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It Comes with Experience

Thursday, 23 May 2019, 19:32 UTC

Two grasshopper moments from this past week…

1. Sharpening Pencils

He came to sharpen his pencil. There is an electric sharpener sitting on a low table by the wall just below the whiteboard, and the students know that they may come up at any time to sharpen their pencils. A student who wants an effective writing instrument is a cause of celebration, not a reason to take offense at the interruption. (Although I confess that even I will roll my eyes mockingly if the interruption is particularly ill-timed and long.)

So there he was, bending over the table trying to sharpen his pencil.

They are not particularly good at this, these students. The world is too much with them. They push into the machine, and it jams. They are in a rush and do not wait long enough, and their pencils don’t get sharp, causing them to spend far more time at the machine than is warranted. This kid was no exception.

He jammed the pencil in. The sharpener stopped. He pulled it out and repeated the process with the same result. His frustration at failing to sharpen his pencil while the teacher quietly waited for him was evident. So I walked over to the table.

He looked at me. I reached out and without saying anything, I took his pencil, held it gently, and slid it into the sharpener which began to grind and whir. In a few seconds, a perfectly sharpened pencil emerged. I handed it back without saying anything and returned to my document camera.

He looked at me with a smile on his face — a smile somewhere between, “Yes I have learned the lesson” and “I see what you did there.”

2. Rolling and Unrolling Posters

She was struggling with a cardboard tube, trying to get something out. After watching her fiddle for a while, I walked up.

“Having trouble?” I asked.

“I can’t get the pictures out of this tube.”

These were panoramic photos of the graduating class taken the week before. The school hires a photographer, prints the photos and gives them to the seniors as a graduation gift. She wanted to see the photo.

I reached for the tube. She raised her eyebrows doubtfully but handed it over. Everyone in the room stopped to watch.

I took the tube in one hand and put two fingers from the other hand into the tube. I turned my hand a few times, and then I slipped the pictures out of the tube.

“Where did you learn to do that!?” she said.

They were great photos. The entire graduating class was arrayed on the bleachers in the gym wearing blue robes. She unrolled the prints and showed them to the other kids. Then she tried to put them back. After a moment, she looked at me.

“I can’t put them back.”

Everyone stopped to watch.

I rolled up the prints loosely and took the roll in one hand and put two fingers from the other hand into the roll. I turned my hand a few times, tightening the roll. I slipped it into the tube and handed it back.

Checking Her Answers

Tuesday, 21 May 2019, 20:24 UTC

The period was over. Most of the students had turned in their tests. I scanned the room and saw a student closely examining hers — not rushing to get one more answers in but rather looking it over closely.

She was done. She had answered every question. And yet, she didn’t just hop up and hand it in to quickly be rid of it. She was double checking, going thru the questions one by one to make sure that she bubbled what she intended. With one hand, she would point to a piece of scratch paper where she must have done her work and then move her other hand down one line on the answer sheet, looking briefly at each sheet before she continued.

I haven’t seen this before — this kind of attention to detail. I have good students, so I’m sure I’ve missed some of it. And I must tell you that it was a fine thing to see.

So Happy Day

Monday, 20 May 2019, 20:14 UTC

A student came into my classroom one day after school last week. She wanted help going over some problems. She found a spot to sit and took the chair down from the desk. We started working problems.

I would help her a bit and then suggest that she see how far she could get while I worked on the other side of the room packing up my teacher stuff for summer. After a while, she would ask for help. We would work together, and then she’d work alone again.

We spent much time in this back-and-forth. At least an hour, and then she came back the next day to continue. She was patient, even when the problems were difficult. I’m not sure how deeply she absorbed the material, but then ask yourself how deeply you absorbed algebra when you took it.

When we were done, she packed her things and got ready to leave. She turned and looked at me.

“You know, Mister, today is Teacher’s Day in Mexico.”

“It is?” 

“So…” she said, searching briefly for the words, “…Happy Day!”

I smiled broadly and said thank you. Then she went to catch her ride.


