Category Archives: education

ne1 want to share?

As a teacher in the city, I hear a lot of disparaging remarks about children, and I won’t lie – sometimes I’m the one saying them.  As a disclaimer, I also talk trash about my family sometimes – when they’re annoying – but with the understanding that I love them unconditionally, and I will typically only share my frustrations with other family members.  So too at school – I love my kids and will only vent my ire with other teachers who love them too.  With family and students alike, I will challenge anyone who dares to denigrate them. And I will do so with stories like that which follows here.

For those of you who look at the youth of today and deem your own generation to be doomed once these youngfolk are taking care of you…

Two days before Thanksgiving, I asked students to write on any topic they chose.  I teach a remedial reading class (“reading recovery” is what we call it these days), and studies show that while allowing students to write on their choice of topic encourages them to write more, having them read their own writing aloud helps them to develop reading fluency as well as understand their mistakes for themselves, without a teacher having to tell them that something doesn’t sound right.  It beats teaching grammar rules that seem abstract and arbitrary to kids who struggle with reading – the rules make no sense on their own, but they can hear very clearly when something needs to be fixed.

Anyway, The students – four girls in this particular class – began to write feverishly for 20 minutes and had to be coerced by my pleading to stop.  I would have let them keep at it, but sharing is an important part of this exercise.

I suppose each of them had Thanksgiving on the mind because all four of them wrote about how thankful they were to have their families surrounding them.  This fact alone was touching enough; New York City kids are renowned for their tough exteriors and these girls are no exception, but they let their guard down just a bit.  Each one of them let the rest of us in just a little.

But then Jennifer, who had so much to say she wrote two separate responses, wanted to share some more.  Her first response was about how grateful she was for everything her mother brings into her life.  Her second piece was about the day her father died.

She asked our permission to read it.  We all told her she should feel free to share anything she was comfortable sharing.

The endearingly butch Laurie asked her if she was going to be okay reading it, if she could do it without crying.  She didn’t ask this to taunt Jennifer, her tone was that of genuine concern for her friend who was about to share something very painful.  Jennifer said she could do it and, furthermore, she really wanted to share it.

And so she read to us the story of being in Virginia with her mother eleven years ago when she was five years old.  Her mother received a phone call from her husband’s friend telling her that her husband had suffered a massive heart attack and was in critical condition.  Faced with a day-long bus-ride home, Jennifer’s mother didn’t want to distress her young daughter immediately when there was little to be done other than get home as quickly as possible.  She told Jennifer a half-truth: her friend was sick and they had to return to New York as soon as possible.  Jennifer was sad to leave her cousins in Virginia, but she respectfully returned with her mother.  It wasn’t until they returned home that her mother said to her, “Baby, you know how I told you that my friend was sick? Well, that friend is your daddy.”

Jennifer couldn’t read any further.  Laurie leaned over and held her so that Jennifer could cry on her shoulder.  Lizette ran out to fetch a handful of toilet paper for her to blow her nose and wipe her eyes.  Ivy grabbed a cup and ran to get some water, and all of this happened without instruction or hesitation.  The two who left returned, and no one spoke, we just let Jennifer have her cry.  When she’d calmed down enough to continue talking, she told us that the last time she saw her father was when he was in the hospital attached to machines; the image of him was so frightening to her five year old mind that she refused to speak to him.  And then he died.

Jennifer pulled herself together again and thanked everyone for their help.

Several things I happened in this intensely emotional ten minutes of time that made me feel very proud of my students and secure in the future of humanity.  The first is that we’ve created a space in our room that is so safe that students can articulate a need to share what hurts them most, and then actually share it.  And the students are not just passively accepting, they are genuinely supportive of one another.  I would like to take credit for this, but the truth is that this is the kind of atmosphere I’ve dreamed of creating and tried to create – never successfully – at my former school.  No, most of the credit goes to the girls themselves.  They’re just beautiful.

I’ve had philosophical (and typically cynical) discussions with friends about the nature of human communication in the age of MySpace.   Those of us who did not grow up with the internet but have embraced it later in life feel the difference between talking with friends for hours on the phone or in person versus texting and messaging them.  We feel like our own correspondence on many days feels insincere and trite by using these handy communication devices, and we wonder what it will be like when generations who have never experienced life without the internet grow up.  I, too, felt a little apprehensive about the prospect, but I have to say the more time I spend with younger people, the better I feel.  So even if they honestly think that anyone is spelled ne1 and write it thusly on their weekly quizzes, there are worse things than that.  Spelling can be corrected if need be, but the lack of a kindhearted spirit is much harder to remedy…fortunately I don’t have to.

