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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Wal-Mart Lingo and Courtesy

The jewelry dept. just started two new people, one from another part of the store, and one from a Wal-Mart in Michigan. Sounds like the biggest difference is that it's colder there. Having two newcomers left me with both of them over the weekend. Long weekend.

Then last night I was alone. It was mostly a good night, as Tuesdays at Wal-Mart are nothing to write home about. Not many customers, so I got a lot of costume jewelry stuff done. On my way out of the store afterwards I told this story to my coworker, Gabe:

The person filling in while I had my lunch asked if I could wait until 8 p.m., so I said sure, why not? It hadn't occurred to me that I had clocked in at 1:00. Just a few minutes before eight, a couple came in and wanted to cancel their layaway. They had chosen a ring some time ago, and in the mean time had found something they liked better. I typed my ID and password into the register, but it booted me out because I needed a break. I called over a C.S.M., and he signed in for me, then I tried to cancel the layaway. It needed approval from a C.S.M., and he told me that he couldn't do it, because he was logged onto the register, so we logged him off, got another guy with register numbers over to sign in. He was signed in to another register, so the C.S.M. approved him to sign in on two different registers, I canceled the layaway, and the C.S.M. approved the cancellation. A few minutes later someone came over to cover my lunch, and I gratefully left. Gabe's response was that the C.S.M. probably could have approved the operation if he had tried.

If you managed to make it through that paragraph without falling asleep, I'll be surprised. To most of you, it probably made little or no sense, so here is the short version:

I worked too long without a lunch break, so something simple that usually takes just me less than a minute to do took three people more than five minutes to do.

It's not a particularly entertaining story, but it highlights an interesting effect that I suppose is true for most jobs: if you stay long enough, you learn enough stuff for a new language. As I pointed out to Gabe after telling this story, it is a story that requires some serious background knowledge. You would have to know about working retail, and there are some bits that are pretty Wal-Mart specific. It added flavor knowing exactly who the C.S.M. was, and the fact that Gabe also tends to get worked into his break times.

Anyway, not much insight here, really.

I did get accused of stealing someone's watch Saturday. That was kind of fun. I had changed a woman's watch battery, and she came back five minutes later asking why we hadn't given her back her friend's watch. I was pretty sure I had given it to her friend, and I said so. She demanded that we look for it, so we did. (This was my former Michigan coworker, Carrie. Nice intro to Kansas, huh.) While supervising our search, she asked to use the phone to call her friend and double check. So I dialed the call for her. Soon she found that I was not, in fact, a thief, as her friend had the watch. So she said thank you (presumably for letting her use the phone), and left. No apology.

The sad thing is this: I wasn't really surprised, and hardly cared enough to be offended. This kind of thing doesn't happen all the time, but it does happen often enough that I've become a bit callused to it. And in my world view, some people take out their bad days on others because that's just what they're used to doing. It's not a good thing, or a right thing, it just is. It's up to me to decide how to deal with it; I can be polite and kind, or I can take it as a personal insult.

My coworker Julianna just left the jewelry department to work overnight in the cash office. She had trouble not taking impoliteness personally, and the job was really getting her down. I don't mean that as a criticism of her. Her situation is quite different from mine, in that she has had a job she liked in the field she majored in (Art History), but is now unable to find a job like that. She's been job hunting for three years now, six months of that during her previous job. If I had been given reason to believe that I might never escape Wal-Mart, I might have more trouble dealing with difficulties there. But my employment situation is looking good.

More in another post.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Sub 26

Turned out to be a fairly busy day. Yes, I had a two hour lunch break, but the rest of the day was busy.

I sat in on a regular 7th grade math class, which was cool. The teacher did a lesson on probability. She had students roll a pair of dice 18 times, record both numbers and the difference between the two. She then had them play a one-on-one game in which noticing the correlation between those numbers could help you to win. They talked a bit about how their numbers compared with the expected numbers, and why they were different. I later suggested that if she were to compile the numbers from the whole class, and then from every class doing that activity, that they might get a better idea of how a larger sample brings you closer to the expected results, and she seemed kind of excited about it. Told me she might give it a try.

