Thursday, October 30, 2014

When teens judge teen craziness on "Serial"

EPISODE SIX UPDATE: According to the 11th graders, yesterday's episode of "Serial" definitely made Adnan seem a little "sketchier," though still not as sketchy as Jay, or even Hae. The high school students said that another student writing "I am going to kill" was "a little wack" (they voted on the terminology), but not as strange (they said "clearly obsessive") as Hae doodling her boyfriend's name 128 times. The students had wildly different views on Adnan's reaction to Sarah's saying that he likes him (which some of them thought was weird in itself). But finally, they didn't like that Adnan didn't page Hae after she went missing. This is, so far, the "sketchiest" of Adnan's actions, but they all admitted it was difficult to put their imaginations in the world of pagers -- they certainly would have texted if they could have.

The entire "Sketchy Sketch" is at the bottom of the post.

The rest of this post mostly concerns their reactions to the high school students in Episode 2 and 3....

As my wife and I look forward to "Cereal Night" (listening to "Serial" while eating a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch), I definitely have an idea of who and what I think is "crazy" or "suspicious" or even "sociopathic" within the world of "Serial." I imagine, for starters, what I'll do to the poor ex-boyfriend who calls my daughter at 12:30 AM someday. My wife, meanwhile, feels Jenn is suspicious in just about every way.

But what do teenagers think about this teen world that I've somewhat forgotten?

Well, I have 140 students in my 11th grade English classes ready to tell me. Yes, we are listening to "Serial" instead of reading Shakespeare (more on that in a future post?), but they're a few episodes behind me -- so I can make sure it's going to stay teen-appropriate and make some proper Common Core lesson plans.

After the second episode ("The Breakup") I asked them to name the ten most blatant examples of abnormal behavior, starting with "calling an ex-girlfriend at 12:30 AM." Then they asked each other two questions about each act:

1. Where does this fit on your "crazy scale" (a 1 being "typically high school" and a 10 being "genuinely psychopathic")?

2. How many people do you know who might engage in this behavior?

The answers might not surprise you, but they startled me, and I'm a high school teacher who thinks he's somewhat in tune with his students. The big takeaway? According to my students, the 17-year-old Adnan is the most typical high school student in the story. The most peculiar high school student? Hae, without much argument. Obviously, Jay and Mr. S topped the chart for the most suspicious behavior, but they aren't in high school. Who else was voted stranger than Adnan? His parents, by a long shot. In summary, I'm not teaching Hamlet anymore, but I'm still using featuring a protagonist who is possibly crazy and amoral, or possibly just surrounded by crazy, immoral characters. Or both.

According to the kids, the most disturbing habit of Adnan's was keeping tabs on Hae while she was with friends (a 5.4 on the Crazy Chart). Ranked relatively low? Calling her at 12:30 AM, just slightly stranger than helping an ex-girlfriend with her car. I double-checked: "12:30 on a school night?" They mostly nodded. In each class, at least one student would speak for the class: "12:30 isn't that late." I then did another quick poll, and discovered that over half of my students were awake at midnight last night (a Wednesday), and about 20% were up past 1:00 or 2:00.

Meanwhile, they almost entirely tripped out on Hae doodling her lovers' names in her diary over a hundred times. "You guys do that when you're bored," I told them. I could feel the whole class lean forward in response: "No, we do not." The classes were split on whether the doodling was "crazy" (different classes had it ranked anywhere from a 1.8 to a 6.2 on the Crazy Chart), but they all agreed it was very rare. In fact, in one class, it was four times more likely that they knew somebody like Jay than somebody who obsessed with a boyfriend's name.

Somewhat disturbingly (though not shocking), the students said, on average, that they knew about four fellow classmates who would help a friend with a heinous crime (by giving him a ride, or a shovel) and not tell the cops.

Right behind Jay (and Mr. S, of course) were Adnan's parents, although most students reported that they knew a senior or two who wasn't allowed to go to dances or football games.

The preview for tonight's episode says that my wife and I will hear about Adnan's "curious behavior" while we eat our bowls of cereal, so I'm pretty sure I'll be updating this Crazy Chart in a week or so, when my students catch up. In the meantime, I'm attaching my very hurried spreadsheet below:

"Crazy score"# of kids similar kids we knowOther notes

Calling gf "devil"
Calling ex at 12:3043.7Over half up at midnight; average of 11:30
Crashing girls night5.42.1
Multiple gf's/towns3.77.9
Doing big favor for ex3.73.1
Using "kill" in convo4.45.7
Not paging Hae63.3
Awk convo with Sarah4.92.4
Parents crashing dance
6.51.5including football games, movies
Mr. S70.3
Buying fancy jacket for ex-boyfriend
4.40.8"rare, not crazy"
Quickly shifting romantic priorities2.98.5
Doodling names 100+6.52.2
Aiding crime w/o telling cops
7.43.7Y'all know 3 people who are a 7?" yes

