Thursday, December 16, 2010


 I have experienced the joy and excitement of snow days as a kid missing school, as the stay at home mom of my kids who were excited to be missing school and more recently, the annoyance of a snow day when my kids were home and I had to figure out how to handle it because my office wasn't closed (and I didn't get paid if I didn't go in).  Nothing, however, is like the joy I am experiencing today, as a teacher experiencing my first snow day.  Not only is it an unexpected day off from school, not only is it exam week, but I have the potential to not be going back until after the holidays!!  My sixteen day break could now be eighteen days with NO EXAMS TO GRADE!!! 

This brings me to the jaw dropping behavior I have seen during the two exams I have given.  I was told flat out by another teacher not to expect my kids to do well on exams.  The principal wanted us to turn in our exams ahead of time along with whatever review we were going to do.  I guess the idea is so that when the kids fail, I can prove that I did what I could to prepare them.  Here is what I did--I gave them the questions ahead of time in class and had them go through their notes, find the answers and then I reviewed them.  One of those days, I had a sub.  I left her the questions and the answers to go over.  My infamous 7th period apparently didn't think it would be worthwhile to do this and my poor sub ended up calling administrator three times to get the class under control.  I made a copy of the sub report and sent it to the principal with a note that said "When my 7th period fails the exam--this is why."

On Tuesday I had a student painting her nails during my exam.  When I asked her to put it away, she started flossing her teeth.  Not surprisingly, she failed the exam--not just failed, but she missed 29 out of 50 questions.  I had two students show up late for the exam.  That blew me away--"Gee, nothing important going on today!  I'll just take my time getting to class!"  My favorite though, was the student who raised his hand and asked for a pencil.  "Really?" I said, "It didn't occur to you on exam day that you might need something to write with?  Sorry, I'm not going to help you out.  You are going to have to see if one of your classmates will take pity on you."  Apparently, most of them did not because it was several long seconds before someone finally offered up a pen. 

I also made a rookie mistake of making my 10th grade exam way too short.  We have two hours for exams.  My first student finished in 20 minutes.  The last one turned in their exam with 75 minutes left to go.  That was the longest 75 minutes of my life.  I ran back to my cubby and downloaded additional test questions for Friday, when the other two 10th grade classes have their exam.  Of course, now that is all potentially pointless because its coming down with no evidence that it will be cleared up in time for school tomorrow (she said with barely contained glee!!).

I end this post with something that made my heart melt and my department head's eyes roll.  As I graded exams yesterday, one student had written in tiny letters "I love you Miz Nilknarf!" at the top of her answer sheet.  This is a quiet, sweet girl who did very well on her exam.  Call me naive, but I took it as sincere, not a blatant attempt at sucking up.   My department head was completely unimpressed as I delightedly shoved it under his nose.  "I don't take that type of thing personally any more than I take the fuck you's personally."  Perhaps he is right.  But I hold onto that type of things like a starving animal snatches at crusts in the garbage.  Its the only way I can convince myself that I am not completely wasting my time.  

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Happy Post for a Change!

This is a crazy time of year.  There is a total dichotomy between what students are thinking and what teachers are thinking.  It goes something like this:

Me:  Oh Dear God!  Next week is midterm exams and then SOLs the week after we get back in January!  We have more work to do than ever!  Its very important that my students buckle down so we can get it all done!

My Students:  The holiday break is almost here!  I'm done!

I get it!  I really do... Anyway, I have a few really nice stories to share about three of my students. 

The first one is that last week my husband and I went out to breakfast.  As I was going through the buffet line I hear "Hi Miz Nilknarf!" and looked up to see one of my students.  She is 15 and I was shocked to hear she has worked there for two years!  This of course brings to mind all kinds of questions, including, is she here illegally and being paid under the table, but I digress...  I said hi, chatted with her a second and then sat back down.  A few minutes later I went back up to find my sweet husband still talking to her.  He jokingly said, "We were just talking to her about how mean you are!" and she said in such a sweet voice "You aren't mean at all!  I love your class!".  Made my day!

Second story:  I was out with a sick child on Thursday.  I walked through the cafeteria when I returned and one of my students ran up and hugged me like she hadn't seen me in a month!  "How is your son?" she!  I guess they a) recognize that I really do have a life and b) care about me as a person.  Its very sweet (and shocking).

