Friday, May 7, 2010

I hate grading math tests

You look at some math tests and you think, "This student needs to take more care with his work." You look at some other math tests and you think, "This student has difficulty with her spatial imagination." And you look at still other math tests and you say, "This student is a raving lunatic."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves

Finally, we are finally doing punctuation. I lurve punctuation, I just loave it, especially commas. My redoubtable, Vaderesque philosophy professor in college, discussing a paper I had written, once told me "Watching you with semicolons -- it's like a child with a new toy."

He didn't mean it as a compliment; but I've toned it down a bit since then; I think. Doubtless a leftover from my years-long Chesterton binge.

Also, the em-dash is my new love. I have to remember to program a shortcut key for that -- double-dashes don't have the same heft. A good em-dash has something weighty, solid, and noirish to it, like a fedora; double-dashes are like a straw beach hat. But I can't figure out the ASCII shortcuts on my compact laptop keyboard (Fn+Ctrl+Alt+0336 or something), and I'm too lazy to open up charmap every time. Fmeh.

We were discussing the distinction between declarative and exclamatory sentences. I pointed out that an exclamatory sentence, deceptively, often starts with an interrogative word. Examples: How bad you smell! What a lovely fedora!

On last night's worksheet, they were to punctuate "How much does that book by E. M. Forster cost?" ("And how many young, susceptible minds will it poison?" I didn't add.) Someone mis-punctuated it with a period. So I put these two example sentences on the board:
  • How much does that book cost?
  • How much that book costs!
Ensued the following dialogue:
Reina: What! That's slang! You put slang on the board!

Me: Huh? No, it's an exclamatory sentence. It's totally standard.

Reina: No! That's a question. Like, 'How much that book costs?' That's, like, ghetto.

Me: Ohh -- you mean like 'Yo, how much that book costs, yo?'

Class: [wincing, howling]

Reina: Mr. P...Please. Don't do that again. You're not made for that!
As usual, I should have known better. Did, actually. Oh well. Tomorrow we discuss the importance of comma placement: "Have you eaten, Grandma?" vs. "Have you eaten Grandma?" They are going to eat it up. Till then, peace out, yo.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Hush Effect

I stepped outside of Latin 5A to deal with Davyon in the hall. He had been lying prone on the floor, beating his head against the base of his chair (long story). We resolved a couple of things. In the 15 seconds I was gone, the class had erupted into complete animal frenzy: hooting, hollering, shrieking.

Me: Hey! Hey, guys! What's going on here? What happened?

Class: We were telling each other to be quiet!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Comedy of Errors, 3.1.40-115: Summary

That the wife wants to be treated like that's his wife. So she doesn't let him in. He goes and gets his slaves or friends to break down the door. Dromin of SYRACUSE is MEAN because when Dromio OF EPHESUS is listing all his friends and servants and the Dromio of SYRACUSE comes in and calls all his friends mean names so I don't like him very much CUZ that's IMPOLIGHT!!!! to me just more people want to get into the house.

To: Mr. P.
Sincerely, Reina

Thursday, April 8, 2010


Dear Parents:

Neither prefacing your comments with "I know you have enough to deal with already" nor concluding them with "Ha ha, I know, I'm the kind of parent every teacher dreads!" will negate either of the facts that you have just so graciously pointed out. These disclaimers only serve to increase your culpability.

Sincerely at your service,
Mr. P.

Monday, April 5, 2010

For a change

Reina (6th grade), today during math class:

Oh my gosh! Mr. P! You made me understand something!

The only thing that dulled the pleasure of this compliment was the astonished tone in which she said it.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


Zeke is a rule-abiding kid who likes to pretend to be a punk. Either that, or he's a punk who likes to pretend to be a rule-abiding kid. I've never been sure, but give him just enough lunch detentions to keep him in line.

Today in math class he said something like, "Rules are stupid!" I countered with: "Without rules there would be chaos. Do you want chaos?" He said, "Yeah! Chaos! I love chaos!"

So I pelted him with the whiteboard eraser, to demonstrate chaos.

Actually, that's only what I tried to do. Since whiteboard erasers have a large surface-area to mass ratio, it wobbled around a lot and hit Sarah -- a real rule-abider, and a sweet one to boot -- smack in the torso.

