False Alarm

Sunday night, I did something I almost never do because it’s typically so depressing:  I watched the local news.  And as expected, I ended up depressed.  Somewhere around 8 people were shot and killed Memorial Day weekend in Baltimore, upping the year’s murder total by about 10% in one weekend.  And the names of one of the slain was the same as a kid who used to be in my advisory period, until he was expelled for fighting our school police officer.  I immediately began searching online for information, and saw 2 people had been killed within about a 10 minute walk of my house, including an 18 year old kid with that name.  The only thing was, the first name wasn’t spelled the same, not that that means much.  After all, when the girl from my school died in the house fire, it took several days for the paper to start spelling her name correctly.

I put my administration on alert, and by the end of Monday, they were able to confirm that our former student was not 18, but 16, and eventually that he alive and well, thank God.  Still, dozens of unknown teachers lost a former student this weekend, so I can’t really celebrate…I just don’t happen to be one of them.


We found out yesterday during our weekly Wednesday staff meeting that our principal is being removed from our school.  He didn’t go into major details as to the stated cause for the central office’s decision, just stating that it wasn’t his choice.

Obviously, I have many mixed feelings about this.  On one hand, I’m going to be gone next year, so shakeups at the school won’t have any direct effect on me.  And I have definitely had my direct disagreements with and criticisms of my principal at several steps of the way.  However, it can’t be denied that he’s been the leader of the school and instrumental in the turnaround of what was once one of the most notorious middle schools in the district.  No one is perfect, and given what I know about administrators across the district, it seems like it would be difficult to find someone who could be an improvement.

Maybe more insight into what happened will be forthcoming.  Many of the staff members are already taking up arms and planning how they can fight the system.  For my part, I wonder if its a winnable fight in the first place.  Our principal is being removed in his second year, which is a very unusual or severe thing.  In my mind, that can happen for one of several reasons:  very low  academic performance, extreme behavior management issues (better known in the district as you school being “off the chain”), misconduct, severe political misstep, or–somewhat more positively–the desire to “replicate” the relative success of our school elsewhere.  In my estimation, there’s no way this situation falls into either of the first two categories.  And as far as politics are concerned, our school has gotten nothing but the most glowing press, so if it’s political, it’s must be something that’s gone down behind the scenes.  And obviously we’ll probably never know if there’s been some sort of formal complaint that’s led up to this, but I’d like to think this wouldn’t b ethe case.  Lastly, it is quite possible that our principal is being reassigned to another failing school due to the amount of acclaim our school has received from certain sectors.  But, to me, this doesn’t quite resonate.  Our school is improving, but it’s far from demonstrating unequivocal success.  Why on earth would the district risk torpedoing one school on the chance that lightning might strike twice and they can turn around another school? Some of the central office decisions aren’t so bright, but I give them more credit than that.  So I’m stumped.

In any case, today will be the beginning of what could be a very tumultuous couple of weeks.  The kids are going to find out, so we’re going to be having a morning meeting to discuss what actions we’re going to take as a staff.  Most likely there will be an all-school assembly this morning, where some level of information will be revealed to them.  More updates to come…

Tribute to a Legend

“Only the hero himself knows the full triumph of his story”  –Errol Duncan

I just found out Monday that Mr. Duncan, the founding English teacher at our high school, died this past weekend.  Thankfully, one of my friends recalled this, one of many classic Mr. Duncan quotes, which couldn’t be more appropriate, in my opinion.

When Mr. Duncan left our school, I had the honor of being asked to write a reference for him last Fall, which I feel sums it up:

I am a colleague of Errol Duncan.  I taught 9th grade with Mr. Duncan, where we worked closely together as a collaborative team, along with the other 9th grade teachers.  As the founding team of high school teachers, we worked together on a daily basis to mold the atmosphere and structures of the high school.

