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November 25, 2007

Thanksgiving!

Now that L and I are living in the same place (for at least a few weeks), I'm getting some time to update the blog entries. This one is about the great time we had with our families over Thanksgiving. L's mom and dad drove up from Phoenix and are staying with us at my Dad's house . It's fun to have the two families together, and there was quite a crowd for Thanksgiving dinner when we went to visit my Aunt and Uncle in Cupertino. We'll spend he rest of the time chatting and touring around the Bay Area.

November 24, 2007

A few good things...

Since my previous entry was kind of a depressing one, I thought that I would share with you some of the good things that have happened to me this year as a teacher. Some days are filled with all sorts of gems that really pick me up. Some days are just so much fun as my students and I laugh and joke about the things we're learning. They have fun and ask great questions that show real enthusiasm for the subject. I love those days. There are also some little specific incidents that make my heart glow. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Early in the semester, a teacher reported to me the following student comment, "Mr d'Alessio's class is so boring, but for some reason I think I kind of like it."
  • One day I got a note from the principal's office asking, "Is this student really attending your class?" Attached was a copy of her attendance record for the last few weeks. She almost never attended her first block class. Second block, she was late almost every day. I have her third block, and the record showed that she had been present and on time every day of the semester. She almost never attended her last class of the day. The administration was wondering if I had made some sort of clerical error. I wrote back saying, "There is no error. This student is always in my class on time and ready to work. She has the second highest grade out of all my students." Talk about voting with her feet! This was one of my best students, and I found out that she never even attended most of her other classes. I must be doing something right!
  • An update on the student who skipped detention and stuck her tongue out at me. Every time she made some disparaging comment about how much she hated the class, I would tell her how much I enjoyed having her in the class. I'm slowly starting to wear her down because she has been coming to class regularly and has even started treating me with respect. Her recent travel brochure to Mars ("Your home away from home") was one of the best in the class.
  • The student with a GPS ankle monitor also made improvements. The day after I wrote the previous message, the vice principal went out and bought the student a backpack. You should have seen the smile on his face when he walked into my classroom wearing that shiny new backpack. That week, he went from sitting in the back of the room silently to total engagement. He even raised his hand and asked three questions in one day! It was fantastic to see. Unfortunately, he recently had his GPS tracking device removed and he stopped coming to my class regularly. He still has the backpack, but the spark is gone for now.
  • Things are definitely getting easier. I still have problems, but I've mastered a number of things. I know that my students are full of energy on Mondays, so group work is out of the question. But by Friday, they are usually tired enough that they don't have as much energy to argue and we can do a lot of creative things. I have a classroom routine where by 10 minutes into class, my students are all quietly working on the "warm up exercise." Some days, it's even so quiet that you can hear a pin drop -- though one of the students usually notices the quiet and breaks the silence with something like, "man, why'd it get so quiet all of a sudden?"
More stories will come soon...

A rough day

After a particularly rough day last month, I sat down and wrote out the events of the day to help me decompress. I saved my thoughts, and since I'm posting to my blog now, I thought I would share them with you. The day was October 18th...


Today was brutal. Here are the memorable events from the day, which are on top of the usual challenges of teaching my kids:

    Sophomores are taking the PSAT today, so we had a modified schedule from hell. First block was 3 hours and 15 minutes. Second block (my prep/free period during which I get organized and eat lunch) was skipped today. Third block was 40 minutes. Fourth block was 60 minutes. I have no idea how the relative timing of the blocks was determined, but the I might make the observation that keeping high school students in one class for 3+ hours is insane.
    One of my students skipped detention yesterday. Today, she came to class late and sat down to read a book. That's better than normal when she's constantly talking to other students and talking back to me. I sent her to the office because she missed detention, and she was suspended pending a parent conference. I saw her on campus later in the day and she stuck her tongue out at me.
    A student who is the daughter of a teacher at the school is at risk of being kicked out of the school. Basically, the only way I can get her to behave (let alone actually work) is to threaten to send her to the office (which will result in her being thrown out of the whole school). She informed me that I "needed" to get her copies of all the assignments she had failed to turn in over the last few weeks. I told her that I couldn't take care of it until after class. She said that she couldn't stay after class (she had to meet a friend). I told her that if she wasn't willing to give me the time investment to stay after class for 5 minutes, I wasn't going to invest the time to help her with make up work.
    A police officer came into my class looking for a student, who happened to be absent today. This event is not out of the ordinary, but is always a bit stressful.
    All electronic devices such as pagers, cell phones, MP3 players, etc., are strictly forbidden on our campus. They are to be confiscated immediately if a teacher even sees the device. One of my students was charging his phone in an outlet near his seat and then proceeded to text message. I noticed this and asked him to hand over his cell phone. He refused to turn over his phone, so I called campus security (the standard practice). A police officer showed up and the kid spontaneously dumped out the contents of all his pockets on the floor and claimed that he had no phone (though he did have a phone charger). I have no idea where he put the phone -- perhaps in his underwear or in the trash. The police officer searched him and then took him to the office anyways. They confiscated his phone's charger instead, but I have no idea where the phone is.
    One of my students is a special ed student, which means she has a caseworker assigned to look after her. Both the caseworker and the student showed up to my classroom to get a report on the student's progress in the class. I told them that she had been one of the top students in my class a few weeks ago. The caseworker said, "I don't believe it." I assured her that the girl's work was really high quality and I could show it to her if she didn't believe us. I mentioned that her work was suffering in the last two weeks. The caseworker informed me that the students' boyfriend was shot a couple of weeks ago and was currently in a wheelchair.
    One of my students had to leave early yesterday. Her sister came by crying and said someone in the family was hurt. I let the student go (after which everyone else in the class said, "Why does she get to go early?"). I talked with her today and she told me that everything was OK. "My aunt got shot a little in the chin. Then the guy went around shooting up the neighborhood. But everything is OK. Thanks for checking up."
    The vice principal delivered another student to my class a bit late. This is a student who had half a dozen instances of drug use on campus last year and has been in Juvenile hall 5 times. He currently is on parole and wears a GPS ankle bracelet. I talked with him a few days ago about his grade, which is a low F. I asked him why he never brings his backpack to class and he told me that he can't get a backpack because his parole requires him to go directly between school and home, and the GPS tracking system enforces this. Talking with the vice principal about him at the end of the day, I found out that he spent an hour and a half in her office. The first 20 minutes were fine, but he apparently broke down crying for the next hour plus. His father was shot and killed last year. His mother is nowhere to be seen. He lives with his grandmother, who has had 3 strokes recently and is asleep whenever he is at home. His aunt takes care of her during the day, but leaves each night to go to work. He is alone in the house with no homework and nobody to talk with.
    To cap off the day, I mentioned to the vice principal that I was having trouble getting a hold of one student's parents to tell them about his behavior problems. She has access to more phone numbers and started dialing all of them. The mother finally answered at work. She was apologetic that her son was misbehaving and said that there was no excuse for that. However, she was worried that my class at the end of the day was too much for him because of his bone cancer, which had no spread to his lungs and the back of his head. He won't be in class tomorrow because he's starting radiation treatment. I guess that explains why his focus on academics is a little weak.

Looking back on the day now, it was a definite low point. Most days aren't like that at all, but they do happen and I think my notes kind of capture how drained I feel when they do...

About my school

Block 1 Students

I teach at El Cerrito High School, a public high school with 1100-1200 kids. We draw from El Cerrito, Richmond, and some of the other parts of west Contra Costa County. We have some tough kids from very difficult backgrounds -- we have two police officers on campus full time in addition to five very imposing private security officers. Roughly 5% of our students are on parole (the school also has its own full time parole officer), and there have been armed robberies on campus in the past. Some of the students have experienced things that no human should ever have to deal with -- while I have had a hard time dealing with the surprising death of my Mom in her sleep, one of our students had his father murder his mother in the middle of the school year last year.

