Sunday, August 31, 2008

(Driving at a) Walking (Pace) from New Orleans*

We are safely ensconced in Alabama. The normally-three-and-a-half-hour drive took ten, but we're here. (And that 2 a.m. gin & tonic was mighty good.)

* Awkwardly sung to the tune of "Walking to New Orleans", Fats Domino.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The (Rather Un)Usual Drill

We'd been planning to visit friends in Alabama for the long weekend anyway. Now—thanks to Gustav—we're more elaborately planning for a somewhat longer weekend in Alabama.* The drill has begun: Move everything inside. Move everything upstairs. Batten down the hatches. Pack up the kids, pets, and valuable documents. Cram them all into the overstuffed clown car. (Park the other car on high ground.) And sometime today/tonight, away we go.

* Personal opinion (not technically a fact): It's going to slowly tick west and New Orleans will get little more than a blustery day. (I'll bet a twenty on it.) But you gotta do what you gotta do.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Three Years

Well, it's three years ago today that Katrina hit. And of course, Gustav is weighing on our mind. The kids are jumpy. A perhaps slightly too poignant anniversary. But we'll manage.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


I thought the second week was supposed to be easier than the first. Not the case. The kids were definitely putting their best foot forward last week. This week they're pushing every limit they can find. (Today I had to physically place myself between two very angry seventh grade girls to stop a fight.) Whew!

Onward and upward.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Day That Was

Just when I think I'm getting the hang of it, along comes a day like today when nothing works quite right, the kids seem riled, and it all just goes kind of off (in an abrasive, noisy, tumultuous way).

Maybe it was them. Maybe it was me. Maybe it was the broken AC. Probably all three.

Thank g00dness tomorrow is a new day. Onward and upward.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Week That Was

Week 1—check. Whew2! (Math joke.) More happened than I'll ever have time to tell, but touch on the high points:
  • Teaching is exhausting.
  • I love it.
  • Middle schoolers are extremely hilarious and extremely insane, with so many different nuances of insane: 5th-grader insane, 6th-grader insane, emotional-7th-grade-girl insane. (I've discovered that I need to keep a box of tissues in my classroom.)
  • Monday and Tuesday were a blur: (Approximately) a bijillion kids came and went from my classroom. I said a bunch of things in some semi-planned order, some of them relating to math.
  • Wednesday, I was just starting to think "I'm getting the hang of this," when my 6th-graders hopped on the Fast Train to Hell in a Handbasket. I managed to divert course, and we pulled up just this side Heck in a Handcart, but I had peered over the Brink and seen the Abyss. I decided I never wanted to go there.
  • Wednesday night I got some notions.
  • Thursday, I started The New Regime. The New Regime consisted of several key changes:
    • I instituted a theater-in-the-round seating arrangement:

