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.

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.

“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.


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.
“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.