Friday, July 1, 2011

Post Facto

The post is dedicated to everyone in my life who does not teach. Or particularly give two hoots about education. I am sorry. (And you’re a bad person for not caring about the kids. But whatever.)

It is a dangerous, highly flammable affair to ask me about teaching. Or public education. Or underprivileged urban students. Despite what I believe has been a concerted effort, I cannot succinctly answer questions about these topics with fewer than 17 sentences.

Even generally vague, I’m-just-making-conversation questions such as, “Do you like teaching?” or “How do you take your coffee?” do not come without a little philosophizing on the complex condition of the education system and, of course, the fate of the free world.

When I was still in college, one of my older friends who graduated a couple of years before me joined TFA. Let’s call him McGowan. He was the first of my friends to dive into the achievement gap and I admired his chutzpah/general enthusiasm. Come September of his first year, however, I found myself less enthralled by his sudden inability to talk about ANYTHING ELSE but teaching. Suddenly, he “had kids.” 90 of them. Every well-meaning, “How’s-life?” Gchat conversation became a diatribe on Kid A’s latest ridiculousness or Kid B’s silly nilly test answer. After this happened once, twice, thirteen times I simply could not summon the interest.

I imagine this is much like when a new mother is physically unable to talk about anything but her new baby. It simply does not cross her mind that her baby-free friends might not want to hear about little Joey’s latest breastfeeding. Her lack of sleep and total body exhaustion do not allow her to view normal conversation as she once did - through the lens of what actually makes for even mildly interesting banter.

What I did not see clearly about my conversations with McGowan that I can fully appreciate now is that he was not telling me about his kiddos or education in general because he genuinely believed that it would enrich my life, but because he was surviving. As his mind, body and desire to make a positive impact waned, his instincts compelled him to share a piece of what dragged him out of bed to a largely hostile classroom every morning at 5:30am. Actually, I have no idea if that’s what was going on for McGowan. Maybe he just enjoyed torturing his friends. But it’s what was going on for me.

I am fairly confident that 1 out of every 15 stories I tell about a student is genuinely funny or interesting. And I am similarly assured that I make a handful of insightful comments about general education practice or policy. But the rest is just survival chatter. I imagine that this phenomenon is not confined to new teachers and new parents. I have heard similar endless, not-actually-entertaining blahblahblah from med students in their residencies and my Dad when describing the new floor plans for our house in enthralling detail.

The common link is consistent, requisite confidence in the largely unknown. Like pre-doctors, new parents and self-made contractors, I think in telling so many stories about my students and over-sharing my general musings about education, I was (OK…am) waiting with each story for someone to raise the red flag. If after each tale no one calls child protective services or suggests I pack up and go home, I must be doing OK. And sometimes I even make people laugh – which is of course a mixture of pity laughter, uncomfortable laughter, bored laughter and genuine laughter – but I’m not complaining.

So I suppose the take-away point is that I while I did not pick up smoking or nail-biting or child-killing as a result of teacher stress, I became a “work blabber.” And to my dearest friends/family, I will make a concerted effort to do this less. As long as you read my blog. And buy me beer. And monitor me for signs of replacement bad habits.

Back to vacationing in Ireland! (Teacher summer mooching off the ‘rents. Like.)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Pop and Drop

I could pretend to be shocked that kids were insane for the last three weeks of school. I could pretend that when I had to give demerits for climbing on desks, smacking with rulers, asking me about my sex life, etc. I was FLOORED by their misbehavior. But in the dark corner of end-of-school realities, I concede that I what would have been truly shocking would have been anything but this impish behavior. And yes, there will be a whole 'nother post on the great Sex Life Inquisition of 2011. Worry not.

That said, Miz Pace be tired. (I'm clearly telling the truth because I have to be utterly exhausted to think it's OK to talk about myself in the third person).