I also got to help a kid with his math homework, hopefully contributing to his understanding of probability. (At least one out of two of us understood the homework.) I talked with some of the teachers and paras about some education concepts, and one teacher lent me a book on learning communities. I arranged to sub for a math lab teacher (I think this is like remedial math, only they don't call it that anymore) this coming Monday. I felt like a teacher. It felt good.

After school I came home, rested a bit, ate some dinner. Not much time, so not much to do. Then I went to work at Wal-Mart.

And that dragged me right down. It wasn't a bad or difficult day, it just wasn't my thing. I was definitely tired, and it didn't help any to be working a five hour shift after a day of subbing. Still, I can work tired, but it's another matter to work when your heart isn't in it.

So there you have it. Get a job you like, because if you are doing something that isn't YOU, it will wear you down.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Subs 25 and 26

Sub 25 was ok. In one class I had time to bring up my experiences, as suggested by a teacher during my 24th substituting job. There were only a dozen students, and even if they weren't totally absorbed in my account of being a Peace Corps Volunteer, at least they didn't ignore me and talk to each other the whole time. Well, except for the two girls in front who were too cool to be interested in something that didn't revolve around themselves. And they might have been listening and just pretending to be bored. That's what I tell myself, anyway. The other class took a test, so I just stood over them, freaking out every time someone talked. At least that's how they probably perceived it.

Today I am at Southwest Jr. High. In some ways, this would be an ideal building in which to work: it's a new facility that feels very spacious and open. The classrooms have internet computers and projectors built in. It's starting to have that lived-in look without being worn-down. And it's a ten or 15 minute walk from my house. I didn't walk today, as it was supposed to rain. And it did rain. But now it's sunny.

So today I'm subbing for an inter-related studies teacher. Once again, this is special-ed in the day and age in which everyone is special so we need another name for the students who used to be special. I graduated from high school 20 years ago (I heard they're planning our 20-year reunion. A couple of my class-mates own a bar, so they're reserving it for the LHS Class of 88 for a weekend. Whoopee.), when mainstreaming was something you only did on the fringes. The special ed kids joined the rest of us for P.E., sort of. They were there at the same time as the rest of us, anyway, using the same locker room for the most embarrassing part of the day--changing clothes and taking a shower. And that was it. For the most part, kids with learning disabilities were kept separate. Whether that was done "for their own good" or to avoid distracting everyone else is unclear to me from this perspective. And maybe it was more integrated than I remember. God knows my point of view has changed in a big way in the last 20 years.

Now things are a bit different. More kids are identified with problems, but there is a much stronger push to have them engaged with other kids their age. They are placed in regular classrooms as often as possible. Usually this involves a modified curriculum, and it sometimes involves having an assistant (either a para or a teacher) stay with the student to help them maintain focus.

For the most part, that's the usual job of the teacher I'm subbing for. Today it's a bit different. For the first two hours he usually goes to an English classroom. The regular teacher in there is out on maternity leave, so there is a long-term sub in her room. But today the long-term sub called in sick, so there is a sub for the long-term sub. Double-sub. I went over to the classroom (with the teacher I am subbing for, who is still in the building, which is another story) to check in, and we found that the kids were doing silent reading all hour, both hours. And that is why I can sit down and write on the Roblog before the day has even gotten started.

The regular teacher I'm subbing for is in the building. He's helping out with the sixth graders who are visiting to tour the school for Transition Day. I vaguely remember doing that when I was on the verges of jr. high and high school. I'm sure I considered it a day off, perhaps a peek into my own future. To the teachers who have to escort students around, it's a boring day.

So today I will be working one-on-one with problem students, when I am actually working. I have two plan periods in a row at lunch time, so I will be getting out of here and getting some grub. For now, I kind of need to get ready, make sure I know when the bell will ring and where I should be when it does. So I'm going to post this, and come back with a new post if there's anything to report.



