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Enough Already!

See ya, tomorrow, all. Ugh.

 

A Thousand Words: Project 180, Day 86

Here are some of the projects that the kids produced. I was so impressed with the creativity and variety of their projects. There was also a movie and puppet show, which I unfortunately could not share. I have two more classes who will share their projects today. I am beyond excited to share in more moments with my kiddos. I am so proud of what they accomplished despite the snow-day setbacks. I am also proud of their commitment to something for which there was no grade. It seems choice can indeed foster commitment.

On a separate note, with nearly half of the parent letters returned, all have chosen 180. No school tomorrow for the kids. I’ll be back with you on Monday.

Happy Thursday, all.

Guilty: Project 180, Day 79

Some day it’ll happen. And they’ll find me. Broken. Bent beyond recognition. A fatality by flexibility. I’ll have bent too far.

One lives. One does. One thinks. One wonders. One worries. I am one. And so, I worry. I worry about my flaws. I worry about my flaws as a father, a husband, a friend, a son, a person, and far too often I worry about my flaws as a teacher. And while my list beneath that particular hat is long, presently I ponder one practice, one habit I cannot break, cannot escape. Flexibility. Am I too easy? Am I a pushover? Am I too forgiving? Am I making a difference? Am I ruining lives?

I don’t think that it’s that I really believe those things, but I find them in my head, and so, I have to accept that on some level they are real, for they are present. And, as they are present, they make me especially vulnerable to doubt. And, then when the doubt creeps in from the outside, well…one worries.

Gifted A’s aside, I forever find myself being overly flexible, manifesting itself in my giving more time, more chances, more options, more of anything at my disposal. And though by now I have come to generally accept that after 20 years that’s just who I am as a teacher, it does not mean that I am free from the worry that I bend too much. Still, when I worry further and reach deeper into the core recesses of my belief set, I find that perhaps when one endeavors to create a realm of possibility for his students, flexibility becomes a necessary by-product. If I am going to sell “possible,” then I have to produce possible. I have to be flexible. So I am.

To that point, the two-day in-class final became, for many, a four-day in-class final, and for some that still has not been enough. So, what does Captain Flexibility do? He lets those not done, take it home. Bye-bye in-class final. Hello take-home final. Am I crazy? Maybe. But if the kids are motivated to finish, to do their best, and I stand in the way, am I still peddling possibility? I have to give them more time. After all, in the 180 classroom, it’s not about the grade. There is no reason to cheat. It’s about learning. And if learning requires time, a commodity I possess, then I will freely distribute it. We know that kids have to be motivated. It’s 60% of the 180 Formula.  My 60% is my being dedicated. To my students. My students need time. I have the flexibility to give them more time. I will give it. It’s who I am.

I also can and will give options. Had two more boys “own” that they had not read Night, wanting to know if they, too, could then possibly use one of the movies for their essay. Of course they can. No, I am not happy that they failed to read the book, but if there is an option to salvage the situation and provide a learning opportunity, then I will grant it. They–though unable to find it for the book, have found some motivation to do, to learn. And when learning is still possible, I will be flexible.

In the end, when they do find me broken from bending too far, I may well do some time in teacher purgatory, guilty of my sins, but I’ll take my chances. No choice, really. It’s who I am.

Happy Thursday, all.

 

In a Strange Land: Project 180, Day 61

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I have to remember. I have to remember that this change is as big for them as it is for me. I have to remember that they, too, are going through the process of change. I have to remember.

But I forget. I forget when I am faced with resistance without. I forget when I am confronted by the chaos within. I forget.

And so, I vow to work harder to not forget to remember. It’s not only about me. It’s not only about me. It’s not only about me…

Of late, I have found myself frustrated by some kids’ lack of commitment to their learning. And though I try to put on a brave face and not take it personally, I do. I do. And while that is awfully human of me, it is also awfully selfish of me. And then, just like that, it becomes about me again. And it’s not. It’s about us. All of us.

Tuesday, I wrote about the essence of the shared commitment, introducing the triad: dedicated teachers, motivated students, and involved parents. We are all on this journey together, a journey not easy, a journey still in descent as we claw our way through the unfamiliar territory, the “foreign element” that is 180.

