Thursday, September 30, 2010


Dash is a young sixth grader who can't function in a chair. I let him lie on the carpet during class, and while the other kids are jigsawing their expert folders I let Dash look at a picture on my laptop and write down his observations on his own special graphic organizer. His older cousin is in my 7th grade class, and he warned me a couple weeks back that "Dash is fucking crazy. Just you wait."

Typically Dash sits on the rug or lies on the rug and doodles and does some of his work in colored pencils. On Thursday last week he said "I only have one pill left, Mr. Geoff. I just thought you should know." On Monday he was like a ricocheting bullet, bouncing around the room. On Tuesday I sat him next to me and stood on his pants leg so he couldn't get up, while he impaled himself on a crucifix and told me my mother performs high-quality fellatio in Hades.

The short kids' novel Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key is narrated first-person by a boy similar to Dash--and a lot like one of my favorite kids of all time, Earache, from the March last year. I think Dash is hilarious and sweet, and even at his least restrained I try to find ways to negotiate with him. But without his meds he's dangerous and totally unreasonable and he doesn't belong in a public school building. But this book helps one empathize. I think every teacher should read it, and everyone who has kids in public schools too--so you can get an idea of what we deal with in the "full inclusion" classroom, where one adult sometimes has several students who need but don't have the proper meds. And yet we love these kids who can't control themselves, and we want them to have a chance to succeed and lead rich lives.

Day #16

My room is a swamp. The posters are curled up, the books are pruned and collapsed upon themselves, the student work is damp. Even though the temps were 20 degrees cooler today the humidity has been 100% and it feels like Louisiana in there. I swelter all day. I have trench foot, jock itch, and it wouldn't surprise me if malaria was coming down the pike. The kids drink two giant cooler bottles full of Deer Park each period. We sweat with three fans blasting damp warm air pointlessly around the room. The clock droops on the wall like a rotten fruit, persistently reminding us how much time we have left in our steam bath.

A long-time vet at my new school took over 2nd period from me today. She's great, and very professional, and has wonderful ideas. I was excited to see what she had to offer, because I've never had such support at any other school. I think it's fantastic that I get coaching and that other teachers with years of experience are willing to come in and model lessons for me. The sixth graders were rude to her, disruptive, chatty, and whiny. She kept her game face and worked them well, but she's used to third graders and the middle schoolers are relentless. They prevented her from completing her workshop, and though she never once showed it in front of them, she was frustrated at the end of the period when we had a moment to chat. I still think I picked up some really good ideas, and hope I expressed my appreciation adequately. She observed the class yesterday as they did much the same thing to me. Our lesson went great until a fire alarm, and then I never got them back after the drill was over.

A couple of true chuckleheads who've proved unmanageable have finally caught the attention of the administrators. One of them chased the Big Cheese with a clipboard when she took him to the office for threatening to shoot a girl and calling her a "stripper bitch." I'd been sitting this child at my feet in the front of the room and standing on his goddam pants leg to keep him from attacking other kids and rummaging randomly through files and cabinets, so I'm not sad to see him taken out. At my old schools these kids would have been shut back in my room to stir up trouble--not here. They are suspended. If a child who needs meds doesn't take them, the parent is called and told to remove the child. They don't simply blame the teacher for poor management skills, as I've seen done in the past.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Day #15

Another 11-hour day at work. I had to stay late to plan a workshop lesson on Determining Importance, and I'm working with a "coach" teacher on this lesson, someone who's an expert on Expeditionary Learning. I've never taught Determining Importance (though it's similar to Main Idea), so I was glad for her input. I'd already kind of prepped a National Geo Kids article for the lesson, but needed ideas on how to structure and present the workshop. At SBCS we don't stand and deliver lessons, we do "catch and release"--meaning I give a tantalizing taste of the skill via modeling, then the kids practice, and then we come back together to "debrief" and construct an "anchor chart" of how to do the skill. In other words: the kids participate in constructing the process. I love it. But I've never done it!

