Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Senior Serious?

The last full week of classes of this school year is finally here. It is now Wednesday but I feel as though it should be Friday! Why? Well, there is one thing I did NOT plan on and that was the tenacity of seniors who have failed my course to come begging for a passing grade. It began on Monday, the day I administered finals....

Imagine the feeling you would have after completing your teaching for the day and then finally sitting down at your desk with a sigh, glad to have this tough day in the books. I sat through a very quiet 1st hour study hall. Then came my large Coop class 2nd hour where taking a 50 question scantron test for the class and writing answers to 5 questions for the work portion of the Coop final. It was a very rare quiet classroom that day. My 3rd hour Law class began reviewing for the final and was a good break from sitting waiting for students to finish exams. Then came my smaller 4th hour Coop class. Out of 10 students I was hoping for 8 to show. I had only 7. Two of my students who did NOT complete the project part of the final exam for Coop also did not show up to take the scantron part. One of them told me they weren't coming weeks earlier and in fact had only come to my class a total of 12 days all semester. The other has slowly dropped the ball in the last few weeks despite my many warnings that his grade was suffering. When I asked why he didn't do the project I was told "I don't know. I didn't want to." He often told me things such as "Its my time I will do with it what I want." Okay then. Your choice.

Shortly after I gave my 4th hour students the exam a student from my 2nd hour class came to ask why his grade was so low. Against my better judgment, I sat at a table in my classroom and walked him through why his final project grade was a D. During our conversation I agreed to give him a few more points after he explained why he did certain things. A VERY nice thing for me to do. He then wanted to see his class grade, so I showed him that and the few things he was missing. I should not have allowed him to make anything up - my deadline had passed, but I want people to do well and since their semester is technically not over until Tuesday, then I thought I'd give him a chance. I showed him in the textbook a missing assignment. I didn't want to leave my test-taking students alone in the room so I told this student to come back later that day and I'll give him another missing assignment. 3:15 came and that student did not come back. His choice.

That brings us to Tuesday, the last day for Seniors. Yesterday. I told students in my 2nd hour class that they could come see me after 4th hour to check on their grades. I wasn't going to deal with it during class (which is why I showed the end of The Blind Side so that I couldn't get on the computer). I made them banana bread as a congratulations to completing my course. Sure enough, the same student who came to see me on Monday came back up to my office 5th hour on Tuesday. I asked him why he didn't come back yesterday and he told me I didn't tell him to. Seems someone didn't listen very well! He then questioned a few other grades I had given him, including an extra credit assignment. I gave him a few more points, told him I was not going to give him any more missing assignments since he chose not to return. This turned into a 15 minute pleading spree which I retorted with a variant of the fact that his grade does not come down to the final it comes down to a semester of 5 months of work. Sitting now at a 59% with the extra points I had given him already, I refused to pass him with any more that he did not deserve. My department chair (D.C.) was in the room as was another teacher, although the D.C. had to walk out to prevent himself from laughing. Upon the end of that encounter my department chair walked in saying I was gonna be alright as a teacher. You bet I am!

Once again stressed out by the blatant and direct approach of a desperate student who can't take ownership of his own output over the course of the last 17 weeks I sat back thinking this was done. I ate the rest of my lunch. My two coworkers and I discussed the encounter and agreed I was right for standing my ground, although they both agreed I went further than I needed to by giving him a few more points and letting him turn in that last assignment. It wasn't more than 25 minutes later that my pleading student returned. More desperate than before. This was his THIRD TIME begging for a D. I held my ground I asked my student point blank did he study for quizzes, knowing the answer was probably a no with scores in the D and F range. He said no, he never studied. This time my D.C. had to speak up. He asked the student did he feel he did everything he could to meet the requirements of the class. It was a yes or no question. My student floundered and tried to explain his answer. He couldn't say yes and couldn't say no. Even reading this you can probably guess what the correct response was. He finally left after another 30 minutes of begging. I left the building for a bit to cool down (emotionally and physically - it was hot in the building!). I wasn't upset or angry but it does take a lot of emotion to deal with telling a student they screwed up!