We are all of us strangers in a strange land. And as such, we need each other more than ever if we are to make our transformational ascent to a new status quo. For me, it’s about experimenting and discovering the right formula for 180. For kids, it’s about finding comfort and confidence behind the wheel of their own learning. For parents, it’s about shrugging off the school-perpetuated myth that they no longer need to be involved in their children’s education. It may very well be that we need you now more than ever. We have to dispel the notion that parents need to fade away as their kids progress through the system. Just as teachers need to be dedicated and students need to be motivated Pre-K – 12, parents need to be involved for the whole trip, too–a shared commitment from start to finish. 60 + 60 + 60 = 180.

Happy Thursday, all. A little less chicken-wingy this morning. Ready to feel the wind beneath my cape again.

Not Enough: Project 180, Day 59

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Though I have not fully processed all that I learned from the recent midterm conferences, I have reached a humbling conclusion. My dedication is not enough. Despite my commitment to lead and support my kids along their journey, in the end, if that’s all it is, then it is simply not enough. If kids aren’t motivated and if parents aren’t involved, then all that I do is not enough. Oh, it alone might nudge kids along from time to time, but a push here and a pull there won’t get kids to the top of this year’s summit. A sad, simple fact. But I deign to dwell in apathy because in the struggle, I found success. But I did not do it alone.

Recently, as I shared, I had a tough conference–maybe the toughest of my career. And while it certainly threw me for a loop that has not quite come to rest, yesterday the swirl slowed, and I saw the unfortunate situation in a new light. Unexpectedly, I had a newly motivated student on my hands, one who was diving into the work with a diligence yet seen. On top of that, this student turned in an exemplary essay that I will seek to use as a model in the future.

Of course, I don’t really know what the new motivation means. I certainly don’t see it as affirmation or acceptance of my approach, but the motivation is undoubtedly there. And that is all that matters. Teachers have to be dedicated. Students have to be motivated. Parents have to be involved. And that is what happened. No, I did not enjoy my at-odds moments with this particular parent, and it will bother me for some time, but in the end, if it has motivated her child, then that is what really matters. I want to believe that even if the divide between our perspectives is miles wide, ultimately we want the same thing: success for the child.

Another conference. A different situation. Another success. Two days before conferences, Sally (name changed) came to me after the bell. She came to apologize. Caught off guard, I continued to listen as she shared with me that she had taken to heart my recent comments about the necessity of practice for growth, that if they weren’t doing, they weren’t growing. She had spoken to her parents about it, and they instructed her to come and talk to me. She had also been instructed to let me know that they would be at conferences. Touched by both her courage and honesty, I let her know how much I appreciated her coming to me and that I looked forward to meeting with her parents.

“We are here to be cheerleaders. We aren’t here to punish Sally. We are here to encourage and help.” I have had this on replay in my head ever since. Sally’s dad, looking to Sally to mom to me, shared this during the conference, and it lifted my spirit. Of course, that spirit would soon be crushed. But that’s another story. Anyway, Sally up to the point of the conference, had done little to no work.  But with her new cheer squad in tow, she made a public pronouncement that evening, rededicating herself to her learning. And for the few days before Thanksgiving break, she, too, was a newly motivated student.

But yesterday, I feared it only a mirage as she came to me and told me that she could not print her essay. This, folks, is not a new one for English teachers. To be sure, it’s the equivalent of “my dog ate my homework” of old. Seeking to assure her that it would be fine to get it to me the next day, I tried to hide my doubt and disappointment, but she, rejecting any potentially patronizing reassurance, insisted that it was in her Google Docs. I told her that she could email it to me then. And before I could walk back to my desk, it was in my inbox. Abashed by my doubt and disappointment, I praised her for getting it in. No mirage. Made my day. I emailed her parents last night with “Sally Rocks!” in the subject line.

Another success. But only because of a shared commitment. I cannot do it alone. Sally cannot do it alone. Parents cannot do it alone. We all play equal parts. And that is humbling. But it is also liberating. I can only control my part of the triad. I cannot control a student’s motivation. I cannot control a parent’s involvement. But I can control my dedication. And so, I will. It’s all I can do–even if it’s not enough.