Although I never had the opportunity to observe Mr. Duncan in his classroom, I have always had the impression that Mr. Duncan cares deeply about urban education.  He was always the foremost in our 9th grade meetings in bringing a data-driven, student-centric mindset.  He took great interest in the holistic well-being of the students, rather than restricting his concern only to their performance in his own class.  He discounted no student, and he lobbied strenuously for students to receive social services, such as counseling, to address their needs beyond academics.  Mr. Duncan’s homeroom, with which he spent an hour and a half of each day, had a familial culture, and they consistently outperformed the rest of the grade in all subjects.  I attribute much of this success to the rigorous expectations Mr. Duncan held for his students.  He spoke to them frankly about what they needed to do to be successful, healthy individuals.

Whenever I visited Mr. Duncan’s room outside of class time, it was evident, even without students around, that he used a multi-faceted teaching approach.  A wide variety of books could be seen on the desks around his room, as well as varied tasks for his students to accomplish.  I often overheard students talking outside of class time about the books they were reading in his English class.  In addition, Mr. Duncan is a reflective educator.  He talked often about the strategies he was applying to differentiate for his diverse learners.  He spoke with pride about the student achievement in his room.

Mr. Duncan also took great personal interest in supporting me as a first-year teacher.  He provided me with crucial advice on multiple occasions, and advocated on my behalf when he felt as though I needed additional resources to be successful in my classroom.

From my perspective, Mr. Duncan brought a wealth of knowledge and energy to our new school.  I am proud to have had the opportunity to have taught with him.

I met Mr. Duncan the first day I showed up to the school.  I had moved to Baltimore literally the day prior, and Mr. Duncan and I had been assigned to teach the two classes of the Summer Bridge program.  Much of my original knowledge about being an educator came from him.  And if anybody had my back on a consistent basis, it was Mr. Duncan.  There were several days where I sat in my room, shell-shocked and exhausted from the days events, trying to hold myself together while he talked me into coming back the next day.  And when he was suddenly relieved of his classroom duties, he took it upon himself to be the teaching coach I never had when I was absolutely drowning trying to prepare my students for the algebra HSA.  I think there’s a very good chance that his advocacy on my behalf saved my job.

In general, the first year at my school was war.  Most of our ninth graders hailed from middle schools infamous for being among the worst in the city.  In the beginning, for the most part, there was nothing but the five of us teachers running the high school.  During the school year, our upper school was a barebones operation, so everyone had to wear many hats.  To our team, probably more than anything, Mr. Duncan was the sage.  He had a way of stepping back to see the big picture, and the experience he brought was priceless.  And none of us think it’s a coincidence that Mr. Duncan’s homeroom regularly outperformed every other homeroom, thereby setting the standard for the upper school to live up to.

Ever since Mr. Duncan left the school, I have very much missed the philosophical conversations we would have during my planning period or after school.  I’m sad I never wrote down more of what Mr. Duncan said, because he had an incredible way with words, and he always had knowledge to drop.  He was a British intellectual.  Between his anecdotes, goofy Jamaican sayings, obscure literary allusions, and absolutely piercing metaphors, he had a way of communicating that was totally unique.  Whenever he had a profound thought, he expressed it in prose, just like in the quote above.  Most people didn’t understand what in the heck he was talking about, but in my estimation, he said more in one sentence than most people can say in five.   I was considered the de facto Duncan translator.  Sometimes, he would say something so outlandish, it would have me laughing so hard I would be in tears, but I’d be the only one laughing because no one else got it.  He was absolutely brilliant, and listening to him speak was like reading a great book.

I can’t quite shake the concern that events of the past year contributed to Mr. Duncan’s untimely passing.  I remember him being very shaken by his mother passing last June, and this was compounded by the drama that eventually led to him leaving our school, drama that, as I understand, continued until the end.  It pains me that his contribution to our school has not been properly recognized or honored in the past or the present.  Still, I know that Mr. Duncan didn’t put a lot of stock in accolades.  Mr. Duncan was compassionate, but he also didn’t take any crap from anybody.  He had ways of dealing with even our most challenging students.  He spoke his mind and did what he believed was best for the children.  When these students finally walk across the stage to get their diplomas in a couple of years, the work he did will be fully realized.  I’m just said he won’t have the chance to see it.

But, in the minds of everyone who knew him, Mr. Duncan will always be a legend.

