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?