Thursday, September 29, 2011

Day #21

Wiped out, pooped, exhausted, spent...

Today was actually relatively "chill." 80% of the 7th graders are on a camping trip Thursday and Friday, so I got a reprieve 1st and 2nd period. I had 5 kids 1st period and we discussed research resources and how to find information. 2nd period I had 8 kids, most of them very high-level, so I put a gigantic crate of WW2/Holocaust/Hitler books from my personal library on the table. "Remember all those questions you recorded while we did our build background knowledge activity?" I asked. They were drooling before I even took the lid off the bin. "Knock yourselves out!" That kept them busy for a good 45 minutes. Then they started with the sexual innuendo. It was 7 girls and 1 boy, and girls are typically much filthier. I had to ask them to keep it appropriate.

Last period was a work-out. I've had three new kids added to that class this week, after one new one last week. Three of the new kids have IEPs, bringing my total to 10 out of 24. I've been in there alone for 2.5 weeks because my para-educator has other stuff going on and let's just say we're not getting much done academically. About half the IEP kids have behavior issues, and they read at a 2nd grade level, while I also have two non-IEP kids who are medicated for ADHD and mood disorders who often don't take their meds, not to mention a pretty disrespectful and sarcastic gifted and talented girl who demands constant attention. So the range of reading levels in that room runs from 2nd grade to 11th, and I'm alone. And I'm supposed to help each child succeed!

Work, work, work. I worked from 5:50 until lunch. During lunch I re-watched Boy in the Striped Pajamas to find scenes we could use with our Learning Targets (the film as a kind of anchor text), and then I researched other resources to use in class for the learning targets. Then I worked until 3:45 and rushed off to a School Leadership Team meeting where we scheduled out professional developments and committee assignments and data analysis sessions for the entire year by shifting little colored Post-its around on big yellow Post-its. Now I'm home and I'm too tired to uncork a bottle of red, but I have to move furniture because the in-laws are moving in here next week.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

F*ck the Police


"Batter my heart, oh three pronged God..." John Donne

Teorema opens with a small debate amongst journalists, intellectuals, and unionists about why a rich bourgeois would suddenly decide to give up his factory and hand it over to the workers. Then there's a peculiar sepia-toned montage which carries on for a few minutes, interspersed with some John Donne-ish voice overs of volcanic desert shots.

Then we're at said bourgeois' home, a grand palazzo in Milan. A mysterious stranger has arrived at the house. He quickly seduces the single-minded and ultra religious maid. Then he ravages the son. Then the mother disrobes and waits patiently for him on the back porch. He diddles the father on his sickbed after reading Ivan Ilych to him. Finally, the daughter gives up her cherry, and the stranger leaves.

Each character reacts differently to the departure. The son becomes a quirky artist who paints on multiple layers of glass, spills paint randomly, and pisses on canvas. The mother trolls downtown Milan for young men and has distant, aloof sex with them, for which she feels terrible guilt. The daughter clenches her fist, lies down and goes into a catatonic state. The maid rushes off to her home village and becomes a mystic and healer who eats nothing but nettles and occasionally floats high in the air. The father gives away his factory to the workers and disrobes completely in a train station, running off into the smoking mountains to be a holy fool.

I suppose there's a Marxist interpretation in here somewhere, but I shan't ruin Teorama by overthinking it. I laughed some, but was mostly confounded. We're all quite detached from our natural inclinations. The stranger tries to engage the bourgeois family and open them to life; they're too small-minded to handle it. The Lord--or Godbody, or Michale Valentine Smith--moves in mysterious lays.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Books #32 and #33

Very reminiscent of Octavia Butler's Kindred, The Devil's Arithmetic sends a modern-day Jewish girl back a half-century to a shtetl during WW2. Hannah is bored by her family's insistence on ritual. She's tired of hearing about death and destruction. She wants to go to the mall with her friends, to assimilate, to focus on sameness and not difference in America.

But when she opens the door for Elijah Hannah finds herself experiencing first-hand what her antecedents endured.

I like this text a great deal, and will keep it aside for kids I think might appreciate its portrayal of unimaginable suffering and its portrait of Jewish culture and religion.

"I never killed a prisoner, nor mistreated one. And I did not tolerate it when my subordinates did so."

It's statements like these which make Hoess's autobiography so interesting. He'll describe how carefully he followed Himmler's decrees about the Final Solution, how the camp at Auschwitz was made into a death factory, and then he'll say that he did not kill or mistreat anyone. Astonishing.

Primo Levi's intro prepares you for how dishonest and abominable Hoess is in these pages; reading him is not pleasant. He is not a terribly bright or imaginative man, though he had substantial gifts as a functionary. His "insights" into the suffering of prisoners are laughable given what he accomplished. His claim to have been disturbed by the treatment of prisoners under his own care are the obvious squirmings of a thug caught and exposed. "I was in jail, so I know what it was like for them," he whines. "I had a family from whom I was separated by my duties, so I know true suffering."

