what i do on my snow days - a response to gene marks

This morning I was going about my normal Sunday morning routine: drinking coffee, watching Saved by the Bell reruns (yep, you read that right, MeTV Boston every Sunday) and scrolling Facebook when I came across this article about teachers and snow days.  I am sure I reacted like every other teacher in America - I could barely get through the article without seeing red.  Seriously, I saw smoke coming out of my ears.  It wasn't just the words, but the pompous, patronizing tone that made me so angry.  But then I realized that Gene Marks, just like many other Americans who go on these angry tirades, is just jealous.

Take, for example, the article's beginning.

I am pretty confident that the general impression of the public is NOT that teachers are taking time off work to campaign and organize and protest and complain as Gene Marks implies here.  The fact that teachers are lucky enough to have an organized union to fight for our interests might be a rarity, but it is not unlike any other special interest group campaigning for their own interests.  The difference is that most corporate employees don't have this benefit, and Gene Marks has decided to apply the standard 6 year-old's but-Moooooom-why-does-he-get-it-and-I-don't whine to this widely known teacher perk.

Let's move on.

The first half of this paragraph is a journalist gem.  ALL of the snow was cleared away by 10am?  From everywhere?  Parking lots and sidewalks in addition to the roads?  I am interested to know what kind of research went into this.  I know up here in Boston we have had so much snow that roofs are caving in.  Are you suggesting we go to work in these buildings before the snow has been cleared off?  I also know that teachers are encouraged to stay home so that custodians and town workers can efficiently clear the parking lots without having to maneuver around cars.  In some cases, that takes until 9pm on said snow day.

So what did I do on my snow days?  Did I celebrate?  Absolutely not.  Snow days are like sick days for teachers.  They just create more work and anxiety.  Yes, I slept in.  Perk of the job.  Nope, didn't read a book or watch The Wendy Williams Show.  But I did watch Let's Make a Deal!  Then I watched The Price is Right.  I sat on the couch, right next to my husband (who is not a teacher but was also working from home), both in our sweats, drinking coffee, watching two of the greatest morning television gameshows of all time.  It was glorious.

And guess what?  I get to do this during my spring break, Christmas break, and during the summers too.  But you forgot February break.  Gasp!

This paragraph did not make me angry.  It made me laugh.  Seriously?  Of all the things that you could suggest to be the "root of the problem" you picked snow days?   This doesn't even take into account many states in the country that don't ever see snow.  I grew up in a suburb of Houston, Texas, and one day we had a flurry.  The entire school went out for an extra recess to celebrate.  Many of the kids and teachers had never seen snow before.  And what about in California or Florida or Arizona or any other southern state?  Are you suggesting that the public views teachers differently there?  No.  This is not the root of the problem.  You are right that we are smart and excellent with kids and we deal with lots of problems.  That's why we are teachers.  Why am I not working harder?  For the same reason you are not.  There is always a "harder," always a "better."  But I work as hard as I can, and I'm assuming you do too.

"What's the point of going to school when none of the kids will be there?" said no teacher ever.  Gene Marks, have you ever even spoken to a teacher before?  No, seriously.  At the previous school where I worked, the district installed a swipe card system because teachers insisted on access to the school when kids were not there.

Which brings me to your other question.  Why aren't I coming to work like the rest of you?   Let's answer this by addressing your next point in the article: the amazingly brilliant suggestions of what I could be doing on my "days off."

I did this...at home...right after The Price is Right.

I also did this...at home.  You see, there is this amazing new invention called a "weather forecast."  It tells you the weather ahead of time so that teachers can prepare for snow days and bring their work home.

This is merely the same as your first bullet.  You just wrote it differently so it looked like you had a new point.

This clearly shows just how much you do not understand a teacher's job.  The fact that my classroom is already clean because my students and I did it together the previous afternoon is beside the point.  Cleaning my classroom does not make for a better learning environment just like cleaning your child's room would not make you a better parent.  A good environment for learning is one that values risk-taking, trust, high expectations, and mutual respect.

