Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Happy Birthday Miss

Last week I celebrated my 30th birthday. It was one of the best birthdays I have ever had. Second in comparison was my 25th birthday, during my first year of teaching, when all my students stopped class to sing the Stevie Wonder rendition of Happy Birthday. This year, not only did family and friends send their love through phone calls, emails, text messages, cards, hugs, and birthday drinks, but so did my coworkers and even my students (minus the birthday drinks part).

In my advisory we had a holiday celebration filled with cookies, chocolates, cupcakes, apple cider, candy canes, and a Hanukkah cookie cake brought in by a parent. We filled the classroom with two fake Christmas trees, several strings of lights, garland and wreaths, holly, and the tiniest string of blue and silver Hanukkah decorations, essentially all the holiday decor we could find stored in the room from the last two teachers who resided here. We listened to holiday music on Pandora, skipping the songs that felt just a little bit too religious for school. It was a wonderful 90 minutes.

Kids I hadn't seen in days, weeks, or even months made an appearance, wished me a happy birthday, gave me a hug, asked me how old I was to which I replied "59" while they ogled the abundance of sweets before them. One student hugged me a little too tightly and for a little too long and signed my birthday card, "I <3 U". Another student believed me when I told him I was 45 saying, "You're the same age as my mom! But she actually looks younger than you." And the rest just asked, "What you doing tonight? Going to the bar? You gonna be hungover tomorrow?" To which I just played dumb and said, "I'm going to spend time with some friends." And in my head thought, "Hell yeah, I'm going to the bar and I'm not coming in until noon tomorrow!"

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The "Curse" of the Holidays?

The holiday season is here. For teachers, it can be the toughest time of the school year. It's when the kids act out the most, when they disappear from school, and when they get into fights over the most mundane disagreements. Something about the holidays, brings out the worst. As teachers, we count down the days until winter break, until we have nearly two weeks of freedom, of relaxation. For students, the winter break could be little more than a disruption in the most stable part of their lives. At school, there is food, there is heat, there are rules and consequences, there are adults who care, and people that have your back. Many students don't have these luxuries at home. As we, the teachers, excitedly cross the days off the calendar, we must also try to contain the chaos, diminish students' anxiety, and work to maintain a positive school culture. Despite the stress that comes with this task, I have found that this is also the time of year when I feel the most thankful to be a part of my school community.

Every year my school holds a Thanksgiving luncheon for students. Everyone on staff contributes whether it be donating funds, cooking two turkeys, making their "famous" mashed potatoes, mac n cheese, stuffing, collard greens, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, gluten-free cookies, pumpkin pie, or their "healthy but delicious" roasted vegetables. Parents donate food and some even come in to help serve. We all pitch in to make sure our students know how much we care about them and make sure they have at least one special Thanksgiving meal.

One of my favorite moments this year was when I sat down with a group of students who talked about how delicious the food was and thanked us for cooking. One of my colleagues spoke of a conversation she overheard. A student complained about the meal saying, "It wasn't that good." He was immediately shut down by another student who said, "In what other school do your teachers spend their personal time at home cooking for you and then serve you a plate overflowing with food? They have families and friends they could be spending their free time with, but they weren't. They were cooking for you. How dare you complain." And it warmed my heart all the more when the students sitting around the table listening to this story all concurred: We are lucky to be at this school.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Battling Windmills and Smelly Subway Cars

As I commute around New York City, I often find myself faced with a difficult choice: whether to stay in the subway car where I have a seat but am forced to smell the homeless guy two seats away or move to the unknown, most likely a hot and crowded subway car with no empty seat in sight. Tonight was one such night, returning home from a Hunter College Open House for their MFA Writing programs. I sat briefly pondering my next move: Can I stay in my current career as a teacher, would a different school be better suited for me or should I just pursue other seemingly less-stressful interests like a MFA in writing?

It was when my thoughts were interrupted by the smell of urine that I recognized a correlation between my two dilemmas. At the root of the second dilemma is the feeling that nothing I do as a teacher really matters all that much. Despite all my efforts at guiding them in the right direction, kids will nod and smile then continue doing whatever they feel like doing. And this recurring cycle of disappointment leads me to the thought of switching to a non-transfer school. What would that mean? Kids who are motivated, perhaps. Kids who come to class regularly with their homework completed-- that would be amazing! I suppose if one can endure the stress, the aggravation of constantly trying to convince kids to stay in school, to come to class, to complete their assignments, to not smoke weed during school or chug beers during lunch, for months or years until they finally snap out of it and start earning their credits-- hopefully before they turn 21 and run out of time-- then it's rewarding. But I have to be patient and I have to remember that every kid won't make it and it's nearly impossible to know which kids are worth putting the energy into trying to "save" so I spread myself thin trying to help them all. Until one day I realize it's not sustainable. My life as a teacher is akin to Don Quixote battling windmills. My windmills are all the bad choices that my students make and as hard as I try to battle them, no matter how many Sanchos I can recruit to join my army, I can never defeat the windmills.

