Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Shun the Disbeliever. :)

Me: And so, why would have human brains evolved this way? Why would this trait have been advantageous?



Me: Errr..... yeah? Probably.

(class titters)

Next day. Still talking about the brain.

Me: Okay, so now what evidence do we have that humans' brains evolved this way? What were we doing for hundreds of thousands of years that would have led to this adaptation?


Me: Yeah. Okay. Um. So, here's the thing. You don't have to like evolution, but one day, it's really good for you to UNDERSTAND the idea. You haven't had genetics yet. You haven't talked about mutations or natural selection or any other number of things. Science isn't about belief, its about data, and evidence. In order to argue against something, you have to know what that something REALLY means. And most people, not even people your age, but MOST people, have a huge, huge amount of misconceptions about evolution. They believe all SORTS of crazy stuff that is NOT the theory of evolution. So, all I want you to do now, is accept that there are probably a bunch of things you don't know, wait until you understand the concept, and then, maybe we can talk. Until then, how about no more screaming at me? That'd be cool. 

Kid: FINE.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Paradigm Shift

I started reading Doug Lemov's new book on deep practice (and learning how to practice) and it really did strike me how different learning in the classroom is from other, deep-practice based, myelin-building, activities.

I recently heard a respected co-worker of mine say, "Well, yeah, I let them retake a test. But only if they failed it. And then I cap it at a C. It's not fair to give them an A when another kid got an A the first time." My other co-workers nodded knowingly. I said nothing. My mind was too blown. In what other world would we say that? In what other world would we compare one student's success and rate of learning to another?

Let's say we were talking about music instead.
Student A, let's call her Ava. Ava's mom is a pianist. While Ava hasn't had a formal lesson, she's watched her mom play. She's mimicked her on her toy keyboard, and has picked up reading a little bit of music the same way she's picked up reading a book.

When she gets her first lesson, she flies. "A+!" her teacher says. Wonderful. You are going to be the opening act at the recital. Look at how hard you worked. Look at how good you are.

Now, let's look at student B. Bella is about to have her first formal music lesson, too. She has no experience, no musicians live in her home-- though music is very prevalent-- and she's never touched a piano before. She is very excited to begin and desperately wants to play Fur Elise, a song her stuffed dog plays to her when she winds it up.

When she first touches the keyboard, her teacher cringes. Her posture is terrible! Her hands are not delicately placed! She can't read music! She can't even find Middle C! She's a mess. And she's learning slowly. After a week, she can barely play "Hot Cross Buns."  After a year, she can play Fur Elise.

But when the recital comes up, her teacher tells her no-- you can't play that. You are only able to play Hot Cross Buns. Because that is where you are.

Would we ever do that?!
No. The idea is absurd.

You can put the analogy in terms of sports too. A student starts off with terrible form and no basic skills. But she works really hard and grows enormously. But you tell her, well, you can't start the game. You can't compete. You are on the bench. Because of your performance three weeks ago. It doesn't matter that you can shoot a free throw like a pro NOW. It doesn't matter that you can dribble like a maniac NOW. You are too late. You should have learned it as fast as that other kid.

How do we expect students to be motivated or to care or to pay attention to their growth if we don't acknowledge them when they DO grow? How can we say we "differentiate" if at heart, we believe that all kids should be growing and learning at the same rate, and with the same experiences WE give them? How can we be so culturally incompetent that we don't realize all students come with different experiences and opportunities that directly impact their intrinsic motivation, their background knowledge, and their rate of learning?

At heart, I know these teachers can't help the way they think. It is a mindset that has been ingrained in the culture for way too long. But at the heart of it lies the belief that all students are the same-- should learn at the same rate, should grow the same. At the heart lies the belief that if a student ISN'T achieving, it is his or her own fault. He or she should have stayed in for recess. Stayed in after school. He or she should have participated more, (talked to friends less), watched over their homework, (but not their little brothers and sisters)....

Why are we blaming the victim? Why aren't we meeting the kids at their level and taking baby steps to motivate them? Why aren't we saying, you know what? When you know it, and you can PROVE IT... you get the grade?

Sure, there's a certain amount of "responsibility" that has to be worked in-- we can't just give endless opportunities for everything, or kids wouldn't be motivated at all. Whatever. I'll just do it later. Until it all piles up. But that can very, very easily be remedied.

All I'm saying is this-- there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way we, as a whole, as educators who fight the achievement gap no matter where we are, think.