This is the most ridiculous point of all.  It actually disappoints me to see an adult suggesting this kind of hypocrisy.  Gene Marks, when have you ever come into your work on your day off to maintain, clean, or repair your building, let alone during a blizzard and without payment?  I honestly don't know anyone who ever has (please comment below if you have, you deserve a medal!).  Like most of the corporate world, our district has hired custodians to do this.  And I'm pretty sure they do not want me attempting to repair anything on my own.  Believe me.  I know.  I've been told on more than one occasion.  Trash removal?  Already done, by said custodians.  Library reorganization?  Do you know what my principal would say to me if I decided to do this?  I'd probably be fired!  And why would the library need reorganizing?  I'm pretty confident my librarian, who is an expert in her field, knows what she is doing thankyouverymuch.  If it needed reorganizing, she already did it in the summer.  Maybe not during a blizzard, but definitely without pay.  Hanging artwork?  Again, we have an expert who already does this regularly.  Computer upgrades?  Come on, now you're just being ridiculous.   

The rest of these are all the same, just different suggestions for coming into work without pay.  There is really no point in arguing about all of the extra hours teachers put in beyond the school day.  We all already know that both teachers and non-teachers work more than 40 hours per week to complete what needs to be done because there are never enough hours in the day.  But suggesting that teachers go into work on their days off is like suggesting that the local grocery cashier come in on his day off and work without pay.  It's just not going to happen, hence the overwhelming success of Office Space.   Companies know that if they want their employees to work extra days, they need to compensate them for it.  The same applies for teachers.  

My favorite of these points is the one about back-up coaches and trainers.  It reminds me of presidential campaigns where each candidate tries to win over the public with outlandish reform policies that are not research-backed and have no way of becoming a reality.

Gene Marks, you say that snow days are "a symbolic example of our perception of teachers."  Yes, that is true.  You are looking at all the perks of our job - snow days, vacations, summers off - and letting your jealousy for these perks define your perception.  All jobs have perks: higher salaries, great benefits, paid summer outings, unlimited sick days.  I once worked a temp job in the summer where the company paid for an icecream truck to deliver frozen treats every Monday afternoon.  At another summer job, I was tasked to arrange for the employees to spend the week in Kiawah Island, SC complete with complimentary spa treatments and golf outings.  But you don't see me writing articles suggesting that they need to work harder.  In fact, most of the employees not only worked as hard as they could, but they were quite happy with their jobs.  Research shows that companies who take care of their employees historically have lower turnover rates.  

So you can envy me for my perks.  But don't hate.  It's unbecoming.

happy 90th day

It boggles my mind how fast this year has gone by.  I mean, I know today was the 90th day, but I just can't believe it.  We are already halfway done.  We are at the top of the hill.  All we have to do is descend.  And hop over those huge boulders called PARCC and MCAS on the way, but seriously.  Quit raining on my parade over here!

When it comes to classroom supplies, I am not a huge spender.  I know that lots of teachers spend hundreds of dollars every year, but I just cannot seem to wrap my head around it.  However, I will admit that I can't help myself when I am near a dollar store.  Something takes over and I get this overwhelming sense of MUST BUY HOLIDAY PENCILS (insert zombie voice).  Last week they had both Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day.  Check and check.

Of course, now that I have holiday pencils, I have to find an excuse to give them out.  I like to give out pencils on a fairly regular basis in case kids are running low and can't replace them.  Also, the whole eraser issue.  So I decided to celebrate the 90th day this year.  Nothing big.  Some cheers.  A little yes I'll miss you next year too's, and of course, lots of pencils.  And homework passes.  Oh how they were excited about the free homework passes.

Tell me.  Have you reached the 90th school day yet?  Did you celebrate?

slim down saturday (on sunday...again)

Welp.  This week began well.  I played soccer on Sunday night and did Insanity on Tuesday.  Then I woke up on Wednesday morning with a cold that has lasted through today.  Needless to say, I have not worked out since Tuesday.  

