Wednesday, September 24, 2008


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


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


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’…

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Check Yourself

“Check yourself before you wreck yourself!”

Teaching checks and balances to my 6th graders, I try to explain the purpose of having them. “Has anyone ever heard someone say ‘check yourself’”? I ask. “Yea! Check yourself before you wreck yourself!” comes the resounding response. I make a mental note to make a giant poster with that line on it as a feature of my new and improved classroom management plan…

There’s a lot of sugar coating going on in my school. The students call roaches “water bugs.” Call it what you will – that is a cockroach that you are smashing under your air jordans over there. But there is a unanimous consensus about the semantics of the bugs. In the hall the kids are sweet as sugar, as if big smiles and “Hello Miss Klein” can make up for period after period of them behaving as though I am not present in the classroom with them. In the classroom it’s “Yo, Miss!” to get my attention. “EXCUSE ME! Do not address me as ‘yo miss’” I admonish them, before launching into my hundredth mini-lesson on classroom behavior.

It has to all be spelled out for them, with no loopholes. I’m always anticipating the knowledge gaps that I’ll have to fill in. I want to teach cause and effect, but can’t do that without teaching them inference. I want to teach them election, but first have to teach them government. Anticipating the loopholes is the key to success, and it’s true in management even moreso. For example – the rule that you must raise your hand to speak is entirely inadequate, unless you also establish that they must be called on by me. You end up with lots of kids shouting out with their hands waving around in the air.

“Miss, she called me a potato head.”
“I didn’t hear that, but I hear your voice right now,” I can only judge what I do see or hear, so in this case the poor potato head boy is going to lose. His assailant was simply more stealth.
“But Miss!!!”
“I still hear you, you need to learn to ignore people who are bothering you.”
“Miss – it’s true, I heard her call him a potato head.”
“Don’t call names,” I remind the offending student, and then I tell the offended that they must “learn to ignore the people who are bothering you.” In an ideal world, this approach would teach kids self-control – not to be responsive to every provocation. So far it just has made me seem very unfair and unsympathetic.

They need to learn self control, respect, and personal responsibility if they are going to go any further in the world – three things that on the whole are really lacking right now. And again, like I ask myself about everything, about a hundred times a day, what really makes me qualified to teach them that?

Monday, September 8, 2008


My students all know how much a bag of rice costs. They all recount their mother’s complaints about the recent increase in prices. I know that I am teaching in the poorest congressional district in the United States, with an average family income hovering around $300/week, and yet it is moments like these that drive that point home. I am teaching them about the economy, referencing rising gas prices – obviously there is a lack of cultural awareness on my part to be referencing gasoline in a city where so few people drive, in a community where most don’t have cars, and wouldn’t be taking vacations, regardless of the price of plane tickets - but the real issue for them is rice. They see the news about gas prices, and they get it – but it is when I talk about prices at the grocery store that I see it click in their minds, and they want to shout out about their own family’s struggle with the expensive rice.

When I tell people what I do, they seem to think that it’s a noble thing. They seem impressed by how altruistic, how unselfish it is. It’s ridiculous, really, to think for one second that anyone can do a job, let alone be good at it or happy in it, for truly selfless reasons. It is human nature to be self interested – it’s how we survive, and to me it seems almost coincidental that something that gives me what I want in a job at this point in my life has a positive impact on other people’s lives.

“Where the needs of the world and your passion collides, there lies your vocation.”

I like that it’s different every day, that there aren’t right answers, and that I get to interact with people (yes, they are still people, despite being under the age of 13 and still relatively uncivilized) all day every day. I love how consuming it can be – how much time and energy it requires to be truly good at it. It feels really good to have a whole huge part of my day dedicated to something other than obsessing over the minute and relatively inconsequential details of my own daily life. It’s an escape in some strange way. It’s so much more real than anything I’ve done before, and so much more interesting. And it brings me pleasure – the tasks associated with teaching, and the way that they look when they are actually interested in what I’m saying (which is rare, because though EVERYTHING I am saying is just overflowing with intrigue, they have to be able to hear me speaking before they can really become invested, and that, my friend, it a real rarity). I love the way that they listen to me when deep down inside I am still wondering who decided to give me power, and the way that they are each so different, and so simultaneously determined to be recognized as individuals while at the same time trying their hardest to just blend in. If I didn’t like it – I couldn’t do it – and that doesn’t make me noble, it makes me human.