So, do I stay where I'm at and shield myself from burning out by doing less and less? Or do I make a move to the unknown? Maybe it will be a great school where kids always come to class on time daily with their homework completed, excited to learn and grow, maybe they never question anything. Or maybe it will be the kind of school where teachers pass the kids through just to avoid the principal's wrath. Or maybe I take a break from teaching in general and get a second Master's degree just because I can and I want to write more. But then I think: how will I have any money? It could easily be the best or worst move of my life, but it's the fear of the unknown that keeps me seated where I am, hoping I won't have to hold my breath or cover my nose for too long.

Choosing the right subway car: not that different from choosing the right public school or the right career path. Not that different from most of life's choices, I suppose.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

How to teach kids real good: Test them.

Welcome to your morning session

We mean your norming session
Here you will become test grading robots
Take a number
You will now be known as grader #176
This test is not subjective
We must all grade the same
You are professionals

The dissenters speak up
And others yell to quiet them
Get off your soap box
This isn't the platform for this
Do what the man tells you
Don't get caught protesting in this room

No electronics
No music
No eating
No drinking
Just grade
And keep grading

This is what we call American education
The best education system in the world
American education
The best in the world

I don't hear your red pens moving

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I Believe in the Crossing Guard

This year I tried something new in my English class: "This I Believe" essays inspired by the NPR series. Students read, listened to, and discussed a variety of essays then created their own. Throughout the unit I contemplated my own beliefs as I tried to write my own essay. Today as I was walking to the train to work I realized what I believe in.

I believe in the crossing guard. At her post every week day at 7:30am. Guiding all those making their way across Empire Boulevard with a smile, a hello and always, "Have a blessed day."

I believe in getting to know the people in your neighborhood, having a familiar face to greet you as you leave and another to greet you on your way home. Someone who lets the rest of your neighborhood know, "Hey, she belongs here and I got her back."

I believe in starting your day off right, on a positive note. You may be running late or stressed about what the day will hold, but she is always there with a smile, a hello, and a "Have a blessed day" at 7:30am.

The crossing guard provides a fresh start to the day or just a reminder of how much better it feels to start the day off friendly and smiling. A pleasant interaction before you step onto the crowded train where people push and shove, pretend not to see the elderly, disabled or pregnant woman hovering over them, more deserving of a seat, and yell, curse, kick, and spit at each other if someone's newspaper gets crinkled in the cluster fuck.

Once you cross paths with the crossing guard, you can commute peacefully, ignoring the grumps that fill the train. Later, you take the crossing guard's aura to your classroom and spread it to each student who enters. A friendly hello and a smile to all whether they return your greeting or not.

I believe in saying hello to the people you see every day. In bringing a smile to those you know. I believe in kindness in all our daily interactions. I believe in the bodega guy at the end of a long day, always there to greet you as you pass his corner, "Hello friend. How are you?"

Thursday, October 2, 2014

what is happiness?

happiness is getting to sleep in a hour later
because it's exam week at school

happiness is spending the day cleaning out your desk
filled with someone else's stuff
pausing to appreciate the little things she kept
hearing the story of each item
before throwing it in the trash
and being able to see how much progress was made
at the end of the day

happiness is going on a long walk during your lunch break
when your stomach is churning with hunger pains
and finding the original sandwich shoppe
where an old New Yorker in a white t-shirt and an apron works behind the counter
and you think that's exactly the kind of guy you want to make your sandwich
and the sandwich is delicious

happiness is coming home
and taking a shower
without the tub filling up to your ankles in water

happiness is when your cat jumps on the counter
and smells your cheese
so you try to shove her off
and she spasms and splatters your red wine everywhere
but then you taste the last remaining sip of red wine and it's turned to vinegar

happiness is eating a brownie sundae for dinner
when you haven't had a sundae in years
and feeling sick afterward

happiness is going to bed early
because you're still tired from all the fun you had over the weekend
and it's Wednesday night

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A poem called Naptime

in between the bells i rest my head on a stack of papers
i hear the chatter in the hallways as they bustle by
in fits of laughter,
screaming and giggling,
arguing about nothing
i hope i locked the door.
i shut my eyes
as i drift off the bell rings
here they come. take a deep breath. sigh. get ready.
forty-four minutes to go.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Parlez-vous français?

