Undefeated

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Our cross country team after the boys got their medals and brownies at this morning’s Wendell Park Early Bird Invitational. Pictured (L-R) are: Coach Victor Swepson, Joseph Campisi, Michal Swepson, Eric Young, Thomas Dang, Andy Klappenbach, Jack Puryear, Nikki Khoshnoodi, Madison Daniel, Katie Dixon (did not compete).

An old and soon-to-be-obsolete joke, told at bars and emblazoned on t-shirts around UNC Charlotte for decades, makes a tongue-in-cheek jab at the Niners’ lack of pigskin.

Charlotte 49ers Football:  Undefeated since 1946.

As we’ve built up Research Triangle High School’s athletic program, we’ve made similar cracks.  We don’t have many sports, we have no on-campus facilities, and we only have underclassmen, so we don’t expect to be particularly good at much in our early years.  So we figured we might as well enjoy our unblemished marks until we, you know, actually competed.

But that, as they say, is why they play the games.

This morning, the Raptors made their debut in high school athletics at the Wendell Park Early Bird Invitational, hosted by East Wake High School’s cross country team.  Not wanting to miss school history, Eric and I got up early – not quiz bowl tournament early, but pretty early nonetheless – and made the drive out to Wendell.  Our coach, RTHS parent and former college cross country runner Victor Swepson, had our young squad going through drills when we arrived about 45 minutes before the start of the boys’ open race (we didn’t compete in the varsity races that took place earlier in the morning).  We looked a wee bit ragtag without real uniforms – they’re about to be ordered – but the guys were pretty loose and looked ready to go as their race time rolled around.  Coach Swepson gathered them around, gave them one last pep talk, finished it with a bringing-in of the hands and a cheer of “1, 2, 3, RAPTORS!!!” that I could hear about 100 yards away, and sent the guys off to the starting line.  Eric and I, both cross country novices, stood on top of the hill near the first stretch of the course to capture school history on camera.

After the gun fired and the 100-or-so runners took off, we went with our parents and coaches to a spot down the course that the runners would pass twice during the race (which, for people who don’t know much about cross country, is a 5k, or 3.1 miles).  Several minutes later, we saw the “pace car” (A Gator utility vehicle) come around the corner about a hundred yards off, and shortly thereafter, a runner wearing a nondescript white jersey leading everyone by a decent amount.

Eric had the same reaction as me as we squinted to see: “Wow, is that….?”

Yes, it was.  It was RTHS freshman Madison Daniel, a junior Olympian in the 1-mile and 2-mile track and field events, beating the field.  Michal Swepson, our coach’s son, was in 4th at that point, and three more of ours were close behind.

That was cool, I thought to myself.  I guess we’ll see if we can keep it up.

Several minutes later, here came the Gator again, and it was again followed by Madison.  But this time, there was no one else in sight.  Madison passed by us and went around the corner, and we waited to see more runners.

And waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Finally, here came Michal, in 2nd.  Two more of ours, Andy Klappenbach and Jack Puryear, were running in the top ten.  It was at this point that I started to get really excited.  Eric, Victor, all of our parents and families, and I sprinted across the park – well, to me it was a sprint – to see the finish.

Madison Daniel approaching the finish line, with no one else in sight.

Madison continued to smoke everyone, crossing the finish line in 17:54, a time that would’ve gotten him a sixth-place finish in the varsity race.  Over a minute later, Michal came across in second at 19:20.  The Raptors kept coming – Andy finished 7th, Jack right behind him in 8th, and Eric Young (our tallest runner by far) in 25th.  Thomas Dang and Joseph Campisi, two of our more novice runners, finished the race in times I certainly couldn’t post in a 5k.

I spent the next ten minutes or so running around and finding the guys.  Madison was the first one I came across.  “Dude,” I said to my 5th period history student, “that was amazing!”  He smiled and shrugged as if to say it was just another day at the office for him.  All the other guys were considerably more excited with how they did.  They kept talking about brownies, and how they were hopefully going to get brownies, much to my confusion (I later learned that one of the prizes that the winning team would get was some Little Debbie brownies).

Nikki Khoshnoodi at the finish line in the girls’ race.

