Friday, March 30, 2012

The Lovely Voices

Today is one of those days that make me giggle. The sun is shining, the students are happy, and best of all, it's Friday.

I spent first period correcting vocabulary while the students were in clubs and musical rehearsal. I opened the book on the top of the pile to chapter 14, and a student had left a little note for me: "Mrs. Lahey, you gave me a 19/20 for chapter 13, but I actually got two wrong. I should have gotten an 18/20." I wrote back, "My mistake, thanks for your honesty. You can keep the 19."

This happens all the time around here - the honesty, not the mistake - and I am sure it is a direct result of Crossroads' emphasis on character education. There's mumbling and grumbling here and there about character education class, but when it comes to these small moments, its clear that the students take the core virtues curriculum to heart. We teach them to "know the good," guide them as they come to "love the good" and then, if the stars align just right, we get to bear witness when they "do the good."

Second period, I had English 7, and they were on today. The vocabulary term for the day was belle epoque, and, as Adrienne Rich died yesterday, she served as our cultural literacy lesson. I read two of my favorite poems, "Storm Warnings" and "Diving Into the Wreck." A student raised her hand at the end of "Diving into the Wreck."

"Is she going into the underworld? That's what I see." I paused for a moment, and considered sharing Ms. Rich's feminist philosophy and her place in feminist history. In the end, I decide to wait. My students are twelve, and Ms. Rich's role in the feminist movement, her contributions to women's artistic, social, and political power in America remains an abstraction.

I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body
We circle silently about the wreck
we dive into the hold...
we are, I am, you are
by cowardice and courage
the one who find our way
back to the scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

If these lines represent a descent into the underworld, if that is what they see, if that image helps them revel in Ms. Rich's language, then so be it. A more "correct" reading can wait until Monday.

I used to correct them right away, to hand them the "right" interpretation for each poem. But recently, I have found that when I tell the students that their interpretations are no less valid, no less "right" than mine or anyone else's, they are more invested. They develop a relationship with the poem. I can't believe it took me so long to figure that one out. Of course they hate poetry when a teacher tells them that their reading is wrong, that they don't "get" what the poet it trying to say. Where is the joy in that?

I do guide my students toward a more thorough and careful reading of poetry, but I have learned to let them have their revelations.

Misunderstandings and mis-interpretations provide some of my favorite moments. In the second scene of Twelfth Night, Viola hears that her brother may not have died when their ship went down in a violent storm. The captain tells her that he saw her brother tie himself to the ship's mast. I asked the class why they thought he might do tie himself to a mast, and one boy said, "To save himself from the sirens?"

To save himself from the sirens. Oh, how I love my job.

Right image, wrong story. Odysseus kept from being lured in by the sirens' song by stuffing his crew's ears full of beeswax and tying himself to his ship's mast. Viola's brother, on the other hand, was simply holding on to a super-sized life preserver in an attempt not to drown in the Adriatic Sea.

I'm willing to go with the flow on the underworld interpretation of "Diving Into the Wreck," but sometimes, mistakes are just mistakes. No matter how much they make me giggle.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Deus Ex Machina

One of the best parts of teaching is that the personality of each new day depends on the whims, hormones, collective night's sleep, and mood of the students. Add to that the vagaries of weather, seasons, and the particular day's proximity to dances, vacations, holidays, tests, and birthdays, life as a teacher can get pretty darn unpredictable.

I thought I'd share one day - a normal day - in order to prove my point. Today was a pretty average day, with its highs, which I can share, and its unsettling and sad lows, which I can't. The full portrait, with all its confidential warts, is much more honest, if a lot less aesthetically appealing. And therein lies the rub. Teachers can't talk about the warts, and the lovely parts are so very lovely.

It's mud season in New Hampshire, and many of the dirt roads our students travel each morning are either impassable or highly treacherous. The temperature has been unusually warm, so the road crews can't even count on early morning freezes to firm up the ground they are supposed to level out. The school busses can't drive on the dirt roads, so everyone's morning commute is out of whack.

With this unseasonably warm weather comes blue skies, hot classrooms, open windows, the beginning of "Can we have class outside?" season and spring fever. The eighth grade is particularly susceptible to this fever, as they are heading off to high school next year, and for most of them, they are just so done, done, done with middle school. We are usually spared from their disdain and overt rejection until late April, but this beautiful weather promises to bring on early cases.