      a rectangle of desks, with one missing from the corner, all facing towards my desk and wheelie-chair in the center. This arrangement has several advantages:
      1. The students are arranged linearly, only capable of directly interacting with the student immediately to the left or right, avoiding complex networks of interaction that can quickly grow tangled (as I saw the day before).
      2. I have immediate access to every student, whisking my Chair of Wisdom and Instruction over to their desk to provide guidance or a dash of proximity control.
      3. I can see and everyone, all the time. And they can see me see them.
      4. It can do fun things like People Math (patent pending), treating the students like a human numberline.
      5. On my desk in the center, I have immediate access to my lesson plan, any materials needed, and coffee-sweet-coffee! (I once made a point to the sixth-graders that I could sit there and drink coffee there in front of them but they lost 10 Thunderbucks if they did the same, because I was the Teacher. They vigorously protested (though before this point, they had never objected to my coffee.) "That's not fair, Mr. Olivia!" I pretended to sheepishly acquiesce, "Okay. If it really bothers you...," sadly shuffling my feet to put it away. They called me back. "Naw, Mr. Olive-ear, We just playin' with you. You can have your coffee. You're the teacher." "Ohhh...kay, thank you."
    • I instructed them to place their Timecards (their weekly points and demerits tally they carry with them) on the desk, facing me. This allowed me to instantly deduct points without interrupting my conversation (though usually the threat of deductions sufficed).
    • I created and instructed them in a set of hand signals. They are as follows:
      1. Points warning: I flash a hand (or two, or ten) at them, showing the number of "Thunderbucks" (our mascot is the Thunderbird) I will deduct if they don't quit acting up. (I got the idea from James Brown who, so I was told, would flash a signal at his band members when they frakked up, letting them know how much of their pay he was docking) It's delightfully effective.
      2. Volume control: I raise or lower my hands indicating where I want the class volume to be. If I gesture emphatically down with my palms, it means, Silence.
      3. Answer-in-Unison/Raise-Your-Hand: While asking a question, I either gesture my right hand around in a circle, meaning, "Everybody answer," or I hold it raised, meaning, "This is a raise-your-hand question."
  • I invented a game called Bing! (at five-thirty Thursday morning as I sat on my balcony in the dark drinking cold-coffee-brewed-the-night-before, thinking, "What the hell am I going to do with these kids today?") It's loosely modeled on the drinking game Bizz Buzz (which I recently learned from another teacher friend). Each student was assigned a number, one through twenty-whatever, around the room. In the first round of Bing!, I instructed the students to go around counting off their numbers, exept all the evens had so say "Bing!" instead of their number. "One." "Bing!" "Three." "Bing!" "Five." "Bing...!" Good fun. In subsequent rounds, only odds Bing!-ed then multiples of three, multiples of seven, primes, etc.
  • The students love to be assigned tasks—they fight permission to erase the whiteboard or pick up papers. (I've developed a new technique to avoid arguments over who gets picked, The Chair of Chance. I sit in my wheelie chair, pointing my arm straight out, and spin. When the stops, whoever I'm pointing at, or closest to, is chosen. And if necessary, I can game the system with a subtle toe-drag to deliberately pick who I want while maintaining the appearance of randomness.)
  • I received a couple of lovely and delightful gifts for the classroom. Thank you, kind donors. (You know who you are.)
  • Many middle schoolers lack adequate verbal filters. I've been asked the following questions this week:
    • "You been outside? because you look kind of hot. You sweatin'."
    • "Why you sweat so much?"
    • "Mr. Oli-vee-er, you grease your hair?"
  • And one final note: Did you ever wonder what teachers do when the kids aren't around? Now I know the trade secrets. They do this:

    Taken some point last Sunday, after we'd just moved around several dozen extremely heavy work tables in preparation for the first day. (Favorite detail: the bicycle helmet.)
    Long entry. Tired. Onward and upward.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

La Famille Brusier: Circle Bar, 8-10pm

Just because my head is spinning—and I sometimes forget what day it is—doesn't mean that I can't rock out. (In fact, it might help.) I do know that tonight is Fortnightly Fun, and I plan to have a good time. (I require catharsis. Lots and lots of catharsis.)

See you there. Whooh!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Whew! (Again)

I survived Day 2. There were some undeniable flying-by-the-seat-of-the-pants moments (when my lesson plan that successfully filled eighty minutes for two of my classes only took about half-an-hour for the third class and I suddenly found myself having to wing it for a huge chunk of time), but I managed to maintain a convincing-ish front of acting like I knew what I was doing, and all went reasonably well.

Another notch. A couple hundred-ish more to go, and I will have survived Year 1. Onward and upward.

Monday, August 18, 2008


I survived Day 1. I'd even go so far as to say that it went pretty well—no fights, no catastrophes, no full-blown pandemonium. We even managed to stay (roughly) on task and (sort of) learn something.

