As Spring Break ends, the last quarter of my school year begins, and with that comes the flood of my students asking about their grades. I find it so aggravating that their general mindset is to wait until the last possible minute to worry about anything - they wait until past the due date to turn something in, wait until the end of the quarter and ask for extra credit work, and wait until the end of the year to worry about passing (not learning).
This week I started a financial planning unit with my Algebra 1 students - we focused on what they "need" in life as opposed to what they "want." It was probably some of the most actively engaged my students have been. The next step will be to attribute dollar amounts to those items/services and plan a budget to accommodate them. I really wonder how this unit will unfold because it REQUIRES forethought - something my students are not always known for.
It then makes me think about the forethought required for a diploma. Not just one unit, one quarter, or one year - but FOUR YEARS of planning to make sure a student has learned something. At the end of my year I am now wondering and worrying about what a diploma will mean for my students and my school - do I offer the olive branch of "just passing" in order to guarantee my students will do some work? Or do I hold fast to my ideology and agree that it is impossible for a student to pass if s/he has received less than 158 percentage points over the last 3 quarters (add 100 to that number and divide by four to see the magic "passing number" for the year)?
I am a firm believer that a diploma should mean something. The pressure I feel (both internal and external) to get more kids to pass my classes - even if they do not understand the material - is horrendous in the short-term and the long-term. I just wish my School District would agree.
Spring Break brings two things to my mind: a break from the constant bickering between students, teachers, administrators, and the Jewish holiday of Passover. As a fairly conscientious Jew I take my major holidays fairly seriously and am now at home where I grew up preparing for our massive 5-hour long seder this evening. It's this time of year that makes me most glad I live near my family - that way I don't have to clean up my OWN house for Passover!
But this is also a time of reflection. In the traditional book read on Passover, the Haggadah, we are asked to "Remember the day you, yourself, came out of Egypt." Most commentators focus on the fact that this line is focused on the individual as opposed to the collective - a feat much harder to achieve, but much more fulfilling when completed.
I take this Spring Break to think about my practice and talk to others about it. I will think about myself as coming out of Egypt and relate that "Egypt" concept to where my students are coming from every day they come to school. How can I make my classroom feel less oppressive and fascist and more involved and engaging? How can I satiate people who make unruly demands of me without burning bridges and going crazy? How can I learn to not let the things that seem like personal attacks (and could be) not affect my emotions?
I wish all of you teachers out there a rejuvenating Spring Break (if you are having it this week, that is) and hope that you take some time to reflect on yourself and what you do, and realize it's seriously amazing!
I had the most unique experience of my (short) teaching career yesterday. I completely scrapped a lesson plan in the first 10 minutes of class because kids who normally are aggressive about being unengaged were shouting at me about math!
Background: I was teaching about real-life situations of systems of equations. I showed a relatively dull video about buying CDs and DVDs (yes, I know, "no one buys CDs anymore, we have iTunes") when a kid asked me that lovingly hated question "when are we ever going to use this?" I have tried very hard to answer this question quickly but yesterday I decided to take a larger bite: I opened up my web browser and went to two cell phone websites - mycricket.com and metropcs.com.
We spent the next 30 minutes arguing which phones were better, how much they cost, how do you know the right cell phone plan for you - in a generally disorganized shouting match. It was fascinating.
The most interesting thing that came out of it, though, was that my students kept saying "we are just going to pay our bills until we can't. Then the phone will be off for a little while until we can again."
This set me aback. Pay our bills until we can't? "Don't you want to plan ahead?" I asked, incredulously. "No! If I want to buy something, I'm going to buy it!"
This was the sentiment of pretty much everyone in the group. For some reason, their brains have been trained (by media, socioeconomic status, neighborhood violence, or whatever) to have an intense instant gratification bent. I tried my very best to argue that you could think about how much money you have saved and make a better determination on keeping your phone on, but apparently that is not an issue for them. It was strange.
Today I continued by actually asking them to make equations for phones and plans they wanted. We talked about why you would want a certain plan for a bit, and then graphed them to see where they interested (the solution to a real-life system of equations). And I pointed out the fact that some phones + plans are cheaper at the beginning, but then get more expensive later on. We even compared the cost of STEALING a phone (the y-intercept, or phone cost, becomes zero).
Basically, it was very fruitful and interesting and I'm glad I disobeyed what I had planned to do these two days.
The high today was 84 degrees. My classroom got a few degrees higher because the air conditioning in our building was not turned on (luckily we have it ready for May). My first two classes progressed as usual and then I had my standard 2 hour break in my day to prepare for the onslaught of 3 hours of teaching. That first hour after the break was exactly what I thought it would be: a crazy-fest.
Trying to teach in a hot room with kids who are already demotivated is the worst. I try to be funny to get them to laugh (performance again). I try to be annoying to get them to pay attention. I try not to be shocked when one of them references global warming (wow - someone is actually paying attention to the world around them!).
But these are just the tip of the iceberg of the problems. Some of these kids are regulars at putting their heads down and not listening. Some are always complaining, regardless of how much they might be learning. It frustrates me to no end that they do not see the importance of education in achieving goals in the future. Or maybe they do, and other issues in their lives are not allowing them to focus on that.
Resiliency is something my students mostly lack. As hot and annoyed as I may be during the day, I have the gusto to keep going. A lot of them just give up. A lot of their parents have given up on them. And giving up is the problem that will wind them up on the streets, in prison, or just trying to make ends meet each week so they have some semblance of security in their lives.
But I REFUSE to give up.
I don't think I am the best teacher I could be so I keep growing, learning, expanding my exposure to techniques in education. I think that maybe if my students see me giving my all they will learn to as well. I hope.
This afternoon I spent about an hour after school working with a student to solve something like the following:
10x + 5y = 20
-4x + 6y = 8
Yes, that is a system of linear equations. I have been teaching my students for the past week a 3-step process (using knowledge they have gained already) in how to solve them. What was so frustrating was that this student is generally attentive and listening - but for some reason he wasn't over the past week. Hence me working with him for an hour, getting increasingly frustrated at my lack of articulation of the concept and his lack of understanding.
While all this was going on two of my other students were in the room answering questions for a focus group. Their attention sometimes wavered to me and one of them commented over and over again how she would never have the patience to be a teacher. It was amazing how this simple act (well, maybe not so simple) of helping a student for an hour provided a context in which she could empathize with me.
What was even more amazing was that she can often be one of my most frustrating students in regular class time. Yet, at one point, she hugged me and said she was going to act better in class. It was awesome.
So there you have it - sometimes wearing your emotions on your sleeve can be a good thing with students. I got a change to help one student understand he had to do the OPPOSITE operation to cancel out a term, and another student will likely behave better in her class because she saw how much effort I put in.
No if only I could duplicate that feeling for the rest of my students.....
Our students these days are listening, watching, and consuming so much media there is actual research concerning the "too many screens" problem. One of the outcomes of that for teachers is that where in the past the inertia has been to allow a teacher to use his or her authority to demand quiet and attention, that is no longer so. Our leading class is almost another screen to students; one that they can simply ignore or decide to act out if they have something else to grab their attention.
So, in order to gain their attention again, we must start acting out ourselves. The following is my version of that. Following inspiration from a quote by Dr. Gregory House: "Everything sucks. So you might as well find something to smile about." Enjoy.