Thursday, November 19, 2009


Carl and Jon are masochists. They love to be tortured. They follow a girl around the school all day, submitting themselves to her relentless taunting and torturing of them. They get beaten down and go back for more.

“Yo! Carl is a loser! His mother don’t love him!” she says
“Jon’s fat!” she shouts. She makes up a song and teaches everyone. It’s called “Jon’s fat” and Jon sings along, often doing the chorus on his own.

Boom, click, boom boom – jon’s fat
Boom, click, boom boom – he’s fat.
Boom, click, boom boom
Boom boom boom

He wants that taco bell
Pizza hut and burger king
Extra fries with onion rings

Boom, click, boom boom – jon’s fat
Boom, click, boom boom – he’s fat.
Boom, click, boom boom
Boom boom boom

And Chicken wings
Are so tasty, he said
But he once took
A monkey to bed

Boom, click, boom boom – jon’s fat
Boom, click, boom boom – he’s fat.
Boom, click, boom boom
Boom boom boom

“Why do you follow her?” we ask them incredulously. “Why do you want to be around that? You are so much better than that.” They eat lunch with Mr. M and myself most days, in his classroom, playing connect four while they tell us stories about their days. They shrug. There really is no good answer.

Carl has a history of masochism. Last year he flushed his own head down the toilet in an effort to make kids laugh. He allowed himself to be put in a lunchroom trash can and have ‘LOSER’ written in sharpie on his forehead. He marched around the room and the school, allowing everyone to see it and laugh at him. One day in the park, he took off his pants in front of a crowd and straddled a pole. He asks questions in ELA about getting pregnant from masturbating, and last week, when a kid asked him if he was a virgin, he confidently said, “my hand’s not,” elaborating when he was rewarded with explosive laugher, “neither is my pillow.” He cries easily, publicly, and often. He flourishes when he is given any type of attention, blossoms in the glow of laughter, even if it is at his expense.

This is not a stupid kid. He is one of the smarted kids in the grade. He scores high on state exams, reads on a 12th grade level, and loves to draw. He writes well, and reads beautifully, using voices, acknowledging punctuation and pausing for effect. This year, he is in a class where he is away from the people who tortured him in the past, and though he does still go looking for it after school, for the first time he is seeking attention in a way that is positive. He makes us all laugh – not at him, but because he is funny. Because he writes rhymes and raps and beats that are clever, and he performs them with confidence – after all, he’s been the center of attention for years. He is being given a stage, and on it he is finally getting what he longs for – attention – but in a good way.

Jon has never been given the time of day by a teacher. His squeaky prepubescent voice haunted me last year, never stopping, never on task, always trying to impress this girl, even as she put him down. This year, he is in Mr. M’s math class, and he is treated like a star. He is treated like a cool kid, and in turn, for the first time, he acts like one. When I see him he is polite and respectful. He behaves himself in class, and his scores are high.

These are two kids who have been talked about for years, teachers rolling their eyes and shrugging their shoulders while the kids tease them and laugh at them. They look for affirmation in any way that they can get it – and in turn have turned themselves into the perfect victims. But this year, as a result of circumstance, they have found themselves in classes which give them the opportunity to shine. And it’s amazing how they do. Makes you wonder about the other 300 students in the school, and what they would do if only they had the chance.


There’s an altered sense of propriety. They are so casual when they talk about their lives. I want to tell them that it’s outrageous, fascinating, absurd or damaging. I want them to know that it’s important. Book are written about lesser traumas, and yet these children nonchalantly recount the adultery, abandonment and assault that has defined their lives.

A sweet girl, Amy, is new to the school. She fell in love with a boy in class in the first month, before he broke up with her and she moved on to a bilingual boy who has a reputation for winning fights. They were caught after school one day, having sex in his apartment, and his mother came to school furious. The boy had already fathered one child over the summer, and she wasn’t prepared to handle him fathering another so soon.

Amy told me her story one day in advisory. She told me that no one had ever wanted her, that she’d never had a home. Another girl was talking about how she hated her father, and Amy said quietly that she didn’t hate hers, he just didn’t want her – no one did. When she was a baby, her young parents left her to be raised by her grandmother. This was a plan that worked, until her grandmother got a boyfriend who she would rather be with. She left to live with her boyfriend, leaving Amy with her uncle. For 6 years her uncle sexually assaulted her, until finally is was uncovered and she was removed from the home. This is how sexual assault is dealt with in the Bronx – take the child away – don’t punish the offender, punish the child. Amy has been in foster care, split up from her brother, and moving from place to place for the last few years. She says that she has no home – that she has lived in 14 homes and been enrolled in 7 schools in the last 2 years alone.

This heartbreaking story is told to me and a few other students in the advisory group, with an air of broken indifference. There are bestsellers about the lesser tragedies that have shaped their lives, and yet to most of these kids this isn’t even a story. People spend millions on lifetimes of therapy to recover from smaller wrongdoings, and these kids don’t even realize they’ve been hurt. They can play ball with the kids around them, one-upping one another.

G’s dad has 23 kids with different women and her mom drinks too much. A’s dad has 10 kids with 4 different women. They call him Harry, not dad. T’s dad has 7 kids and cheated on her mom her whole life until her mom left him. K’s mom was 15 when she had her, and dropped out of school. M’s mom was 14 and his dad is a dirtbag, he tells me.

It’s absurd. This isn’t group therapy, it’s 8th period, and these are just a random sampling of the students in the school. They are kids, and have no power over their own lives or circumstances.

They talk endlessly about why they don’t believe in marriage – why they’ll never get married.

“No way. It’s not worth it. You should see what my mom goes through,” The girls all agree. As soon as you get married you just start getting hit. It’s not worth it. They speak from experience, but it’s another dream that they have lost. Another thing that girls dream of and picture for themselves that they long ago let go of. And they don’t even know that it’s a loss.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Taking It Personally

“Miss, you know you have love handles?” a girl is following me around the room as I hand out papers. She actually felt the need to rise from her seat and trail me in order to ensure that I hear her. I was actually feeling pretty good about how I looked today – for once – a dress that I couldn’t imagine revealed flaws to any extent that required that she point them out to myself and the class.

“Miss Klein, you hear me? You know you have love handles. That’s bad. They look really bad.” She repeated herself, determined to give me an eating disorder.

Later in the day, another one of my lovely students gets annoyed with me.

“Your face is ugly – all white and it gets red and you so ugly, miss.”

On, and on, and on.

“Shut up – why you always talking to me? You think I want to hear your dumb voice?”
“Miss – you did a bad job of explaining this!”
“Miss Klein, this is stupid.”
“You gained weight Miss.”
“Those pants are ugly, why you wearing those ugly pants?”
“Why do you think we need to learn this, why you teaching us this?”

I must have done something horrible to deserve this – karma wouldn’t allow this to be what my days are like unless I did something to deserve it.I took a boys ipod from him and he told me he would ‘deck me’, and he would ‘f-ing kill me’ and then, when we decided to be more realistic in his threats, he declared that he was ‘gonna call my sister to come wash you up.’ If someone washed you up, suffice it to say that you lost the fight.

Before I began to teach, my middle school swim coach and gym teacher gave me some advice. He had been teaching in a city middle school for many years, and I took his words to heart.

Drink every weekend.
Be friends with your colleagues
Don’t take it personally.

Drinking isn’t a problem, though sometimes it’s hard to contain it to the weekends as he suggested. And my boyfriend started as a colleague, so fraternizing hasn’t proved to be too painful either. But not taking it personally is always a struggle. I have to make an effort not to hear them, to rationalize their words. It’s not that they hate me – they hate their lives, they hate school, they hate that they are 14 and can’t read, they hate that this test is hard or that they have to sit still, or that they didn’t get breakfast. They hate their dad that left or their mom who is never home, or their little cousin who gets all the attention and keeps them up all night. They hate the kids with nicer clothes, and the cliques that leave them out. They hate – but they don’t’ hate me. So I put on my newly acquired ipod and tune out their words, hoping that I’ll forget them by tomorrow.

If They Didn't Learn It, You Didn't Teach It

There is an incredible satisfaction that comes from executing a good lesson. I taught them to use textual evidence and walked away feeling as though there was no possible way that they could have not gotten it. I expected a sea of perfect papers to flow over my desk. We did examples, we did corrections, we practiced. The reality that they only slightly grasped the concept, and that their execution of the skill was flawed, was difficult for me to wrap my mind around.

