Surprising the Kids

We had our first pep fest in about seven years yesterday. I must say that it went really well and the kids had a great time. It was organized by one of our student groups – the Asian Culture Club. There was a group from each grade that did dances. And in the middle, the teachers surprised them with our own dance. I mentioned in an earlier post that we learned and practiced our dance during our “cold days” last week. We had one last practice on Thursday after school. I think it’s safe to say that the kids were surprised and now have a different view of their teachers. And what value does it have? Building relationships with students is one of the great ways to boost achievement. Having them see their teachers as real people, willing to do something a little crazy for them, will go a long way.

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Wonderful Wacky Week

This week was weird. We started with not one, but two days closed due to the cold. This time the district had teachers report to work. In the 8 days we’ve had of second semester, I’ve now seen my kids five times.

What are teachers to do without students? It was weird. I wasn’t in a big rush to get to school. I could ease into my day. I had time to plan. I had time to catch up with colleagues. I had more than 20 minutes to eat my lunch. I could go to the bathroom whenever I needed to. I could do things that had been shoved down to the bottom of my to-do list. I set up my second semester grade book, did my yearly health assessment for insurance, took a survey about our PLC work, prepped for my re-scheduled math meet. For one week, I did not bring home work to do in the evenings. Even though the district technically violated our contract by having us come in, most of us were fine with it. We got stuff done.

In the 187 contracted days, we only have one day that the district allows for us to determine our own work. For senior high, it’s the day between semesters. We just had ours on January 21st. Finalizing grades and getting ready for new students, new classes is the purpose of that day. We work like fiends to get it all done on time so we can have a nice fresh start to the new semester without the old one hanging over our heads. So lots of us stay late and work throughout the prior weekend to make sure we’ve finished everything. In other words, we put in a ton of time even prior to having that one work day. And you still feel like you don’t get everything done that is needed. So when we had to come into work without students this week, most of us were already caught up since we had only had two days with them.

In the midst of planning ahead, we took a little time for some staff activities. We’re having a pep fest next week. We haven’t had a pep fest in years. As a fun little surprise, we’re doing a “flash mob” dance. There were at least 50 of us learning and practicing the dance both days. Now that’s a fun way to get to know your colleagues! On the second day, a few of us took a little time out of working for a quick game of volleyball. I hadn’t played volleyball in years. It was a blast! Then I went back to my desk and got more work done. So in these two crazy days, I really enjoyed spending time with my colleagues. We’ve really got a great group of teachers that work extremely hard and care deeply about our students and their achievement.

Wednesday the kids were back. I think they were glad to be back in school. My math meet went off without a hitch. The 100+ mathletes that came to my school and participated were great.

Thursday. Because of the lack of progress with our contract, we had a planned union action. My district doesn’t have a defined day. We are expected in the building 15 minutes prior and 15 minutes after students. We are not required to be in the building to prep for our classes and do the additional work that all teachers do. It is understood that you get the necessary work done outside of that designated time in the building to be ready for your classes. As a result of this policy, we cannot do a “work-to-rule” action. This is good. Teachers have one heck of a time with that. There’s no way you can get everything done in 8 hours per day. When districts do work-to-rule, teachers are torn about participating because it’s just not in their nature to leave work undone for the next day. Work-to-rule is a drastic step when contract talks aren’t going well. Our action was much different and has a much more positive tone.

At 55 sites, with approximately 2500 teachers, parents and students, we organized Walk-Ins. Thursday morning’s snow storm just made it more dramatic. With the worst commute of the winter thus far, we gathered outside our buildings, with signs and our colleagues to welcome kids to school, wave to drivers, and all walk in together, prior to our 15 minutes, required by contract. My building started at 6:50am. Considering how bad the roads were, our 40 teachers that made it in that early were fantastic! We had signs, red scarves, glow sticks, and a nice crowd on the main street in front of the school, waving at cars going by. It was actually really fun! The crappy weather just showed that we’re determined to fight for better learning conditions for our kids. What’s good for kids is good for teachers. Our signs were all about what our kids deserve. Smaller class sizes, school nurses, counselors, librarians, art, music, phy ed, special education, less testing and more learning. At 7:10 we all walked into the building together, brushed off the snow, and got down to the business of teaching and caring for our kids.

I don’t know the impact of our walk-in on the district. We did make the front page of the paper on Friday. The news media is always reluctant to side with teachers and unions. They’re coverage was pretty vanilla. But if you took the time to look at the photos from so many sites, you can easily the dedication of our teachers to students.

It was definitely an unusual week. But one of the most fun weeks I’ve had on the job in a while.

Yes, it’s cold.

Is it unbearable? No. Is it dangerous? Yes.

