Sunday, October 31, 2010

happy halloween

which means tomorrow is my birthday. Last day of being 30! Thirty-one seems like officially in 'the thirties.' I don't feel mature enough for that! I'm feeling quite melancholy about the whole birthday thing this year, as a matter of fact. Partly because 31 isn't a 'special' age like turning 30, partly because it's on a weekday, partly because I'm can't celebrate with my students like I've done for six years, partly because I'm just a weirdo.

Anyway, in other news, I plan to do National Blog Posting Month starting tomorrow. I've really gotten out of the blog habit in the last year-plus and now is as good a time as any to work on making that better. Yesterday I made a list of all the things I have been wanting to update y'all on. Sixteen things I've been meaning to post anyway! I'll split them into separate posts just in case I need a cushion. :) Lots to tell you, and so I'll see you soon--tomorrow, in fact!

Are you dressing up for Halloween? Did you go to a party? I did neither. I've never really done Halloween stuff, if I can remember correctly. Though a group of us in high school did dress up and trick or treat even in senior year, so maybe I just had my fill already. :) But mostly this is a crazy time for teachers--usually the end of the quarter, which means grades are due. And I never had many friends and never any non-teacher friends. I think we were all just too tired to party out of school! :)
Have a great spooky day!

Friday, October 22, 2010

"tested" Teach, episode 2

Tony is reading a book, Of Mice and Men, with his class, but he notes that it wasn't on the curriculum; he just threw it in there. I wonder about that. Were there any novels on the curriculum? Why choose this one? It is a classic, I think (I never read it). So maybe he's trying to expose them to well-known literature? I wonder if he thought about choosing a more modern book easier for the students to relate to. This is an endlessly-debated question among high school teachers, I know, so what do you think?

We hear from a few students who are surprised that they relate to the book and are enjoying it. Yay! Of course, there are also several students who have no idea what's going on, they just don't get it.

Then he announces that they will take a quiz the next day. I love how they all groan and complain, even in interviews! I don't get why kids don't understand that there will always be a quiz, a test, an assessment. Come on, guys, you've been in school for a number of years now, surely you know these are coming? :)

Anyway, so Tony is nervous about the quiz, because he understands that it's just as much an assessment of his teaching as student comprehension.

He grades the quizzes at home. Half the class has failed. He is upset and frustrated. He says it's his fault and he couldn't sleep.

Is this familiar to you? Me too.

He tries to gear up for the next week, and his instruction coach tells Tony there's no quick fix, and and he shouldn't take it personally.

Boy, this was a common refrain my first year, and actually the rest of my years too. That statement always gave me trouble. Aren't I here because I take it personally? If I don't take it personally, who will? What else am I here for? If I'm their teacher, then it is me personally who has a stake in the outcome, right? But at what point do you have to let go and realize that not everything is actually your fault (though it seems like it all is, especially at first)? How much can you realistically do with kids that you see 45 minutes a day? What kind of existing issues are the kids dealing with that you have no control over?

And now here comes one of the big issues of this episode--those kids who "don't get it", some of them are special ed /resource room students. They had asked Tony if they could take their quiz in the resource room, and he asked them to try taking it here and now, they will do a good job.

A big brouhaha ensues. Well, not a brouhaha, but everyone is shocked and upset that Tony doesn't understand that resource room kids are different and HAVE to get services. He wants to build their confidence and see what they can do without a "crutch." We never learn exactly what the kids are working with--low reading levels, presumably, but why? Dyslexia? Another learning disorder? Anything at all?

Several people talk to Tony about the resource room and he remains stubborn. An admin meets with him and says, "You don't get the tag of 'teacher' until your students are learning.' Ooh, interesting. What do you think?

Then it seems like the admin stages a faculty meeting about the importance of special education services for students that need it, just to hammer it home to him. He finally relents and gets it and we move on to the next problem.

(Because not even on a television show can you portray a teacher dealing with only one problem. Oh man, wouldn't it be awesome if that were actually reality? Teaching would be so much easier. :D)

There's the advanced kid who aces the quiz and is bored. He approaches Tony about it and they come up with an extra credit project or report. We don't see any follow-up though. I definitely relate to this. I always struggled with how to engage the high-level kids.