Friday, April 18, 2008

Sub 24 (and 25?)

Today I'm subbing for a half day in a vocation/agricultural classroom. The teacher is at a meeting, first hour is a planning period, and second hour is taking an exam. It looks like I'll actually have to do something 3rd hour, and then I'll be finished. As to what I do, she has left some plans. I'll let you know how those go later.

For now, I need to tell you about Friday's subbing, number 24.

It was a low day for me. Block classes of 90 minutes each, teaching French and Poetry. I guess I should be grateful it wasn't French Poetry, but I'm not. Instead I am grateful for the intervention of a fellow teacher. Not that she intervened in a class, but... I'm getting ahead of myself.

It was clear from the start that the students in this classroom didn't like their regular teacher and that they considered me a holiday. Very clear. As in, they told me that they didn't like their teacher and they considered me a holiday. With the first class I started by asking about why they were taking French, and this came out. With the other classes, it just sort of came up.

I made the French class work. Our opening conversation got us off to a good start, they did their work as usual, then I offered to let them play a language game like I would do in Korea. They had fun with it, and I think were sad to see me go.

The English classes were tougher. She left a full lesson on poetry, and I tried really hard to lead them through it. I encouraged answers, I read the poems for the lesson. I had them write answers to the questions. All in the plan. It seemed to me that if the teacher leaves a full plan, it is my responsibility to try to follow it.

At the end of the day I was writing a letter to the teacher about how lousy the day had gone, how disrespectful the kids were, how the French students were not satisfied with their learning experience, and how annoying the day had been. And that was before I had discovered that I had locked my keys in the car that morning. I had filled a page and was working on the back when a teacher popped her head in the door and asked what I was doing. I told her, and she suggested that it probably wouldn't do any good.

She had worked in this district as a sub for three years, she said, and at some point had decided to recast herself in a better role than "Substitute Teacher." And she told me that if I wanted to enjoy what I was doing, I should do the same.

"You," she told me, "are a field trip that they wouldn't be able to take if the teacher was here. I'm sure you have all sorts of colorful experiences. Promise the kids something else, then get through those lesson plans as fast as you can. Then take them on a trip. You'll be surprised at how quickly they will be hypnotized, and the questions they will ask. But if you insist on following the lesson plan to the letter, you will often be an obstacle that they will do their best to overcome."


She continued: "Don't worry about the forms and paperwork, yours or the teacher's. Nobody looks at that stuff. The district and teachers don't want to alienate any subs. Teachers will take your notes too seriously, passing on a multiplying the stress you've had. They don't really care if you finish or follow the plans they leave, as long as the room isn't a mess and no one gets hurt.

"So take some time and tell them a story. Or two. And let them ask questions. You will have a good day, they will have a good day, and on the evaluation form you just write 'good day, happy to come back'."

And so, today when I get to 3rd hour, I'm going to try to implement this philosophy. The teacher was here when I came in, and left specific plans: a practice quiz (real thing on Monday) and designing flyers (my spell checker is not happy with that. Fliers? Help!) for an event almost a month away. And that's it, for an entire hour. I'm definitely telling some Peace Corps stories.

Wish me luck.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Sub 23 and music

I got to be a Jr. High band teacher on Friday. Lots of fun. I was surprised at how good a program they had at South Jr. High. And band is something I know well enough to run a smooth rehearsal, even if I'm not familiar with the pieces being played.

The 9th graders were first. They have a concert in a week and contest after that, so they wanted to work. It took a bit of sweat on my part to get the 7th graders to work, but when they did, they actually sounded good.

