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.