This is a pattern. I created and Oregon Trail game to teach Westward Expansion, and felt sure that I had hit the nail on the head in teaching it. In groups we formed wagon trains and took a fictional journey across the country, making stops, writing journal entries, overcoming obstacles. On the test, when asked where the Oregon Trail ended, most of them seemed for some reason that the trail had led them to Louisiana.

It’s frustrating, and my instinct is to blame them – they don’t listen, they don’t study, they don’t’ know how to learn, they have no interest in learning. When I learn, though, is when I turn it on myself, and on where I am lacking. It’s said in progressive teaching circles that ‘If they didn’t learn it, you didn’t teach it.” That seems rather intuitive, but accepting its truth is daunting. I DID teach it! I know I did! And I was creative and engaging and everyone participated and worked so hard on it – how can it be the case that I didn’t teach it! And yet, they didn’t learn it. And so I have to try again, in some new way that I didn’t consider before. They didn’t learn it, so no matter what bells and whistles I had going off, what I did, was not teaching. And as fun and easy and gratifying it is to blame the 30 reluctant learners in my class, it’s not particularly helpful in raising their scores on their state exams. So I have to look in the mirror, and, reluctantly, learn something.

Make An Effort

Make An Effort

Friday is test day. We have them for four periods in the morning – 4 straight periods in one room with 30 thirteen year olds. No breaks. No room. It’s a wonderful day – quizzes generally mean quiet, and after 4th period we are done for the day. But do not underestimate the challenge of keeping kids pent up and thinking for such an extended period. Often this day ends up as one of our most diffcult.

Today they start out with writing an essay to analyze a short story that we read. We read it as a class, covering the board with notes and ideas. The next day they sat in their groups with a list of 6 questions to talk about. These are their ‘book clubs’ and they are to analyze and thoughtfully discuss things we are reading. I give them 30 ways to start sentences and respond to one another respectfully. I give them the questions they can use to provoke thought. I give them 30 minutes with their friends to talk freely, as long as it’s on topic. Then the next day they write an essay. I use 3 of the questions that they already talked about the day before. I outline the essay for them, so they basically have to just fill in the blanks. They complain. They are confused. They don’t get it.

“I hate Miss Klein. I hate her to her guts,” says one girl who didn’t participate in the discussions the previous 2 days and now resents being tested on it.

I feel incredible satisfaction when I get a good essay. When I get one that follows standard format. We have tested their reading levels and revised and edited their work. I have taught them to cite sources and to provide textual evidence for all of the points that they make in an essay. And seeing that they get it fills me with pride. So as the essay tests came in, 2 full pages in their careful handwriting, filled with mistakes and white out but brimming with EFFORT.

Make. An. Effort. That’s all I ask. If you try, you will succeed, I tell them again and again. If only you will try. If only.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Quietly Lost

It’s nearly the end of October, and this year is so much better than the last in so many ways, and so challenging in so many new ones. I’m no longer a first year teacher, so I need to hold myself more accountable for the way that things go. And yet, things do go better than they did before – even if they remain far from perfect.

I teach ELA, Math, and Social Studies to 30 kids who spend 5 periods a day trapped in the same room with myself and Ms. Jimenez. Half of them have IEPs, some for cognitive disorders, but the vast majority for emotional disorders – a trend in the South Bronx. It’s a crazy thing, spending this many hours every day with the same kids – I see them as much as their own parents do. I get to do all of the things that I couldn’t do last year – have the time to teach them to read and write, get to know what they need academically and how they each learn and become engaged. It’s a gift. And when things go wrong, I have another teacher in the room with me at all times who I can share a look with or pass a note too – someone to keep me sane and keep me from feeling like it is just me and it is all my fault.

As ever, special education rooms are a dumping ground for behavioral problems, and we are no exception. There are chronic cutters – people who walk in and out when they feel like it, undeterred by the number of times in a single day that they are escorted to their destination by an administrator. There are those who are disrespectful, cursing, and making comments that are inappropriately sexual, or racist, or prejudiced in some creative way that I would never have considered before. There are the catty girls who gaggle through the room like they own the world, reminding me of how invincible I felt at 13, as they roll their eyes and suck their teeth and talk back with all of the attitude in the world until I pull out my phone and hit their parent’s speed-dial number.

Having them all day teaches me to forgive quickly, and to take things less personally. We are all in this together, stuck with each other, whether we like it or not. And we are not friends. We are not equals.

In this school, where the administration is fearful and cautious with the kids, granting them rights that they certainly are not ordained by our government, and the teachers operate with the general maturity level of a 9th grader- giving them just a SLIGHT air of superiority to dangle over the students, it can be hard to remember who is your peer and who is your charge. It is a blessing to have another teacher in the room to remind me of my age and position. So that when students tell me to ‘shut up’ because my ‘voice is mad annoying’ I remember that it’s not a friend of mine saying that to me, but an angry little child who doesn’t know how to express her feelings about the injustice of the hand that life has dealt her.

Then there are the good kids – the quiet ones without the sparkling personalities – though they are accepted by those whoa re popular – they carry their books for them – who sit in their correct seats and don’t cause trouble and work hard. Those are the ones who are forgotten. Those are the victims of the school system. More than ever I realize that the people who lose out are not the bad kids, who dominate 90% of my time, attention and energy. And not those who are loud and confident and cool – though they too suffer by holding themselves to an insultingly low standard that is set in this environment. But they too, get attention from adults who try to tame them, or channel their energies, and students who long for their approval. It is the nice quiet workers, who sit there plugging away at whatever work has been assigned, not having their questions asked or having teachers sit and ask if they need help. I ignore everyone to discipline one child, but rarely can I ignore those who act up to teach. That’s my biggest goal.

Day 1

Day one. I try to deny that I am excited to see the kids, but when I glance into the courtyard and see all of the sweet ones from last year, I find myself smiling. When I walk into the auditorium, a grim look plastered on my face, I am swarmed by the students I had last year, who tackle me with questions and hugs and force my smile to surface. I gather my class and eventually we head up to the classroom which was assembled by Ms. J and myself the day before. We sit them down and explain to them that the two fo us, as teachers, wanted to work together in order to make things happen that we hadn’t been able to do in the school in the previous year. We explain that they were our hand picked students – and looking around the room you see that most of them believe it. They are filled with energy, opinions and ideas on this first day.

By second period it’s as though there never was a summer – everything feels like a familiar routine. Even standing in front of a class, asking David to raise his hand feels like something I’ve done every day for my entire life. The kids are so familiar that it’s as though we never parted, and I wonder if summer has less of an effect on adults than on kids. When I was their age, a summer away turned teachers into strangers and evicted all knowledge of the previous year from my head. I likely couldn’t even list the members of my previous class. And yet as an adult, the first day back eclipses the months of rest, leaving me feeling mysteriously well-rested but no less submerged in the day.

I was worried about having the same kids 2 years in a row. It’s a challenge, to be sure. I had a close relationship with my students by the end of the year – close enough that they find it completely believable that they were chosen by me to be in my class this year. But also close enough that they come to tell me about the things that are happening in their lives that have nothing to do with class.

Some of them are very concerned about being in a class that is ‘special education’. I try repeatedly to reassure them that it is not special education, that their mere presence is evidence of as much. They pull me aside and tell me that they think that I should take the general education kids out of the class and just go – take them to a new room and teach them. I assure them that this won’t be necessary.

In fact, I really believe what I am telling them. They are upset about the math being too easy and I explain that we are giving something simple in order to see what level everyone is at. ‘Is it fair that last year in every class every person got the same work?’ I asked them, pointing out that the most advanced students sat bored for a lot of the time while the least advanced spent most of their time lost and hopelessly confused. They acknowledge that this wasn’t a good system. I assure them that we will be having level work, and groups that match their ability in every subject – that this is the advantage of being in this class, where they have the same teachers in the same room for ELA, Math and Social Studies.

The kids are great – energetic and interested. Of course, this is how they were at the beginning of last year, and I was lulled into complacency and being their friends. This year, I am more attuned to the things that rub me the wrong way, and less inclined to go with the flow. They don’t walk well in line from class to class – this is a problem, this must be changed. Someone is out of his seat unnecessarily, this must be changed. And so they won’t escalate into the problems that they were last year, because I can see them right now as what they might become.

I also realize that I have learned to listen in a new way. Last year, any noise or talking felt like an affront. I have come to be able to distinguish productive noise from unproductive noise, and pick my battles, which keeps my blood pressure much lower.