But two days is better than no days right?!  

I still have a lingering cough but will be going to my soccer game tonight anyway because I refuse to miss!  Nick plays on the team with me and it's the highlight of our weekend.  Plus it means I'll be starting the new week off with one workout under my belt.  

So, I am linking up with Teaching with a Touch of Pixie Dust for another edition of Slim Down Saturday.  Here is this week's update:

Last week, I mentioned that I am not weighing myself.  The main reason for this is because my goals are not to lose weight but to gain muscle.  However, I do want to lose some body fat in order for my muscle tone to show.  Gina suggested I keep track of one measurement, and so I have included my waist measurement.  I would say I have about 1/2" to 1" to go!

Wishing everyone luck in their goals this week!

a routine for solving word problems + a freebie!

Admit it.  As a child you hated word problems.  You read them and your first thought was, "Wait.  WHAT????"  Then you would read it again and your next thought was, "Well who in their right mind would buy 6,000 cartons of cantaloupes anyway?"  I know these thoughts are going through my students' heads all the time.  all. the. time.  I can see the panic in their eyes as they read the problem and realize they have no idea what the problem is about let alone how to solve it.  

I have been working on a routine that is easy for my 5th graders to follow every time they come across a word problem.  It has just four steps.

Step 1: Understand the Problem

Sounds easier said than done right?  The first thing I tell my students to do is just read the problem.  Don't worry about how to solve it.  Just read it.  Think about what the problem is about.  Is it about Sandy and pizza?  Kids and baseball teams?  We're talking big picture main idea here.

Now tell them to read the problem again.  This time, make a list of any important information that's given from the problem.  Don't rewrite the entire problem.  Use short phrases or even symbols (the kids should naturally come up with their own shortcuts, like writing "J" instead of "Julie").  Some kids get a twisted satisfaction out of crossing out any unimportant language in the problem.  Go ahead and let em.

You know they fully understand the problem when they can use the important information to summarize it back to you.

Step 2: Make a Plan

Sometimes, you read a problem and know exactly what strategy you want to use.  Other times, it's not so simple.  This is the step that requires the most teacher support.  Kids will need access to a bank of possible strategies to use that they can refer to.  They will also need to become familiar with each strategy.  This can be done a couple different ways.  

One option is to launch your word problem workshop by solving problems using each of the different strategies.  These can be put together as a packet of exemplars that can be referred to later.  The advantage to this option is that your students will fully understand each strategy and how to use it efficiently.  The disadvantage is that it can decrease flexibility in your students.  If their current word problem doesn't match one of the exemplars, your students can quickly become pigeonholed.

Another option is to present a variety of word problems and give your students the freedom to choose which strategy they want to use each time.  Since there are no exemplars to compare to, the kids won't become stuck.  But they will also be less likely to try out a strategy until they see it in action and are given the opportunity to practice.  And it takes longer for them to independently make a plan and pick out an appropriate strategy.  Despite the disadvantages, this is the option I use in my classroom. Eventually, the consistency pays off in the form of the students becoming more flexible mathematical thinkers.

The main thing to keep in mind is that the plan doesn't have to be perfect.  If your kids are stuck and can't think of a strategy, the best thing to do it to pick one and try it.  If it doesn't work, they will gain more information that they can use to reevaluate the problem and pick a new strategy.

Step 3: Carry out the Plan

This step usually goes one of two ways: either it's smooth sailing and the kid solves the problem on the first try, or you take one look at their paper and can see exactly how frustrating the previous night was.  You may even see dried tears on the page.  These are my favorite kinds of papers.  They show such perseverance!  Yesterday, I received a worksheet and the entire front was covered in equations and division and some other stuff that I could not follow.  Underneath was more work that had been erased.  Several times.  Over this work, in large angry letters was written WRONG!  WRONG!  WRONG!  WRONG!  Then on the back was a neat chart where she organized a guess and check strategy, eventually taking her to the correct answer.  Today, she had the honor of presenting her worksheet to the class.  Not the student who got the answer right on the first try.  The one who failed a thousand times and stuck with it.

