Friday, August 29, 2008

Run for the Hills!

I must say that I expected in some ways that this first year teaching in public schools would be a memorable one. The moving to a new place, new school, (kind of) new culture would be bound to provide me boatloads of witty and thought-provoking anecdotes. What I wasn't expecting was a hurricane to come and make sure I'd never forget this first year. As of the time of this writing, Hurricane Gustav is forecasted to make landfall on Tuesday around Franklin as a solid Category 3 hurricane. Of course, everyone is in an absolute panic of this, despite Gustav churning south of Cuba as I'm typing this. The School Board put us all on alert yesterday and even canceled classes on Tuesday as a precaution--5 days before it was scheduled to make landfall. I had to spend this afternoon securing our Fast ForWord lab, and me being me, I wouldn't settle on just draping trash bags over the workstations, but instead I packed them in individual trash bags, labeled them for when we get to set them back up, put them on a folded table to keep them off the floor, and surrounded them by tables to protect them from flying debris. At least these computers have a chance to survive now.

Everyone at school was debating about its impact and conjuring up memories of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which made a direct hit on Franklin, and Hurricane Katrina, since many of the faculty have family in the area. I on the other hands was trying to be the voice of reason and dragging up facts from the official forecast discussion from NOAA and stuff I learned when I was in engineering about wind fields and dynamics, but to no avail. "They all lie anyway." said one faculty member. "You should listen to me," she continued, "because I said that Rita was going to hit Lake Charles when no one did!" I wanted to point out that Rita didn't exactly hit Lake Charles, but rather the Sabine Pass/Golden Triangle area, but I figured that that was a useless exercise.

It isn't as though I'm not used to hurricanes. After all, I can remember Danny, Juan, Bonnie, Chantal, Jerry, Andrew, Opal, Frances, Allison, Lili, Katrina, Rita, Humberto, and Edouard earlier this summer--and that's the storms I can think of off hand. These were by no means easy events (We lost a barn for Lili, we were out of power over a week after Rita, had damage after Andrew, and were almost flooded out by Allison for example), but I've never been stressed out over it. It happens and there's nothing you can do about it other than pick up the pieces and move on.

But here in the post-Katrina world we live in down here it's just too much. I mean seriously, do we need the governor declaring a state of emergency five days before the storm is forecasted to hit? Do we need wall-to-wall media coverage about the storm for 120 hours before, and a year after the storm? And don't even get me started about those yahoos at KLFY and their "We're all going to die!" attitude they use to describe every tropical system that thinks about forming. At least the folks at KATC try to temper the panic inducement a bit with Rob Perillo and Dave Baker giving scientific explanations for the storm's track as well as explaining the different computer models for folks who don't look for them online, but it's all overkill.

I'm not stressed out about any of this, just a bit perturbed. Since there isn't much I can do I'll just pack up my important belongings, stick everything else at the top of the closets in here as a precaution, and head to my parents' house in Gueydan to ride it out with them and make plans to return to Franklin ASAP. If everything goes according to the forecast the weather won't get much worse than it did during Rita (We had about 24 hours of Tropical Storm and Hurricane-force winds, peaking with several gusts around 100mph), but at least this time we'll be on the West side. And frankly, the further to the west the better for me. Regardless, it'll be yet another story to tell afterward at minimum, and possibly the defining moment for my school year.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Grumpy Old Teachers

One constant I found when changing from private to public schools is the existence of Grumpy Teachers. Now when I say grumpy, I don't just mean grumpy in mood, but rather grumpy in their entire outlook on teaching. When I was at Bethel, we had more than a couple of them and it was rather obvious who they were. All the time it was whinging and complaining about how horrible the kids were this, how useless the parents were that, and why oh why did they even choose this profession because the pay is so horrible and there's so much indigestion involved. They of course don't stop there as they make sure to let the students know how grumpy they are and how it's All The Students' Fault for this. If only they would listen/obey/study/do their homework/try to achieve World Peace then the classroom environment would improve and they wouldn't be so grumpy. Of course, students, whilst not always having the best grades all the time are not stupid by any means, don't believe a word they are saying and treat them as such. The grumpy teacher then disciplines the students left, right, and centre, getting grumpier the entire time. Once they're out of class they then find the nearest teacher to dump on and the cycle continues unabated.


I got so tired of it that by the end of the year I wasn't even acknowledging their existence. Of course, it didn't hurt that they weren't exactly the most savoury of characters, so not admitting their existence wasn't as hard as it sounds. Now I'm in a new environment and unfortunately, I wasn't able to escape the presence of Grumpy Old Teachers. Just this time there seems to be more of them. The complaints are the same and from the scuttlebutt the students (who amazingly enough almost always tend to tell each other the truth when talking about school based on my experience growing up and teaching) speak within earshot, what goes on behind the classroom door is the same.

