Saturday, November 28, 2015

Year 2: Flashback.

Flashback to my second year of teaching. In the first few days of the school year I attempted to keep a teaching diary of sorts. Perhaps I knew it was about to be a hellish year. Perhaps I knew I'd need written records. Perhaps I still had hope.
DAY 1.
F is pregnant. R had a baby. Who knows what is actually going on with V. Disowned by his parents, homeless, and a pregnant ex-girlfriend. Is it really true? A certain special education teacher in all her tactfulness announced to half the cafeteria that A got held back. Thanks for making one student’s life better. I totally believe you when you say, “Don’t fuck with my students.” Obviously you only mean it when you don't have some kind of vendetta against them. That’s a different story. Why don’t you try being an advocate for the students not receiving their mandated services? Maybe you’re just too busy “dumbing it down” for them.

M came prepared to class and did his work and had a great day. They told me we should be worried about losing him this year, but my hopes are high. He’s gonna get his shit together this time. He has to. 

Rumors flying D might be coming back. Failed all his RCTs again. Didn’t work hard enough. I only hope he learned. Don’t waste our time or yours, just work harder, study more. Expand your vocabulary. Read something. Read anything.

DAY 2.
This school year has proven to be more difficult than expected and it’s only day two. Everything is disorganized. There is an air of miserable among teachers and students. The administration tries to hide all that is wrong, but they are unsuccessful. We all know the truth. Most upsetting to me is the blatant disregard for special education services. We are out of compliance. We are nowhere near being in compliance. An entire class of students is not receiving any special education services. They claim it’s an issue of funding, but how can that be? Special education is federally funded. Where is that money going? Why are two of the special education teachers teaching general education classes? Why am I teaching six classes? Where is the union in all this? What can we do to fight the people in charge of this fucked up education system?

I start by empowering my students and hopefully their parents catch on too. Call and complain, I am begging them telepathically. Do I dare file a grievance? And face the harsh consequences if I am found out by the higher ups. It’s risky business-- that is, being a teacher employed by the New York City Department of Education.

DAY 3.
M may have had a breakthrough. He’s coming to school prepared, completing classwork, completing homework and most importantly ignoring distractions. I observed him briefly in Earth Science and he made me so proud. I couldn’t hold back a smile even as J made inappropriate comments and attempted unsuccessfully to distract others, I had to smirk because everyone else was ignoring him and focused on learning. It was a drop of hope that even without the support and resources teachers need to succeed, we might still be effective. I have one student and he’s going to be okay.

DAY 5.
I just barely prevented a fight from breaking out in my 10th grade ICT class in which I still do not have an actual co-teacher in a class that is legally required to have two teachers. I never thought two boys could argue for so long about whether telling someone they had “nigga hair” was more offensive than telling someone they had “lesbian hair.” 

It has gotten to the point where I can no longer teach. The students just talk constantly. It’s as though they are incapable of listening. They have no self-control. 

I dread going back to school. If I didn’t have so much work to do and didn’t feel filled with guilt I would be looking for a new job. I am miserable. I need to do something beyond work so I can start to feel okay again.

I must keep reminding myself why I stayed at this school. To support my students. To support my friends and colleagues. Because I love my students. I care about my students. I am a teacher so I can be an advocate for my students. I can’t abandon my students when I know they need me. I stayed for my students. They are what matters most.

And then I stopped keeping a diary.

Five years later I find myself in a better environment, yet I still can't shake the feeling of misery. I love my school, my students, my colleagues. I love teaching. And yet, most days, I dread it. I want to blame someone. I want to blame the education system. I want to blame bureaucracy. I want to blame politics. I want to blame high-stakes testing. I want to blame institutional racism. I want to blame the system that creates poverty and all the social problems that are born from it. Because I know that I am meant to be a teacher. I know that I am a good teacher. But these systematic problems are slowly breaking me and slowly crushing my soul.

And I know I'm not alone.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Only in Dreams

It's summer, but still I dream of school-- constantly. Sometimes the dreams are full of stress, sometimes they make no sense. Sometimes they are about students, former students, or parents. Sometimes they are about my colleagues being mean to me. Sometimes they are nightmares about my first school. Sometimes I dream of being late to everything or not wearing enough clothing to school. Even in sleep, I cannot escape my job and the anxieties that come with it.

A few years ago, I had one of my more memorable dreams involving two rambunctious students. These two were always finding themselves in the midst of one bad decision after another-- cutting class to play dice in the park, punching their hand through a window, cursing at a teacher, or stealing a custodian's keys and exploring some locked classrooms.

In this dream, I found myself hiding out in my childhood home. Across the street was no longer the tall trees obscuring the rural family homes I grew up next to but a large apartment building representing my current urban lifestyle.

And someone was shooting at me.

Somehow I knew-- it was these two students.

The next day I said to the students, "You know you guys are really stressing me out. I'm even dreaming about you."

