The Author

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I am a high school English teacher, and mother of two charming little ones of my own. I teach in a high poverty urban charter school, while I live in a typical American suburb that has frequently been rated one of the safest cities in the country. It is a paradox I struggle with constantly, but it is my life.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Odds and Ends

So, I went to the doctor today, and I didn't get the flu, my sinus infection just got really bad. I went to see my allergist, since it is most likely related to that. He has a terrible bedside manner, but he is a great doctor. He didn't even remember that he has seen me before for my allergies, but that's okay. He said that it probably got so bad since I haven't been using any decongestant, since it bothers Tiana. The one night I took it she screamed for like 2 hours straight. He gave me some allergy/decongestant spray that doesn't have counterproductive effects (like Afrin) and a much stronger antibiotic. Should get rid of it.

 Fortunately, my sister-in-law took Vinny to Magic Mountain today, and Marc got off a little early today to help me, which was really nice, since it is really hard to take care of a baby when you have a fever and feel crappy. Well... at least I am not contagious and the doctor said I should be better within a couple of days. I think I am starting to feel better already.

Mom got me a juicer for Christmas. I've been having lots of fun making fresh juices and homemade lemonade. My favorite. I found that making a simple syrup instead of just stirring in sugar made a huge difference in the consistency of taste throughout.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

I haven't blogged much this week. I could attribute it to the holidays, but it is half that and half that I've been sick. I was coming down with it the weekend after school got out, and it just got progressively worse during the week before Christmas. Combination of the weather kicking up my allergies and I think a cold, because Marc then got it too, although he got over it really quick. On the 23rd, I spent 2 hours of my birthday at the doctor's office with two cranky kids, trying to get seen for my sinus infection. My doctor wasn't there, and he is my asthma specialist who knows about my polyps (I have lumps in my nose, makes my nose not drain the allergy congestion) and how to treat them. This doctor only gave me the antibiotic, not the prednisone. I think she was worried about compatibility with nursing, but had she taken the time to look it up, she would have seen that AAP says it is compatible. I have some left from last time that I am debating on taking. I also have tons of it for my nebulizer, but it is time consuming to use it. By Christmas eve, I was a mess. My eyes were so watery (from sinus pressure- very annoying), I spent most of the service with head on Marc's shoulder and my eyes closed just to try to focus on the service and not on my eyes. (Incidentally, either it worked or God was working on me, but I was able to focus on the message, and it was amazing. It was about how the "wise men" were astrologers, and how astrology tells the story of Christ. If you are reading this Mark McKinney- awesome job! I'd love to hear more about it.).

Got through Christmas okay, despite feeling crappy, and it was a wonderful couple of days. Vinny loved, loved, loved all his toys and has been wanting to do nothing but stay home to play with them ever since. Tiana was an angel. My dad served the family tradition of Roger's Goulash burritos (family recipe) and they were delicious. My favorite. (It is his grandma's recipe, and you can totally tell it is a dust bowl great depression recipe- makes a lot of food for a little money).

Unfortunately, right as the sinus infection started to drain on Tuesday, I came down with the flu. Totally something separate. All the typical flu symptoms. It was a miserable night last night. Fortunately, I think it was just a 24 hour bug. Fever broke sometime in the middle of the night and I am feeling significantly better today... despite the sinus infection still draining slowly. When it rains it pours, I suppose. (Or I suppose, in this case, since we are talking about slowly draining sinuses, perhaps that is the wrong metaphor...)

I kept Vinny home from school this week so he could have a winter break. He has been loving it. He asks to get in his pajamas at like 5:00 each night. I asked him, "Right now? But it is really early," and his response was, "I want to be comfy." Well, considering I haven't changed out of my pajamas at all today, I suppose he has the right to "be comfy" too.

