Touring with Education First

12 chaperones. 130 students. 3 cities all done with Education First. As a chaperone, my expenses were paid for, and this year’s group of 8th graders were really good. Yet, I walked away from this chaperoning trip with mixed feelings.

Breakdown of our itinerary:

Day 1 – Depart SFO on overnight flight. Arrive early the next morning. Stop for breakfast before heading to several Smithsonians and the Holocaust museum. Late afternoon walking tour of the Lincoln, Vietnam, and Korean war memorials.

 

Day 2 – Mt. Vernon visit, walking tour of Arlington and the changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, White House photo stop, National Archives, and a Washington Nationals baseball game.

 

Day 3 – Tidal Basin memorials including Jefferson, FDR, and MLK Jr. Then a tour of the Capitol Building, the Newseum, and bus ride to Gettysburg.

 

Day 4 – Gettysburg battlefields and memorials bus tour, Amish country bus tour (BEST PRETZELS EVER), Amish dinner and bus ride to Philadelphia. (Don’t mind the edge of my finger in the frame of Gettysburg below…)

 

Day 5 – The Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art steps, Liberty Bell, and Independence Hall. Flight home.

 

Pros:

  • Buses had it’s own port-a-potty. A/C was well appreciated, especially in DC.
  • Each bus came with a tour director who spoke to use on the mic about the things we were to see while walking around
  • Kids were really good overall
  • The docents at each site were good, especially the Gettysburg park ranger.
  • Newseum was a winner.

Cons:

  • It was HOT. And we spent the hottest days, and the hottest part of the day, outside walking around looking at stuff.
  • Buses were not equipped with coolers of ice and bottled water, like they said we would have.
  • That red-eye flight destroyed the student’s energy. Which made them drag their feet, and everything took that much longer. I was afraid I would be herding cats, but it was more like herding turtles.
  • Departure flight to DC was changed 6 times. Students had to be broken up into smaller groups and flown on different flights. All these changes were done by the teacher chaperones, forced on us by United Airlines, and not helped at all by EF.
  • The tour director on my bus basically read off of wikipedia on her phone the whole time.
  • The tour director also refused to give the bus driver the full list of places we would visit beforehand. She just directed the bus driver as we went. On top of that, she couldn’t properly use Google Maps (didn’t click the start button, only dropped a pin on the location and routed it) which meant a lot of time wasted turning around and around in circles
  • The first hotel we stayed at didn’t have our rooms cleaned by the time we arrived. The second hotel we stayed at was on the shabby side and had holes in all the linens and towels. The third hotel we stayed at was the only decent one.
  • There was a lot of miscommunication between each bus’ tour director and the DC head tour coordinator.
  • We crammed so much in during the first half that the last half was rather anti-climactic
  • Not very educational overall. I didn’t learn that much from the tour directors, and there wasn’t a time for reflecting on the things I did learn.
  • Tour directors left us hanging at the airport for our departure flight home, after American Airlines originally refused to print out a group set of boarding passes for the 142 of us. In their words, “Our responsibility ends at getting you to the airport. Bye!”

EF did handle a lot of parent communication, but I can totally see my school doing the entire tour ourselves – booking the transportation, getting tickets and museum entrance times, getting the educational part of it all done properly.

Have you toured with Education First? What are your thoughts? Are there better companies out there?

What’s in my chaperone bag?

Returned from chaperoning the 8th grade DC trip late Friday night/early Saturday morning. Reeling from sleep deprivation, but it was fun. We had a few kids who got lost, or meandered off with another group, but that’s to be expected with 140 students amongst the sea of students in DC. They were all found again, and at least they had the sense to join another bus from our same school.

NOTE: All of the lost students ended up joining my group. Because we are the best bus, and the best chaperones!

Before I left, I filmed myself packing for the trip. Here’s the video:

Reading for inspiration

My school district has been a member of SVMI for as long as I can remember.

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This past school year, I actually went to some of their PD days. One of the PD days included the California Mathematics Council conference at Asilomar, CA.

And part of attending that conference meant a subscription to the CMC and their quarterly newsletter, the ComMuniCator.

Not that I have the time to read, although I suppose I can bring one with me on the plane to DC. The thing is, they are paper bound magazines, and not glossies, so I fear for their durability on a chaperoning field trip. Especially when they actually contain things I would like to use in my classroom.