When I told them the details of the dream and their failed assassination attempt, they looked at me surprised. "But Jamie, dat's crazy. We would never do that to you. We don't even own AK-47s."

Well, thank goodness for that.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

My Epic Summer

Today was the 33rd day of my summer vacation. To be sure that I am doing all the right things to relax and recharge for September, I decided to make a list. And then I made a second list.

What I have done so far this summer:
1. Gone to the beach 4 times.
2. Backpacked on the Appalachian trail in Maine for 5 days.
3. Attended the STEM institute and participated in a 3-day workshop called Green Design Lab Curriculum with SolarOne.
4. Completed a weeklong creative writing seminar called Deconstructing Voice with Ayana Mathis at the Cullman Center Institute for Teachers.
5. Wrote approximately 3 short stories.
6. Participated in a week long workshop with Facing History called Race and Membership in United States History.
7. Attended a private tour of the Jacob Lawrence Migration Series exhibit and reception at MoMA.
8. Drank wine.
9. Ate cheese.
10. Watched the first season of Homeland.
11. Read approximately 7 short stories.
12. Donated 2 bags of clothes to GoodWill.
13. Went to my first open house to look at an apartment for sale.
14. Ran into 1 student on the sidewalk and nodded my head in recognition.
15. Rode my bike
16. Ate an entire lobster.
17. Went to a rooftop BBQ.
18. Went to happy hour.
19. Spent quality time with my boyfriend.
20. Ate grilled corn.

What I would still like to do this summer:
1. Go to the beach at least 4 more times.
2. Go backpacking again.
3. Read more books.
4. Write more stories.
5. Go to the movies.
6. Drink more wine.
7. Eat more cheese.
8. Donate more of my belongings to GoodWill.
9. Practice my Spanish.
10. Go to more museums.
11. Watch season 2 of Homeland.
12. Think about all the workshops I've done this summer and decide what classes to teach in the Fall.
13. Begin designing class curriculum to teach in the Fall.
14. Get a massage.
15. Watch an outdoor movie in the park.
16. Eat more grilled corn.

Am I forgetting anything?

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Big Tenure Update

Today, it finally happened. After six years of teaching in the New York City Public School system, I was granted tenure.

It came as a huge surprise. During our student awards ceremony, I was called up to the front along with three of my colleagues. Then our Union Chapter Leader, the Principal and two Assistant Principals announced that we finally did it. 

And this is how we responded:

Thursday, May 28, 2015

One Important Thing I Learned This Year

Here's a thing I've learned this year: HAVE CLASS OUTSIDE.

Kids love being outside. My students in particular love smoking weed outside. So I give them a different option: come sit under the gazebo and maybe I'll bring some snacks and we can read and write and discuss literature.

And this seems to be working.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Tenure Binder version 2.0

The Tenure Binder

One year ago today, I applied for tenure and was denied. I do not know why. That is something teachers are not told. There's no rule that says if you deny a teacher tenure that you must give them some kind of feedback so they know why. And it's probably because it has nothing to do with the individual. It's all a numbers game and "they" can't give too many teachers tenure. That would look bad. Today, I revamped my binder and sent it off to the Superintendent's Office. Now, I wait.

Here is a tiny glimpse of what I included in my binder.

Impact on Student Learning: Evidence of Student Growth

Professional Responsibilities: Evidence of Participation in the Professional Community

Teacher Practice: Evidence of Planning and Preparation

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Art of Dystopia

Today I taught what may have been the best lesson of my entire teaching career thus far. It probably never would have happened if I didn't work in such an amazing school. I was given the opportunity to design a new class. I decided on "Post-Apocalyptic Worlds and Dystopias in Literature." Today was day two.

On day one, I asked students to write about society. What is it? What makes a society function? What makes a society perfect? While students did this I handed them each a number (1-4) that we would refer to shortly. What I didn't tell them was that I was grouping them heterogeneously. We shared out responses to the writing prompts and discussed them. Then I told students to think of our classroom as a society and think about what they need to make the classroom a perfect learning environment. Students said things like communication and respect before I interrupted them and showed them my list of 5 rules one by one.

The Dystopian Classroom Rules
At first, they just thought I was a really traditional, really strict teacher. Slowly, they began to catch on. This was just too crazy to be for real. Before there could be too much dissent, I introduced their first task.

The kids mostly laughed as I passed out the four assignments. Group #1, the so-called "Smartest Group" was given 10 simple math problems to solve. As they completed the task they were given an overwhelming amount of positive praise, golden stars, and candy. Group #2, the "second smartest" was given a black and white drawing to color in with crayons. Group #3, "the second dumbest" was asked to write in 150 words why my classroom is perfect. Lastly, Group # 4, the "dumbest group" was given a science report about Ecological Problems in Latvian and told to write an article about it. The students played along, laughing,  as I passed out their "daily pill" and said the most absurd things to each group.

