Friday, December 22, 2006

Half way, Quarter way

I'm half way
through my first year of teaching. I was thinking about institute the other day, and it still seems so fresh in my mind those days of planning my first lessons, trying to teach reading and writing (shoot me in the face), not sleeping, and generally not knowing what was going on. Now I look around, and so much has changed...or not ;^) Still have no idea what's going on!

I'm a quarter way
through my TFA obligation. It is weird to think about this endeavor as a period of life with a 'definite' end. When I accepted my TFA placement I intended to work at least 3 years, under the reasoning that if I really believe in making a change in the lives of students, I will do at least 2 years at an 'experienced' level. Maybe I can nitpick and say that I should be making an impact this year, or that 'experienced' doesn't come until 5 years (I have heard this from a couple of veteran teachers), but I still look at 3 as a good amount of time. Still, the 2 year obligation makes it seem like going longer is...odd? I don't know.

are going to be the greatest thing ever. I am so excited for my first *free* summer in...5 years? Yes. My last free summer was the summer of '02. So there were 4 full years of busyness between my times of blissful freedom :^)
Since the prospect of a free summer is *so* amazing, I have been thinking long and hard about what is truly worthy of my time. Here is my list of possibilities currently:
  • is a mission organization that has mission trips for all lengths of times to all different regions. I would definitely go to central or south america, but do not know what I would do.
  • Take Spanish classes. This is a variation of the first idea, except I would go to central/south america and enroll in some Spanish classes and otherwise be a bum/partier/find people to help/maybe teach. I looked at buenos aires, and my buddy Max is planning a trip of this sort so I could get on board with that.
  • Be a park ranger. Just the thought of being in the backcountry in Rainier National Park gives me chills. AND I would get *paid* for it! This would be spectacular.
  • Stay in Houston. This is a more recent option, and one I had not considered until yesterday when I was recruited to me a mentor teacher to a summer school/training program. Ha! ME a mentor teacher! The concept is laughable. BUT the program is for underprivileged students, so the purpose is good. Right now I can tell you that I think I will need a break and should not teach over the summer.
  • Get a job. I could try and find an internship doing something. I imagine that some engineering company would not mind having paying a 'real' engineer an interns wages for a summer, but who knows. The only reason to contemplate this would be to get me into some other part of the country with $. For instance if I wanted to be in Seattle for the summer...
  • Backpack. I could thru hike the Pacific coast trail. Well, not all of it.
Currently, the Spanish classes are tops on my list. I have actually done research into that (a huge step for me). Do you have experience with any of these options? Suggestion? Please let me know.

But now I finish packing my bags. I fly to the great state of Michigan at 1:20pm this afternoon.

If it does not snow I am going to be pissed.

-mr. Blairwheezie

Friday, December 01, 2006

Dance Supervisor

Today Alief Middle School had a dance.

Yes. That said that a "Middle School had a dance".

Close your eyes and think back to the earliest dance you went to. Middle school preferably.

Okay. Done? Good.

I remember the 1 middle school dance I went to. It was a Halloween dance. I don't remember there being any dancing. ANY. In fact, there were booths with games and food that were the center of attention, not the dancing.

Actually, no, that's not true. There was some moshing. A little. But then we got in trouble and went back to standing on the sides of the gym.

Now, forget all of that, and any experience you had at a middle school dance, because there are a couple of facts that you ought to know about Houston schools.
  1. My students all know every single dance to every single song that is played on The Box (radio station. Can't stop Won't Stop!)
  2. My students watch more MTV and BET than they sleep. I am sure of it.
  3. My students cannot do anything with fractions, but they can rap every lyric from Wanna be a Balla by Lil Troy.
  4. My students live in Houston, TX.
So, given these facts, it is not really *that* surprising that instead of being a dance like anything from the suburbs, it was, well, horrifying and impressive.

Impressive - man, my students can dance. Like really dance. Break dance even. In fact, they break dance in my room. But only when I let them. Ok. Sometimes when I don't let them.

Horrifying - 6th graders are around 11 years old. There was more attempted dry humping by ELEVEN YEAR OLDS this evening then any person should ever see. Then should be legal. THEY ARE ELEVEN!! I can't handle this.

Supposedly, I am a role model or something, so I break up anything that gets to overt, but really, gahhh! I can't even think about it anymore.

There's really only one thing to do.

I think I need to go to a club and freak some hoes.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Rested and eager ambivalence

I couldn't sleep last night.

Every time I take a break from teaching for longer than the customary 2 day weekend, I get nervous. I don't know why. Maybe I subconsciously think that I will forget what I am doing. Maybe all my kids will come back from break and realize that I don't know what I am doing. Maybe my kids will decide I am boring (too late! Ha!). I don't know.

But, I couldn't sleep last night. So I drugged myself. This is pretty much my standard recourse when I feel sleeping is a mandatory commodity. And actually, this is only the second or third time that I have had *any* trouble sleeping since I have been teaching.

Even though I drugged myself, I woke up at 4:10 am. I couldn't sleep anymore. So I got up.

Surprisingly enough, I felt really rested today. That was awesome. It was a joy to see my kids again, which was also awesome. My patience was back (well sort of). And I loved teaching again.

But, I got done today, and now I don't feel like doing anything. Absolutely nothing. So I am making garlic mashed potatoes from a recipe that I just made up. It's not much of recipe. I boiled potatoes, mashed em up, put in some butter, salt, pepper, garlic (the jar variety), and onion flakes.

I was going to steam vegetables and eat baked chicken too, but then I realized I wasn't hungry.

So I think I am going to go to bed without doing any work and hope for more motivation in the morning. That is my new default reaction to lack of motivation.

And I know I will have that motivation because I haven't written my lesson plans for tomorrow yet. So I will have to get them done.

I can't help but think this is a shoddy way of approaching my job. It is not like I need a break, because I just had one. It is not that I don't care about my kids, because I do.

I need some other possible excuses. Got any?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Thanksgiving Thoughts

Thanksgiving = awesome
1 week off for Thanksgiving = genius

These two equations pretty well summarize my thoughts on this past 8 days of glorious in activity. I visited just about every person I know who lives in Indiana, ate great food, talked about everything there is to talk about, watched a bunch of movies, ran around, laughed, played tennis, enjoyed wearing a t-shirt in Indiana in NOVEMBER! and altogether had a great time.

Now I am back in Houston, and more pressing thoughts are on my mind.
Like what do I want to do with my hair. This is serious business. I am a supposedly professional person now, and yet I am growing my hair long (it hasn't seen shears since July). It is just entering the putrid state of always ugly, that usually prompts some rash decision making on my part.

And really, what do I even want from it? Am I really going to go hippie-tastic all over Alief Middle School? I kinda don't think so.

I mean I could. Mr. Esparza has his hair in a pony-tail every day. It's long. But getting to that point is so painful.

What sucks is that having my hair in the short, gelled spiky variety that was my staple is so boring now. I just don't even want to contemplate it.

The more I think about it, the more I see that I have only two choices: hippie-tastic longness or buzzed. I just can't deal with anything else. And to top it off, people who tell me things tell me that it doesn't look 'good' in either mode. No, these people are definite fans of the clean cut, professional spiky haired jake. Who is lameo.

So I don't know what I am going to do.

About the hair anyway. I do know I am going to go eat an amazing sandwich today.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The problem with this "to be continued" crap is that the momentum is now gone. Not to mention all the pressure brought about by certain members of the reading community and their demands.

I read over my previous post and said "Uh huh. So what?" And then didn't really think anything else. I don't know where I was going with this. So I will take this to the conclusion that now appears to be the only logical one, although it doesn't seem all that interesting. Let that be your forwarning.

The question then becomes "Where will I get my 'fix' of spirituality and significant relationships?" When I initially did the interest inventory, I thought that spirituality would be a cinch. In all my past experiences moving to a new place, God has provided a community for spiritual growth in an amazing and powerful way. They all included a new positive spiritual influence and a church, with no planning or foreknowledge by me. So I assumed that God would take care of this again here.

The significant relationships I also thought would be handled easily, partly from the "new positive spiritual influence" referenced above, and then partly from regular communication with the people who already play a significant role in my life.

Both of these assumptions turned out to be pseudo-true.

When I manage weekly communication, I am anchored, but all to often I miss a week or three because of busyness. And then I float off the deep end.

No really. (Maybe this is where I was going with this. A giant unveiling of my weird psyche.) When I miss these 'significant relationships', all the smaller ones, which afford me so much opportunity for fun and stress release suddenly seem burdensome. I sit in on Saturday night and my mind says "You don't want to be out tonight. You're tired. You don't really want to see anybody." And I believe it. But it's not true. My mind will continue this inward spiral until I have a weekend where I don't leave the apartment, have eaten every single consumable I own and feel like death. Then my roommate or someone will say "Hey were going to yadda yadda", I will go because it's so easy, I will have a great time and then be like "What the hell was I doing? I willfully felt like crap for no reason."