Two 6th graders had the audacity to start jawing in my 2nd period class today. I clamped that shit right up by walking over and saying very quietly between them "You are welcome to fight in my room, but remember that I am not afraid to restrain kids who fight, and you might not like it when I restrain you." They quickly found another outlet for their energies. But then I heard that two of my 7th grade Crew kids (Crew is what we call homeroom--it's complicated) got into a fight in Mr. B's class. Mr. B is a slight fellow from Cameroon, and I'm embarrassed to know that they threw down in there and were rolling on his floor throwing punches while he shouted at them. After I heard I went down to the Cafeteria at lunch and gave them a piece of my mind.

In a couple weeks I'm going to North Bay for 5 days with most of the sixth and seventh graders. I'll be staying in a cabin with them, rappelling and climbing rock walls with them, doing the zip line with them, and going sailing with them. I'm kind of excited, and wish I could get my Crew kids to fill out their permission slips. They keep saying "we just gonna stay home that week" and I keep saying "you will be in school doing work that week if you don't go on the trip, or you will be truant and the Big Cheese will show up at your house." These kids don't give a fuck. I would have killed for a chance at a free week at North Bay in 7th grade, with a gourmet cook doing all the meals and cabins with showers and daily free time and science lessons and crazy games and phyisical activity. And all the girls will be there! All I did in 7th grade was science and engineering camp at Virginia Tech(though that was a blast, what with the early internet, the softball league, the toothpick bridge contest, and the easily available kine bud). I found half my Crew's permission slips on the floor ten minutes after I handed them out!

I'm tired, I'm stressed, I'm anxious--but it's all good.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Donor's Choose!

Yes, it's that time of year--the time of year when I harrass people to donate $$$ so I can provide more classroom library titles to my students. I've had two huge classroom library projects funded already, for which I'm eternally grateful. My current students are enjoying these past titles during Independent reading time!

My latest project asks mostly for social studies titles, including Time Mag for Kids. I also ask for other useful things, like a DVD set of School House Rock cartoons, and some novels about the Civil War and the immigrant experience. Whatever you can do to help, even if it's simply letting other people know about my project--would be greatly appreciated, and may help expunge any karmic debt you've accumulated, perhaps preventing your reincarnation as a slug of some sort.


Day #14

My 2nd period sixth grade class is chugging along smoothly when the counselor steps in. "Mr. G, can I borrow your class for just 2 minutes? I got a student here who has something he needs to say to them." "Sure," I replied, and D tells the class "Kam has something to say to y'all, and it's not going to be easy for him."

In walks Kam, a chubby kid with a funny mohawk whom I'd marked absent because I'd not seen him. He has a paper in his hand and he steps to the front of the room. He has one forearm across his eyes and he's already snuffling. "I wanted to say I'm sorry..." is all he gets out before blubbering commences. Immediately there are "ohs" and "It's okays" and "we love you Kams" from the entire class. An active and moody girl who sits at my desk to keep her out of trouble gasped and asks me if she can go hug him and I tell her yes. She does so, and takes his paper and begins to read an apology about gossip and putting people's bizness out. Mr. D comes back in the room and says "Oh no, no no no. He's gotta say it. I appreciate your support and all, but it's on him."

Kam reads the apology, which is accepted tenderly, and I see how a group of kids brought up in a school which values shared feelings and a sense of community can function together.

Then I face the seventh grade boys, who have not been brought up through that kind of school, and who are rebelling and doing their best to prevent any kind of community functioning. I have a crew of them I work with every morning, and Mr. B from Cameroon has the other. We have been trying to get them together for a seventh grade community meeting for 3 consecutive Fridays with the seventh grade girls, but they cannot line up, they can't get in a circle, and they can't be quiet. We're pressed for time because there is a school-wide meeting coming and these kids can't handle it yet, and we don't want them in front of the elementary kids and sixth graders acting this way. It takes us two hours to get through a 20-minute activity. The only respite we get, the only time we get a half-hour of silence and respectful and honest communication, is after I tell them "Ok, I was disappointed in you guys, and then I was frustrated. Now, however, I'm embarrassed. I am embarrassed to be associated with young adults who behave this way."