It's taken me a couple of days to get enough perspective on the final moments (read: weeks) to write about them. When I tried to blog last week, all that went from my brain to the keys was a mantra much like this:

Must not kill the kids
Economy is shitty
Can't afford murder

(My mantras always take the form of haiku).

All of that said, the more liberties that my students feel it is appropriate to take with me, the more fodder for my musings that arises. On more than one occasion, the boldest of my coworkers have gone as far as to accuse me of encouraging havoc (including a black eye of my own) in order to feed my bloggings. I would never. But it's not a terrible byproduct either. So without further ado...

The Sundrop Video.

Several weeks ago, I was just wrapping up my 7th grade math class when one particularly effeminate young chap raised his hand. "Miz Pace," he exclaimed, "YOU LOOK EXACTLY LIKE THAT CHICK IN THE SUNDROP VIDEO." At which point, the class (which had already begun the preemptive pack-up) erupted. "OMG! OMG! OMG! He's RIGHT! You totally make that face! LET'S SEE YOU DROP IT LOWWWW!"

Everything happened so fast. What the hell is Sundrop? Why would I drop it? What? How? Where? HELP! So I did what I do best- kicked everyone out the door on the double. As the sanctuary of my prep period enveloped me like a warm blanket or that first Friday evening beer, I took the plunge. The Sundrop plunge. And this is what I saw:


I was shocked and ashamed that the students saw me in this manner! Kidding. I thought it was hilarious. And I wanted further confirmation. So I did the most professional thing possible - I brought the video to my advisory and asked them if it reminded them of me. Turns out they were one Sundrop-sized step ahead of me. The minute I mentioned the video (in between very serious advisory things of course), the room resounded with, "YEAHH! Totally you, Ms. Pace. Everyone thinks that."

While I know that should be concerned that some girl shaking her behind for a terrible, sugar-loaded soda reminds my students of me, I took it as a compliment. That chick rocks.

It has been a couple of weeks since the Pace-to-Sundrop connection came to the forefront of my YouTubeings, and I still take great giggles in it. It is hard to doubt my commitment to a profession in which a student says good morning to me in the hallway in the form of, "Mmm Mmm Mmm." And then makes a soda opening noise.

I have still yet to taste the drops of sun that must be 99% responsible for the rise in diabetes teenagers. Perhaps I will make a rebuttal video about broccoli or water or condoms or appropriate elevator behavior.

Or perhaps I'll go party a weekend away celebrating my first moments of summer with my fellow post-first-year-teachers (PFYTs) in Brooklyn.

Yes. I think that one.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

End of the year! (Next post to come shortly)

(Drawing by 7th grade boy who can't add, but made this for me in 2.5 minutes)

Saturday, June 4, 2011


When I was in the 10th grade, my history teacher drew a quick sketch of Europe on the board that looked nothing like Europe. It looked like a penis. It is with half-hearted conviction that I assume there MUST exist a group of 16-year-olds in the world who could have skipped over this blatant anatomical reference and continued on their merry Eurolearning way. But these clean minds were not among us. And thus the giggling commenced. Like a stadium slow clap, two or three chuckles turned into seven, which turned into an entire room of moderately stifled (read: obnoxiously blatant) laughter.

Eight years later, this sophomoric display comes up at least once a year at gatherings of my high school friends.

Lull in conversation.

Kevin: "Oh man guys, 'member that time with the board and Ms. H and the penis?"

Everyone else: "Bahahahahahaha."

Cue continuous laughter and repetition of the phrase "good times," which eventually ebbs into sighs and staring off into space yearning for a time when there was food in the fridge and a washer/dryer in the house.

In careful retrospect, it seems that the humor was only half due to the game of Penis Pictionary at play on the whiteboard. The rest of the hilarity was in laughing at (not with) our teacher for her delightfully prude mistake - watching as she tried to figure out if she had something on her face or sweat stains in her armpits or toilet paper on her shoe or a penis on the board. Cruel, I know. But there's no sugarcoating teenage manipulations.

