The Right Tool for the Job

Posted on December 5, 2016
Filed Under A Sound of Thunder, Ray Bradbury, Simpsons, Weaponry | Leave a Comment

timeandpunishmentLast week we read that famous Ray Bradbury time travel story, “A Sound of Thunder.” More on the prescience of that 1952 classic in the next post, but every time I intro this one I always say how pretty much every time travel story/movie/etc. since has ripped off or payed homage to this story.

Back to the Future? The phrase appeared here first.

The expression (and lame movie) “the butterfly effect”? Hmmm, I wonder.

Even The Simpsons, back in the ’94, showed Homer traveling back to a “time when dinosaurs weren’t just confined to zoos” and crushing various things (because he didn’t follow the advice his father gave him on his wedding day) before returning to a “changed universe.” Along the way they parody not only this story, but the novels 1984 and A Clockwork Orange, as well as referring to Carlos Casteneda, with guest appearances by Peabody and Sherman. So of course we watch it every year.

In the Simpsons’ version, Homer’s time machine is a toaster. At first it’s just a broken toaster, but Homer decides to fix it, and he ends up turning it into a time machine. When he first takes it to the cellar to fix it, he says,

“This shouldn’t be too hard to fix… with the right tools,” and then starts by whacking it with a rock.

Ok, now I can start today’s story.

This year, we have had a posse of eighth grade boys and their hangers-on clustering into a penguin mob and blocking the hallway by my room almost every morning. They aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer, especially their 7th grade hangers-on, and they like to slap and push each other and yell a lot. Not only are they annoying, the slapping and pushing is contagious if not nipped immediately in the bud. This crew has been a pain all year. When I have morning prison yard duty, I always have to break up the mob and slap my sword on lockers to get them to move out to the quad and disperse.

I even broke the tip off of one of my swords.lightsaber

Finally I was just done. I went to the stick quiver (yes, it will get a post of its own soon), and pulled out the latest model. There are times when you have to blend old school and modern techniques. A student last year gave me this baby. It lights up, it makes sounds, it’s three feet long. It’s a light saber, baby. I finally had the right tool for the job.

All I had to do was hold it out in front of me, sort of like Ponyboy and Tim Shepard would hold a switchblade, and wave it gently about as I approached them slowly. It was like magic. It was like the wind scattering dry leaves. It was like a hot knife slicing through butter. It was like a magnifying glass melting plastic army men.

And they were gone. Really. Even though that was my expectation… it was sort of amazing.


Rerun: Dr. Crankenstein (2010)

Posted on November 30, 2016
Filed Under Rerun | 1 Comment

I’ve been a little cranky lately. The sticks and swords are out a lot more often, and the growling has gotten more frequent. I’m having trouble myself coping with annoying people without punching them in the face. Maybe it’s the time of year. Six years ago at this time, I was also cranky. Maybe it’s just me.

Anyway, the original Dr. Crankenstein has since “retired” and is now teaching the one section of drama that we have left, and coaching the 8th grade boys’ basketball team. And I am now officially the new Dr. Crankenstein.

But I’m getting better every day! Let’s go back to November 2010.

There’s a teacher on our staff I used to refer to as Dr. Crankenstein because he always seemed cranky to me. (Remember, in my world everyone has a nickname.) We usually have quite a few kids in common–he teaches one of the less important subjects–and a lot of our conversations are about those kids. Usually we end up talking about the ones that are failing both classes.


He’s an old surfer, so he talks funny. While this greeting seems innocuous enough, it doesn’t really mean what it sounds like. Watch.

“Better every day.”

This is one of my pet expressions. I used to only use it as we approached summer vacation; you know, it’s getting better each day we get closer to vacation. But now it’s  better-every-day-we-get-closer-to-Friday. Some of the part-timers here who don’t know me as well, like the school nurse and the speech pathologist and such, think I mean it as an I’m-growing-as-a-person-in-every-way-every-day affirmation sort of thing. Hahahaha. Maybe I should trademark it. But I once again digress.

