19 May 2010

Super Heroes to the Rescue

He calls me his superhero. I feel like I've failed him. Why is there this disconnect?

To Daniel, I might be one of the few teachers who has talked to him frankly about his learning gaps and said directly that we would work together to fill in those gaps. We followed a model presented to me last year through BAYCES' Impact 2012 initiative. In this model teachers select a group of students who fall outside of the "sphere of success." These students are called "Focal Students." Daniel was my first pick focal student because I rarely understood what he said in class because he covered up his English language skills with jokes and laughter. I also chose him because his older sister had been the previous year's Valedictorian. The gap between what she had accomplished and what he was lacking was astronomical to me.

After diagnosing his learning gaps through the Qualitative Reading Inventory (QRI), I discovered, along with the help of some BAYCES coaching, that Daniel was at a second grade reading level and his primary struggle was decoding. More specifically, Daniel didn't know all of the ways an English vowel could be pronounced, far more than the variations available to him in his native Spanish.

For the last few months, I spent 20-40 minutes a week working with David on his short and long vowels. He amazed me with his speed. Through a sorting activity he easily identified patterns. For example, ai makes the long 'a' sound but so does ay. If a week had gone by between one session and the next, he would impress me with his ability to retain and build on the patterns he had learned before. We quickly moved on to the long 'o' and the short 'o'. He gained confidence when we were together one on one.

When I retested Daniel at the end of the school year, he'd moved three grade levels to a fifth grade reader! This is fantastic news for Daniel. He is proud of his growth and so am I. On average, with no intervention, students increase one reading grade level per year. Anything more than one grade level is considered an accelerated pace, which is essential for students who are behind. Together we had accelerated his learning!

He calls me his superhero. In a focal student panel with the rest of the staff, he announced that I "saved his life." This gratitude and enthusiasm bolsters me up and makes me happy, but simultaneously saddens me.

Daniel now reads at a fifth grade level. He is about to be a tenth grader. He is still five grade levels behind. In order to close the gap between where he is now and where he will need to be to graduate, Daniel needs a lot more intervention and soon. If I follow the model I started two years ago, I will be able to impact students like Daniel for a few months at a time, give them a taste of acceleration before passing them off to the next grade, but then what? If no further intervention happens, the best case scenario is that Daniel and students like Daniel will reach an eighth grade reading level by the twelfth grade. The chances of him being able to graduate are slim. His curiosity, innate intelligence, and quick retention of new information may be depleted by lack of confidence or low self-esteem.

Daniel was the first student I was able to systemically intervene with. It took me four years of teaching, lots of professional development, intense instructional coaching, and the right learning partnership with a student for it to happen. Now that I know it is possible, I feel a moral imperative to not only continue intervening with Daniel but to intervene with the next crop of Daniels who come to me next year. I said it aloud at our staff meeting last week, and I'll repeat it here: what will we (our staff, our district, our public education system) do to systemically support the work of accelerating learning for students like Daniel?

If we can answer that question, we will be real super heroes who make sustained changes in our students' lives rather than comical renditions of ourselves, swooping in to patch up an error here or there.

21 January 2010

A Failing Mentality

I am like the failing student who knows that he must make up work if he wants to pass the class, who gets constant reminders from his teachers and supporters that even half is better than no credit, but still does nothing to improve his grade. This student sees passing as an insurmountable task, one he is so far behind in that there is no point in trying.

Today, during a silly vocabulary game in my Read 180 class, the very student I am picturing in my mind right now, stopped playing once he was behind by two points. When I saw him not participating, I asked, "Why aren't you playing?" He motioned to the scores and said, "I already lost. What's the point?" In this simple question, I understood his lack of motivation. What's the point of working so hard to make up work if it will only get him to a 50% and he needs 70% to pass? He is, indeed, very smart in his conservation of energy.

But I have been conserving in a similar way. So far behind am I in updating my blog, pushing myself to articulate the daily dramas and successes of my life in an urban school, that I have become my student. I have given up. What's the point in writing? I'll never catch up, I tell myself.

The point, I might remind to tell him too, is what I learn along the way. It's in the 50% I do accomplish (or maybe just the 10). The point is the sense of pride I can feel in not letting myself down. I gave the very pep talk to a young woman this evening that I need to give myself. She saw her failing grade and almost caved to not completing the five assignments she'll need to pass. I stopped her and said, "Do not punish yourself for your mistakes by making the situation worse. Do not punish yourself. You can make a change right now." I should take my own advice, and the push from Cathlin (thank you for reading because you might be the only one), and write. To not write is to punish myself for not writing, which seems like a silly waste of time in the end.

10 October 2009

There Are Lots of Alligators

In order to review literary devices with my students we read Sandra Cisneros' short story "Eleven." It's the protagonist Rachel's eleventh birthday, but her day doesn't go as planned when the teacher makes her put on an old red sweater that isn't hers. Cisneros captures the flexibility of age, how just when we believe we've arrived at a particular age we bounce back to years before. In the story Rachel reverts to about three years old when she cries in front of her class, except she is clearly mature at the same time because she is able to recognize that she is not "acting her age."

The class always enjoys this story and it allows me to become more real to my students when I tell them that every once in a while they will catch me acting like a twelve year old. Like Rachel, I can see that I've slipped and will acknowledge that mistake. For example, I have a lovely student who is extremely outgoing and always willing to volunteer. She's the first to put her hand up and call out answers. Since I'm always trying to get more voices out in the classroom and hoping that others will share too, I sometimes have to ask her to wait (not unlike the time in college when my beloved professor silenced me by saying, "We know Sylvia has the answer, but let's hear from someone else"). My student not only puts her hand way up in the air and rises from her chair but calls out, "ooh ooh, ooh ooh" and waves her fingers at me. Well, the other day I slipped back in time and said, "I think it's funny how you always say ooh ooh, like it's gross." I said this in front of the class and thought nothing of it, until I heard her say under her breath, "That was rude." Thankfully, I recognized my mistake and later I pulled her aside and apologized. From all appearances on her part, I have been forgiven.

To anyone who thinks relationships are challenging, try maintaining 90 student-teacher relationships plus 18 colleague relationships with integrity, compassion, and love. It is no wonder I often feel like a therapist, but also need to visit one.

But back to the story of "Eleven." One of the devices I had students searching for in the short story was alliteration. Many of them struggled with the pronunciation of the word alliteration, but most of them were able to identify it, especially in Cisneros' work since her stories are simply poetry in disguise. My favorite moment of the day's class, however, was when a confident young woman said, "Ms. Barrett, there are lots of alligators in this story!"

A collective pause ensued as we all pieced together what she meant.

"Alligators? Do you mean alliteration?"

We all had a good laugh, not at the expense of the student but the play of language and the alliterating alligator, as if we were all eleven together, enjoying a children's book during story time.

23 September 2009

Immigration and the Digital Age

Some of my colleagues speak about their digital story project. The students featured just happen to be my very first group of ninth graders as juniors (they've now graduated).

September Scenes

Almost one month into the school year, and the papers have already stacked up, the steady clip of my teaching life eclipsing my personal life. Isn't about time for a few scenes from my teaching life?

1. A woman from the feds came by my room the other day to have me sign some Title I paperwork. While she took me away from my students for a few moments, they proceeded to stay focused on the task of their morning journal writing. When I'd finished signing the paper work, she said, "What a great class you have. Is this senior English?" I looked at her incredulously and said, "Ninth grade English." She couldn't believe ninth graders could be so calm and focused.

When strangers come through my classroom, usually some sort of audit or someone from another school, I always hear the same thing within just a few minutes, "What a great classroom you have," and "Your students are wonderful." I know that both of these things are true, but I also have decided over the years that such speedy impressions can only be made by comparisons. Strangers who visit my classroom have probably also visited the overcrowded and chaotic classrooms of large comprehensive high schools not too far away from where I teach.

2) Today is Wednesday and on Wednesday's we have a modified schedule. My first period ends at 9:15 instead of 9:37. Somehow in my planning, I completely forgot that today was Wednesday. I'm not sure this has happened to me since my first year of teaching five years ago. At 9:24, my students and I were still reading Richard Peck's "I Go Along," about a high school junior in a regular English class who decides to go on the field trip of the Advanced English class and realizes he's smart after all. Not a single student decided to tell me that it was well pas time to go. The next period's students waiting quietly outside my door, so quiet that it didn't tip me off. Stranger still, the other teachers didn't bother to let me know I was nearly 10 minutes past the end of first period. When I finally realized my error, my class didn't even seem upset with me.

This has got to be the most polite group of ninth graders ever! They seemed perfectly content to keep on reading with me. I think I'm in love.

