A Peacful Colony

Last week I gave my students a test on the English colonies in North America. One thing we looked at was how colonies tended to be more successful if they attempted to maintain good relationships with the native population and if they required some degree of religious tolerance. Below is an example of a student who may not have fully understood the concept.

Actual Test Question:
"King Charles II has rewarded your loyalty with land in North America. Now you are the proprietor of a new English colony in America. You want your colony to be successful and to grow. Discuss how you would deal with the American Indians in your area. Also, talk about how you would handle the issue of people with different religious views mixing together in your colony. Be sure to mention how other proprietors or colonies might influence your decisions."

Actual Answer (student's name changed and spelling corrected):
"With my land given to me I shall name my colony [Bob]ville. With the American Indians on my land I would first make great friends with them, then once I get enough guys I will kill them all in their sleep. With different religions I would make different states in my colony so at one state it [would be] Catholic and another is Quakers. I will make it a law to hurt someone of a different religion just like what they did in Maryland."

The "End of the Year"

Being a teacher, I am perpetually on an American academic year. To me, years are marked by school, and not as much by January 1st. The end of the school year is always a time marked by the anticipation of a nice long break, the stress of managing 120 students who are also anticipating a nice long break while keeping them motivated (and keeping myself motivated), and the anxiety of not quite knowing what to do with the summer.

I always feel guilty for not working during the summer, but each year a lack of motivation and a job that will bend to my schedule works against my half-haearted goal of a part-time job. This year, for example, I was hell-bent on working to make some extra money, but as my summer schedule becomes clear, that becomes difficult. I have classes for much of June (teachers must stay up on things after all), and my wife and I want some time off in early July. I can't imagine too many places that would be willing to hire me with such limited availability.

Of course, I do also enjoy the time off, but after I get rested and relaxed, the last half of July starts to drag and I am bored during much of August. By the time school nears again, I am ready to go back. Most people say how lucky I am to have that time, and I am, but I think humans need to be reasonably occupied most of the time. Of course, I never seem to accomplish all those goals I set for myself at the start of summer, like the fabulous lesson planning with a dated syllabus for the next year, or that novel on which I keep meaning to work, or those guitar lessons I want to start. I do keep getting a little better each summer, but it's slow going.

A couple of my eighth graders almost died today. These boys haven't exactly been the picture of good behavior this year anyway, and now that the end is near for them, they are really pushing their limits. The sounds of flatulence during a test, and constant giggling at inappropriate times try my patience and judgement. I have to remind myself how they must be absolutely dying to get out of school, and that Lincoln's disciplining of Gen. McClellan is far from their thoughts of girls and a summer at the pool. Of course, fart sounds are always funny as well, which makes it all the more difficult. But I also don't want to allow a few bad apples to spoil the experience of the final days of eighth grade for all my students. The point is that by the end of the year, I will be ready for a break, because no matter how I handle my current crop of misbehaving kids, it'll wear me out.

Then of course, there's the kids you wish you could keep another year, just to see how they continue to grow intellectually. As a teacher I am so proud of them and happy to see them move on to new and better things, to a world of more opportunity, but I am also saddened to know that I won't get to teach them again. I guess no matter what, it's just the end of another long (or short) year.

Over-protective Parents

Today I ran across this article, which was based on a poll of the nation's teachers. Among the many interesting findings, most of which correlate with my own teaching experience, was this: "76% of teachers say that special education students who misbehave are often treated too lightly, even when their misbehavior has nothing to do with their disability." This is so true in my experience, most likely more so in my school because we have no specialist or special-ed teacher.

Another finding, also very true in my experience was: "Nearly 8 in 10 teachers (78%) said students are quick to remind them that they have rights or that their parents can sue." I always find it amusing when a student says this, because 10 times out of 10 they don't know what they're talking about. Nevertheless, it is clearly a symptom of our changing culture where everyone must feel good about themselves all the time, and if they don't mommy and daddy are going to sue. Of course, the student usually picks all this up at home, which suggests that the parents are to blame.

