Category Archives: education

The Welcome at the Front Door

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From the time I was a young teacher until I was nearing retirement I would put on a tie before going to school.  And I hated ties.  I never tied them well.  They turned into Dilbert ties every time I turned around. But I wore them practically every day… except when we wore school uniforms and none of the official teacher shirts were made for wearing a tie.  So, why the heck did I spend so much of my career wearing ties I hated?

Well, it matters how you appear at the door at the start of each and every class.  What happens at the classroom door can make or break the entire teacher’s day.

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“Good morning, Jose! Are you ready to make an A today?”

“Good morning, Rita.  Your hair looks beautiful today.  Did you color it?”

“No, Mr. B. It’s the same color it’s always been.”

“You mean it wasn’t purple yesterday?”

“I have never had purple hair.”

“Oh, well, then, it must’ve been that beautiful smile today that made me notice.”

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You have to welcome them in if you want them to sit down and listen to all the wonderful boring things you have to teach them.  I was known for a while as the “teacher who makes us laugh”.  And that can be dangerous.  Principals tend to prefer the silent filling out of worksheets as far as classroom management goes.  But kids got better grades on State tests and wrote better essays for school when we could talk and laugh and entertain playfully creative ideas just as openly as we did the boring old facts and practice.

And, truthfully, if you don’t establish that classroom air at the front door, it never has enough oxygen in it to grow once life in the classroom gets started.

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I suspect that the afterlife in the real world, once students get there after their school years are over, would profit greatly from bosses who knew how to do the grin and greet at the front door every day.  I also suspect that real world bosses almost universally don’t know this particular teacher trick.

You gotta smile and say hello.  You gotta make them feel like they belong. You gotta shake that hand if they offer it, even though you know the only boys who have washed that hand in the last week are the ones who go into the restroom just to comb their hair, and then wash their hands immediately after.  And most of them never comb their hair either. (Oh, please, don’t let me think about the millions of microbes finding their way onto desks and pens and pencils… even the pencils they chew.)  And if you can tell a joke that makes them feel good and laugh, then the victory in the classroom war against ignorance is already on its way to being won.

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Blue Sunrise

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I am not a politician. I am not a political writer.  But I have opinions about the policies that affect my life and livelihood.  And my opinions, though often expressed poetically, or even humorously, are based on real troubles never-the-less.

I am disturbed by the problems I see in education.  Teachers are not paid what they are worth.  Anyone with half a brain can see that, for the level of education required of them, the professionalism expected of them, and the ever-increasing responsibilities foisted upon them, they are not compensated for their work in a manner comparable to people who do the same work in the corporate world.  And those comparable workers never have to endure the conditions of a teacher’s job, overloaded with students, forced to stand and deliver to a hostile audience whose behavior you are responsible for controlling six or seven times a day, and then being evaluated by how that audience does on tests that often measure the wrong thing with financial punishments waiting for failure and rarely any rewards waiting for success.

I started teaching in 1981 in South Texas for a salary of $11,000 dollars a year. That was below the poverty line in 1981.  If I had a family at that time, we would’ve been eligible for food stamps.  The highest I ever earned was $55,000 with a master’s degree, 28 years of experience, and a summer of teaching summer school.  Some one who delivers similar forms of information to a receptive audience in a boardroom, only has to deliver maybe once per day, and is paid upwards of twice that highest amount is treated far better.

And when teachers strike in West Virginia for being the lowest paid in the country, or  a teacher complains on social media by revealing their actual yearly salary from Arizona, or a teacher is forced to move from Oklahoma to Texas for higher pay even though they were the teacher of the year in the State the year before,  there is blow-back.  There are stupid people out there that think teachers are overpaid.  They think all teachers have to do is talk to kids every day, and they have only 185 work days a year, they have the summer off, and their job is one anyone can do.  These stupid people have less than half a brain.  What makes a guy who sits in an office all day with his feet up making decisions about stocks and bonds and business deals worth thousands of dollars a minute?  Teachers, in my amateur political opinionater’s opinion, are underpaid.

To quote the Beatles’ 1969 animated movie, the Yellow Submarine, “It’s a blue world, Max.”  Unfortunately, in the world of education, the Blue Meanies are now in charge.

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Role-Playing Games in the Classroom

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Zeus, the god of Storms and the Sky

In the early 90’s a fellow teacher became acutely aware of the effect the role-playing games I was playing at home after school had on the cognitive abilities of the fatherless boys I was constantly entertaining.  She suggested that maybe, if it was working at home with a few students and former students, it could also work in the classroom with all students.

