Friday, December 30, 2011

Another Brick in the Wall

A long time ago it was inherently assumed teachers wanted the best for their students. It was assumed teachers develop their own systems, procedures, assignments and grading policies. As a principal, you didn't tell teachers to track kids' progress. You didn't tell teachers to assess student skill levels on the first day and then teach accordingly. Times have changed.

Today, New York City teachers are told what to do and how to do it, even when we are already doing what we're being asked to do. It's as if principals now assume teachers only want to be teachers for the pension, which by the way is shit, you could do a lot better in the market on your own. If a bulk of principals think this way, I can only imagine what the people above them think of teachers: a greedy bunch of fat cat bums that assign problems out of a textbook and merely grade them. This type of thinking is toxic and unproductive, and only hurts the kids in the long run.

It starts with preparation for the Quality Review, a multi-day visit from a committee that gives public schools a letter grade (like restaurants have in NYC). Unfortunately, this letter grade ultimately drives principals' decision-making process and usually overrides their own educational philosophies. They jump through whatever hoops the committee throws at them to stay afloat and get a good grade, even if what the committee asks for is bullshit.
Side note: don't let my link above to the official definition of a Quality Review fool you. Yes, the committee is made up of Department of Education employees and perhaps they were "educators" at one point, but to me that just means most of them were failed teachers that needed to find another job. Now they're judging administrators, teachers, and schools. Some of these people have never legitimately taught for more than a year in a classroom. A messed up system indeed.
Last year, our Quality Review committee decided our school didn't track our students' performance well enough (bullshit). In their report, they used a lot of buzz words to basically tell us they want us to use benchmark assessments on a school-wide basis. Benchmark assessments are basically tests within each of the main subject areas (Math, Science, etc.) administered throughout the school year to give teachers (but in reality administrators) feedback on how students are performing. In layman's terms: you give a test in the beginning, note the results, then retest, and then assess. Wait, what teachers don't do this already?

Without question, our school implemented the exams. We had to come up with new exams on top of the assessments we already have. The thing is, students at my school are not students who simply sit there and take bullshit. They see right through, from the teachers' attitudes to the made-up requirement that they needed to sit for these tests in order to graduate. My students have nothing to lose. Their GPAs aren't high enough to fight for. Their parents aren't involved enough to protest more standardized testing. Their general attitude toward the broad education system is negative. The only thing this system has ever done was tell them they weren't good enough.

So what happens when you force a bunch of tests down the throats of students with nothing to lose? Here are some interesting responses from the math benchmark assessment.

Exhibit A: The student makes a good point. Critical thinking skills: check.

Exhibit B: Honesty is essential in every learning environment.

Exhibit C: See caption for Exhibits A and B.

Exhibit D: Real-world problems allow students to connect to the material.

I imagine if these tests were given to students at any private school or strict charter school, "the powers that be" would see the results they wanted. However, if you remove from students the investment of education, the pressure to succeed, and the habit of doing what you're told, things suddenly become brutally honest. Kids aren't cattle, they will tell you how they feel even if it costs them later in life.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Lucky Number 27

After years of contemplation, I've come to the conclusion that birthdays are a lot more fun when your age hasn't hit double digits.

I have few good memories of my childhood, and of those, my birthdays seem to dominate most of them. It makes sense: December 20th rolled in right before Christmas break. Yes, I said Christmas break, because back then, nobody said, "Happy Holidays." You fucking said "Merry Christmas" or you didn't say anything at all. There weren't too many Jews or Muslims where I grew up.

Right around my birthday, school started slowing down. Instead of learning new material, we'd make decorations for our respective Christmas parties. Or maybe we'd go see a school play or watch It's a Wonderful Life. I would bring in some cupcakes on my birthday and we'd be set - coloring with crayons, using scissors, putting shit together with Elmer's glue, and eating chocolate cupcakes. It really didn't get any better for a school day.

My favorite part about my birthday was of course, getting what I wanted. My parents weren't the type to surprise me. They didn't ever talk to me to figure out my interests and then surprise me with "that thing I wanted." In my younger years, I erroneously viewed this as a good thing. See video below to see what I'm talking about.

I wish Old Spice dude was my dad.

Unfortunately, my father worked two jobs. Not because he had to, but because he didn't want to be home. My mother was too busy losing herself in her chores and religion. On the day of my birthday, my parents would drive me down to Toys-R-Us and I would simply point at what I fucking deserved for putting up with their toxic, abusive relationship, which my mother always told me she stayed in because she wanted "the best" for me. I wish she would've just grown a pair and told me a divorce would made her look bad because she married against her family's wishes.

At the time, I thought it was a pretty good deal. I do hereby agree to be kept up until 3:00 AM some nights listening to you two beat the pulp out of each other. For this, you buy me a brand new Nintendo 64 video game system with a copy of Goldeneye, the game that changed it all for first-person shooters. Note to self: should the opportunity present itself again, do not take this deal. No matter how good the game is.

So as I hit twenty-seven, I have to admit I'm a little scared because now, I'm officially in my late twenties. There are no more decorations to cut, no cupcakes to distribute, and most certainly no video games to drown the noise. There are adult expectations. I'm allowed to maintain my sense of humor, but my actions have to speak louder than my words. The problem is, there's a hungry rat scurrying around in my head, craving what I missed from growing up too fast. It's deeply regretting the responsibility that was thrown on me from such a young age. I'm constantly feeling like I've missed out in life and it's ruining the moment.

And so what if things had been different? I keep wondering, maybe then I wouldn't inadvertently hurt the most important people in my life. Tragically, I've become my own childhood hero without any of his powers, but all of his weaknesses (except Kryptonite of course). I go out of my way to help and accommodate others, but I am not close to any of them. This is incredibly wrong.

Ultimately, this post isn't really about getting old, it's about feeling extremely lucky that I am married to whom I am. I'm lucky that at twenty-seven, I have someone who knows me and is voluntarily willing to stay. She's willing to push me, put up with me and work with me to help me overcome the mental obstacles that could potentially poison everything. I think a small part of me will always want my youth back, but I wish I did a better job of showing her that life really is better with her presence in it.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Notes on a Scandal

Last Wednesday marked the beginning of a new trimester at my school. Naturally, this was a high attendance day, as most students come to school to pick up their schedules and renew their free NYC MetroCards. Sadly, some of these students will never show up to class for the rest of the term.

I began day one with a brief lesson on perimeter and circumference, when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed two students passing a note back and forth to each other.

I looked away and grinned: this was going to be too easy. I progressed through the lesson and as students continued to do a problem on the board, I pretended to make my way around the classroom, checking their answers. As I made my way around to the students writing the note, I quickly snapped it out from in front of them. Then, I began reading it out loud to the entire class:

Exhibit D: Actual student work. Do note the somewhat decent penmanship.
As you probably guessed from the racial slurs, this exchange was between a Hispanic and African American student.

Three things:
  1. The student who asked how many minutes there were left in class is currently in her third year at my school. My school is a two-year transfer school.
  2. The other student actually received an 85% in my class last trimester. He's a funny guy.
  3. My favorite phrase in this note? "You ass whole..."

Monday, December 5, 2011

Stick to the Teleprompter, Hizzoner

Nobody's perfect. A few months ago, I wrote a post about how happy I was that Mayor Michael Bloomberg was launching a Young Men's Initiative for New York City. Then, he went ahead and said this:

What irritated me most was not his comment about "firing half the teachers." It was what he said after that: "Double the class size with a better teacher is a good deal for the students."


No. It's not. Doesn't matter if you're fucking Jaime Escalante. Any teacher knows there is a direct relationship between the number of students in your class and how productive your class will be. Not to mention all students learn differently, and so if you increase the number of students, you lose the ability to work with all students one-on-one at some point in class.

This holds true for college and university as well. For my undergrad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I honestly learned very little material in my "lecture-style" classes. These classes were packed to the brim with 300-500 students in one giant lecture hall. The professor would stand at a podium in front and lecture for about fifty minutes straight. What if you don't get the material? He lectures on. What if you weren't listening? He lectures on. What if you were sleeping? He lectures on. What if you were wondering whether that attractive girl sitting two rows ahead of you would want to work as your partner? He lectures on.