I am going to start working on getting Tiana in her own room after I get better. I decided I needed to start just putting her in there awake first, so she doesn't wake up wondering where the heck she is. That sounds easy enough, but considering that she spends 80% of each day in someone's arms and cries if she's not, it is somewhat of a challenge. I found a decent solution though today. Vinny has been loving being her big brother, and always wants to cuddle her, but I am always afraid he is going to drop her. So... today, I put him in the crib with her. He is small enough. He had a BLAST cuddling with her in the crib. He kept winding up the mobile for her, turning on the projector. It was so cute. After I fed her and put her in there next to him asleep, he just stayed there cuddling her while she slept for like half an hour. Adorable! This may be the perfect way to transition. If she can't get cuddled by mommy in the crib, at least she can get cuddled by Vinny, and then hopefully she will eventually feel comfortable enough on her own.

In other news, I am yearning to give her some real food (because she is yearning to eat it!). Lately, when we eat, she sits there and watches the path of the fork from the plate to our mouths. Monday night at dinner she kept trying to sneak pieces of pasta off our plates. She was even trying to stick them in her mouth. Not yet baby, not yet.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Why Value Added is No Magical Answer

There is a lot of talk about value added in the education world these days, particularly when it comes to performance based pay. I recently read an editorial on value added by an education blogger named Ben Johnson. You really should read the article first to understand my comments here.
"Why Performance Based Pay for Teachers Makes Sense"

For those of you who are inevitably will not click the link and read the whole blog, it can best be summed up with this comment he makes towards the end:
"It wasn't until recently that I understood that the real concern about performance-based pay was not about the money at all. It is about performance of the teacher. Performance is shown when each individual student's progress is connected directly to his or her particular teacher or set of teachers. Based on how much the student learned, as demonstrated by the pre- and post- tests, a teacher will be assigned a value-added score. Teachers won't be able to blame the prior school-year teacher, nor the parents, nor society as some have done. If the score is low, it is either the kids are stupid, or the teacher is ineffective. We know that kids are not stupid, so..."

Well, it sounds good, right?  But it is not. There are so many things not factored into value added. I know that at the heart, this thinking is based in the idea that kids can learn and are not stupid, but this actually sort of does students an injustice. First of all, it devalues their creativity. It devalues the ways that they are smart that tests cannot show. If you asked kids if they wanted to get a grade based on what they learned through this pre-test post-test method, I bet they would say that this is unfair.  Especially because, as I have experienced, the only time-efficient way to do this is multiple choice tests, it misses several things. You cannot test if a student has become a better writer through a multiple choice test. You have to read essays. You might say, okay, give a pre-test essay and a post-test essay, right? But who is going to grade those? In addition, that is faulted in the fact that a student might be a terribly narrative writer, and only slightly improve that, but the student may have learned to write persuasively for the first time. Unless you gave an essay test, both pre and post, in every different mode of writing (expository, persuasive, narrative, reflective, literary, etc.) that is taught throughout the school year, then you couldn't really see the true value added when it comes to writing. And that type of testing is ridiculous and not effective, partially because of the very nature of good writing. If the student has learned to be a good writer, then the student has learned that writing is a process and the student now needs more than an in-class essay test to produce their best work. Considering that writing is one of the most valuable skills any student must learn, it seems rather frustrating to me that value added, simply by nature of being based on test, cannot truly assess the value the teacher has added to the student as a writer.

In addition, what about things like music? A test cannot determine the value that a teacher has added to the student as a musician. Even if the teacher tests the student "musically," it does not show that the music teacher has taught this student how to dress for performance, how to pay attention and count during rests while other students are playing so he/she does not miss an entrance, etc. What about performing? If value added could be assessed fairly, I would be getting paid for the amazing fact that students who had never acted before are now giving polished performances where they don't forget a single line, stay in character the whole time, and give the audience chills? Do we really want to show students that all we value is test scores? Or do we want to value the fostering and training of talented children who will grow up to wow us and entertain us on the big screen someday? If we spend so much money on entertainment each year (we do- just look at movie box office prices), then why are we valuing it so little in the educational setting?

