Sunday, September 30, 2007

Puzzle Time

In an earlier post, I mentioned how I have changed the way I approach vocabulary in the classroom. What I did not mention is that I have also started to use a particular site I found a while back to create puzzles for my students.

I use Discovery School's puzzlemaker every week. On Mondays I give each of my literature courses crossword puzzles to help the students review old vocabulary words, learn new words, and recall events and figures.

The kids tell me they prefer these puzzles over getting a list of words. I think these puzzles help them practice and help them feel successful as they progress. The puzzles are small at the beginning and grow as the body of work grows.

Other puzzles can be created, though I tend to stick with the crossword puzzles (called criss-cross puzzles on the site). Give it a try, and maybe your kids might like them.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

PR Disaster

I was at Safeway last week, and a parent approached me with a look of concern. I don't have one of her kids in my classes, but she recognized me and decided to ask me a question: "why did the teachers decide to cancel Open House?"

I was shocked to silence, a rarity for me. I didn't know what to say because I didn't know it was canceled.

I told her the truth: "I didn't know it was canceled. When did this happen?"

She said, "I got a mailing today." She then went on to explain how she enjoys Open House to see who her son's teachers are, the environment in which he learns, and how difficult or easy it is for her son to get to his classes.

Of course, she wanted to know who made the call, but I really didn't know. She said she'd call the school.

By the way, this was one week before the scheduled Open House night.

The cancellation was never mentioned at a staff meeting (we had two last week and one this week), and it still has not been discussed at all.

Apparently the Boss Lady decided to cancel it because of a soccer game and a volleyball match. However, we still have not been provided the opportunity to discuss the way this was handled.

A group of parents went to the school board and complained, and the Boss Lady was grilled for all to see. Ouch!

P.S. I found out yesterday from a parent--after mailings went to the community--that our parent-teacher conferences are now changed as well. I'd say that's 0 for 2 in the communication department.

Friday, September 21, 2007

20% Increase

Last year I made vocabulary a focus in my English classroom, beyond the simple literary terms upon which we English teachers focus. I decided I was tired of 65% averages on quizzes. I figured I must be doing something wrong, so I used my Masters classes as a way to better my teaching (fancy that!). I even told the kids they were part of a study, which they enjoyed.

Here's what I do now.

Mondays (40 minutes)
1. The previous week's practice work turned in (puzzle and charts)
2. A vocabulary quiz over the previous week's words
3. A crossword puzzle with the new words (and the old ones)
4. A chart where students create sentences for the each new word
5. A chart where the students draw a picture for each new word

Wednesdays (15 minutes)
1. 3-5 students write their sentences and pictures on the board (each student gets a different word)

Thursdays (15 minutes)
1. 3-5 students write their sentences and pictures on the board (each student gets a different word)

Fridays (10 minutes)
1. Students brainstorm synonyms for the words
2. Synonyms listed on the board

Lastly, I have the students spell the words, match them to definitions, fill in blanks in sentences, compose sentences or stories, share their pictures and explain how they are appropriate, and more. I have some of the traditional quizzes, but I also try to mix it up a bit and the kids seem to appreciate it.

We get to practice the words, talk about them, connect them to images, apply new words to situations, and generally share ideas. It's great!

They also like the routine we've created because they see their immediate successes. Now averages range from 85-90% on the quizzes.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Have You Ever...

Have you ever wanted to do this?

Listen To This

This guy sits in the first row of my first period class. Yeah, it's a commercial, but it's true all the same.

Do you have this kid in your class?

Great Day Times Two

Today was my lucky day!

First, I got a note from a parent asking what I was doing to her daughter. She said this is the first time she's enjoyed an English class. Not only was I honored, but I was surprised. We're studying A Tale of Two Cities, which is not normally a fan favorite.

Secondly, I was asked to attend a union meeting with a few of the local big-wigs, but this meant I had to get a sub for the second half of the school day. Not only did I get my favorite sub (and her grandson is in my class--odd, eh?), but when I arrived at the meeting they told me I was mistakenly invited and I should go enjoy my afternoon. They already paid for the sub, so woo-hoo!

I'm now caught up on my grading!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Class Size Update

I just learned some new information about why our classes are so big. The special ed. department stopped servicing 38 students in English, so those students were added to English with no additional support. Not only that, but those students were placed in groups of 9-10 into four classes taught by two teachers.