3) Yesterday I visited the local middle school to see the unveiling of a mural that two current ninth graders worked on over the summer. One of these young men specifically invited me to go, and usually when a 14 year old goes out of their way to invite me, I do everything I can to be there. The mural was beautiful, and I enjoyed being the proud new teachers of these two artists. But what didn't settle too well with me was running into the younger sibling of a student I taught my first year in Oakland. Every teacher has those one or two students who will haunt them forever, and yesterday I me the sibling of mine. He was nearly as distasteful as his older brother. When I suggested he come to our high school next year (prior to knowing his family connection), he said, "My brother would said F- that." Then he proceeded to tell me, quite proudly, that his brother was now in jail, though he couldn't quite explain why. It makes me sad when the trajectory we see some students on is truly the reality. We do everything we can to interrupt the path and re-steer the student, but often we fail.

12 August 2009

Modern Ms. Barrett

It was my former roommate who first told me about Bel Kaufman's "Up the Down Staircase." I was a student teacher at Cal who always came home with stories about the state of public education in California. My roommate gave me a copy of the book, and I noticed that it seemed not too much had changed in education since the book's publication in 1965. The protagonist, Sylvia Barrett, was a young white teacher determined to make a difference in her New York City students' lives. At the time, I liked to think I was a little less naive than Ms. Barrett. Almost tongue in cheek, I named my blog after her. It was a way to journal about my life as a first-year teacher in Oakland and also a place to develop ideas for the Master's Thesis I was writing that same year.

It's been four years since the blog was born with little updating in the subsequent three years that have passed. Looking back, I see I was more like Ms. Barrett than I cared to recognize. I had good intentions, a soft heart, and white skin. And like Ms. Barrett, I thought about quitting a lot. The difference, I dare say, is that I was more aware of my white privilege than Ms. Barrett. I was less interested in teaching children Chaucer than I was about getting my students motivated to fight the system (even as they might see me as a symbol of that system).

So, despite my development as a teacher and the fact that I'll begin my fifth year in Oakland and my eighth year in teaching in two weeks, the moniker of this blog will remain the same. Hopefully in thinking of Ms. Barrett, I can remember to be kind and patient with myself as I continue to grow into my role. This year I hope to write less about the classroom struggles and more about my widening perspective on public education in general. I welcome comments and suggestions along the way because, as I always tell my students "None of us is as smart as all of us together."

03 August 2009

Why We Stay

It’s that time of year when the announcement of a Back To School Sale sends me running to change the radio or TV channel before I have to be reminded that summer is coming to a close. I don’t want to hear about the fall fashion or discounted school supplies; there are still four weeks until the new cohort of ninth graders begin high school and become the focus of my constant attention. I am a fifth year teacher, and yet I dread the idea of the school year beginning, the exhaustion I will feel after just a few weeks, the sadness that overwhelms me as I learn my students’ stories, and the frustrations I face working in an unjust system.

Why do I dread going back, but make the decision every year to do just that?
Research has shown that 25% of teachers leave the profession after the first year and double that leave by year five (Henke, Chen, & Geis, 2000; Ingersoll, 2003). It’s even worse in urban schools where the demands on teachers are usually greater as funding is lower, students are less prepared, and politics can distract a teacher from their primary goal – teaching students. In this context, urban teachers are 50% more likely to quit teaching (Ingersoll, 2003). I’m reminded of the reasons teachers leave every time I tell a stranger what I do for a living. I say, “I’m a high school teacher.” They say, “God bless you,” “you must have so much patience,” “it’s a noble profession,” or my favorite, “better you than me.” These well-intentioned strangers believe they are showing support for the hard work I do or somehow extending empathy. Maybe they are making an indirect apology to all the teachers they disrespected during their own school days. These strangers know why teachers don’t last: the pay is low, the work is hard, there’s all those papers to grade, and on top of it, “students these days…”

There’s no need to pontificate on why teachers leave. Let’s do the reverse and consider why teachers stay. As I approach the statistically pivotal point in my career, it’s a question I ask myself and some of my former classmates from my teacher preparation program – UC Berkeley’s MUSE (Multicultural Urban Secondary English). What I see are some key factors (not all inclusive) that bring me and 56% of my teacher cohort back to the urban classroom year after year, beating the 50% national average of teachers who stay.

First, I continue teaching because I know there is nothing else I could do with my life that would be as important as this.
I teach because it’s the only way I know to truly fight an institution that systematically offers students of color and students who live in poverty less.
I teach to fight the good fight. My former classmate Mendel Chernack feels the same way about his job. Years after graduating from Berkeley High, he returned as a reading specialist. He writes, “I think that what I'm doing matters – I’m teaching students who have a desperate need to improve their literacy” (M Chernack, personal communication, July 9, 2009). What Chernack and I refer to is what has been called a “sense of mission” (Warshauer Freedman & Appleman, 2009). It’s easier to keep coming back if we believe what we do has an impact.

However, as Chernack points out, “…if I felt that I was not being successful at this task, the nobility of the goal itself would not matter. But since I do notice improvement each year, the job remains fulfilling” (M Chernack, personal communication, July 9, 2009). A sense of accomplishment is vital if teachers are going to be able to stay in the classroom. Without a doubt, this is one of the factors that keeps me in the classroom. In fact, every year I see myself improve as a teacher. I have gotten better at classroom management. I have become better at teaching writing. I understand how to scaffold assignments, and I’m beginning to learn how to differentiate for students’ abilities. On top of it, I am praised by the administration and district for test scores, which have improved every year that I have taught at my school. This is a measure of success that is less important to me personally, but because it is tied to so many sources of outside perception, it is key. My former classmate Suzy de Blois, now a teacher in San Francisco, feels similarly. She writes, “Over four years, I have seriously grown as a teacher – instructionally and emotionally. It's been exponential. And because I have a serious achievement-based personality, it feels good to see positive results. I feel good about what I do: my students are learning and are able to demonstrate that learning in multiple ways (including the highly-prized standardized exams), I have positive relationships with many of them and their families, and have critical friendships with colleagues who help me improve. Each year, I feel more successful” (S de Blois, personal communication, July 10, 2009).

People often claim and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) dictates that the most important factor in improving education is the quality of the teachers. I can’t deny this to be true, but teachers can only be their best when working within a supportive environment. In my own reflection and questioning of colleagues, several support structures emerged as common, albeit unusual in public education, among those of us who stay. For one, a manageable schedule will go a long way in keeping a teacher in the classroom. My first year teaching at a small school within the Oakland Unified School District, I was expected to teach two sections of ninth grade English, a twelfth grade poetry elective, and an Advisory of 18-20 mixed grade level students. Sounds pretty straightforward, but it wasn’t. The English classes were 105 minutes long every day and each section had 32 squirrelly ninth graders. Still, I couldn’t complain about that: teachers at comprehensive high schools would be grateful to have only two different classes for which to prepare. But on top of teaching English within that block I was also supposed to instruct my students in physical education. Yes, an integration of PE and English was enough to drive me to the job hunt in the spring of my first year. Thankfully for me and for the students, we made changes for the next year, and I decided to stay. We split up the English and PE sections (I still taught both, but not simultaneously), dug in to class size reduction funds for ninth grade, and built a team of ninth grade teachers. Since then, I’ve swapped out the PE for a section of Read 180 (a reading intervention class more aligned with my education). My manageable schedule allows me to feel sane about lesson planning, grading, student interventions, and ultimately the longevity of my career (at my particular small school).

De Blois cites a similar situation at her school across the Bay. “Unlike many teachers I know,” she writes, “I have never had more than two classes to prep for per year. And, for three years, I taught the same subjects, which meant I really got to dig in, have multiple chances to succeed (just like the kids!), and feel like I was getting a handle on my curriculum and practice” (S de Blois, personal communication, July 10, 2009). Chernack also credits his schedule to allowing him to continue teaching; “In my years at BHS, I've been blessed to only teach this one class (Accelerated Reading). This has allowed me to constantly revise and improve upon what I've already done. This focus has been a huge part of my growth as a teacher. Many of my colleagues teach so many different classes that they don't get to master any of them because everything is new” (M Chernack, personal communication, July 9, 2009). Talk to any teacher who has left the profession and you are bound to hear stories of unwieldy schedules, more than 150 student contacts a day, and hundreds of essays or assignments to grade every weekend. No one can sustain that and remain dedicated to their work.