The point is: colleges know large classes aren't great. That's why every lecture-style class had a discussion section, with a maximum of twenty students per class. This was where you could talk, discuss and absorb the material the professor presented with a teaching assistant.

So no, Hizzoner, it's not a good idea to increase class sizes. The only person who would benefit from such a move is you: you save money by hiring less teachers. Education is not meant to be roboticized, buddy. They already tried that with textbooks.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Quote of the Week: 11/28-12/2

Today is the last day of the first trimester. It also happens to be a Friday. Only now, in my third year of teaching at a transfer high school, I finally know what to fully expect on days like this.
Note: If you don't know what to expect on days like this, you haven't read this. Or this.
Grades were due to the administration today at 9 AM. Since my Algebra classes culminated last Wednesday with a final exam, I decided to wrap-up the remainder of the week with Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Yes, I do realize this movie portrays Holmes engaging in numerous fist fights. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle readers: I do sincerely apologize for the heart attack this may have caused you. 

Before you judge me for showing the Hollywood version of Sherlock Holmes to my students, consider this: in the movie, Sherlock not only uses his superb reasoning skills, but he also comes off to be somewhat "cool." Downey's version of Holmes is mainstream enough to be accepted by my students. If I'd have shown Holmes the way he's normally portrayed in British media, my students would've overpowered the movie with conversation. Intelligence and "coolness" is often separated in American high schools. This movie does a half-decent job bridging these qualities together.

As I was about to play the second half of the movie today, Keith opened the door to my classroom and strolled in. My jaw dropped to the ground.

"I'm here, don't mark me absent Mista!" Keith said.

I'm shocked. It's now been two days in a row Keith has come to school. This is quite impressive if you know Keith. His attendance is pretty atrocious. He managed to pass my class only because of his mathematics skills. That, and luck: he conveniently showed up to school on a test or project date.

"Keith, of all the days to come to school in the trimester, you've decided to come the last two days. The most pointless days, quite honestly."
"No joke Mista, I've decided to come to school everyday." Keith admitted.

"Dude, you've only been here for two days straight. Before that, you were absent for seven days straight."

"Yeah I know, I just made this decision two days ago."

Better late than never, I suppose.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Giving Thanks

What am I thankful for?

I imagine elementary school teachers across the country are getting their students to answer that question this Thanksgiving holiday week. My answer to this question never changed from year-to-year: I am thankful for my family, my house, my friends, school, food, money, and video games. Pretty standard.

Of course, I wasn't really thankful for my family, but I couldn't really say that without consequences. It would be quite awkward to be the only second grader in class who didn't put family on his "What am I thankful for" list. I knew better. I was aware of the things that raised flags in the eyes of others. And so every year, I announced to the world that I was thankful for my mother and father with a big smile on my face. No Mrs. Robinson, those aren't fingernail gouges on my arm. Surely you're mistaken. I just fell into some bushes playing basketball outside.  
What an idiot, I thought. You can't play basketball at my height.
It wasn't until my brother was born that I finally had something to be thankful for. In the black and white portrait of my life, his birth sparked something new: a desire to protect. I'm ten years older than him, so I've always considered myself a brother-father-hybrid. As my father slowly transitioned from an abusive alcoholic who could still earn a paycheck to an abusive alcoholic who could not, whatever positive presence my father had in his life diminished. My mother increasingly put more pressure on me to take care of him, because she was too tired. "I've sacrificed too much for you," she often said.
Note: To my future children, if I ever say that to you, a spirit has taken over my body. Call an exorcist immediately.
My brother's existence kept me from severing ties with my family after they refused to show up to my wedding or accept my wife into the family. For nearly three years after my wedding, my mother refused to talk to me or let me communicate with my brother, so we kept in touch in secret. Last spring, she gave me a half-assed apology for her behavior and absence at my wedding. I accepted it with the hope that she and I could work together to ensure my brother put forth his best effort in his final years of high school.

This Thanksgiving holiday, my brother was supposed to come stay with me in New York City. He's a senior in high school and I wanted him to spend some time working on his college applications with my wife and me. We'd planned this for months and even had my mother's approval, but as the departure date approached, things soured. My mother realized that my brother's college applications were my weakness and she threatened to not let him visit. For the entire week leading up to Thanksgiving, both my mother and my father (under the manipulation of my mother) avoided my phone calls.

On the morning of my brother's flight, I finally got in touch with my dad. "I don't know if I'm comfortable with him going to see you," he said. "I need to think about this. What if something happens to me? I need him to stay at home."

Clearly, he was bullshitting me. "Dad, he's visited me before. You even knew about it. Plus, he doesn't even stay at home after school, he works part-time. And if something happens to you, that's because you refuse to quit drinking. Why are you preventing my brother from seeing me? What the hell is going on?"

"You're a fucking bastard. I hate you and your wife. Go to hell. You've never done anything for me," my dad yelled.

I hung up the phone on him. I knew it was pointless talking to him when he was slurring his words anyway.

Trying to get in touch with my mom was futile, so my wife convinced her father to try to talk my dad into letting my brother visit. They talk on the phone from time-to-time, so it was worth a shot. Bad idea: my mom intercepted the call and her inner monster revealed itself. She screamed obscenities at my father-in-law for interfering with our family affairs. She called him some really nasty shit. Poor guy, he was only trying to help. Unfortunately, his call further fueled the fire.

For the next five hours, she repeatedly called me, yelling at me for getting other people involved, calling me a selfish prick, accusing me of being my wife's bitch, telling me I've never doing anything for her, forbidding me from communicating with my brother, the list goes on. Childish. I stopped picking up my phone and let her go straight to voicemail. I think she finally stopped calling after the eleventh voicemail.

The chances of seeing my brother diminished. The minutes passed. Incoming text from my brother:  It's impossible man. It really is. You don't know what's going on here. I'm sorry.

For the first time in an eternity, I cried. I think I really could have killed someone at that moment.

Still, I give thanks to you, my dear mother and father. Thank you for reminding me that I am still human. Thank you for showing me exactly what I shouldn't do with my children. Thank you for reminding me how important my brother is to me. I will never stop trying to protect him from you. For his own sanity at home, I won't let slip the dogs of war just yet. I'll remain radio silent. I'll wait.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

How to Not Run a School

Thomas Edison once said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."
I'm going to be honest: it's only midway through November and I think my school is on the verge of falling apart. Maybe that's an exaggeration, but it seems as if we're trying to go out of our way to make things more complicated, pointless, and ultimately, not fun. School should be a fun place for teachers and students. As it is being run right now, it is not.

Over the past week, I've spent a considerable amount of time during my off-periods wondering what the hell happened. Three years ago, this place started with such a great culture and attitude. That feels like a long time ago. There's a long list of things that have been eating away at me and everyday, something new gets added on. Decisions are being made without foresight. Things that I thought would obviously be implemented have not been implemented. I thought we would have figured out at least something by now, but we haven't.

I hated investment banking for a lot of reasons, but dammit, those guys knew how to run their shit. And they were damn good at it. The BSDs knew exactly when to provide an incentive. They paid their monkeys just enough to the point where money wouldn't be an issue, and that's where they squeezed the most productivity out of us. They knew how to maintain talent. They gave us a chance to act like family once in a while: go out, dine on expensive dinners, abuse your perks, but most importantly: work together. And because of that, we monkeys wanted to climb to the top. That's not exactly how it works in education.

