Sunday, December 21, 2008

Good Fortune

Middle school is hard. You are growing and stretching and changing physically in ways that you can’t wrap your head around. You are moving at your own pace, and can’t quite understand why some people are so far ahead and others so far behind. You are experiencing every hormone that exists, all at once, and don’t know how to control or manage them. Everything that was familiar feels foreign, and kids react in all sorts of disturbing ways.

Across the country, the heinous way that middle school students (especially girls) treat one another is legendary. Kids are fighting with puberty and themselves, and are angry that they are alone in the experience, and so lash out at their peers. To make themselves feel more normal they degrade and demean the people around them. That’s a shared experience of many people in the country. In the Bronx, like so many things, it’s worse.

Take all of that, and add to it an environment that is already completely unstable and insecure and all-together nuts. Take poverty stricken homes, afflicted with abusive or absent parents, and huge language barriers, and add in adolecense and puberty, and you have the recipe for disaster. Which is what we face every day in my school– the perfect recipe for things to boil over into chaos and confusion. Add to that pot a little holiday spirit, and you have the hellish month between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

This month has been difficult to experience, let alone to properly express. People say they feel most fortunate around the holidays – and it makes sense, because it is around the holidays that you take stock of the people in your life who matter and care about you, who you care about. You look at your warm home and your loving friends and family, and realize that that X-Box 360 isn’t the most important thing. Especially when you imagine life without all of those things that truly matter. But, it goes hand in hand, I suppose, that in order to feel fortunate, there has to be another end of the spectrum. After all, if everyone had those things than you wouldn’t feel lucky to have them. We rarely feel grateful that we have air, or clean water, because in this country those things are a given. But we pause and make a point of giving thanks for those other things, whicha re equally as important to our well-being and happiness, if not our survival.

For my students, the holidays highlight their misfortunes. For most of them, presents are not even a thought – they will tell me outright that their parents cannot afford Christmas this year. This month I have had interactions with ACS on three separate occasions. Once, because two brothers were being abused by their uncle, and on the two other occasions because two separate girls had admitted to having been raped by their two separate uncles. It’s a different family portrait than the one I am so lucky to have. They are louder and ruder and more disrespectful than usual. They are as pissed off as tey should be, surrounded as they are with the message that the world is joyful, and ‘tis the season to be jolly. And they are kids who don’t even know how to understand or express the dissonance that they must feel when they are constantly exposed to those media projections, and then look at their own life.

The emotions and frustrations of the students are understandably intensified, spilling over more than usual, and normally making a mess that it’s difficult to clean up. It’s hard not to take it all personally, not to be discouraged and disheartened by their bad attitude – especially when I walk past the Macy’s Christmas windows and scads of tourists snapping pictures of them every night on my way home. It’s hard to remember how different their world is – and yet they aren’t in a bubble that doesn’t set up expectations for the holidays. It’s unfair – that if they have to live they lives they do, which are hard no matter what, they should have to compare themselves at this time of year to all of the people around the country whose lives do not resemble theirs. Because no matter how resigned they sound when they tell me they won’t be celebrating Christmas, I still see a burning desire in their eyes when another child talks about what he wants or hopes to get. The desire is wonderful – a hunger for something – and yet soon enough they will become resigned to not having it, and lose the burn, and maybe that’s what it will take to feel fortunate in the holiday season.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Holiday Show

Friday was a festive day at school. The kids had their Holiday Show, followed by a pizza party in my room for all of the 6th and 7th graders who scored above 80% on their much anticipated Unit Exams.

The Holiday Show was a festive and impressive display of these kids at their best. As impressed as I was with their efforts and talents, the most exciting thing was to see them impressed with themselves. I walked into the auditorium and one boy came up to me, towering over me and wearing his goofy Bronx-fashion conscious get-up that he wore every day (high top sneakers and skinny jeans and ridiculous black plastic square rimmed glasses), and excitedly told me that he had put up ALL of the decorations. There was tinsel and posters and streamers all over the stage and walls, and he was beaming in a way that for some reason getting a 100% on a social studies worksheet would never make him beam. On stage, my students marched out in the chorus, all wearing red. After school the day before they had all begged me to go shopping with them for red dresses, and, not sure about the legal implications, I declined. Now they were standing tall, feeling beautiful it tight sequined dresses, and lots of red feathers and spandex. They sang Christmas songs, and all of them danced and swayed right on beat. They looked great. The chorus teacher gave out a lot of solos, which made them brim with pride as their untrained voices warbled out over a crowd of their peers and teachers. There was choreographed, synchronized dancing (my favorite!) done by two dance troops – one of the girls and one of the boys. The boys ‘got lite’ and did break dancing, tumbling and spinning on their heads. All of the dancing was poorly choreographed, but the kids had a natural rhythm, and felt so good about being on stage, in the spotlight, that nothing else really mattered.

After the show, all day, the kids came up to me asking if I had seen them. They looked at me expectantly, smiling hugely, asking which was my favorite, and then smiling and saying – ‘yea, I really liked that one too.’

It is amazing to see them care. To see them glow and feel proud and feel good at something. It was beautiful to see, and I felt so proud of them all for the work they had put into it and for the confidence it takes to stand up in front of a rude crowd of middle school students and perform. This was what we want for them – this is the feeling you want themt o have, that I spend so much time terrified they will never have if I can’t teach them to write a sentence properly. The holidays are a very hard time of year in Hunts Point, and it was a needed reminder for myself, as well as to them, of how good things can, and should be.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Problems I Can't Solve


All day long they come to me with problems.

“Ms K – can you help me with my math?”
“Do you know anything about science?”
“T is going to get into a fight after school with E, and he keeps threatening me too.”

Most of them, I can solve. In Social Studies – I can give them an answer, or at least make up one that’s convincing and logical. In other subject areas I can usually figure it out. I can call a meeting to mediate problems between the students, getting administrators involved when it is necessary. There are a lot of problems that I can solve – more than I ever would have thought I could.

And then there are those which I can’t.

C is a smart, beautiful girl. She is popular and energetic, and overflowing with confidence. She comes into my room every morning and gives me a hug before going to class. Last week she was moping around the school, and I kept her after class one day to talk to her.

“C – you’ve been moping around all week. What’s wrong? You don’t seem like yourself.”

“I’m okay,” she said, unconvincingly.

“Okay – well if you need to talk, you know I’m here.” As I finish my sentence her eyes fill with tears that spill down her cheeks.

“I just feel so neglected by my parents,” she says, her voice breaking as she turns into the 11 year old that she is.

“What do you mean?” I ask her. She tells me a story about messing up a money order she was writing for her mother, and her father calling her stupid and stopping talking to her. He hadn’t spoken with her for a week except to tell her how stupid she was. She complained that she was always in trouble with her whole family, and any time something went wrong they would blame it on her. It sounded a bit like a case of an eleven-year-old feeling sorry for herself, but it didn’t make it any less true or real for her.

“C, you know you are so so smart, and your dad cares about you a lot, he just was angry and tired, and probably said something that he didn’t mean.” She shakes her head at this, telling me that I’m wrong, and that truly he doesn’t care. He doesn’t’ speak with any of her older siblings, and will be glad when she is no longer around too. He’s always drunk and lost his job because of his drinking, she reveals to me. She has been sleeping in the bathtub to avoid the conflict.

Eventually I stop telling her that it will be okay or get better, or that her parents are not neglecting her and are in fact incredibly proud of her, because I realize that I don’t know. Instead I try helping her figure out how to deal with it.

“What do you do to make yourself feel better when all this is happening?”

Through her tears, she tells me that she goes into the bathroom and takes pictures of herself with her cell phone. Ah – that’s the girl I know and love. I laugh and give her a book, suggesting that it will help her escape, though it feels as inadequate as it is. This is a problem that I can’t solve – and I face a undred of them a day.

T has been in trouble every day this month, constantly getting in fights and cutting class and having his mom called. Today he comes to my room in tears, his tough boy exterior momentarily abandoned.

“T – what can we do to help you improve?” I ask him.
“Naw – I just hate this fucking school – they always be calling my mom. I want to leave this school.”
“Well what if that isn’t an option? Can we figure out other ways for things to get better for you?” He is one of my favorite students, with a ht head and a desire to be cool, but smart and fun when he’s not misbehaving.
“I don’t want to live there anymore!”
“Where?” He is distraught and seems irrational, ranting about this.
“With her! With my mom and my uncle. All they do is hit me.” He face crumbles and he puts his head down on his desk. I had spoken with his brother a week earlier, trying to figure out what was going on with him that had been making him act out so much. His brother had mentioned this problem that he had with his uncle, but I had never seen T so upset.

Before I could even try to think of a solution, or at least some kind words, a voice on the loudspeaker calls him to the office. He pulls himself together and walks out, another unsolved problem that I will take home with me.

I have to care, but I can’t care too much – because there are so many problems that I can’t solve. There are too many variables beyond my control. If I care too much I will go crazy, and yet how do you keep yourself from caring about these kids whoa re in your life more than any family or friends, changing you and opening your eyes in new ways every day?

Forgiving Them

They stole my sharpies. Another teacher had given me an 8 pack of jumbo sharpies, and visions of posters, and all star lists, and other fabulous activities danced in my head al weekend as I thought about those wonderful markers. Things like markers and tape are hard to come by and can be game changers in a classroom. I often get to fifth period and find that I don’t even have a pen, so other school supplies – staplers, scissors, markers and tape – are truly precious.

I missed a day of school, and when I returned my desk had been raided. The sharpies were gone, and the little thieves left the empty plastic package behind as a reminder of what I has almost had. Of course I questioned everyone. I grilled them on who had done it, and stalked my most likely suspects to the lunchroom, pulling them out into the hall to demand that they return them. I was a woman possessed.

