Progress

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Observing osmosis in eggs – the kind of learning that gets kids excited. That’s RTHS freshman Michael Wirsing on the right, and hey look, it’s Madison Daniel NOT in a cross country uniform.

Throughout the year, our biggest challenge at our new freshmen-only school has been convincing students of the importance of actually doing their assignments – especially homework.  I blame a multitude of factors, including but not limited to: many of them coming from schools where they weren’t expected to do any work, or just got promoted from grade to grade regardless of achievement; a lack of strong parenting to encourage their kids in their studies; the students having to get used to the “flipped” model and a new way of “doing school”; and the fact that, well, they’re freshmen.  Anyone who’s ever taught ninth graders, God love ’em, will understand that last one.

As a result of the inability of many of our students to complete their assignments, a lot of the progress reports that all the teachers handed out two weeks ago were not pretty.  We’ve also been handing out assignments of “working lunch” to students who miss certain homework assignments; on some days, we’ve had crowds in my classroom during lunch that would make the Charlotte Bobcats jealous.

Yesterday, I printed out updated progress reports for all of my students so that they’d know where they stood.  First off, I was impressed that so many students had made the effort to turn in assignments that they hadn’t bothered to complete.  Progress reports can be a very useful slap in the face for some students.  Furthermore, many students are doing better on their tests and quizzes; combine that with the lower number of zeroes, and most students’ grades are definitely going in the right direction.

But it’s not just about the grades.  It’s about changing the way kids view education and making them understand the value of doing their work and appreciating what we’re doing as a school community.  Perhaps nothing illustrated this for me better than something that happened this afternoon as I was handing out those progress reports.  I was giving them to the students as they entered the classroom; one kid, who hasn’t done much work over the course of the year but has had excellent test and quiz scores, took one look at his, mumbled some choice words, wadded the paper up, and threw it away.  I didn’t say anything to him, but I watched him after that.  He took a few steps toward his desk, but then stopped dead in his tracks for a second, turned around, and retrieved it from the trash can.  He then took it to his desk, smoothed it out, and started looking over it.  As I circulated around the room later in the period, he asked me where he could find his missing assignments online, and then became the first student of mine all year to volunteer himself for working lunch.

That episode in my class today reinforced that what we’re doing may be working.  It may take longer than we’d like as a faculty, but it’s progress.  And I expect great things from that student who reconsidered his lot and decided to do something about it instead of laying down and surrendering to urges that were perhaps allowed to prevail in him during his previous school experiences.  So many of our other students only need that one taste of excitement and success at school, and I’m convinced that they’ll thrive afterwards.  There’s plenty of reward in teaching the brightest and most motivated students, but it’s also a thrill to see students who were at one point marginal start to come around, get excited about their education, and succeed.

And maybe, just maybe, they’ll even do their homework.

Candy Land by candlelight: My recollections of Hurricane Hugo

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The Charlotte Observer from Saturday, September 23, 1989. “The devastating winds of Hurricane Hugo left [Charlotteans] with moneyless money machines, no power at the grocery story [sic], and no Notre Dame vs. Michigan State football game on TV.” Snort… “money machines.”

When I woke up in the middle of the night on September 22, 1989, I noticed two things out of the ordinary.  First off, something was hitting my bedroom window and making a ton of noise.  Secondly, my night light was off – for six-year-old me, that was far more troublesome.

I went across the hall to my parents’ room, fully intending to wake them up and lodge a complaint about my night light situation, only to find that they too were awake, listening to WBT on my Transformers battery-powered AM radio.  First they let my room go dark in the middle of the night, and now they’re playing with my toys?!  Oh hell no.  But then I realized that the light in their room was coming from candlelight. I just stared at Mom, confused.

She looked at me and said, “Hugo hit.”

As a six-year-old, I probably watched more news than most adults do, so I knew that Hurricane Hugo was a massive storm in the Atlantic Ocean and it had been heading for South Carolina.  I understood that it was dangerous and a lot of people were leaving the coast.  What I didn’t know was that after I had gone to bed, the storm drifted much further west than the forecasts had predicted and was still a minimal Category 1 hurricane when it arrived in the Charlotte area.

