Friday, November 25, 2011

The Grace of God

My son-in-law has just reached the age that I was when I changed careers and went back to school full-time for two years to earn a secondary math teaching license.  I knew there was something important about that age to me; it just took me a while to remember.

During those years of very tight times with my husband working part-time, me working part-time, and our children heading into adolescence, I had many occasions to get a sense of God's grace, but there was one time in particular.

During that time I received a gift certificate in the mail from a local grocery store.  It was sent directly from the store, and the gift giver was "Santa Claus".  I did not recognize the hand-writing of the said Santa.

This was a dilemma for me.  If the certificate had come from an organization, then I could have sent them a thank-you and felt good about their generosity.  If the certificate had come from a friend, then I could have given him/her some home-made cookies as a thank-you gift.  I had no way to know from whom the gift certificate came.  It was a gift neither asked for nor earned.  It was the best representation of the Grace of God that I had ever experienced in the temporal world.

I used the gift certificate with the help of my family to make a wonderful Christmas dinner, and, no, I never did find out who sent it, but the memory of the blessing still haunts me after 20 years.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Paper Shuffling

This past Friday I noticed just how much paper shuffling teaching takes.  When I was in private industry, there were papers to shuffle, but they were not in the same realm as the ones I deal with now.  I have papers to grade, both homework and tests/quizzes.  I have papers to write: homework, tests/quizzes, lesson plans, and student recommendations.  I have other grading to record: programs and projects from computer science classes and online work for math classes.  Then, I have to put all this on the online grading system ... plus I have to put assignments, etc. on the internet ... plus I have to create a certain amount of online work so that my math students get more practice.  Also, in the modern American way, I have to send out either by email or the post office progress reports in case a student is failing or close to failing.  Aaaagh!

I am working on moving our school to an LMS (Learning Management System).  I personally like Moodle, partly for its free software and constant upgrades, etc. from the international Moodle community, but our school would need to have it hosted by someone else ... and that is where the problem lies for Moodle.  Or for any other LMS around.  Any suggestions, anyone?  I could certainly use them.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The teachable moment

I've been watching the History Channel and MSNBC with their 10 year 9/11 anniversary shows.  It brings back how I handled the situation as it unfolded at the school.

Students to my next math class came in at the bell demanding to have the classroom monitor changed to a news channel.  They said that there had been an explosion at the World Trade Center.  I refused, noting that it wasn't the first time a bomb had gone off there and it wouldn't be the last time.  I was wrong.

When an office worker came by to pick up my attendance, I asked her about the students' comments, and she said something really big happened there, so I changed the monitor to a local station and we watched and listened about the planes hitting the towers.  Then we watched the first of the towers to implode.  My brain was in logic mode, which is normal for me under stressful situations when in public, and all I could talk about was how someone managed to get the tower to implode rather than explode.  I did try to call my husband at home, but he did not answer since he was still asleep.  We then saw the smoke coming from the Pentagon, of which the news anchor was not aware.  He kept on asking someone to tell him what was on the screen.  He did get his information after we had seen some of the Pentagon damage.  It would be nice if the anchors had one monitor facing them that showed what the viewers were seeing.  Class ended, and I finally got my husband on the phone.  I told him to watch CNN right then because they were, at that time,  the network that would spend the entire day on the situation.

I went to the cafeteria during lunch and found it rather empty of the many students that were usually there.  The dean of students said that parents had been pulling their children out all morning.   I guess that fear takes hold when the unthinkable becomes real.  By the way, our student population was up to par the next day, so the parents must have felt better by evening.

In my remaining classes after that first class, I did not have the monitor on the news.  I told my students that they needed to learn everything they could in order to help make a better world, that we needed all the good people we could get.

I had a graduate class that evening, but it was cancelled by the instructor.  Many of my classmates had pushed for the cancellation because they were still in shock.  Still in logic mode, I felt that my classmates had wimped out, but I did not know that my instructor had been trying to contact his father who worked in downtown Manhattan.  FYI: the father was all right, but had spent all day walking from his office to off the island so he could get home.