This completely changes the dynamics in those classes and creates an additional burden on those teachers.

Also, we did not get an extra class (we normally get one class per 32 students), and special ed. did not lose one. We take on additional load with no help, and they have less to do with fewer students. Grrr.

I've been asked by a couple teachers to follow up on this with the union on the grounds of workload, burden, and number of special ed. students per class (we usually limit this to 2-3).

This does not serve the students well at all.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Break

I'm going golfing today. No work today. Posts will be forthcoming, probably this weekend.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Students are More Than Numbers

My wife sent me this. From where, I'm not sure.

Pack 'Em In

I attended a meeting today with one of the assistant principals about the size of classes around the building and in English in particular. We have six classes around the building overloaded. In English we have 15 classes overloaded, all Freshmen and Sophomores.

The district has decided to simply add a credit retrieval class during the day to take 30 students out of the Sophomore English classes. This means that instead of those students getting instruction from a teacher for the Freshman English class they failed, they will sit at a computer with an online program to complete.

Here are my concerns:

a) The core classes are still massively overcrowded. Class sizes have risen from an average of 26 to 32 in five years.

b) The students in the credit retrieval class will not be instructed by a teacher but learning from an online program. We have data showing this sets them up for failure because they don't get the aligned curriculum, so they often fail the next course in the sequence. The online courses do not have the rigor and do not align with our curriculum.

c) The teacher conducting the credit retrieval is a math teacher, not an English teacher. Regardless, he won't be assessing student work anyway; the computer company does that. Essentially he just helps students keep going, so the kids get no extra help.

d) This is a stop-gap measure hoping that fewer students enroll next year.

Besides hiring more teachers I'm not sure what the answer is, but I know this isn't it.

The cynic in me says to let the state test scores drop this year to get the district's and community's attention, but this would hurt the kids. When teachers work extra hours with the larger classes and keep the scores up, no one feels compelled to intervene. However, we're reaching a breaking point.

Next Monday's final student count meeting will be interesting.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

New Followers

This first week of school has been beyond hectic. Course schedule changes, moving rooms, sharing rooms, copier problems, meetings, and more have slowed our progress this week. No worries. I just keep plugging away.

Still, with my Sophomore Honors class we got a bit behind my intended schedule. I wanted to finish our French Revolution background Thursday, read Chapter 1 of A Tale of Two Cities as a class Friday, and have the students read the first 4-5 chapters this weekend. Well, there were so many interruptions from the front office and questions about the revolution from the kids, we didn't get there.

Halfway through the period on Friday while we were going through my French Revolution presentation, I decided to change things up. With five minutes to go I asked all of the students to pass forward their reading schedules (I give one with every major reading) but keep their books. The students looked a bit confused but did so. Then, from the back of the room, one student cried out "Yea, awesome!" Slowly little light bulbs appeared over the heads of the students.

I just decided I wanted to complete this unit well, rather than fast. I always tell new teachers that the ability to adapt and to revise one's plans are the marks of a good teacher. A few students at this point still had quizzical looks on their faces until I said, "don't read this weekend. Enjoy your weekend and I'll make a new reading schedule."

I think I have a following.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Fear and Loving?

No loathing. A little fearing and then loving the class.

My Honors kids looked frightened yesterday and I've heard that I'm intimidating at the start of a class, so I thought I'd shake them up.

Today I informed my new Honors students I'm know as the "GPA Buster" and they better get ready. Silence. A deafening silence followed.

I then gave them a quick quiz over the syllabus provided yesterday, a series of seven true/false questions. I read the questions, and they simply wrote their answers on their papers. I then instructed them that they would correct their own, "so no one should miss any of the answers." I paused. Smiles and giggles started quickly and soon spread throughout the room. Understanding!

After "correcting" the quiz I told them this was a lesson: they would have to be prepared every day when I ask them to do something. We then had a quick contest to see who could shoot their balled-up quiz into the recycling box from across the room.

Now I had them. No one was stressed any more.

I need them to know I am not out to destroy their grades. They have to ask questions, be inquisitive. They can't worry about points; they need to learn. If they don't do well on an assignment, they need to redo it. I'm there to help them.

My message to them, before starting a review of the French Revolution in preparation for Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, is: if you are stressed out about this class, you're doing it wrong. I think they believe me.