I tried to save face: "See? When there's chaos, nothing's fair. You were the one being a dope, but Sarah got hit with the eraser."

Sarah thought it was funny. Zeke, I am afraid, remained unconvinced by my object lesson.

Next time I'll throw something heavier, that's all.

* * *

Next time, too, I'll have to go to work somehow on Kaelijn, but I'll have to throw something really heavy at her -- maybe Plato's collected dialogues or something . Witness this exchange:

JP: I'm sorry, Kaelijn -- you have to have a parent or teacher with you. I'm not allowed to let you go to the book fair by yourself. [This is my usual tactic for preemptively avoiding stupid arguments: it's not my rules, it's the boss.]

K: Oh my gosh, Mr. P! You always follow the rules! You just love rules! But rules are meant to be broken!

That would have been funnier if she hadn't been completely sincere in this stupid, stupid statement. It would have been funnier, also, if I hadn't detected that Kaelijn was using the tone she always employs when she is echoing some stupid, stupid thing her mother has taught her about (shudder) self-actualization.

I was almost tempted to mention my jail time -- I used to be stupid too, but I was 19, whereas she is in 6th grade and ought to know better -- and maybe flash my tattoo. But I just employed my hollow laugh (I am getting good at the hollow laugh) and said, "Ha, ha, Kaelijn. What a foolish thing to say."

'Cause I'm not allowed to say the s-word -- stupid. Those are the rules.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

What Warms a Teacher's Heart

I have a "Help Sheet" that I make available to the students. It's a half sheet of paper where they check off one of various options -- "I'm missing a handout" or "I want to know how I'm doing in this class" or "I'd like to request a seat change," etc. Below there's room for comments. They fill it out and drop it in my box.

Got this yesterday from Kaelijn, in math class:

I think I am going ok but I want to do better and also bring up my test scores. I want to stay in your class Because I worked hard to get here and I aint leaving.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How to Irritate People

The best tactic I've discovered for dealing with argumentative kids: deliver your final say on the matter, then immediately turn your back and walk away.

Usually produces this reaction,

but then they go off and fume to their friends instead of continuing to bug you.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Guest Anecdote

I wish this had been written on a test I had given:

Q: What is the difference between "value" and "a value"?
A: "Value" is anything that has value, and "a value" is a certain value.


HT to P.B.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Teaching Moment

Sam was very, very amused when I used the phrase "tongue lashing" today. It was a good opportunity to talk about figurative language.

(But he still went around to everyone saying, "I'm gonna give you a tongue lashing! Argleargleargleargle!")

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Negative Gardening... a discipline practiced by various members of my family. Whereas mainstream gardening consists in careful cultivation of some forms of plant life, to the vigilant exclusion of others, Negative Gardening is based on the beliefs:
  • that all forms of life are good and deserve the right to flourish;
  • that our attitude towards the things (and plants) Providence casts our way ought to be one of grateful acceptance, not miserly discrimination;
  • and that to categorize some plants as "weeds" is to limit our own enjoyment of creation's abundance.
Also, healthy dollops of laziness.

So, "discipline" was the wrong word. Regardless, being who I am, it is the attitude that I have adopted towards my own yard. It's February, right? So normal people don't mow their yards anymore, right?

In Phoenix it is different. The grass stops growing in the "winter" (a.k.a. the Season When the Sun Is Not Trying to Kill You) but the other stuff keeps going. There are weeds out there with stalks as thick as radishes. If they were radishes, I wouldn't have to buy food for a week. If I liked radishes.

The neighbors, being perhaps inclined towards anti-quietism (they work on their gardens with fear and trembling), are apparently not pleased. Thursday morning I got into my car and noticed that an uprooted weed, dirt and all, had been placed carefully on my windshield.

Would it be paranoid to interpret this as some sort of a message?

Now, I'm no quietist myself. But a little de Caussade is good for everybody. And in the spirit of neighborliness, the first thing that occurred to my mind was REVENGE -- er, evangelization. I spent a good 15 minutes on the way to work thinking of ways I would word the note, if I knew whose door to nail it to. ("Your recent anonymous gesture opened my eyes: until now I had not suspected that such gall could coexist with such cowardice," etc., etc.) After that, I decided that I would let the yard go for another month, just out of spite.