And even in the things that multiple choice testing really can assess, like reading comprehension and math, they can say that the test only assesses how well the current teacher has taught, but that's not true. If the teacher teaches reading comprehension, he/she can only teach using texts that are at the students reading level. From someone who has students with 3rd and 4th grade reading levels, trust me when I say that this is a challenge. In addition, you can design programs to help these students catch up, but if they refuse to read at home, their reading level does not improve. Then, when they go to take the test, if the text used to assess reading comprehension is say... Nathaniel Hawthorne, it doesn't matter how well the current teacher taught reading comprehension. They will not do well on that test simply because the test is above the student's level of reading fluency, which is not the current teacher's fault; even if the current teacher has done everything he/she can to improve that student's fluency, students don't gain 6 reading levels in one year.

None of this even takes into account that teachers do not have control over what students have going on in their lives, particularly in low income communities. What about the student who sneaks vodka to school in a water bottle and is a little while drunk while taking the test? Or what about the student who just had an abortion last weekend? Do you think either of them give a rip what's on that test? Do you think their results are really a fair reflection of what the teacher taught or the value she added?

I do believe in performance pay- I really do. And I will continue to believe that performance pay should be taken into consideration, but it should not be based solely, or even significantly, to multiple choice tests. If you asked my boss how much value I add to my students, he would probably say a lot.... because he has really seen my students grow. But if you look at my value added style benchmark tests from this semester and note that the median is exactly the same, then the answer would be... none.

Such a lucky mom... such a lucky kid

I am such a lucky mom. I love getting to be home with my son at the holidays. Yesterday, Tiana napped in the afternoon and Vinny sat at the kitchen table with me making playdough gingerbread men while I made ennchiladas for our Bible study potluck. It was so wonderful. We talked a lot. It is so neat that he is growing up and able to sit and carry on conversation with me. Yesterday, he said, "You know what? Christmas is not about Santa. Its not about presents. Its not about lights. Its not about reindeer. Its about Jesus. Its Jesus' birthday." He makes me so proud.

He is such a lucky kid too. He has all the relatives vying for his time and attention right now. My sister- and brother-in-law took him to spend the night last night and they took him to a "Back to Bethlehem" thing at a local church. He must have just loved it. 

Then today, my mom wants to take him to see the Yogi Bear movie, and tonight he is going to eat crab with my mother-in-law.  I swear, he's got a busier social calendar than I do. What a lucky kid.


Monday, December 20, 2010


Seriously, Vinny has said some pretty funny stuff today alone. If he's this cute every day, then I am really missing out while he's at school.

This morning:
"I have to get ready because my friends are coming over and if I don't get ready, then they will look at me and say, 'Oh my! He's in his pajamas!' so I have to get ready!"

 While out shopping:
"Mommy, is this town?" 
"Yes, Vinny, this is a town." 
"Yea! Then Santa Claus is coming HERE!" 
While putting away the groceries:
“Mommy, can you be Mary? And Daddy’ll be Joseph? And Tiana will be Jesus?”
“Who will you be? A wise man?”
“No, I can’t be a wise man.”
“Why not?”
“Because wise men have curly hair.”
While waiting for his friends to come (an hour before they were scheduled to arrive):
“Are my friends still watching tv or what? Or are their moms just slow?”

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Concluding the year

Yesterday was the last day of the first semester. My students had finals this week and then grades were due Thursday. Friday we just wrapped up the year, giving grades and whatnot. It was a really, really rough week. I was running around like a madwoman trying to get everything graded and entered, and there were meetings and stuff, and I barely had time to pump. Hectic hectic. I was up late almost every night grading papers and it was just exhausting.

Yesterday was really nice though. I felt very loved. The neatest thing happened. I got a Christmas gift from one of my students. They have given me candy and stuff before, which is always sweet, but a student actually wrapped a gift for me- handpainted candle holders. They have little purple flowers on them. I love purple, and he even wrapped them in purple tissue paper. I was really touched. I almost cried. This may sound really trivial, I mean you probably think kids get their teachers Christmas presents all the time, right? Well, not in a high poverty school, and especially not in high school when they have 5-8 teachers, so it was really sweet of him to do that. He gave some of his other teachers gifts too. It was a small gift, but it made my day, especially since I know that funds are really tight in that community, so it meant all that much more.  I've only gotten a gift from a student one other time, and it was when I was teaching at Taft. I helped one of my juniors revise her research paper like 3 times and she gave me a really sweet card telling me I was one of the best teachers she'd ever had, and it had a $5 starbucks gift card inside. I saved the card she wrote, since it was just so sweet. I hung it on my memo board at home.

