First Week

Yesterday was the first fine day all week. We went outside to write in our journals. DSC03654 The kids ran ahead, tripping down the path they use in winter for sledding and in summer for flying on bikes.DSC03655Because they are silly, they wouldn’t sit on the ground. All eleven of them crammed together at the one picnic table. DSC03662A little less work got done than I might have hoped, due to the natural consequences of having eleven kids at one table, but everyone wrote at least a page of sensory details. On the walk back, B borrowed my camera.  DSC03665It has been an awesome first week of school. I had to fight to get B in my class, but he’s thriving so far. He likes the book we’re reading and the activities we’ve done in science. I have a handful of kids, like B, that I didn’t know well last year, and they’re still wild cards, but so far nobody has been bored enough to make trouble just for fun. It bodes well.

We’re going to do algebra for real this year. I’ve taken the kids who are ready, regardless of their grade, and Jake has the kids who need another year of preparation. Ready means, in this case, mostly okay on basic math. I’m starting with a good long pre-algebra unit, then jumping into the good stuff. We’re going to take it slow, but I think we can get there.

I have half the class reading The Mighty Miss Malone and the other half reading Homecoming. Both books deal with damaged families and poverty and kids who carry more than their share of the burden. So far, both books are hits, and it warms the cockles of my heart to sit with my kids and talk about literature. We’re getting there.

The anemometers have been mostly successful. They got a little lost converting RPMs to miles per hour, but we’ll keep hitting it until it comes easy. We’ll get there, given time. And distance. ha. ha. DSC03651


I have thought a lot this summer about quitting my job. If I were to quit, I could stop slogging through variables and decimals amid the wails of the oppressed youth of America and do something that enchants me for a change. I could learn woodworking or go sailing or live abroad. Quitting wouldn’t cause any major financial hardship if I took on occasional substitute gigs and tutoring opportunities. I could lace up my boots and get my fingers all sticky and frown over art problems and remember what it feels like to be free.

We’re two weeks into this year, and already I can feel a growing knot of stress under my right shoulder blade. My stomach has stopped recognizing familiar foods and has turned gizzard on gravel over red onions and pineapple. School exhausts me: I come home tired, and I don’t sleep well. The emotional drain is a 72 inch pipe in the bottom of my reservoir, and my hundred and twenty kids are Dallas. I hate that even in a good week, I can only hope to fail well every day. In a bad week, the Sisyphean nature of teaching takes its toll and I get smashed flat as everything I’ve worked for unspools at the feet of a school system already so bewildered by bureaucratic inefficiency that it can offer up only the feeblest of support.

I haven’t quit yet, and the reasons why are all between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. This is hard, stressful, unsatisfactory, unsupported work, but it is a labor of tremendous love, and the kids make me smile, even on the worst days. Until recently, there could have been no question at all of my quitting.

For the past two years, my kids easily outweighed all of the hardship attendant with the job.

For the past two years, my kids easily outweighed all of the hardship attendant with the job.

Now, I’m teetering on the edge of a choice that I don’t want to make.

I'm not sure which weighs heavier on my heart.

I’m not sure which weighs heavier on my heart.

At what point do the personal consequences outweigh the value of the ethical work that I’m engaged in? At what point does self-sacrifice become needless and stupid? I love teaching kids, but I feel that I’m being asked to do it under untenable conditions, and that my willingness to go all-in is being abused. Kid-love is a variable, and some days it’s abundantly clear that it’s not enough. Other days, a sweet bit of graffiti blows the k-factor through the roof.modd

Week 1: More silly faces and a look at the level tracker

If you’re not a math teacher, this probably won’t get you that excited, but if you are… BEHOLD! My brainchild!

Four kids on level two today! Hot-diggity-dog!

Four kids on level two today! Woo and yay!

The bulletin board behind me in the photo tracks students’ progress as they learn to simplify expressions with the order of operations and then, expressions mastered, to solve more and more challenging algebraic equations. It’s student-powered (they move their own stickies, which saves me work), it builds investment (overheard while waiting for the bus at summer school: “I’m on level three!” “Well I’ll beat you to level five!”), it differentiates assessments for me, and it provides me with useful data about which students and groups of students are where (The names on the sticky notes are color coded by class period).

Every few days at the beginning of school, then every week, I’ll give a level quiz. Each student knows his or her own level and asks for the appropriate quiz, which prevents a total organizational nightmare. As each student completes the quiz, I grade it. If the student answers three out of four problems correctly, he or she moves up a level immediately.