Middle schoolers are a trip, like popcorn kernels. They can't sit still. While one end of the room is focused on a question, the other is devolving into a minor riot. While one student is answering a question, a dozen others are bouncing out of their seats, arms straining for the ceiling, overwhelmed with urgency to say their piece. It requires constant vigilance, keeping the class from erupting into giddy thunderous chatter. But I love them. They're so fun and lively and frank and interested. (Though some had warned me against the age, I decided to follow my gut–those are the kids for me–and I think I was right.)

I'm exhausted–I feel like I could sleep for a week. But tomorrow's a new day. Onward and upward.

Welcome to Mr. Olivier's Math Class.

I promised you pictures—you get pictures. (I never break a promise. Unless I do. Because sometimes life is life. O bla di.)

You may recall the "before"—a diamond in the rough. This is the after (completed earlier today):

"Welcome..." (Notice the meticulous punctuation. I don't fool around.)

From the front door.

From the back left (the teacher's-desk-vantage).

From the back right.

It actually looks like a real classroom, huh? I didn't know what the hell I was doing when I started, but I'm pleased with the results. Note the plants, the consistently maintained color schemes, the thematically grouped posters and snappy inspirational sayings. (All that die-cutting and laminating really paid off.)

So it's now the wee hours. The post is posted. The outfit is laid. The hair is did. The shoes are shined. The lunch is packed. The lesson is planned. The alarm is set. I'm feeling pretty good. Wish me luck. Onward and upward.

p.s. Apparently the New York Times magazine has a really good article on the radical transformation of New Orleans schools—"the most ambitious education laboratory of our time". My booty has been so busy getting burned on the Bunsen burners of the aforementioned laboratory, I haven't actually had time to read it yet, but perhaps I'll do so tonight as I drift off to sleep, gaining courage and fortitude for the fraught adventures ahead.

p.p.s. Everywhere I went today, as I purchased little last minute doo-dads, I found myself wandering the aisles with other teacher newbies, as they diligently studied their shopping lists and made earnest phone calls for guidance.

p.p.p.s See that nice looking white board? It's actually just some sort of inexpensive shower board that a fellow teacher bought at Home Depot, cut down to size, and bolted on top of the dismal blackboard underneath. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


I love the laminator. I learned how to use it yesterday and went on an hour-long tear, laminating everything I could get my hands on. I think I might laminate June; it'll make her easier to clean.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Extreme Makeover: Classroom Edition

I've decided that decorating a classroom is just about one of the funnest things in existence. They're paying me for this? My inner interior decorator (say that three times fast—"inner interior decorator, inner intreriro dec...") is on the verge of unbridled giddiness.

And as a teacher, I now have access to all sorts of super cool artsy-craftsy implements. My favorite? The die cutter, which lets me cut out all sorts of crisp nifty letters and other wingdings. Also, the massive paper cutter is pretty frakkin' cool.

Good, good!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Mr. O Chronicles: Miscellaneous Ruminations

A loose assortment of percolating cogitations:
  • One of the things I find very appealing about teaching is that I can weave in any and all of my multivarious, over-plentiful interests: Math? Sure, that's a gimme. Drawing? Absolutely. Spice up the lesson with some visuals. Photography? Certainly. Somehow. Music? Certainly. Somehow. (And I can definitely lean on on my band-fronting showmanship skills. I suspect hamming it up in front of a group of middle-schoolers is a lot like hamming it up in front of a bunch of drunken bar flies. Middle-schoolers—drunken bar flies—emotional, erratic, loud, and easily distractible. Not a problem.)
  • I just started getting my room together. It's a work in progress, to be sure, but the vision is gelling. Green liner paper, little blue wavy trim, yellow headings and sayings. Some plants. Lots of good geeky math-y teacher-y wall-stuff. (I made my first trek to the teacher-store today.) It's going to be sharp! (I'll post a picture when it's done.)
  • I'm going to teach a Lego robotics elective. Dork-a-licious!
  • It seems I'll be teaching 5th and 6th grade math, not 6th and 7th, the consequence of roiling tumbling enrollment numbers. This job is undeniably an exercise in flexibility. Good thing I do all that yoga.
  • As the pieces fall into place, I find myself becoming more confident and excited.
  • I can't wait to meet these kids.

