In which I have returned to work

I initially intended to go back to work Wednesday. Monday and Tuesday made it clear that there was simply too much still to be done, so I didn’t, and intended to go back to work yesterday. Yesterday I woke up, spent a few minutes staring at the ceiling, and went nope, and called in.

Today I woke up and it felt normal, more or less, so I went back. And, honestly, I had a really pleasant day, and it was the right decision. The kids, 70% of whom were perfectly aware of what had happened, were really sweet all day long, including a couple of them who are normally pains in my ass, and I got a weird rush of new students during the four days I was out and all of them seem like nice, smart kids.

So I’m glad I went back. Technically I could have taken one more day, and technically I suppose since my five bereavement days don’t have to be sequential I still could take one more day at some point I needed to, but I needed to be back at work today. If it had been a rough day things might have gone south quickly, and I made some … uh … emotionally questionable decisions during my lunch and prep period but there was no one around so it was okay.

(In general, if your mom was the type who left the exact same voicemail message every time she called– “Hi honey, it’s Mom, call me–” you should probably not spend fifteen minutes listening to every single saved voicemail you have hoping to find one where she said “I love you” at the end, because while you know your Mom loved you and she was the type to say it frequently, she was not the type to throw it into a four-second voicemail message, and you will end up emotional and disappointed at work, and that is a bad decision.)

Anyway. We will see how the weekend goes; I’m expecting posting around here to more or less return to normal in the near future as well, but I assume y’all will forgive me if I spend another few days quieter than normal. I got a good day today, though. That’s worth telling y’all about.

Some teachertalk

This has, with the exception of maybe twenty minutes at the end of one class yesterday, actually been a pretty good first week back at work. Two things have worked out in my favor: first, I rearranged all of the desks in my classroom on the teacher record day before leaving for Winter Break, and I like the new layout a lot more, and it’s also quite a bit more conducive to instruction than my previous layout was.

In addition, quite a few of my students were reshuffled, something I initially regarded with wary concern but which seems to have worked out quite a bit better than I had dared to hope. I have lost a number of knuckleheads, replaced them with a bunch of kids who seem at first look at least to be pretty nice, one kid who I was expecting to be a knucklehead seems more manageable than I had thought he would be, and a surprisingly large number of kids have, on their own, come up to me and commented about how they’re having an easier time paying attention and behaving in their new class than they were in their old one. It’s actually rather fascinating.

All except 7th hour. I’ve talked about them before, I’m sure, although I’m not going to go search for a post to link to– my 7th hour class is so much more poorly behaved than the rest of my classes that it almost feels like they’re from a different building than the rest of my groups. The weird thing was that I didn’t really have any specific kids I could blame it on– the group was toxic, not any individual students.

7th hour is 50% different kids from last semester, a number of the tougher kids are in new groups (and many are among the “I’m doing better!” crew) … and the vibe in the room is exactly the same, if not actually worse.

I cannot explain it. Now, I know that there are other teachers in the building who also think their 7th hour group is their toughest, so maybe there’s something about 3:00 in the afternoon that makes them all insane, but I am generally pretty good about group psychology sorts of things and this phenomenon has completely eluded me. It’s only day three, of course, so there’s plenty of time for things to change, for better or worse, but right now I’m stymied.

In which I am successful and I don’t like it

Objectively speaking, today was a good day. Unfortunately, I apparently have no idea how to react to good news, so my brain is melting and I’m looking around for ways to mistrust what I should be treating as evidence that I have some idea how to do my job.

My first two classes of the day are seventh graders, and they are working on volume this week. We started with cubes and rectangular solids, moved on to triangular solids, and then started working on cylinders today. Now, in some ways, all of these are fairly simple– there is a reason that “follow the formula” is literally one of my classroom rules, and I allow calculator use any time that the calculation is not the point, and in this case I don’t want an inability to multiply fluently interfering with understanding what three pieces of information you need to calculate the volume of a prism.

Cubes and rectangles and triangles went fine, but in sixteen years I’ve never had a class of math kids that didn’t struggle with cylinders. Once pi comes into the mix, and especially once not only pi is in the mix but radius squared becomes a thing, they start having trouble. They get over it, but kids always need to be monitored carefully while they’re doing cylinder volume for the first time. They screw it up. I’m used to it. It’s okay.

Nope. Both classes sailed through the assignment I gave them, and from watching the class I could tell that damn near all of them understood what they were doing. Just like they’ve sailed through basically every assignment I’ve given them this week. They just aren’t having trouble with this, in a way that I haven’t seen with my previous math classes. And how did I react, to evidence that my students have learned what I have tried to teach them, a fact that in a sane world would make a math teacher happy?

Tomorrow’s assignment is going to include a mix of shapes, because I’m paranoid that what I actually have is an age cohort that has learned to push buttons in the right order but can’t actually figure out which formula they should use if I don’t hand it directly to them. I’m still going to make sure they have access to the formulas they need; I don’t need them to have anything memorized yet– but it’s not going to be a situation where they can use the same formula every time. And we will see if they crater or if they finish this assignment with the same ease that they’ve completed everything else I’ve thrown at them this week.

“But Luther,” you may be thinking, “you used an image related to graphing equations up there! That doesn’t have anything to do with volume! Why would you choose such a misleading graphic?”