Step 4: Answer the Question

This is the most frustrating part for me as a teacher.  I see all this amazing perseverance, and then they don't answer the question!  AHHHHHH!  It's a careless error and so hard to correct.  The best advice I can give to fix this is to be consistent about making them stick to the routine.  At the end of every problem, they must write their answer in a complete sentence.  You'll see on the handout I provided (yep, there's a freebie linked!), that part of Step 2: Make a Plan is for the kids to restate the question by writing "I need to find out...." (ex. if the question is "How many pieces of pizza do Tommy and Kim eat altogether?" the kids should write "I need to find out how many pieces of pizza Tommy and Kim eat altogether.")   After solving the problem, they can use this statement to remind them of the question they need to answer.  But I cannot emphasize enough to be firm on making them write it in a sentence.  The extra effort it takes for them to write the sentence as opposed to simply circling their answer 1) helps them to focus on the question and 2) solidifies this step into memory.

Did someone say freebie?  Click here for a link to download my handout on the 4 Steps to Solving Word Problems and a graphic organizer template to help your students get into the routine.  But you might want to hurry.  It won't be free forever.

And please let me know how you are using these handouts in your classroom!

slim down saturday (on sunday)

Yesterday morning, Nick woke me up saying, "Beth come out here!  I'm watching a Body Beast infomercial."  Now, I am not a morning person, but I jumped right out of bed.  For some reason I have a strange affinity for weight loss infomercials.  Something about them just seems so exciting and full of hope.

Normally, I don't make New Year's Resolutions, but this year I decided to make some fitness goals.  Two weeks ago, I began working out 4-5  days per week.  My workouts consist of running with my little sister, playing indoor soccer with Nick, and doing Insanity.  (Man, those videos are intense!)  I don't own a scale, so instead I took before pictures and measurements so that I can track my progress.

As someone that goes in and out of working out regularly (who doesn't?), I am constantly trying to find new ways to motivate myself.  I have found that instagram is an awesome resource for this.  Kayla_itsines and emilyskyefit post motivating pictures, quotes, and sell their own workout programs, while fitgirlsguide hosts 28-day jumpstarts (super cheap for the ebook), and a bunch of the girls in the challenge will post their before/after photos.

As another motivator, I have linked up with Teaching with a Touch of Pixie Dust for this week's Slim Down Saturday.  Here is my progress so far:

No matter what your resolution, keep it up.  If you fail one week (as we all will) don't give up!  Remember, success requires hard work and consistency.  Good luck and let me know how you are staying motivated with your resolutions.

good advice

I really don't even know what to say about this photo.  I have had it in my album for a couple months now, and every time I look at it I laugh.  Every time.  My favorite part is that he began his advice on the bottom line and then erased it.  Because you know.  Otherwise it might seem like maybe he would need that many lines.

a few of my favorite things

My little sister and I have been running together twice a week since August.  Being 12, I figured she would be too cool for me.  Luckily she loves the time we spend together just as much as I do.  Last Saturday, we ran the Jolly Jaunt, a 5k in Boston that raises money for the Special Olympics.  It's my favorite race because the runners dress up in holiday gear and wear jingle bells on their sneakers.  The course runs down Commonwealth Avenue and back, which makes for great views of all the outfits of the runners ahead and behind you (not to mention all the beautiful brownstones).

Since this was the first year my sister ran the Jolly Jaunt, naturally I had to make her a tutu to match mine.  I found a super easy, (almost) no sew tutorial here and a measurement guide here.  I say almost no sew because you need to sew the elastic together.  Have an irrational fear of needles and thread you say?  Use a hot glue gun.  Happy no sewing!