Let’s Be Honest, Sometimes It Is The Kids

In TFA, and in teaching in general, I’ve heard frustrated teacher say so many times “it’s not the children that frustrate me, it’s the adults”–and that might refer to parents, other teachers, or administration.

Well, I’m going to keep it real and say that for me, sometimes it is the children.  I can honestly say that there’s not a single adult that I’ve worked with in any capacity that I don’t respect.  There’s only one person that comes close, and my collab-mates from Institute know who that is.  And even that person had a lot to teach me.  Obviously, everyone is flawed in one way or another, and the work we do has a way of exposing any flaws you might have.  That, you can count on.  You might be able to hide some of it from the kids, but we as adults can pick things out about one another all day long if we want to.  But I’ve also learned an immense amount about teaching and even life in general from every single person I’ve worked with, and there’s not a single coworker of mine, past or present, whose shoes I think I could step into and categorically do a better job than they do.

And speaking of admiration, some of the kids I teach have to endure hell just to get an education.  I don’t know what it does to the developing mind to be exposed to the profanity, the degradation, the disrespect, and the outrageous behavior that some of their peers exhibit on a nearly-constant basis.  No single kid is all bad, but you can count on someone stepping up to the plate to fill that role on a daily basis.  And there are definitely some kids that really seem to just revel in it.

I must admit, I have very mixed feelings toward the kids.  Sometimes, they can really amaze me with their persistence, their ability to radically change for the better, and even their thoughtfulness, every now and then.  But so much of the time, the good things they do are overridden in my mind by the overwhelming amount of poor behavior I have to confront on every day.  It’s not so much the show-stoppers that get to me, like when a student curses me out.  It’s pretty well understood that most students who would do that are unbalanced to begin with.  It’s those days when I see my good kids making choices they know are wrong, right in front of me.  That kid might not be cursing at me, but they might as well be.  Their actions speak much louder than words would have.  And when I have a class full of kids acting that way, it just makes me think “what is the point?”

Of course it’s not always like that.  There are rare days when you could hear a pin drop.  But most of the time, it’s not like that.  I can wait for minutes at a time until the room is absolutely silent, but as soon as I start talking, five kids start talking too.  It’s impossible get the entire class’s attention for long enough to explain even the simplest concepts to the point that all the students can do them.  It’s incredible, but what separates my best students from my worst has nothing to do with how good they were at math when I first got them.  It’s actually really simple.  My best students listen, and therefore they know what they’re doing.  And if they’re really good, they actually go on to try to complete their work.  And if they’re really, really good, they look at the examples and refer back to the notes they took to guide them in completing their work.

It’s just so sad that that is the standard of excellence.  I’ve tried so hard, but I can’t break the idea in the students’ minds that it’s okay just to show up, and that once you’re here, you can behave however the heck you might feel like behaving.  They’ve been conditioned to believe that they can play all day long and breeze through the process of growing into adults.  I deal with kids who won’t follow the simplest rules, like don’t eat, cell phones are not allowed, no hoodies.  I spend so much time and energy fighting these stupid battles, every single day.  Not to mention, I regularly have kids shriek, sing, or talk about the most profane things in full earshot.  I have kids I don’t even teach randomly pop in and out of the room without permission.  I’m sure this behavior didn’t start with this generation; it’s probably why we have so many childish adults.  And they want to go to college.  They look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them that the same sort of behavior that goes on daily around this school would have you escorted off of a college campus in handcuffs.

Obviously, the world needs people who can step in and talk some sense into these kids.   It’s not going to be me for much longer, though.  I just can’t handle it.  Some of my students already know from the rumor mill that I’m not going to be back next year, and they seem genuinely upset.  Come class time though, I still can’t get those same kids to simply listen.  I guess I do serve some purpose in their lives, as some one who treats them with respect no matter what.  That’s really nice, but I’m here to educate them and get them to college.  The toughest part of it for me is that I still believe it’s possible, but I don’t think we’re heading in that direction, at least not without major changes.  At this point, I’m so weary of the day to day, which is so far from that dream that there’s no way I plan to wait around to find out whether it can be done or not.  No way, no how.

Great Success!