Third:  One of my students had her cell phone out at the end of class the other day.  I told her to put it on my desk.  The cell phone policy at school is very clear.  She went nuts "Oh Miz Nilknarf!  Don't you trifle with me!  Its the end of the class!  You ain't gonna take my cell phone away!  I been nothing but nice to you and you ain't gonna treat me like that!"  I was really annoyed and a little hurt that she would speak to me that way.  I started to write her up and then decided to hold off until the next morning.  One of my administrators told me about the "24 Hour Rule" where you hold off and give yourself some time to get some perspective. I decided to try and talk to her first and see how receptive she was.

I saw her out in the hall the next morning and said "Tiffany, do you have a minute for me?"
She responded, "I always have time for you, Miz Nilknarf!"  So far, so good....
"Tiffany, you know what the school policy is on cell phones....and if I let someone have it out the last two minutes of class, then..."
"I know Miz Nilknarf, you are right.  I am so sorry.  I had just read a text that made me mad and that's why I reacted that way... I am so sorry.  I didn't mean to be disrespectful."

Done.  It was much better to hold off and try and reach her on my own than to escalate things by involving administration.  So that's Miz Nilknarf's Holiday Advice #1 for you.

Here is #2.  Fourth period, I have three kids, including twins, who are constantly disruptive.  I have sent notes home, called home, and even had the kids write a contract for how they would improve their behavior.  I had them sign it, the parent sign it and I signed it.  The other day I wrote a referral for them, listing all previous efforts at managing their behavior.  On Friday, we were doing a review game for their midterm.  We worked in teams of three and of course, those 3 sat together--a Bermuda Triangle of obnoxious, disruptive behavior.  After several warnings, I kicked all three of them out to sit in the hall until class was over.  After they left, the difference was amazing.  The class was quiet, focused, respectful.  I didn't have to stop talking every three words to wait for the class to come to attention.  So, that is Miz Nilknarf's Holiday Advice #2--remove the bad apples.  They bring down the class.  Don't let the worst 5% of the class get 100% of your attention.

Monday, December 6, 2010

SOL Hell

When I was interviewing for teaching jobs, I had a schtick about the SOLs (Standards of Learning.  These are tests that the kids take at the end of the course to show that they have learned an adequate amount).  It went something like this:

"How would I handle the SOLs?  Well I plan to teach the skills all year and go well beyond the skills.  After all, the SOLs are only a minimum standard of knowledge.  With ongoing assessment and immediate remediation, I expect my students to tell me the SOLs are the easiest thing they have done all year!"  

Oh. My. God.  That was so naive, I want to slap myself.

Its a nice idea.  The issue is that I did not take into account that I am not 100% in control of how well these kids do.  Here is the reality....

1.  My kids don't care.  About anything.  They somehow imagine that I am going to drill a hole in their head, pour the info in and then they will all be magically granted basketball or football scholarships and go to college, where they won't have to do any studying.

2.  I have done ongoing assessments.  Its pointless.  Last month, my kids did a benchmark to see where I need to do some remediation.  In a pathetic attempt to motivate them and get them to take it seriously, I told them that it would count as a test grade.  I had four kids out of 35 get over a 70.  The majority failed or were just at passing (61).  Many failed at a level that made my jaw drop.  I had one kid, a fairly decent student, who scored a 28 out of 100.  I said to her "Please tell me you blew the test off and this is not in any way representative of what you know."  She laughed and said, "Yeah, I didn't feel like taking that test." 

3.  Students must pass the SOLs to graduate.  Pass.  That's really a low standard of performance and one that is not considered acceptable to the principal, our county, or the state.  Whose job is it to make sure these kids not only pass, but do well?  Mine. Its my job. 

How exactly am I supposed to do this?  Its not enough for me to teach it.  They have to actually pay attention, learn it, and then make the effort on testing day.  Yet, when the scores come back, the lack of success will be blamed on the school in general and the teacher specifically for failing to adequately teach the students.

 The 11th grade SOL is coming up in January--that's right, they take a test on info I am supposed to have an entire school year to teach them, just a little over 3 months after they walked into my class. These are the moments when I want to put my head down on my desk and wave the white flag.