I think it’s -10 right now. By morning it is supposed to be -23, or something like that. The current windchill is -33. How long does it take to get frostbite? Less than 5 minutes. So, if you’re not prepared for the weather, it is very dangerous. When it’s cold like this, there is a bit of unpredictability. Cars that are parked outside overnight may not start. Even after mine has been parked at school all day, there’s a bit of a protest from my engine when I turn the key. And mine isn’t that old! Because of this unpredictable and dangerous situation, the governor has cancelled school for the entire state for tomorrow. Am I excited about this? You betcha! But it really does make sense.

Whenever school is cancelled, due to a snow day or whatever, school districts are in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. People are mad that you cancelled because now they have to find daycare for their kids. People are mad if you don’t because it’s dangerous for their kids to be out in the poor weather conditions. So the governor calling it off for the whole state was a blessing. Superintendents across the state don’t have to make the hard call.

The other aspect of this that people don’t realize because they don’t see it, is what it’s like to be poor in this weather. Lots of my students don’t have adequate winter coats, hats or gloves. As I drive to school, I see numerous kids at bus stops wearing hoodies. No jacket, no gloves. Just a hoodie and jeans. I do understand that some kids just don’t want to wear a coat because it’s too bulky or not fashionable. But when it’s this cold, I think even those kids would give in to bundling up.

It was very nice to know on Friday that we had a 3-day weekend. My district did go back to school for 2 days last week. So it actually worked out rather nicely. Many districts weren’t going to be back in school from winter break until tomorrow anyway. So everyone is getting a bonus day. What will I do with my day? I’ll probably go swim. Yeah, -20 and I’m thinking of swimming. It will be a nice extra day to catch up on stuff around my house.

And if you need a little inspiration about the cold… Here’s an article about a guy from my church. He’s 90 and this cold weather isn’t going to stop him!

Racist?

A person who believes in racism, the doctrine that a certain human race is superior to any or all others.

In an effort to close the achievement gap, we are getting training on racial equity. So far the training has been a mish-mash of presenters, some more effective than others. So far, mine have all been district employees that have had some training from the consulting firm that was hired to help us out with this problem. We’ve been given these handy-dandy bookmarks to remind us about our “Courageous Conversations.”

Four Agreements: Stay ENGAGED, Experience DISCOMFORT, Speak your TRUTH, Expect/Accept NON-CLOSURE

Six Conditions: Focus on PERSONAL, local and immediate; ISOLATE race; Normalize SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION & multiple perspectives; Monitor agreements, conditions and ESTABLISH PARAMETERS; Use a “WORKING DEFINITION” for race; Examine the presence and role of “WHITENESS”

Years ago, we were told that we needed to be, in a sense, colorblind. Now we are told that we need to see color. I have always been interested in other cultures. I travel the world to learn about various places and people. I make a point to get to know my students. I’ve been invited to their homes for graduation parties, quincearenas, weddings, and various other celebrations. When I see a student, my first thought isn’t about their race. It’s about who they are as an individual and their distinct talents and needs.

I understand that it’s important to have a grasp of institutional racism and how I take for granted some things that I hadn’t realized. I am white. I can’t help that. I’ve grown up in a predominantly white culture. For the past 18 years, I’ve worked in a school that is not predominantly white. That’s what I like about it. I get to learn about cultures different from my own.

They tell me that the color of one’s skin seems to determine the success that one will have in our school district. They tell me that the socio-economic factors don’t matter. For example, comparing affluent white kids to affluent black kids, the white kids do better. And apparently the white kids do better than the Asian kids too. For some reason, I want to see that data. The ones that are at the bottom of the gap, what kind of supports do they have? What is their attendance record? Do they rely on the school for the majority of their meals? Have they bounced from school to school? Do they have supportive adults in their lives? There are so many possibilities as to why a student is doing poorly, that to narrow it down to the color of their skin seems an over-simplification. Maybe it’s just the logical person in me that can’t grasp it.

The thing that is most difficult about this “training” is that because I am a white lady, I am automatically labeled as racist. Do you have to call me a racist? I have done everything I can think of to NOT be the person in the definition at the top of this post. I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long time and haven’t written about it because I just don’t know how. But it is very disturbing to be assumed to be racist. I understand that I have had the benefit of white privilege. But does that make me racist? Isn’t there another word that could be used? The connotation of being racist is just so ugly. I see that according to the bookmark, I’ve supposedly agreed to experience discomfort. But did I agree to be a punching bag or a scape goat for the achievement gap? And this training seems to focus on just black/white issues. What about all of the others?

To me, this is a much bigger issue that can’t be broken down strictly by the color of one’s skin. There are so many factors that go into the success of a student. It seems trite to just say it’s a color thing. I can handle learning about what can be done to help narrow the gap. But do you have to call me a racist?