We can no longer afford to just sit back and blame them, cap their growth, and just expect them to just come in being perfect students. We need to show them how, and celebrate them when, at long last,  they succeed.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Apparently, I see myself as a pirate when I'm 80.

"Miss J! I miss you so much!"
"Mila, I have seen you the last two days!"
"I know miss, but I need to see you every day, and it has to count, because that way, when I'm 20, then we can be besties."

..."Mila, you know I'm going to be like, 80 with a peg leg, and an eye patch, and three teeth by that time, right?"

"Its okay. I will take care of you."

My kids from last year are so sweet.

Old Dog, Old Tricks

Today, after I said, "Okayyy, and when you are done, hold your paper in your air and give me your most gloriously hideous face," a handful did. I modeled what an appropriately horrendous expression would look like. Most just kind of smiled at me.

Well, they were just asking for it.

"Y'all realize that you just told me that you think your normal, perfect faces are hideous right? Cuz, I said, be horrifying, and you just smiled. Just sayin'."

Yep. I am up to no good.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Danger in the Passion

Sometimes I think the most dangerous people are those who know very little, but believe very passionately. These are charismatic, natural leaders, people with great rhetoric and warmth. People who believe 100% in their words and actions. People who convince others to rise up and join them in their fight.... and in the meantime, sink the very ship they are trying to save.

Somehow, they fervently believe, somehow, they will turn that ship around by dismantling the rudders and the sails, and replacing them with designs "innovative" but never tested or proven. No data. And when and if  data comes back to say, hey.... not only are you going the wrong direction, but you're taking in water.... well, then comes the blame. This is exactly what happened at my last school. The lion-hearted but misinformed, convincing others that their way will revitalize.....these erroneous prophets who stomp and scream that if only, if only they were given more time, it would work.

There's certainly something to be said for that. A program needs to be tried out for a couple of years before you start to see the effects. But sometimes? Sometimes it is just the wrong fit. Sometimes, in your quest to promote social justice, you actually create more injustice.  But, you've spoken so eloquently and so often that you can't turn back now. That would be humiliating. You have to continue with the nonsense you've spread to save your ego. You have to hide all of the things that are rotten, and cover them up, and threaten....

Case in point. After two students brought a loaded gun into Ms. V's classroom, the rest were told that they were not allowed to tell anyone about it. They were told that legal action would be held against them if they did, and that the whole incident was "confidential." In other words, if you talk to the orbiting media, bad things will happen to you. The local reporters were pushed to the dean of students who told them an entirely concocted story about how he found the weapon. How the gun was found a backpack, hanging on the back of a chair. Completely false on both accounts. Later, this same man chased media off campus when they tried to ask students what really happened.

On the other end of the student spectrum, seniors were promised that they would graduate. All of them. No matter what. Ignore the failing classes, the lack of credits. You will graduate, administration told them. Wanting to the the hero, the champion of students is something we all aspire to. Thinking that holding them to low expectations and enabling them is the way to do it? Well, you may be cheered in the short term, but you will be cursed down the road.

When the district found out about this, the administrator was fired.  Of course, said administrator blamed it on his predecessor and claimed he had nothing to do with it. Yet, if you ask all of the students who was going to save them, who their hero was, they give you one name.

We all know-- education for low-income or non-white students in the United States is a largely broken. We can't fix it simply by believing we can. We can't fix it by simply having high expectations for the kids or hiring good educators. We also need proven leadership, structure, professional development, parental input, and a mix of students. We need to stop tracking--creating schools within schools where the "smart" kids get one set of teachers and classes, and others are held in classrooms that only prepare them for the cell. We need kids to learn from and collaborate with each other. We need to provide more opportunities for those who aren't privileged. There are probably a thousand other things we should be doing, collectively. I sure as hell don't have all the answers.

But the one thing, the one thing that will hurt us the most is if we are tempted by fairy lights, and go wandering off into a forest. Off any sort of proven path. Into the wild. Lured by something that sounds and looks and feels so, so beautiful. These melodious words, the righteous indignation. The cheers for "these are our kids" and "this is our community"!

It's true. The cry of revolution sometimes causes a shift that heals, and fixes, and restores balance. But sometimes, the war cry just brings in a new dictator.

