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.