Community of Support

I went to a benefit last night. One of my former students has a 2-year-old with a rare form of cancer. We were all there to support the family and raise money to help them with their various expenses. I’m not sure how many people were there. It was packed. Throughout the night I would venture to guess at least 400. Probably more. But I’m not the best at guessing those things…

As a teacher, I was in this weird position of recognizing so many faces, but trying to put a name to all of them is just too difficult. These two families are solid pillars of the community. There is this network of families that all know each other through their kids’ sports teams and being in school together. Even after high school, these kids are all still very tight. They’re in each others weddings, they went to college together, they stay in touch. I can’t say the same for my high school experience. I only keep up with a few of my classmates.

Most of the former students that I saw last night graduated at least 10 years ago. Many of them are entering their 30s or are already there. A few of them are now teachers. At least one is now a colleague. Another couple of them are coaching my current students in various sports. One of the grandmothers of the 2-year-old was my assistant principal for several years. So to say the least, I had lots of connections to many people there last night. Everywhere I looked there seemed to be a familiar face.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a social event with former students or their parents. It was so nice to see them! It was really cool to be able to talk with them as adults. Some of them I remembered their names instantly. Several I remembered once I got home! Every once in a while a parent would catch my eye and smile like they knew me. A few parents I can remember well and several have such a strong resemblance to their children that I can figure it out. I truly enjoyed talking with all of them and I wish I would have remembered more names. It was wonderful to see the community support for these families and I’m glad that I could be a part of it.

Parent/Teacher Conferences – Always Something Interesting

We had the first round of Parent/Teacher Conferences this week. I had more parents come than I’ve had in a long time. I was busy the entire time. Many times, I’m catching up with colleagues and watching the clock. I spoke to parents of kids with As and parents of kids with Ns. At this point in my career, many of the parents are around my age. It does feel a bit different from when I first started. But there’s always something interesting that happens.

I was speaking with a mother of one of my 9th grade boys. We talked over how he was doing and various aspects of school. As our conversation about her son wound down, she says to me, “My husband wanted me to ask you a question. Are you related to the math teacher who used to teach here that almost cut off his toes with a chain saw?” I had to laugh. “Yes, that’s my dad.” She went on to say that her husband really liked my dad’s class and thought he was a great teacher.

I probably need to clarify the story because I’m sure you’re curious now. Back in about 1984 my dad was cutting wood in the back yard. The chain saw hit a knot in the wood and “jumped” and landed on his foot. It of course, cut through his shoe and most of the way through his big toe. In the shock of it all, he walked up to the house. He must have been clear-headed enough to make sure he walked around to the front to make sure he didn’t track blood in the house. He came through the garage and opened the door to the kitchen where he said, “I think I need to go to the hospital.” My dad ended up with his toe reattached. They used some kind of pin and a Black n Decker drill. I remember there being a little hook on the top of the pin sticking out of his toe. Because of the chain saw accident, my dad missed my brother’s confirmation and we still give him grief for his many mishaps that have occurred where he’s missed a particular milestone.

Since my dad retired in 1997, it has been awhile since I’ve had someone ask about him during conferences. It’s very nice to have someone fondly remember a teacher. Most of the time the teacher never hears about how they influenced a child and how that child grew up and still remembers them. I’m lucky that I get to hear about the impact my dad made on his students. And it’s even nicer that I can pass it on to him.

Celebrating

In my state, the legislature recently voted to get rid of the high stakes tests that are currently in place. Well, they’re not gone yet, and they still are what measures whether or not we met AYP (adequate yearly progress) for NCLB. But they no longer will be a hinderance to graduation. In the math world, we are familiar with this, because the test was so hard that the graduation rate would have plummeted in the state. So three tries, and you get to walk for math. Now they’re throwing out the writing test and the reading one too. They’ll be replaced with something else. But for now, we’re in limbo.

In the midst of this news, the test results from the spring round are now available. On Friday, my Pre Calc kids were curious how they fared. I can look it up through our computer system. One by one they came back if they were curious. The raw score of 50 is needed to pass. As each kid came close to my computer as I clicked on their name, we happily found out that they all had passed. One girl, a shy and very hard-working one at that, wanted to find out how she did but she was scared to see the results. She’s one of those students that tries so hard but always seems to over-think things and makes them more difficult. Her confidence in math is not exactly high. I was nervous for her as we clicked on the appropriate tabs. In fact, we both got closer to the screen, as if to brace ourselves for a lower score that we could hide. I clicked and I clicked. She got a 50. She passed. What? She passed! I put my arm around her and started jumping up and down in excitement that she passed! It finally hit her that she did it. It was so fun to share that moment with her!

That’s why we do this job.