Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Lessons In Unexpected Places

This essay was originally published on The New York Times, Schoolbook:

In Praise of Paraprofessionals

This is an accident, and it is a problem that is easy to fix,” Ms. Javier told me when I thanked her and apologized to her on behalf of one of our students, who had left his backpack filled with his baseball equipment at the park.

We were already on the bus back to school from our field day when he remembered and tried to make a run for it. Ms. Javier slipped off the bus and headed back to the park, solving the problem in an instant by simply going the extra mile. When she met us back at the school, backpack in hand, she was smiling, as she always is.

“You know, with these kids, their possessions are a big deal. It’s not like he would just go and get another.” Ms. Javier tells me what I already know, but she is the one who really understood enough to see it as worth her time to get off the bus and go back to the park.

Ms. Javier (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, as are the names of all students in my posts) was a paraprofessional in my class this year. Four of my students’ special education classifications this year have qualified them to have a paraprofessional.

A paraprofessional, commonly abbreviated as “para,” is a teaching assistant whose primary responsibility is to one or several students whose Individualized Education Plans, or I.E.P.s, require that they have extra support.

My class this year had two paraprofessionals, one who scribed for a student and another who translated my lessons and provided support for the beginner English Language Learners (E.L.L.s) in my class.

This was my first experience having a para in my class. I was tentative about the arrangement, not fully understanding the role that would be played by these other adults in the classroom — not sure how I should change my lessons to work them into it, or how helpful they would be to my students. It turned out to be an experience that benefited both my students and me.

Ms. Javier is the para for the E.L.L. students, and from the very first day in the classroom, she dove deeply into her responsibilities. She read my lessons and previewed my worksheets, translating important words and creating glossaries for her students to keep on their desks.

She noticed students who were not assigned to her, but who she thought she could help, and took them under her wing without being asked. She stayed after school every day to help the special education coordinator in my school organize his files, and she volunteered her personal time to work at the Saturday tutoring program.

Ms. Javier had gone above and beyond each and every day for the entire year (and probably for most of her life). She seamlessly fit into the class and anticipated every need that we could have. When I would think about doing something, she would beam and show me that she had already done it.

A lot of people go the extra mile. Ms. Javier has done it selflessly, without hope for reward, and without a hidden agenda. When she is asked to take on yet another task without any form of compensation or promotion, she is eager to do so, eager to touch more kids’ lives. She truly believes in even the most difficult students. Sometimes she will be asked to work with a particularly troubled boy in another class, and when he runs down the hall in a tantrum, she is right there behind him, smiling.

“That boy has a lot of energy,” she says, where others would sigh in exhaustion and frustration. Ms. Javier keeps going back, treating the students like they are her own children.

We have all learned from her this year. My students have benefited from having such a kind, gentle, caring individual in their lives, tirelessly helping them and supporting them. The school has benefited from the many hours she has donated, and the enthusiasm with which she has committed herself to learning new things and becoming more of an asset to the school. And I have benefited from seeing someone so graceful and joyful each morning, reacting to situations with a generous outlook that I wish that I had.

“In the morning, I think about my problems for a little while, and then I put them in the drawer and start my day,” she explains, when I ask her incredulously how she maintains such an unrelentingly positive outlook. “You have to enjoy your life.”

Paraprofessionals are an underappreciated group. The way that they can affect a student and a class is not something that can be measured with any ease. Often they work with some of the more challenging kids and switch students throughout the year, adapting to new situations to meet a new set of needs.

Because of their impermanence, people often think of paraprofessionals as replaceable — one may be substituted for another from day to day. But at graduation this year, Ms. Javier sat on the stage and cried while she watched the students that she had helped get there.

“Do you think next year I will have a student like Allie?” she asked me, mourning the loss of one. To the students, she was not replaceable — and certainly not to me.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Who's to Blame? (or what?!)

I remember learning the phrase 'se me olvido' in my high school Spanish class.  It's a miracle that I remember that, and I make no guarantees that my recollection is accurate - Spanish was just one of many classes in which I barely squeaked by.

It's apt that I recall this phrase, which essentially means 'I forgot', given my propensity for forgetfulness during my adolescence.  I forgot my homework in my locker.  I forgot my sweater.  I forgot about the test.  I forgot to come to class. 

'Se me olvido', as I recall, means literally 'it was forgotten to me'.  It always struck me as funny that Spanish was a language that didn't take responsibility for losing or forgetting things.  Rather, it personified inanimate objects, and assigned the blame to them.  My homework was forgotten to me. 

I think of this often these days - not because my forgetfulness has persisted (though it has...a bit), but rather because I hear my students do the same thing so often.

I will see a child sitting idly in front of the computer, an ask them why they aren't getting started.

"It don't want to turn on." they will reply, calmly, as though there is nothing that they could do to overcome the will of this machine. 

"It don't want to work."

"It don't want to move."

They use this phrase to describe an array of scenarios, driving me to wring my hangs in frustration. 

"It doesn't have wants!  It's a computer!" I declare, and they look at me as though they couldn't possibly care less about the distinction.

In four years, they haven't stopped giving inanimate objects responsibility for their actions.  The only thing that has changed is that now and then, I find myself slipping it into my conversations too.

After all, sometimes it does seem like a computer has a mind of it's own - wants and needs that it is imposing upon us!  Sometimes it it nice to just assign blame to the object that is causing you trouble, rather than carry the heavy load of responsibility around with you.  

Trying to open a jar in my kitchen, I'll groan in frustration. 

"It doesn't want to open!" 

And then I'll grin inwardly at my error.  Just further proof that their way of looking at the world has altered my own. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Relax and Reload

I went to the doctor on the first day that school was out, in an attempt to discover the cause of my recent headaches and fatigue.  It was my first time in years going to the doctor, and I was happily surprised by the experience.  He sat with me for forty-five minutes, asking questions about my relatively benign symptoms, and seeming genuinely interested in my responses. 

I told him that I was a middle school teacher in the Bronx, and he replied “Oh, well then I’ll have to address you with extra awe and respect!”  This made me smile, because it’s always nice when someone outside of education professes to understand how challenging this job is.

Just the other day a friend had said to me causally, “Oh I really need to get into teaching so that I can have my summers off.”  This is the type of remark that slices me, making me feel at once a little embarrassed by my leisure time, and incredibly lonely in a conversation where the person who I am talking to so clearly misunderstands the nature of the work that I do. 

I want to strike back, tell her that I should get into her field so that I can have measurable success, financial compensation for my efforts, a nice, clean working environment, problems I can solve, and no one ever cursing at me or fighting me hand and foot every step that I try to take.  Or I could just say that I should get into her profession so that I don’t have to be underestimated by so many people in the world. 

After a series of questions about my lifestyle and health history, and a review of blood tests, my doctor declared me an incredibly healthy 26 year old. 

“Have you considered that perhaps it’s more mental fatigue than physical fatigue?” he asked me, and seeing my less that receptive expression, quickly finished with, “not to say that it isn’t real, but very real fatigue can be caused by mental exhaustion, and you have a pretty tough job.”

I nodded, acknowledging this, but not ready to give up on the idea of a pill that would bring me back to life in the afternoons, when my eyes have been rolling back into my head in exhaustion. 

“How many kids do you teach?”

“I teach 30 kids three subjects in a class that is half special ed, and have general ed.” I tell him, picturing the classroom and the kids in it as I speak. 

“Well that’s a lot...”

“Yea,” I say, and I am surprised to feel my voice break and my eyes well up with tears.  I blink furiously - after all, this is a relative stranger I am talking to, and there’s no reason to get so mushy!  “It is a lot.” Again my voice betrays me, and in frustration I commit myself to silence, smiling brightly at the doctor, and nodding to show my agreement, and my surrender.  Perhaps it is mental exhaustion after all. 

He advises me to see how I feel now that school is over for the summer, and refers me to an optometrist to see if my eyes are the cause of my headaches.  I agree to do this, and leave the office feeling a great sense of relief. 

I don’t know if it is the fact that he ruled out other causes, or just the fact that it was the first time I have ever had a doctor sit and talk to me for more than ten minutes.  The more I find myself thinking about it, feeling a bit embarrassed by my emotional reaction, the more I know that my relief came from the empathy that he had.

Teaching is really really really hard.  All teachers know this.  It can be wonderful, it can be rewarding, it gives you your summers off.  But it’s really really really hard.

I know that it’s hard for it to be appreciated by people on the outside.  I myself am guilty of underestimating the amount of work that it takes, the level of emotional exhaustion that accompanies it.  Every day you face new challenges, that have to approached in a new way.  You success is based on a hundred factors that are out of your control, and on the compliance of people under the age of fourteen, who are fighting daily battles of their own, and whose decision making is impaired by an over abundance of hormones and peer pressures. 

