Saturday, March 2, 2013

Seventh grade

I guess I liked seventh grade. It was different in my day, though. My school had grades 1-7. Junior High was 8-9, and High School was 10-11-12.

It was odd to walk around the school and be among the wing with little 6-year-olds.

Now, districts across the country split their classes in a variety of ways. Most high schools are 9-12, but beneath that are a lot of different approaches.

In the district where I sub, middle school is 5-8.

On Wednesday there was a generic "teacher" opening at the middle school that I signed up for. But on Thursday I did a little further research, and the sub was for a Latin teacher.


Despite my contact at the district saying it would probably be OK to sub in a one-off situation, in my initial interview the district rep told of someone subbing in a French class where the sub had zero knowledge of French. I didn't take the Latin job.

So Friday morning I figured would be a good day for chores. I'd made the coffee, started vacuuming and had a load of laundry in the wash when the phone rang at 7:30 a.m. They needed an aide for a block of seventh-grade classes. I decided to do it, and blitzed my way to get there by a few minutes after 8 a.m.

I got a full taste of the curriculum, sitting in on English, World Geography, Science and Math. On this particular day, the schedule included a section of P.E. I didn't have much to contribute there.


Right off the bat, the day astonished me.

In English, students were working on essay-writing, and had been for a while. The topic was to write about someone they admired. At this stage, they were working on a summation paragraph. I asked a student if I could read what he'd written so far. As I read, he told of his subject, an uncle who had an unusual name. I said "Hey, I used to work with a guy with the same name."

It was the same guy.


What are the odds? I worked with this man 15 years ago, 1,800 miles away. Before this youngster was born. And now, not only am I sitting next to him, but just happen to read his essay that mentions his uncle by name.

What does it mean? What if I hadn't read the essay? What if I hadn't accepted the position?



In science class, the students were in a computer lab, and the topic was climate science. We discussed weather and seasons, and then the students were able to work with a software program modeling different dynamics that could occur with slight (or dramatic) shifts in the earth's rotation, orbit angle, orientation and more. Naturally the instinct for some kids was to greatly manipulate these factors and turn earth into Hoth or Mercury. It reminded me of my daughter playing Rollercoaster Tycoon. After learning the basics, she would invent rides that hurled park visitors into the air and to their demise.

The science kids melted the ice caps, boiled the seas, or otherwise made the planet uninhabitable. No doubt they have a glorious future working for the Kochs.


Teaching is a lot harder than it looks.

Every person in America should be required to spend at least a week around schools and teachers. I'd wager pretty easily that well more than 90 percent of people have no idea how difficult a job these educators have.

The job can be humbling. It's a responsibility to help educate these kids, and at any point when I do something wrong or amateurish, I feel bad. In conversing with a student I said "ain't" and immediately felt ashamed to use such a low-rent word. School is not the place to relax into colloquialism.

And, particularly in the math class, I felt anxiety. I don't know what it is about math that daunts me so. I was sitting next to one good kid who I remembered from my time there in December (Dec. 14... a bad day for schools). And I told him that math was essential, that it teaches one how to process information, and that all the most successful societies were skilled in math -- but that it can be very hard and wasn't my favorite subject. He said he didn't like it much either. But he was really good at it.

Not long ago I watched a few minutes of "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" for the first time. I didn't like the show or the premise. Do we really want to celebrate how generally stupid we are?

But in these classrooms, sometimes I think we're not that smart. Fortunately these kids ARE smart, and getting good instruction.

In the World Geography class, the kids were working on identifying nations, capitals, landforms and bodies of water in Asia. Tough stuff.

Now, some people look at this and say "big deal, it's just some memorization and then it falls away." And to some extent, that's true. But I think it's important that every one of these students are at least looking at different parts of the world and learning things about them. The instructor showed a variety of images from Chinese New Year celebrations. Maybe in six months these kids will forget the name of the capital of Bangladesh. But on the other hand, that information has been accessed and processed in their minds. It's there. That has to be a worthwhile achievement.


Random notes:

* One girl had a shirt with John & Yoko on it. That's encouraging.
* In offering guidelines for a project, a science teacher said "presentation matters." Yes it does. But, it will take a long time for that to sink in with some people. It took a while with me.
* I re-watched the only Jack Black movie made, "School of Rock," last week. Amusing still. But the scenario there is part of the problem that people have with the idea of school... they just have no idea what the day-to-day is really like. The idea that a sub could come in and be that unchecked is impossible. It just wouldn't happen.
* In "School of Rock" "Mr. Schneeebly" immediately raids a student's food supply. I didn't eat Friday during the day. Mistake. Note to self: Next time, take some food.
* The teacher's role is one of overt leadership. Being an aide is tough in trying to determine the correct balance to strike. You have to find your spots. I spent two minutes mentally crafting a question to ask in the English class that I thought might provide a positive alternative way to see the topic. The teacher responded encouragingly, so it was worth it. But finding the proper mix is something I hope to improve upon in time.
* And last, there was my encounter with "Allison Reynolds" during my brief lunch break. This was the name of Ally Sheedy's character in The Breakfast Club. Since I didn't bring lunch and didn't want to go through the cafeteria line, I instead found a bench in the school's primary hallway that links the lunchroom, auditorium and main office. I checked my phone and "Allison" approached me. She was tall and you could tell she was a little different. But nice. 

Allison: Do you know what a paradox is?
Me: Well, I know more in my mind what it is than my ability to define it. I think it's something that seems true but isn't (fumbling). Let's look it up.

I Googled it, and came up with several examples. The best one we saw was of the person who says "I always lie."

Then she left. It was totally random. And totally why this is a damned interesting way to spend a day.

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