Sunday, January 23, 2011

A day in the life....

Well. Last week was....interesting to say the least. Let's look into a typical day (otherwise known as The Order of Horrific Events)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011.

7:00 am. There is a slippery layer of ice on the roads. Many suburban schools are closed, including my son's. NYC schools are open, not delayed, of course. I our car slips all over the road as my husband drives me to the train station with my son in the backseat. I am afraid for our safety, but luckily make it to school alive and early. My stomach is already in knots.

8:20 am. (homeroom time) Assistant principal comes to my door with a new student for my homeroom class.  I now have 31 students on my roster. I welcome him warmly and stop my teaching briefly to get him settled. He tells me he has been transferred from another class in our school. He seems like a nice kid.

9:25 am. (first period) I am now teaching my honors class. They are very attentive and thoroughly engaged in the poetry lesson. The day has started out well. My door is open because if I close it, my classroom becomes a stifling 90 degrees and germs take over. I cannot afford to get sick again.

I hear screaming in the hallway. One of my homeroom students (Kayla) who hardly ever comes to school (she is not in the class I am teaching at the moment)is being dragged by the ear (or the hair? The shirt? Can't tell...) by her mother who is screaming profanities at her. Kayla is screaming back. Her mother attempts to throw her daughter into my classroom, does not succeed, and continues to beat her daughter with her notebook right outside my door. Her daughter is hitting her back.

After fumbling with my stubborn doorstop, I manage to get the door closed. This goes on for a little bit and then my AP and security show up and they all go away. I wonder how they got past security in the first place.

My honors students are silent with their mouths open. There is more information about them in previous posts. They question me about the incident and I tell them they are lucky to have parents who love them. I am shaken. I have never seen anything like this before. I have seen a lot, but not this.

Five minutes later: AP comes in. He hands me the notebook that Kayla's mother was beating her with and asks me to please hold onto it. It is still on my desk now. At the same moment the office secretary comes in and hands me a coverage slip for during my 3rd period prep for an 8th grade special ed class. My paper-grading and lesson planning will have to wait again. I average two coverages a week.

The way coverages work in our school is that instead of hiring substitutes to cover for absent teachers, the Powers That Be would rather have their own staff be paid per session to cover for them. We do not seem to have a choice. If we get a coverage slip, we have to show up, or else the class may be left unattended. Not only is this not economically savvy, but I believe it may be a way of putting pressure on teachers to come in to work even if they (or their child) is sick, because we know how difficult it is to be forced to give up our prep time to cover classes. It is a way of keeping staff attendance in check. Please be advised that this only is my professional OPINION on this matter. Not necessarily a definitive truth, just a gut feeling.

OK....where was I???? Sorry....Back to first period....again, I digress...

My teaching first period has been completely thrown off. My once-engaged students are now upset and unfocused. The poetry lesson is almost trashed and it takes me another ten minutes to get them (and myself) back on track. The period ends about 20 minutes later and I was not able to complete the lesson. The kids are being tested on this material in a little over a week. My classes' scores are printed out and subject to scrutiny by the administration.

Third period: Go to my coverage. I do not know these students. I am not certified to teach eighth grade OR special education. They have no idea who I am and the boys pretend that I am not there. I finally get the boys settled playing a math game on the computer. The girls are sitting around a table gossiping. I join them and give them a Langston Huges poetry book. We take turns reading the poetry out loud and discussing the content. It is extremely difficult to keep them focused. Luckily, this was not nearly as painful as the last time I covered a different eighth grade sped class. The last time, they were trying to run out of the classroom. Most of them outweighed me by several pounds and tower over my 5'1" frame.

Fourth period: I scarf down a PB&J (made for me with love by my dear husband) while trying to grade papers. I feel very distracted.

Fifth and Sixth Periods: I attempt to repair the damage done to my poetry lesson with my honors class. When the instruction is over, I multi-task by giving a related assignment, helping students who do not understand the assignment, and administering a Running Records Test to individual students. Wait...definition time!!!