The school district was one of the first in the state to go bankrupt a few years back. The school's buildings were demolished last year to make way for groundbreaking on a new, seismically safe replacement campus. That means we have a campus of classrooms in trailers. On the first day of school, I found out that I would be rationed paper at the rate of one ream every two weeks. With roughly 100 students, that equates to a single sheet of paper every other day per student. Other teachers have accumulated small stocks of paper as they solicited paper donations from parents during years past. I'm happy to report that those teachers are incredibly generous and regularly supply me with plenty of paper, so I only rarely have to fight for paper. It does, however, change the way I utilize the paper that I do have. Every handout I give out is exactly one sheet of paper, front and back (neither more nor less).

November 17, 2007

Sharing two nests on opposite coasts

We're sorry we've neglected the blog for so long, but things have been really busy. Read more to find out about our adventures over the last few months.

Last time you heard from us, we were wrapping up our adventure filled year in Japan. I ended my job a few months early when I came back to California to be with my family, but L spent almost exactly one year in Japan. She was in Tokyo on temporary assignment from her job at the Harvard/Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Boston, so when August rolled around, we got ready to return to Boston. Since I have become more and more interested in education, I started seeking out jobs as a high school teacher in the Boston area back in April. You'd think that a scientist with a passion for education and a long resume in curriculum design would be well qualified for a teaching position in a high school. And everyone I talked to at the school district offices told me that I should have my choice of schools. However, the principals that actually do the hiring are all under a lot of pressure to hire teachers that are compliant with the No Child Left Behind legislation, which means having a valid teaching credential. Having made this decision to start teaching while living on the other side of the Pacific, there was no way for me to take the necessary tests that are the first steps in that process. Despite the shortage of qualified science teachers, I was having a hard time finding a school that was willing to apply for a waiver on my behalf.

After the first efforts stalled, L and I considered broadening my job search to include California so that we could be closer to my family. For months, I called around and talked to principals and even had a very successful telephone interview with one school. When my job search started to span two coasts, I would have to wake up early to call California and stay up late to call Boston. I was getting promising leads from several schools that told me to keep calling back later. I even had a very successful telephone interview with one school and the principal said she was going to try to hire me, but she ran into problems with the fact that I was not fully credentialed. It was getting to be really stressful as I sacrificed my sleep schedule on both ends and still had no job. We had our departure date scheduled, but we still weren't certain which coast we were going to.

Our moving day finally came and we got everything cleared out of our apartment. We moved into a hotel for two days to wrap up some administrative details in Japan, and I finally got a phone call telling me that a job I applied for months ago in California was ready to hire me. It was a job teaching Earth Science full time (a rare job description, but exactly what I wanted) at a school that was highly recommended to me by two teachers that taught in this school district. It was a great opportunity, except by that point Loraine had recommitted to her job and FEDEX already had our boxes of stuff half way to Boston.

We sat down in our hotel room and talked about our careers, where to go, and what to do. The big problem was that we were both excited about returning to Boston, and L felt obligated to continue her job there. For our last five years of marriage, we have been able to find great job opportunities in the same place. But after months of searching, we hit a point where we had not yet succeeded this time. For better or for worse, we decided that I should take the job and L should return to Boston. We would live apart for several months and figure out what to do from there.

We flew back to America on the same flight. At San Francisco International airport, we both waited for our bags. After passing through customs, I turned right to get to the airport exit and L turned left to change planes to Boston -- each of us ready to start a new big adventure.

I arrived San Francisco on a Thursday and school was set to start the next Tuesday. I was still not officially hired, and the school district was beginning to say things like, "If we are able to hire you..." They wouldn't assign me a classroom, tell me my schedule, or even confirm what classes I would be teaching until the day before school. Even then, I had to go to human resourcesat least once each day for the entire first week of class. I taught with a substitute teacher sitting in the back of the room for the first 4 days. Finally, I was officially hired as a teacher on Friday of the first week of school.

As of this writing we are currently re-united for at least the next two months. After that, we may have to endure a few more months of coast swapping, but we're excited about all of our upcoming adventures!