How was this a teachable moment?  It allowed me and my fellow teachers to help our students understand that when one cannot offer help immediately, one must do whatever is possible to be ready to offer help in the future.  In our Catholic school, we also helped students to understand that it was possible for God to make good come out of this tragedy with our help.  Of course, our school and students started working on ways to help the people in the midst of all the tragedies the next day: making/collecting money needed to keep the help coming and special prayer services including an all-school mass.  We have a framed pastel picture drawn by one of our art students that has on the left side a firefighter in front of the World Trade Center twin towers falling with the smoke and dust around and on the right side a blood donor in front of a local donation center.  It fits the school since 2001 was our school building's first year of use. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

What's this about a teacher's short day?

There seems to be a misconception that a teacher has a short day because an official school day is usually 7 hours long.  Well, those 7 hours make up the students' day, but not the faculty's day.  I start my day at least 1/2 hour prior to the "official" start of school.  Actually, I have already checked my school email from home and dealt with some of the issues in them prior to leaving home.  I do not leave the school until about 45 minutes after the last bell.  I see students before school and after school to help them and to let them make up their tests and quizzes. 

Then, there is the grading.  Wednesday night was the open house for parents of current students to meet their children's teachers, so I really had no time to grade the homework I took up that day.  Hence, on Thursday night I stayed up an extra hour just to grade the waiting homework plus the quizzes I gave that day.  I plan for when I will grade work, so make up work is pushed to the end of my to-do list and may take some time for me to grade.  I usually do make up work on the weekends.

With the grading comes the responsibility of keeping an eye on which students need more than most.  I discovered in grading the quizzes that I have a student who will need extra effort on my part to help the student demonstrate the math skills he/she has learned.  That means more meetings with parents, the student, administration, etc. outside of the official school day.  Plus I need to make sure that that student's tests and quizzes allow the student to legitimately succeed.  I do not believe in false grades, but I do know that not everyone has good math logic abilities.  I'm so glad my art teachers didn't grade just on my ability to shade properly -- because I didn't shade at all usually -- but also included my best art skills, i.e. structure and form.  I try to remember that gift when teaching students who care and work hard to succeed.  They need to know that they have math skills, just not necessarily in the same way as their classmates.  St. Paul was right: we are all parts of the same body, but we each have different gifts to share in that common body. (My interpretation.)  Besides, nothing succeeds like personally-achieved success.  I have faith that this student will strive to achieve as much as possible in math when he/she knows what is possible.  I've seen it happen before.

After saying all that, I guess I lost track of my original subject, but I regained my incentive to be the best teacher I can be.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Waiting for the hurricane

I felt the title was appropriate since our NC community usually gets the tails of hurricanes, and, right now, we are getting an increase in humidity, clouds, and wind.  It also fits the beginning of the school year.  It's the first Saturday after the return of the students, and I am so glad to have the weekend off because I need the chance to rest and review for next week.

After 17 years in the profession and 10 years at my current school, I have very few problems with student behavior.  (I just wish sometimes that politicians and people-concerned-with-education knew how few of the first ten responsibilities of a public school teacher have to do with actually helping students learn.  They deal mostly with managing student behavior at all times and in all situations on the school property.)  Since part of my responsibility, training, and interest lie in using technology to help teachers teach and students learn, I am always adding technology to my lessons.  Currently, I am in year two of trying out Moodle with the intent of switching to it or some other LMS (Learning Management System) next year.  This year all but my AP CS classes will have internet assignments through the school's Moodle test system.  In addition, my math students will also be using the Khan Academy as part of their learning and practice process.

So I spent part of the week helping my math students start using our Moodle system and getting set up with the Khan Academy.  Yesterday, to get as many students ready to go further on these systems, we were in the general computer lab.  I felt like we were the shakedown crew because my classes were the first ones to use said lab this school year.  We kept on running into software problems, but at least the computer technology coordinator and I learned some important lessons for next year.  My poor students in all my classes get to be guinea pigs for almost all new general educational technology for the school.  I think they feel it's a badge of honor to be the first to try things.  They certainly end up with several stories to pass on to their friends.  Last year, my Intro CS class used Moodle all year, so each quarter they each had an extra project grade to compensate for being first in using Moodle at the school.  I believed that part of their learning was the input they gave us in using said system and in tolerating problems well I had with the system until I learned it better.  This year there will be no extra grades for using these systems.  They will, however, lose grades if they don't use the systems and do their work on time.  Obviously, I am not concerned with my students liking me personally; I just want them to learn.