New Year

Tomorrow is the first day of school, and I am not afraid. Tonight I’ll sleep through the night. I have no packets made, no lesson plans printed. For all of the time that I put into planning last year, before school even started, I have learned that you have to know your students before you can plan for them. I have the same kids as last year, and yet need to get to know them all over again.

This year I will be teaching a CTT class (half special ed, half general ed) all subjects. I will keep them in one room all day with myself and another teacher who is certified to teach special education. I am going from 180 students whose names I didn’t know to 30 students whose special talents I can list in my sleep.

It will be a new challenge – but I don’t feel afraid – if I survived last year, I can do anything. Summer really does have a anesthetic effect. I remember the end of last year, the feeling of drowning and suffocating when I was asked to stay for even a minute longer than I had to. I can’t even begin to make myself feel that way when I think of school now. Now I think of the craziest moments of last year and I laugh. They are ridiculous and unbelievable, but it’s a relief to laugh about these things and to realize that we are all still standing.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Sonia Sotomayor was raised in a Bronx Public Housing Complex.  She is Hispanic.  She is likely the next Supreme Court Justice.  I heard this story, and in my head I thought about how inevitably my dad would ask me if I had shared the news with my class.  I woke up early and found a dozen articles about it to bring to school, made a quick powerpoint presentation about the Supreme Court nomination system, and made a reading guide for them to fill out to help them attempt to read the articles. 


I wasn’t shocked by their reactions.  I had learned early on in the year that they tend to be ignorant to their own socio-economic situations.  They often insist that they are a part of the middle class, despite their actual status as members of the poorest congressional district in the United States.  Most of them are on welfare, and in this bad economy things can only look bleaker now than it did for most of them when I first tried to initiate conversations about poverty and the achievement gap earlier in the year. 


TFA often tells us that we should be illuminating the disparities and injustices that our students face by talking to them about it, but it’s challenging when they refuse to identify as members of a oppressed or neglected group. 


I tried desperately to make them care about Sonia – to make them feel a connection with her. 

“Miss – why you think we care about this?!  We ain’t poor like that.  I don’t live in no projects.” Says one student whose family is on welfare and who in fact is living in a shelter.

“I’m not Hispanic, I’m Dominican,” another asserts confidently.

“What – you think just ‘cause this lady is from we Bronx we should care?  She’s not like us!  And what’s the big deal about what she’s doing anyway.”

“Lots of more important people than that are from the Bronx,” they said, rattling off the long list of celebrities and musicians who are from the Bronx.  Most of them aspire to be professional athletes and hip hop artists, so these role models are better aligned to their ambitions.

I tried repeatedly to show them why this should matter to them, and found myself feeling like I was the crazy one for thinking that they had anything in common with this woman.  I was ultimately defeated, though I think I made a valiant effort towards reaching them.  I guess it’s a good thing that they are so confident, and have so much swagger, that they aren’t grasping for role models.  You can’t really blame a kid for not wanting to identify themselves as poor, disenfranchised, and unlikely to succeed.  

You Tight

Tight is not a good thing to be.  Tight means angry, frustrated, upset.  The kids feel triumphant if they can make one another, and most especially, if they can make me, ‘tight’.  They always give themselves credit for it – ‘Ah! You tight!’ they will exclaim when they see that they have upset you.  The things they do to make one another and myself tight are countless, and often surprisingly creative.

They  spend a lot of time making fun of one another for how poor they are. 

“Your mom is so poor, my mom gives her food stamps!”

They make fun of one another’s clothing and accessories and notebooks and pens.  If they ever ask for something or don’t have something, they are immediately called out for being too poor to afford pens, or pencils.  Several of them have a big reputation as thieves, and they will grab things off of my and other teachers desks and pocket them.  The kids always see this happen and turn one another in.  This is called ‘snitching’ and it is the worst of all crimes.

“Michael took your markers!”

“Michael, you so poor you can’t afford markers.  You always stealing, you're so poor!”

“Stop snitching – you a snitch!” And they both have lost, because while it’s not good to be a thief, it’s even worse to be a snitch.

Despite their apparent inability to afford school supplies, they do some to school with sidekicks (phones) and Jordans (shoes).  To me it all looks the same, but they can spot a fake from miles away.

“Get outta here with your nasty-ass fake jordans!”  everyone will turn to inspect the allegedly fake footwear, and the kids will think fast to come up with a comeback.  The other day one student was mercilessly accused of having a ‘prepaid’ phone plan, and he tried to defend himself.

“No – I got monthly!  I got a monthly plan, I ain’t poor!” 

In reality of course, they’re all poor, and some of them realize this more than others.  They argue about it and grow embarrassed, but maybe it’s best to make it a joke.  

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

A couple of weeks ago, Mr. M and I went to a baseball game of 2 of our students.  They had told us how good they were, and begged him to go.  On a Sunday morning, him, my sister, and myself all piled into the car to drive to the Bronx and watch 12 year olds play baseball. 

Upon arriving, one student saw us and shouted happily to the other, “Yo – Mr. M is here!”  We stayed for a short while, and watched them both get hits and field the ball several times.  At one point the coach made one of them do push-ups, and the other boy turned and smiled gleefully at us, to make sure we were watching.  We left before the game was over, but were glad we had come. 

The stands were empty.  It took me until almost the end of the game to notice it, but it did seem strange.  One of the ways to differentiate between games and practices when you are a little kid was always the audience who showed up for games.  Parents make friends with the other parents of kids on your teams, and every week some mom brings a snack.  Parents yell from the sidelines, cheering their kids on, and are there until the end of the game, when they can take them home.  At this game, there were zero parents in the stands. 

It struck me then, how important it must have been for our students to have us say we were coming and actually show up.  It’s easy to forget where the kids come from, and how challenging their lives are, and then little things like this will creep up on you.  One week a student comes in covered with bedbug bites, and reveals that he is now living in a shelter.  Another week a student is out and when they return they tell you they were at their mothers funeral; the guidance counselor whispers that the mother was a drug addict, or died of AIDS.  There are so many huge challenges that the students face, and tragedies that they encounter, that you overlook the small injustices that infest their lives.  A team of 12 year olds, filled with pride about their baseball skills, play for an audience of one another.  Their parents are probably working hourly jobs, or are at home with other kids, and it’s a fact that they don’t question or resent.  But from the outside looking in, it’s striking. 

It was good I went to that game, because for me it really made me realize how important the intangibles of teaching are.  You can’t measure the impact of showing up every day and following through on the things you say you will do.  You can’t measure the importance of structure and stability in the lives of these kids.  You don’t set a measurable goal about how safe kids feel at school, and how much they trust you.  And yet, those are the real successes that are defining my first year as an untrained and under-qualified teacher.  Those are the reasons that I can convince myself to come back.


I have been dating a teacher at my school for several months now.  The students are behind it really – they are the ones who put it in our heads, chasing us around the school and insisting that it was a good match, and that we must be crazy.  The girls would sit me down and give me lectures about how I could ‘bag’ him.  ‘Bagging’ refers to dating, kissing, hand holding, and beyond, and is tossed innocently around at school.  They would swarm around me every morning, telling me that if I didn’t stop dressing like a grandma there was no way I would ever bag Mr. M, and that I should really wear my hair down more. 


“You’re playing too hard to get!” they would insist, “he’s going to meet someone else if you don’t do something now!”  They would be very specific in their advise to me.


“Go downstairs right now, and take your hair down in front of him, and say, ‘you look good today, mister,’ and then turn around and walk out real sexy.”

“You better send him a message with us or he’s going to think that you don’t like him.”

“We saw you walk by him in the hall this morning without even saying hello to him – why are you doing that, Ms. Klein?”


He’s a popular teacher – plays football after school with the boys, who idolize a stable adult male in their lives, and teases the girls who come up to my room to tell me how cute they think that he is.  One day, Mercedes, who frequently speaks about how much she hates her own father, came to talk to me.


“I wish Mr. M were my dad,” she confided, “there aren’t many guys like Mr. Mullen, he’s really special Ms. Klein.  You should marry him.  He’s a good person.”  At the time, of course, I already was dating him, and I smiled at her insights. 


For a long time while they were convincing us to date, we were already together.  We would play games with them, him saying that there was no way that he would date me if I kept playing hard to get, which sent them flying up the stairs to my room, begging me to relent in that game.  If ever they got close to figuring it out, we would deny deny deny.


One day a student stole my phone and read text messages from him.  His name is in my phone as Gavin, and she read them and asked who it was. 


“I know it’s not Mr. M,” she said, “because his name starts with a  ‘g’.”  For once, I was grateful for illiteracy.