Kids' lives are at stake. There is no time to experiment on them. We need better leadership. Leadership that listens, learns, is reflective, apologizes when necessary, bucks systems that clearly aren't working, and looks for those which are successful. Not a bunch of charlatans.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Beyond the Burnout

I did the thing I thought I would never do. I did the very thing that made me outrageously upset about so many others (in my Phoenix school). I left a school. Mid year. Here's why...

It was becoming February and things were getting worse. By things, I mean regular lock downs, for extended periods of time. Lock downs in which you could sometimes hear gun shots firing in the park. Once, one of my hardcore students was frisked by the police while the school  was on lock down. They were looking for weapons. This student readily handed over his knife, but they wanted to know where the guns where. The student didn't know. The student, pissed, ended up in my room during one of my off periods, screaming and cursing about those "fucking pigs," and how they just looked for people of color to target. After that, he went on a rail about how the teacher he'd had earlier that day was the one who ratted him out. He was going to give that bitch something to think about, all right. Snitches get snitches, you know.

I let him rave. I let him throw. I let him get the energy out and then tried to talk to him calmly. He was okay. Nothing bad happened to the teacher. But it could have.

This sort of thing was a regular occurrence. So were the constant walk-outs of students, but what was worse were the stay-ins-- the kids who would come (often high) and refuse to leave. Disrupting the class was fun, more fun than any lab you could ever plan. They would tackle each other, get in fights, literally choke each other, cursing, gang signs, just.... you name it. So, you think, okay. Engagement. I am just going to do the COOLEST things, and they'll want to learn. I believe that all kids can learn. If I just do this. If I just, if I just, if I just...

But buying great materials and building cars and doing other "engaging" things doesn't work, because instead of building cars, so many students take the materials and break them, throw them at each other, destroy each others' creations, and so on.

By this time, I was having nightmares every night. I kept seeing one of my favorite students, a hardcore gang kid, (and respectful, smart, charming, wonderful person) get shot and killed, bleed out on the street. I told him about this. I told him to be safe. I knew what he was up to, and he knew I knew.... but he would kind of pat me on the shoulder and say, "It's cool. I'm straight, miss." Meaning, it's all good. Everything's under control.

But, the panic attacks grew. I was having them several times a day. Therapy and medications weren't helping. Sometimes only 8 kids would show up to class, and maybe 2 would want to learn. Instead, they'd shout at each other, (playing or not), opt out.

Nothing I did mattered. Calling parents and asking for help or ideas. Incentives. Labs. Hands-on stuff. Dry ice demos. Building cars. Making clay models. Building relationships. Nothing I did worked. Because these kids, these poor kids were living in a war zone, day in and day out.

Go look at the brain research. There can be no learning when the body is stressed.

There can also be no teaching when the body is stressed. I was losing my ability to sleep. To eat. My immune system was shutting down. My therapist said, "Get out." My doctor said, "Get out."

I stuck with it. I pushed myself harder, and all around me, teachers were falling like flies. If they weren't quitting they were being fired. And then, it happened. Mid year-- the principal was fired. He left us with a two-sentence email on a late evening, and then, was gone like vapor.

That was it.  Energy and chaos were coursing through the air. The violence and the stress and the pent-up energy of the kids; the stress and exhaustion and circus-like antics of the teachers. Our one poor security guard in an enormous school. And now this? No.

I put in my two weeks the day I met the new principal. I knew that something was brewing, and I couldn't be there when whatever-was-going-to-happen...happened.

Yet, none of this is really doing it any justice. I can't put into words the way it felt to slip my lanyard over my neck every day. It felt like a noose. Everyday, waiting, wondering-- what is going to happen? Something bad is going to happen today. Next period. Next minute. Constant fear. And no one helping. No one listening. No learning. The kids who would ignore you, straight up ignore, you and go on treating your class like it was a rec center. Total disruption. Total lack of control.

So, with a heavy heart, I left. I cried when I told my kids in 3/4 classes, because for as much as I couldn't do it anymore, there were also a lot of kids I loved and the last thing I wanted to be was one more person who let them down. But I signed up to be a teacher. I signed up to teach. To inspire. And no one can learn when they are worrying about survival. These kids needed social workers. These kids needed intensive, intensive care. I couldn't do it. I felt like I was dying every day I stepped into that door.