It’s hard to appreciate it for what it is.  We’ve all had teachers, and they always had that big book filled with answers, and they were older and wiser and bigger than us.  How hard could it be?  Maybe it’s not as hard for everyone - some are surely better suited to the profession than I am, so perhaps it feels more natural to them.

Teaching isn’t the only job that is hard, and it may not even be the hardest.  But it is one that leaves you threadbare, and depleted by June.  For the next two months there won’t be hard work, and there won’t be lesson plans or presentations.  But it will be another kind of work - the work of rebuilding, so that in September you have a whole self to give to your students.  For teachers, summer is not just a time to relax, it’s a chance to reload.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Changing Paradigms

This is a clip that is popular in education right now - so it wasn't a huge surprise when it was selected to kick off a fun filled day of professional development last week. 

It's worth investing five minutes of your day to watch in that it is thought provoking for anyone with any connection to education, and in fact, can probably be applied to an array of fields which haven't evolved with technological advances.

Essentially, the idea is one that anyone who has spent five minutes in a classroom has to have considered: the way that we expect kids to learn is outdated, and out of touch.  The world has changed dramatically, but the basic tenets of public education have not.  And so we still ask students to sit still, to listen, to take written exams, and to learn based on a curriculum.  Innovation has been seen as moving desks out of rows and into groups.  Compare that change with the way that internet has changed out world, and you can see how hopelessly far behind our efforts lag.

Ken Robinson goes on to talk about ADHD as a false diagnosis, one that is actually a result that we should expect when we demand that children function in a way that has become entirely unnatural.

There are a lot of takeaways from this idea, and we discussed it with enthusiasm - always excited by the potential that lies in throwing out everything and starting fresh, from scratch, in a way that is entirely reflective of the way that kids learn and absorb information in this day and age.  And then, of course, reality sets in.

Yes, kids love video games, and talking, and running around.  It is probably unnatural to demand 90 minutes of silence, or active listening.  And yet - in real life, and attention span does come in handy.  In most jobs, you have tasks that aren't fun or exciting or designed for your specific learning style.  You may not always be engaged.

The real disconnect becomes  - are we as teachers preparing kids for life after school, or should we be attempting to maximize the success of school itself, even if the learning experience doesn't resemble what their world will be like after graduation?  How open can we really make our minds - how much can we afford to throw out?

Ironically, we transitioned from this fantasizing into a discussion of the very concrete, very practical, very by-the-book, regimented new national learning standards, which are in fact what the future of teaching likely holds.

Ken Robinson does and excellent job of illustrating (literally!) major problems with education today.  But what is the solution?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Kady and Deenie

By some terrible mistake, it seems that Barnes and Noble has stopped carrying 'Deenie' by Judy Blume.  Luckily enough, it's still on their list of books that they can order, and I did so, waiting eagerly for it to come in so that I could devour it, and remember what about it was so special when I read it as a thirteen year old. 

One of my students, Kady, has scoliosis, and wrote a long paper recalling her diagnosis, and the progression of the condition in concise detail.  She listed the degrees that her spine had tilted without flinching, though it can take her ages to remember something that I have taught her.  She talked about how scary it was, and how no one really understood what it was like.  She's a very quiet girl, but she expressed herself in a loud, clear voice in this paper - one that I never heard her projecting in class.

Deenie flashed into my mind immediately, as a book that she should read.  I have long subscribed to the belief that we read in order to know that we are not alone - to recognize the feelings that we feel in characters, or to find words for the things that we couldn't say.  Being a girl in Kady's position seemed lonely and terrifying. 

She is having a surgery early in July, in the hopes that it will help her.  I don't know the details, or fully understand any of it, but I badly wanted to press this book upon her. 

Perhaps there is a reason that Barnes and Noble no longer has it in stock - maybe Kady will find it outdated and irrelevant.  But still, I felt as I gave her the book today, that I was connecting her to something important.  I hope that she finds company in the words, and even if it doesn't make it less scary, at least it may make her a little less alone.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Another Chance?

One of my students failed both of her state exams.  She has been having a difficult year - her mother has been in and out of the hospital, and she has taken on a large load at home to compensate.  She is bright, though she needs extra help in math and is behind in ELA.  She has been held over in the past.

When she came into school and found out that she had failed her test, she looked disappointed, but resigned.  She accepted it, and said that she was a little bit surprised, but that she would do what she had to do.

Then she wrote an email to her former principal, who now runs a school.  I have put the email here because it touched me to read it.

"I have been held behind and would like to know if you can help me.  I failed both of the tests.  For the ELA test i felt asleep at the time of the state tests.  I was going thru a lot that I can't manage at once, like for example my mother was in the hospital and I was so worried, and at the same time i had to be ready for the test. For the MATH I just felt like I needed more time to study and understand things, but I will go to summer school and see if i can make magic work...

Ever since I have been held over in the pass it's been messing with my future.  I have a very low self-esteem and I really give up fast, because I feel like I can't do it.  I also feel like there's no point in doing something that I know I'm going to fail at.  Thats why I was going to drop out of school and get my "GED".  I honestly don't wanna get it, I would love to graduate high school and become a successful woman , That's when Mrs. Klein told me about your new [school]l.  I would love to attend your school.  I promise I would work my behind off, I don't care if i have to stay after school I would work as hard as i could.

So please give me a chance I promise I won't let you or myself down, and if I can't attend thanks for listening."

Awards Season

This piece was originally published on The New York Times, Schoolbook blog.

My eighth graders are graduating, and I am asked to choose students who are the “best” in each subject area. There’s also an award for the “best” student over all (one boy and one girl).

When students receive their yearbooks, they flip to read the results of the ever-popular “senior superlatives” vote, which decided which of their peers would be most successful, who has the best hair, who is the best athlete, the best dancer, and more.

As I consider the categories, and try to choose just one student for each, I find myself overwhelmed by all of the awards that we don’t give.

How about an award for my student who isn’t the best or the fastest, but who always helps her peers, and is kind when they don’t understand something?

Or for the student who brightens everyone’s days with his sense of humor, and his perfect comedic timing in a tense moment?

Where do I find the award for the child who has overcome the most this year — who has been heroic in his or her personal survival?

I want an award for the student who was brave enough to stand up to her peers when someone was being teased, and for the student who finally had enough confidence to stand up for himself.

What we value is reflected in what we recognize and reward. We give out awards for attendance and for showing up on time. We give out awards for high grades. But we don’t have a reward for effort — for the student whose grades aren’t the best, but who never gives up, never stops trying and never lets you down in his or her perseverance to learn.

We’ve added an award for “most improved,” but our award system itself is what needs improvement.

Where is the award for the kid who learns to manage the anger that has handicapped her for the last five years, or the student who rises from a second-grade reading level to a fifth-grade reading level in a single year?

We award the best dancer and the best athlete, but not those students who are remarkable in ways that are harder to summarize in a sound bite.

As it has always been, the same few kids receive the awards — the standout three students who blow everyone away with their high grades and their amazing work ethic; the five loud, outgoing kids who make themselves noticed, and demand attention and credit for their talent, looks, athletic prowess.

I always look around the room and see all of the other kids for whom I know there are no votes.

How does it feel to be those kids? They know that they don’t fit into those categories. None is expecting to win one of these awards. But in middle school, if you don’t fit into a category, where do you fit in? What is your worth?

I always write excessively long yearbook messages to these students, wanting to make clear to them their value and their potential. It’s a little ridiculous, I realize, to try to squeeze these sentiments in beside the pink gel-pen hearts and emoticons with which their friends have decorated the pages. But it feels somehow important.

During the year, I have my students respond to journal prompts as class warm-ups. “What is something that makes you unique and special?” is one that always generates unexpected answers.

My middle school students never answer by writing about themselves. They list the people who they love and who care about them; they list the things they like about the way that they look — but they never look within when they consider what makes them special. “I’m special because of my mom.” It’s sweet, but it’s not really the same as taking pride in who they are.

These prizes are not malicious. The voting is supposed to be fun and exciting, giving recognition where it is due. But it’s never a surprise who wins. We are just giving voice to what each already knows about himself or herself.

If you have straight A’s, you know that you’re in contention to be successful, and if you always get picked first for a team, you’re already told each day that you’re the best athlete. Really, the awards that we give out serve only to make official what is already obvious.

It’s the kids who don’t know yet what is special and unique about them who we leave out, who we don’t take the time to label — and they are the ones who really need it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Keep My Name Out Of Your Mouth

I teach in a middle school, so there's no end to the amount of gossip and meanness and bullying that occurs.  Students are constantly upset because of what one person or another said about them online or in the cafeteria.

