Saturday, December 25, 2010

Happy Holidays

2010 was a superb year. I'm really excited for what's to come in 2011.

As expected, I plan on hibernating for the next few days. You should too.

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

When I Threw My Shoe

Shit is just flying all over the place because it’s the week before winter break. Vacation is just around the corner. When I was in high school, this particular week involved taking lots and lots of finals, so I was either cramming for exams or playing Goldeneye. Or both. Those were the good old days.

To be completely fair, our trimester system doesn’t coincide with winter break; we’re nearly a third of the way through our second trimester. This means our first trimester finals already passed and our second trimester finals won’t happen until end of March. So basically, there’s nothing important happening this week.
Shhh, you weren't supposed to know that kids.
So as you probably guessed, attendance has been horrific (less than 55% some days). Some of the students who are actually still coming are acting out of control: there’s a ridiculous amount of chatter, foul language, inappropriate conduct, etc. Some seem to be showing up to first period [on a sugar?] high or quite simply, drunk. Or both.
As a side note, what’s the big deal with coming to a transfer high school stoned or drunk? To me, that says one of two things: 
  1. My life sucks and I need to escape from reality.
  2. I’m an attention whore. Look at me: I’m stupid. Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed!
Back to the story: Yeshiva, a student who in my opinion usually shows up to school drunk or stoned, was roaming the hallways yesterday during 5th period. She’s not a student of mine, but she used to be. Honestly, when she looks at me sometimes with her deadpan face and head tilted sideways, it gives me the creeps. Imagine if “The Situation” from The Jersey Shore was undressing you with his eyes. That kind of creeps. Obviously this comparison is pointless if you actually think “The Situation” is a good-looking dude. In that case, please stop reading this blog.

So as I’m trying to teach literal equations to students who were already aching to get out, I see Yeshiva strolling outside the hallway. She stops outside my door and starts making eye contact with some of my students through the window in my door. At first, I ignore it: she’s trying to chat up the students who are usually distracted anyway. Whatever, they’ll learn their lesson when they bomb their quiz at the end of class. You’re 18 now, make some grown up decisions, right?

A minute later, she actually starts trying to talk through the window.

Well, this is getting annoying, I thought. I ignored Yeshiva and made eye contact with the horny bastards in the back of the class. I whipped out the teacher look. Come on guys, focus. That is, unless you want to be back in this class next year. Don’t be tools.

Yeshiva refuses to move along. I'm thinking: isn’t there someone in the fucking hallway to get her out of here? Obviously not, why would there be? It’s not like this is a high school for kids who had trouble staying in classes. I take my first action here: I motion her to shoo away – like a fly. I then mouth, “go away” to her. Nothing. Just a deadpan stare accompanied with a creepy smile.

At this point, I’m getting irritated. It’s been a long day and shit was not going to get any easier. I had a meeting with the principal next period for which I was not nearly prepared. So I did what any sane person would do at this point. I was standing in front (like this) of my SMARTBoard about fifteen feet from the door. I took off my shoe, took aim and fired.
I threw my shoe against the window in the door.
WHAM!

I wish I had gotten her reaction on tape. Yeshiva was stunned. The class was shocked. After five seconds, she made some strange angry sound, pounded her fist against the door and stomped off. The class went insane.
"Yoooo, Mista violated her!!!" 
"He just ODed! Shit was whack!"
It took about twenty more seconds to get the class back on track. We were back to solving literal equations. The best part: as I made my way to the principal’s office next period, a group of students were gathered in front of the exit. I heard this:
"Girl, you shoulda seen it! I ain't eva gonna bother [my name]'s class. N***** is crazy. Good teacher, but fucking crazy."
I suppose.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Thanks, Ten Years Later

As a public school teacher, I'm on my feet in front of a group of teens for at least half of my work day. I have absolutely no issues presenting ideas in front of a large audience. I have no issues being the center of everyone's attention for a purpose. It recently occurred to me that I wasn't always this ballsy.

Nearly ten years ago, I was an awkward, bumbling nerd giving a speech in front of my 10th grade English class. This class required every student to give informative, instructive and persuasive speeches throughout the year. There were minimum time requirements for each speech. We even had to come dressed up on speech day. My English teacher, Mr. B, would tally the number of times I'd blurt "um" and "like"  throughout my speeches. Needless to say, this was a challenging class that often scared the shit out of me.

One of my most vivid memories of the class is nervously shaking behind the podium, clutching my index cards tightly as I tried not to make eye contact with any of my classmates. I was speaking at 200 miles per hour. For most of my speeches, I was a wreck. I actually can't believe I had forgotten this about myself. I had a problem of speaking too fast - for an eight minute speech requirement, I'd be done in five minutes. For a five minute speech requirement, I'd be done in two [insert premature ejaculation jokes here]. After receiving a low B on my first speech in Mr. B's class, I remember thinking, "Shit, I'm not going to get straight As this semester. My mom is going to kill me." Don't forget, I said I was a nerd.

It's funny how times (and people) change. I can yap for hours now in front of others without hesitation. It also doesn't matter who the hell I'm yapping to: students, my principal, or even Mario Cuomo (funny story for a later time). It's taken me ten years to realize that I have Mr. B's class to thank for my confidence and public speaking ability.

Better late than never. If it weren't for this class, I might not have been so comfortable being the lead singer of a rock band later on in high school (funny story for a later time). Or taking leadership roles in student organizations in college. Or becoming a high school math teacher.

How ironic that I went through these last few years having under-appreciated my own teacher. As I'm just starting to learn, part of what it means to be teacher is being okay with the thank yous not coming instantaneously.

Thanks Mr. B.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Feel Good Moment

This last Friday was the last day of the first trimester. The first third of my second year of teaching is already over. Shit.

There are lot of differences between last year and this year. I'm a little better at this game (I think) and certainly better prepared (I hope). Although I'm still working hard, I'm also working smart. I'm planning for time to think about my lessons rather than just being a mindless drone cranking out PowerPoint lessons and quizzes. I've learned I work best when I have the time to get creative, which is kind of insane because I had no idea I was capable of being "creative." Then again, number crunching 90 hours a week in Microsoft Excel wasn't exactly fostering creativity.

Most of my "creative" time this trimester was spent tweaking my Personal Wealth Management class (a.k.a. finance for teens). It's an elective course at my school that is only a trimester long (12 weeks). This class serves as my escape: it allows me to teach something I have experience with and enjoy. Plus, it's applicable to "the real world", meaning I won't have to imagine punching kids in the face when they ask, "When will we ever use this?" Not to mention, I really wish I had this kind of knowledge growing up. In fact, most parents who speak to me wish they knew what their kids were learning in my class. That makes me feel good.

Anyway, the students in my Personal Wealth Management took a final exam last week. On this test, I always leave one question at the end for reflection.
"What did you think about this class?"
I actually want to know what my students thought of the class and how it was beneficial (or a waste of their time) to them. I genuinely want to know what they think because this is a subject I'm passionate about, so I want to make it meaningful to them. I started going through the responses Friday evening and was kind of shocked: I didn't receive one negative comment. Not one. Kind of ridiculous! I took a picture of some responses of the responses (see below).


"I teach great." Please, elaborate. Don't stop there. I'm just starting to learn how to deal with compliments.


You can see my response there in the red. I like writing back to my students, makes it more of a conversation. Plus, I can appear cool by writing "WTF?" and "ROFL" next to responses that are simply stupid. Whoever said "there's no such thing as a stupid question" had to be pretty fucking stupid.


Thanks, brah. I appreciate it. I hope to continue the good work with this course, possibly by adding a stock market simulation or some other investing game. The problem is, the Department of Education blocks most of these simulator websites from school computer use. Okay, I'll stop here before this post takes a turn for the worse.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Big Brother

In the past few weeks, I've spent the better part of my spare time helping some students with their college applications. They are doing whatever it takes to delay getting started on their essays. Makes sense, the college essay can be intimidating, particularly for those students who never thought college was an option. Around Thanksgiving, it occurred to me that I am not exactly getting paid overtime for the extra time I'm putting in to do this shit. So why am I doing this?

