Making Straw Into Gold #1

Classes-preps-student load

When I first started teaching, almost 30 years ago, I taught 4 class periods out of 6 in the school day, and two different subjects (what teachers call “preps” i.e. different subjects you need to “prepare” for.) I had a total of about 15-25 students per class, about 60-100 essays to grade for each assignment. This was a slightly lighter load for English teachers than the norm, bc we had so much grading to do. Other subject teachers at the time taught 5 out of 6. Clubs, sports and extra-curriculars, even teacher meetings, were held before or after the school day ended.

This was pretty much the same level of work load / schedule that I had while growing up. As a high school student in the late 1970’s, little had changed a decade later.

For a long time, until just a few years ago, high schools where I taught had moved to a “double block” schedule : what is called “A” days and “B” days. High schools had four 90 minute long classes, called A1, A2,A3,A4 on one day, and four different classes B1,B2,B3,B4 on the next day. This A/B schedule repeated throughout the year, with students taking 8 classes. Many teachers, especially those who taught arts, science, sports, ag, tech, theater - anything with a lab or where you had to get out equipment and do something, then put it all back, loved the long blocks, bc once you got used to the extra time, you could really dig in and get a lot accomplished.  Less time was wasted on setting up and taking down. Math and foreign language teachers weren’t quite as enthusiastic about the block schedule, bc students forgot a great deal of material from having class only every other day. Athletics coaches loved this schedule, and filled their 1st and 4th block every day with their sports teams, with spill-over before and after school. Teachers, required by law to have at least one conference period a day, loved having the extra time to do paperwork, lesson planning, grading, call parents, etc. During this period I had about 25-30 students per class, graded 150-180 essays. In the early years, English teachers had only 5 out of the 8 blocks to teach, and a study hall the remaining block, so they could grade papers. That was phased out after a while though.

Then someone, somewhere, probably one of those “efficiency experts” who specialize in these sorts of things, took a look at the A/B long block school schedule, and decided that teachers had too much free time on their hands during the school day. So we went to a “modified block”, a sort of pea shell con game, now with 5 periods in a school day: 1st and 5th were an hour long each, and 2nd, 3rd, and 4th were the usual 90 minutes.  The school day was expanded 30 minutes and lunch was cut to 20 minutes to accommodate this (with no resulting increase in wages). Administrators tried to sell this idea with the explanation that it was really the same as before, it’s just that we now saw some of our students every day, and some of our students every other day. No one believed them, however, because the simple fact is we had gone from teaching 3 out 4 periods a day to teaching 4 out of 5. This new schedule created the added challenge of now your 1st and 5th periods had 5 teaching hours a week, and the 3rd, 4th, and 5th periods had either 3 hours or 4 and a half. It was hard to keep classes in sync with each other.  Teachers started cramming and skipping the material taught in the less frequent long blocks, and slowing down and fluffing with movies, make-up days, homework days, and other things to stretch the curriculum in the more frequent short blocks.  Staff meetings were moved from before and after school into the school day to accommodate the extended school hours, so teachers lost even more planning time due to meetings and conferences.  If your conference period fell on a short block, you were really screwed.  Talk is we are going to teaching 7 out of 8 next year, with a planning period only every other day.

Class size expanded as well, often reaching 35-40 students all sitting squashed together in classrooms designed to hold 20-25. No room in the aisles for teachers to walk around and monitor students; some teachers put desks in pairs or quads to fit them all in, regardless of whether all the kids could see the board. The year I had 38 students, I just divided them up into groups and took half of them into the hallway to work. I could not fit them all in my classroom.  I graded 188 papers at a time that year.

Did I mention that during these increases in workload, I taught 4 different subjects? The other teachers in my department taught 1 or 2. No one else taught 3 or 4. Just me. Apparently I am invaluable that way.

Here's the thing : Do you want teachers that have time to pay attention to your child? Do you want classrooms that are not over-crowded? All this increase in "productivity" exhausts not only teachers, but students as well. If a teacher does not have time to go to the restroom or eat lunch, her health will suffer. If a teacher is tired, worn out, and cranky from too many students, too many meetings, too much grading in too little time, her patience with her students will suffer. If a teacher has to teach too much material to too many students in less and less time - she will simply teach less.