I then travelled to two different elementary schools to assist with the band programs there. I was given flash cards to use with the trumpets for some one-on-one fingering practice. Fortunately, I used to play the trumpet, so I could actually tell them if they were right or wrong. I also spent five minutes or so with a euphonium player who was not hitting the right notes. He had the fingerings right, but just couldn't make his lips do what they needed to do, so I took him out and we worked on it a bit. I played his horn a bit (after cleaning off the mouthpiece, of course) to demonstrate, and found that he could actually do it with the right coaching. He just needed some individual attention.

It made me want to get my horn out and play. It's been sitting in the closet pretty much since we moved in. I've played it a couple of times to amuse Maxine, even got her to blow an actual note on it, but not anything like regular. I would love to play in church, or with a local ensemble or band. It's one of those things that is hard to explain to someone who doesn't do it. Horyon and I both enjoy the bell choir at church, and that's hard to explain to other people too. There is a satisfaction that comes from spending time practicing and building up to a performance that is unlike anything else. I'm sure that it's partly because I enjoy being in front of people, but it's more than that. It just feels good to make music happen.

I also enjoy listening to music. At last count my CD collection was approaching 1000. I haven't had them all in one place since I left for the Peace Corps, and right now there are still many in my parents' basement, many in my garage, and quite a few scattered through my house. One Korean man I knew owned his own building. The first three floors were his clothing shop, the fourth and fifth floors were rental apartments, and he and his family lived on the sixth and seventh floor. He had helped design (or maybe remodel) his residence, and it was one of the coolest homes I've seen in Korea. I won't go into the architecture except for this: he had built in CD shelves, which he seriously needed. Thousands of CDs. And built in CD shelves are definitely the classiest way to keep your CDs. He also had a most impressive sound system. All imported. Speakers that were not only tall, but beautiful. His CD player was two pieces, the reader, in which you put the CD itself, and the digital decoder. He claimed it made a difference. And the amplifiers used tubes, like the radio your grandparents listened to. Only in this case, the tubes are all mounted where you can see them. The components sat on plate glass shelves, a very graceful presentation. And when he played music it sounded like you were there in the room with the musicians. Piano, orchestra, jazz, drum sets, singers, they all sounded like they were right there.

I'm not saying I want to spend thousands of dollars on a stereo system, but... it sure would be nice to spend thousands of dollars on a stereo system.

Anyway, it's a bit late in my life, but now I can picture myself being a band teacher! There are some annoying things about it, for sure, but they do have fun. And they get to be there at the beginning of a lot of musical careers.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Fantastic Day

Today was a fantastic day.

First, I didn't sub. After last Friday I was ready to not sub, even though we kind of need the money.

Second, Maxine pooped in her little potty right here at home! She's been doing it from time to time at Stephanie's, but she's had some mental block about doing it here. She insists on having us put a diaper on her so that she can do it standing up. I kind of sympathize; when you're used to doing something a certain way, it's hard to change.

And so I was greeted at the door when I came home around 10:00 by the sight of Maxine's potty in the kitchen. Yep. They saved it so I could see. I would have taken their word for it: Maxine's reward was a couple of pieces of candy, and she spent the rest of the evening running them off. She didn't get to bed until 11:30, though she dropped off pretty quickly.

Third, before bed we were reading "The Itsy-Bitsy Spiders," when Maxine asked something she's never asked before, though I expect this is far from the last time. "Spiders" is a an excessively expanded retelling of the old song about the itsy-bitsy spider who climbed up a waterspout only to be washed down by rain, after which the sun comes out and dries up all the rain and the itsy-bitsy spider once again attempts to climb up the water spout. In this version, there are ten spiders, each of which climbs up the water spout in different ways--dancing, driving race cars, riding a skateboard, being shot from a cannon, etc. Each one is written as a new verse in the old song, and each verse stretches the rhythm scheme of the old song almost to the breaking point, making them somewhat difficult to sing. As if that were not challenge enough, in one corner of the book is a little button. When you push the button, you get little electronic beeps that follow the tune of "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" in a sort of chipmunks version, high and fast. And with no warm-up notes, so you'd better be ready to come in on the right note when you hit that dang button.