There was once a French teacher at my school. She wore a blonde bun every day held tight by a braid wrapped around it, always leaving two strands of golden hair, slightly greased, hanging down on each side of her face. She wore bright red lipstick and when she spoke her lips moved in  such a mesmerizing way I always felt like I was watching a claymation video on Nickelodeon. She smelled of stale coffee and vanilla. Her nails were filed to a point, often painted a nude-ish color. She was what Jerry Seinfeld would call a "close talker", often choosing the most inappropriate moments to share her disapproval of the new teacher contract. I would be standing at the front of the classroom trying to teach my lesson and she would approach me to tell me what really gets her goat. She often talked in circles, describing the new contract as a means of extortion. Always telling me how terrible "they" were treating untenured teachers, raving about the other UFT caucus, MORE. As much as I often agreed with her points, I just couldn't handle the moments and methods in which she chose to present them.

In her classes, she taught with a vast collection of worksheets. I had no idea just how many worksheets until she retired. As I left on the final day of school last June, she mentioned having some teaching resources she wanted to pass on to me. I said fine, she could leave them in my mailbox.

When I returned in August I found a stack of French worksheets placed on my desk. I assumed the custodians had found them when they were cleaning the room, leftover from the previous year's students. I tossed them in the trash along with the other random papers that had emerged over the summer.

The following week I began cleaning up my classroom. I decided to attack the back corner which was filled with boxes and crates of random books and supplies. I found a large black plastic bag in the corner that I didn't recognize. It was filled to the brim with French worksheets. Right away, I knew where it came from. I found myself completely perplexed as to why this woman would think that this bag filled with worksheets in a language I do not speak would be useful. This bag had no purpose for me, therefore it had to be disposed of immediately. I am very strong. I tried to lift the bag and couldn't so I slowly dragged it to the garbage cans. I still could not lift it so I taped a note that read, "TRASH" to the bag and left it next to the trash can. The bag sat on the floor by my desk for two days, before the custodian finally gave in and lifted the bag into his rolling trash can and took it away. I still wonder how this woman of such small stature was able to carry this burdensome bag down a flight of stairs and across the hallway into the back corner of my classroom.

A few days later, as I began going through folders from the previous year, I noticed that a stack of papers and folders had been knocked over. As I tidied up, I found papers that once again did not belong to me. More French worksheets!

The following day I decided to clean out a filing cabinet. When I went to open the drawer I saw it was already ajar. I tried to pull it open further but it was stuck. There was a blue folder crammed on top of my neatly organized files. "When did I put that there?" I thought as I struggled to remove the folder. I opened the folder. Unbelievable. More French worksheets.

As I opened the doors of a large wooden cabinet overflowing with books, I found a new yellow plastic bag sitting on one of the shelves. I peered inside and found it was filled with matching hard-cover urban books and a note addressed to me in green marker and her very distinct cursive handwriting. "For Jamie. Have a great year!" At least these books were written in English. I added them to the pile of books to send down to the book room. Maybe someone would use them. It was not going to be me.

At this point, my room was clean. I surmised I had found and rid myself of all the hidden gifts. I moved on to other things and forgot about the worksheets.

Last Friday, one of my special ed students decided she was going to sign herself out of school and enroll in a GED program. In order to do so, we needed to give her a copy of her IEP (Individualized Education Plan). As I dug into the IEP drawer for the first time all year, I realized there were some extra papers floating around inside. I pulled them out and with no more than a quick glance yelled, "MORE FRENCH WORKSHEETS!" I threw them on the ground, still pulling out more by the handful, as my colleague watched in a fit of laughter.

It's been six days since I have found a worksheet. Each day I return to school wondering if I got the last of the French worksheets or if they will forever haunt me. Who knew foreign languages could be so relentless?

Sunday, September 14, 2014


In grad school i learned something.
if a kids farts,
take the credit.
tell them, "oops. sorry. i had beans again."
i love seeing the look on their faces
as they burst into giggles and snickers,
wondering why i would tell such a lie.
my attempt to protect the offender from humiliation
always works.