There's another girl who seems disengaged. We see her texting during class (GAH!!) and Tony patiently tries to get her attention and get her involved. She is resistant and is all, 'whatever.' He talks to her and asks, "What can I do?" "Nothing," she says. "Then what can you do?" Shrug.

He asks his coach about what to do. The coach asks if Tony's called home yet, and he hasn't. He's nervous. But he calls her mom (or grandma?), and she comes to the school. She wants her student to improve and wants him to stay on her. He talks about having a partnership. Yay, this seems like a good first parent meeting! I was always nervous approaching parents, because while most of them are so reasonable, somehow one of them always turns unreasonable when the student doesn't improve and you try to stay in touch and on them. Ack.

We see the girl continue to be annoyed and irritated at Tony for picking on her, and "yelling" at her. We also see another student talking to her, suggesting that maybe he just cares about her and her doing well. She rolls her eyes at that preposterous idea. Heh.

In a later class, Tony comes over to the girl, who is not doing any classwork with her partner. Tony talks her through the questions, which she answers successfully and it seems like she's moving toward being more attentive. Then she interviews that, "I know better, he just nags." So she's coming around to the idea of working harder and that her teacher wants her to do well. I love it when that happens!

The last big chunk of the episode is a very familiar one to new teachers--Tony gets emotional. While briefly discussing his problems, his instructional coach jokingly asks if Tony's cried yet today. He chuckles and leaves, where things finally start coming down around him and he breaks down. He has finally hit a breaking point and the tears come.

It seems that this is still the first month of school, which means that he's actually doing well--I think everyone has a breakdown, right? If he's made it this far, that's a good sign. But it does have to happen.

I didn't cry at school for a couple months my first year. My mom says that I cried on the phone a lot when I told her about my day. (I knew no one in New York, no friends, no one to call and talk to, so I called her a lot. She was a teacher too, so sometimes had suggestions, but was also willing to listen to my shocking stories.) But I think she exaggerated. I was upset and frustrated a lot--at my own incompetence, at how my students wouldn't listen, which then came back to me--that I couldn't make them/teach them/inspire them to do the 'right' thing like listen and do work.

Tony doesn't seem to dealing with major discipline issues like talking or getting up or disrespect--I don't know if that's a high school thing, but I do imagine that the cameras prevent a lot of that--but he's right there struggling just like all other new teachers. You can tell he really wants to do right by his kids, but it's so tough not knowing how to do that, how to reach everyone, how to bridge the divide between the high kids, the low kids, and all the in-the-middle kids.

Of course that gets to you. It's endless and relentless. A battle every day; many battles every day, actually, big and small. You can't escape. You take so much 'feedback' and 'challenge' and it's only natural that it starts to get under your skin and wear away your self-esteem. You can only deal with it so long before it gets too much to handle and you just have to cry.

Monday, October 11, 2010


Are you guys watching the new A&E show, Teach: Tony Danza? I just watched the first episode.

The premise, of course, is that this famous guy tries to be a teacher. But can he do it?
Now, since I've also been a teacher, I noticed that most of the issues he faces are exactly the same ones any new teacher faces.

We see him smiling in teacher orientation and taking notes. We see him scrubbing and decorating his room. (In fast forward, no less--any way that we can make that happen in real life?) We see him write things on the board in preparation for his students. He gets in trouble for not knowing to sign in when he arrives. All of these things are very real and relatable.

The principal asks him about his motivation and emphasizes that the kids and their education is what matters. (This I find a little contrived--one assumes this happened when the project began.) We meet a coach who's helping him reflect on what he does. (I sure wish every teacher had one of those!) There's a lot of jocular, fun-guy posturing with random people he encounters.

Eventually it's time for the first day of school! He talked about how anxious he was. I felt just as nervous as he was. What will he say? Will the kids be respectful?

Finally, the bell rings and kids start filing in. He greets them, happily but you can still tell there's some nervous posturing in there. The kids all sit there and they are SILENT. (I found myself jealous--in my first year, there were maybe 15 minutes of *cumulative* silence!) I'm sure that the cameras played a big part in that. He stumbles through a welcome speech and the kids start asking him questions, most of them uncomfortable. "Are you a millionaire?" "Are you nervous? Because you're sweating a lot." Ag, kids always find a way to shoot right through your shield, don't they?

