Saturday, March 26, 2011

It's a Materials World, and I Am a Materials Girl

Sorry--I know that by now you'd think I could talk about the sexy life I had as an educator in America's public schools, rather than rattling ON and ON about how to help teachers survive and thrive. Let's face it, I was like the Elizabeth Taylor of Education! I know you want juice. Still, allow me one last little item of import.

This is for the teacher who didn’t get any helpful training to prepare for the Teaching Job. During the course of this blog, I will use Language Arts and Theater Production to help model what I mean when I talk about teaching. (Sounds like Raymond Carver in an academic mode.) Below, I want to show you a way of starting out or starting over, and this is something I would hand out if I were teaching a class called Instructional Delivery II.

NOTE: I didn’t invent anything I’m writing here. This was handed down over all my many years of teaching from loads of wonderful, experienced teachers. I am only sharing.

MATERIALS: Setting Up Your First Theater Production (or any other) Class, because it's all about tools. And if you think about it, how many meals haven't you made, or broken items haven't you mended, because you lacked the proper spices/tape/pans/thread/needles/fresh parsley?

Let’s just get to it, shall we? But first...


1. You have a classroom with your name on it. However, you may “float,” as I did for all but one of my first 6 years of teaching, going from room to room for each class you teach. This is standard procedure. I carried my entire life in a giant L.L. Bean tote bag; some people push a cart. If you float, stake out file drawers wherever possible. The plus side of having no room of your own is you do not have to decorate a room. The down side is you don’t get to decorate a room. And you have to lug all your files all over the place. And no one can find you during the day. On the other hand, no one can find you!

2. You have some sort of common office or planning area for your department. There really wasn’t a good space for teachers in my first school. I would try to use the library, but it was often crowded with classes. Go figure. If you have a common office, you can file all your stuff there. You may need to buy crates if there aren’t enough cabinets available, and find a generous teacher who will let you store the crates in his or her classroom until you get your own. If ever.

3. You are teaching something in Language Arts in addition to Theater Production, say one theater class and four English classes, or two and three. (For all but one year of my 15 years, I had three preps, including English 9, 10, 11, or 12, Humanities 10, Theater Production, and Speech and Drama I and II. It’s inhuman, but I did it. I say “inhuman” because there are teachers with one “prep,” as we call it, and we are all paid the same. (Hold onto that when I someday get to the discussion of so-called “merit pay.”) Okay, fine. I really wanted to teach theater. But let it be said: One prep means one curriculum notebook, one set of state standards, ONE set of lessons plans, one copy of a test, one times two semester exams, one final exam to write. Three preps means three sets of curriculum notebooks, three sets of lesson plans, three sets of state Standards of Learning to meet, three times two semester exams, and three final exams to write, three, three, three. Not that I’m counting.)

4. You will have around 150 students, as I used to have. (NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) says 125 should be the max in high school Language Arts, or 25 per class. I had a friend in a western state who had 220 kids one year, and half of them didn’t speak English. At all. In high school. She’s been teaching overseas ever since, because if she has to teach English from scratch, she’d like to see the world to do it. Teacher friends in another state I won’t name but the initials are “New Jersey” have complained when they’ve had more than 95 kids, and I not-so-quietly hated them even as I knew the kids were getting exactly what was right. Grading 300–450 papers and projects a week is WAY different from grading, say 190–285, to say nothing of the attendance and other record-keeping. (One thought about so-called “merit pay,” while I’m here: I really do think, in a high school “all things being equal” situation, English teachers should be paid the most, just in terms of the grading, followed by laboratory science teachers. Either that or have lower numbers. I said this to one of my principals once, when we were complaining of overcrowding, and he said, “Well, you chose to teach English.” I also “chose” to assign all that writing. What a dumbass I was. He sure told me! (Hey, Principal, I know a suit and a CEO you could have a drink with at a bar I go to.)

5. You are brand new to teaching. For those of you who are veteran or recovering teachers, this is a blog to dip into. For those of you with fewer than 5 years of experience, or in need of a refill, or feeling less than successful though you still want to keep at it, or new to teaching a theater class, or want to start up a theater class at your school, this post is still for you. Read on!