And I think my question is very accurate. "What the hell" *was* I doing?

So I really love people. I also really love laughing. But sometimes my mind decides to try and ruin my life by making me think I don't want to see any people. Which is not very funny at all.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Part 1

During the week of TFA orientation, the week that followed the most intense 5 week period of my life, I was asked to participate in a unassuming personal interest inventory. You have seen them before, filled them out before. They are a variation of those Myers-Briggs type tests. They are made to make us as productive as possible. And that is a good thing. We should be productive.

Generally however, I feel like these type tests are used as levers by the management to increase their bottom line or whatever. As a result I do not take them seriously. TFA changed that somewhat. When I took this inventory, I engaged in the exercise with earnest, and found something not totally surprising: the things that are most important to me are spirituality, physical activity, purposefulness and significant relationships.

TFA put a twist on the investigation. "Now that you have these 'critical' interests, think about what your job can provide. Think about what your job can provide out of the 10 interests you originally chose. The remaining interests are things that you must find outside of your job. You must make time for these, or you will be ultimately unsatisified with your life and your teaching will suffer."

Out of the four, purposefulness is knocked out by work. Exercise will come through work next semester, when I coach soccer and run with my kids for an hour and a half every day. The other two however, those are tougher.

To be continued...

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Pieces -> Mosaic

I just got off the phone with my buddy Kyle (Kyle, you need to read the previous Oct 14th entry).

We were talking about the differences between school and work, the changes in life. You know, reminiscing and subtly lamenting the fact that he is in Ft Wayne and I'm down in Houston.

Anyway, a moment of clarity is upon me. This life I lead, when it is fitting together, is so beautiful and joyful. It makes me want to laugh and dance and weep all at the same time while eating a big hamburger, because hamburgers are a joyful food.

Yes, it is hard to hold on to the perspective of amazement when I am in the midst of all the crap that has been documented here, but it is through those challenges that we are refined right?

Listen (okay, read) Paul's words:
"And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us."
- Romans 2:2-5

This life gives me so much joy. Thank you to everyone who lets me laugh with them.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Life Explosion

This week my life exploded.

I think this might have been some sort of defense mechanism. Kind of like fruit rotting.

No seriously.

So fruit is one of the ways that plants get hooked up to the plant post office right? They concentrate all this energy into their fruit, hoping some animal will eat it. The trick is that the fruit contains seeds, which will grow a new plant when the animal poops it out on the other side of the mountain or whatever.

Well, if the travel portion fails, and the fruit does not spread, but starts rotting on the branch, something else happens. The plant is like "Dangit. Mission A failed. Move to mission B." So the fruit falls to the ground. This protects the plant from insects (coming to eat the rotten fruit), and gives the seeds a little bath of high energy slop to grow in.

The analogy is like this...Two weeks ago, I was in ambivalence. I was overworked and tired. I was starting to rot on the branch. Last week I was in rebellion. I read 4 books instead of doing work. I was rotting on the ground after the fall. This week, all that rotting exploded into an wash of new material, motivation and growth. I'm back in the figurative saddle (with the hopes that mixed metaphors will enrage my English friends and confuse everyone else).

On a side note, here is a thought I had.

When I get really upset with my job, I start to think about what else I could be doing with my time. Let us suppose, that I accepted a job with The Boeing Co, and the untold riches that would accompany said job. Now let us suppose that I worked as hard as I could possibly work, and develped brilliant solutions to whatever my job asked me to do. What is the net result?
  • Maybe The Boeing Co makes more money. Result: Moot. The company will lose money some day for no net gain.
  • Maybe I get promoted/accolades. Result: Moot. I will not gain any sufficient importance or change any significant practices. Accolades are waining.
Now let us suppose that I suck at my job. I suck to the point that I do absolutely nothing, except to get paid. I do not go so far as to actively destroy things, or give wrong answers. What is the net result?
  • Maybe The Boeing Co loses money. Result: Moot. Someone else will have to do the work I was supposed to do. It still gets done.
  • Maybe I get fired. Result: Moot. There is so much variability in the engineering profession that I am sure even the worst engineer could survive for a year at an entry level job doing almost nothing, and then get another job at another company and do almost nothing for his/her whole life.
Now let us think about my current position as a middle school math teacher. Let us suppose again that I work as hard as I can and do everything I possibly can do. What is the net result?
  • Maybe some students are captiviated by the field of mathematics and devote their life to the study. Result: Significant for the student, moot for the world (statistically).
  • Maybe some students begin to view education as something powerful and useful. Result: Significant for the student, signficant for the community. These people become leaders of change in their own communities.
  • Maybe some students become empowered to follow what ever their dreams may be. Result: Significant. The world is in need of passion in and for every walk of life, every job and every region.
Now let us suppose that I suck as much as is possible to suck without doing something like physically assaulting a student (that is not even worthy of a thought experiment). The net result?
  • Maybe some students belief in the education is crushed. Result: The drop out and continue the cycle of poverty in the areas we teach.
  • Maybe some students hopes of success are dashed. Result: Anger and violence. With no hope for anything better, desperation leads to very unpredictable results.
I have made THE CONTINUUM OF INFLUENCE to display these results. The blue bar is the potential influnece for education. The red bar is the potential influence in the corporate job I could be working. Please think of them as light sabers.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Get you some trainin

Yesterday was Columbus Day. My students did not have school.

I had professional development.

Here's the thing about professional development. *shh* Come here.
There isn't much development. And it's not very professional.

Although we *did* watch Akeelah and the Bee, which is a splendid movie, in my humble opinion.

No, professional development is not my favorite thing. It seems that it usually is a set of hoops, with some smoke and mirrors designed to make those hoops look like something worthwhile. Oh well.

Today I get to teach again. The first 9 weeks ends on Friday.

I have already taught for 8 weeks. That is amazing!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Downward Spiral

During Orientation, Teach for America told us that there is a general trend in emotional and physical health for all first year teachers. It is shown at right.

I think I have already passed through the sharp decline and moved into the slight increase stage. But then again, maybe not.

This weekend I took it upon myself to engage in a luxury that I have not permitted myself in quite a while; I read.

I read three books written by David Brin. His blog I read regularly, but I am just getting into his science fiction work. I thought it was quite excellent. Very strong themes of ecological awareness and conservation, as well as political moderation (but not at the expense of indecisevness).

Today, I read One Day All Children.. by Wendy Kopp. Read it. It's inspiring. And it describes (obliquely) the experiences that I am going through.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

More Kids Anyone?

Crazy week.

I am doing really well on my bi-monthly blog (okay I suck), and as a result of my pure un-filtered suckitude, I have to back-track to make this story make any sense.

**Back track**
It was a dark and stormy night.
I lied. It was a normal Houston morning. I came to school. I worked on stuff. I closed the Gap. Then I had my department meeting. Department meetings are a monthly event where all the math teachers get together and say "Man, this is going well, but *this* sucks balls." We complain about stuff. We also discuss a couple important things. Whatever. So near the end of the meeting, the department head says, "Well, I think that about covers it. Remember to focus on your bubble kids, and if you are doing tutoring that starts this week. Oh and I need to speak with Ms Agim and Mr Blair after the meeting."

I don't know about you, but when the 'boss' needs to speak with you, 2 out of 3 times (that's a ratio!) it's not good.

Sure enough, the conversation goes like this:
Department Head: "The state of Texas is doing away with SDAA (that's the Texas special ed standardized test). As a result, all schools have to phase out self-contained classrooms because all students will be taking TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills). They are all getting moved to inclusion, and since these students are low in math, they are going to be joining your double block classrooms (90 minutes, every day)."
Me: Panic.
Agim: Says something intelligent.
Me: Panic.
DH: Answers Agim.
DH: "Again, the state does not require this until next year, but since our administration likes to be at the front of these changes, we are phasing them out now."
Me: Panic. A couple rational thoughts start taking shape.
DH: "Jacob, you will be getting at 13 new 6th graders and 19 new 7th graders. I know this will put you over the class maximum of 20 students, so you should think about any students that are close enough to proficient that they can be in a normal block math class."
Me: There aren't any students....well maybe one or two. But this would help them *so* much to be in double block. Crap. 32 new students?! "So when is this happening? And oh yea, I just got some new students from Mr. Jow. What is happening with that?"

**End Back Track**

So that was a couple of weeks ago. I kept expecting the new students to show up every day, they never did, so then I kinda forgot they were going to be moving.

Well, they showed up on Thursday. 1st period I had 8 new 6th graders (the rest went to Mr. Jow. I kept the students he sent me). My grand total is now 21. I think I handled it pretty well. I sweated a lot at the beginning though.

3rd period I received 5 new 7th graders. Only 5.

4th period did not change.

The only other change, aside from my classes having 13 new students, is that I am now co-teaching with SpEd certified instructors.

I guess I am still reeling from the changes that rolled through on Thursday. All I really have to say is Cheers to the administration for being on the forefront of the trends. Bleh to you.