Because my 8th graders pulled the exact same shit with working on slope and graphing linear equations this week. Now, I’ve talked about teaching slope on here before— be sure to read the comments, which feature the single most entertaining fight I ever got into in my comments section in the entire history of the blog, including the utterly priceless “you’re lucky you’re Canadian” final comment– and it is something that middle school kids tend to struggle with. The whole thing is weird, really; they’re just getting used to one letter being in their math, and now there are two, and somehow there’s not one right answer but a whole bunch of right answers, and you’re telling me that this equation and this line are the same thing, somehow? Okay, boomer. Sure.

Thing is, my kids have got this this year. In a way that previous groups never have. And part of the reason is definitely that because of the way that the scope and sequence was set up this year I was able to take my time and go piece by piece with it in a way that I haven’t in previous years, but it’s still stunning how well they seem to have absorbed this particular material.

So, again, I don’t trust it a bit, and I expect to go into work tomorrow and discover that they now think you use your feet to add numbers. We shall see. One way or another, Winter Break is six teaching days away, and that means they will forget everything I’ve ever told them in six teaching days plus one minute. But for now? It’s nice to feel like I know what I’m doing.

On the new newness

After several years where I was reliably getting a new phone every single year and basically coming to terms with the fact that I’d become That Guy, I waited three full cellphone generations– from the iPhone 7+ I’ve been carrying around forever to today– to upgrade my phone, and finally caved and came home with an iPhone 11 Pro Max in the Midnight Green color. I told myself I was going to wait until I could walk into the store and walk out with a phone, and that happened today. What ended up getting me to jump was the massive improvement in the cameras– I’m super psyched about getting to play with the new triple-camera setup, and the damn phone is gorgeous, to the point where for the first time I’m getting a clear case. It’s currently in my bedroom transferring all of my settings and apps and photos from the original phone, a process that was originally projected to take two hours, then 24 minutes, so I figured I had time to come out into the living room and write a blog post before going back and checking on it.

This was a long and interesting week; I was out of my classroom for two days at that rarest of beasts, a really interesting professional development opportunity, and I had parent-teacher conferences Wednesday night, which was the busiest I’ve ever been at PTCs– I had a line out my door for two hours and fifteen minutes– and then I had a parent-teacher conference for my own son on Thursday. Today most the kids actually had a recess as a little reward for surviving the first quarter, and a dozen or so of them organized an honest-to-God, flag-waving-and-chanting impromptu gay pride parade (!!!) on the soccer field. This is the first year of my career where I’ve had more than one or two kids who were conspicuously and un-selfconsciously out of the closet– there are a lot of 8th graders in my building who are somewhere on the QUILTBAG spectrum and don’t seem to give a damn who knows it.

A genuine oddity: they exist alongside the rather large contingent of more typical 8th-grade straight boys who enjoy nothing more than ceaselessly calling each other gay, and yet I have never once— and I’m watching, God damn it– seen any anti-gay bullying of any of the actual gay kids, and there are at least two boys in the 8th grade who are gay at twenty feet, if you know what I mean. I’ve never seen anyone call either of them names, even the kids who are quickest to toss “gay” at any of their straight friends.

So there may be several posts this weekend, is what I’m getting at, depending on whether I decide I want to talk about these things more. The training, at least, will probably get a post tomorrow or Sunday.

In which I’ve done 1/3 of my job, maybe

I love the visual shorthand that has evolved for pictures of teachers; there are literally dozens of variants on this picture of a teacher rubbing her temples at a desk piled with books with vaguely math-looking chalk notes on an obsolete blackboard behind her.

I received some small amount of evidence today that I have, indeed, been teaching at least seventh grade math for the last, oh, five weeks or so; my kids had a test today on adding and subtracting positive and negative integers and they did, on the whole, a bit better than I thought they were going to. I apparently have not been teaching eighth grade math, which makes me wonder just what the hell I’ve been doing with my time four class periods out of every day for that same five weeks. My students certainly do not appear to have learned anything, or at least they have not learned anything about classifying numbers, which is what I’ve been trying to teach them, and spending yesterday telling them exactly what was going to be on the test as well as providing them with an extensive supply of notes, presentations and videos on the subject (in addition to my own actual instruction) appears to have gotten me absolutely nowhere.

I’m blaming them, mostly.

Okay, that’s probably unfair, but I note that the kids who I can generally count on to give a shit appear to have actually learned something; the problem is that in 8th grade the supply of available Give a Shit is somewhat lower than it is in other grades, and, well, my kids have a bit of a shortage situation going on at the moment. This is, it should also be noted, not the most interesting or immediately useful of mathematics, either; even laying my usual cynicism about the world to the side I can’t really pretend that knowing how to distinguish a rational number from an irrational one is a skill that any of them are ever going to actually need. And while I usually bare my teeth and snarl at the when are we gonna use this school of avoiding acquiring new knowledge, there’s still a spectrum to these things, and this isn’t all that high on that spectrum.

Ah well. This was actually a pretty good week once it got started, and don’t tell anyone I said this but it’s possible that I’m starting to make some headway with the gang of hellions in my seventh hour class. I discovered to my bewilderment earlier this week that despite them being my most behavior-impaired class by a wide margin they are also getting the best grades and have the smallest amount of missing work. This fact rendered me unable to even for nearly a full hour. I was curious to see if it would also lead to them getting the highest grades on the test today; they … did not. I made the mistake of praising them and it went to their heads, I think; I’ll not make that mistake in the future.

I really like my seventh grade classes, by the way. They’re both fun groups even when they’re being more buttheady than usual. I like nearly all of my 8th graders as individuals; as classes … well, we’re still working on about half of them. But we’re only a month in. Plenty of time. I’m sure I’ll have everybody beaten into shape by June.