But even though I knew how dangerous a hurricane was, I guess I was too stupid to be scared.  Whatever, we’re indoors, it’s all good.  I remember Mom picking me up so I could look out the window – only for a minute, because she didn’t want me that close to the windows.  I distinctly recall seeing the biggest pine tree in our backyard blow about 45 degrees to the left, right itself, and then blow about 45 degrees in the other direction.  I’ll never understand how that tree didn’t go down.

Hillary, my sister who was 4 at the time, slept through the whole thing.

With the morning light, it was pretty abundantly clear that our neighborhood was a mess.  A tree from the yard of our neighbors across the street had fallen across the road, completely blocking anyone from leaving for at least a while.  The yard was so saturated with rainfall that my dad kicked up giant splashes with every step he took down toward the road – Hillary and I found that part particularly funny.  Some of our outside toys were never heard from again – that Big Bird scooter probably ended up in a tree somewhere.  But we were lucky – no trees came through our house, and Concord didn’t get hit quite as bad as the rest of the Charlotte area.

Hugo tells WSOC what they can do with their doppler radar.

The power was out at our house for five days.  On the third day after the storm, Mom decided to take Hillary and me up to my grandparents’ house in Spruce Pine to get us back into the 20th century, but the days without power were actually kind of…. fun.  The morning after the storm we had to find some essentials, so we ended up traveling all over Cabarrus County to find open stores.  Kwik-Way Catering, near what is now RCCC on Trinity Church Road, was open and selling bags of ice for the then-outrageous price of $1 per bag.  Cars were lined up around the block to get ice.  One grocery store in town was open – the old Harris Teeter on Highway 601 that is now Troutman’s Barbecue.  I remember laughing as the manager manually opened the sliding doors and handed Dad and me a flashlight as we walked in, and then being amused by the cashier ringing up our purchases with a battery-powered calculator.

At home, we managed to keep ourselves occupied.  We had plenty of company – we were one of the only families on the street with a gas-powered grill, so everyone came over to cook the meat from their now-useless refrigerators.  Internet and cell phones weren’t a thing yet, so the only gadget we were really missing was the TV, but that wasn’t really a big deal.  The news was on round-the-clock in the days after the storm, and if we really wanted to see it we could take our 7″ UHF television outside and power it with the car.  At night when we couldn’t sit outside anymore we read books, played board games as a family (hence the title of this post), and bathed in water heated up by the aforementioned grill – at least we had running water.  And hey, we were out of school for a week!  It may have been an inconvenience, but it really wasn’t that bad.

They say that a hurricane making it so far inland is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so I’m glad that I got to live through it.  Along with my sister’s birth, it’s at the very top of my childhood memories.

But now that I’m old enough to be scared of an 80 mph wind gust, I hope I never see another one.

The first month

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At any school, the first month of the year comes with a healthy helping of trial and error, adjustments, and learning experiences for teachers and students alike.  At a brand new school, though, those things occur tenfold.

Research Triangle High School opened to students one month ago today.  In that month we’ve made incredible strides in developing our innovative, ambitious educational model.  We’ve had to address rules that we didn’t even consider before (kids still use laser pointers??).  And we’ve hit our share of bumps in the road, but we as a community will be better for it.

Everyone in the building has had a unique experience, so I’m reluctant to speak for the faculty as I’ll sometimes do.  But here are a few of the things that I’ve learned in the past month.

Something I accomplished this month: creating an athletic shield/logo thing.

1) Pump the brakes.  As I’ve previously mentioned, ninety percent of my teaching experience came in American history, with 11th and 12th graders.  I’ll readily admit that in the first couple of weeks, the amount of work I assigned may have been a bit over the top, considering 1) they’re only freshmen and 2) the middle schools from which many of our students came didn’t teach some of these students basic organizational and collaborative skills that are so necessary in our project-based model.  There are plenty of criticisms you could level at Cabarrus County Schools, but the middle schools that fed into Robinson did a phenomenal job of preparing kids for high school.  Oh, and speaking of which…

2) Homework completion is going to be a struggle.  The flipped model is a fantastic educational strategy, but it does rely on a couple of other things happening in order for it to work, one of which is the students watching the videos and doing the work outside of class in order to be able to do the project-based, hands-on work in class.  Too many of our students have never seen homework as a priority and are therefore not following through on their assignments.  It has come to the point that we have been assigning “working lunch” (a nice way of saying “lunch detention”) to students who have fallen too far behind on their work and need some more structured time to get caught up.  I am already seeing dividends.