One day we were driving out of the parking lot and a student passed in front of the car.  Her jaw dropped when she saw us, and she pointed and smiled triumphantly.  At school the next day she brought it up to him.


            “Stephanie, are you seeing things?  What are you talking about?  You show up to school twice a month and start hallucinating?” he teased her.  She came to me next.

            “Ms Klein, I saw you two leaving school yesterday.”

            “What are you talking about Stephanie?  I took the subway home from school.”

            “Why are you guys doing this to me?!” she groaned, frustrated to have been robbed of her moment.

            “Stephanie, I really don’t know what you are talking about.”

            “Well, Mr. M had a girl who looked just like you in his car yesterday.”

            “He What?!  I’m gonna have to talk to him about that!”  she smiled and nodded, glad that she could at least provide me with some information.

525,600 minutes...How do you measure a year?

In the beginning of the year, they have you set goals.  A barometer of your success, really – a way to keep track of what gains you are making.  So many times this year I have felt that I am taking one step forward only to take 2 steps back.  Often it feels like one step forward over a ledge I didn’t notice looming ahead of me.  Or perhaps the ledge wasn’t there until I took that step…


In any case, success is a tricky concept, and after a difficult year full of challenges and surprises and disappointments, it’s a little bit hard to know how to measure it.  I set out with the ambitious goal of 80% students mastering 80% or more of the Social Studies Standards for NY State.  This is a realistic goal, actually, and one which was given the stamp of approval by those around me who know much better than I.  I will be giving the final examination on Monday, and on that day I will be able to determine how much of my efforts this year have really been effective – or at least, I will be able to measure whether or not I reached my goal.  When it comes down to it – my efforts this year have been far less streamlined than that goal would imply.


Based on the review activities we have been doing in class this week, I do feel that I’ve probably reached my goal.  I have some superstar students who balance out those students who refuse to lift a pencil, and the majority of the class has tuned in enough this year to be able to answer the questions on the test.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the students were able to do well on the test, which covers material that I’ve drilled into their reluctant heads ad nauseum, all year.  But even if they get those scores – is that really a way to measure success?


I have an advisor who comes to watch me teach occasionally.  He gives me notice that he will be coming, and then arrives and sits quietly in the back, typing furiously on his computer while I struggle not to embarrass myself in front of him.  He ducks out of the room right before the class ends, and then emails his notes to me.  The notes record my actions as well as those of my students, and then he will make comments.  They will often highlight the students who I am missing – the ones who are sitting in the back and are not engaged.  It will show how pathetic my efforts to engage them are.  Especially at this point in the year, when my frustration with a year of slacking off and causing trouble has reached a boiling point, I tend to neglect those students who are adamant about being defiant.


Would he say I’ve been successful?  Through his eyes I am forced to examine my weaknesses and failures.  On any given day there are still kids talking back to me, kids out of their seats, kids punching one another, arriving late to class, talking when I am talking, not even writing their name son their papers.  And yet, even with disorder and chaos, most of my student have been able to learn.  I weight this against the other goals – teach respect, have good class management, etc. and it’s hard to see what wins.  


I do feel like I’ve learned a lot – I know how to teach in a way where they will learn, despite their best efforts not to.  But the learning curve was steep, and months wasted in the beginning of the year mean that I didn’t make it fully through the year’s curriculum for the 7th grade.


I feel compelled to end the year on a high note – thinking positively, and feeling good about the time that I spent with my students, but it’s difficult to find a way to measure that looks beyond the numbers.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cutting Ass

"I'm gonna cut yo ass."

No - they aren't talking about farting. And they aren't actually planning to use a knife to cut any part of you. 'Cutting ass' is the vernacular used to describe making fun on someone. In my high school it was called 'cutting up,' which seemed entirely logical at the time. Likewise, this phrase is seldom questioned among my students.

My students don't make fun of people without giving them fair warning. If they are going to make fun of you they give you a chance to repent.

"What did you just say? Yo - I'm gonna cut yo ass so hard I'm gonna make you cry." at this point the other student has the chance to apologize for whatever they've done wrong. Pride generally prehibits that from happening. Most of the time they say, "Go ahead," which puts the ass cutter in the tough position of saying something hysterical enough to get a good laugh out of the whole class.

There are some kids, of course, who can say anything and the class will explode with laughter.

"That's why your eyes are so far apart!" one girl says, and despite the seemingly innocuous nature of the comment, the class roars. Other times kids who are less cool with their peers will make legitimately funny comments and will be entirely overlooked.

There are some defaults that they all go to. If a kid is overweight, as many of them are, they call them a big fat f-ing cheeseburger. They look at their hands and say "Look at your fat fingers - they were just made for picking up cheeseburgers!"

Sometimes it's personal - bringing up embarrassing information or incidents from the past - times you got dumped or lost a fight. It's always a show, which is why they have to announce their intentions before they begin. They need to gather a crowd - and like magic everyone's ears do perk up at the words 'cut ass,' and they listen for a story to liven up their day. It happens every day, a hundred times a day, and rarely does it seem to have alastingimpact. It's just a part of their interactions - something that makes the class function and keeps things interesting. They put one another in their places and then go back to the business of their days as if nothing happened.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


When anyone is shocked or appalled by the way that the students in my school speak or act violently, threatening one another, or responding to ordinary things with extreme anger, I try to explain that it’s really the result of the community they come from. They are young and impressionable, and surrounded by more violence than many kids are exposed to even in the movies. We walk to school past a place named the ‘Hand Slaughter”, where people go to pick out the live animal they would like for dinner, and your chicken, goat, etc. is killed for you on the spot. We hold our breath against the putrid stench, and step over the stream of blood that flows onto the street as we head towards the school building.

I often try to put them in the shoes of the people we are studying. Recently I taught about the American Revolution and was trying to make them understand the Quartering Act. I kept saying ‘imagine that the government suddenly says that you have to let soldiers live in your house with you and your family, and eat your food. This is your nice home that you worked for and paid for and now soldiers are allowed to just come live there for free and mooch off of you!’ Then I try to think about what they are imagining, and t’s not the home that I pictured when I learned about the Quartering Act.

We talk about there being mice in the school and one kid says, ‘we see rats the size of cats in our apartments. Rats aren’t any big deal, we all see them every day.’ They are desensitized to a lot more than rodents.

Several weeks ago I was with another teacher getting coffee a block from school, and about 20 feet from us we hard a loud crack. We turned to see two men, whose argument over a parking spot had escalated to the point where one man had broken a 2x4 over the other man’s head. There was blood flowing freely from the wound and covering the ground at his feet. The man who had slammed him took off at a run, and after a dazed moment of hesitation, the bleeding man stumbled after him, weaving side to side and holding his head.

A the next week a male teacher, Mr. M took his class outside to spend a free period playing football in the yard. The courtyard is surrounded by apartment buildings, and from the roof of one of these buildings a man was watching the game. Julio, a tall 7th grader who could be easily mistaken for someone of high school age missed the ball, and from the roof a man’s voice shouted ‘nice one, butterfingers.’

“Yo, suck my dick,” Julio shouted, unable to resist responding.
“What’d you say? Hold on, I’ll be right down.” The angry man on the roof shouted to the courtyard, before disappearing to presumably descend to the couttyard. Mr. M looked around and realized that the doors to get back inside were locked, and the security guards were all inside the school. It was him and a class of 7th graders sequestered in the yard, with an irate man coming quickly towards them. The man was wearing a full tool belt, and he stormed into the yard, shouting and offering to unzip his pants for the smartass who had dared talk aback to him. As Mr. M held the man back, Julio continued to taunt the man, declining his offers to unzip his pants by politely saying, ‘naw, that’s gay,’
“He’s a 13 year old kid!” Mr M said repeatedly, trying to convince this man that he couldn’t attack Julio. “I can’t let you near them, they’re 7th graders. Eventually the man was convinced and retreated.

The next week a couple had a fight in a deli around the corner, which resulted in the entire block being roped off for several hours in the middle of the day, after one of them shot the other, which explained the firing sound I heard as I sat grading papers at my desk.

Last week there was an convict who escaped from a nearby prison, and he made himself at home with a machine gun on top of the building across from the school. The sky was filled with the hum of helicopters as they struggled to resolve the situation.

That same day a teacher in a nearby school (who used to be the dean at our school) threatened to take his school and class hostage, claiming that he had planted a bomb in the library. 1200 middle school students were evacuated.