Later that day, one boy took the tape off of my desk and used it to handcuff another student to his desk. It was not the right day to mess with my possessions.

“How dare you take something off of my desk? Have you no respect for other people’s things?!” I made the somewhat ill-advised decision to make an example of this boy, taking my chiding of him too far. I felt myself becoming ridiculous. It is, after all, just tape. And yet it felt bigger than tape. It felt, as so many misbehaviors feel, like a direct attack, direct defiance, direct disrespect.

Later I found out that this boy had been arrested over the weekend for jumping a subway turnstile in an attempt to chase down and knife someone. It goes without saying that he felt that I was overreacting.

I try to choose my battles. I give up some things in order to get others, and I know my students well enough to know which ones respond well to being yelled at, and which ones just want you to say ‘please’ when you ask them to do something. There is disrespect, and defiance, and rudeness, in a million ways every day – and it is often bigger than sharpies or a roll of tape. Perhaps it was just because this manifestation of those things was easy to attack – so concrete and direct. I went home furious – both at the students and at myself.

It isn’t rare to end a day in disbelief. How is it possible that students treat a teacher – an adult – another human being – in such a way? It is so easy to forget the good – to come home and write about the bad, and to tell funny stories about the things that they couldn’t have possibly really done – until they did.

And then, you have to forgive them. Every night – really every day at 3:30 – I have to fogive them. I have to leave school and let go of how annoyed I am at them, or how rude someone was in 8th period. I have to forgive them, and greet them with a big smile the next day, letting them know that with me they can always prove themselves, improve themselves, dig themselves out of whatever ditch they have dug. It’s exhausting to be angry – no doubt. Exhausting to hold on to resentments and arguments and injustices. But it’s very difficult to forgive – especially when the violators are not asking for forgiveness or admitting wrongdoing. And yet – it isn’t optional. It’s a part of my job. I have to forgive them, and treat them as well as I ever have.

And every time I need a marker, and I know that if I only had one I could really make a great poster and teach a great lesson, and no these other ones I bought aren’t as good – I have to remind myself to forgive.

No Shame


When I ask for a volunteer to read, hands shoot up. All around the room, faces cloud with disappointment when I choose one reader and the others have to wait their turn. For the thousandth time my students shatter my expectations. I assumed that those who were participating were the students who were confident in their abilities. When I was younger I would fall out of my seat trying to be chosen to read. I would look ahead and find the longest paragraph so that I could volunteer to read that one, carefully calculating when I should raise my hand if I wanted to be chosen for that lengthy section. Getting chosen for a shorter paragraph was a great disappointment. I was confident in my ability to read – prided myself on how fast and accurately I could speed through my paragraph, and was eager to show off my skill. In math, where I struggled, I tended to sit quietly in the back, praying not to be embarrassed by being called on for a questions I had no answer for.

Silly me, projecting my own experiences on my students once again. How could I possibly think that my life is in any way a model for what to expect for these kids. They shoot their hands up not because they are looking for recognition and praise, but simply because they are so desperately thirsting for my attention. I will call on someone and be surprised when they can barely stumble through a sentence. Why would they want to show off if there is nothing to show off?

It is strange, and surprising, and there is something incredibly wonderful about their unabashed willingness to struggle. They aren’t afraid of the judgment of their peers – at least not at this point. One student will whisper the correct word into the ear of a student who is struggling with a sentence, and the student will calmly accept the help, or continue to audibly work through the sentence until they reach the end on their own. Students are patient, reading along with the slow reader, while I silently panic that if I allow themt o continue reading at this pace I will lose the whole class. But I don’t. They listen, and the reader doesn’t lower their voice to a whisper or try to skip over the hard words. I say circle all of the words you don’t know, and they all shoot their hands up, eager to tell the class what they don’t know.

It’s so healthy! I always felt weighed down by the pressure to appear effortlessly good at things, and to feign disinterest in those things that were hard for me. Here, where they all struggle in some way, it’s not a competition for perfection. I planned to give lots of grandiose speeches to them about different types of intelligence, pumping up their confidence and putting salve on the wounds of being less good than their peers at any one thing. And yet I wasted my time in preparing that speech. I was thinking that these kids would have my own insecurities, when in fact they are largely immune to those, plagued instead by a set which I would never have dreamed of having. Most of them don’t define themselves by their academic prowess, and so they aren’t afraid to be vulnerable. They will tell you that they don’t know something, and dutifully write down the definition or answer in order to learn it for next time. When I tell them they have to yell, or stand up, or go to the front when they read aloud, they don’t put their hands down or avoid eye contact. Most of the time they raise their hands higher and wave them wildly, desperate for the attention, negative OR positive, that that chance in the spotlight will afford them.

It drives me crazy that they don’t define themselves by their academics, and yet it saves them. To be in seventh grade, reading at a first grade reading level is scary and discouraging. To feel ashamed of it would make overcoming it nearly impossible in a class of 32. In point of fact, the only thing that will make it possible for most of my students to succeed, is their willingness to fail.

Monday, December 1, 2008

In love with Mr. M



“Ms. K, we will be quiet if you write a love note for us to deliver to Mr. M.” S announced assertively. She’s the class president, full of confidence and swagger.
“Yea!” the rest of the class echoed her bargain.
“No – that’s not how this works,” I said, knowing fully well that with this class, one which was uniquely cohesive, this was exactly how it would work. “There will not be any love letters written during class today. We are learning about the explorers coming to America.”
It’s really a lost cause. The kids have been pushing this for weeks, asking me if I like Mr. M, a young, white teacher in the school who teaches 7th grade math. We share 100 students, and in the minds of that 100 there was romance blossoming in our dingy school.
“Ms. K – I think he likes you. I asked him who he would pick if it was between you and Ms. R and he said you because Ms. R is too serious!”
“That’s very nice, but I think that he is just messing with you,” I always reply, trying to kill the rumors.
“No! He’s cool – he talks to us. He said you’re pretty.”
Undoubtedly, he too has been pushed into saying ridiculous things in the interest of getting to the class material. I will often concede a small point in order to win my battle. They beg me to send him a message with them, and I’ll break down, “Fine – tell him I say hello.”
“That’s all?!?!”
“Tell him Happy Thanksgiving.”
“Ooooooooh,” they say, with a chorus of giggles that makes me roll my eyes and laugh at their ridiculousness. It’s largely a diversion tactic on their part – desperate to do anything to avoid learning about the Native American culture. But just a little bit of them is serious, and the two parts combined make them relentless.

“Ms. K – you’re eyes are so blue – they are JUST like Mr. M’s! You two would have such good looking kids! They’d have blue eyes and blond hair, and you could name them Stephanie….” For a moment they have me, ready to respond to this rather than push on through the reading. But I catch myself and call on someone to read. The student gets through a sentence before someone interrupts.
“No – wait – but seriously Ms. K. I’m not even kidding. I think he likes you. He told us! I’m going to tell him you said he looks fine today!” Shit. Now I have to respond.
“No – don’t tell him that – I can just walk downstairs and talk to him myself if I want to – no need to deliver messages.”
“Aw – you’re gonna tell him you think he’s looking tight today, aren’t you?
“Oh! Ms. Klein – are you going to blush?!? I think you’re going to blush.” And my stupid cheeks betray me, reddening on command. They collapse into laughter, and in my head I chant over and over to myself how silly this is. I don’t like Mr. M. I’m not embarrassed. I’m 23 and they are 12. But I’m blushing like a 12 year old and can’t seem to pull it back together.
“Stop!” I snap at them. “Mr. M has a girlfriend! And I am married!” Married?! What was I thinking with that! They all ask me daily if I have a boyfriend and I say no! Married?! I wish I was wearing my ring so I could at least move it to my left hand.
“You’re married?!”
“No – I’m engaged,” I feel better about this lie.
“Where’s your ring?” Naturally, this is the moment when they choose to be observant and look for clues. G-d forbid they did the same thing when we were reading Howard Zinn.
“I’m poor. No ring.”
“Oh.” They get that.
“So Mr. M and I do not like one another – we are not single!”
“So?! That don’t matter!” Ugh. Again they have managed to take me farther down a road than I ever meant to go and I am standing at the front of the class wondering how to get back to where I started and where I went wrong.
“Oscar – will you please read the next paragraph?” Oscar generally will demand the attention of his peers before reading, and I am counting on him doing this. When they continue to talk about Mr. M and I, I calmly remind them that the work will be done one way or another, turning into homework if it isn’t completed in class.
“Miss K – I’m going to tell him how you blushed and that you love him!”
“Fine,” I give in, tired of the game, and thinking that this will end it.
Wrong.
“OOOOOOOOOOOOOOooooooooooooooooh!!!” The crowd goes wild in excitement. People hold up signs with ‘Ms. K + Mr. M = LOVE’ written on it. I roll my eyes to see how many of them have misspelled my name even in this.
“We’re going to tell him!!!!”
“Fine. But not until we finish the work!” The class reluctantly settles and we read through the page, filling in the blanks. At the end of class they dash off towards his room, and when I come downstairs later on, I enter the room sheepishly. He laughs.
“I thought that there was someone seriously injured from the way they ran into my room in a panic,” he says.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I winked at them,” he says, shrugging, as helpless as I.
“What did they say?”
“OOOOOOOooooooooh!”
Ridiculous kids.

Learning Lessons

I testified in my first suspension hearing at the school board. Across from me was JV, in the same bling covered hoodie that he had worn every day since I met him, his dark brown eyes averting mine, looking as innocent as they always did. My heart was aching for him – wishing that rather than teaching him a lesson like this I had been able to teach him a lesson in the classroom.