Well, I guess if you know me (and I don't even know if I even know me, so don't feel left out), then you must know that I didn't really join the teaching gig to roll around in wads of cash.
Side note: Instead, I write this blog with the hopes of an editor from Penguin randomly finding it and offering me a book deal. Holding my breath. Starting now...
It must be Monday evening because my mind is all over the place. It's been a long fucking day and now I'm sitting in grad school, frequently looking up at the board and nodding my head to a professor who clearly has no plans for today. Currently, we're discussing how to come up with better "learning goals" for our lesson plans to make them sound sexier. Apparently, if our learning goals sound sexier, our kids will remember them better. Here's one I came up with:
Apply the properties of exponents in problems involving scientific notation and Penelope Cruz naked.
I think I might be onto something...
Back to the point: why am I dedicating all of this spare time to reading college applications instead of getting ahead on my planning or grading? My thought is I'm doing it because I have a big brother/oldest child complex. I've gone through most of my life figuring shit out on my own, without the guidance of a knowledgeable parent, sibling or mentor. Two examples:
  1. When applying to college, I had no idea what to put as my intended major. I asked my physics teacher, who suggested, "Well, you like computers. And you're pretty good at math. So why not computer engineering?" Why not indeed. I applied and got into a computer engineering program at a large university. Later, I found out I hated computer engineering - it was too theoretical for me. I switched out and chalked it up as a learning experience.
  2. In high school, I had a pretty rigorous schedule of AP and honors courses, so I only got to choose one elective a year. My freshman year, I decided to take an elective called "Exploring Technology" because, get this, it sounded cool. That class sucked balls. And while I was hating every second of it, the rest of my peers were in Spanish I. They stayed in the Spanish curriculum for all four years of high school, which helped them later in life as most colleges require at least four years of a foreign language to meet foreign language requirements. I didn't make the cut, so I had to pencil in foreign language courses in college. Yet, another learning experience.
I guess I feel a slight (ginormous?) burden to ensure my students know their options. I want them to know what the easiest path to success is (I bet I'm even more annoying with my brother). Unfortunately, I think I'm coming in with this advice to the wrong age group. No "regular" teenager wants to think about the future or hear about what to do from some strange good-looking adult (it's okay to admit it). The "future" to most teens is tomorrow. I was never that teenager because I was forced to take a leadership role early in my family. 

Most of my students listen to me when I give life experiences, but I can't help but wonder if they actually take it seriously. Only a few of my top students are anywhere near done with the college application process. And I've had to annoy those students everyday to get on top of their shit.

Will it all be worth it? I hope so. But even if it it's not, I don't think my ego will allow that conclusion to be reached. It seems I'm always going to be big brother in my mind.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Stop Whining

I wish I had a mini-Arnold Schwarzenegger in my classroom that would go around saying this when appropriate.

Dear Santa: make it happen.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Don't Work. Avoid Telling the Truth. Be Hated. Love Someone.

A good friend of mine recently sent the transcript of a convocation ceremony speech by Adrian Tan for the graduating class of 2008 at NTU. I really liked it and thought it was inspiring. Here it is:

Don't Work. Avoid Telling the Truth. Be Hated. Love Someone.
"I must say thank you to the faculty and staff of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information for inviting me to give your convocation address. It’s a wonderful honour and a privilege for me to speak here for ten minutes without fear of contradiction, defamation or retaliation. I say this as a Singaporean and more so as a husband. 

My wife is a wonderful person and perfect in every way except one. She is the editor of a magazine. She corrects people for a living. She has honed her expert skills over a quarter of a century, mostly by practising at home during conversations between her and me. 

On the other hand, I am a litigator. Essentially, I spend my day telling people how wrong they are. I make my living being disagreeable. Nevertheless, there is perfect harmony in our matrimonial home. That is because when an editor and a litigator have an argument, the one who triumphs is always the wife. 

And so I want to start by giving one piece of advice to the men: when you’ve already won her heart, you don’t need to win every argument.  

Marriage is considered one milestone of life. Some of you may already be married. Some of you may never be married. Some of you will be married. Some of you will enjoy the experience so much, you will be married many, many times. Good for you.

The next big milestone in your life is today: your graduation. The end of education. You’re done learning. You’ve probably been told the big lie that “Learning is a lifelong process” and that therefore you will continue studying and taking masters’ degrees and doctorates and professorships and so on. You know the sort of people who tell you that? Teachers. Don’t you think there is some measure of conflict of interest? They are in the business of learning, after all. Where would they be without you? They need you to be repeat customers.

The good news is that they’re wrong.

The bad news is that you don’t need further education because your entire life is over. It is gone. That may come as a shock to some of you. You’re in your teens or early twenties. People may tell you that you will live to be 70, 80, 90 years old. That is your life expectancy.

I love that term: life expectancy. We all understand the term to mean the average life span of a group of people. But I’m here to talk about a bigger idea, which is what you expect from your life.

You may be very happy to know that Singapore is currently ranked as the country with the third highest life expectancy. We are behind Andorra and Japan, and tied with San Marino. It seems quite clear why people in those countries, and ours, live so long. We share one thing in common: our football teams are all hopeless. There’s very little danger of any of our citizens having their pulses raised by watching us play in the World Cup. Spectators are more likely to be lulled into a gentle and restful nap.

Singaporeans have a life expectancy of 81.8 years. Singapore men live to an average of 79.21 years, while Singapore women live more than five years longer, probably to take into account the additional time they need to spend in the bathroom.

So here you are, in your twenties, thinking that you’ll have another 40 years to go. Four decades in which to live long and prosper.

Bad news. Read the papers. There are people dropping dead when they’re 50, 40, 30 years old. Or quite possibly just after finishing their convocation. They would be very disappointed that they didn’t meet their life expectancy.

I’m here to tell you this. Forget about your life expectancy. After all, it’s calculated based on an average. And you never, ever want to expect being average.

Revisit those expectations. You might be looking forward to working, falling in love, marrying, raising a family. You are told that, as graduates, you should expect to find a job paying so much, where your hours are so much, where your responsibilities are so much.

That is what is expected of you. And if you live up to it, it will be an awful waste.

If you expect that, you will be limiting yourself. You will be living your life according to boundaries set by average people. I have nothing against average people. But no one should aspire to be them. And you don’t need years of education by the best minds in Singapore to prepare you to be average.

What you should prepare for is mess. Life’s a mess. You are not entitled to expect anything from it. Life is not fair. Everything does not balance out in the end. Life happens, and you have no control over it. Good and bad things happen to you day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment. Your degree is a poor armour against fate. Don’t expect anything. Erase all life expectancies. Just live. Your life is over as of today. At this point in time, you have grown as tall as you will ever be, you are physically the fittest you will ever be in your entire life and you are probably looking the best that you will ever look. This is as good as it gets. It is all downhill from here. Or up. No one knows. What does this mean for you? It is good that your life is over.

Since your life is over, you are free. Let me tell you the many wonderful things that you can do when you are free. The most important is this: do not work. Work is anything that you are compelled to do. By its very nature, it is undesirable. Work kills. The Japanese have a term “Karoshi”, which means death from overwork. That’s the most dramatic form of how work can kill. But it can also kill you in more subtle ways. If you work, then day by day, bit by bit, your soul is chipped away, disintegrating until there’s nothing left. A rock has been ground into sand and dust. There’s a common misconception that work is necessary. You will meet people working at miserable jobs. They tell you they are “making a living”. No, they’re not. They’re dying, frittering away their fast-extinguishing lives doing things which are, at best, meaningless and, at worst, harmful. People will tell you that work ennobles you, that work lends you a certain dignity. Work makes you free. The slogan “Arbeit macht frei” was placed at the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps. Utter nonsense. Do not waste the vast majority of your life doing something you hate so that you can spend the small remainder sliver of your life in modest comfort. You may never reach that end anyway. Resist the temptation to get a job. Instead, play. Find something you enjoy doing. Do it. Over and over again. You will become good at it for two reasons: you like it, and you do it often. Soon, that will have value in itself. I like arguing, and I love language. So, I became a litigator. I enjoy it and I would do it for free. If I didn’t do that, I would’ve been in some other type of work that still involved writing fiction – probably a sports journalist.