Before they would find out about the brownies, though, we still had the girls’ race to get through.  We have more than one girl on the cross country team, but only one ran this morning.  Despite not having any teammates running with her, Nikki Khoshnoodi finished in the top half of the field as an individual, placing 21st.  One of my favorite things that I saw today was seeing the guys include her in everything they did.  When she had to go warm up for the girls’ race, the boys – who had to be exhausted – went down to the starting line and ran through drills with her.  Then, as she approached the finish line at the end of her race, several of them ran alongside the ropes cheering her on as she crossed the line.  Camaraderie is strong with this bunch.

My other favorite parts of the day?  First, seeing four of our runners getting top-10 medals at the awards ceremony, and hearing murmurs of “Who are these kids?” every time our school name was cried out by the emcee.  And the sweetest announcement of all: “Your men’s open race champions, the Raptors of Research Triangle High!”  It wasn’t even close, either – we were way ahead of the rest of the field.  Also, watching the kids try to figure out how to evenly divide up the brownies they had won was a hoot.  We can run some cross country, but I think our math teachers have job security.

The school has been open for ten days, and we need a trophy case.

Of course, tougher meets are coming – like the Jungle Run in Fayetteville next week, when we’ll be running in the varsity race.  So I guess our undefeated days are probably numbered.  But it was great that our team had such a positive first experience, and it was awesome to see everyone’s comments of encouragement and excitement on the RTHS Facebook and Twitter pages as we posted pictures and results.  I have to imagine that having a successful athletic team so early in the school’s history will do wonders for school spirit and our sense of community.  I think I speak for everyone at RTHS when I say that we could not be prouder.  I think I’ll bake the team some real brownies as a reward.

And for at least one more week, we’re undefeated.

Pampered

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For one week every May across the nation, the National PTA celebrates Teacher Appreciation Week.  The basic idea is to show teachers how much they mean to schools, students, and communities.

At Robinson, my old school, this usually took the form of a teacher luncheon catered from a local restaurant, door prizes at said luncheon, trinkets in our mailboxes, and things like that.  (Teacher Appreciation Week usually lined up with the days leading up to the AP exam, so it seems like the very least they could’ve done was throw in an open bar at the luncheon, but beggars can’t be choosers.)  Those things were enjoyable, but it was a bummer when that one week in May came to an end and our fringe benefits dried up.

Now, I should issue a disclaimer: I don’t teach so that I can get free stuff, even though I’m apparently working for free.  I hope it goes without saying that I would enjoy teaching regardless of what snacks or stuff I get from the school community.  I am also not indicting every parent I interacted with at Robinson; I had plenty of parents – especially in quiz bowl – who would’ve given me the proverbial shirt off their backs.  But the parental involvement at RTHS in its first days has been nothing short of extraordinary.

The first time I saw such unbelievable selflessness was when we moved into the building in early August.  We had all of our tables, desks, chairs, etc. on site, but they had to be moved from the still-unfinished wing of the building into the newly-completed classrooms.  At 7:30 on a Saturday morning, dozens of students and parents (and even a few grandparents) were on site, with dollies and other equipment in tow.  Some of the volunteers were responsible for moving the furniture in, and then other students and parents would come in behind them and clean it all with supplies they had brought from home and donated to the cause.  I was terrified at the thought of having to enlist people with helping me set up my room, but it was 95 percent done by the time our teacher workdays began.  And considering how much work we were having to do to set up this new curriculum and teaching style, that was absolutely huge.

What remains of Deb’s wish list outside the English classroom. Mine wasn’t half this creative; sometimes I wonder if she’s a closet elementary school teacher.

When we were preparing our classrooms for the first days of school, Eric told us to put up our wish lists on the wall near our classrooms.  Having no idea what that was, I inquired further.  At Raleigh Charter, he said, the teachers would make stick-it notes listing what they needed for their classrooms and put them up for the parents to see at the open house.  Parents would take stick-it notes they could fulfill, and send the requested stuff with their kids sometime during the first week.  Having worked at a school where parents didn’t attend the open houses, let alone buy me crap, I was more than a little skeptical.

Despite my doubts, I made 25 stick-it notes – a few of them were for consumable sanitary stuff like Clorox wipes, Kleenex, and hand sanitizer, and then I put up a few asking for other classroom supplies like power strips (needed at a tech-heavy school like this one), rulers and yardsticks, markers, etc.