My department chair gave me a gift too. I felt kind of bad that I didn't have anything for her, when she has done so much for me over the years, but the gift she gave me was so sweet. She gave me this candle from Bath and Body Works called "Forever Sunshine." When I opened it and smelled how nice it was, she said, "I know, isn't it? I thought it was perfect, because it is bright and fresh and beautiful, just like you!" She said it so genuinely, I almost started crying (I did a lot of almost crying yesterday).

Then I got off early and picked up the kids and prepared for my sister's b-day dinner. As far as sister relationships go, our has been rather rocky this year, but I did my darndest to make sure she felt special, and for her to know that, in spite of it all, she's still my baby sister and I still love her. I'll never forget that day 21 years ago when she came 12 days early, leaving my dad to throw my birthday party by himself- which had been planned intentionally a week before my birthday to ensure my mom could be there for it- haha!

And now, it is quite a relief to be off of school for the next 6 weeks, even if there is a ton of stuff to do during the break. I need to prepare for ESY (equivalent to summer school, but during winter). I'm not teaching it, but I need to get together the stuff for the teacher who is, catch up on paper work, finish planning the second semester- oh, and figure out how I am going to pay for day care next semester. The place we found for Tiana is great and one of the cheapest in town, but we still don't really have that money. We have been just making ends meet lately, with very little or nothing leftover. Plus, not only did I not get paid for maternity leave (so all the money I saved last year is gone), but I guess I misunderstood the performance pay structure this year and how it works with me being on maternity leave, and I busted my butt to prove that I do deserve it, only to find out that I- according to them- only worked 33.7% of the semester, so I will only get 33.7% of my performance pay for the semester. I am not sure how that is accurate, considering I worked 9 weeks of the 20 week semester, and in my book, that's 45%, but whatever. When I did the calculations and looked a the numbers, I was so disappointed... you guessed it, I almost cried.

It is just very unfair considering that I prepared all the lesson plans and major assignments for my sub, kept up with my end of the grading, showed up to all the department meetings while I was gone, had constant communication with my sub and the students and parents via email, and even showed up to supervise Saturday school. I feel like I deserve more than 45%. To a certain extent, had I realized how much I was going to get screwed on all this, I would have just left a list of standards to cover and completely checked out for those 11 weeks. (I say that, but I never could have done it). Another annoying irony... this past week, the school invited in an Aflac representative to talk about disability pay, since we do't get any of it (one of the downsides of being non-unionized) and can't even claim state disability, and I found out for only $40 a month, I could have been paid throughout maternity leave, had I only known about all of this a year ago. Well, this is what happens when you have an unplanned baby, as much of a blessing as it is. Long story short- I though I'd be getting enough performance pay to cover at least 2 or 3 months of day care, but it looks like I'll be getting enough for about 1 month, 1.5 if I am lucky.

So I am trying to figure out how we can come up with an extra, say... thousand dollars a month. I thought about perhaps writing a book and self-publishing it, since really, I am a writer and writing is probably the easiest way for me to make money, but the process actually sounds like it could cost me quite a bit out the door before I actually make any money from it, which defeats the purpose, and most of my book ideas have already been written anyway. So if I want to write for this extra money, looks like I'm going to have to go my traditional route and return to writing associated content articles and start trying to get my stuff in magazines too. Now where to find the time....