 Today, I talked to my friend who still works there. It turned out that none of the upperclassmen could pass their AP classes, and were in no shape ready for them. Not one kid. So, when I left, they shut all those classes down, readjusted schedules, and gave my friend, who I shall call Ms. V, all of the freshmen. But of course, she didn't get all the freshmen.... she also got all of the sophomores and juniors and seniors who had failed before. Her class sizes were the largest in the school and she was given no help. She asked over and over. Nothing.  An administrator came to "observe" her, and left 1/2 way through the class period because some of the boys were bullying HER so much, she couldn't take it. And yet, Ms. V got no help, no validation.

The new staff that took over tried to implement some changes and rules, but they also started blaming all of the teachers for the misery and pandemonium. Best staff I have ever worked with, yet everything was their fault. More teachers were targeted. The air continued to thicken and become pea soup. Where there had been some tenuous teams, partnerships and collaborations, fragile but strengthening..... there were now none. The spiderwebs had been sliced.

Today, I talked to Ms. V.  Today, a lock down happened again. Cops came streaming into her room and arrested one of my former students, and one of my favorites. They then cleared some of the kids into the next room, and started pulling Ms. V's room apart. Ransacking the place. Looking for a loaded gun.

"I don't know! I don't know anything about this!" Ms. V told them. But then, as they were winding down, she saw something suspicious. A backpack, hidden in an odd location. And as she pointed it out to one of the officers, a student spotted her from the window. The cops opened the bag.

Loaded gun.

They then arrested a second student. Another favorite. Another respectful, genuine, brilliant, wonderful gang member. In front of the kids. Meanwhile, the student who saw Ms. V point out the backpack is telling everyone-- she did it. She ratted him out. She's the snitch. She is the one who put our brother in cuffs. Its her fault..... Word is spreading. The teacher is a snitch.

But, the search isn't over, so they take Ms. V, and stick her in lock down with the very students who are blood red with fury. They tell her she's going to get a candlelight. They tell her what they do to snitches. They threaten her life. The girls surround her and are crying, trying to stop the mob of boys from attacking. They unlock their cell phones and call their moms; they want to be picked up. They are scared. Shit just got too real.

"You shouldn't have said anything, Miss," a couple kids tell her. "You made a mistake. You shouldn't have pointed out the gun...." They don't make eye contact with her, just look at the floor and murmur. 

Finally, an administrator comes, and says to Ms. V, "We need your written statement." The boys howl with fury. Ms. V, shaking, leaves, and tells the officers the truth-- she doesn't know anything. She just saw the backpack, and something about the way it was hidden seemed wrong. She tells them about the threatening. She tells them that this is a serious threat in her life. She knows it is. Because it is.

The admin team tells her, well, we'll suspend them. They'll cool down. And if it happens again, then we'll do something about it.

If it happens again.

There has already been a loaded gun in her classroom. Gang members, like brothers, taken from these boys. She is the scapegoat and they want blood. They shrug it off. But they shouldn't, because these boys-- they are for real.

Ms. V knows. She quits. "Am I being a drama queen?" she asks me, her voice quivering. "Am I being selfish?"

No. No you are not.

This could have been me. This could have been worse. But that is not the point.

The point is this-- some things are just too broken to be fixed. No, not every child. But when the majority of the population is living with violence, fear, hunger, abuse, drug abuse, and more.... When there are no rules and no hope and anarchy is literally the norm.... When there are no role models for success.... When you see the world as being against you at every turn, and everyone who tries to help you as a threat to your way of life, your homies, your kin, you gang.... When you see them as your enemies...

That is not a school. 
That is not an environment of learning.
That is not an environment of safety for students OR staff.
That is a jungle with nothing but predators and prey. Eat or be eaten.

Until we find a way to provide hope, social and mental help, role models, and an actual way out... there won't be any help for these poor kids, and for this school. The model for education has to drastically change. Our society has to drastically change. Because the wedge between the haves and the have nots is growing, and you can only see it if you are treading water, sinking and dying yourself.

Ms. V got job offers from several schools, but she has turned them down. "I've lost my faith in public education," she says. "I've lost my faith in humanity." She says. She is beyond the burnout. Yet, at the beginning of this year, she was bright and innovative, kind and nurturing. She is a good teacher, broken.

This is what this school does. It perpetuates the gap, widens it. It breaks hearts, dreams, careers, educations, shatters them all.

"Ms. V, will you do me a favor?" I asked.
"Yes. What do you need?"
"Come visit my new school. I am a long term sub for a group of 6th graders. Come visit us next week. Come in. Do science. See what it can be. Maybe it won't make you go back to teaching just yet, but maybe it will restore your faith in humanity."