Today i really farted.
and it really stunk.
in a calm panic
i walked up and down the room just tooting silently
and slowly they began to smell it

they covered their noses and tucked their faces under their black t-shirts,
yelling for mercy,
"ho shit!"
"Miss, open the door, please!"
"someone needs to see a doctor about that."
"dat shit stinks!"

i shrugged my shoulders
in what they perceived to be false embarrassment.
"oh sorry uh it was me."
and as usual they laugh.

but really guys, it was me.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The First Day

Today was officially the first day of school. My school, being the unique place it is, had students come in for about two hours to go over the class list and internship offerings. Tomorrow they come back in to self-register for classes and internships of their choosing, which is often the most stressful day of the year as kids line up at your desk begging you to let them in your class or internship, yelling and crying when they don't get what they want. And this goes on all day for three days.

Today I spent only two hours with my advisees and boy, do I need a drink!

This school year we have a new schedule. One of the many nuances of this new schedule is that students who have classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and internships on Tuesdays and Thursdays begin their day at 9:30am, forty-five minutes later than the old schedule. Friday… is extra special. They have the privilege of beginning their day at 11am. This new schedule was greeted with mixed emotions by staff and students. As we handed out the schedule, one student yelled, "YOU GUYS PUT ADVISORY SECOND PERIOD? GUESS I'M GONNA BE TAKING A LATE BREAKFAST THEN!"


To which I responded, "Well, since you normally don't show up to school until close to 11am, this actually works perfectly for you."

The room burst into fits of laughter and a simultaneous "OOOOOHH!"



Perhaps not the best move on my part, but luckily he only sulked briefly. Not to mention it felt so good to hit this smart aleck with a witty one-liner. As unnerving as it can be when a group of teenagers roars simultaneously, it was good to know they like my jokes.

When the  two hours of chaos and confusion ended, my coworker turned to me and said, "So, um, my group is pretty chill, huh?"

"You mean, unlike mine who are bouncing off the walls, constantly talking and yelling, unable to shut up?"

"Yeah," he laughed, "exactly."

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Ding Dong the Witch is...


Finally. We have a new superintendent. My principal announced the official news today. Cheers erupted. I looked two seats over at another un-tenured teacher, shooting him a knowing glance. We exchanged smiles, knowing what this meant for us. HOPE.

For the first time in our history (at least as far as I know), we have a superintendent specifically for transfer schools. According to those who know, she is someone who understands and values what teachers in my school do everyday. As a former transfer school principal, she can review our tenure portfolios, keeping in mind the population of students we work with: students on the verge of dropping out; students with a myriad of external issues negatively impacting their ability to be successful in school. Perhaps this superintendent will recognize the amount of social-emotional support we provide to our students who desperately need it and how integral it is to their development and success.

And so here we are—some of us five, six, seven years in—tenure once tucked away in a wild dream is now becoming a tangible reality.

Why does tenure matter? Because without tenure, it is much easier to get rid of teachers. As Paul Horton says on Diane Ravitch's blog, "The impact of the loss of tenure will demoralize teacher’s unions and allow school administrators to hire and fire at will. The immediate objective for education reformers is that a victory in the tenure fight will allow big city school districts to rif out senior teachers who are expensive and replace them with young, less costly teachers." Without tenure, administrators have the power to end a teacher's career, for any reason.

In my first two years of teaching I saw Peter Greene's arguments firsthand. “The lack of tenure, of due process, of any requirement that a school district only fire teachers for some actual legitimate reason– it interferes with teachers’ ability to do the job they were hired to do. It forces teachers to work under a chilling cloud where their best professional judgment, their desire to advocate for and help students, their ability to speak out and stand up are all smothered by people with the power to say, “Do as I tell you, or else.” It is not until you have tenure, that you can finally feel free to speak your mind, to advocate for students without fear of repercussions. Greene continues, “Tenure is not a crown and scepter for every teacher, to make them powerful and untouchable. Tenure is a bodyguard who stands at the classroom door and says, “You go ahead and teach, buddy. I’ll make sure nobody interrupts just to mess with you.”' I love the bodyguard metaphor. As a dues-paying member of the UFT, you hope your union rep can be your protector, but there's little the union can really do unless you have that security blanket known as tenure. I remember after meeting with an union representative about the harassment I was facing during my second year. I was told, "If you don't fight her, you might still have a job at the end of the year."

Diane Ravitch also includes on her blog a letter written by two teachers explaining not only the process but the importance of tenure. They write, “Without tenure, we could not stand up against the injustices we witness against children by districts that may temporarily have forgotten our reason for being here – our students and educational community. Without tenure, we could not stand up to our administrators/supervisors when something is wrong. Without tenure we could not stand up against harassment and workplace bullying. Without tenure, we could not stand up against racism, sexism, homophobia, bigotry and age discrimination." And here again, we inevitably describe much of what I faced during my second year of teaching: deciding whether or not to stand idly by as injustices were committed against my students, being bullied by my principal, being sexually harassed by an assistant principal and feeling unable to stop any of it.

