Thursday, March 31, 2011

Day #118

Every morning my Crew kids were coming in with gigantic cans of energy drinks which resemble 40 oz malt liquor cans, with names like "Blue Bull" or "Max Charge" or whatever. Then they'd complain about headaches and stomach aches and crashing mid-morning. I finally got them all to stop buying and drinking these by lying to them: "those beverages shrink your junk," I said. The Punisher did a spit take of some orange energy drink.

"You wrong, Mr. Geoff. Don't say stuff like that!"

"I'm telling you. Your junk will shrivel up. All those chemicals, the corn syrup, the dyes? Your junk is gonna shrink away."

The next day nobody brought an energy drink to homeroom. I thought "this won't last," but Sherm said very publicly "Mr. Geoff I did some research on energy drinks and you were right! They shrink your junk and they kill your sperms!" The kids all rushed over the PC and Sherm showed them what he found.

So now the kids are drinking fruit-flavored sodas instead, but when I told them about carcinogens in plastic bottles they all freaked out and started pouring out their chery and orange sodas. I'ma get them drinking water and real fruit juice yet.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Day #116

Stacha is wildly imaginative, and can barely control the rushing current of thoughts which cascades around her overactive brain. These gush out her mouth in great bursts, like her Gnostic theory that Earth is really Hell created by a demiurge--but I won't go into that again. She's claimed of late that I was her adopted step-father, her godfather, and that she was my hair-dresser. Sometimes I have to talk to her and calm her down because she gets carried away by her narratives.

Today we read The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg, and Stacha was all over those weird disjointed images. I "read" them the book the first time by just showing the illustrations and reading the captions. She came up with a crazy story about a false God who created concurrent realities and Harris Burdick was the only man who had the key so he was banished, and as she spouted this I thought "man, the story they're going to write has an upper cap of 250 words. Stacha will need 20 times that!"

But then she stopped her story with a little shriek and she said "Mr. Geoff I forgot to tell you! Don't go to the bank. Promise you won't go to the bank!"

"Don't worry Stacha, I only go to ATMs, I never go to the bank," I said.

"NO!" she shrieked. "Don't go to the ATM. My dreams come true. DO NOT go to the bank or the ATM!"

"Eventually Stacha I'll have to get some money," I replied.

"Mr. Geoff you want to live, don't you?"

One hopes to be rational and unconcerned by the ramblings of an overly imaginative child, but the conversation gave me a chill. It was like a few weeks ago when I was touring around Mt. Vernon with a birthday party and we ended up in a gay piano bar on Read St. One of the celebrants, a Pakistani, read my palm and told me I was going to die tragically because my lifeline was forked. One hopes to be rational and unconcerned by such things, but it's just freaky to hear.

Book #11

Still trying to find the perfect Civil War novel for 6th and 7th graders to read this spring. This one opens in rural Illinois at the start of the World War I, and flashes back to explore a bit of family history as various factions form before the Civil War. Two strangers come up river from New Orleans, and the complexities of racial identity in that town at that time are moved forward into the 20th century.

This is a really good YA novel, but would require a lot of scaffolding and context-building. Hmmmm.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Day #114

A string of 12-hour plus days (including some long weekend work days) has me in a state of semi-delirium.

In class a couple days ago I was moving around the room reading poem drafts and giving feedback. I'm sitting across from Courtly and talking about her rhyme scheme and she's looking at me but obviously not hearing what I'm saying.

"Courtly? You with me? Courtly? Do you understand what ABAB means?"

"Why your eyes blue?" she asks.

"Why are yours brown?"

"I dunno."

"Me either. Now, here's how ABAB works..."

I got to school at 6:30am yesterday to work on report cards before the kids arrived. I stayed after school 3 hours to work on report cards, and left at 6:20 to rush over to B&N at the Inner Harbor to see some of our elementary students read poetry from their newly released book. Because of cross-town traffic and Pratt St. Grand Prix construction it took 40 minutes to travel 1.7 miles and I missed it, but got there in time to see some of the kids and buy a book.