Of course, having been in middle school myself once, I remember the flush of anger and embarrassment that overcomes you when you hear that someone was talking about you behind your back.  Indeed, it's the same feeling that I would get today if it happened - though luckily for all of us, people tend to be more discreet after the 8th grade.

When my students hear about this happening to them, they rarely shy away from it, or shake it off.  They confront it head on.

"Yo - keep my name out your mouth!" they will charge up to the offender, and very literally instruct them on what they should stop doing.

Sometimes this doesn't work.

Sometimes there are fights.

"Why did you hit her?"

"She couldn't keep my name out her mouth!"

I find myself in awe of their ability to shamelessly confront one another, and tell them how they need to change their behavior.  It's not the 'stop talking about me', or 'stop whispering behind my back,', or, 'stop talking crap'.  It's more than that.  Don't say my name at all.

If you are so clear and literal in your desires, it's easy to imagine being distraught when someone doesn't comply.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Students Speak: Suspensions

Words from the mouths of my students, on the topic of suspensions, and dealing with misbehavior in schools:

"Like me myself, I've been through suspension 2 times, and I didn't like it.  But I did things before thinking, so take this from me - getting suspended doesn't make you look cool it makes you look dumb. While you could be in the classroom learning a thing or two, your ass is at another site, looking stupid, not learning anything at all, just wasting your time."

"A student only misbehaves when they want attention, or have some serious issues at home, or just want to be seen."

"A student may feel unloved because they don't get it at home or they are getting bullied and they have so much anger in them that it makes them want to fight."

"Teachers and principals should think twice before suspending a student - like for example see why they are behaving this way or maybe look at the situation before suspending them to see who's the real victim."

"I feel like suspension works because when I get suspended, I learn not to do stupid things any more.  When you suspended you don't learn the same as when you're in school, and your grades drop."

" Suspension changes peoples attitude and the way they respect their teacher and the school rules."

The End of KASA

My co-teacher is having a baby next week.  I couldn't be happier for her - she's already a great, dedicated mom to a bubbly 5 year old girl.  Her last day is Friday, and she's been a trooper - if it weren't for the round beach ball of a belly that she carries in front of her these days, I may not even know that she's pregnant.

Wendy has always made things look easy.  At times, she has even tricked me into believing that teaching is easy.  When we are asked to do some new task for work, I groan, and she says, 'no problem, easy.'

I've been working as her partner teacher for three years.  My last name is Klein, and hers is Santana.  We decided to call our class (804) by the name KASA - Klein and Santana Academy.  This name has the great phonetic resonance of 'casa', which means house in Spanish.  In the wild world of numbers that New York City is, we went from being class 804 at I.S. 217 on 163rd in the 12th district, to just being KASA.

As one half of KASA, I have grown up, become more professional, more competent, more level headed.  I've learned every day from this woman who is so different from me in so many ways, but who sees the world through eyes that I understand.  In a job where each day can be unpredictable and wild, and can make you feel crazy, she's the one who has reminded me that I'm sane.

I could go on all day about how wonderful Wendy is, and what a gift it has been for me to have met her, and worked so closely with her.  Suffice it to say that my excitement for her is tempered slightly by my grief over the loss of this wonderful partnership.  Friday is the last day that KASA will really exist, as next year I won't be returning to this school.  So these are the last days that I will have working with Wendy.

It's an enormous loss for me, but also one for my students.  Wendy's instincts are so strong, her insights so clear.  She looks at a struggling student and sees things that I don't.  She remembers to take a breath and speak calmly when she's enraged.  She knows when to walk away from a conflict with a child.  After three years, I've learned a lot, but I still find my eyes drifting towards her for affirmation that my lesson is strong and clear, or for guidance on how to respond to a kid who is challenging me.

I know that I can stand on my own two feet - I don't need her the way that I did at the beginning.  I've learned enough to go forward on my own - and to reduce my hysterics, I must remind myself that it's really only for a month.  School ends June 27th.

But it feels like the end of an era to have her leave - I am propelled forward into the next stage of my life prematurely (and also years later than I'd planned).  I find myself worried about teaching without her, when I know that I don't need to be.

This was a part of my life that I didn't plan on.  I titled this blog, 'prelife', because it felt like I was still waiting for my life to begin - killing time while it figured out what it was going to be.  I figured that after my two years of teaching, the next step would present itself to me, and that I could have growth and meaningful life experiences while I waited.

But life crept in.  In my time here, amidst all of the terrible hard, painful days that I wouldn't wish on anyone, there has also been friendship and love.  I met my wonderful husband here, and made several friends that I'll always have.

Next week, Wendy won't be here, and each day will feel different.  It will be fine, but it's will feel like I'm passing time, getting through a strange patch.  It won't feel real.

Together, Wendy and I created KASA, to give the kids a 'house' in the school.  And somehow, my messy desk in my dingy, stuffy classroom, cluttered with four years worth of student work, and excess copies, became a kind of home to me.  And when she leaves, an important half of that goes too.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Playing Favorites

This was originally published on The New York Times, Schoolbook:

The Student Who Made Me a Better Teacher

May 14, 2012, 5:31 p.m.

By Laura Klein

Sedina was not what you would call a star student. Her aunt and mother were both on my speed dial for three years. She talked incessantly. She was stubborn. She was at her most joyful when she was being her most obnoxious self. Even today, I find notebooks scrawled in my furious, frustrated handwriting, documenting her transgressions and her blatant disregard of my authority.

She was the first student whose name I learned. For anyone who doesn’t teach, let me tell you that the first names you learn are not the “good kids” or the teachers’ pets.

Sedina drove me crazy every day all year, and she pushed me to be better every day all year.

She was 80 pounds of confidence and attitude; very smart, and very social. She was the most natural leader whom I had ever met, at any age. She was the ruler of her class — a class that was notoriously difficult to control. I figured out early on that if I could manage Sedina, I could manage her whole class. (Like all students I write about, her name has been changed to protect her privacy.)

She could reduce a peer to tears in a matter of seconds, something that she did with a casual relish when she felt she had due cause. Kids still tell stories about her power.

One day a boy insulted her, and she spun on him, demanding that he take it back. He refused.

“Take it back right now, or I am going to make you cry in front of everyone.”

Again he refused, aware now that people were watching, and not wanting to back down publicly.

“O.K., I warned you,” she said, before proceeding to verbally dismantle him.

In seconds his head was in his backpack, hiding his tears, and she had turned cheerfully back to her math homework, having handled the problem.

Her sense of justice prevented her from feeling badly for this, and the next day she and that boy resumed their friendship as though nothing had happened.

I was her teacher for two years, and through our daily battles, we created a relationship that was somewhat interdependent. She wanted what I had to offer her — knowledge and support, attention and guidance.
Despite myself, I admired her enormously — her feistiness, her ferocity and her vibrancy.

She was beautiful and strong-willed, and from the first day I taught her I found myself expecting more of her than of the other students — demanding more. As is always the case when you find yourself so invested in a student, I also found myself consistently disappointed, personally hurt when she didn’t live up to my high expectations.

During my two years as her primary classroom teacher, I watched her grow up — compassion and kindness slowly taking the place of the callousness that had characterized so many of her actions when I first met her.
Then she went to a high school that allowed her to have an internship, and she came back to my class as an intern for a year.

All together, Sedina was in my life consistently for three years, and now, for the first time since I began teaching, she isn’t.

Perhaps all teachers have one student for whom they are teaching. Sedina was that student for me. Even now, when I am no longer her teacher, she’s still the one.

She is the one whose attention I sought to capture, whose understanding of a new concept showed me that I had taught it well.

She’s the student who would tell me that I was doing badly, who would demand that I teach it again if she didn’t get it.

She critiqued my looks, my clothing, my lessons and my life choices.

“Miss — why don’t you ever do anything with your hair? It’s just … limp, lying there like that.”

“Miss — don’t wear that again, you look terrible. No man is ever going to like you if you look like that. You look like an old lady.”

I loved her immediately.

Today Sedina is not the same girl I met four years ago. She is calm and self-possessed, confident but vulnerable. She knows who she wants to be, and works hard to be that person. She is aware both of herself, and of the world around her.

She still defends herself in inappropriate ways. She got into a fight early this year, resulting in a suspension at her new high school.

“I had to fight for my respect,” she explained to me when I showed disappointment at this turn of events. “I’m the new girl, so I have to show people that I’m someone to respect if they want to mess with me. I can’t back down.”