All of this is to suggest that grasping at innuendo in the classroom is no 21st century phenomenon. It's age old, I'm sure. (I'm now picturing a young Ben Franklin snickering at an off-kilter wig or a carelessly exposed ankle). All of that said, there has been no greater catalyst, nay propulsion, of the tendency to find sex in everything than "that's what she said." "She" has had a very very busy last couple of years. And sadly, "she" gets no break in the classroom.

"She" apparently loves hard problems. Long problems. "She" loves to mispronounce the number six. "She" loves 23*3 and 98-29 and (in case you're still not following), 60+9. "She" loves games played with balls (most word problems borrowed from any math sources involve AT LEAST three word problems that involve ball-play). "She" loves when the floor is wet or when the wind is blowing. She loves bananas and coconuts and cucumbers and hot dogs. At this point, I could go on, but I've now shoved your brain into the gutter and I would like to help you retrieve it.

My wonderful roommate is also teacher. And most days when we come home, after we've collapsed on the couch and put on our PJs at 5:30pm, we just trade stories about new words we're not allowed to use. This year, she read the Dickens classic "Hard Times" with her 10th graders. I'm pretty sure she almost decided to teach the book in sign language so that no one ever had to say the title. Her students, bless their dirty dirty minds, were relentless. I think it took an extra week to get through the book just due to all the "she"-based demerits she had to give. Problematic to say the least.

I yearn for the days when all teachers had to fear was an accidental euro-penis drawing or a little spinach in the teeth. I'm considering an "urban dictionary"-like invention called "Teacher Speak" or "All the words to cut out of your vocabulary before you ever step into the Hormone Zone." I feel that I'm just beginning to master the conversion to "challenging" problems instead of "hard" ones, 23*4 instead of *3 and curling, rowing and hockey in word problems instead of anything played with a ball.

As for stifling my own laughter when a student goes to the gutter? Better luck next year, Pace. Also - I am truly sorry if anyone was offended by the lewd references in this post. Blame "her," not me.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Dream Nudging

Last Friday, I gave a quiz on solving linear systems. Bit of a first-year-teacher move (not the Lemov kind...the stupid kind) 'cause they were by no means ready. There were objections, cries of slope-intercept injustice from the crowd, but in true no-excuses fashion I pushed forward. I knew worst case scenario was that all the quizzes accidentally slipped into the recycle bin instead of the gradebook (I've absolutely never done that).

Like all good mistakes, this one eventually came to an end and I was ready to declare an early exit to summer. As students were wrapping up, a young mind sitting near me passed me this note:

So many reactions. First, I smiled. As far as notes go, I've been slipped worse student musings(ex: "Please stop talking, Ms. Pace, I have a headache" and "Dewayne is picking his nose and wiping it on the desk. Make him stop?") So the very fact that this student used the word math felt like a win. Soon though, my surface-level pleasure was superceded by two things. One: I have no masters in math. Nor do I have plans to tell the students that. Two: This particular kiddo has a tendency towards loathing math.

So I did what all quality educators would have done in the situation; I acted like I knew what I was talking about. "Yes," I said to her after class, "it is tough stuff to get a graduate degree in math. It's usually a good first step to major in math in college and see where that leads!" (All of this said with too too much enthusiasm for the end of a Friday, of course). She replied that she was considering it but thought it might be hard, which would (clearly) turn her off to the idea entirely. Then instead of saying, "A math masters would be a big challenge, but you can totally do it if you put your mind to it!" or something of the sort, I said goodbye and politely asked her to scram. Her life musings were beginning to infringe on my Friday happy hour.

The logical next question is, per the quiz/recycling scenario, am I a bad person? Was I supposed to tell her that she can do anything she puts her mind to? Even if she writes "IDK"* on her classworks and frequently complains that math is boring/a force/not as much fun as doodling, etc? Unclear. Most students at my school want to be doctors, lawyers or "people in suits." All very admirable. There are certainly more doctors and lawyers than rappers and ballers - so that's great news. But many young students at my school also have trouble completing their homework every night and taking ownership of the fact that work might be, oh I don't know, anything but a cake-walk.