Walking to the car this past Thursday, I was with Mr. M, and a man with a long umbrella lunged at us angrily.
“I should hit you in the head with this fucking umbrella right now,” he shouted, obviously aggravated. He turned to stare wildly at us, and gestured to his umbrella. We continued to walk, and then looked at one another, confused.
“Did you know him?” we asked each another. No. Neither of us had seen him before. As we got into the car, we talked about how at this point that didn’t even seem all that strange – for a stranger to come at us in a fit of rage, threatening us. Perhaps he mistook one of us for someone else. In my mind I went through the students I had failed, the ones I had yelled at, the ones who didn’t like me – wondering if perhaps it was a parent or uncle of one of them. I’ll probably never know. It was a senseless encounter, as all violence ends up being when you pass it without knowing why it happens. You being to forget that there should be a reason, a motive, for it. If this was just the last 6 weeks, imagine a lifetime of it. Eventually it would seem that violence wasn’t a last resort – it wasn’t something that mattered or that needed a big reason. It is just a part of the day. And so they bring it to school.

Monday, May 4, 2009


For Social Studies there are no textbooks. For the first several months of school I didn’t have a map in my room. It’s difficult to make history engaging – especially 7th grade American History which, for my students, isn’t actually their history. Why does this matter? This isn’t their ancestors. Even slavery is fairly irrelevant to them. There were no Hispanic people at the Constitutional Convention or the Continental Congress. No Hispanic people signed the Declaration of Independence or fought in the Revolutionary war. They weren’t even really discriminated against, as their presence in this country is relatively new.

With ancient Greece and Rome it’s equally difficult, though the ancient civilizations are exotic enough to be enticing to the 6th graders – and their attention span in general surpasses that of the 7th graders. The only maps I do have are of the United States, and the location of these ancient civilizations is mysterious to the students. How do you ‘make history come alive’ if you have nothing to show the kids? It’s been a challenge which I’ve basically only attempted to conquer through the pathetic use of my overhead projector. But sadly, there’s only so much excitement that can be conveyed through the use of a green overhead marker.

For months I have been thinking of ways to get a computer projector, which would allow me to use PowerPoint, and maybe one day even project relevant movies and tv clips. I had all but given up hope when today my principal stopped me as I entered school to tell me that he had gotten me one.

I set it up – a task which the students were all too eager to help me with, always ready to show off their electronics expertise. As soon as the requests to go on MySpace and YouTube died down and they were able to concentrate on the images projected from my jazzy PowerPoint presentations onto the screen, it was amazing what a difference it made. Maybe it was just the presence of something new, or my threats to call home if they touched the equipment, but the class seemed to settle into the type of lull that one associates with hours spent in front of a television or playstation.

In a time when kids, even those like my students who tend to live at or below the poverty line, are inundated with technology, it’s hard to believe that teaching without technology is even considered to be an option. Teachers are surprised that the kids don’t sit in silence and complete their work and aren’t filled to the brim with intrinsic motivation. But seeing them relax into the familiarity of a glowing computer screen, it all made sense. School is always expecting students to conform to its expectations, without taking them time to bend to the students. Perhaps it is the result of having so many senior, tenure teachers who are set in their ways without any real motivation to change. Obviously there are budgetary restraints as well. But it’s a change worth investing in if you are really talking about investing in kids’ futures.

Safety? Without Suspensions

Teaching a third period class I tried to take away Alea's tech deck - a mini skateboard that the kids are obsessed with which are ultra-annoying because they click on the desks while you are trying to talk/walk/think/breathe and they get to drive you nuts. So I went to take it from this girl who has never done an ounce of work and generally devotes a good portion of every day to annoying me and disrupting class. She refused (obviously, why would she just listen to me? just because I am their teacher? an authority figure? never!), and i pulled her desk away from her in the hopes of it falling to the floor where I could grab it. She was fast and grabbed it, not letting it fall to the floor, and she then treated me to a barrage of lovely comments from the girl. "I'll fucking deck you. I'll stab you, lady" and I, of course, ever the polite one, asked gently for her to repeat herself. "I'm sorry, what did you just say?" "Did I stutter? I said I'll fucking kill you - don't touch my fucking table." "Oh, that's what I thought you said..." and I marched off to the phone to call the Dean, who miraculously arrived within minutes and took her out. I wrote down what she had said and handed it to him, and he left and called her mother.

When he returned he said that her mother was coming to school, and I was glad to hear it, thinking I would be able to get Alea in further trouble (obviously at this point in the year I am far beyond expecting there to be actual, concrete repercussions mandated by the school for threatening a teacher). So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that rather than me getting her in trouble, Alea was claiming that I had hit her! Any allegation such as this must be investigated, so despite the absurdity of the claim, statements had to be taken from other students in the class (all of whom readily wrote that no such incident had occurred).The dean and assistant principal were surprisingly supportive, and by the end of the day the whole incident was put to rest and even her mother had realized the falseness of the story.

However, she is really the winner here, because she threatened a teacher in front of a class and then, rather than be punished, she distracted from that issue by accusing that teacher of hitting her. In doing so, she was able to temporarily put my job into question and also to avoid any concrete punishment for what she did. I’ll see her in class on Monday, and life will go on as it was before, only she will have a bit more of a sense of empowerment, and the other kids will look around and learn from what she did.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Swine Flu

“Miss Klein – take some of this, stay clean.” A small boy runs towards me with a pump bottle of Purell in his hands, squirting some of the gel onto my palms. This happened repeatedly throughout the day. Apparently, the Swine flu has struck fear in the hearts of many of my students – a girl running through the halls offering it to people, boys sitting around washing their hands and declaring that their bacon egg and cheese sandwiches that they got at the deli in the morning would now be bacon-free. I pause to dismantle some of the more extreme assumptions that they are making about the flu (no, it does not turn you into a pig. No, you do not have to kiss pigs to get it. Etc.) but otherwise try to ignore the excitement around the looming epidemic.

But it become difficult to ignore it once it takes on the cruel, ignorant, racist tenor that only middle school students could so unselfconsciously adopt. They begin by creating new lyrics to the song 'blame it on the alcohol.'

"Blame it on the swine, got you feeling blind. Blame it on the flu, got you feeling blue. Blame it on the Me-e-e-e-e-e-exicans."

“Yo, Miss Klein – stay away from Mexicans,” one boy warns. He is sitting at a table with a group of his friends who happen to all be Dominican and Puerto Rican. Racism at my school is generall directed more towards students from Guyana and Africa than towards the Hispanic students who make up the majority of the school All of it is based in stereotypes, of course – some ridiculous enough to make even the persecuted child smile. Others are mean and ignorant. The thing is that it’s always about the perpetrator more than the victim – an effort to get a laugh from the class. There’s not a lot of quiet prejudices – rather they come through in the form of a joke, loud enough for everyone to hear, and beaten mercilessly into the ground at the first flicker of approval from the other students.

To the African students there are jokes made about spending the holidays roping giraffes, or setting lions loose on their enemies. The students from Guyana who often resemble Middle Easterners are frequently called terrorists, and accused of planting bombs around the school or the city. After a reporter in Iraq threw his shoe at George Bush, one student called out in math class – “Watch out Mr. M – O(Guyanese student) just took his shoes off!”. Other days they will warn me that a student just planted a teeny tiny bomb in my desk. The Dominicans have the reputation of being loud and confrontational, the Puerto Ricans tout their citizenship, and the Mexicans take their share of the jokes, but seem to lack a specific stereotype.

Today, kids ran around the school warning each other to stay away from Mexicans – not to talk to them, not to be near them. They loudly joked about how the flu was carried through Mexicans, and dramatically jumped away from any Mexican student who approached them. Of course, this is not everyone – just a few immature boys who think that they’re funny. But it’s enough that you look around the room and see the kids avoiding eye contact, focusing on their papers. One fiercely responded that it came from Asia, not from Mexico – which went over well since there were no Asian kids in the school to argue about it. But it’s less fun to have an absent victim, and they turned back to avoiding Mexicans soon enough. It’s all in good fun, really – they aren’t mean kids. But it’s middle school, and in-groups and out-groups couldn’t be more important, and in a diverse school, it seems almost inevitable that at times it become racial.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Sometimes I will say “I love you” to my mom, and she’ll respond casually by saying, “Good, because you’re stuck with me.” It always annoyed me. I didn’t feel that that was an adequate response – certainly she wasn’t matching my sentiment by saying something like that! But recently I’ve realized that it’s the perfect response – what could be more important to hear than that someone isn’t going away no matter what? What is more thoroughly demonstrative of love than refusing to walk away, regardless of how hard I may make that. In truth, it’s a statement of the unconditional. And what is more valuable than that?