“Oh yeah? Do you have _____?”

“Lazy as the day is long.”

And now the moaning begins…

“I have whole classes like that. They’ll all probably end up working at Starbucks…God I hope not; they would probably scald themselves on the first day and sue.”


“I’m serious. I have four parent meetings this week, and I still haven’t answered all the voicemails I got after grades went home.”

“My voicemail is broken. Also I have a thing about phones.”

“You’re lucky. Do you have _____?”


“You’re lucky. They all think they’re going to college! HA! They don’t know from college! They won’t even get out of high school at this rate… Has ______’s mom e-mailed you yet?”

“No. he’s doing ok with me.”

“You’re lucky…”

And so on. In the past few years though, I have noticed that he has seemed less crabby, so maybe someone else will have to assume the nickname.

Lately it’s been me. But man, some people have been bugging.

Parents who expect individual tutoring for their exceptional kid. So much so that they ask for a the week’s worth of spelling/vocab warm ups the Friday before. Uh huh. Asking ain’t the same as getting.

The snifflers. Your trying to read some Ray Bradbury (“The Earth Men”) and build some tension, but SNIFF something SNIFF keeps SNIFF interrupting the flow: “The four men trudged-” SNIFF “-across the hot Martian desert-“SNIFF SNIFF”-and they-“SNIFFFFFF

“Would you blow your dang nose and quit sniffing?!”

“Sorry” SNIFF

(The pen-clickers, foot tappers, and binder cleaners all fall into the same category.)

Closely related but even more annoying are the ones who start packing the backpack with like two or three minutes to go. I like to go bell-to-bell, as it used to be called before we got rid of bells for each period. I hate losing the last couple of minutes to, “Sorry for the interruption…” (no, you’re not) from the PA, or to the sounds of velcro and zippers and paper stuffing.

“Stop! You pack on your time, not mine. We’re still reading. Don’t make me ban backpacks like the science teachers.”

Faculty meetings. At my first full-time job, the staff was so large most of our meetings were what they called period-by-period. The principal, or one of his vp’s, would stay in the faculty lounge all day long, and each teacher would come to the lounge on his/her prep period, and get whatever info they thought they needed a meeting for. Each period would have 10 or 12 teachers a this meeting, which usually only took about 15-20 minutes. This was in the days before e-mail, which would easily take the place of this concept. The only time we met as a whole staff was when we needed to vote on something, or when we actually needed everyone in the same room at the same time. I think it happened twice in my first year.

However, almost 20 years later it’s come to this:

(as handouts are being passed out) “I’m not going to read this to you, but I will hit the highlights.”

Unfortunately that is not true. He does indeed read the majority of it to us. And then waxes philosophical on each point. And then asks for questions.

The faculty meeting snacks didn’t even include any cookies.

Best Thank You Note Ever!

Posted on November 28, 2016
Filed Under Teaching, thank you | Leave a Comment

There are a couple of younger teachers on our staff who occasionally take a couple minutes out of a day and make the kids each write a thank you note to a teacher. One in particular does it fairly regularly, and he obviously has a stash of free blank generic cards and envelopes that he gives out, so they look a little classier than the usual ripped-out-of the-notebook kind.

Now those of you who have been here before know that I am not really into that sort of thing, but even I get stoked now when I see a little stack of mini envelopes with Mr. Coward scrawled, calligraphied, and everything in betweened on the front.

Even yours truly is not totally immune to a little nice word or two, even if forced.

A lot of them are variations on being grateful for the fun-ness of the class. This guy pretty much sums up a lot of those messages:

Dear Mr. Coward, Thank you for being an amazing English teacher. I thought all English teachers are boring, but I was wrong. Thank you.

Quite a few of them leave the first e out of awesome.