Summer Rituals : Frosty

One of the many summer rituals GFT partakes annually is a visit to Frosty , which GFT and co invariably and mistakenly refer to as "Mr Frosty". A relic of time gone by, Frosty is a 50's style drive up burger joint on Ft Worth Drive, just a few blocks south of I-35 in Denton, Tx. Frosty is not, however, a modern restaurant that imitates a 50's style burger joint. No my friends, Frosty has been here serving local appetites SINCE the 1950's. In an era when there is a fast food franchise on every corner, Frosty is a refreshing treat : hand made, slow cooked food made to order. Serves the usual burgers, fries, onion rings, malts, chili dogs. It is especially famous for its home-made root beer. Frosty has a local following of "old farts", college kids, and nostalgia buffs who come for the tasty food and linger due to the old-timey juke box full of everything from Elvis to Patsy Cline to Van Halen and the Rolling Stones.
I have been bringing my children here ever since we moved to Denton. Part of my motivation is to expose them to the types of things I love - quirky, authentic, original, the kind of quality that emphasizes substance over style and celebrates a unique little spot because it actually provides great food at a good price . I also hope to imprint them with a love of the south, Texeana, road food, diners, holes-in the wall joints along the back roads, in the perhaps foolish desire that no matter how far from home they wander, they will always return, at least for a visit.

Mmm ! Mmm ! Good !

Dog Days of Summer

The phrase "Dog Days of Summer" actually refers to the time of year when the astrological constellation Sirius shows up in the Northern Hemisphere (and does not mean it's when it's too hot outside for dogs to do anything other than lay around and pant, as one friend assured me.) Summer is not only a time to observe this constellation in the sky, but to spend more quality time bonding with one's pets.
Ever wonder what your dogs do while you are at work all day ? Since I have summers off, I 've gotten the unique chance to find out for myself. If I sit really still ( easy to do while blogging, watching tv, sorting laundry or reading) the dogs around my home eventually forget I am here, and revert to their normal every day behaviors.

Mostly, they lay around a lot. It's clear from their behaviors that Phoebe ( the poodle) and Ralph (the boxer) don't really have any serious complaints about their lives. Meals are regular; the air conditioning drones on, sheltering them from the 100+ degree heat outside. The monotony of their lives are broken up by periodic trips through the doggie door into the back yard, to make their existential yowlps at the universe or a passing cat on the back fence. Once in awhile, a car passes by the front of the house, on the street outside, and then they both race to the front door to show me how well they are taking care of things, and keeping us all safe by barking and attacking the curtains. That 'll show 'em ! This routine has scared the UPS man, who now routinely just tosses packages onto the lawn and drives off. Many people have told me they think Ralph is a pit bull. Rest assured, he is not.

Sure, their lolling about has pretty much trashed the sofas in the den. The kids spilling juice and gunk all over them doesn't help, either. I figure I'll replace them when the human children go off to college. At that point I'll have to figure out some way to deter the canine offspring from getting on the new ones. (Previous efforts with electronic "scat" mats, electronic fences, baby gates, etc, have not worked. They only work if other members of the family cooperate and use them.....)

Sometimes, when boredom sets in, the pets are a source of entertainment. Evenings are often spent trying to watch tv while the dogs decide to race excitedly in circles, barking and tossing toys in the air. Surprisingly, Phoebe seems to exert some sort of control over Ralph, in spite of their size differential. She keeps him in line, makes him do what she wants, by nipping his ears. Here, hubster "sings" ( by howling) with the dogs, who love this so much, they woo-woo along with him.


High School Reunion

old buddies Nathan and Chipper reconnect : Nathan came from Los Angeles and Chipper, all the way from France

I went to my 30th high school reunion this past weekend. I wasn't sure at all that I wanted to go; for weeks beforehand I spent countless hours angsting with various friends and my therapist about the potential emotional pitfalls of this event. My high school had over 3000 students in just 3 grades.....844 in my graduating class alone. After I graduated, I left home, moved out -moved away from my hometown vowing never to return. Have never been to a previous reunion. Would anyone I know be there? Would people be friendly? What would I have to say to people I haven't seen or spoken to in three decades? Would people still foolishly expect me to look as I did 30 years ago ?
Went to my 25th college reunion last fall, which turned out to be semi-hideous, in spite of the fact that I graduated from a small, fairly intimate private university. Hubster's guy friends were all fairly fun; men are so simple. They just want to get drunk and tell all their old war stories one more time. Women are so much more complex. I keep up with a few old girlfriends, have lunch once in awhile, see a movie. Those friendships are current and never a problem. Many of my old gfs, however, once intelligent competitive students, are now mostly trophy wives; all they have left to compete over are material possessions. Boring !
For this upcoming high school reunion, one of my old gfs was guilt-trip dragging me into going with her for solidarity's sake. She said her therapist told her to get out of her rut and try new social situations.
"So let me get this straight," I said. "I am going to an event I don't particularly want to go to, because of what YOUR therapist said?"
"Yes," she answered.
"And how is high school a NEW social situation, exactly?"
"I need to see my peeps,"she replied.
"Who do you keep up with? Who are your 'peeps'?" I said.
"Well.... there's you, " she said.
And there you have it.
I kept thinking that surely something would come up, at the last minute, and I could bag it. Nothing appeared on the horizon as a handy excuse - of course, I could have just lied and made something up. Several gfs did. My personal weakness is that I can't ever really sell it, ( the lie I mean) can't really convince even myself, unless it's based on something real. My shrink tried to convince me to "be the change you want to see in the world" and all that psycho-babble. Her idea of fun : sit back and watch the event. After talking to various people who were also trying to decide whether or not to go, I came to the realization that everyone feels insecure about these events. We just handle them in different ways. Some people will spend the year prior investing huge amounts of time, exercise, plastic surgery, fashion make-overs into getting ready for the big day. Maybe I'm just too lazy, maybe I'm just too poor, but I couldn't go this route for whatever reason. Love me or hate me, but take me as I am. Lot's of self talk in the wee hours : "You have two degrees from a major university. You're a well respected professional who is kind to others, and a good friend. People like you. Just be yourself." Yeah, right.
Had a pre-event luncheon with one of my gfs to plan a strategy for this weekend. We both realized we each owned about 15 min of mindless chit-chat; after that, the joke was over. We made a pact to split when that moment arrived. In spite of the fact that I am fairly introverted, I decided to summon whatever social skills I could, and be the one to organize some activities in conjunction with this reunion that would bring the people I know and care about together. Try to get control of the situation and make it what I wanted it to be. (All while my therapist is trying to get me to recognize that I can't control/change/shape everything the way I want, and that sometimes I need to just let go and be more zen.) Where would we be without therapy these days?