Petty? Yeah, but he was petty first!

Harrumph. I spent today at a coffee shop planning classes, and thanks to a productive sick day yesterday, I've got 'em all done already. The whole week planned out by Saturday -- a first! What on earth will I do tomorrow?

Driving back to the house, I noticed the stark contrast between every other yard for half a mile and mine. I'm not a very communally-spirited guy (I like long walks on the beach. Alone) but I had to admit that it looked pretty shabby.

So I got down on my knees and weeded. I like weeding, really. Dirty-kneed, getting down to the roots of things. Continuing the job tomorrow will feel like leisure after all, which is what Sundays are for. That's easy for a teacher to forget.

I just hope Neighbor Corleone over there doesn't think it's because of him. If I see him, I'm going to ram this milkweed, or whatever it is, right down his throat. And pray that one day he learns not to be such a stuck-up sonofabitch.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Study Hall Blues

Mr. P, when you let your beard grow you look like a hippie, and it distracts me. So, I just wanted to tell you that.
- Jordan

Jordan (6th grade) made this comment during study hall, apropos of nothing. It doesn't take much to distract Jordan. He moves around like a startled lemur

-- actually, that looks almost exactly like Jordan -- and can be perturbed by a whisper from across a noisy classroom. His natural habitat is a haphazard nest of half-crumpled paper, through which he frantically shuffles at the beginning and end of each class, a mostly useless ritual: I received perhaps two homework assignments from him during all of last semester.

Lately I have been narrowing my eyes whenever I see him, pointing at his chest, and mouthing "two oh five." (205 is the vaguely Orwellian name by which we refer to the detention room.) This makes him grin nervously. I'm not sure whether he is pleased or annoyed.

Jordan is one of the kids with whom I have a very easy relationship. This is largely because I don't teach him anymore, thanks to a restructuring that happened at the end of last semester: he got bumped to a lower Language Arts class, or I got bumped to a higher one, depending on how you look at it. Now the only time I see him is in Study Hall, after school, where my main job is to be mean.

Anyhow that's how I've been interpreting that particular function this semester. Our Study Hall is a lovely idea -- the kids get an hour after school in a controlled, quiet environment so they can finish their homework and go home unburdened. Meanwhile, their parents get to go to the gym (or adult education classes, or happy hour) and pick them up a little later.

Of course, the kids have already spent the last eight hours here. Also, they are done with their homework, or claim to be. Also, the ones who don't get picked up till six (I'm done at four. God bless the woman who stays) are the ones who aren't good at sitting still anyway. So you get a less lovely situation. My job is to play Trunchbull.

I don't mind; I think it's good for me, actually, since a large part of learning to be a teacher has been, for me, learning that love is not the same as being nice.

What bothers me is the kids like Tyrese. Everyone loves Tyrese, because he is a scoundrel, a roughneck, a charmer, and about three feet tall. Everyone else is bent on doing everything they can to help him. He is bent on getting himself as many detentions as possible.

Tyrese used to be in my class. Because of the above-mentioned restructuring, though, the main time I interact with him anymore is in study hall; which means that the main way I interact with him is by asking him to stop shouting, asking him to get up off the floor, asking him to stop shouting, and then giving him detention. Can you blame him if he doesn't seem to like me much anymore?

Oh well. One more preview, I guess, of the good and bad parts of being a parent. How do you people do it for decades on end? And I get to go home to a quiet house, too.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Pulvis Es

Recent conversation with the 5th grade on Latin words on their English derivatives:

JP: Can anyone think of a derivative for 'mortuus'? ['dead']
5A: Mortal!
JP: Good! What does 'mortal' mean?
5A: Human?
JP: Yes, well, close -- it's a certain characteristic of humans -- anybody know what?
5A: That they live for a while and then they die for a while.
JP: Yes, well, close -- Good -- mortal is the opposite of immortal, right? So it means you're going to die. We here in this room are all mortal -- that's right, we're all going to be dead one day -- me, and each of you, too -- you'll all be dead someday, yup!, well...