She reflects on life with wide eyes that neither distort nor accept the reality of the world in which she lives.
When she learned about the 50 percent graduation rate in her high school, she quickly deduced, “because all of the girls don’t know about how they get pregnant, and so they end up with babies and drop out.”

This is not the future that she plans for herself. “I want to be one of those girls who is really smart, but no one would expect her to be smart because she’s so cute and cool,” she tells me, and she delights in surprising people with a good grade.

I have tried to guide her to use her power well.

“You are so lucky to be a leader, Sedina, but you have to be responsible with that power.”

“Why? It’s not my fault if people want to follow me. That’s their problem.”

“A real leader is someone who people will follow anywhere — you can lead people to do good things, or bad things. You could make people include someone, rather than leave them out.”

Sedina is a girl for whom I have high hopes — and she has those high hopes for herself. She has everything that she needs to achieve great things, and she has a hunger for the future that I rarely see in kids I teach.

I still have wonderful kids every year, and I have kids who push me and teach me, and who help me to grow as a person and as a teacher. There are many more out there who have touched me in a million different,
important ways. But Sedina is the reason that I want to be my best.

I have had an impact on her. When she was inducted into the 10th grade National Honor Society this year, she sent me a message to thank me. We stay in touch, we go to lunch, we talk about the things going on in her life now, and her ideas about the future.

It’s a relationship that is very important to me — to see the way that she grows after leaving my class. After three years with her, my life feels a little bit smaller and emptier without her there.

Sometimes I feel bad for singling one student out as “special.” But perhaps all teachers need those students, to show you the best that teaching can be. I know that I need her, as an example of why I teach every day, no matter how hard or unrewarding it is.

She is a barometer of success — hers and my own. But perhaps more than anything, she is a reminder that kids grow up — that they transform, and that sometimes the worst-case scenario is not the one that comes true. Sometimes they become the best version of themselves, and that’s worth investing in.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Word of the Day


"I'm going over her house after school"
"You Deadass?"
"Yea, deadass, I'm going there."

"She hit her right in her face!"
"No she didn't.  I don't believe you!"
"Deadass, she just reached over and popped her!  pow pow!"

'Deadass' means 'I swear'.  It is used to emphasize how much you mean something that someone may doubt.  It means 'For Real, For Real"

"My dog ate my homework."
"yea right."
"I'm deadass, he gobbled it right up!"

After years of hearing it, until today, I didn't really even think of it as a unique form of expression.  For whatever reason, when today a student promised me that she was staying for after school tutoring, it struck me how strange the phrase was.

Student A:  "I'm staying today."
Me:  "Oh good, I'm so glad."
Student B:  "Nothing's for sure."
Student A:  "No, I'm deadass, I'm staying."
Me:  "Oh well if you're dead-a, that means you're serious."
Student A:  "Yea" (with no hint of amusement at her own way of expressing her seriousness).

Thursday, April 26, 2012


“How are your students doing with testing?” the man on the treadmill next to mine is a superintendent in Westchester.  He’s a very nice guy, and the students in his district are also in the midst of testing.

“Pretty good,” I answer, and in my mind flashes a picture of Kiara, one of my students, with her head on the desk in a puddle of tears.  “Most of them seem to feel good about it so far, but ugh, one of my girls just had a breakdown this morning during the listening portion.”

It’s my mistake.  I should have left it at, ‘pretty good’, because that is all that anyone really wants to hear.  But it’s just not the whole truth, and for some reason I felt compelled, as I often do, to present a more complete picture.

“Really?” he sounds concerned and surprised, “what happened?”

The second book of the ELA test consists of a listening portion, in which a passage is read aloud to the students twice, while they take notes.  They answer a few questions about the passage, and then are asked to write an essay about some aspect of it.

“She just put her head down, she was really exhausted I guess, and she couldn’t focus while the passage was being read, she didn’t take a single note, and just gave up.  Eventually someone told me and I was able to go to her and convince her to finish the reading comprehension part at least, but it’s a shame because she should have done pretty well.”

“Did you do any practice tests with them?” he asks this gently, not wanting to imply that I haven’t done my job, but perhaps thinking that it was something that hadn’t occurred to me. 

“Yea, we did a month of practice tests – “ I want to keep talking, to explain about Kiara, to tell him that she’s a great girl but she spent the whole night before testing in the hospital, and then came straight to school, worn out from the experience and carrying with her concern for her family member.  I want to explain that she has given up before, that she’s already planning to get a GED instead of go to high school, and that it’s hard for her to see the point in all of this.  But I don’t. 
Instead, I just shrug, and finish the conversation. “Sometimes the pressure of the actual day gets to them I guess.” 

He nods, getting it.  It’s nice when someone nods like they get it, and feels that they understand the situation.  If only they actually did.

I am the man in Avatar, who traveled into the strange world of ‘Pandora’, and saw everything through the eyes of the outsider.  He came back, and recorded his video diaries, describing what he saw.  He was fascinated, intrigued, curious.  But then, as time passed, the strangest thing happened.  He stopped being an outsider.  He became a part of their world, and when that happened, everything became a lot more complicated.  It became much harder to communicate that world to his fellow outsiders. 
When I started working in the Bronx, I was an outsider.  I grew up in a town that bore no resemblance at all to the community that I traveled to every day.  It could have been another planet that I was traveling to – or at least another country, but in truth, it was just a twenty minute drive uptown from my apartment.  I saw things that were new to me, though I had always considered myself to be fairly enlightened.  I took note of the slang and the styles and the food.  I learned about the norms in the way that families operated – different from what I was accustomed to, as well as the expectations that my students had of themselves, and the unique array of challenges that they faced.  I learned about these things, and I shared what I learned with people who had not traveled there. 

At work, everything was shocking or funny or scary.  Everything was a big deal, because I was a teacher, and I was working with kids, and things that happened to them mattered.  Everything was important because they were important.  Rarely did a day pass when I didn’t observe something worth recording, or taking note of.  The crazy things that kids would say or do – the way that they would flaunt their indifference to my authority, or tease one another; the wild ways that they would act out – flipping desks, throwing things, banging their own heads against walls – all of these were stories to be told.  I was an outsider looking in, and my language was still that of the community that I was raised in.

But, like that man in Avatar, eventually something shifted for me.  I guess it’s the simple act of caring that transformed the experience.  I cared from the first day, but I didn’t really understand.  To truly care about a person, you have to understand them.  That slow shift from finding my students amusing and charming and infuriating and lovely - to seeing them as full people, happened slowly, and without my knowledge.  One day I just realized that they weren’t strangers anymore.

When the ‘others’ become people, you feel a responsibility to them that you didn’t feel before.  The truth doesn’t change, but suddenly, there’s a need to portray it accurately, to show the whole picture.  And the more you know, the more complicated the picture is, and that makes it much harder to paint.  You want others to understand what you understand - to see the good in the story about someone doing something bad.  To have the back story that makes something crazy seem more reasonable.  You want them appreciate the breathtaking beauty of the resilience in the children, even as the stories that you tell paint them in an unattractive light.

Sometimes I think, ‘just shut up, Laura!’ because when I open my mouth to share something simple about work, I find myself blabbering on at length, while my audience’s eyes glaze over.  If I start to tell a story, I now find I have to tell the whole thing, so that no one walks away misunderstanding these precious ‘others’.  And no one really wants to sit through the whole story – it’s like hearing the family history of people that you have never, and will never meet. 

And yet, the experiences, even after four years, are big, and real, and impactful.  And it’s lonely to keep them to myself.  When friends or family ask how I am or what's new, often, the stories about my work are the answer.  To not share feels like withholding.

“Can you get brunch on Saturday?”

“No, I have to visit a student in the hospital.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry that they are sick.” 

I’ve simplified it, made it palatable.  Yet, I’m not going to that kind of hospital.  I’m visiting a student in an inpatient psychiatric treatment center.  And the back story is long and horrible, and a visit there is different than a visit to a hospital.

I know that I’m lucky to have gotten to this point – to feel like I really know my students, and to understand them.  It makes me better at my job, and it means that I get much more out of it now than I did when I first started.  But it makes me feel like a bit of an alien in my own life sometimes.  My travels have been all consuming – admittedly I care a bit too much.  I don’t let it go at the end of the day, and I don’t walk away from it all unscathed. 

It’s exhausting to convey the simplest things about my day, and the little people that I spend it with, and feel like I’m not getting through.  I feel guilty when I leave a people with a bad impression about my students.  Often people shake their head in wonder at the crazy things that I tell them, as though they are all lost causes, and there is no hope.  I want to convey the hope, but I also have to paint the sea of hopelessness that it floats on.  But often, the sea is all that people see, and I realize that I didn’t paint the hope in a bright enough color.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Books That Saved My Class

My students hate to read.