Teenage Wasteland

Today in my American Literature class we started reading Anne Tyler's "Teenage Wasteland." It's the story of a teenager who begins to change his appearance, hang out with new friends, and his grades drop. Of course, his parents don't approve. The ending of the story really has no victor, and the kids love to debate who's most at fault.

Tomorrow we'll listen to "Baba O'Reily" by The Who and compare and contrast the song with the story (lyrics and rhythm). It's a great opener for kids who "ain't really into school," as one student told me yesterday.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Class Begins!

Today was great! The kids came in with good attitudes and adjusted to large classes and schedule changes like champs.

I played a game with the class based on Tri-Bond board games. We sat in groups of 3-4, and they competed with 10 quick puzzles to solve. We completed multiple rounds in each class, and the students enjoyed this much more than simply going over rules. Plus, I get to see them in action and get to know them.

My new class, the College in the High School class (Survey of Americn Lit.), started today and the kids looked scared. I actually had to laugh a bit, to myself of course, but it was funny. They have homework tonight--vocabulary and an introductory letter--and we start reading Fools Crow by James Welch this week. Hitting the ground running!

My only concern today was class size. Mine ranged from 28-35. The district keeps saying Freshmen are the biggest at-risk group we have, and our fearless leaders aren't afraid to "do whatever is necessary" to help them. Of course, this means Freshman English class sizes are the second highest in the school (only Sophomore English classes are larger). The average Freshman English class is filled with 32 students. What a disservice!

The Department Head and I met after school to discuss how to reduce some class sizes if we get an extra teacher this week. That was a good conversation.

Unfortunately, we have to reduce the College in the High School classes by 6 students since they are not allowed to be over 32 students (now we have 34, 35, 33). My suggestion to her was to remove the superintendent's daughter and the two most prominent families' kids. If that doesn't spark some changes, nothing will.

Wound a sacred cow, and the whole village notices!

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Better Late Than Never

I'm not a fan of country music, but I especially don't enjoy the promotion of ignorance as in Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman." However, I really admire her for deciding to get her high school diploma.

I watched This Week with George Stephanopoulos this morning, and Gretchen Wilson explained that she now wishes to earn her diploma because of her daughter. She realizes the long shot her success is and realizes now she would have "tended bar" for the rest of her life because she wouldn't have had an education. She wants her daughter to see her as "smart."

Now I don't believe a high school diploma is the cure-all she makes it out to be because the same program this morning also explained that 25 years ago the difference in one's income with a college degree versus a high school diploma was 30%. Now that difference is 70%. I know Wilson wasn't speaking about economics when she spoke of her daughter, but the disparity is growing, and I hope Gretchen Wilson encourages her daughter to attend college rather than rely on the diploma.

By the way, Wilson also offered the local high school a deal. If the high school officials allow her to walk during the graduation ceremony, she will play at the prom for free. Sounds like a good deal to me.

Saturday, September 1, 2007


I also started my union duties having attended my first official executive board meeting. Wow! I have quite a bit to learn! I think I doubled my knowledge in that first meeting alone.

Yesterday I approached one of the new hires to inquire why he did not join the local union. Turns out he harbors some hard feelings against the union, but I think they are misplaced. We chatted and he decided to join the union, and he attributes his membership to our rapport. That feels good to know, but I'm learning that hard feelings between some of the teachers and the union are somewhat prevalent.

Now I have a lot of work to do to help smooth out some of these feelings. I don't feel that I need to become a recruitment officer, but I do want to maintain a level of respect and to foster more positivity between the high school staff and the union. After all, I want to represent the staff's interests while supporting and defending the contract.

A Good Start

School begins on Tuesday, but as everyone knows the duties begin much earlier. The opening meetings are over, but other aspects of my job are underway.

We won our first football game last night. I can't say this is the most talented team we've fielded, but it is one of the most positive, industrious groups I've seen since moving here. This is also the first year our head coach has only kids from his own system; last year we graduated the remains of the previous coach's system, and now we have a team united under a single philosophy. It should be a fun team to watch because the head coach wants to create positive citizens as well as players.

The best of teams create leaders and exemplary citizens, and I feel our head coach is off to an excellent start.

My wife's cheerleaders also looked great. They sent groups of girls down the sidelines to involve parents, and they kept the (normally apathetic) crowd louder than usual. She, too, looks to be starting a great cheer season before her competition season begins.