Thursday, November 18, 2010

Parent Conferences

My first year of teaching, I would call homes every night, begging parents to discipline their children. I would call with a laundry list of offenses that their child had committed, and complain that their student was disrespectful, lazy, rude, distractive, etc. Nothing every changed. The parents would sigh, and agree, and say that they didn’t know what to do either. “They are the same way at home, I don’t know what to do,” the parent would sigh, sounding resigned to the inevitability of their child’s failure.

Next door, Wendy, my current partner, was having much more success. Her children had a history of bad behavior, and had IEPs that required them to be in a severely restrictive setting. And yet, parents were rushing to help her in any way that they could. When she suggested that the child be punished, they gave her high fives her in agreement.

What was different?

Listening to Wendy make calls home taught me one of the biggest lessons that I had learned, and I will be forever grateful to her for what she showed me about interacting with parents.

“Hi, this is Mrs. Santana, I’m Jose’s teacher…I was just calling to express some of my concerns about Jose. Jose is very bright, very energetic, but Jose is not showing us the best parts of him. I am very concerned, because I want nothing more than for him to have success, and he is not allowing himself to achieve it. His behavior is preventing him from achieving.” She would go on and on, making the parent truly believe that you she was calling to strategize the best ways for their son to succeed, and one day be president. My calls were less optimistic.

“Hi, this is Ms. Klein, I’m Jose’s teacher. I wanted to let you know some problems that I am having with Jose. Jose’s behavior is a huge problem in class, he is very distractive, I have to speak with him many times, he gets upset if I ask him to please be quiet, and he often prevents me from teaching my lessons, and prevents the other kids from learning.”

Looking back, it seems so obvious. When I called, I talked about myself. I let the parent know how worried I was about how the child was impacting ME. When Wendy called, she was talking about how the child impacted themselves! The parent has no reason to worry about me – and every reason in the world to worry about themselves!

I have practiced following Wendy’s example every time I have ever called home in the last 2 years, and have noticed excellent results. It is most evident on Parent-Teacher Conference nights.

Last night, parents waited in a long line outside of our room. They came in, they sat, disappointed in their children’s grades, claiming, as usual, that their student had never ever received such low marks. As usual, there were excuses made, and sighs of defeat. But when the parents left, they were always on our side – agreeing that we were a team, working to support the success of the child.

There are always the very good, and very bad moments at Parent Conferences. There are the sounds of a parents screaming at their child, slapping them, cursing at them. There are tears running down children’s faces. Always the parents seem to feel the need to demonstrate to the teachers that they are strong disciplinarians. They will berate their child without mercy for the benefit of our ears, raging about how ‘things are gonna change’. There is nothing I hate more than listening to a parent discipline their child. I have no time for it – always wanting to walk away.

My first year, hearing the child get scolded represented a victory for me – I really believed that things were going to change. Now, I know the futility of it, and it annoys me. A parent waltzes in and acts surprised to hear that their child is failing, is disruptive, is crazy. They then respond with outrage, as though they can’t even believe that this is THEIR child.

I am outraged. I am outraged that the parent can say that they have no idea about their child, and expect me to believe it. I am outraged that they can say it and actually mean it sometimes. I am outraged that when they hear that they have a child on the 3rd or 4th grade reading level, they are shocked and disappointed.

“They act as if they are reading with the kids at home every night,” Wendy says, laughing after a parent seemed to disagree with the assigned reading level. No. They aren’t reading with their kids. If you read with your kids, your kids can read. If you spend time with them, it’s no surprise that they are failing. If you know your son or daughter, than you know that they can be a big pain in the butt sometimes.

I know that these parents have a difficult job, raising a family in poverty, often without the support of a spouse. But if you are going to discipline your child and teach them right from wrong – teach them every day – not just on parent teacher conference night.

The parents who are effective just nod and frown, and when they go home they deal with the problems. These are the kids who come back reformed, reminded of the values that they already knew. The ones whose parents rage in public are the ones who roll their eyes even as their mother curses at them.

There are the good moments too, of course. The parents whose eyes fill with pride when we tell them about how wonderful their kid is. These parents know that their kids are great – and are pleased to have someone else recognize it.

Saddest always, are the parents who don’t know that their kids are great. Who look at us with disbelief, as though we must be talking about a different child.

“He’s really great, we like having him in our class, he’s a great addition.” We rave.
“Yea, well there’s an awful lot I’d change about him. I just want to kill him sometimes,” sighs a frustrated, exhausted mother.

The best experience that I had last night was when a step father came into the room. He was the last parent of the night, and he was the stepfather of a boy who I have known for 3 years. I have always had a soft spot for this kid – he’s quiet and contained, with a bad temper. He’s popular and athletic, and he glows when he receives praise, but shuts down entirely if he is ever reprimanded or corrected.

I explained to the man that his stepson had had a rocky start, but had turned things around entirely, and was really impressing us. I showed him the improved work, and described moments when he had really made us proud.

“We’re really proud of how he’s turned things around,” we reported.
“I’M really proud. I can’t believe what I’m hearing! I’m just so proud of him right now – I’m gonna make sure he knows how proud I am. The last year, every time that we come in here we are embarrassed, and feel like we don’t know what to do. It’s so good to hear good things. This isn’t what I was expecting at all!” the stepdad said. He looked like he was remembering the boy who he had forgotten.

After he left the room, he sat down on a chair in front of the bulletin board, and read from start to finish a paper that his stepson had written about playing football, leaning in close to capture every word.

It’s always revealing and eye opening to meet the parents. It always explains a lot. Often it’s as we predicted. The strict parents who ask the good questions are the ones with the kids who are already doing well. The ones whose parents don’t show up are the ones who we most needed to see. The angriest parents have the angriest kids. But whatever the experience turns out to be, it’s important for us to see where these kids come from, and understand what they go home to every night.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Bulletin Boards

Bulletin board are the worst. Currently my bulletin board displays half finished papers, which are graded with sticky notes that simply say a number on them. Teachers everywhere complain about bulletin boards. They are time consuming and nit-picky, and the punishments for not doing them are real. In some ways, it is an illustration of how ridiculous the profession of teaching has made itself that such a focused is placed on these boards. It’s as though teachers are mocking themselves, making a benchmark of their profession something as ridiculous as bulletin boards.

I know that I am a better teacher this year than the years prior, because for the first time, I have nothing to put on the boards. Bulletin board work is pretty and polished. You have to mount it nicely on construction paper, and put it up each month. You have write a title for the bulletin board - no title, you will lose points, as with a 6th grade science project. You have to grade the work, and you have to write a comment on each piece of work, which compliments the student, and then also tells them something that they could do to improve their work. You have to show how you graded it (the rubric) and you have to describe the assignment.

In theory, this is simple. But the truth is, that student work folders don’t look much like a bulletin board. My students are writing papers right now. Each week, we work on a new aspect of writing. We started with ideas, and spent a week focused on ‘ideas’ - developing them, focusing them, adding details. They had to write a draft that I graded just based on how good their idea was. Then we added in organization, and they had to write a draft that I graded for ideas and organization. So on, and so forth, until we get through the other traits of writing (voice, sentence fluency, conventions, presentation, word choice). This is not a neat and tidy process. There are papers everywhere, looseleaf being scratched up and written on, words being inserted and deleted, sentences and paragraphs being reorganized. It’s a mess. But it works. My students are growing so fast and they are improving so much, that I’m thrilled every day.

The first of the month came without warning, and I got a slip in my mailbox reminding me to do my bulletin board. Crap! A bulletin board! What would I put up? My students are in the middle of their papers - I want them to revise them 3 more times before they are done. I can put up their baseline assessments, but those are total crap - the first things that they wrote this year, which were essentially just a way for me to measure where their skill level was. I consider rebelling, not doing one, because really, the ‘punishment’ consists of putting a LETTER in my file saying that I didn’t do the board, and it’s hard to get myself too worked up over a letter. But in the world of teaching, a letter in your file is like a death sentence, and I don’t want to make any enemies or make it too obvious that I find it ridiculous, so I had to put something up. I went on the computers and printed out all of the papers that the students were working on. I stapled them to pretty paper, and cut out stars and shapes, and wrote in nice letter what the title was. I went down the checklist of things that were required, and I finished my board.

On Monday, the kids saw the board, and were shocked - they wanted to know what their grades were, how they got up there when I had said that their writing needed so much improvement. I had to let them in on the little secret of teachers everywhere - that bulletin boards are a bit of a chore, not to be taken too seriously, and that we would be continuing on track.

But the truth is, we never really did get back on track. They students didn’t want to go back to those pieces - they had already been published in some way, and they felt more done then they had when they left on Friday. So we abandoned them, for the most part, and started new work. And I never went back and gave the real grades for the papers, and the kids lost out on what they should have learned from rewriting them.

Bulletin boards are the worst. They make no sense, and I think they are basically silly. Even my students know how I feel about them. But I do them. And I think that that’s important. It’s important to show my students that even when you don’t want to do something, you do it because you’re supposed to sometimes. They know when I don’t want to go to a meeting, but they see that I go anyway. They know that there are probably people I hate and horrible things that I want to say sometimes, but that I keep them in my head, and that, more than anything, is an example that they need.

So in the end, I justify the bulletin boards to myself in that they can be a vehicle through which my kids can learn a bit about life - even if it is at the expense of ELA.

Cultural Collision

It is 2:30, and I am walking my 38 students to my room for homeroom - the last 10 minutes of the day where we take attendance, give out homework, and make important announcements. The kids are energetic, bouncing around in line, eager to get into, and out of homeroom.