Leaders in education are either extremely ineffective teachers, or super effective teachers who eventually get so burned out they quit in a very short amount of time. I think what this industry really needs is a straight-forward list instructing potential and current administrators on what not to do when running a school. I will get the ball rolling:
  • Do not tell teachers to come up with "artifacts" of student work, but then ration out how much paper you are willing to provide. See next bullet for a follow-up on this.
  • Do not expect teachers to differentiate in classrooms if each teacher is given only one ream of paper per week for printing purposes. Different teachers use different amounts of paper as different students require different teaching strategies.
  • Do not ration paper to the staff while simultaneously buying expensive, brand-new furniture for all administrators. This includes brand-new and completely unnecessary conference tables, shelving units, and leather office chairs. It's a school, not a fucking corporation.
  • Do not buy new refrigerators and microwaves and expect the staff to not use them. As a follow-up, do not then move these appliances into your own office so as to passive aggressively tell the staff these appliances are off-limits. That's just low, man.
  • Do not run professional development sessions through the use of chart paper and sharpies and expect your staff to implement 21st century technology in classrooms.
  • Do not tell first-year teachers to avoid "fraternizing" with senior teachers. Collaboration does not come from dividing members of staff.
  • Do not "randomly" decide to "rearrange" classroom assignments in the summer by putting all new teachers on one end of the school, and all senior teachers on the other. See bullet point above.
  • Do not rate your teachers "unsatisfactory" simply to show them who is in charge.
  • Do not tell your teachers, "This may not be the place for you," due to a personality clash.
  • Do not provide a vague grading policy and then weeks later say, "Student X has a very high/low grade in your class. Can I see all of student X's work and your syllabus for the semester? Justify his/her grade for me."
  • Do not claim your school is a "21st-century technology school" without actually having a space for students to use computers, print papers, or access a physical/digital library. As a follow-up, do not spend ridiculous amounts of money on laptop carts for each classroom and expect teachers to sit around after school supervising students who would like to use the laptops after school because they do not have access to computers at home. 
  • Do not put brand-new, untenured teachers in charge of curriculum development for the entire school.
  • Do not reward mediocrity by putting up posters with student names on them with the title, "Only Failed One Class." If you do decide to put these up, please take them down before Parent-Teacher Conferences, or you will have parents asking, "Wait, what? You put up a kid's name even if they fail a class? What kind of school is this?"
Okay, so this was kind of a rant and I may or may not have been listening to Dashboard Confessional while eating Cookies n' Cream ice cream writing this. You don't know what it's like, dammit! Maybe my kids do.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Not a Shock

A recent study finds 8th grade math and science students perform better on tests when their teachers spend more class time lecturing rather than providing group-work or other problem-solving activities. More details about the article and study can be found here.

Well, this is not a shock. Factual material (and in particular, foundational material) is best presented through a lecture, especially with the content that's currently taught in middle-school math and science. Additionally, these students weren't asked to apply the concepts they were taught, i.e. the research was completely based on the results of a standardized test.

I guess this is breaking news to some people: if you desperately want students to pass a test, teach to the test. In other shocking news, hard-working teachers aren't paid enough.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

On Charity

"So like, what do you win?" a student in my class pessimistically asked last week.

My jaw fell to the floor. I was speechless. Some students raised their eyebrows, others snickered, and a few patiently waited for my witty comeback. Mista always has a witty comeback, they think. Any student in my class will tell you that it's damn near impossible to get the last word with me. But I was stupefied. This kid got me.

Of course, I was speechless because I had just finished explaining the concept of raising money for charity.

More specifically, I was explaining why most of the male staff and some male students were growing moustaches for the month of November (i.e. Movember). I had pulled up our team page on the SMARTBoard and was going through all the contributions people had made from around the world. It was a proud moment for me. Well, until the "what do you win?" question. What the fuck do you mean, what do you win? Thank goodness for brain-to-mouth filters.

Over the past twelve days, I've felt like most of the students in my school just don't get the concept of charity. Maybe it's an urban youth thing, but in my limited experience bringing up Movember, their first instinct has been to ask, "You runnin' a scam?" or "How I know you ain't just gonna pocket all dat bread?"

After explaining the legitimacy of the charities involved, these questions are usually followed up with the statement, "Well, I would pocket dat shit." My kids are too honest, not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. 

When I was young enough to be in elementary school, my parents and I would often go to Woodfield Mall in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg on Saturday afternoons to shop and waste time. Woodfield Mall, at the time, was probably the largest shopping center in the Chicagoland area. My father could never save money, my mother loved spending my father's money, and the only way my parents could show me love was by buying me video games. Woodfield Mall and my family were a match made in heaven.

On the way to Woodfield Mall, right before the left turn on Higgins Road, there was always a homeless man dressed in rags holding up a sign that said something depressing about his situation. Every single time we would drive by this homeless man, I begged my parents to give the poor guy some change. After much crying, I usually convinced my dad to give the guy a dollar, and this made me feel better. At least he can go buy something from McDonalds, I thought.

My mother still brings up the time I tried convincing them to go to Foot Locker and buy the homeless guy a pair of new sneakers. Of course, she's laughing when she brings this up. This irritates me. I know the only reason my mom donates anything is because Islam requires a 2.5% wealth contribution every year and she's pretty religious. What's the point of doing something good if your heart isn't into it? We take away intrinsic motivation whenever we make something a requirement.

I often relate to my students' upbringing: many of them did not have positive role models in their life to "show them the way." I grew up emotionally stunted, but something in me burns when I see someone in need. There are a few students in my school who are growing up with a familiar case. These diamonds in the rough just need guidance.

One such diamond is Arnold. Arnold was the first student on board with the cause. Since we've started, he's sent e-mail blasts and Facebook updates about the Movember campaign. As of right now, he's raised more money than some of the staff, which is simultaneously impressive and sad. His enthusiasm and dedication is both contagious and noteworthy. So keep it up Arnold. You won't regret it. You might not win anything in the physical sense, but sir, you have won my respect.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Make-Up Work

I'm twenty-six years old and in my third year of teaching. I can hardly say I know anything about the profession or make broad generalizations about my student population. It's very tempting to try one-size fits all strategies and assume they will work for everyone all of the time.

Lately, my teacher colleagues and I has been trying to figure out why our students as a whole do shit throughout the semester, and then expect a "make-up packet" at the end of the semester that will save them from failing the course. Every semester, shit tons of students (most of whom I haven't seen all semester in school) decide to show up to class and ask if there's anything they can do.
"Seriously? Like, what do you mean, if there's anything you can do?" I ask.
"You know, like, make-up the work yo." 
Exhibit A: My response.
FYI-I do eventually stop laughing.
Since the beginning, I've instituted a no make-up work policy. Well, technically I do let students make up the work they've missed within a week. Once the week is over, it's too late.  I think this helps them stave off the temptation to start cutting my class. Obviously, I make exceptions for extreme cases (e.g. "My mom kicked me out and I've been living in a shelter for the past two weeks."). My policy has been working great for me, and I actually get a kick out of denying make-up work.
I know what you're thinking, and you know what? Screw you, don't judge me. Nothing wrong with having fun in the workplace.
Yesterday, a teacher in my school tasked the students in his Advisory class to e-mail the teachers of classes they are failing or potentially failing. They were to ask for any work they could make-up. Gina, a student in my 5th period Algebra class decided to e-mail me:
from: Gina Thomas (
to: Yo Mista! (
date: Thu, Nov 3, 2011 at 11:35 AM
subject: (no subject)
Hey, i know i havent shown to much interest in ur class and stuff but i will like for you to send me a syllabus with all the missing work that i can actually make up and get some credit trying to get my things together.
My response, two hours later during 5th period:
from: Yo Mista! (
to: Gina Thomas (
date: Thu, Nov 3, 2011 at 1:11 PM
subject: re: (no subject)

How are you going to send me this e-mail during 3rd period and then not show up for 5th period today?!
That's right: she actually didn't even show up to my class. This is why I'll take a laugh I can on the job.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sweet Movember

This November, I will be raising money for prostate cancer research by participating in the global movement known as "Movember."

Movember began in Australia, where a group of men grew out moustaches (mo's) for charity. Today, Movember marks a month long commitment for men to grow out a moustache (no beards allowed). Supported by women and other men, the point is to seek out sponsorship and raise as much money as possible to support prostate and testicular cancer research. It's like walking for charity, without the walking.

I've already registered online and started my own team: it's pretty damn cool. Several friends and colleagues have joined. It's going to be super interesting teaching in my school, where most of the male staff will look like 1970s porn stars by mid-November.

Who wants a moustache ride?
Supporting a good movement always gets me excited, but what really blew my mind was that my campaign has garnered my male students' interests. In fact, some of my team members are current and former students from my school. That fucking rocks! Here they are, at an age where they can be so self-conscious about themselves, yet we have a group of male students who said, "Fuck it, I won't shave for a month." I'm thinking part of it has to do with the fact that many of these guys really do admire the staff at my school, and if they can participate in something we're all participating in, then why the hell not? Awesome. Simply awesome.