I needed several Chris Van Allsburg titles for an author study on Monday and of course B&N only had one on the shelf. They suck--it's a gigantic store and they have racks and racks of multiple-copy face-outs of the same crap; their backlist is shallower than a beauty queen's answers to current events questions. When Borders bought into this style of bookselling (letting publishers choose what goes on the shelves and slashing on-hand backlist stuff) it determined its own sad fate. So I guess I'll try Drusilla's Books this weekend, in between lesson planning, report cards, and working Cha's gigantic fundraiser Saturday.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Day #113

We had a middle grades teacher meeting after school today to discuss report cards and possible retention candidates. The meeting went from 3:45 until 5pm. I'd been at school since 6:30, and though the meeting was important and productive I looked up around 4:48 and saw how weary everyone looked and just started laughing. Mr. E, the math teacher from Cameroon (via Texas public schools) had red-rimmed eyes and a haggard look far beyond his early 30s. Miss F, the other math teacher from Scotland via UAE and Vancouver and Oklahoma, fresh out of college and catching all hell from the kids on a daily basis, looked wan and pale. Ms. GT from Jamaica, a science teacher, had large circles under eyes and her shoulders were stooped under the burden. Ms. P from New Zealand was the only one amongst us who looked energized and un-perturbed by the work load. She not only handles her daily business, she was planning a huge project for the summer via City school headquarters and Young Audiences, and she made us exquisite cookies for the meeting.

I leaned over to Ms. S, a special educator I worked with previously at Booker T. "Look how tired everyone is. I'm glad we don't look tired." We laughed, and Mr. D the other science teacher said "today we are for the first time closer to Spring Break than we are to Xmas break."

"Watching the calendar much?" I teased, having just that afternoon counted off the number of weeks left until April 15th.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Day #112

Today I was lecturing the 7th grade boys for tearing the erasers off my pencils and using them to throw around the room. Yeah, when I was in 7th grade I spent 90% of my class time doing exactly that: tearing tiny bits of erasers in order to flick or throw them at unsuspecting victims around the room, or to pluck them into a teacher's coffee cup. But I brought my own damn pencils to class, or bought big erasers at the school store with the money I earned shoveling shit and hay at the horse farm, or working that cruddy construction job. These kids use my own erasers to throw!

But I deserve it every time a kid goofs off, talks smack, plays a prank, breaks my shit, or otherwise cuts up or disrupts my day. I was incorrigible as a student. There wasn't a teacher I didn't regard as less intelligent than myself, or worth knocking down a peg, or full of shit, or whatever. I put tacks on a teacher's chair. I drew caricatures of them which were often heartlessly cruel, I did my best to derail class on the sly by fucking with quiet kids until they blew up and then pretending I was innocent when challenged. I had the GPA to get away with that shit. When I got sent to the office the principal would pull my file and ask if there was some mistake and send me back to class.

So I deserve what I get in school. But the karmic debt is rapidly being paid, and once we achieve balance, I'll be making sure none of this shit continues happening in my classroom.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Day #111

For two weeks I've been talking about the poem the kids are writing about an imaginary trip to the Underworld. We did research on different cultures' beliefs about the Underworld and Afterlife in order for the kids to get details about setting, gods and goddesses they might encounter, steps or trials to endure--whatever. The paper they used says clearly "Underworld Poem Research" at the top. We learned about rhyme scheme and discussed word choice and mood and each of these skills was taught completely in the context of "in your poem you will need this" or "if, like you, I had to write poetry, I'd try to learn this," etc.

So today the first draft of the poem was due and in the 7th grade boys' class I asked for the drafts and the boys were like "draft? Poem? What poem?"

Fortunately 3 boys had their first drafts, and a couple more had heard me and just forgotten, else I might have thought I imagined the last 10 days of class time. One fourth of the class pays attention.

I've been feeling the strain lately, and this kind of crap can push an old guy into anger and frustration. Gotta let it go--this is a big week (Report Card writing for 2nd trimester, planning the next Expedition, etc) and I need to be focused and alert and flexible, not deranged.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Book #9

I'm scouting for a novel to use with the upcoming John Brown/Civil War expedition at school. A Wish After Midnight was quite satisfying, and handles complex themes like the subtle complexities of race relations past and present without ever getting preachy or judgmental. The book's frankness made it particularly interesting. It's like a YA version of Kindred with time-travel and all--an urban teen girl with ambition to get out finds herself cast back in time to Civil-War era Brooklyn, just before the draft riots. Both eras are excellently rendered, the main character is tough and honest, and I look forward to the sequel.