A familiar woman waits outside the door, and as I let the kids into the classroom, she tells me that she needs to speak with me. I recognize her as the mother of one of my students, and tell her that she can come in the room if she would like, and we can talk after the kids are dismissed. She shakes her head, evidently very upset, and says that it’s personal, and we need to speak privately.

She waits in the hall while Wendy and I let the kids get packed up and ready to go home, and then line them up for dismissal. When we approach her after dismissal, she tells us that she is very upset because a male student in our class has been calling her daughter, asking her to come over to study. We both pictured the scrawny 13 year-old boy, who looks more like he is 9, and spends nearly all of his time with his head in his books, and wondered, What was the problem?

She went on, her voice trembling, saying that it wasn’t appropriate for him to be calling her daughter. She said that they shouldn’t be studying together, that they should not be talking or spending time together. She was enraged that he would call, that he would try to do something so inappropriate. Her daughter joined us, a sweet, curly haired girl who always wears her uniform and reads on a 3rd grade level. She looked sheepish as she realized what her mother was ranting about.

Her mother turned towards her daughter, and shook her finger in her face, that she should not be talking to that boy! We intervened, assuring the woman that we had never seen them interact in school, and were surprised to hear that they were friends. We assured her that we had in fact encouraged the students to find neighbors to study with, and that perhaps that was the only intention of this boy.

The mother could not be deterred. She was outraged, disgusted, and most of all, terrified. She works until midnight every night and lives in the projects in a terribly unsafe neighborhood. Her only daughter is at home alone, working on her homework, eating dinner, presumably doing chores. They immigrated here from Guyana, and the culture shock of the Bronx couldn’t be more pronounced.

She confided to us that when her daughter is showering, she checks her body for marks, and when she is sleeping, she goes through her things, searching for clues, evidence, of some crime that she fears will one day be committed.

The little girl is outraged, as any American girl would be, that her mother is so strict, so angry about nothing.

“But Ma, I didn’t do nothing! I don’t even talk to him, or like him, he just wants to study!”

“No! I don’t want you talking to any boys, you should not even be talking to them, looking at them!”

GIrls are pregnant in this school. Even if they weren’t, even if we were in the most elite of schools, in the most affluent neighborhood, it would be natural that girls develop a keen interest in the opposite sex at around this age. It’s programmed into them. And so I find myself sympathizing with the plight of this girl, who is crazy about her mother, but embarrassed and frustrated by the cultural expectations that accompany her.

Wendy steps in, saying the only thing that we can really say. “Do you understand that this is a big deal, and that it is really important to your mother?” she asks the girl. The girl nods, her big brown eyes widened to show us that she is serious. “Really important, and that you have to respect what is important to your mother?” she nods again, a bit reluctantly.

“Your mother is worried about you,” I say, when she begins to protest again that she hasn’t done anything wrong, “she isn’t there with you, and she worries. You need to make sure that you don’t give her anything to worry about.”

After they leave, we look at one another, speechless. It’s rare to see parents at all, let alone ones who are upset and advocating for their students. Usually they arrive after being called multiple times, dragged in to remedy some behavior problem that their children are presenting. It’s always moving to see a parent who really cares, who proclaims that it is their only job to protect their child. And yet, in this case, we both understood the position of the daughter.

“She’s raising her daughter in America,” Wendy said. And she was right. I often consider the unique set of circumstances that these kids are presented with as the result of being immigrants. A huge language barrier that sets them years behind their peers, a high level of financial instability, the many obstacles that arise from trying to become citizens, the possibility of deportation. And yet I rarely consider the cultural implications that may come with it - the norms that are so different here than in the cultures that they came from.

You live in America, but you came here with a deeply ingrained sense of propriety, and of what is right and wrong. You arrived with your own set of expectations for your children. And here, you encounter cultural norms which may be very much at odds with what you are used to. It’s like making sure that your kids learn Spanish, in an environment where it makes much more sense to speak English. How do you ensure that both languages, both cultures, both sets of principals survive?

A New Year

My co-teacher, Wendy, and I eye one another nervously. Surely this is a joke. Collaborative team teaching classrooms, such as ours, are traditionally dumping grounds for behavior problems. And yet, all of these kids are in their seats, reading in absolute silence. In line, they don’t talk or try to escape - they actually walk, one behind the other. When I need them to be silent and I count down from 3 - they are quiet by 2!

Surely this is a joke. It’s November, and we’re still waiting for the other shoe to drop. These kids are cut from a different mold than last years kids. People will say, “No - you are just a better teacher, it’s you who has changed, not them.” Surely I have changed, and I am a better teacher. But it’s not me - it’s them. These kids WANT to learn. They are slow - much further behind than my class last year, but they have something that those kids didn’t - motivation. We tell them to form study groups, and they actually do. We collect homework, and 90% of the kids produce it. It may be jibberish, but they tried - and that’s more than last year’s kids could do.

Also working in their favor, is what they don’t have - bad attitudes. While the walls of our room last year dripped with sarcasm and cattyness, this year, there is a childlike, age appropriate sweetness in the room. They smile more, they insult less, they seem to desire guidance.

A hand will shoot up, or a kid will come over to one of our desks to report that another student is bothering them, taking their pencils, or calling them some sort of name. This in itself is a huge step. Last year, the kids didn’t turn to us to settle their disputes, they handled them themselves, with a callous cruelty that left us breathless. This year, slightly less jaded, they seem unable to confront these challenges without the intervention of an adult. It’s a role that feels somehow new to me.

So this is where we are - a third year in this same school. This year I am in the same classroom as last year, working with the same wonderful partner as last year, and engaged to get married to Mr. Mullen, whose room is just one door away from mine. In this toxic environment, I feel like I have an island of good.

I am teaching English Language Arts again, only this year I feel far more adept at it, and am excited by the growth that I am already seeing my students make. I am also teaching Science, a surprise that I got on the first day of school. Wendy and I are more or less winging it when it comes to these lessons - thought we started off strong. The first unit in 8th grade covers sexual reproduction, which was really smooth sailing as far as getting the students interested went. Lots of questions which we tried to answer. There are many school districts where letters are sent home before we address the topics that we did, but that’s not the type of district that we are in, and it may be for the best. A high percentage of our students are sexually active, and an equally high percentage are sorely misinformed about their bodies reproductive capabilities. The questions are all the things that you would expect, and yet when you look at a 13 year old’s face fall when you tell her that, yes, you can definitely get pregnant on your period or using the ‘pull-out’ method, it really does hit home how dangerous it is for these kids not to know. So I feel like I’m doing a public service of some sort, however unqualified I may be to be delivering the message.

It’s a year that feels remarkably different from last year, and a lifetime apart from my first year. And yet there are the same basic components - kids, lessons, management, student engagement, data, and surprise. Perhaps it’s the element of surprise that keeps this job interesting, and bearable. You may teach the same lessons year after year, but it will never go the same way twice. Teaching sexual reproduction, I’ll get questions that make me blush, and reading there papers, I’m shocked to find myself laughing out loud at the stories that they tell. No matter how many papers you grade, how many lessons you teach, how many parents you have to call, you are dealing with kids. Kids, who are defiantly themselves, who don’t know to conform, who are ignorant of expectations, are what ultimately defines this job. And they are always a surprise.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


At the end of the year, the kids get yearbooks. The teachers get them too, and the child in me forces the kids to sign mine. Perhaps I just need that moment of affirmation, or maybe I am afraid that I’ll forget them one day. I loved my class this year. They were crazy and they aggravated me, but I genuinely loved most of the kids, and will genuinely miss them.

They graduated, and next year will go to various high schools around the city. Very few of them will be together, which makes them sad, and none of them will be with me, which makes me sad.

I met these kids when they were in 7th grade, and I had exactly 0 days of teaching experience. They were wild and crazy, testing me and pushing me and angering me every day. Last year, I would brace myself for their arrival in class, and count the seconds until they left. They were more than challenging - they were impossible.

180 students, 2 grades, zero experience or knowledge of social studies - I was in over my head. Perhaps if you put me in the same situation now, I would be better equipped to handle it. I’d like to believe so.

Last year was a year of growth - I started out overwhelmed, and confused as to why the kids were looking to me for answers. Eventually I realized that they thought that I was a teacher, and accordingly, I began to come one. Through trial and error, and failing in a new way every day, I eventually learned what it meant to teach. But it was a treacherous path and a vertical learning curve.

Last year ended with a sigh of relief, and a great deal of self doubt. Had I wasted a year of my life? Had I accomplished anything? Had the kids learned? How could I possibly go back in the fall? All summer my stomach clenched when I thought of returning, and when I eventually did walk back into the building, my throat closed up as I passed through the front doors.

When you are in it, you convince yourself that it’s not so bad. Last year, I spent a lot of time focusing on the good - looking at the small successes. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gone in every day. When you are in it, you don’t see the lessons, the growth - how much you have changed.

Before I started to teach, I ran into a guy I knew at a bar. He had done Teach For America, and I told him I was considering it. In his intoxicated state he was especially passionate - “It’s real. It’s the most real thing that you will ever do. It’s hard, every day, but it’s real, and the problems are real for you and for your students, so it’s okay that it’s so hard. It makes everything else in your life seem silly.” I was working for a job where everything felt slow and dull and abstract. I was sold.

The first year was brutally challenging, and brutally real. I learned about the kids, the community, the achievement gap, and about myself. It was the first job I had had, and the first moment of my life, when my time was occupied thinking of someone other than myself. And by looking away from myself for a moment, I learned a lot about who I am.