I don't know where that popped up from. Sometimes you just can't stop talking, you know? So, happy Lent, everybody.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Happy Monday

Weeping little girl #1 this week. And before lunchtime, too.

Where does sternness end and grouchiness begin? I'm afraid the latter had a lot to do with it. Sigh...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Why I Love My Job

I'm blogging in the middle of the week. Don't tell my lesson plans; they might remember something I haven't done and leap at my throat again. Or just grow another head.

It's been a grueling couple of weeks back. Week one was taken up entirely with parent-teacher conferences. Teaching is an odd business: I, a callow twenty-something, end up advising parents as to how they should be raising their children. Or anyway, restraining myself from advising them. Or anyway, letting them know what their little stinkers are getting into these days. Samples:

  • There is the one whose daughter missed my class two Fridays running because of a hair appointment -- the daughter's appointment, I mean; and who frequently responds to calls home by saying, "Really? You gave her a detention? For that?" (Disobedience followed by defiance? You betcha.)
  • There's the one whose son got a C this semester, causing her to yell at one of my coworkers until she cried.

  • There's the one who lurks (perches?) outside the faculty office in order that we shouldn't forget that her son is St. Francis plus a genius IQ, and nothing like the illiterate little ruffian we've all come to know, not really.
Oh! But there's also:
  • The one who works two jobs and takes night classes and still finds time to sit around the kitchen table helping her daughter with algebra.

  • The one who can't stop telling us how much she loves the school, how much her kids love the class, how much she appreciates our hard work and sleepless nights, and wouldn't we like some extra composition notebooks for our classroom, because they were on sale, and do we mind if they're wide-ruled instead of college-ruled, because if that's a problem she can get some different ones?

And really, those ones predominate, and more than make up for the others.

[But one more quick one: One parent, after sweetly and soberly discussing her excellent daughter Elizabeth, informs us that Elizabeth has been having problems with bullies, and could we keep a closer watch; that Elizabeth has, moreover, been instructed in krav maga; and that she has instructed Elizabeth to use her skills if necessary. No by-your-leave, no if-you-don't-mind, just the intimation that Elizabeth can and will break bones if she needs to. The Badass Parent Award goes to her.]

As for the classes: we are undergoing a schoolwide curricular shift, which means new classes, structures, and procedures for me; and also means that the curriculum this semester is largely up to me; and also means that two weeks into the semester, I am still waiting for many of my books and still trying to figure out what we're doing next week, let alone for the rest of the semester. But, for one: I now have an hour and a half every day for Language Arts and another hour and a half for math. Whee!

We are gonna do so much stuff! We are gonna do Coleridge and Poe and London and Dickinson and Shakespeare and, and, other cool stuff. And not only that: my Math and Language Arts classes are composed of upper-level sixth graders and advanced fifth-graders. The kids who actually want to learn. Double Whee!

As for the kids: this semester I am Mr. Love-and-Logic.
  • If you are eating in study hall, I will take your microwave popcorn away and not give it back even if you bawl, flail on the floor, and throw things. (However, I will also let you borrow my personal squeezy stress ball until tomorrow.)

  • I will also leave you crying on the floor because I don't think that being two chapters behind in your reading--It's C. S. Lewis, for crying out loud--is a good reason for you thinking that your life is never, ever going to be okay again. (However, I will covertly call the school councilor and let her know to come get you. I did have a class to go to.)
I have made three little boys cry this week, and it is not even Wednesday yet. It was for their own good.

Also I am a homeroom teacher now. Being mostly homeschooled myself I didn't even know what a homeroom teacher was until about a week ago. Apparently, it means that if you lost your locker combination, or your homework, or your lunch, or forgot to zip your fly, or are sad, it is my job to fix it, or at least to tell you why it is probably your fault.

This last part -- helping them understand that they are responsible for the stupid trouble they are in -- is what Teaching with Love and Logic author Jim Fay calls "driving the pain down into their little hearts." No, really! That's a direct quote.

Ahhhh...this is why I love my job. Because I'm an idiot.

I would talk more about how much I love my kids, how grateful I am to have each of them and how happy their faces make me every morning, but (a) it doesn't make as good a story, and (b) I would get all sentimental.

I just hope I make it to summer, that's all.