Live from Louisville

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I arrived this morning in Louisville, Kentucky for my fifth stint as a reader at the AP U.S. History Reading.  Over the next seven days, about 1,200 high school teachers and college professors from across the country will grade over one million essays (360,000 students took the exam, and each student wrote three essays).

ImageThus far, I’ve encountered one disappointment, and it has to do with the swag.  Each year the College Board gives the readers some kind of party favor.  My first year it was a sweet duffel bag that I still use from time to time, but some of them have been pretty lame, like the bookbag that ripped after about 6 months of use.  I also wasn’t a big fan of the fleece blanket from two years ago that was so small that it would barely cover one’s torso.  This year’s might take the cake, though – an umbrella and a Louisville Visitors Bureau water bottle.  It’s like we’re being taunted by the College Board. Your forecast for the next seven days: a 100% chance of horrible essays.

My disappointment with the freebies aside, though, I’m pretty pumped about a couple of things.  For one thing, they’ve made a couple of enhancements to the Fourth Street Live entertainment district (pictured above), like taking the old Borders bookstore that had been closed for the last two years and turning it into a Gordon Biersch Brewing Company.  The reading ends at 5:00 each day; that place will be plenty crowded by 5:01.

The AP Reading also gives me a great opportunity to immerse myself in social studies again as I prepare to re-enter the classroom this fall. (And as a side note, my nametag lists my affiliation as Research Triangle High School, which was really cool to me.)  The AP Reading is more than just a week of scoring exams; it’s also a fantastic professional development tool.  Each night there are opportunities to meet the committee that developed the test, hear from historians on their latest projects, and find out about proposed changes to the AP curriculum.  Learning through more informal channels also occurs; as the readers gather at Gordon Biersch to relax after 8 hours of scoring, lots of them will compare notes on how they pace their courses or teach certain units or choose what textbooks they’ll use.  I haven’t taken part in those things as much over the past couple of years since I thought I was leaving teaching, but I can’t wait to get involved with it again.

For my friends out there who teach AP courses, I strongly encourage you to apply to be a reader for your subject.  It will help you gain perspective on how your students should approach the exam and allow you to network with fantastic teachers from across the country.  You also get to spend a week in a cool city with your lodging, airfare, and meals all covered.

During the next few days, when I’m not reading exams, hanging out at the Makers Mark Lounge, or throwing down bets at Churchill Downs, I hope to share with you a little of what I pick up regarding AP U.S. History and the state of social studies education.

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The Rebel Rebel Alliance

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The other day, my principal had a meeting with the other charter school principals in Durham County.  He referred to it as the “Rebel Alliance.”  While it’s tough to think of school administrators as a rebellious bunch (although my boss is a pretty righteous dude), the attitude is a little understandable.  Durham Public Schools did everything it could to keep Research Triangle High School from coming into existence, and charter schools are often viewed by the public education establishment as black sheep that siphon off top students and valuable resources.  I couldn’t disagree more, but that’s a discussion for another day.

The same day that the charter school principals met to (allegedly) plot the downfall of Durham Public Schools, I had a meeting of my own.  I got together in downtown Raleigh with RTHS’s English teachers.  One of them is Deborah Brown, an awesome teacher coming to us from Southeast Raleigh Magnet HS in Wake County.  The other one is awesome too, but I can’t say who he is since he’s not leaving his current position until July; Deborah has taken to calling him “our ninja friend.”  So although we weren’t congregating in parking garages at 3 a.m. a la Bob Woodward and Deep Throat, we kept it kind of on the down-low.

The more I think about it, we’re like a rebel alliance of our own: humanities teachers at a STEM-focused high school.  I have absolutely no fear of being marginalized by the school’s powers-that-be, but it’s probably fair to assume that a lot of our students will be more inclined toward science and math.  And even though I’ve always endeavored to make my classes engaging and interesting for the students, I’m feeling a little extra pressure to perform in that regard.