Here's a pic of my classroom.

Saturday, September 16, 2006


I joined Teach for America because I needed a purpose for my life. I think that I became discontent very early in my academic career because it felt like such a long wait before I could *do* something, something that mattered. Maybe wanting to 'make your mark' is a normal urge in a 20-something college student or grad, but my discontent grew out of the spiritual direction I had accepted for my life as well.

Genesis tells of a beautiful oneness between man and God. Man would toil in the maintence of garden, good work given to him by God, and God would walk with man. I imagine that God would listen not-unlike a parent who listens with a smile as a very young child tells of some new exploit. The parent already knows what the experience is like, everything about it in fact, but to see the joy and discovery in the eyes and face and words of the child brings some of that same emotion to the parent.

And even after the fall, purpose was something that was intimately tied to all of the patriarchs, the Biblical traditions, a man's interaction with God, and life in general. So it naturally seemed that a Purpose was a thing, or maybe *the* thing, that I needed to make my life a success.

I sought Purpose through engineering, sport, academics, volunteering, friends...and it all was very fleeting. The corporate engineering environment is full of inefficiency and waste. Sport is merely a context for the pursuit of fame or vanity or just the joy of movement, but none of these are sustainable. Academics is purely theoretical, and very rarely has an idea changed the world. No, it was always the application of the ideas that changed the course of human history. Volunteering and friends were very good things, good purposes, but they could not be a Purpose for me. Isaiah says to "Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils, of what account is he."

So Teach For America brought to me a Purpose, when even a purpose was lacking. And it has sustained me. I have never worked as hard or long as during summer institute. Defying my body to fail, my mind to lag and my eyes to droop, I worked to exhaustion, with a smile and joy on my face.

This has continued in my placement, Alief Middle School. Well, the will to work, the desire to succeed, the satisfaction in a effort spent and job well done. It is truly a Purpose.

But the discontentedness remains.

On Friday I went out to eat with some friends. I had a great time. We ate. We laughed. I was witty ;^) And I came home, exhausted. Yet I sat up. Instead of the rest of the laborer, I had...nothing.

I don't know if the fact of my brokenness, or in other words, the fact that sin is here, real and that my relationship with God is not a physical thing of God walking at my side, is the reason for my discontent. Will there ever just be a peace about me?

I don't know.

In the mean time:
"Fan into flames the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline."
May I fan into flames the gifts given to me by God. May they be used for the improvement of this earth. And may your use of your gifts, give me boldness in the use of mine.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


I got sick on Friday.

Full onset did not occur until Saturday. I basically laid around and drank a lot of water or gatorade all day. Whenever I stood up, my head exploded.

No literally. It's true. Look it up.

Of course whatever I had is basically gone already. So I have nothing to complain about. Mr. Driver has already had cholera like 3 times or something. But then again he is in Morocco.

Monday, September 04, 2006

I see teaching everywhere

Since I started training with Teach For America in June, my life has slowly (okay, instantly is more appropriate) changed into being centered on teaching.

I see teaching everywhere. I read facebook and see my friends talking about jobs as teachers. Or talking about crappy teachers (professors) that they have.

I listen to NPR and hear about a huge scandal in the Newark , NJ public schools.

I come home on Friday and while channel-surfing, discover a 20/20 story about the deplorable state of the American school machine, entitled "Supid in America".

And of course let us not forget the fact that I work as a teacher in a TEXAS public school, one of the first states to implement High Stakes Testing (let us not forget that the illustrious President Bush was once governor of this fair state).

In fact, I am an intervention teacher, which means I am teaching the kids who are directly affected by No Child Left Behind and are at risk for being held back not because of grades but because of 'high stakes testing'.

I find this immersion curious. When I worked at Honeywell or Boeing, my life did not suddenly turn into Engineering Fest. To be clear, I do not mind, in the least, the totality of my current life being consumed with education. I choose this place, this time, and am grateful for the opportunity.

I do wonder however, if TFA'ers have a view of the world that is in stark contrast to the rest of the education system. While watching Stupid in America, I definitely felt sick to my stomach as the NY teachers vehemently defended their rights to suck at their jobs and not get fired.

Maybe job security is more important when your old.

Maybe after teaching for years, you get disillusioned and want to go out to pasture at your own volition.

Or maybe they just suck, and couldn't find a job that requires next to nothing from them and won't fire them for misdeeds.

I am not sure. What I am sure of, and I want to make this a proposal to all my education conscious friends, is that I think this country needs to embrace the capitalist ideals that have helped make it great, and allow vouchers for every students education. My proposal is that we all move to a small state like Rhode Island or Delaware and get vouchers passed as a state-wide initiative to give benchmark data to the rest of the country.

Competition is good. It is the basic driving force for innovation. We can deal with lots more of that in education.

But I better stop thinking so hard. It *is* Labor Day after all. Plus I don't want to pull anything.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Labor Day Weekend

Good afternoon to you all, on this lovely Labor Day weekend. I, for one, am extremely thankful for the labors of my fellow human beings and perhaps equally thankful for the Federal Government in deciding we should have a national holiday in honor of the fact.

So far I have spent my weekend cooking (I made salsa and pizza this weekend, and both turned out splendidly), sleeping, eating, laying, and just a little bit of working (I still have school work to do, as it never ends).

Today I have even had the time available to catch up on my reading. I read a couple of blogs fairly regularly, and while reading through Contrary Brin, I discovered this very interesting idea. Basically, the guy proposes to use the border fence that people are yammering about as a long solar collector. This is the exact sort of thing that America has been sucking at, and needs more of. Great ideas that combine utility and creativeness while saving the world. Furthermore, when people keep thinking hard, we get awesome vacations like Labor Day. Keep it up.

I took some pictures of my apartment and thought someone might enjoy seeing what the Blair Abode looks like.
Here is my bed, still placed firmly on the ground. This is helpful for all those times you want to:
A) have a wrestling match on your bed
B) have a dream about falling and then fall out of bed
C) are too lazy to climb into bed
D) not buy a bed frame because you don't have any money and they don't make frames big enough for you 6'10" mattress anyway
Also notice the awesome and colorful rug that lies next to my bed. My grandma made it. She's the best.
It was quite an imposing prospect to buy the oh-so-extensive furniture now arrayed in my domicile, but I am quite pleased with it. The bookcase has room for all the books I brought with me, my DVDs and the other odds and ends that need to go somewhere. I also like my desk because I never bang my knees on it. Of course, the average person couldn't even reach the keyboard but whatever.

Finally, teaching is still sweet. I think the key is probably *gasp* preparation and *double gasp* being well-rested. Whoever said patience is a virtue was right, but in teaching patience isn't a virtue it's a freaking necessity. And being well-rested definitely supports the patience plan.

That's about it for now. Go. Eat. Drink. Be merry. But whatever you do, don't Labor, because it's Labor Day weekend.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Teaching - Day 7

Well howdy do.

I think I can distill my thoughts after a complete week of teaching to a pretty short phrase: "I want to be good. Right now."

Okay, so that was two phrases, but in all seriousity, I want to be so good at teaching, and I want it right now. Of course that's unrealistic, but whatever. I still want it.

I am getting better. Every day brings a bit more control of situations. Every day brings a bit more preparedness in the lessons. End total is that growth is occurring and growth is good.

On Wednesday, my Advisory (read: homeroom) class was signing up for intramurals. We had to decide on a team name, so I went for the democratic approach. Anyone could nominate a name, and then we would vote. The nominations were as follows, in the order they appeared:
1. Princesses
2. Alief Cubs
3. Cubs
4. H-Town Lions
5. Alief Fire (or torches or something I can't remember)
6. Diana
7. Mr. Blair's Pimp Class

So yea. After "Mr. Blair's Pimp Class" was suggested, I just started laughing, and then responded with "That's a great name, but completely inappropriate." Do you think I lost some authority by my response? :^)

Today, a girl asked if she could go to the bathroom, and I gave an emphatic no. She then asked "What if I use it on myself?"
"That would be embarrassing," I replied.
The following interaction ensued.
Other student: "You got that right."
Teacher: "You used it on yourself at school before?"
Other student: "4th grade TAKS test."
Teacher: "Serious?"
Other student: "Yep. I fell asleep during the test, and used it on myself."
2nd Other student: "Yea, and when he came back into the room with different shorts everyone was laughing."

So there you have it. Don't fall asleep during any standardized tests.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

I have students!


I am so overdue for an entry that I do not even know where to begin. I guess a really brief summary is in order.

I spent the past couple of weeks (those weeks between the end of TFA Institute and the beginning of the school year) doing lots of nothing. I tried to plan for the school year, but felt directionless.

Last week marked the beginning of in-service for Alief ISD teachers (Weds, 8/9/06 to be precise), and began the gradual increase in workload and panic that I have experienced. I visited my campus, started setting up my classroom, attended a ton of meetings, and finally learned what I would be teaching.