So what should you do? You will find your own niche. I don’t imagine you will need to look very hard. By this time in your life, you will have a very good idea of what you will want to do. In fact, I’ll go further and say the ideal situation would be that you will not be able to stop yourself pursuing your passions. By this time you should know what your obsessions are. If you enjoy showing off your knowledge and feeling superior, you might become a teacher. Find that pursuit that will energise you, consume you, become an obsession. Each day, you must rise with a restless enthusiasm. If you don’t, you are working.

Most of you will end up in activities which involve communication. To those of you I have a second message: be wary of the truth. I’m not asking you to speak it, or write it, for there are times when it is dangerous or impossible to do those things. The truth has a great capacity to offend and injure, and you will find that the closer you are to someone, the more care you must take to disguise or even conceal the truth. Often, there is great virtue in being evasive, or equivocating. There is also great skill. Any child can blurt out the truth, without thought to the consequences. It takes great maturity to appreciate the value of silence. In order to be wary of the truth, you must first know it. That requires great frankness to yourself. Never fool the person in the mirror. I have told you that your life is over, that you should not work, and that you should avoid telling the truth.

I now say this to you: be hated. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Do you know anyone who hates you? Yet every great figure who has contributed to the human race has been hated, not just by one person, but often by a great many. That hatred is so strong it has caused those great figures to be shunned, abused, murdered and in one famous instance, nailed to a cross. One does not have to be evil to be hated. In fact, it’s often the case that one is hated precisely because one is trying to do right by one’s own convictions. It is far too easy to be liked, one merely has to be accommodating and hold no strong convictions. Then one will gravitate towards the centre and settle into the average. That cannot be your role. There are a great many bad people in the world, and if you are not offending them, you must be bad yourself. Popularity is a sure sign that you are doing something wrong.

The other side of the coin is this: fall in love.

I didn’t say “be loved”. That requires too much compromise. If one changes one’s looks, personality and values, one can be loved by anyone. Rather, I exhort you to love another human being. It may seem odd for me to tell you this. You may expect it to happen naturally, without deliberation. That is false. Modern society is anti-love. We’ve taken a microscope to everyone to bring out their flaws and shortcomings. It far easier to find a reason not to love someone, than otherwise. Rejection requires only one reason. Love requires complete acceptance. It is hard work – the only kind of work that I find palatable. Loving someone has great benefits. There is admiration, learning, attraction and something which, for the want of a better word, we call happiness. In loving someone, we become inspired to better ourselves in every way. We learn the truth worthlessness of material things. We celebrate being human. Loving is good for the soul. Loving someone is therefore very important, and it is also important to choose the right person. Despite popular culture, love doesn’t happen by chance, at first sight, across a crowded dance floor. It grows slowly, sinking roots first before branching and blossoming. It is not a silly weed, but a mighty tree that weathers every storm. You will find, that when you have someone to love, that the face is less important than the brain, and the body is less important than the heart. You will also find that it is no great tragedy if your love is not reciprocated. You are not doing it to be loved back. Its value is to inspire you. Finally, you will find that there is no half-measure when it comes to loving someone. You either don’t, or you do with every cell in your body, completely and utterly, without reservation or apology. It consumes you, and you are reborn, all the better for it.

Don’t work. Avoid telling the truth. Be hated. Love someone. You’re going to have a busy life. Thank goodness there’s no life expectancy."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Same Old Conversations

It's almost mid-November and I guess that means it's time for the students who weren't 100% serious about change to start going back to their old ways. I'm beginning to have the same old conversations with different students.

I had an epiphany last week and it kind of took me by surprise: my students will always be in the same age group every year I teach. It doesn't matter if I continue to mature or get old, they will still be the same. That's kind of discouraging.  I can't just one day decide I'm sick of having the "school is important for your future" conversation or the "life sucks for everyone, you just have to push yourself" conversation. In this age group, everybody thinks their problems are simply the worst.
"No one has problems like me, Mista. You don't know me."
Sometimes, depending on the student, I really just want to respond with:
"I don't want to know you, brah. Can you please just do your homework? Thanks."
I really like this one too:
"Mista, what would you know about problems at home?" 
Nothing. You missed the first day of school where I talked about my own problems so you could you know, relate and shit.

Teenagers. Everything is a god damn competition. Whose life sucks more? Hey kids: this isn't something you should want to win. And even if you do have it the worst, what exactly do you win? No students in our school give sympathy points. They're too busy thinking they still have it the worst. The only option you have is perseverance. Come to school, take care of your shit, do what you have to do and get on your way. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

Okay, maybe that was little too much ranting. I understand life is tough, especially if my students have no one at home to truly push them and no examples at home to live by. Sure, there might be a few gems that rise from the ashes of a broken home, but they are outliers. They're the best students I'll have and some of them are going to break the cycle of abuse and poverty. I just can't help but wonder though if the "real" work for me should lie with the students who won't do that. How can I work with them if their attendance is less than 50%? I can't just halt the curriculum until everyone shows up, that's absurd. In the grand scheme of things, Integrated Algebra is just not that important if you're living in a shelter by yourself and working part time to support yourself. Or is it? Okay, it's not.

So for now, I'll stick to having the same old conversations with these kids, if and when they ever show up. Of course, they're teenagers and the last thing they want to hear is someone else telling them what they should or should not do. In that case:
School is terrible for you. I forbid you to go there anymore.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Parent Teacher Conferences

Parent teacher conferences are an interesting point in time for transfer high schools. Last year, my school only had a 20% turn out rate for parents (based on less than 120 students). Last night, we had about a 25% turn out rate, but now we're at nearly 200 students. Still a pretty shitty turn out, I must say. Supposedly though, this is "okay" for transfer schools because our students' parents might:
  1. ...not be as involved in the student's life.
  2. ...not be present everyday in the student's life.
  3. ...not have time because they are working.
  4. ...have better things to do (this relates to #1).
  5. ...be dead.
For the parents that do actually come, their son/daughter is usually performing well or they have the capacity to perform well, but aren't pushing themselves. Either way, these students aren't the ones in danger of failing. The fact they even have a parent coming to discuss their performance is telling. I briefly talked about this yesterday with a few of my colleagues, who like me, only had positive things to say to the parents that came. These parents will then reward their children or continue supporting them, at least.

I suppose you've already figured out the problem: the students who have parents attending parent teacher conferences generally don't really need to come because their children are doing what they are supposed to be doing anyway. The question is, what can we do about the nearly 75% of parents that didn't show up? We were even offering free Italian food for God's sake! Ah, transfer schools...

On a completely unrelated, but positive note, I'm supremely excited to attend the Rally to Restore Sanity this weekend in Washington D.C. I think this event has the potential to be one of those super cool moments only our generation will get to speak about. "Yeah man, I was there."

And no, I am not dressing up as a slutty teacher for Halloween. Who goes dressed up as themselves anyway..?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Well, That's Depressing

Like many other bloggers, I use Google analytics to gauge this blog's readership. That is, when I actually have the time. Google analytics allows me to see how hits received, where readers are in the world, and how they ended up on the blog to begin with (referrals).

