keep the blood in your head, and keep your feet on the ground

member of society…

Posted on October 5, 2018

a student of mine asked me to fix her phone screen, but the mission was a complete and utter failure. it would turn on, but the screen stayed black.

i suggested she take the phone to the store because it was still under warranty.

a couple of days later, i asked her what the status of her phone was.

“i’m so sad,” she said, streaking her finger down her face, simulating a tear drop. “my said she would take me on the weekend.”

i tried to put a silver lining on the situation. “but don’t you feel good not being tethered to it? you’re free!” though i’d be hard pressed to ever give up my smartphone completely, there have been times when i didn’t have a working phone. it would be painful at first, but i’d feel that invisible cord around my neck loosening after a while.

“well, it feels good and bad.” she shrugged, her eyes moving left to right, looking for the right words to explain how she felt.

“like, i don’t contribute to society, you know?”

she threw up her hands in surrender to the situation.

“i’m useless.”

her response stunned me. “what do you mean? you’re not useless.”

“i am, though. i’m not uploading pictures, i don’t have snapchat. i just sit in my room, and i don’t contribute anything.”

suddenly, i felt like paul atreides from dune, drinking the water of life.

i finally understood what it means to be a milennial.

we started a league…

Posted on October 3, 2018

about two years ago, i got back magic: the gathering.

i stopped sometime in high school around the time the fallen empires set was released — some 20 years or more ago. my friends and i would save up our quarters and make weekend trips to buy packs.

i never pulled a shivan dragon or a vesuvan doppelganger. and i regret trading away all of my dual-lands.

whatever i didn’t trade away, i sold off when i quit. if only i had just held onto them — some of those cards might be in a few of my commander decks today.


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ever since i got back into magic, i’ve been thinking about starting a magic club at school.

sometime last year, a student walked into my class during lunch, introduced himself, and asked if i would be an advisor for his board game club next year.

i didn’t make any hard commitments at the time, but i told him i was open to the idea.

“come back next year and ask me again,” i told him.

at the beginning of the year, he entered my class as a student. he reminded me of his plans. the game club was born, and on tuesdays, the kids hang out in room 4 to play board games. after school, they roleplay dungeons and dragons.

on wednesdays, they set up the tv in my room and play video games.

the club was filled with kids, and it seemed like the right time to start a magic league.

i contacted my buddies at the local gaming store, mythic games, who supplied us with a box full of welcome decks. i bought sleeves and deck boxes from bcw. i created a slide presentation containing a broad overview, league rules, and an faq.

a handful of students came in and paid their $5 due. ms. brown, the co-advisor for the game club, came in and dropped off $10.

“use the extra $5 for anyone who needs it,” she said.

the kids waited impatiently for the first official day. at lunch, they rushed in. i passed out score sheets, and the kids sat down for their first matches. kids won, kids lost, and kids taught each other how to play.

they were having fun and meeting new people.

they were learning.


2018-09-28 15.17.25

the club has since grown to almost 40 students with very little advertising, and we’re in our sixth week.

something that’s helped — creating an achievement worth 20 points for bringing a friend into the league and teaching them how to play.

points can be used on cards, so the kids have begun building their decks according to types. i built a control deck to show the kids how it’s done, and now the rest of the blue players have followed suit.

the lamentations of the other players can be heard throughout the school.

in a way, i feel like a kid again. magic seems new, as if i’ve gone back into the past. usually, when i buy a pack, i head straight to the last three cards to see which rares and uncommons i get. now, i’m seeing cards i’ve passed over in draft become real threats. i’m seeing the game from a new perspective where things like guild gates are critical.

a 3/3 at three mana is a game-changer.