This, of course was a daunting classroom activity to carry out, but enough of a creative challenge to my story telling abilities that I simply had to try.

I began with a cheap RPG book about adventuring D&D style with characters from Greek Myth.  This was an opportunity not only to play adventure games, but to teach a little bit about history and a lot about mythology.

So I created generic character sheets using my own personal copier, my own copy paper, and my own overhead projector plastic overlays.

I created adventures that could be conducted on the overhead with dice and each kid having their own set of skills and useful items.  We conducted Olympic games and included mythological creatures like Tritons and Centaurs as player characters.  We learned about the city of Olympia, the city of Argos, the city of Corinth, Athens, Sparta, and even Atlantis.

I let students draw their character from a hat on strips of paper that contained a boy option and a girl option.  I even let students trade for the character they wanted and we learned negotiating skills along with problem-solving skills.

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                                                                                     Demeter, goddess of fertility (which you can’t say in a junior high classroom, so goddess of crops and farming.)

Most of the stories were driven by a kidnapping where the beautiful daughter of one of the players was kidnapped immediately after the Olympic medals were awarded.  The villain would take her to his evil island base, and the players would have to work together to buy or steal a boat.  Gods and goddesses could be called on to intervene, and sometimes they actually did.  Another story line began with the sack of Troy, during which the players either murder or witness the death of a young Trojan boy who just happens to be Heracles’ son.

That story took the players on a quest of penance to visit the underworld and retrieve the boy in the same way that Orpheus tried to rescue his lady love Eurydice.  Potentially, Heracles would even join the quest himself if none of the player characters were the actual killer.  And, of course, all sorts of encounters with monsters would ensue.

 

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I ended up using about as much of my personal resources as a story-teller and a cartoonist to create those adventures as I had available.  But I had students tell me that the week of classroom time spent playing that problem-solving myth game was one of the most memorable learning experiences they ever had.  I never tried it with a high school class, only middle school, and then mostly with 7th graders.  But I think the experiment was very successful from about 1992 to 2004, and it taught me even more about teaching than it ever taught them about mythology.

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Grandma Frozenfield

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In order to understand this story, you have to have a little bit of background first… a solid sense of context, in order to avoid anyone feeling that I might be ridiculing someone in an unfair or unloving way.  So here’s a bit of context.  I was a teacher for 31 years.  I was considered a good teacher, in fact, a master teacher by something like 28 different principals and assistant principals, while only 3 felt like I was an incompetent mess, and two of those were eventually fired themselves.  I only got fired once.  So it can be safely assumed I know what incompetence in teaching is and can reliably identify it in others.  Further, incompetence in teaching does not make you a bad person.  Far too many people who believe they could be a good teacher have traits that would torpedo their own boat if they actually set sail on the sea of education.  So, even though Grandma Frozenfield was a horrible teacher, she was actually a very nice and caring person, and makes a wonderful character for stories that lovingly make fun of bad teaching.  And I should remind you, I don’t use real names when talking about people from my past so that their privacy is not violated by whatever my artist’s eye might reveal about them.  The portrait I added to this post does not even look like her.

Grandma Frozenfield was a mid-year emergency hire who filled the position of 8th grade math teacher during my first year of teaching.   She was already sixty-eight years old when she came to Cotulla, Texas, and she had five years of previous teaching experience in schools up north.  How she survived five years in schools more competently run than Texas schools in the 80’s, I will never be able to figure out.  She was able to hang on in our school for several years only because we were desperately strapped for warm bodies to teach Math classes in Texas junior high schools.  Only idiots and coaches ever took on the job willingly.

Grandma Frozenfield had seventeen dogs and ninety-nine cats at home.  That right there tells you something about which stereotype she easily fits into.  But she was also a woman of great mystery.  Her father had been a famous college professor in Minnesota.  She had inherited a number of very valuable books from him, and kept them in random boxes stacked in dusty corners of the old run-down house she bought in town.  She was actually quite bright, and though she would have spells of foggy thinking and confusion, she could capably discuss mathematics and physics and other sciences with me.  She had a daughter who showed up during her third year of teaching at our school, and the daughter had a cute little son of about seven years old.  Neither she nor her daughter had ever been married.  In fact, rumor had it the daughter was telling people she was adopted.  And her daughter and grandson disappeared from her life about four years after they started living with Grandma.

