Back-to-School Night starts at six and I have student volunteers coming with snacks at 5:30, so at 5:47, when I see a history teacher setting up a table in the courtyard, I assume it is for my girls. It is not.
He has people coming from a local credit union to set up accounts. There is an economics lesson in there somewhere, I assume, so I let it go. It becomes an even classier endeavor when he runs an orange extension cord from a classroom across the quad to his table, which must inexplicably stay in the middle of everything. Then he sets up a lamp. It looks like a detention center. Seems like things are off to a good start.
This is confirmed when a math teacher comes by in gym shorts, which he has dressed up with a nice button down. Wow. Lookin’ good, sir.
My first volunteer shows up at 5:57, with her boyfriend and a younger sibling in tow. But the sibling is cute and the boyfriend agrees to lift things and I like her a lot, so, as they say in my fifth period, “I ain’t trippin’.”
At 6:01 we open the doors to my classroom and one boy and his parents wander in, looking hopeful. At 6:05 I have a small handful, mostly parents whom I have known for years, as they are on their second or third offspring through my room. Still not a quorum, but I proceed bravely. My second volunteer shows up, blaming traffic for her tardiness.
By 6:20 I am doing my spiel for the second time, whether anyone is listening or not. I talk about my tech initiatives and explain Common Core. I am not sure anyone in this room speaks English besides me. But they all smile a lot, which is encouraging. I recommend they get some snacks on their way out and advise they watch out for the power cord, which is growing ever less visible in the impending twilight. Someone is going to be trippin’ soon, I fear.
During one conversation, I am distracted by a string of profanity being shouted across the quad. I rush out, worrying the cord has finally done its worst. Instead, I notice a pair of parents, laughing and shouting, lounging against a planter. I go back in.
I have lost track of time and space and am focusing all of my energy on not farting while talking to parents, when a buddy of mine comes by to tell me a fight has broken out in his room. This sounds intriguing, but turns out to be merely verbal in nature. Apparently, one of a neck- tattooed duo of parents is shouting at the teacher with whom my buddy shares a classroom. He happens to be the same teacher who set up the credit union table and we are pretty sure there is a correlation, but things have gotten out of hand and the words, “Obama!” and, “…coming across the border,” are being bandied around. I inform my buddy some things are out of my hands.
The traffic in my room has all but completely dissipated, so I stop by to see my volunteers and bum a bottle of water. Back-to-School Night is thirsty work. My girls are jubilant. They have been getting donations! They must have like $16 back there. I congratulate them on their entrepreneurial tendencies. They offer me a store-bought cookie.
By 7:30 everyone is gone: parents, credit union staff, student volunteers, boyfriends, siblings, would-be pugilists. But not me. I still have miles to go before I sleep.
A good teacher engages in good communication. A good teacher communicates not just with students, but with other teachers and with parents, as well.
If I were Bart Simpson, I would have to write that over and over and over on the chalkboard after school.
A good teacher knows how to sugar coat bad news. A good teacher can call a parent and put the bad filling between two pieces of good news bread. A math teacher today called it the sh*t sandwich.
Sometimes this is easier said than done.
“Hello Ms. Jones. This is Ms. S, your son’s teacher. I was just calling to let you know that right now your son is not passing my class… No, no…He is a great kid. I like him a lot. He really breathes well in my room…Yes, he inhales oxygen and exhales carbon dioxide like a pro. Now, we just need to work on him doing a little more work while he is breathing…Yeah. Just some…Well, he has 3% right now, but he is always very polite when I remind him that he should be doing something.”
And on a good day, I have got this down.
But some days it is hard. Some days I get worried about calling parents. I still get worried about how students get punished when I call.
Once I had a parent-teacher conference with a dad who got up halfway through the meeting and walked out. His elder daughter, who was there for translation purposes, told me, “He says it is up to my brother now. He is done with him.”
This is why I need to remind myself now, when progress report grades go out, that communication is the key to success. We need to make a team: parents, teachers, students.
A good teacher communicates not just with students, but with other teachers and with parents, as well.
However, because I still worry, the sandwich is a good strategy because it helps highlight that a student is a whole person, not a mere failure. There is more to everyone than his/her percentage in my class. And the better I communicate this, the better off we will all be.