One of the features I recently set up provides me a summary e-mail of all the key words people have typed into search engines to arrive at this blog. Generally, people who use a search engine to come here usually type one of the following phrases:
  1. Yo mista!
  2. Yo mista.com
  3. Yo mista blog
Yesterday, I received an e-mail from Google summarizing last week's search results. Everything seemed normal except for the very last result:
"I need quality education for my kids in karachi"
There it is, honest and bold. A father's desperate attempt to learn how to give his children access to education? Maybe, maybe not. Whoever this person was, they obviously didn't find what they were looking for on this blog. But that's not what depressed me. I thought about my job for a second, focusing on the negative (of course): I waste minutes everyday on classroom management, dealing with eighteen and nineteen year olds who behave like they are six. And yet, there are stories of children in Karachi stealing books to ensure their grades are good enough to get into a "good" school. That's what depresses me. I need to sleep.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Diamonds in the Rough

This week, I felt off. I was completely exhausted and my colleagues actually noticed, which was strange because I'm generally good at keeping up appearances. Superman would've been disappointed in me. I fell asleep during my favorite TV shows at home. That rarely happens. I haven't gone running all week. I've been snoozing through my alarms instead of waking up. I've made several mistakes in my PowerPoints. I just haven't been...sharp. 

Luckily, there were a few diamonds in the rough this week that helped make the work days better.

Emily, a student of mine who barely came last year has been working her ass off this year in both my classes (personal wealth management and algebra). Here's a text message exchange from Wednesday night:
"19%... move the decimal twice to the right?" asks Emily.
"That would make it 1900..." I reply.
"Oh yeah... left! I knew that. Thanks!"
Emily was doing her algebra homework (exponential decay). I am so proud of her this year. She has a lot of shit going on at home and yet, she comes in everyday eager to make the most of what she has. When she's leaving early, she stops by my class to pick up the work. She checks the website to see if there are any assignments she's missing. And she checks to see if I've entered her grades in correctly. Awesome much?

It seems this year the number of students who are here to take their classes seriously outnumbers those who are wasting their time. And it's making the knuckleheads look really bad. Another student in my finance class said this to me:
"Mista, I feel bad missing your class. Like, sometimes I don't wanna wake up til later, but then I think about what I'm going to miss. And since your damn class is 1st period, I might as well stay the whole day. You purposely made this class 1st period, didn't you?"
I played it off, but that made me smile. It was an interesting feeling, but I was reminded of when my mother would boast about me all day to her friends. I felt awkward, but in a good way. And yes, it's 1st period on purpose. I don't want to teach you finance if you don't want to be there.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Here's Some Advice

Remember sitting at your desk, waiting for the teacher to come by and hand over your exam? An awkward divide between students celebrating and others putting their heads down on their desks. Even more awkward if the test was handed back to you face down. That's when you know you fucked up. I can't remember there being any worse feeling in high school than getting a shitty grade. Thanks Mom.

I handed back graded projects and exams last Friday and today. The project involved grading an exam "I" had taken. The point was to get my students to think about the correct or incorrect work shown and then figure out on their own whether or not the selected answer was marked correctly. Students also had to explain their rationale for their answers.

As expected, my students did fairly better on the project than on the exam, even though the exam was basically very similar to the exam they had to grade in the project.

My conclusion is that students generally took their time doing the project, and those who actually wrote thorough answers seemed to do even better because they were able to convey their thoughts on paper, which meant they actually organized their thoughts, which meant they actually had thoughts prior to writing. Nice. Most of these students then rushed through the test because they simply skimmed. And of course, when they skimmed, their minds picked up only familiar words in the questions. This resulted in misreading the question or completely misinterpreting what was being asked for.

Nevertheless, I thought it was a very cool project, and so did the bulk of the students who actually filled out the last question on the project. The last question on all of my projects are reflective: what did you think? How difficult was this? Was it helpful? And so on...

As I graded projects, I left comments so that my students could go through their work and see what they missed or what my thoughts were. When I saw one student's response to the last question on my project, I couldn't help myself: I had to be a smart ass (see Exhibit A below). Of course, this kind of shit can't fly without a good working relationship with the student. And of course, they have to know you're a sarcastic dick.

Exhibit A: Great advice.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Quote of the Week: 10/11-10/15

This week, my Algebra class had two major assignments: 
  1. A project where they had to grade someone else's exam and thoroughly explain their rationale for each question
  2. A Mock-Regents examination (covering all material from September to last week)
My school allows students to intern for teachers as part of a "Learn to Work" program. This allows me to delegate simple grading tasks and use the additional time to plan. After my intern finishes grading, I simply go through the work, make corrections (if necessary) and drop the numbers into my ridiculous excel grade tracker. If my intern finishes early, I force him/her to study for the SAT or work on college apps. 
Yeah, I know, I'm pretty amazing. Thanks for the thought.
So, today my intern and I grading the Algebra exams after school. The results were a mixed bag: some students did incredibly well, others did so-so and a few scored ridiculously low.

When my intern finished grading a "ridiculously low" exam, she says:
"For some reason, this person makes me feel like I graded her test wrong..."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

My First Teaching Interview

A few days ago, I was sitting on my thinking chair remembering my first teaching interview. This experience was not only hilarious, but it also provided me with some insight into how much fun I was going to have in this profession. A few of you may already know this story.

In April of 2009, I was in between jobs. I wasn't working on Wall Street anymore and I still had a few months to go before Teach for America's summer training program started. Teach for America (TFA) gave me an advantage in the job hunt in that they started sending my resume out to schools before I had even started training. Of course, TFA doesn't just send you off to interviews to act like an idiot: I had a few interview prep sessions with a placement associate, Jennifer. Jennifer was helpful, honest and quite frankly, supremely nice. I can't thank her enough for the school placement I have today.

My first interview was with a high school in the Brownsville [insert brown person joke here] region of Brooklyn. Teaching interviews usually call for a one-on-one interview with the principal, followed by a demo lesson in front of students to gauge your teaching ability, style and management. I remember I was really excited about telling my story to the administration. I left finance because I wanted to do something more worthwhile. Who wouldn't eat that shit up? I also prepared a pretty detailed Algebra lesson. I felt ready to kick some ass.

Brownsville was a 45 minute commute via subway. I was dressed to kill in my black Zegna suit, white shirt and green skinny tie. Most importantly, I had just shaved before I left. My "5 o'clock shadow" arrives within a couple of hours, so the timing of the shave was essential. Real men grow facial hair. Lots of facial hair. If you can't, see the two previous statements.

I arrive at the school and get sent to a classroom to get interviewed by an assistant principal. Apparently, the principal was busy in another meeting. That's odd, but okay, you look nice, I'll answer your questions I thought. The interview was relatively brief, straight-forward and boring. I never even got a chance to explain my background. I sensed the culture at this school was very stiff and strict. I did not like overall feel of my interview, much less my interviewer. She ended with a surprise question:
"So, off the top of your head, what's two raised to zero?"
"Excuse me?"
"Two to the zero power, what's the answer?"
Wow, they must have hired some really idiotic teachers in the past. Okay assistant principal, I'll bite... 
"That would be one."
 "Are you sure?"
No, I'm an idiot. Go fuck yourself.
 "Yes."
"Hmmm. Let's move to a classroom for the demo lesson. I think you might have someone ahead of you, so just waiting outside the classroom until you are called in."
I did not like this person. I was letting my personality leak into the interview and this person was not having it. Whatever, maybe she was just having a bad day. I was waiting outside of the classroom when I met Mr. T for the first time; he was also interviewing for a position at the school through a TFA placement. He was wearing a three-piece suit and had his motorcycle helmet in his hand. What a douche, I thought.
Just kidding, Mr. T. I know you're reading this.
Anyway, the students in the classroom were very agitated - they had been held against their will to listen to random interview candidates. Their school day ended at 3:30 PM and it was now pushing 5 PM - need I explain more? Fifteen minutes later, Mr. T wrapped up his demo lesson and headed out. I waited outside next to the door for someone to call me in, but all I could hear was complaining:
"Mista, do we have to hear another teacher do their lesson? This is mad wild and stupid. I'm sick of this," whined a teenage girl. Let's call her Denise.
"Yeah Mista, you ain't even warn us. This shit ain't worth no extra credit. I'm failing your class anyway, this ain't gonna help me," cried the Denise's friend.
"Guys, we only have one more interview to go," explained a history teacher inside the classroom. Apparently, they were his students. Lucky him.
At this point, I started getting nervous. My lesson was on solving systems of linear equations through the substitution method. I was fucked. These kids aren't in the mood to be challenged, they want to get the hell out of here.
Denise continued, "Mista, pleeeease let us go and just hire everyone! Wait... is he fine? How about this: Imma go outside and if he hot, he hired!"
Oh. My. God. She's coming towards the door. Freeze.
Denise popped outside the classroom. "Hi! Are you here for the lesson???"
Awkwardly, I nodded. Avoid eye contact, I thought. Denise shut the door and ran inside:
"Mista! HE HIRED! HE HIRED MISTA! HE HIRED!"
Awkward turtle. I spent the entire lesson avoiding eye contact with Denise, who was clearly going out of her way to answer questions she didn't have the answers to.