We had to take courses on child abuse and negligence, learning all of the legal definitions and intervention strategies, as well as our own personal legal responsibilities. When you sign up to teach social studies, you think more about geography than domestic violence, and yet in this school I am always reading between the lines. They come to school every day, wearing light blue shirts and following their carefully mapped class schedule. Before they enter a class they must stand in straight lines, and all through the school you hear teachers yelling, “These lines are not straight! I need these lines to be quiet before you enter my classroom!” Inside my head I always get sarcastic: “Seriously? Is this hard? How many times have you guys had to line up TODAY let alone in your lives as students???/” They have notebooks to write down their homework in, and procedures for leaving the school, entering the school, answering questions, going to the bathroom. It is the epitome of structure and stability in the lives of children whose parents work 3 jobs and aren’t often home in the evenings, where at any moment something can happen that will shift their entire world – someone gets sick or hurt, and ends up without insurance in the hospital, or a parent loses their job, and someone gets in trouble with the law. These things are not uncommon, and they come to the school, through metal detectors and into our classes. They are learning more than social studies and science. Like all middle school students they are becoming adolescents, figuring out what type of person they will be, only it’s harder to do in this school, in this neighborhood, than in the one I grew up in. They have different influences and role models, and the future isn’t taken for granted the way it was with my friends. 50% of students graduate from high school, if they even make it past the 8th grade. So we are trained to look out for them in many dimensions of their lives beyond the schooling.

I teach over 180 kids – with about 35 kids per class. Generally good with names, time and again I find myself drawing a blank at a familiar face. In most classes I know the 3 or 4 students who are eager and participating, and the 8 who are trying their hardest to distract me from the lesson. The remainder of the students are lost in the ruckus, until they step out of line and I call them out:
“EXCUSE ME! What is your name? I do not like what you are doing right now, I don’t want to hear you talking unless you have raised your hand, and I have called on you!” I hear myself barking at the poor violating student. At this point, if I don’t know your name than you haven’t been one of my biggest problems.

It’s a million tiny battles every day.

There are those kids who seek attention, these are the easy ones, all that is necessary is to show them how to channel that need towards the class. Then there are the other ones – the power-seeking students, who stare me straight in the eye with their defiance of my rules, and then turn their heads to face away from me when I am speaking with them. The power struggles are the worst – the ones to be avoided, where even when you win you lose. I have to work on caring about whether or not they like me. I have to let myself care about them, without caring when they say that I’m mean or when they are angry with me. And for some, it’s work to separate how much I hate their behavior, from how I feel about them. And to not let the implications of every student living a life in which they can quote the exact cost of a sack of rice cloud my mind or my judgment when working with them.

Another poem that I thought was good:

“I live on an Avenue called Evergreen,
in the middle of the Bronx,
where the streets are mean,
at times,
hard to dream.

My neighborhood,
Where there is more bad than good.
Too much concrete,
No basket court,
Waiting for the day we get to leave New York.

Thank God for the library,
To be able to hide away in a book,
Away from what is scary.

The street where people die,
Cheat, steal, and lie,
Where good can never be seen,
My city, the Bronx,
My neighborhood,
The Evergreen.”

Thursday, September 4, 2008

what i didn't know...

“Just ignore it,” I said, referencing the manhattan-sized cockroach scurrying across the wall of my classroom, past the “BIG GOALS” poster and rapidly approaching my “Class Laws” bulletin board. And miraculously – they do – a testament to the regularity of the sightings of these monstrous insects.