The first first edition I received contained a dodecahedron 2017 calendar. I printed the template out on card stock and gave it to my students to make on their last day of school before winter break. It was super fun. However, one of the science teachers at my school had already used an origami dodecahedron template, so it wasn’t as cool for many of my students. It did make for an easier time cutting and folding these, so give-and-take, yes?

I’m next interested in the article about strengthening multiplication skills. The intervention students often come to us with VERY WEAK basic facts skills. I haven’t read the article and the lessons thoroughly yet. When I do, I’ll implement it in the fall and make a post about it later.

What kind of math teaching readings do you recommend?

How to plan a summer

On Friday, I completed and submitted all grades for my students. My classroom is about 95% packed up and cleaned out. And I’m looking forward to a week’s worth of year-end school activities. Yay!

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I’m also looking forward to this summer – a jam packed, fun-filled summer! But first, a bit of a reflection: After surviving my first year teaching, I spent that summer doing NOTHING. And it was GLORIOUS.

However, it was also very boring. I vowed to myself never to have a nothing-summer ever again, and since thing I’ve steadily increased the depth and breadth of my summer activities. Here’s a run down:

Summer 2011: The summer of nothing – which means I spent my days fully digitizing my curriculum binders. I think I explored the bay area a lot, and I hung out with friends and family of course. This was also the summer I stumbled upon my current church and small group.

2012: A series of 3-day professional developments, including a common core seminar, and an RTI seminar. Participated in the very beginnings of our essential standards work. Helped out at summer registration and math placement testing. San Diego missions with youth group.

2013: First AVID summer institute! More mentoring and essential standards work. Then a week teaching 6th graders how to take notes, stay organized, and opening a combination lock. Officially took over summer registration math placement testing. San Diego summer missions again.

2014: Summer interning at Lockheed Martin. So. Much. Driving. Earned lots of money, and learned that the cubicle life is not for me. The beginnings of house-hunting for house-buying. A very fun wedding party with some very fun people. First school staff retreat. Also church retreat.

2015: Summer in Hong Kong. Lots of swimming, shopping, eating, and digging for clams in the South China Sea. Lots of family time, and there may or may not have been an impressive Beyonce rendition at someone’s birthday karaoke.

2016: Tons of firsts! First summer teaching college and career pathways camp. First Toastmasters experience. First time going wine tasting. First AIDS walk. First subscription to Amazon Prime. First symphony night. First escape room play day. My rabbit 王彩 died. A bunch of bridesmaid duties. Another AVID summer institute.

Most of my summers include some sort of work. It’s so hard for me to NOT work, or at least not spend some time working. Which is where I’ll start the how-to part of this post.

How to plan a summer

1. Gather a list of events you would like to do. Professional developments? County fairs? Travel? I keep an eye out on professional development opportunities during the last few months of the school year – and I try to only go to the ones where my school will foot the bill, or the free ones. Keep a list of any associated dates and costs.

2. Include variety. Looking at my list above on my previous summers, you can probably tell that for the most part I either spend all of it working, or all of it playing. Last summer was the best balance I had so far of both work and fun. I wouldn’t lean more towards one or the other.

3. Pencil in the dates, and prioritize. Super important to keep track of what happens when. If some events overlap others, then it’s time to decide which one you prefer more. I like to also keep some gaps in my schedule to ensure downtime gets in amongst weekend after week of being on the road or going to events.

4. Keep in touch. Once school is out and summer starts, not a lot of your colleagues will look at their emails that regularly. Get phone numbers of certain key people and make sure send them a message every so often. Share your travel plans with people. Chatting it out with someone can make the event that much more enjoyable.

5. Leave room for spontaneity. As the Little Prince says, and over-scheduled life is no fun. Leaving space for the freedom of changing plans is one of the most luxurious things I can do for myself. Life is already dictated by bells during the school year. Don’t let your summer be the same. Usually, I like to have at least three days of no-plan days in between each summer activity: 1 day to decompress, do laundry/cleaning, and enjoy hermit mode a bit (I’m an introvert), 1 day to do random, spur-of-the-moment things like go on a drive along the coast (not during rush hour!), drop by that new boba place while running errands, or have a good long FaceTime session with my bff. The third day is to gear up and prepare for the next event.

6. Keep an eye on financial matters. The summer I went to Hong Kong was probably the hardest one to estimate costs for. Luckily, my family has a home there, and once the plane ticket was purchased, nearly all my remaining budget could be for fun stuff. Spend money on experiences rather than on things. Although, the things were fun too, I did resist the urge blow all my money at Muji. I think the largest single transaction I had during my trip was treating 12 family members to dinner in Macau.