Finally, it comes down to the adults that teachers have the opportunity to work with and learn from. I feel lucky to be able to say that I love my department. We look forward to meeting together in order to build our program across grade level. We challenge each other’s practice with a balance of compassion and rigor, keeping our students’ needs at the forefront of our work. Such cohesion is unusual and rather recent. It wasn’t until we participated in the Bay Area Coalition of Equitable Schools’ (BAYCES) initiative called Impact 2012 and were anchored by our instructional coach Shane Safir that we were given space within our staff meetings to meet together and do serious work on a regular basis. Because teaching can feel so isolating despite being surrounded by people (young people) all day, being a part of a professional learning community bolstered my commitment to teaching and inspired me to improve my practice.

Since she began teaching, de Blois has had a professional learning community built right into her schedule. She explains, “…we have daily Common Planning Time (CPT) and loads of opportunity to do PD, which means that I get regular chances to learn more and reflect on my practice. At first, the daily CPT meant my curriculum was way stronger than it would have been otherwise, since I was put on a grade level team with our strongest teacher at the time” (S de Blois, personal communication, July 10, 2009). Regular, systemic planning time is rare as most master schedules and budgets just don’t allow for it. In contrast to de Blois’ experience, another teacher who left the profession after three years told me about the lack of intellectuality she found within her department. She said that in order to have stayed in the classroom, “there would have to be some interface between the research and the intellectual side of how to teach well, a place for me to have those conversations with other teachers… professionals who were intellectual beings, who were excited by the art of teaching” (Anonymous, personal communication, July 14, 2009). Had she been a part of an initiative like Impact 2012 or had common planning time with her colleagues, she may have been able to stay in the classroom longer.

Beyond the department, I feel integral to the success of my whole school because it is a small school. With only fourteen teachers and five support staff, everyone’s opinion matters. Everyone can and will need to take on leadership positions. While this adds to the load I have to take on as a teacher, it also makes me feel more responsible for the outcome. My school feels like a family. I know every single student at my school and they know me. I am invested in the success and improvement of my school, just like I would be in seeing my own family thrive. As de Blois so eloquently puts it, “In many ways, we're a family, and I feel committed to showing up for them just as I expect them to show up for me” (S de Blois, personal communication, July 10, 2009).

Each year hundreds of new teachers decide not to show up again. In Oakland the problem of teacher turnover is standard. The sad truth is that I know one day I will be one of them. I may have almost beat the statistic, but how much longer beyond the five years will I stay? I know I have a better than usual situation within OUSD and within urban education. I keep coming back because I have a workload I can manage for now, colleagues who challenge and inspire me, and goals which I succeed in each year. But is this enough to beat the 50-60 hour work week, the weekly migraines, and the regular anxiety dreams my high stress job invokes? Very few teachers quit because they realize they don’t care; they quit to save themselves. If retaining good teachers is at the core of improving urban education, systemic changes that support this goal are the answer.

When I thought about leaving at the end of my first year, my colleague told me that if I stayed, the students would love me for it even though they had seemingly done everything in their power to drive me out. She was right. Our students need us to commit to them, to offer them unconditional love, and see them through to their success. Teachers are the face of this commitment, and it is my hope in a systemic commitment that keeps me optimistic, a hope that the systems that should hold us up, from the district, to the union, to the state and federal governments will eventually make the same commitment to our youth. This is why we stay.


Henke, R., Chen, X., & Geis, S. (2000). Progress through the teacher pipeline: 1992-
1993 college graduates and elementary/secondary school teaching as of 1997 (Paper No. NCES 200000152). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Ingersoll, R. (2003). Is there really a teacher shortage? A research report co-
sponsored by the Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy and the Consortium for Policy Work in Education. Document R-03-04. Seattle: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy at the University of Washington. http://depts.washington.edu/ctpmail/PDFs/Shortage-R1-09-2003.pdf

Lyon, L.G. (2009). “Beginning teacher attrition: A result of the intense workload
and resulting exhaustion” Unpublished Master’s Paper, University of California, Berkeley.

Warshauer Freedman, S. & Appleman, D. (2009). “In it for the Long Haul”: How
teacher education can contribute to teacher retention in high poverty, urban schools. Journal of Teacher Education, 60, 323-337

03 October 2006

Thank You, Bluford

Most people can admit to not finishing at least one book they were assigned in high school. For me it was Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.” My own adventures keep me alert with eyes wide open, but action and adventure movies and books bore me for some reason. The other book I dared to skip was Nathanial Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” I couldn’t stand the puritanical language. I found it hard to follow and irritating. As a junior in Honors English, I decided not to read it until one day it occurred to me that even though I could bullshit my way through the daily comprehension questions, I could not bullshit my way through the essay we were inevitably going to have to write. So, I picked the book back up. I was always good at English, but it certainly wasn’t my favorite high school class. I preferred Physics and Spanish.

And yet, it always saddens me to learn that my students have not ever enjoyed reading. Many have never finished a complete book. We’re not talking about books by dead white guys, either. The majority of my students score at about a fifth grade reading level. For many of them, this is right where they are expected to be because they’ve only been speaking English for a few years. For others, this low reading level can be attributed to myriad causes: revolving door substitutes, under-prepared teachers, a home culture that does not include bedtime literacy or early childhood education, reading disabilities, attention deficit, etc. Whatever the cause, the result is that my room is full of ninth graders who have never finished a book. Until now…

Three weeks ago I spent a portion of a lesson showing off the books I had chosen for my students. I did mini-book talks on each of the books and talked them up as if they were my best friends. I’ve learned in the last year, that I’m responsible for holding the enthusiasm for learning. If my students don’t have that enthusiasm, I overflow with it and hopefully it will be contagious. This seems to work, despite my skepticism. Included in my book talks were paperbacks from the Bluford Series. These books are written for young adults. They contain themes that appeal to teenagers, especially urban teens, but they are written at an elementary/middle school level particularly for struggling readers. I held several of the books up and I said to the class, “Some of you have never read a book. Next week, you will read one of the books in this series in just five days!” In my mind, I was hopeful that I could carry this through rather than offer them up another academic disappointment. But in my speech, there was nothing but certainty that they could, in fact, read the paperback in one school week.

Soon thereafter, students signed up for the book they most wanted to read. I organized them into small Book Groups of between three and five students. The following Monday, the collective ninth grade was reading thirteen different books from the same series. As a second year teacher, all of this felt like a big risk on my part. I’d never tried small Book Groups, and I’d never read any of the thirteen books in the series. I simply knew they were popular and had been successful elsewhere. I borrowed the idea of a Book Journal, or Dialogue Journal from a friend who is a reading specialist at a nearby school. By the end of the first class period, students were signing up to take home the book journal and write about what they had read to their small group. Their job was to return the next day with questions, comments, and ideas about what they had read and pass them off to the next person in the group. The idea is to capitalize on ninth graders’ propensity to pass notes, and turn it academic. The results were good. Each group completed their journal. There were only a few exceptions of one student in the group not participating at all. No journals were lost at home or eaten by dogs. On the last day, the group collectively had to design the cover, thinking of a symbol to characterize the book and by pulling a representative quote from the book and rewriting it on the cover. They thought it was fun, and I thought, “Yes, they are doing literary analysis without even knowing it! I’ve tricked them!”

Some days a few students hadn’t done their homework, so they were behind on the reading. But more often than not, students were reading ahead. These books were so engaging that students wouldn’t put them down. They wanted to check out the next book in the series before finishing the first. A young woman nicknamed Danielle (for the sake of this blog) swore to me she’d never read a whole book before in her life, except the care guide for her new Chihuahua. But on the night of Back to School, I saw her in the back row with her nose in a book. I met her mom later that evening who told me she’s never seen Danielle read, ever. She was beaming. So was I. Another student, Carlos, who had made it perfectly clear to me early on that he was a “bad kid” last year with multiple suspensions and horrible grades, went out of his way every day to tell me how much he loved his book. I saw him at the taco truck one lunch period and he announced to all of the kids around him, including some of my students from last year, that English was his favorite class because it was “hella fun.” By the end of the week, every group had finished their book!

Tonight as I’m finally reading the finished Book Journals and grading their final books tests (where most students are scoring at least twenty-five out of thirty points), I’m learning from them that they loved reading in small groups because it was social but also supportive. So many reported that when they got stuck, their group members could help them out. This is from the group of ninth graders who wrote into their culture that “None of us is smarter than all of us together.” That's Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development” from the mouths of babes.