And now it is Wednesday. No seniors. Only 1 class with students, another with just 2 students who already took finals for me. Easy, right? Almost.

I had just finished eating a big plate of pasta when one of the counselors came up to our office to say that a father had called him asking how his son was not graduating and that his son was on the way to come take finals. Do you recall the student who didn't come to my 4th hour class? It was him. Even by taking the scantron part of the final in my class, he would barely crack a 50%. Yet here was this counselor telling me the student was more than likely coming and that I, in not so many words, needed to do what it takes to give him the exam. I had planned to go visit a few employers for the last time and said I'd stay til 12pm. My D.C. and coworker were both in the room again. When the counselor left I wasn't sure what to do! Surprisingly the student showed up. I gave him the scantron and then my D.C. and I went down to talk to the Principal but she was in a meeting with the school Superintendent.

The student finished the scantron exam then I told him we should go talk to the Principal. He was afraid of her so he stayed upstairs. Another coworker drilled him on his study habits and asked where he was at while the rest of the seniors were in school taking their finals. He said he didn't think he needed it to graduate. Meanwhile, I sat down with my principal and asked her opinion. Honestly, she wasn't very helpful. I needed a solid answer and I can understand why she didn't want to tell me what to do. I had three choices. In the end, after 30+ minutes of discussion, I decided to let the student work on the final project and strive to get a good grade on it and perhaps pass my class. As a consequence he will not be able to attend commencement. This was a big deal to his family, according to the counselor, but I think its a fair trade for letting their son get their diploma. It's not really what I wanted to do but I also know it would be hard for me to deal with the fact that this kid has no chance to graduate through any other course (he had about a 14% grade in English) and I knew that he would probably not be successful in summer school since he was barely successful during my class this semester, or any other for that matter.

I've already built several things into my curriculum for next year that will prevent this type of last minute pleading from happening. Once every week I will go through grades with students during class time. Perhaps every Friday. I will not take late work after each quiz has passed. No questions asked. I will NOT change any grades once we reach the day of the final exam. No exceptions. I will try and call home more. And I've got a folder system already set up so that everything for my class goes into this folder in certain places and I will check these folders each chapter to be sure students are graded on being organized and prepared.

I'm hoping no further grade begging continues this week. I think heading out with a few fellow teachers for 1/2 price wine night is going to be just the thing I need to settle my mind and end the day. Not to mention prepare me for many a meal while feasting in Italy.

Thanks for reading. If you have any comments on what you would have done or what I can do to prevent such occurrences during the school year, please let me know. Have a great rest of the week. That's my goal!


Friday, May 21, 2010

The Ups and Downs of Seniors (From A Teacher's Perspective)

Somewhere in the periphery of my memory resides an inkling of what it was like to be a high school senior. Even in my last 2 years subbing in Hinsdale and Orland Park, I watched seniors approach finals with an air of completion, even before the yellow #2 pencils, scantrons and multi-page booklets of exams were passed out. Despite these experiences, I don't recall seniors who checked out quite as early as the seniors at Urbana. I say all of this to share with you another "1st" of the school year as well as 2 great things that happened this week. Let me provide some context on the 1st of the 1sts I can recount...

I've mentioned the select few students who stopped turning in work or even coming to class. I've asked each of my classes to perform a fairly surmountable task the last few weeks. Now I know, no high school student wants to attempt a huge project near the end of the year. But then again, none want to take a final either. It was with this in mind that I created the Final Projects I've discussed in recent blogs along with a short multiple choice exam. In creating the projects I expected to make them a big final chapter in their semester grade prior to the typical scantron Final. Upon further thought, I decided to make this project 75% of the Final Exam grade (which is 20% of their overall semester grade). I wanted students to take it seriously. To put forth the effort in the last weeks of the semester. Few rose to climb the mountain and succeeded. Many didn't even try to climb the hill.