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ding-dong Dell

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This morning I arrived at work to find that my classroom had been vandalized over the weekend. Our school shares the building with the Chinatown YMCA and “Chinese school,” a program for recently arrived Chinese students to help them stay connected with their culture. Apparently students from the Chinese school were found in my room lounging on our bean bag chairs, eating potato chips and soda on our reading rug. Someone found them there and ran them off, for which I’m grateful, but they neglected to check the kids bags because in one of them was — or perhaps is still — my school-issued laptop! It was locked in the closet (along with the chips and soda), but the kids found the key in the back of my desk drawer. The room itself must remain unlocked by law: in the case of a fire, the fire department is instructed to lift folks who can’t make it down the stairs from my windows, therefore the room must always be open.

Anyway, the good news is that we know who the kids are so they can be tracked down will hopefully still have the computer on them. The bad news is that last year a teacher had his school-issued computer stolen from his locked classroom but was left with the blame because he left the computer on his desk — he had to pay for the replacement himself. I don’t have $1000. I really don’t want this to be my fate. And though the Chinese school said they would pay for anything that went missing, I worry that something as significant as a computer might fall back to me, that I might be considered to negligent in some way. It doesn’t seem fair, but there’s a precedent.

The thing to remember, I suppose, is that it’s just a thing, and things can be replaced. If I have to be the one to replace it, it’s going to really hurt me financially, but I’ll recover. In, like, six years, but I’ll recover.

Damn.

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It’s been awhile…

2007 has thus far been red-letter year.  It gets a bright shiny star sticker on the report card.

Although 2006 brought me an amazing man to call my own, it’s 2007 that really saw that relationship prosper.  To this day I am in love with the most amazing guy — good-hearted and charming, stable, smart and sexy — I’d dreamt about him for years, and now, a year later, here we are.  Just amazing.

And 2007 helped me to find the Capella choir.  Ten months and three concerts down the line, I am still a member and I rejoice after each rehearsal: After a five-and-a-half year hiatus, I am a musician again.  Music is once again a friend, and despite our time apart it hasn’t taken us very long to cozy up to each other.

2007 brought me back to knitting (although I’ve been a little slow on the go about this lately, too — will post some finished projects in a few days and discuss the latest works), and it led me to The Point where I’ve met some dear new friends.  Quirky, eclectic and colorful, dull shall never describe the place or the people in the knitting community here in New York.

2007 flew me back to Bath, England, where I was fortunate enough to spend one of the most memorable years of my life.  Although I was only able to spend a week there this year, I was able to spend that week with my Grandma who had never visited England before.  So even though we visited places that were common to me during my previous stay, I saw them now through her eyes and delighted in everything anew.   It was a special trip, and it allowed me to check in with some old friends as well.

Lastly, but far from leastly, 2007 landed me a new job.  My four years of teaching middle school in the Bronx have come to a end.  I want to say more about that and describe the ending with words like “bittersweet” and “hard,” but no qualifying adjectives can fully communicate the experience, so a future entry will need to address it.  Suffice it to say, I’m now teaching at a high school in Manhattan, and the fact that I’m including this in my list of highlights of 2007 ought to say enough for now about how I feel.  I’ll say more later.

And I promise that I will.  Say more later, that is.  Because of all the wonders that 2007 has wrought, a committed focus to writing is not one of them (Observe: this blog began in, yet has been heretofore untouched since January).  And this is problematic, not only because I tell people that if I were to leave teaching it would be to pursue a career as a full-time writer (whatever that could mean), but because I really like to write and I’m just not doing enough of it.  I have ideas for novels and plays, essays, what-have-you, but they remain queued up at the ticket counter in my head and never travel beyond the threshold of my brain.

The problem is that there’s never enough time — everybody’s problem, right?  What with Boyfriend and Friends and Teaching and Music and Knitting…there’s a lot to take care of, and thankfully so.  Still…  I always promise myself that I’ll use the summer to write, but I never do.  The summer calendar seduces me with its vast emptiness, then it intimidates me with its many possibilities, and by the time I decide what I want to do with it, it ends.  Big tease.

I also daydream about all the workshops and classes I should take that would make me into a writer.  This makes sense in my head, but in reality I’ve attended the workshops, the seminars and the meetup groups, and I write in spurts, but it isn’t consistent enough to be meaningful.

And yet, I still love words, and I still want to play with them.  So what am I to do?

Here’s what: I’m going to write something every day.  For the next year.  Even if it sucks.  2007 will begin my commitment, and 2008, I hope, will continue to bear all the fruit of 2007 and more.  By doing this — I don’t know… — I hope to improve my writing stamina, generate some ideas for bigger projects, and just keep a promise to myself.  This way it will be a legitimate claim when I tell people that I’m a writer, ya know?

Word.

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this is just to say.

Just real quick because it’s past my bedtime: loving children is very easy, but teaching them is very hard.  And teaching them when they are mostly the children of poor immigrants who don’t realize that their life’s improvement (which, in many cases, was their parents’ primary reason for moving here in the first place) will be based almost entirely on the degree of education they obtain is wildly frustrating.

But loving, being the easy part, is what I will go to bed thinking about tonight, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to fall out of bed in the morning.  I wish they understood that my goal, simply, is to help them attain their dreams.