It’s day 2, and I don’t know how to use the phone in my classroom, which I only discovered that I had when I heard a mysterious ringing emitting from a previously unnoticed box on the wall earlier in the day. I definitely don’t know how to call the janitor, and I have a bad feeling that the school protocol with regards to cockroaches and other insects would involve me smashing it under my business casual shoes. Luckily, I went to a middle school in which it wasn’t rare to encounter a roach, and there I learned, among other important life lessons, that smashing a roach is not the answer – its eggs, which it carries under its body, just become embedded in your shoes, subsequently traveling with you to wherever you may go. Urban legend or not, it’s no wonder these buggers are rumored to be able to survive a nuclear winter.

There are other important protocols that have not been communicated with me. When a father of a student asked me about the dress code on day one, I took a quick inventory of the school yard, and noting that only ¼ of the students were wearing light blue shirts, I assured him in my most confident, “I am a veteran, not a new, inexperienced, completely clueless teacher” voice, that there was no dress code. 2 minutes later, after the principal stopped by my class to remind the kids that they must dress in their baby blue shirts the next day, I whisper in Hector’s ear to tell his father that they suddenly changed the policy, and there IS a dress code.

Despite my monumental knowledge gap with regards to school policies, there are other things which people have made a point of telling me. I am told of the “lesbian epidemic” sweeping through the eighth grade. All of the girls in one class last year decided to become lesbians. They are in eighth grade now, and it’s sweeping like wildfire. I was also told about the teacher who had my room last year, who killed herself by jumping off of a bridge. I learn of this when I ask the assistant principal where I can get keys to my classroom, and he jokes that I can find them “at the bottom of the Bronx river”. Ouch. Apparently she lost her job after forgetting a child on a field trip to Rockefeller Center, and subsequently jumped.

I mess up the attendance sheets in a new way every day, arguing with the woman who tells me how important it is that if it was so important, perhaps I should have been taught. On day three, I put myself between two overgrown, overweight boys, dripping with sweat from due to the broken air conditioners and too much anger and adrenaline. I still don't know how to call security. One boy , Carlos, informs me that he is fighting with the other because “Nobody runs him!” Apparently, Timothy had mistakenly tried to “run” Carlos. In my most assertive and demeaning voice, I tell Carlos just how much he appears to have been “run”. “If you run yourself than you don’t let things like this bother you, you don’t end up in trouble and missing lunch to have a talk with me! You responding to him is exactly what it looks like when you let someone else 'run' you!” I have a strong suspicion that my logic is lost on him…

I teach 3 sixth grade classes and 3 seventh grade classes. My homeroom is 6th grade, and they are heaven – adorable, smart, eager – everything that you picture your students being like in your dreams. I had them first. Then came the rest of my classes, which one after another woke me up from my fantasy-land, and pounded me into reality. For the first two days, I was convinced that 6th grade was sweet and innocent, and somehow in seventh grade they became jaded and mean. Then I met the other two 6th grade classes (until today I had only known 603). 601 and 602 roared into my room and stomped my theory about the 6th grade right into the ground.

The management is difficult and exhausting – asserting yourself again and again, reminding them how important you are. We are saddled with expectations and pride, gifts from TFA, which again and again reminded us that we were performing a great service, and providing these children with a necessary resource that they would otherwise lack. We are giving them a chance at a great future – or so we are told – and we enter the classrooms feeling very noble. And yet, it isn’t the same as providing water to those who are thirsty, or feeding people who are starving. We aren’t giving warmth to those who are freezing, or providing any other amenity which would give the recipient a sense of immediate gratification. Rather, an education takes a long time to seem worthwhile. In fact, it’s only in coming into this school, planning a lesson and realizing just how many things I take for granted that I know - How to take notes, how to read a textbook, or really, how to read, in general. Things that you don’t remember being taught, at one point you must have been. How do you stand in a straight line? How do you work in a group? How do you hand in papers and sit properly in your desk and show the teacher that you are listening? What type of government do we have? What is an economy? The students - the recipients of this great gift we are bestowing upon them - like all other students in the world, don't recognize that the knowledge is a necessity. When I tell them that knowing social studies is not only necessary in order to pass the 7th grade, but also in order to be informed citizens, they seem a bit confused. "You don't want to look ignorant, not understanding the way that this country works, or how it came to be this way!" I exclaim in frustration. Ah - "Ignorant" - the magic word! Suddenly they get it. Unlike feeding the starving or housing the homeless, with teaching I have to remind myself every period that what I'm doing matters, because to the students it is as though I am forcing nutrients down their throats, trying to avoid having my hand bitten off.