Do I want to be a dream-crusher? No. Do I want to be a gentle nudger in the direction of a more realistic dream? Maybe. Do I feel the need to shake a student who hasn't done homework for three weeks who says she wants to be a pediatrician and scream something to the effect of, "THEN DO YOUR FLIPPING HOMEWORK. WORK WITH ME AFTER SCHOOL. GO TO COLLEGE. AND BE BETTER AT LIFE!"? Yup.

Clearly I opted for a more stealthy exit from the conversation based largely on the fact that there was an adult soda waiting for me very close by. A chief reason I work in a charter school is that I think it offers the best chance for every one of my little cherubs to find happiness in the college/career/life of their choice. I just also want to lace their Dunkaccinos with a little pinch of "work harder" reality.

So you wanna be a doctor? Passing science might be the place to start.

Much love,
Ms. Pace

*IDK: The blood-curdling acronym for "I don't know" aka the worst answer possible.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


There are three good things about teaching middle school (I'm convinced there are more - I have a team of researchers coming up with some hypotheses. But for now, I got three):

1. No matter how seriously I botch a math lesson, it could never be more traumatic than being a teenager.

2. The students are as clumsy and awkward at age fourteen as I am as an adult - and being in my element brings out the best in me (see picture below).

3. They are young enough to be entirely self-entertained with a pencil and paper (or whiteboard and marker) and old enough to have moved on from perpetual rainbows and squiggles. This is a story of that phenomenon.

The previously imminent post of my planned 4th blog: "The perils of 'hard' classwork and 'long' problems," has been interrupted by the following piece of artwork:

On Monday, my school administered the 8th grade science MCAS. Now, like many of my charter-school-teaching, the-world-is-our-achievement-gap-affected-oyster peers, I am a proponent of state testing. There will always be a need to hold schools accountable for "successfully" conveying appropriate content and right now, the "ABCD + open response" mechanism is the best we got. And so we go forth.

The less-discussed by-product of this accountability mechanism is what happens to the schools when this VIP testing occurs. Typically (and when I say typically, I am speaking from my vast experience of three charter schools), scheduling and orchestrating the testing logistics falls on one person - usually due to terrible karma. I've been there. And I assure you that this person has 45,000 other responsibilities. The result is that the proctors are tired teachers and the rooms are crowded. It was in these conditions (plus the 16th day of rain and Mondayness in the air) that I entered a room of THIRTY SEVEN TEENAGERS to proctor the science MCAS.

The science test is the third of three core subject tests and students were tiring of the "blah blah MCAS IS SO IMPORTANT blah blah" speech. Clearly I was still going strong. So when they came in on Monday, they entered not a classroom, but what they seemed to believe what the bouncy ball pit at Discovery Zone (not sure if that's only a NorCal thing...insert name of indoor jungle gym your parents refused to take you to other than for some other kid's birthday here). And due to a number of non-blog-relevant factors, I woke up on the wrong side of the planet on Monday morning. 10 out of 10 on the cranky scale.

So I came out guns blazing. Faster than Daeshawn could say, "yo that's a force!" he had 2 demerits for "being an idiot." I was in rare form. And they rose to the occasion. No sooner did each student FINALLY have their own personal answer sheet, a testing booklet, a pencil, a highlighter and a ruler that the first kid FINISHED. They were given 1 hour and 40 minutes to take the test. The first kid finished in 15 minutes. Thanks a lot, Massachussetts. Nothing is worse than a room full of post-MCAS 8th graders. Except maybe post-MCAS 7th graders.