In my class reading is cool! I can hardly believe I’m lucky enough to see this happen in my class. My students have the skills to become better readers. The main thing they need to do is just read, and read, and read some more. That they have found some books they like and have learned that there are even books out there worth liking will go a long long way towards them choosing to continue reading. While the Bluford Series is far from lofty literature, it is the gateway to other reading. It’s the beginning. The bridge I’m trying to build now is to Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight Los Angeles.” I’m building the bridge on our practice of poetry in the early weeks and the urban setting of the L.A. Riots. My students understand police brutality better than me. They know racism deeper than I do. They are crossing the bridge. Duc asked last week, “When are we going to start the next book? Can’t we hurry up and read?”

Find out more about the Bluford series by visiting www.townsendpress.com Teachers, schools, and even students can write to them and ask for a free sample of books. Teachers can buy books directly from their website for only $1 a book. Definitely worth the investment!

19 September 2006


Already five weeks into the school year, I’m facing the last days of the first marking period with joy and some sense of accomplishment. When I think of last year now, I can hardly believe I survived it. I don’t think I could do it again. Knowing what I know now, would make it impossible for me to tolerate the behavior I saw in my class. Maybe it is that knowledge and resolve not to see it any more that has created the positive experience of this year, but I think there’s more to it than that.

There have been big changes at my school this year. A turn over in administration which was at first controversial ultimately forced the staff into making some changes and firmly articulating what we wanted from our new leadership. The roll out of a new school-wide discipline policy that is being followed by all teachers and has the backing of our administration, gives me backbone and the ability to follow through with my classroom consequences (amazingly, none of my students have escalated past the warning stage). Work that the ninth grade team did over the summer and in the first days of school to socialize our ninth graders and also set strict boundaries with them has paid off. The reduction in class size, the restructuring of the ninth grade schedule, and the formation of a solid ninth grade team of teachers have all played into the success I’ve experienced in my class this year.

But there’s more to it. There’s me. I am a different teacher this year. The beautiful part is that I’m the teacher that I was a year ago, the teacher who decided to pursue a teaching credential because I loved teaching. She’s back after a long hiatus of humiliation, self-doubt, depression, and dread. I see the change and resurfacing of the me I used to be every day, and it amazes me. I am easily positive with my students where last year I had to be phony. I am confident in ways that last year I was shaky. I know my boundaries. I know what is not allowed under any circumstance in my room. I know better when to call a student out, and when to quietly continue teaching right next to a squirrely student. This year, when I ask students to do something, they do (and I’m amazed).

Here’s my favorite example this week: On Friday I gave out progress reports. For all students who had a D or an F in my class, I wrote on their report that they were required to come see me after school on Monday. This report went out to their advisor and their parents, plus I verbally told them too. The first gain is that I was able to identify failing students so quickly. I never did anything like this last year because I was so buried under work, so busy just trying to figure out my grading software, so preoccupied with scraping my emotions up off the floor that by the time I passed out progress reports, I had no time to look at the data reported on them. The second gain I’ve experienced in this regard is that only six of my students were failing! Last year, out of sixty-four ninth graders twenty-eight failed my class, (which is part of why I never did much intervention work). The third gain is that of the six students who were failing my class yesterday, five showed up after school. This is miraculous in and of itself because last year I fought a constant battle with students who refused to come after school for detention or other. The fourth gain is that all five students had time to sit with me, look at the grade book and then either find their missing assignments (a matter of one-on-one organizational intervention – something I’m very good at thanks to my OCD) or complete their missing assignments. By time 5:00 rolled around, all of the students who had been failing earlier in the day were now passing!

This is a huge change for me and my teaching, and for my students too. My dear friend and co-ninth grade teacher has been telling me for a year that in your second year of teaching and the years that follow, you have more capacity as a teacher. I had a hard time understanding her and believing her last year, but now I get it. There are certain things about teaching that I don’t have to think about as much anymore, which gives me more mental capacity for gathering data, organizing it, and assessing who needs interventions. I still need to grow. I don’t feel like I’m at the place yet, where I can identify the kind of interventions needed, apart from basic study skills and organizational assistance. However, knowing that my capacity is growing, makes me confident that over time I’ll know how to tackle this dilemma as well.

My mind and heart are full of the things I wrote about last year – the pain in my students’ lives, their rich stories. But my practice is rising to the forefront now. I am less shocked by the news of a students’ parent who has cancer, the brother who has a bullet permanently stuck in his forehead, the student who was born in jail and just finished his first young sentence, the young woman’s journal entry about wanting to die. These things still touch me, but do not immobilize me. They do, however, exhaust me. Only five weeks into the year and I need a day off, a sick day, a vacation. Putting in my 11-12 hours in my classroom each day plus 6-8 hours on Saturday is beginning to weigh me down already, make me heavy, and on my worst days snappy. This year, though, I know when I feel short-tempered it’s usually not because of something the students have done, it’s because of something I haven’t done – that walk to see the sunset, the extra hour of sleep, a whole Saturday to myself. The theme of my mentoring meetings continues to be balance, but there is more to be found this year as the real me resurfaces.

04 January 2006

What They Learned in School

A "poem" by Jerome Stern. This monologue aired March 17, 1990, on "All Things Considered," National Public Radio's daily news broadcast. Stern was a professor of English at Florida State University in Tallahasee.

In the schools now, they want them to know
all about marijuana, crack, heroin, and

Because then they won't be interested in mari-
juana, crack, heroin, and amphetamines,

But they don't want to to tell them anything about
sex because if the schools tell them about sex,
then they will be interested in sex,

But if the schools don't tell them anything
about sex,

Then they will have high morals, and no one
will get pregnant, and everything will be all

And they do want them to know a lot about
computers so they will outcompete the

But they don't want them to know anything
about real science because then they will lose
their faith and become secular humanists,

And they do want them to know about this
great land of ours so they will be patriotic,

But they don't want them to learn about the
tragedy and pain in its real history because
then they will be critical about this great land
of ours and we will be passively taken over by
a foreign power,

And they want them to learn how to think for
themselves so they can get good jobs and be

But they don't want them to have books that
confront them with real ideas because that
will confuse their values,

And they'd like them to be good parents,

But they can't teach them about families be-
cause that takes them back to how you get to
be a family,

And they want to warn them about how not to get AIDS

But that would mean telling them how not to get AIDS,

And they'd like them to know the Con-

But they don't like some of those amendments
except when they are invoked by the people
they agree with,

And they'd like them to vote,

But they don't want them to discuss current
events because it might be controversial and
upset them and make them want to take
drugs, which they already have told them all about,

And they want to teach them the importance of

But they also want them to learn that Winning
is not everything--it is the Only Thing,

And they want them to be well-read,

But they don't want them to read Chaucer or
Shakespeare or Aristophanes or Mark Twain
or Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck, be-
cause that will corrupt them,

And they don't want them to know anything
about art because that will make them weird,

But they do want them to know about music so
they can march in the band,

And they mainly want to teach them not to
question, not to challenge, not to imagine,
but to be obedient and behave well so that
they can hold them forever as children to
their bosom as the second millennium lurches
toward its panicky close.

26 November 2005

Ants in the Pants

To keep it short and straight to the point: the staff bathroom is infested with ants. Seat protectors do not protect you from the ants who lurk underneath the seat. Before grabbing a wad of toilet paper, you must shake the ants off of the paper and hope there aren't any dead squished ones in the middle or between the folds. They are crawling up the walls, over the tiles, into the toilet, and especially into the sanitary napkin dispenser. I have never been to a school where the student bathroom is almost cleaner than the staff bathroom, but this is the case at my school. It has happened now on several occasions that even an hour after using the restroom I've found an ant crawling up my leg on the outside of my trousers. At the end of the day, some of us say, "I've gotta wash the teaching off of me," but now I can also say, "I've gotta wash the ants off of me." The rats are just as rampant, but thankfully they prefer nasty food scraps to warm bodies.

09 November 2005

Difficult Positions

After school today, I attended a groundbreaking New Teacher Reception sponsored by the district. I call it groundbreaking because I've heard of such things as new teacher receptions in more affluent districts, but never in this one. My principal was pretty surprised by it, too. She offered to go with me as a sign of support, so I agreed. As I told her, "I'm too curious to pass it up." I found it interesting, however, that the invitation listed only the name of the plaza downtown but did not include directions. In fact, I could not find any mention of the plaza online and if my principal had not gone with me, I never would have found it. As she said, "They picked a pretty obscure location." My response was, "Welcome to our City, now good luck surviving your time here and even finding your way!" I expected to find only a few dishes of cheese and crackers and was surprised to find trays and trays of catered finger foods. Of course, I wasn't surprised that none of the food was warm (I had a quesadilla with cheese that had never even been melted), but the wine offset this a little bit.