Unfortunately, the book is a bit too frank for my sixth graders: there's some salty language, a bit of sexual play, and while I might find it unobjectionable to teach 11-and 12-year-olds, there are likely many parents who'd disagree.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Day #106

Kids took the MSA Math test this morning. I didn't even attempt to teach anything this afternoon, I just took the 7th grade boys out to the basketball courts in Carroll Park. They quickly formed up a game of 5-on-5 and some other kids started throwing the football around. About ten minutes in and a class of 6th graders showed up. It was 50 degrees and a bit windy but we had a pretty good time playing outside and burning off the stress of high-stakes testing.

Then Ms. F started taking her 6th graders back. I kind of wanted us all to walk back together but MuMo rolled his ankle playing hoops so I had to get the logistics together on who was helping him back, which delayed my departure by a few minutes. By the time we got gimpy back to the building I'd missed all the drama: apparently some adult man started harrassing Ms. F's sixth grade class, in particular one girl. He solicited sexual acts from her and kept demanding her name from other kids and threatening them if they wouldn't tell.

When I got back to the school the sixth graders were crying and the cops were arriving and there was a big mess. Rumors were flying that the man was in the school and kids were calling parents on cell phones and parents were calling the school before the story was even known by more than a handful of teachers and the 7th grade boys were worried about a hostage situation and they wanted to bank someone and it took a while to find out what had really happened, which was distasteful enough.

Carroll Park is a great resource and we use it all the time, but there are some fucking pervs over there. I see them lurking around in alcoves and under trees. The girls talk about men always trying to lure them up into the orchard. Fortunately they know better than to listen to those clowns, but now we'll have to decide whether or not we need to change our policies about the Park and using it for the students without more careful coordination to ensure there are always two adults with any group of kids. Scary shit.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Day #104

The kids were amazingly whiney and pissy and bitchy today. They complained about everything to the point where I gave them an assignment which asked them to complain about something and then they complained about having to complain.

While I was chiding them for their negativity and distasteful attitudes I noticed that I was being pretty whiney and pissy myself. It's a tough part of the school year, that dreadful long desert from New Year's to Spring Break, and after President's Day there's no reprieve at all until mid-April. We're all couped up together and tensions start to bubble up, dynamics shift among the various cliques, tempers flare, and hormones simmer as birds start chirping and buds start popping outside.

Five full weeks until Spring Break. Lots to do, lots to do....

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Day #103

MSA testing today--READING. The kids were pretty good during the test, but I was unable to do much teaching with my 2nd period or last period kids after the test was done. I got the 7th graders through a brief chunk of work and then took them to the gym. The 2nd period kids I just took outside to burn off steam in the sunshine.

During planning I had to do a verbatim reading for a kid with an IEP. That's a hard gig; I had to watch her choose her answers without saying anything. I watched her pick the correct answer and then erase and change it more than once. Aargh! Gives me specific stuff to re-teach her.

When the test is done we'll resume our investigation into other cultures' beliefs about the afterlife and underworld. I wish I'd not lost the gazillion photos I took of Mayan cenotes and ruins in the Yucatan when my old laptop died. I could reall use those now, particularly the videos of Ik-kil cenote and Lulton Cave.


Yeah, maybe you should read Norman Davies if you want a better idea of the whole story. And doubtless you should check out A Man For All Seasons, because it's a phenomenal film. But you should also watch The Tudors because it's just good TV. There's some history, there's some pretty good acting, there's period costumes and lavish sets, and there's a boatload of T and A.

I could quibble with it here and there: Rhys-Meyers plays Henry too much like a bratty fraternity brother and sans subtlety. He never gets fat the way Henry did. But big deal, his performance is good enough that I'll almost forgive him for that Velvet Goldmine abomination. There are some extremely well-done sequences: Cromwell's fate, for instance, or Ann Boleyn's. I didn't expect the series to make me think differently about these people, but I did: kudos!

Plus, there are lots of details for nerds: Thomas Tallis? Hell yes! Holbein? Fuck yeah. I was sad when we watched the last episode last night, even though the last episode was a bit too Scrooge and the Ghosts of Wives Past for me.

I hope they make another series with the same actors for Bloody Mary, and then go on to do Elizabeth too. I'd watch.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Day #102

Trying to work with the 7th grade boys on their discipline; not the "cut me a switch" discipline, or the reward/punishment type of discipline, but rather self-control, impulse control, sustained focus, etc.