3) The kids love this school.  I think that early on, this may be the most important thing.  Among many of the students, there is a palpable sense of buy-in to how we’re doing school here.  And for the students that were forced to come here by their parents or have had negative school experiences in the past, many of them are beginning to slowly come around.  There’s a strong sense of community, there is very little cliqueishness, and behavior problems are hardly ever anything major.

The biggest adjustment thus far has been in getting students to utilize some basic skills.  I’m loath to say that content has taken a back seat, because plenty of our students are more advanced and need the challenge, but for many of our students the skills have to come first before they can move on.  I’m proud to work at a place trying to undo some of the damage done by these students’ previous schools.  I’m confident that we have the will and the resources to change the world for some of these kids.

I can’t wait to see what the coming months have in store.

Making the most of student teaching

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Whenever I’ve gone to professional development sessions or workshops, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to present something of my own, but I never really knew what I’d present on.  I think I’m a good teacher, but I don’t think I’m the be-all-end-all either; and until I get the Flipped model down, I don’t think I’m anywhere near ready to start teaching people about that.

But a few weeks ago, I got an email from the UNC Charlotte Teaching Fellows alumni board – they were looking for proposals for presentations at the annual Senior Symposium, a half-day seminar designed to help senior Fellows transition from teacher education to actually going into the classroom.  It’s experiences like those that make me immensely sad that the Teaching Fellows program is dying a slow death at the hands of the North Carolina General Assembly.  Plenty of amazing teachers emerge from college without the Teaching Fellows experience, of course, but Fellows get a comprehensive, singularly unique teacher training experience that virtually guarantees that its graduates will have the cutting-edge skills needed in today’s evolving classrooms.

But I digress.  Anyway, as I perused the email, I noticed that among the suggested presentation topics was “student teaching experiences.”

Bingo.

Laura and me back in 2004. Some cooperating teachers may not want to hang out after hours. Some, however, will go with you to Oktoberfest.

If I do say so myself, I had one hell of a student teaching experience.  I worked with Laura Huffman, a stellar cooperating teacher, branched out and taught other classes too, took on some public address announcing duties, and coached quiz bowl.  And then I got hired at the same school right after graduating – I’d like to think it was because I was such a stellar classroom teacher, but I know that all I did for the school played a significant role.  So while I might not feel comfortable teaching content-related pedagogy and strategies to other teachers, student teaching is my wheelhouse.

My presentation had a simple thesis; student teaching is, in no particular order, an audition and a laboratory.  As another presenter said today, student teaching is also one of the longest job interviews on the planet.  I won’t bore you with every detail of what I said, although you’re more than welcome to download the PowerPoint, but here are a few of my top pointers for anyone getting ready to begin their student teaching experience.

1. Meet everyone.  Depending on how big the school is, this may not be practical to do in the first few weeks, but at the very least, meet three groups of people.  First, meet the administrators and learn what their duties are so you’ll know who to go see for certain scenarios; secondly, make friends with the office staff, because they run the joint; and finally, the custodians and facilities staff, whom you may desperately need if some calamity befalls your classroom.

2. Push to be innovative.  Some cooperating teachers are set in their ways, but most of them would love to see bright young teachers try some new things.  I never had a student teacher at Robinson, but over the years I stole several ideas for lessons and activities that student teachers had tried in other history classes.  And sort of along those lines…

3. Don’t be afraid to fail.  I did a few things in the classroom during student teaching that, looking back, make me cringe.  Some of it pertains to lessons that fell spectacularly flat, but a lot of it was related to classroom management.  Managing a classroom is one of those things that comes naturally to only a select few teachers; the rest of us have to work our asses off at it.  I still struggle mightily with it, and so will nearly every student teacher, but the best path to improving is observing and getting pointers from more experienced educators who have gotten the finer points of it down.  There’s no better learning experience than something that didn’t work, and every student teacher will do something that doesn’t.