I watch my younger son make the bus with mere seconds to spare, tell my older son to be careful on his bike, jump in my car for the three-mile commute to school, and the day begins.

Homeroom: I share early morning organizational and attendance duties with a co-worker. Today, I had the usual tardies and exploding lockers to deal with. I teach first period, so I really need the prep time to focus and prepare my notes, but thanks to my ancillary role as organizational mentor, today's prep time is not to be.

Latin 7: We finally got to move out of the present tense and into the imperfect tense. The imperfect is characterized by the "ba" ending, so we call it the tense of the imperfect sheep. You know, the ones with burrs and mats in their fleece. As long as there's a "ba," we're good, both in the active and passive voice. I'm all about the schtick here, as the imperfect tense (ongoing actions in the past) isn't quite as cut-and-dry as the perfect tense (completed actions in the past), and they need a little schtick to keep things light. So sheep it is.

My prep period, now known as Return to Algebra I: My return to math is beginning to pay off; we are learning about factoring binominals, and I am often manage to complete my homework without gouging my eyes out with a pencil. This is real progress. This is also a post for another day. Thank you to my math-teacher readers, by the way. Your advice in email and comment forms have been most helpful, particularly where those pesky negative integers were concerned.

Latin 8: We are preparing for next week's Medusa Mythology Examination. The entire middle school takes the National Mythology Exam, but only the eighth graders take this much more difficult test. The students did a divide-and-conquer maneuver on the weighty and detailed Medusa syllabus, and each student researched their topics. They each created an outline and quiz, and present their material to the class in turn. This year's theme is "Monsters and Malicious Mortals," so the topics range from Typhon and Echidna's hideous brood to the Labors of Hercules, Perseus, Jason, and Medusa's lovely family. Did you know that her sisters, the Graiai, shared one eye and one tooth? Talk about sibling rivalry.

Latin 6: It's time for the sixth grade to show me that they really know the endings for the first and second declensions, so it's crunch time. I'd recount the play-by-play on the review of a, ae, ae, am, ā, a, ae, ārum, īs, ās, īs, ae, but that's about as exciting as it gets. Don't get me wrong, we have a lot of fun together, what with the mythology, togas, and our recent translation of The Three Little Pigs, but today was simply about the endings. Sometimes drilling endings is just, well, drilling endings. They really can't translate well if those endings are not right there on the tip of their tongue, so a-drilling we will go until they know the first couple of declensions.

English 7: It's Tuesday, so it's independent reading day. Monday is grammar day, Thursday is vocabulary day, and Friday is for spelling. It took me a while to submit to a regular schedule, but the students find it predictable, and it helps them remember what books to bring to class. As the students hand in their independent reading forms, I see the title of Sanjay Gupta's new novel, Monday Mornings on a particularly literature-ravenous student's list. I had thought about getting my husband that book, so I ask him, "Michael [not his real name], how was Monday Mornings? He replies with a shrug, "It was all right. It started out pretty good, but then it got all God out of the machine at the end." I squinted at him for a moment before I realized what he meant. "You mean deus ex machina? You mean like from Horace?" "Yeah - that. God out of the machine. It was like the author didn't know how to end the book so he just made up some crazy plot stuff to end it." I was beside myself with excitement. I taught this class deus ex machina back in January. The term had come up in the eighth grade when we got to the end of A Tale of Two Cities, and as I teach the same cultural literacy item in both grades, I shared it in the seventh as well. This kid not only remembered the term, he applied it in its English equivalent English to an independent reading book. Today rocks. If nothing else goes well, today rocks.

English 8: Two of my students have been begging me to let them do a Purim song and presentation for the class as the cultural literacy item, so I agreed. They dressed up - one as Queen Esther and one as England (yes, the country) - to present the history of Purim, explain the holiday's traditions, and they performed a song for the class.

Their proud parents gave me permission to include a picture.

They received a huge round of applause from their classmates.

When I'd finished cultural literacy (the poem "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the parts about the albatross around the Mariner's neck and the quote "Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink"), and the vocabulary word of the day (slough: the "slew" form and the "sluff" form, and the fun fact that the "sluff" form, as in, "snakes slough off their skins," comes from a Middle English word that actually means "the skin of a snake") we got to the real lesson of the day.

