Summer in Rome

So I’m teaching summer school again — in Rome, NY — and the more things change the more they stay the same. Last year they cut way back on both staffing and on programming, but this year things are back to some sense of semi-normalcy. Instead of having just 2 teachers and 2 subjects for the eighth graders, we are back to 4 teachers and 3 subject areas to hopefully spread the wealth and get these kids back on track.

cool-cartoon-9110516As a teacher there’s a lot not to like about summer school, if you’re so inclined. For me, though, I see it as an opportunity, for both the kids and for myself, to stretch our wings and try new things. I mean, considering they didn’t do well during the school year it gives them a second chance to feel good about themselves. Here are three things I go into summer school making sure I’m thinking about every day.

1. It’s all about the effort.

That can’t ever possibly be taken lightly. One of the students told me that she was “retarded,” on the first day of summer school this year and I immediately shut that down. Somewhere, though, this had become an internalized issue with her, so much so that she seemed to just take it all in stride, like it was just a part of her, like there was nothing that could be done to make her any different. As if she were throwing her hands up, but I pushed them back down.

She’s not in summer school because she can’t handle the work during the regular school year. She eventually admitted as much to me, and so far I’ve already seen sparks of intellectual strengths out of her. Those strengths just need to be given room and a safe area to bloom. She had stopped putting in the effort because she thought it was hopeless, that SHE was hopeless, and that’s what I’m here for, to help her see the possibilities, to help them all see the possibilities.

2. Have fun with it.

If I’m standing in front of them every day lecturing how does that help these students? They’ve already failed in an environment like that, so why not give them something different? Why not challenge them in different ways and let them succeed instead of giving them what they’ve already had and not been successful at? If I can somehow create a sense of accomplishment perhaps it will carry over when they are indeed forced back into that standard style of classroom.

So I have fun with it, and my colleagues and I employ different types of instruction with them, from cooperative groups to student-led discussions, to problem solving games, to student presentations on “expert” subjects. We start off our days with historical trivia and we end them with lyrical analysis. We’re breaking down the meaning in a Taylor Swift song tomorrow at day’s end.

3. Make connections.

I have so many students who come back to me each summer and tell me what a difference being in my class has made in their lives, or even just in their school careers. Just yesterday a student I had two years ago sought me out while they were getting ready to get on the buses to go home for the day. She told me how important it was that she had me believing in her, and that even two years later she thought about our classes and took it to heart. Sadly, I think that there weren’t many people in her world who did believe in her back then, but luckily I made an impression.

That happens so often, and it’s refreshing to see time and again. And even though seeing them again means they’re back in summer school for whatever reasons it warms my heart to see that it’s never for English, that somehow they have all moved forward and don’t need that kind of summer reinforcement in the subject most came in hating. I hope that in some small way I can do that for my students this summer too.


EDU 524

inspirational-education-quotes-nelson-mandelaWell, I am officially a student again, 10 years after I thought I had left for good. It’s funny how the future comes full circle back into the past and then forward again. It all started (again) a few weeks ago when I realized I hadn’t done any sort of professional development for nearly 3 years. As a holder of a professional certification in teaching, I am required to complete 175 hours of professional development every 5 years, so you can see why this was a problem as my 5 years is up late this summer. So I got busy figuring out how to get it done.

First, I looked into professional development courses through BOCES, and through other teacher outlets, but this is the wrong time of year to try and find those resources, and i figured out pretty quickly that it wasn’t going to be the way to go. Not since I still needed 120 hours by summer’s end. Luckily I ran into another teacher friend of mine at my job, and after hearing my dilemma she gave me the advice to take a graduate course (or 3) because they are intensive and are worth 3 credit hours (which translates into 45 professional development hours) apiece. Bingo.

That’s where it got tricky, though, because I had to first find a college, and then enroll in courses that would count in an education program toward my professional development. I scoured the web for universities that would fit the bill, and a host of them showed up, but I needed a place with online courses available THIS SUMMER. My primary problem: online summer courses at pretty much every college have been available since late March and most are full. Ouch. So, I finally found a school in-state (out-of-state schools generally cost more money, even as an on-line student) that had an extensive education program with a variety of summer online courses, some of which were not full.

Then I found out I had to apply to the school. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that before, that in order to take graduate level courses I would have to be an actual member of the learning community. But applications take time not just to fill out but to get responses on, time that meant those courses that weren’t full before were becoming tighter on “seat” space. Oh boy. Not to mention some of the courses had quick start dates, so I filled out the application in record time, found my transcripts to send along, wrote a letter of rationale, and prayed to god they would let me in, and quickly. A week later I was in, but two of the courses I had wanted to take were now off the board. Eek.

That’s when the begging and increased scouring began in earnest. I emailed every single instructor of every single Education online summer course, and got put on waiting lists. I contacted my newly minted advisor and she tried to help me wade through the issues that were facing me. Before the next week was out I was signed up for two online courses that fit the bill, but I needed a third. And none were making themselves obvious, so I was starting to freak out. But then my wife came through with the answer, as she usually does.

I applied for an actual course, not one that is online, but one that meets for an entire week from 9-5, an intensive course that takes advantage of the odd time to help people like me achieve what we need to achieve. But signing up for this course meant I would have to step foot on a college campus again, 10 years after last being on one as a student, that I would have to interact with others students who are 10-15 years younger than I am. But I’m trying not to be fazed by it. I’m just going to go there and do my work. And hopefully come out unscathed.