My new school is a haven. I don't yet know if I will be able to stay there, or if it will become the "home" I have been searching for for so long.

I just know this-- if it wasn't for THIS place, I would be in Ms. V's shoes. Inches away from giving up on teaching, I found myself for the first time in a long time.... loving it.

Monday, November 25, 2013

More Drama

So, one of the reasons I was so excited to teach at this school was because it would give me the chance to do something I've never done before: do field work with kids. Get out in the real world. Be expeditionary.  Make science truly hands on. Awesome. I was super pumped about making science real.

And then, the first excursion hit, and it was fun, and also a lot of work.... but didn't end up being super aligned to what we were studying, and half of our experts fell through (due to the crazy flooding in the Boulder/Estes Park area), and well, it didn't turn out to be much of a learning trip in terms of content. But hey, we get to try again, right?

Well, maybe not.

It turns out that our school spent hundreds of thousands of dollars last year that we. didn't. have. They thought, apparently, that we could keep fundraising and make it work.

But then the data came back. Instead of going up, test scores went down. Attendance was atrocious. Graduation rates not good. Suspension data not good. And so, instead of making more money, we lost funders. So, now, we are scurrying. And the next excursion has been cancelled.

The principal and assistant principal have taken giant pay cuts, we aren't hiring another security guard (again, we have one, and our school is a sprawling campus), we aren't hiring new teachers if someone quits, and some teachers are being forced out, because admin know that with class sizes being so small.... that they won't have to be replaced at all. He can just combine classrooms so we are over our innovation plan, and hey! No problems. Except, of course, that our school is the last stop for many students, so every classroom already has 5 characters, so when you double them up, that leads to ten....

Which means zero learning is going to happen.

Also, did I mention teachers were being pushed out? And these are good teachers too. Not people who deserve the boot. Not people who deserve to be told that the school and the kids would be better off without them.

So, let's recap. No rules, almost no consequences, now potentially no trips, and what? No teachers is next?

I am, for once, afraid to open my mouth. It is so ironic that I work in a place that holds the idea of being a revolutionary up, in arms of glory, and then tells us we must obey or we are fired. It is so ironic that we say our mission is to do whatever it takes for kids....and then look disapprovingly at teachers who incentivise (is that a word?) learning or attendance.

This is now the second time that I have worked with a crew of badass, awesome teachers.... and then got put in a box. This is the third time, in company of awesome teachers, that we have been berated and told we weren't professional.

Our kids are failing. We are failing. But, you know, if we just taught everything around social justice, then it would work. If we just stood in the hallways all the time, it would work. If we just got our grades entered in time, each week, it would work.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Here we go.....

Yesterday, I am standing by my computer taking attendance while the kids do their do-now, when across the room hurls a giant apple. It smashes into bits and rains all over me. The three boys in the back, without me saying a thing, start arguing over who did it, and determine that one boy, (who grew up in a East African country and still has some cultural barriers to cross) did it and blame him. One kid gets so upset, (again, I haven't said anything here), that he says he "doesn't give a shit about this class," and storms out. Okay.

Security comes and removes my East African boy, and while I know that the boys have guided him into making bad decisions in the past (they got him to pull the fire alarm once), I don't really think he did it this time..... I think he is their scapegoat.

Right before the bell rings, one of the same boys (not the one who left, and not the East African boy, but the third one) saunters across class, and I can see he has something in his hand. I assume it is glue. I say something to him, he ignores me. He pretends to do work for a minute, and then when I am no longer paying attention to him, I hear commotion, and the word "slap cam." I see what now appears to be white lotion all over my East African boy's face.

My girls inform me that slap cam is when you slap someone really hard while someone else is recording, so you can play it back, funny, in slow motion. You have to have something in your hand though, she says. Like lotion or cool whip or something.


This is what's happening in my class right now?

Outrageous. The bell rings, the kids scatter, none listen, and I am pretty sure one of my other girls got the whole incident on her phone. Sigh.

I don't know how the classroom environment got to be this bad. Well, no, actually that's not true. I know how. I have no legs. There are no consequences I can give that matter, and there are consequences.

At my school, it seems as if any structure at all, or any consequence at all (aside from the totally random suspension), is deemed "white oppression." So, we have no sweeps. We have no detention. We have no ISS room. We have one small security guard who patrols a GIANT, sweeping school with many, many small alcoves and nooks and crannies and unused classrooms......