This past week, I had the pleasure of distributing to 4 of my brightest math students their invitations to a summer math research program at Morgan State University.  This is the culmination of weeks of conversations I have been involved with in collaboration with their math department.  As part of the program, the students will commute to MSU over a 6 week period in June and July, where they will be matched up with faculty mentors and they will experience first hand how math research is done.  How much will they have to pay for the experience?  Nothing!  In fact, Morgan State is going to pay them each $3000.  It blows my mind.

When I delivered the invitations, I congratulated the students of course, but I also took the opportunity to deliver some tough love.  I told them that while their math skills fantastic and are what got them this opportunity, that it’s their behavior skills I’m worried about.  I told them that this opportunity makes them examples to the rest of the student body, and that they need to make sure their actions uphold a high standard at all times.  I told them that they need to know that the impression they make during their time at MSU will determine not only whether they are invited back the following summer, but it will also determine whether MSU expands their involvement for the rest of the school as a whole.  Lastly, I told them that they don’t owe me anything for helping get them this opportunity, because other people freely gave me the opportunities that I had.  Instead, I expect them to make the most of it so that they can open doors for future friendship students and for today’s elementary school students, and that’s how we can start to turn this city around.  I hope they took what I said to heart, but I plan on reinforcing it over the next several weeks anyway.

To be honest, I am really concerned that these kids might blow it.  Two of them in particular I would consider to be high-risk.  But that concern is far outweighed by my hope that this summer program might be the start of a major positive change in the course of their lives.  Sometimes kids just need a chance to shine.  In any case, helping make the connection so that these kids would have this awesome opportunity is probably the proudest achievement of the past two years.

The Light At The End of the Tunnel

It actually seems as though my days are flying by as the end of the year is drawing near, and I can finally feel safe to say that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.  It’s sad to say, but in this fourth quarter, I’ve finally found a groove that lets me get my job done without the huge burden I’ve felt for most of my teaching experience.  Could it be that I have actually figured it all out and am considering another year in teaching?  Heck no.  I’ve just found new ways of meeting what I consider to be my minimum requirement–that come class time, I need to have a coherent plan to teach the kids to do something new.

I have learned that all the crap they tell us we have to do just isn’t necessary to achieve the results I’m achieving.  I could be working 3 times as hard, but for what?  Frankly, I’m happy with my results.  I’ve got kids who couldn’t multiply last year doing algebra problems that take almost a full page of work.  I’ve got special ed kids correcting my mistakes on the board.  What is working is that I’m breaking every lesson down to the basics, I’m putting huge emphasis on students understanding the notation of algebra, and I’m being an absolute dick (excuse my language) in insisting on maximal standards for completion of classwork.

My class is not exciting, but I firmly believe that it’s time for these kids to understand that to get what they want, they have to work for it, and life isn’t just playtime.  The kids hate how nit-picky I am, but they are stepping up.  And the next day’s lesson goes so much better when they learned the background material from the day before thoroughly and correctly.

It hasn’t all been fun in games.  Things seem to run in cycles.  For a few days at a time, the kids will be motivated and so productive.  Then for a few days, they will be juvenile and rowdy, and I have to fight for every second of their attention.  When that happens, it makes me want to choke someone.   This past Monday, most of my 2nd period class had to take the AP exam, and I only had 6 kids in my room.  Those 6 kids were off the hook.  They cursed, bickered, talked about wildly inappropriate subjects, wouldn’t sit in their seats, sang, wouldn’t put their phones away, wouldn’t do the drill or the work, and were just all around jerks.  When that happens, for all that I’ve learned, I don’t know what to do with them.  Fortunately, Monday seemed to be the end of an approximately 3 week streak of generally insane behavior, and the rest of the week was pretty painless.  Let’s hope this next week stays that way.

If I can make it through this week, HSA testing is next week, then two weeks of class, then finals, then done!

