You Can Fly, I’ll Take the Subway, OR The Project Tickles – Part I

I’m trying to keep my posts shorter.  You all have lives and can’t spent hours reading my musings twice a week.  Sometimes this will mean two parters (as this shall be) and sometimes that will mean I can stop trying to get to the magic three page minimum that for some unknown reason I imposed upon myself.  I’ll post Part 2 by my Saturday midnight deadline. 

My second-to-last year teaching at The Wonder School launched with the usual chazzerai .  It didn’t matter which of the three principals or seventeen thousand associate principals was running the meeting; they’d spent the bulk of their summers ruining retooling the school, creating time vampires for the teachers that were tangentially about students. We were gonna workshop ’em, kick ’em around, run ’em up the flagpole, then adopt ’em whether we liked ’em or not.  A few administrators tried to tell us that the very fact that we worked on it for two days meant we bought into it.  More than a few teachers believed that.    

We sat through eight-hour meetings the two days before students arrived.  We got 15 minutes of non-meeting time to “set up” for the kids.  There was an expectation that teachers go in for the summer or stay late the two days before school (many teachers were at school until 9:00 at night), so prepping for kids was expected outside of school hours.  This was a trend that tended to last into the year.  It was no way to ease into the first days of school, so I often went in for an hour or two a few times a week over the summer and hated every minute of it.  The meetings resulted in one thing: We would have more meetings throughout the year.  Schools waste time looking busy and accomplishing nothing.  Sound and fury and usually no snacks.  No snacks + spinning wheels revamping the mission statement = unhappy Doritoless Jackie.  (Arguments including how I “got the summers off” will be ignored.  My going in to work meant I didn’t get the summer off.  I never took the summers off, as I was prepping for the new courses I was assigned.  Also, I worked 12-15 hours a day 5 days a week, then another 5-6 hours on weekends during the school year.  With 13 year olds.  Until you’ve tried to explain the finer points of expository writing [without teaching to the standardized tests] to a post-gym class 13-year-old boy, you’ve not earned the right to comment on this) 

Incidentally, the lack of home/work balance seen in many teachers is unfathomable to me.  Some see their students more than their own young children for ten months of the year.  Some by choice.  Some by design.  Some by necessity.  Burnout is high…something like 20% of the “good” teachers within the first few years of their career leave teaching. 

Two of my principals pursued their EdD when they were in charge.  One (let’s call him Principal No Kids!) openly said that as soon as he got his, he was off to the Central Office with its Central Air and its Central Parking and its normal hours and minimal interactions with kids.  He worked like that.  During a particularly profound meeting involving parking spaces and the finer points of locking our doors, I drew a picture of what his bookshelves must have looked like: How to Help Kids with Learning Problems without Talking to ThemHow to Improve Reading Scores without Consulting Teachers — No Reading Background Necessary!  How to Be on the Phone with Your Wife During School Hours to Avoid Talking To Teachers

Like many young administrators who n-ever moved more than one hour away from their parents, he was all theory and no money shot (and that’s coming from me, the U of C graduate.  Even our diplomas were theoretical.)  His EdD program amused coworker who was going for her PhD.  She scoffed at the “final project” he had to do, with, you know, charts n’ stuff – in COLOR !!!1!!, while she slaved over her dissertation was did lunch duty.  I see her point.  I also see the point of getting an easier (although not necessarily easy) degree in a field where PhDs make no sense unless you want to teach at the University level.  Plus, he was done in about 5 weeks and got to work in a cooperative group.  And he gets called “Doctor.”  I want to be called Doctor.  I need an honorary degree (What?  I’m going to go back to get my PhD?  I’m worried that lunch duty is a requirement.)  Do they give honorary degrees out for rambling and going on auditions and baking endless batches of cookies and saying “Shazbat” three times a day?

Principal No Kids, excuse me, Dr. Principal No Kids talked a lot about cooperative groups, the educational buzzword.  Schools are trendy, desperate to find some easy fix that will make every kid successful at everything (that also doesn’t make their butts look big)  No Child’s Behind Left!  Ha!  Left Behind? Are you kidding? Not these kids.  Not in this high maintenance neighborhood. 

We wasted spent a few minutes having preselected teachers talk about new and interesting ways they got kids to work in groups. I was not asked to share my strategies for splitting my students up cooperatively  for a five-week unit on Rome.  I put them in gens or families.  Gave them Roman names by putting “ius” at the end of their last names — take off the last letter if your name ends in a vowel.  Smith became Smithius.  Hoffstra became Hoffstrius.  They loved it, except for the kid named Pena.  True story.

Then, the big question for the year.

Should we allow iPods in class? 

I was the only faculty member who seemed against it (although I had no problem with them using them during study hall or lunch/recess.)  Teachers wanted kids to be able to listen to them during class time, while doing seat work or taking a test.

Here were some of my arguments (Imagine me making these with trying to keep my head from exploding): Kids tune out enough, we’re trying to teach them to tune into each other.  Kids need to learn to focus.  Kids don’t need input like that 24 hours a day.  Kids need to see school is a serious place.  Kids need to stop feeling that “entertainment” is something you need when working on quadratic equations.  They need to see it’s possible to do work undistracted.  Besides, the research that music helps focus has been misquoted.  It’s generally baroque music that does that.  You think kids have a baroque playlist?  Are we going to monitor that?  What about the theft problem at school?  And, (and of course this is hypothetical at Wonder School) there is the temptation to record answers to tests and play them back on the iPod.

My impassioned, if over-the-top, arguments were met with blank stares, then a few nasty looks from teachers (the same ones who told me that of course kids are going to stop working in March because the end of the year is so close, and that I’d understand when I had kids of my own.  Kids are kids.)  Kids cheat?  Never!  Kids slack?  Never!  Except in high school, where there is an ongoing stink that parents bought college acceptances through influence.)

 I lost the battle, but still banned iPods from my classroom.  Using the same arguments I gave to the staff, I explained the ban to the kids.  The kids accepted it.  The parents loved it.  The kids did really well in my class and, if I may say, kicked some fill-in-the-circle-completely-and-make-your-mark-dark standardized test butt. 

 The whole iPod world, of course, is new and young and was unfathomable in my younger years.  No iPods to disconnect us from the world. No Walkmen, either, until we were well into our teens.  But it all started with a Fisher-Price record player…


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