Three years later, on June 20, 2014, the end of my fifth year of teaching, everyone in my corner, fingers crossed that I would finally get my tenure, I was called down to the principal's office. My union chapter leader was sitting by my side. They didn't have to say anything. The looks on their faces said it all. "I didn't get tenure, did I?"

My assistant principal expressed her frustration. "It's bureaucratic bullshit. The system is so messed up. No one deserves this more than you." Then she started crying.

As safe as I feel in my school, as much as I know I am valued as a "highly effective" teacher (with an arbitrary teacher score of 96/100 under our new rating system), baby still wants her security blanket. We all do.

Measures of Teacher
State MeasuresLocal Measures
0-60 points:
0-20 points:
0-20 points:
Highly Effective
HEDI Rating
Highly Effective
HEDI Rating
Highly Effective
HEDI Rating
Overall Rating
0-100 Points:
Highly Effective
HEDI Rating

Safety Net Result:N/A

Thursday, August 28, 2014

New Student Orientation

Day 3 of New Student Orientation. How I made it through the day without crying is beyond me. It is days like this that remind me why I love my school and why I love teaching. A day filled with ice breakers and sharing personal stories and introducing the new transfer students to the culture that is our school.

Perhaps one of the best moments of the day was when I told our new high school students that we have a large LGBT community and our former principal is a trans woman and almost all the kids cheered, pumped their fists, and high-fived one another.

Another great moment was after leading a focused free writing activity, borrowed from one of my veteran colleagues, where I asked students:
As you begin the new school year, what are you leaving behind?
What are you bringing with you?
What are you expecting to be different here?
What do you hope to accomplish?

Students wrote and wrote and wrote then shared with a partner. Their partner then shared their responses with the larger group. It was amazing to see the insight of these students. One student talked about insecurities and being bullied and always worrying about what other people think of her. Another student in the room raised her hand, "Can I say something? I know exactly what you mean. I feel like that sometimes too. We all do, but you can't let it get you down. You just have to move past it and not care what other people think and just be yourself." And the room erupted into snaps.

As students spoke about wanting to leave behind their bad attitudes and not-so-great behaviors, one student told his peers, "You just have to learn to let things go. Let the past be history so you can move on to the future." Here was where I saw my opportunity. "We all have bad habits and behaviors that we're trying to leave behind and move on and be better people. We all make mistakes, but we have to get back up and keep it moving. It's so important to let the bad things go so we can move on with our lives." I spoke of the incredible amount of tolerance, acceptance, and community within the room. "No matter what you see happening around you, hold onto this moment, this feeling. Don't forget what this feels like right now."

Another student said, "You guys are sneaky. You tricked us into writing about our feelings and then tricked us again into connecting with each other over our similar high school experiences. I loved this activity." We all smiled and laughed in unison.

And before the day was over, the students concluded, "This is what I expected high school to be like, but it wasn't. This is what all of my schooling should have been like but it wasn't. Why don't you guys have a Pre-K through 12 school? Everyone would want to go there!"

Saturday, August 23, 2014

First Time Thai: A poem

The first time my students have Thai food
always makes me smile
They never know what to order
telling me to choose for them
"You decide" they say
or "I'll have what you're having"
Handing me a $10 bill
and their trust

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Refreshing the Body, Mind, and Spirit

Yesterday I left New York City and headed upstate to the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. After a stressful commute, which involved getting stuck on the subway, being late to meet my friend and missing my train and having my next train delayed a hour, I arrived at the Rhinecliff station. I was greeted by my uncle in what my mom initially said would be a red Saab convertible, but later texted me to let me know it was actually burgundy, just in case there was both a red and a burgundy Saab convertible outside the small town train station.

After checking into Omega around 2:30pm, receiving my room key, and being told I couldn’t enter my room until 5pm, I immediately broke the rules and went to my room and dropped off my stuff. As I tried to find a good place to stuff my luggage, I heard “Yay! You’re here!” and turned around to see my friend standing in the doorway. Despite Omega’s privacy policy, we had both broken the “5pm rule” and found each other.

Long Pond Lake. Rhinebeck, NY.