Now don't get me wrong. There are poor teachers, and there are teachers who are unfair. In fact, most teachers are unfair at one time or another purely on accident. Teachers are human. The bottom line is that even if a student is punished unfairly by a teacher, or even if a disciplinary action is more severe than the crime warrants, life will go on. The student will survive and it won't make one lick of difference in the long run. If anything the student will learn the lesson that life isn't fair and teachers no exception. The fact is that the vast majority of teachers are just trying to the best they can in a culture where children are increasingly difficult to teach and where teachers are expected, more and more, to teach the values and habits that really should be taught by parents. Yes, there are bad teachers, and yes we should look out for them, but when you can't control your learning environment because the students are holding all the cards, it's time for a change. Parents need to learn that despite the fact that teachers occaisionally make mistakes, most of us a professionals who know a good bit more about running a classroom and teaching their child than they do.

Funny Student Story

Today my 8th graders were presenting their Power Point presentations on a scientist of their choice. According to our science teacher, one of our more colorful students - we'll call him Aiden - did something so funny, so him, that I had to relate the tale.

Aiden is a great kid. Funny, kind, and very original. He marches to the beat of his own drum to say the least. He's one of those kids that goes through about four pairs of glasses a year, loses his uniform clothes, or forgets to wear them at all on phys ed days. He always has something to say that comes from his own unique perspective on things, and most of the time it reminds me that not only are all kids different, many don't think like me at all.

So today Aiden gets up to present his report on his scientist. I'm not sure which one. He reads his report, word for word, from a piece of Kleenex on which he has hastily scrawled some notes. This in itself is not terribly surprising for Aiden. Aiden has a perpetually runny nose and so facial tissue is a big part of his life. What was a bit interesting was that when he finished giving his presentation, he took his "notes" and blew his nose with them and then placed them into his pocket. This of course produced a round of laughter and giggling, but not as much as when he was asked a question and proceeded to pull the now used Kleenex from his pocket to refer to his notes. He did this without batting an eye or stopping to consider what he was doing.

Man, sometimes I love being a teacher.

Nothing Stings As Much...

For a teacher, a misdeed doesn't sting nearly as much as a lie about it from a once trusted student.

Exceeding the Standard...

A while ago I wrote an entry about my middle school's eminent transition to a standards based report card. It seems that now we are not only going to give parents feedback in the new "check," "+" and "N" style, but also in the traditional "A, B, C..." manner as well. There had been some doubt about this, but as next year draws nigh, we have been given the directive that this will indeed be the case. Of course only the standards based report matters, but the additional letter grade is supposed to give parents a better idea of how their student would be doing under the old traditional system of letter grades.

This of course brings to mind the first obvious question that I know I will receive from a savvy parent. "If my child is meeting the standard, why did you give them a 'C' on the regular grade?" Oh and then there will be, "If my child would have earned an 'A', then why did they only earn a 'check,' not a '+', on the standards based report?" Good question.

One must also keep in mind the other major problem I know other teachers out there are experiencing: How do you motivate a bright or talented student to challenge themselves, when they could easily earn a "check" with little effort? Other teachers that have already implemented this new system have reported that kids with high ability, especially junior high level students, will often only do the minimum to get a "check" since there is no other ranking system to motivate them. Why do "A" work, when there isn't a system in place for recognizing those efforts? And before you say it, the much touted "+" is only to be given (at least in our school system) to kids who consistently exceed the standard on their own, with no prompting from me. I have many students who do "A" work, but wouldn't necessarily earn a "+" by that definition.

To make matters slightly worse, my middle school team and I won't get the official training on the new system until this summer, which will make any sort of real coordination between us difficult until the school year starts which, of course, is too late. This is most frustrating. My principal, in an effort to help us out, has arranged a meeting with other middle school teachers to help us figure out how we'll implement our new system and to get their advice on questions like those above. However we do it, I think my school system gets an "N" for not anticipating these problems and addressing them early on.

Parent Teacher Conferences and Big Eye Lashes

I had parent-teacher conferences tonight. Five hours of chatting with parents about their kids in ten minute blocks. It isn't always easy to sum up everything you'd like to accomplish with a student in a ten minute time span, but it does make you focus on those points you believe to be most important.

I always find it interesting to get a glimpse of another aspect of a student's life in the form the parent. Sometimes I think 'Man I'd like to be a kid in that family. Their parents really seem to have it all together.' Then you meet a parent and you think, this kid's life must suck. Who would want to go home to that? I always like the parents who spend more time talking about their own academic achievements than their kid's. It's all I can do to keep from saying, "Excuse me, but I thought we were here to talk about your kid." One lady I met tonight had cheap drugstore false eye lashes on. They were so huge that I felt my head going up and down in a full sweeping motion everytime she blinked. The six pounds of lipstick also was somewhat distracting. I'm not exactly sure what that has to do with how she raises her kid, but it is somehow informative. How would you like to go home to a mom who's body weight is fifty-percent plastic eye lash?