Monday, October 20, 2014

PLAN A: My Best Effort to Create an Absolutely Successful Classroom, for All Students

Earlier this week, I was the only general ed teacher at an IEP meeting for a student who had, in separate, seemingly-random instances in my 11th grade English classroom, explicitly complained of feeling mentally ill, possibly threatened me, and made the girls sitting near him uneasy with extreme and misogynistic statements. Yet despite the severity of the situation, the (case worker) closed his laptop within ten minutes of the discussion and just listened. He told me later that he had never done that, not in "thousands" of similar meetings. But in this case, for the first time, it was obvious that this student was getting all the accommodations he could need or want. He told me, with a bit of fascination, that my classroom not only had accommodations available, or even imbedded into the classroom environment, but the class was actually centered around accommodations for each and every student. "It's not just evolutionary," he said, "it's revolutionary."

Note that he didn't say it was a good thing. Just unique.

I hadn't even told him the part where all 126 students in my classes have A's on their first quarter report cards.

Personally, I'm not sure it's particularly evolutionary, and it doesn't really feel revolutionary. As much as I'd like to be a radical thought leader and shorten "accommodation-centered" to "AcCent" and go on tour talking about it, my new set of policies just feels like the next logical step in where education is going. I'm not even sure I like it. But I'd rather be a skeptical pioneer than a grumbling follower.

Plan A is essentially simple: If every student does their best (for themselves and their classmates) to improve their reading, writing, and listening skills (as defined by the Common Core), then every student earns an A. But if we let one student bail out, the deal is off, and we go back to business as usual.

My responsibility is to provide the following:
  • A personally abridged packet of every anchor standard from the Common Core for reading and writing. Every standard is written to be understood at their reading level, and scaffolded for all learners.
  • Unlimited help in comprehending each anchor standard.
  • Limited, but direct, instruction to give each student the basic skills to succeed at their next level of learning each standard. 
  • Lots of space to choose which element (standard) of reading or writing they want to address that day/week, and lots of space to choose how they do it, and who they do it with. For example, if they all chose to work on learning more about how "multiple themes can operate within a single text," one student could quietly read their favorite novel of the week, three students could come up with their own theme and then try to work all three themes into a single story, and a larger group could map out all the various themes presented in Finding Nemo (this actually happened).
  • Lots of possible prompts, reading materials, podcasts, project ideas, and so on. This is mostly for the students who lack the will or inclination to determine their own activity. But also, I'm a professional at coming up with good ideas.
  • An environment that normalizes success, cooperation, learning, and pride.
  • An environment that seeks to eliminate all kinds of fear, feelings of inferiority

The students' responsibilities are as follows:
  • They go hard every single minute of every class, from bell to bell.
  • When the bell rings, they have their journals, their checklists (their packet of standards), and their nametags on their desks.
  • They help their friends, and they ask for help from their friends.
  • Using their checklists and journals, they keep track of each standard they address, including the following details: at which level of scaffolding were they, how did they address it, how many times, and how well did they do.

What do they get for "going hard bell to bell," along with all this tedious self-assessment?
  • No compulsory tests or quizzes.
  • Very little homework.
  • The peace of knowing their grade will be an A.
  • The freedom to drive their own instruction.
  • The joy of working with others in a positive, stress-free environment.
  • The satisfying grip (literally) on the standards and skills they're expected to learn.

Several questions and concerns immediately show themselves. Just to name a few:
  1. Seriously? If just one student flakes, everyone else loses out on the deal? Why?
  2. What do we do if one student starts to let us down? Just give up? What are the lines between a) basic peer-pressure, b) "changing the culture into one of mutual success and cooperation," and c) bullying a kid into improving his reading and writing skills
  3. How will I get them to study, or listen carefully, or write carefully, when they are promised that standardized test scores or standardized writing rubrics won't negatively affect their grade?
  4. Hypothetically speaking, is it worth it, or even morally acceptable, to give each and every student an A, if it even slightly improves student learning in a general sense? In other words, which situation is preferable: a) The average grade is a 75% (or 85%, or whatever), and the students are individually distinguished by their own personal grade; or b) Everyone gets a 95%, nobody is individually distinguished (by their own letter grade), and generally speaking, student learning is at least slightly (and quantifiably) elevated?
  5. Why am I doing this? (Especially when I love elitism, capitalism, and competition. Because America.)

In my next blog post, I'm going to address that last question first. As a coach and a teacher, I used to be a staunch advocate for straight rows, brutal competition, and top-down discipline. What happened to me? And where did that gum-chomping, Oakley-wearing Coach Godsey go? And why? And is he long gone, or just in another department of my life? Or is he standing right behind me, with his arms crossed?