What are your teacher tips for productive and relaxing summers? Leave a comment below!

The problem with communication

I like to think that I’m a fairly good communicator. For every 1 student who says I don’t make sense, 9 other students tell me how much they appreciate my methods of making complex concepts clear for them.

Yet every year, I still get email messages like these:

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Parents are so confused as to why their middle school teachers so very rarely contact them, even when things are going less than well for their student. The first time they hear of their child’s poor progress often happens in the form of an official looking transcript in the mail. Unbelievable, right?!

Well, believe it or not, there are reasons for the madness. And there are ways to help yourself about it.

Secondary school is NOT elementary school

Elementary school teachers see one class of 20-30 students all day, everyday. Most elementary schools hold teacher/parent conferences at least once per year, regardless of how well the student is performing. Families not only can pick up a school or classroom newsletter in person when they pick up their kids, but they also see the teacher face-to-face at the door at times. Parent skills are still needed as volunteers for book fairs, craft fairs, costume parades, and field trips.

Secondary school – both middle and high school – teachers see 5 classes of 30-40 students per day, but not always everyday depending on if the school site has block day schedules. Most secondary schools hold teacher/parent conferences at maximum once per year. Families increasingly rely on carpools, after-school care, or their walking/biking for their student to get home. So even if there is a school newsletter to pick up, it’s probably easier not to. Craft fairs and costume parades are nonexistent. Field trips take all day, perhaps in a different town a couple hours away. Parents – with the looming cost of college quickly approaching – are pulling more shifts and working harder for their paycheck than every before.

And that’s the way it should be. Secondary school shouldn’t be exactly like elementary school. It would be impractical, it wouldn’t serve to teach our students the communication skills they need, and it would just be down right weird.

So if the school doesn’t reach out to parents in secondary school anymore, how do we communicate?

Parents: First, rephrase that question to something more like, “WHAT and HOW are the ways the school communicates to me that are different from how it was done at my elementary school?” Once you’ve done that, you’re mostly golden.

The biggest change from elementary to secondary school communication is going from an intimate, 1-on-1 style to mass-comm. On an intellectual level, most people understand that secondary teachers have a lot more students. But rarely in my experience have I come across anyone – parent, student, regular layperson, even educators themselves – who fully understand what this means on a daily level. So let me break it down:

I have 150 students this year. My work day is 7.17 hours, or approximately 430 minutes. 430 ÷ 150 is approximately 2.9 minutes. I have approximately 2.9 minutes per student to:

  • assess their individual needs
  • plan and deliver an effective lesson
  • provide meaningful feedback on their work
  • monitor their classroom behavior, and intervene as necessary
  • collect and organize their paperwork, grade it, then return it
  • communicate to them what they need to do next
  • communicate to their families their progress in class

And I haven’t had lunch, or yet figured out where on earth chrome book cart I had checked out today went. Or peed.

In juxtaposition, elementary school teachers have between 14.3 to 21.5 minutes per student to do the same. That’s approximately SEVEN TIMES the amount of time a secondary teacher has. Mass communication probably also happens at the elementary level, but people know that they can still approach the teacher 1-on-1 fairly easily. At the secondary level, mass comm is the air we breathe.

Secondary schools should still have a newsletter though – it’s probably mass emailed to you, rather than passed out as a hard copy. Which means two glitches could happen:

  1. Because you probably have not updated your contact information with the school since your children entered that school, say in 6th grade, there is a chance that the email on file is no longer the email you actually check regularly.
    • The solution: Update your contact info with the front office. Don’t do it through the teacher. The teacher has no access whatsoever to change your personal contact information for you, no matter how much you, or they, wish they did.
  2. Because it is a mass mailer, your email may have probably shunted the school newsletter to your junk mail folder.
    • The solution: First, check your junk mail folder. If you find any messages from your school there, move that message to your inbox, or appropriate folder, and then ADD the school’s contact email to your address book. Once an email address is in your address book, then your email shouldn’t shunt further messages to the junk mail folder
    • Otherwise: Do #1 above.

Most secondary schools also have some sort of web-based attendance and grade book system. Learn how to create your own account, how your student can create their own account, and check in on it at least once per week. Each of your student’s teachers should also have some sort of online presence as well. At my school, our online grade book has a feature where teachers can link their websites to their grade book.