The swore us all in, myself, him, his mother and step father and the special education counselor who was accompanying me. They recorded it all, and asked me about the incident, how I had felt, how had said what. It wasn’t that scary once I was in there – but in the 4 hours I spent waiting for our case to be called I had sat shaking with the power that I suddenly had over someone’s life, feeling unqualified and inadequate. I read JV’s IEP (individualized education plan, which all students in special education have and which really all children deserve to have) and my eyes filled with tears as I read about his academic struggles and abilities. Nowhere in his IEP was there mention of behavioral problems – which in itself set his apart from the IEP of the other two boys who were being suspended. But what pained me the most was the paragraphs about his reading abilities and goals.

He has sat In my class every day and refused to do work. He acts up often, but can be calmed down. He needs a lot of attention. I often sit in the back of the room with him and try to engage him while the other teacher (his class is always taught by 2 teachers to ensure a 12:1 ratio) works with the other students. Generally when I do this, my goal is to distract he and his friend, RC, from their usual goal of disrupting the class in every ridiculous way possible. Im generally 30% successful if both are there – but when JV is there alone I can keep him occupied for the whole period. He is willing to organize papers, or staple packets for me. But when I ask him to write or read, he shuts off, becomes defiant and disruptive, and any relationship we had established through the period is lost. Other students will drop anything to write on the board or the overhead. JV will enthusiastically follow me to the front when I tell him I have a job for him, and then run away when he realizes that it involves literacy.

I had come to believe that he was illiterate. I couldn’t make him write – and I spoke with other teachers who had the same experience. Other students at least write when they are doing graffiti on my desks. He doesn’t even do that. Reading his IEP, I felt for the first time that I had truly failed a student. There was an academic goal that by the end of the year he be able to read on a 3rd grade level, and read 20 books on that level. He was described as creative and someone who enjoyed writing creatively. Who was that child? The boy who sat in my class was not the one who I was reading about, and I could only blame myself for losing him.

When I testified, he shook his head at everything I said, as though denying it. He was between his parents, and I had to figure that this was for their benefit. All I wanted was to end the whole mess, and start from the beginning with him. I realized that once he established himself as a behavior problem in my class, I treated him as such, rather than treating him as a student with challenging needs, as I did the others in his class.

In the end I guess it’s as much me learning a lesson as it is him. And at the end of the suspension, hopefully I’ll get another chance to do right by him, so that in his next IEP, his next teacher will read about his potential rather than his restrictions and limitations. I just wish I had gotten to read it earlier.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Entertained

I came back from the school board, drained of emotions and energy, hating my job and feeling like a failure. I walked into the school at lunchtime, and down the hall, eating an empanada I had bought at the stand outside, and by the time I got to the end of the hall I had 14 students following me.

“Miss K! How could you leave us?! Don’t ever do that again!”
“Where have you been?! It was so awful! We had to go to gym!”
“Were you trying to hide from us Miss K?!”

I laughed, and was suddenly filled with energy again. The little faces around me, all begging for attention reminded me of why I liked the job.

“Oh God! I was avoiding you guys!” I said, laughing.
“NO! Miss K you love us,” said MH, one of my favorite boys. “We’re going to follow you around for the rest of the day, you can’t get away from us!” he said, and then proceeded to do just that.
“Go away! I have work to do!”
“Naw – Miss K is the magnet and we are all just drawn to her,” he said, laughing devilishly, hoping that I would give him candy from my incentive box if he hung around long enough.
I laughed – like I always do. They make me laugh when they aren’t making me lose my voice – and on unfortunate occasions, I do both at the same time. In the middle of a horrific rant at them about their behavior, one of them will do something so ridiculous, so hilarious, that I will have to turn away from them to hide my laughter. As if I could hide anything from them…
“Ah! She’s laughing! She wants to laugh – look at her face, she wants to smile! Ah ha!” I take a deep breath and glare and whichever one of them is insisting on drawing attention to my lack of composure.

At lunchtime, my room is filled with the students, playing out their drama in my room.

“Miss K – what’s her name? The one with the straight hair and the light skin who just left?”
“Serena?”
“Aw yea – Serena. That’s my girlfriend.”
“What?! She should dump you – you don’t even know her name!”
“No – we have only been going out since Thursday.”

MH and EB plan to dump their girlfriends. MH doesn’t like his because she wears the same jeans everyday. I have him look up ‘superficial’ in the dictionary. SR comes to my room and tells me about her ex boyfriends.

“Aren’t I too good for them!? Eew – they are so ugly!”

Another girl tells me about dumping her ex-boyfriend (another one of my students) because they went to the movies and he was trying to take it too fast – holding hand and kissing!

One girl covered her paper with “I love you J, I exist to love you.” Hearts and doodles. She gave it to me and smiled sheepishly, wanting me to know about her relationship, that she had spent all of one lunch period talking to me about.

It’s seventh grade, and it’s the same everywhere it seems. Even in the Bronx, where kids grow up too fast, they still hit one another as a way of flirting.

Sometimes I try to shut it out. My room is a mess of papers that the kids have handed in and made into haphazard piles. I have things to grade and projects to roganize and activities to set up.

Some of them waltz in at lunchtime like they own the place.

“We’re here to entertain you!”
“Noooooo – go away! I see enough of you!”
“No way Miss K! We make you laugh all the time! We’re here for your entertainment!”

And it’s true. They do make me laugh. All the time.

A New Dream

I don’t think that Obama is erasing racial tensions in America. I don’t think that there is an equal playing field. I don’t for a moment think that his election is the end of racism, discrimination, and disenfranchisement. But I do know that when I went into school on November 5th, outside of my windows the streets of the Bronx were resonating with the same chants of ‘Obama’ from 8am until I left school at 3:30. The teachers in my school were glowing and gushing and still tearing up at the memory of the night before.

“Yes we did, baby, yes we did!” the said, shaking their head that it had actually happened. My students waltzed in, chanting and screaming and holding newspapers. It took an extra 10 minutes to quiet them to get ready for class – and even then it was only because I had abandoned the idea of teaching about anything other than the election. They all told the same story of their parents sobbing with happiness. Several of them had been woken up in the middle of the night by their parents to go out in the streets and celebrate.

“My mom is saying that now even her kids can be president!” one of my students said.
“Yea! Mine too!” exclaimed the others in the room.

It is something that parents say to their children – you can be anything you want if you work hard. You could even be the president. But that’s not a dream that their parents had ever had for them. For my students – a dream was put on the table that hadn’t been there before, and regardless of how much racism and prejudice still exists – and it’s a lot – it means something big to have that dream on their table.

O-bam-a!

On the night of the election, I heard people screaming and chanting in the streets outside of my apartment in Chelsea.

“O-bam-a! o-bam-a!” came the cries.

At a bar across the street, people booed as John McCain gave his concession speech, and people cried at Obama’s acceptance. It was a beautiful thing – that feeling of pride that swelled inside so many people when he was elected. Suddenly it didn’t feel like there were 2 separate and alien Americas, and I wasn’t left with that alienated feeling that encompassed me when somehow the country opted for George W. over the democratic candidates. Maybe this is how the republicans have felt for the past 8 years – affirmed. To me the election was an affirmation of all that I love about the country, about our government, and about the ideals that Americans hold. I teach social studies, and try to excite kids about the brilliance of our founding fathers – creating 3 branches of government rather than one. The bill of rights, the constitution – they all laugh about how excited I get when I tell them about it. And yet it felt like something of a lie.

I talked about the balance of powers, and in the back of my mind I would be counting the instances during the last eight years when the executive branch has chipped away at the other branches. Talking about the president’s ability to sign and veto laws, I pictured the many signing statements that accompanied Bush’s endorsement of a law. I didn’t expect to feel hopeful or excited in any real way, in part because I was bracing myself for another loss and in part because I couldn’t imagine that anything could really change. But listening to Obama speak, it was as though we had a community organizer rather than a president – and I was filled with hope at the realization that a community organizer is just what this country needed. Barack Obama started as a community organizer, and I hope that that part of him doesn’t disappear. As Americans it is time that we, my generation especially, who does indeed consider activism to take the shape of the creation of a facebook group, take ownership over the country. Obama seemed content to acknowledge that the job has just begun, and that it was work that would require all of use to play a role in. Repairing our country is not something that can be done from the top down – and for all of the talk about democracy being a government of the people by the people, it seems like we the people have taken a back seat in the past couple of years. After 8 years of disillusionment, disappointment, and becoming a more cynical, jaded country than we used to be – we don’t need someone to give us directions. We need someone who will empower us, and make us stop threatening to move to Canada if it didn’t go our way.

It’s a blue government, with a democratic majority in the Senate and the House in addition to our new blue White House . In two years, anything that has been going wrong will be easily pinned to the Dems, and that majority may slip. It’s not sad – it’s the inevitable cycle – the regulation that was built into our constitution. It’s why, after 8 long red years, it is possible to feel so much hope. But for today – everything seems to be as it should be.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Spooooky


Witches. Vampires. Ghouls. Ghosts. Dragons. Monsters. Zombies. Bloods. Bloods? What are bloods? In the Bronx, on Halloween, there are ONLY the Bloods, and there is nothing scarier. I left school trembling with nerves, my back in knots over anxiety for my own safety and for that of my students, who we sent out into the scary world at the end of the school day.

They all came to school – or rather, less than half of them came to school – on Halloween, all abuzz with their own nerves and stories about what had happened the night before and what was predicted to take place that day. Halloween was designated as initiation day for the gang, and in order to become a member, boys had to ‘slash’ the faces of 31 females. They came to school all talking about the girls in their buildings who had been attacked the night before, and warning me to be careful because it was expected to climax that night. There were warnings sent out to the teachers, the police, and all hospitals in the area to be prepared and cautious.