Happy Tuesday, all. Sorry about the no-post yesterday. Won’t burden you with the details. Just glad to be back at it.

Hello, South Carolina

Morning, all. Not necessarily a 180 post, but I wanted to share an email that I received last night from a student at the University of South Carolina. I also included my response.


Hello, Mr. Syrie,
My name is Gabby and I’m a student at the University of South Carolina. I’m writing a Researched Argument Essay sourcing your blog post “Is Our Grading System Fair?” which was also published on Edutopia. One requirement is that I acquire some sort of primary research, and I’d like to interview you about your article, and your current feelings on the No Zero Policy.
If you could take a few minutes to answer some of my questions, I would appreciate it greatly!
– What are some affects on past students have you seen as a result of a harsher grading system that gives grades of zero?
– Do you see decreased levels of nervousness/anxiety since you implemented the No Zero Policy?
– Overall, do you believe that a standard grading system including grades of 0 can lead to certain problems that lead to the development of mental health issues for students?
I know those are pretty long and specific, but again I appreciate it very much.
Thanks! I enjoyed your article and hope to use this primary research in my paper.
Here is my response.
Hi, Gabby. I am honored that you have taken an interest in my article. I am happy that you have found some value in it. Thank you for the great questions. I will do my best to answer them. Of course, what I offer is only anecdotal, but as one who has spent 20+ years in the classroom, I believe my experience lends some credibility to my beliefs. With that in mind, I will offer what I have.
What are some affects on past students have you seen as a result of a harsher grading system that gives grades of zero?

In the past, before I abandoned zeros, I utilized a system where missing assignments and the resulting zeros adversely–sometimes devastatingly–affected a student’s chances for success in my classroom. Here are two examples. The situations are real. The names are fictional.

  • Rachel may have been the best writer I ever had in my class. And though she earned A’s on all her essays, she did not complete her notebook. The missing parts earned zeros, keeping her from an A in the class. Granted she did not fail, but the system failed her. She demonstrated to me, time after time, her proficiency as a writer, consistently exceeding grade-level standards, but her decision to not do something that she found to be of little help with her development was punished by the system. Thereby, grades were no longer about communicating achievement, they were punishment. She knew it. She was a smart kid. She, as one might expect, found little logic to the approach, and became increasingly frustrated and annoyed, adversely impacting her view of education’s purpose.
  • Tim got off to a slow start, handing in few assignments. Consequently, the zeros piled up in the grade book, and by midterm, he found himself in a sizable hole. Such a hole, that he did not perceive that he had any hope in passing the class, so he shut down. He did nothing the rest of the quarter.
Do you see decreased levels of nervousness/anxiety since you implemented the No Zero Policy?
Absolutely. First, students no longer stress as much over a missing assignment. Most of our kids have not only busy academic schedules but also busy extracurricular schedules, not to mention home/life schedules, too. As such, there are times when other aspects of their lives impact their ability to get all of our work done. With the added assurance, that it will not dip below the 50% mark, kids are less anxious when it happens. Second, with the “zero hole” in check, there is always hope for the Tim’s of the world. Tim, in the no-zero system, is ever only 10 percent away from passing. The light at the end of the tunnel is always in sight. Kids who see/find hope in an experience are less-likely to shut down. Hopeless situations are unhealthy for any of us, but they seem especially unhealthy for kids, which leads us to your next question.
Overall, do you believe that a standard grading system including grades of 0 can lead to certain problems that lead to the development of mental health issues for students?
I think that, in terms of mental health, hope and possibility are key ingredients to the teenage psyche. In the absence of hope and possibility, anxious/nervous kids become disengaged/resentful kids. And when kids reach this point, they are no longer in a state that allows for optimal learning–or maybe any learning by that point. Traditional grading practices, which often employ punitive measures such as the zero, create hopeless, impossible situations that frequently lead to harsh consequences for kids, adversely affecting students’ perceptions of self-efficacy. No-zeros is not a free ride. Kids are not “stealing” A’s. They still have to work to achieve. They still face a challenge–a fair challenge. And that is key, the challenge is fair and reasonable, not impossible. Self-efficacy happens when kids feel they can produce an effect. When that is compromised, as it too often is with traditional grading, it can be devastating to the mental health of our students, getting in the way of the real purpose of education: learning. 
I hope this helps, Gabby. Again, I am certainly no psychologist, but I have spent a lot of time with kids, and while my evidence may lack scientific authority, I believe it does carry some weight anecdotally. Please let me know if I can be of further help. Good luck with your paper. Take care.
Monte Syrie