And after all of that, I didn't get the job. Apparently, I was too laid back. In retrospect, I'm glad. That's just me.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Teacher Town Hall

For those of you who missed the Teacher Town Hall on Sunday (hosted by Brian Williams), here's a complete and unedited version. Some excellent points were brought up by teachers, parents and third-parties. It seems education is finally getting some attention in this country.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Quote of the Week: 9/27-10/1

Okay, look. I know the week isn't over. In fact, it's just getting started, but I heard some funny ass shit yesterday and I thought it deserved it's own post.

Kareem and Antonio are bright students at my school. I've written posts about them here and here. They passed their Geometry Regents Exam last June. My school doesn't offer mathematics beyond Geometry yet, so they're enrolled in Algebra 2 at another school in the same building during first period.

During one of my free periods yesterday, they both strolled in as they needed a space to study for a make up test. Antonio took over my SMART Board (note: this image is not of Antonio and Kareem, although that would be quite funny). He began putting up some Algebra 2 practice problems. Then he put up more problems. And then he put up even more problems:
"Kareem, focus. Let's this synthetic division problem. What happens to the x?"
Kareem grabbed his head; he was not happy with this situation:
"Antonio, stop. I need some time to let it sink. My brain hurts.Arrggh! God dammit! This is why I can't be an engineer. Too much fucking math. I can't do this for fun!"
In response, Antonio looks down at the ground and shaking his head. Kareem turns to me:
"Come on! Mista, don't lie. Don't it hurt your brain sometimes to think so much?"
Too funny... keep it up, boys.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Homework Poison

Holy definite integral, Batman! My students are actually doing their homework; and they're actually showing effort and doing them properly! WTF, mate?

Last year, I had pretty simple homework policy: there was no homework. I had tried giving homework at the beginning of the year and the return rate was pretty pathetic. To be fair, transfer high school students have lives beyond the life of a stereotypical high school suburbanite. They work to support their households. Some of them have kids of their own to take care of. As an alternative to homework, I gave a mini quiz at the end of class everyday (yes, very Teach for America-like), which was supposed to pressure students to focus in class. It did work (well, sort of): I had an ~80% average for daily quiz grades.

Unfortunately, no homework also meant no retention. So by the time the Regents exams came along in January and June, the students who weren't letting the material sink in properly ended up failing. Miserably. Seriously, I could have easily submitted some of their answers here. Only the students who truly absorbed the material and studied on their own time passed.
Note: To be fair, there were also some lucky idiots who did not take class seriously, but also passed. Apparently, the Algebra Regents exam isn't rocket science (shhh!). Guessing a whopping 13 out of 30 questions correctly on the multiple choice guarantees you a passing score of 65. We have high standards in the state of New York.
This year has been different. Not only do we have quizzes everyday, but I've also been dishing out homework nearly everyday and the return rate has been beyond my expectations
FYI: my expectations were zero.
I try to keep the number of homework problems to five. My logic is that they should be able to complete homework assignments on a subway ride back home. The goal is to get them to think about what they learned in class, outside of class. Now, I have students who come in late and the first thing they want to do is interrupt my class and show me their homework. Students who were absent are coming to class, finding their homework from the days they missed and desperately trying to get my attention when they finish.
"Yo Mista, can I turn this in late?"
At this point, I really want to thank the New York City Water Sanitation Department for putting whatever they have been putting into the water supply this year. Some "get-your-homework-poison" no doubt...

Things weren't like this last year. Or maybe I hadn't set the homework expectation properly at the beginning of the year. Whatever it is now, I'll run with it. Literally. I've been waking up every other day at 5 AM to work out, do pull ups and push ups. Things running smoothly had put me in a good mood. Here's to a good start so far.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Quote of the Week: 9/13-9/17

We have new students. Here's a memorable quote from one of them during Algebra as I was explaining the difference between rational and irrational numbers:
"Yo Mista, are you Jewish? You look like that Jewish comedian on the TV. Your hair is mad fro-y."
I explained where I was from, but had to turn to my handy dandy class globe to give a mini-geography lesson on where Pakistan and Iran are. You'd think they would know based on world news: it's fair to say I come from the two most popular countries in the world right now...

We will be accepting approximately 10-20 new students every week until mid-October or so. Look for more gems like these over the next few weeks.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Night Before Year #2

Tomorrow is the first day of school for my students. I spent the better part of today getting my classroom ready. I was super tempted to buy this poster for my class, but I'm pretty sure promoting someone who moonlights as a serial killer would be inappropriate for school. Too bad, it's a great show.

I'm having a hard time trying to figure out how I feel about tomorrow. I'm excited, yet scared. Unfortunately, I can't seem to wrap my head around how I feel. I will write a more thorough post on this when I can properly express myself.

For now, enjoy this video (Thanks Alpha Za).


The Onion

Monday, August 30, 2010

Was I This Insightful in High School?

In high school, I worked my ass off all four school years to get into a good college. But that meant I rewarded myself by doing jack shit over the summer. My summer vacations usually consisted of sleeping, video games, sports, and during my junior and senior years, jamming with my band.
Yo Mista! Trivia: Can you guess what I played in my band? Hint: I sucked.
Anyway, I didn't read books during the summer nor did I engage in thoughtful debate during sleepovers. Who does that kind of shit anyway? I'd rather be shotgunning covenant soldiers in the face to show off how manly I am (not that I need to).  