There is a tendency to blame the parents for their children’s bad behavior. And in truth – there is a connection to be made. The parents who come to parent teacher conferences have the best behaved children. The same kids who give me a hard time seem to also give their parents a hard time. When I call a home, I can tell immediately what will be done to punish the child and whether or not it will work. When you look at the parents, you can tell a lot about the kids. Many of the students are in shelters, and living at various degrees of poverty, but even those who are in shelters can come to school and perform well when they have parents who are invested.

And because we know this – we do blame the parents. It’s frustrating to call a house and know that nothing will happen. It’s difficult to hear a parent say they don’t know what they can do to change their students behavior, or to call and hear them resigned to their children’s low performance.

Worst of all are the parents who will respond by threatening to get rid of their kids – to take them to court, to send them to their other parent, to send them away. These things sound unfathomable, and yet in reality they happen all the time. I will tell a parent that their child is acting up in class, being disrespectful, cursing, having an attitude, not doing their work, tagging desks, etc. The parents will get an angry look on their face and do what they think is the most responsible thing that they can do, which usually begins with them reprimanding the behaviors. This is normal, this is what is expected. What is not expected, is that that reprimand will decline into them disowning the child.

“I have warned you, you will be out of here, I took your brother to court, and Iw ill get you out as well if you do not change this.”

Or, at other times:

“You will be gone. You will be living with your father, is that what you want? I don’t want you around.”

These threats are tossed out idly, and it’s difficult to believe that there is any truth to them, and yet you have to think about the effect that hearing that has on a child. I always walk away and immediately forgive the student for all of the things that they did. You walk away and it becomes obvious why they are so desperate for attention – positive or negative – for some affirmation. You look at the parent, and you understand the child.

Everyone blames the parents. And then you think further – that these parents arent’ much older than I, at 23, am. That they had kids when they were still kids a lot of the time. At 23 I am fully unprepared to be a parent, and if I had a kid 5 or 10 years ago, when I was still just a baby, how prepared would I be? How good of a parent would I be? Is it really the parents fault that they don’t know how to be a good parent – don’t understand the importance of unconditional, because perhaps they themselves didn’t have it. We have had several pregnant girls in the 8th grade this year, and if they become mothers there is no way that they will know the first thing about how to set an example. They are still getting into fights in the lunchroom, throwing food and cursing out teachers when their temper rises. Blame the parents – but really blame the cycle. When kids are having kids, how do they become parents? If my students have babies, they aren’t parents – they’re just kids with kids.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


I work for an after school program called Sports and Arts. It is a program run by a community organization designed to keep kids in the schools and off the streets. As such, they occupy the kids in the school late into the night. The kids who are involved are generally a self-selecting group, so that they probably aren’t the ones who would be on the streets anyway. I work for Sports and Arts, which is until 5:30, and designed to provide academic enrichment.

Generally it devolves into playing cards or other games and the 7th grade girls sitting around and gossiping about the 7th grade boys. Another teacher who does it takes the boys outside most days to play football. I usually play scattegories or cards with the girls and try to convince them not to go outside and watch the boys playing football.

They always try to convince me to go with them outside to watch the boys, and I always refuse, telling them that they shouldn’t go either.

“Don’t just go out there and watch the boys play sports – it’s pathetic! You should be out there playing sports yourselves.” They always pause to consider this, and then agree with me, as though I’ve made a monumental point. About 5 minutes later they leave my room to go outside and watch the boys. I tell myself that empowering them will take baby steps, and let them go. After all, what 7th grade girl doesn’t want to stare at the boys playing football, no matter how rarely those boys actually catch the ball.

When we’re in my room, I hand out decks of cards that I buy at the dollar store. They don’t know how to play any games. Another teacher has Uno cards – and the boys play very competitively. I join the game and find myself confused – the rules they are playing by are no rules that I’m familiar with, and I’ve got a lifetime of Uno playing under my belt. They seem mystified as to why I am arguing with them about the rules – they have agreed upon these rules, and why would I challenge them?

“There are real rules! This game isn’t just made up!” I always argue, frustrated, and they shrug and don’t invite me to play the next time. With the regular playing cards I teach them games that are simple and ones that are complicated – but all of the games that I teach them were a part of the fabric of my childhood. Bullshit, Spit, War, Egyptian Rat Screw, Gin Rummy, Sweep – they struggle to grasp all of the games.

“How can you not know these games?!” I always ask, thinking of the countless hours I spent mastering them.. They all look at one another, and then look at me, and as usual I am the odd man out. They are 12 or 13 and just sort of skipped those years of childhood. They can write checks and cook dinner, but somehow that doesn’t put them ahead of the kids who can play cards – and in the future I feel sure that the kids who grow up with card games in their lives will have the advantage.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Oscar's Poems

Last year one of my students was in love with a girl. She ultimately dated his best friend instead of him, but he worshipped her and still carries the love poems that he wrote to her around in his backpack. He showed me these the other day:


How sorry can a person be?
To make you see
I made a mistake
But my love isn’t fake

When I did what I did I was glad
But now all I am is mad

What I did was wrong
I hope your sadness doesn’t last long
I know that the letter I wrote was fake
But happiness is what I will now make.

I wish to see you smile again.
I wish you would forgive me and be my friend.

I’m sorry.

Golden Girl

I think and I think
Does she know I exist
Or, should I take her off my list
I cry myself to sleep
Once she stabbed my deep

I don’t know what to say
Should I say a baybay?
She is fine and sweet
I just wish we could meet

I just wish she loved me like I love her
If she did I would buy her everything of fur

She’s Gone

I’m singing this song because she’s gone, I’m in my room staring at the moon, the last words I heard were sorry good bye, I didn’t say a word I was just shy. When I saw her walk away I didn’t know what to say. In a second she was gone, that’s the reason for this song. Please come home I’m all alone, and if you hear me remember I love you so much. Please give me your email so we can keep in touch. And if you come around please stop by, you know I’m suffering, good night and good bye.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Assigned Seats

Every time I move the seats I step back and survey the room with a little bit of excitement. My head is filled with visions of how this new arrangement will transform my classroom, transform the students, making them engaged and well behaved and respectful. I picture groups working together, without throwing things, or jumping out of their seats, or hitting one another. I picture hands raised, and cards and toys away. I picture learning. I imagine questions being answered correctly, and myself, teaching, my voice at an even decibel, not raising my voice to be heard, or standing in silence, arms crossed, face annoyed, waiting for them to be quiet.

It’s a sign of pathetic class management – looking for a bandaid like this. Seating charts are, after all, just seating charts, and don’t really turn students into robots. If two kids want to fight, they will do it no matter where you seat them – and half the time I don’t have the energy to get into an endless, fruitless power struggle with a student over sitting the correct seat.

But it is a good sign, I think, that I can make changes that give me that hope, not matter how misguided it may be. It’s good to be able to hope. It’s good to be able to hold onto the thought that there are still things that it is within my control to improve. That I can make changes that will make things better. Seating charts and desk arrangements are not the solution – but they symbolize that I haven’t entirely given up hope.

What if you didn't?

I teach about ancient civilizations to my 6th graders, and American history to the seventh grade. I teach about the way that religion, education, language, and government have evolved. I talk about the crazy rules that existed in all of these cultures – the way that kings could rule in a monarchy, or tyrants in a tyranny. I talk about the types of things governments different from our own demand of their citizens.

Without fail, the students ask me what would happen if you broke the rules.
“What if you didn’t?” someone asks, and for once, the class grows quiet to hear my answer. Sometimes I’ll know, the answer, and otherwise it is easy to explain that you could be jailed or tortured or even killed.
“Whoa” – those are real consequences. Not like the consequences that these kids have in our school, where they can’t be jailed, tortured, or killed for their bad behavior. Heavens no! They can’t even be given detention at our little school.

The kids look to the limits. I think of the movie Pleasantville, when in a ‘geography’ class, students are taught about the geography of their town.
“What happens when you get to the end of Main Street?” one student asks
“Why, when you get to the end of Main Street, you’re just right back at the beginning again!” said the teacher, in cheery reply.
“Oh!” In unison the class accepted this answer.