Running Records: (ruh-ning-rec-ords....AKA an assessment that labels children with letters representing their reading ability) An assessment REQUIRED to be done by all English teachers in my school three times a year to determine a student's reading level so they may choose an appropriately challenging book. This is a test where I have to meet with each individual student during class time, have them read a passage, then question them verbally about what they read, requiring them to recall specific details and make inferences. You may want to know what the other 29 students are doing while I am doing this, or how I teach WHILE administering this test. The answer is: I have to do it and figure it out on my own with no help. My students are not independent enough to just work quietly for a period while I administer the test. I have to complete 60 of these assessments by the end of the month WHILE teaching my regular curriculum.

Seventh Period: I have my rambunctious mainstream homeroom class. There is information about them in previous posts as well. I am not even attempting at this point to do with them the poetry lesson I was doing the previous three periods. I have sent two students to their desks to read a passage for the test, written two assignments the class needed to finish up on the board, explained to the class how to make a poetry book by folding paper....
....and my AP walks in for an informal observation. She stays for what feels like a reaaaaally long time. I smile and say hello and she does not answer me. She goes through my students' portfolios, looks at their work, and writes everything down.

My students are flagging me down for help, asking me for answers about the assignment that are not only right on the board, but were explained to them twice. I help individual kids. I, again, am thrown off, and manage only to complete one running record assessment that period. AP leaves without saying good-bye.

On the train on the way home: I call my mother. I cry. I tell her I don't know how much longer I can do this. I know I have to continue because I need to keep teaching, fulfill my life's purpose, pay my bills and my rent and keep food on the table. My mother tells me I'll survive and keep going for my son. My husband is unemployed (he was let go about nine months ago) has gone back to school, and is still trying to find work. I am completely trapped. This economy is breaking me.

So that's a day in the life of an "urban" school teacher. Ask any of's almost typical. Let's see if YOU'D go home without shedding a tear or two.

Monday, January 17, 2011

My Famous Death Glare

For a little bit of background, I teach two sixth grade classes of English Language Arts, each of approximately 30 students. One class is an "honors" section. I place "honors" in quotes because I really do not like giving students the illusion that honors kids are "smarter" or "more ambitious". I have a number of students in my honors class who have low test scores, (about half fell below standards last year on the state test) and some of their behavior leaves much to be desired. On the whole, however, this class is much easier to teach, and most of the parents of these children are, if not involved, genuinely concerned about their child's success. In the suburbs, this honors class would be considered a mainstream class---a difficult one. But I don't need to give them my Famous Death Glare too often...

The other class of lovelies is a mainstream class, or what is more commonly known as "general education".  Most of these students' test scores fell below standards in preceding years. What a cast of characters! Some of the students would fit well in the "honors" class, because they actually do their homework, stay in their seats, respect themselves, and pay attention. There are two ESL students, three students who are mainstreamed yet have an IEP (they are pulled out for services) and two girls who just do not show up to school (more on them later---each has her own sad story).

 Out of these thirty students, at least fifteen are reading below grade level, five should be in seventh grade (I think a few should actually be in eighth and a few of these kids are reading below a sixth grade level, one WELL below) and surprisingly, many of those kids who are reading on grade level, have some serious emotional issues, lack of self control, and no support at home. This is most likely the most challenging class I have ever faced in my career, yet I am closer and more attached to them than any other group I have taught. This class is my homeroom. They are the first and last kids I see each day, and somehow, magically, the administration managed to worm them into my schedule two additional times more than the honors class each week.....I wonder why....?

I cannot turn my back for a second. My poker face hase been nearly perfected, wether I am trying to mask tears, anger, or (especially) laughter. The noise level occasionally reaches a point where even if I yelled as loud as I could I wouldn't hear myself. At that point I usually just give them my famous Death Glare and they quiet down after a minute. They throw garbage all over the room, write nasty words on their desks and in their vocabulary books (and tear them up, too), destroy my library, steal all my supplies (ones I bought with my own money of course) wipe their snot on their desks. Once, somebody deficated on a piece of paper and left it in my classroom.  But despite all their flaws and misgivings, they are loveable and sweet.

They cheer me up by writing me notes and drawing me pictures that say:
 "Your the awesomest teacher evah!"
or, my favorite, "Your the best teacher i ever had!"
or, my MOST favorite "You work you're ass of for us!:" (on a Christmas card.)
(Pease note that errors were placed in quotes purposefully, because writing them correctly would remove their endearing quality..)