He claims at the end to have wished for a soldier's death instead of his "shameful" coming execution. What about those you snuffed out, Commandant? What death did they wish for? He never attempts to distance himself from Nazism or antisemitism. He held his beliefs to the end, despite his attempts at self-justification. Sickening, but definitely worth reading.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Day #15

Honeymoon is over. Kids starting to go haywire. New kids arriving the 4th week of school, which is always a bad scene, because it means they got put out of another school already this year.

Innocent looking white girl with long strawberry blond hair shows up yesterday. New sixth grader for my last-period class. I'm standing in the hall when I first see her. La'Clark is next to me. "You goes here now?" La'Clark asks. The new girls says "Hell yeahz."

La'Clark waits a moment for the girl to walk off and then says "Watch out Mr. G she CRAZY." I think for a moment about La'Clark's half-dozen serious suicide attempts, her numerous run-away days, her barricading herself in her room, her violent fist-fight with her step father, and I make a kind of pot-kettle-black comment because La'Clark and I are cool like that and she smiles and says: "No, Mr. G, she's not like me. She REAL crazy."


The sixth graders were redonckulous today. I got a bit Booker T. on their asses. "You haven't heard me raise my voice yet," I yelled. "Now you're going to hear it. Q! I told you to sit down three minutes ago and you are still up. J! You open your mouth one more time and I'll--I DARE you to open your mouth one more time. IS THIS WHAT YOU NEED, SIXTH GRADE? DO YOU NEED ME TO DO THIS FOR YOU TO FOLLOW A SIMPLE DIRECTION? 'BE QUIET' IS THE SIMPLEST DIRECTION I KNOW. IT'S THE EASIEST THING YOU WILL EVER LEARN IN SCHOOL. WE'RE GOING TO PRACTICE IT NOW. PUT YOUR PENCILS DOWN, CLOSE YOUR BOOKS, AND BE QUIET. I'M GOING TO PLAY COUNTRY MUSIC FOR YOU TO ENJOY WHILE YOU ARE BEING QUIET. ANYBODY MAKES A SOUND AND WE'RE STAYING FOR DETENTION. I HAVE LOTS OF COUNTRY MUSIC AND WE CAN KEEP LISTENING AFTER SCHOOL." Jaws dropped. Eyes bugged out. There were gasps. These kids have been in the hippie-dippie lovey-dovey school their whole lives. They're not used to this. I love teaching kids about their needs and norms and habits of work and learning--but sometimes I feel we give them a lot of tools for self-reflection without having any means for them to correct their behavior. They can tell you exactly what they are doing wrong using Glasser terminology and elaborate philosophical discussions about harming the community, and then 2 minutes later harm the community again. So I let Hyde out for a while to send a message.

They sat quietly for 10 minutes. We listened to Doc Watson and Merle Haggard. I dismissed them one by one, keeping the particularly annoying kids until last, and holding them a couple minutes past dismissal time.

"You get on my nerves tomorrow," I warned, "and I will find some worse music to play."

"What's worse than that mess?" T. Eye asked.

"Bug me tomorrow and you'll find out!"

Monday, September 19, 2011

Day #13

The kids are grumbly and irritable and energized. I'm not giving them an inch. We act out, we come to the carpet in the front of the room and debrief our behavior. I've begun making parent phone calls and using my Behavior Reflection Sheet. I kept the sixth graders 10 minutes after school today: "You waste 10 minutes of my time, I waste 10 minutes of yours."

Was at school at 6:15 making copies and doing prep work for my 8th grade home room/Crew kids. They have to start getting ready for high school choice. After school Gena and I were hammering away at texts and images to use for the launch of our Holocaust/Hitler expedition. We couldn't find a decent leveled text about Hitler's rise to power, so I wrote one, distilling Richard J. Evans' first volume on the Reich down into 1.5 pages of Comic Sans. We got lots of other texts chosen and copied for a variety of activities. We also set up our trip to the Holocaust Memorial for Friday and worked out the logistics--the kids won't know what we're studying, and we won't tell them anything. They'll be asked to observe the memorial and try to guess what's going on. The questions they generate and the notes they take will be used in class Monday to start a build background knowledge activity.

I'm wiped out. Already there is a plague going around the school, with staff and students groaning from pain in their throats, losing their voices, and sneezing green gouts into the palms of their hands. Lord save me.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Day #9

It's rare that I miss the old days teaching at the Book or the March. The violence, the incompetent leadership, the complete lack of parental involvement--those days were high-stress, low-return, and emotionally draining.