Anyhow, I am glad to have the next 6 weeks to be at home with my baby girl, even if there is much to be done while I am here. :-)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Not Really in the Christmas Spirit

I don't feel like doing Christmas this year. We are broke. I don't want to go into a bunch of debt to buy gifts. We have the kids taken care of already, but we can't buy much for anyone else. Despite the fact that everyone will most undoubtedly say, "Its not about the gifts," there is always the awkwardness of someone giving you gifts when you don't have much (or anything at all to give in return), and besides that- it feels good to give gifts to those we love. It hurts to not really be able to buy what we'd want to buy at a time when we'd really like to give to the people we love. Plus, there are so many other expenses right now too. There are many friends/family having babies right now, and all the baby showers are hitting pretty much right at once, so there are gifts for those. There are potlucks and parties to bring food to. There are birthdays to buy gifts for. I have a fix-it ticket because my registration was suspended by no fault of my own. Although we pay our car insurance through automatic monthly payment deductions from our checking account- and have for years- they for some reason didn't send the info to DMV and now DMV wants a reinstatement fee and the court will want me to pay a small fee to clear the fix it ticket.   I wish I could get our housekeepers a Christmas thank you gift. I wish I could get Vinny's preschool teachers a Christmas gift. It is all overwhelming. If I had all the money I wanted, I wish I could get each and every one of my students a present, but I don't know if I  will even be able to get all of my family members a present, so that would never happen. It is going to be a tough two weeks.

Besides that, we've been too busy and stressed to enjoy most of it anyway. Saturday we went to Knott's Merry Farm as a family, and that was really nice, but it went by so fast and then it was back to work. I spent 80% of my day Sunday just getting ready for the week. Grades are due, and I am trying to tie up all the loose ends for this semester, which is not proving to be an easy task. It is hard to be gone for 10 weeks then jump right in and put on a play the week before finals, and then be ready to turn in grades. Not an easy task.

Our Pastors message this past Sunday was about slowing down and not missing Christmas. It was a really nice idea, and he even tried to give some pointers about how to slow down and not miss Christmas, but none of them will work for me right now. Spend more time reading the Bible. Gee, thanks, but I can't seem to find enough time to read the papers I need to grade to honor my obligation to my students. Come home 30-60 minutes early from work. Okay, great idea, and I am trying to get out of there earlier this week... but there is just as much work to do at home. Give a gift to someone who can't give you anything back. Great idea... not sure its doable though. It is just all harder than it sounds.

I'm tired. I was up til almost 2 grading on Sunday, and although I went to bed at like 10 last night, I still felt like a zombie. I had a Dr. Pepper today when I got home, just missing the caffeine and the comfort of my old favorite. I figured, Tiana is 3 months tomorrow, and even if her colic did seem to be associated with caffeine, colic is supposed to go away at 3 months, right? So, I drank it... and it was nice. Unfortunately, she woke up promptly 30 minutes after I finishd it and she wanted to eat pretty quickly. Call it a coincidence, or call it evidence (I lean towards evidence), but she was super fussy and crying for nearly 2 hours afterwards. Sigh. Sometimes I want a latte so bad it hurts.... but I guess I'll need to just deal with it for the next 9 months or so.

On the positive note, since it feels like I do an awful lot of complaining on here, and I really don't want it to be all that... we went to a beautiful Christmas party today with some of Vinny's friends and their moms' (my friends). My favorite moment of all is when I told Vinny, "Okay, we gotta go, say bye to your friends," and he stood up and said- without any prompting at all- "Bye Sean. Thank you for having me over to play."  It melted my heart. I know that sounds so simple, but I didn't tell him to thank his friend, and he did, and it sounded genuine, not routine. I think my son is actually starting to appreciate things like that when his friends have him over to play, not only do they have to share their toys (which can be hard for a 4 year old to do), but it also leaves them with the massive task of cleaning up afterwards (friends can try to help, but really a kid knows where he wants his own toys to go). It is moments like this that assure me I must be doing something right in parenting this kid. :-)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Decompressing after a long day

Have you ever had a day that got so busy that you realized hours after dinner that you completely forgot to eat it? A friend (Thank you Yolanda) even brought me food that looked so good I was so excited to put in the fridge to heat up for dinner when I got a chance to eat, but I remembered at like 8:30, while driving home from school, when I noticed that my stomach felt funny and then I realized I had completely forgotten to eat it. Oh well. At least I ate a big lunch. At least I can look forward to heating it up for lunch tomorrow.