Part of me is surprised at the results. Part of me expected them. There seems to have been a huge discrepancy in effort between my projects. I spent the end of April and 1st week of May in the computer lab with students, giving them time to research and type up their research. I then gave them all of last week to make presentations. About 25% of them went later than they were supposed to, downgrading their grades. Another 5% did not even do the project. Add to these two figures are the 25% who only did the presentation portion of the project and NONE of the written elements. That leaves less than half of my students making a concerted effort to TRY on this project.

This week I have given my students a LOT of time to study for the final exam. I thought, naively, that once they realized how they did on the Final Project, they'd buckle down on the studying to do their best. I also thought that students tended to lean towards doing their best not their minimum effort, even if it means a bad grade. I've been proven dreadfully wrong this week. One by one I called students to my desk to discuss items they were still missing, their project grades (showing them their rubrics and where they went wrong or blatantly disregarded to complete) and the score they need to get on the written part of the Final Exam to adjust their final semester grade. A few told me they didn't need my class to graduate and were perfectly content with a D or a C. A few were thrilled they scored well on their projects.

It was one student, who has asked brilliant questions all semester, is active in the school and who seems to be one who makes good decisions that received the biggest life lesson today. She had spent most of the week with her head on her desk, doing nothing. I called her up and showed her the project rubric first. At the top was a score somewhere around 140 out of 300. She had done a fantastic powerpoint and presented it to the class without any sign of nerves. But she didn't turn in any research proof or written pages that were the majority of the project. As I walked her through her score she was very quiet, atypical of her normal expressive attitude. I then showed her on the computer where her semester grade currently stood prior to taking the written final on Monday. It was then she burst in to quiet tears and sat back at her desk. She cried the entire class time. I let her be during class as I consulted with my other students. I warned everyone that was not studying that I expected A's from everyone on the written segment of the Final since they would rather chat (a teacher can dream, right?).

When the bell rang, I called her over and said to her, she needs a hug. I was not sure she'd accept it, expecting her to blame her grade on me (teacher MAKE the grade, according to students). Instead, she gave me a hug. It was a sign she had realized her mistake and took the blame on herself. Through tears she asked me what she could do. Now, I want to be the strict teacher who says its too late, you've had so many chances and didn't take them. But I also want students to succeed and I could tell she was learning her lesson on the spot. So I pulled up her missing assignments (3 of them) and told her I'd find her later in the day and let her turn them in for late grades. I know I have done the right thing. I just hope that she carries this lesson into each task set before her in the future. As I've said a lot these last few weeks, games aren't played till you feel like stopping. They're played till the end. When the buzzer rings, the last out is called or the last player folds their cards.

I've tried to lead and teach by example. I'm one of probably just a handful of teachers who turns tests back the next day. I'm not a procrastinator. I don't think I ever have been. I'd rather get the bad stuff out of the way so I can relax without thinking about it. I'm not sure if this comes from having one of those brains that is ALWAYS thinking or if I loved reading so much that I used to plow through books to get to the ending and just lived my life the same way. Whatever the cause, I've tried to teach my students that life is a lot better when you don't have something weighing you down.

Now, don't let me give you the impression that its been a completely miserable week. It really has had its ups. My coworker and I hosted the 1st ever COOP/WECEP Appreciation Banquet. We invited all of our employers, students and family members to join us. I wasn't sure I was going to get many of my students but consistently talking about the great feast we'd ordered (so delicious!) and dressing up in very nice clothes persuaded more to show up. We had about 60 people come out of the 100 or so invited and I think it was a success. Can't wait to do it again next year.

I also invited the Champaign County Courthouse Administrator to come talk to my Law class and be our "judge" for our Mock Trial. He was a nice guy, very sarcastic and really made the students laugh (those that weren't afraid of him). The mock trial didn't go quite as I had hoped but it went well enough that students learned from it and provided me with a lot of feedback for the next time I do it in the Fall (It probably didn't hurt that I made them some of the best Brownies I've ever made). One student consistently gave me grief for not making her a lawyer on the trial (I chose the 5 highest grades to be lawyers, the quietest to play key witnesses, and picked the students who seemed to be more expressive to be jurists in order to have a good argument/discussion over the verdict). In the end, that student seemed okay with my decision and even received a business card from our Guest Lecturer. She then asked me to sign her yearbook, my 1st yearbook signature of the 2009-2010 school year!