4. Branch out.  My most valuable experience during student teaching happened completely by chance.  During my planning period one day, the history department chair/AP U.S. History teacher came into my room in a panic; she had a family emergency and had to leave immediately.  No subs were available, so she asked me if I could cover her APUSH class for the day.  I had been teaching general freshman World History, so I was naturally pretty intimidated at the thought of teaching some of the school’s brightest kids, but at the same time I was always more interested in U.S. history so I accepted the challenge.  In the days after I covered the class, quite a few of the students in the AP class tracked me down to tell me what a great job I did, with a few saying that they wished I taught the class all the time.  After that, I was invited back to teach AP U.S. History several times, and I also assisted with the exam review.  The APUSH teacher then left to join the Principal Fellows program, and I was chosen to replace her.  Without that experience, I don’t think I ever would’ve been hired to teach APUSH.  And the rest, they say, is history.  See what I did there?

5. Make yourself indispensable.  At the end of student teaching, I told the dozen or so attendees to my little session, your end goal should be to make everyone in the school say to themselves, “Man, we’re really gonna miss that person.”  There’s plenty of ways to make sure that happens: volunteering for extra duties like athletic event supervision, helping coach a team or advise a club, chaperone a dance (even though they’re gross), and make your presence known whenever you can.  Student teaching supervisors would probably advise against taking on so much stuff; while the classroom experience and all that goes with it is obviously the most important aspect of student teaching, developing additional school-related skills makes you a much more attractive candidate.  The principal might not be able to hire you, but they’ll give you a damn good reference for another school, and might even try to hire you back later.

Student teaching was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life, but it was immensely rewarding.  I learned so much, met some great students and colleagues, and found the place where I continued to cultivate my craft for the next five years.  I wouldn’t have traded my experience for anything, and I hope that the Fellows I addressed today will have an experience as rewarding as mine was.

Today’s symposium also gave me a great opportunity to spread the Raptor gospel.  I was pretty popular because I was able to virtually guarantee that we’ll have openings at RTHS next year since we’ll be adding over a hundred new students.  So, I told a couple of them over lunch, they need to go have a great student teaching experience, get molded into awesome young teachers, and then come see us up in the Triangle.

HOMEWORK… Does anyone else have any pointers for student teachers that I may have missed?  Feel free to share ’em in the contents below!

Kidless

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I try to write on the blog here about every three to four days.  But because I’ve been putting in so many long days out at the school, it’s been eight days since my last post.  It’s supremely nice to have a Monday morning when I could sleep in a bit, play around on the computer, and watch my new 60″ television.  I think I speak for everyone at RTHS when I say that we needed a day off.

Alone at last.

A former colleague of mine once said, “School is so much easier when the kids aren’t here.”  She didn’t necessarily mean that the kids were obnoxious or a burden; she was very correctly pointing out that teacher workdays and holidays, in addition to being a chance to recharge the batteries and get some things done around the house, are days when you can finally get caught up on all the stuff you couldn’t get around to because you were busy teaching classes.  They’re a mechanism for decompressing.

Of course, today is a holiday, not a workday.  But I’ll go in for a couple of hours this afternoon to get some grading done and set up my room for tomorrow.  At a Labor Day cookout last night thrown by a colleague most people said they had something work-related to do on the day off.  Some people will go into school like me (it helps that I’m only a 9-minute drive away), and some will do some planning and grading from home.  But being able to do it while on your own couch, watching Labor Day baseball matinees or drinking the last of the summer ales in the refrigerator, is a nice feeling.

Back at it tomorrow.

P.S. 

The first Labor Day parade in New York City in 1882.

The U.S. History teacher in me wants to remind all of you of the reason for Labor Day’s existence.  While you’re at your cookouts today, remember the marginalized workers of America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who decided to finally do something about the wretched conditions, back-breaking work, and meager pay they faced.  Not only did they help build America into a modern industrial titan, they fought tooth-and-nail to be treated with a basic human decency lacking in the dangerous factories of the era.  The eight-hour workday, workplace safety regulations, the end of child labor, and many more benefits you enjoy today are around today because of the sacrifices and perseverance of those brave men and women.