Thursday, May 22, 2008

Proposals and Pudding

Testing is over, at least most of it. We still have makeups and some special tests to give, but for the most part we have lived to tell the story. That's what I'm going to attempt to do...tell the story...but so much of it is indescribable. And some of it is "you had to be there" while other parts are "you won't believe me anyway."

I'll start with Monday, the day before testing. There was an electric frenzy in the building - last minute trainings (teachers who give the tests are called administrators - that's ironic, isn't it? - and teachers who monitor the classrooms are called proctors; all of these folks have to attend a formal training.) So everyone's getting their testing lists, and while most teachers test their own homerooms, teachers without homerooms test students who are pulled for modifications. That would be me. So the school was abuzz with questions and names and procedures never ending.

Meanwhile, a new teacher on my hall had been walking around for two weeks with a diamond ring in his pocket. He had bounced proposal ideas off of all of us, and we were just as excited as he was. So on this day, he told us that "tonight's the night." He was ready to pop the question. All of a sudden there was a different buzz in the team room, a nice departure from our pre-testing chaos. Just as the day ended he said to me, "I'm so nervous. My stomach is fluttering. I feel sick."

"Matt," I said. "You know she's going to say 'yes.' What are you worried about?"

"What?" He looked puzzled. "Oh, not that! I'm nervous about the test tomorrow." Then..."Ohmigosh, I forgot my engagement!!!"

My brain is a screaming alliteration - "The toll that testing takes on teachers..."

Now to Tuesday, the first day of testing. I was assigned to read aloud math (as I've said before, this is an oxymoron.) I was extremely stressed about this duty as I am the most language artsy teacher anyone has ever seen. I'm just not quite as comfortable crossing over into other disciplines. Ask me to teach science, and we'll do science vocabulary words and write science fiction stories. So "reading math" did not make me happy. But I worked hard to get it done so I could find Matt and ask him about the previous night. Finally, I ran into him in the hallway. "So, how did it go?" I asked.

"Okay, I guess," he said.

"Okay?!!" I screamed. "Didn't she cry and get all excited?"

He replied, "Oh, man. I was talking about the test again."

As it turns out, he had postponed the question until he could get his stomach to settle.

On to Wednesday. On this day, I administered the reading test. This one I didn't have to read aloud; I merely had to walk in a perfect monitoring circle for three hours, four if they needed it. As the students arrived, I noticed one who looked like she was crying. Keep in mind that I didn't know these students very well. They were other people's students, and I was the "modifications administrator." So I walked over to her and asked her if she was okay. She nodded that she was. I said, "Are you just tired?" She nodded again. I continued to administer, and things were going well; I was walking a nicely worn path into the tile of my classroom. Then the same "tired" student raised her hand during the test and asked for a tissue. I looked toward her and saw...what...what was that? I saw a firetruck-red, baseball-size swollen, something-was-wrong eyeball.

What in the world? I thought. Did someone slug her in the eye when I was monitoring on the other side of the room? I walked over quietly, handed her a tissue, and bent over to get a closer look.

"I took it out," she said and nodded toward the top of her desk.

I looked in the direction of her nod and saw something metal...a screw? a nail? a tack? It took several seconds to figure it out. It was an eyebrow ring, well, not a ring, but a stud. This student had pulled the thing out of her eyebrow and left a flaming red, oozing, wound. She continued to test while I tried to decide if the constant crying and dabbing were interfering with her testing (or anyone else's.)

I sent my proctor (the students called her the "prompter") to get someone of high authority. She returned with the Assistant Principal who returned later with the nurse. By this time Miss I-pierced-my-own-eyebrow-and-probably-have-a-staph-infection had finished her test. She left the room without further incident. I stayed in the room with the image of flaming ooze stuck in my head.

On Thursday, Matt came to school with news of his engagement. What a wonderful day! Nothing could possibly go wrong as I administered the science test. I gathered all the students into my room and placed my "Testing" sign on the door. As I turned to close it, a boy I had tested earlier in the week tried to get in. I told him that I wasn't testing him on this day, but he commenced to yelling at his friends in my room over my shoulder. I touched him on the arm. "You need to leave," I said quietly.

"Owwww!" he yelled.