A few days ago, two of my former Algebra students, Kareem and Havana, began e-mailing each other (and CC'ed me) in what it appeared to be a debate about religion and the existence of God.
FYI, it is still summer vacation for high schools in New York City. Therefore, my logic dictates these kids are either completely insane or incredibly intelligent. Thoughts?
For background purposes: Kareem is actually very clever and even more curious. Havana is also intelligent with incredible writing talent. Over the past year, they became friends and often discussed various issues. Obviously, for the sake of this blog, their names have been changed to protect their identities.
Note: In case the real Kareem and Havana should read this, please don't let the compliments above get to your head. Shouldn't you both be working on your damn college apps anyway? Stop updating your Facebook profiles about how crazy your night was and get some shit done for fuck's sake. God damn.
I'm not going to include all of what Kareem and Havana said, but I will include some snippets. Kareem started the online debate so I will begin first with a paraphrased quote from his e-mail to Havana:
Kareem: "I understand... I've been through the same personal dilemma; science vs. God, but I chose the complete opposite direction. Instead of not believing in God, I used to deny the facts of science. In 9th grade, there were times when I didn't wanna sit in my Living Environment class when they would talk about the Big Bang. It conflicted with my beliefs, and my beliefs were strong."
Kareem has an interesting story. Born and raised a Christian, he converted to Islam upon reading a translation of the Qur'an. He continues with the following:
Kareem: "I began reading the biology book I didn't give back in 9th grade and I gotta say, science is amazing. It explains so much... our knowledge comes from what we learn, and we learn a lot through science... So one day, I'm reading my Qur'an, a new one I bought with easier vocab... It said God doesn't speak to human beings directly, He uses allegory... I guess God didn't literally take things to make them, he used science. That let me safely learn science while still believing in what I believe in."
Wow, I really don't remember doing this kind of thinking on my own in high school with issues regarding my own personal beliefs. I mean, sure there was always the classroom debate, but who was I kidding: I was debating for the grade, who cares about what my beliefs are! Here, Kareem is voluntarily talking to Havana to figure out who he is and what he believes in. He concludes:
Kareem: "So after reading that, I had to stop taking religion up the ass. I can't live every second thinking God is going to send me to hell for X, Y and Z. And I can't sit here with a deaf ear to facts, facts that can be proven regardless of how I feel about God. God put us here to learn."
Well done, I would have to say. Now Havana's response:
Havana: "First of all, I love this essay. The contrast and comparison of science and religion combine beautifully for me. I wish that you would have sent this to me years ago when I threw God away into the "fiction" file...
When I was six, I first learned about God. When I was seven we moved abroad and I grew more religious there. I would pray to God everyday and thank him for everything. When I was 12, I learned about human evolution and that changed everything... It contradicted everything I knew. I began to think God left out details in the Bible.
Then I made friends with a Muslim and a Hindu, both of their religions made sense too. So at 13, I became an Athiest. I learned about it all: Big Bang, Crunch, Multiverse, etc..." 
Okay, when I read Havana's response thus far, I thought, this is turning out to be more interesting than I thought... and these guys are into it! I mean, I had to remind myself these kiddos are high schoolers. And yet, their passion and openness to talk about something so significant, personal and emotional seemed very collegiate to me. I continued to read her response, proud that they're both my students:
Havana: "...Then one day I stumbled into something new: determinism. I came across it when I was depressed, and I looked to the great minds of the past to see what they believed. From Galileo and Newton (physicist from mad long ago). But it wasn't till I learned about Einstein that I got new ideas.
Einstein was a theoretical physicist. Basically, they believe that everything in life could be explained through math. Mathematicians don't believe in coincidence. And nether did he. That's sort of what Determinism is about. It makes sense to me kind of...
...Everything has a source. That's true. But its hard for me to believe God has a personality of its own. If there is something bigger than me, then I don't think it is anything like me at all. All I know is that everything has an order. Everything happens for a reason. 
[Ultimately] my conclusion is that life is here for us to learn, and we each have a purpose. A story. I don't know if God is there, I suspect that there is something big. Whether it is Allah, Christ or nature. I am happy knowing that we have a purpose. Part of my conclusion is that I SIMPLY DON'T KNOW [everything] and after all the research and my tormenting curiosity, I am happy not knowing. I render myself clueless, but observant."
In the end, both Kareem and Havana made their points and will probably continue discussing this topic among many others in the upcoming school year.

As entertaining and enlightening as this discussion was, it also served as a helpful reminder that I have some very insightful and keen students, who somehow got sidetracked along the traditional path to graduation, but still have the capacity to make it through. Obviously, they've had some problems in the past with school, which is here: a transfer high school for over-age kids. This is their last shot, and they better make the most of it because it's quite clear these students would truly benefit from a rigorous curriculum in a liberal, open-minded setting. I don't want them to think "Shit, what if?" ten years later.

As a side note, I know I'm going to come back to this page in the upcoming year when I'm feeling overworked, fed up and completely worn out. Thanks in advance, Kareem and Havana.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Please Put All Crackberries on Silent

Hey kids (and some adults),

Stop fucking around on all those iPods, iPhones, Droids, Blackberries, Kindles (ha! if you have a kindle, please disregard all of this), Palms, and other smart phones/devices. Why?

Because according to this, you're getting dumber.

Please, be considerate. Stop it. Don't make my job any harder than it already is.

Thanks.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Small, Controlled Burst of Optimism

In the past few weeks, I've been back at my school off and on for the following reasons:
  • Planning curriculum with my department (which usually just means we're doing Beavis and Butthead impersonations all day)
  • Helping grade the August Algebra Regents (there were only 6)
  • Showing my younger brother where I work (he was here for a week!)
It's been weird, but every time I went back, I left the building with a small, controlled burst of optimism. Small because I'm now fully aware of the physical and emotional demands the school year will make and I'm a bit scared. Controlled because, well, I don't want to get too excited - last year my students started the year strong but by the end of the first trimester, a majority of them went back to their old ways. I suppose this year I will beat myself up less about it. Not.

At one point this week, my fellow math teachers (I have two colleagues now, as opposed to just one) and I were discussing the upcoming school year when a few students who were in the building (for summer school and other random reasons) saw us through the glass window in the door. They got super excited and rushed in to greet us and chat. One of them, who I can't help but admit is one of my star-studded students (let's call her M&M), said she was extremely excited to come back to school next year.
"Life is just boring now, I need to do something with myself. I miss everyone here too." - M&M
M&M is a senior now and will likely graduate early in January. Her comments made me smile and feel proud. Then, they made me worry: she's not the only one in this position. A lot of our students who truly changed and worked their asses off last year will soon enter their final trimester/half-year/year at my school. This means it's college application time.

I immediately stopped working on our curriculum and secretly started making a check list on what my kids need to know, do and accomplish in order to get into college. I had to make sure students like her would have all the tools necessary to get accepted. This is what I came up with in about a minute:
  1. Did they even take the SAT? (some haven't yet because they're scared...argh!)
  2. Stay in the city, in-state, out-of-state?
  3. Community, Liberal Arts, or National?
  4. Have they done their research on schools?
  5. What major? Or apply undecided?
  6. Financial constraints - Fill out the FAFSA
  7. Teacher recommendations - which teachers?
  8. Downloaded the common app?
  9. Essays???
  10. Are their grades good enough?
Ah, crap. I'm sure there's even more I can add.

I remember last year, my wife and I (yep, she did more work than me on this!) worked hard with JR to get him accepted into a community college (he's an undocumented student, which made it even more difficult - I wrote about it here). This year, I'm not sure how the hell I'm going to juggle the upcoming school year and read a bunch of students' essays. Essay editing blows: there's a lot of back and forth and quite frankly, people can start getting irritated when you are constantly criticizing their writing. I know I can get supremely irritated sometimes when I get criticized, but I try to keep it in check as best as I can. I'm not quite sure how my students will react. A thought came to mind:
Is Yo Mista going to have to choke a student?
Clearly, there's a lot of work to be done and quite frankly, I don't trust my school administration to lead superb workshops on the college application process. What's getting me worked up is the fear that I'll have to do a lot of the grunt work in helping my students with their applications. I just hope they're willing to put in as much as I am. Otherwise, I'll be pissed. And they will be too, in about five to ten years.

Even with all of this going on in the back of my mind, I can still relate to M&M's excitement and optimism for the upcoming new year. I never thought I would feel excited after seeing ads everywhere for back to school sales.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Please Help the Flood Victims of Pakistan

If you haven't watched TV or read the news lately, Pakistan has been suffering from extreme flooding. 1,500 people have died thus far and another 13.8 million people have been affected. The government is struggling to get aid to the victims due to heavy infrastructure damage. 

Please help by donating as much as you can. A mere $5 will go a long way. Here are some links:
UNICEF
Global Giving
The UN Refugee Agency



Friday, July 30, 2010

I'm Doing it For the Money

Two years ago around this time period, I received my first investment banking analyst bonus. The process went exactly the way authors have described it in books and directors have portrayed it in movies.