While keeping up with lessons and help for the 4 subjects I teach this year, I am also trying to finish helping other teachers get their homework websites up to date on syllabi.  This school is the only one in which I've been required to have a syllabus for each subject area.  Syllabi are mostly used in college, not high school, but we are a college-prep school, so it makes sense.  It also makes it easier for the parents to know what their children should be learning and what the teacher's requirements and expectations are.

There is one new habit I want to have this year.  I want to carry my planning book with me always and everywhere so that I keep up with all my lessons and all my other duties plus having the school's calendar items in one place.  I mean to carry it with me because I teach using my classroom upstairs and 2 different computer labs downstairs, not to mention faculty meetings and parent-teacher conferences.  I have always had a poor short-term memory, so note-taking is one of my talents.  The problem lies with the fact that I don't always put my notes where I can use them; hence, the need for carrying my planning book with me and keeping my notes in it.  Wish me luck.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Last day of summer "vacation"

Tomorrow starts a week of pre-school teacher workdays, so today I am trying to finish as much of the kitchen ceiling as possible.  The hardest pieces of cutting and fitting are done, i.e. the pieces that go around the ceiling lights.  It looks pretty good even though we have some caulking to dissolve from a mistake I made.  I have 4 more tiles ready to go up when my son is ready to help me.  Then over half of the ceiling is finished.  I'd like to get 4 more tiles up before the day is through, but that's iffy.

I have learned one thing that I would change if I were to do this again.  I would not select tiles that require 2 people to glue up.  The tiles would be either 1 foot by 1 foot or 2 feet by 2 feet, not 2 feet by 4 feet.  Since my husband's not been well, I need my son's help, and he, like my husband, does not share my daily circadian cycle.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Thanks, Dad.

This is a story of something I learned from my father that still has value.

When I was in college, my husband John and I owned a Hoover apartment washing machine and dryer set.  The washer had 2 main parts:  the washing section with the side rotator for agitating the clothes, and the smaller bucket that rinsed and spun out the water from the clothes.  The user did have to stand by the washer while it worked, but it was better than taking the clothes to a laundry since we had no car for 2 years.

At some point, the turn-switch for the washing side no longer moved.  We had to time the wash cycle which was a hassle.  I determined that since it was a mechanical tool, there had to be a logical fix to it.  Hence, I took the washer apart by removing its back and looked at everything there was to see.  I could not see anything that looked broken, so I called my father and explained my dilemma.  He said that it sounded like the timer needed oil and told me how to do that.  In the meantime, John who had been at work returned home to see the washer in pieces.  They were big pieces, but they were still pieces to his eye.  He was shocked and asked me what happened.  I told him that I was determined to fix the problem and put it back together.  He went to take a nap with serious doubts about my ability to put together that which I tore apart.  Following my dad's instructions, I oiled the timer, tested it to discover that it now worked, and returned the washer to its complete state, i.e. I undid what I had done.  John awoke to no more problem and was very pleased and relieved.

It has been more than 30 years since that experience and 14 years since my father's death.  We now have a portable dishwasher that the turn-switch suddenly quit working on the drying cycle.  John woke me up at night to lament that it was broken, and in the back of my mind was the thought that the timer might need oiled.  He said that he turned it off and would try it out with a new load just in case it was a glitch in the system.  Okay.  Back to sleep.  When he tried it out 2 days later (we rarely have a full load in 1 day), it turned on but did not move.  With the memory of my father's help so many years ago, I pulled out the turn-switch knob and oiled the timer.  It has worked well since then.  Thanks, Dad.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Summer preparations

It's summer, so I am preparing for the next school year.  Considering that this is one of my 2 unpaid months of the year, that is unpaid labor, but no one cares about that.  It's my choice to spend extra UNPAID time now so that I can concentrate on teaching and other tasks "as assigned" starting on August 15.  So what have I done so far?

When we were camping, I planned out the first quarter of my Honors Computer Science class.  When I spent 4 hours in a government office (NCDMV) yesterday, I planned out the entire year of Intro Computer Science.  Before we went camping I also worked on my Algebra 3/Trig class, but it will be an ongoing planning situation because of day-to-day challenges of the different students.  At least this year I have "only" 4 subjects to teach.

I am currently fixing up the homework pages for our new teachers.  That'll teach me to volunteer, except that I really like helping my fellow faculty members with their computer work.