The first year that I taught, numbers and statistics became concrete. A second grade reading level wasn’t just a phrase - it was the difference between sounding out letters, and knowing a word. Literacy became not an abstract concept, but the difference between being able to understand what you read, teach yourself, expand your world - and being powerless to play a significant part in the world around you. The achievement gap stopped being a story you heard about; it played itself out as a tragedy in my classroom everyday. It was the futures that these kids didn’t even know to hope for, the dreams that they never had, and the inevitabilities that defined their lives. The communities weren’t a hotbed of stereotypes, they were a collection of stories, some sad, others hopeful, all ending up in a place where kids weren’t allowed to be outside after 6pm, and only 1 in ten of them would go to college.

The realness of this is what makes you go in every day. You don’t show up at a miserable job, where you make little money, get cursed at and threatened, ignored and mocked, just to fight for an abstract cause. The IDEA of the achievement gap doesn’t get you to plan a lesson and make worksheets that will likely end up on the floor. It’s the reality - the kids, the faces, and tales that they tell, and the future that you want for them more than they know to.

This year, I taught. I made many of my kids learn the curriculum, and hopefully a few things about life. They achieved great things, and left more ready for high school than they were when they got to me. This year, going to work wasn’t hard on most days. I stopped fighting the reality that this job had taken over my psyche, and allowed myself to talk about it wherever I went, whenever asked. The job is still a challenge, but now I see the rewards.

This class that graduated, was with me for my first two years. They watched me grow from a kid who felt more like one of them than like a teacher, into an adult who doesn’t doubt her authority. They introduced me to Mr. M, and pushed us towards one another, ultimately giving me one of the greatest rewards of this job - love. They taught me about slang, and sneakers, and hair weave. They taught me about responsibility, and patience, and a sense of humor. They taught me to pick my battles, and how to fight. They taught me to swallow my pride, to not take it personally, and to show love when I feel hate.

These were the most challenging two years that I could have imagined, and these kids were on the journey with me every day. They can tell you how things have changed, how I’m different now. They will say that I used to be cooler, or that I dress nicer now. They don’t realize how much more they learned this year from me than last year - to them, if a teacher keeps them busy, they must be learning. They don’t realize how much work it has taken to become ‘less cool’. They don’t realize how much they mean to me, and how much I worry for their futures.

Perhaps the fact that I cannot imagine what lies ahead for them is what inspires me to have them sign the yearbook. Perhaps it’s the fear that none of my dreams for them will come true. I think of their future as much as I consider my own - but have no control now that they have passed through my door. They will go to bad schools in bad neighborhoods. They will face pressures from boys, and gangs, and their own families and friends. They will have ample opportunity to get pregnant, or go to jail, or drop out. The statistic says that 1 in 10 will go to college, and only half will graduate high school. The real picture - that remains to be seen.

Here are some of the entries that the kids made in the yearbook - some are to Mr. Mullen as well as to myself:

To Mr Mullen
You are my dude to da death. best math teacher i’ve ever had no kidden. and you cool like ice. thanks for your support and help. u kept up with my shit lol. your pal, T

Ms Klein:
Ima miss your white self!!! Your awesome don’t get gassed*. Everytime I wanted to get you mad I would do things to erk you. I can’t spell so i’m not going to try to. I know you gonna miss me and mullen too even though he don’t know it yet. i’m going to come back all the time next year i promise. you and mullen better have a baby and a wedding by the time i finish high school. hopefully no one in your next class is better than 804. you and ms. j made 8th grade fun, and you from 7th grade. i’m gun accomplish my goals.
love, your little girl, s.m.r.
p.s. mullen + klein = all because of me - say thanks when you get married!!

Ms. Klein
you were one of my best teachers. i will miss you and please take care of mullen. Ms, remember life is just a game we all have to play, and you have to choose which side you on. if the kids give you a hard time call me. i love you.

*get gassed = get a big head or get full of yourself

Balancing The Karma

I was there for the chicken tenders, and the little pigs in the blanket. The kids were there for the drama, the dancing, and the pictures that would preserve this night for years to come. It was prom.

We have prom at a venue in the middle of the Bronx. On this night, it’s filled with middle school proms. Outside, kids in unnatural colors of satin and tulle pile out of cars, the clingy materials riding up on them, the girls teetering in their first attempt at 4 inch heels. The dresses are chartreuse, magenta, aqua and gold. The girls have their hair done and their eyebrows plucked, and their nails done - long acrylic tips with designs of hearts or flowers painted on. The boys wear suits or tuxes. On Southern Boulevard or Fordham Road you can but a full suit for $70, including shoes. They have fresh hair-cuts or ‘shapeups’ (a shapeup is when you have the barber clean up the edges of your buzz cut, making sharp, 90 degree angles and straight lines along your hairline).

There are tables with tablecloths, and chairs draped in heavy covers. Balloons float up from the centerpieces on the tables, and the DJ sits up on a stage. Despite the evidence that this venue is something of a factory, mass-producing middle school proms, it feels special to the students, who are rarely in such a fancy place for an event. The march in, feeling beautiful, ready to pose for pictures. As they enter, they scan the crowd for a friend to cling to, and then rush towards them. They ooh and ahh over one another. The lights aren’t dimmed yet, so no dancing takes place. The boys clump, and the girls clump, and when the food comes out, they all rush towards it unabashedly.

Eventually the lights are dimmed and the dancing starts, adolescents rubbing up against one another, showing off, moving in ways that they would never want their parents to see them move. The next day they will run around, begging that any videos of them dancing be deleted, for fear of their mother finding out, but for this moment, everyone feels special and attractive, and close to these friends that they have been with for so many years.

In truth, I felt proud of my students, watching their easy confidence. With this crowd, there are very few who exhibit the awkwardness and self-consciousness that plagues so many middle schoolers. I wonder why this is - if perhaps there is a less rigidly defined box that they are supposed to fit into, if the standards by which they judge one another are lower than they are in other communities.

The kids paid $40 each for this night. Then they paid for a dress, shoes, hair-do, eyebrow wax, manicure and pedicure. Last week they paid $28 for their senior trip - a boat ride around Manhattan, and before that, $60 for their cap and gown, and yearbook. Graduating from middle school comes at a cost.

Unsurprisingly, the costs are prohibitive to many of the kids. It’s not a responsible fiscal decision to spend half your paycheck on your child’s senior activities, when there are so many other pressing needs. Several students in my class were not going to be able to attend. A couple of weeks ago, one of my students approached me and asked if we could do a fundraiser to raise money for the kids who couldn’t afford prom. This unusual display of altruism caught me off guard, and I quickly agreed, not wanting to be responsible for stifling any sign of generosity or caring in my students. We thought of ideas for raising money, and struggled to think of a good way to quickly raise money, and properly allocate it. We didn’t want to bring attention to the struggles of some kids, making it an embarrassing situation for them, but it was a challenge to have a public fundraiser for just a few students, without drawing attention to the recipients.

I decided to send out an email to close friends and family, explaining the situation, and asking if they would like to ‘sponsor a senior’. The money would go to the seniors who were likely to miss out on these activities. For some seniors, I would have said good riddance, but many of the ones who were unable to go were kids who I have seen terrific growth in, who work exceptionally hard, despite living in shelters, having unemployed parents, and generally facing some of the worst circumstances.

The response was surprising - everyone quickly pledged to contribute. The money collected went to 6 students, covering various expenses that their parents couldn’t. I told the girl whose idea the whole thing had been, and her eyes grew large.

“Really? They just want to give it? Why?” she asked, confused by the prospect. I explained to her that sometimes if people were in a position to help someone, they felt good about doing so. Her smile spread across her face. “That’s so nice! Miss, your friends are so nice. I want white friends! White people are so nice!”

We went shopping for a prom dress. S, the girl who came up with the fundraising idea, met me on 14th street with D, the girl who we were shopping for. We went to Forever 21, and they loaded their arms with tiny, shiny sparkly dresses. In the fitting room, they giggled as they squeezed into the clothes, before emerging to have me say that it was too tight, and to try again.

S, who weighs in at 76 pounds, laughed as she tried to zipper the zipper on D’s much larger frame. “Omigod D, you’re type fat!” she said. Both girls laughed. Apparently body image is less of a problem for these 13 year olds than it was when I was 13.

We went to H&M, where the dresses came in larger sizes, and finally found one. They were excited, but looked at me hesitantly. “This dress is type expensive,” they explained. It was $39.99. We picked out matching earrings and bracelets for another $9. D jumped up and down in the long line for the register.

The money also bought shoes and a prom ticket for M, a sweet, hardworking, pleasant girl whose family has been living in a shelter for 9 months. It paid for C, a boy who has matured more than any other, from a deviant child into a kid who i can count on, trust, and who helps out when he is given the opportunity. It paid for A, who has been in 12 different foster homes in the last 8 years. It paid for D, a boy who had no family show up for his graduation, or to hear him sing in the school shows.

For any student, there is a compelling story that makes it worthwhile to contribute, and to help them out. Perhaps it is a financial reason - the family is financially unstable, not sure what they will eat at night, or how to buy the kids new clothes when they need it. For Christmas we bought one girl a winter coat, because she waited for 2 hours in the cold after school every day for her dad to pick her up. Or perhaps money isn’t the biggest problem. Maybe there is abuse in their family, either physical, or emotional. Maybe there is addiction to drugs or alcohol. Maybe they suffer because of difficulties in their parents relationships. Maybe a sibling is in jail, or having a baby at the age of 15. These are the stories that are my students lives. Every one of them can break your heart, move you, inspire you.