But sometimes I miss being confronted with that Wild West situation, that sink or swim, fight or flee edge. I used to be pleased if I had only a couple bloody fights a week; now I get frustrated when my kids talk too much.

I'm super-stressed by work right now. Back in the day I taught language arts and nothing but; I could focus on literary analysis and grammar and bang out lessons and get results. Now I teach language arts VIA social studies, and instead of getting my objectives from the Baltimore City curriculum guide, I have to create from scratch our curricula. We're tackling WW2/Hitler/The Holocaust and after an initial excitement at the material I'm now fucking freaking out. How do you distill this down to 14 weeks? How do you make it OK for 6th graders without diluting the gravity of such a horrible time period?

But I will overcome. I spent 3 hours working with national social studies standards and the Maryland VSC to try and match our goals with approved objectives. I think I have a good initial draft.

Further stress: trying to clean and prep the house for Friday's Back to School Party. And also trying to prep the house for the in-laws to move in with us in October. They're at a point where they can't take care of themselves any more, and we have the room, so we're giving them our second floor. It's the right thing to do, but it will be a huge adjustment. I already feel like it's hard to find an uncluttered spot in the house where I can be creative and think because of Hurricane Cha. Now I'll have to put a desk on the roof.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Day #6

Starting to fall into the routine a bit, despite earthquakes, hurricanes, and now the remnants of Lee soaking the shit out of the Mid-Atlantic. I'm back to waking up at 5:00am without the alarm clock, and cursing because the alarm is set for 6:00am, and then I get to school at 6:15 or 6:30 and I work my ass off for two hours and I'm barely ready for the kids at 8:30 and then I'm there after school and I'm like "When will I get this stuff done?"I'm moving painfully slowly with the kids, being super intentional about everything, modeling everything, then having a student model it, then asking the class to critique the student model, then having another student model based on the critique, then critiquing that. And then every time the class flubs something we gather on the rug to debrief and discuss and reflect while discussing our NORMS and our Habits of Work and Learning and the kind of community we hope to create in my room. So, not much content yet, just basic stuff like a few parts of speech--but that's fine. We built in 3.5 weeks of open calendar space for this kind of laborious structure building before the true academic adventure begins. I'm getting to know new kids, and getting another chance to re-format the students I had last year. They're going a bit bonkers with me because I'll pull out a magic marker and say "What is this? What are its appropriate uses? Where do I put the cap while I'm working to prevent it becoming lost? How should I hold it? Where does it live in the room? How do we put it away? What are some inappropriate uses for this marker? What problems did we encounter last year? What should I do if I want to use red and La'Clark is using red? Can somebody model what might happen in that situation? Let's critique their model." And then the kids get antsy and say "Dag, Mr. G we know how to use a damn marker 'n shit" and I reply "Obviously you don't, because last year you were throwing them, leaving the caps off, mixing them up between sets, fighting over them, stealing them, losing them, losing the caps," etc. And they accept the truth of that, and we slowly, painfully, go through this explicit teaching process with each procedure and tool and material. And then I call them to the carpet and say "Here's what I heard. I heard a student say "shit" in my class. Was this student following the NORMs? Which NORMs were not followed? How can we build a compassionate, respectful, and emotionally safe community if students swear at the teacher," and then we discuss, debrief, role play, reflect, etc.

I'm kind of liking this approach; I've never done it this way before. I'm hoping it nips a lot of management problems in the bud now so I won't have to keep re-directing behaviors once we get into the academic shit later.And speaking of academic shit: we're teaching Nazism/WW2/Holocaust, which is terribly exciting for a guy like me who's a language arts teacher who loves history. But we're finding it terribly difficult to frame and organize this material for 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. We don't follow the school system curriculum, we create our own from scratch. This is a blessing and curse, because we really get to focus on what we choose and what we want the kids to know and understand, but it's a dreadful burden to figure out how to whittle down something so multifaceted and complex into a couple of months. But it's also an interesting challenge, and I'm fortunate to have on my team thoughtful and creative people whose strengths and weaknesses compliment my own.We'll get it done!

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Book #31

I don't want to trash this book. It's for young adults, after all--or I suppose it is. It's designed to generate discussion about the Holocaust and inhumanity, and I can see that happening in a middle school classroom. It's really not a terrible read by any means. But I just couldn't suspend disbelief to the degree necessary to appreciate its potential charms. How could Shmuel get away for hours every day to sit quietly by the fence at Auschwitz and talk to Bruno? How could he procure an extra uniform at a moment's notice when scraps of cloth were fought over? How could Bruno be so dunderheaded and vacuous about EVERYTHING, even though he's only 9 years old? The plot is simpiy unbelievable. Richard Matheson or Rod Serling might have made a quality TZ episode from this story, however; the twist at the end is a good one, and likely explains what all the fuss is about. I'll put it in my WW2 book bin at work, but I'm not sure I'll use it. It was probably a bad idea to read this concurrently with Hoess's autobiography.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Book #30

About four years ago Cha and I began taking Tai Chi classes in a church at 2640 St. Paul Street. We completed the 2-year program to learn the entire form, but stopped before the advanced course, which teaches push hands and Chi awareness. We're just too busy for weekly indulgences of this sort!