We shall see. Now if I can just find my pencil case.


“I’ll Take the Zero”

illtakethezeroWhen I was in school there was the rare student who wasn’t frightened by the threat of a zero. It didn’t matter how hard a subject was, or how much homework was given, there was at least an effort given by most students to make sure they didn’t get that zero. Remember “the dog ate my homework”? That was an excuse meant to try and get more time to complete that homework and get at least some points for it. And parents supported teachers in their efforts to get students to take their work seriously.

But now, I’m not really sure what’s happening at home, but more and more students come to school with a different type of mentality, one that embraces only those things the student already feels comfortable with, and fights off anything else. That means if the student is good at English, he/she will do allĀ  the work for English and get good grades in the subject. But if it’s math, and the student despises math, and/or has decided it’s too hard, that same student will give up and stop even trying. Regardless of the threat of the zero.

Then there’s presenting. One of the biggest parts of the new curriculum for teachers is speaking and listening for content, for information, and for understanding. Which means having to speak in front of the class on occasion. But too many students these days have decided they don’t want any part of presenting in front of their peers, for whatever reason, so they pull out the phrase that has gotten all too familiar of late…

“I’ll take the zero.” Continue reading ““I’ll Take the Zero””

I Did What?: My Sordid Job History, Volume 9

warning_substitute_teacher_postcard-p239009390332992021qibm_400They took my fingerprints, and the only thing I could think while they were doing it was, “Damn, it’s going to be really hard to get this ink off my hands.” But it was all necessary, I knew, the only way to start the occupation I knew I wanted for the rest of my life. Even if the fingerprinting was merely to be a substitute teacher instead of the real thing. Everybody has to start somewhere.

A substitute teacher has to be malleable, to shift from day to day, quite unlike most other professions, which are rote.

I decided to substitute teach when I was in graduate school because the classes were mostly in the evenings, and I wanted to get my feet wet in the profession I was going to school for, which seemed smart at the time. What no one told me, however, was that substitute teaching is so different from actually having my own classroom and set schedule. I learned pretty quickly, though, once I got that first phone call to sub.

First off, the calling system was automated, so I had to set up my “profile” in the system before I could even be called to sub. Once that was set it was all about waiting. Usually the calls would come ridiculously early in the morning, and I would have to re-map my whole day around it. Since I didn’t know the area very well, I would have to ask my wife how to get places, then leave very early just in case I got lost getting there.

I learned pretty early on, too, that it mattered which position I was going to substitute for, if just to help my choice of attire. Once I got the call and it was for P.E. but I didn’t realize the difference until I arrived at the school in a full suit. My shoes weren’t even allowed on the gym floor, so I ended up walking around in my bare feet for most of the day, and I ditched the jacket about fifteen minutes into the first class session. Continue reading “I Did What?: My Sordid Job History, Volume 9”

The Dumbing Down of Language

127192508_640When I first began teaching ninth grade English I remember thinking about the language I was going to use and whether or not the students would understand the way I normally convey language. And the thought process was all tied up and twisted together with the zone of proximal development I had learned in my education program in school, the process of learning that forces kids to stretch beyond their normal reach but not so far that they get frustrated. It also provides for some scaffolding to help kids reach that level instead of letting them flounder out there. But I think for ease’s sake, too many teachers, nay, too many parents, participate instead in the dumbing down of language.

My mother used language that I didn’t understand all the time when I was growing up, but she also encouraged us to ask questions, and the same was true when reading books. One of the biggest issues most kids have when it comes to tackling large words when reading is that they want everything given to them. As a parent it’s hard to watch your children struggle with doing anything, much less trying to tackle words that are a bit too big for them, but one of the worse things you can do is to make it too easy for them. They won’t learn the glory of perseverance and the satisfaction of achievement, and they will take too much for granted. My mother believed in that philosophy, making sure she never gave me or my sister those words, providing us with support with letter sounds and blends, but never handing it over pre-packaged. And I appreciate her for that. Continue reading “The Dumbing Down of Language”

Paper Work

Uh, why did I bring this home?

Now, why exactly did I bring this schoolwork home? I honestly have no clue. Maybe I thought I was going to find some time this weekend to actually get it graded so I could get it back to the students on Monday. But I think from the start that I was really totally deluding myself, not that I haven’t done that sort of thing before. That’s why I love being a member of a four-teacher team. They remind me that we’re all there to help each other, that I don’t have to fight it out over the weekend. And yet I still brought this work home.

I remember when I was a new teacher and I had absolutely no idea how much work I needed to assign my classes. It’s one thing they don’t teach you in “teacher school,” aka my education courses. I learned so much about methodology, how students learn, creating a lesson plan, and ideology, but not one instructor taught me how to truly manage time. That’s why I found myself that first weekend drowning in paperwork. I had assigned four writing assignments that week and promised to get them back by Monday. Needless to say, I got no sleep at all that weekend, and I looked like one of those zombies from The Walking Dead when I got to school that day.

Never again. I learned pretty quickly to stagger writing assignments so that they didn’t swamp me and so that the students aren’t constantly asking why they haven’t gotten their work back yet. I also learned not to promise that papers will be back to them on a specific date unless I know for sure I’ll have the time to get to them. And that’s how I gained back some semblance of a weekend while teaching. So, these papers over on the desk. Perhaps I’ll get to them later tonight.


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