A neighbor of mine gave a generous contribution, with the note said,

"In my job, I find sometimes it is necessary to balance the karma in the
world. Thanks for giving me the opportunity."

In her job, she sees stories like these every day, and knows all too well the overwhelming hopelessness that you can feel when you look at the situations. I am lucky. I am looking at the more hopeful part of the picture. I see the faces of the kids, who still have a chance to grow up and have something better. And yet even for me it feels hopeless sometimes.

We can’t fix their problems, or save them from their own lives. But I have given a lot of thought to the idea of ‘balancing the karma’. Maybe giving them a night to feel special, to dance and laugh with people who they love, to feel like they have accomplished something worth being acknowledged by a ceremony - maybe that’s as much balance that we are capable of giving. And maybe it’s enough.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Money Matters

Maybe you’ve heard, there’s a financial crisis in America. New York City, being a part of America, is having its own struggles. Most recently, there have been rumors and threats that 5,000 teachers will be laid off next year. This includes almost every teacher hired since 2007, and it goes without saying that it includes me.

The teacher contract expired earlier this year, and the city and the union have been in negotiations for months. The union is pushing for an 8% pay raise over the next 2 years. The city is pushing back. They say that they don’t have the money, and the union says that they won’t accept anything less. When they finally reach an agreement, if they agree on a raise, they will have to retroactively pay all of us.

To prove that they have no money, the city has made various threats - some with a stronger foundation than others. They claim that we are in a financial crisis, and prove it by threatening to eliminate free metrocards and yellow buses for students. Given that public transportation is the key method of travel for most students, this was no small thing. My logic said that it was posturing - after all, how much money does the city really save by taking away metrocards? The MTA isn’t a limited commodity - they don’t sell less metrocards to regular people because of the free cards that they give to students. And it’s not a very strong argument to say that less people ride as a result of the kids being on the trains. There aren’t actually many other options in NYC.

But, posturing or not, earlier this year it went to a vote, and they decided that next year there will be no metrocards.

Then it was about charter schools. The Union is anti-charter schools, because teachers in charter schools aren’t unionized. Currently there is a cap of 200 on the number of charter schools in New York. Obama is offering up to $700 million of education funding through Race For The Top. States compete for the money. this money is an incentive for states to change their education policies to focus more on teacher accountability, and less on teacher security. Obama embraces charter schools, and New York’s cap on them looks bad. The city said that unless the union agrees to lift the cap, we won’t get the $700 million, and therefore, teachers will lose their jobs. After much debate, the cap was lifted - it’s hard for anyone to justify walking away from that kind of money in this kind of economy.

The threats continued, big and small, some followed through on and others dropped. The teacher layoffs were the biggest one, marched out this past month. They said that unless the union accepted no raises, there would be 5,000 teacher layoffs. This means that they would have to increase class sizes by up to 45, as they did in California. It’s nearly impossible to imagine a controlled class of 45, let alone one in which learning is taking place. This isn’t college - you don’t just lecture and hope kids learn. A good teacher has to cater their lessons to each individual students level and learning style.

This week, the mayor made an announcement. Bloomberg said that there would be no layoffs, and that he would not agree to give teachers raises. This was great news for those of us whose jobs were on the line, but infuriated a great many teachers who were counting on the raise, and the union, who felt that he had gone over their head, and outside the parameters of the contract negotiation.

Regardless of whether or not we get the raise, the fiscal crisis is doing permanent damage to education. One key example came up this week, when we met to discuss promotional criteria. To go from 6th grade to 7th grade, and from 7th grade to 8th grade, you have to pass your math and ELA state exams. To be clear, passing your state exam requires getting at least a 25% on the state exam.

The exams are graded on a scale of 1 - 4. 1 is 25% or less, 2 is 25% - 55%, 3 is 55 - 75%, and a 4 is 75% and up. The test itself is simple, very basic, minimally challenging. This is where the state sets the bar for its students. The reason for making the bar so low is logical - Bush’s No Child Left Behind bases state funding on performance on these exams. Unfortunately, this part of the plan is as short-sighted as the rest of it, and doesn’t set parameters for the exam. States dumb down exams to increase their funding.

To go to the 7th or 8th grade, all you have to do is pass these exams. You can fail every single class and still get promoted. You can only come to school for the test, pass it, and be promoted. this is a financial decision - the state can’t afford to send kids to summer school, and in an effort to avoid sending masses, they lower the criteria. Again and again they lower the bar to get money, and to avoid spending it. If failing your classes mattered, they would have to sent exponentially more students to summer school, especially considering that most teachers have standards that are far more challenging to meet than those of the state exams. however, as it is, it is essentially permissible for students to move from one grade level to the next only having mastered 25% of the years content. And yet people seem mystified as to how people can graduate from high school being functionally illiterate.

Special education is just as bad. It lowers the bar enormously, and ultimately harms the people in the system. If you have an IEP that says that you have a socio-emotional disturbance, the promotional criteria is lowered. To be clear, socio-emotion disturbances are not a cognitive impairment. The kids with this problem should be able to achieve every bit as much academically as their non-special education peers. Perhaps they need a modified environment, or other specialized services, such as counseling, but lowering their promotional criteria is ridiculous. And yet most of the special education students in my school have this very disability, and they have promotional criteria that requires that they master as little as 20% of the content for the year in order to go on to the next grade. Unsurprisingly, when they end up in a class of kids who mastered 80% of the content the year before, they feel alienated and diminished by their general education peers, and their problems are exacerbated.

Set the bar low, and people won’t fail to meet it. The low expectations that the education system has for its students is infuriating. It the efforts that we as teachers make all year round. We spend our time maintaining expectations, making it clear that there is a high bar that they are expected to meet, and that As are difficult to earn. Then, the student who failed every subject gets the same diploma as the one with straight As.

Financial decisions do effect education - far more than people want to admit. It's not about class size, or lack of resources. Rather, it's about these systemic decisions that are made at the expense of student achievement.

In Memory

This morning, he didn’t show up for work. There was no substitute to fill in for him, because he hadn’t called for one, or let the school know that he wouldn’t be coming in. His wife called during first period to let the school know that he had passed away the night before.

The decision was made not to tell the kids what had happened until Monday. On Monday there would be grief counselors in the school, and a proper assembly to notify all of the students. But in such a small school, there’s really no keeping something like this quiet.

It was the school chorus teacher, Mr. Maldonado, a beloved Puerto Rican man in his late 40s, who wore a beret-like hat and was fiercely passionate about his work and his students. He had been at the school for many years, and a part of most students' lives since they were in 5th grade. On Thursday he came to school, taught his classes, and stayed after to rehearse with the cast of ‘Grease’. On Friday he didn’t come in. No one yet knows what happened.

The students put two and two together quickly, as they tend to do. They noted his absence, the tears of so many of their teachers, and the unusual traffic in the hall outside his classroom.

“Where’s Mr. Maldonado?” the questions began. Teachers averted their eyes as they evaded the truth, saying that they didn’t know, that he was absent. But kids are wise, and in situations like these, they seem to have some instinct.

The official word was not to tell the students. Immediately, we all thought of the kids who would be most devastated - the ones whose lives he had most obviously touched. It seemed cruel to let them go home, and spend the weekend wondering, hearing rumors from their friends. And yet the principal remained firm through the day - we were not equipped to handle the grief or answer the inevitable questions now. We must wait until Monday.

“It’s true, Mr. Maldonado died?” asked one of my students.

“We don’t know anything for sure,” a teacher replied. The student thought it over.

“If he isn’t here on Monday, or Tuesday, then we’ll know,” he said thoughtfully.

Teachers were crying, crowding into the office to get away from the curious eyes of the kids, who sought to comfort them, and to get answers. Eventually, there was no denying it to those students who demanded the answers most fervently, who were in tears at the thought of losing this mentor.

The 10 kids who were closest to him, who performed in his shows and went on trips with him, and cut class to be with him, were gathered together, and I and another teacher took them out of the steamy courtyard and up into my air-conditioned classroom. Part of this was damage control, isolating the few who knew for sure from the mass that was wondering, and another was out of respect. We spend all of our time earning the trust of these kids - we couldn’t lie to them anymore.

In the room they sat silently - a rarity for any eighth grader, but especially for this outgoing bunch of performers. Tears streamed down their faces, and for 20 minutes, no one spoke, they just hugged one another.

There is little to say in this situation. Another teacher, one more equipped than I to handle their grief, came into the room and cried with the kids.

“We have to be sad, we are all hurting, but then we have to be happy, and remember him for his joy and humor,” she told them. She talked about her own struggle, and how hard it was to get past the sadness. The kids were responsive to her - and 2 of the girls began recalling their own happy memories of him. One of my students sat alone, apart from the group, tears running down his cheeks in silence.

This is a flamboyant boy named Darien, who dances when he walks. He is effeminate in every way, and deviant enough that people respect him. He sashays into class everyday, calling himself Britney, and Lady Gaga, and talks about pole dancing. He sings and dances unabashedly, and is never silent. Now, however, he had no words. Darien is a boy who needs a lot of attention. When I get to the end of my rope and demand that he require less attention, he explains to me that he doesn’t get any attention at home. His father never speaks to him, and his mother is gone - a drug addict who isn’t in his life. He wrote a poem earlier this year about feeling invisible, having no one to celebrate him or come to his shows, or ask him questions, or be interested in his life.