And then suddenly it was Wednesday, 8/16/06, and I was stepping into Alief Middle School as a teacher who was about to meet his students.

I have three classes of Intervention Mathematics. 1st period is a 6th grade class of 11 students. 2nd period is my planning period, and conveniently includes lunch. 3rd period is a 7th grade class of 11 students. 4th period is a 7th grade class of 12 students. Intervention Mathematics is a program for those students who failed TAKS, the Texas standardized test, during the previous year. My students are essentially the lowest performing math students in the 6th and 7th grade. To help these students out, we 'intervene' and make them take math every day for 90 minutes, as opposed to the normal schedule of math every other day for 90 minutes.

What this means is that my students are going to have a lot of time to improve on their fundamental skills, as well as tackle the new objectives for this year.

I am so excited.

A couple points of interest:
6th graders are adorable. They sit so still and quiet, and just look at you and you just can't help but love them.

A surprising number of students answered my survey question which inquired after their best friend with "None".

One student wrote that she was good at "Looking cute".

Another student wrote that he was good at "Spending money".

A surprising number of students wanted to grow up to perform in fields for the reason of helping other people, whether that be in medicine, law enforcement or others.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Building the Apartment

The illustrious Mr. Shisler and I moved into our new residence on Saturday, July 15th. While the rent was near the upper bound of my price range, I am very excited about moving into a (nice) place that will be my home for longer than 4 months.

We are located just a little bit east of the Galleria district in Houston. During the apartment hunt, Adam and I gave weight to a limited number of factors such as work proximity, entertainment proximity, and non-suck-hole-ness (yes, that is a technical term). Our residence, Gables CityScape, conquered all of these criteria and managed to offer some other very solid perks.

First and foremost, the apartment management decided to replace the carpet and linoleum in the dining room and kitchen respectively with vinyl faux wood flooring. This seemingly minor change does wonders for the space. We also get our very own washer and dryer. I don't know if you know this about me, but laundry is one of my great vices. Or something. Whatever, I like doing laundry. There is also a wide selection of really great supermarkets. There is a ritzy Kroger (if there can be such a thing), a Whole Foods, and then this Central Market place, which, I hear, is basically this bazaar of produce and weird stuff. I really like grocery shopping way more than I ought, so these stores are quite exciting.

The sum of these pieces is an impressive whole by my eyes; I have an apartment where I am excited to be living, with a roommate I enjoy, that is located close to interesting things. And not only that, but 14 other TFA people ended up renting in the same complex, so there will be endless amounts of fun and Real World like romances popping up I am sure. There is nothing like a fair bit of drama (which I am not directly involved in).

The downside, if it could be labeled as such, is that since I am coming from a completely transitory lifestyle, I am extremely reticent to purchase any furniture. And in case you were not aware, shopping for furniture is an immense pain. It is almost as bad as shopping for an apartment.

I came to Houston with one official piece of furniture, which almost doesn't count, because it was only a mattress. I don't even have a box spring or frame for the mattress. Nor am I likely to be obtaining these items anytime soon due to my abnormal stature; my bed was purchased to fit me, and as a result, is a daunting 6'10" in length. Does IKEA carry beds for that size? No. Walmart? No. Target? Yea right! Mattress places? Haha! The Internet? Well, probably somewhere...but I couldn't find it.

So I am torn over what direction I actually want to go with this whole furniture quandary. My roommate has this perfectly decorated room (initiated by his perfectly decorating mother), with a giant queen bed with stained wood frame, desk, filing table etc etc. Then I look in my room, see my beautiful mattress lying limply on the floor, and...Well, I don't know.

Perhaps I should drop a large portion of my discretionary funds on purchasing matching furniture, including a desk, a chair, a floor lamp, a desk lamp, a bedside table, a bed frame (one of those metal ones that can fit any mattress), a box spring, a couch, a book shelf and a table lamp.

Or maybe I should say "screw you" to the man and his cultural hegemony which demands my kowtow, and use my rubbermaid totes as seats, set up my milk crates with a board on top for a desk, and be off on my merry way.

Until it all collapses on my foot and I swear for the next hour.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

TeachForAmerica - Institute Day 21-End

The last two weeks of Institute were a whirlwind of activity. Mr. Wu turned 22 and there was partying. A lost student returned to my class and there was (almost) partying. I turned in a bunch of lesson plans and there was (not) partying. I turned in my last lesson plan of institute and there was (exhausted) partying. My roommate and I planned/orchestrated a prank and there was partying. Our prank was foiled and there was (not any, absolutely not) partying. I gave an assessment to my students and they all pretty much failed and there was (~, which means negation) partying. I left Thompson Elementary on Friday, July 14th and there was partying. I participated in Thompson's Follies showing, and there was partying.

So as you can see, my only excuse for not writing over the past two weeks has been a confluence of parties.

In truth, the highs of the past weeks, which include Mr. Wu's birthday, the return of Joshua (my missing student), planning our prank, and finishing Institute, were mostly lost in the shadow of the lows. The never ending sea of lesson plans were nearly drowning, but to have the prank foiled *and* almost all of my students fail the end of summer assessment was a kick in the stomach I would have preferred to avoid.

Everyone who I have talked to about becoming a teacher always says that the first year is horrible. "It was disaster" they say. I am hoping that my five weeks of little sleep and even less student success during institute will immunize me against the potential horrors of the 'first year'.

In spite of this low, or maybe even in light of this low, I am really excited to get my kids in the fall. It is a useful thing to learn that I will not accept the failure of my students. It is even more useful to learn what continuously increasing effectiveness actually looks like when put into practice, so that my students in my fall placement will be successful.

Now though, I rest. I have been sleeping 9 or 10 hours every night to make up for the 5 weeks with an average of 5 hours per night. Adam and I moved into our apartment on Saturday. I will soon own my first pieces of furniture. I acquired my first real set of wheels (I am the proud owner of a 2001 Toyota Camry!). And I start planning for the fall.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

TeachForAmerica - Institute Day 16-20

Busy week. Here's a summary...

Day 16,17 (Tuesday and Wednesday)
On both of these days my third grad class was taking the TAKS test. This test is a high stakes test as part of the No Child Left Behind initiative (which I basically think is a load of crap, but I digress). The kids were *very* nervous about the test. They were required to come to summer school because they did not perform well on the TAKS the first time they took it this year, and they might be required to repeat the 3rd grade if they did not perform well on this go around. While I think that the school administration generally shies away from holding back students based on test scores (they favor the 'social promotion' mindset), the option is still very present in the minds of the students, and is a recourse available to the administration.

A bi-product of the TAKS testing on Tuesday and Wednesday was an inordinate amount of free time to observe other classrooms, work on teaching skills, review curriculum, and hone lesson plans. On Tuesday I got to travel to Edison Middle School for observations. At different times, I sat in on 6th, 7th and 8th grade math classrooms. It was great to see the age group that I will be teaching and to see some of the curriculum that I will be responsible for. One of the classrooms had exceptional classroom management and decent student engagement and participation. The second class was middle of the road in terms of classroom management, but student investment was pretty high. The third class was a disaster on both accounts.

Day 18,19 (Thursday and Friday)
While I was supposed to be teaching Writing this week, Thursday marked the beginning of TFA Summer School and the end of Title 1 Summer School. Practically, this meant that the Title 1 teachers were no longer teaching Math/Lit hour and Math, leaving both of these previously unassigned subjects to the TFA teachers. So I switched to Math. On one day's notice. And had to write 2 extra lesson plans, prepare a lesson that I had not finalized and 'waste' 3 Writing lessons I had prepared (these were all transferred to collaborative members, so it was not a total waste). In general though, this has been the standard Operating Procedure for A+ Thompson, so I took it in stride.

In fact, my math lessons were something I had been looking forward to, prepared very thoroughly, practiced, and subsequently gave, with great success. On Thursday we reviewed the writing of numbers in word and numeral form (11,203 = eleven thousand two hundred and three), and placed it in the context of writing checks. "Imagine that you are graduating from college. You are one of the top math students in the entire country. Everyone wants you to work for them. Microsoft wants you to make up computer programs. The Government wants some codes. They are all offering you this piece of paper with numbers and words on it. Is this money?"

Friday's lesson plan went really well also, and the kids got so excited about winning points in Around the World, even though the points did not go towards anything (other than self-satisfation).

Other Big News
I am signing a lease for my apartment tomorrow evening. I will be living one roommate (Adam), in a pretty convenient location on the west side of Houston.

I also got a job this week! I was offered a yet-to-be-finalized position at ALIEF Middle School as a math teacher. I will either be teaching 8th grade, or a 6th, 7th, and 8th grade Intervention class for students who failed the TAKS during the previous academic year. Either position would be very cool. The principal is also excited about me playing basketball for the staff in the student vs staff basketball game. I don't think she knows that I was a swimmer. :^)

Monday, June 26, 2006

TeachForAmerica - Institute Day 15

I taught writing today.