We did a rapid dismissal, letting them out 30 minutes before the end of the school day, with the intent of catching anyone who would be waiting outside the school for them by surprise. We instructed them to go directly home and lock their doors and stay inside – do not loiter, do not wait for a later bus.

Boo! Imagine really being scared. Imagine having that fear as a part of your life, becoming a part of you. That’s why people join these gangs – that fear that must get inside of them – lead them to seek protection and comraderie. It’s senseless, dangerous, irrational to join a gang – as everyone knows what it can lead to, what road it will take you down. And yet, what is more senseless then sending 12 year old girls, trembling with fear out into a world that’s so scary, where they cover their faces and picture being grabbed and slashed as some lost boys ticket into one such gang. It’s a senseless world that they grow up in, so is it any wonder that it leads to such things?

sending a message

It started when they spit on the door to my classroom, leaving saliva dripping down the small window, streaking the glass. I had kicked them out of my room, where they were loitering, avoiding the in-school suspension room which they were supposed to have been in. This was their retaliation, and it was both disrespectful and embarrassing, as it always is when those boys (RC, JJ, and JV) disrespected me in front of other students. At the time my classroom was full of my favorite students, who come and eat lunch in my room, and at this moment were frantically attempting to complete all of their past-due homework in time to get credit for it before the close of the grading period.

The next day it continued. My bulletin board was pulled down in the hall, and someone’s saliva was dripping down the plastic covering that had protected all of the work that had been hung. Saliva. Gross. It was like their tag – marking their territory, as dogs would, only with spit instead of urine. I wrote up both incidents, as I had been told to do.

Later, they came into the room while I was teaching and I shooed them away. They turned off the lights on their way out the door and slammed it behind them. In the afternoon, 2 of them dragged another boy, one of the few who was in special ed due to low cognitive ability, down the hall. He recalled being chased and tackled, and then dragged down the hall before being doused with water. He came to class and sat, shivering in the front row while we read about Columbus. I wrote that up too.

The last write up that I placed in the stack of incident reports that I handed in at the end of the day, told of the three of them entering my room in the transition time between periods, when I was alone in the room. They locked the door behind them, one boy pushing in the lock, and another flicking out the lights. They approached me and one said ‘Are you afraid Miss?’ I walked over to the light switch to turn on the lights, and RC pushed my hand away. I pulled the door open and ordered them out of the room.

This was not an atypical day. This was hardly an atypical series of events. These boys have spent the past 13 years getting away with things. They have spent the entire year prior to this moment receiving barely a slap on the wrist for their antics – which are likely done mostly for attention and some feeling of power, but which are nonetheless inappropriate and harmful. Nothing was out of the ordinary, except that this time action was taken. The principal put in for a superintendent’s suspension on the basis of my final incident report.

Now I have to testify to the events I wrote about at a hearing to decide the length of the suspension. The school is asking for a 90 days suspension. The boys all deny being there. I had to go in for a meeting with one of the boys and his mother, who said to me ‘this is his future’ and asked if I could swear with absolute certainty that he was one of the 3 boys who was in the darkened room. Immediately I doubted myself. And again I doubted myself when another boy tried to bring forward an alibi which fell quickly to pieces. I am obsessing over the minute details of what happened, tearing myself and my own story to shreds, when of course I know that I have no vendetta against these boys. I wouldn’t write a report on an event that didn’t occur, or mis-identify these boys, who pop into my room repeatedly every day.

My problem is this: if I truly believe that the only way that kids know what is right and wrong is if they are taught, and I don’t think that they have been taught that this year, how do I feel about this as the way that they learn. The school says that they want to send the kids a message – that they have to learn about what is inappropriate behavior. And I am feeling that it is a message that is too loud. All year, due to the lack of disciplinary structure in the school, they have been sent the message that there are no consequences. And suddenly the guillotine drops – and they didn’t really get any warning that it was hanging above them. 90 day suspensions are a serious message. I go back and forth on what these boys deserve – and then I wonder if this is really about me not wanting to have to take responsibility for it. There are incident reports that have been written by every teacher all year on them – and this is the one that they act on? I do know that they need a message to be sent. Is it really that I don’t think that the message is right – or is it just that I don’t want the message to be coming from me?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

System Failure

Show me one child in the Bronx without special needs.

In the New York City public schools, things look very different than they did when I was growing up. In my schools, special education was a rarely talked about program which was generally buried in secluded areas of the school. In high school there was a large classroom complex at the end of a hall which was otherwise seldom trafficked. As far as I can recall, the members of these classes had developmental disorders, ranging from severe to mild, which prohibited them from learning apace with those in general ed. In NYC, special ed brings to mind behavioral disorders before anything developmental.

Special education becomes a threat that teachers hold over students. It slips off of their tongues, and to my ears is a shocking insult – both to the children being threatened and to those who do have legitimate special needs.

“I don’t think that you even belong in this class – I think that you are acting like you need to be in special ed!” Generally this isn’t even effective. The children talk about it afterwards, showing their hurt and upset by the way that they dwell on the words. Generally they shake it off when they are scolded – they are used to being scolded after all. The kids who are getting in trouble now are the same ones who have been getting in trouble for the last ten years. It doesn’t mean much to them to get yelled at – and it doesn’t mean much to their parents any more when they get a phone call. These are the kids who end up in special ed – the ones where teachers and administrators with limited time and resources have run out of ideas.

My principal said the other day that systems are designed perfectly to get exactly the results that they produce. In the Bronx, the education system fails about 50% of the students. This is the 50% who will not graduate. Who will be shuffled through the school system without ever being properly tested or assessed – the ones who will leave as illiterate as they entered. The school system is designed perfectly to produce exactly the results that it gets. We all operate within that system – and it’s a system that gets inadequate results in this community. So you have to work outside of it.

The 20:80 rule applies here. The rule that says that 20 percent of people use 80 percent of the resources, 20 percent of people have 80 percent of the wealth, 20 percent of the people commit 80 percent of the crimes. In my school, 20 percent of my students take up 80 percent of my attention. Normally that attention is that which I write about here – that which consumes me and leaves me questioning my abilities at the end of the day. I don’t often write about the hysterical skits that 603 created to illustrate Hammurabi’s code, or the kids who proudly handed in to me the barely comprehensible essay for the national ‘What it means to be Latino’ essay contest that I told them about. Instead it’s the ones who defy me and disrespect me – the ones who disrupt the class and abuse their fellow students. Those are the kids who take up our attention, who we chase around the halls, and have countless talks with about why they behave this way, what they want in life, how they are harming themselves most.

The truth is, they aren’t harming themselves most. Every student is hurt. Every student who I teach suffers because in the middle of my lesson the lights will flicker on and off, or a band of boys will waltz in and smack every child on the back of the head on their way to the board, where they will pick up chalk and tag the chalkboard. By the time security comes they are long gone, and no one has the energy to chase them down for every offense. And above all, chasing them down doesn’t’ seem to have much long term impact. These boys are avoiding class because they were never taught to read or write or add or subtract. Because they were left behind, neglected and forgotten and failed by the system years ago. And now, rather than admit these deficiencies, they avoid them.

So the 32 kids sitting in my class, listening to what I am saying, pencils poised to their paper, are suddenly distracted by one more example of what not to do, as opposed to being shown by me what they should do.

There are meetings all the time about how to get these boys out of our classrooms out of our school, our of our hair. Put them in a self-contained special education class – get them into another school – suspend them, expel them. Again, the system fails them and special ed becomes a dumping ground for behavior problems rather than a place to serve the complex and diverse ‘special’ needs of the students in our school.

How can you fix the problem if you can’t fix the system?

What Teachers Make

Grades are coming out this week – and feeling demoralized by the number of D’s and F’s that students in my class should be receiving, I was looking for inspiration. I came back to the Taylor Mali Def Poetry that I have listened to before – and that has always given me the chills to listen to his passion and eloquence. Now when I listened, however, for the first time since I began teaching – the chills were at the familiarity of his sentiments. I thought that I would share it – though I’m sure many have already see it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpog1_NFd2Q

Faking It

After a full period of correcting the behavior of one girl, only to encounter, again and again, her big eyes, widened with confusion and sure of their innocence, I ask her to stay after. Of course, I should have known better. I should have known that she would be too busy chasing a boy in the class out the door to stay after and listen to what I had to say to her. By the time she returned, knowing that she had made a huge mistake in walking out on me, I was seething.

“How dare you? How dare you defy me, and talk back to me and disrespect me? How dare you hit another student in my classroom, or throw things at people, or run around like a crazy person? That is not appropriate behavior for my, or any classroom!” The rant goes along those lines, recounting the many instances in the day when her behavior was not acceptable and explaining to her again and again that I am angry. There’s a cartoon that I have in my wallet that sums up how I frequently feel towards my students, in which a father stands over his daughter who is dwarfed by his stature and the size of the big arm chair she sits in. “I’m not disappointed, I’m just very very mad!” he tells her. I love it. http://www.cartoonbank.com/product_details.asp?mscssid=B940342K64GQ9G6VH474W84UG3K83JUA&sitetype=1&did=4&sid=125608&pid=&keyword=disappointed&section=cartoons&title=undefined&whichpage=14&sortBy=popular

“I’m so angry with your behavior this week that I don’t even know what to say to you, Kasandra!”

“Miss, That’s who I act! That’s who I am! I can’t change that! You want me to be fake in your class?!” Kasandra defended herself against my reprimand. And suddenly it clicked that this is really a logical line of thought for my students.