2018-09-28 17.38.39

i posted my league guidelines on reddit and received great feedback. (thanks, reddit!)

i also got to read how others ran their club, which helped me set expectations.

i can say it’s been a success here, and i wanted to share what i created and learned. it’s funny — as ultra-competitive as i am, i can’t help but smile when i hear the words: “i beat jacob! i beat jacob!”


here’s a link to my guidelines. feel free to use it for your own club.

also, head over to wizards of the coast to request a welcome kit and a club kit. that will net you some welcome decks, a couple of posters, a bag of spindown counters, two planeswalker decks, a deckbuilders toolkit, and a playmat for teaching. (thanks, wizards!)

if you’re a teacher or organizer, play with your club. i made myself, the co-advisor, and my teacher’s assistant bounties for a few weeks, and the kids get a kick out of seeing established players work through the turns. it also gives me a chance to sit with my students one-on-one to give them pointers and help them with more advanced techniques and plays.

reward your players for playing, losing, and teaching others. give them an incentive that goes beyond collecting — make them experience the game.

and on that same note, a warning — don’t give away too many cards. make the players earn them.

find that balance where the players who are good and participate most can get ahead on the curve, but they’re not so far out that the students who are busy with other extracurriculars drop out. as the league organizer, you can control the gaps.

it can all be summed up with: make it fun and have fun.

and maybe, like me, you’ll catch yourself staying until 6 pm on a monday, way past the last school bell.

 

2018-09-28 16.50.07

zeroes…

Posted on September 27, 2018

it’s hard being a teacher.

quitting is a constant and persistent thought in my mind. when i wake up, when i’m driving to school, when i pull out the keys to my classroom out of my pocket — i am in a  state of distress.

because teaching is hard and goes against every physical instinct i have. i’m an introvert who doesn’t like public speaking or big crowds of people. i’m completely insecure, awkward, and i tend to say things that will likely be used against me if ever i were to run for public office.

it’s why i fill my off-hours with chores and mind-consuming hobbies that take me away from uncomfortable social settings. i have a solid group of friends i stick with who make me feel safe.

everything else is lava.

so when i step foot into a classroom, i have to ignore that intense desire to run. i become an escape artist. for six (contracted) hours a day i’m hovering over a pool of blood-thirsty piranhas, and the rope holding me aloft is on fire.

i’ve just lost the key to my straitjacket, and i’m mere seconds away from death. suddenly, the bell rings.

the class empties in seconds. i slump down into my chair, breathe what feels like the first gasp of air, and i begin processing everything that happened that day.

on average, about 75% of my students turn in their assignments on time and correctly where they need to be turned in (digitally on google classroom).

half of them will receive passing grades. the rest will have either copied their work from another student or source, done the absolute bare minimum, or written down a bunch of silly nonsensical answers because they really didn’t get it and didn’t bother to ask any questions.

it’s frustrating having to hand out a grade a student deserves because most of my students — if they had only tried — would deserve so much better. but we teachers don’t, and shouldn’t, grade on potential. i agree with thomas edison that “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and i make sure my students know it.

“this is a cte class. career. technical. education. you don’t get paid for the days you don’t work.”

in short, you will get graded on what you turn in, and i want to see some effort.

i give them plenty of time to complete assignments. the first major project for my computer science course is a game coded in scratch, and i schedule it for three weeks from concept to completion.

for those who don’t know, scratch is a coding program that, in its own words, “is a project of the lifelong kindergarten group at the mit media lab.”

you might think three weeks is a long time to code a game using code-blocks designed for kindergartners, but you should come try it — teaching it, i mean. when a student, two weeks in, asks you a day-one question, like: “how do i even start this thing?” you’ll understand why i have bald spots.

and i know what you’re thinking. two weeks in? that’s got to be a teacher problem. you must not have explained it right. you need to work one on one with some of these kids.

because all means all, right? as in, we give all kids the opportunity to succeed.

that student asking for help the few days before it’s due is the one i’ve been spending all my time on. that’s the student whose hand is always raised — the one i’m sitting next to and directing because they’re relying on me to guide them by hand. and each day, that project gets wiped, erased, forgotten because of a lost password, options blanked because of unverified email, or never completed due to a loss of attention or general dislike for me and the class.

that student will leave class to go to the bathroom for 45 minutes, get suspended, and come back a week after the assignment was due and ask for an extension.

this isn’t a post where i blame my students. these so-called bad students are some of my favorite people. sure, they frustrate me on a daily basis, but they’re the ones that visit me after they’ve graduated.

they’re the ones i remember most, and the ones who appreciate me the most. they come in, grown up and more mature. they shake my hand, look me in the eye, and they say, “thank you for failing me.”

wait. what?

a marine recruiter once gave a presentation in my class. he talked about how his whole life, teachers pushed him through school. he dared them to fail him, but they gave him just enough to graduate. until he joined the marines, he wasted his life wondering what went wrong.