And the buddies have been bonding a lot lately too. Teachers are feeling the burn out. I'm still roaring and ready. I've got all my Finals written and copied (I still need to sharpen pencils). Everything that has been turned in to me is graded and in the grade book. My desk looks more than decently cleaned than it has in a few weeks AND I found out this week I'm getting my own classroom next year. Plenty of ups. And speaking of ups, there are only 10 more wake ups till the school year ends - 2 more with seniors and 8 more with students. And yes, I'm playing the game till the very end. I think I am going to win.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Progress & A Great Week

There are times in life where I have so many projects in the air I just can't juggle them all. This was one of those weeks. And what do I do when I can't figure out what thing to do first, next or ever? I clean. Perhaps it is generations of female intuition and perhaps it is just a subconscious means of cleaning up SOMETHING so that everything else can fall into place a bit easier. Whatever the reason, I found myself in massive cleaning mode at work at the start of the week and that was a sure sign that I had too many "to-do's" to do. I'm glad to report that many of these things are well under way to being nicely wrapped up.

First of all, my students have worked the last 2 weeks on this final project I created (read previous blogs to catch up on those!). Many are asking good questions, trying hard and just about finished with them and ready to do the presentation portion of the project next week. Others haven't even given it a lick of effort. I kicked one such student to the dean's office yesterday for not only telling me he had most of it done but it was at home (keep in mind he is missing nearly every assignment this semester) and because he was distracting a student who desperately needs this class to graduate. I told him I better see proof tomorrow then because we are in class to be working on the project. He thought going to his dean would be a cakewalk until the dean actually embarrassed him in front of a large group of sophomores (ha!). I saw that same student 3rd hour today when he brought me a pass for a kid in my law class. Naturally he didn't come to class 4th hour. Sure sign that I was right (if I needed one).

Let me just say this. This project is one of the best assignments I've given. Not only is it REAL LIFE applicable but it takes up 3 weeks of lesson plans. At the end of the year. SWEET! All I need to do now is write a review sheet and finish writing the final. Both were items on that lengthy to-do list I had at the start of the week. I wrote 1/2 the final in about 1.5 hours and plotted out the rest of the final. Once that is done I can write the review sheet and BAM! Coop class will be finished for the year.

Item #2 on the agenda was visiting my students at work. I have 4 kids without jobs. Watching this "indicator" is like watching the stock market, only the human error is not on my part but on that of each student. The jobless meter was at one point up to 9, as several students quit jobs. 4 have since gotten jobs and a 5th has gotten a job but says he doesn't start till summer. I don't count that since it doesn't help his class grade. 3 have not had a job all semester. For those with jobs, I'm trying to get to them all before the 17th when our end-of-the-year banquet is held. I tackled 4 visits today between lunch and 5pm - 7pm. Another thing being checked slowly off the list.

Item #3 was more of a personal item but still on the list. I recently received an email from a cousin (my grandfather's cousin's granddaughter to be exact - I think that makes us 3rd cousins?). I'd asked her about our family tree and did she have any info on our Italian ancestors. Now that tax season is over, she's had a chance to respond and in the post this week I received a copy of our family tree. That led me to call the Family History Center in Champaign (ha! I didn't know there was one in town!) to inquire about getting records. I hit a jackpot. They've got all the birth and marriage records for my town in Italy for a 100-year period! So I went there today and ordered 2 microfilms to view. I'm so excited! We're getting closer to dual citizenship application! Besides, I never dreamed I could trace my Italian roots past my great-grandfather who immigrated. Now I have his parent's names, courtesy of Immigration records and this family tree. I felt like I was experiencing my own episode of "Who Do You Think You Are?" today.