“Kasandra!” I say, my voice shaking with frustration and anger, “it is not being ‘fake’ it is being a student! You are in school! We have different rules an expectations for your behavior in school – you don’t raise your hand to participate at the dinner table, but in school you do. It’s not being fake – it’s being a student!” she is defending her behavior of running around the room to chase some boy who called her a fat bitch, swiping at him. Even as I explain this, I realize that I have stumbled into something much bigger, and I don’t know how to begin to go down the path of this life lesson with her. Yes, little girl, being fake is what life is all about.

Life IS about roles – it IS about taking on different behaviors in different settings. To succeed in more arenas, you do have to be able to understand the expectations that are in place for yoru behavior, and find a way to live up to them. Maybe when you get right down to it – ‘fake’ is the word for it. And it seems so sad to explain that there are different molds you must conform to – that being yourself isn’t necessarily okay all of the time. In my mind, the mind of someone who learned all of these things long ago, it doesn’t feel negative. It doesn’t feel like you have to let yourself go in order to abide by societal standards. But maybe the ‘real’ me just isn’t that far from what societal standards mandate.

Be Fake. It’s the best advice that I can give to my students really. If you want to be successful in the traditional sense, you will have to learn to be fake. Don’t give yourself up, but yes, you must also learn to be fake. We all have to. When I put on my business casual clothing and walk into school and don’t swear at people who are rude to me or flaunt my political affiliations – aren’t I in some ways being fake? In a perfect world, your political or religious affiliations wouldn’t need to be taken off of your resume, as they are a part of who you are – but in this world we cover some things up in order to move forward.

 How do I tell them to be fake, to speak and write and behave in the way that I think is acceptable, without it at some point feelings like I am asking them to change who they are? How do you teach them to conform without feelings like you are asking them to compromise their identity?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

185 Mirrors


For the most part, you have to leave yourself at home when you go to school. From 7:30 in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon, who I am doesn’t matter. Whatever is going on in my life outside of the walls of my school cannot be on my mind while I am in my classroom. It’s an extreme juxtaposition to my past jobs, which consisted of hours spent in front of a computer – hours in which my personal life was fueled rather than stoked, through the vehicles of email, gchat, text messaging and emailing. Not only do I not have the ability to pay attention to myself or my life when I’m teaching – I have to pretend like it doesn’t exist.

“Miss Klein – what’s your first name?”
“My first name is Miss.”
“How old are you?”
“The subject of this class is not Miss Klein, it is social studies – does anyone have any questions about social studies?”

What’s most surprising, is that by requiring that I abandon myself and my perception of myself, this job has shows me thing about myself every day that would have gone unnoticed. Being surrounded by students is like being surrounded by hundreds of mirrors, and I can see the reflection of my attitude, my words, and my behavior in the reactions that each and every one of them have to me. There are days when I don’t even realize that I am tired or crabby until they ask me what’s wrong – or where I am wondering why things are going so well, and realize that I’ve been in a good mood all morning. Not that it’s formulaic – a good mood certainly does no always equal a good day – and sometimes a dose of my worst mood is what it takes to get some semblance of order into the class – but it is never the case that what is going on with me doesn’t affect them.

The students are intensely attuned to every move of the teacher. They notice things that people who have known me my whole life wouldn’t be able to recall.

“Ms. Klein – one of your front teeth is a little bit longer than the other.”
“Miss Klein – do you wear contacts? Your eyes have them flecks in them.”
“Ms. Klein, hahaha, your cheeks get a little red when you smile”
“Oh Miss Klein – I love when you give that angry look like that – it’s funny.”
“Miss Klein – you are in a better mood when you are wearing dressing and skirts I think than when you wear pants.”

They notice when I eat an how I say my words, every pet peeve I have about their behavior, every eye roll and sarcastic comment. They know what I want when I raise a hand over my head and sit on my desk, and they know how to behave when I’m furious. They know when they can’t push me any further and when I still have a little bit of myself left to give them. They notice me – even on the many many days when I don’t want to be noticed, and in spite of my efforts to hide myself, they notice everything. And they react. I won’t even know that I’m making a face until I see them all reacting to it. I can be subtle to the point where others would never notice – just tilting my head or raising an eyebrow, and they respond.


They know whether or not a teacher likes them or cares about them, and they act accordingly. They don’t go to a class if they don’t’ think you care. They don’t do homework if they aren’t sure you’ll notice. If you don’t believe in them for even a moment, they feel that, and they show you that they feel it.

On Friday, I was in a good mood – and perhaps because it was Friday, or because we had just had Thursday off and were going into a long weekend, the day was a dream. One child agreed to make up a song about social studies as his extra credit project, break dancing in my room as he thought up lyrics to the tune of Soulja Boy Crank This. The students made me laugh instead of scream, and about 30 kids came to get lists of the homework that they were missing. They knew how happy it made me, and they loved it – just kept giving me more. And today I was tired and sick, and wanted to go home, and they felt that too – and though it affects them all differently, I’m getting to know them to the point where I know that it does affect them. And I slowly realize that they all care – even the ones who defiantly ignore me, or swear in my face, or walk out of the room when I yell at them – they care. And if they haven’t been taught that they need to care about doing work, getting good grades, and passing the grade – they still care about my mood, what I think, what their friends think. They are highly sensitive in a way that with many of them catches me off guard - and their need to please me shocks me.

“Was I good today?” asks one boy who has slept through every class, refused to do work, and acted completely disinterested in my authority.
“Yes, you were okay, but I know you can to better,” I say, trying to hide my delight that he has taken any interest in my opinion.

“Miss Klein – I did good today, right?” they all ask on their way after class. Often they will ask me if I will call their parents to tell them about their good behavior – which at least is a sign that there are consequences at home of some sort – and those calls are much more fun to make than the ones that I make to talk about bad attitudes and unwillingness to do work, and apparent apathy towards grades.

No matter how hard I try – I find that I can’t really leave myself at home, because they bring it out of me. In their eyes, I see the reflection of my every move, and I see myself more clearly than I ever did when I sat at a computer, analyzing, obsessing, and dwelling on every detail of my own daily existence. Somehow – spending so much time analyzing, obsessing, and dwelling on them has made it easier to see myself.

Emoting Policy

My problem with No Child Left Behind has always had a lot to do with the limited perspective that the policy-makers seemed to have has in designing it. I would never doubt the motivations of those behind the policy – but their judgment of what would be effective in this country’s public schools was short-sighted. The way that the sweeping change has played out has been largely destructive, taking resources away from struggling schools rather than infusing with them with that which would be necessary for them to be a success. There was a blindness about the extreme circumstances that paralyze schools in some communities which are not equipped to deal with the plethora of problems that pass through their door each day – problems that don’t exist in the schools in wealthy communities that most policy-makers live in and send their children to.

No Child Left Behind is simply out of touch with the complexities of inner-city schools. In its proposal to shut down failing schools, it didn’t take into account the fact that when shutting those schools down, and redistributing the students to other schools in the area, there will be inevitable problems with neighborhood rivalries, and gangs. The resulting increase in school violence, and drop in scores, shouldn’t remotely surprising. If teachers are spending their days acting as police, not much teaching is getting done, and if students feelings of safety in a school disappear, the learning environment is severely compromised. Creating a safe learning environment is one of the most important things a teacher can do – one in which a student feels free to express themselves, safe to be wrong, and unafraid of repercussions for their views that come out in class. This is a challenging job in any environment – but it is nearly impossible when there are threats to the physical safety of your students.

No Child Left Behind gives parents the option to take their kids out of failing schools – which seems well-intentioned, because students should be able to attend quality schools, and their future shouldn’t be compromised by the districting of their neighborhood. However, by allowing this, you are again essentially taking resources away from the schools that need them most. The students with parents who take that initiative, who know about their options, are already at an advantage to the thousands of students whose parents don’t have the time, the education, or the awareness that is required to take advantage of such an option. As such, the kids who were already probably going to be okay end up out of the failing schools, and the ditch that that school is in has just gotten much deeper, and the steep, uphill climb out of it nearly impossible to achieve.

The list goes on, problems that my own observations and experiences have shown me make the Bush education policy not only ineffective, but seriously detrimental to the public school system in America. But again, my problem has never been that there are evil people behind the plan, or that they don’t care about improving education – rather that they are simply out of touch.

I wanted to teach so that when I went to make policy I would have further developed this perspective. If the problem that the people in power had was that they didn’t understand what it was like to be in the classroom, I wanted to understand. Before making impact on a macro level, you have to understand the micro-level.

I still do fundamentally believe that. But now, I sometimes find myself thinking how good it is that the people who are making decisions are out of the classroom. It’s like the debate over whether or not it is good to have a president who has a child serving in the war. Generally, it is thought that it is a good thing because it ensures that the person who is making a decision to enter a war in which lives will be lost, values those lives to begin with. But the alternative perspective says that when you are making decisions about policy, you need to be a bit more objective than that. At this moment, I know that it would be bad for me to be the one making decisions – and though the other teachers in my school knows these kids as if they are their own, and really fully understand the system, and the way that any change in policy will affect the kids on a day-to-day basis, I wouldn’t want them making policy decisions either. When you are in it – it is so emotional – and in yourself you find extreme feelings that you didn’t know existed – both of empathy and compassion and patience, and of anger and frustration and exhaustion. In any situation in which the feelings are so high, there’s nothing objective about a decision. A student is driving you crazier than you thought you could be driven, to the point where you hear their voice in your sleep, and the sight of their face can make your blood pressure rise and your back tense up - and you forget about the other stuff – the reason’s behind their behavior, the chance that you meant to give them, the investment you thought you would be able to make.