“no one let me fail,” he said.

no one likes to fail. my life is filled with regrets. mistakes, ill-timed decisions, bad calls. if there’s one thing i am actually pretty good, it’s failing.

and there is no teacher like failure.

when a student thanks me for failing them, the moment is bittersweet. on the one hand, they’ve taken a painful experience and become much stronger.

but to me, i’m reminded of history. you can’t change the past, but the future always begs the question: what if?

when you’re responsible for a student’s immediate future, the prospect of college or even being able to suit up for friday night’s football game, giving them a bad grade will keep you up at night, deserved or not. supervillains only dream of this kind of power — the ability to not only affect someone’s life in the moment, but also for the foreseeable future. anyone with a conscience will tell you that college coursework, teacher workshops, and all those expensive professional development days do not prepare you for the guilt, the gnawing insecurity, and the indecision that comes with.

sometimes i spend an hour on grades, checking the computer’s math, hoping to squeeze something out to get a student a d-.

and while i keep a jar marked on my desk labeled “student tears” to scare my kids straight, i’ve struggled to keep my composure when a student actually came to me sobbing about their report card.

even though my gut tells me i’m right, that i am justified in following my guidelines to a strict t — i can’t help but waver.

as a teacher with a soft spot, you assign extra credit, you stay six hours after class ends to give that student a place to work, and you try your best to get that student to pass.

and sometimes, no matter how many times you go over the numbers, a student falls short. it’s usually a case of too little, too late. you give the student the grade they deserve because the world will be a much harsher judge than you will ever be.

if there’s anyway i can get myself to sleep at night, it’s by telling myself that i am in the business of correcting behavior. i am a student’s surrogate parent, best friend, and mortal enemy — and sometimes all three at once. and if need be, i have to tell a student that they’ve failed.

it’s part of the job, and it’s part of life. call it fighting for the integrity of the class. call it sticking to principles. call it whatever you want. but no one gets something for nothing. not in my class.

the past four years have been an incredible test of my character. i am definitely not the same person i was. i am still passionate, but detached. i am exacting, cold, and calculated when it comes to instruction. i relate to my students, but i maintain authority.

i am resolute even when i cause suffering.

and i think about quitting every day. ultimately, i make a very conscious decision to stay. i have to. never have i felt so fulfilled and rewarded. no other job has given me so much purpose even if that purpose is seldom realized in myself.

i put my students first even when they lose faith. they struggle, they fight, and they fall short.

and when they succeed, i give them all the credit.

now that i think about it, i’m not the escape artist. my kids are. everything they struggle with is the straitjacket. education is the key, and this turbulent time called adolescence is the water.

i am the audience. standing on my feet, screaming at the top of my lungs.

“you can do it. you have to.”

 

a response to: ‘No zero’ policy: Florida teacher says she was fired for defying school’s ‘no zero’ policy (USA TODAY)

 

 

we are all victims here…

Posted on August 18, 2018

“you finally brought it!” i said, as joseph pulled out something from his backpack. earlier in the week, he challenged me to a game of mario tennis. he plopped the nintendo switch on my desk and stretched his neck combatively.

two other students walked over to see what was going on.

i reached down and grabbed my backpack. 

“let’s play!” joseph shouted as i handed my console to marcos. 

“can’t,” i said, swiveling my chair back towards my computer screen. the class had just finished an exam, and i had grades to input.