In my infinite wisdom (which I hope is entirely evident by now), I decided to allow the students who had turned in their work to read or draw. While playing drill sergeant with the bathroom list and continuing to dole out demerits like candy, I gave the students their brush and canvas (dull #2 pencil and recycled paper) and they went to work. It was only when I dismissed them (after 6,000 seconds of torture) that the boldest among them brought me their masterpieces. I have chosen to display what I believe to the be the most accurate depiction. But there were others. Ms. Pace as Medusa. Ms. Pace as a cross between a pig and a T-rex. I can't help but be entirely pleased.

Still puzzling over the fact that there's nothing about drawing teacher caricatures as a classroom management tool in Teach Like a Champion. C'mon, Lemov, get with the program.

(Another amazing example of student artwork. Students are magnetically drawn to the white board, to tasting the forbidden fruit of EXPO dryerase. This Jersey Shore Picasso occurred when I stepped out of my room to make copies for about 3.5 minutes after school.)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Married until proven single. Pregnant until proven fat - or having eaten a big meal.

The first time a student asked me if I was pregnant, I had been teaching for about 10 days. It was fairly jarring. I mean I have heard of small chidren circa age 4 asking their mothers if the obese woman in supermarket is pregnant - followed by a large "shhhhh-ing" episode and embarrassment all around. But in my case the student was 14 not 4 and I am not obese. I'm not gonna lie, my first thoughts definitely went to how few times I managed to go running since the year had started. But I told said student that they only thing I was pregnant with was knowledge and that he should avoid asking women that question...um...ever. Clearly I waited to cry into my first-year teacher ice cream sundae until later that night.

But this is not an isolated phenonmenon. In two years working in schools, I have been asked if I am pregnant 4 times. Right around that 4th time I decided to do some careful questioning of why, oh why, I am such a baby-carrying mirage. Here's what I learned:

1. The general rate of pregnancy questioning from students to teachers goes up after lunch. No, young teen, I am not pregnant. Just full. And maybe I wouldn't be so full if I didn't have to stuff my face in my 5-minute lunch break because I spent the other 25 minutes helping you learn to divide for the 37th time. (Shockingly, being mistaken for pregnant does not bring out my most patient, nuturing side).

2. I drink a lot of water. And pee a lot. Whether they were just trying to save me from a fat joke or not, 2 out of 4 of the times I was asked this question, it was explained away by referencing the number of times I have had to leave the classroom to go to the bathroom. They're not wrong.

3. "White women like you have skinny bodies and round stomachs." That's a direct quote from an 11th grader. I think what she was trying to explain was a possible difference in anatomy between teenagers and adults, but for some reason she went racial and well, wrong. Not the best theory, but I thought I should include it for the sake thoroughness.

There is a much broader trend represented by this with-child enigma. I am not sure what the equilavent would be for men (perhaps I will extend my careful questioning), but female teachers are presumed to be married and mothers by all students until proven otherwise. Every man I talk to is my husband or at least my boyfriend. Every weekend I go home to my large brood. The idea that I am a single, unbrooded women remains in the entirely inconceivable category. And when it is finally absorbed that I am neither pregnant nor betrothed, this is the result:

Kristal, 8th grader (at the end of class): Ms.Pace, are you going to have kids?

Me: I hope so. I'd really like to have kids someday.

Kristal: So you're going to adopt?


Me: Maybe. But there might still be time for me to find a husband, no?

Kristal: I guess. But you should probably adopt. Just to be safe.

So just as it is jarring for students to imagine their teacher doing something like grocery shopping or sleeping in a bed rather than a coffin or upsidedown from the ceiling, it is also comforting to them to picture me as perpetually middle-aged and entirely settled. And as long as it doesn't mean being pregnant with anything but knowledge, I will indulge them.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


"The face of a child can say it all, especially the mouth part."
— Jack Handey

Just as there are lots of reasons not to start a blog (see only other post I've ever written), there are lots of reasons not to become a teacher. But one of those reasons is not: because it is drab, humorless or in any way part of the mundane. And because I did not create this blog to complain nor to start a revolution amongst those whose plates are too full to be bothered, I will focus on this humor. Although I reserve the right to diverge into the other parts of my general experience/musings that have emerged as a result of my over-exertion as a new mom. I mean new teacher.