When they're not fighting or talking smack about each other, they often help each other out. We are like a huge, crazy, dysfunctional family of 31 people. And I'm the mom of course. That's how they view me, and they've said so. I'm School Mom. I can only hope they behave better for their Home Moms, but I serously doubt it.

I wanted to give you a brief overview of my classes so I could write about a few particular kids, and I got away from myself, as usual. One more thing...did you notice my repeated mention of "test scores" and "state standards"? To anyone else but their teachers, these crazy, wonderful, unique individuals are just numbers. They are judged by these numbers. The English test they take each year is not appropriate to their ablilities. It may be appropriate for suburban priveledged kids who don't have to worry about drugs and violence and crime happening right outside their home, who have parents who support their education, and have a decent place to live with good food on the table. Sadly this is not the reality for my sons and daughters this year, in my homeroom class. It is a grossly unfair test. The people that wrote this test have never taught a day in their life. I know this because our state pays a COMPANY to write the tests. It's all about The Almighty Dollar. My students' educational fate AND their teachers' CAREERS are dependent on these numbers. It's STUPID and IGNORANT and it SUCKS.

I am expected to raise the test scores of these sixty students when I am ALWAYS alone in the classroom with them. I am constantly asked for data, hounded about "what am I doing to move them up?", scrutinized,  told which format to write my lesson plans, the list goes on and on. How can I move them up when there are so many of them? How can I move them up when they can't focus because of things that have happened to them at home? How can I move them if they're always hungry? Angry?  Don't get me wrong, I have moved some of them up. I'm a good teacher. But geeez! I can't perform miracles! We are basically told to dig a six-fool hole without a shovel, and then are pushed into the hole because we did not dig fast enough.

I hope you are beginning to understand now what we are up against, yet I do not think I have expressed myself clearly enough. Specific cases will definitely clarify for you the struggles of the City Teacher....and the students they try so hard to help.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

When the shy one completely baffles me...

Lisette is one of the smallest girls in the one honors class I teach. Gentle, thin as a rail, glossy black hair, high cheekbones, beautiful, dark, almond-shaped eyes. A soft, kind, accented voice. Spanish is her first language. She came here, to my knowledge, a few years ago and still is serviced by the ELL teacher a few times a week.

She is one of those kids who could easily slip through the cracks of the classroom if I didn't constantly remind myself to notice her, beacuse, it seems to me, she wants to be utterly unnoticable. I don't play that game. She plays Miss Bashful. When called upon, I am usually met by silence. She blushes and sometimes a mischevious smile plays on her lips.

The few times she does speak to the group, she holds her hand over her mouth and mumbles. Yeah, she's one of those that I sometimes talk to with my hand over my mouth and ask if she can hear what I'm saying. If you can't hear me, then I can't hear you. And I WANT to hear, need to hear what you have to say, Lisette. Otherwise, I can't help you.

So, it's poetry time. Last night's homework was to write a poem. Any poem. I had not, until later today, taught any poetry-writing. I just wanted to see what they were capable of so I could have some kind of a baseline. Who is afraid of poetry? Who is dying to try but only comes out with cliches and strained rhymes? Who absolutely abhorrs it? And who does it flow from naturally?


After a few kids bashfully and reluctantly shared their poems, some funny, some strained, some cute, and some brimming with raw talent, my eyes fell on her. Her notebook was open on her desk, her little arms crossed protectivly over it. Ah, but I saw a twinkle in her deep, brooding eyes. Busted.

"Lisette? How about yours? What do you have there?"

No response. The notebook was under her mental lock and key.

The class: "Awww, c'mon, Lisette. We wanna hear it! C'mon, do it!" The outpouring of support from this inehrently sweet group of kids touched me, but not her. So much for peer pressure. She vehemently shook her head.

"Sweetie, we'd really love to hear it. A good writer shares their work and talent with others. A great writer takes risks. I did not ask you to write a journal entry. You were aware that you may be asked to read your poem."

"C'mon, Lis! We won't judge!" "Please?" "Bet it's good!" Ohmygawd, I love them so much.

Nope. Her arms tightened over her notebook. Time to start bargaining. She wasn't leaving my class for lunch until she stepped outside of the glass box she had built around herself. I know her strong, melodious accent is one of her biggest sources of self-judgement. "Okay, Lisette. How about I read it aloud for you? You can stand next to me." She balked. I had her there. After some more arm-twisting, she finally caved and trudged up quietly, and stood close by my side.