Sunday, 19 May 2019, 18:04 UTC

When I came out onto the patio, Miss Izzy was playing with some young girls, much to the glee of the fair and industrious Trudy who had her on a short leash. Nearby, two boys were at a small table horsing around. They were standing in the chairs, and one was shouting to a homeless man standing in the median of the street just beyond the wall ran along the edge of the patio. (Where were this kid’s parents? For heaven’s sake, accosting a homeless person!?) 

I had just ordered our catfish tacos, and was coming out onto the patio to meet Trudy. (It was Friday afternoon, and we had converged at this spot as a kind of midpoint.) I still had my school ID hanging from a lanyard about my neck. I wore a collared shirt and dress pants and black shoes. As I approached, the boys ceased their horsing around and sat flat in their chairs.

“Are you with security?” one of them asked.

I chuckled to myself. Trudy laughed.

“Well, is there something you boys are up to that security should know about?” I asked in my best teacher voice.

“No,” the same boy said as the other sat still.

Do I really radiate an aura of a security guard!? Perhaps this explains why on the whole my students are well behaved — and here I thought it had something to do with classroom culture!

Rainy Day Pencils

Tuesday, 14 May 2019, 19:38 UTC

It was a rainy day. On days like that, the ag classes which are in the portables stay inside, scrounging for space in rooms where teachers have a planning period (and so no students). This is why, during fifth period, they came into my room.

One of the students was working on a project. She asked for something (tape or a stapler, maybe). I do have tape. And I do have a stapler. Whatever it was, she borrowed it, thanked me sincerely, and returned to her chosen spot in the back of the room.

“Do you want to use my colored pencils?” I asked in jest, holding up the box.

Now, you must know that a few weeks before, on another rainy day, she had indeed used my colored pencils. The room that day was full of the sound of her rattling through the pencils looking for just the right color. So, recalling that day and that sound, I held up my box of colored pencils with my eyebrows raised, suggesting, “Here they are, if you need them.”

The ag teacher chuckled. 

“No thank you,” the student said, not quite sure how to react to a teacher with a thing about colored pencils.

I frowned in mock disappointment, and we all returned to whatever it was we had been doing.

A few minutes later, she walked up and confessed that she would indeed like to use the pencils. And so we all sat there in the waning moments of that rainy day fifth period with the sound of rattling pencils as she again searched for just the right color.

The Last Lesson

Monday, 13 May 2019, 20:12 UTC

At some point on Friday, my Algebra 2 colleague said to me, “Well, today’s the last day of notes for the students.”

We both have them keep notes in composition notebooks. Sometimes they glue things in. Much of the time, they write notes and examples based on what I’m writing in my notebook. So the notebooks are … or at least can be … good references for quizzes and in-class assignments. And last Friday was the end. The last lesson. Nothing more. From here on out, we’re reviewing for a test and then for finals. 

The last lesson.

It didn’t really sink in until the afternoon. I was printing some review sheets. School was over, and as usual, all the seasoned teachers had long since left, because it had been, what, 10 minutes since the last bell. Zoom! They’re out the door, and there I am alone in the workroom, printing review sheets.

Well I wasn’t completely alone. Across the room, one of the senior teachers (she has 30 years behind her) was printing something, too. I walked over and got her attention. She turned and smiled.

“Last lesson today,” I said.

Her smile broadened, and she nodded. She knew exactly what I was talking about.

“And get this,” I said. “All my grading is finished. Quizzes and homework. Everything. I got it all done during the day. I have nothing to take home this weekend!”

She laughed loudly. She held up her hand. We high fived.

“So now you are teacher. For real!” she said.

It’s taken all year to get to this point. And on the last day of the last lesson, with no teacher stuff to throw into my messenger bag, I had a giddy feeling welling up inside me. It was like the feeling you used to get on the last week of school when you were a kid. I haven’t felt that runaway euphoria since then — that feeling of school winding down with the whole summer ahead, spring blowing warm air under a blue sunny sky, your heart wanting to explode with sheer joy.