The beauty of having a small shop like we’re going to have at RTHS is that it fosters much more collaboration among faculty members; furthermore, everyone’s writing new curricula and pacing right now, so we have the opportunity to compare notes.  That was the primary purpose of what I’ll call our “Rebel Rebel Alliance” meeting.  I certainly won’t say it’s impossible, but it’s much harder for history teachers to collaborate with math teachers (If the bullet left Oswald’s gun at a velocity of 1,300 feet per second…); with English, however, there are much easier parallels to draw.  Interdisciplinary units were always something I wanted to try at Robinson but due to the lack of collaboration and planning time, it was tough to do.  Deborah, Ninja Teacher, and I have already found a few pretty neat ways to match up what we’re teaching – Romeo and Juliet, for example, will be studied around the same time that I’m teaching the Renaissance.  We’re also looking into pairing my unit on world religions with Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.

Such collaboration is by no means revolutionary, but I don’t think it’s utilized nearly enough.  I really can’t wait for when we have juniors to teach and we can mesh American history and American literature.  In the meantime, I look forward to sharing with everyone the successes of the Rebel Rebel Alliance in bringing fun, engaging humanities book learnin’ to the masses.

Fifty percent

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In the wake of my inaugural blog post last week, I realized in hindsight that I spoke either vaguely or in generalizations on a couple of matters, and I feel sort of compelled to clarify those things.

First of all, I may have – but hope I didn’t – tick off some former colleagues with this nugget about what I was looking for as I got back into teaching: “I … wanted to work with fellow teachers and administrators who worked just as hard as I did and bought into a vision for the school.”  I would hope this goes without saying, but Robinson had, and still has, plenty of teachers who gave a damn and were awesome at what they did.  It occurred to me that I may have painted that faculty with a broad brush, which certainly wasn’t my intent.  I would say that the people I was talking about know who they are, but the sad part is that they probably don’t.

The other point I want to clarify – expound upon, really – is the issue of burnout.  Obviously, teacher retention is becoming a major problem in our public schools, and most people have at least a passing familiarity with the depressing statistics.  A study conducted at the University of Kentucky last year found that the yearly departure rate among educators is around 16%, compared to 11% for other professions.  That wasn’t the most mind-blowing figure, though – the study also mentioned that up to fifty percent of teachers leave the profession within five years of entering it.

Fifty percent?!  At first I couldn’t quite believe that the number is really that high, but then I thought about it.  Here’s a very small, very nonscientific sample for starters: four teachers started at Robinson in 2005-06 that were fresh out of college.  Of those four, one quit after four years to go to law school, another left after five to go to grad school (me), and two are still there.  Fifty percent.  Of the Teaching Fellows I graduated from college with, quite a few have gone on to do other things.  Maybe fifty percent isn’t so outrageous after all.

But these statistics don’t really capture what causes the burnout.  I think that every case of a teacher hitting the wall consists of a combination of common factors that most teachers endure (i.e. overworked, stretched too thin, challenging classes, tons of administrative stuff to do) and situations that are unique to that particular teacher.  My example of the latter started five days before my final year, when my schedule of courses was inexplicably changed to include a block of Civics & Economics, a course I hadn’t taught in four years.  So not only did I have to basically develop a new prep in less than a week, but that class ended up being the most unmotivated, ill-prepared, and misbehaved group I have ever encountered.

There was also the issue of my girlfriend (now-fiancee) living two hours away; as much as I enjoyed announcing our football and basketball games and coaching quiz bowl, I would much rather have spent those countless Friday nights and Saturday afternoons visiting her in Chapel Hill.  Those two factors, combined with the seemingly-endless litany of workshops, paperwork, etc. led to me being a very miserable, bitter person for awhile.  Reading a list of the symptoms of clinical depression became like looking in the mirror; I didn’t seek any professional help, although maybe I should have.