Home Stretch, One Last Time

March was a mostly good month.  The beginning of the month started out a bit bumpy.  The momentum I have been trying to keep up has been waning, and at times, it has felt like progress has stopped completely.  But individual students seem to be finding motivation in little bursts, which has been keeping things moving.  Also, I’ve been really happy with the results of demanding perfection.  Kids grumble and curse, but the quality of their work is much better.  Plus, I have come to realize how important it is to require this level of repetition of the detailed processes.  I think part of the reason that my students lack so many skills is because they weren’t required to turn in rigorous work.  I’m trying to tell the kids that just plugging numbers into their calculators means nothing, the point is that they understand the processes, the reasoning and the notation, so that we can build on that.  Maybe I will leave something of worth behind after all.

Speaking of which, as of today, I am officially leaving the school after this school year.  I spoke with my administration today, and I submitted my resignation, effective July 1.  If I’m still in Baltimore next year, I might continue to work with the basketball team and with other extracurricular activities.  But my career in teaching is nearing its official end, and I feel unambiguously good about that.

Also during March, my administration graciously granted me leave to go on rugby tour to Barbados, which is another story entirely.  And of course, there was official Spring break, which wraps up today, as we return to school.

As usual, I know that the return to work is going to be jarring, but that feeling is tempered by the fact that the end finally seems within reach.  Coming back from winter break, I couldn’t say that, because my first semester this year was very difficult, and the idea that I could potentially be in for a carbon copy of that was frightening.  But this time, I’m returning to wrap up what has probably been the most successful quarter of my teaching career, and if I can replicate that, just once, maybe I can end this year on a good note.

One thing that is definitely coming toward us slowly but inevitably is HSA season.  Our sophomores are scheduled to take HSA’s in English, Biology and American Government, and about half of them will be repeating the HSA Algebra exam.  This year, it feels much better, seeing as it’s not me in the pressure cooker.  But because so many of our sophomores have not passed the algebra exam, I will still have a good deal of work to do.  Meanwhile, I’ll be trying to plan out my next year.

No more breaks from school now, it’s the home stretch.

Little Melvin Williams

Little Melvin is not the nickname of a student I teach.  Little Melvin Williams is a man who sold hundreds of millions of dollars of heroin and cocaine in Baltimore and spent 26 1/2 years in prison.  He claims to have witnessed approximately two hundred murders while in federal prison, and to have potentially had the ability to prevent about a third of them, but chose not to.  Last night, 7 other teachers and I had the opportunity to hear Little Melvin tell us his story in person.

Little Melvin is best recognized by most Americans as the guy who played The Deacon on The Wire.  But in Baltimore, he’s a living legend on the street.  It doesn’t take long to notice that Little Melvin is a gifted storyteller, so it’s tough to separate myth from fact in what he says, but most of it is well documented.  Little Melvin was a kid in Baltimore with genius-level intellect but with an interest in very little besides gambling.  By the time he was 17, he had been basically kicked out of school, but had meanwhile built a larger than life reputation as a gambler in cards, dice, and billiards.  He was so well known in town that the government put him up to try to talk down the rioters when King was assassinated.  As Melvin tells it, rather than being appreciative of his success in calming some of the rioters, the government became fearful of his influence, and began looking for a way to take him down.  Melvin claims that he wasn’t involved in any criminal activity at this point.  Others disagree.  In any case, they finally succeeded, but only with help from narcotics found on him, planted by a dirty cop–a fact attested to by an article in the Baltimore Sun.   Driven by anger at the corruption of the government, he decided while he was imprisoned that he would become the monster they claimed he was, and we he got out, he became hugely involved in the drug trade, being the first person to import narcotics into the city by the truckload.  Many years, many millions of dollars, and many thousands of pound of drugs later, he was caught again and put away for 22 more years.  While in jail, Little Melvin said he eventually found God, learned to control his anger, and taught himself everything he could about everything–Spanish, French, math, and–especially–law.

Besides his crazy story, Little Melvin had a lot to tell us about the intricacies criminal law, the rules of the ghetto and the narcotics business, and the horrors of federal prison.  Some of the things Little Melvin had to say about the federal prison in Terra Haute, IN, where he spent much of his sentence, were unreal.  He talked about how he still wakes up at precisely 4:30am, every day, no matter when he lays down, because at Terra Haute, they open all the prison doors at 6am, and your life is on the line from that instant.  He talked about people being incinerated in their cell by make-shift napalm.  Little Melvin told us, in detail, what might be whispered in a new arrival’s ear when he’s raped at knifepoint his first night in prison, after some predator pulls strings to be assigned as his bunkmate.  The place sounds as close to hell on Earth as anything I have ever heard.