For the past five years or so, the middle school students have been begging me to give up one day during the poetry unit and dedicate it to the writing of poetry. This year, I relented, but in order to up the ante, I asked them to create an English or Italian sonnet, a villanelle, or (I said, chuckling,) a sestina. I did not really expect to get any finished poems at the end of class - in fact, I said I would not collect the poems at all. The point of the lesson was for them to get inside the form and poke around a bit. Test the fences. Kick the tires. Mix up some metaphors and construct some rhymes, no matter how slant.

Did I mention the unseasonably beautiful weather?

I allowed the eighth graders to work outside. Some handled it well, some could not focus, and I received exactly one finished poem at the end of class. Frankly, that was one more than I expected, and everyone else made some interesting progress, so that was fine. But lesson learned. I kept the seventh grade in and received eight finished poems after 40 minutes of work time. Of the eight, four were villanelle.

I won't go into a definition of the villanelle here, as does a wonderful job here. If you don't make the jump, trust me. It's a complex and incredibly challenging poetical form. They have loved the villanelle we have read in class, but to write one, well, that's a real accomplishment.

The end of the day is - I'm so sorry, I'm tired of this expression too, but it's the only one that truly fits - like herding cats. I let my older students out of class, and then I help the youngest students re-do what they un-did that morning. The youngest students are still getting used to keeping track of the many books and folders and assignment sheets and assorted details of middle school life, that packing up is as Sisyphean a task as the morning's unpacking. Except, instead of large boulders, we roll around putrid lunch bags, orhpaned copies of Julius Caesar, and crumpled homework assignments.

When the door slams shut behind the last student, the silence is truly lovely. For the first hour, anyway. When I notice that that the middle school is too quiet without the kids, I pack up my own backpack and head home to the work of grading and planning. For whatever tomorrow might bring.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Exponent Negativity

An 8th grade student approached me yesterday after third period. I had just taught composition class - the composition class that conflicts with the Algebra I class I have been attending in order to get over my math anxiety.

"Mrs. Lahey, I we did some hard stuff in math today, and we were really worried that you'd get behind, so I agreed to take notes for you and teach you the lesson. I can come by during lunch today and explain what we learned, if you want."

This reversal just slays me. My students are worried for me. Worried about my ability to keep up in math class. How sweet is that? I was really touched. One of the things I love most about my school is the sense of community, but until yesterday, this community had always been a "them" and "us" community. We adore our students, mind you, but as much as we'd like for our community to be one, big, fuzzy "us," it's not. Students are students and teachers are teachers, and never the twain shall meet.

Until yesterday.

Before I start getting attacks from readers who think I am trying to create inappropriate relationships with my students - relationships I am supposed to view as rigidly hierarchical and hopelessly lopsided as a power structure - know that I am not trying to be my students' friend. I just think it's good for them to see adults not know things, and not be afraid to not know, and not run from not knowing.

I talk and talk about the importance of viewing education as a lifelong process rather than a means to some calligraphy-on-parchment end, and my attempt to work through my math anxiety is proof of statement. I really mean it. I love to learn - and not just the stuff that comes more easily. Even the stuff that makes me want to give up and run screaming in the other direction.

Stuff like this:

As I am a newly minted Algebra I student, let me break this explanation down for you.

[Silence, eventually the sound of fingers tapping idly on the keyboard, as I attempt to think of words appropriate to the material contained in the scanned image, above.]

Okay. Here's what I know. I must accept the fact that any number to the power of zero = 1. Ellie, my English-student-cum-Algebra-mentor explains that concept in her red notes above. I don't understand it, but I accept that it's a rule, and follow it.

The other thing I learned is this: if an integer is negative, you can stick it at the bottom of a fraction under a one, and it magically becomes positive. I don't know why, but if I simply accept this and apply it, my homework answers are right. I got through a difficult problem set today through the blind application of these two rules.

I'm not proud of this reality; I'm just owning it. I just don't get it. Alison Gorman, my colleague, friend, and math teacher is patient and kind and generous with her time, and I feel as if I get it for a second or two after she explains it to me, but then, poof, it's gone.

