A special thanks to Col. Mustard and The Jam

2013-09-27 08.19.12Thursday was a rough one and I arrived at school Friday morning not sure what to expect.

But a pat on the back from the principal and words of encouragement from a colleague were a big help.

And by 8:15 a.m,, with my math students using their powers of logic to compete in the game Clue and  “Start” by The Jam playing softly on my computer speakers, all seemed right again.

Students thinking, students having fun and a little subversive but entirely school appropriate music is not a bad tonic at all.

When tests scores and spirits rise

Over at Indystar.com, I posted about my school’s rising test scores.

Here’s a snapshot looking at the percent passing each test:

ISTEP 3

The passing rates are not where they need to be, but to see this much growth and to know how much work it has taken to get there is …exhilirating.

That’s what I didn’t talk about in my other post. The rumor is, though I could find no quick way to substantiate it, our school showed more growth than almost any other.

The thing is, we are working really hard. When I say working hard, I can say that as somebody who has experience working hard — in the Marines, in journalism and in education.

Working hard is OK and  I still think it makes its own rewards. But it is fantastic when you see such a validating payoff. Not a percentage point or two gain that could evaporate next year, or, as my school saw in 2012, even a slight drop in scores.

But numbers that show 100 more kids passing state both state exams are hard to scoff at. For a school that has pushing to improve, the unanswered question was whether all this work would pay off. Could anything help our disinterested, disadvantaged students really get better at passing tests?

Maybe there’s an upward limit, but for now the answer is clearly yes. With a tighter schoolwide focus on academics, with lots of chances for students to practice specific techniques and extra help in math and reading, they can do better.

On my drive home yesterday I was imagining confetti, streamers and champagne.

But it was a long week. I was happy just for the chance to go to bed early.

Rocky

Some things about teaching science are inevitable

Sometime in early 2009, when I was interviewing for a chance to receive a Woodrow Wilson teaching fellowship, I first met Don Meissner, the man who would end up being my mentor through my first three years of teaching.

He was interviewing lots of candidates, working to separate the wheat from the chaff. Among the questions I remember him asking was something like this:

“You’ve been a Marine officer, a high-powered editor (rather than correct this overstatement, I let it slide, the better to avoid becoming chaff) at a big newspaper … do you think you could stand being a science teacher? You’ve got to wash out test tubes and clean beakers….”

I didn’t hesitate to assure him I had no problem cleaning glassware.

So I had to smile as I spent much of this afternoon … cleaning up after a week’s worth of great labs. Cups, droppers, and the ever useful tubs. Along with a good scrubbing of table tops and sinks.

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When dinosaurs ruled the skies — and classrooms

pterodactyl1I have a homeroom full of pterodactyls this year – which makes it the best home room group I’ve had so far.

At our school each teacher is assigned a group of 20 students for what is essentially a homeroom arrangement. I see these students at the start and end of every school day for the entire two years they are at the middle school.

I get to know them pretty well, and have the job of helping shepherd them successfully through their academic world. I may or may not ever have them in a graded class.

I sent my first group off to the high school last June. Individually, most of them were fine young people, Together, in one room, they were a bad combination.

My new group is entirely different. They’re not perfect students or any better with social skills than most 7th graders. But they are generally positive and together they have a much different chemistry. They seem to bring the best out in each other.

So when I had a little problem of trying to get their attention when they’re talking, I brought it to the group. One student suggested I try ringing a bell, but after one or two trials everyone decided that was too obnoxious. Others suggested different call-and-response phrases, along the lines of what I use in my regular science classes, but those didn’t seem very interesting.

Then a student mentioned that he had this odd teacher in 3rd or 4th grade who always shouted out “Pterodactyls” and the students responded with their best winged-dinosaur screeches. Once the screeches are over, everyone is silent and ready for instructions.

Permission to screech? Now that was a winner.

By the end of the day Friday, though, distracted and tired, I had forgotten our plan and was trying to talk over a few things before the weekend. When a student saw me struggling to get the attention of the class, he reminded me: “Mr. Manring — pterodactyl!”

My cry brought the expected reptilian roar — and a reminder of what makes this group of students so fun to be around.

A look from the bottom up

Friday and my grades are done.

That’s right, not even Labor Day yet and the first progress reports are due already.

I don’t actually need to officially post grades until next week, so after I wrapped up grading the last late papers, I started rattling off messages to parents.

The family of every student facing an F has been alerted.

That amounts to about 10 percent of my students failing after just four weeks.

In a few cases, we’re really talking about attendance. Mostly though, the source of trouble is missing work. So far we’ve had about eight assignments, so missing you don’t have to miss many to sink.

The two that are missing most commonly are assignments we did almost entirely in class, which gets to one of the great mysteries of middle school.

I circulate as I teach. All my students have the paper in front of them. I see all of them working.

Yet not all of those papers make it to my inbox.

On the plus side, I have more than double that figure in A’s — probably a personal record, boosted in part by having a class of gifted and talented students this year.

It’s reassuring to see that improvement, but that trend at the top does little to solve the lingering one at the bottom.

If it’s July, school must be about to start

One week until students walk through my door.

That’s right.

I’ve already spent a few hours on each of the last couple days trying to get the classroom ready. Still lots to do. I am starting to look forward to what’s ahead.

But I’m also a little sad about this start.

There will be no visiting scientist this year and no new major endeavor to expand or improve my teaching. A long-trusted teaching partner is moving to another wing of the school with a new focus.  My most fun class to teach has been dropped from the schedule, replaced with a new challenge: teaching gifted students. I even found myself today missing some of my favorite kids from last year.

And I am officially an alum of the Woodrow Wilson program that put me in teaching and supported me through the first three years of work.

So I will have thousands less in money for training and help in my classroom this year, less collaboration than at any point since my rookie year … although I am supposed to get the geckos back after their summer with Mrs. Noerr.

So tomorrow it will be using my small classroom budget to buy supplies, then more of my ongoing cleaning and organizing project. Friday I might try a little painting and lesson planning.  Those eighth-graders — and a new crop of seventh-graders for my home room — will be here soon.

And for the first time, it really feels like I’ll be facing them on my own.

Well, except for the geckos.