Tony asks the kids to tell about themselves, and so we meet most of the students. They seem like real, regular kids. It's a fairly diverse group, too. In interviews they express doubt that Mr Danza knows what he's doing and if he's qualified to be their teacher. We also see them discussing it together at lunch.

I found myself wondering about regular first-year teachers. I know that kids sense weakness and uncertainty. And plenty of urban kids have dealt with first-year teachers, and know that they don't know what they're doing. I wonder if they talk about it? I wonder how much they think it through that way to themselves. My kids were younger but had probably seen plenty.

We see Mr Danza teaching about elements of fiction, and you can tell that he's never done it before, but that he's plugging along the best he can. One kid says something, Tony says he's wrong and then realizes that he's right after all. The kids interview that oh ho, mr teacher isn't quite so smart.

Another day he shows them a plot chart (and calls the exposition "basic situation" which I thought kind of silly) and asks them to read their own stories to see the plot elements in their own writing. He gets crickets and eventually reads one of the kids' stories himself. Then he gets on a roll and reads a lot more work out loud. He gets to a big word a student used wrong, and then *he* looked it up for them. I think later he realized that he should have had the student do that.

Thus begins a big thing about talking too much and letting the kids read and giving them a chance. He's also the assistant football coach, and talks too much to the team in the locker room. The coach talks to him about too much talking.

He interviews a couple times that he's not sure if he can do this. This is the first week and I think it perfectly represents what all teachers go through. The trials in class, the self-doubt, people telling you all the things you're doing wrong. Yikes. That sucks, no matter who you are. On the other hand, that's really the only way to get better. It's just really tough and you are forced to abandon all dignity and pride.

The kids interview that they don't really think they've learned anything from him, but a couple counter that it's early and maybe it will get better. They don't want him to get strict though, because they hate that and don't learn from that.

At the football game, while the kids are losing spectacularly, Tony starts meeting the parents of his students. They all talk to him about what he's going to do for their children and help them, and that he should let the parents know if there's any issues. Classic parent talk! Especially the one who goes on and on about her son but once Tony says that he wants the kids to read 30 minutes a day she gets all huffy because he has practice and takes two buses to get home. He interjects, "That's fine, he can read 30 minutes on the bus!" and she just shakes her head, annoyed. Gotta love excuses from the same parents who preach the success they want for their kids.

He reflects that the week has been really tough, the hardest thing he's ever done. He doesn't know if he's cut out for this; he worries; did he make a mistake? You can tell he's pretty down. He likes his class and he doesn't want to let them down.

I think that every teacher has gone through this exact train of thought. And not just in the first week of school, either--over and over again, all throughout the year, and even into the summer afterwards!

I remember when this show was proposed and everyone was up in arms about it--making a mockery of teaching; making light of teachers' plight; etc. But frankly, I think it's fantastic--almost all of his experience in this first episode is the same experience that all first-year teachers go through--the self-doubt, the humiliation, the unresponsive class, the parents who pressure you to make their child "better." I think it's a window for the uninitiated to see what teachers see, what they're thinking, that teachers really worry about if they're doing enough, doing the right thing, constantly looking at all the wrong things, getting beaten down at every turn, but still work hard to rally and keep going. I find it extremely realistic (other than the tap-dancing millionaire aspect, obviously! :D) and I think it's a good thing. A great antidote to the Teacher Movie where the bad-kids-who-aren't-actually-bad miraculously have a magical turnaround and all of a sudden the teacher is successful and the kids listen and learn everything and become super-students. Gah.

I look forward to watching more! Did you watch it? What do you think?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

More videos, sort of

I've been trying to upload more videos, but Blogger has been uncooperative thus far. Argh.

The New Yorker Festival was last weekend. The mister loves it and went to three events on the first day, then we went to another one together--A Conversation with Regina Spekter. The host interviewed her for a bit and then she played a handful of songs. She was fantastic!

Here are a couple song bits I recorded on the little point & shoot:


Man of a Thousand Faces

I have another video from an event the second day, but I don't want to bother with waiting for Blogger any more, and I don't have enough bandwidth on vimeo left this week, so I'll share that another time. :)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

let's see if this works

Last week I happened on some amazing stop motion videos, and I was inspired to try it. Not the amazing part, the stop motion part. :) It took a couple hours and it really wore me out (note to self: eat dinner before taking on multi-hour physical photo projects!), but it was fun. I've already been thinking of my next attempt! Anyway, enjoy. :)

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Budget: The Breakdown

September is over and so is my first month's budget experiment. How did it go?