But the old lady was a spectacularly bad teacher.  As bright as she was, she could never talk to kids or relate to kids in ways that kids could understand.  She seemed to sincerely hate kids, calling them bad names in the classroom and telling them in detail how they would one day die in prison (a prediction that unfortunately came true for a couple of them).  She would come into the teacher’s workroom after class plastered with spitballs on her back and in her hair.

A couple of the sweeter and more pro-active girls in her classes tried to protect her a bit from vandals and explained lessons to others in class to mitigate the chaos a bit.

She did not engage with students.  Other than a few of the sweeter girls, she did not talk to them about anything but math.  They didn’t understand her, and so they didn’t like her.  She did not know how to monitor a classroom, so the infidels were on a rampage all the time in her room.  It would definitely have felt like being in Hell to be her, teaching in that classroom.  Why she ever wanted to be a teacher, she never said.  I know it was in her family history.  I know she was a caring, lovely individual.  But when she died of throat cancer at 77 it was a lonely and sad thing.  She had been forced to teach until two years before the end because of medical bills.  She was never happy as a teacher that I observed.  But she never missed a day without good reason, either.  Good people don’t necessarily make good teachers.  But she taught me things far beyond the 8th grade math she tried and failed to teach to students.  I don’t think of her often.  But I do think of her.  She and her 17 dogs and 99 cats are all gone now.  But not forgotten.

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Another Brick in the Wall

I sincerely hope I never appeared in any way to be like the teacher in the video of Pink Floyd’s rock opera The Wall.  That teacher represents everything wrong about education and everything that looms over us as a coming darkness if the conservative privatization movement continues to move forward with their evil sausage-factory plans.

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In the video you see the teacher making fun of a student for writing poetry instead of participating in the rote recitation about math that the class is engaged in.  The school is portrayed as a factory that puts masks on the students, makes them march in a line, and eventually pitch forward, face first into the sausage grinder.

The song was written by Pink Floyd’s bassist, Roger Waters. It was written in the long ago 70’s as a protest against rigid education systems in general, and British boarding schools in particular.  But old problems can come back to haunt us.

Here’s the evil being protested.  Schools should never be used to suppress creative thinking and enforce conformity.  While it is true corporate America is hot for education that treats educating students like baking bricks, with attention to precise shapes and uniform size and color, that is not how kids learn.  They have to be treasured for what they are, unique individuals, no two alike, and all possessed of varied strengths, skills, and talents.  The idea of education is to help them add to what they are born with, use what they are born with, and fit into the jigsaw puzzle of working with and getting along with others.  We cannot teach them by pressing them into molds with standardized high-stakes tests, or taking their individual faces away by always trudging through the same low level thinking skills year after year just because a textbook written in conservative Texas says so.  Learning in the classroom needs to be through guided discussions, activities, and interactions.  Not through filling in all the blanks on a worksheet.

My own children, for the most part, have been cheated by the public education system in Texas.  They are bright kids, but have humongous school troubles stalking them like monsters, boredom, disengagement, and feeling like the young poet betrayed by the teacher in the video.  While I always, in my teaching, fought to creatively present learning opportunities, I found good teaching to be a rare thing in Texas.  It was sometimes actively discouraged.  And it is getting rarer.  The people who think teaching English means diagramming sentences and circling the adverbs are winning the battle for young minds.  I am left at a point of futility where the only thing I can do about the brick-making is write rants like this one about it.

Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos should be pleased with themselves.  The sausage factories in our schools are turning out sausages.  Sausages don’t think for themselves.  Sausages are easy to control.  And when the time comes, some corporate fat cat will eat them and become fatter (hopefully only in the metaphorical sense).  And I am guessing here, but I’ll bet sausages make up most of the Republican voting public.

 

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Reading Other Writers

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Nobody who wants to be a writer gets by with just writing and never reading anything by anybody else.  It is too easy to devolve into some kind of human mushroom that way, thinking only thoughts a mushroom could think, all fungus-like and having no chlorophyll of their own.  You never learn to decode other people and other people’s thinking if you don’t read other people’s thoughts crystallized in writing.

And not every other writer is Robert Frost.  Or even Jack Frost who thinks he’s  Gene Kelly.  There has to be some interpretation, some digging for understanding.  What did that writer mean when she said political correctness was like a tongue disease?  And what does it mean when a commenting troll calls me a nekkid poofter?  Is that how he spells “exceptional genius”?  I think it is.  Trolls are not smart.