Your phone rings and from the caller ID you see it's the head of your group. The big daddy. The brass of the brass. A big swinging dick (to borrow a term from Liar's Poker). He wants you to swing by his office. He asks that you walk in on your knees so as to make things go quicker. Okay fine, maybe that last bit isn't true, but that's how most analysts felt walking into these types of situations.

You sit down in his gigantic corner office with spectacular views of Manhattan. He tells you the following -
[insert analyst name], you've been a tremendous asset to the group this year. As you know, in our business we reward those who we value. We consider you a top analyst here at [investment banking firm]. Take a look at this and tell me what you think. 
He gives you a piece of paper with a number written on it. This is so old school, I think to myself. Anyway, this number is supposed to make all the ridiculous hours you spent working the past year justifiable. It plays to your greed and makes you think, maybe I can do this another year. You take a quick peek, smile and immediately offer your thanks. You never tell him what you think, that's a big no-no. Just take it and go as Russell Peters would say.

As twenty-three year olds, most investment banking analysts walked out that day with an additional $60,000 pre-tax in their pocket. That means for the year, they probably made around $120,000 pre-tax. That's a shit ton of money for a twenty-three year old right out of college. In fact, analysts starting in 2007 probably could've made $150,000 all-in if they had just graduated a year earlier and started working in 2006 before the whole financial meltdown began in mid-2007. An analyst bonus of $60,000 reflected bad times. Bad times indeed.

I was inspired to write this post when I was trying to figure out how much money I'll be "minting" next year as a public high school teacher. Per the Department of Education's handy salary schedule, you can see exactly how much teachers make based on longevity and education. You can see that the number of years a teacher spends in the system (longevity) is represented by the rows (e.g. 3A/3B = 3rd year teacher). The columns reflect additional pay bumps for teachers who have obtained more credits and degrees.

Per this chart, the average twenty-something public school teacher in New York City probably makes anywhere between $45,000-$55,000 per year (depending on your experience, education, etc.). Teachers don't get annual bonuses or performance bonuses. Maybe some overtime, but that's about it. What's truly sad is this: if a teacher spent twenty-two years (last row) in the system with a masters, they would make $100,049 per year at a maximum. That's still not as much as investment banking analysts make as twenty-three year olds. Awesome.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Hiatus

As you've no doubt noticed, I haven't written shit in a very long time. I apologize. I blame grad school and beautiful weather for this.

Until my classes finish (2 more weeks), I don't think I'll be writing much here since I'm already writing so much for school. There will be an occasional post here and there, so please do check in periodically. Look for things to pick back up in full swing mid-August.

Thanks for your messages on Gchat, Facebook, etc. asking for new entries and demanding that I write!

Friday, July 9, 2010

On My Visit to a School In Karachi

I've been thinking about how to write this post for a while because it was such an eye-opening experience. I need to put some things into context first:

I've been to Karachi almost every other year of my life. I'm in my mid-twenties now, so I've actually been there quite a lot for an American-born Pakistani. But then again, I don't really consider myself the typical American-Pakistani plagued with identity issues. I'm sure that makes me much less annoying (you're welcome).

In the past, I used to stay with my extended family: aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. (who ranged anywhere from lower-middle class to simply middle class). So prior to this trip, I had an incomplete idea about what the state of education was like in Pakistan. I mean, I knew there was a system in place, but I didn't know how useless it really was.

I remember my cousins spent a lot time with private tutors getting additional help. In fact, a lot of them would cut classes or school altogether and instead meet with their private tutors and/or study on their own. To this, I said, "What the fuck?" That alone should tell you something about the state of public education in Pakistan. Kids are actually cutting to learn more and better themselves to get ahead. Amazing.

On this visit, I stayed with my mother-in-law and through some family connections, was able to meet with a senior executive at The Citizen's Foundation (TCF), a private, not-for-profit institution. Their mission is to "promote mass scale, quality formal education for less privileged children" in Pakistan. TCF not only provides qualified teachers, but they also build their own schools, establish their own culture, provide ongoing training for their teachers every summer, and offer scholarships to students who cannot afford to go their schools.  It's like Teach for America, but on crack.

The senior executive at TCF arranged for me to visit a local TCF school in the Garden East area of Karachi. Although the school year was over, they were still running summer programs. As soon as we entered a classroom, every single kid gets up and in unison greets us. They had not been notified in advance we were coming - so they clearly did this often. What shocked me was that they all then sat down and waited for the teacher to continue teaching. In absolute silence. I couldn't get over how disciplined they were. And apparently, this is nothing new. I'm told most South Asian classrooms are like this (this includes non-TCF schools). Kids genuinely treat adults with respect. I have students attempting dry sex in the back of my class and these kids can't wait to get on with lessons? What the fuck am I doing in this country? 

I remember at one point, I fantasized about dragging a few of my students by their necks into this classroom and saying, "Look. Look! JUST LOOK AT THESE KIDS YOU SPOILED BASTARDS!" I'm sure they would respond appropriately:
"Mista, these kids be mad whack. They be studying all day and shit. Nerds. I'd beat their asses in a fight."
Brilliant.

After the visit, we went back to the senior executive's office at TCF headquarters. In summary, here's what I learned - Pakistan is facing is a "supply-side" problem. That is, they have students who desperately want to learn. They have the motivation, but the nation lacks schools, teachers, money and structure. A teacher is not even viewed as a respectable position in Pakistan. Plus, the salary is miserable: cab drivers can earn higher wages than school teachers per some Dawn newspaper article I was reading in his office. That's no surprise given Pakistan spends only about 2% of its GDP on education.

For the underprivileged, it is difficult getting children into schools when they are needed to support their families. Child labor laws aren't heavily enforced in Pakistan (this includes the H&M shirt you're wearing) and if you're a family of six struggling to make ends meet, you're going to need your children to work. That creates a separate problem because even if the child has access to a local school, his/her family can't afford to let him/her go. To combat this, some non-profits have begun to offer families meals in exchange for their children to come to school. Shehzad Roy's Zindagi Trust foundation is one such program and has seen some success.

This has all been a lot for me to process. As someone who is in the trenches of the U.S. education system, I now feel supremely privileged and disgusted with myself and everyone else. Here, we often toy around with the idea of paying students to come school as an extrinsic motivator. My school even has an internship program that we use to "sell" our students into coming to school. That still sometimes fails because our students just don't seem to want to come. They have access, they just would rather not. Meanwhile in Pakistan, schools catering to the underprivileged are offering families food because then they can afford to send their children to school. I feel bad just writing this.

I'm extremely thankful for my teaching experiences here, but lately, I've been wondering. Where am I needed more?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Job



I'm back in the country and I have a lot on my mind. Unfortunately, time has not been on my side lately as I started two new grad classes the day after I came back.

There will be some more posts to come in the next few days in which I intend to discuss certain aspects of my trip to Pakistan. For now, enjoy this video which we saw on our first day in my "Teaching Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Adolescents" class. I thought it was pretty funny.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Hindsight

I'm on vacation right now in Karachi and I shouldn't blog, but I have to.

I left for vacation the day my Algebra students took their New York State Regents Examinations. I would be lying if I said I wasn't curious as to how they did. Actually, it's been a dull hunger that goes away with just the right amount of entertainment, but comes right back the second I'm not in the moment with something. I mean for fuck's sake, they're my students, I ought to know how they did.

When I logged in for the first time yesterday and saw the summary of results, I felt a variety of things. Pride wasn't one of them. The initial numbers were quite disappointing.  Fuck man, there were a lot of failures. There were success stories too, and a few very surprising success stories (and I mean very surprising - which makes me question a lot of other things). I let my emotions get the best of me because I immediately closed the spreadsheet and put my fist to my mouth.
Is it me? I thought.
No. I quickly opened up the spreadsheet again and this time clicked on the "details" tab to view each student's individual score. Now things made sense. Most of the students in my 7th period class (the last period of the day) failed. That wasn't shocking - a lot of them were intelligent, but barely came to class - I can only hope what they were doing when they weren't in my class was worth having to sit for another Algebra Regents exam. Stupid fucks. Yeah, I said it.