What we do have is some sort of form of "restorative connections" which means that two seriously overworked people are supposed to manage all of the kids that need to be removed from class, and have heart to hearts with them about their actions and their futures and etc.

But no rules.

You can come to class super high, 50 minutes late. You can walk in and out and around. You can walk in and out and in and out while slamming the door over and over again. You can visit other teacher's classrooms to bother your friends. You foam up all of your spit and drip it all over my tables. You can throw glue bottles across the classroom. Or broken crayons. Or anything else. You can call people bitches and shove past teachers. You can threaten others with your gang affiliations and flash your signs and call your tattoos. You can say, "I don't have to listen to you! You're not my fucking teacher!" every day, to someone who actually IS your teacher. You can stand in the doorway and put both middle fingers up for a solid 5 minutes at your teacher. You can say, "Fuck off, pigface!" to your teacher and leave. You can basically do whatever you want. Because absolutely nothing is going to happen if you make a bad choice.

I mean, beyond the obvious. Your future is going to be screwed. Your potential is going to be squandered. Your life is probably going to be a lot harder. But hey, kids have fully developed frontal lobes and are really good at making long-term plans and investments into their futures, and predicting the effects of their actions, right? And not giving consequences, surely that will get RID of the oppressive institutionalized racism that actually does exist, right? This will totally teach them how to navigate the world and be successful role models for the next generation.

In my last class, I have one student passing. One. I brought in cupcakes one day to bribe them into trying (which is something I hate to do, but when you have nothing else to try..... you do food). 9 of them did. 9 of them did AWESOME work and I got to make a big deal out of it...and then they got cupcakes.

And then I was told I needed to stop being the "cool" teacher and follow the rules and not give the kids food, because I make it harder for everyone else, and basically, I am screwing everyone else over. Of course, this coming from someone who has never been in my room, who has never seen all of the other positive incentives I've tried, who also doesn't see me taking away their phones, or telling them to throw out their food 100 times a day. This person who doesn't see me pick my battles with kids who regularly curse me out. I should just stop trying to be cool.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The Problem with Onesies

We just got back from our first content-sponsored excursion-- a 3 night camping trip at a reservoir hours from home. We were off to study climate change's impact on water, observe the reservoirs and watershed, talk about how climate changes could have had an influence Colorado's wildfires, and recent flooding. And, of course, learn how to camp.

At our first learning session, an expert showed us how to measure how much water was pouring into the reservoir, and talked about how some reservoirs actually saved Denver from flooding. Students looked at tools, wrote down equations, and got to measure the rate of the stream. That's when, let's call her Magda, decided she really had to go to the bathroom.

But we were in the middle of nowhere. There were no toilets-- not even pit toilets. Nothing for miles and miles. Her teacher, Ms. T, said to her, "Well, you have two options-- you can hold it, or I can help you go behind that bush-- if you want."

Magda said no-- she was NOT going behind a bush. But then began to squirm. The potty dance was epic. Okay, she said, I changed my mind. I need to go. Now.

Ms. T took her across the bridge, behind the giant tangle of bushes and assisted as Magda began to take off all of her layers-- including those on top. Why was she removing her jacket and sweater to pee? Because, you see, under everything, she was wearing a onesie.

Everything had to go.

Panicked, Magda started jumping up and down, layers falling like autumn leaves. "Stop bouncing!" called Ms. T. "Its going to make it worse! You're going to pee yourself!" Magda paused. Got silent.

"Too late."

Frantically, Ms. T helped Magda remove the rest of her items. "Use the dry parts to wipe yourself clean," she said, and ran to get a plastic bag to put the soiled onsie in. When she returned, Magda was still standing there. Buck naked. Behind the bush.

She handed Ms. T the urine-soaked onesie. "What should I do now?" she asked. Hiding her bewilderment, in a gentle voice, Ms. T answered, "Well.... you should probably put your clothes back on."


Over the intercom,  our principal started to speak. The heat was too oppressive, crayons were melting at some schools, and our district was letting kids from our school go at 11:30. The kids let out a celebratory cheer (as did the teachers). It was Friday, and we were all a bit exhausted.

The kids, some meandering, some exuberant, left the building, and then we got an announcement-- we were to all meet briefly. With a raised eyebrow, my science partner and I ambled down the foyer to join the circle of teachers, administrators and support staff. The air was tense, voices a buzz.