"Okay everyone, 15 minutes of independent reading!" I will announce enthusiastically.

They groan.

For 15 minutes, I encourage them, push them, remind them, and correct them.

"I need to see a book on your desk!"
"Um - there's a difference between holding a book and reading a book."
"I noticed that your book is upside-down."
"How are you reading that book if it is still closed?"
"Please sit up, and open your eyes."

It's a battle every time. I tell them to read any book that they want. I encourage them to read books from our class library, and from the school library. I remember the books that I would get lost in as a child, and they were no works of literary genius. To me, reading is the point - getting cause up in a story, connected to a character, letting it linger in your mind after it ends. This is how you become hungry for books - and that is what I have wanted for my students.

This year, I have found success. I have taken to ordering books based on their preferences, and on recommendations from others. It turns out that in their local library, it's hard to get a hold of a book, because usually there are very few copies. Luckily, my principal has budgeted to allow for books to be ordered, and my classroom library has been completely revitalized as a result.

Here, for all interested readers and frustrated teachers of urban youth, are the books that my class has fallen in love with. (I'll keep updating, these are just the ones that leap immediately to mind)

'A Child Called It' by Dave Peltzer
"Drama High" a series by L. Devine
"Emako Blue" by Brenda Woods
"The Coldest Winter Ever" by Sister Soulja
Sharon Flake - "Bang", "The Skin I'm In", "Who Am I Without Him", "Begging for Change" and "Money Hungry"
Sharon Draper - "The Battle of Jericho", "Tears of the Tiger", "Darkness Before Dawn", "November Blues", "Just Another Hero", "Double Dutch", and "Copper Sun"
"The Diary of a Wimpy Kid" Series
The "Blue Blood" Series by Melisa De La Cruz
"The Uglies" Series
"The Color Purple" by Alice Walker
"Everything Is Fine" by Ann Dee Ellis
The Bedford High Series (by Paul Bedford and others) - especially 'The Gun' for boys
"Tyrell" by Coe Booth (boys are crazy about this book)
"Monster" and "Dope Sick" by Walter Dean Myers
"Skeleton Creek" by Patrick Carman
"Thirteen Reasons Why" by Jay Asher

The books get stolen and borrowed and lost. Students from other classes show up at my door begging to borrow books, and I always say yes, though my own students protest.

Maybe they won't be able to get the books that they want in the future. Maybe they still won't remember to read each night or in the summertime. But they are all getting a taste of how wonderful a book can be - how it can transport you, and leave you breathless, dying for more. Feeling that way is a gift - one that I got when I was very young, and have never lost. Maybe I think it's so important that they understand it because once you learn that you can go to books to get this feeling, you can always find it for yourself. You don't have to rely on other people - which they often can't.

So I keep ordering books. They aren't all nice books, and they may even not be school appropriate - but they are usually raw, and real, and engaging.

Independent Reading is something to look forward to now, a time when I don't remind them to be quiet, or have to threaten them with homework or quizzes on the book. Now, 15 minutes isn't nearly long enough, and they always ask for more. I don't have to tell them why or how. They just read. And they like it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Day After The Test

This was originally published on The New York Times, Schoolbook blog.

Those who think that there is too much pressure to “teach to the test” find this time of year to be infuriating. Schools typically cease to focus on their regular curriculum and begin to prepare their students for these venerated exams.

Some schools stop all social studies and science classes, as well as gym, art and enrichment activities, so they can spend all day on test prep in Math and English. This overhaul of the curriculum is extreme, but not unique. Unfortunately, for the students, it sends a larger signal that learning for the year is just about done.

At the middle school where I teach, we prepare by taking practice tests, timing them, going over the answers and familiarizing students with scoring methods. We teach strategies — how to restate the question on short answer questions, how to organize their essays and make sure that they answer completely.

The tests are theoretically designed to measure how much students have learned in the classroom throughout the year. But the reality is that educating students on how to take a test can determine success nearly as much as learning the content.

Is this a terrible thing? Sometimes. But sometimes not. It really depends on how you answer the question: Is it valuable to learn how to take tests?

The truth is that we do use standardized tests to measure achievement — not only in middle school, but in high school, college and after. Some people “test well” and others do not. It’s not a perfect measure of achievement or knowledge, but it is the one that we use, and our students are well served when they are taught how to demonstrate their knowledge in this way.

Some of my brightest kids have terrible time management skills, and consistently find themselves having finished only half the test with only minutes remaining. Others have a habit of flying through the test, racing the clock, and giving up on all questions that seem vaguely unfamiliar. They have to be taught to take their time and to write something even if they aren’t sure.

All of them have to be taught to write down their thought processes, even when it seems painfully obvious, so that the person scoring their test can give them credit.

The reading passages are excruciatingly boring, and my students groan audibly as they read them. They get caught on challenging words, such as “folly,” the focal point of the listening section of a test several years ago. They also get stuck on passages that seem easier but are related to issues to which they have not been exposed, like farming or rural life.

As a teacher, I spend two or three weeks teaching to the test. During these weeks, I show my students scoring rubrics, we talk about how long they should spend on each question, they identify reading strategies that are most helpful. And we practice, practice and practice.

Two or three weeks out of the year doesn’t feel like much, and I don’t mind doing it, because I do know the importance of these exams. But the real problem, perhaps, is that I spend seven months teaching for the test.

In some schools, passing the state exam is a given; students don’t think about the exams because it’s not a challenge that they strive to overcome. In my school, where most kids think of grades as passing or failing, rather than nitpicking over percentages, the state exam is a hurdle to leap. It’s a goal that they understand, because everyone knows someone who has had to go to summer school or been left back because they failed one of their exams.

And so, unfortunately, I and my fellow teachers find ourselves using “The Test” to motivate them far more often than we use loftier goals that they can argue with. “You’ll need this in high school,” doesn’t pack the same punch as, “this may be on your state exam.”

My school does shut down, as all schools must, during the tests. And we do teach strategies that are specific to this test rather than to a lifetime of literacy. But that’s not our main failing, because in a system whose success is measured by those test scores, we would be foolish to do anything else.

Our failure is that we struggle to inspire them beyond the test. Every year, I think that I will overcome this, and I try to push them to achieve for reasons other than the test. And every year, after the test, when I load up my PowerPoint and write the daily objective on the board, I hear groans and shocked sounds.

“Why are we learning?!” they ask in a panic, “We finished the tests!” They look at me as though I missed the memo.

And every year we have to recommit them to learning, reestablish the reasons that they need to be in their seats for the sunny months of May and June, when they struggle to comprehend why they can’t just be outside.

“You know, no one is going to come to school after the test,” one of my strongest students informs me.

“Well, you can fail for attendance, even if you pass the test,” I counter.

“Oh. But we won’t have to be doing too much work, right? We can go on trips and stuff? What’s the point of working after the test?” Her grades are high. She is generally well above average in terms of motivation and effort, but she gives voice to the average sentiment of the students.

We always find something new to motivate them — the need to have a pristine, packed portfolio, or the final report card grades that are forwarded to their high school. And it is always something external, though it seems that the desire for knowledge, the ability to read and write on their grade level, the need to feel smart, should be what drives them.

I tell myself that they are young — that 8th graders are always motivated more by the external than the internal. But it seems like the biggest failing of the test — on top of the countless ones that we usually discuss — is that it gives kids a false barometer of success.

How sad to feel that the measure of your worth and the only reason to strive is contained in the number that you earn on that one day.

Helping Ed

Today is the first day back after spring break. The kids arrive on time (sort of), and are slightly more alert than usual. Certainly they are filled with gossip that they long to share with one another.

Unfortunately for them, it's also the day before their State Exams - the pinnacle of their year of work. I write my lesson on the board.

"Students will be able to: a. wake their brains up, b. refresh their reading comprehension skills, c. calm 'Ed' down.

We do lots of review worksheets, going over them as a class, trying to remember the vocabulary that they have learned and promptly forgotten. At the end of class, I introduce them to 'Ed' by drawing a stick figure on the board.

"This is Ed." I draw a hat, with the tag still on it, the way that they like to wear their hats. When I draw his shoes, they correct me.

"What kind of shoes are those!" they exclaim, mortified at the brandless sneakers.

"Ed is new to this country," I explain, "he's still not totally up on the fashions."

They accept this.

"Ed is FREAKING OUT. Ed has just moved here, and he has to take the state exam tomorrow! He's frazzled and teary-" I draw tears and stress lines on the board, "and he is so nervous that he can't eat! Look - he's basically a stick now!"