The majority of the he-said-she-said group also failed - you know who you are. You guys who would rather spend my class time talking about things so irrelevant that it made me want to put a packet of popcorn in the microwave and actually listen in just so I could make fun of you in my head later. You clearly didn't put in the time or effort. See you next year (I have a smirk on my face right now).

The diligent, hard working types who failed - you are the ones who made my insides cry. I don't know what happened. But I promise you, it's not all your fault. I saw you come everyday, try your best and take things seriously. For you guys, things will fall into line eventually - it's just a matter of time. I have learned a lot from you and for that, I am extremely thankful. In the end, it's just a test and I'm confident you'll kill it the next time (provided you put in the same effort or more).

The ones who passed (surprisingly or unsurprisingly) - you have proven to the rest of your peers that what we learned all year was indeed for something. You have proved to your peers that it is not an impossible test, but in reality, quite easy. All you had to do was some put time,effort and apply logic. I'm proud of you all. You can go on and take geometry or stay away from math entirely. Whatever it is you choose, I wish you the best.

I feel a lot better already. This experience has taught me that although I have some strengths, there are some loose ends to be tied in my classroom. Next year is going to be interesting and I look forward to it. More blogging to come once I get back from the motherland.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Familiar but Different

School is nearly done. It feels strangely familiar, but different in a way.

The school year wrapped up this week with next week being Regents examination week. As a result, the atmosphere within classrooms has become lax in the past few days. I think as teachers, we see the light at the end of the tunnel and look forward to the time off. The students who have done their best all year still come to school and now have nothing to worry about, so they have fun. The kiddos who did jack shit all year are working their asses off to make up for their year-long stupidity. To me, that's still fine because there are others who have simply stopped coming to school altogether... There's only so much I can worry about.

I like the feeling I get when something tough or trying is near completion. When I was in high school, things were always pretty cool around June. Teachers were fun to hang out with - we'd shoot the shit and watch funny movies. The gym would be open and we could play sport whatever we wanted. The school would host special activities and spirit days - I loved friendly competition. More importantly, I loved being done with everything and enjoying the free time left at the end. It was a good time and honestly, it's just as good now. Except, you know, I'm on the other side.

I suppose I've just been feeling a bit nostalgic the past few days in school. Today, we went through a few practice Regents exams and what not, but after a while, we just gathered together in my colleague's room and watched some Russell Peters. Some students watched with us, others played chess, others gossiped and some were on laptops but everyone was laughing and happy.

I'm finally at a place now where I can say I'm proud of my accomplishments this year. I changed careers from finance to education without giving two flying shits about what other people (mainly my relatives) had to say. I managed a full-time job, Teach for America commitments, grad school and a personal life. Granted, I did a pretty shitty job juggling them at all once sometimes, but still, it's a big deal. I'm pretty much done with my first year and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Thanks to everyone who helped me, stood with me and tolerated my craziness throughout the year. I'll be leaving for Pakistan on June 18th and staying there until July 4th, but don't worry, the blogging will still continue throughout the summer.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Make Time to Waste Time

I can't believe it's June already.

Last year in June, I was living "in-between" jobs and it was everything I thought it would be (FYI: I thought it would be awesome). I had a lot of time off between investment banking and Teach for America's summer training program. I spent most of this time getting fit, cooking, going to coffee shops, reading, watching TV and doing home improvement projects. I was living the retired life at 24 years old, which I suppose makes me a baller. I accept.

On top of that, I also co-starred in a short film produced by NYU Tisch graduate students. When I left banking, a good friend forwarded me a casting call for a director needing someone South Asian in a lead role. The movie was to be a short ten minute reinterpretation of O.Henry's The Gift of the Magi. In this version, a laid off investment banker has trouble finding a job and supporting his pregnant wife. My friend convinced me this role was basically written for me and that if I didn't go for the audition I was the biggest wuss in the world. I thought, I am anything but the biggest wuss in the world.

For the audition, I needed some close up photos and a résumé. Being the naïve actor that I was, I cropped some Facebook pictures of myself, enlarged my face and brought them along with my professional résumé. As I stood in line at the audition, I saw several aspring student actors and non-student actors with professional close up photos, acting résumés and portfolios of previous work. I knew I wasn't getting the part, but I decided to try anyway. I am anything but the biggest wuss in the world.

At the audition, the director was obviously a bit thrown off by my cropped and enlarged printed Facebook photos. Apparently, blurry pictures printed on regular printer paper are not classy. Touche, director. He was however, beyond impressed with my résumé. We did some script reading and then he had me do some improv. He seemed satisfied with my performance. More questions.
Director: "I can see by your résumé that you're very detail-oriented. I like method actors. So what other experience do you have? Have you done here any other movies at NYU?"

Me: "Uh... none. If you recall, I'm the person with zero acting experience. We spoke briefly over the phone."

Director: "Oh. That couldn't of been you... Your résumé... It's so, professional looking. It must have taken you a lot of time to make it for the role. I'm impressed with your dedication and creativity."

Me: "Wait, what? This is my résumé. You think I made this up for the role?!"
I suppose since the story was about an investment banker, I could see how he erroneously thought my work experience was completely fabricated. We both got a good laugh out of it. Later that night, he called me - I had gotten the part. Unbelievable. It was a fun experience.

I'd been meaning to write about this experience for a while. It's unfortunate how fast life has been moving lately. I rarely get a chance to relive stories like this one anymore. I'm afraid if I don't make time to waste time, I may unconsciously begin to forget some of the most funny, interesting and amazing things that have happened in my life.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

What About the Good Ones?

In a previous post ("Stupefied"), I wrote about how frustrated I was when only 11 out of 30 students showed up for the first day of their free SAT-prep class. Attendance has been extremely shitty since the program started, with only three students showing up today for the final class. One student enrolled in the SAT prep class - let's call him Antonio - didn't even come to school today. In fact, he would have missed this class had another student not ditched his own 7th period class to drag his ass over here.

Yes, you read correctly up there: drag his ass over here. Antonio lives a whopping four blocks away from school. Yet, for some reason his attendance is absolutely disgusting. He's frequently at home or at a book store reading, researching random shit online or video gaming. Still, this is nothing new for teachers these days, so why am I making this such a big deal? Maybe it's because Antonio is ridiculously intelligent. He is one of the quickest learners I've ever had the pleasure to teach. He has incredible mathematical ability. His memory is unbelievable. He's a strong writer. He can be creative. He's arguably the most intelligent student my school has enrolled this year, period.

So why the hell isn't he coming to school? God dammit. He's had plenty of talks with teachers (including me) and the principal about the consequences of not showing up. I have a few theories - Maybe he doesn't come because he knows he can get by with showing up once in a while, catching up and still passing with a decent grade. Or maybe he knows that he can do jack shit all year, study for a few nights before the Regents Exams and then kill them all with an 80+ because the Regents are a giant fucking joke. He knows he's smart enough to do that, so why not abuse the system and get by doing as little as possible? Or... maybe he's just lazy. Who knows?

I guess I didn't really have a conclusion to this rant. I'm just supremely irritated, but more concerned than anything. Is my school not properly preparing Antonio for the real world by letting him get away with what he's doing? Does he realize that when he starts work, he'll need to show up everyday? Are we so focused on the failures and potential failures that we ignore the brilliant? Or is it not my school's fault at all - could it be an issue he has to deal with and break away from himself?

Too many questions, no answers that I will probably like.

Antonio, if you're reading this: Do something man, you have the potential to change your life. Don't let yourself become another statistic.