So I still do Tai Chi, but I'm stalled and simply going through the motions (literally). This little book flabbergasted me, instead of helping deepen my practice. Like many texts of its time and geographic origin, it is full of confounding conundrums: "Be still like a mountain; move like a mighty river." "If the waist does not command, the roots will be weak." "He who farts in church must sit in his own pew."

I have to be more supple, particularly in the legs and shoulders. My waist does not control the movements, my head does. The problem is not a lack of focus; the problem is that I'm focusing at all. Onward.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Book #29

Alexander reminisces to an artist friend of his wife Sonia about a peculiar affair he's had with an undocumented Polish worker. His marriage on its surface is quite successful: Sonia is beautiful, intelligent, and creative. She is a much more gifted architect than he, and the firm they run together is successful because she does the drawing and he manages the books.

But Alexander seems uninspired by Sonia sexually or intellectually or spiritually. He recognizes that she is beautiful, and that her ambition and architectural skills are better than his--and yet he is full of contempt for her passion and ideals. There's a scene in the novel when Alexander takes photos of Sonia asleep before they've even started dating. When she is prone and unonconscious he seems more drawn to her. In fact, Alexander can't seem to relate to anyone very well. Everyone is stupid, crazy, foolish, pretentious, or boring. It's unpleasant being trapped in his head.

So occasionally during his marriage Alexander runs off to Ivanova to continue an affair begun before he met Sonia. Ivanova is ugly, chubby, obtuse, dim, and fanatically Catholic. He despises everything about her, from her cluttered apartment to the Bible verses on the walls to her habit of watching moralizing soap operas and reciting the stories to him as though they'd happened to her. She does nothing but work 16 hour days and send the money home. And he is passionately in love with her to the point he pressures her into sex. She seems uninterested and cold during sex, but this turns him on even more.

Alex has no ambition. He works hard but finds no joy in it. His marriage is a sham and he doesn't seem to care. He treats his daughter the way his daughter treats her cat; he feeds it sometimes and calls on its services when he feels like playing. Otherwise she's an annoyance and a burden. He makes not a single true human connection in the novel with one exception, when a fat Frenchman in a shit-hole bar buys his drinks as Alex drinks himself into a downward spiral.

The artist to whom Alexander narrates his story is named Antje. Her paintings are of human/animal hybrids with large genitals in the act of copulation. Take that as you will.

Seven Years either precipitated or coincided randomly with a very bleak two-day depression of my own. It was heady fodder for self-reflection, a strange combination of beauty and soullessness.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Book #28

I've been looking for Holocaust memoirs which are appropriate for young kids; stories which aren't too graphic but which provide context and don't diminish the events we'll be studying this fall.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is a novelized memoir by Judith Kerr. Because the protagonist's father was a well-known Jewish journalist and author at the time of Hitler's rise, her family fled Berlin for Switzerland in 1933. Though the Nazis got their possessions, they missed seizing her father's passport by one day. The book describes their flight across the border, their stay near Zurich, and their eventual resettlement in Paris and England.

The book powerfully evokes the refugee experience, but the Holocaust is barely mentioned. An uncle who remains in Berlin commits suicide because he is fired for having a Jewish grandmother. The family encounters antiSemitism a few times. The characters are likable, interesting, and their experience provides good potential personal connections for inner-city youth. I think some of my more advanced readers might enjoy this as an independent reading text or resource, but I would not rely on it as a primary text to teach this material.

Day #2

So today went extremely smoothly. I had the troublesome kids bottled up, I stopped class anytime things went awry and we discussed and debriefed and re-set expectations. I got through my plans and slowly, surely, and intentionally modeled everything I wanted to get done, and we accomplished those things.

But feeling cocky and confident after such a second day is a trap. Labor Day looms, and that three-day weekend inevitably erodes all that was covered the previous week. Tuesday we shall start from scratch again, and I'll be modeling how to enter the class, how to use a magic marker, how to replace supplies, how to ask for help, and all the basic shit all over again.

The Grand Prix course in B'more, and the Grand Prix events this weekend, have been a source of stress for commuters for some time. But that all revved up today. My 2.8 mile commute home from Pigtown to Reservoir Hill typicall takes 10 minutes; today it took 75. A catastrophe! But I'm sure the Grand Prix will fix what ails Baltimore. The Andretti brothers will heal our shattered school system. Or not.