Saturday, March 24, 2012

New Kids, Old Tricks

There's something about blowing my kids' minds that makes me feel pretty awesome.

What makes me feel even more awesome (if possible)? Finding out that my kids are teaching each other my tricks and lessons outside of class time. That's a special feeling. Warm and gooey.

At a transfer high school, such as the one I teach at, the skill levels of students vary significantly. A student with fifth grade math skills could be sitting directly right next to a student with eleventh grade math skills in my Algebra class. With that kind of variety, it's very important I provide some side-challenges to the students bored out of their minds with my class, particularly those who passed the NY State Regents Examinations and just need the class credit to move on.

So last week as a side-challenge, I brought a calculator over to Jamie, a new student sitting in the front row and said, "Okay, once you finish the problems on the board, figure out how I did this." I showed her the calculator below, with "2 + 2 = 4" calculated on the screen.

I took the calculator back, typed in a few more things, and then showed this to her:

"Whoa, that's crazy! How'd you do that?!" She asked, stunned.

"Figure it out." I moved on to help students who were struggling with the material on the board. I knew Jamie put her head down when she got bored with the material (she's a smart girl), but this type of behavior is an indirect distraction to others. Plus, it just doesn't look good to have a kid with her or her head down in the middle of a lesson. With my differentiation (more like distraction) strategy in place, I was able to spend a significant amount of time pushing kids through the lesson.

Eventually, once we went through the problems as a class, I came back to Jamie to see if she had figured it out. She hadn't. I showed her the trick and she smiled.

A few days later during another class, a different student called me over and said, "Yo Mista, I heard you know how to do this crazy calculator trick. Show me! The other kids wouldn't, I feel mad stupid!"

"What do you mean the other kids wouldn't? When did this happen?" I asked.

"Yesterday when we was goin' on the college field trip, Jamie had her calculator with her on the bus and she showed me '2 + 2 = go fuck yourself.' I couldn't figure out how she did it! She told me you showed her! You gotta show me!"

"Wait. You guys were showing each other calculator tricks on the bus ride?" What a terrific way to end a great week: inner-city kids geeking out on calculators on a bus ride.

For readers who didn't grow up using a Ti-83 or Ti-84 graphing calculator, you might be wondering, how did I do the calculator trick? Well, it's simple really. You can write messages on these things (which everyone knows), so obviously there's a space key to add spaces between words. Type whatever equation you want (e.g. "2 + 2"), and then keep pressing space until you reach the end of the next line. Then type in a number (or phrase) that would make absolutely no sense. Ta da!

Friday, March 16, 2012

A New Hope (Maybe)

During the last three months, I haven't been as happy as I normally am on the job.

I attribute this unhappiness to a variety of factors. Lack of proper school leadership and management is definitely number one. A low teacher morale is another, probably because of the politics that are currently in play. And finally, the icing on the cake: the lack of effort to put forth a solution to our school's attendance problem. At this point, I'm sure even you, the reader, is sick of me whining, bitching, and moaning about attendance. This country's lack of logic in terms of education is bad enough, but then to have to come to school the next morning and deal with having no students show up for your first and last classes of the day? That's too much.

A silver lining presented itself recently in the form of new recruits. I don't know what the fuck happened, but my school somehow managed to recruit some pretty intelligent and motivated students for the trimester. In fact, during one of my Algebra classes this week, one of these new students raised his hand and asked, "So is this class Algebra 2/Trigonometry or more advanced than that? I ask cuz I like, need to retake the Algebra 2/Trig Regents again. I didn't get a good enough score the first time, but I did pass my Algebra and Geometry Regents." Who are you kid, and where have you been?

"Uh... buddy. This is Algebra 1. Like, 9th grade Algebra. You're talking about an 11th grade mathematics course. We don't offer math higher than 10th grade Geometry at this school. The only reason you're in my class right now is probably because you missed one term of Algebra 1 somehow, somewhere. You really shouldn't be in this class...Wait, why are you in this school again..?" I asked - dumbfounded.

"Well, I dropped out of school for a while to go skateboarding in Germany."

"Oh. Well, okay. That makes sense. But, cool."

Could these new kids provide me with the hope I so desperately need to carry me into summer? I'm cautious about being optimistic here because I've seen how kids (both new and old) in my school can quickly transform from motivated, straight-A students to frequent cutters, no-shows, wake-and-bakes, and dropouts.

It's incredibly depressing, but that's what happens when you lump a bunch of kids with bad habits together in the same building without a proper attendance strategy: you can't change them. They tempt each other. We have students on our rosters who are in their third year of this school. This school is a two-year transfer school. Some of them are going to hit the age of 21 soon and get aged out of the system. We've also got kids who accumulated more credits in their old school than they have at this school. We've also got kids who come to school stoned out of their minds on a daily basis. And let's not forget the kids who have gotten pregnant more than once during their stay within our school.

"Show me your friends and I will tell you who you are."

I don't know who said this (Google it), but this statement couldn't be any more accurate at my school. That's why I've been telling all of the new kids to try to stick together. Don't mingle too much with the others. Stay together. Motivate each other. It seems as if giving up on school is an infectious bacteria with an alarming growth rate when surrounded by others with the same infection. We need to nip this problem in the bud before the new kids start to disappear.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Let Us Be

If you haven't already done so, check out high school teacher William Johnson's confession in the New York Times. It's a straight-from-the-gut piece written from the teachers' perspective regarding current Department of Education policy, particularly rating and evaluating teachers.

