Friday, April 27, 2012

Finnish Him

Why is the education world obsessed with Finland? Probably because Finnish students have consistently scored the highest on the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), a test often used to determine a nation's education rank. America isn't even in the top ten, yet Finland's core education values aren't too different from what the America's values were some time ago. Sadly, current education reform in the U.S. seems to be pushing us farther and farther away from those core values.

Finland is less obsessed with standardized test scores and more obsessed with developing a child's curiosity, ability to think and be creative. It is extremely difficult to become a teacher in Finland, so it's actually a well-respected profession nationwide. Test scores aren't tied to teacher pay. In fact, kids aren't even allowed to take standardized tests until they have at least been through nine years of schooling. There is a national curriculum, but no where in it does it say what specifically to teach nor how to teach it. Say, what?..
So, if after reading this you're even slightly interested in what Finland is doing, check out Finnish Lessons by Pasi Sahlberg. Yes, it's a book. Fine - if you're lazy and don't want to read an entire book, you can read this book review written by Diane Ravitch, education historian and my ideal mother.

Seriously, I wish I had someone in my family as cool as her. I hope she Googles her name and finds this post, in which case, here's a message: Mother's Day is just around the corner Diane. All you have to do is adopt me.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Bad Cheaters

When I was in high school, I knew how to cheat. And if I wanted to cheat, I could get away with it.

Back then, I learned how to program words, equations, and complete paragraphs into my TI-83 graphing calculator. The "A-student" cheaters were the ones who didn't get caught. We had developed effective methods with minimal risk. For example, writing out an entire essay lightly on notebook paper the night before and simply retracing our pre-written essay during test time. We would strategically position ourselves next to those who might be marginally better than us during an exam we knew for sure we couldn't ace ourselves. But this new seating assignment wouldn't occur on test day - that's too suspicious. The new seating arrangement would take place weeks before the exam. The list goes on.

Some educators may disagree with me on this (from an ethics perspective), but I believe the art of cheating properly requires strategy, intelligence, and intrinsic motivation (probably the most important). You really have to want a better grade; it has to mean something to you. You can't cheat with the aim to pass, otherwise you'll get caught. Your goal must be to ace it. And to accomplish this, you need to know some of the material already. It's very difficult to successfully cheat something without knowing anything about it. Even Frank Abagnale, the protagonist from Catch Me if You Can studied and worked his ass off to cheat banks, the airlines industry, the legal system, and the FBI.

As a transfer high school teacher, I've seen students over my three years of experience attempt to cheat in many ways, but I have yet to be impressed. Either I just haven't caught anyone who is that good, or someone who is that good has yet to take my class. This week, my Algebra classes began discussing the Pythagorean theorem: the sum of the squares of two legs in a right triangle is equal to the square of the hypotenuse. A great topic that both math lovers and haters tend to enjoy learning and applying.

I began this lesson by asking my students how big their TVs were in their apartments. Most students did not know, but when I got a response I asked, "Okay, so what does that mean?" Many students could not guess that TV sizes are labeled and sold by length of their diagonals. Good shit.

Mickey, one of my newer students, was struggling with applying the Pythagorean theorem, particularly when the hypotenuse is given and you must rework the equation to solve for a missing leg. Fortunately for him, he sits next to Brandee, a strong math student kind enough to hold his hand through every single problem. I'd love to do this for Mickey myself, but that's just not going to happen. Not when you teach at a transfer high school where every kid thinks their problem is more important than someone else's. Plus, it's not like this kid actually comes early or stays after school to get support - sleep is way more important.

At the end of the lesson I gave a short quiz. "Wait Brandee, I'm not done with that one. Lemme see what you got there." From the other side of the room, I could hear Mickey talking to Brandee. Actually by "talking to" I meant "copying off of." The problem: he was doing the shittiest job being sneaky about it.

"Mickey, you're going to have to show all of your work, you know that right? And eventually, you're going to have to take a test on this material. And, you'll be sitting next to people who have a different version of the test than you. What will you do then?" I asked.

"Mista, I'm not copying. I'm just going over her work," Mickey said, with the biggest grin I have ever seen. This kid seriously needs to work on his poker face. Come on, man! At least try to come up with something better.

"Dude, I can see AND hear that you're obviously copying answers right off Brandee..."

I waited for a response, but Mickey chose to ignore me, and then somehow I got busy helping other students. I made a mental note to take off points from Mickey's quiz and to also compare his answers to Brandee's side-by-side. As it turns out (Exhibit A, below), he blatantly copied three questions from Brandee, so I took off three points.

