Sunday, May 11, 2008

Bullied Then, Successful Now

I went to all the trouble to create a podcast in response to Clay's meme and only then, as I was browsing for the file over at Switchpod, remembered that in South Africa I don't really have the bandwidth or the speed to upload a 16 megabyte audio file.

This is the first meme I've participated in the two plus year's I've been writing here. I was never tagged, and I wasn't always sure readers would be interested. I understand part of the purpose of a meme is to let people know more about yourself. I guess since I don't write annoymously, I feel that there are some things about myself I don't share online. I don't know.

But Clay's meme has to do with the reason I teach.

I was a pretty cool kid in elementary school. Not because I listened to The New Kids on the Block or MC Hammer. I was the smart kid. If you and I were working on a project together, we were going to take out the trash.

I was so popular in fifth grade, I was even elected mayor of Ameritown. Each week we had a business professional come teach us how to fill out a checkbook and how much of your income should go to savings - basic capitalist education. It all culminated in a day at this simulated city in downtown Denver - Ameritown - where everyone had a job. There were police officers, bankers, a television studio, and city hall. And I was elected mayor.

My speeches are what won it for me. I used a famous line from one of Shakespeare's plays to lead each one. My first speech started something like "Friends, students, teachers, lend me your ears." I won the first round with that. I used another one in the final round, but I don't remember what it was. They made me sound smart enough to win though, everyone whispered "oh my, I believe that's Shakespeare, isn't it?" At least that's how I envisioned it. My inarrgural speech began "to be Ameritown, or not to be Ameritown?" before launching into a talk about how unbelieveable it was that we were there. In each of my speeches, Bill came to my aid.

Everything changed on my first day of middle school. There were about three others from elementary school joining me on yellow track at Mrachek Middle School. The rest were on different tracks (meaning somewhere else in the school or on vacation - I would never share any classes with them) or going to Aurora Middle School on the other side of town. All the friends I had were gone and I was back at square one.

On the first day, I made the crucial cultural fopah of wearing my Boy Scout uniform to school. Apparently what was cool at Tollgate Elementary did not fly at the bus stop.

Riding the bus was the worst. It picked us up at 7:00 outside Tollgate. Maybe it was the boy scout uniform from that first day, maybe it was because I didn't put up a fight, but I was the punching bag for a number of my fellow students.

It got so bad, I started walking an extra mile to ride another bus. One day, walking home, three of my old bus-mates stooped in waiting behind a parked car. One jumped up too early and I was able to run home by a back way. I don't know what I would have experienced if I hadn't been warned.

In class, I was belittled and harrassed. My grades dropped. And my reaction to all this was to put up walls around myself. I stopped answering questions in class. I stopped participating openly in group work. I didn't even try to make friends anymore.

After the worst three years of my life, my parents enrolled me in a private Cathoic high school. But I had learned my lesson. From the start I didn't do anything that put me at risk. I kept myself socially baracaded until junior year, when a really excellent retreat built enough community between myself and classmates that I started to open up again.

I saw college as a fresh start. In the first few months, young and idealistic, I rolled a trash can out in front of the student center and began collecting money for UNICEF. I held a giant sign that said "everytime the horn honks, a child dies" and distastefully squeezed a bike horn every 15 seconds. Some people thought I was combating abortion, and being on a politically charged college campus, some of the glares I got eventually deterred my efforts. But I raised $20 and $50 more when I did Trick or Treat for UNICEF in October. It was better than I expected.

In January of my freshman year I met my future wife, sitting directly behind me in a literature class. We ended up doing a lot of group work together and shared a poetry class next period. I had an assignment to read a poem for a class poetry slam. Choosing Shakespeare's sonnet 18, I read it with a little guitar accompaniment I composed myself. I made eye contact with Jennie at key moments in the poem. Of course, Ol' Bill didn't fail me then either.

Years later, a professor asked me why I was going to be a teacher, what was my philosophyof education. I told him I'm going back to middle school and I'm going to get my revenge. I will teach to help students discover the skills to create healthy social relationships. My first month in any classroom will be spent on community building. Before we go after parts of speech or young adult literature, very student will feel welcomed and safe - physically, mentally, and emotionally. And we won't fall behind in material. Because after that first month, we will be in the zone. We will learn together like a well oiled machine - we will each know each other on a level that we can discuss with respect, deliver deserved praise to each other, and admit a change in thinking without embarressment.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Playing Catch-up

A few months ago, I wrote about the grade seven math class I'm co-teaching and the rote memorization of multiplication facts. The basic thesis is that I know my students need to learn the multiplication facts, but I cringe at the monotonous repetition of multiplication tables and skip counting (the comments suggest I didn't convey the former as well as I did the latter).

After a few weeks of helping my counterpart get started with the instruction and use of mad math minutes every morning, I let her take over and moved on to other projects. Last week I checked back in.

"How is mad maths minutes going?" I asked.

"You know, I can say now, though it is not one hundred percent" she said, "I can say that I am satisfied."

She is an excellent teacher who receives much respect from her students and co-workers, but I was skeptical that the six week mad math minute program with only two weeks of instruction would yield results we could both be satisfied with. Together we've been focusing a great deal on assessment and it's three main uses as I see it: assessment of instruction, feedback to learners in the form of evaluation, and grading. So I suggested we perform a post-assessment to check our instruction.

We gave the learners five minutes to complete 50 multiplication facts. Using the rules of mad math minute, a learner could only receive points for the number of problems they consecutively and correctly solve starting with problem one. So for a learner to get 10 points, the first 10 answers must be correct. They may have missed number 11, but if number 12 is correct, it makes no difference. The reason for this harsh grading is to get the students to know all 390 of the math facts, not just the easy ones.

As I feared, the highest score out of 98 students was 17. Few learners completed more than 10 questions and the vast majority could not answer the first problem - 9 x 9.

My counterpart felt that the students had relaxed since she had finished doing mad math minute a couple weeks before. I agreed with her, but added that our instruction did not make the information stick, and so this Monday, we're starting fresh. All grade seven students are arriving at school an hour early for 50 minutes of multiplication instruction. (South African students, unlike most of their American counterparts, are more than willing to arrive before school for additional learning.)

I've written up six weeks worth of lesson outlines (here they call it a work schedule) and this weekend I'll write up the lesson plans for each day next week. We're throwing everything we can think of at them - flashcards on yarn, 1-100 squares that you color in the numbers on, touch math mini-lessons, and mad math minutes is back on a daily basis. If our lessons prove successful then we can hit grades 3 to 6 next and hopefully end this game of catch-up. I'll post my lesson reflections here, but they'll only appear on the complete feed with lessons.