Maxine, if you are reading this, you may not remember the itsy-bitsy spider book. And if I have anything to say about it, the batteries will be long-dead and never-replaced by the time you read this. (Though with my luck you were clever enough to replace them yourself by the time you were four.) However, if you do have fond memories of those lame rhymes, please don't take this the wrong way: I didn't really like that book very much.

But there is one good thing about it: Each spider is a little plastic bump on the book, poking through holes in the pages. As you turn the pages, you lose one spider each time, so they count down from ten to one. It gives up something to count, different on each page. And they are not in neat, orderly rows, either. They're sort of randomly scattered in the bottom half of the right page. This is a good thing, because you can't have too much exposure to counting at Maxine's age.

So getting back to the third thing that made today fantastic: I asked how many spiders there were on one page, and she counted four. Very usual. Then she asked where the other spiders were, and I told her they went up the water spout, as I pointed up the picture of the spout. Then she used a special word for the first time in her life:

She asked me, "Why?"

I stopped, trying to think of an answer. Why do those spiders move in various ways up the water-spout? What treasure do they believe lies at the end of this long, dark climb? Are they truly climbing to something, or are they climbing away from something else? Is it all just a futile effort to escape from their own inadequacies? Or perhaps an ironic struggle to evade the rain which they can sense is approaching. I had no easy answers then, and still do not.

Then Horyon pointed out that Maxine had never asked "why" about anything before, and it hit me: It's not about getting to the top of the water-spout, it's about the journey.

No. I mean, it hit me that Horyon was right. Maxine has embarked on her own journey of exploration. She's figured out "what", "where", and "who", has a good grasp of the basics of "how", and probably understands "when" better than most of us (i.e. "If it isn't now, it is future, unless we already did it."). But now she's getting into the dangerous territory of "why," and I have to tell you, I am excited.

I know what you're thinking: This is going to be like mowing the yard, where it was so much fun the first time, but quickly got old. Everyone knows that kids are annoying when they constantly ask why, why why.

Wrong. This is way cooler than mowing the stupid yard (which isn't so bad when I think of it as a time to be outside and listen to music from my MP3 player). This is about learning, and Maxine being hungry to learn. I so badly want to answer all of her questions, and help her to hunt down the answers that I don't know. I aspire to never bluff my way through an answer, so that she always knows that my answers are true. I plan to give her the information she wants, as well as the perspective she needs. I don't want to bore her, but I don't want her to feel brushed off. You can bet that I will ask her questions in turn to make her think through the answers for herself sometimes. And I hope that she never feels that there is a question she cannot ask me, whether it be about work, relationships, sex, drugs or rock and roll.

So there you have it. A fantastic day.

Oh, I almost forgot. K.U. won the national championship! In overtime! By making their second three-point shot of the game! We had tuned in the radio to catch the end, but it wasn't the end. I decided to try fiddling with the t.v. antenna to try to make sense out of the blur of static. It worked! We got the clearest picture I've ever seen on channel 13, and all I had to do was stand there holding it at a funny angle. I eventually figured out that propping it in the fireplace door worked almost as well, so we sat back to watch the game. Kept Maxine up well past her bedtime, running in circles on the floor, burning off the excess energy she got from the candy she earned by pooping on her potty.

It's been twenty years since they won. I was a senior in high school.

They tell me that downtown Lawrence was a crazy mess until it started raining around 3 a.m. People literally couldn't move, there were so many other people crowded around them, and this in the middle of Massachusetts Street!

And now it's time to settle back down. Back to normal life without March Madness.


Monday, April 07, 2008

Sub 22

Friday I subbed at West Junior High in Lawrence. As it happens, I went to West Junior High in Leavenworth. It was one of those days where it seemed like perhaps the regular teacher just took a personal day because she knew it was going to be a crappy day to be at work. And let's face it, the odds were against me:

1. Beautiful weather--sunny and mild, still a novelty after these many miserable months.
2. Friday--a killer day for subs everywhere.
3. K.U. in the Final Four. Maybe not a factor in other towns, but in Lawrence EVERYONE gets in on the excitement.
4. Substitute teacher=license to be an idiot.