Exhibit A: What Not To Do.
Upon further investigation, I found that not only did he blatantly copy three questions from Brandee, but he didn't even do a good job copying the work. At some point it's evident that he just gave up, even though she got the entire question correct (Exhibit B below).

Exhibit B: Copying For the Sake of Copying.
This is the sort of stuff that really makes my day and simultaneously depresses the shit out of me.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Brownie's Brownie

Several kids in my advisory class were discussing the possibility of a fight breaking out between students later in the day. One of the gossipers turned to me and said, "Yo Mista, you seem like the type of guy who has never gotten into a fight." Unfortunately, he was wrong.

In the first grade, my mom worked at McDonald's part-time. She didn't have to because my dad was making plenty of dough as an electrical engineer, but she wanted to get out of the house as my father generally preferred she stay inside. My father wasn't all bad though, he allowed her to clean the house 24/7 and cook him three hearty meals a day: breakfast, lunch, and a packed dinner for work (he worked a later shift - 2 PM - 12 AM). Pretty nice guy, my dad.

Before becoming corrupted by her own rise to power in our household, my mom felt pretty bad about the conditions I grew up in. My dad was drinking all the time, beating the shit out of her and ruining our weekends. To compensate, my mom did super nice things for me sometimes. One of the things she used to do was drop off a McDonald's lunch for me every Friday. That sounds disgusting now, but as a six-year old obsessed with fast food, this was amazing. She would literally get to work early, buy me a Happy Meal, drive back to school and drop it off at the main office. Imagine receiving a Happy Meal for lunch in school personally delivered by your mother. Needless to say, many of my peers forgot how dorky and nerdy I was on Fridays: Oh hello ladies. Sure, go on ahead and take some french fries. By the way, did I mention I turn seven soon? No? Oh, and I'm also single. Wait, why are you leaving? Oh right, no more fries.

I wasn't exactly big for my age when I was six. And I was getting yummy food for lunch. If it wasn't McDonald's on Fridays, it was a delicious brownie for dessert in my packed lunches the other days. A classmate of mine, Conner Wheelman, began to take a special interest in what I had to eat for lunch everyday. I knew him very well, pretty much everyone knew Conner: the bully of our grade. He was the first grader who was clearly supposed to be in third grade. And by physical standards, probably fourth grade.

"Hey, let me get your brownie." Conner asked and/or demanded. I admit, it was kind of hard to tell if it was a question or a command. At this point, I thought, I could either say 'no' and get my ass kicked, or maybe if I give in, we'll be friends. Remember: I'm in the first grade at this point, so I really couldn't think two or three steps ahead.

Fast forward a few weeks. Conner Wheelman comes and sits next to me everyday during lunch. Why? Because everyday he took it from me. Sometimes, he left me an apple or maybe half a turkey sandwich my mom had made for me. But he always ate the fucking brownie. At the same time, he'd try to make me feel like we're buddies. "Hey man, thanks for that brownie. You and me are good friends," he said. Yeah, this is really working out, I thought. I eventually asked my mom to stop bringing me McDonald's for lunch on Fridays. She thought I was just hating the spotlight I got in the lunch room. Such a modest and thoughtful son.

Conner basically ate most of my lunch for the remainder of the first grade. I grew to become pretty skinny that year. The following summer, I asked my mom if I could take karate lessons. I was the only non-White or non-Hispanic person in the school, so it was only going to get worse. I knew that at some point I wouldn't be able to talk my way out of a fist in my mouth. Plus, I was smart enough to know that girls weren't really into kids who got their asses kicked.

By the time the second grade started, I was already up three belts, from white to yellow to orange. Unfortunately, Conner Wheelman was expelled my school at the end of the first grade when he decided it was okay to push the principal and spit in his face. It didn't matter though, because when one bully disappears, another quickly steps up to fill the gap and Keith Alvarez was on deck.

Keith was similar to Conner in many ways, but he wasn't as tall. Maybe it's because he hadn't failed two years in a row like Conner. I received the occasional "dork", "nerd", "Indian" (even though I'm Pakistani...) and "brownie" insult, but overall, second grade began pretty smooth. And, I got to enjoy my packed lunches and even a few McDonald's Happy Meals on Fridays before Keith decided he would bother me.

It must've been October, as we still got to go outside in the playground for recess, but it was a bit chilly. I had eaten my sandwich and apple in the cafeteria, but had decided to take my brownie outside to eat. I walked by the track where the bigger kids were playing two-hand touch football. Quite an entertaining game, I thought. Perhaps I could enjoy this game even more if I ate my brownie and watched simultaneously. What a great idea. As I took the brownie out of my Superman lunch box, a hand reached out, almost out of nowhere, and snagged my brownie away from me.