Unfortunately, in order to remain somewhat anonymous on the blog, I can't share my team's campaign page with you. However, if you are friends with me on Facebook or Google+, you can find a link there. If you'd really like to show your support, you can make a general donation on the official Movember website.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Don't Hate the Player

I received the following e-mail tonight:
from: Keenan Joseph (
to: Yo Mista! (
date: Thu, Oct 20, 2011 at 9:02 PM (58 minutes ago)
subject: Assessment
Hey, I forgot to hand in the quiz from earlier but I have it completed. Can I hand it in to you first thing tomorrow morning? I don't want a 0 to jeopardize my overall grade for the class.
Such initiative. This is the kind of feel-good-shit that makes a teacher at a transfer high school feel great.

Unfortunately, I think I'm growing a little jaded. I've seen so much of this honeymoon motivation over the past two years, that it's become predictable. Clearly, Keenan is a new student at my school, who probably came here to be different. To get away from his friends who acted as a distraction. To stop feeling so pressured to chill out without focusing on school. To graduate. On time or about time.

In the coming weeks, Keenan will most certainly continue to dominate my Algebra class. But then what? Will he, like the majority of our transfer school students, fall back into his old ways? Will he refuse to come to school just because it's raining or cold outside? Will he need to be bribed to come to school in January by free breakfast or movie tickets? Will I get a contact high off him because he reeks of weed on the day of the Regents Exam?

Or will Keenan truly be different by coming in everyday and doing what is expected of him? Will he dominate his Regents Exams and pass all of his classes for the year? Will he be one of the few who gets active support from me throughout the college application process?

Only time will tell. I hate this game.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Math Club

I teach the last period of the school day this trimester, and surprisingly, it's quite fun. I think it's because of the particular mix of students I have in the class. I have taught many of these students before; they simply need the class for a credit they're missing. Even though it's seventh period, some of them actually show up on a consistent basis. They're also big personalities, which I like and work off of well.

Today, I taught graphing multiple equations on a coordinate plane. Mid-lesson, I put up a problem on the SMARTBoard and asked the class to graph the lines. Leo and George immediately raised their hands:
Leo: "Can I do this problem on the board, Mista?"

Me: "Sure Leo, why don't you wait two minutes to let everyone else copy the problem down? Then you can step on up to the plate."

George: "Mista! He just did the last one! I swear to God Leo, if you get this wrong, you're out of the math club. Like, completely banned. Don't fuck this up."

Leo: "Shut the fuck up, bitch. I'll smack you. I AM the math club."

George: "Just saying. No pressure."
Leo then proceeded to graph the solution on the SMARTBoard. All the while, George kept making creepy sounds in the background to mess him up. The rest of the class was working hard on graphing their own lines.

Unfortunately, Leo made a simple error in his graph: he forgot the slope of the line was negative. Both of the lines he graphed ran positive and did not intersect.
George: "Oh. My. God. You did it wrong! Dude! You're out. Sorry, you're just out. The slope is negative. I am sad that you are Dominican like me. You're an idiot."
Leo: "Says you, I got a 98% in the class, dick! What do you got? A 93%? Yeah, you can blow mines."
It's hard to believe that this is the language they're using when discussing mathematics. But honestly, I'll take it. This really is what makes it all worth it.

By the way, there is no math club. It's just these students in my seventh period class who claim to be in it because they're so "good" at math.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Methodical, Miserable Mista

I have a process when it comes to my job. When this process is executed to perfection, life is smooth. I get time to think about how the day went and how the lesson worked. Or how it didn't work. I'm not always perfect. But I like being close.

My lesson PowerPoints are pre-uploaded to my school's e-mail from my Macbook Pro the evening before. The next morning, I arrive to school early and download them onto the Dell piece-of-shit-desktop computer connected to the SMARTBoard. In mere seconds, my lessons are open, ready and waiting to be presented.

Quizzes and homework assignments are pre-downloaded to a USB thumb drive (also the evening before), which I simply plug into the Xerox printer in the main office and print. I always print five additional copies of whatever I need as I have learned from the past that having more copies of material is always a good thing. I don't lose things, but I guess students do. Humans.

All quizzes and homework assignments are graded before I leave for the day, with grades uploaded into a spreadsheet I created that utilizes conditional formatting to colorfully detail how students performed (green = good). My student aides change the date to tomorrow's date on the chalkboard once they're done entering the grades into my spreadsheet. I write the next day's topics on the white-erase board before I leave.

This is pretty efficient when I'm operating at 100% health. I usually am. However, the following things happened today:
  1. I forgot to upload the lessons I had worked on the night before. Luckily, I had my lessons from last year saved on my desktop, but all the lovely tweaks I had made the night before were gone.
  2. I left my USB thumb drive in the printer and walked off with my copies. Luckily, a colleague found the drive and gave it back to me.
  3. I locked myself out of my own room. Twice.
  4. I made a mistake in a math lesson while modeling how to simplify a specific type of problem involving exponents. I actually forgot to use the order of operations in a problem. Luckily, a student pointed out my error. A student who barely comes to class.
I could tell I was getting sick because things were suddenly not falling into place. Yesterday, my throat felt scratchy after lunch. I tried to remedy this with cough drops, orange juice, sleep, and more orange juice.

I guess I'm getting worse, and I feel helpless.

Falling sick always shocks me, as I am rarely sick. I was never absent in high school. The last time I actually missed a school day due to sickness was in the seventh grade: I missed three school days which ultimately led to my first and only "B" in middle school. It was sewing class and never did learn the art of applying my foot gently on the sewing machine pedal. Because of this "B" in middle school, I was salutatorian instead of valedictorian. Because of sewing class. No, because I was sick. No, it was because my sewing teacher was a nut job with no sympathy for hard-working students overcome with illness. Completely crazy.
Says I, the nut job who was never absent in high school and who just wrote an entire post about his control issues. Touche, conscience. Touche.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

2 Students, 1 Ruler

In fifth period Algebra yesterday, we wrapped up ratios and proportions with an in-class activity exploring the Fibonacci numbers and the golden ratio. This was one of those lessons where I thought my students would actually learn something useful, as neither the Fibonacci numbers nor the golden ratio are actually on the Integrated Algebra Regents Exam. This makes me a terrible teacher because I am not training my students to be test-takers. Obvi.

I thought it'd be cool to show my students how the golden ratio is utilized in architecture, art, design, nature, etc. I highlighted how cosmetic surgeons often use a facial mask with proportions based off the golden ratio for their patients. Basically, I was setting them up to understand that proportions based off the golden ratio appear to be more pleasing to the human eye.

Then the activity: I would partner students up and give each pair a ruler to measure each others' faces, hands, arms, feet, and legs. They then divide the appropriate measurements to arrive at their own respective ratios. For example, they measure the length of a hand (middle finger to palm) and then measure the length of an arm (wrist to elbow). Divide the arm length by the hand length and tada, we have a ratio!

The goal was to get the kids to understand how "weirdly" enough, most of these measured ratios would be close to the golden ratio. As I passed out plastic twelve-inch rulers, one of my female students looked at me extremely worried:
"Mista, I don't know how to use one of these! Do you start from 1 or 0?!"
This question shocked me. I quickly discovered my usual quick-witted response mechanism appeared to be vacationing in the Bahamas. So, I took the ignore approach and hoped she was merely pretending to not understand. Ask your partner, dammit.

About a half-hour later, there was a pair of girls who appeared to be done. I approached.
"You guys look done, nice work. What did you learn?" I asked.
"Mista, according to this, my partner's numbers be closer to the golden ratio than mine. This means I'm ugly, don't it? First it's my mom and now it's this worksheet. That's some bullshit!"
Uh... Whoops.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

New Kids on the Block

This year, another school opened it's doors in the same building where my school operates. However, this new school isn't another high school, it's an elementary charter school run by a popular charter school network. With the opening of this charter school, there are now six schools operating in the same building. Of these, four are public high schools, one is a public transfer high school (where I teach), and now we have an elementary charter school on the ground level.

Of course, these new kids on the block don't have to go through the metal detectors every other student has to go through in my building, they have their own entrance. I'm not bitching about this, no children should have to go through metal detectors, young or old. What I am going to bitch about is the glaring difference between how their school looks and operates versus my own.