6. You may or may not have a laptop computer available to you. You probably will have a computer in your classroom, and one at home; I am also assuming your students will not have a computer in the classroom, nor any at home, either (many of my kids were too poor for that and still would be), and will have to rely on the use of old-fashioned “paper” or the library’s computer lab, if one exists.


            You’ve signed the contract, bought that car, found an apartment, opened a checking account, pressed your school clothes (all five outfits!), and are ready for the big adventure.

Discoveries You Will Have, Have Had (but please don’t get discouraged)

            I repeat this several times in this blog: Teachers are often terrible teachers of other teachers. They may be okay with their own students but they don’t recognize that even adults need mentoring when they are new. (Actually, in any business my family and friends work in, the sad truth is that few in management know how to teach their own new hires.) This may be the whole “sink or swim” mentality that has sent people who were tossed into lakes at aged three, flying into analysts’ offices at age thirty. But whatever the reason, don’t expect anyone to help you. Teachers just usually don’t do that. And principals are notorious for not. And...

1.     No one will give you any supplies. Make friends with office supply stores and their sales fliers. (Actually, in one department I was in, the chair was usually able to get us tape and self-stick notes and a few red pens each year, but our budgets just didn’t stretch to the big stuff, or to refills.)

2.     Until you have a mortgage, you will never spend enough money to be able to itemize your tax returns, so you can forget about writing off the $500 you will spend out of pocket each year as a “business expense.” (Candidate Al Gore, that commie, wanted to give all teachers an automatic tax credit for this very reality.) Know this. Decide to continue anyway.

SO you must buy the following supplies (well, not must, obviously; this is a suggestion for a way to begin).

            1. You, young teacher, are of a computer generation, where you manage and store all your stuff on a laptop, without messy paper. I hear you. The organizational strategy I am outlining is a dinosaur, at first glance, but really it’s the same thing you’d do on a laptop. My way involves actual “notebooks” and “supplies,” so obviously “adjust” the suggestions and involve as little paper as you please. Computer costs: $2,000, probably. I'm sorry, too.

            2. I, old teacher: The Paper Way

                        a. Four (4) three-ringed binders, if you are on a 9-weeks schedule; six (6) if you are on a 6-weeks schedule, PER SUBJECT YOU ARE TEACHING. So if you are teaching, say, English 9 and Theater Production on a 9-weeks schedule, you will need (do the math), eight notebooks; and twelve if you are on a 6-weeks schedule (and goddess bless you, because I hated 6-weeks reporting periods--I felt all I ever did was give out interims and report cards). I prefer 1 1/2” or 1” soft plastic notebooks (cheap, and flexible for tote bags), but other people like the white 3” ones with the clear-pocket fronts and sides for easy and creative labeling. Go crazy.

                        b. Tab divider sheets, including a dozen or so with pockets

                        c. Self-stick notes, several shades and sizes

                        d. Clear plastic sleeves, about 200...well, 400, if you like them (I                                                didn’t, but I said that: they were plastic, made the binders heavy to carry, and I toted from room to room for years, as I said, and it was also quicker for me to just snap a page in and out for photocopying than to slide the pages in and out from the sleeves. Personal preference.)

                        e. Ink for your printer

                        f. You do have a printer, right?

Ha, ha! (I actually started out--this would be 1987--by using the IBM Selectric typewriter at the Attendance Secretary’s desk after school hours, because I couldn’t afford to buy a typewriter. (I so wish I were kidding.) The shift key on the right never worked, and after three years of typing all my tests on that machine, to this day I forget there is a right shift key. Isn’t that interesting?)

                        g. Loads of white printer paper (plus at least two other colors, for yourself, just to mix it up) and a dozen of whatever kind of pad or notebook you like to write on. I’m a yellow legal pad gal, myself. HINT: USE THE BACKS of discarded, printed pages: You can always print on the blank side of once-used stock, and people forget that. Just load it correctly.

                        h. File folders, box of 100; another 200 if you are expecting the kids to keep portfolios of their writing or projects (NOTE: I used to buy supplies for lots of kids. All teachers do. I also used to check with the custodians who collected items left in lockers each year, just to have a stash. A lot of kids just cannot afford notebooks and paper and pens. There are discreet ways of finding out who needs what. I tell them, “I will do this ONCE. Glad to. You lose it, you are on your own.”)