The one thing that never ceases to amaze me is that more and more, parents are looking to me for advice on how to raise their child. I had a dad tonight who's kid is doing fairly well in school. She's a little chatty. What 8th grader isn't? But then he tells me about all the problems they have at home with her. The poor guy is clearly seeking answers. Of course, I had none for him, other than to say I would watch for signs of depression, etc. at school. Sometimes I even get parents who will litterally say "What should I do?" How do I answer that? I am able to offer thoughts on how to improve academic performance, even on how to get kids into good study habits. But when a parent asks me how to discipline their child, what am I supposed to say? "Well Mr. Jones, if Jane was my child, I'd beat her with a wet leather strap." I don't even have kids of my own yet. How am I supposed to know the family dynamic? Man, it's hard sometimes.

Still, parent-teacher conferences give me a chance to see a little backstory. Sometimes I meet a parent and I'm like 'Oh, so that's why this kid hates the world!' or 'Wow. No wonder this kid never does homework. He's too busy raising his two younger brothers for his parents.'

More and more I am expected to be not only a teacher, but also a surrogate parent, a psychologist, a neurologist, a behavior expert, pediatrician, counselor, and babysitter. Don't get me wrong, I love my job. I wouldn't do anything else. But sometimes I wonder what goes on in the minds of parents. Sometimes I want to ask them "What is it exactly you want me to accomplish with your child?" Of course, the ones that can answer that question aren't the ones who need the help. It's everyone else. It's just that the 'everyone else' category seems to be growing at an alarming rate.

School Prayer: The Answer to Everything

Tonight I found myself engaged in thought about the benefits of school prayer. My friend Carina had sent out a comment she received on her blog espousing the wonders of school prayer. This all got me to thinking about the nature ouf our country and what it is we really want.

First off, I think think prayer is great. Prayer as a form of meditation is incredibly important. As a Christian, prayer as a form of communication with God is vitally important to my faith. As a teacher in a parochial school, I pray several times a day with my students. Prayer has been shown to heal wounds, physical and emotional, as well as spiritual. Prayer is great.

Not Christian, Jewish, or Muslim? That's okay. You don't have to pray to God to get prayer's benefits. Prayer to, or meditation on, whatever your "higher power" may be is helpful and great too. Study upon study shows this to be true, or as true as anything intangible can be. The point is, prayer, spiritual reflection, or meditation helps us in a vareity of ways. At the most basic level, even enjoying a few minutes of real silence in this world of noise, constant stimulation, and activity can have wonderful benefits. People live longer, healthier lives, and students do better in school when they pray or meditate. So why no school prayer?

Well the catch is that mandated school prayer, or even a group sort of "you can pray with the rest of us if you want" kind of thing violates separation of church and state. Publicly funded schools can't acknowledge any one religion without allowing for them all. You can't force a Judeo-Christian God on Bobby the Driuid (as much as you might like to). Can you imagine the morning Our Father, prayer to Mecca, tree hugging, chanting, or moment of silence option? It just can't work in a public school. While prayer may very well do a lot of good (and I believe it does), it's not going to solve the many problems and skewed values many Americans hold. It won't save us from violence in an impoverished inner-city school. It's not going to make parents pay any more attention to their kids than before. Prayer won't make us stop wanting, wanting, wanting anything and everything the television and media advertises. Not by iteself, anyway.

No, prayer is not the answer for public education. Perhaps we should instead look at what it is within us that makes some yearn for it. Maybe we should look at what we hope to accomplish by introducing faith and spirituality back into schools. Why do we think prayer will help? What is it we lack that that we think prayer may provide? What else can we do, besides violate the constitution, that will aid us in our quest for better children and healthier spiritual lives? I think many of us can guess at far more effective answers than mandated school prayer, but no one wants to accept them. Dollars don't come from a culture that favors love of fellow man over that latest fashion. The fact is, unless we as an entire society, as an entire culture, or group of sub-cultures, change our values and desires, and try to agree on what it is we want our country to be, then we are sunk. We'll just keep on attaching dollar signs to happiness and calibers to power. Let's work on changing ourselves before we try to force sentimental memories on a generation in need of role models, not new rules. Let's change our kids with love and attention and good examples, not some new political fight that further divides our already crumbling nation. Then, and only then, can a universal American spirituality surface. Then it won't be a question of why, but of how.