I ran around like a crazy person today. Picking up the benchmark exam, giving the benchmark exam, preparing for my review with my administrator (put together like a 50 page packet for her!), rushing to Frends Beauty Supply to spend way too much money on restocking stage makeup and buying wigs for my students, conference call with English teachers all over the country for Asia Society, getting ready for rehearsal, shopping for more stuff the kids still needed (I was handed a list that included bobby pins, hairspray, a booklight, and a bathrobe, among other things), and then dress rehearsal. By the time I got home, I was just plain exhausted. I hadn't been able to pump as much as I wanted too, and since I have been drinking this "Mother's Milk" tea to increase my production, that became just painful at points. I missed her a lot.

On the plus side, I guess God decided to give me a little gift to make this week easier on me. Tiana finally seems to be on a real schedule. She's been going to bed every night around 10pm, and she was waking up at like 4a.m., but last night she actually slept straight through, in her OWN bed (okay, bassinet, but this is still an improvement for us lately) from like 10:30 to 5:15a.m. I think I call that "sleeping through the night." Praise the Lord, hallelujah!

Actually, God has blessed me in one more way this week. I most certainly could not be getting through this week without my mom. She took the week off to watch Tiana. Knowing my mom is at home with her this week has been such a relief to me, and plus, my super mom doesn't know how to sit still, which works out well for me, because she has cleaned my house and done my laundry. Could I ask for more?

Tomorrow is the show- the real thing. It will be sort of a soft opening. Tickets for Thursday night haven't been selling all that well. I probably should have made it 7pm that night instead of 8pm. Friday is in real danger of selling out though. Almost half the tickets are already gone. People are questioning the logic behind my deciding not to put seats all the way to the very back of the auditorium, but I just wanted the show to have an intimate feel. Its not a big musical- its more of a "black box" theater type show, only in a big auditorium with a proscenium stage. I sort of feel like we shouldn't have people sitting at the very back. It doesn't have the same feel from back there. Well... maybe I will change my mind tomorrow. We'll see. I'm excited. I'm also really tired, but mostly excited.

Last year, in a FB note (cuz it was before I started my blog), I wrote this after my very first show at Vaughn:
"During the curtain call, Stan (my boss) thanked the kids and gave flowers to our lead actress, and then they called me up there to take a bow and get some flowers. I totally wasn't expecting it. It was surreal....
See... I remember doing things like this when I was in high school for our drama teacher, but our school is just different. Tonight shook me. Surreal is the best way to describe it. I was standing there, staring up at these kids who did such a good job and had made me so very proud, and they were looking down at me, clapping for me, and then audience members were thanking me, and I was thinking "for what?" and then realizing how different it feels to be on the other side of this.... It's like living a dream."

As exhausted as I am and as hard as these past two weeks have been, I'm glad I came back to finish this semester. I'm just so lucky. I AM living my dream.

Monday, December 6, 2010

This is so hard....

My days have NO breathing time in them at all. I am moving, acting, thinking, doing, supervising 24/7. I fit like 6 pumping sessions into my day at work today to try to up my milk supply, since it seems to be slowly dwindling now that she's not nursing constantly and I'm just pumping, but I still got less than I did last week. Frustrating. I am going to drink Mothers Milk tea all day tomorrow. It is really, really, really hard to exclusively breastfeed when you are working 13 hour days with no real breaks.

My lesson plan for tomorrow is to review for the student's benchmark exam. They are only 38 minute periods, but I don't really know what we will be doing yet and its in less than 12 hours. I feel like I just got home and its back to work.

Rehearsal today went really well, but selling tickets for this show at Christmas time has been a challenge. I hope we have a good turnout. We need high ticket sales. I spent $100 providing dinner for the kids tonight and $50 to replace a  lapel mic that broke (including the overnight shipping), and right now, that's all just on my credit card in anticipation of ticket sales.