                        i. Paper folders with pockets, five colors (one color for each class, assuming you have 5 classes), two of each color (plastic if you wish, but I find those things just slip and slide all over the place) for use in collecting work--more on that later
                        j. Highlight markers in those same five colors, plus several good black permanent markers in medium and wide thicknesses

                        k. Self-stick notes in those same five colors (do you sense a color-coding theme yet?)

                        l. Clear packing tape or duct tape, a good brand, in order to, among other things, hang posters and reinforce the binding edges of those cheap paper folders

                        m. Pens and pencils you like to use, including red and purple and green for different kinds of grading--red for final essays and tests; purple for projects; green for first drafts, for example. Kids read into color. You can use colors for grading if you insist that kids write their work in blue or black. (On writing by hand vs. typing: Anyone might have typed something. Think about that for a minute. Part of your job is to determine literacy.)

                        n. Plastic shoe boxes, three or four, which you will fill with #2 pencils, crayons, markers, colored pencils, 12” rulers, measuring tapes, and other indispensible items for Theater Production that you will, once again, purchase yourself.

                        o. Powerful triple-hole punch--really, don’t be cheap on this one
                        p. Staplers (2, and staples), tape dispensers (2, and refills), scissors (3 pairs: classroom, office, and one extra for when a colleague steals your office pair; unlike your colleagues, kids are really oddly respectful of your scissors).

                        q. File labels, on many of which you will write your name, first of all, and tape, madly tape, this name to each and every one of your big money items; and label every single, blessed notebook for what it is.
                        r. packages of red Twizzlers, gold stars, Murray beads, or other "rewards" (okay, George? xo)

I actually think I got into teaching for the school supplies. I always liked those school boxes. They were like cigar boxes with a school bus on them. They just made me feel so hopeful, and they still do. Who’s still with me?


            First we are going to organize your curriculum notebooks-to-be. Label each notebook on the side and front, by subject, for each of the nine or six weeks terms. (I actually had a blue/black/purple/red sort of system for each quarter, but this is an eccentricity. The rest is science. Yes it is. And I am blinding you with it.) Fill each notebook with 30–50 plastic sleeves (if you like those, which I didn’t), and place tab divisions every 6 –10 or so pages, and include at least three tab sheets with pockets for odd items, such as a ruler or fabric swatches (this is Theater Production). You will be filling these notebooks all year the first year you teach; rearranging, tossing, and adding to it in subsequent years. Buying more sleeves, triple-hole punching separate sheets, or finding a new system all your own. These notebooks will demonstrate a huge investment of your time, creativity, and learning process. They are living things. They are not monuments to what you will always do. Enjoy them.

            Now you are going to label those 2 sets of 5 kinds of colored notebooks. For example, First Period (green), Third Period (blue), Fourth Period (yellow), Fifth Period (purple), Sixth Period (red). One notebook you will use for GRADED PAPERS to return; the other for PAPERS TO BE GRADED.

Example: [First Period (green) “To Grade”] [First Period (also green) “To Return”]
The great thing about this system: If you float, you can make a habit of looking in the TO RETURN folder before each class, you can return work to kids; have a repository for kids who were absent the last class and place extra handouts, with absentee names written on them, for work they missed.

If you have a classroom, you can mount these folders to you classroom wall and make kids responsible for looking in them for missed work.

Okay. Now then. Ahem. Okay...OMG.

            Just to feel a little better, sit down at the computer and write an introductory letter to each class you will teach. Outline your expectations, including the list of materials you expect students to have each day, how you conduct class, your policy on hall passes, your grading system, and basic units of study for the year. Writing this will help you realize all of the things you desperately need to find out from your department chairman, colleagues, and yourself. Everyone starts somewhere. This is where you start. And you really will feel better, because all that abstract fear and dread now has a name: Woefully Unprepared. You are about to change that feeling.

            I have samples letters and course overviews for my Theater Production class included to use as models. Delicious models. 

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