Scenario #1: 5/13/11
The hallways outside my classroom are noisy. My 8th grade class awaits me at the door - mostly lined-up, a little askew. I have not yet gone to greet the students yet because I am picking up kleenex, pencils, paper, paper and paper that rain from the sky at the end of every 70-minute teaching block. I see Khadija standing at the front of the line looking disgruntled.

Me: Hey Khadija, why are you so cranky today?
Khadija: Because Ms. Pace, I have CRABS.
Me: (shocked and amused) Well, I guess that would do it to anyone...
Khadija: (unruffled) No I mean I had crabcakes for lunch.
Me: Huh?
Khadija: So I'm CRABBY. Get it?
Me: Of course.

This was a truly exemplary interaction of the sine curve of emotions that comes so naturally in middle-school conversation. While I was primarily entertained, I had no choice but to feel some level of panic and concern - even if it was buried under true enjoyment of said scenario. I mean, crabs? An eighth grader with crabs? An eighth grader yelling about her crabs in the hallway? And eighth grader unruffled by the fact that her crabs make her cranky? All troubling.

But the great part is that no sooner had I reached the moral precipice in which I had to choose between a trip to the nurse and demanding she never enter my class again, that she revealed herself as a confuddled, disgruntled member of the crabby (read: cranky) teenage population.

And no, I did not ever get to find out what was bothering Khadija. But this was the same kiddo that suggested I jump off the Golden Gate Bridge on New Years Day. That's another story for another day.

Inner bloggings

There are lots of reasons not to start a blog:

1. Now not only do your friends have to remember your birthday (thank you, facebook), they have to "follow" you or risk listening to you whine about going unread.

2. You have to return everyone's phone calls. And write thank-you notes. If you have time to write a blog, you have time to call Nana back.

3. Carpal tunnel. Painful. Avoidable, sans blog.

4. You risk uncovering, word by word, the real truth that your life is boring.

5. You risk uncovering, word by word, that your life is entertaining, but that you just cannot write.

6. Despite all your tedious efforts to change "Dan's" name to "Roberto," Dan/Roberto will still find out you wrote about his halitosis for all 3 of your followers to cringe at and Dan/Roberto will never speak to you again. Which in this case, might be a win. But you never know.

7. The self-importance of your own words readily available on the interwebs goes to your head in such a way that if a post were to say get deleted by a clumsy 7th grader who knocked your computer off your desk (5/17/2011), you would feel like some epic piece of literature was lost. Cue writers block and deep depression.

8. Typos. Everyone makes them. Smart people judge you for them. "Whiskey" becomes "wiskey" by one swift miss of the "h" key and the judgement begins. Cue writers block and deep depression.

Lucky for the world of online journalism, I have decided to jump these nearly insurmountable hurdles and go forth. Mostly because the great LEL (initials not changed for the purpose of perpetuating her online celebrity) has recently returned to writing. In addition to chuckling at her entries whilst hard at work during my prep period, I have felt like LEL and I have been hanging out. Like we've spent seriously bonding time together - she writes, I laugh, I talk to the screen to reciprocate the storytelling - it's all very natural. Anyway, I want that. Because maybe, just maybe, someday someone will talk to their computer screen in my honor. A girl can dream.

And the truth of the matter is that even if I fail to capture the constantly available humor and irony in being a mostly awkward, clumsy twenty-something engaged in numerous online-dating mishaps, cooking disasters and blooming gym-instigated friendships, the humor in teaching is undeniable. If nothing else, I could make whole entries of student quotes - not a change a word - and this would be humor enough. I cannot promise I will always keep my creative license holstered, but it's a solid fall-back plan.

Mostly I am starting a blog because I really like the sound my keyboard makes and I love creating hyphenated adjectives. Seriously.

Here goes nothing but time and potentially-hindered typing dexterity...