Today he lost a man in his life who genuinely cared. A man who got to the end of his rope much more slowly than the rest of his teachers, and who made Darien feel good about himself. Much of it likely had to do with the fact that he was the chorus teacher, and that Darien easily excelled in this class, but it was also that this man had far more patience than most of us. I looked at Darien and my heart broke thinking of what he had lost - someone who really saw him in a way that perhaps no one else did. Darien got into a good high school - one for performing arts - and the person who he ran to to tell was not his father, or even me and Ms. Jimenez, who love him - it was Mr. Maldonado.

In our school, chorus isn’t a small elective. It is one of 3 talent classes. 1/3 of the school attends chorus for hour and a half blocks. They also get pulled out of class and stay after school in order to practice.

The shows are never amazing, the kids never exceptional, but it’s middle school, and it’s not really about that.

There’s a big, loud, crazy 8th grader who sat in my room, her whole big frame shaking with sobs. This is girl who teachers beg to skip class, who is so loud and destructive that we are often happy when she skips class to go to chorus. But for all the craziness that prevented her from having success in so many classes, she found a home in chorus. Chorus made her feel like there was something that she could do.

A 7th grade Puerto Rican girl with long blonde hair, who people say looks like my daughter, also resembled the chorus teacher, and shared his last name. Her mother died of a drug overdose when she was in 5th grade. She is scarred by this - leaving class in tears if anyone makes a ‘yo mama’ joke, or mentions her own mother. She was the star of every show, standing in front, singing solo after solo. She called Mr. Maldonado her uncle, and he said that she ‘sang like a little bird.’ When she left class angry or upset, his room was where she retreated to.

There are countless tales to exhibit his impact - the lives that he touched. In this challenging neighborhood, with these kids coming from such a variety of harsh backgrounds, he was someone who really loved them, who made them feel loved. No matter how they disappointed him, got in trouble, threw tantrums, or aggravated him and the others in the school, he always took them back.

He always said he couldn’t sing, and he didn’t know why he was the chorus teacher. His shows were always the same, the kids slightly off tune, dressed in semi-matching, at times inappropriate clothing, swaying to the music with great rhythm. But he was so proud of them. He was relentless at his work.

He made me crazy pulling my students out of class all the time for his shows. I would get upset that they were missing academics for chorus, frustrated with how much class they missed. But he really believed that it was necessary - that what they were doing was the most important thing in the school He made them feel important. He would play the piano in the auditorium, furiously waving his arms, growing red in the face as he conducted the chorus, and nursed a solo out of a shy 6th grader.

In short, he really was everything that you want a teacher to be. When you leave, for whatever reason, you want to have had a deep impact, to have loved your students, to have given them a gift that they will carry with them. For all of his students, regardless of their successes or failures in academics, he gave them something to feel good about. He got them to stand on a stage during their most awkward adolescent years, and sing in front of their peers, and feel great about it afterwards. He let their parents come to school and feel pride as they saw their son or daughter swaying tot he music and clapping a beat, belting out Spanish love songs.

He will be missed, and remembered, most of all, by the people who matter most. His students.

Friday, May 21, 2010


“Miss Klein, How you spell ‘horse’?” NK, one of my students asks me.
“h-o-r-s-e” I spell it out for him slowly. He is asking me how to spell horse because it is the password for our class computer. Originally, the password was the same as all the other computers in the school – ‘dellteach’. One day, one of our most enterprising students didn’t take his medication, and had a nice time changing the passwords. He even went as far as to change the ‘hint’ that you got when you forgot your password.

I clicked on the ‘hint’ in order to find a way to unlock the computer. ‘You Tight!’ was the clue that came up at me. I was indeed tight.

Tight means angry, frustrated, pissed off. If something doesn’t go your way, you are tight. If someone gets in your way, or makes you mad, you are tight. If you are tight, you have license to do pretty much anything.

One of my sweetest students got into a fight, and came to tell me about it, her hair still rumpled and her cheap gold necklaces ripped from her neck. She beams as she recalls that we won. To win a fight is to ‘wash’ someone. This girl told me that she ‘washed’ her opponent.

“You!? Why?!” I was shocked that this sweet girl would be fighting. She shrugged in response, and smiled shyly. “Seriously, why?” I asked again. This time she answered.

“She got me tight.”

Saturday, May 8, 2010


D, move your desk to the outer circle. O is taking your place.

“NO! Miss - please! I’ve been doing better!”
“Yes - you were - but then you decided to be crazy this week and we can’t have that in the inner circle. I need the craziness to be a little further away.”
“But O isn’t good for the inner circle! He won’t fit in here! He’s annoying.”
“I agree, he is annoying, but less annoying than he was. He’s being rewarded for making small improvements in himself.”
“Noooooo, I’m not moving.”
“D, earn your way back, and I’ll be happy to move you. The inner circle can always expand.”
“O will never make it here - his days are numbered and then I’ll be back!”

Sure enough, less than a week later the tables turned, and O switched spots with D, yet again.

This week there were Math state exams. Last week was ELA state exams. Both were easy - painfully, embarrassingly, simple. And on both, the students made errors. It’s not hard to get a 4 on a state exam. Around the country, students do it with their eyes closed. But not in my school. In my school a 4 is something big - something to celebrate. My students joined hands in prayer before the test, as though making it known that things were out of their hands.

I feel successful. I never thought I would say that - and I still am conflicted about how to define success, and what this period of time means in the greater scheme of my life - but I know that I feel successful when I look at my role in the school. I have founded, edited, and produced a school newspaper, which is now on its 3rd edition. I have pulled articles out of children, and shown them that they can see their name in print.

I have created school dances - successfully, cost-effectively, and for the first time in several years. We have the second one coming up on May 13th. The first dance, there was no support, just myself and another teacher, scraping together materials to decorate and coordinate the dance. this time, we have a budget, a theme, and the whole school excited to go.

I have done fundraisers, after-school programs, helped kids with their high school applications and portfolios, and planned field trips. And I’ve taught.

Out of all of it - this is the most remarkable. Teaching. Last year, it felt like a miracle every time that my kids learned. Now, though I still feel like I rely on luck, I find that I am teaching every day - and every day they are learning.

Social Studies is their favorite. They shout out their opinions and their questions about the world. I taught them all about World War II, and my isolationist class was outraged that we got involved in a problem that wasn’t ours.
“Why are we getting involved? That’s their problem!” I tried to frame it as a violence that could be extended if it weren’t stopped. They struggle with this level of foresight.

We learn about the war in the Pacific.

“Yo - I would be mad scared to go to war with Japan!”
“Right!!?? They got mad technology!”
“And they multiply mad fast!”

At least their stereotypes are somewhat informed. Usually their generalizations are wildly off base: “The Irish hate beer!”, “Asians can’t read!”

But they are interested, they are engaged, and they retain the information that I spoon-feed them. They can tell you about the cause and effect chain of events that led to WWI, and then from WWI to WWII. They can easily describe the impact of the Treaty of Versailles, and watching Chicken Run, they can decipher which characters represent communism, and which represent capitalism.

It’s a story - and it’s not even THEIR story, given that most of these kids are not from the United States, but it’s fascinating nonetheless, and they are brimming with 8th grade opinions. In Social Studies, they can share their opinions - they can make them relevant to the content - they can argue, debate, and question. And it makes the information stick to them. It lets them own it.

When they go to high school - I want them to be able to advocate for themselves, fight for an education, fight for knowledge. But they don’t know what it feels like to be excited about learning. They don’t get praise for it outside of school, and so they don’t strive for it in school. But I think that they have fun in class, these days. They are triumphant in math class, interested in social studies, and proud in ELA. They have a million miles to go, but giving them a taste of success makes me feel successful. And even if their success on State Exams won’t compare to that of students in Westchester, maybe this little slice of success is something important right now.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


We rearranged the desk in our classroom. It’s not the first time that we have done this this year - usually it is reactive as opposed to proactive. Cliques need to be broken up, we need to do more work based on reading levels, we can’t stand to have certain kids so close to the front of the room for another second.

This time it was no different - a reaction - but we carefully calculated our moves to have a maximal impact. What we could take no more of was laziness, and we created a seating chart based not on ability level, but on ambition.

We created two semi-circles - one inside the other. Both circles opened at the front of the room, so that Ms. J and myself could easily walk to the center of the circles to address the class.

The inner circle is made up of the kids who do their work, pay attention in class, ask questions, and are generally engaged. The outer circle is made up of the kids who feel entitled to pass, but not inclined to do any work. We created this arrangement without a word about our criteria, but when people saw who was where, it spoke for itself. Some kids were unhappy about being placed on the outer circle.

“What am I doing here?!” asked one particularly entitled girl.
“You sleep in class. It’ll be easier for you to get some rest if you are in the back.” we explained.
“Uh, uh, I do not belong here,” said another perpetually confused girl. She can never understand why we pick on her for not doing work or coming to class. She began to nudge her desk forward, toward the inner circle. Halfway through class I had to reprimand her to return to where she belonged, in the outer circle.

The hope is that the inner circle will grow, and the outer circle will shrink. Hopefully having this visual representation of how hard you work will inspire some ids to work harder. For some it is helpful. There are several kids who will soon be promoted to the inner circle.

And to be perfectly honest, those on whom this has no influence, I’m happy to have further from me. It’s nice to spend a little less time convincing them to learn, and a little more time just showing them how.