I've been talking about it for a couple days and telling them that all the things they say are "impossible" are actually quite easy to do with a bit of sustained effort and focus. "Adults," I say, "can do these things not because they know more, but because they are willing to sit still and work on something for a while."

I talked about martial arts and starting with inner discipline, and world-class athletes and discipline, and academic stars and discipline. Then we started an initiative where we all get in a circle and throw a bean-bag around: each person in the circle throws to one person only, and we all throw to the same person as the cycle repeats. We tried it a few times with one bean bag and then I added more. Within seconds of adding extra bean bags everyone collapsed into simply trying to peg each other with a bean bag to the face or head. Lots of random throwing!

We debriefed the activity, and the kids quickly figured out that they break the rules of an activity when they find it the least bit challenging. I reminded them how during the mile run earlier in the year that I was the only one who finished it. They all walked or sat down or cut through the middle of the track. "If you can control your mind you can control your body and you can achieve great things." We tried the game a few more times with no better results, but we will keep trying.

Then I challenged them: "Let's stand quietly in a circle. If we can stay quiet without banging or laughing or talking for one minute I'll buy you all Subway Friday."

No chance. 8 seconds and JJ was making a gurgling sound. The second attempt we got to 11 seconds and Dee laughed. 3rd and final attempt was only 5 seconds before five kids burst out laughing.

We've got a long way to go.

Sunday, March 06, 2011


I'd of course seen and loved "La Strada" and "Nights of Cabiria," but somehow Fellini's "Il Bidone" languished in the dregs at the bottom of my Netflix queue. I loved it, particularly Broderick Crawford's performance as an aging swindler whose conscience gets the better of him. A great example of Fellini's early realist style, with a lot of humor mix into the pathos.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Day #101

Man, a killer week. Every day up at 4:45 and typing away at plans, at work by 6:30 and doing stuff in my room until the kids roll in at 8:30, and then late nights with meetings after school and parent conferences and calls and more planning time and I didn't even do any assessment this week.

I took my Crew boys over to the Dollar General to buy them school supplies because I'm tired of them having no binders, paper, pens, pencils, etc. We'll see how long these supplies last! They were very appreciative, especially when I bought them G2 gel pens. Gel pens are the bling of writing implements, held in awe by the boys, who will fight if someone steals a gel pen, and who have no qualms about disrupting class for 20 minutes over a gel-pen dispute ("He got my pen!" "Somebody stole my pen!" "Lorr Jimmy took the ink out my pen!" "Slick Woo borrowed my G2 and gave me a lead pencil back!"). I fully expect to see boys with large chains around their necks and the dangling diamond-encrusted G2 logo. Even kids who don't write a fucking word during class or at home want these pens.

We went over to Harper's Ferry yesterday to plan out a field trip in May. I can barely keep my head above water with the work I have to do NOW, let alone planning the next trimester out already--but that's the job. It's lovely out there, even with no leaves on the trees. Hard to believe that was once an industrial center, a stinking filthy town with foundries running--America's first military-industrial complex. Saw a crane standing by the river, watching for fish.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Book #8

Mary Roach writes science a bit differently from the cats I used to read when I read lots of science. I can't imagine Carl Sagan or J. Bronowski making love in an MRI tube while being scanned during an experiment. I don't think Stephen J. Gould would ever try out a clitoral vacuum pump and then sing its praises. Well, I guess that one's a bit obvious. Stephen J. Gould would have no use for a clitoral pump unless it could teach him about evolution.

My favorite part of Bonk was reading Roach's description of an "erotic video" played during an experiment to measure female arousal. I knew right away that it was one of those Andrew Blake flicks, and I knew it was a Peter North scene even though she only mentioned the set and described the actor. Oh, the '90s!

I don't want to give you the wrong idea. Bonk is about interesting and serious stuff, though it is at times quite funny. Learn about the genital surgeon and intrepid investigator of sexual reflexes who practices in Cairo. Read about the Masters and Kinsey labs. Find out from Mary Roach herself what it's like to participate in laboratory research into our most intimate behaviors.

I liked Bonk a bit less than the Packing for Mars book, but it's still well worth a read. I'ma read Spook next.