Then we headed out into the world of Omega. I went to the café and ate some nachos and sipped raspberry iced tea. I went to the patchouli-smelling bookstore and bought a 25-cent pen. Then I went back to the patchouli-smelling bookstore and splurged on a red sketchbook and a soft and comfy teal and charcoal patterned knit “blazer sweater” that I would not mind wearing every day forever. Then I headed to the lake, sketched some people in their bathing suits, laid face down on the grass then tried to climb into a hammock built for people taller than I.  My friend and I worried we may have interrupted other people’s zen with our hysterical giggles as we struggled with the hammock, unable to both climb in, but after many attempts, some strategizing, and new approaches, we made it in. After resting in the hammock briefly, we got the urge to swim. So we headed back to our rooms, changed into our swimsuits, returned to the lake and took a swim before heading to our vegetarian dinner buffet. After dinner we snuck into the very expensive BobbyMcFerrin Circlesongs workshop and listened to singing voices improvise and joined in song circles and just stood under the trees singing and making all types of musical noises.

Today I woke at 6:40am to the most un-zen alarm clock I have ever heard and attended my first meditation. Later, I will splurge on a fancy massage. I will sit in the sauna and swim in the lake. I may take a yoga class. I may go for a run. I will relax and decompress and refresh myself for the upcoming school year. Tomorrow I may try out tai chi. As one of my dear colleagues says, “Summer vacation isn’t for the students. It’s for the teachers to forget how bad the year was so they can come back and do it all over again.”

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Student Growth

As a transfer school, students come from all over the city hoping to leave their previous high school(s) for a variety of reasons. We hold open houses for prospective students and interview them to make sure they will be able to adapt to the culture of the school, find out if there are any red flags, and get an idea of their academic abilities. Although the process definitely raises some ethical issues for many of us, it is still one of my favorite parts of the job. We get to meet students when they're completely vulnerable, listening, and expelling all the details of their lives. We learn so much about who the kids are and what they've been through in their lives.

Today I interviewed a real odd-ball and complete sweetheart of a kid. He's a student who receives special education services. He talked of many things often using animal metaphors to describe himself. "Waking up is hard for me sometimes. I sleep like a bear... I'm a real class clown— very hyper—I'm basically a monkey."
" When I asked him how he spends his free time, he told me about his pet lizard which he described as "some kind of dragon, I think. I forget."
"A bearded dragon?" I asked.
"Yeah, I think that's it."
Then he told me, "He tastes my blood and other people's blood. That's how he knows when it's me and when it's someone else— But once he tastes their blood, he warms up to them."
I thought about it for a moment, slightly confused and asked half-joking, "Wait. So does he like go around biting people to figure out who they are?"
"No, no. It's not like that. I just make a little prick on my finger and he tastes the blood."
"Oh, okay," I said, pretending that was a completely normal thing for lizards and humans to do.

When I asked questions about his old school, I found myself on a journey from as early as elementary school. He told me, "You know, you're a girl and I'm talking to you now, but I used to be really afraid of girls because I was bullied and picked on by them." When I asked more about the bullying, he told me that people call him names at school but he doesn't mind so much because other kids stand up for him. I was reminded of this heartwarming news story about Danny, the water boy, and his football team.

At the end of the interview process, we came together as a staff to reflect on the day. People talked about how incredible it feels to get to know the kids so quickly and hear their stories. We talked a lot about knowing when we're talking to a kid who just really needs to be in our school. I thought about a student I interviewed two years ago. He was a student who received special education services, had scored a 92 on the ELA Regents and was diagnosed as ADHD. When I spoke with the student he discussed social dynamics at his current school, lots of fights where he always tried to be the mediator but was constantly accused of being the instigator. I saw a kid who had a lot of growing to do. He had yet to learn how to accept responsibility. I saw a kid with a wall up, displaying an air of confidence that seemed too extreme to be real. And I didn't know if we could really help him, but we accepted him. He ended up in my advisory and for two years, I struggled to tap into this kid's' emotions, searching for a shred of empathy and beginning to lose hope of ever finding it.

In our second year together I found myself in multiple meetings with this student after he displayed some rude and unprofessional behaviors and showed no remorse, took no responsibility and simply blamed everyone, but himself for things "not working out." One of his internship coordinators remarked, "I'm really concerned, Jamie. He has shown absolutely no growth in his year at this school." His guidance counselor, who always raved about him, finally began to see it too. "I can't even listen to him anymore. He's so full of himself and thinks he knows everything." How were we going to show this kid just how naive he is?

Midway through the school year, I showed a Teaching Tolerance video called Bullied, which created a lively discussion and had clearly upset this student, in particular, in a way I didn't expect. He talked about his own experiences being bullied, he talked about how no one ever did anything to stop it, how no matter who he told or how he tried to fight it, nothing worked. He spoke only with anger. He didn't understand how this one short video, featuring one gay student in Minnesota in the '90s who was beat up, sexually assaulted by classmates, and even urinated on, was helping anyone.