Wait. School is winding down. Summer lies ahead. The sky has (sometimes) been blue. The sun has (sometimes) been shining. And, oh, the wildflowers… And the clouds drifting across the sky… And that bluebird sitting on that barbwire fence…

You see? Sheer joy.

Just Fine

Sunday, 12 May 2019, 20:40 UTC

Sometimes I get distracted. I will be talking about something like, I don’t know, something like direct variation. And then I will stop mid-sentence and look at the class. I will look at them and change gears — tell a story.

When this happens, they set their pencils down. They have learned to see it coming.

So last week I was talking about something like, I don’t know, I think it was solving rational equations. And I stopped mid sentence and looked at them. And changed gears — really changed gears. Somehow I was talking about the design flaws of the pens that I use, specifically, the failings of the visual design of the pens which led me to buy a pack of medium point pens when I really wanted fine point pens.

This is more significant than it might appear at first glans. With medium point pens, there is a limit to how cleanly I can annotate my diagrams and equations. With fine point pens, I feel like a draftsman. With medium point pens I feel like I’m writing with jumbo crayons. And the design flaw in all this is that there is no clear annotation on the pens to differentiate them. No annotation, that is, except for a dim gray “Fine” vs. “Medium” written on a dark gray band at the bottom of the otherwise identical black pens (identical, mind you, to the extend that the packaging for these pens does not say “Fine” or “Medium”).

To demonstrate my point, I walked out to Jasmine’s desk with one of each of the pens.

“You tell me,” I said. “Which one is fine and which one is medium?”

She looked at the pens and with no hesitation said, “This is the fine pen.” She handed it to me.

In shock, I squinted at the dim gray text at the bottom of that pen. I could not see what it said. I squinted harder. I saw an ‘F’.

“You are right!” I said. The class laughed.

That’s sixty year-old eyes for you.

Mother’s Day

Sunday, 12 May 2019, 15:14 UTC

Happy Mother’s Day, mom.

Onslaught of Yellow

Sunday, 12 May 2019, 15:02 UTC

The Bluebonnets have come and gone. Their seed pods are beginning to dry, preparing to spew seeds for another generation down the line. And the Indian Paintbrush have come and gone, too. At their peak, a dusty orange-pink lined my 30 mile drive to school, taking my breath away at the beginning of every day.

And now we have the annual onslaught of yellow.

Working on an Exit Ticket

Wednesday, 24 Apr 2019, 18:52 UTC

Keeping kids engaged in learning is hard, harder when the subject is math, and worse when so many of them lack fundamental skills. So you do what you can, and you smile when you stumble on something that works.

On this day, we had a block of time at the end of class for the kids to work on some independent practice problems. There would be an exit ticket that they would have to turn in (as evidence that they were doing something with the time they were given). And the block of time was generously long, because most of the students were in a different part of the building taking a standardized English test. 

It was quiet in the classroom — blissfully quiet for this normally raucous period. We had just finished talking about greatest common factors, and now the kids were working the exit tickets.

Overheard from two students sitting at a table not too far away:…

“…what you do is pull out the GCF like this…”

He pointed to his paper. The two of them were bent over the table. Then the other one started to ask a question.

“But what’s this here?”

He paused momentarily and then said, “Ohhh.”

He picked up his pencil and began writing on his own paper. The first student continues with his. The two of them fell silent. Not long after that, I looked up, and I saw them comparing answers.

These exit tickets have been effective. Actually, they aren’t really exit tickets but rather smallish sets of problems — short enough not to feel like an assignment, long enough to keep them working, varied enough that they don’t have to slog thru one problem on end before they get to claim victory. And they get to work together in groups of their own choosing. 

On a bad day, these groups can turn into loud, unfocused chit-chat sessions in which no one gets credit for the exit ticket, because no work got done. But on a good day, like this one, they actually do math and talk about it to each other. You got that? They talk about math to each other… well, on a good day they do.

This was one of those.