Misty Hathcock, my former Teaching Fellows campus director at UNC Charlotte, asked me and a couple of my former college classmates last year what we wished we’d known going into teaching to make starting out in the profession easier.  Here are a couple of the things we came up with.

1) The paperwork is a huge part of the job.  Obviously, content knowledge and pedagogy should be the lion’s share of any teacher preparation program, but I felt woefully uneducated on what the day-in, day-out nature of the job was.  I’ve told many people that if teaching consisted solely of working with the kids, I never would’ve left.

2) It’s okay to say no.  A lot of administrators prey on younger teachers to advise clubs, coach teams, etc.  It’s sad that a lot of talented young teachers end up overworking themselves because they’re afraid to decline such assignments.  A good administrator will make sure that teachers don’t do so much that their instruction suffers.  I was incredibly relieved when my new principal told me the other night that he didn’t want my “pitch count getting too high” as a result of working with athletics and writing a new curriculum.  He gets it.  A lot of administrators don’t.

3) Don’t reinvent the wheel.  I alluded to this in my last post the other day.  When I started out in teaching I killed myself trying to come up with every activity to teach every part of U.S. History.  It took me too long to figure out that other good U.S. History teachers in my department had kick-ass activities and handouts that they’d let me use.

4) Don’t take too much work home.  I did way too much grading at home when I was at Robinson, which caused work to creep into what should’ve been personal time.  It’s impossible to NEVER take work home with you if you’re a teacher, but minimizing it will increase the amount of time you have to relax and recharge your batteries. (NOTE: this point doesn’t apply to APUSH; if I’d done all my grading for that class at school, I would’ve had to set up a cot in my classroom.)

None of these points are particularly original or groundbreaking, but I wish that teacher education programs and new teachers’ mentors would try to emphasize some of these things.  I can’t help but think that adhering to some of these points more closely may have kept me from taking such a drastic step and becoming part of the fifty percent.

Diving into World

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My decision to return to the classroom being a fairly recent one, I never would’ve envisioned just a few months ago that I’d be writing a curriculum and pacing guide for a history course at Research Triangle High School, let alone that said curriculum would be for WORLD HISTORY.

Anyone who has ever met me can quickly figure out that I’m a pretty big history nerd.  But I’m a pretty big history nerd with very discriminating tastes.  This carried over into my teaching career.  By my count, of the 30 class periods I taught in five years at Robinson High School, 25 of those were U.S. History.  The other five were split between Civics & Economics (3 periods) and World History (2).

I’m a pretty big political wonk so I loved the “Civics” part of Civics & Economics, but my lack of math skills often shone through whenever I tried to teach economics, and I never thought I was terribly effective at that part.  But at the end of the day, that was a course I didn’t really mind having now and again.  World History, though?  There’s a course I never cared a thing about.  I didn’t mind the fact that it was ninth graders (something that a lot of world history teachers always complain about) and I didn’t mind that it was a ton of material in a limited time frame.  My biggest hangup was that I just never liked world history.  I never got into all the royal struggles, the constantly changing boundaries, etc., etc.  Every spring we were asked to submit our top four choices for the next year’s courses.  Every year, my list looked something like: 1) U.S. History; 2) Civics/Economics; 3) shotgunning a bottle of Zerex; 4) World History.

But despite my personal hangups on the subject, I am extremely excited about teaching World History at RTHS next year.  For one thing, I get to write the curriculum.  This is not to say that I’ll be like that Civil War buff you may have had for U.S. History that spent half the school year on the Civil War and the other half on the other 400 years.  I still have to stick fairly closely to the new North Carolina Essential Standards for World History (which are, at first glance, a huge improvement over the old Standard Course of Study).  But I get to put my own touch on it – I can make sure that we allow for engaging projects and focus on content that will not only prepare our students for other social studies classes, but also help them to be aware of important issues going on in the world around them.