My eyes flew over the page. My heart caught in my throat. I wish I could post it on this blog, but it wouldn't be respectful to her to do so. All I can say is it was better than anything I could have written in high school. Safe to say, it's better than anything I might be able to write at this moment. 

Lisette's poem was threaded with deep themes of feminism, self-image, depression, hope, and fear. The rhyming and rhythm were placed in immaculate couplets. The content was controversial, not only because two racy words were used, but because it explored the deep feelings a pretten girl experiences as she blossoms into womanhood, softly, without being crass, without cliche. It was nowhere near tediously long (like this post---ha!) and certainly not too short (some kids write three lines and then argue: "But poetry is free! It's ok for it to be short! Yeah, nice try, stop being lazy.)  It read like a song. A better song than Miley Cyrus or Seleena Gomez would ever dream of writing. (Hey, do they even write their own songs?)

For someone reading well below grade level, someone who fails almost every reading test I give her, and for a girl who depicts herself as impossibly shy and innocent, she completely blew me away. Girl, Who ARE you?

Apparently, she had the same effect on the entire class. They sat there with their mouths open. I swear, you could hear a pin drop for about five seconds of shocked silence. Then, thunderous applause. Lisette simply wandered back to her seat, and timidly put her head in her hands, blushing, that long, shiny hair falling over her fingers. I almost---almost felt bad for her.

"Lisette, that was absolutely amazing! Everybody loved it! I had no idea you had such talent for crafting words."  She smiles that miechevious smile again. I return it with a warm grin.

Well, now I know how I can help her improve her reading scores. I know her niche, which buttons to press. I also was reminded the reason why I drag myself out of bed at a dark, ungodly hour every morning. For priceless moments like this.

Monday, January 10, 2011

E.A. Poe....teaching about twue wove...

This morning, I finally, finally started my poetry unit. A week late. Funny, because poetry is undoubtedly my favorite thing in to world, to write, to teach, to read. I was late in starting because we had to finish writing an essay on Ancient Egypt for the end of our NonFiction Unit, and I REFUSED to move on until i knew the finished products would be at least acceptable. Yet, I still felt the guilt that gnawed at my teacher soul for my tardniess in starting what, in my opinion, is a much more interesting and creative subject.

Soooo....I commenced the poetry unit with my all-time favorite poem: Poe's Annabel Lee. To remind you....

"Neither the angels in heaven above,
nor the demons down under the sea,
can ever dissever my soul from the soul
of the beautiful Annabel Lee....."

Are you KIDDING me? Dissever? He made up a word that is the opposite of ever because NEVER just wouldn't suffice? He managed to create an actual VERB out of the word ever, and utilize it in the most melodious way possible.

Can one be more passionate, more determined, more cosmically attached? Just reading it makes me well up. That's the sappy poet soul in me. Now lets see if any of the darlin' youngstas will feel the same way...

Sooo...based on my lesson plan written for the hogepodge of different reading abilities and cultures (and silly behaviors)  within my class, I decided that an epic love poem such as this one MUST be read aloud, each student with their own copy. The point was to introduce and define poetry as a means of expressing deep emotion, and being able to understand this as the poet's purpose. So I read it aloud, and my ears tingled, because they always do when I read a great one aloud to my kids. I instructed them to focus on what the poet must have been feeling during the time the poem was written.


Ronita: Eyes never leave the paper. Places hands on top of eyes and says, "It made me want to cry. He loved Annabel so much, and he lost her. But their love is so powerful, they even loved eachother after she GOT KILLED BY ANGELS!!!!" OK so she's a literal thinker. Gotta work on understanding symbolism.

Jason: Fell asleep.

Sashaya: A TOMB??? Why they lock her a** up in a TOMB?? In the ocean? Whaaat?

Me: Please watch your language.

Christopher: Wan't he a drunk? How does someone write good poems when they are DRUNK? (he obviously had some prior knowledge...)

Jason: Wakes up. Who was drunk?

Sashaya: What the he** are winged (---ed very pronounced) seeee-raps??

Me: Again, please watch your language.

Raven: He** isn't a curse, Miss. It's a place where bad people go when they die.

