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.