I’ve gotten off of my carefully charted course several times to correct serious misconceptions.
Me: What does it mean that we live in a democracy? (hoping to hear some word that at least resembles “voting”)
(dead silence)
Me: We have an election coming up, don’t we?
(a couple of nods)
Me: Who are the candidates?
Class members: Um…BARACK OBAMA!...and….Hillary Clinton….and John McCain….and Guiliani….and –
Me: woah – we only have two candidates now!
Class: Oooooooh yea. – someone asks “why did Hillary Clinton drop out?”
Helpful student: because she became vice president
Another helpful students: but she took out a hit on Barack Obama’s life – she just did it in code so she couldn’t get in trouble.
Student: Miss – I have a question – why are people upset that John McCain is having a baby?
(now I realize I will need to get off track to ensure that they don’t continue through their lives thinking these things)

603 – my superstars, rockstars, little sparks of light in my day, are ahead of the other classes, and handed in their “Where I’m from” poems – an assignment that was supposed to show their history, so that we could look to see perspectives and bias’ that accompany individual histories. (inevitably, this discussion, led by me, took the shape of talking about which football teams you support, and how you would look at last years superbowl depending on which team you were supporting. For all of you Giants fans out there, the Patriots fans in 603 are quite certain that they let you win because they had enough rings already. Needless to say, they didn’t agree with my perspective that the season didn’t matter because the Steelers fell short…)

Some of my favorite poems:

“I am from close up
From hugging and sharing
(sometimes too much)
I’m from the high and tall
Where, I could look across to the island.

I am from the doing the right things
From the one father
Who wasn’t mine
But gave me love
And now
He’s gone

I am a part
Of them who will love
And be

“I come from two,
from a beautiful Spanish land,
where the water is blue
to a Italian land
where a tower leans

from rice and beans
to spaghetti and meatballs.
From two different languages
That are still the same.

From mother and father
That were two
But now are one.”

This class is my only class that all behaves, whose eyes glow when I am giving them new information, and who look ready to fall out of their seats in their eagerness to be called on. Today I collected their parent surveys, and to me it seemed clear why the students in this class were so invested in their success. One after another, a parent promised me that if I gave their students the attention that they deserved, they would be the best in the class. They tell me how gifted their student is, warning me not to discount them because they are shy, or too talkative. They listed their goals for their children: “self-motivated, self-disciplined, self-love, and independence.” So there are families behind these faces, who bought them those shiny new white tennis shoes, and took them to get their hair braided and new weave put in.

The kids are smart – but the degree to which they are uneducated is shocking. But it gives me hope – that what they say is actually true. They are capable of achieving, they just have to be given the attention and the opportunity - things that I have always taken for granted. But the other thing that is interesting, is that never for a moment would I feel sorry for these kids. They are lacking in opportunity, but they are not the type to be pitied. Going in with an attitude like that is condescending, and based on entirely false presumptions. They don’t have a lot, and yet they are so proud of what they do have – it’s all that they know. And as one of my students told me today, “some kids, they are very spoiled and they have everything, but they make bad choices because they get lazy and don’t think that they have to work hard, so they do the wrong things even though they are rich.” “No one in here would make that mistake, would they?” I ask. “NO! No Way! We aren’t spoiled! We know we have to make smart choices!” comes the resounding response. And I am smiling when I remind them to “Raise your hands!”