Most of them at least say they are grateful for learning something:

Thank you Mr. Coward for advancing my English skills…

A few are grateful for my mercy:

Thank you for not stepping on my phone that one time…

Or that I don’t have any:

Thank you for always whooping people into shape when they’re being annoying…

But today in my box, I got the best one yet. This missive is from an eighth grader whom I had last year, and obviously she too liked the “whooping” aspect of the class. She always had the most serene, I’m-above-all-this air to her that I never… Sure I caught the eye rolling at stupid comments and the knowing smirks when I insulted the whole class and almost nobody got it, but I never expected…

Dear Mr. Coward, Thank you very much for being my 7th grade teacher. You helped me learn how to cope with incredibly annoying students and not punch them in the face. I hope I’m not too awful of an 8th grader.

This is really why we do this.


Rerun: Open Mouth Democracy (2009)

Posted on November 17, 2016
Filed Under open mouth quizzes, Rerun | Leave a Comment

When I wrote the post below back in 2009, I had no idea that our democracy would completely implode this year. Somehow the “correct answer” didn’t float to the surface when it mattered most.


Anyway, this one is from back when I used to do a full-blown 5-6 page research paper thing. And one of the things we worked on leading in was outlining. They always have a lot of trouble with outlining, so I wanted them to try to help each other. Whodathunk that nowadays you HAVE to do that?

So yesterday I told them that this outline will be on the test, but I would give them 15 minutes or so right now to work together, open mouth stylie,  to fill it in. Then they could bring the sheet for the test. I told them I wouldn’t tell them whether their answers were correct or not, but I would try to steer the discussion in the right direction.

Oh boy. Each class showed a distinct “governing” style, and each one accomplished the task (or didn’t) according to the style of government. I’ve talked about how much fun it is to watch open mouth quizzes unfold, but this one was more fun than usual. Warning: Multiple metaphors ahead.

Period A: This class was the closest to a democracy; messy and disorganized, but somehow, most of the correct answers floated to the surface eventually. At first it was just the loud ones that got listened to, but as in a democracy, eventually the crowd figured out who was most reliable. This class went ’round and ’round, but arrived at mostly correct answers.

Period B: This must have been what the dark ages were like. Everyone was staring with puzzlement at the screen, and loudly begging for answers, “What’s IA? What’s IA? How about IIC?” Then the search for a wise man. “What does Annie say? What does Doug say?” Then small cults surround those that seem to have more of a clue. “I’m going with Andrea.”  This class didn’t even finish, except for those few “wizards.” It was a trainwreck; more like a third world country.

Period C: This was a benevolent oligarchy. Three or four of the strongest students basically figured out the answers amongst themselves, working quite well together, but almost ignoring the little people. Then when they were sure they had the correct answers, they deigned to share them with the class. Few questioned their word, and those that did were given polite explanations for why they were wrong.This class got every question correct.

Period D: This was communism that worked. Of course it helps that this is the nice, polite, supportive class with Politeness Girl at the helm. They began with Politeness Girl saying, “OK, first, why don’t we all copy what’s there first, and then when you’re finished, you raise your clicker to show you’re ready, and when everyone is ready, we can go over the answers one by one. OK?” And they actually mostly did just that. They didn’t do the clicker-raising part, but they sort of methodically came to an agreement on each item, and then…the best part. With two minutes to go in the period, Politeness Girl makes sure everyone has the same answers by going over the whole thing. “OK, IA is…right? Everyone has that, OK?” And so on. It was kind of inspiring. Sniff.

Period E: This class simulated the breakup of the Soviet Union. They almost immediately broke up into independent republics of 2-5 kids.  Some of these republics had a strong work ethic, and found their way to the right answers. Some of these republics metaphorically swilled vodka and traded stories, and ummm, didn’t really find their way anywhere. A couple of these groups even sent out envoys to other groups to “trade” (read: mooch) answers.