Well, I don't know if what I did would actually constitute as 'teaching' per se. Really, I just stood in front of the class and tried not to freak out all hour.

This was the 4th day in front of my students, and I think they were really looking forward to Thursday. There is this weird thing about the summer school I am teaching at. For the first 4 weeks of the summer, or however long it goes, there is Title 1 summer school, which basically means that the kids who failed the Texas standardized test are required to be at school. That period ends with a retaking of the TAKS test on Wednesday. All students are officially done with school for the summer at that point Wednesday afternoon when they complete the test.

So, for those of us teachers (TFA cough cough) who have classrooms that continue past Wednesday, the reality we are facing is a total lack of interest, a focus on leaving (as is natural) and a foreseeable drop in attendance by large numbers. I am guessing that at least 50% of my class of third graders decides to opt out of the TFA summer school. And that is depressing.

But back to the writing debacle. TFA is big on pushing the idea that all student actions can be tied back to a teacher mindset or belief. The progression has some fancy name which now slips my mind, but the stages look something like this:
1. Teacher's mindset and beliefs influence the...
2. Teacher's actions and behaviors, which shape the...
3. Students' actions, which dictate the...
4. Students' achievement.

As a result, I look at Mr. Harris who was acting out today in class and got sent to the principal's office and while I initially think "Man what is his deal?", this eventually builds into "What am I doing that is causing/contributing to Mr. Harris acting out?" And then even further, "What do I believe about Mr Harris that is causing me to act this way?" This line of thinking ends with me being very impatient, wanting so desperately to be good so that my kids can learn. It is a hard place to be in.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

TeachForAmerica - Institute Day 9-12

preparation for the last day of the week ran the gamut of emotions. At the conclusion of the day in our CMA groups, the outlook for potential completion was not good. The assignments that were expected of us depended firstly on the curriculum objectives chosen as lesson focus for the rest of the summer.

Choosing objectives is a tenuous skill at best, and our Unit Calendar was further complicated by an uneven distribution of academic goals. Some subjects that were pivotal to the summer program, like writing, were only allocated 3 hours of "Target Objectives" that needed to be taught, while others like math, have 900 minutes of Target Objectives while only 490 minutes are available for classroom instruction. This disconnect is simply insurmountable if all the lesson objectives are kept, so I was forced to adapt. Through collaboration of all the 3rd grade corps teachers, a schedule was eventually drawn up, but this was merely the starting point for the nights work.

Objectives form the backbone of lesson planning because each day's instructional growth only serves as true 'academic achievement' if it is directed toward a specific goal. Backward planning from the desired outcome is the only way to insure that lessons are building cohesively, constituting a true body of knowledge, emblematic of an "academic school year". The objectives move verbatim onto the individual day's lesson, focusing that teaching and conveying the information that had been deemed important from the lens of the objective framework.

Daily lesson plans for Monday and Tuesday are due on Friday for the subject concentration of responsibility. Next week I teach writing. This next week also marks the introduction of the Math/Literacy hour into my collaborative's work load. Thus the onus of administering and planning 2 lessons per day that focus on math and literacy skills at the academic of the student begins on Thursday the 29th. The three collaborative members will divide the class into tiers so that each group can have differentiated teaching directly in line with their current ability level.

Time wise, Wednesday and Thursday were simply overwhelming. My normal schedule which included some personal time in the form of athletic activity was thrown out the window due to a daunting list of deliverables. These two work days followed this schedule:
5:45 - 6:53am: Wake, shower, dress, pack lunch, eat, get on bus.
7:00am - 4:00pm: Setup classroom, prep, teach, Curriculum session, Work session
4:00-4:30pm: Ride bus back to Moody, change.
4:30-6:45pm: Find reading books, revise lesson plans, start deliverables, eat dinner
7:00-9:00pm: Attend evening Curriculum session
9:00pm-12:30am: Write rough drafts of lesson plans for next week, finalize tomorrows lesson plans.

I slept 11.5 hours last night.

I am ready for a nap.

Monday, June 19, 2006

TeachForAmerica - Institute Day 7 & 8

Teaching Day 1
- The Associated Blair, Houston, TX

Due to unseasonable amounts of rain, all Houston area schools of the HISD school districts were closed today due to flash floods and flood warnings. Thompson Elementary was cancelled as early as 6:00 am, before the Teach for America Site Director even arrived on location.

The Teach for America staff scrambled to implement impromptu educational sessions in lieu of an actual site work day. While it took some time to get the Institute setup at Moody Towers, relocating the 550+ corps members from their 8+ school sites, the staff performed a near miracle in communication and organization by having classes running by 9:30 in the Moody Commons and RFC cafeteria. The daily schedule was a far cry from the one most corps members planned for, but the extra 2.5 hours of free time in the morning, and the cancelled evening sessions left most corps members recharged after a late night prep session.

The Associated Blair interviewed one corps member for his thoughts on the proceedings. This is what he had to say:
"I don't know about the rest of these folks, but I was ready to go to school today. Yea, of course you get excited when school is cancelled, I don't think that ever changes, but this was the first day ya know? Anyway, I guess more preparation couldn't hurt. Plus I needed a hair cut."

More rain is expected over night so it remains to be seen if TFA Institute Day 9 will turn out to be Day 1 of teaching, but the TFA Corps Members are getting anxious, as they are penned up in the Moody Towers. These dedicated individuals are here to enact significant gains in alleviating the education gap in this country, and that can only happen if they get in the classroom. This reporter for one, hopes that tomorrow will be the day.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

TeachForAmerica - Institute Day 5 & 6

Week one is officially complete.

On Friday morning I turned in lesson plans for my portion of Monday's and Tuesday's teachings. The whole lesson planning process is completely new to me but the system that TfA has introduced seems like a logical one. TfA is definitely a process driven organization, and while part of me (that would be the corporate side) thinks that their devotion to the almighty Process is a waste of time, the current reality is that their processes are really improving TfA for the better. I have heard lots of stories already about how much better Institute is this summer than in past summers.

Anyway, all of the lessons for the first week had been prepared in advance for every subject and grade level that any corps member might teach. Basically, veteran TfA teachers collaborated to make a summer curriculum that included very specific lesson goals, and the first week went so far as including a break down of exactly what the lesson would look like. In this situation, our actual "lesson planning" really took the form of inserting and classroom procedures that we were using, and tweaking things based on our specific classroom materials.

Since I am teaching reading during the first week, my lessons revolve around...yea, reading. Big surprise. To correctly prepare my lesson plans, I had to go choose two different books to use in my 5 step lesson plans. Below is a brief description of a 5 step lesson plan:

Opening - This section provides the 'hook' or motivation for the subject material and relates the material to the broader class scope. Ex. "Yesterday we learned about the Prediction. Today we will learn about another aspect of a story, the story elements. These are a very important part of being great readers."

Introduction to New Material - This section is Teacher Centered, where the teacher actually presents the new information. Ex. "The four story elements are Character, Setting, Problem and Solution. The definition of these story elements is..."

Guided Practice - This section begins the shift from Teacher centered to Student centered. The teacher general does examples with the class, or asks specific class members to do parts of the lesson. Ex. "Now that I have broken down this story for you, let's do one together. I'll read Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears and you will raise your hand when you think we have a new story element."

Independent Practice - This section completes the shift from teacher to student centered instruction. The student uses this opportunity to master the skill or information of the lesson. Ex. "Please read the story by your self and complete the graphic organizer, just like we just did as a group."

Closing - This section summarizes the new material, and reconnects it to the larger picture. Ex. "Now that we know the four story elements are character, setting, problem and solution, we are going to be much better at reading stories and understanding them, which is important for our Big Goal."

So yea. That's some of what I have been learning, and doing. TfA has fit all of *their* lessons into the same format, so they are continuously modeling the 'correct' behavior to us in informational sessions.

One other thing. On Friday afternoon, a significant amount of our school time was devoted to collaborative time to work on classroom materials. My collaborative developed most of our bulletin boards (pictures to come). After that group time, there was a school meeting in the cafeteria for all TfA staff and corps members. The staff passed out popsicles, played the Jackson 5 "A B C", and presented us with our 'diplomas' and 'teacher name', documenting our graduation from the first week of institute.

Monday is my first day in the classroom, so this weekend will be filled with sleep, practice, and lesson planning/prep. Mr. Blair will be ready.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

TeachForAmerica - Institute Day 2, 3 & 4

On Monday I talked a bit about my disconnect with the methods that TfA was using in 'encouraging' or motivating me or whatever. SOOOO much has happened since then...well here are a couple of stories, and then I'll drop some interpretations down at the end.

On Tuesday, our classroom sessions focused on Planning, Rules and Consequences for our classrooms. Obviously these are extremely important aspects of teaching, but our classroom sessions were basically a restatement of the pre-institute reading, except with some examples, guided practice and independent practice. Our independent practice was the development of some rules that we might be using in our classroom.