He also told us about how the drug trade has changed since his day.  Melvin claims that the drug trade is next to impossible to stop today because so much of our economy depends on its existence.  He goes as far as to posit that the U.S. Government explicitly participates in the importation of narcotics to the country.  And he says that kids today won’t even listen to him.  All they want to hear about is the cars they hear he owned.  When he tells them about the horrors of prison, they reply, “nuh-uh, won’t happen to me!”  For all his wisdom, he was mostly at a loss for what to tell us about how to deal with the kids.  One piece of advice he could give us was how crucial it is that kids don’t care what you say, they watch what you do, and that’s where all your credibility resides.  I think that’s a lesson that every reflective teacher in the city can agree with.  It’s pretty easy to see what kids are raised by people who live what they teach.  And when you mess up as a teacher, the effects on student behavior are immediate.

When we asked about Little Melvin’s view of the future, he said that as a gambling man, he’s pretty pessimistic.  He tries to do his part through a program he started called Correct Choices.  He’s trying to start a rec center in a building he owns, but his efforts are being opposed by a group of citizens that hasn’t forgotten his dark days.  But Melvin does what he can.  However, in his view, kids have become more impulsive and fatalistic.  The real thugs don’t even expect to live to 25.  He thinks the best bet is to try to set them on the right path when they’re young, because when the kids get older, it’s almost impossible to turn them around.

Little Melvin spoke to us for about 4 hours straight, and if we detected any internal contradictions in his stories, we kept them to ourselves while he spoke.  It’s pretty intimidating to correct a man who you would assume has been directly responsible for many dozens of deaths, and who also professes to be a master of Tae Kwon Do, Goju Ryu, Shotokan, and Kung Fu.  Before he left, Little Melvin gave us his cell phone number and told us to call him anytime.  Incredibly enough, the man takes every call he gets, through his earpiece, without even bothering to screen them.  It happened several times throughout the meeting.  The most humorous moment of the night happened when he took the empty box of crackers my roommate had brought, declaring, “these crackers are the truth!”  I guess the man now finds joy in the simple pleasures in life.  After he left, it took our group another 2 hours just to debrief on all we had heard.

Overall, it was fascinating to hear what Little Melvin had to say.  He more or less epitomizes our most difficult students–extremely bright, disinterested, pissed off, abused, and betrayed.  The sad part for me as a teacher is that most of the real troublemakers of that caliber in my classroom are gone now.  I only have a small handful of gangbangers left, and those who still show up are there because they want a better lifestyle.  I don’t know what we could have done differently for the ones who dropped out, and Little Melvin didn’t have any easy answers.  And frankly, my feelings are mixed because I’m much more able to help my remaining students without them.

It was an interesting

night, to say the least!

Rocky Times

Conference Day was a bit of an ordeal.  As I thought, there were excuses galore, and about half of my students rose to the occasion.  To me, the sheer neglect and lack of work ethic some of the kids bring is astounding.  abotu two-thirds of my students will be failing as of mid-quarter.  But on the bright side, my grades are fully updated, so no all-night grading session will be necessary.  I even gave students until this past Monday to fix and resubmit work, but only after school.  I told them, hell, even if you hadn’t done anything all quarter, you could just grab a copy of every worksheet, take a couple hours of the weekend, and knock every bit of it out.  And still, many of the students let the deadline blow by without any apparent fight.   The second Conference Day will be Monday.  We’ll see how it goes.