Why else has it been a good week? Well, it has been Teacher Appreciation week. It's been fun. Our administration has held a contest everyday for gift cards and other goodies. I didn't win anything but it was nice to see the intention to acknowledge. A parent bought pizzas for the staff on Wednesday and a breakfast was provided today. Very nice. But on top of that, I had a few students tell me I was a good teacher. At one point, one of my C students said, "Ms. B this is your first year teaching? You're good!" I thanked him and the others and my insides smiled. In this profession you don't always know if you are making any sort of impact. I don't need to make the golf ball dent-in-the-car type of impact. I'll settle for the little electric shock you get when you touch someone who shuffles their feet. Little words or actions like this make a big impact on me and I was glad I had some proof I was doing something to these kids!

I'll wrap things up now, as this is getting lengthy. You know that when I get wordy I've had a lot happening. I'll probably do a few more days of cleaning and filing ahead until these to-do items get fully crossed out. In the meantime, I'll close out my good week with a car wash tomorrow for my Freshman. Let's hope the positive vibes continue. Time will tell.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Good Things

Today was one of those warm, beautiful, sunshine days that bring the BoDeans song "Good Things" to my brain. The bass line in that tune is like wind blowing through the trees and then the melodious vocals of Sammy & Kurt rise up like fog through the song.

As it was today that I share some great news I got over the weekend. About a month ago I had submitted a request to the State of Illinois Board of Education to determine if I had enough college credit to teach high school English. I've already been certified to teach Middle School English in addition to Social Studies and Business & Computer Science, which is in and of itself a lot of certification! I had counted the number of credits I had and if they accepted all of the speech, literature and composition classes I had then I could make the cut. Sure enough, I received a letter in reply stating that I had enough credit and would simply (or not so simply) need to take the state English Language Arts content exam. The alternative is taking 8 more credits which is a bit more expensive and a lot more work. I'll try for the $100 test first!

As with any ordinary day though, life presents its ups and downs, each of those in turn usually having both ups and downs in some way. My new (old) car has been having problems since Thursday. It has been jumpy and revving a lot higher than normal. I've been hitching rides from co-workers over the last few days from the Marathon to Prom and to work yesterday. I finally got the car to a local dealer today. It was fateful that I had to take today off due to a luncheon with the Rotary which sponsors some of the work done in the Business Ed department at Urbana High. Each of the vocational programs at UHS nominate a student of the year and so I sat with my student, her parents, my fellow business ed teachers and our school Principal at the Urbana Country Club for the Rotary celebration lunch.

How does this equate to a day off, you ask? Our district requires either a full or half day off per our contract. So to miss just the last 1/2 hour of my morning class I still had to take off the entire morning. The lunch went into the afternoon hours so I had to take the afternoon off to. Fortuitous because I could take my car in and just stay low key the rest of the day until it was done. That's not really my personality so I got the ride from school, wrote my final exam for Coop and by the time I got the call on my car, was heading for lunch.

After lunch I returned to my office and did a ton of filing and organizing (I've just reorganized my filing cabinet) and called most of my employers. Frankly, I was doing a TON of work on a day off but I had nowhere else to go! Our final new teacher meeting was after school, so it was beneficial to get work done and stay there. It felt good to. A lot of little accomplishments!

While the car issue may seem like a down moment, and at first it truly was, it turned out to be an act of God. You see, the car was my grandmother's car. It then became my mom's car when Gram stopped driving and now I own it. Turns out, Gram's last IRS check came in the mail this week - for almost the same amount as the repair. It was a weird phone call between my mother and I but in the end she gave me a big case of goosebumps when she said, "Grandma is still taking care of her car." W-O-W.

So the good and the bad can often meld together. What seems really bad can turn out to be one of the best things that ever happened. Take all those English classes I took in the early years of undergrad at Augustana. I wrote 53 papers in 10 weeks. I'm not exaggerating its just that I wrote so many and it seemed so outrageous at the time that I've never forgotten the number. Those weeks taught me how to type faster and better. And drastically improved my writing ability. I probably wouldn't be blogging or writing books (Yeah, that's a blog for another time) or even trying to get certified in English were it not for those classes.

Give anything a little time, clarity and distance and you can find the glass half full. There is a reason for everything. How are you going to choose to look at it?