When Our Past Catches Up With Us: Project 180, Special Post

Hi, all. Got this in a message today. Totally caught me off guard and rocked my world. Mrs. Thompson was my inspiration to become an English teacher. I was so moved by her granddaughter’s thoughtful message. Touched and humbled. Wanted to share.

Hi Monte,

We’ve never met but you were a student if my grandmother’s at Cheney High School, Mrs. T (Milli Thompson). As you may have heard, she passed away a little over a month ago. Our family had her memorial this weekend and among the things of hers that I inherited was her graduation hood. In the box with her hood was a card that you wrote to her at the time of her retirement. She’s kept it over these 25+ years and I know she so, so valued the impact she had on her students, and you must have been one of them. I’ll send you a picture of the sweet message you wrote for her.  But I just wanted to reach out and tell you that it means a lot to our family to know that she touched so many students. I see that you’re at Cheney High now. It makes me happy knowing her legacy might live on in people like you.

Tori Rae

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Charged: Project 180, Day 26

I’ve said it before. I will no doubt say it again. And I will say it now. Nothing charges my batteries like helping kids learn. Perhaps sensing my weariness yesterday, the kids leaned on me, asking me for help, inviting me to do what I do. Of course, one might think they’d do the opposite and let me lean on them, but they needed me. No time to slack. They needed me. And yesterday, turns out, it’s all I needed, too. Recharge complete. Piper paid.

One thing that I love about 180 is that it creates a more genuine opportunity to break down barriers between students and teachers. With grades gone and the pretense of points passed, I have discovered that my engagement with the kids has taken on an authentic, let’s-learn feel. It’s not about the grade; it’s about the learning. And, as I have intimated before, it feels like trust. And, man, that feels good. Good.

Yesterday, Jane (name changed) offered her trust. In an ongoing effort to grasp firmly clauses and phrases by year’s end, we are currently working with compound sentences, setting the stage for complex sentences, venturing into the vast wilderness of dependent clauses.  Generally speaking, our work with compounds is review with our focus mostly on correctly joining independent clauses with the three types of “glue.” Anyway, not long into the trek sixth period, Jane’s hand appeared, and I made my way to her group. Expecting her to ask me for help with compounds, she revealed a different need. This was the start of our conversation.

Jane: (quiet voice) Sy, no one ever really taught me subjects and predicates.

Me: Okay. No biggie. We’ll do it now. We’ll catch you up. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

And though we were being quiet, Jane sits with five other kids, and they could not help but hear, and so I noticed as we went on, most were tuned in, likely needing a “refresher,” too.  So, then, I proceeded, reminding her that even if she didn’t fully know the ins and outs of subs and preds, she had her ears, and she could trust them to help her with finding and writing independent clauses. That said, I gave her some operational tests for finding simple subjects and simple predicates, pointing to the relationship between the subject and verb. Then, we did some practice together, and that was that.

Of course, I am not so naive or arrogant to believe that she is now in full, firm grasp of subs and preds simply because I gave her some help, but she is farther along than she was, and it all happened because she took the first–and maybe most important–step in learning by acknowledging and then communicating that she needed help. And, as we know, that is not easy for anyone. I have found in my second year of teaching honors kids that it is especially tough for them. They have been conditioned to hide weakness, and asking for help is a risk, so by and large they don’t, and assumptions are made by teachers about these kids, and as a result, I think they are under-served, even neglected.

I hope to change that with P-180. Yes, I have made some changes in how I teach, but the biggest change that I am looking for, and the biggest change that will make any real difference, is the change in the kids. I want to believe that Jane’s asking me for help yesterday was born out of a genuine desire to learn, a desire to build and better herself. Please know that I am not suggesting that this doesn’t happen in other classes. I am simply suggesting that this is the at the core of the 180 classroom, an opportunity for kids to discover the value of their commitment to their own learning.