Later that day, our group got a chance to work on our Management Plan, which is basically a overview of how the Rules, Consequences, incentives and everything fit together. My collaborative group and I were discussing possible themes for our classroom, alighted on a Construction Theme, and decided we could name our 'mascot' FWBR, the acronym for the rules we had developed. I started looking around for my rules sheet, since I remembered developing these rules. But I couldn't remember *when*. It took me a couple of minutes that it had only been 2 hours since developing those rules.

On to day 3 our core member group had a session on Diversity, Community and Achievement. The session was entitled "Life Map". The task for this lesson was to draw a map, or write or whatever we wanted to do to express the major stages in our life that brought us to our current place at Institute with TfA. We were given markers, paper, pencils, whatever, and put to work. Once we were all done with our efforts, our Corps Member Advisor (CMA) asked for volunteers to share their life maps.

The first person to share was Bernard. Bernard grew up in Texas, and was exposed to race and class based disparities for his entire life. When he applied to and was excepted to Rice, everyone in his high school attributed it to Affirmative Action. In subsequent, turns a woman who married a Hispanic man talked about the insults and isolation put upon her children, and the turmoil that caused her in turn. Disha talked about how her parents moved to the US from India, and she grew up being friends with everyone, but then went back to India and witnessed the poverty and shameful teaching practices (beatings for wrong answers in class).

Today our classroom sessions focused on the implementations of classroom Procedures and the benefits the can yield. We went through the development of a procedure, and continued learning about lesson planning. We had a lot of working time to prepare a large set of deliverables for tomorrow morning at 8 am. In fact, I put in a 6 hour session this evening locking down my contribution to these deliverables, including the development of 2 procedures (a listening posture and call&response) and 4 reading lesson plans (I will be teaching about predictions, cause and effect, and story elements on the first two days of class).

And now for the decompression: I am exhausted, first and foremost. This entire process seems as if it is almost more a test of will than a test of learning ability, but maybe that is the point. Two of the 5 behaviors that TfA is emphasizing is continuous improvement and relentless pursuit, and how can those be taught and emphasized if we are given a cake walk of a school? Secondly, in these diversity discussions, I end up feeling like my story lacks significance. In the words of my Diversity text, I am from the "Power Culture". I am white. I am affluent (middle class, but affluent in the world's perspective). I am male. I am Christian. I am heterosexual. These are the dominant norms of this US culture, and as a result I have *always* been given the benefit of the doubt. It is hard to expose my story in the midst of ones that seem so much more relevant to the issues that this society faces, and ironically, I am afraid that I will be judged because I come from a 'Power' background. But then I share anyway. And I guess that I know that my story does have meaning, and that I am doing the things I do not because of some debt that the Power culture owes, but because it is the responsibility of *all* people to act in the service of society. And in the mean time, I will do what I can, currently TfA, to change the disparities that are oh so real, and I can come along side Bernard and Disha and Christina and my heart will break hearing the pain they suffered, and I will shed tears with them.

I hope I can handle this.

Monday, June 12, 2006

TeachForAmerica - Institute Day 1

I relocated to Houston driving over 2000, passing through 11 states, and burning 6 quarts of transmission fluid and 2 quarts of oil. I wasn't really all that nervous about things, even when I spent 16 hours in South Carolina working on my Pre-Institute reading material and still wasn't done. It was only when I was driving into downtown Houston, on Wednesday, June 7th for my Houston Induction, that the nervousness overwhelmed me, nearly causing a U-turn.

Luckily, I did not turn the car around. Luckily, I continued to the Houston Crowne Plaza Hotel, where I spent 3 days and 4 nights getting acclimated to Houston, the mission of TfA, the Houston Corps and the expectations I have to look forward to at Institute. And after making friends, meeting tons of people, sitting in on numerous informational sessions and eating lots of food, I moved over to the University of Houston campus for Institute on Sunday, June 11th.

Today I woke up at 5:20 am. School starts promptly at 7:00 every morning, and depending on where your summer school is located, you could have between 5 and 45 minutes of commute. I am located at Thompson Elementary, the closest summer school location. My bus leaves at 6:53 am every morning. If I arrive at 6:53 and 30 seconds it will have already left. The five minute ride takes us into the middle of a old residential district, where Thompson Elementary has been located since its founding in 1949. Thompson has had a long track record hosting TfA corps members (over a decade), and so the transition for this summer is pretty seamless. My fellow corps members and I are welcomed by Michael C. (I forgot his last name) who is our Site Director, and challenged to focus on the immense challenge before us: We must learn to become excellent teachers of students, but we must also help the summer school students achieve significant academic achievements *this* summer.

Today mainly consisted of 'get to know you' type material, and a review of the first two behaviors of our Teaching as Leadership text; Setting Big Goals and Investing Students and their Influencers. All corps members have already read these texts, and have completed reflective exercises to help connect the central ideas of Teaching as Leadership to our own experiences, but TfA is reviewing it none the less. And we review all day. We finish up at 4:00 pm.

So far this experience, learning to be a teacher, has been a challenge of mental outlook. In many of the required readings, and in some of the motivational talks that I have been exposed to, I found myself resenting the emotional strings that the writing was playing. The stories were real, I am confident, but at the same time it felt as if they were trying to get an emotional response from me, and I resented it. I had to remind myself time and time again that I *believe* in the mission of Teach for America, and that the educational injustices in this country are *reason* for becoming impassioned.

And then I am okay. Because I do believe in the mission for Teach for America. The more I hear about the racial and monetary injustices perpetuated by the educational system, the more I want to go FIX it. So that's good.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Check and check

The final presentation for my senior design project was today. We had a whopping 15 minutes to cover a semester's worth of analysis, design, manufacturing, assembly and test. I think that we did a pretty good job.

We spent 10.5 hours yesterday assembling our project, since half the parts we needed did not arrive until yesterday morning. It was pretty satisfying seeing this theoretical nebulous thing turn into a (almost) working tool right before our eyes. Of course there was a lot of blood, swearing and throwing of random broken metal pieces, but that all comes with the territory.

Tonight is Village Fest, which is a concert to raise money for a girl in the community with cerebral palsy. Service Mosaic (read: Nate) found out about Megan and her mom through Love INC. Her mother is single, and works really hard to keep her home and make payments to frequently take Megan down to Riley's Children's Hospital. All the proceeds that the concert earns will go to the purchase of a van which can easily transport Megan (she is bed-ridden).

Tomorrow I am headed up to watch the regional ultimate tournament in Naperville, IL. I don't get to play because I played on the B team for sectionals, but IL is in the general 'home' direction, and I can stop and see the illustrious Mr. Jonathan Caldwell (Monsieur General) at Wheaton College.

And then it is home for 4 days of errands and reading and running and outdoors and not school.

P.S. 1 final separates me from the completions of this thing called college.

-Monsieur Fluer de Agrippa Sans Ferdinand Mon Sharc de Tuna

Monday, April 24, 2006

One down

And one to go.

I turned in a project for Machine Design II today, which represented a month long investment into equations, text, modeling and analysis. I like looking back at projects from this side, seeing all of the work come together, and in this case, seeing a complete and (almost) actually functional gearbox. I think I like the process of these projects too. Except when they are so large that I do not know where to begin.

With that project complete, MDII is basically wrapped up (except for the technicality of a final exam next Thursday), which leaves only Senior Design. Final presentation for Senior Design is on Friday.

I think I am looking forward to it.

Being done.

No, I *am* looking forward to it.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Things Fall Apart

I think this is going to be a multifaceted walk through the convoluted emotional turmoil of a 23 year old soon to be college graduate who does not have everything together. Just to warn you.

This weekend brought two glaring deficiencies in my recent behavior to light. After playing Bridge with my grandparents and mom last night, I sat on the couch and talked to my mom for 20 minutes or so. It was the first time in too long that I let down the "I have it together" mask, and honestly looked at where I was. It was not a pretty sight. This entire semester has been marked by three main actions: an operation in distraction from a painful bereavement from one of my best friends, ignoring the looming challenge and unknown represented by Teach for America, and graduating. And as I talked with my mom, it was suddenly like it was okay to be a kid and to not know the answer and to be terrified that I would never be friends with B again and terrified that I would be the worst teacher ever and terrified that I was leaving school.

And I was. I am. Terrified.
I almost cried. But I didn't. Missed opportunity I guess.

So the first deficiency has been ignoring these very significant rumblings in my soul. I do not think avoidance behavior is a productive undertaking, but happened. The second deficiency was brought to light be attending church today. I had not been to Campus House in 5 weeks, due to ultimate and spring break and stupidity. During that time, I saw my interactions with pretty much everyone become more strained, hard. I started acting like a jerk all the time. Doing really, really dumb things. And I would think, "Come on, you're past all this childish stuff (like saying "your mom" after *any* thing), get your game together" and I would try harder. That would work for a couple days maybe and then I would do dumb stuff for a while again.