If you've ever seen a movie about jail, or talked to someone who has been to jail, then you know first impressions are everything. It was at this moment where I decided to make mine. "Give my brownie back, Keith." I demanded.

"Awwww! The brownie wants his brownie back. This is going to be so-"

He never got to finish that sentence because my roundhouse kick connected perfectly with his cheekbone. With his face and body twisted to one side, I began delivering swift side kicks to his exposed rib cage. I'm not sure how many times I kicked him, because the side kicks eventually transformed into simply kicking him while he was down. I must've gone deaf when I attacked, because when I finally stopped, there was a huge crowd of students around me yelling, "FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!"

I had just kicked someone's ass.

A rather large lunch supervisor barreled through the circle of students and grabbed me by the shoulder. Another one appeared and literally lifted Keith off the ground and we were escorted to the main office. We each told our story. Our parents were called in. We were both suspended for the day, which surprised me because I thought I would've gotten suspended for at least two or three days. I later found out my mom had gone off on the principal about how amazing my grades were and how the school could let a straight-A student sacrifice his lunch to bullies and not expect retaliation. I guess in the end, if you look good on paper, people tend to give you an advantage.

Keith never spoke to me again after that fight. In fact, I never saw him after the second grade. I have no idea where he is today or what he's doing.

As for me: I enjoyed my lunch with confidence for the rest of my time in school.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

One Size Fits All

I get very angry grading quizzes and papers sometimes.

There are times when I teach the same topic to the same student in different ways over a period of many days. And day after day after day, they still don't get it. These are the same students whom I catch doodling or gossiping during lessons. I catch them coming to school late. I catch them cutting my class. For situations like this, some teachers who have grown jaded over time, tend to generalize and think "one size fits all," that is, they erroneously assume all of these students must not care enough to try. So fail them all.

I may be growing slightly jaded, but that's just stupid.

One size doesn't fit all in city schools. What kind of asshole simply assumes any kid who doesn't do the work must not care? I mean, maybe he/she does care, but not enough to learn. There's a difference. Maybe there are bigger problems they need to worry about: court dates, pregnancy tests, where they'll sleep tonight, the list goes on. Maybe they just don't know how to prioritize. Sometimes, they're too stoned to want to learn or remember anything. Others are delusional: they have this big goal of graduating high school but will not admit to themselves that their current work ethic isn't enough to make it.

It's times like these where I grow confused. At-risk kids come to my school with so many different kinds of baggage. It would be unfair for me to simply get up there in front of the classroom, kick into lecture mode and assume everyone's going to "get it." Most students need more. Some react well to tough love, where I treat them like adults and allow no excuses. Others need to be coddled because they haven't ever been coddled before in their lives. They need someone to tell them that someone believes in them. Yet, others are so spoiled that they can't imagine their teacher would fail them, and for those kids I make sure to make it extremely difficult to grab my attention.

I have to juggle a lot of personalities at once, and that is probably the hardest part about my job. Whether I'm up in front of the classroom or bouncing from group to group, I have to figure out kids in a matter of seconds: how they learn, what they respond to positively, what they respond to negatively, and whether or not I should treat them like a middle school student, a high school student, a college student, a sibling, or a friend. In any given class period, I might have to tap all of those personalities just to get students to understand how to isolate a variable in an equation.

With all of the extra mental work I'm putting in, it's easy to see why I get frustrated and angry sometimes. It would be certainly make things a lot easier if I just taught what I had to teach and considered my job done. But I don't. So the frustration has to come out somewhere: often times, I write students notes on their quizzes that are brutally honest. Something to call them out on their bullshit or a written slap in the face to wake them up. I recently wrote the following on a student's quiz, "I don't know who told you that smoking pot makes you smarter, but do you really think this score proves that? Seriously, get your life together or quit wasting my time."

The next day, as I'm passing back graded quizzes, I see this student come into my classroom with an aura that is completely different from the previous day. I have his quiz in my hand, but I second guess myself. Should I give it back to him now? The kid seems completely different. Does he really need to see this harsh note now? What if it was a one-time thing? Questions like these make me wuss out sometimes. Something about this kid's face tells me yesterday was just not a good day. Maybe he'll try harder today. Maybe not.

Sometimes a kid in this situation really does try and impress me the next day, but sometimes the kid doesn't. In fact, most of the time my kids have left me feeling disappointed, but there are always a few kids that completely change direction. And that's why teachers can't and shouldn't generalize.

Every inner-city teacher arrives at some kind of crossroad during the school year: either the small victories are worth it and you work your ass off for them, or they're not and you hold off draining all the mental and physical effort. If there are teachers out there who catch themselves in the latter category, they need to quit. These kids deserve the benefit of the doubt.