"What?" I asked. "I barely touched you."

To my horror, he lifted up his shirt to reveal a newly pierced nipple. Coincidentally, his friend was walking by my door, and he, too, lifted up his shirt to show me his newest body piercing. Two exhibitionist eighth graders - now I'm really ready to test. This time I was to read aloud again. I passed out the materials, snuggled into my reading chair and read the first question. Immediately, I heard screaming eighth graders. I didn't know what they were screaming; I just knew something was wrong. I looked for anything unusual - a bee in the room or aliens landing on the football field, but finally I was able to tune into their voices, and I realized they all were screaming, "That's the wrong question!!!"

It was soon obvious that my read aloud book was different from their test books. I called the authorities (who'd had quite enough with my room) and asked for backup - or the right test. We sat for fifteen minutes doing absolutely nothing while every other student in the school tested. There was a deafening silence in the building. At the fifteen minute mark, I called again. "Do you understand," I said to the poor receptionist in the front office, "that we are NOT testing?" We waited fifteen more minutes. Finally, after thirty painful minutes, the Assistant Principal and the testing coordinator showed up at my door.

"They're bringing you another test from the Central Office," they said together. The Central Office? I thought. That's clear in another TOWN!!!"

So we waited some more, and by the time we received the test, and I read it aloud, it was WELL past lunch time. and eating (okay, I know it's "eating and I" but as an English teacher I tell my students that I periodically use nonstandard English usage for emphasis) and eating go WAY back! I was starving. I ran into the team room, grabbed my lunch, and basically swallowed it whole like my dog Jasmine does when you throw her a treat. Finally fed, I ran into the hall to meet my next class. The Assistant Principal approached me, and at this point, I can't even believe she's still speaking to me, but she quietly said, "What's that on your shirt?" I looked down and saw a blob of brown just above my second button. Defying gravity, it was just sitting there, all blob-ish, looking like it had no intention of falling to the ground. An inch in diameter, it looked like, well, think of any brown blob you've ever seen...

"Ummm," I said to her. "That's pudding. I guess I didn't eat it all." Then to distract her I said, "I really thought this day would turn out better. Have you heard about Matt's engagement?"

I washed my shirt quickly in the Ladies Room, then bumped into the other Assistant Principal while I was rubbing my now brown spread-out-blob on my chest. He and I engaged in a stimulating conversation about pudding, when all of a sudden a piercing alarm rang out throughout the building. I saw the look of concern on the AP's face. I heard the principal come across the walkie talkie frantically repeating, "Everyone stay in the building." I translated this statement to "We are executing a lockdown!"

I sprinted like a track star down the hall to the nearest classroom, Matt's, and slammed his door. "We can't leave the building!" I yelled. I then ran over and began jerking the blinds closed. Matt looked confused as a hysterical teacher ran about his room, properly performing lockdown procedure. Before he could speak, the receptionist came over the intercom. "Mr. Johnson has asked that no one leave the building."

Matt started laughing. "He means that we don't have to evacuate. It's just an alarm problem."

"Huh?" I dropped my hands from the blinds. "Oh," I said, lowering my face in shame. "I knew that."

Now here's my proposal: how about we stop allowing standardized testing to make us so stupid? It's just a thought....

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Watching Wheelbarrows

I remember reading a William Carlos Williams poem in my junior high literature book. Not sure of its meaning, I accepted it for the literary magic that it must be - so simple, but certainly full of symbolism that I couldn't yet master. It's called "The Red Wheelbarrow."

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Having survived my days as an English major in college, I now know that this poem has been interpreted as depicting the shape of a wheelbarrow and is either a simple description of something Mr. Williams saw out his window....or is symbolic of a sick girl who is "glazed" by the tears of her family. Either way, the beginning of this work of literature has been stuck in my audio memory this week...the "voice in my head" repetitively singing...

so much depends, so much depends, so much depends...

The countdown is over. It is here. This is testing week in our school. And my poem is a little different from its inspiration:

so much depends

on a #2 pencil

and a correctly

filled bubble

while not turning

the page

when the page

says "stop."

so much depends...