Furthermore, I have a ringer.  Laura Huffman, my former student teaching supervisor and the current history department chair at Cannon School, has over the course of her twelve-year career in the classroom perfected the art of teaching world history (her feelings on American history are analogous to mine on world history – to each his own).  My graduation present from her was the most useful one I’ve received: a giant flash drive with every bit of material she’s ever used to teach world history and AP European History, including pacing guides and syllabi. Her asking price for such invaluable assistance?  A Chick-Fil-A lunch, delivered to her classroom.  Deal.

My journey into World History is probably not a permanent one; once we have a junior class I’m 99% sure I’ll move to the American History side of the house.  Be that as it may, I’m doing my sincere best to make sure that all of RTHS’s students have the best world history experience possible and lay a solid groundwork for our future world history teachers to follow.  Too many teachers I’ve known try to reinvent the wheel.  I’m trying to make sure that whoever follows in my footsteps in teaching this course won’t have to.  Furthermore, I am hopeful that this process of devising a curriculum will make me a better teacher of all subjects, not just this one.

And who knows, by the time I get through this process, maybe World History will eclipse Zerex on my list.

When mocking the opponent goes wrong

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For the past couple of weeks I’ve been filling in as the public address announcer for the Charlotte 49ers baseball team, a gig I held full-time from 2006 to 2010.  This afternoon’s game is the final one of the season; after an unexpectedly brutal season following last year’s conference title and NCAA regional appearance, the 20-32 Niners will be left out of next week’s Atlantic 10 Tournament for the first time ever.

The 49ers had a rough doubleheader last night, losing both games after leading or being tied late.  On a personal note, I had a rough night behind the mic; I butchered two advertising reads because I got something funny in my head and started laughing, and then late in the second game got mixed up and answered a question posed to me via walky-talky with a very loud “no” over the stadium PA system. (I guess saying “no” is better than accidentally saying “Holy cow, someone put this pitcher out of his misery” in front of a mic you didn’t realize was on during an 11-year-old AAU tournament, which I may or may not have done once.)

Teaching makes for some great funny stories that can be shared with family and friends, but working in press boxes at athletic events has also provided its share of unforgettable moments.  Shea Griffin, my former tag-team partner in the Kannapolis Intimidators press box, told one such gem on his blog last year. There’s one in particular, though, that I’ll never forget and that I’ve never told many people outside my family.

I have to preface this by saying that Ryan Rose, the baseball sports information director at Charlotte, is obsessed with getting sound effects to play at games – funny clips from movies or TV shows to play during visits to the mound and things of that nature.  We also found several clips that we could use to rib the opposing team when they struck out, committed an error, etc., such as the sound that plays when Mario dies in the original Super Mario Bros.  Our favorite one, though, was the sound heard when a “Price Is Right” contestant loses.  When I told Shea about that one at an Intimidators game, he reached a level of excitement usually reserved for when a game was over in two hours: “Oh my God, we HAVE to have that one.  Make it happen!”

So several nights later I brought in a CD with the “loser’s horn” on it and uploaded the sound clip to the computer that runs the sound/music program.  Through several torturous innings, no one from the other team struck out or did anything boneheaded enough to warrant it being played.

Finally, in about the 4th inning, it happened – an opposing player swung weakly at a curveball for a third strike.  I clicked the button I’d labeled “Price Is Right Fail” on the computer, and the distinctive horn fall went out over the Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium speakers.  Everyone in the press box was laughing hysterically.

The next thing I remember was lying on the ground next to my chair with a pounding head, blurry vision, and a pile of CDs scattered around me.  Shea was on the walky-talky asking for paramedics.  Tom Glennon, my then-colleague at Robinson and our official scorer, was on the ground at my side shaking me. “Alex, Alex,” he was saying. “Are you okay??”  It sounded like he was in a tunnel.

As the first responders were taking my pulse and asking me how many fingers they were holding up, I got the play-by-play recap from Shea.  I apparently laughed so hard that I forgot to breathe and passed out right there in my chair.  On the way down, I hit my head on the base of the table that holds the computer (hence the headache), took out a tower full of CDs that stood on the ground next to my chair, and crashed to the ground where I lay unconscious for about 10 seconds.  Doop-doop-do-dooooo… bwaaaaaaaaawwwwwww.