My core group of best friends shared a calm dinner before festivities began : Dave, Judy, Caroline, me, hubster

In the end, it turned out to be not nearly as bad a reunion weekend as I worried it would be. There was the main event, a Saturday evening semi-formal cocktail party in a rented ballroom downtown, as well as several smaller meetings and luncheons of sub-groups of friends at other times and venues. The Sat night event was the least interesting activity of the weekend, however, and I was glad it was not the only one I went to. It was way too crowded, the a/c experienced system failure ( disaster in this city where weekend weather was topping 104 each day) and the music was so loud that no one could talk at all. I got to say " Hi ! How are you ?" to the ten people I knew there and that was about it. Far more fun was a Friday night intimate dinner with friends and a casual outdoor mixer, where I visited with an old high school bf and several core gfs. I hadn't seen or spoken to this boy in over 30 years, but found him the same thoughtful quiet smart person I had been drawn to, all those years ago. The Saturday night main event was full of ken and barbie doll look-a-likes; there's a lot of pressure growing up in a town where many graduates go on to become Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, all of whom are still active in the "Mrs Texas" pageant scene. Hubster, a Yankee, was surprised how many tall, thin, tanned blonds there are in my old high school graduating class.
Jane and Lauren, whom I've known since early childhood
By far the most interesting folk, the ones I felt the deepest interest in chatting with, however briefly, were girls from my childhood years, earlier than high school days. It was fun to run into members of my elementary school, or old girl scout troop.

The jr high gang. front : Stretch, Amy, me, Spud. back : Tiny Tim, Amazing Amoeba, Lauren, and Randy
The highlight of the entire weekend, however, was a luncheon with friends from my junior high days. Some of us are a bit hard to find these days, but many made the effort to show up. We were all a nerdy smart bunch, many years ago, and bonded together partly out of safety and partly because we all found each other so funny. This group of people has the power to make me laugh so hard, my eyes tear up and I start laughing, crying, and blowing snot. Old jokes from back in the day, new jokes about politics, our jobs, our lives, nicknames for various people we know, satires of movies or books - doesn't matter what the subject is. We looked at old yearbooks with notes scrawled in them from each other and shared memories of favorite teachers. Made promises not to let another 30 years go by without seeing each other.
Overall, it was an OK weekend. I really enjoyed the small group events and survived the major cattle call event. Came away with a new found appreciation for my own little hubster, who, like Goldilocks felt upon finding the baby bear's bed, seems just about right to me. Not too oily and used-car salesman-like, or mullet-headed redneck-y, or Eric Stratton, Rush Chairman from Animal House "DamnGladToMeetYou"ish, as many of the other boys - now men- at my high school reunion seemed. People were kinda freaked out that I not only understand what it is that he does, but that I can explain it to you in terms you can understand. But hey, that's my life.
I'm not strong on conclusions, but I found some quotes that help sum up my thoughts on this topic:
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man. Heraclitus
Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have retained of them. Marcel Proust
Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom. Marcel Proust
A friend who is far away is sometimes much nearer than one who is at hand. Is not the mountain far more awe-inspiring and more clearly visible to one passing through the valley than to those who inhabit the mountain? Kahlil Gibran
When it was all over, I showed my mom pix of people from the big weekend. "How are her parents? Do they still live in the old neighborhood? Is her dad still alive ? How many kids does everyone have ? " My mother was full of questions. Questions which I realized I forgot to ask. It was so much more fun, just retelling all our old jokes from back in the day. I should have written all that stuff out.