I went perusing through their hallways last week and was shocked to see how much their school reminded me of being in an affluent suburban high school. Their halls were decorated with posters, signs, school colors, school mottos, motivational quotes, surprisingly good student work, art, etc.

This was to be expected. In order for a student to be admitted into a charter school, parents must submit their child's name into a lottery. And therein lies the problem: kids whose parents take initiative to submit their names into a lottery for a "better school" will almost always be better off than kids with no parental involvement, support, or encouragement. If you'd like research to support this claim, refer to exhibit A - the last two years of my life.

For anyone who has visited or seen my school, it looks like a jail. Whatever is posted on the walls looks half-assed, at best. We don't have anyone designated to "pretty-o-fy" our hallways. Most of our bulletin boards are barren. We have a sad-looking poster that reads "Our attendance last week was: [fill in a number under 60% here]. Can we make it to 80%?"
Side note: No, we can't make it to 80%. We're a transfer school for kids with attendance issues. How can you not know this, poster maker?!
We're a "21st century" school, but we don't have a computer lab. We have school colors, but they're not visible unless you visit the school's website. Parents rarely visit our school. In fact, we are the ones who have to visit our kids' homes to figure out why our students haven't been coming to school for weeks on end.

The differences between public schools and public charter schools are becoming glaringly ridiculous. And sadly, our country's education system continues to compare these two institutions as if it's a competition to see what model works best for the kids. That would be like comparing the Chicago Bulls to the U.S.A. Olympic basketball team. I'm saying this as a Bulls fan.

The new charter school movement is based on ideas within the private sector. Free market principles. Their motto is that parents should have a choice on where to send their children to school. Bad schools should close down and move on for better ones. This idea has no mercy for the majority of children in lower-income households whose parents aren't actively involved in their lives. The "neighborhood school" suddenly doesn't matter to an involved parent anymore: who cares if it has problems when you can send your child to a better school an hour away? Some children in NYC commute 90 minutes each way to arrive at the school they won the lottery for.

Charter schools have what public school principals have wet dreams about: the ability to "counsel out" students they don't want or don't "fit" the culture. These students get sent back to a regular public school, probably the school where they live closest to. Public schools can't do that, they have to work with what they get. My school is packed with students who used to be in charter schools.

Charters can also accept funding from other sources. They can fiddle around with their budgets to pay teachers better, and thus, attract some of the hardest working teachers who grow weary of the politics that exist within public school systems.

If public schools ultimately become the place where students who aren't "intelligent enough" or don't have enough parental involvement go, then our country's intellectual capital is... well, fucked really. Public education was created based on the notion that all children deserve a good education. We're modifying this to all children with involved parents deserve a good education.

Attention poor people: quit your jobs so that you may wait in long lines to submit your child's name into a lottery in which you may or may not win. Stop being lazy, dammit.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

I Seeeeeeeee Youuuuuuu

Teaching the last period of the day is the worst, especially in a school like mine. During this time, I'm completely exhausted and for good reason: I've been on my feet all day explaining, lecturing, discussing and entertaining. I would much rather have this period off and use it to recharge my batteries than to have to deal with a 25% (or less) attendance rate.

Most students in my school decide it's okay to ditch 7th period. You know, because staying an extra 54 minutes is just asking for too much. Last Wednesday, four students who I know for sure were in the school building didn't make it to my 7th period class. Instead of simply letting it slide and hoping the administration does its job, I decided to take the law into my own hands. I paused the class mid-lesson, hopped onto my computer, logged into my e-mail, and began crafting this in front of everyone:
date          Wed, Sep 23, 2011 at 2:45 PM
subject      cuttin' class

So yes, I saw you all today in school, and yet, here we are in 7th period and you are not here. By the way, the entire class is watching me type this on the SMARTboard...

Okay, so given for most of you, this is your THIRD year in a TWO-YEAR school, I assume you will have all the stuff we learned today (and days before) mastered.

Do not expect that I (as your teacher) will make EXTRA TIME to baby you and re-teach this stuff to you.

If passing this class isn't a concern, I suppose at least not looking like a fool in front of everyone else is. I expect you'll make a bigger effort to stick around til the end of 7th.

Ta ta,
- Yo Mista
The next day, all four of them showed up. In fact, two of them even responded with an apology that very night. Lesson learned: always call out your students. I seeeeeeeee youuuuuuu.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


I've really been enjoying my third year teaching thus far, but lately it seems all the fun ends the moment the bell rings and I check my work e-mail.

Lately, we've all been getting bombarded with e-mails concerning new policies, procedures, and other 1984 Orwellian-style control mechanisms. Every single meeting we've had as a complete staff has been about keeping us in check, rather than what we as a school can offer the students. A recent school initiative now requires teachers to "sign out" when we leave the building to grab lunch during our own lunch period. The day we receive a ball-and-chain free blackberry, I'm going to quit.

I left investment banking because the job owned me and made me feel like there was always an eye in the sky. If my blackberry buzzed at two in the morning and I didn't respond, my cell phone would ring. If I didn't pick up, I'd get another ten e-mails. Eventually, I would get in deep shit with my deal team and then my staffer would have to hear about it. That usually meant I would start getting staffed on shitty pitches, which were basically accounts that required a lot of busy work and never amounted to any type of live deal. As an analyst, you always wanted to be on a live deal: otherwise you weren't gaining any experience. You weren't top tier.

In my second year of investment banking, I was staffed on a live deal that was taking forever to close. The company we represented was trying to sell itself in a down market. There weren't too many buyers in the market. As a result, there was a lot of work being generated for absolutely no reason. We were their bitches, and they knew we would do anything for that advisory fee.

I was on a conference call with my associate, the client's lawyers, and the client's CFO. As the designated monkey of the group, I was diligently taking notes while wondering how long I could stay on the call without saying anything. Usually I could get by without uttering a single word, which was great because the coffee I had just had began to knock on my body's doors. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I had to take a shit. Fast.

I had the advantage of being on this call from my desk, rather than being in a conference room with my colleagues. I was already on mute, so I shot a quick e-mail to my associate telling her I was stepping away from my desk for a moment, and ran to the bathroom blackberry in pocket.

As the weight loss process got underway, my blackberry buzzed: 
Where are you? Need you to be on this. Will need your notes.
 It was my associate. Jesus Christ, leave me alone. I told her I'd be back very soon.
I'm working on two things at once, this should the only thing you're doing.
Her again. This was getting really annoying and quite frankly awkward, though it was never surprising to walk into the bathroom and hear someone typing away on their blackberry as they sat on the pot. My blackberry buzzed again.
I'm at your desk. Where are you?
I panicked. I couldn't risk her getting irritated at my me and giving me some bullshit work, so I was responded back with the only thing I could come up with:
I'm pooping. Coming out now.
I walked back to my desk and there she was, next to my chair reading her blackberry. Probably reading the very message I had just sent her. I tried to make as much eye contact as possible before she began talking about the conference call and next steps.

I'm twenty-six years old now, I don't think I need to tell anyone anymore when it's time to poop.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Third Year Underway

Hello kiddies, I'm back. First of all, Iceland was amazing. We spent two weeks there: the first week driving around the island and the second week entirely in Reykjavik, the capital. The picture below pretty much captures the coolness of the trip.

Nothing like a gigantic waterfall to quench the thirst.
Although there was some hiking involved, Iceland definitely refreshed me. Some of the nicest people on earth reside in that country. I think it's safe to say we'll be back at some point.

So now my third year as a teacher is underway. I'm excited because I don't have graduate school this year, so I can actually think about how I teach. I was really getting sick of thinking on the run and coming up with lesson activities while showering or napping in the subway.

This year, I'm also teaching advisory for the first time. Advisory is basically a "life-skills" course offered in high school. I'm pretty sure this is just a New York State thing, as I didn't have advisory in high school in Illinois. I'm supposed to lead discussions around big issues like racism, teen pregnancy, and drug dealing. Students will also have the opportunity to consider their post-secondary options (college, trade schools, etc.) and apply.