I’m starting to notice my students coalescing into new groupings.  About 40% of my students have stepped up to the plate and really seem encouraged by the pace I’m trying to set.  Interestingly enough, this group is composed of people who fall all along the spectrum of talent.  Probably about 20% of my students have extremely poor attendance or have been suspended a significant amount of time, and therefore have little chance of passing.  But what is really vexing me is the 40% of my students who are there most days and think that just showing up will be enough to pass, let alone go on to make something of themselves.  I’m trying to tell them on a daily basis that just showing up is not nearly enough.  It’s so frustrating because I’ve seen the transcripts, and frankly, many of our students have already put themselves in a really rough spot and no longer have any margin for error.  It’s like trying to convince people that the building they’re in is burning down, but most of them just won’t believe it until it’s too late.

Today was frustrating, because every one of my four classes was completely out of hand.  One of the most irritating things about my job on a daily basis is that a large number of my students seem to think it’s okay to engage in conversation while I’m trying to teach, as though what I’m saying isn’t important and the rules don’t apply to them.  Not to mention how disrespectful it is.  I can’t even begin to describe what my day looked like in detail.  In fact, I probably don’t even remember anymore.  I’ve learned to forget at the end of the day, probably as some sort of coping mechanism.  Suffice it to say that it was awful.  It felt like last semester all over again, and looking back, if I had weeks in a row worth of days just like today, no wonder I was so depressed.

It just burns, because I hoped my students and I had turned a corner as a group where we could start relating on a more adult level.  But apparently, it’s just the new semester honeymoon, coming to an abrupt end.  Still, I’m going hope  that today was just a temporary setback and keep fighting to keep the little ember of motivation and relative propriety of behavior alive for as long as I can.

The Snowpocalypse and Judgment Day

These past several weeks have been quite eventful.  Baltimore was hit by one-two combination of storms that <i>each</i> dropped more snow than the city usually sees in an entire year.  The entire city was basically stopped dead in its tracks, and when it was all said and done, 6 entire school days were cancelled, and 4 more were reduced to half-days.  People are calling the storms Snowmaggedon and The Snowpocalypse, although there is no consensus as to which one is which.  Needless to say, I was completely ecstatic.  Typically, I travel as soon as I get any scheduled time off, but because of the snow, I was stuck at home.  This actually turned out to be a very good thing.  My living space is now more organized than ever before, and I think it ended up being a great time to relax and get my head right, without the stress of being out on the road.

The school schedule includes 5 emergency days in June, to be used for replacing days when school was cancelled.  But at 9 total snow days, we’re way passed that.  The state superintendent is petitioning for a waiver of the 180 school day requirement, and it’s not clear what would happen if it is not granted.  All I know is that my spring break tickets are booked, so they won’t be seeing me should they decide to truncate the break.

Counting the time we’ve actually been in school, we’re now in the fourth week of the new semester.  My back to basics strategy for this semester has been marginally successful so far.  At the very least, I’m seeing an increase in student engagement, and this is with relatively abstract material.  I’ve been trying to keep the momentum up, but I’m starting to sense rebellion.

One of my biggest problems has been getting kids to do classwork and settling on a grading policy that is fair, motivational, and sustainable.  This semester, I’ve decided to make a radical change.  I call it Conference Day.  It should be called Judgment Day.  Sacrificing some instructional time, I have decided to have my students hand in their work individually.  If it is complete and correctly done, it’s 100%.  If not, it goes in my gradebook as missing.  The grade can be recovered if they follow my instructions for rectifying the problem and resubmit the work on their own time after school.  Otherwise, it stays a zero.

I’m trying to kill several problems with one solution.

– I can’t grade at home.  I’ve tried it a million ways, and I can’t make it work.
– Turnaround is quick.  If a kid is slacking, they get called out on it face to face.
– Lastly, and most importantly, it gives me a chance to confront the issue of kids BS’ing their work by just filling the space with ink, but not understanding what they’re doing.  If it’s not done right, I tell them what’s wrong, show them an example, mark it missing, and send them back to the drawing board.

I’m hoping that this system will also lead to increased engagement on the day of the lesson, because students will want to avoid the endless series of revisions results from carelessly done or incomplete work.  And I’m really hoping the new system kills the end of quarter blitz for makeup work.

Backlash has been swift and vicious.  But I’m hoping it will pay dividends down the line, and that on the next Judgment Day–I mean, Conference Day–things will run much more smoothly.