Without much delay the state-imposed administrator welcomed us and went on at length. He thanked us for teaching in the district and encouraged us to stay. He promised us we'd be the best district in the State and eventually the nation, which is a ridiculous thing to say when we are just barely surviving. He asked to talk, to tell him what changes we thought needed to happen, that he was there to listen. Except then he went on to introduce other big wigs in the district and on the school board all of whom he introduced incorrectly in some way. He got everyone's name right, but sometimes not their position and often not how long they'd been in the district. It was a little embarrassing, I thought, and since I'm new to the district myself it's hard to tell exactly what the climate is and how much support he has as the "boss."

When he finally stopped talking and was "ready" to listen, only a few people spoke up. I had much to say but no idea how to say it and where exactly to direct it, so I listened. One teacher spoke up and asked, "When can we expect our signing bonuses?" He responded, "We'll make good on our promises, hopefully on November 30th for all of the teachers in difficult positions." It was silent when he said this. The signing bonus is a thorn in my side already and before I knew it I blurted out, "We all have difficult positions." He didn't respond but the boss of all the high school principals who was standing behind me said, "He meant to say all teachers who are in difficult-to-fill positions like math and special education." Still, my principal knew how much that kind of disregard hurts me. As an English teacher, I'm a "dime a dozen," yet math teachers get $10,000 as a signing bonus and I get a probationary contract. The message is that I am dispensable. They are valuable. I almost started crying. So much for the district's attempt to honor ALL of its teachers.

27 October 2005


In first grade Mrs. Lohr
Said my purple teepee
Wasn't realistic enough for a tent,
That purple was a color
For people who died,
That my drawing wasn't
Good enough
To hang with the others.
I walked back to my seat
Counting the swish swish swishes
Of my baggy corduroy trousers.
With a black crayon
Nightfall came
To my purple tent
In the middle
Of an afternoon.

In second grade Mr. Barta
Said draw anything;
He didn't care what.
I left my paper blank
And when he came around
To my desk
My heart beat like a tom tom.
He touched my head
With his big hand
And in a soft voice said
The snowfall
How clean
And white
And beautiful.

--Alexis Rotella

"Purple" by Alexis Rotella is found in the book "Step Lightly" poems for the journey collected by Nancy Willard, 1998, published by Harcourt Brace & Company.

05 October 2005

Missing the Best of Me

Growing up, I had a temper. A bad one. I would yell and slam doors and then pout about yelling and screaming until I got my way. My parents did not believe my babysitters, my teachers, and the mothers of my friends that I was calm and amiable when I was away from home. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't a terror or badly behaved. But I am stubborn and I did believe that being loud would serve me. My temper tempered itself over time, but there were still the occasional flare ups through my teenage years. I remember throwing a pool cue across the pool hall I frequented every weekend of high school. Once I threw a chair across the kitchen because I was losing the argument with my dad. And at least once the ref had to step in between myself and the girl I was pissed off at on the basketball court. I never would have hit her, but I looked like I would.

Last year as a student teacher I was observed every day by my master teacher, once a week by my university supervisor who came to check in on me, and sometimes by fellow student teachers. Their feedback was always the same, that I was calm, collected, seemingly confident, and never ever raised my voice. I was soft-spoken and "gentle." Even hearing these descriptions sounded strange to me. That was not the person I knew. I had never been called patient in my life! Who were they watching? I started to try and step outside of myself and observe this person who was me dressed up like an English teacher. I wanted to see what they saw. Last Spring I had the chance when I was required to submit a video recording of my teaching to the State in order to receive my credential. I watched the video and hardly recognized myself. They were right! I did look confident. I was calm. There was strength in the fact that I was even-keeled, that students knew that they could not get to me and that I would take things in stride. My supervisor even told me that it was a powerful strategy because the day I did raise my voice or truly get mad at my class, the effect would be much more powerful.

I still didn't believe that I was a calm, somewhat confident teacher until I had the experience of interviewing in an affluent high school district across the way. I had an hour long interview in front of a panel of ten including two administrators, teachers, parents, and students. Question after question was fired at me without a chance for follow up as they went around the table one at a time, each with a different angle. I was a nervous wreck. My voice wasn't stable. All of the theory I'd studied was slipping right through my sweaty hands. I was bombing the interview with each shallow breath. What saved me was the end. They asked me to prepare a ten minute mock lesson. The moment I stood up in front of the panel and began to teach by leading my "class" through a close reading of Edwidge Danticat's "Farming of Bones," I was at peace. My voice regulated and softened. My heart stopped racing. I suddenly felt at ease and all thoughts of whether I would be offered the job or not, slipped away. I was in the moment. I was all of the best parts of me and I could see my "students" reflecting that back at me. At the very end of the interview they asked if there was anything else they should know. I said, "Well, I hope it was clear to you that I am most at home and comfortable when I am teaching. I love it. " You know what? They offered me the job.

I don't regret turning the job down to work with less privileged kids, but I do regret that I am not in a place where I love who I am in front of my students. In fact, I don't. I am angry. I am tired. I am not my best. I spent the first week of this job calm and even-keeled in the way that had provided me strength in the past, but it got me no where. Now, not a day goes by that I don't raise my voice, that I don't almost throw down my overhead pen or my clipboard. Not a day goes by that I don't consider walking right out and slamming my door, as if that would help me get my way.

Does my temper help the situation? Yes and no. It doesn't help because it lets students know that they are getting to me. Just yesterday, as I tried to be even, a student said, "She's mad. I can see it in her eye. She wants to throw something." I successfully ignored him, but I knew he was right. My even temper was just a look; I was burning up inside. One day last week, after the disaster with the sub, I came into the classroom pissed off, thinking I could use my anger to make a point. All it accomplished was to get the few students who do back me up to get mad at me too. One even said, "If you are gonna have a bad attitude, don't expect us to have a good one," to which I shot back with, "After the way you treated the sub, you deserve my bad attitude. You earned it!" But my students just stepped up to fight and were not scared into any sort of compliance at all. It was the wrong tactic.

I haven't yet found the place to be on my tempered line. One minute, I get the message that I should try signifying or engaging in the verbal insult play that is a part of the culture, an entry door to acceptance. Sometimes this works. But the next minute, any attempt at signifying comes off as sarcasm and disrespect. It does not sit well with me or my students. It is not the kind of teacher or person I want to be and it is not a part of my culture so it doesn't come naturally. I am constantly wondering how to function as such a stranger, to make it clear that I mean business and can hang with their rhetoric. What I do know is that it is hard for me to separate from the feelings that come up in class. If I don't stay calm and unmoved, I take too much home with me. But if I let them walk all over me without reaction, we get no where.

Without a doubt, I am missing the kind of teaching that I fell in love with, the kind that removed me from my own ups and downs and put me fully into a moment I wanted to embrace. I know when I am that kind of teacher, my students shine. All I'm doing right now is hurting myself and possibly my students too. And yet, I've been called the "gentle voice" on campus. How is this possible and what kind of tempers are being unleashed in other classrooms? I try to remind myself to go towards tranquility. I ring a "singing bowl" used in Buddhist meditation to get my students' attention. I decorate my walls with poetry. One day I wore a shirt that said, "Tranquility." A student asked me what it meant and why I wore it. I answered: it means peace and it reminds me to be peaceful. He said, "Are you a hippy?" I said, "Maybe." He put a fake joint up to his lips and pretended to inhale and suddenly the idea of doling out marijuana to all of my students didn't seem like such a bad idea, a little induced-peace would be nice.

03 October 2005

It is a question of survival

The only way to survive the first year of teaching is to find a supportive network of other teachers. I'm here now at the home of three of those supportive teachers for dinner, a little respite before we all head to our respective rooms for another two to three hours of work before bed. As I was leaving work today, one of my students was in the hallway still at school because he'd been on the courtyard playing basketball. He said, "You're leaving already?" It was after 5:00 p.m. and I'd been there since 7:15 a.m. In my head I thought, "Don't be a martyr, just smile and say yes." But what came out was, "Yep, I'm finally heading home to do some more work." He was surprised and I made my point, but I don't want to be the kind of teacher that makes my hard work the burden of my students.