Sounds pretty nifty, but I get the feeling most of the kids will say, "Yo Mista, what up with this hippie circle jerk, kumbaya bullshit?" To this, I will respond:
No talking in the circle jerk, please.
Here's to another year packed with struggle, perverted jokes, and a lot of fun.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Book Recommendation

Before I take off for Iceland this week and check out their penis museum (no seriously, check this out), I have to recommend you read The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch. 

This book provides an excellent history of the education system in the United States and offers some critical analysis on the new direction reform is taking. Honestly, reading this book was an eye-opener at times: I have seriously begun to question some of the people and things Teach for America supports (Joel Klein for one). 

Anyone in the trenches of teaching can appreciate this book's critique of teacher accountability and high stakes testing movements. Ravitch herself admits that she was once on the testing and accountability bandwagon; she then explains why she changed her mind and why she hopes it's not too late for others to do so either. It's a book for both sides of the debate to read.
If you're even interested somewhat in education, get this book. Or borrow it from me. Whatevs.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Bloomberg Launches Young Men's Initiative

I know I'm supposed to be on hiatus, but a lot of people have been asking me my opinion on Bloomberg's recently announced Young Men's Initiative (read about it in the New York Times here). In-depth detail on the initiative and their goals can be found here.

To summarize, the program has approximately $130 million to use in a variety of ways to help reduce the "disparities slowing the advancement of black and Latino young men." This targeted strategy wiill include establishing new fatherhood classes, mentoring and literacy services, opening job-recruitment centers in public-housing complexes, retraining probation officers to help those who have been incarcerated from repeating criminal offenses, and finally, assessing schools based on black and Latino students' academic progress.

Overall, I'm very excited that we're finally not taking a "one size fits all" strategy to fix education. 

In my two years of teaching thus far, I probably haven't seen shit compared to master teachers who have ten, twenty, even thirty years of experience. However, I have learned a lot about education, family, poverty, and class. I don't think programs like Teach for America are the answer in closing the achievement gap; Teach for America is great in that it gets people who normally wouldn't have considered education to take a look. But it's not going to fix a deep-seated issue such as educational inequity or poverty by itself. You need the will of the people and political backing for that.

It's my belief that the answer will ultimately come from fixing a child's support system and extended network. Then, we can focus on better teachers, schools, etc. The Young Men's Initiative seems to target just what we need to target first. If a student has a strong foundation of people to push him or her, then it really doesn't matter how great or terrible their teacher, school or district is. They will find a way to learn, prosper and succeed.

I have to say, I respect Mayor Bloomberg. The guy may have made some bad choices with regards to education in the past, but he doesn't stop trying. He isn't afraid to try something new, see that it doesn't work, and then try something else. This is more than what we can say about others in his field. Plus, he's pumping $30 million of his own wealth into this program, that's admirable. What politicians do you know who have the balls and heart to do that? I can think of a few who did quite the opposite, local and international

I still think Bloomberg is in the wrong about his "testing and accountability" initiative, which hurts students more than anyone else. Let's hope he figures that out soon.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Hiatus #2

August has to be my favorite month of the summer: it's not too hot, there's always a nice breeze, and fall-time television is right around the corner. And by fall-time television, I'm talking about the upcoming sixth season of Dexter. What am I going to do when this show ends?
What makes August even more significant is that it kicks off "back-to-school" season. I can almost smell it in the air. It reminds of me of carrying around a school supply list at Wal-Mart while my mom pushed a shopping cart full of one-subject notebooks, folders, pens, #2 pencils, markers and of course, a new lunch box that indicated to the world what cartoon I was into at the time. Cowabunga, dude.
In September, I'll start my third year of teaching high school mathematics at a transfer high school serving over-age, under-credited youth. From now until I return to the classroom, I'm going to maximize "me" time. I'm talking Christian Bale in American Psycho style "me" time where he can't help but look at himself in the mirror and flex while having sex. Oh yeah. And let's face it readers, there's nothing better than time with me. Isn't that why you're reading this instead of updating those TPS reports? No wonder you people want to hang out with me so much. It all makes sense now.

The plan is to exercise, read, watch mindless television (season four of Jersey Shore in particular) and enjoy New York City for two weeks. This will be followed by a two week vacation to Iceland, which I'm really looking forward to. One week driving around the island, another week in the capital city of Reykjavik.

I may write a short post here or there in the mean time, but don't expect anything too juicy until I return. That's what she said.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Warning in Dreams

Around this time last year, I remember getting excited about the upcoming school year. I was starting my second year as a teacher: I was hungry to implement ideas I'd thought about over the summer. I was eager to consider taking a different approach with certain topics. I was excited.

I'm excited for next year as well, but I'm also a little uneasy: in the last four nights, I've had the same dream, twice. I rarely dream, so dreaming the exact same thing twice is a new experience.

In my dream, I was back in the classroom during my third year, but things were very different. I was finding it hard to enjoy being in the classroom because my school's administration was making life difficult for me. Some of them were minor things, some of them were major things that really bothered me.

From what I recall, I was no longer allowed to teach my personal finance course. Why? Because the kids don't really "need" this course on paper. Why would kids need to learn about saving, credit cards, and long-term retirement investment? Ultimately it's about credit accumulation and most kids did not need this course. What does "need" mean, anyway? That made me unhappy.

In June, we were told we were getting new desks and that we should label our old desks with "THROW AWAY" for the custodians to take out during the summer. We were told to do this several times throughout the last few days, as if using the old desk wasn't an option. Here's the thing, I like my old desk, so I didn't mark it for removal. Logically, it just didn't make sense to me. Why is it a big deal to throw away an old desk? Especially since it's so conducive to organization with five side drawers (three on one side, two on the other) and one middle pull-out drawer (heh, I said "pull-out") for writing utensil storage. Doesn't that sound sexy?

In my dream, when I came back into the classroom, they had replaced my desk with a new brown desk, which was actually pretty nice looking, but it had no fucking drawers!

I am very particular about my things and especially how my things are organized. This new desk did not please me in my dreams. But, I was going to be okay.

As my dream progressed, I felt like I was teaching in Orwellian times at my school. The teachers were talking to each other in secret. Everything they did, they did by the book to cover their ass. Fill out paper work, avoid human contact with the administration. Nobody wanted to argue about an error in a student's schedule because that was now an administrative issue. It didn't matter that the kid's schedule was going to screw him over in the long run. There was an "us" vs. "them" mentality at my school, and I hated this poisonous culture.

Then I woke up.

I sort of know why I've been having these dreams: my school's culture has been deteriorating over the past year. I'm scared it's only going to get worse next year. Things were very different when this school opened: there was not one teacher who didn't come in early or stay super late to work. The staff worked their asses off and we enjoyed a collegial and open working environment.

I believe when employees are happy doing what they're doing while being in a supportive culture, great things can happen and money becomes less of an issue. That's what my first year was like, and I'm not so sure I can expect that next year.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Data is In!

New York School test scores are in folks, click here to check out the results via the New York Times.

Before you start examining the data, please note that this data summarizes the performance of nearly one million students. Of which, 66% are classified as poor (see top of page). The ethnic breakout is as follows: 14% White, 15% Asian, 31% Black, and 40% Hispanic. Pretty generic, but I guess that's the best we're going to get here.

I want to first write specifically about the test my class took, the Integrated Algebra Regents Exam.

From the data provided, it seems our students scored pretty miserably with a 58% passing rate (compared to about an 80% passing rate for the rest of New York State). Only 7% of students who took the exam scored high enough to master the material ("advanced" column), which is also the lowest mastery level on any exam available.
Don't worry kids, this is like golf. Lowest score wins. We win!
The final column ("Prev. Standard") shows how our passing rate was last year. This really shows nothing because a 55 isn't considered passing anymore (it was last year). I guess increasing standards on a shitty test in a terrible education system doesn't show progress either. Whoops!

Finally, if you scroll through all of the exams, you'll note most students did incredibly well on the Regents Exams having to do with languages. Well done, I have to say. Too bad New York State doesn't require a language Regent in order to graduate.

Of course, it's no surprise that the only 100% on the board goes to those who took the German language Regents Exam. Glückwünsche!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Education vs. Employment Infographic

Check out this informative infographic via You'll have to click on the graphic to view it enlarged.