Spring Fling

My students really excel at non-academic ventures. At the carnation sale that my class organized for Valentines Day, they were rock-stars. They transformed into artists, salespeople, and project managers. I was proud.

When myself and one other teacher decided to plan a school dance, I was confident that my students would be able to execute on the plan. We picked a date and a theme, got all necessary permission and funding, and then began the publicity. This was really their show - I told them to make posters, and out came glitter and clue and sharpies. They covered enormous sheets of paper with flowers and butterflies, advertising the dance. They covered the school with their brightly colored propaganda - come to the dance and be cool.

One day, the came to me in a panic - people were saying they weren’t going. 5 previous dances had been cancelled, and there hadn’t been a successful dance at the school in 5 years. This is why we decided to take the project on in the first place, but it was also the major obstacle that we faced. It was hard to invest kids in going to something that they doubted would happen.

I looked at the gaggle of pretty, popular girls who populated my class. This was an occasion when I could profit from the things that usually drove me crazy - their loud, obnoxious cattiness, their obsession with boys and popularity, and looking nice. Their unbelievable, unbreakable confidence.

I wrote in big block letters across the top of a poster: “Sign below if you’re going to the Spring Fling!” Peer pressure exists whether we like it or not - we may as well use it to our advantage. I had my class sign the poster, and told the girls to make it very known that they would be at the dance. Soon the whole page was covered in names - many of whom would never actually get permission slips signed by their teachers allowing them to go. Regardless - I felt like a huge success, and like for a split second I had had a useful bit of insight into the psychology of 13 year olds.

Filled with confidence, I wrote on another enormous poster: “Songs we want to hear at Spring Fling!” Kids went wild, writing their favorite songs. We followed closely behind them, crossing out profanities, but the goal was achieved - the kids felt like they had some ownership over the dance.

The turnout was as good as to be expected - we had DJ Koala (a student in my class) having the time of his life as his peers danced to the songs he spun. We bought disco lights and streamers and transformed the cafeteria as well as we could. We created a backdrop for them to take pictures in front of (since everyone knows that’s what dances are really all about), and we served fried chicken and yellow rice (for some reason, people in the Bronx feel strongly that dinner food MUST be served at any event. My idea of chips and salsa was laughed off as soon as it was put on the table.)

May 13th is going to be the ‘Beach Ball’ - a dance to celebrate the end of the ELA and MAth State exams. We will have a luau theme, and are ordering leis, beach balls,a nd grass skirts. It’s amazing how many people are supporting the effort this time. The Spring Fling was a guerrilla movement, led by myself and one other TFA teacher at the school. Because of its success, we have the principal giving us funds to order real decorations, and other school aides brainstorming how to create a beach theme.

But again, it goes back to the kids. In a situation like this, success depends on not only their poster making skills, but on the groupthink that dominates their lives. As long as the Beach Ball is still the ‘cool’ thing to do when May 13 comes, we’ll have a great success.

Sinking Ships

Imagine that you are on a sinking ship. You know it is sinking, and every day it gets a little closer to going under. On the ship, you know how to swim, but none of the other passengers do. You offer to teach them - to save their lives.

“I know how to swim!” you exclaim, excited that you have the opportunity to help. “I can teach you all - I can save your lives! Just do everything that I say and you will be able to swim - you will live!” You begin to tell them what to do. You first show them an example, demonstrating floating, strokes, and breathing. Then you ask them to do it with you.

“F-ing Redneck!” says a voice in the back. You look around. Surely this voice is not referring to you - you aren’t a redneck - you are teaching EVERYONE to swim, regardless of their race.
“F-ing white trash skank!” the voice repeats itself, just as you begin to show them breaststroke. You glance at yourself - certainly you are white, but you don’t think that the ‘trash’ part could really be in reference to you. You actually look quite classy today. You go on, ignoring the strange distraction, attributing it to some poor soul’s bad case of turrets.
“I hate that f-ing teacher - she’s such a redneck - always talking.” other teachers’s a little harder to deny that this comment may be in reference to you. And you do like to talk...

Perhaps I am making my job sound more noble than it is. Teaching isn’t exactly the same as swimming, and technically, the ship that we are on isn’t sinking. But things aren’t looking so hot for the future of my students, and I so have the capacity to share with them the skills that are vital to their future success.

And yet, as I struggle to lead them to a better future - take my class to higher ground - there are voices in the back which give me pause. No, I don’t mean that back of my head - in no part of my head do I think that I am any of the aforementioned things - I mean literally the voices that come from the back of the classroom, taunting me, harassing me, assaulting my confidence and sense of self.

Usually I block it out, ignore it, focus on the 25 other faces in the class who want to learn. The other day it got to me - I felt myself growing upset after 3 hours of ignoring it (I mean, how much can a person really be expected to endure?!). I went to the principal and pled my case. Really it was more of a negotiation - I said that I would be willing to reenter my classroom if the source of this harassment was removed and punished. I said this firmly, with much resolve, knowing all the while that nothing would happen and that I would have to hang my head and trudge back to my room - defeated.

But alas, for once my expectations were exceeded, and the lovely girl in the back of my room was suspended, and removed immediately from my room. For the first time, I fought for something, and it was granted - and to be honest, I didn’t even have to fight all that hard.

Maybe I have money in the bank that no one told me about.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


My class is doing poems. They were asked to write about the topic of their choice, focusing on SHOWING rather than TELLING things. We spent a lot of time working on imagery and sensory details. They are all written in free verse and were taught about meter and rhyme. For most of the poems, the students chose not to use rhyme or meter.

Where I’m From

I’m from a trash can
Where is isn’t safe
Where the ghetto and the poor
Mostly live, every 30 minutes
I hear the ambulance

I am from a trash can
Where it’s hard to get an
Education but easy to get
A job. This is what I think of
A trashcan

Where I’m From

I come from where it is cold, warm
And hot. From sunny to cloudy to misty
I come from a place where people
Struggle to make ends meet. Where
People live in the street because they have
Lost their homes. Where the innocent die
In blood and the evil walk around
The cruel streets. I come from where
People have sickness that can’t be
Cured. I come from where
People think that war and violence
Is the answer to peaceful world. I
Come from where people think drugs
Are the answer to escape the world
I come from a world of evil.

Where I’m From

I’m from colored people
And Spanish people
Where the illegal scent of weed fills
The air.
Where the f-word
And the n-word are

Used as forms of communication
Was born, where
Grafitti ruins the
Space of abandoned

Where people get shot
For no damn reason
Where the spicy flavor of
Fried chicken is so
Damn good. Where
The occupation of drug dealer is not
A job. Where the
Mayor’s million trees
Program is not working
Where the sanitation department’s
Workers spend
More than half an hour
Cleaning up one part of
The street. Where the
White new Yankee Stadium

Stands. Where
The two, five, six all
Crash through. Where
The Bronx bombers
Won 27 World Series
I’m from the south, south

Where I’m From

I’m from one of the
Five boroughs in New York City,
The city that never sleeps
You can make it here you
Can make it anywhere

I’m from brown brick buildings
With a green apartment door
6 different blocks and
96 buildings

I’m from a wash ‘n’ set
Every two weeks, a hot
Dryer, drying my hair
From being clean, nice
And healthy, rollers in
My hair and my hair
Dropping nice and silky
From hard work on my hair

A well loving educational family
Loves to party, nurture, and shop
To give and take, I love
Them so much.

Where I’m From

I come from the nicest to the rudest
From the loudest to the quiet
I’m from the Bronx
Where people do what they
Feel like without nobody telling
Them what to say or do

I’m just an ordinary girl that
Has dreams and goals but with
People screaming at me ‘yo shut up.’
Or ‘you useless girl do anything
Just get away from me.’ Or you
See men beating women or their
Kids. But this is the Bronx. Like
It or not. Does not matter you have
To deal with it.

Where I come From

I come from hip-hop that pounds
Against my ear drums
And pop that is music to
My ears with a melody of Gaga

I come from love when my friends
And family actually care about
Me, and HATE when I feel
Like killing but I wouldn’t do

I come from my freckled face
Mom with hugs and kisses and
From my quiet dad with nothing
To say to me

I come from the dark Bronx
Where I’m scared to go out at

Where I'm From

I’m from a trash can
Where is isn’t safe
Where the ghetto and the poor
Mostly live, every 30 minutes
I hear the ambulance

I am from a trash can
Where it’s hard to get an
Education but easy to get
A job. This is what I think of
A trashcan

Where I’m From

I come from where it is cold, warm
And hot. From sunny to cloudy to misty
I come from a place where people
Struggle to make ends meet. Where
People live in the street because they have
Lost their homes. Where the innocent die
In blood and the evil walk around
The cruel streets. I come from where
People have sickness that can’t be
Cured. I come from where
People think that war and violence
Is the answer to peaceful world. I
Come from where people think drugs
Are the answer to escape the world
I come from a world of evil.

I’m from the loudness
Coming out of homes and cars
My parents make me crazy from clam
They make me scream and tear.