Please note that all this was belted out before I even had a chance to ask them what they thought the poet was feeling. General concensus: sad.

How anti-climactic, but I gotta love 'em.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

I Never in my Wildest Dreams Imagined Myself a Blogger!

I am not a blogger. Or, at least, I wasn't, until right now! I have never written a blog before, and I hardly ever read them. Actually, I didn't really understand the concept until maybe a year ago. Time to start clicking away...

Well, a lovely friend of mine, The Hairoine, recently started a blog all about.....yes.....HAIR! (Check it out here on Blogspot. She's truly a genious beautician, AND she'll bring you to stitches!) So of course out of loyalty, and the knowledge that my friend is an amazing writer who, without a doubt, would make me giggle, I checked out HER blog. It was informative and entertaining, and expressed her passion for her chosen career. So I thought, well, I can do this, too! I have ooodles and oodles of passion for my career! I love to write, and my plan is to write a book on the very same topic of this blog.

Which brings me to the true purpose of my blog....but be patient with me, friends, it's still perculating.....

I am a teacher. I teach sixth grade English.

TEACHING IS FUN!!! No really, I'm serious. There is no sarcasm there at all.

There is so much America needs to know about this manner of earning a living. Why, you ask? Because we are talking about the FUTURE of AMERICA, people! You know, the future teachers, doctors, lawyers, waiters, actors, garbage men, bartenders, store clerks, journalists, politicians, and most importantly, parents. It's a sobering thought, but one day, most of my students will have children of their own.

I have 59 sons and daughters this year, not including my own flesh and blood. Many of them have parents who are raising them to be good human beings, and some of them do not. Someone has to teach these kids how to resolve conflicts peacefully, love themselves, and most importantly, to have hope and work hard to acheive their dreams. I have learned in my eight years in the profession, teaching on almost every grade level, (including infants and toddlers) students of countless socio-economic backgrounds, cultures, and creeds, that we can no longer rely only on their parents to teach them how to find their way through this insane world. We can only hope they are actually BEING parents, but we can't bank on it. Why have I come to this conclusion?

You should see the way some of my students act. Their lack of self-control and respect for themselves, adults, and most of all, each other, goesway beyond simple prepubescent raging hormanes or testing-my-limits syndrome. I have to discipline myself every day to dig very, very deep to find the conscience, the good, and the kindness in some of my students. It's there, it just needs to be brought to their attention.
But then, between the curse words and fighting (yup, I can break one up before it even happens) and blatant disregard for their education or future, there are the ones who shine like bright stars, who show deep compassion for all people, and whose brilliant young minds will hopefully be the ones holding political power one day. I breathe a huge sigh of relief just thinking about these wonderful souls I have the priveledge of spending my day with.

....Not only will I be exploring the inside story of myself and other anonymous individuals who teach in some of the poorest areas of our nation, but I will be exploring how they are viewed by and handled by the State, the City, and the Federal Government. That would be the not-so-funny part of the blog. I will have to be careful, lest "big brother" is listening, and excersise my freedom of speech with caution.

I promise I will try as much as I can to avoid the moaning and complaining us teachers are known for (after all....we do have those wonderful perks of free summers and a few breaks during the year...and some paper-pushing cubicle-sitting people HATE us for that) but forgive me if I slip every once in a while. For example: Writing is a great way to vent...and my venting will be, well, productive in the way that it will help you to see that us educators are basically being crucified by beaurocratic people who have never set foot in a classroom, worried about a student all night long, or experienced the joy of the "a-ha!" moment.

I have decided  to start blogging because I believe that people really need to know the antics that occur in inner-city schools. Not only is it interesting, but hopefully it will inspire some of you to hit up the ole voting booth, volonteer at a school, donate money, start a petition, or write to your local politician.

This inside story will be hilarious, heartbreaking, joyful, unfair, and unfortunately, at times, terrifying.

Fight it as I tried, I have come to terms with the fact that God placed me on this Earth at this time to facilitate the education of and give some love to the Future of America. I was also meant to write, to inform people of the truth in the most creative way possible using the language that I tell my students is THEIR paintbrush. So the time has come to combine my two passions. Wish me luck!

After all.......the soft and tickly smell of chalk dust will follow me to my grave....and beyond.