Sunday, October 7, 2007

A different kind of place

My new school is a world apart from last year's school. Of course, teaching will probably always involve more work than one can actually quite complete, always absorb all available time and attention. And we always have a share of students who arrive well below grade level and need catching up or have problems. Still - this is just so different!

The administrators are not only law-abiding and sane (which would have been quite enough this year), but also reasonable, professional, competent, kind and thoughtful. Decisions made make sense in educational terms. Teachers are treated with respect. Students are spoken about with compassion and hope. When I see my principal, VP or math department head in the halls my first impulse is, weirdly, to run over and hug them (which, of course, I never do). Such strange reactions may seem less odd given how everyone in the building used to react to the voice or presence of my principal of last year: students would scamper off, disappearing around corners, hiding out in bathrooms or classrooms. Teachers would tighten up, set up blank faces and walk away as rapidly as would seem safe for avoiding attention... When I meet my current VP in the halls in the evenings or during weekends she'll tell me to go home and make sure I don't work too hard. Last year's principal would barge into classrooms and reprimand teachers in front of all the students for not having completed impossible tasks. My current school has as a stated goal of the year to improve in the area of helping struggling students to succeed. Last year's principal told the teachers explicitly that the lower-track students were there "to pay the bills" and advised us not to spend too much energy on them. And so forth. I love my new administration.

Student behavior is also incomparably different. I can identify with Ben Chun's amazed reaction to the fact that his students arrived in class equipped with pencils and paper, and that they would without further ado proceed to use these items to produce writing when asked to do so. That really boggles your mind after you've spent so much energy through a whole year on failing to get students to do this. Other strange behaviors include a homework completion rate of above 90%, an ability to stay more or less on task for 85 minutes straight, and the fact that they will actually allow you several sentences worth of time to explain the rationale for a policy they have objections to - and then accept the policy as a result of the explanation. That feeling you have when you brace yourself to lift something heavy, and then end up recoiling and practically losing your balance because it isn't? I've had that so many times this semester.

Not that things are perfect. I still have occasional classes going off track, and the Friday freshman group from 1:30-3:00 is a challenge. But overall classes are going well, and it's not because I have magically become a better teacher over the summer. That is, I am teaching better, but not due to any dramatic improvements in personality or capacity or wisdom over the break. Rather, the students arrive with fewer issues, fewer inner distractions and distress, less reason to be angry. And if they do have a bad day, we have two counselors - both wonderful people - that they can speak with. A student who appears troubled can get a pass from a teacher to visit a counselor, and the kid generally arrives back in class much more collected and calm 15 minutes later. At my previous school kids could have had a shooting in the family over the weekend and there would be no help for them at school. Small wonder their minds were not on their math classes.

Another strange thing: There are two music teachers and one arts teacher here. So in the teacher lunch room you can actually hear discussions about arts pedagogy and music instruction. That's new and different and wonderful, too.

My new Math Department is fantastic. The tiny PreAlgebra group is taught by a Religion teacher that I haven't talked much with yet. The two other full-time Math teachers - wow. They both have actual degrees in math, and have taught for more than 7 years apiece. They're naturally excited about math in all forms, love upper division math and can do great things with graphing calculators. They also are very interested in and knowledgable about pedagogy and learning theory. And they're deeply committed to helping struggling students through their courses, putting in at least 5 hours of tutoring per week (I'm sure one of them may do close to 10 hours many weeks). I recently observed these two women run into each other in the staff room after 4 pm on a Thursday and start talking about one student who had failed Geometry last year but was doing so much better this year. Then they got completely absorbed in a discussion about just why students tended to display a particular misconception when doing a certain kind of Calculus problem. I don't teach Calculus and just listened, enjoying the idea that I get to work with people like this.

Anecdotal comparisons between this school and last year's school could continue, and the contrast is interesting in a way. But as the positive shock is wearing off, thinking about math instruction is taking the place of reacting to the constant ringing of the moral alarm system (Beep! Beep! This is wrong! This can't be happening! Beep! That's lying! That's unfair! That will positively hurt the students! But...! Beep! How can anyone possibly be getting away with this?! Beep!) Without this noise, the topics I want to discuss are different. In accordance with this shift in attention and focus, I'm planning to pretty much abandon this blog for Coffee and Graph Paper. To those of you who have been reading until now - and to Dan in particular - thanks for listening :) Your kind interest was encouraging.

Classroom Decorations

A large number of my classroom decorations this year were simply snagged from other blogs. Neil Winton and Paul Williams kindly gave permission to use their photos for classroom posters, and here's what that ended up looking like (through the MacBook camera lens, so the image quality is what it is).

I'm teaching at a Catholic school this year, and Neil's beautiful images fit underneath a crucifix stuck to my back classroom wall that I felt a little awkward about. The series of photos, with the reflections of cathedral windows in the child's eyes in the last slide, did nicely - and I've no idea what else could have gone up there. The white background to the photos also fits well with the brown and black of the surroundings, making the white function more like an actual color rather than as blank space, if that makes any sense. In the morning, sunlight enters from a window just to the right of this wall.

Finding a background for Paul's images was tricky. I thought black would be the only good choice, except for the fact that this classroom has blackboard (yes - real, old-style black blackboard with chalk!) on three walls, so that there is already a lot of black in there. The arts teacher recommended this mint green, however, and that worked. Still think I'll change this wall somehow when I get time, which won't be any time soon, but for now this is what it looks like.

The third wall has a fast and dirty version of Dan Greene's idea. One student studying the poster thought "get rich" should be included as a separate item, without any qualifying additions, so that is chalked in to the right.

The text on green and yellow paper are the objectives for Algebra, with the pink arrow indicating where we are now. The row runs along the whole wall. The purpose was mainly to put some color up there to contrast with the ubiquitous brown and black. I do like the historical feel to the classroom deriving from the dark wood, tan walls, brown floor, and old-style blackboards and windows with irregular glass - but it is a little drab for a high school room.

I guess it would be good to have more actual math on the walls. But one of the humanities teachers who wandered in expressed that this was the most "human" math classroom she'd seen (whatever that means), and I'm happy enough with it for now.

Anyway, great thanks to all these bloggers who contributed ideas for decorating a blank classroom in just a few days!

Update: Would be nice if Blogger's preview looked just a little like the published version!