I tell them that Ed has questions that they must answer by writing him a letter, that I'll deliver to him tonight.

This was my approach to making sure that they have thought about tomorrow - mentally prepared for the various parts of the exam, committed to getting a bit of sleep, and eating something other than sugar for breakfast. Through teaching, perhaps they will learn.

Most of the letters were good - showed me that the kids are indeed prepared for what lies ahead this week. Some made an effort at comedy - telling Ed to just cheat if it gets too tough, and warning him not to wear anything too nice if he doesn't want to get jumped.

Tomorrow before the test, I'll read them Ed's response, hopefully something a little bit funny, and a little bit helpful.

"Thanks guys, I was going to wear my new Jordans, but now I know that flip-flops are safer!"

Monday, April 9, 2012


They call him 'Macho' - his mother, his friends, sometimes on accident, even me. It's not his name, of course, and I laughed when his mother called him it in parent teacher conferences.

"He's coming late to school every day, so he is missing a lot of work, and it's making it hard for him to pass tests."

"Ay, I know! Macho - he thinks he's a grown man! He thinks every day is a fashion show! I tell him, Macho, it's not a fashion show, just get to school, but he spends all his time in front of the mirror, changing his outfits."

To be fair, he's a good looking kid, and he does have a reputation to maintain. And calling him 'Macho' probably contributes to his sense of maturity.

My co-teacher explained it to me - 'Macho' is what they call the man of the house. He's the oldest son being raised by his mother, so he's the 'Macho'.

He's a story teller; he always answers questions with a long narrative, always bracing me for the importance of his stories.

"Yo - miss!" he always begins, "You wouldn't believe it..." of course, his timing is often off, interrupting a lesson to tell me about his walk to school, or his weekend. But you just can't help liking the kid - he has positive energy, he's respectful, and he's got a great sense of humor.

He gets respect from the guys, who don't cross him, and girls stand outside our classroom giggling and cooing at him.

"Could you please not invite your friends to class," we scold him.

"Aight, aight, I got you. I don't know why they come here anyway - I don't have time for those little girls." he reassures us, ever the respectful gentleman in class.

The other girls in class refer to those 'little girls' who fawn over boys as 'birds'.  Another boy in the class point out that everyone in the school has caught 'Macho Fever'.

"There's a bird at the door," they tease him.

"No - I don't want no pigeon" he sings the old song, making everyone laugh, and the girls at the door leave, temporarily defeated.

He gets his points across, but he's not a bully, he doesn't hurt feelings, and he knows when he reaches the line. He's not a grown man yet, but you can see the type of person he will grow up to be. And for now, he's just 'Macho'.

Sunday, April 8, 2012



When you get upset. When you feel too much. When you go too hard. You've OD'd. Yes, that's right, 'O.D.' = overdose, and in the Bronx vernacular, OD does not only refer to excessive consumption.

"Yo - miss - that's O.D." is what they say when I assign a lot of homework
"Woah. She O.D.'d," they muse when I get angry and yell at a student

If students teasing each other cross an unspoken line and make one another upset, their actions are summed up. They O.D.'d.

O.D. can be good too, if I make them brownies, they tell me that they are 'OD good'. If they have a crush on someone, they tease them about liking them O.D.. If they get a good grade they are O.D. happy, and for a vacation, they can be O.D. happy. It's the word that gives oomph to all of their moments.

Here's hoping that everyone O.D.s a little today - in a good way.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Lessons From History

Today we went to the Jewish Heritage Museum. We have been learning about the Holocaust in Social Studies - a subject which is always challenging for me to teach. Expectations can really make a fool of you, and it seems that every year I am so invested in the success of this unit that I find myself deeply let down by their reactions to it. This year I was determined not to be derailed by their insensitivity - it was my job to break down their preconceptions.

Always I have to start by explaining what it is to be Jewish. Eager to please, they shout out what they already think they know.

"You can tell if someone is Jewish just by looking at them. Right? They all have those long beards and the funny caps."
"No, you can tell from their noses!"

I used to find myself intimidated and upset when they would throw out stereotypes about Jewish people. They would say Anti-Semetic things casually, and I took it seriously and felt offended in my first years. Now I know that they are speaking from ignorance, and they are not truly Anti-semetic - they don't have the slightest clue what it means to be Jewish, they are just trying to get a laugh. These jokes make people laugh in the same way that their gay jokes make their friends laugh - the comments are less rooted in real feelings of hatred than in deep desire for approval.

After these stereotypes have been addressed, we get to slightly more serious questions.

"What is Jewish?"
"What's a synogogue?"
"What do they celebrate?"

This is a great segway into the Holocaust, because I find it important to first drive home the fact that the Jewish people in Europe were not newcomers - rather they had been living their lives and practicing their religion there for a great many years. We talk about the culture, and at the end, I feel glad that they seem to have a more respectful understanding of the Holocaust.

Then, I begin to take them through the Holocaust. They are absolutely mystified by Hitler - why did he promote the Aryan race if he wasn't blonde. Did he hate himself? Why did he hate himself so much? This is where they ask the most questions - who was this man? Why did he believe what he did? How did he come to power?

I am surprised by their focus on this part of the story - but then I remind myself that they are hearing it all for the first time. They aren't blinded by the atrocities - so they can focus on the causes. They can ask why it happened, without yet committing to 'never again'.

They are also familiar with racism - they understand the idea of 'other' and the feeling of being stereotyped. They have faced prejudice in their daily lives, and perhaps that makes them even more concerned with understanding where it all came from.

I use pictures and videos to show the way that Jewish people were removed from society, forced to wear a Star of David, and carry identification papers. We talk about the different ways that they were humiliated. In this unit, aside from learning the key vocabulary words, they don't take many notes - they don't have to. These are the stories that children can remember.

They always giggle inappropriately at the emaciated bodies. They always react with their typical swagger when told about what was done to people.

"Yo - no way. I'd knock that guy out."

Where once this type of talk defeated me, now I find myself willing to wait it out, and provide rebuttal.

"You aren't there alone, your family is there - their lives are at stake as well. And you have no weapons, no strength. And you don't know what will happen - more than anything else you have hope - so you always believe that if you can make it through a little while longer you may get out alive. To fight may mean to give up on that hope." We do talk of the resistance, and look at those who helped the Jewish people, but to me it is mainly important that they understand that it wasn't cowardice or weakness that kept them from fighting.

There are so many lessons that they can learn from this unit - repect, empathy, compassion. I was surprised this year that they focused on the statistic that I gave them - that 85% of the people in Europe were bystanders - only 15% were victims or perpetrators. They latched onto this, and it led to conversations that were, of course, highly relevant to middle schoolers.

We are in a school where bullying occurs, and everyone thinks that they are innocent - but no one is really innocent, no one is exempt. Once you know that it is happening, and you choose to do nothing, that makes you one of those bystanders. What culpability does bystander have?

The discussion led us to all of the things that people should have done - and of course, back to our own school, where it's easier every day to do nothing.

There are big enormous truths and lessons to be learned when we study history. There are promises that are made to keep history from repeating itself. But the way that the students truly connect and remember something that they have been taught, is by taking it to the micro-level. What does the holocaust say about bullying? And what percentage do we want to be a part of?

Sunday, April 1, 2012


For those of you who are not on the cutting edge of fashion, allow me to be your guide. It's called SWAG, and while it's not attractive, it's certainly hot right now.

Within the last couple of weeks, my school has been given a make-over, with students appearing in full SWAG gear at school.

The SWAG Staples are as follows:
1. Denim - lots of denim. Preferably a jacket and jeans, or perhaps a denim vest.
2. Patches and Buttons - your denim is not complete without a full array of decorative...well....swag. The patches and buttons that you put on your denim should be reflective of your personality, but definitely don't need to. No points are lost for a pretty patch that you can't really explain
3. Thick frame glasses. I think that a prerequisite for this is that you don;'t actually need glasses. The ones you wear should have thick plastic frames and big lenses, so that your face fades to the background behind them.
4. Bow Ties - big and goofy, almost clownish, these are on every girl's neck.

SWAG is apparently competitive, with gangs being created around New York that are based on SWAG, and lots of conflict between SWAG gangs. I suppose that like many trends, this provides opportunity for self expression. But the uniform of individuality that is conquering my school means that I am teaching to a sea of clowns, whose features are distorted behind thick plastic lenses. Maybe that's a part of the plan - who in middle school really wants to be seen?

Friday, March 30, 2012

Acting Thirsty

My old students are growing up, and come back to visit me after school. As was the case when they were here, they all continue to mature at varying paces. Some remain impassive to boys, while others are crazed by them. A conversation I had the other day made me laugh, and begin thinking about things that make me act thirsty.