This has always been my problem with math. I try to understand the whys and wherefores of the rules, I really do, but the why just goes over my head. I don't know if it's because I don't care, or because I know that in the end, if I just decide to accept the rule and use it, I can get by through sheer grit and application of the rules I don't really understand. That's how I got through high school math.

Alison is one of the most effective, organized, creative, and dedicated teacher I have ever met, and yet, I think she may have met her match in me. She's extremely patient, and more than a little entertained by my efforts, but I'm afraid she's going to realize that I have severe limitations where numbers are concerned.

I will continue to try to understand, because I hate that I don't. I hate not knowing. I hate butting up against my limitations.

It's time to bust through the negative and transform those integers into their positive form once and for all.

Monday: Powers of 10 and Scientific Notation.

Part V of my math odyssey can be found here.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Exponents, Products and [my mathematical] Powers

"Everyone who beats Mrs. Lahey on this problem set will earn extra credit points."

Oh, dear. Extra credit points will be flowing like New Hampshire spring runoff thanks to Mrs. Gorman's misplaced faith in me.

When I decided to return to Algebra I in order to get over my math anxiety, I knew I'd have some catching up to do. I stumbled into class on the last day before a unit test, in the last week of the second trimester. I paid little attention in Algebra I the first time around, and that was 30 years ago.

Helpful hint: If you plan to return to Algebra I in middle age, start on the first day of a unit, not the last.

I did my best to catch up with the kids, and Alison Gorman is the best math teacher I've ever seen, but if you glance back up at the scan of my first practice set, you can see how badly I tanked. The red "C" in the middle of the sheet was the one problem I got right on the first try. I had totally forgotten what to do with exponents, could not remember what the distributive property was let alone how to use it, and my hand cramped up about four pages into my notes.

That one correct problem turned out to be my only correct problem. But it reveals I learned at least one new thing yesterday, and that's good, right?

The students loved it. My students taught me. One taught me about domain and range, another explained why you add exponents when the bases are multiplied, another whispered the number of the problem we were supposed to be working on when I missed Alison's instructions. Hey, come on, I was taking notes. It's hard to listen to write and listen at the same time. I will try to remember that next time I start talking when my students are still writing.

I can't attend Alison's class every day because my teaching schedule overlaps with some of her math classes, so a fair amount of confusion is to be expected. But that first day was just silly.

Today was better, though. The class started a new unit, "Exponents, Products, and Powers," so I stood a fighting chance. We were all on the same starting line, give or take thirty years. As we moved through the exercises, I started to see it. I have my list of properties - power of a product, product of a power with equal bases, power of a power, power of a quotient...and on and on - and I have to refer back to them, but they are slowly sinking in.

I got some insight into my basic issue with math when I proudly told my son Ben about my day. We have a tradition at dinner - "high, low, funny." The best thing in our day, the worst, and the funniest. My best and my funny were both math class, but Ben provided the worst. I recounted the properties I'd learned, and told him how proud I was of myself for remembering that when you multiply variables raised to a power, you simply add the exponents. Ben looked at me like I was an idiot and said,

"Well, that just makes sense. Of course you add the exponents."

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, the difference between my brain and the brain of someone who naturally gets math. I can't see it. I can repeat the steps if someone shows them to me, I can replicate the process, but I don't think any of my teachers spent much time explaining the "why" of the process to me.

For example, we did this problem today:

Look at the one without all the scribbles and crosses through it. I have no problem leaving the exponents well enough alone when they are next to an X or a Y, but put them next to a number, and they call out to me. The 12-year-old in me has to DO something with them. Create something. Find an answer, multiply all those threes, no matter what. That's the part under the big cross-out. I made mistakes because I solved for all sorts of unnecessarily large numbers. 

Must. Multiply.

But today, the grown-up, rational teacher in me had a breakthrough. If Alison, teacher extraordinaire, hands her students a problem where the exponent is higher than 3 or 4, and she's not letting them use their calculators, and she's not particularly in the mood to torture them, she probably does not mean for them to do the multiplication. She's probably hinting that there's a simpler method. 

So, two things. I learned two things today. 

But now I have to head out to the dining room table. I have a lot of homework and a teenage son to impress.

Part IV of my math odyssey can be found here