It was one of those days that made me oxymoronic: I wanted to help these immature people become human beings that other human beings wouldn't want to instantly throttle, while simultaneously wanting to throttle them.

One positive side of the day was that I didn't have to be there until 9. Pretty late for school. And my first class didn't actually start until 9:40. If I had known how the day was going to go, I would have spent those precious minutes pulling my hair out to save time later.

One thing I didn't like was the schedule. Many schools in this district us block scheduling, in which students spend 90 minutes in one subject. They have four subjects one day, and four different subjects the next. I know that 90 minutes opens up many options that are difficult, if not impossible to pull off in 50. In ELS, way back at the turn of the century, I taught mostly classes that lasted 50 minutes, but some that were 100 with a ten minute break. I loved those classes, because I could do activities that took time to play out. I rarely found myself cramming the last ten minutes of the lesson into the time between the bell sounding and everyone leaving. We not only had time to do an activity, but to talk about it.

On Friday the students did worksheets. About an hour's worth of worksheets. If you are good at math, you will quickly see that this left 30 minutes with no plan. See if you can guess which activity was most popular for students who had finished their work:

a) Complete work for other classes
b) Get a head start on the weekend's homework
c) Meditate
d) Participate in a discussion with the sub about how water's unique properties make life possible on Earth
e) Goof off.

I'm sure you don't need me to tell you the answer to this one.

The lesson learned here is this: always have more than enough material for any given class period. It's tough at 90 minutes, but when you don't have a choice you have to just knuckle down and do it.

In hindsight, it would have been a good idea to cut them off at an hour and make them turn in whatever they had finished. Then I could have possibly led some kind of discussion on why the properties of water are key in the existence of life as we know it. Or maybe there were too many factors against me to pull it off. At the very least, I could have given them a short written assignment that stretched a bit beyond what they had just worked on: "How would the world be different if water ice were denser than liquid water, like most solids and liquids?" Sure it's more for the teacher to grade, but 1) she wouldn't have had to make it a big part of their grade or spend more than a couple of minutes on each assignment, and 2) not my problem. When a teacher pitches a sub a problem, they should be prepared to have a line drive problem beamed back at them.

Part of the problem was that everyone didn't finish at the same time. The students who finished first settled into some other work for the most part. But as more and more of them finished, there were more social personalities added to the mix, and the noise level slowly grew. By the time I realized it was a problem, it was no longer a small problem. And with no other assignment to focus them on, there was not much I could do.

And of course, in the first class I didn't realize that the work was only sufficient for 2/3 of the class time. I should have suspected it in the 2nd class, but it looked like more work, so I thought I was safe. And by the 3rd class, end of the day on Friday, it just about didn't matter. We were all tired of being there. In the last class I had to spend most of their working time walking around making sure they were actually working. You might be able to imagine how much fun this is if you have some sort of infection.

Still, I have had some good experiences in Jr. Highs here in town. A day like Friday may bring me down a bit, but it leaves me wondering how I can make it better. And hopefully the next time I will.

I didn't get called today, so I've had time to wrap this up. And April 15th is fast approaching. It looks like I'm going to have to file for extensions, because Horyon's business is not going to be fun or easy to file for. Her investments in sewing machines, remodeling, cloth and thread far outweigh the money she made in 2007 (about $900, not bad for starting in the summer!), but we have no evidence of how much she spent in Korea. Wish me luck. I haven't even decided whether she will be the sole proprietor or whether we are partners. Depends on how much hassle doing her taxes is and how she plans to repay me.



A Brief Introduction

Roblog is my writing lab. It is my goal to not let seven days pass without a new post. I welcome your criticism, as I cannot improve on my own.

Here is a link to my cung post, which remains the only word which I have ever invented, and which has not, as far as I know, caught on. Yet.