"Are you still close with her?"
"Yea, I guess so. When she’s around boys she always acts so thirsty though."

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Phrase of the Day

Catch a Feeling

I love the slang in the Bronx - my students always say things that so perfectly convey a feeling or an idea by combining words that I never considered. Today, I talked to one of them:

"How’s Joy?"
"She’s good – she has a boyfriend but she won’t let me meet him."
"Why not?"
"I don’t know. I guess she’s afraid that he’ll catch a feeling for me."

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Book IS the Truth

I took my class to see Hunger Games on Tuesday. They had read the book, and a discussion ensued about whether or not the casting had been what they would have chosen. Of course, for myself and them, there were a few characters that looked different in their mind than they did on the screen.

"Yea, but books be lyin' sometimes!" Kiara lamented

"No, Kiara," Natalie laughed at her friend, "The book is the Truth."

"Kiara looked at her for a moment, and then shrugged this revelation off as if it was nothing, while I got out my markers to make a poster featuring Natalie's words of wisdom.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Magic Bullet?

Theories about what works in teaching evolve constantly. Class size, group work, technology – every year there is a new idea about what works, and teachers change their practices to conform to the newest trends. After a while, you become as jaded as any consumer – there’s always a new technique being pushed, and it’s not entirely clear why it is supposed to be so much better than what you bought last year.

They told you to put your desks in rows, but the next year you are failing the students if their desks aren’t clumped in groups. One day, all members of those groups should be homogenous, based on reading levels, and the next, you are doing them a disservice if they aren’t allowed the chance to work with peers on all different levels.

None of these theories are wrong or right - I don’t mean to discredit the research or thought behind them. However, in education, it’s nearly impossible to find a magic bullet theory. Some kids work well in groups, and some don’t. Some kids learn well using technology, and others need a human to explain it to them in ten different ways before they grasp something. Some students thrive in a big class, and others get lost, desiring more attention from teachers, and fewer distractions.

Most ideas have come and gone. In the four short years that I have spent in the classroom I have been exposed to more than I can count. But there’s one theory that has come to be accepted as a truth: teacher quality matters.

In fact, it’s the thing that matters most. Teacher quality is the number one predictor of student success. We know this, and yet we take it for granted.

In New York, as in many other places, the teacher pay scale is antiquated and ineffective. Our pay structure does nothing to recruit, retain, or recognize high quality teachers. Rather, it values two things – graduate school credits and longevity, neither of which have been established as necessary factors in predicting teacher quality.

Those who would be great teachers would probably be great at any number of professions. Why should they teach? Not only do they have no prospect of making any substantial amount of money until the tail end of their careers, but they also have no promise of professional recognition. In teaching today, you aren’t recognized for being successful – there are no titles to strive for, no bonuses, no raises. You aren’t given more responsibility as you prove that you can handle it.

As it exists, the pay scale perpetuates the status quo – which today means that highly qualified young people aren’t considering teaching as a professional option, and those who do enter it have no financial incentive to stay.

We say that we care about education – yet no one is ready to actually invest in it. We say that teachers are valuable, but their paychecks don’t reflect that. Society seems to assume that those who choose teaching are receiving intrinsic rewards – that they are replying to a higher calling of sorts. But why should we have to choose between doing something good for the world that we live in and being paid as though we were valued?

Now is the time to change the way that teachers are compensated for their work. We know that a successful education system is an important part of any country, and we know that effective teachers are the most important part of the equation. Students achieve more when they have good teachers – not investing in teachers is the same as not investing in the students they serve.

A reformed pay scale can attract great talent to the profession, recognize achievements and successes, and provide incentive to continue improving practices.
A reformed pay scale can elevate the profession of teaching, and by extension, the level of student achievement happening in New York City.

Changing the pay scale isn’t a new theory about classroom practice – but it just may be the magic bullet towards professionalizing teaching.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Better to Go Away

“ACS took Damien this weekend.” My co-teacher told me this yesterday morning. ACS is the Administration for Child Services, and they are responsible for making sure that children are provided for in their homes. ACS is the organization that is responsible for removing children from homes that are deemed unfit, and placed into the foster care system.

Damien is an adorable boy, with big, bright eyes and tight poodle curls covering his head. He has a wide smile, and an innocent nature. He is fascinated by Alex Rodriguez, covering his desk with pictures of him, memorizing and reciting all of his stats.

“Don’t talk about the past, talk about the future. This year he is going to break the home-run record.” Other kids walk away frustrated, because he refuses to give in to logic. You can’t reason with him.

Damien has a sweet, childish voice, that lilts playfully no matter what he is saying. He tilts his head to the side, and widens his enormous brown eyes when he asks you a question. He is one of the lowest level kids in my class, and seems to have developmental issues of some sort – he struggles to grasp concepts, and, once he has been taught something, rarely retains the information for more than a couple of hours. He reads books that have drawings with veracity, but if I give him a book with just words, he’ll hold it upside down and study it seriously, looking at me with mock seriousness when I correct him, before his face explodes into a mischievous grin.

He likes to talk. He writes love poems about talking, and about A-Rod, and is unapologetic about his devotion to both. He’ll linger after class, talking, even when he has no audience, until someone’s patience reaches its end and he is sent away.

Damien has an attendance problem – only showing up at school three times a week – if that. He gets behind, but doesn’t stress about it. His parent is impossible to get a hold of, and no one has ever been in to meet us, or pick up a report card, or respond to a concerned phone call.

Apparently, he was taken out of his home due to the fact that his attendance at school was spotty, and his elementary school age sister had missed the entire school year. Obviously, these things happen. Kids are removed from homes, one day things are normal, and the next they are not. The only predictable thing about life in this community seems to be its unpredictability.

As a teacher, there is nothing that you can do, or expected to do about a situation like this. I am not even in a position to judge whether it is a good or a bad thing, not knowing the full story of what went on in his home. As a rule, it seems that being taken from their family is something that kids don’t recover well from. But I’ve also seen kids who are victims of traumatic abuse, who are tortured by their guilt of wanting to stay away from that parent who hurt them, but who they still love. The truth hurts those kids – the truth that sometimes it is better to be taken away than to stay.

I feel sad that Damien is gone – sad that he may not return to our school, and that we may never know what becomes of him. But it’s a part of the job, I suppose, that some kids are lost mid year, and all of them are lost at the end. What this really brings up, for me, is the reality of how temporarily these kids are in our lives, and we in theirs. For a year, they are the whole world – you think of them despite yourself, at home, in your dreams and nightmares, on the weekends. And then like a flash they are gone, as they are supposed to be. Growing up. And although it hurt s sometimes, the loss of a kid you invested yourself in fully, it’s the way that it is supposed to be. It’s better for them to grow up, and go away, than to stay.

Monday, March 19, 2012


Students walk into the room, shouting, laughing, cursing, shoving one another. ‘Play fighting’ is very popular, especially after lunch. From the moment that they enter the room, they are energized, buzzing with gossip and stories and things that they are dying to say out loud –and so they do. Then they remember that they are in school, and glance slyly towards the front of the room, to see if the teacher is also talking, or if there is something that they are supposed to be doing. If what they are supposed to be doing is not apparent in that ten second glance, they relax, and return to their conversations.

There are a lot of moments of realization in teaching. There’s the day that you learn that the students need to be DOING something at all times – just listening to you talk is not enough. There’s the time when you see how awesome it is to teach a class of kids that are actually engaged in what you are teaching them, dying to participate, on the edge of their seats. Then you eventually realize that they need to really be invested in their goals, or else they are fine when you tell them that they will get a zero. There’s the day – a long way in – when you realize that they hear you better when you talk than when you yell. There is the time that you understand how to make sure that the lesson is manageable for kids at all levels, when you master the art of differentiating your lessons. It takes a lot of days to learn how to be good, but it takes about one day as a teacher to realize that you have to have a plan, and that it has to be good.

You learn when your class is wildly out of control, and other teachers walk by scornfully. You learn when you try to lead them down the hall in a straight line, and half of them run off of it. You learn when they curse at you, and challenge you, and push you to make good on your threats – and you can’t. You learn when after forty minutes, your room looks like a battle zone, your voice is hoarse, and your appearance disheveled. You learn, despite yourself, to be good at your job.
It’s hard to keep up with what research is trendy right now in education. Every year there is a hot buzz word, and every year there is a new philosophy that gets carved in stone, right over the old one, so that modern education becomes an illegible cave drawing.