I Wish I Had More Time

I wish I had more time. I wish I had more time for friends, for my wonderful wife, for my family. I wish I had time to mend fences. I wish I had time to teach - at least to teach in a way that would make history interesting and fun.

I just finished reading a section from my students' U.S. History textbook, which is a good one as these things go, and I was bored. Bored to freaking tears. Allowing for the fact that I was in the process of drinking a third glass of Chardonnay, and my adult ADD, I was still incredibly bored. My mind wandered, thirsting for the possibility that was hinted at in each cursory sentence. Mind you, I was not reading with haste, but those sentences seemed written with haste in mind. As if too much detail would permit its reader's mind to wander in the wrong direction. Yet wander my mind did.

The state of Ohio requires my students to learn, to master, so much in the course of their 8th grade year that I have little time to focus on certain things that might light a fire of interest in their hearts. It's a wonder to me that anyone majors in history at all upon reaching their college years. I know that if I were allowed some leeway I could ignite a passion, or at least a mild interest, in the hearts of my young pupils to continue studying and learning about the history of mankind. As it is I am left with brief summaries, perhaps the occaisional anecdote, to hold their interest, which might allow them to further explore and develop an understanding of the past that shapes our humanity and culture.

Take, for example, Magellan. Allowed a half-page in our textbook, here is a man whose crew that, in the end, were the first to circumnavigate the world. Of the 240 men that set sail, 18 finished the journey. They faced battle, new cultures, starvation, and uncertainty in the course of their travels. As it is, I am left with, allowing for questions, restroom breaks, and the other three explorers I need to discuss that day, about 10 minutes max to relate this tale of peril and triumph. At best I can ask my young students to briefly close their eyes and imagine as well as they can, using whatever experiences their thirteen year-old lives have accumulated, what it must be like to be among the last of 240 men to survive a three year journey around the world, arriving at their home port of Spain, wondering what their wives and children and friends have been doing. Wondering if they have anyone to return to at all. How can I communicate all of that in ten minutes. How can that understanding be assessed in that time, let alone by some graduation test that looms three years in the future?

I suppose that given a time frame, teachers must decide what to emphasize, and what should be allowed to slip by. I realize there is much that needs to packed into my students' young minds. I just wish I had more say. And more time.

My New Web Site for Education

I have not been updating elfboy.net as much as I had hoped this summer. Part of the reason is that I have been spending quite a bit of time working on my new web site for use by my students, their parents, teachers, and to a certain extent all students and parents. It contains, or will contain, lecture notes from my classes, syllabi, my classroom handbook, and links to resources for parents and teachers. I am pretty excited about it actually, as it promises to be much better than what I was providing via my school's web site.

I had debated for a while whether or not to purchase another domain name specifically for educational use, and also how to have it hosted. I was concerned, and still am to some degree, that my students might stumble upon this site, which does contain certain materials not entirely appropriate for their eyes, by way of my new site. Since I teach at a Catholic school, the community might not be thrilled with some of the content on elfboy.net as well. It would only take one savvy student to do a WhoIs look-up for my new site and get my contact information, and then do some searching to find this site. (You have no doubt noticed by now that I have not given the URL for the new site, nor will I, should a student do a Google search or something for the new site, thus finding this article. How's that for paranoid? Not that it even really matters, as they could always search on my name.) The odds aren't great, but it could happen. Nevertheless, I decided to proceed, as I think the benefits outweigh the risks.

The biggest reason I finally decided to use a personally owned domain for the new site was the patently stupid way things were being done at school. In the past if I wanted to update my web site through the school, which was often, I had to save the updated .html file to a folder on a network drive, and then email or tell our tech coordinator to let her know I had updated a file. Then she would FTP the file or files to the web server when she got around to it. No one but her and the other technology guy has FTP access, as teachers were (are) not permitted to have FTP access even to their own folders on the web server. Further, I could only update the site from school, unless I wanted to go through an archaic and involved process of emailing myself the files at my school email address and connecting through a very restrictive remote access application to save the files in the network folder. It all just got to be too much of a pain in the ass. This way I can update my site whenever and from where ever I want, not to mention the additional latitude I have in terms of content. It all just works out better, and it is well worth the $27 I spent on a two year domain registration.

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