My saving grace was that only two weeks remained in the season, so I had to put up with everyone’s jabs for just a handful of games.  The next night, I was afraid to play it for fear that we’d have a repeat.  I mustered up the nerve to play it the following game, and as soon as I clicked it, Shea jumped out of his chair with outstretched arms as if to catch me.

That happened in August of 2008.  Between 49ers games and Intimidators games, I’ve probably used that sound effect on hundreds of occasions since; in fact, I used it a couple of times last night.  Not a time has gone by, however, when I don’t think of that night four years ago when I became the first press box employee in the history of the South Atlantic League to get knocked to the canvas by a three-second-long .mp3 file.

Using My Words

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I’m a good writer.

I don’t know if I necessarily believe the above statement, but I hear it a lot.  Before I started graduate school two years ago, most of my experience with the written world had to do not with my own compositions, but bleeding all over the research papers and AP U.S. History essays of my students.  Any writing I did consisted primarily of vignettes disseminated through Facebook concerning life as a teacher; I also occasionally contributed to a diary feature called “Teachers Lounge” that ran weekly on Daily Kos.  (People who didn’t know me before reading this, you now know which side my toast is buttered on politically.)  I’ve been told by numerous people, from my parents to my fiancee to some former colleagues, that I should write a book on my experiences.

I don’t know that my life to this point has been exceptional or interesting enough to warrant a book; I’ve begun to think lately, however, that sharing my experiences may turn out to be useful to some people who come across them.  For people who don’t know me that well, here’s a Readers Digest version of my background and what I hope to accomplish by periodically writing here.

I taught at a fairly large suburban high school in the Charlotte area for five years after graduating from UNC Charlotte with a history degree and a teaching license.  I met a lot of great students, parents, and teachers, and generally enjoyed what I did until I suffered a major case of burnout and a near nervous breakdown brought on by work-related stress and a severe lack of sleep, a couple of particularly difficult classes, and the feeling that a lot of my colleagues were not working as hard as I was.  I taught, I announced sporting events, I coached the quiz bowl team, and did the notorious “other duties as assigned” that many teachers must endure.   I had hit the wall before – usually at the end of the year – but this time, I got the feeling that I wasn’t going to bounce back.

I had worked on the side as a public address announcer and official scorer for various college and professional sports teams, so I decided to get an advanced degree in sport administration.  My fiancee Jess and I moved to Auburn, Alabama in 2010 and both of us recently got master’s degrees – mine in higher education administration and sport management, and hers in horticulture.

About halfway through my second year of graduate school, I began to realize that I missed teaching and felt that my talents were best utilized in the classroom.  I knew I didn’t want to go back to a traditional high school.  I wanted a school where kids were motivated and interested in learning; I also wanted to work with fellow teachers and administrators who worked just as hard as I did and bought into a vision for the school.  I have found that at my new school, which will open with 160 freshmen in August of 2012 and will eventually serve 420 students in grades 9-12.  I was hired as a social studies teacher; as students and parents began to express an interest in athletics, I assumed the role of de facto athletic director because of my experiences in graduate school.

I plan on using this blog as a mechanism for reflecting on the challenges of becoming a “rookie teacher” again (hence the name of my blog, “Second Time Rookie,” suggested by my former student, current dear friend, and elementary school teaching wunderkind Allison).  My new gig will involve using technology and cutting-edge “flipped learning” to engage students; I hope I can provide insight and pointers to other teachers who may be looking for ways to make their classrooms more dynamic.  I’ll also intersperse humorous (in my opinion) anecdotes about my past experiences in teaching and working in sports.

If this sounds interesting to you, I hope you’ll keep reading my blog going forward.  I’ll let you decide for yourself whether or not I’m a good writer.