Finally, we reflected on the process and discussed how these types of rules and systems might be put into place, how people could slowly be manipulated into thinking this was an effective educational model and even connected it to "tracking"-- a legit practice where students are homogeneously grouped into classes based on academic performance and ability. They left class that day having the first-hand experience of living in a Dystopian society.

Today, we started our first piece of literature, Kurt Vonnegut's "2 B R 0 2 B" (pronounced to be or naught to be). After a philosophical discussion about life, death, and immortality, we reviewed characteristics of an utopian and dystopian society then started reading the story aloud together. Slowly kids began volunteering to read. Kids were actively annotating the text, even pausing while reading to react and ask questions. In my six years of teaching, I have never seen a class so engaged in a reading. It was an incredible sight. Kids were analyzing the text aloud, trying to decipher the underlying meaning of a song. Noticing the repetition of the color purple and wondering what it might symbolize before one student said, "Well, traditionally purple symbolizes royalty or being upperclass so maybe in this case since the gas chamber workers are wearing purple it's like death is a path to the upper class or even royalty." I was blown away.

We ran out of time halfway through the story. I asked the class if they could finish reading the story over their weeklong February break and it was unanimous-- "YES!"
"Holy shit," I thought. "They are so into this."

After class I went back to my room, entered my attendance and emailed advisors about absences with a minor addition. I also gave a shout out to some of the students who were in class. Many of these students have taken other classes with me. They've been excessively absent, they're constantly late, or rowdy or just refuse to do the written assignments. Among colleagues, some have jokingly been referred to as "the bad boys" for cutting class and getting stoned during the school day. I looked at the list and hit send. Then I thought, "I need to email the students too."

And so I did.

Dear [the seven anonymous students],
I just wanted to thank you for being especially AWESOME in class today. Whether it was being on time for class or participating actively with insightful comments or actively annotating the text or just volunteering to read aloud, you all did something great today. I'm so glad to have you in class. Keep it up!

Hope you guys have a great break and you enjoy reading the rest of 2BR02B. Can't wait to discuss it when we get back to school.


And what I didn't say, but felt so strongly, was thank you for reminding me why I love being a teacher.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Fight the System

Tomorrow marks the end of my winter vacation. The end of my two weeks of freedom. Two weeks that should be stress-free yet I find myself stressed anyway. Dreaming about school. Worrying about school. Feeling hopeless. Before the break we found out that the superintendent threatened to fire our principal at the end of the school year if he can't get our attendance and passing rates up. If this happens, he'll be replaced by a "turnaround" principal. Someone who will abandon the philosophy and culture of the school to make our data look better.

Apparently data is all that matters anymore. Did you pass enough kids? Did your attendance rates improve? Are graduation rates up? Did they pass that standardized test?

Why are these the only questions they care about? Why aren't we asking the following?:

  • Do kids know how to think critically?
  • How have they grown as a whole person?
  • What have they learned beyond how to take a test?
  • Are they receiving the social and emotional supports they need to be more successful in school and beyond?
  • Are kids prepared to be productive citizens?
  • Are they really ready to graduate high school?

No one seems to recognize that we are a transfer high school. That means we take kids on the verge of dropping out. We take kids with mental health issues. Kids who are homeless. Kids who have been mentally and physically abused. Kids who are stopped and frisked everyday on their way to and from school. Kids who carry a concealed weapon for protection in case they get jumped. Kids with addiction problems. Kids who have never before felt accepted by their community. Kids who were bullied for being gay, appearing gay, or just being too different or too weird. At my school, these kids are supported not only by the adults who work with them but by their own teenage peers.

But no one sees this.

They don't see the girl with bruises and scratches on her face, who was jumped because someone had a beef with her mom. They don't see the fake suicide video a student posted on facebook just to get some attention. They don't see the boy with an infant son who was stabbed in the chest in his apartment. The 21 year old who was shot in the stomach multiple times when he was fourteen. The girl with a 3 year old child and a restraining order against the father. The kid with the eating disorder. The kid who doesn't know where he's sleeping each night. The kid who at first glance might seem like she has bad skin but in reality she's struggling with a heroin addiction. The girl with cognitive deficits who was gang raped on camera at her last school. They don't see the external factors in a student's life that makes school their last priority. They only see that kids aren't coming to class enough and ignore all the other factors that are keeping kids from class.

They don't see the kids getting hired at their internships. The kids who go beyond the requirements and write a 12-page paper when they are asked to write 6 pages. They don't see the talent show where kids let their guard down and sing, dance, and read their poetry. Where kids call one another out for stealing an ipod, telling their classmates, "Give it back you scumbags!" They don't see the tears of joy, the hugs, the smiles, and the gratitude from parents on graduation day when they've finally made it. They don't see the intellectual, social, and emotional growth that each and every student who enters our building experiences.

I love my school. I love my colleagues. I love my students. I love what we stand for. It's difficult to imagine teaching anywhere else, where what we're doing matters more, where we can have a greater, more positive impact of the lives of young people.

Now, it may be the time where we take a stand, when we tear up the exam booklets and fight for our existence.