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It’s my time of the month and I’m feeling (sic)!

Okay, let me just say that I am not laughing at my students when they confuse English words and malaprop things all over the place. I’ve been in their place. I spent six weeks during the summer of 1999 teaching in Mexico, and I asked a student of mine if I could see his “chaqueta,” which in my mind and on my tongue meant “jacket.” And it does mean “jacket” in Spain, but in Mexico it means “to masturbate” (chaquetar). Basically, instead of asking if I could see his jacket (which was new and colorful), I asked if I could see him “jack it”…and a chorus of laughter ensued.

We make mistakes when we dress our tongues in new languages, it’s how we learn. And it’s flippin’ hysterical to native speakers of that language when we do it.

As was the case today, when an ESL student told me quietly (and with a sense of lost honor) that her 13-year-old cousin not only had a baby after having sex, she also lost her vagina!

Me: I don’t think you mean “vagina,” you mean…

Student: Oh yeah, I know that…I mean she lost her vaginity.

🙂 From the mouths of babes…

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We don’t like your bush.

My students are learning about the Revolutionary War and the events leading up to it.  I had them analyze Ben Franklin’s “Join or Die” cartoon (the one with the snake chopped into bits, each bit representing one of the colonies), and then they created cartoons of their own.  The assignment yielded a spectrum of sophistication, from abstract commentary on our school’s uniform policy, to the colonists’ desire to maim King George III, to my very favorite cartoon. It’s my favorite not because of what she meant to say, but what she actually said.  This student (I don’t feel comfortable revealing names on this blog) is an English as a Second Language student from the Dominican Republic, and her cartoon depicted 20 people wearing Mickey Mouse ears and sour faces, and carrying signs that meant to read “We Don’t Like You, Bush,” but instead read what I’ve written above as the title line.

You can make it into a t-shirt if you like, but I get two shirts for free, one for me and one for my student to give to her when she graduates from high school in five years, hopefully with a stronger grasp of English.

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a spoonful of sugar with your humble pie.

If you’ve read my “About” section, you probably aren’t left with any concrete sense of what I’m going for here with this blog, but you’ve at least gleaned that whatever it is I’m trying to say will be said with levity and mirth.

For this reason, I will not use this blog as a forum for badmouthing people. Not much anyway, and if I do, all statements will be thoroughly disclaimed and apologized for, and will only be made if indeed relevant. Such is the statement that I’m about to make.

I attended a knitting circle tonight and expected to enjoy the company present there more than I truly did. No matter — they seemed to be enjoying themselves and I am glad for them. Several of the knitters present, however, were involved in education, either as teachers or policy shapers, and a discussion ensued about the dire state of the public schools in New York City.

When I overheard a couple discussing teaching, I tried to chime into the conversation but was either not heard or simply ignored. No matter: the more I listened to them, the more I realized that participation in the discussion would only wear me out. It amounted to the same sterile palaver that one always hears when teachers bitch: parents don’t know how to be good parents, students would rather play video games in class, the teacher factory organizations like Teach for America and Teaching Fellows aren’t actually helping the problem because the teachers they provide never stay more than two or three years (and ain’t I special for staying longer than that…). Believe me when I say that I understand the need to vent, because it’s not as though any of these statements are untrue. Teaching middle school is such a difficult challenge, so difficult, in fact, that we refer to it as “a calling.” It doesn’t make sense to us that we would choose of our own free will to take on the highly stressful challenge of teaching America’s most impoverished and deprived children to read and write and think, so it must be a calling. And it probably is, but for many it seems in retrospect that it must have been a wrong number call. Or maybe a prank.

But this doesn’t matter: we have chosen it, after all, and we can leave if we want, but in the meantime we have a job to do. The New York newspapers ran a story last week about how middle schools received failing grades as schools in the wake of the city’s push to improve elementary and high schools. As an insider, I can’t disagree with that statement. I, too, have bitched about the problems. I, too, have found comfort in apathy at times. But now I’m tired of all that. I don’t want to approach my schools problems with the attitude that everything is doomed, because even if it is (and I don’t believe it to be) that’s all the more reason to tackle the problems with a sense of humor. If you feel like you are fighting waves with a sword, simply put down your weapon and swim. You’ll either realize that you can’t fight water with a sword, and you’ll begin to ask why you’re fighting water in the first place.

And since it’s getting late and I’m beginning to write in trifling platitudes anyhow, I’ll end with this one, because I just heard a commercial on the radio for Mary Poppins. That irreverent nanny once sang, “To every job that must be done there is an element of fun: You find the fun and — Snap! — the job’s a game!” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

So anyway, expect from me the reasons why teaching middle schoolers in the South Bronx is sometimes a lot of fun. I’ll do so in part to entertain you readers, but mostly to remind myself in the harder times that middle schoolers are actually kind of funny and teaching them is, well, kind of neat.

Does this globe make my belly look big?
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