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.