Enter into this mess a sermon about trusting God versus pleasing God, given at church today. The 'pleasing God' road led to the room of good intentions, full of rules and steps and falseness. The 'trusting God' road led to the room of grace. And I do not want to turn this into some proselytizing blog or whatever, but the truth is, if there is some list, some set of rules that I have to meet for *anything*, I can't. I just can't make it. I cannot be a perfect employee. I cannot be a perfect student. I cannot be a perfect husband/boyfriend/friend/brother/son. With Christ, however, I can be the perfect Jacob Blair, even if that sounds lame.

So I was ignoring the call to trust in God.

And now for some biblical inspiration.
"But a time is coming, and has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." - John 16:32-33

Monday, March 27, 2006

SB II - How Not to Freeze to Death in the Woods

So, now that a week and some has passed since spring break, here comes the second installment.

When we left our intrepid explorers, they were not even explorers yet. They had just left Atlanta at around 4:30 pm after winning the sucky bracket (We're the best suckers around) and eating some Wendy's.

We drove to North Carolina, which involved traveling on the worst roads I have driven on, as far as road markings go. We would hit intersections and the highway we were on would turn both left and right, with no other markings. So of course we guessed.

We eventually made it to Fontana Village, which was going to be our entry point into the Great Smokies. I had read that there was a shelter at Fontana Dam, but aside from seeing it on one map, I had no other confirmation it existed, much less that we could stay there. This lack of planning worked out perfectly however, as the shelter did actually exist, and the night was so pleasant that we just slept under the stars anyway.

Monday morning we awoke to lots of birds chirping, the sun rising over the mountains of Appalachia, and an itch to get on the trail. The plan was to hike 13 miles the first day, and stay at the Russell Field Shelter on Monday night. We got on our way at about 9 am, hiked passed our car, hiked to the visitor's center, registered, and crossed Fontana Dam. At about 9:30 we officially entered Great Smoky National Park.

On this part of the Appalachian Trail, the Fontana Dam is located at about 1500 feet above sea level. The first two hours after the Dam consisted of an immediate gain of 2000 feet. An hour into the trip I explained what 'Hot spots' were (the beginning of blisters) and the importance of foot health, which prompted Adam to have some. Well, maybe he had them already and didn't know he should care. Regardless, we stopped and I told Adam how to use Mole skin, except I gave him the wrong directions and ended up making his soon to be blisters worse. (I make an awesome leader.)

We hiked and rested and hiked and rested and hiked some more. Adam, Andrew and Nick were all really tired from the Ultimate tournament, and were pretty down about the trip, until after lunch. Then things got a little flatter, and I promised them a moving walkway like they have in airports for the second day.

We reached Mollie's Ridge shelter at about 5:00pm and it was beginning to get cold and foggy. We had traveled roughly 12 miles at that point, but still had 3 to go to get to Russell Field, so I called a halt and we decided to stay at Mollie's. That night intense rain battered the shelter and woke us up 3 or 4 times. Temperatures dropped from about 45° to some where in the 20s, (and then add in wind chill!). All of the rain ended up freezing on to everything, coating our bear bag (you have to hang all your food from trees so that bears don't come and eat you), the trees, bushes, everything with ice. Due to the cold and fog we discovered in the morning, the early start we had planned did not pan out.

Tuesday we did not get started until 10:30. We cooked breakfast at a Snail's pace, and Adam spent at least 10 hours bandaging his heels (were the blisters were). When we finally got moving, we knocked out 5 miles of trail in just over 2 hours, which was by far the fastest pace we had kept yet. We ate lunch and started on thestretchh from Spence Field shelter to Derrick Knob. This stretch of trail was 6.2 miles of steep ascents and descents, and climbed over Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mountains, both of which were in the 5500 ft range. They offered amazing views, and lots of soreness.

We got to Derrick Knob at 6pm. The sun was starting to set, and with its fall the temperature was dropping quickly. We had nearly 6 more miles to get to our scheduled shelter location at Siler's Bald, but that would put us in at 9:30 or 10pm. To add to our problems, the Derrick Know shelter was full, and there were about a dozen people sitting around outside trying to decide whether to stay or continue. We all decided to stay. While Adam and Nick went to get water, Andrew and I rigged up a wind-block in the lee of the Shelter using a tarp, seven tent stakes, a tree and some rope. We stacked all of our backpacks in one of the openings that the tree made in our little haven, rolled out our pads and sleeping bags, and got in bed by 7:30.

It was really cold. By 3:30am I was wearing all of the clothes I brought. The wind caused the tarp to flap, making noise and also hitting us in the head repeatedly. Nick was wearing socks on his hands to help stay warm. Some time in the night his nose was running so he wiped it with his socks. He eventually discovered that his nose wasn't running, but instead was bleeding! He proceeded to die. Okay that wasn't serious. In the morning we all sat up and said "That was horrible. I don't think I slept at all, but there is something about being in bed for 13.5 hours that makes me not tired anymore. And Nick got a bloody nose because it was so cold! This is ridiculous! Let's turn around and go back."

So that's what we did. We were roughly 23 miles into the park when we turned around and headed back. Wednesday night we stayed at the Russell Field shelter we were supposed to stay at the first night. Thursday we hiked the entire 13 mile stretch to the Fontana Dam in 6.5 hours, setting our new personal land speed record. We reached the visitor's center at 2:30, and then ran around in our boxers for an hour while we took showers. We left Fontana Village at about 3:30 and headed to Louisville.

4 days
4 nights
46 miles
1 ice storm
1 sub freezing night under a tarp
2 blisters (both Adam's)
2 optimal ways to kill a bear
1 optimal way to kill a cougar

Monday, March 20, 2006

Spring Break - Ultimate

So six weeks until this experiment called college comes to an end. What sort of end it will be, I do not yet know, but let us hope that it will be a good one. For now, let me wow what ever audience I may have with tales of intrigue, danger, adventure and romance, otherwise known as Spring Break! Okay, there was not any romance. But the rest happened!

Adam, Nick and I left on Friday for Louisville. New Albany would be more accurate, but who knows where New Albany is? I sure didn't. Anyway, the plan was to drive to New Albany, meet up with Andrew, Beth and Rachel, trade my car for Nick's van and then head to Atlanta. We got out of Lafayette at about 2 pm. Traffic was pretty good all the way down, and we cruised at a pretty steady 73ish until we got to Nick's exit. As I applied the brakes on the exit ramp, my right front tire started making the "Thump thump thump thump thump" sound of a flat. I groaned. The car really did not want to brake, nor turn, but we coaxed it the 2 miles to Nick's house.

When we got out, a quick inspection revealed that the tire was not flat. I called my dad (always a good course of action with cars). This led to use of the jack, rotating the tire, and then eventually taking it off. As it turned out, one of the bolts that secures the brake shoe to the car had fallen out. Awesome. Well, Andrew's dad volunteered to see if he could find a new bolt, so I thanked him profusely, we ate some dinner, traded cars, and took off for Atlanta (aren't parents great?).

So the girls were planning on coming down to Atlanta to watch the Ultimate tourny (Terminus) that Adam, Andrew, Nick and I were playing in. The were then going to visit people in Atlanta and generally enjoy the warm weather. Adam rode with them in their car, while Nick Andrew and I were in the van. At about 10:30, we got a call from Adam saying that their car had overheated. We stopped, got coolant, filled the reservoir back up, tested the car, had it fail, and then pushed it 3/4 of a mile down the highway to the next exit. Adam and the girls decided to stay at the Day's Inn and wait for morning when a guy named Charles might be able to help them. Andrew Nick and I left for Atlanta. The time was 11:30 pm.

We got to the north side of Atlanta at about 4:30. We decided to drive straight to the fields because game time was so close. Nick combined our directions to the hotel with the directions from the hotel to the fields to make some directions directly to the fields. We got there and peed on the fence. We got back in the car and left in search of food. The time was 5:30 am.

We ended up sleeping for an hour and a half in the van before the rest of the team showed up and we commenced with the festivities. While I didn't play much, the weather was great, and there was some good ultimate on Saturday and Sunday. I slept for 11.5 hours on Saturday night (which set the tone for the rest of the week).

Next installment: How not to freeze to death in the woods.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


My thoughts have been running all over the place of late. I am finally getting some distance from Love Triangle Shenanigans that consumed much of December and January. An over ambitious spring break trip is right around the corner. Graduation looms. Teach for America just shipped me a bunch of reading material. So I guess I am just going to talk about a bunch of random stuff.

I wonder if I am going to be any good at teaching. Here I am, 2 months from a BS in Mechanical Engineering and I am turning away from the field in which I have more than a year and half of work experience. Did you know that as a teacher for Teach for America, I still have to interview for a job with a school district? This information shocked me. What do I have to talk about? I don't know anything about teaching! Well, scratch that, I know how to be a sucky teacher. That's easy. Just stop caring about the students, speak unintelligible english, never be available outside of class and you pretty much have suckying down pat. But being good...well that's a different story. So maybe it will go like this:

Principal person: So why do you want to be a teacher?