I’m the caramel color of my skin
From the names I got that represents me
From the talk-a-lots
And attitudes and calmness sometimes

I’m from the spicy food
Where you need to drink water
Spice is in the food and candy
From spicy then sweet or sour

I’m from people that see things
And keep quiet
From looking at nothing to
looking at something
I’m from love to hate
Where either you’re loved or hated
From hurtful feelings or romantic feelings

I’m from people who have dreams
That come true
Or don’t work out

Where I am From

I am from Yankees games in the summertime
And playing first base and Kelly Park
I am from chocolate ice cream on a sugar cone
And the smell of fired chicken and white rice
I am from a closet overflowing with bright colored t-shirts
I am from pictures of myself on the walls
I am from girls I wish I could date
I am from a sister who makes me crazy
I am from a little brother who looks like me
But he behaves better
I am from a dad who always be in my school
And teachers who get me in trouble
I am from math tests that I get As on
And a best friend who calls teachers ‘redneck’
I am from football afterschool
- I am the best at catching
I am from hip-hop music and basketballs bouncing
I am from the coquies and bacalao
I am from leather gloves that play baseball
I am from schoolwork and essays and homework
I don’t do
I am from Xbox360 game systems
Call of Duty
I am from the Bronx and Puerto Rico and I.S. 217

I Am From

The sound of kokees
The tase of Samba Brazillian Steak
The sound of spongebob in the morning
Waking me up at 8:00 am
And being yelled, “Senaida Marie from
My grandma on weekends and “Senaida Marie
Ramirez” when I’m late to school.
I love the smell and taste of my grandmom’s
“papa con huevos” and “arroz con leche” from
My other grandmother.
I am from concrete on 174th street and
People getting mugged in the corners.
I am from a place where I’m scared to walk out at night. I am from
The spooky streets of the

Where I come From

I’m from a place where as soon as
You get off the train or bus you smell

I’m from a family, a very big family, with plenty
Of children and adults

I’m from a family where there comes a time when everyone knows automatically to be
Well that’s when my mom comes around

I’m from tall people, thick women with
Big butts and busty breast

Where I’m from

I’m from the loudest block
Where people are crowded.
I am where you see black and white and tan.
I come from people in the corner
Selling iceys and patellilos
I am from the people in the street selling drugs.

I come from a middle class family
I am a spoiled brat
I am from the loudness
And from the crazy gossip

I come from “what you looking at”
To people so judgemental
I come from a violent place
Where people fight, to get killed
or to get high

I come from a house full of
People being loud.
Nephew being annoying – all the time.
All I see is mama cooking
For the family to get us full.
I come from the sweetest family
But loudest block


Love is a connection
Which includes communication
Talking all day until my battery dies
When my phone charges I wish time flies by

Love is a chemical reaction
Test it out to see if that is your attraction
Feeling little butterflies in my stomach
Just by texting 1000 x 4

Love has memorable pieces
Which include hugs and kisses
Makes me feel different emotions
Like smiles to frowns
Because from loving you to missing you

Love includes loyalty
Which sometimes makes me feel
Like royalty

Where I'm From
I am from an older brother who
annoys me
I am from talking on the phone
I am from "she talks too much" and "she could do better."
I am from bad grades and being a
good girl
I am from my mom always coming to conferences
-yelling at me to do better.
I am from being a good friend to
people always counting on me.
I am from "you're out" "strike"
I am from grilled cheese, juicy snack wraps, salty french friends,
to the tomato sauce pizzas on days we don't want to cook.
I am from "hola", "hello" "que ases" and "hi"

Love Poem

I’ll always be beside you till the very end
Wiping your tears away, being your best friend
Love you for your warmth and sweetness
Love you for your humor , too
I love you especially just for being you
And if you cry a single tear
I promise I’ll cry too


You were always there
When I needed you
We played
We protected each other
And helped each other

We always compete
In school
Outside the yard
But the next year
You disappeared
I left elementary school
Without you


The sound of arguments at night between
My parents wasn’t the best nights of my childhood
They’re separated now and I thought it
Would be better
Know I have sobbing nights
The comfort of hot chocolate
And hugged by pillows was the best
Having to live in two separate
Listening to my iPod, traffic
Noise, trains going but I feel
As if they trying to cheer
Me up and say it’s okay
Trying to cheer me up with dance classes
Hip hop and salsa I
Was still sad.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


There is a girl in my class who is a little bit out of her mind. I’ve taught her for two years, and won't hesitate to say that she is truly nuts. She knows it, I know it, her mother knows it, and the rest of the school absolutely knows it. Her name is Alex. She is tall, pretty, and entirely erratic. The administration doesn’t reprimand or correct her for fear of her reaction, and most teachers would rather allow the outrageous things that she does slide than risk an explosive confrontation. 'Picking your battles' with her generally entails not picking any battles.

Last year she threw a full water bottle at a teacher, calling her a ‘skinny b**ch’. She mutters under her breath - long, angry rants. At her science teacher, who she really despises, she will scream repeatedly that she hates her. ‘I hate this teacher, this class is boring that’s why I hate this teacher, she so skinny, she’s a b***h, she’s just mad because her mother don’t feed her.’

For some reason, Alex likes me. This in no way makes me exempt from her tantrums. She tells me she 'hates me to my guts', she asks me to 'shut up,' she tells me to leave her alone. She breaks rules that it wouldn’t even occur to most people to break – rules I wouldn’t even think were worth breaking. She operates with complete and utter disregard for the school rules, systems, and procedures. She comes and goes from class as she pleases, she trespasses on the property of the elementary school that we share a building with, she fights with her friends and her enemies alike.

Last year, she was the cause of my worst day, which says a lot when you compare it to the many bad days that preceded it in the year. We were taking a final in the Spring. The class was unusually compliant, all sitting in silence, taking the exam seriously.

“Miss, I need help,” she said.
“What do you need, Alex?” I asked
“Sex.” She replied casually.
“Okay….how about something that I can help you with?”

She came to the front of the room and looked for a pencil in her bag. Not finding one, she stood, walked over to a small boy, and punched him in his face. The provocation for this remains unknown, but because it was SUCH a good day and everyone else was being SO good, I decided that rather than handle it in the class, as I had learned to do, I would call for security to remove her so that the students could finish the test.

As I picked up the phone, she grew enraged and began screaming at me.

“I’ll kill you, I’m gonna come to your house and kill you. I’m gonna trash your car and your boyfriend’s car and your house.” I remained calm, as these outbursts were unnerving but not entirely out of the ordinary. I told her to sit down, and she took desks and began to flip them over. She took chairs and threw them across the classroom. She took every book off of the shelves and threw them on the floor, before knoccking over the bookshelves. I called security again, and no one came. I called the principal, and the administration, and was unable to reach anyone. I went next door and got another teacher to come help, but when she came, Alex cursed at her and told her to shut up. Two other teachers came and left, trying to get her out, failing, and leaving to find security.

Alex unplugged the phone from my wall, and smashed it on the floor, taking the broken parts and hiding them around the room. She broke into my locker and began filling her pockets with my things. She flipped over the trash can onto the floor. At this point Mr. M came upstairs to my room and saw the mayhem. I stood in front of the door telling Alex to return my things to the locker before leaving the room. She pushed me out of the way and disappeared.

This was the first, and only time that I cried in school. This wasn’t really the worst thing that had happened all year, it was mainly a culmination of many many crazy, unbelievable incidents that made me feel overwhelmed and unqualified and alone. I was outraged that no one had come to help, that for 15 minutes this had been allowed to go on.

I went to her suspension hearing, and her mother’s only question to me was about how exactly her daughter had pushed me.

“You SAY my daughter pushed you…but did she shove you with her body, or did she use her hands, because there’s a big difference you know.” This question shouldn’t have surprised me. Earlier in the year a girl had cursed me out and told me she was going to slit my throat. When her mother came in, her primary concern had been whether she used the f-word, or just called me a white b****, because in the hierarchy of profanity, one is much worse than the other.

Needless to say, Alex wasn’t punished; she was suspended for 2 days. To top it off, she was placed back in my class this year. Still outrageous, she’s less destructive than she was in the past. I now teach her for 5 periods a day, and she generally shows up for no more than 2. She’s essentially illiterate, writing pages and pages of indecipherable nonsense. Some days she is highly agreeable, coming in, sitting down, taking copious notes. Other days she puts her headphones on, and curses me out if I ask her to take them off. She makes racist comments all the time, quickly laughing and apologizing, assuring me that in fact she likes white people. She cheats as though there is no rule against it, and is aghast when she continues to fail.

I dreaded having her. I complained that after the incident at the end of last year I shouldn’t have to have her. I mentioned her well-documented history of verbal and physical violence towards adults and students as a reason why she should perhaps not continue be in our school. The first month of school I avoided even going to any part of the room that she was in. But then, slowly, I overcame it. I got over how much I disliked her, and how angry I was that she was in my class. I tried to teach her.

She’s still failing and she’s still in the wrong setting. She needs a one-to-one ratio of teacher to student to keep her in check. I’m probably not making any difference in her life at all. But in some way, I’d like to think she’s taught me. By forcing me to face her every day and not get worn down or upset, she's tested and pushed me in a way that no other student has. In some small way, hopefully, the act of surviving her has helped me to grow.

Monday, March 1, 2010


People have to make themselves believe that the things that are happening to them are normal. This is a survival mechanism that allows humans, as a species, to endure; and yet it cripples us in so many ways. When something horrible happens, or is happening, how do we survive? We convince ourselves that it is normal.

We must reduce cognitive dissonance – which means we either must change what is happening or we must change what we think about what is happening. It’s amazing the tricks a mind can play on itself – the things we can convince ourselves are okay.

Women get beat up by their boyfriends or husbands, get cheated on, get disrespected. In many ways it is easier to change the way that you view that behavior than it is to change the behavior itself. And so they decide that this is normal. That this man isn’t bad, he’s reacting in a way that is understandable.