And so, I am fully charged, ready to run to keep up with my kids as they venture out, discovering their worlds, discovering themselves.

Happy Thursday, all.

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That’s not in the Curriculum: Project 180, Day 16

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So, yesterday, as a follow up to our “help” discussion, I wrote the above words on the board, imploring my kids to make my day by asking me for help and giving me feedback. And, for fun, when they did, I would dramatically place my hand on my heart, breathe in deeply, and exhale, “I am full, my heart is full. You need me.”  And for the rest of the morning, the theatrics continued as we wandered along the path, doing the day’s work. My heart full. My smile wide. My eyes bright. A day made brilliant by the shining suns in my midst. But my day did not last, and just like that my heart emptied, my smile fell down, and my eyes dulled, for sometimes an ask for help is more than we can bear, more than should be, more than we are. Here’s the story.

She was standing just inside my door. It was the beginning of the passing period between 3rd and 4th. A former student, now a junior, her eyes were downcast, and immediately I was transported back to her freshmen year when life dealt her some tougher cards, a hand that she did not play well, a hand which ultimately ended in her expulsion. And it was with an “oh-what-now-kiddo” worry that I approached her as I sought her downcast eyes, making contact as I asked what was up. This was our conversation.

Her: Sy, you know that store-sign thingy that’s down in the office, the one that says you have food?

Me: Yeah. (thinking crap, I don’t have any food at the moment)

Her: Well (her eyes finding the floor again), I don’t get free-and-reduced anymore, and mom doesn’t get paid until Friday, and we’re outta food, and…

Me: I have an apple I can part with, but it’s down in the staff room, and I can probably round up some other stuff, too…

Her: It’s just for today. Anything would be great.

Me: Come back after 4th, kiddo, and I will have something for you.

Her: Thanks, Sy.

What’s disturbing is that I’m not all that relieved that it was hunger instead of trouble that brought her to my door. Of course I am thankful that she is not in trouble, but I am unsettled, deeply unsettled, that she–and she is not alone–has to come and ask for food. FOR FOOD. I wonder if it feels like begging. I wonder about what this must do to her young mind, her spirit. Of course, I can never know. But, I should never have to know. Kids shouldn’t be hungry ever. EVER. And at school, their only hunger should be for knowledge. But that is simply, in too many situations, not the reality. We do have hungry kids, kids who struggle through their days with worries bigger than homework, fears larger than a mark on a report card. In our country.

I so want to get political right now. I so want to point to the trivial matters upon which we heap ideological hate and waste when we have hungry kids. I wonder how many kids we could feed on the money from failed presidential campaigns this election year? But I’ll keep my wondering to myself, else I poke the political bear.  I’ll move on to bigger, more noble things. I’ll move on to teachers.

My story is neither unique nor special. Happens all the time. And teachers live it every day. We help kids in ways that transcend test scores, in ways that exceed the scope of our curricula, in ways that we did not prepare for in college. It’s what we do. We have hearts bigger than our bank accounts. We have dreams bigger than our realities. We do it because we know no other way. I am proud to work with so many under-appreciated heroes, heroes that helped me help a young lady in need yesterday.

After settling my seniors 4th period, I scrambled from room-to-room seeking extra food to put together a lunch. And graciously, selflessly, Mr. Martin, Ms. Tamura, and Ms. Alderete contributed to the cause, and we put together a pretty decent lunch, which I put in a lunch sack along with the note below. Lucky to work, to serve with so many great people.

And the story ends. Nothing overly dramatic or climactic. She came to get her lunch, thanked me humbly, and went on her way. I don’t know if she ate last night. I don’t know if she will ask for help today. I don’t know if she will stay out of trouble and stay in school all year. I don’t know who the next kid will be. But I do know there will be a next kid. And I do know that we’ll help. And I do know that teaching is more than curriculum. So much more.

Happy Thursday, all.

 

On the Way: Project 180 Delay

Lost my entire post this morning. Have to rewrite and post later. UGHH.

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