Random sky photo of the day. (Long-time readers may have noted that I'm a sucker for skewed shots of clouds and telephone poles. I dunno. Sue me.)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Jack Car / Carjack

On my lunch break, I went to the bank. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I felt the unfortunate lumpty-lump of a flat. I pulled over to address the problem. Tightening the last bolt on my spare, I heard a violent vroom and screech, looked up, and saw a small white SUV smash up onto the curb of the neutral ground, round the corner, and crash into a van parked directly across the street from me.

The driver door swung open and a teenage kid bolted down the street, around the corner, and out of sight. The back hatch popped open and another kid tried to lunge out, but a pair of arms belonging to an undetermined third occupant clasped firmly to his ankle. As I dialed 911, he bucked and wiggled, lost his shoe, and finally broke free.

He dashed across the street, towards me. A group of construction workers tackled him to the ground. (They started beating on him. Another lady and I hollered at them to stop hitting him and wait for the cops.)

By chance, a police car showed up at that moment. They cuffed the kid. The third occupant, the owner of the car, emerged, with blood streaming down his face. He was an off-duty police officer. They'd carjacked his vehicle.

As I was giving my statement, the cuffed youngster protested, "I'm twelve. I never touched the wheel."

Twelve. The same age as the kids I'll be teaching. It's a reminder that, in this business I'm entering, the stakes are high. If they make a wrong turn, they don't go to a second-tier college. They go to jail or worse.

Quite a lunch.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Fortnightly Fun—Thursday, Circle Bar!

Yeah, I'm not sure either. Mary says she wants our next flyer to feature "The Rock". I say, "okay". That's just how it is.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

And So It Begins

I reported for duty today, the start of our two-week before-the-school-year gearing-up. It was the first time we—the new team—had all come together in one place. They're a great group of people.* And hi-lar-ious. Good times.

* Though there are undeniable exceptions, teachers are, by and large, a damn fine slice of humanity. I'm happy to be in such excellent company.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Ooh, Lord...

I've got my work cut out for me. The Times-Picayune published all of the New Orleans schools' LEAP scores* today, and only nine percent of my school's fourth-graders got "basic" in math,** the second lowest in the city (which is saying something).

I'd say I'm shocked, except I'm not. When I was at John McDonogh High this summer, which has roughly analogous scores, many of the kids were completely derailed by even basic arithmetic which Louise, ten years their junior, has mastered. (In comparison, at Louise's school—the highest-scoring public school in the city—ninety-eight percent of the fourth-graders scored "basic" or above.)

We have a new administration and a largely new faculty, all fully committed to turning around a failing situation, but we've got some serious teaching to do. Onward and upward.

* Note: This is the associated article. The full listing was included in the print edition, but I can't find it anywhere on the (nightmarishly convoluted) website. But if you actually want the nitty-gritty, you can find it here.

** LEAP is Louisiana's implementation of the No Child Left Behind high-stakes testing mandate. Kids are tested at fourth and eighth grades and again prior to graduation, and they can't proceed without scoring at least "basic" in English or Math and "approaching basic" in the other subject.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Quizzical Friday: Ne'er Swear*

Pop Quiz: What sort of goofy substitute curses did your teachers try to sell you on?

I had a teacher who tried to convince us, instead of swearing, to use:
"crystal buckets"
She claimed that swear words are so satisfying because of the particular phonetic components they contain. And "crystal buckets" supposedly contains all of these particularly gratifying combinations. So... crystal buckets! All of the catharsis and none of the cursin'!

It never worked for me. (I'm a big fan of good old-fashioned honest swearing—mumbled discretely under one's breath so the teacher can't hear, of course.)

* I tried to think of some nifty coinism to label this category of faux-curse. I don't think this is it. ( I was going for a sort of near-beer/ne'er-swear rhyming thing, but...) Any suggestions?