What's on the line here anyway? What does depend on this test? For my students, passing it means no retakes, no summer school, no remediation classes next year (at least not at the start of school,) no reason to feel shame, and many other "no's." For teachers, having their students pass this test means not having to slump down in the faculty meeting chair while the principal is disaggregating the data class by class. For principals, it means no superiors are breathing heavily down their freshly pressed collars. For district personnel, it means no scrambling to turn a school around before federal sanctions take over. So much depends...

I wish we could just look out our windows at the red wheelbarrows. Maybe next week...after the test.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Teaching and Dreaming

I haven't written in awhile. I've had quite a busy couple of weeks - a few interviews, first with a selection committee - then with a television station, a radio station, and some teacher newsletters. As it turns out, I have been honored with a title: North Carolina Teacher of the Year. And that honor has caused quite a whirlwind in my otherwise "normal" life (well, at least as normal as a middle school teacher's life can be.)

The first day after the announcement I received over 200 emails and phone calls. The entire student body at my school, along with every faculty member, every custodian, and every member of the cafeteria staff, lined the halls of my school and screamed like a rock star was in the building. Then the flowers came. I now have a fresh arrangement in every room of my house. After those were delivered, gifts started pouring in - I have certificates for manicures, pedicures, massages, books - it is all quite overwhelming. And here's why...

I have a little voice in my head (actually, it's not little; it's extremely LOUD.) It keeps repeating...a la the Mike Myers movie from the early nineties: "You're not worthy...You're not worthy." And since the announcement, I've been having nightmares: I'm teaching and my students won't listen. They won't sit down, and they won't do any work. They wander aimlessly around my classroom, seemingly oblivious to my attempts at instruction.

In one dream, it's early morning, and I'm getting ready to go to school. My assistant principal is in my bathroom reprimanding me because I'm running late. (I'm struggling to put my makeup on...) "You're going to be late for school," she says, "and I'm going to place a letter in your personnel file!"

Then in real life, I lost a student the day I returned to school. I was out for three days for the selection process, and the day I returned I brought sausage biscuits to my classes. I do this periodically when my students deserve a treat or whenever I’m hungry, which is often. Anyway, I was telling my student Jamal that I had spoken to the principal about the possibility of him being pulled from my class one day a week to go to PE. He loves PE so the deal is that he gives me his best effort the other four days and he can go to the gym on Friday. (I was explaining this information to him on a Thursday!) I also explained that I needed to clear this idea with his mother and with the PE teacher, but I didn’t see any problem. I continued passing out biscuits and then I started my lesson. I’m just teaching away, happy as a bird, as my mother-in-law says, and then it hit me.

“Where’s Jamal?” I asked the class. In unison, they replied, “He went to PE.”

“Wait,” I said. “You’re telling me that he just up and walked out of this classroom and I didn’t even see him?”

Darryl was chewing – “Guess so…” he mumbled.

So here I am, the newly named North Carolina Teacher of the Year, and I lost a student on my first day back. And for those of you who aren’t teachers, there were many other problems with this scenario. First, I hadn’t cleared this plan with Jamal’s mother. Now, suffice it to say, Jamal’s mother does not play. One day I emailed her about a teeny tiny behavior problem. I swear I had just pushed the “send” button on my computer when my classroom door flew open. There she was, Jamal’s mother, marching in my room. “I’ll just sit here in the back,” she said. The rest of that period was perfect. Another problem with Jamal just heading to the gym like that was that I had not cleared it with the gym teacher. So teachers, how would you feel if a student just bounced into your room one day and said, “I’m in your class now; Mrs. So and So said so." This type of thing does not make for good colleagial relations.

As soon as class was over, I ran, I didn’t walk, I RAN to the gym. I explained, 90 miles an hour, that I didn’t know Jamal had left and he wasn’t supposed to, etc. etc. The PE teacher said, “Well, I thought this was kind of out of character for you” Translation – don’t do that again. No, actually he was very nice, and we have a great relationship so he trusted that he didn’t have all the information. However, I haven’t spoken with Jamal’s mama yet…

At any rate, as honored as I am about this amazing opportunity I have been given, my little voice will most likely remind me often of my mistakes. And I'll answer back that, more than anything, I just want to make a difference in my profession in the next year.

And I want a good night's sleep.