“you guys can play,” i told him. the computer science course’s first project is programming a video game, so it seemed appropriate.

at the least, they weren’t playing fortnite.

after a few matches, the students put the systems back in their cases and walked away. marcos went over to the hand sanitizer dispenser near the door. 

moments later, he screamed.

“what is this?” he shouted. a look of absolute helplessness spread over his face as he stared down at his hands. 

“what are you doing?” i asked, annoyed. his hands were slathered in sanitizer that started dripping to the floor. 

“keep rubbing your hands together,” i told him, “it should eventually go away.” i looked back at my computer scrimming, smirking.

“it’s getting worse!” swish-swish-swish. swish-swish-swish. one-two-three, he would rub his hands and then bring them to his face for inspection. swish-swish-swish.

“it’s not going away!”

a growing cloud of foam covered his hands and wrists as if he had put on boxing gloves made of bubbles.

“someone put soap in the sanitizer machine!”

goodbye…

Posted on June 6, 2018

i had to step outside of class for a brief moment after the bell rang and walked through a group of my students sitting outside and eating their brunch — i don’t allow food in the computer lab now that the new desktops have been received and installed.

one of the students i didn’t recognize, but it’s the end of the year and i didn’t need to know whose class the student was missing, why they were out, or whether they even had permission. things get so lax after grades are turned in and right before the seniors disappear from campus and go into the stadium to practice walking for graduation.

with a glance, i counted five. they stood around a tight circle near one of the supports.

i stepped onto the grass past the concrete walkway. behind me, a sharp gasp, a familiar one coming from one of my senior girls whose over-the-top expressions and open-mouthed grimaces would stop me in the middle of my lectures.

everything surprised her, whether i was explaining what i thought was a simple computer science concept or asking students to put everything away for a test i had announced day in and day out for the past week.

the way her jaw would drop and remain open while her eyes would squint and pull down her eyebrows before her shoulders, shrugging, lifted her arms and then her palms into the air similar to that classic “what the hell are you talking about?” meme featuring jackie chan that’s become so popular everywhere.

“jacob! what do you mean?” she would shout in a way that would start off with a shriek and ended in a whisper.

if i acknowledged her at all — sometimes directly by long stare or through a micro-expressive grimace, she would tilt her head and stare at me with eyes filled with confusion and innocent horror.

she reminded me of a precocious child. on occasion when i had to send out the seniors to a meeting, i would stop her right as she reached the door.

“hey! where are you going?”

“i’m a senior, jacob!”

as i stood onto the grass and heard her gasp, i responded loudly enough so she could hear me as i walked away.

“don’t act like you’re surprised.”

she giggled. “you know me so well.”


“if i don’t pass your class, i won’t graduate,” he told me, standing still as a rod except for his hands which shook like tissue paper.

“then, give me a reason to raise your grade because you didn’t turn in anything for three weeks!” i jab my finger at the screen showing my online gradebook, “i see you’ve done work the two weeks before that, but — three weeks — three weeks of nothing!”

“let me tell you why,” he stammered, “can i please tell you why?”

we had this conversation every day that week, and i didn’t expect anything different. “i don’t care about any reasons that come from outside this class.”

“i’m not trying to make excuses –”

“does it have to do with why you can’t participate in class?” i interjected. “i am talking about what you do while you are here.”

“it has to do with why i can’t function in class.”

“fine, go ahead.” i settled into my chair.

“my mom is terminal, and i’ve been very tired because i have to feed my siblings and make sure they’re taken care of. i don’t get to bed until very late. i try to write my scripts at home, but my internet isn’t very good. sometimes, i can’t finish them.”

“i understand that,” i responded, “but i don’t expect you or anyone else in this class to work on scripts at home. everything i have assigned this quarter — no, this year — was work designed to be completed in class.”

“in. class,” i said again, pointing at the floor as i said the words to punctuate my meaning.

the class was a broadcast class where students signed up for news stories, researched them, then wrote scripts to be read in front of a camera. every week, we created a 30-minute television show that appeared throughout the entire county, and it seemed like my students never failed until the last minute to work on scripts and queue themselves up for time in the studio.

i continued, “and i have to restate that your grades in all the other classes are a’s and b’s.”