I've always struggled with the concept of why a Grumpy Teacher continues to teach. Now, I know I'm different and all, but I was taught growing up that if you don't like doing something it's probably best to quit doing it and find something more enjoyable. I ostensibly think that this should apply to teaching. If you can't stand the kids, the curriculum, the administrators, the physical plant, the discipline policy, and everything else, why even teach? It's evident that you're not happy, so why not try to be happy by doing something that will make you happy? Unless you're one of those weird (Yeah, I'll use the term.) people who enjoy being grumpy, and if that's the case, well, just don't be grumpy around me.

Of course, I know that the answer isn't as easy as I made it, but the Grumpy Teacher is someone I'm going to have to be always on the lookout for. I'll readily admit that I'm still wide eyed, wet behind the ears, and any other cliché you can think of (And speaking of clichés, check out what I found, a cliché finder!), but I just can't accept that once the newness wears off that the dirty truth is that students, other teachers, administrators, etc., etc. are nothing but trouble and the only thing we can do is sulk, complain, and get used to the fact that we can't do anything about it. There's just too many examples of students who were seen as just another problem student that turned into something special because a teacher managed to show interest in them and convinced them that the status quo was just not good enough. I ascribe to this theory and every day I walk onto our school I literally say to myself "Whose life am I going to try to change for the better today?" The answer to this rhetorical question is of course "All of them!" And I know even a couple of weeks in that this outlook, not the Grumpy Teacher's outlook, is the effective one.

As a new teacher I got my copy of Harry Wong's seminal book The First Days of School and I've been thumbing through it almost every evening, mainly because I'm desperately bored, but also I know that if most of the Project STAY curriculum was based on this book it must be good enough for me to take some wisdom out of. When I was at Bethel my principal gave me her copy and told me it had some good stuff, but she didn't know how much it would be of use to me since it was written more for elementary teachers (Don't look at me! I'm just telling you what I was told!), and the next day she came by and picked it up, never for me to see it again. As Mr. Wong (I can't get his voice out of my head when I think of his name) points out at the beginning of the book, we teachers are a smart lot, so it's OK to skim through it looking for wisdom to pick up.

The one part of the book I've been stuck reading in is his last unit on being a successful professional, and I think Mr. Wong hits the whole Grumpy Teacher thing right on the head. Grumpy Teachers are only out to maintain the status quo because they're merely maintainers. Fortunately, I learned at an early age that to merely maintain is just the same as failing, and so the only way to succeed is to press on and move forward. As I read that section it dawned on me exactly why my time out of teaching was so excruciating: I was not in a position to press on and move forward, but because of circumstances I was forced to just maintain my status. When I think about how miserable I felt some days stuck maintaining the status quo, it gives me that much more motivation to not become a Grumpy Teacher. I won't just complain and accept things as they are, I'll do something to change it. Even if I'm the only one trying to change things for the better, it's OK, because I don't need grumpy opinions to help me sleep at night.

And speaking of sleep, I may just do some of that.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Share Fair!

This weekend was rather useful I must say. I got a new washer/dryer and a small air conditioner to complete my appliance collection and I filled myself with soccer from around the world, including the Stoke City-Aston Villa thriller. Most importantly, I attended the St. Mary Parish Technology Share Fair Saturday morning!

I went into it rather wide-eyed and hopeful. I was really excited about getting in on some interesting topics, especially the seminar on using Wikis in the classroom, a topic I've been chewing on for quite a while. By the time it was over it felt more like a dud to me than the slam-bang I was expecting. I didn't really learn anything new technologically-speaking (I did get some good thinking points from my Instructional Facilitator's seminar on integrating technology and literacy strategies, but they were more of the literary than technological in nature), but I did get to help out a couple of teachers in the online portfolio seminar think of some more efficient ways of displaying students' work online than normal, so I was happy about that. Now I'll freely admit that I'm probably not the best person to evaluate a technology fair aimed at average folks. I routinely ramble into the world of software development when talking about basic computer programs (I've already unfortunately reduced several teachers to an eyes-glazed-over state when I talked about my computer lab's problems with Fast ForWord.) and most tellingly, I'm probably the first middle school teacher most people have met that is a member of ACM.

So let me say this: if you're an "average" computer user and you want to have a fantastic time learning about integrating technology into your classroom from some really great people, and you weren't at Share Fair, then shame on you. The classes, which varied from an introduction to Fast ForWord to Flash animation to Google Earth to gadgets and gizmos, were all well-presented and perfect for neophytes. Best of all were the door prize doled out to the participants. Now I wasn't all that lucky (The person with the ticket numbered after mine won something. Hmpf.) but the folks who walked away with digital cameras, scanners, LCD projectors, and even a laptop sure were lucky. But hey, I'll be getting a flash drive out of it, so I can't say I went there and left empty-handed.