You can’t be coming from a place of such extremes when you are making sweeping changes. Which is why, while I think that having served, or having had a child serve in the army, may be an asset to a president – if you are still in it, it’s probably dangerous to be in the position to make decisions like that. Surgeons can’t operate on their own children, presidents shouldn’t be able to decide whether or not to send their child into battle, and though I do think that teaching will ultimately provide me with the perspective needed to make effective policy decisions, teachers shouldn’t be deciding the country’s policy that governs their students.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The 7

There are gangs of boys like this in every school, but in other schools I think that they have a little bit less control. In this school, there are 7 of them. Only 2 are my students, but we all know all of them, as they spend very little time in class and very much time terrorizing the school. In the middle of a class, your lights will suddenly go out – and you know that one of them just walked by your room. There are 4 of them who I talk to regularly, one of whom is one of the leaders – and the other leader is one of the boys who tried to ignite the school. These boys are all taller and more developed than their peers. Most of them have facial hair, lots of piercings, and wear ridiculous rhinestone covered oversized sweatshirts.

They enter classrooms loudly, begging for attention, clapping, dancing, yelling. They are unresponsive to being reprimanded, but are easily manipulated – if you take the time to do it. Two of them are in my CTT (collaborative team taught() class, which is made up of half special ed, have general ed students, and is taught by one home teacher who stays with them all day, and then one subject area teacher. They travel from class to class with their home teacher. When they come to my class, she and I struggle to teach the rest of the class, and to keep control away from these two boys. I generally end up in the back fo the room with them, trying to engage them, but it is hard, as they feel old and intimidating even to me. They are ballsy and brazen in everything that they say and do. I have this dream of reaching them, exposing that innocent part of themselves that they deny, their youth and inexperience. And then I realize that they are past that – that you really cannot ever go back. These boys will never be eleven, or twelve, or thirteen. They grew up faster than they should have, and while it’s tragic that for whatever reason they have lost their childhood, it’s a reality that cannot be denied.

These boys are older than their years – not in the way that you are used to hearing it – with wisdom and maturity attached. Rather, they are jaded, and instead of feeling that they have their whole lives ahead of them, they feel as though they’ve already lived a whole life. They can be threatening, and it certainly isn’t helpful to have as little leverage as I do over them. For many, I’m not even their teacher, just a room in the school to torment and drop in on when trying to avoid security officers or going to class. For most of them, I would bet that teachers gave up on calling parents long ago, or that their parents are desensitized to the calls. These boys run the school – and everyone knows it. But they are 13 years old, despite their fa├žade of maturity, not fit to run anything, least of all themselves. How do you reach them – and go beyond trying to control them to actually help them? I have to overcome my own barriers about them – the level of intimidation that they have, how far gone they seem, how disinterested and disrespectful and baiting they are.

It’s all about power with them, and that’s a much harder battle to fight than with those kids who just want attention. The power hungry will automatically do the opposite of every single thing that I say, will defy me at every opening I give them, and will take advantage of every vulnerability I expose. They do it every day, with increasing intensity. But they are young and transparent and needy – and when I get past all of that bad, I can see those other things – and only then can I even want to help.

Contact Comfort

I could have been a lot of things – but I don’t think I would have gotten as many hugs. Contact comfort. I always think of the study with the monkeys, in which they put baby monkeys in a room with two ‘mothers’ made out of wire, one of which was covered in soft, fuzzy cloth, and the other which was equipped to provide milk to the babies. The monkeys were smart (after all, we did descend from them) and quickly figured out where to go to get sustenance. What was interesting however, was that when they were not feeding, they gravitated towards the other mother – who gave them nothing concrete, but provided them with ‘contact comfort’.

In the halls, students are always hugging me. One little girl told me that I was the kindest teacher – which made me simultaneously smile and cringe, as I recognize for the millionth time that I’m simply not scary enough. But then I think that they may need some contact comfort – not literally, as hugging students does make me a bit uncomfortable, as much as they need other things in their lives.

The other day was the worst I have had yet – where an entire period went to waste because one of my classes was so out of control. It was the entire class, and was nearly impossible to isolate the people who were at the center of the problem. That’s always the goal – to isolate the problem and deal with those few students who are really at its base. In this class, my largest, it is always someone different, and today it was everyone. At one point there was a fight in the hall outside my door, and Shanika shouted out to let everyone know. Immediately, of course, everyone needs to spring from there seats to see what is going on. I scream at them and they return to their seats, but when I cross the room to shut the door they all rise again. I turned around from shutting the door to see 20 kids flying towards me, and I yelled at them to sit down – panicking at the loss of control.

“Miss! You were scared – hahahaha – your face was all red when you saw us all coming at you!”
“SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP” I chant inside my head, over and over and over again. I stare at my watch, angry that this class is taking so long to get through and wishing I could write them all up. I am tempted to pull out my cell and begin calling their parents now – thrusting the phone angrily at them and having them tell their parents what they did. I am furious by the time that they leave, and at a complete loss of how to reach them. I have 12 kids stay after class and write down their phone numbers so that I can easily call their homes, but when I look at the list, I don’t want to call any parents – I find myself unable to pin the blame for the day on anyone but myself.

Later that same day, people begin coming to visit me, just to say hey – they waltz into my classroom during my prep periods, and ask if I need help hanging up a poster or organizing something. Undoubtedly, this is an attempt to skip some other class, but these kids who come to my class are the same ones I was contemplating slipping a valium to earlier in the day, and now they are looking needy and insecure and young – not bolstered by the confidence and pressure of a class of their peers. It’s the boys and the girls, the loud ones and the quiet ones. It’s the ones who are far too big for the 7th grade, and those who are much too small. And they still drive me nuts – and they can still ruin a day – but it’s SO important that I remember that they are little kids, who still need contact comfort and kindness as much as they need food and water.

Consequences

The school spins out of control to the point where I am desensitized to it. There are so many moments in every day which shouldn’t happen – couldn’t possibly really be happening – that I find myself unable to distinguish one from another.

There was the asbestos leak, in which face masks were distributed to the teachers, but not to the students. It’s a carefully controlled chaos that simmers just below the boiling point – but at time it sloshes over.

“Miss – I think that there’s something wrong in the air downstairs.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Because miss! The teachers be wearing face masks down there.”

I wonder who it was who had the brilliant idea to selectively protect people in the school from harm. Apparently someone who underestimated the students ability to draw a connection between a face mask and air quality. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t convince the kids that wearing a face mask was more a fashion statement than a protective device. We spent the afternoon outside, trying to prevent fights from breaking out in the ‘courtyard’, a fenced in granite area which should be a concrete but instead serves as an arena for the kids to release energy at lunch time.

Is a system still a system if it’s fully ineffective? Information regarding most of the ‘systems’ travel to me via word of mouth.

“Hey Miss Klein – don’t forget that you have to have billboards completed at the end of today.” All in the interest of supporting the appearance of learning, even when there is not any actual learning taking place. Two days later I am corrected on the policy that was never communicated to me.

“Miss Klein – your bulletin board doesn’t have the standards posted for ELA AND Social Studies – and did you ever get a copy of the rating rubric?” Um…no. Of course I didn’t. Big smile and genuine thank you to my helpful messenger, and I tack yet another thing onto my to do list.

With discipline, the ‘system’ remains a house of mirrors that I can’t navigate. I suppose I’m supposed to call the assistant principal when there is an incident in my class – but at this point my students beg me to go to him, so I imagine a fantasyland of gumdrops and candy canes in his office, and refuse to send them out of them room when they misbehave. Often, when I assure them that their bad behavior will not land them in the office, they resign themselves to good behavior. From where I’m standing, there are no concrete consequences that the students face within the school. One child punches another in the face 4 times, leaving him in tears, and when the dean and security are called, no one comes. Ultimately, the violent one takes the initiative to leave the classroom, likely fearing a confrontation with the dean, while the other boy sits at his desk, tears soaking his worksheet for the remainder of the class. No one comes to investigate, and the next day, things continue as though nothing had occurred.

Eighth period and one boy comes to me and asks that I call the office.
“Why?”
“Because 2 of the boys god in a fight – they decked him and then started kicking him, and now there’s blood everywhere so we need to clean up.”
“WHAT?! They did what?!” These are two of my favorite students who apparently fought.
“Yes – and then I accidentally hit someone and now everyone is mad at me – so can you just call the office?!” In the background, my class is still in their seats, being held after school until they can figure out a way to act like the mature middle school students that I am confident must exist somewhere inside all of them. Or at least most/some of them. Currently 3 of them are dancing in the front of the room, while 3 others are playing catch in a corner and someone is knocking over their desk.
“Well I’m a little busy right now – what do you want me to do about it – have the teacher call!”

Undoubtedly, no one ever gets called. The following day I ask the boys about it, and they say that they didn’t get in trouble, and that no one ever came.

One boy got caught tagging (grafitti) the school, and the principal said that he would buy him a sketch book if he had a week of good behavior. I fill in his behavior log every day, marking ‘needs improvement’ or ‘unsatisfactory’ in the columns for his classwork and behavior – and at the end of the week he proudly shows me his new sketchbook.

One student tells me that last year 2 boys tried to burn down the school. They got as far as lighting the gym on fire, where the walls are still charred from their efforts.
“Who was it? What happened to them?” I ask. She tells me their names, and I look up, startled, for they are both students who I currently teach. She shrugs, as this doesn’t seem as entirely absurd to her as it does to me.

Recently I feel that things are escalating, and I’m having trouble wrapping my head around all of it. I’m at a loss for how to discipline those students whose parents are unresponsive, who doesn’t flinch when I tell them they are failing, and who beg me to go spend some time in the office. I feel like a horrible teacher, tempted to just throw them out of my class rather than take the time to figure them out.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Challenge

David Blane is hanging upside down in Central Park. The doctors say that he could go blind due to the prolonged rush of blood to his head. He’s challenging himself. On a blog, one woman wrote that she would like him to try being a single working mother of three kids on welfare – that’s a challenge. She has a point….