"See I can see, good things for you and I..." =BoDeans

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Here's to the end of April

I feel as though I have been doing things from sun up to sun down for over a week now. So it was with a great sigh of relief that I used today as a catch-up/relax day and a much-needed one at that.

I have been lagging behind on laundry and general household chores for the last 2 weeks. I had planned to do a ton of wash and baking and other goodies last weekend but wanted to head North to be with my lovely family and celebrate my Uncle John's life who passed away recently. As tough as such things always are, it was a wonderful day. My cousins were doing extremely well and my Aunt Sug, who has endured so much in the last few months is just a rock and so emotionally strong. Between the passing of her sister, my grandmother a few months ago, a broken arm which took a very long time to heal and the nursing of her husband of over 40 years who had cancer and alzheimers - Aunt Sug is a model of sheer determination and someone I truly admire.

The school week has been hectic, too. My students in Coop began their final projects which involve research, typing and a presentation. Many complained. Some are really taking the project seriously and realize that every component is something they can use after they cross that stage at graduation later this month. Last week also marked PSAE month, the state school testing exam that determines how our school is doing on teaching the "essentials" to students. It left me a bit out of sorts because the 3rd floor where my office is located was closed for the 2 days of testing. I made it through and work is now back to normalcy.

Thursday night was "Buddy Night" as always and was quite a fun time. Friday was my department chair/mentor's birthday so spent a celebratory 2 hours at a local pub with him and some of his friends before heading to church for Game Night. That led me into yesterday which was the Illinois Marathon. I left my house around 6:45am to meet up with a buddy. The plan was to park near the start, see part of the 5k to cheer on some school colleagues then see 2 spots of the half/full marathon around miles 3 and 12 in Urbana then drive to Champaign and see miles 18 & 22 which nearly intersect. All in all, we saw more people running than we expected and only missed seeing 2 people. My biggest reasons for cheering was A) I love cheering marathons in Chicago so I had to cheer this one and B) the new teacher coordinator at Urbana was running the full marathon and I wanted to support her. (She did awesome by the way!) We accomplished all of our goals, including driving through a part of the course (streets are not shut down here in entirety the way they are in Chicago) between some of the lead runners. It was a gorgeous day, a few sprinkles on occasion and in the 70's. I jumped in to run with Melissa around mile 18 since she seemed to have been off her pace and stayed with her for about 1/2 mile. It was warmer than any day of training the last few months and it took its toll on a lot of runners by knocking them off their training pace. But everyone I know that was running completed their races and that is always Goal #1.

After the marathon I came home and took a nap. Shorter than I had wanted, at just an hour, but it refreshed me enough to get me through the rest of the day's activities. First up was dinner with David, who had been my marathon buddy, and 2 of the student teachers who wanted to experience prom. It was a bit strange, them being so young and still talking about graduation and things of a bit more frivolous nature but they are nice and I wish them well. From dinner we headed to the iHotel for Prom 2010. The theme was Casablanca and the movie showed on a continuous loop throughout the night. We stood ground as greeters at one of the entrances which is a perfect role for me. The students looked so glamorous and I know so many more of them now than I did when I chaperoned Homecoming in October. I wore my green Swing dress and I felt a bit overdressed but my students thought it would be cool if I dressed up. Next year I'll opt for something a little more casual, I think.

Prom ended at midnight. There was talk of one last social outing before parting ways but I needed sleep and bid everyone good-night. I tried to sleep in this morning, tired as I was I knew I could sleep for a long time, but having been outside all day yesterday for the first time this season got my nose in a bit of a sniffle. I have handled this viscous allergy season with determination and come through it fairly unscathed due in part to NOT being outside at all and in taking every medication I possess. It was worth it though and I'm going to aim for a few more outdoor days this month in the hopes that allergy counts reduce somewhat in the coming weeks. I am hoping for some nice evenings on my back patio in a chair and a glass of vino watching the sun set. There have been some brilliant orange and red sunsets lately, seen only from the vantage point of my couch, safely behind windows in my allergy-free zone home.

The first day outside means there are many more to come. And the coming of summer. Less than 40 days until I'm done with my first year of teaching. It is going to fly by...