So all in all, Share Fair was a pretty neat experience. Whilst I didn't get too much out of it (Go figure. Loren goes to something and find out he's on the wrong end of the learning curve for the event.), anyone who desires to get on the technology bandwagon (And who shouldn't?) should be there.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

My Kingdom for some Sticky-Tac!

If you've looked at the title of this blog and read my first entry, it should be fairly obvious that I am of the opinion that I have moved to another planet, despite in reality only moving sixty-five miles (via highway). I'm quite sure you're thinking why I would think that. Perhaps you're saying to yourself "Meh, Loren is some sort of highbrow fellow who thinks he's too good for a little town like Franklin (Population 8,354)!" Well, let me tell you--it isn't like that at all.

You see, I moved from a town called Gueydan, Louisiana. Population 1,598 (According to the 2000 US Census). Unlike Franklin, Gueydan does not have the following:
  • A Pizza Hut and Domino's
  • A McDonald's, Sonic, and Burger King
  • A Wal-Mart
  • A chain grocery store
  • A chain gas station
  • A middle school
  • A radio station
  • A red light
So it isn't as though I've moved from New York, Houston, or even Lafayette and look down at the humble residents here. No, it's rather what Franklin does not have for a town of its size, which I found out in all too painful of an episode on Tuesday.

The theme of my classroom is Dr. Seuss--since not only do I think Mr. Geisel was a fantastic writer and advocate for keeping a child's sense of wonder as an adult, but most of my students listed him as their favourite author (something which I am not sure what to think of yet)--and one of the showpieces of my classroom is a giant Cat in the Hat that I wanted to stick to the inside of my entrance door, because since he's so big I could affix him to the door at the students' eye level and he would almost touch the floor. A fantastic conversation piece for sure. The only problem was sticking our hatted friend. I found a roll of double-stick tape in the classroom, but alas it was so old that it wouldn't come off of the roll for me to use it, and the pack of sticky-tac I had received from my principal had grown legs and walked off, much to my chagrin. "No problem," I thought, "I'll just go to Wal-Mart here in town and pick some up."


First off let me dispel an urban legend. Wal-Mart did not convert all of their existing stores into Super Wal-Marts. I am sure of this because Franklin has a Wal-Mart without a grocery store built in. Instead, it has a bridge across a drainage ditch to the local Winn-Dixie. Apparently the fine residents here spend their Saturdays running from Wal-Mart to Winn-Dixie or vice versa, waving at each other along the way. After observing this once and waving at about twenty people I've never met in my life, I think this is some sort of tradition.

Anyway, I walked into the Wal-Mart and within thirty seconds I was wandering around the store in search of the office supplies...just like how I spent twenty fruitless minutes the previous week searching for a water filter until I found it "on the back wall," as one associate flippantly directed me. I looked high and low until in the back corner of the store was a small sign entitled "Home and Office." Clever these Wal Mart folks are. I can see it now: three store layout designers are standing over a set of blueprints saying to themselves "You know, the best place to put the office supplies is in the back corner behind the shoes! They'll never find it there!" They were right, as I would have never considered going to find office supplies next to the shoes.

However finding the department was just the beginning of my woes, as I searched high and low through the three aisles wondering why tape could be found in three different places on one row and notebooks could be found on all three aisles, I failed to find my prey. Rather than spend another chunk of an hour walking around in circles, I sought out the nearest employee to help me. I found someone in the electronics department and I asked them if they sold sticky-tac.
Er, I don't think so. I think we stopped selling it about a year ago.
Hmm... Are you sure? I mean, I don't want to be rude but you guys are a Wal-Mart. I'd think you would sell something like that.
Well, we're not like the other Wal-Marts as you can see.
Well that's obvious. OK, well, surely there's an office supply store here in town--even a local outfit, right?
How about a pharmacy chain store, like a Rite-Aid or CVS?
Oh, well, they're building a CVS in Morgan City now!
Well that's helpful. But what about here?
No. We're not a big town you know.
Yes, but I used to travel to Abbeville for my shopping and Abbeville isn't really significantly larger than Franklin, but they have all of that.
Well, we're just here. But let me make sure we don't sell what you're looking for before you drive to Morgan City.
Who said I was driving to Morgan City?

So the helpful lady called, and called, and called, and finally found a manager to help me. It wasn't just any manager. It was the store manager. After shaking my hand we set out to find my sticky-tac. It took us four trips around the department but we finally found it--hidden between stacks of sticky notes--which were hanging on racks on all three aisles also.

So I escaped with my prize brimming with anything but confidence. I'm here in what is purportedly a larger town than the one I moved from with actual amenities, but despite them, I'm still having to drive thirty minutes to get stuff like I did when I lived in Gueydan. I still was intrigued at the fact they apparently did not have an office supply store in Franklin. I just hope the day doesn't come when I'm stuck without a red pen. I'd be really up a creek then.