In the moments when I don’t want to wring their necks, I’m actually beginning to really like my students. It happened fast with some, those who were sweet and wanted to help clean my room and get extra tutoring. But the others – the angry ones, the sad ones, the loud ones begging for attention – those ones it is taking longer with. And it’s hard because those are the ones who need it most.

Shanika, who told me a week ago to C my way out of her A,B conversation, now has begun to talk to me, confide in me, stay after class for help – so I feel like I handled the situation well. I called her Aunt, got background information about her, gave her a list of assignments, offered to call home any day that she did well, and asked her how she was every single day. And somehow – it did crack her rough, tough exterior ever so slightly. So that’s one girl, who maybe I found the answer to – who maybe had just the right amount of need and vulnerability close enough to the surface, who maybe just got sick of being screamed at, or tired of misbehaving, or maybe her mother just scared her a little. Or maybe I’m speaking too soon…

I know that the solution is not to yell and scream and get them in deep trouble. I see the way that they respond to a little bit of extra attention – a tiny bit of proof that I care. And yet so often I am seething with frustration at whatever antic they pulled off in class that day that it is nearly impossible to see past it. But they are the ones with the real challenges. David Blane is just being irresponsible, playing with one of his five precious senses for the show of it. That’s not so impressive. Alex, who gives me a hard time every day, and then wrote me a story about his life that made everything feel crystal clear, knows what a challenge is. My students in foster care, my students whose entire family is in another country, who haven’t seen their parents since they were 3 or 4 years old – they know challenges. They deserve little gold stickers every day just for showing up. And then they show up and they wear their anger at the raw deal they got dealt on their sleeves.

And the reality, sadly, is that for the most part, they don’t even know how raw a deal they got. I tried to tell them about the achievement gap – dilute it enough that it would be understandable to them, talking about injustice and disparity and class – touching on the role that race plays in all of it, and how perpetual the cycle is. I told them that the federal government looks at projected high-school drop out rates when it is deciding how many prisons to build. I tell them to be angry, and I’m dramatic and angry myself, looking out at the sea of faces, only half of whom are projected to make it through the twelfth grade. You have to work hard. That is my message to them – again and again – You Have To Work Hard – harder than you should have to! And then they start to raise their hands.

“I think I’m middle class – maybe upper middle.”
“Yea – that’s not really about me.”
“I have money!”

How, seriously, do you argue with that? No. You don’t. You are poor – the poorest of the poor and you should know that so that you know how much better you could have and deserve to have, and you should know that so that you feel inspired to work harder and want it badly.   

But I can’t say that – I can’t take away that part of their self-image. So I say, okay…well….it’s still a sad reality, even if it doesn’t apply to you personally, and I thought it was important that you know about it.

I don't want them to wind up resentful and angry - but I want to somehow raise the bar for what is considered 'normal'.  I look at their diagnostics (the tests that I give to them now, to see what knowledge they are coming in with, and to make it easier to gauge growth at the end of the year). On the diagnostics are all of the things that they should have learned in the years past. What planet, continent, country, state, and city do you live in? They know that they live on the planet earth. Aside from that, not a single person in any of my 6 classes, grades 6 and 7 got the rest right. For the capital of the United States, someone put Oklahoma, and several kids thought that Alabama (as opposed to Albany) was the capital of New York – the state in which they actually reside. Most people got less than half right, and so when I plan my lessons for the next week, I teach them everything on that test which they got wrong. 

“You are not where you are supposed to be! You need to learn this so that you are not embarrassingly behind the other kids when you get to high school. You need to learn this so that you can get to high school!” It never sinks in. And how to you pound into someone who feels happy and content that they should be hungry for more. I feel like a little black rain cloud raining all over their parade.

They make me laugh with their ferocious little personalities, and their desperation to assert themselves. I gave them a test to see what type of learner they were, introducing the idea of multiple intelligences to the class after hearing far too many “you’re retarded” insulted flying through the school. Convincing them not to say it, that it is as bad a curse word (and it’s cursing, not swearing, as I’ve been repeatedly informed) seemed like a losing battle, so instead I introduced the idea that everyone had a different intelligence, and was good at different things. It is a series of personal statesments, and you mark the ones that are true about you and then add up the sections to see where you scored the highest. Miss smarty-pants Carola scratched out “I like myself most of the time” so that it read “I like myself ALL OF THE TIME”. Another girl marked “I like most people” as true, but only after making a note: “except one person!”

Slowly, I am starting to like them. I like the most misbehaved, who smile sheepishly after class when I call them out on it, and the girls, ripe with attitude and horomones who ignore me and refuse to make eye contact after class, but then miraculously improve the next day, not wanting to acknowledge that they are doing it to show any degree of deference to me. I’m starting to like the boys who fight in my class, for their utter inability to control themselves, and all of them for their predictable instinct to point their finger immediately towards another student (the TRUE perpetrator) anytime that I call out their name to correct their behavior. They make me raise my voice a hundred times a day, and make me give speeches I can’t believe exist inside of me, and that I generally can’t believe I have to make. I throw my hands up in frustration and I roll my eyes and I lose my temper and snap sarcastically at them sometimes. I’ll mock the ones who are the most ridiculous, when I am trying to show them which behavior I want them to stop, and they laugh when they recognize themselves.

“Genisis, put away that newspaper and start filling this sheet in.”
“AAAAAAwwwwwwww but Miiiiisssssssss!”
“I di-n’t do nuthinnnnng!!!!!!!!!!!”

And then I look at some survey they filled out, and at their birthdates, in 1995, and I remember that they are little kids. Despite their size (often much larger than me) and their attitude that sometimes makes me tremble, and their anger that fills up the air around them, they are kids. Kids with real challenges. Kids who should scoff at the likes of David Blane.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Rats


7:30 am – I arrive at school, pick up my attendance sheets, and head into my room.

I always enter my room cautiously, kicking open the door, and then surveying the immediate area before sticking in my hand to flip the lights on – making sure that there are no roaches lurking. Yesterday I put out sticky traps to catch roaches – it was what the school said I should do. Today I glanced nervously in that direction…

7:45 am – I spot a mouse on a trap
7:46 am – I grab my stuff and exit the room, pulling the door securely shut behind me.

I go to the head custodian and ask that someone come and remove said rodents from my room. She assures me that they will be up there once they finish their ‘morning jobs’. I go to my room and position myself as far as possible from the problem area, and grade papers, send out some emails to friends who are coming for the weekend – generally do my best to forget the problem. Suddenly I realize the time…

8:27 – students are knocking to get into the room. I let them in, give them instructions on what they should be doing (group work today, designing travel brochures for the continents), and call downstairs – custodian, main office, assistant principal…

“There are now students in my room and no one has come to remove the mouse.”
“Someone will be up when they are done with their morning work.”

AAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaargh. Thankfully I have 603, my wonderful homeroom – otherwise this would be a serious disaster. Finally one boy sees it, calls it to the attention of the group, everyone goes and looks and says “eeeew gross!” and then, miraculously, they sit down and get to work. I knew this was my favorite class.

I start telling them what work they owe me, and one student, Hector, a gregarious, entirely pleasant boy, goes behind my desk to look in the work folder I keep for his class. I go over to the desk to show him what he needs to get.

8:55 am – Hector steps on a trap which I had previously not noticed (apparently the traps get dragged across the floor when a mouse is trying to escape) – they are sticky traps, and his shoe is now stuck on top of the mouse which is stuck to the trap.

Disaster. He is shockingly mature about it, but still notifies everyone of what has happened, and within seconds the whole class has mobbed the desk to see. I’m laughing so hard I can’t breathe, and he sits down in my chair and enjoys having the spotlight. Again, 603 proves to be my favorite class:

8:58 am – everyone except for Hector, who is still stuck to a trap behind my desk, resumes work in their groups.

After unsuccessfully attempting to get the trap off of Hector (he seems experienced, telling me that this has happened to him 2 times before in his house) as he tells me about how he felt the skull crack and how gross it is (as if I don’t know that), I go to my useless phone once again and call the main office.

The secretary laughs when I explain the ‘emergency situation’ taking place in my room. She says someone will come to take care of it.

9:05 am – I tell Hector to remove his shoe, which he cannot do without further squishing the mouse, so I help him, and then he returns to his seat.

9:07 am – I give Hector candy for being so mature and not vomiting, as was warranted by the situation.

9:10 am – the vice principal arrives with a janitor. They remove the trap, mouse and shoe still attached, and promise to return with the shoe shortly. They leave behind the other mouse, stuck on the other trap, who is still struggling to escape.

9:11 am – I am asked to send Hector to the office to call his parents and explain the disgusting situation to them (also, he will hopefully be able to claim his shoe.

9:12 am – Hector returns and asks for scissors – as they cannot unstuck his shoe and need to cut the laces off of it. I have no scissors.

9:14 am – The vice principal calls and says that I need to send him 2 other students who can go on a scissor finding mission, as he cannot allow Hector to walk all over the school in just a sock.

9:15 am – I dismantle the rumor that is flying around the classroom that you can get cancer from walking around in just socks.

Eventually Hector got his shoe back, though he complained about the smell on them and I promised to buy him new laces over the weekend. I am unbelievably grateful that it was 603 that I was teaching, as any other class would have LOST IT and I would have lost them and likely there would have been mobs and riots and traps stuck to people’s faces and hair by the time it was all over. I keep bursting into laughter when I recall the situation, and my students are all making fun of how often I use the word ‘crap’ and ‘crappy’ which I substitute for just about every other swear word that I want to utter each day.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Apologies

Is an apology still an apology if I have to demand it, in writing, and then edit it until it meets my standards? Should I still feel better – forgiving – if their remorse is forced. When they misbehave and then are SHOCKED that I may think of calling their parents, they are suddenly sad and quiet and fully aware of all that they did wrong. I tell them that I only want to call parents when I truly doubt the students ability to control themselves and improve themselves. In those cases, I need a parent to help the student with self control and improving behavior.