And sure enough, 21 of the 25 notes got taken.  I have so much Purel I don’t know where to put it all.  Stuff is still rolling in, too – just this afternoon I received a box of plastic silverware I asked for.  But now, it’s not supplies that we’re getting on a regular basis – it’s food.

Yesterday morning, a parent came in asking where our break room was located.  After I pointed it out to her, she walked out of the building and came back a minute later with a spread of foodstuffs that are torpedoing my attempts at weight loss – brownies, coffee cake, cookies, and some Dunkin Donuts coffee.  (Coffee, by the way, is the only thing Dunkin Donuts makes that doesn’t suck out loud.  There.  I said it.)  Yesterday wasn’t the first time this had happened – during our move-in days and workdays we were showered with pizza, doughnuts, and plenty of other stuff.

After gorging myself on the coffee cake – and before the sugar crash came on – I looked at Mila, our office manager, and jokingly said, “Well, all we need now is a Keurig machine and we’ll be set.”

I came in this morning, went in the break room to put my lunch in the fridge, and guess what was sitting on the counter.  Looks like I don’t have to make and bring my own coffee every morning anymore.  That means five more minutes of sleep.  Win.

Not a day has gone by in the last few weeks when I haven’t felt honored and fortunate to work at a school where the community is so deeply invested.  Every teacher has those moments when they feel less than appreciated, but I don’t think anyone at RTHS will be feeling that way any time soon.

I bet Teacher Appreciation Week here is gonna be out of control.

Teacher stamina

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Every day for this past week – the first week of school at RTHS – I reacted differently when my alarm went off at 6:40 a.m.  But a trend developed.

Monday: Yeah! I’m ready to go! Let’s do this! (It probably helped that I hadn’t slept much from being so excited.)

Tuesday: First day of class, baby!  Up and at ’em!

Wednesdsay: Oh, just ten more minutes. (hits snooze button)

Thursday: NO WAY IT’S MORNING ALREADY. (pounds snooze button… twice)

Friday: HA! I don’t have to get up yet!  Suck it, alarm clock! (turns off alarm clock and slaps it across the room)

Okay, so I cheated.  I’m in Maryland for my friend Christopher’s wedding, so I didn’t work yesterday since I had to be up here for the wedding rehearsal.  But even with a four-day week, it was very apparent that my teacher stamina needs a little work.

I think most teachers know what I’m talking about.  The first week of school is always draining; besides the procedural stuff that has to be done to get the year underway, teaching for hours a day for the first time in 2-3 months is a challenge.  Your feet hurt, your voice gets scratchy from all the talking you’re not used to doing, and by the time the kids leave, you’re just zapped.

Of course, I’m not coming off a two-month layoff from teaching.  I’m coming off a two-year layoff.

I know it’s going to get much better.  After a lot of introductory stuff in class that’s more teacher-centered than I would prefer, we’re about to settle in to teaching actual history with our student-centered, project-based model, so I’ll be doing more monitoring and helping than the typical history teacher that disseminates knowledge for an hour.  When that starts, I’m hoping that I don’t have to go home and grab a nap right after school, like I did two days this past week.  The cross country team has begun practice, and I’d like to get out there and run with them from time to time.  It’ll also help to have things in the classroom settled and prepared; I stayed until after 7:00 twice this past week and I’m certainly hoping that doesn’t become commonplace.

So this weekend, I’m going to enjoy this wedding, have a good time, and forget about teaching for a day or two.  And by the time 6:40 on Monday morning rolls around, maybe my alarm clock won’t take such a beating.

One down

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I would normally use a picture that more directly relates to my post’s subject, but I was way too busy to snap pictures today. So here’s a generic shot of the school building.

In the age of project-based learning and the Flipped Classroom, there’s a popular adage that the students should be much more tired at the end of the day than the teachers.

Whoever said that never went through a first day like we had at Research Triangle High School.  And we haven’t even had a class yet.

Today was a “soft open” – it was a combination of the first day of school and an open house.  Students and their parents showed up throughout the day – about three-fourths of them were checked in by noon – and set up their Internet connection, met teachers, got syllabi, and networked with classmates.  And while that open feel made for an upbeat atmosphere, it wore me slap out.