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I know people have to make an effort to understand me.  When I write, I am writing under the delusion that I can produce literary quality off the top of my head.  In fact, I can barely produce hair off the top of my head, and it is gray when I do it.   See what I did there?  It is the kind of joke a surrealist makes, pretending the idiomatic expression you use is to be taken literally when it doesn’t literally make sense.  That kind of nonsense is what my readers have to put up with, and probably also the reason why most of them just look at the pictures.  If you have to think too hard when you read, your brain could over-heat and your hair could catch fire.  I like that kind of purple paisley prose that folds back in on itself and makes you think in curlicues.  But most people don’t.  Most people don’t have fire-proof hair like I do.

20180103_082404 Of course, there is the opposite problem too.  Some writers are not hard to understand at all.  They only use simple sentences.  They only use ideas that lots of other people have used before.  You don’t have to think about what they write.  You only need to react.  They are the reasons that words like “trite”, “hackneyed”, “boring”, and “cliche” exist in English.  But simple, boring writing isn’t written by stupid people.  Hemingway is like that.  Pared down to the basics.  No frills.  Yet able to yield complex thoughts, insights, and relationships.

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Sometimes, it doesn’t even take a word to make the point.  For instance, why, in the picture, is Fluttershy trying to drink out of the toilet in the dollhouse bathroom?  For that matter, why does a doll house even need a bathroom?  Applejack doesn’t even fit in that yellow bathtub.  I know.  I tried to stuff her in there for this picture.  And, as you read this, doesn’t this paragraph tell you a lot about me that you probably didn’t even want to know?

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When I am reading the writing of others, I am looking for a cornucopia of things.  I want to not only understand their ideas, I want to detect the limping footprints across the murder scene of their paragraphs and come to know the deeper things about them as well.  I spent years decoding and trying to understand the writing of preliterate kids in my middle school English classes in order to be able to teach them to write better.   And I learned that no writer is a bad writer as long as they are using readable words.  I also learned that very few writers are James Joyce or Marcel Proust.  Thank God for that!  And given enough time I can read anything by anybody and learn something from it. I read a lot.  And it may not always make me a better writer to read it, but it always has value.  It is always worth doing.

 

 

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Teachers in Space

This is another in my continuing series of Saturday night D&D posts, though it was written on Saturday morning and contains no Dungeons and Dragons information whatsoever.

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The Space Bear was a travelling space ship/school.

You see, in the early 1980’s, I got in trouble with Baptists for playing Dungeons and Dragons with kids from school because… well, demons and dragons are evil, right?  Apparently even the imaginary ones in games and illustrations. So I turned my attention to science fiction games.  Traveller was my rule system, and all science fiction was my campaign.  And then in 1986 Ronald Reagan and NASA decided to blow up the first teacher in space aboard the Challenger shuttle mission.  So, my Traveller game became less about “explore and conquer” and more about “teachers in space”.

gaijin1234aGed Aero was the player character of one of my favorite kids.  He was a psionic shape-changer who could transform into other animals, space creatures, and alien beings.  He became so powerful that he naturally inherited the job of leader of the Psionics Institute, a criminal teachers’ union that taught psionic skills to psionically talented kids. It was a criminal organization because the semi-fascist government of the Third Imperium had made psionics illegal.  He gathered students and taught them to use their powers for good.  The students were all non-player characters to start with, but as new kids from school wanted to play the game too, and player characters were needed, the students of Ged’s psionics dojo became player characters.

Junior Aero, a former student and the adopted son of Ged’s deceased brother Hamfast, grew up and became a player character himself. He taught psionics, being a telepath who could talk to computers and robots that were self-aware.  His wife, Sarah Smith Aero, also became a teacher.  She and Junior had twins, a boy and a girl, both genetically Nebulons, and both destined to be students aboard the Space Bear.

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Of course, you may have noticed a K’ung Fu sort of thing going on in the illustrations I am showing you.  That was because one time as Ged was in dinosaur form and fighting with a ninja swordmaster, he won the fight by eating the ninja.  His shape-changing power then absorbed all the muscle memories and martial arts training of the ninja he ate.  So, his students would not only become psionic masters of mind manipulations, but ninja warriors as well.

 

So, whether they liked it or not, my Traveller players had to learn to teach their skills to others, lead students through complex adventures and problem=solving situations, and basically do themselves a lot of the same things they saw me doing in school all as part of a role-playing game.  You see, that was one of the main dangers of playing role-playing games on Saturdays with that kooky English teacher in South Texas. The danger was, you might actually have to learn something.  Although, most of them probably didn’t realize that that was precisely what they were doing.  They thought we were just playing games, or junk like that.

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