One year we are told we need to make information more accessible, by creating crutches for the students. The next year, we are told we have taken it too far, and the students have forgotten about independence – we have to take the crutches away. Some years we think kids learnt o read by reading books on their own level, and other years that’s simply not rigorous enough, and we must focus on teaching them to cope with ‘complex texts’. The research changes, the methods, the philosophy, and certainly the vocabulary. They morph over the summer, so that you have to learn new words to describe the same old stuff each year, until it all loses meaning.

The truth, however, is that no matter what words we use to describe out jobs, no matter what research we cling to in a moment – it will change by the end of the year. What won’t change, however, is the reality that it is miserable to teach a class where kids aren’t learning. There is no worse feeling than grading a pile of tests in which everyone has failed. There is no way to feel more pathetic than to not be able to control a bunch of thirteen year olds. There is nothing that tears you apart than a year spent futilely forcing knowledge onto resistant bodies, without ever figuring out how to open them up to it.

We learn to teach because it makes our lives better to be good at our jobs. When I first entered the work force, I lamented that after college – you don’t get grades and feedback very regularly, so you don’t always know how you are doing.
Well, I suppose I ended up in the right field, because in teaching you always know how you are doing – every second of every day. If you are unpopular, you are told. If you are boring, it is screamed at you, both verbally, and through the actions of your unrestricted students. I even know if I am gaining weight, or looking tired, because my students don’t censor themselves – they don’t feel that they owe me anything. They don’t lie to make me feel better.

The new teacher evaluations, and the data reports – those do a lot to our esteem, but they don’t change the truth – they don’t even really reflect it most of the time. They can make the humiliation that we may feel in front of a room of kids, something bigger, that we have to feel in front of our peers and families. But they can’t let us know how we are doing any more than the audience we speak to each day. They, in the end, are the expert judges that we plead our case in front of daily.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Guerrilla Education

Teaching in my classroom is like guerrilla warfare. There are no straight lines or consistent methods that work. Our kids come to us each day with a pile of challenges, anger, and resistance that we spend the day breaking down, trying to pound knowledge and enthusiasm and excitement into their heads.

When I talk to other teachers, who teach in different districts, with different demographics, I am struck mainly by the routine of their days. They see their students for one or two periods, they teach a lesson, assign homework, grade, plan, assist, and repeat. My days bear no resemblance to theirs. My routines can hardly be called a routine, my goals are markedly different, and my results cannot be compared fairly to theirs. In many ways it’s hard to believe that we have the same job – but we do.

I think of it as ‘guerrilla education’ when I teach about guerrilla warfare – win at any cost, break the rules, take them by surprise, take the back route. My classroom is filled with kids from 8:20 in the morning until 5:30 in the evening. My students stay in my room from the time they get there in the morning, until the time that they leave at night. Many of them skip lunch and gym and drama to stay in the safety of our room.

My students also miss school a lot – most of them are out for at least one day a week, and it’s not uncommon for them to disappear for a week or a month at a time. They miss class for a variety of reasons – health – their own or their families, or a lack of supervision at home that means that attendance is up to them, Sometimes they will miss a month or two to travel out of the country to visit family. And, at least one time a year, one or two students will stop coming to school because they ‘fear for their safety’. They return, and in the style of guerrilla education, we pour what they have missed down their throats, into their ears, cramming information into any space that we can find.

My student's education is necessarily different from their peers in other demographics. In my classroom of 32 students, I have thirteen who have IEPs – which means that they are classified as special education. They are special education largely due to their classification as ‘socially and emotionally disturbed’. Eight of my students are ELLs – English Language Learners. The remaining students are general education. In my class, there are two students who read on a seventh grade level. 22 students read at below a fifth grade level. My students, even if none of their challenges have been classified, come to school from homes that are not usually stable or secure. Based on my knowledge of there home lives, exactly three of my students come from a typically 'stable' environment.

You don’t teach lessons in the same way that I was taught. You can’t have a book that everyone can read, you can’t teach something only once and expect kids to get it, you can’t assume that they are getting help at home, or that they comprehend the cultural differences in the stories that I ask them to understand. You have to plan for 15 subgroups in a single period – using graphic organizers for some, and having special aids who work with others. You have to carefully choose your content and your words so that you don’t lose them. You have to be prepared every day to diffuse and deescalate conflict when it enters your classroom.

My students need support and stability, and many need counseling and structured intervention plans to help them deal with the challenges of their daily life outside of school. For my students, education is an afterthought. I spend my time as much convincing them that it is important to learn as I do actually teaching them, and my messages are rarely reinforced outside of the building.

I write this not to emphasize the severity of poverty – though of course, I hope that that is understood. I write not to tell how hard my job is, though most days I can’t imagine how it could be harder. Rather, I write it because education is different when your students come from poverty – there’s no way around it. I hear people talk about the ‘working poor’, and about the reasons why schools in high poverty areas fail, and I am struck by how hesitant they are to tell the truth. I love my students, and I admire their families for the struggle that they undertake daily. However, it would be sugarcoating things to say that they didn’t come to parent conferences because they were busy working four jobs. It would be dishonest to say that most of them are responsible and invested in their children’s future success, but don’t have the means to help them.

The truth is that those parents do exist, but that is not the story that I see each day. I see parents who are not equipped for parenthood. I see the impact of poor education on generations of people. The story about parents who work too hard to show up is the story of first generation poverty, it’s the story of the struggle to get out of poverty. That’s a beautiful story, and it’s politically correct and very liberal to tell it, but it’s simply not the whole truth. Most of my student’s families are not struggling for something better, they are fighting to prevent something worse – and there’s a difference.

The difference is in the fact that they come to school to make sure that their kids are staying out of trouble – because they do love their children. Parents don’t want their girls pregnant or their boys in gangs. They don’t want their kids cutting school or getting in fights. They don’t want things to get worse. But getting better? That’s out of their reach – or so it seems to people who have been in poverty for several generations, whose parents and grandparents grew up in the same conditions that they knew.

Teaching in a school like this is hard because it’s easy to feel hopeless. Each year I see my students grow. I see them feel pride in what they have learned. I pound my messages of determination or possibility, and their own potential into their heads, and by the end of the year, they believe it. But it’s just 8th grade. At the end of the year, they leave, and have four more years to survive without losing those feelings, without getting distracted.

Education is different in these schools because there is no end to the amount that my students need from me, and my co teacher – no time of day when it feels like you can stop, and they will get it, or will have enough. When a child enters your 8th grade class at a 3rd grade level, there is no moment when you can say ‘that’s enough’, because they are five years behind and how will they ever compete? How will they ever catch up?

People want to talk about improving education. They want to talk about the things that will make it better and more equal – and it’s not funding, and it’s not teachers, and it’s not standards or curriculum. It’s so much more complicated than anyone can see – than even I can see. It’s a cycle of poverty – it’s the legacy of injustice and institutionalized racism that has made our country the way that it is.

Yes, you need great teachers who don’t give up, who work harder than they have to, who are dedicated to their students. But most teachers are like that. Yes, you need more money, to attract those great teachers, to retain them, to supply the schools with the books and technology that gives them the potential to be competitive. But you also need a cultural shift – in and out of schools. You need to think beyond the parameters of success and schools that we have today.

It’s not the truth that everyone is trying their hardest all the time. It’s not the truth that all parents are good parents. It’s not the truth that everyone is struggling to get out of poverty.

But it’s our fault.

It’s the fault of the education system that didn’t teach about birth control or sex to the middle schoolers who were having sex, who were getting pregnant. It’s the fault of the healthcare system that provides no adequate preventative care for families, meaning that too many of my students spend their weekends in the hospital, or at funerals. It’s the drugs that are all over the streets, the gangs that they join to feel safe, the parents who are in over their heads. It’s the fault of the teachers who lower their standards and of the people who cut funding for head start programs, and the internet that teaches them to speak in emoticons rather than in sentences.

It’s so many people’s fault, and no one’s fault, and the solutions feel so impossible. How do you solve a problem that has so many causes? How do you fix a system that is so thoroughly broken.

Guerrilla education works for a year – we make do with what we have, do our best to make it work, to overcome the obstacles. But it isn’t a solution. It doesn’t eliminate any of their obstacles.

I am in an education reform group which designs policy recommendations, and they could recommend a way to improve all part of education, because everything – evaluations, pay scale, curriculum, unions, principals, high school processes, regents – it’s all imperfect. It’s a system that fails 50% of the kids who are a part of it, and it’s a system that people talk a lot about changing, but never really do. I get it – change feels impossible from where I sit. And yet, if we don’t change, the victims of our inaction are the ones who sit in my classroom each and every day, all day. And they become the next generation that will struggle to avoid the bad, rather than reaching for the good.