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.