I'm starting to realize that in order to teach the way this school expects me to teach, I need to get my brain back to the way I used to teach college courses. I rarely planned detailed lessons: I had text, I showed the students how I interacted with that text, I made detailed notes to display my thinking to them, my connections, my questions, and my inferences. And then I allowed the students to share their reactions to the issues or knowledge raised, and then we moved to the text as a piece of writing. What worked? Why? What could be done better? My brain is far away from those days, but I need to get it back. Part of my problem is that I'm no longer interacting with texts in the same rich way. I don't write in books any more, or think deeply about them. I need to do so again if I expect to teach these kids to be life-long readers.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Day #13

I feel I have my two sixth grade classes pretty much under wraps. They are on task, they do for the most part quality work, and they pay attention when I ask it. They also do an amazing job during independent reading time. We started at 15 minutes, and they're up to 20 already, and asking for five-minute extensions when the timer goes off. Looks like I'll need another Donors Choose library increase soon, because these kids are gonna go through my collection in no time.

Now I have to figure out how to challenge them. No small feat. I also have to figure out how to teach them two subjects worth of crap in one class period this year. Gulp! My creativity is in the shitter right now, the Muse is off somewheres having a fling in a fleabag hotel, I got no ideas worth a train-flattend penny. But they'll come. They always do. Even if it's at 3:00am they'll come. I need them soon, though, because the two weeks of lessons which sprung full-formed and armored from my skull a while back are nearly depleted.

The seventh grade boys are aggravating me no end. Today they were throwing water on each other from their water bottles, many had balloons in their pockets which they took out and started inflating and bouncing, and they refused to stay in their seats or pay attention. So now the good kids are starting to go bonkers because of a few bad apples derailing the class. I'm meeting with the principal tomorrow to strategize about these kids. I'm apparently having less trouble with them than others, but that means nothing to me. I want no trouble. I want to teach.

I just can't stand when the kids who care and want to learn sit there and stare around themselves, wondering what to do. It makes me sick to my stomach.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Day #12

The more things change...

I felt like I'd turned a corner last week with the 7th grade boys class. They are a headache: inattentive, loud, rude, silly. They poke each other with sharp objects, they talk about pussy, they can't sit still, they are disrespectful. But I'm used to all that stuff, with disturbing violence mixed in--without the violence the other stuff is just annoying. I worked to get them to a point where we had two great days to end last week.

Then, the weekend. The 7th grade boys were off in a big way yesterday. It was like starting over. I decided to put the Norms and Needs and all the progressive stuff I really like about my school on hold and I dropped 30 minutes of detention on they assess. Then today two boys came in fussing over a lead pencil and one pushed the other hard and I immediately restrained him and put him face down over his desk and the room got very quiet. I let Elmore up and he was pissed and crying from humiliation--he is, after all, the burliest kid in his grade--and no one expected a teacher to put hands on him. "I'm going to tell my father what you did! You are not my father! He's going to kick your ass." I responded the way I always do. "I have talked to your father five times over the phone, and once in person. I am going to call him and tell him I had to restrain you today, because that's my responsibility. I only restrain kids when I fear for their safety. Half the time when I call, the parents tell me to take their kids out around behind the building for a whooping." This broke the silence as kids fell out a bit. They started packing Elmore and I had to intervene to stop it, to which he responded "fuck you I can defend myself," tears rolling. But I let that one to go to give him some space.

So there's still work to be done. I've made great strides with my sixth grade classes, however. I've had a handful of parent conferences, made a few phone calls, but for the most part they are on point. We're investigating national symbols in order to choose one to represent each homeroom. I don't do much teaching or talking, I make up their folders of images and their build background knowledge worksheets, then I run a PowerPoint with directions and kind of stand down. I'm learning about how the kids learn and work right now. I'm liking what I see.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Typically I run a decade or two behind the times. I just got an iPod for the first time, and I just finished the first Harry Potter book (called Harry Potter at the School of Sorcerers). I read it in French to brush up my rusty skills, and I found the level of the French to be just about right for me to move through confidently with my Larousse de Poche and the English original nearby to check some expressions idiomatiques I didn't recognize.