That is not my class. My class does not accept a simple boundary. It does not stay within the lines. They push until they are given a reason to stop. When you give them a rule, they want to know how serious it is – what will happen if they break it – how far can they push it before they are punished. You can see it in every class that I teach, as they question rules that seem unfair. My 6th graders were fascinated my learning about Hammurabi’s code in ancient Mesopotamia, which took the concept of ‘an eye for an eye’ as literally as they could. They can recite what punishment accompanied which crimes effortlessly, though after 6 months they still struggle to correctly label the cardinal directions on a compass. The 7th grade wonders what happened to families in China who dared to have more than 1 child.

These kids live in a world of crime and punishment – a world of consequences. They think in terms of cause and effect without any effort at all. Which is they it makes sense that they are so out of control, so regularly disobeying and breaking rules and driving me nuts. They push until they are given a reason to stop – and within the school those reasons are not provided. I blame them for their behavior – I hold them accountable for their actions. But I also believe that without the school showing them that the rules matter - in terms of consequences that they understand – we are failing them. You can’t blame them for not intuitively knowing what behaviors are acceptable – and you can’t expect for them to follow the rules just to keep me from being angry.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


There have been so many moments in the last month that have merited recording.

There was the inauguration of Barack Obama, which we watched as a full school. The kids screamed and cheered, and African American teachers cried. They made signs and they screamed and cheered over the sound of the grandiose speeches and all the pomp and circumstance. In some ways, despite their inability to pay attention to the speeches, or comprehend the significance of each part of the swearing in, they grasped the magnitude of the moment more than myself, and others in my life who clung onto every word and emailed the transcript of his speech to one another. They had parents sitting at home all day crying and watching the screen, meeting with friends to celebrate – they had doors opening up to them which had never in history seemed possible.

There was the state exams in ELA, which took place the last week of January, and required the entire school to lock down for 3 days while testing was done. The kids have the state exam schedule memorized for the next 6 years, and they can tell you exactly which exams matter the most, and what they got last year, and what they think they’ll be getting this year. You can pass the grade if you pass the State Exams, regardless of your grades in your classes. As long as you miss less than 45 days of school, and pass the state exam, you can move on to the next grade. For this reason, I hate state exams. For 3 days they take an exam, which is graded on a curve so extreme that you can get a 4 (on and 1-4 scale) on the seventh grade exam without using complete sentences or spelling even a single word correctly. For 3 days they are asked questions, and the answered they give are graded generously, curving up, and giving them the benefit of the doubt. You can be barely literate and still pass the state exam. The affirmation that students get from those 3 days worth of exams undermines the classroom activities for the other 177 schooldays that we spend with them, trying to convince them that in fact their performance in class does matter, and they do need to learn this information.

I administered the test to 9 6th graders I had never met before who were in special education. They were allotted testing modifications of being able to hear the directions repeated to them an unlimited number of times. On the first day of testing, of the 9 students, 4 of them got into fights. At the end of one fight, I sent the smaller boy into the hal to go to the deans office, and kept the larger boy who had apparently instigated the fight in the room with me.

“Can I leave?” he asked repeatedly.
“No,” I replied consistently, “state exams are going on, I cannot let you into the halls. Plus, you just want to go out there to finish your fight which I cannot allow.”
“What if I force my way out?” he began to ask.
“Than you will be touching a teacher and using force against your teacher, which you know better than.”
“I don’t care.” Maybe after hearing him say this I should have just moved away from the door, but there is always that foolish part of you that can’t quite believe that you have to operate under the assumption that a student will hurt you.

He began to bend my fingers off of the door, and I narrated: “you are touching me, you should not be touching my hand, that is not allowed, now you are bending back my fingers. Now you are bending back my thumb which hurts. Ouch – that really hurts. You should stop doing that because this is assaulting a teacher – ow. Ow!” Finally I let go and he shoved me out of the way. Later on in the day I told the dean, and was unsurprised that no action was taken. These days I generally feel like I am the idiot for expecting that some sort of action may be taken.

There have been so many days, so many moments, so many times when I have thought of writing, but I have been afraid that I would not be able to resist starting the posts with the sentence ‘I want to quit,’ which felt like a bit of a downer. And yet, it’s the truth. There are so many days when I want to quit. When I look around and I feel like I simply do not have the capacity, the skills, the endurance or the stature that are necessary to succeed. I look at all of the kids whoa re misplaced, who belong in different types of classes. I look at all of the misbehaviors that go unpunished, and the administration that coddles the more aggressive students. One boy was taken out of the school ast week in handcuffs, after being thrown to the ground and arrested by the police. He came to school the next day and the principal let him order Chinese food for lunch and eat it in his office. I step back on a bad day, in a hard period, and wonder what I’m doing – what impact I could possible be having. I have given up so much of my time and my energy – so much of the things that have always mattered to be more than anything, to wake up at 5 each day and commute an hour to the South Bronx, where I spend a day getting disrespected and abused, and then leave only to spend an evening planning or grading or calling parents. Slowly and reluctantly I have allowed it to become my life – and these days I often look around and wonder if it is really worth it. At any students learning anything? Do I even know how to teach? I feel like I’ve given up so much, and right now, I don’t even know what I gave it up for.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Some poor girl left a pencil case in my room. Unfortunately, the black fabric pouch was found, and of course, opened by an undersized 6th grader in my 4th period class. Eager, as always, for the attention and affirmation of his peers, and thoroughly uninterested (or perhaps aware of how unlikely it is) in the approval of his teachers, he delighted in publicly displaying its contents. Within seconds he was in the back of the class doing pelvic thrusts, some girl’s extra set of orange jockey underwear pulled on over his blue jeans. People were delighted, of course, and he paid no attention to my stern reprimanding when he saw that he had an audience for his antics. He dug deeper and soon pulled out sanitary napkins (pads) or various sizes, which had been stored in the pouch. He screamed with delight and danced and thrust around the room, sticking them to himself and to the orange underwear. By the time the assistant principal arrived to take him out of class, he had created an uproar, though of course he left class reluctantly, having to eventually be carried out by a security officer, all the while claiming that he didn't do anything.”


You watch 24, and eventually become numb to how many people Jack Bower mindlessly kills in his pursuit of protecting the president. On the Sopranos, you begin to really understand the necessity of whacking someone who is a threat to your operation. Even time travel comes to be a bit mundane on LOST. Just watching a weekly television show can shift your perception of reality, so it should come as no surprise that spending every day in the South Bronx can deeply alter mine.

The things that I tell people that make them gasp and cringe feel increasingly normal to me. The lives of my students operate under a different concept of reality – a different idea of what’s right and wrong. If you get in a fight, it’s a lesser offense to deck someone in their head than in their face. It’s okay to call someone a bitch, but it’s not alright to say shut up. If someone violates you it is absolutely not okay not to respond in kind, regardless of how inevitable it is that you will be getting your ass kicked. The colors you are wearing denote what gang you are affiliated with, as do the color of the rosary beads around your neck.

These are adorable, funny, smart kids who grow up in a terrifying world of violence and low expectations. I don’t spend time near my school after dark, and yet they live their whole lives there, talking about gunshots they heard in their building the night before with an unflinching acceptance of this as a part of their lives.

I live in a walk-up in Chelsea, and don’t feel guilty about my life. I don’t keep it a secret from my students that I live in Manhattan, and I don’t have any second thoughts about the choices I have made that have brought me to where I am. But it’s a different reality in Chelsea than it is in the South Bronx. When I am there, it’s as though my senses are dulled to the extremes that I confront each day. The cultural differences, the socioeconomic differences, the racial differences – they don’t stand out to me anymore. When I first began to teach, I remembered every encounter with these disparities clearly and shockingly. Now it is difficult for me to look back at a day and recall even a single one. This is how you get through days that are unfathomably sad or scary or disarming. You dull your senses and become a bit numb to it. You change your sense of reality.

But it is very hard to leave the South Bronx, where so many parts of me that matter in the rest of my life – my interest in politics and the news, the books I read, the clothes I wear, the education I’ve been afforded – are forgotten, and return to the world where all of the things that seem normal all day long are jarringly unacceptable. I sit on my couch and call parents to talk about their kids behavior, and they assure me that they are taking care of it and ‘beating the shit’ out of their kids. They say this to reassure me, as though it will calm me – and in truth, when I’m at school it does feel like the right thing for a parent to say. The worst is when parents say that they don’t know how to or can’t control their children. When I call from school, the level of anger in the parents voice, the promise that they will ‘take care of it’ feels like a relief: this parent cares a lot. But at home I hear the same words, echoes of the same promises, and I remember that I don’t support or understand corporal punishment. The defense that it is a cultural difference feels hollow and false, though I know it’s one that many people in my situation lean on in an effort to shift their reality. Cognitive dissonance has to be reduced when what you think and feel are different from what is real, so you change what you CAN control. You convince yourself that this stuff isn’t upsetting, that it is normal and necessary, and that it’s not a big deal.