Only in California

Posted on November 16, 2016
Filed Under Pharmacology | 1 Comment

We endured another Red Ribbon Week recently. There was an assembly with meth-head tooth porn. There was a door decorating contest, where the “leadership” class delivered red paper, cotton balls, glitter, and various other crafty-type items to all the homie base classrooms and wanted us to decorate our doors with a “Say NO to Drugs” theme. I guess there was a contest to see whose door could be the most cheesy or hideous. We declined the “art” supplies. One of the winners was the next-door home ec class: “Save the needles for sewing!”


There were the obligatory dress-up days. Why do kids like wearing their pajamas to school? I mean really. Aren’t those onesies a pain when you have to pee? And what does dress up have to do with Red Ribbon Week?

They did a lunchtime activity where they got to wear beer goggles. Most of them liked it.

Another activity was the signing of the pledge to be drug free. I guess they mean “illegal” drugs, but when a significant percentage of them are on psychotropic drugs, it’s tough to take the thing seriously.

They rolled out a long chunk of red paper with some sort of pledge on it, set up a table out front in the morning, and hounded them all to sign it as they walked in. Then it was proudly pinned up on the wall in the main office for all to see.

The first time I walked by I did a double take. Did they really sneak that in without anyone noticing?

Sure enough.



Rerun: Sunny (2009)

Posted on November 14, 2016
Filed Under Rerun | Leave a Comment

Another fave student from the past story. This one is from 2009.


I have one class that has 20 girls and only 7 boys in it. Obviously this class has a different dynamic, as they say, from my other classes…

(Grammar Tip: I just backspaced, and changed “different…than” to “different…from.” It’s “larger than,” and “different from.” It’s kind of the same as… If you’re old enough to remember cigarette ads on TV, you’ll recall, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” It was criticized in those grammar-respecting days as being incorrect. It should be, “Winston tastes good AS as cigarette should.” Then Winston followed with ads that sang, “Whattaya want? Good grammar or good taste?” Ah those were the halcyon days of TV. And I still think S. E. Hinton named Dally after the ciggie brand.)

In that class, there is one girl whom I’m thinking will turn up here again (and again — actually, I’m guessing that most of my “seventh grade behavior” posts this year will involve this class or girl one way or another), so we’ll name her now.  “Sunny.” Sunny seems almost physically incapable of being unhappy. Unfortunately, she seems also incapable of keeping her mouth shut. She’s sort of like the female, seventh grade equivalent of Two-Bit. She ALWAYS has to get her two bits in. Or six or eight.  And, just like Two-Bit, it’s just about impossible to get mad at her. Even when she serves detention at break for her unsolicited comments, she comes skipping in the door asking what she can do, and hums to herself as she tidies the room. Then she erases her name off the detention list, and comes back for class two periods later, only to interrupt me 47 times and receive detention again. It is a testament to her Two-Bitness that it takes 47 times for her, before I call on the kid closest to the board to write her name on the detention list. (This is the “Vanna White” job in my class. I can’t be getting up out of my chair every time a kid need his name written on the board. “Don’t make me get outta this chair…stop this car…come over there….” Do dads still say stuff like that?)

And she can do the best “boo-boo lip” ever.

So now she sits where I can reach her, as I like to say. There is one desk that is within a foot or two of where I spend most of my teaching time. There are four “within range,” but that one is for repeat offenders.

The other day, I had already warned her several times, and I was trying to coax an answer out of someone else, when she blurted out the answer. I  happened to be holding my Stick at the time, and when she blurted, I immediately pounded the butt end on her desk, about an inch from her hand. The entire class went silent (per usual when I do that), and there was a collective pause and intake of breath. Sunny jumped just like Pony and Johnny did when Two-Bit pretended to be a Soc jumping them, and the boo-boo lip made a brief appearance.  The silence went for about 30 seconds, as they waited for what I would do.

Then, just as I am about to move on to the next question, letting the silence speak for itself,  Sunny blurts again:

“God, I love this class.”


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