I have found one thing different this summer, though.  For the past 2 summers, I was concentrating on doing things for my mother and seeing her at least twice a week, so I did not do as much sewing and working on the house as I had before.  Now that she is gone, I am having trouble getting back to the sewing.  The work that the house needs is another ongoing situation in my life, so that hasn't changed all that much. 

The tiles for the "tin" ceiling are supposed to be ready by tomorrow, and I am not looking forward to doing that work in this heat.  Maybe I'll just move our new air conditioner to the kitchen for the duration of putting up the new ceiling.  I just keep on reminding myself that I will be so happy when it's done.  I'm making that my mantra for the time being.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The King Effect

In 1975, while I was a college student, a friend named King brought a color TV to our house to try it out on our outdoor antenna.  (Yes, there was a time when most people had black-and-white TVs because color TVs were too expensive.  It was rather like the HD and 3-D TV situation now.)  After spending an afternoon watching color TV in our living room, my husband and I went out and bought our first color TV the next weekend.

It is 36 years since then.  When we were camping in West Virginia over the past 2 weeks, we visited our friend King, his wife, and daughter at their home.  They had an air conditioning unit that we liked.  Well, the "King effect" happened again.  Upon returning home to 95+ degrees Fahrenheit with very high humidity, we went out and bought an AC unit similar to the one that King and his family had.  My made-up excuse: my husband being 68 deserved air conditioning at home before he got older.

Friday, July 15, 2011

What makes it being cheap?

One of my brothers said that my husband and I are cheap because we camp so much when we travel.  That's an interesting opinion from someone who prefers to ride a motorcycle instead of a car.  Who is the cheap person here and what makes that person's actions "cheap"? 

Sometimes when my preference of camping causes problems for my brother's plans (in this case carrying something big to store in our house ... along with all my mother's other stuff), he will try to spin his words to make us look bad.  Most of the people I know, myself included, will do this at one time or another.

When it comes to my brother's love of motorcycling and our lack of interest in same, he doesn't think he's being cheap but efficient.  This is the other side of the concept presented above: spinning one's words to make ourselves look good.  Again, most people I know, myself included, do it at one time or another.

So do we actually camp out to save money?  Sometimes yes, but the fact is that we really like camping.  We find hotel/motel rooms and hallways, etc. to be very claustrophobic in nature.  When we camp, we have privacy (no maids, etc.), we have lots of space to set our stuff out, and we can enjoy our day at our speed.  We don't have to follow a hotel schedule about housekeeping and breakfast, etc. hours.  There's no television to distract us.  The neighbors can be friendly or we just ignore them.  The only bad part is the fact that we find ourselves in various stores, cafes, etc. in order to use the internet.  I am too cheap to buy a broadband card.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Real Life Happens

Real life is not scripted.  It follows no pattern set in stone.  It just happens.

I had planned to spend this morning doing some sewing.  I was in my sewing room bagging up my wastebasket trash when I heard a crash from downstairs.  I assumed it was the spring rod for the shower curtain, so I wasn't too worried when I went downstairs to check.  Only it wasn't the rod.  The downstairs bathroom had no problems.  I knew the crash had been below me, so I went on to the next room.  There was a new big hole in the ceiling above the television and plaster all over the floor, rug, furniture, television, and assorted devices.

We started cleaning up everything, then drove to the local home center and bought a wet-dry shop vac because our vacuum couldn't handle that mess.  Spent the rest of the morning and the afternoon cleaning up that mess.  I guess that next summer we'll be putting in a new ceiling again.  What really irks me is that we haven't finished putting in the new kitchen ceiling.

Tomorrow I go back to sewing.  Unless real life happens again.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Thoughts on trying to reach the emotional areas of the brain.

I just received this year's AP CS A exam results.  I knew before Easter break just what those results would be, and I was right.  No matter how many times I told my students that they were going to take one of the hardest AP exams and that they could not wing it by cramming at the last minute, most of them did not listen.  Most of them did not pass.  What does it take to reach the part of a student's brain that realizes that I am telling the truth?