People can do this. They can adjust their sense of reality, and they can do it almost subconsciously, without exerting any real effort. It’s what allows us to be resilient, to survive in a variety of contexts. But the hardest part of my day is making that shift, from one reality to another, and figuring out which parts of me I can’t compromise.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Help Wanted:

My students are smart. They can learn. They simply aren’t driven. My sixth graders can rattle off lots of facts about Egypt and Mesopotamia – they love answering questions and winning at trivia. They knew about what I am teaching them – but they don’t do homework, they don’t study, and sometimes they say ‘It’s not my day today, Miss,’ and put their head down. They are smart though. They really can get it – and I’m always so excited when we finish a unit and I know that they have really absorbed the concepts that I taught them. But then I look at their grades, both on tests and in the class, and they don’t reflect what they know. They don’t do homework most of the time, which makes it hard to pass the class, and on tests even the students who have demonstrated the most thorough understanding in class will fail miserably when put under pressure. They can learn, but they don’t understand the importance of work. They are intimidated easily by what they don’t know, so that if they see even a single word that they don’t know they will often give up. On an exam, their limited vocabulary impairs them, so that even questions that they know the answers to they will halfheartedly guess at rather than trying to figure it out.

When I really think about it, I feel like they are miraculous for even getting as far as they have a lot of the time. I have one student, JC, an attractive African American guy who is very popular and good natured who cannot read or write. When I try to help him, he needs help with the most basic tasks. I will sit with him for an entire period, spelling out every single word. He looks up at me questioningly when he needs to know how to spell ‘were’ or ‘are’ or ‘into’. If I was 14 years old, in the 7th grade for the 3rd time, and was nowhere near being able to read or write on grade level, I would be pissed off. I would be discouraged. I would give up. He is already affiliated with a gang, and only wears colors that are connected to that gang. The chances of him making it through high school seem slim, though not impossible, but just the act of working as hard as he needs to work seems unlikely given the outside pressures to give up. But he’s not angry, and if I go to help him, he lets me – which just causes me to lament the small amount of time that I have to give to him. He will do the work, and he could learn, if only I had the time and know-how to help him, but he doesn’t really have the intrinsic drive to make it happen. He’s already heading down a path, and doesn’t see why he wouldn’t want to be on it.

Another girl, GE, does her work, copying down notes and completing worksheets. She’s popular and pretty and has more than 2 outfits which makes her well dressed. She has a great sense of style and a lot of attitude. She’s a lot of fun, but she’s can’t really read or write. When I ask her to write an essay, the result is so completely incoherent that I don’t know how to begin to edit it. She needs so much help and yet she is popular, and has a good looking boyfriend, and doesn’t see the need. I ask her and I ask the boy to come to one-on-one or small group tutoring with me and they both look at me, confused about why I would do this for them. They weigh on my mind every day, and I wonder how I can change things for them, and most of all, how I can convince them that they should change. The girl wants to be a model when she grows up, and her family lives off of welfare, with her dad gone and her mom unemployed, making some money from babysitting for neighbors kids during the days. She doesn’t see how much she gives up when she stays out until 1am with her boyfriend instead of doing homework, or spends her time wandering the halls with friends instead of going to class, or sits on her phone and text messages when she should be taking the help I am offering her.

SV told me on the first week of school that she was having an A and B conversation so please see my way out of it. She walks through the halls calling the principal and pansy-ass little man, and telling the assistant principal to go fuck herself. She shoves kids aside who get in her way, and has a dirty mouth. She is my favorite. She adores me, and spends every free second that she has in my room.

She has 2 brothers, a 15 year old who is apparently in jail for a gun fight he got into last year, and a 16 year old who is involved in a gang and just got his first gun. Her parents are married, but her dad is in the Dominican and her mother has become a lesbian. She tells me, loudly and laughing that her mother spends all day in their project upstairs with her lover. She comes in, tired, and explains that she was up all night, because her mom brought home fried chicken at 3 am, when she was about to go to sleep. I ask her if she is the best behaved and she looks at me like, ‘please, you’re kidding miss,’ and says, “No, the one who is in jail was the best one.” She is smart, and she does work in my class, though like the other kids who are loud and obnoxious and attention seeking, avoiding work at all costs and seeking attention in any other way possible, she is fully uneducated and years behind where she should be. People can’t stand her. She wears tight, skimpy clothes, and hugh plastic earrings. She wears a rainbow belt with a buckle the size of my head, and she never goes anywhere without demanding the attention of everyone in a 50 foot radius. The teachers can’t stand her. She makes her educational failure a self-fulfilling prophecy, and yet I can’t stand the thought of her failing.

These are three students. There are 180 who I see every day, and at least 120 of them are in a position where failure is far more likely than passing. For all of them they are years behind where they should be, and they compensate for their academic deficiencies with attitude and bad behavior that alienates the people who would be able to help them. 120 students who are smart, 120 students who would learn, 120 students who don’t know how to; and 120 students that I’m afraid that I won’t have the time or the skills to help.


Keeping a straight face is essential a lot of the time. If I am laughing, it has to be on my terms. I have lost it four times this year, the first was then Hector stepped on the mouse, once was when the students ambushed me about loving Mr. M, once when there was fight in my room that seemed so outrageously ridiculous that my reflex caused me to laugh, and the most recent time occurred on Friday.

To be fair, I had taught my 2 toughest classes in a row, which required an hour and a half of angry, mean, strict me. It’s exhausting. Then I got a coverage, and had to fill in for another teacher, teaching one of the classes I had just finished with. It’s my CTT class, which means that there are 2 teachers in the room at a time with 12 special ed students and 12 regular education students. It’s essentially become a dumping group for all of the general ed behavior problems and the special ed socio-emotionally disturbed kids. Most of the students who are really cognitively low functioning get into other environments, so the issues that we deal with in this class are largely related to management.

I was in my friend Ms. G’s room, which has no windows, which makes the always enjoyable game of students turning off the lights in a classroom infinitely more entertaining to them and infinitely more infuriating to us (which, of course, only makes them enjoy it more). The way it works is this: we teach and give instructions, and walk around the room, monitoring student progress, answering questions, trying to keep kids on task, when suddenly the room goes pitch black, and you hear thumps as students pick up whatever is on their desks and hurl it across the room, usually in the direction of someone they had been plotting to get. We scream to turn the lights on, and by the time someone has locted the switch, people are diving back into their seats to avoid accountability for any of the mayhem that ensued in the dark.

On Friday, this happened 6 times in one period, which I had never experienced (my room has lots of windows, so I was caught off guard even by how thoroughly dark it got. Right before the 4th time that they lights went out, J took a pen of mine and broke it, emptying the blue ink into a water bottle. He smiled duplicitously and told me that the next time the lights went out he was going to send it flying, spattering everyone with ink. I managed to wrest it away from him, only to move on to averting the next potential crisis. On the fifth time, a staple was sent sailing through the room and shattered against the wall, which surprised everyone, given the real harm that the stapler could have caused. So when they went out a sixth time, Ms. G lost it and screamed in a voice I had never heard. When the lights went back on, people scrambled to their seats and I put my back to the class, hoping no one would notice my amusement. Of course not.

“MS K IS LAUGHING! Why are you laughing Ms. K? Awwww she’s laughing!” Of course this is all it takes for me to really loseit, and soon I have tears in my eyes I am laughing so hard, and my face is turning red as I struggle to calm myself.

I think it’s just encountering the ridiculous that gets me – those moments when I realize how unqualified I am to really manage any of the things that I am expected to handle. A child steps on a mouse and looks to me for guidance, missing the irony in the fact that the mouse wouldn’t have even remained on the floor long enough for him to step on it had I been mature enough to deal with it. Two kids twice my size fight, and I laugh at the idea of being able to separate them, or it’s one kid half my size with another who is twice my size and I laugh at the impossibility of a fight between an elephant and a mouse. Or I find myself in the dark for the 6th time in 45 minutes, and I can’t help laughing at the impossibility of determining the culprit, or modifying their behavior. I laugh, because if I don’t, I’ll lose it. If I dwell on how many answers I don’t have, or how wrong I am a lot of the time, I’ll cry. So, luckily, I laugh…even if it does at time undermine my already shaky authority…