I’ve taught objectives that correspond to the levels for the last two days, so I’ve allowed students who have demonstrated mastery on their exit tickets to progress. Seventy-five of my students didn’t have a chance to take today’s level quiz/exit ticket, so the four kids who are on level two came from a sample of just twenty-five. All things considered, we’re doing well so far.

7th period was 45 minutes of the best class time of my life. During the lesson, I burst into happy laughter when a boy in the front row said “oh. Oooohhhhhh! I get it!” You can’t fake that lightbulb. It happened twice today! During practice, I had a girl stand up from her desk and shout “YES!” at the top of her lungs when she simplified an expression correctly. I got a bad case of the joy giggles, but my kids couldn’t hear me anyway over the roar of thirty 9th graders making purposeful MATH TALK. It felt like all I had to do was open the gate and let them stampede. They asked for time to work in groups to analyze their mistakes, so I let them. WHAAAAAAAAAAAAA? I had volunteers explain their errors, and doled out star stickers for courage and helping others learn, (I had to move on without calling on all of my volunteers!) then just turned them loose on another problem. I hardly said a word after the first twenty minutes of class. It was un-friggin-believably awesome.

They're brilliant! They're wonderful! I did it! I taught them something and they liked it!

They’re brilliant! They’re wonderful! I did it! I taught them something and they liked it!

I'll never be able to keep it up.

I’ll never be able to keep it up.

Bonus Kid Joke, courtesy of W.

one fifth, two fifths, red fifth, blue fifth

one fifth, two fifths, red fifth, blue fifth

First Day of School Eve

I’ve been anticipating tomorrow for weeks now; I’ve had that sour porridge of dread and exhilaration churning in my gut since July ended. At 7:30 tomorrow morning, kids will be eating breakfast in the cafeteria, their backpacks smudging the waxed tile floors. Everything that the kids bring to the table, the mischief and brilliance and voltage and personality that I’ve been missing all summer will be back, and with it will come heedless cruelty, angst and funky smells (Simmons says that on stormy days, ninth graders smell like wet dogs) not to mention my own sleepless nights and daily failures.

The dread was at its most ferocious on Wednesday. The high school had professional development all afternoon, and a former colleague was leading the session.  It was an awesome session, but it knocked the breath out of me for a minute. “Think of what you most like to teach – that lesson that gets you most fired up, every year,” he said and I drew a complete blank. I love kids, and on good days, I love teaching, but I don’t love my content. I’m a math teacher by happenstance. “I’ll give you a little longer to think about that. Think about what fires you up about that objective. Why do you love it?” My mind was like a clear blue sky. “We all love what we do, that’s why we’re in this room: we want to give what we love to kids! If you can’t come up with something, get out of my profession.”

All the air came whooshing out of my lungs and I felt like crying. It was intended as a reminder that we got into this because we’re passionate about education, but for me it was a reminder that I’ll never be an exceptional math teacher because I will never be able to teach math from the heart. My placement in math was an arbitrary decision that some TFA person in an office somewhere made nearly three years ago. The consequences of that decision are shaping the rest of my life, and I’m sick with frustration over it. Math is the most sterile subject that we teach in school: there’s little art in it at the high school level, and it’s hard to create a math project that is aligned to the curriculum and has a practical application or a community impact. I asked to move, at least for a part of each day, into a different discipline for this school year, but with the major changes our district has gone through this summer, no one has gotten what they wanted.

The school isn’t putting its best foot forward this fall: teachers still don’t have rosters for tomorrow, and the schedule isn’t finalized yet. Our building, which held four grades last year and felt full, will now host six grades. My 18 crappy old desks were replaced with 29 nice new ones the other day. The electives have been moved into trailers. Somehow, though, I’ve let it all go for this evening. It was a great day, and I have never been so prepared for a Monday. Here’s a Ta-Da! list, which is the opposite of a To Do list, in terms of both its meaning and the feeling that it elicits in my breast.


  • We did tons of laundry today, and innovated by drying hanger clothes on the hanger. This saved space on the line, clothespins, and work on the tail end of laundrytime!
  • I made four little jars of pesto and stuck them in the freezer
  • Sean made a week’s worth of curry for lunches with our amazing homegrown lemongrass and thai basil.
  • We picked another batch of paste tomatoes
  • We ran three miles before breakfast
  • I made a gallon of dish soap, which should last us months.
  • We ordered Red Ranger chicks and arranged to sell some chickens to our friends in town. Super exciting!
  • I created a class jobs system
  • I finished setting up my classroom (this counts because it was after midnight last night before we left the school, right?)
  • Sean made a cheeseless pizza with arugula, prosciutto, and homegrown tomatoes that was to die for.
  • Lesson plans were completed by all.
  • Sean planted greens in the lower garden.
  • We both did countless small things for school. Really and truly countless.
  • We left the house clean. This never ever happens!