If you can, participate in a parent group. Nowadays, you are probably not limited to the white-bread PTA. All California schools are required to have some sort of school-site committee, or an LCAPP committee and an English Learner parent group. On top of these, my school has a Padre Unidos, an African American Alliance Network, an LGBT network, an athletics boosters, and the parent volunteer group associated with the leadership/activities class. Also, if your school has a student run newspaper, video journalism broadcast feed, or a Remind app group, then you should also subscribe to those.

Messages from the principal will usually go out as a mass auto-dialer, although these are few and far between (an elementary school principal has to oversee and manage 20-30-odd staff; while most secondary school principals have 70+ staff, and a larger campus with a student population more likely to graffiti, steal, and do other property damage). Everything in the newsletter email section above applies to phone numbers as well.

If worse comes to worst, don’t be afraid to reach out first. Email is typically best, otherwise, set up a face-to-face appointment. I cannot have a deep phone conversation about your student’s progress during the school day because your student’s 34 other classmates are waiting for me to do something on the other line. I’m usually not in my own classroom in the afternoons due to meetings and staff collaborations, and I need to protect my mornings before school in order to prepare and get my ‘battle gear’ on, if you know what I mean.

Teachers are happy enough to talk to parents, especially those who want to know how they can help their student improve.

Teachers: Think outside the box. There are tons of apps that can help with communication. Take a risk and try one. Make it known that you are experimenting with it, and have a learning curve yourself. Parents are more likely to be forgiving of an accidental butt-dial than complete silence from the teacher.

Learn about the features that may be already embedded into the tech that you use for school everyday. For me, I do mass email messages to parents and students a week prior to progress reports, and then again a week prior before the end of the quarter. I follow up the message by using the grade report feature on my web-based grade book to send grades to each individual student and their families. Granted, there are times when this schedule falls to the wayside. It’s ok. Just pick it back up again. You can do it!

Ok, cool. I’m in on all this mass comm stuff. But my student is FAILING. How come the teacher hasn’t notified me yet?

Parents: First, I need you to define what ‘failing’ means to you. Then, I need you to compare your definition to the following:

  • A letter grade of F ranges anywhere from 0% to 59%. The needs of the student with a 59% is very different from the needs of the student with a 0%.
    • In addition, the needs of a student who works SUPER hard and still has a 59% is also vastly different from the needs of the student with a 59% because she or he has completed and turned in 3 out of the past 30 assignments. Guess which one a typical teacher will spend more of their limited time on?
  • Parent/student/teacher conferences are officially held once per year, and only for the students who have multiple Ds and Fs
  • And if their Ds and Fs are not in either English or math, then there are times when schools don’t even bother. We have enough to get on with.
  • An 8th grade student at my school can have 2 Ds and Cs in everything else, and they’ll still walk at advancement
  • Until the day public school has a place to put students who are failing massively past the last day of their secondary grade level, then there really is not urgency to help those who are

I’m glad you have super high standards for your student, because I do too. But a letter grade of B in my class is actually what it is supposed to mean: above average. Just because I’m Asian, doesn’t mean that I consider my Bs to be an ‘Asian F.’

Second, I need you to refresh your memory of the expectations of secondary school in general, and your teacher’s classroom specifically. You got it? Ready? Then here goes:

You, the parent/guardian, are not in my class. Your student is.

I am not judging you, nor your parenting skills, if your student has an F. Their grade and citizenship marks are entirely their own production. I expect my students to keep up with the homework, to participate fully in class, to ask clarifying questions, to be aware of what they need to study, and to actually do so. Any student doing any of these things with any kind of fidelity have always passed my class, and will continue to do so. Any student not doing these things, then well.

Your student is also not a baby anymore. They need to learn that their actions have consequences – and they are old enough to feel the consequences for themselves. Middle school is that weird and wonky field where grades kinda matter and kinda don’t at the same time. No one past their 9th grade teacher will look at their middle school grades ever again. If a student has a tendency towards failing of their own accord, then now is the time to let them fail, when the stakes are low and their habits are still malleable. So go ahead, take that phone away. Lock up their game system. Change that wifi password. Go old school and ground them. If it’s an option, bring them to work with you after school is over. You have to go back to work after you pick them up. Why can’t they?