These blogs are challenging. On my twenty to thirty minute drive home I recount the day and think about the critical incidents. Everything feels significant. It is hard for me to think past the severely difficult moment or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, the moments that made me smile (like the impromptu debate over whether there is such a thing as love at first sight that my afternoon students jumped into). There is always so much to say, but some of it probably doesn't need to be said. This morning the principal told me she appreciates my insights on individual students. In the last few weeks with the whole staff I've raised specific concerns about individual students that speak to big picture issues at our school. I would not be as in tune to those issues without these writings. She told me that the other ninth grade teachers are struggling too, and they are veterans with close to thirty years of experience between them. She said my "compassion index" is high. One of my mentors has pointed out that I hear things others miss and consider things deeply, but hearing this from someone who doesn't know me as well seems to confirm this. Later, the principal told the visiting superintendent that I was really reflective and capable of looking at individuals within a larger frame. She said, "She's going to make it." That's how tough this is, that we have to talk about it as if it were a terminal illness. Even with these feathers in my cap, by lunch I was in the staff bathroom considering the idea of never letting myself out. Another teacher came in and I said, "I'm thinking about hiding," and then the tears almost unleashed themselves. This is just too much, too hard, too sad.

But beyond me, what is critical? What do I need to write? Where will I find this research question I'm trying to stumble upon? Today in my attempt to bridge modern slang to Shakespeare, we got into a "discussion" about the dynamic nature of language. I was setting up an activity where students would brainstorm current slang words for categories like "sex," "being intoxicated," "someone good looking," etc. This was something I borrowed from a teacher with forty years of experience and saw it work successfully. But just before sending them off to make their lists, I decided to ask someone to define slang. I turned to a young woman who I know has only been in the U.S. for one year. She is fully literate in Spanish and way above grade level reading in her own language. She is doing well in my class, but it is clearly a big challenge for her to keep up and ego-deflating to go from writing sophisticated Spanish poetry to stumbling through English. We have talked to each other in both Spanish and English and I've checked in with her on the phone. I know that she is not confident yet with her spoken English. I know even more so that she is not likely to know how to define slang. As soon as I asked her in front of the class to explain slang I regretted it. My regret was underscored by a call out from one of her peers, the same young man who just called me racist the other day. He said, "Why you ask her? She barely knows what you are saying!" But she knew. She gasped out, "Hey," and the look on her face told me she knew exactly what he had said about her. I immediately jumped on it and said, "You should be supportive of her. She is trying very hard and doing well. You know how hard it is to learn English." I don't know what else I said, but I have a sense I made it worse. I think I asked him to apologize to her and he refused saying he didn't mean it as an insult. In the meantime, my young Salvadoran started to cry and then hide behind her Sponge Bob backpack while a few of the girls went over to comfort her. I called the young man into the hallway and he told me that he hadn't meant to hurt her feelings but was trying to tell me not to ask her the question because she couldn't answer it. It was a triangle of misunderstandings. Still, I encouraged him to apologize to her and he said he wouldn't because he'd meant no harm. I let it go, but inside the room as I was walking over to talk to her, I saw him apologize. Later, I went to her myself and said, "Tengo la culpa para preguntarte sobre esa palabra. Es una palabra deficil para todos. Lo siento." She seemed a little comforted.

What happened today is not the end of the world for my student or for me as her teacher, but it does remind me of the real value of the affective filter. I can do real damage by putting students on the spot who are not ready yet. But, it's a difficult balance. Some students will never answer unless called upon. Some students need to be pushed in order to challenge themselves. Maybe I was testing the waters with her, trying to see if the month she's been in high school had given her more confidence in her spoken English. More than ten of my students were gone today for CELDT testing (to be tested out of ELD status, to be labeled proficient English speakers in other words), and maybe I thought that with less students she would step forward. But I certainly asked her the wrong question and knew it as I was asking it.

This incident speaks to a larger issue I've written about before: patterns of verbal participation. Students are more likely to talk and participate in small groups, but my students are a wreck in groups. I can handle classroom chaos and yet group work with this class of students is impossible. Which brings me back to a much more traditional model of classroom instruction, one I don't like because it puts me in the middle of it. Kids rely on me to direct them instead of becoming the self-directed learners we all want them to be.

01 October 2005

Pass or Fail: An Update

Not long ago I was worried that I would be failing half of the seniors in my poetry class. Last week I printed out missing assignment sheets for them and gave them two more days to get their work in. I debated doing it at all because I didn't want to give them the idea that I would always give them second and third chances, but the results are in and I'm glad I made the move I made.

Last night I entered the grades from all of their late work into my gradebook software. Instead of eleven students earning F's, there are only two! One of these students has only come to my class once in six weeks of school; I wouldn't even recognize her if she walked by. The other has a serious attendance issue and misses at least three days a week of my class. She makes it to her other classes, but not first period. There's only one D, too, which may be adjusted because he is a student with special needs. My poetry class is an interesting one. In the senior class there are ten students with special needs. Five of them are in my class. Last time I wrote on this subject all five of the students with special needs in my class were on the list of failing students and I wondered what modifications I needed to make for them. Turns out that giving them more time to turn in work was the way to go because all of those students are now passing. What is really exciting about all of this is that I figured I would have to reduce the number of assignments I counted for these students, but I went ahead and calculated their grades based on what they had turned in and the results were beautiful! All of my students with special needs have B's or higher in poetry without modification! One student even earned an A+. This same student has really struggled in other English classes. His dyslexia sometimes prevents him from spelling his own name correctly. He has been resistant to my class by complaining about it when he comes into the room and saying he wants to switch to P.E. but when it comes down to workshop time, he always has insightful things to say about the poems of his peers. His own work has stunned his classmates and he has a knack for hinting at something deeper than surface level description. I actually see that by the end of the semester he might be a fine poet. Because spelling isn't a big deal in our class and certainly isn't a topic to be discussed during workshop, he is released from his normal hangups. I can silently go through his poems and correct the spelling errors for him while praising the content of his work publicly to the class. I can't wait to see the look on his face next week when he sees that he has an A+ on his report card, especially because last week he had a D. This is the kind of reward we work for!

I'm feeling really satisfied with the poetry class right now. While Writer's Workshop is a bit heavy on the "I like this because..." comments rather than any critical feedback, I've decided to go with this for now. We've completed one full round of workshop where every student has presented a piece of their original work to the class for feedback. Even though this is a small school and students have known each other well for four years, they have expressed surprise at some of the things they've learned about one another in six short weeks of poetry. I am humbled that they have been willing to share this experience with me. Believe me, they were extremely resistant at first; I am the outsider. But they are moving forward and letting me bear witness to their lives. There is so much pain in this class. The short list includes child molestation, alcoholism, violent death, cancer, imposed immigration, and never knowing a father. They are writing through it and for the time being I will keep workshop as an uncritical place as they continue to become accustomed to the idea of sharing such raw thoughts.

I leave you with this anecdote from yesterday's workshop. A young man presented one of his own poems. He almost didn't read it to the class because he said, "I don't think it's really a poem. I don't know what a poem is." The class encouraged him to read it anyway and at the end they said, "Yes. This is a poem." The irony is that inside his poem he talked about being a tagger whose tag name was "Poem." Inside his poem he said he hates poetry and doesn't know why his tag name is Poem. I like to think that if he keeps writing he will become his name. I see the Poem in him already.

30 September 2005

Pay Day

I have heard that some teachers cry when they receive their first paycheck. The monetary value of the work they've done does not compute and they weep. I may be off the mark, but when I received my paycheck today I wanted to do cartwheels through the staff room. For the last fifteen months I have been living on student loans which I've supplemented with occasional substitute jobs, proctoring SATs, and part-time holiday work at REI. I have stopped short of donating plasma by asking my parents for small "loans" here and there. I've been making it through the last two months on $100 a week! So, while I certainly felt like my 15 hour days should be compensated in a much bigger way than my paycheck shows, I'm also delighted to be making money at teaching -- finally. Last year was like volunteer teaching as a student teacher and I resented that any classroom supplies I had to buy were essentially accruing interest.

Despite getting paid for the first time this year, today was a rough one. I actually said this to my students: You know. I could quit my job today. I got paid. Yeah, I think I could make it another few months on the money I got today. I could actually quit! What do you think about that?

They got very quiet, for the first time. I lucked out. They could have cheered at the idea of never seeing me again, but they didn't. I'll be frank: I did consider quitting my job. I am tired of my students. Here's why:

A student who I see three periods of the six period day (English, Advisory, and PE) wore an afro wig to school today. I should have confiscated it immediately, but decided to ignore it. Instead of working on revising his autobiographical essay, he shoves the afro wig down his pants, walked around the room, and flaunted his fake pubic hair. He was written up for sexual harassment just yesterday! When I tried to take the wig away (after he took it out of his saggy pants, of course), we got into a ridiculous tug of war and I eventually gave up the cause though walked away with strings of curly black hair threaded through my key lanyard. This is so frustrating. I want to help my students become better writers. I am tired of trying to build a civilization.