While it was true that the heat was overwhelming (I had been spraying my kids in the face with a water bottle for weeks), the temperature was a cover story. The truth? The school was worried about a bloodbath.

The weekend previous, there was a party. Mostly Bloods, a few Crips. Rumbling started, some harsh words said, and a young, teenage kid, shot and killed. Fallen from his bicycle into the street. Bled to death.

His funeral was that Friday, and his gang wanted revenge. The rival high school, where many of the opposite gang members went to school, lit up Facebook with threats, timelines, locations.

Our mission? Getting all of the kids home and out of the way, so none would be tempted to be part of the potential brutality that was scheduled around the time of our school's normal release.

As I left the school, one of my favorites stopped me. "Go home, Miss," she said. "And don't come back to this neighborhood tonight. If you live close, stay inside. It isn't safe here right now."

Shaking and pale, she continued. "All of this is stupid. When will it end? They kill us, we kill them, it goes over and over, revenge and more revenge until all of my male relatives are dead. Until everyone's dead. It's not worth it."

I gave her a hug, gave her my cell phone number. I went home, I checked the news, and I hoped that all of my kids would be safe.

Friday, August 16, 2013

I guess I WAS asking for this...

So, I have this kid that was totally great the first week of school. I could tell when he was getting frustrated, but we always found a way to compromise and it was okay. And then I missed a couple days of school for a big event, and when I got back...

All had gone straight to hades. Instead of a kid who'd try, participate, communicate, and do his best work... now my little darling decides that it is great, great fun to:

-- shave his deodorant with the cap, and sprinkle it about
-- twist up all his chapstick and smash it into the floor
-- tear up all my sticky-note money-rewards and blow them across the room with a fan
-- borrow pens from me and then throw them all over the room
-- scream, whistle, sing, sing into the fan
-- curse over and over and over and over to no one in particular
-- roll across tables
-- refuse to answer any questions I ask (you know, particularly heinous ones like "Would you like me to make you a separate project?" or "Did I do something to offend you?" or "What do you need to be successful right now?")
-- mutter under his breath that he is going to transfer out of my "dumb shit class" and then constantly say that everything we are doing is "fucking boring"
-- torment other students
-- throw his school supplies and anything I've printed into the sink and create a mess
-- destroy my fan


So, after day 1 of this, I pulled him out of his last period class, and said, "Hey, you're not in trouble, I'm not mad, I just wanted to talk to you and figure out what's been going on. The first week, you were so great and so detail-oriented and hard-working, and I don't know how I lost you. I want to fix this. Is there anything I did to make you upset?"

To which he responds: I don't have to deal with this shit.
And throws his pen.
And walks out.


We had another meeting with one of the admin, and he was THE SAME GREAT KID.... And then I felt great! And then class started.

And it was even worse.

So, here we go!!! I really, really, REALLY do not want to kick him out. If I can get everyone else in class to ignore the mischief and get bought in .... then maybe he will come around too. I think he's testing me. But every time he says he wants to transfer, I just say, "Nope! I want you and your great brain in my class!"

.... I did say I wanted stories again!

Good to Know

Student A: (not working at all)

Me: A, why aren't you working?

A: I don't want to. I am being lazy.

Me: What? Why?

A: Because this is boring.

Me: It'd be less boring if you'd try. And time would go faster. I think you know this.

A: Mrghghhhhhh.

Me: You know, you were at the (fancy name of the special meeting at our excursion), so you know the statistics. You know what ill-informed people think of you. You hear that story every day. The racism, the stereotyping. The people who assume you'll be nothing and are nothing. You going to feed into that? Or are you going to prove all those jerks wrong and rise above it? You're smart. Prove them wrong. Rise above! Try!

A: (looks at me like he gets it but still, really, really doesn't wanna)

Me: Look, if you don't try, Ima steal your mustache. I'm gonna steal it and wear it and look better than you do.

A: Naw, Miss. You can't.

Me: Whyever not?

A: Cuz you're not Mexican.

Me: So if I was a Mexican woman, I could rock that?

A: (nods)

Good to know.

P.s. After I walked away.... he started working.

Pretty sure it was the mustache part that did it. :)

My family is gorgeous! Gorgeous, I say! And brilliant! And warm and wonderful....

The other day:
Kid looking at my alumni wall: Some of these kids are UGLY!