There’s an agitated part of me that thinks it’s all futile: there’s no front-end work that can make a whole year of school go smoothly. Preparing completely for just one week is an impossibility. There’s a different part of me that’s completely at ease tonight: There is simply nothing more that we can do before school starts except get in the car and crank up the radio for the sunrise drive to Palestine.

That’s where the exhilaration comes in: when you’re whipping up a two-lane highway through fields of cotton, screaming some silly pop country song at the top of your lungs, trying to chase the anvil-weight of nine months of responsibility off of your ribcage and out the window, and dancing like a fool in the driver’s seat where no one but the rising sun can see you. The exhilaration comes when you’re listening to another boring (sometimes alarming) professional development presentation (“You’ve got to crack down on them. When they graduate from here, they’re gonna at least know their manners. Doesn’t matter if they can read or write as long as they say ‘yes sir’ and ‘yes ma’am’ and know not to wear their hat in the house. That’s what will set them apart”) and you’re working on your syllabus and laughing at your own corny joke of putting a thinking cap on the supply list (not that I’d allow any sort of cap in the schoolhouse, no sir!). I get a rush when I think about learning the names on my roster (which will exist someday) and letting myself be smitten with a new group of kids.

Tonight I bid the summer adieu, but I’m welcoming with open arms another opportunity to fall ass over teakettle for a crop of quirky, sensitive, ruthless, ingenuous, imaginative, terrified kids. I’ll love them even on rainy days.

A week of summer school

I am wildly excited about summer school right now.

Background info: Summer school at Lee has turned out to be only fifteen teaching days, and I will teach only eleven of them. Today was my seventh. I am teaching ninety minute blocks twice a day primarily to groups of students who scored below proficient on their eighth grade benchmark assessment. Like most students whom I have taught, they struggle with basics of mathematics like adding and subtracting integers, multiplication facts, long division, operations with fractions and decimals, and reading for comprehension.

On Monday, I nearly lost my stuffing. My lessons had gone poorly, though I’d been on top of behavior, and I was still remediating the objective (order of operations – not even in the ninth grade curriculum) that I had scheduled for the first day of class and my attempt to give them a hands on activity to introduce variables had totally backfired. I’d been gone for four days, my students hadn’t completed the practice that I had left, and they were acting out, tired of doing the same type of problems over and over again. I was feeling frustrated, ineffective, and angry with myself. I felt exactly like someone who was being paid very, very well to knock down a well-built brick wall by hurling herself against it. I felt like an oppressor befuddled by passive resistance (Lee County’s students are students of Gandhi, not of mathematics).

On Tuesday, I kicked my rear into gear and taught a lesson on solving equations, which I love to teach. I tied it so thoroughly to the foundation we’d laid in order of operations that my kids couldn’t help learning a pinch or two of new material.
I had a student follow a set of written directions to walk a path through the classroom, then had the class direct the student back to her starting position. The class intuitively did this by reversing the directions she had followed, starting with the most recent step. I recorded their instructions and had them make observations on the activity (we undid the last thing first – all the directions are backwards!). Next, I had the volunteer rewalk the original path, then scrambled the directions that her class had used to help her navigate back to start. She wound up in a totally new location. We solved some two-step equations for practice.

Yesterday, we practiced order of operations and solving equations for a while, then I had them writing expressions based on stories, which carried us through the day.
“Looks pretty good, but don’t forget to define your variables, D”
“Okay. R = Rufus”
“What about him? His height? His bank balance? How many hairs he has on his tail?”

Today was the bomb, though. I taught a mediocre lesson on function notation, but it had them solving three-step equations with a story. My first period wasn’t so into it, but the second group killed it. They killed it!
“Raise your hand if you can tell me the story of this problem and solution… Okay, A”
“Selena worked ten hours and after splitting the money with her mom, she had $51”
“Awesome, girl. Isn’t it amazing that I can tell you all of that just by writing i(10)=51?”

“What do we need to do first?”
“Figure out what happens to x
“It gets divided by three, you subtract two, then multiply by negative six”
“Good work with order of operations. Now what?”
“Reverse the steps: divide by negative six, add two, multiply by three.”
“Go kill it. Remember to keep the see-saw balanced”

Crowning moments of the day:

  • I had only one student in my second group who didn’t choose to stay after class to finish the challenge problems.
  • I overheard two kids arguing about who had done better in my class today. One of them was a consistent underachiever who’d really caught on today.

Days like this make me love my job. Days like Monday make me want to flip burgers. Teaching is awesome, but by golly it’s no cakewalk.

Here’s a snap of Mr. P in action.