And now I'm home on a Friday night with the remnants of a bad cough, money in my pocket, and no where to spend it (except rent and student loans). I'm looking down the barrel of an evening of grading and a weekend of more grading and planning. I'm doling out F's and preparing for the onslaught of complaints next week when report cards hit. It won't matter that I spent three hours of my sick day calling students with last minute reminders to get their work in or fail. It will be my fault in their eyes.

At the end of all of this, I don't think they paid me enough!

29 September 2005

A Day Off

Yesterday I took a "day off." I have been feeling under the weather for a week now and decided that if I didn't stay home things would only get worse. But what a price to pay for staying home. I spent most of it working on final grades for the marking period and calling the homes of students who are about to find an F on their permanent record. I made so many phone calls, calls I never have the time to make or the energy left to make them with by the time school is over. Not only did I work more than rest yesterday, but I returned to the aftermath of a storm today. At the end of every day, my classroom is littered with paper balls (I've been told this is a uniquely 9th grade thing to do), but the sheer quantity of paper balls was tripled in comparison to the normal mass. One student decided to try and speed up time and get the sub off track by moving the minute hand of the wall clock with the paper face. He succeeded in breaking off the second hand and leaving the clock stuck on 1:00. I managed to fix it this morning, and he came to tell me what he did without offering an apology. In addition to this, there is now a population of fruit flies occupying my room. We haven't seen a janitor in over a week. I am strict about not letting kids eat in my classroom, but they still throw all kinds of junk into the garbage bin and down into the air conditioning vent. They are complete slobs.

I just spoke on the phone with the sub who covered for me yesterday. Not too long ago I was in her shoes. And if I haven't made it clear, the thing I hate the most about my job is that it is a lot like subbing, except I have to go back every day. My students are incredibly disrespectful, loud, messy, and annoying. Of course, there are only a handful of disrespectful students, but they manage to paint an ugly picture of the entire class. The woman who covered for me is no older than me, still standing, but not likely to want to return any time soon. I apologized for my class' behavior and felt ashamed. Then she said, "It's not your fault." That's the thing: these students aren't my fault and yet I'm somehow responsible for changing them. I am doing my best to put in place the structures they need and the routine to succeed, but they have come to me with bad habits, bad manners, and teenage hormones. What can I do about that?

This week, as a staff, we have put several boys on behavior contracts. Now when they are defiant, it goes in their record and after five they are suspended. After three suspensions they get sent to another school. What does this accomplish? It gets them out of my hair, but it opens up a space for the kid who was expelled from another area school. Today I was walking to the gym with one of these contracted students. He showed marked improvement in his behavior on Monday and Tuesday, and my guess is that it was in anticipation of the all staff meeting being held in his honor yesterday morning. Today, however, only one day after being put on a behavior contract and he's back to his former ways. He told me today that he doesn't care if he gets suspended and doesn't know why he is coming to school anyway. He said he would rather just be on the street. This makes no sense to me. I think of students with this mentality as the ones who struggle academically, who lack confidence, and support at home. This young man doesn't fit that mold. He is very smart and could easily be one of the best students in class if he cared. His mom is active in his life, too. I just don't understand. I do know that he is deeply wounded by his father's absence and blames his mother constantly for it. He is lacking male role models and I've seen him be a completely different person in the presence of an adult male. I cannot see how taking to the street is a real option for him. And yet, today at the gym he decided to trespass into the aerobics room, use the stereo to play his music, and then threw two backpacks over a wall into the office of a personal trainer before taking off down the street. He is unmanageable and way beyond the scope of what I can do for him. He is likely to end up at the continuation school, but I can't imagine he'll do much better there.

I am trying to figure out a consequence for my students tomorrow for their misbehavior. I'm hatching a plan to have them all write a reflective essay about yesterday followed by a massive cleaning of my room. Anyone who does not comply will have to stay after school and scrap gum from under the seats. Sounds like a nice plan, huh? Except the last thing I want to do on a Friday afternoon is spend any more time than necessary with a group of kids who completely disregard what I say. I can hear my grandmother in shock right now, saying, "Gosh, in my day when an authority figure told you do something you wouldn't consider not doing it." That is not the case today. The question is how to value the backbones of my students without being their victim?

28 September 2005

Dealing with ADD

During today's kayaking outing, one of the boys was given his final strike and can no longer go out no the water with us. We were paddling through the Marina when a yacht tried to come in and dock. He had to get over to the side, but this one student paddled right out in front of the yacht and disregarded the instructor's demands. The truth is, I don't think this student knows how to paddle in reverse because he wasn't paying attention to instructions earlier. The instructor realizes this too and later was more sympathetic than when he paddled over to my student to yell at him that he would not be welcome back. The bottom line, however, is a safety issue.

I really feel for this student of mine (we'll call him Mateo). Whatever your beliefs about ADD or ADHD, put those aside for a minute and realize that those who are diagnosed suffer regardless of whether you believe in the disease/condition or not. Mateo stopped taking medication, per his doctor's orders, in middle school. He is off the wall on almost a daily basis. He talks in a high-pitched whine that is grating to say the least. He is also small for his age, but chubby which he publicly blames on free access to his uncle's taco truck. In the first weeks of school, he was my number one adversary until one day when he returned with his completed reflective essay after being dismissed from class and we had a heart to heart. He told me about the ADD and that he often gets angry in class. His angry materializes as incessant talking/whining and jokes. He told me he used to have a stress ball that he squeezed but students stole it from him last year (which reminds me that I was going to try to find him a new one and have forgotten it in my millions of other things to do). To make matters worse, Mateo is an outcast. The other students are dead tired of him because he is distracting in class, annoying, and different.

During our impromptu after school meeting, I suggested that he and I have a plan and a signal. If he needs to get up from his assigned seat because he is angry or overly restless, he shows me the signal and then takes care of his needs. I have a side table by my desk and a folding chair he can set up. Mateo now pulls his left ear when he needs to move. Well, that was the plan, but he's taken to just sitting away from the group on his own from the beginning. Sometimes he asks me if he can go for a walk and I let him. Yes, he is getting special treatment. I can hear my professor from the "Teaching Students with Special Needs" class I took last year saying, "Being fair is not treating everyone the same. It is giving people what they need as individuals." It is better for Mateo if he can walk away. It is also better for the class who can then concentrate on their own work. The good thing about Mateo is that he is smart and he has skills. With five minutes of focus he can do what takes other students a half an hour. This might be part of the problem and part of his lack of focus; it may be a way he's coped through being bored in school. I don't know. What I do know is that I wonder about the idea of mainstreaming all special needs kids. I want them to feel they are part of the fold of the school, but at the same time they do have the ability to severely stop the learning of others. If his behavior in my classroom became a safety issue as it does on the water, I would have the ability to remove him. But, that is not an option and I have to find a way to work with him.

I am getting better at keeping my personal irritation with him out of it. I feel like an advocate for him, and I'm frustrated that the other students are so mean to him. I need a plan and some supported back up on this because I think Mateo is in a position of being harassed and possibly even hurt by other students. I have heard tormented comments in the hall about him being "raped by his father," and there have been many comments made about his sexuality, students believing he is gay. One day last week, when I asked the class to write about what they would change if they could change anything in their life, he said, "I would change me. I'm too creepy and no one likes me." He was not shy or embarrassed about saying this but blurted it out to the whole class, who laughed and then got yelled at by me. I didn't fix the problem. I just got pissed off. The good thing is that as I write this update I know that I need to take this to the larger community. I am not the only teacher of Mateo's and we need to ensure his safety at our school. I'm off to write that email and then put my social worker hat to bed.

26 September 2005

Pass or Fail

At a recent staff meeting we discussed the problem of students not completing assignments. One staff member suggested that when a large percentage of students are not completing the assignment, then maybe it's time to look at your pedagogy as a teacher. Several teachers felt offended or threatened most likely because as engaged teachers we are constantly examining our pedagogy and revising based on our students' needs. Soon there was division between those who think we are coddling our students too much by bending to their desires and those who think students really should be at the center of our teaching.