“but –”

i had his grades pulled up on my computer. “you’re taking advanced math, a college-level english course, and several other high-level courses. you’re acing all of them except for mine. broadcast is the easiest class on your schedule because i don’t give you homework, i don’t assign a lot of essays, and i grade you on what you do in the hour you’re here. this is a career class where showing up on time and doing the job is main focus of this class.”

he took a deep breath, his eyes searching the air above me for an argument. “but i am very tired, and i can’t –”

“but you’re passing every other class! i need to know why you can’t put in the effort every morning to do what you have to do. it’s not hard, you’re one of my best writers, and you’ve done well every quarter except this one.”

“is there anything i can do to raise my grade?” he pleaded. his face turned a deep purple as his hands began to shake. his eyes were sunken but alert, and his hair was combed but shaggy.

i thought about doing what i had told myself i would not do — raise his grade out of pity. but i managed to put my foot down. we would see what would happen if an unstoppable force met the immovable object.

“the quarter is over,” i said with resolve, “there’s nothing left to assign.”

his body began to shake visibly, and he took short gasps of air.  i maintained my adamant composure, but my insides screamed, “mercy!”

he didn’t move from his position, but i came up with an idea. “go to the counselor. tell them to drop you. if they won’t do it, i will talk to them.”


“jacob. why are you always acting?”

acting. if only they knew. teaching was never my first choice as a profession. growing up, i had heard that those who do, do. those who can’t, teach. if teaching was ever in my future, it would only happen after years of working in a successful career. i would, and only could, teach from example and experience.

but i have come to a fuller understanding that a man may make his plans, but God will establish his steps.

after a few years working as a freelance photographery, an opportunity came up to teach at a regional occupation program. i became a part-time cte (career technical education) instructor. when my director saw that i had worked at a computer repair shop, she asked me to take on computer science courses.

now, i’m a teacher with a lot of hobbies. and i had a lot of students who brought the fight to me every single day.

“get to work!” i said, angrily at the student.

“i always do work.”

“then, let me rephrase — go do some work that’s actually good.” it sounded harsh then, and it sounds harsh now. but i had fought in many battles with this particular student who made it his mission to work off the grid. he never signed up for the important headlines. instead, he would show up on the due date with a set of videos no one asked for, and i thought no one wanted.

“what’s this?” i would ask.

“a review on a rap album.”

“who’s the rapper?” when he named some obscure rapper i would query the class, “has anyone ever heard of this guy? anyone? no one?”

he would hover until i dismissed him. “fine. i will accept it.”

over the course of the year, we would constantly butt heads. our exchanges were always the most bitter, the most loaded.

“you’re a snake, jacob,” he once told me.

i answered every challenge with a quick reaction that tested his motivations, his statements, his facts. “tell me what i did. what did i do, huh?”

“you gave the other student a camera, but you said no to me.”

“that’s because he was going to film something for the class. you, on the other hand, were going to film something for your own personal use. i would rather you get your work done and not screw around working on personal projects you don’t turn in.”

“that’s messed up,” he said, walking away.

i always had to have the last say, “just do what i tell you, and there’d be no problems!”

he used to walk into my class during other periods. for a few weeks, i only saw him in first period, and he stayed a considerable distance away from desk.

one day, while a group of students and i were talking, he joined us. while we bantered and discussed topics that had nothing to do with the tasks at hand, he posed a question that caught me off guard.

“why are you always so hard on me?”

i didn’t respond right away as several conversations were going on at the same time. when the mood shifted, most of the students left to return to their desks. as he turned to follow them, i stopped him.

“you know why i’m so hard on you?” i said, “it’s because you’re all talk.”

“what do you mean?” he asked, elongating the end of his sentence.

“i still remember what you said to me when i first met you. you said, ‘whatever you want, let me know. i’m your guy.'”

“i remember that,” he said, “and i do work every week. i do more work than everyone else in this class.”