I can see what all the fuss is about. There's enough mystery and enough darkness to satisfy, and there's quite a bit of humor. Yes, the characters are often types whose skills are differentiated enough for them to prove useful at just the right moment to save the day and to move the plot along--but from what I've heard Rowling got better at characterization as she wrote the series. I shall continue to read them, but it's slow going in French, so I might only do the first three that way before switching to English. We'll see...

Friday, September 17, 2010

Day #10


So I'm adjusting to the new environment, the new systems, the increased expectations, the kids, my co-workers. It's pretty refreshing to be having relatively minor problems with behavior. The most extreme head cases this year would have been the most reasonable kids in my classes last year. And only about 5 or 6 kids out of each class of 25 are problematic right now, which is precisely inverse to my previous experience, when I'd have 5 or 6 attentive and well-behaved kids and 20 lunatics in each class. And I have supportive and appreciative administrators and counselors and special ed staff who are already offering suggestions for differentiation and who if I give them my learning targets and a text will re-work it for me to meet the students' needs. I'm stunned by all this. And when you call a parent at SBCS, the parent shows up the next day before school starts. Amazing! I couldn't get phone numbers from parents half the time last year.

Of course I'm also choking on work. I'm planning and researching a lot and trying to learn new assessment and teaching and workshop models. I'm collecting reams of work but I don't really know how to record it or grade it because all the methodology is different. But I'm expecting everything to become clear as we move forward.

The kids are hilarious, even the jerks. One sixth grade clown told me if I put a T between the E and O in my name it would be Mr. Getoff. I had to try and choke down my laughter as I reprimanded him for not following the "Be respectful" norm.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


I remember vividly in 10th grade English class trying to explain to Mrs. Ewig that I really hadn't the slightest idea what an appositive or a gerund was. She was shocked. "No one who writes the way you do can be ignorant of the conventions of grammar and usage." But seriously, I was, and I remained so until much later, when I took Latin as an undergrad at Loyola College in Baltimore. I learned most of my grammar when I took advanced French grammar courses earning my second bachelor's degree in my 30's.

And yet I have taught writing at two universities and I've been certified to teach writing to kids in public schools. How? Why? WTF?

I think the book 6+1 Traits mirrors my own ideas of how writing should be taught and learned in schools. I always told my freshmen in college that the only way to run a faster mile was to run, and the only way to write better was to read a lot and write. I can stand in front of a room and bore you to death with rules and conventions until you choke to death on study sheets and charts--but until you actually sit down and write, you will never improve. And part of the process is looking at successful writing and determining why it works.

This book is the latest in a string I've been given in order to prep for how my new school does things. I found it very helpful and inspiring. Of course now I have to unlearn all the junk I've picked up the last three years in BCPSS. But I've got to unlearn everything at this point, so why not throw another skill set on the fire? The examples are useful and clear (though I have a feeling many of the authentic student texts were actually written by adults), the assessment standards are valid and useful, and the suggested lessons for teaching each trait of quality writing are interesting and fun. I can't wait to try them!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Day #5

I just printed out 96 articles and 36 photographs to use in lessons the next few days after spending about 12 hours this past weekend finding them, and I'm riding myself about getting serious and I need to start working. Thank goodness for Election Day tomorrow, so I can get another full day to catch up on some planning and prepping. Let's just say that work is humming right now. I'm ramping up but I need to be at full steam soon in order to keep up.

Having management problems with my 2nd period sixth graders. They're just chatty, and it's hard to keep their focus. Unfortunately I haven't flushed the culture of my last two schools out quite yet, so I've resorted to a few old tricks to shock the kids into paying attention. Not something one is supposed to do at my groovy and totally awesome and progressive Charter School. But the principal is extraordinarily supportive, and she claims to know where I'm coming from, and she's been really helpful and understanding. I know other teachers are having a tough time with the same class. I think it will be fine, though, once I establish relationships with these kids. I'm rather laboriously typing them each a response to a letter I had them write me last week. I'm really personalizing each response, trying to tie into their interests and share my experiences in each letter. It takes a couple hours to do a dozen, and I have about 54 more to write this week. But I think it will be key. I handed out the letters I'd finished today, and some kids wrote me replies to my letter which were totally unsolicited. One girl, with whom I'd shared the fact that all my grandparents were now sadly deceased, wrote me to sympathize. Her exact words? "I'm sorry you lost your grandparents. But maybe soon you'll be with them again." Comforting.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Day #3

I'm learning a lot about the kids at SBCS. They are not at all dis-similar to other kids I've taught at much tougher schools. They will push your buttons, see what sets you off, and insult you directly to your face to guage your reaction. I'm taking it in stride, trying not to get all Booker T. on they asses--because that's not how we roll in this school. We talk about needs, about classroom norms, and about controlling our own behaviors and reflecting on our choices.