Teacher evaluations are a big issue in NYC (and now other U.S. cities), as teacher evaluation data has been released to the public. Charter school teacher data was soon released after that, with some of the ratings quite embarrassing.

Forgetting the controversy of this data being public for just a second, let's focus on the formula that's used to evaluate teachers. Significant research has proved the results of this formula are completely unreliable, but honestly, we didn't need people with doctorates to tell us the formula created by people with doctorates is bullshit. Any evaluation methodology that incorporates standardized testing is bullshit. If you think not, then you probably didn't grow up with students most marginalized in society.

I could be the best teacher in the world, but if my students aren't intrinsically motivated to do well, I won't be rated properly and fairly according to these ridiculous formulas. It won't matter that some of my students will only stay the full day in school if I show up. It won't matter that I am a well-respected teacher by students, parents, teachers and administrators. It won't matter that I single-handedly changed some of my students' trajectories for the better. None of that will matter when you throw standardized test scores into the mix.

When did American society start believing teachers don't have our students' best interests at heart? Why would we join the profession if we didn't feel passionate about it? Newsflash: this gig isn't a minimum-wage position where you fill out a two-page job application and show up. Teachers need a college degree, and in many cases, a masters degree. Teachers need state-level certifications, for which you must pass exams. Does the process of becoming a teacher needs to be reevaluated? Sure, but still, it's still a lot of work to do if you simply want a paycheck and don't care.

One of my colleagues recently wrote a very inspiring post about how he intends to rise above the bullshit. Toxic policies, inaccurate teacher evaluations, incompetent leaders, and uninformed politicians: these are our profession's roadblocks. They're preventing teachers from reaching our full potential. We all want to be like the best teacher we ever had in high school. So let us be.

Friday, March 2, 2012


As a teacher, I have no fucking idea what the day is going to bring me. I usually expect something good, bad, funny, and a pile of shit all together at least once everyday. What I didn't ever expect was this: getting accused of being a member of a secret organization that's plotting to take over the world. Beyond shock though, I felt sorry. I felt sorry my kids had to equate me with some ridiculous conspiracy theory to justify their own trajectory in life.

During some free time in class, several students were grouped around a classroom computer. They had finished their work and so I rewarded them by allowing them to do whatever they want. It's a nice and easy system that works. "Make time to waste time" - something I believe in and preach.

As I walked around collecting papers and tidying up my classroom, I noticed my students looking up Illuminati articles, researching Illuminati symbols and reading articles and gossip columns that accuse incredibly rich and influential people like Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna of being part of the Illuminati and plotting to establish a New World Order.

Conspiracy theories. As a Pakistani-American, I am pretty sick of them.

I chose to ignore their idiotic conversation and instead resorted to checking my e-mail at my desk. As I skimmed through my inbox, I couldn't help but overhear, "Yo, you heard? I looked this nigga up on Google the otha day and read shit bout him on Wall Street. He be in that Illuminati joint my nigga. Plottin' the New World Order. Yo Mista got bread." Heads turned. They were looking at me.


I immediately took a shit on their theory by actually explaining what the Illuminati believed in and stood for. This conversation opened up a discussion in which I learned that my students erroneously believed the Freemasons and the Illuminati are the same group. Dammit! That means we need another Nicholas Cage in which he solves puzzles all over the country in order to explain the difference. We can't let that happen.

The students grew silent when I brought up the fact that a lot of conspiracy theorists, rappers and wanna-be rappers rapping about the Illuminati had no clue what the Illuminati were until the Hollywood movie Angels and Demons starring Tom Hanks came out (based on Dan Brown's book) in 2009. I later did my own research online (and watched some YouTube clips) and realized that it's now popular to associate any powerful figure (in particular, one that is a minority in the U.S.) as a member of the modern Illuminati.

How sad. How sad is it that we have to justify our own failures, mistakes, and lack of success by accusing others of being part of some larger group with power. This logic makes being where ever you are in life okay and thus we are able to feel better about ourselves. It's like when you're playing a sport and the opposing them wins. Sometimes, your natural reaction is to justify your defeat by thinking or saying, "Well, yeah but they had John Doe on their team. Without John Doe playing, we would've won." Bullshit.

Jay-Z himself has laughingly denied all Illuminati accusations, saying, "It may sound a little arrogant, but I just think people can’t handle when somebody else is successful.  Something has gotta be wrong; you gotta be down with some higher power. And I guess when someone else is successful, it makes you feel like maybe you’re a failure. So it can’t be you, it has to be some other force."

I sat there staring his quote and thought about what my kids said. I thought about how they behave and what shapes them and came to the conclusion that an engaging classroom conversation in class is simply not enough to convince the majority of the students at my school. A shift in thinking on a larger scale was needed.

I decided to play into the Illuminati accusation. Over a span of a few days, I incorporated various Illuminati symbols into my classroom and my school website. Some of the symbols are pretty understated, and others are more blatant, like the pyramid taped on the ground directly where I normally stand and teach.

It's watching you.
The game is on. Once enough students notice and begin their own conspiracy theories, I'm going to play it on even further. I'm going to make this Illuminati conspiracy theory appear so dumb and stupid that by the end of it, they will think I'm dumb and stupid for pushing it. But that's okay. Better they think I'm stupid than go into the real world and let others think they're stupid.

You're welcome kids.