The problem is that it sticks with you – this idea of normal. You take it with you into the future, into all experiences that lie ahead of you. Once not trusting someone feels normal, you stop expecting trust. Once it feels normal to struggle, to be sad, to be lonely – you can convince yourself that anything more is extra.

I have been thinking a lot about the things that I have made myself consider normal – the things that quietly lower my expectations every day. All around me are students whose expectations are low – who believe that it is normal to not go to college, to live in poverty, to drink expired milk and to go without dinner. Talking about relationships, my students have convinced themselves that women getting beat up by their husbands, or cheated on, or left, is par for the course. They may not want marriage, because they don’t want this for themselves, but they don’t consider that there is another version of marriage.

In some ways, all of us adjust our expectations. And we must. It’s no way to go through life – always questioning why things are they way that they are, always wanting more. And yet, the people who change the world – the ones who really make a difference, are the ones who look at the way tat things are and ask why. There is an enormous strength required to ask this question – more than we give credit for. And it’s hardest when the circumstances are your own.

I can look at my students lives and ask why. Why is it that it is socially acceptable to be illiterate? Why do parents let their kids join gangs? Why are seventh graders having sex? Why, why, why? A million things that I can look at and question – but can I do the same in my own life?

It’s dangerous to accept bad things a normal. Until you ask why, you can’t fight for something better, can’t realize that you deserve something better. And yet, it’s equally as dangerous to open that Pandora’s box of want.

For me, and my friends, those I see around me, perhaps there was a time when you believed that you deserved more, and you have lowered your expectations, let go of that idea and embraced the possible. But what if, as in the case of my students, you never expected more – you’ve never even dreamed of better. How then, do you redefine normal?


There is something alive inside of them, possessing them, fighting to take over. You can see it in them, walking into school all wound up, buzzing with an energy that isn’t their own. It is as thought they have to fight against it every day – a battle between themselves and this unknown entity. This is adolescence, and when the fight is won, a human being emerges.

They enter in 6th grade, wide eyed, ready to be influenced, still looking for affirmation and affection from their teachers. Then, slowly, they are infected – perhaps by the 7th graders – with some mysterious being that creeps inside of them and consumes their energies, their thoughts, their beings.

This morning on NPR, they talked about a study that was being done to examine why teenagers act the way that they do. Perhaps there is a biological, sociological, more empirical study of the transformations that take place. But as an adult, spending two years immersed in this middle school world, this idea is the only one that seems plausible.

As seventh grade begins, they are lost – much of them disappears, the familiar, easy childlike demeanor, the trust that they wander through life with, the curiosity and excitement. They are possessed by this other being – perhaps it is hormones, or just some other type of internal struggle, but for a year I watch as they come into class filled with a nervous energy, reluctant to sit down, easily angered, defensive about everything. They struggle to have a conversation without raising their voice, and seem to genuinely have no control over themselves.

Then, slowly, at different points for them all, they make peace. They settle into themselves, and they once again resemble people. To an outsider you may not see it, but I watch as a level of calm has begun to slowly rest on my students.

For a year or two they have disappeared, causing their parents to come in perplexed, claiming that they don’t know what has happened to their child – they can’t imagine why they are acting this way, this is nothing like the son/daughter that they raised. I used to not believe them – I thought they were trying to escape responsibility – which perhaps many of them are. But I have see 6th graders turn into seventh graders, and become lost in this struggle to figure out who they are now that their body has been warped by puberty, and their friends have shot up at various speeds, and their interests have diverged and reunited. They are lost in a mess of 2 day relationships, classes that require more work, more thinking, peers that are getting into a lot of trouble, choices that they suddenly realize are theirs – not their parents’ – to make.

And then I watch seventh graders grow into eighth graders, and very slowly realize that they are still themselves, that they are not kids anymore, and that that’s okay. They discover themselves as some sort of individual, and begin to view the choices they make as a privilege rather than a burden. It is as though they have killed that beast that lurks within them.

Surely there is much more growing up to do – there will be many more struggles, many more opportunities for self-discovery and development. But this is the first, and the hardest, and as I look around my eighth grade class, I see that some of them are emerging with a sense of self that they didn’t have before.

Friday, February 5, 2010


“If someone is lazy and dumb enough to drop out of school, why should the government help them?” asks TM, an ambitious, outspoken girl in my class.

“Well…why do you think that people drop out of school?” I respond

“They just think that school is overrated – that they’re too good for it.”

“Ok….anyone else have any ideas about why people drop out of school? Think of people you know.”

Hands shoot up around the room.

“Maybe they are involved with the wrong kind of people”

“Maybe they have to take care or help out with their family.”

“They get pregnant!”

“Yes!” I reply, glad to see SOME depth in the discussion, “people don’t always have control over their circumstances. Sometimes there are things that happen with their family, or in their lives that they couldn’t help.”

“Well – if you get pregnant than that’s no reason to drop out of school. Lots of girls have babies and still don’t drop out.” TM points out

“Well how to they manage to go to school?” I ask

“They have supportive families!” TM declares, as though this is a simple thing.

“And what if they don’t? What happens if they get pregnant and they don’t have supportive families?”

“Then they shouldn’t be having sex!” she exclaims. I try not to question her logic, and point out that most of the time in our society, the people who get into this type of trouble do so because they don’t have the supervision and good examples provided by supportive families.

“No,” another girl speaks up, “they can go to school and just put their kid in the free daycare at the high school.”

“So how are they paying to support their child – paying rent and paying for food without a supportive family and if they are in school all day?”

“WIC!” seven kids scream out.

“Yea,” I say, “that’s a government program. That’s the government helping people who are poor and without options.”

We are learning about the Progressive Era. I teach them about the problems of the early 1900s, and the muckrakers who fought for reform. I tell them about Progress. We talk about what types of progress we saw in the progressive era - progress with regards to environmental regulations, Unions, child labor, political reform, and so on and so forth. But the Progress than effects their lives most is the one that they have the most trouble seeing. The most interesting points of discussion have revolved around Capitalism, and the slow steps that the United States has taken through history to provide assistance to those who are the neediest in society. The most interesting thing is how many of them are against public assistance.

My students live in the projects. MANY of their parents collect unemployment, use food stamps or WIC, and 100% of them qualify to get free, federally funded breakfast, lunch, and dinner from the school. And yet, they don’t see the logic in providing help for the poverty-striken in society. Talk about disenfranchised. These kids are told that they are middle-class!

I explain to them that it’s in the best interest for the government to help the lower-classes rise.

“In really poor communities, what are some things that are common that the government would want to prevent?”

“Crime – lots of people commit crimes. And there’s gangs and drugs more. And lots of wife beating and alcohol.”

“Okay,” I say, “And it costs a lot of money for the government to have extra police in these communities, and to build more prisons, and to have more trials and parole officers and to have to pay for unemployment. The government doesn’t want people to be really desperately poor because it hurts everyone in society.”

They seem to accept this line of reasoning.

In truth, I have always believed in government funding for social welfare programs. I have always supported the idea that not all people are brought into this world in a position of equal advantage, and because we have a society which tends to perpetuate the cycles of poverty and wealth, it is in the best interest of everyone for the government to provide assistance to those who need it.

Recently, I have found myself reconsidering my position. I have railed against the misconceptions of ‘welfare queens’ and people abusing the system. I have argued endlessly that if that does happen it is to be viewed as the exception rather than the rule. But my kids wear Jordans, and for Christmas, many of them got the new Nintendo DSi game system. They walk home with the sound of nearby gunshots ringing in their ears, and aren’t allowed to play sports or join clubs after school because it is too dangerous to be out after dark. Their parents can’t always feed them, and they talk about the lights and water going out in their building, and yet they have these material possessions that make you wonder what their priorities are.

I have dwelled on this, thinking about how my taxes pay for their things, and how I want my taxes to buy them food and to give them healthcare, but I’m not so sure I want to buy them $250 sneakers. Why is it like this? Are they taking advantage of the system?

What I’ve come to realize is two things. The first was said to me by my mom, who spoke like a mother who knows what it is to love her kids, and to want them to be happy. Roughly paraphrased, it was:

“If you make so little, that nothing is guaranteed, and the future is so uncertain that it doesn’t seem worth saving for, you don’t save. If you know that you could save your money for twenty years and still not have $100,000, and that a million things could happen to you to upset your plans, saving doesn’t feel important. And when you look at your kids, and their life is so hard, and they feel shitty because they don’t’ have the right shoes or the right clothes, you buy them what they want that will make right now better, because who the help knows what you are going to face tomorrow.”

In a more logical, less emotional interpretation, I look at the fact that the people in this community don’t know about saving. They don’t know about bank accounts, or about how much it costs to go to college. They are uneducated about the right way to save money – it is a cycle of poverty. My students have grown up in this community and they genuinely believe that they are middle class. They have seen their parents get tax returns and survive on Unemployment and welfare, and they and everyone they know has grown up feeling tough and rough and unsafe. They live day to day and don’t think of buying a house or investing in the future. No one around them does it, why would they. As a country, we give them money but don’t educate them about how to get beyond the point that they start at. With family members in jail or dying, and gangs and teen pregnancy and prostitution and desperation a very real part of the community and often, their own families, making it through the week may be as far ahead of them that they see.

I want them to learn about the way that the government deals with poverty in this country. I want them to know where they fall in society, and to grow up and be able to fight for themselves. But when they all argue against the assistance that enables their daily existence, I feel a little demoralized. I want to empower them. I want to make progress, and help them to become the type of people who can advocate for their own rights. I want them to fight for progress. But first they have to figure out what 'progress' means.