Handout included with Teaching Tolerance's Bullied

In April, I took a group of 43 students into the woods for a 3-day overnight trip in Upstate New York. When this student asked if he could come, I hesitated. Did I really want him on this trip? This kid who was known to gossip and spread rumors? Would he ruin the community we had to work so hard to create to make this trip successful, to allow kids to be vulnerable, reveal some deep, dark truths, and really trust one another? And so I told him my concerns and what behaviors he had displayed in school (multiple students had come to me saying that he had been gossiping and spreading rumors about them) influenced the existence of those concerns. He nodded, said he understood, and we reached an agreement. And on that trip, I saw a side of him I had never seen before. There was genuine kindness in there. 

Our last morning on the trip, the coffee station in the mess hall was closed down because students left it a wreck the previous night. The group was in uproar. "It wasn't me," they all claimed. "Why am I being punished for something I didn't do?" As much as we tried to explain, "We are a group, the actions of the few affect the whole group," we couldn't escape the whining and complaining. The real surprise came when my advisee approached me. He made a comment about the immaturity of the group and how rude they had been to the staff. I said, "Would you like to thank the staff here for working with us?" He immediately turned to a few of the staff and told them, "Thank you so much for all you've done for us. I apologize for my fellow students and take full responsibility for their actions." 
The staff members laughed, "Are you sure you want to take FULL responsibility?"

As we left the cafeteria to board our bus home, he turned to me and said, "You didn't think I could do this."
"You're right. I didn't. And you proved me wrong. You were great on this trip, very mature. I'm proud of you."
He snickered and climbed on the bus. 

Months later, as we wrapped up the end of the school year, this same student procrastinated his work, argued with me, took little to no responsibility for how behind he was, and just drove me insane. As he scrambled around to find proof of gym credits he had earned outside of school, I just shook my head. When he finally scrounged up all his credits he told me, "I will never procrastinate again." Yeah, right, I thought. "Yeah, right," his guidance link said when I told her what he said.

Then he presented his graduation portfolio. Of course, it was at the last minute, still revising and begging for signatures, but when he sat on that panel something changed. He began by speaking about his personal history, his journey to our school and his experiences. He had spoken for no more than a minute when he burst into tears as he said, "No one in my old schools ever gave me a chance. Everyone just assumed I was a bad kid and thought they knew me. Here, people cared. They supported me and never made me feel bad about who I am. They just pushed me to be better." And then the tears came to my eyes. Holy shit, I thought. He's grown. He's finally grown.

Or maybe he just finally revealed what he was hiding inside all along.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Beautiful Work

Today I returned to school to help out with new staff orientation. We have 10 new teachers joining our school this year. We read an article called, "Beautiful Work" by Ron Berger, which discusses the importance of using teaching as a way to support students in creating beautiful work across disciplines. 

In my group's discussion of the article I was reminded of an incident that occurred in mid-March during my second year of teaching. It was the day of parent-teacher conferences and I had volunteered to put up a bulletin board showcasing my advisory's work.

The idea behind advisory is to provide a small group of students, usually no more than 15-20, with character and group building activities as well as academic support. Some schools only have advisory classes meet once a week-- I had it every day for 45 minutes. If you're lucky there might even be an advisory curriculum for the whole school to follow. I was not so lucky. My advisory consisted of seniors most of whom received special education services. Those who were not classified as "special ed" were the "lowest performing" seniors. It's called tracking. Place the kids who struggle the most all in the same group. So, as a result, I had 36 students who were all failing at least one academic class and had more behavior issues to deal with than any other advisor in the twelfth grade. It was the kind of situation where you mention a few students' names and the response you get is always, "You've been set up." But it was that response that only motivated me more. I accepted the challenge with eager arms. I decided the best way to engage them and build group cohesion was through collaboration. I would have students create a shadow puppet show together. The previous year my co-teacher and I created a shadow puppetry show inspired by Dante's Inferno in our Senior English class and my principal loved it. More importantly, the students loved making it and were proud of the finished product. 

Tortured Souls. Scene from "Ayana's Hell" inspired by Dante's Inferno

So I gave my advisory some options and let them brainstorm some ideas. They chose to base their puppetry show on James and the Giant Peach. The first step was creating storyboards that would be revised and later become a puppetry show. Students drew amazing storyboards. Some chose to follow the story exactly, some highlighted their favorite parts, and others added twists and alternative endings. Finally, I saw some creativity shine through. I knew I had to put their work on display. When my advisees came into class that day they asked about their work. I told them I had hung it up on the bulletin board across the hall. "Can we go see it?" They asked eagerly. And before I finished saying yes, they ran out the door with giant smiles on their faces. They weren't used to having their work on display.