Last year my entire class passed that exam.  Since they were all mentally geared towards the subject, I could have done nothing, and they probably still would have passed.  My experience has been that the individual student's desire to pass the exam and interest in the software creation concepts side is a far better predictor of success than anything else.  The interest in software concepts I have a good sense of, but how do I help them desire passionately passing the exam?  I don't believe in using my emotions to manipulate students although I will use manipulative techniques to get them to do the work in class.  It's getting them to work in the lab that is a big problem.  I shall have to think seriously on this one before the fall.  I have the passion that I need to pass on to them.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Working on the house

I've been preparing my kitchen in anticipation of scraping the ceiling.  We plan on putting up a tin or fake-tin ceiling this summer.  I will finish taking down everything on the cabinet tops today, my husband will wash clothes this evening, and I will cover the lower cabinets and appliances tomorrow and start scraping.  My father would probably tell me that I take too long to do these things.  I think he would be right, but I like to do quiet things in the heat and humidity of the afternoon.

My younger brother, however, seems to think I do a lot in the summer.  He skyped me yesterday and made a comment about how busy I am when school's out (I don't remember his exact words, just the gist of what I got from them.).  I do know that I hate doing the work, but I love the results, so I do it.  Plus summer can be a waste if one does nothing useful.  Besides, it's either do physical labor or exercise by walking down the greenway.  Right now the physical labor is winning.  Going up and down the step ladder for a couple of hours each day is great for my leg muscles.

I'm also trying to finish my Moodle site for the first quarter of a math class.  I know that I will either have a study hall or a different math subject this fall, and I want to be ready in case the latter happens.  I also need to do the same for both my Intro CS class and my Honors CS class.  One thing I learned this past year is that I need to insure that my CS students cannot find the answers to their problems on the internet.  For some reason, they don't think they're cheating when they do that.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Opportunity knocks!

My son and I went to the school yesterday morning so that I could have an accounts payable "bill" signed and faxed to our host's office.  It should have taken all of 5 minutes, but it took closer to an hour.  The business manager was on the phone, so we had to wait.  A teacher borrowed my son to help him with computer hardware problems in his classroom while waiting.  I taught a new teacher the basics of using his homework website.  Then I got the paper signed and faxed.  Son was still working in the one classroom, so I spent some time talking with a graduate I taught a few years back.  Son was still working, so I spoke with a teacher about setting him up with a Moodle account for testing purposes.  Son finally returned, but he had not been able to fix the problem.  Funny thing is that the school pays for 2 full time tech people, one being my son's boss who was out yesterday, but the faculty call on my son whenever they have a problem and he's at the school because they have had no success with getting help from the other tech person.

Meantime, I finally took my serger sewing machine to a repair shop.  It's been broken but usable for more than 10 years, but I was always leery of leaving it with anyone to fix it.  The last time I left a sewing machine to be repaired (in another state), it really wasn't, so "once bit, twice shy" am I.  I hope these people do a good job because I need a reliable repair place for my other sewing machine ... the one that has the problem that was never fixed. 

In regards to both the one tech person at the school and the repair shop that never repaired my machine, I wish people would understand that life is far more than earning money.  One's life has to have meaning as in doing the best one can do for others, like fixing machines or solving computer problems.  Perhaps it's my religious view, but I believe that we all need to help each other whenever possible and appropriate.  No one was ever put on this earth "to make money", no matter how much he/she wants to believe that.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

If I'm not being paid for the summer, why am I still working?

Frankly, I cringe when people talk about teachers having "summer vacation".  It's not true.  Teachers are 10 month employees who are not paid for the other 2 months of the year.  Vacation is paid time off, so teachers do not have summer vacation.  They have unpaid time off.

I note this because I am still working on school stuff.  I am currently creating new websites for new faculty as they get hired.  Today I go back to the school to arrange payment for the host company of our teachers' homework sites.  Of course, I am still working on lesson plans for the fall, but I know I'd do that anyhow.  I think my father did a very good job of instilling in me the need to do everything as well as I can.  Hmm.  Is that a good thing or not?  Time to think on it.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Early Summer Thoughts

It's been more than 2 years since I last posted. I was surprised to find that my blog was still available; I take that as a good sign. This summer is different from the past 2 summers. My family moved my mother to a nursing home near me, and I spent the past 2 years seeing her at least twice a week. She died mid-January this year, and now I have a summer with more time to work on my personal interests than I have had in 3 years. One would think I could come up with lots to do, but I haven't.
I've had 2 summers of having to find time for myself and my interests and other things like working on our house. Visiting my mother on a regular basis and planning things for her gave me structure to my life whenever school was out. The same was true for whenever school was in session, but my school work took precedence in structure -- I just made sure that I had 2 times set aside each week to spend with my mother during the school year.