I'm not sure on which side of the divide I stand. But I do know one thing. After spending most of Sunday recording grades for my 18 seniors in Poetry Writing, there is a serious problem. More than half of the class has a D or an F. I'm required to submit grades this Friday. Several of these students are already on academic probation and receiving a failing grade in this class could be the deciding factor in whether they graduate or not. I am infuriated that this is the situation. I have purposefully structured the class so that it is supportive of the variety of special education students and academic probation students I have (my class is sort of like a collection of all the students who don't quite fit anywhere else). I told my students straight up on the first day that while I'll give them thoughtful feedback on their poems and suggestions for improving them, I will not sit around and try to decide if they've written a C poem or an A poem. For all intents and purposes, this class is a Pass/No Pass class. I tried to sell it to my class as "an easy A" or "the kind of class that will boost your GPA." I am shocked that so many are not taking advantage of it. There are currently seven students with A's and A+'s while eleven are failing. Granted, several of my "failing" students are special ed. so I will modify their grade by requiring fewer assignments, but as for the rest of them, I'm at a loss for words. It is not as if they didn't have warning. I distributed progress reports two weeks ago. I purposefully did not give them any new assignments for a whole week and gave them a deadline to get in their late work. Many of them turned in their work. One student even stayed until 5:00 on a Friday night to get his stuff done. The problem is that after they submitted late work, they slacked off again. They are now missing a whole new round of assignments and classwork. I am ticked off. I do not want to fail these students. I do not want poetry to be the class that broke the student's diploma. I don't want poetry to leave a foul taste in their mouth.

And yet, they must have a foul taste from school if this is how they are operating. I know that there is at least one "A student" in my class who has a "D." She is trapped in some sort of vicious circle of turning in late work only to slack off again. I don't know what to do. There are other variables, too, like the death of one of their classmates in the first week of school. Should that be considered in their grade, that many of them may be mourning and I don't even know or have any way to gauge this? Listen to this soft talk? Aren't I supposed to prepare them for the "real world"? How many of us have had to push ourselves through a hard day, a hard week, even when we experienced a family member's death, a desperate break up, a medical emergency? What employer out there is going to weigh all of this so gently and modify a grade or payment?

Where is the hard line? Is it in my classroom? A few years ago several new teachers who graduated from my program got jobs at the same high school. They were assigned senior English classes. All of these new teachers together failed a significant percentage of the senior class because they refused to give into the mentality of "Well, they are seniors. They aren't going to do anything anyway." All four of the new teachers were fired because of it, because they were honest, because they held their students to high standards. I sat down with my principal today and told her what was going on, and she did not bow down from the possibility of so many F's, though she suggested I think about the motivation of a high grade. I read her point, but I can't dole out B's or even C's to students who have not earned them.

These grades are compounded by a sudden drop in attendance of my class. Granted, it's a first period class. Many students show up fifteen or thirty minutes late. But many more are not showing up at all. Their grade is clearly affected by poor attendance as I give points for classroom work and participation. Most of the students I am most concerned about weren't even here today to receive the print outs of their missing assignments. In my mind, they deserve the F.

But then I think about extenuating circumstances. There's my student who has lost both her parents. She lives by herself now and works after school. Earlier this week, her car was stolen. And another student who lives with his grandmother and had a family emergency last week. Still another whose mother is an alcoholic. What good does loading an F onto an already heavy load do? What real world do I think I'm preparing them for? They are already living their own real world that I know so little about.

If I return to the idea of examining my own pedagogy, I become lost. I thought I was creating an opportunity for excellence, a climate of support and experimentation, a place to build confidence. I'd like to throw grades out the window because I hear my tired, sad, almost beaten down students trying to stand and be heard. I have to weigh if the passing grade or the failing one is the greater gift, and remember to give with love which doesn't always look pretty.

24 September 2005

Spontaneous Teaching

My morning freshmen English class is much more obedient, but less engaged. Now that I'm getting used to the energy of my afternoon class, I'm finding I prefer the talk to the silence even if I have a headache by the end. Yesterday something magical happened in the morning class. As we moved through the final vignettes of "The House on Mango Street," which traverses ambiguous scenes of rape and domestic violence, I asked my students to complete the graphic organizer I'd created which included a box for them to write what the vignette reminded them of in their own experience (activating schema) and another box for them to draw a depiction of the vignette (accessing multiple intelligences while helping students visualize what they read). I was completing a model of this on the board as we went along. Problem is that I'm a terrible drawer. Even my stick figures are pathetically disproportionate. The normal thorn in my side, the student who two days ago told me he wanted me to go to another school where I could give other students nightmares, the one who makes farting sounds every time I try to lead the P.E. students in stretches, he was absent yesterday. There was no one to make fun of me, but me. So, I did. For perhaps the first time in this class, I was laughing at myself. I was relaxed and at home in my own teaching skin and it worked in my favor. Instead of belaboring over my pathetic drawing of a clown, I put my dry erase marker down and said, "Alright. Someone has got to come up here and save me." Immediately, one of the students who rarely participates positively came up to save the day. The clown he drew was pretty close to Crusty the Clown and a much better rendition of the one I drew. Of course, I used this opportunity to walk around to all of my students and see that there were working on their own drawings. Sure enough, everyone in the class was on task, and I got to see what fabulous artists I have in my classes. For those who weren't fabulous, I could encourage them by saying, "Look at my drawing! It can't be any worse than that!" We moved through the vignettes like this for a good half hour without my losing the focus and attention of my students. It just so happened that the principal had come in and seen all of this, too. I glanced at her every once in a while to see that she had a big smile on her face. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, a female student who is a great writer and a smart cookie but who prefers to put on an edgy front and often pushes buttons, blurts out (as she usually does), "Ms. Barrett, you are so nice!"

But the best part of the whole period was still to come. At the very end of class, I passed out a poem called "Empty House" by Rosario Castellanos. The poem is a perfect extention of the book we'd just finished. I began reading the poem to the class, not really sure what I would do with it besides read it and ask them to somehow connect it to the book, but I didn't have to figure it out because by the second stanza two boys started reading the poem aloud with me. We moved through it in perfect unison, as if riding a tandem bicycle for three. Their somewhat deeper and quieter voices matched with mine had a harmonizing effect. I am not exaggerating when I say that the atmosphere in the classroom was magical. All thirty-one of my students were on the edges of their seats and several students whispered to others, "Woah, do you hear that? That's cool. That's creepy." When the three of us finished our reading, the class burst into excitement and wanted to talk about the poem and the effect of the multiple voices. My mind immediately leapt to thinking about what a great lead-in this was to the dramatic reading of Romeo & Juliet we'll begin in a week. What's most amusing to me about this is I believe the boys who joined in on the reading really were trying to get at me at first; they thought it would make me mad or derail the reading. I don't think they expected me to keep reading and certainly not to love it. When the class finished exclaiming how much they liked the poem, I said, "That was great! Who wants to do it again?" Overwhelmingly the class wanted to do it again. This time I asked anyone who wanted to to read it aloud with us. The second reading, of course, wasn't as good in sound quality as the first, but it was exciting nonetheless that the class was willing to do a spontaneous choral reading of a poem. Magical, really.

This is clearly one of the best teaching days I've had yet. What made it so good, apart from one truly disruptive student being absent, was my comfort and confidence with the class. I was having a good time and I cared about what we were doing. The night before was Back to School Night. I spent 12 hours at school and by the time I got home, I was too burned out to put much energy into my lesson plan for the next day. I knew we needed to finish the book and I knew I had a poem that worked well at the end of the reading, but I spent less than twenty minutes on my lesson plan and said to myself, "I'll just figure it out." As a teacher, I'm all about careful planning and even scripting out some of the things that I need to say, but I also value the spontaneous moments in the classroom. At the beginning of the year, and with my students the beginning of their high school career, the emphasis is on structure, routine, and the expected. It's been hard for me because despite my very organized and somewhat methodical ways, I fell in love with teaching when I taught poetry for Upward Bound. I set a daily structure for the class, but I had the students supply the class with poems. I never knew what the class topic would be. If a student brought in a poem that exceptionally modeled the use of line breaks, then I did a mini-lecture on line breaks and then spontaneously created a writing assignment for them dealing with line breaks. I loved that class because I didn't know what to expect, because my students were providing the curriculum as much as I was, and because it felt as if it served my students where they were rather than from some place of my solitary ideals for them. Yesterday reminded me of my love of this organic teaching which comes from an organized classroom. There were moments for personality, real stories, and connection in class yesterday. I even found a moment to pull back from the scheduled curriculum and tell my students about the value of applying to private universities, to tell them that they should never let a price tag keep them from applying. I wrote out numbers on the board and spelled out for them my own experience of believing I couldn't afford a private education only to find out that in reality it was the public one I couldn't afford. And even then, they listened attentively. It might sound like a tangential thing to discuss, but it fit in perfectly with the quickwrite prompt to write about what they wanted to happen in their futures and how our protagonist overcame her own poverty and position in society. Education. Writing. Poetry. If this isn't an argument against the scripted textbooks being imposed in impoverished districts across the country as an off-shoot of the Bush Administration's "No Child Left Behind," then I don't know what is. I can hear my favorite mentor whispering,"We don't teach English. We teach people."