My senior advisory on a "low-attendance" day

One hour later, I was called into the assistant principal's office. I was told I needed to take the work down. When I asked why I was told because it was “not the best work they can do.” She said because some were in color, some in black and white, and on different sized paper it was a “bad” bulletin board. I wanted to scream, "Hello! It's called differentiation!!"

She told me it didn’t look like they had put effort into their work. She brought up one storyboard that used the word “gotta” and said that there shouldn’t be slang in work that is being displayed. She asked me what I would think if I were a parent and saw that. I didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to say that most parents in this school probably won't even look at the bulletin board and could care less if a student used slang or didn’t color it in. I felt like they were embarrassed to have parents see what students in this school are actually capable of. The irony of a school that lacked rigor and encouraged teachers to hold extremely low standards telling me that my students, who were constantly passed through the system, hadn't produced "good enough" work slapped me in the face. She told me that I could put it up inside a classroom if I really wanted parents to see it or show it to them during parent-teacher conferences. 

She then asked me if I “truly believe this is the best work they can do”. I stared back at her and said that for some students it was their best work and the fact that I had more storyboards than I could fit on the bulletin board said something when I battle with kids everyday to get them to complete the smallest task. I said that I don’t think bulletin boards should only display the “best work.” Every student’s work should be displayed and maybe that’s a motivator to do better next time. They will see their work and know that in the future it will get displayed no matter what. 

I don’t want to be a teacher who only criticizes my students’ work. For many students it was a difficult assignment. I know because I talked to them about it. I pushed kids to complete as much as they did. I encouraged students to add color, but if a student said they liked it better in black and white than that was their choice as the artist. I explained that when I told my students I had put up their storyboards their faces lit up and they couldn't wait to see their work on display. Even students who had begged me not to display their work couldn't stop smiling when they saw I had ignored their request. These are students who are used to only seeing the "best" work displayed and the reality is when compared to their peers, their work is rarely, by our standards, the "best". My assistant principal then told me that I should tell students that I think they can do better and give them time to improve their storyboards. I wanted to respond with sarcasm, "Nothing like non-specific feedback and harsh criticism to motivate a student." But instead I said nothing.

She suggested I should have had them create multiple drafts of the storyboards and that I could show a progression of how they improved. Then I started crying. No matter how much I tried to explain, she didn't understand this was the first step in a larger group project, but it didn't matter. This was not so much about the bulletin board as finding another way for the administration to attack me. I was the victim of the "gotcha" mentality. I voiced my opinion in a meeting. I said the "wrong thing" and now I was under attack.

Through my tears, I told her that I am really frustrated with the way that the school year was going. That I got a "Unsatisfactory" rating in advisory after being observed for less than 10 minutes in the middle of the period and now I’m being told that I can’t even do a bulletin board right. “I feel like everything I do is wrong.” 

Then the phone rang and she promptly turned to answer it. When she got off the phone she said with a hint of satisfaction, “What was I saying?” She then went back to telling me all the things I could do to make it better next time. She ended by saying, “I have given you a directive. If you do not take it down, I will.” I left her office still in tears.

After some reflection, I realized that what made me so upset was that I felt that I had created a project in which many of my students whom do not usually attempt work, completed this assignment. I felt that by telling me my students' work was not their personal best was saying that I was not encouraging them to do their best. It also infuriated me to have someone who has never taught the students I teach, who would have what she considered her "bad" advisees transferred into my advisory, who showed Lifetime movies in class, who sits at her desk eating bologna by the slice, think that she could do better. 

Although I do agree that I could have allowed more opportunities to continue working on and revising the storyboards, my main focus was on developing a puppet show. I felt like she had vocalized some useful but unfeasible ideas. It was hard taking criticism from someone whom I do not believe is an effective teacher. 

I realized in this moment of harsh criticism and no support that the values and philosophies of this school did not match my own. And unfortunately after this incident, I lost my ambition, my drive to be creative and abandoned the puppetry project and turned advisory class into homework help and academic support. The toxicity of the school had finally seeped into my skin, poisoning my soul and the only antidote was finding a new school-- a school that valued beautiful work.

After reading Ron Berger's article, I did a google search and found a ridiculously adorable and inspiring video where Ron teaches elementary school students how to provide meaningful feedback to their peers in order to help them improve their work and truly make it beautiful.

As I begin my sixth year of teaching, I am once again excited about providing an environment for students to critique and support one another's work. I am inspired. Thank you, Ron Berger.