Me: I think I can make a difference in teaching. Teaching allows me to serve a need through skills that I have.

Principal person: It says here that you have a BSME...why didn't you go into education?

Me: Well, uhh, because I thought the classes would suck?

So yea, I don't think that would go too well.

I was back in GR this past weekend, and so went to church at Mars Hill. It amazes me that Mars, and home in general, can be so filled with these emotional cues and yet be so seperate from anything I am going through now. I mean, I don't know anybody at Mars Hill anymore. Home is now a place my parents live. I don't even like my bed....yea. But what I really wanted to talk about was the sermon that Rob gave. He talked about the Lent season. Apparently, there are 'standard sermons' for each weekend in Lent. The first weekend is "The Temptation of Jesus".

In general, I have not really gotten 'into' Lent. I don't really see the point in giving up some thing for 40 days, and really that is about all I knew about it. This idea of a standard sermon, however, really struck me as meaningful. It was like I was suddenly part of this world wide community, all of whom are experiencing a similar thing, for similar reasons. It's kind of like when you take communion and you pause and think about how many millions of people have taken communion down through history and that at that moment, you are partnering in this recognition of the divinity of this man who came and loved so freely. There is something in that, being part of that group.

And this brings up all sorts of other questions. My parents don't really 'hang out' with other people all that often. How do they 'do life' with out a strong community around them? All people have something in common, in that we were all created by God, we are all human. How much similarity is enough for community? Why do we insist on seperating ourselves so much, into economic, gender, race, relgion, profession?

Finally, a piece of inspiration from the incomparable Catch-22:
"Major Major had been born too late and too mediocre. Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was."

Sunday, February 26, 2006

No, You're a Grownup

I got called a grownup last week, for the first time in my life. It was by a 6 year old little girl named Kaitlyn.

After thinking for a little bit about whether this was bad or not, I decided that I did not want to be a grownup. So I told her that no, I was not, in fact, a grownup. She insisted that I was. So I told her, that I was not a grownup, but rather that *she* was a grownup.

This spawned my new favorite game, which I have called "You're a grownup".

The basis of the game is that you have to use all your wits to come up with a complete proof of the other persons grownup-ness. In this case, the 'proof' consisted of the reciting of a nursery rhyme. Here is an example:

"Little Miss Muffet, sat on her're a grownup!"

In this example, the "Little Miss Muffet" part is sung just as one would sing the nursery rhyme. During the ellipsis, the debater would pause for dramatic affect, perhaps even pretend that they would continue the room, but then point and say "you're a grownup" with utter finality.

In my 22 years of life I have heard my fair share of nursery rhymes, so I was not hard pressed to continue to think of original ones against my competitor, six year old Kaitlyn. When she would begin to re-use rhymes, I would point out her error, and then she would think very deeply trying to conjure some new rhyme. Invariably, this process would end with the telling of a fake rhyme such as, "Spiderman, spiderman climbs the're a grownup!"

Needless to say, I was endlessly amused by these creations, as well as the game in general, so I have played it for my past two visits to LUM.

p.s. The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout.

You're a grownup.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Let's jump

Yesterday I had double confirmation that the leg workouts Mr. Hunt and I have been doing are paying off.

Firstly, while playing kickball and wiffleball with the LUM kids yesterday, I took it upon myself to dunk the kickball a few times. And this wasn't "I'll try and dunk and not really dunk" or "I'll try and get rejected by the rim", this was "Hey! I just dunked!" I know that this should not be a new and fun experience to someone of my physical stature, but well, like I always tell myself, "I'm white." Not much of an excuse, I know, but there ya go.

Second, (and is firstly even a word? What is the point of the -ly? What adjective or verb is that adverb modifying? This is why I need my own personal intern.) the ultimate team had its first indoor practice last night at an indoor soccer field. I thought the fields worked out okay, and playing with traction was a pleasant change from the gym, but the point is that I was definitely jumping well. Of course I still have a hesitancy to jump when there are other people around, and, I cannot really estimate how high I should jump, and as a result, I still mistime my jumps quite severely. So really, I am not sure how far jumping by myself at the wrong time will get me, but at least I am jumping higher when I do it.

Monday, February 20, 2006

I think I'll graduate

Last semester I took an independant research project as a technical elective. I had a advising professor, a project and a goal, but I was quite lacking on motivation or something because I never did anything. Well, I set up the test, but that was it.

At the end of last semester, I emailed my professor and basically said, "I did not do anything, give me an incomplete and I'll finish next semester." So that was what he did.

So here I am, on the 20th of February, the last day to change grades from last semester (according to the University). I have not finished my testing, but I actually started it, finally. I wrote up this very very incomplete report detailing the project I have been working on, e-mailed it off to my professor and then said "Well, that's that."

If I pass, then I will graduate in May. If I don't, I will have to take Maymester, and then graduate in June.

My professor emailed me back and said "I called the office but they were closed already."

I think I want to graduate.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Apparently, I am quite disappointing

So I volunteer at this organization called Love In the Name of Christ. Love, INC for short. The organization acts as a go-between for people in the community who have needs, whether they be monetary or physical or whatever, and with churches in the community who would like to help meet these needs. In general, we act as a buffer, protecting churches from having to invest resources in verifying the claims of everyone who has need in the community. We also act as a one-stop-shop for the person in need, so that they don't have to call every church in the area.

Anyway, so Love, INC has a number which runs to an answering machine. People call in, give their name and number and briefly describe their need. Today, a lady called in and said she needed help moving. I called her back to get more info on where, when, why, how much, etc. You see, this is not an unusual request, but Nate told me that we should always find out contact info for where they are moving from and to, because we do not want to be helping someone skip out on rent or move into some place illegally. When I asked these questions, the lady flipped out, her husband started yelling in the background, and then the eventually hung up on me. The reason, as far as I can tell, is that they *are* skipping out on rent and moving somewhere else.

The interesting part, is that not even 10 minutes later, some random guy calls up and asks "Are you a Christian Society?" I was somewhat taken aback, I must admit, because the word "Society" implies to me some sort of Freemason type thing. So I hesitated and said, "Well, we are a Christian Organization, if that is what you mean." Confirming this, the man proceeded to tell me that he was a Christian and that no Christian organization should ask all sorts of personal questions when they are helping people, that he was disappointed in this, and that was all he had to say.

So...I don't get it. The lady *did* claim that the landlord was trying to screw them over, but even if this were verified, couldn't they just not pay and then win in any court battle? If you were their neighbor and had no involvement, would you help them move?

Friday, February 10, 2006

Law Breaker

Well, I have been reading these things for a while now, especially Mr. Driver's and a slew of ultimate blogs. I really liked the idea of keeping those interested folks at home up to date on the Teach for America happenings, once they go down, and I also like the idea of having a place to post all the random junk that comes out of my head.

Here's an example. The other week I was sitting and listening to the TNT sermon on James chapter 2 and I got this idea for a drama to cover the idea of the Law and its function.

Lights fade in to show a angelic looking dude, sitting behind a table. Behind him are some type of door or entryway, emblematic of "those pearly gates". Some old guy, preferably an adorable one, walks approaches the table.

Table Dude: Hello Mr. ______! It is so good to finally meet you and speak with you! Your life has been one we up here have taken a fond interest in, for you have truly been a shining example of a righteous life.

Table Dude turns around and opens a file cabinet (or shelf type storage) and pulls out two very large 3-ring binders. The first is very very full, while the second is almost empty. He opens the very large binder and starts leafing through it.

Table Dude: Well Mr. _____, it says here that when you were 12 you went on a mission trip to Haiti with your family. It really set the course for your teenage years.

Mr. ______: Smiling in memory, I remember that trip! Oh how I loved playing soccer with the kids at the orphanage. They were so much better than me, but we had a great time. Does that have my whole life in there?

Table Dude continues leafing through the binder, pointing out some other really 'good' things that Mr. _____ did, while Mr. _____ reminisces.

Table Dude puts away the full binder and opens the empty binder. There is a single sheet contained in this binder. He starts to look it over and looks disturbed.

Table Dude: Well Mr. _______, it says here that during your freshmen year of college, you took some legal pads from a company you worked for.

Mr. ______: Thinking, Yea, I remember that. I took the one I needed and then 3 extra for the upcoming school year. Everyone was taking them, and I was going to have a tough year financially, so I thought every little bit would help.

Table Dude: It even says here that you gave them back two days later.

Mr. _______: It just messed with my conscience. Every time I went home, they would haunt me.

Table Dude: Well Mr. _______, those pads did not belong to you. That was stealing.

Mr. ______: Well, I guess, but I gave them back right?

Table Dude: I'm sorry about this, but that doesn't matter. You still stole.

Table Dude turns around and pulls out a huge stamp. He stands up, inks the stamp, and proceeds to slam it down on the page with all his might, while yelling "Law Breaker!" He continues to yell "Law Breaker!" at increasing volume, while Mr. _____ falls down to his knees, cries, and the lights fade out.