“but it isn’t good work. you talk a big game, but you have improved the least. you do the bare minimum, you skate by, and you weasel your way out of doing actual work.”

“you’re acting.”

“no. i’m trying to teach you something. when you go to college, you’re going to have professors who don’t care about you because they have a thousand students to worry about. you’re going to be a number, a student competing with thousands of others who are more competitive, better-abled, cutthroat, and coming in with a higher privilege. they’re going to destroy you unless you open your eyes.”

he stopped for a moment. i could tell he was absorbing the words, though his facial expression was defiant and hard.

i continued, “you think this is it. you think this small little world is everything. but it’s not — there’s a huge world out there, and you are insignificant. you’re not special — not to them — because you haven’t done anything. you’re just another person with a sense of entitlement, and you have to prove you deserve to be there. it’s not about what you say. it’s about what you do.”

we stared at each other for a long second.

“i get what you’re saying,” he said.

“do you? or are you just telling me what you think i want to hear? i need you to understand this — talk is cheap. it is so very, very cheap.”

“i get it.”

“i wouldn’t say this if i didn’t care,” i told him, “i have to toughen you up because i am invested in you. i cannot let you fail.”

“i get it,” he said again.


“are you going to miss us seniors?”

“yes,” i lied. well, it was a half-lie. some i would miss — those who shared their lives with me past the professional courtesies or discourtesies present in any client-employee situation. all of my students are my clients — i am here to serve them. some treat me as an adult, an authority figure, a voice to be ignored.

to others, i’m a friend, an advisor, a brick wall of truth to bounce ideas off of.

“it’s going to be weird not seeing some of you around all of the time,” i said.

“are you worried? like, worried about our futures?” another student chimed in.

“for the most part no. but i want you all to succeed. i don’t want to hear that bad things have happened to you, or that you’ve failed out of school.”

“we’ll be fine,” the first student said, “we’ll try not to get into too much trouble.”


“can you sign my yearbook?”

it was the student whose mother was terminal.

“uh, yeah, sure,” i stuttered. “how’s your mother now?” i had heard she was quickly fading. the counselors dropped him from my class, and not a single day went by that i didn’t reconsider my decision to not raise his grade.

“she’s,” he paused, searching for the words before his lips turned into a smile, “well, she’s, she’s doing much better now.”

“that’s good,” i replied, “i’m glad to hear that.”

he gave me his yearbook, and i picked up a pen from my desk. “thanks,” he said, “thanks for signing my yearbook.”

i opened to a page partly filled, and my eyes caught part of an entry that said, “you are such a cool guy!”

as my eyes turned to a blank section, those words filled the space between my ears. i knew very little of this student outside of the past month. he was a hard worker when he put in effort, and he always said very little to me or anyone else in the class. if situations were different, would i have been able to comment on something more personal? would i have known more, and would that have affected my decision?

i started to write something, but the words escaped me. i considered writing the usual yearbook message — “have a good summer. see you (not) next year!”

what could i possibly say after all that went down? the truth? if i could, i would have written an apology, something that explained my rationale. i wanted to tell him that i was sorry his mother wasn’t in better shape, and that i had to maintain the rigor, structure, and composition of the course — that i couldn’t make exceptions to the rule and pass someone if they didn’t do the work.

i wanted to tell him that life throws curveballs and sliders, and sometimes it will lob an underhanded throw that ends up being a glass ball that just shatters in your face and leaves you scarred.

i wanted to tell him that it wasn’t my fault, but all i could write was a short paragraph that told him to be positive, stay strong, and recognize his potential. it was diplomatic — something in between what i wanted to write and what i could.

when i was finished, i capped my pen, placed a small sheet over the page so the ink wouldn’t smear, and snapped the book closed.

as i handed it to him, he smiled. “thanks,” he said.

“thank you,” i said.

before he walked out the door, possibly for the last time ever, he stopped and waved. “i’m going to college and majoring in media,” he told me.

i smiled back at him. “don’t forget about us here,” i said.

he lifted his hand again and replied, “i won’t.”