So I demand letters of apology (Dear Ms. Cline I'm sorry for acting so imachoor I hope you for give me. I will never act like that agian.). Good ones – that tell me what they did, why they did it, and how they can ensure me that it will not happen again. They are illuminating, because despite the choreographed content, there is nothing careful about the design of their writing. They misspell words so simple I wouldn’t think to teach them. They leave out vital words in their entirety. Their grammar is so far from what is proper that I don’t know that the word ‘grammar’ would even apply.

I take a note from 2 kids in 702 – presumably a couple, and read the chicken-scratch to decipher what is going on in the 7th grade. It’s intense – the boy thinks that someone is trying to break up him and his girlfriend – and thinks that he will smack those girls if they come near him –“he’s for serious”. Despite the drama and the obvious intrigue, I get bored halfway through the note because of the stuggle to fill in all of the dropped pronouns, without which the note makes hardly any sense. It’s as though they are writing in secret code, so that I cannot understand – except that it’s the only code they know, and when they leave these walls no one else in the educated world will understand them either.

I’m getting high on myself from all of the time I spend pounding into their heads how vital I am to their success – how important my class is – how much I deserve their respect. Again and again I warn them of how far behind they are and how hard we have to work to catch up – emphasizing that they ARE capable of catching up (though not if you don’t SIT DOWN! And STOP TALKING! And do not hit her! And DO NOT call her names!).

My apology notes are as pathetic.

Deer Ms. Klien I am sorry for not behaving in class. I promise to behave. I don’t want you to call my house. I want to learn S.S. and pass the test. I will improve on all subjecs and in all the ways possible. Sorry.

And another…

What I did today was talking and getting up a lot and eating sunflower seed and tomorrow I will be quiet and not eat nothing in class and do all my work and listen to you all the time. And when I get in class and get my notebook out and start to do my work.

And another…

Today in social studies I made a girl blood by acsitan because I move my hand. Than, I got out from the classroom because Kiona blding. so she cline it and not get infected. but than i got in trouble by ms. kline. i will not do ever again. i'm sorry ms. klien.

And another…

The thing I did wrong is I was talking when the teacher is talking I was being disrespet full and I was making nosie and I’m going to try to be beter and I’m going to do my work and feep focus on wat I have to do. I also not going to act funny and into rupt the teacher.

And lastly….

The thing I did wrong today I think was talk over the teacher and did’nt let her teach and I’m sorry for that. Monday I mean the the whole school year. I will stop taking over you and I will let you teach 602 and I will listen better. I will sit where you tell me, I won’t try to be send to the back.

I save them all – they make me want to laugh, for the glimpse inside these otherwise mysterious heads – and to cry, for the horrible writing skills that these neglected children think are passable. I tell them that I know where they should be – I try to motivate them by letting them understand that they are behind – that outside of the walls of this school they are massively behind all of the other kids their age. It feels mean and demoralizing, but then I realize that they really don’t get it – don’t understand that they are not where they should be. They feel normal. This is normal here. And someone at some point decided that that was going to be okay.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Maturity, Responsibility, Self-Control

“Shanika” I say for the fifteenth time, staring down a girl with an attitude almost as big as the two huge mismatched plastic hoop earring dangling from her apparently deaf ears. “Shanika.” Now I try another tactic, placing my entire body between her and the girl she is talking to on the other side of the room. She is talking loudly, about nothing to do with the class, though that’s not surprising since she sits in the middle of total chaos in a room in which I am sure not a soul knows what class they are in, let alone what the lesson is. This is my “challenge class” that makes me want to bang my head against the wall every day. Finally, she stares up at me, lips pursed, eyebrows raised, and says:

“Miss, you are being so rude interrupting my conversation,” obviously there is no right way to answer this other than a stream of profanity which echoes inside my head at this blatant defiance and disrespect, setting an example for my already disrespectful and defiant class. In the background her friend, the follower of all followers, giggles and watches for my reaction.

“Excuse me?” I say, keeping my voice quiet and menacing, just needing her to flinch a little bit so that I can have my authority back.

“Miss, this is an A and B conversation, so please C your way out of it,” she says snottily. Inside my head I drop-kick her across the room. I should thank my lucky stars that no one else in the class is paying attention, save for ‘miss follower’ snickering behind her.

“I’ll see you after class I say,” feeling incredibly mature for not letting the confrontation escalate in front of everyone.

“No you won’t, I’m not staying after class”

“Oh yes you are,” Nuh uh! Uh huh! Nuh uh! Yes huh! I can hear the pathetic way that this interaction is going…

“Nooooo Miss – I got to pick up my little brother,” she says, and I at least feel good that she feels she owes me a reason.

“I don’t really care what you have to do,” I say, as I brush by her seat, trying to get other people to pay attention to me and to end this discussion with Shanika.

“You want to know how much I care about anything you have to say?” she asks a question which despite my obvious efforts to ignore her she insists on answering herself. “This much!” she shows me her fingers, pinched together to show ‘very little’. This time my mental drop kick lands her halfway across the room, and I keep her after school and yell at her until I feel sure she is about to cry.

I’ve gotten incredibly skilled at giving long ranting speeches about respect and self control and personal responsibility. This is not something which I ever thought so much could be said about – let alone so much said at a decibel level that leaves my throat hoarse and aching in class the next day. And yet with the seventh graders in my class, I scream as though it means something, and I find intricacies within intricacies in the big ideas of respect and maturity. Really, they are teaching me self-control every time they push me to the edge and I manage not to go over, to slap them around only inside of my head, and to keep most of the profanity from flying off my tongues. They teach me responsibility when I sit after class and try to figure out what I am doing to cause this behavior, and how I can change it. They teach me maturity every time that I resist giving them the smart-ass responses that they all deserve, and remind myself that somehow, I am the adult in the room.

The worst is when I hold them after and they start the chant “I didn’t do nothing!” which seems to be the mantra of so many. Then we have to go into a mini-lesson on Ms. Klein’s fairness, and how Ms. Klein doesn’t hold people after class for no reason or yell at people for things that they didn’t do, and therefore, there must be some reason why you are here after class – isn’t that right? Miraculously they all seem to agree, which is lucky because in fact, due to still not having memorized all 185 names of the kids in my classes, I often yell at the wrong person.

“Carlos!” I yell, turning left to face the child who is out of his seat or talking to someone across the room or doing gymnastics or chewing gum and humming, whistling, drumming or beat boxing.

“What?!” comes an indignant response from Carlos, who is in fact sitting quietly to my right, hands folded on his desk, carefully copying vocabulary from the board. Shit – wrong person.

“What’s his name?” I ask Carlos, pointing to the oblivious rule-breaker, so deeply involved in his rule breaking activity that he doesn’t know I’m about to scream at him.


The other night I called the wrong Juan’s parents. I told them I was very concerned about their son’s behavior. I should have known from the answering machine, pleasant and family-ish – each member of the family saying their own name into the microphone on the recording – “Hi, you have reached Carlos, and Linda….and Mercedes!...and Rosa!...and Juan.” When she called back, Juan’s mother’s voice was frantic, telling me how in shock she was to hear this about her son, how no one had ever called her ever before about his behavior. I knew then that this was the wrong Juan – the one I was trying to reach likely got more than 3 phone calls a night from various teachers. “Um…is this Juan Rodriguez’s mother?” “No! This is Juan Garcia’s mother,” “Oh! I’m sorry, your son is wonderful – I have the wrong Juan!” … I really need to learn these kids names.

What is most shocking is how sorry they can be. How they can look me in the eye with “fuck off” in their expression, and then after class tremble with how sorry they are and how they won’t do it again and how they promise, promise, promise if only, please, please, please will I not call their mother. It’s as though there is truly some severe disconnect in their minds between behavior and consequence.

I am starting a newspaper at the school. Another sugar coated topic in the teacher’s lounge is out socioeconomic bracket. We don’t like to callt he kids in our school poor, though that is what they are. Instead isn’t disadvantage, or from a lower socioeconomic bracket. “What do we wish that our students had that other schools in higher socioeconomic brackets have?” A newspaper. So I’m starting that, though I haven’t a clue what they will write, if they can write, how we will afford to publish, or where I’m planning to find the time in my day to edit it and teach them about newspaper. It’s become glaringly obvious just how little contact they have had with newspapers, so this will be a good chance to teach them about the news, and newspapers, as well as for them to actually write something and see it published (after being heavily edited, no doubt.) Writing news summaries, they plagiarize unabashedly, which tells me that at some point this week we will have to have a lesson on how to write a news summary. It can go with other skills I take for granted but that they must be taught, such as how to read a newspaper, how to use a glossary, a table of contents, an index, and atlas – all individual, 45 minute lessons.

I asked them to write a news summary about any presidential or vice presidential candidate in this election (after I wrote in HUGE letters on the board the names of John McCain, Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden, accompanied by underlines and stars and my saying that “you MUST know who these people are, you MUST understand that there is an election going on. It’s the most important thing that’s happening in the world right now!)
“How is it important?” Oh where to begin talking about that….

How do I explain how important the election is, the government is. I point out that the legislative branch has a lot of people in it, and in the executive branch there are only two “big important people”. First I have to teach them branches of government, and the reason that we have them – which leads to checks and balances. And then comes the election process, of which they are utterly clueless. Please note that not one of them knows who the current vice president (and VP for most of their lives) is, and giggled when I wrote “Dick” Cheney on the board. Again – let me give you my lecture on ‘maturity’…