--I spent $99 on groceries. I originally budgeted $80 a month for regular groceries, since I don't eat much and I don't eat anything expensive. There's a produce shop around the corner that I have been visiting for fresh things to cook with. But I think the cooking has led to more money spent, on ingredients to make things instead of buying more simple things.
But look! My third try making cookies finally resulted in yumminess!

--At Costco I spent a mere $68. I used a debit card for that (at the end of the month).

--I spent too much on "fun" stuff out with friends: a total of $52 on a restaurant, bowling, a potluck dinner, a cab share, a snack for book club.

--Temping around the city, I needed to get around and thus spent $40 on metro cards. (For one week and a half, I am proud to exclaim that I spent zero dollars on transportation, because I biked to a temp job! A savings of $31.50!! Plus free exercise and fresh air! Win-win situation for sure. This means that metro card money will stretch into next month a little.)

--$10: I bought a swimcap to use the pool at our new gym (right now the husband is covering my share of the fees. Once I have a little more income I will pay for part of it.)

--I had to buy a read-aloud book for my class, and I couldn't help treating myself to a new MadLibs (it was on clearance!)(We hope to have some people over soon and that can make for some extra fun downtime!). That was $15 at the bookstore.

This past weekend we went to Target. I made myself a list of a few essentials that I needed, and I was able to stick to that list. But I also bought a blanket for $20. (We have a new bed and need more bedding for the colder weather. The husband bought a comforter too.) So the trip, including parking, cost me $55. Yikes.

(At one point I took out another $20 in cash because I thought I would need it for an outing, but then I decided not to go. That money still got spent, though.)

Grand total for the month: $340.

Overall, I did a fair job. At the beginning of the month I was a little more cavalier with money, spending more out with friends. That's the biggest spending piece that was "unnecessary." So in the future I need to find a way to reconcile fun with my very limited budget. I'm not looking forward to that. I hope that a few friends will understand and I can still have a good time. :)

Transportation was a huge cost and my budget didn't take that into account. I was still in summer mode or paycheck mode. The $25 I budgeted was for gas, which is actually very generous since I rarely drive and so only fill up every other month or so. All this year I got monthly metrocards at work pre-tax. Of course now I buy pay-per-ride metrocards out of pocket. I don't know why I forgot to take that into consideration. Next month's transportation budget will have to be $50 at least.

Groceries, like I said, was only okay. I didn't buy impulse fun food things, but that baking stuff meant that I bought three pounds of butter over the course of a couple weeks, at four dollars each. That's twelve dollars that seems a little extraneous. If I were smart and motivated, planning out meals and ingredients would be a good idea. I need to think harder about using what we already have, too, instead of always buying more. Like the frozen strawberries for smoothies. I like buying fresh ingredients at the produce shop, and so far it seems pretty cheap too (I bought two jalapeno peppers for our second salsa attempt--they cost eighteen cents!) in addition to being smart economically and environmentally.

Target and the bookstore were pretty much necessities, and unfortunately that kind of spending won't go away. I will try to spread out what I need over more time though, if that's possible.

Now for the emotional report...

On the one hand, it's been easy not to spend money on more things. I could easily have spent a lot more on going-out food/drinks/activities. I shouldn't have spent all that I did, but I did have a good time with friends. But in forgoing clothing, or more things at Target, I found myself thinking, "Oh, I'll just buy that next time." Which is dangerous and completely misses the point of the whole challenge by making it a temporary lark. I will probably not have any more money next time than I do right now! Oh god, this is so depressing.

BUT. It's a good learning tool in that it's easy to say no, to cut back, to ride a bike if it's nearby and the weather is good. Now that the weather has turned chilly, the bike will not be a viable option for much longer. With the looming holiday season, I'm already planning out homemade/handmade gifts.

Overall, I will have to revise my budget a little bit to make it more realistic, and I will also have to adjust a few ideas and habits. I don't think this is something I can keep up long term, but I think I'll do it again for October. I do like how using cash keeps me honest, and keeping track of every single thing keeps me thinking about what I'm spending. I can Just Say No!

...most of the time. :)