Not that most educators needed to see this, I think a lot of us are actually pretty exhausted of making the argument for college. What I find most compelling though about this graphic is the lifetime earnings category in the first graph.

Does it truely pay to pay though, as in, is paying for further education now with loans worth the salary in the long term? Stay tuned, in twenty years from now I'll ask my friends with doctoral degrees how it's worked or not worked out for them.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Smells Like School Spirit

Check out this interesting op-ed in the New York Times about the recent reform movement for schools in the United States. A well-written piece teachers and non-teachers should read.

Go ahead, click the link. It's Monday, work sucks, you're still wondering where the weekend went and you have nothing better to do in your cubicle anyway.

Unless you're unemployed, then all I can say is, well done.

Friday, July 8, 2011

I Just Taught for America (and Stuff)

I was on the pot this morning and doing some heavy thinking. Actually, I was doing some stinking as well, but yes, thinking too. For the readers that do not know me, I am not averse to talking about the act of pooping. I'm actually quite shocked that it's taken this long for that to hit the blog. I think pooping is pretty cool; I do some of my most critical thinking during and after the process. In fact kids, some of my best lessons have come straight out of the loo. So go ahead, thank my shit for your test results.

So as I sat there, feeling lazy about the actual clean-up process of pooping, it dawned on me that I had just completed my two year commitment with Teach for America.
Holy time travel Batman!
Done and done, just like that. Of course, I'm sticking around and teaching next year, but there are others within my Teach for America "cohort" that are moving on and doing other things: consulting, investment banking, business school, law school, the list goes on. The network of contacts grows. Excellent. Hopefully at least one of them gets super rich and remembers what a great friend I was. And that I would really appreciate real estate in Manhattan. Preferably somewhere south of 14th street please.

Critics of the Teach for America (TFA) program often say two years is not enough for anyone to figure out how to teach and actually make a difference. After having completed my two years, I think there is some truth to this. I do think motivated, hardworking youngsters can make a difference in the classroom. However, it is quite difficult to become an excellent teacher in two years.

I'm seriously just beginning to hone my own teaching craft. Next year, I will finally have some time to focus on becoming a "master teacher." I'd like to implement better questioning strategies. I'd like to get really comfortable with complete silence in response to a question I ask the class. Ultimately, I want to learn how to shape my lessons in such a way that my students can not only learn but take ownership of the knowledge.

Yeah, that shit just doesn't happen in two years. And if it does, it was an accident.

Since I already did my stint of investment banking prior to TFA, I'm curious as to how some of the teachers in my TFA cohort going into the corporate world will feel and react. They have some perspective now: having seen the enormous problem that is the education system. They were right in the middle of the obvious and harsh inequity that exists among races and classes in the United States. I just don't see how you can light a fire under someone's ass now if it has to do with anything other than fixing that shit.

In fact, I can't imagine going into investment banking or consulting after TFA. Or, maybe I can:

Investment Banking
VP: "Yo Mista, the merger model needs to be updated ASAP. The latest projections from research are in and the BSD needs to see these numbers tonight. I need a draft of the deck in two hours. No. Better make it an hour."
Me: "Bro. Relax. There's kids out there who don't know how to fucking read and they're in high school. This is Microsoft Excel and number crunching, I got this."
VP: "Relax? Kids who can't read? You're fired."
Manager: "Yo Mista! I need a summary of these research reports. I'm going to defer to you during the conference call if the client asks about the data and methodology. Also need you to clean up that data dump they sent this morning. So much shit in the same cell, looked fucking ugly."
Me: "Dude. You want me to manually go through reports and paraphrase shit for you? And then you want me to arrange and rearrange shit in Microsoft Excel just because you want it to look pretty? I didn't go to college for this monkey bullshit."
Manager: "Monkey bullshit? You're fired."
In short, I'm supremely thankful things played out the way they did. I'm thankful for my investment banking experience: I learned a lot about finance, professionalism, bullshit and myself. I'm just glad I didn't do it after TFA. I would've been even more miserable than I was (if possible).

Thanks for steering me in the right direction, NH.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Graduation Party

Over the weekend, I went to Lucia's high school graduation party in Brooklyn. I never thought I'd get actually invited to a student's graduation party (being a teacher), but there I was, dressed to impress and ready to pretend that I am not awkward.

Lucia is special to me, because she's the other student I spoke about here. She's a work horse, scoring some of the highest grades at our grade on all the New York Regents Exams. She's incredibly motivated. I'm quite proud of her: she'll go to a community college for a year or two and then transfer out.

As we sat at our respective tables enjoying the company, I remembered what it was like when I was in my students' shoes in this moment. Graduation right around the corner, everyone thinking this was a big deal. My thoughts during my graduation process:
Hmm. Well, I don't feel any older...
I wanted my high school graduation to end as soon as possible. I didn't want to go to a "formal" dinner afterward. I didn't want to get pictures taken at different angles holding an empty diploma holder (they mailed it to us later). I just wanted summer to end so I could get the hell out. But that was me and if it's one thing I've learned, not all students are like me. Yet.

Kareem, student who I've written about several times, was also at Lucia's graduation party, as well as other students and teachers. It was fantastic being there, to see how far Kareem and Lucia went after they came to my school two years ago, looking for a fresh start. When I originally went through their transcripts, I would never have guessed these two individuals would later became the "good ones" I'd think about after a rough day. Shows how much paper tells you about perseverance.

I began to wonder how they will feel around August, when it's time to start college: that magical place where they're supposed to broaden their horizons, figure out what they don't want to do in life, and ultimately choose their vice: beer or pot or both.
Readers: you know which category you fall into.
With my dad driving and my mom up front talking up a storm about something insignificant, I sat in our green van for two and a half hours from Chicago to Urbana-Champaign with a couple of songs on repeat in my iPod. This was one of them.

Sometimes songs represent feelings better than just words. Thank you, Blink 182.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Friend Defragmenter

One of the best things about being a teacher is that Facebook, YouTube and Gmail's chat functions are blocked on all Department of Education (DOE) computers and wireless networks. This means, on a day like today, when there's absolutely no one in the building and no one taking state exams, I am literally bored out of my fucking mind. The school feels like a ghost town.

One of my esteemed colleagues has taken it upon himself to enter my room any time he has to rip some serious ass. In the past four minutes, he has entered my room three times, and cranked out four (maybe six, if you count the little ones) loud, solid farts. Although, it might be more appropriate to say liquid farts judging by their sounds: some of them might've been a little wet. Pretty impressive, I'd say. Graduation is not until next Monday, so tomorrow looks to be more of the same.

It's depressing: my room is barren, all the other classrooms are barren, and there are no gangster-wanna-be students roaming the hallways thinking they can rap. I guess it's true, you never know what you appreciate until it's gone.

During lunch, I was somehow able to bypass the DOE's proxy on one of the computers and began going through my online contacts in GChat. What I suddenly noticed was how a lot of my friends are fragmented across the U.S. and the rest of the world. Friends I used to live with for years in college are now spread out in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago. My closest friends at the investment bank I used to work at are now in Bulgaria, England, and the Philippines. More friends spread out in other U.S. cities. Even more friends in Canada, Germany, Pakistan, India, the list goes on.

My experience in New York City has taught me that it's really hard to maintain a close social circle in the city, as a lot of people in my age group use it as a platform to move onto something else. So, it was strange when I learned from my students over the past two years that they would rather stay in their "hoods" all times if possible. A lot of them told me they try not to venture past a 10-12 block radius and don't particularly care about exploring other parts of the world, or even New York City for that matter.

Last summer, when I told my students about my trip to Pakistan, I mentioned I went to the beach with a lot of friends and had a blast being in the water.
"Mista, that's so lucky, ain't no beaches around here."
"Uh...  what? Dude, there's shit tons of beaches. Coney Island, Far Rockaway, Jones Beach..."
"Those be out in Brooklyn. No beaches in Harlem."
Originally, I thought I was just being naive. I didn't like to travel much when I was younger too, but this became a pattern, particularly with students who were likely affiliated with gangs or wanted to be in a gang. What is it about this particular population that makes them averse to travel or leave their territory? Is it safety? Comfort?