It's not easy.

One of my sixth grade classes is angelic and smart and three days in I can tell they need to be challenged. The work I'd planned out for an hour and fifteen minutes was done in 45 minutes and I had nothing to fall back on. The other sixth grade class is demonic and smart and it takes me and hour and fifteen minutes to get them through the prep work of the lesson. I got kids taking off their shoes, mocking my name, talking incessantly, while the rest of the class is watching and biding their time, wondering if I'll lose control. I'm supposed to council and cajole rather than shout and punish--a big change, and one I'm excited about--but it's going to take time to get used to it. I can't use the Pinch of Death or call parents in the middle of class any more. I have to get one-one-one with trouble makers and talk out what they need to get past their problems. I'm supposed to tell the class "I can wait" while they're acting a donkey. The demonic class can act a donkey a long time!

The seventh graders, who were Diggs-Johnson kids last year, are the kids I'm used to. All boys, all rowdy, all up in each others' grills all day every day, taking each others' stuff, stabbing each other with pencils, etc. I can handle that bullshit, because I've seen it before. But it's ridiculous and exhausting. We've been in school 3 days and I am tired.

This weekend I will be doing a LOT of planning. Hopefully I can get a breather to watch the Ravens. At least next Tuesday is Primary Day, so there's a bit of a break in the week for more fine-tuning.


Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Day #1

So, new school, new systems, new excitement, and the same old challenges.

Nimoy started plucking my nerves within a few minutes of our extended 2.5 hour homeroom today. He talked when I talked, he swore out loud, he leaned back in his chair until it teetered. I called him out on all this stuff. I've dealt with Nimoys before. He threw a pencil at another boy, which I made him retrieve. "But he talking 'bout my grandmother!" he said. Then he tried to steal the other boy's pen.

During Humanities class, Nimoy talked the entire time. He was so disruptive the school counselor came in and read him the riot act. Nimoy was at summer camp and was supposed to be a leader, a positive example to his class mates. Nimoy just grinned during this schpiel.

At the end of the day my homeroom kids congregated again in my room to fill out ballots selecting their SPAR classes. Nimoy threw water on another boy, and tried to trip a second, when I pulled him over for a conference. I'm trying to avoid the reward/punishment model because this school doesn't use it to modify behavior, but we have to slowly teach our system to the kids before it's effective, and Nimoy is already off the hook. So I told him I'd hate to have to call his house on the first day and he said "Fuck this school. I fucking hate this school. I ain't coming back here tomorrow."

If only that were true.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

T Minus 2 Days

Oh, God. I need to start planning some lessons, but instead I putter around my room and day dream, churning ideas and flipping through books and making useless notes. Today I did work with the 7th and 8th grade Humanities teacher--my counterpart in the middle school--to set up a working plan for our expedition into Immigration in Pigtown this fall. She's really awesome, and hails from New Zealand. I admire her demeanour in front of kids and the way she integrates art into her lessons. We got a lot done in 3 hours. She spent most of the last decade at Mt. Royal before coming to SBSC last year. I'll need to lean on her a lot to get through this first trimester, though she told me jokingly today that I'm the "resident expert" on Social Studies, since I'm now the sole certified teacher in that subject in the middle school. The idea that passing a standardized test in a subject area is any indication of expertise cracks me up. But there I am.

The work crew doing our rehab took down the giant burnished chrome letters which spelled "Diggs Johnson Middle School" on the side of the building today, in preparation for the new signage. I was lucky to score one of the G's for my classroom. I made a cool "Mr. G" sign with it. Of course what's "cool" to me will result in hard-core packing by the students, I'm sure.