Here's hoping.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Man, what a whirlwind week. Meetings, rehearsals, shopping, craziness, and emotionally draining.  I need to try not to let myself get so stressed, but it is hard. The administrator who has been coming to observe me for my bonus told me she wants to meet next week so that we can discuss my scores and I can discuss with her anything I disagree with. This is slightly disheartening to me, because if she was giving me all good scores, then I obviously wouldn't disagree with any of it. Sadness. Plus, I honestly didn't know when I could tell her that I could meet. I told her Thursday before the show was an okay time, but literally every other second of my week seems to be full (plus, I still have to make it to Frends Beauty Supply to stock up on make-up at some point in the week- I do not know when).

In addition, I got a chance to look at the benchmark test that the students will be taking next week, with the opportunity to veto questions that were not related to what was taught this semester. These tests are supposed to measure student performance. The students' performance will determine a large percentage of my bonus pay because the school where I teach believes in giving performance pay, and starting this year, a significant amount must be tied to student performance because Race to the Top is giving funds to schools that pay bonuses to teachers "who are highly effective in the way that they instruct students," which my school has decided is best measured by these tests. Unfortunately, most of what was on the tests was so ridiculous. I don't know how they chose these. They were like half based on standards I am not teaching until next semester. Ridiculous.

I may be frustrated by the kinks in the system that I feel may result in me not getting my full bonus, despite the fact that I truly believe I am a highly effective teacher, but I do still believe that performance based pay for teachers can be a good thing... there just has to be a better way to do it.

So, back to the whirlwind this week- wrapping up my last unit of the semester, giving benchmark exams and lexile tests, and biggest of all, producing "A Christmas Carol."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A new approach to instructional materials?

There is a whole section of the California State Standards for English that focuses on informational materials, and some of them are very specific, particularly these two:
2.6 Demonstrate use of sophisticated learning tools by following technical directions (e.g., those found with graphic calculators and specialized software programs and in access guides to World Wide Web sites on the Internet).
2.7 Critique the logic of functional documents by examining the sequence of information and procedures in anticipation of possible reader misunderstandings.

To me, the standards are so specific its like... um, how do you really teach this other than just having them do it? But the "it" to me is always so... what do you do? If you make something up and it is not real, then it is sort of pointless and the kids don't get into it enough to really learn from it.

But today was fantastic. I think I figured it out. But it wasn't in my English class. It was with my play production class. You want to teach kids the critique the logic of functional (or sometimes dysfunctional) documents by examining sequences and procedures? Buy them furniture from Ikea and tell them to assemble it.

I literally handed each group of students a box. Most of the boxes contained chairs (one of the more simple Ikea pieces, as far as assembly goes). Two of the groups got a desk to assemble. When they finished with the chairs, those groups moved to helping the groups with the desk. I let them get from opening the box to finishing the piece of furniture with very little assistance from me.

Critique the directions they most certainly did. If you've ever looked at Ikea directions, they are not very descriptive. At one point, a student said, "This is like a whole book, yet I somehow still have no idea what to do."

They argued with me about the necessity of actually screwing in the seat part of the chair. "Can't it just sit on the base?" one girl asked. The same student also kept insisting that it must require power tools, which I would not give them.

But they took ownership. When the bill was ringing at 3:25, I asked them to pack up, but they asked if they could keep working. I had to go to a meeting, but my colleague agreed to supervise them, so they stayed working. When I came back, all 7 of the chairs were complete and one of the desks.

It may not seem like this incredible learning experience, but they learned that Ikea furniture can be put together usually without power tools. They learned how to use an itty bitty little metal tool to put together furniture. They learned to pay close attention to a diagram. They learned to improvise when they mess up. Now, someday, when they go away to college and end up at the local Ikea to buy a desk that they can actually afford, they will not feel as completely helpless when they open the box and find 100 parts.

All, in all, I was very proud of them. Watch the video clip of part of the process if you are interested.