their mouths are "I know Jimmy here is real lazy." Parents yell at their kids, are mean to them, insult them, right in front of me. They embarass their kids, students whom I care about. It's such an akward position, and I know it must be even more so for the kids. I want to reach across the table and pull the student to my side. I want to say to them, let's have a conference about your mom instead. How do you feel she is doing? Does she check up on you? Help you with your homework? Make sure you have healthy meals? Set a good example? Make you feel safe?

So, anyway, I don't feel particularly optimistic tonight and I'm starting to get homesick. Our stupid district gives us a week off for Christmas. I'm used to Texas's two week vacations (And college's month-long). No matter how much I listen to O Holy Night (my most favorite carol),decorate, shop, etc, it just doesn't feel like Christmas until I am with family. So I am feeling very bitter right now. I just want to go home.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Why teach?

Sometimes one question can answer another. There are many times that I ask myself why I teach.

Right now in my U.S. History class we are discussing the U.S. rise to world power. After discussing the Spanish American War and the Panama Canal, one of my students (and a B student at that) raised her hand and said, "How come the U.S. always wants to get involved in other people's business? Why don't we just leave other people alone and let them do what they want. I mean, we say it's to spread democracy but really it just seems like we want to make money."

Hallelujah.

It's times like those that get me through the tougher times. An example of a tougher time: Another of my students asked why I, as a white person, care if he draws nooses and confederate flags on his papers.

Sigh.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

A new model for teachers' pay

I had an excellent idea earlier in the week. I have a new idea for how to determine teachers' pay. We should no longer base salary on years of experience and educational background. Instead, we should pay per student. The catch is that different students could be worth different amounts. Jane Doe, who is an honors student and makes low A's consistently, participates in a positive way in class, and has parents who are involved but not constantly breathing down your neck might only be worth $200 a year. On the other hand, you could earn $3,000 a year for teaching Julie Doe, who never turns in her work, has a "behavioral disorder," can't be disciplined even for hitting or spitting on others because of the disorder, and parents who expect you to give her personal attention every second of every day so that she will pass your class (and it is completely your fault if she doesn't).

This would solve many of the problems in education today. Many schools are trying to move toward a "student-centered" approach instead of a "teacher-centered approach." What this means is that they are putting the teachers with the most experience, with the best qualifications, in the toughest classrooms. Really, it makes sense, and is only fair to the students. On the other hand, it is not fair to teachers who feel like they have put in their years and aren't being rewarded. This system would provide an incentive to take on those classes and students who require more time. Perhaps people would even compete to have these students in their room. It also equalizes the pay per hour. The teachers who spend the most time on students (at meetings, conferences, tutoring) would make more money.

Now, it wouldn't just be poor behavior that would make a student worth more pay. If you've ever taught a gifted and talented class, you know some of those students can be handfulls. A student who argues about every point missed on every test? That's worth a couple extra hundred bucks. Additionally, in my district the honors and GT classes are much larger in size. This means more grading time. Since teachers would be paid per student, they would be feel like the were being compensated for that 35+ class.

What do you think? I suggested the idea at my school and it has really caught on. We all walk around putting dollar amounts on our students now. "Oh you have Andrew?!!! He's worth a couple thou at least"... "My 4th period class would allow me to retire at 30!" I don't think the union will be asking for my help anytime soon, but at least it has provided some comic relief, which we need desperately because there are no snow days in sight.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Thanks Tom

Last night I watched Tom Brokaw sign off the nightly news for the last time. Thanks to my Media and Politics class with Dr. Beth Leech in college, I am more of a Jim Leher fan now. But I have a sentimental attachment to Mr. Brokaw. My parents always watched him, and as a result I associate him with some of the most dramatic events to occur in my life.

He offered a brief reflection as he signed off, and I thought one thing he said connected well with my last post:

"Throughout it all, it has not been the questions that got us into trouble, but the answers."