Third, I need to you to re-read the section above about mass communication. You know that online grade book? The fact that I’ve posted the grade there means I’ve communicated it to you. I’ve also passed back the test in class, gone over it with my students, fielded questions, and brought up the most missed questions again and again as warm-ups, homework, classwork, group work, projects, and extra credit. I’ve reminded students on a daily basis that they might see these problems again on a future assessment, even if we’ve moved on to a different topic. I’ve offered both mandatory and voluntary tutoring sessions. The ways to relearn the topic, and to recover the grade, are already in play – announced in class and accessible to all students, with reasonable due dates.

If your student chooses not to do any of that, then well. This experience of failure might be a good thing for them in the long run.

And if it isn’t a good thing. If it is another action that fits their pattern, then both you and I and everyone at school already know this. This kind of kid has been on our radar for a long time, possibly since kindergarten. Mike Mattos, the creator of the Response to Intervention, would call these students ‘Tier 3.’ And if you want the school to help them, then you need to skip to the bottom section of this post.

Teachers: All I ask is that you update your grade book, and reply to emails with clarifying questions in a timely manner. That’s all. Please. Pretty please with a cherry on top? PLEASE?!

Ok, sure. I get it. A teacher has a lot to do, and I need to check the online grade book and their website. And it’s my student’s responsibility. But what about the counselor? What do they do all day? How come they haven’t contacted me?

Parents: According to this article, the ideal ratio of students to counselors is 250:1. I can tell you right now that this ratio does not exist at most schools. It certainly does not exist at my school, where it’s closer to 450:1.

On top of which, counselors are more and more often getting called on to handle behavior – social, emotional, interpersonal, intrapersonal, etc. They manage aggressive students after a fight, girl-boy drama, teen depression, bullying, both social media and IRL, sex education, mindfulness sessions, family drama, students with mental health issues, foster youth, chronic absentees, stress, 504 and SST cases, and so much more.

If your counselor hasn’t personally contacted you – please take that as a good sign.

Teachers: What I’ve always wanted to do is to create a system to work a lot closer with counselors. I’m lucky to work with some great ones, and we’ve been able to do a lot. Yet there is so much more to do. It can’t be done by any one single person. Yet, we each individually have so much on our plates that meeting as a group feels like a chore right now.

Whoa. Ok. How can I help?

Both parents and teachers: Now you’re talking!

First, encourage your local representatives – state and federal – to visit your local school and shadow a teacher or counselor for a day. Invite them to teach a class, sit in on a group counseling session, to a PTA meeting, a board meeting. Write them an email about your passion for education in this country, and that we as a nation need to support it better and more often than ever before.

Second, know that you and your children’s secondary teachers are probably more on the same side than you are with your child. No matter how wonderful a kid can be, they have this funny tendency to freeze up and make some poor choices. And usually, no one but them can see these poor choices. Sometimes their peers can. Next, the quad and cafeteria supervisors can. Middle school students sometimes act one way towards one adult, and another towards another. I blame this entirely on human nature.

Be ok with checking. Make your student empty their backpack in front of you. Walk your student into their classroom before school starts and watch them hand over their late work to the teacher. RESIST THE URGE TO DO IT FOR THEM.

It’s hard. I know, I’m with you. It’s hard when you are divorced from your child’s father/mother, and not in the ‘we’re not married anymore, but we’re still cool, and I know my ex-whoever is very committed to our kids, as am I’ kinda way. It’s hard when they go to the other house and you have no control over what school work happens (or does not happen) there.

It’s hard when you have to work full-time. Even harder if you, like me, live in the California Bay Area and commute on average 40 minutes each way. You leave the house before your kid is up. You trust that they will catch the bus on time. You get back after they should be in bed, but if they happen to be up still you want to spend it with family time rather than on school work.

Believe me when I say that your child will have a much stronger memory and value of family if you make family time BE school work as well. You do it together. You learn it together. You spend time pondering difficult and unfamiliar math problems like it’s a game together. You research the Civil War together. You read their English essays and poems and have deep, philosophical discussions together. You are the f***ing Kennedy’s and their intellectual dinner conversations, and you ROCK it. One of my favorite memories of my mom is when she would drill me on vocab for Chinese school while I brushed my teeth. She would fill the sink with super hot water, steam up the mirror, and make me write my characters in the fog.

I have no memory whatsoever of any family vacations we’ve taken, or game nights we’ve had, or movies we’ve watched together. I used to think we just never did any of those things, because we didn’t have the money, but my older cousins say otherwise. They would visit from wherever they were studying in college, and my parents would take us all over the place.

But nope, no recollection whatsoever. My strongest memory, and hence my strongest personal value transmitted from my parents? => Doing good, solid work together. No wonder I became a teacher.