If you’re a teacher, you know how the first day goes: you get up there in front of the kids, hand out the syllabus, and go through your classroom policies dog and pony show.  And you do that three to five times, depending on how many classes you have.  Tiring, but not the worst thing.  Well, with the open house, I did my song-and-dance at least 50 times, probably more.  The sore throat that nearly all teachers experience at the beginning of the year – the vocal chops having deteriorated over the summer – was noticeable and quite annoying by 11 a.m.  It’s nothing some hot tea can’t assuage.

We also had our first-day glitches that exist at any school.  The wireless network became very quickly overloaded, even though our very capable IT chief has loaded the building up with a bazillion access points.  There was also the issue of getting everyone to show up for the first day, a very important factor when you’re a charter school that relies on attendance to receive state funding.

All of those things combined to make today incredibly exhausting, but it was also a lot of fun.  We met a lot of the kids at July’s Meet RTHS Camps, and it was good to see them again; it made me happy when most of them actually remembered my name over a month later.  Parents were quick to offer their support and volunteer to buy us much-needed supplies for our classrooms.  And the sense of community already apparent among our students assures me that we’re going to have a fantastic year.

I’m excited enough that I’ve decided to show up for the last 184 days of the year.  I’m going to have plenty to write about.

Teacher nightmares

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Whether you’re a student or a teacher, the first day of school can be scary as hell.

My sister, who is brilliant and had zero reason whatsoever to be wound up, always had awful bouts of anxiety before a new school year began.  I once had a student that skipped the first day of school every year because it freaked him out so bad.  He would show up on the second day and be fine – go figure.

When I was just a wee Drakelet going through school, though, I was pretty chill about the beginning of school.  To me, it was just another day – whether it was Day 1 or Day 100, it was still school.

Then I became a teacher, and the nightmares started.

I don’t think I had a nightmare before my first day of my rookie year, because the nervousness resulting from having my own classroom and my own students for the first time kept me from sleeping at all.  But almost every year after that, I had some kind of nightmare in the day or two before school started.  One year I dreamed that I couldn’t remember any American history and the kids attacked me because I couldn’t teach them anything.  Another year I dreamed that the principal had decided that I should teach math instead of history.

This is apparently not a phenomenon limited to history teachers – a simple search of “teacher nightmares” on Twitter will yield plenty of teacher testimonials like this one.  During one of our recent workdays, reigning Piedmont Laureate and RTHS drama/English teacher Ian Finley told me about a doozy of a teacher nightmare he once had.  See, I’ve heard of actor nightmares, and I’ve heard of teacher nightmares, but Ian had an actor teacher nightmare (Wonder Twin powers activate!).  The gist was that he got to school on the first day and discovered that he was to teach a whole class full of aspiring actors in a space that was about 10 feet square.  Racking his brain to figure out how to proceed, he decided that he would have them do articulation exercises to hone their voice work, only to discover that all of his students spoke Spanish.  He then presumably woke up screaming with the Psycho violin screeches wailing in the background.  I know I would be.

I don’t know if I’ll have a teacher nightmare tonight or tomorrow night; I hope I don’t, but I probably will.  I’m way more anxious about  the first day now than I ever was as a student, because the first day sets the tone for the entire year.  Go in unprepared, and the kids will know it and eat you alive.  The good news is that my teacher workdays at RTHS have been the most productive of my career – no useless workshops, no meaningless trainings, no time-wasting.  I feel more prepared than I’ve ever been, and I can’t wait to get in front of them on Monday.

I just pray to God that most of them speak English.

105

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Michelangelo had the roof of the Sistine Chapel.  Leonardo had the walls of monasteries.  I have a classroom.  And a boatload of posters.

For me, the point of decor in a classroom isn’t necessarily to impart knowledge, although students may look at or read the posters and learn something.  It’s supposed to make the classroom a fun, engaging, welcoming place to learn.  I’ve had some teachers over the years who knew their stuff and were great at teaching it, but their classrooms felt incredibly sterile – that always turned me off.  But a classroom with a bunch of stuff up?  It started conversations, brightened up the place, and made me more eager to go to that class every day.  For that reason, I have been chomping at the bit to take possession of Room 105 and put my own mark on it.  And Saturday afternoon, I finally got it.

World history posters needed.