There is one benefit I could see if you never leave your block: your friends don't either. Everyone stays together and as a result, your friends probably aren't as fragmented around the world. College forges strong bonds between people from all over the world, but when you graduate, you decide how hard you want to work to maintain those relationships.

It would be great to have my closest friends in the city with me, although, it's nice to be able to visit a foreign country and crash at someone's place...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Detective Johnny Wadd

A few days ago, I had an interesting conversation with Kareem, who as many of the blog readers know is a student of mine set to graduate soon. Kareem asked me about my opinion on several get-rich-quick schemes he'd heard of or thought of.

Kareem is an interesting student who spends a lot of time trying to come up with business ideas in order to "help people get even lazier" as he says. He goes through these random phases sometimes where all he can think about is money, getting rich and making more money.
"I've just been thinking a lot lately. Will Smith's kid. He's got it made. He's a have. I'm a have not. That's so unfair. All the opportunities he's already had and is going to get."
At first, I was shocked I was having this conversation with him, because I thought he knew better by now than to simply say life is unfair and do nothing about it.

I told him sure, life is unfair but his definition of "have" and "have not" needs to be revisited. There's plenty of "rich" people out there who aren't intelligent or productive members of society and will likely waste the hard-earned money someone in their family accumulated. What does it mean to be a "have?" Is it money, or is it some sort of knowledge, support structure, etc?

Kareem agreed, and also admitted that while he would loved to have been born into wealth, he appreciates everything he's come to learn in his current life.

Phew! Crisis averted. Or so I thought:
"So, would you star in a porn movie for a million dollars? I would do it. Then I'd use that money and start my own business."
This is where my kids would write, SMH. I obviously said no, I wouldn't do porn (despite all the demand) and explained my reasoning. He responds:
"I don't care if people know I did porn or somehow found out. If I was a celebrity, I would make a sex tape and secretly release myself so I could get some popularity and money out of it."
At this point, I'm thinking: Uh... who are you and what have you done to Kareem?

At the end of the day, this exchange supremely depressed me. Kareem has been one of my star-studded students over the past two years. His perseverance and intelligence is something to admire. For him to seriously consider porn as an alternative makes me feel like all the conversations I had with him over the past two years were meaningless.

Beyond that, it seriously made me question if I, as a teacher, could really "change" someone for the better. Maybe he was just having a bad day and felt like his struggles were futile.

The conversation also made me thinking about myself: growing up in an industrial town off Chicago, I did everything I could to land a gig in investment banking. I really didn't care when people told me I'd have to give up my life to do it. "Sell your soul" as they say. I didn't really appreciate being happy until it was too late and I was already pulling all-nighters crunching numbers and wearing out the shortcuts to copy and paste (CTRL + C and CTRL + V) on my keyboard.

Some questions come up:
  1. Will most people who aren't born into at least the middle class spend their lives trying to jump classes through the acquisition of quick money? And have they "truly" jumped classes just through the acquisition of money? Or does one need to acquire more than simply wealth to jump classes?
  2. Is that why most of my students don't understand the Teach for America program, when I tell them it's packed with kids from among the most prestigious colleges and universities?
In my opinion, Real Housewife of New York, Countess Luann said it best, "Money can't buy you class."

Okay, seriously, stop wondering why I know so much about the Real Housewives of New York and focus on the main point of this entry people!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Pawn to E4

Two school days left until the June Regents Examinations begin.

I remember last year, my first year of teaching, I was a little freaked out around this time. I didn't realize some students would still prioritize other things over school, especially in such a critical time. It's hard to generalize with my student population: some have legitimate problems going on in life while others are playing XBox live and thinking about what to get for munchies (funyans maybe?). These are the same students rarely show up, but always come to school on Friday because they know other pot dealers don't (at least they have some business acumen). Friday is as good a day as any to buy drugs.

This year, I'm a bit more prepared, professionally and mentally. I've already provided my students with comprehensive review materials. I'm coming into school Saturday for a couple of hours, making myself available to students willing to come in and prep for the test next week. I'm betting only five kids will show up. Last Saturday it was two. But good for them. They'll get my best effort and hopefully make something of it.

I'm actually quite excited about today. Why? Well, it’s hard to imagine (and I'm still finding this hard to believe), but I think my school actually has a chess club. What started with a couple of students playing every once in a while on a set my colleague owns has transformed into a 16-person chess tournament set to wrap up today.

The kids are actually into chess, which is fucking bizarre. I mean, yes, with some of my students, I can see them liking chess. Others however, I never thought fit the mold of what a chess player might look, talk or act like: I was not even aware of my own biases here. Quite frankly, it's pretty cool. And now, even some of the students who didn’t really have experience playing chess are asking teachers and students to coach them.

What’s best are the things I've heard as the kids play:
  • "Your bitch [queen] is mine."
  • "Imma fuck you up, lay your king down now, save you the trouble..."
  • "Yo Mista, I’m nice in chess. If you ever want to stop teaching and play me, I’d be okay with that.”
  • "Shit yo. It's like I’m doin’ bicep curls, but with ma brain. Hurts OD."
  • "Yo Mista, you doin’ regents prep during lunch or can we bring the boards in your room?"
I must admit, there's some talent in the club. I’m actually trying to avoid playing some of my own kids because I don't want to get my ass handed to me. Not yet anyway.

Must download chess on iPad. Must buy chess set for home.

Must practice.

Damn you kids for this!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Salman Khan on The Colbert Report

Check out Stephen Colbert's interview of Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy. I'd previously written a post about Khan Academy here.

His lessons on YouTube have had over 57 million views. Pretty incredible stuff.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Quote of the Week: 5/23-5/27

We're talking about stocks in my personal wealth management class this week and I have to say, the kids like this shit. The ability to do your own research and "bet" on something you believe in really resonates with them. Especially since they now know they're earning jack shit from their savings accounts. Inflation also pisses them off.

Anyway, as I was trying to drill home the idea of dividends, I kept getting interrupted by students asking thoughtful questions. These were great questions, so I answered each one with a lot of detail. So at one point, Arturo, who is a very promising student, blurts out this gem:
"Alright, y'all stop bein' rude and askin' all these questions. Seriously, we're trying to get through a lesson here and I need to know all of this shit. [Pause] Haha, no just kidding, ask. But, let's get through the lesson too..."

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mo' Tests, Mo' Problems

Against any form of logic, New York City education officials are apparently thinking about forcing New York students to take more standardized tests. According to this NYT article, the sole purpose of these new tests will be to determine teacher effectiveness.

So if I'm a New York State student, I have to take and pass five Regents exams to graduate. If I want to go to college, I have to take the SAT. If I want to go to college and not take remedial courses, I have to take and pass more Regents. And if this new initiative goes through, I have to take eight more standardized tests.

I feel so bad for the children growing up in this country right now. School has gone from a place that is supposed to help you grow and develop as a productive member of society to a year-long test prep session.

Why even have high school? Why not just one big exam that tests everything you ever need to know in high school?

Oh wait, that's the GED.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Good Night and Good Luck

It's raining today. It's also May. To say we experienced some extremely shitty attendance would be an understatement. 

In fact, I think today set some sort of record. I co-teach my 5th period class with a first-year math teacher. That means for that specific period, there are two teachers in one room. Two teachers. One room. And no, it's not a "special education" class. It's a regular Algebra class that just happens to have two teachers. An amazing opportunity for students to receive instruction in multiple ways and receive one-on-one support.

Exhibit A below shows the attendance for 5th period today. I've blocked out all the names obviously.

Exhibit A: 5th period attendance
What you are seeing is correct: exactly one student was present today. Your eyes are not playing tricks on you. This student also happens to be a student whose attendance is quite terrible. In fact, when this student is here, he usually skips his classes and strolls the school's hallways, or tries to play in the gym every single period.

Exhibit B below is a picture I took of the shared classroom during 5th period.

Exhibit B: Student taking advantage of one-on-one time.
"I ain't doing work today. But I got suspended the last time I cut this class, so Imma just go to sleep."

"Absolutely not, why don't we try to get you caught up with the rest of the class? You're failing because you haven't turned anything in, nor have you showed up for any of the tests." I suggested.

"No. I ain't doing anything. I'm sleeping. Good night."

Good night and good luck.