Me: You're talking about my FAMILY! You just said my family is ugly!!! You know what's gonna happen to you now? Would you like it if I talked about your family that way?

Tough Kid: Awww, Miss is gonna F*** you up!!!

Me: If by "f you up" you mean, "chase around with My Little Pony Stickers" or "annoy you with bad dance moves" .... then yes.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Storm's a Brewing

Hokay, so.

We just finished our first excursion with the kids. And by kids, I mean all the kids in the school. And let me be clear here-- I didn't know any of them (except maybe, like one) before we started this. So, not knowing any of the freshmen, we took them all to a college campus for a week to build community and so on and so forth. That means from around 7-10:30 at night, we are responsible for them. And we spend nearly every second together. For a week.

Just process that for a second.

First night, the girls on my floor were smoking weed in the dorms. Of course. (I have stories again! I typed to my significant other). Another student climbed out the third story window from a rope made of his sheets. The security guards found him and he told them that he "saw writing on his wall and was afraid." The next night, when he escaped (through a door this time...yay improvement!) he said "it was hot and I get stressed in tropical heat so I asked the security guard if I could go for a run outside and he said it was ok." We are in Colorado.  Hilarious. 

Not so hilarious? Woooo. I am going to have to be a tenacious pit bull of positivity and calm, because a handful of these boys have some serious trust issues. Not that I blame them-- you don't become totally apathetic, attention-seeking, utterly disrespectful, rude, or outrageous if you've had a good life. I'm sure the kids that act the worst are the ones who are the most damaged. No doubt. I know already that kids are going to ignore everything I say. I know already that they are going to walk out. I know I am going to get cussed out.  I know that I am going to have a hell of a time getting them to trust me, and then to respect me. I know I am going to have to be firm and hold my ground, but also be flexible. 

I know I am just going to have to tell them I love them anyway. I have to find the good, harness the energy, and flex it all in the right direction. Luckily, every person on my teaching team is incredible. We all think alike. We all know this is the fight we want to be fighting. We all know it is a war against so many things -- cultural biases and stereotypes, laws, family issues, gangs, poverty.... but that it is a fight we WANT to fight. 

I was in the thick of it before, make no mistake. But I have a feeling that those kids were my training wheels.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Oh dear, what has Miss J gone and gotten herself into now?

So, today I took the first official tour of my new school.

What?! Can it be so?! Returning to the classroom! Unheard of!

Well, as it turns out, I may have missed the kids. I missed having stories and feeling like I mattered. Not that long ago, I was able to go to my first group's high school graduation. To see my first legit group of 6th graders walk across that stage was pretty incredible. I may have cried. A lot. The experience served as one more reminder of how much I need being part of a community.

So, let's review experiences in education so far:

1. 5 years spent in Arizona at a Title 1 school teaching self-contained 6th grade (ELL) and 8th grade science

2. 1 year spent at a militaristic school parading as a utopia, teaching 7th grade science

3. 1 year spent designing curriculum (and teaching k-6) at a museum, and tutoring/designing intervention plans at a college access program for  9-10th grades.

And now?

My first foray into high school.

That's right. I am going to teach 9th graders. And I'm sure people are going to think I'm just as nuts as always. The school's vision is to create a bunch of revolutionaries that are concerned about social justice. The lens? Expeditionary learning. It is like.... they read my soul and put it onto paper.

We are year round.
We are extended day.
We do field work.
We take the kids on 3-4 night long trips across the country.
We have vast partnerships from slam poetry to scholarship funds to the YMCA.
We are 90% free and reduced lunch.

This school year is going to kick my ass. I can already feel it. The sheer amount of work that goes into expeditions, unpacking the standards and creating all the curriculum from scratch, of linking social justice and equality to everything.... is absurd. But I love it.

This year, I feel like I am going to do the work that matters. I think my voice is going to be heard. I am going to get to work with people that believe the exact same things that I do. That these kids matter. That education is a civil rights issue. That teaching should be a holistic endeavor and not a series of checklists. That relationships are the key to everything. That we should teach kids to question everything and fight for what's right. To stand up. To have courage. To persevere.  To go into their communities and do good.

Every time I leave this school, I feel refreshed, excited, and overwhelmed by the people who understand what it really means to be an Educator.

I am going to learn so much. I am going to have insane stories again. And I am going to keep trying to fix the world.

I really, really hope that this is my new home.