Most of my posters are seeing the light of day for the first time since June of 2010, when they were packed up at Robinson High School.  The biggest pain over the past two days has been to take them out of the tubes so they can flatten out and then divide them into several categories – U.S. history posters, other social studies-related posters, sports posters, and miscellaneous.  The first thing I noticed is that almost all of my history posters are of things pertaining to American history, a subject I won’t be teaching until 2014-15, when our current freshmen are finally juniors.  Eric has offered to let me buy some world history posters on the school’s nickel – and I will – but like I said above, as long as the posters are interesting, I don’t think it’s the worst thing if they don’t pertain exactly to what the kids are learning.

Collegiate apparel from these two schools strongly preferred within the walls of Room 105. I suppose Tobacco Road colleges’ gear will be inevitable given our location, but if you wear Alabama stuff in my room, God help you.

Posters also provide a great way for the students to learn something about you – your interests, favorite teams, favorite movies, etc.  For five years at Robinson I was famous for my Charlotte 49ers schedule posters – a poster for every team with their schedule for the year and pictures of the seniors.  I’ve scaled that back – for now – but I have some green on the wall, and now I have a second school to celebrate with all my Auburn stuff.  I was also sure to put up my Carolina Hurricanes regalia to ingratiate myself to the Triangle-area students, as well as all my political posters.  I’m hoping that the parents don’t think I’m pushing my politics on their kids because I’m showing the Democrats love; it’s just that I’ve never been to a Republican’s presidential library.

From the posters to the four-person tables that foster groupwork and discussion (seen in the picture that heads this post), I think I’ve succeeded in making my classroom fun.  I can only hope that when the kids come through the doors one week from today, they’ll agree.

Doing flips

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I don’t think it’s uncommon for people to be somewhat repulsed by the way they sound when their voices are recorded.  Even after racking up years of experience doing public address announcing and making gobs of money with my voice, I can’t stand to hear myself on playback.

On top of that, I’m not very comfortable videoing myself either.  It’s not stage fright, really, but I’m simply not good at speaking on camera.  When I’m announcing a game I’m in a press box high above the stadium, usually reading from a script, with no one looking at me.  I can improv a little bit, but only if I have a little bit of time to think about it.

My new best friend.

But I better get over all that, because it’s part of my job description now.

If you’ve kept up with this blog, you know what the Flipped Classroom model is, but in case you’re new to my words, it’s a system in which lectures are delivered for “homework” via video, and students do assignments, projects, etc. during class time.  It’s a very interesting system, and I think it’ll pay dividends by liberating us to do more online- and project-based learning, but all of us at RTHS are having to drastically alter the way we deliver content, learning as we go what the best method is for making digital lectures.

I’ve been using Adobe Presenter, which is a nifty add-on to PowerPoint that I had to learn to use for a couple of projects in grad school.  You can provide voice-overs for your PowerPoints that you may have already created, and the students can click through between slides to go back to things they may not have grasped the first time.  If you’ve never seen this in action before, you can view a sample from the Adobe website here.

I like Adobe Presenter for one of the reasons to which I alluded above – I can go off a rough script and no one is looking at me.  But I want my students to come out of their comfort zones in my classes, so it’d be hypocritical of me to not endeavor to do the same.  Furthermore, just like the same type of lecture day after day gets redundant and dull in a class, the same goes for using the same type of videos.

Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.  Without further ado, here’s a video put together by me and my department mate, Mamie Hall, to give our students a brief orientation to how our course is going to go.  I used to hate going over this on the first day of class every semester; the beauty of the Flipped model is that I don’t have to anymore.


I really need to work on my facial expressions at the midpoint of videos.

Mamie and I had a lot of fun making this video.  It probably isn’t the peak of our potential – all the filming, splicing, voiceovers, and audio tweaking was done in one afternoon – but it gets the job done.  We also got a few funny outtakes; I’m hoping that the faculty can save some of the goofs and put them together at the end of the year for our enjoyment.

The biggest thing I got out of today, however, is that maybe I’m not so bad on video (of course, you might disagree after seeing it).  Maybe I can talk a little history on camera and not feel completely embarrassed about it.  Who knows – maybe I’ll get to the point where I hate giving lectures in class and can’t imagine not doing it this way.

As long as I don’t have to listen to it afterwards.