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.