I have so much grading to do that I was able to motivate to both roast a chicken AND bleach the sink. I have so much grading to do that I was able to develop a system for loading the dishwasher for the first time in my nearly forty years of life. And six hours into this grading, with two class sets of final draft paragraphs and a set of vocab quizzes done, with two plagiarizers caught, with one set of presentation slides reviewed, and with a sparkling kitchen counter, I am still able to be altruistic enough to think of the good people of Napa and the earthquake they suffered last week. To think of their need to rebuild. And thus, selflessly to support their economy by having a second glass of wine after dinner. I know, I know, I am a kind of a hero. Now, if only I can stop blogging and get through these summaries. Happy Labor Day, my friends. May all your labors be fruitful, if not fermentedly so.
I have been writing about my school for a few years now, but I realize many of you may not know exactly where I work.
My school is in a district on the East Side of town. It is the kind of area where I can ride my bike from one school to another for forty-five minutes and never see a Starbucks. It is the kind of area where people still blast Tupac from the rolled-down windows of their low-riders and old-school sedans. Where my students who have cars carry their steering wheels from class to class so no one can steal their rides while they are at school. Where some freshmen refuse to write in any color other than red and some seniors tighten their pants cuffs with blue rubber bands. Where boys wear their pants slung low enough to rep their colors on their underwear and girls have drawn-in eyebrows and fake eyelashes.
Ours is a small school, housed on the campus of a larger school. Our mission is to help the students who have not been academically successful in traditional classrooms. We are a public, alternative site, educating juniors and seniors, many of whom come to us with ten credits at age 16, or with 55 credits and only a year to go. We work with all of our students as individuals to help them make up the credits they are missing and to turn their lives around.
We work with students like B, who had a baby three weeks ago. Although the doctor has recommended she stay off her feet and out of school for eight weeks, due to an emergency caesarian, she works with me to stay abreast of her classes. And she got a job last week at the football stadium because she needs money now that she is a mom. She cannot afford to wait.
We work with students like S, who were born in the medical section of a women’s detention facility. We work with students like A, who was jumped and gang raped while walking home from school. With students like O, whose mother said all she wanted for Christmas was for O to rescind her story about being raped by her brother. Except that it was true.
We see amazing things here. We see people change in remarkable and admirable ways. We see strong teen moms. We see people walk away from gang life. We see students who used to go to school high, if at all, become college students.
With the work we do here together, students are catching up to their peers. They are meeting the standards. They are learning to write, to think, to communicate.
Due to a wonderful initiative pushed through by our former administrator, we are now teaching them all about computers, technology, and digital citizenship. This new focus is critical to helping our students, many of whom come to us without understanding how email works, meet the demands of the world into which they will matriculate. It is exciting. It is innovative. It is crucial.
And to do this, we need more computers. Which is why I have set up a GoFundMe account for our school. Please check it out and donate what you can, even $5 helps. And if you can’t give anything, spread the word, in case you know someone who can.
I know this sucks. I know people are asking for money every day. I know everyone knows people who could use a helping hand. But my students are working hard. They are trying to pull themselves up by their boot straps. All they need are the right tools, and to feel like people believe in them.
For my American Lit class, I asked them, “What does it mean to be an American?” as their first writing prompt. They told me:
“One common mind set Americans have is that we are a country founded on freedom and basic moral rights. For example, kids have the right to education and everyone has freedom of speech to express how they feel.”
“The thing that Americans have in common is fashion sense.”
“Being an American means having pride in your country and being willing to serve it. It means looking out for your fellow Americans. It does not mean that we have to be responsible for the rest of the world. Other countries are perfectly capable of making decisions for themselves.”
“We are supposed to be born with equal rights, but unfortunately a lot of them are broken.”
“Another thing they have in common is the option to break the laws or to accept them. In America there are people that work hard to get what they want but there are others who cheat their way to success.”
“To be an American is to work hard for your country.”
“Some of us Americans actually know what work is, and struggle to survive. Other Americans were born privileged and become successful on their parents’ accomplishments.”
“All Americans have too much pride. Americans think they are better than anybody else.”
“The Patriot Act allows the government to spy on anyone’s personal information. This allows them to invade our privacy. I think if Americans are promised their freedom, why are we being spied on?”
“Americans are the most obese.”
Sooooooo….I took a Facebook poll and the results are in: making a back-to-school playlist is a vital part of preparation and in no (significant) way considered procrastination, so I made one. By extrapolation then, BLOGGING about making said playlist is also a valuable use of my time resources and must therefore be done.
I ride my bike to work, so music has become an even more essential part of my morning than ever before. My riding playlist can make or break my day, so I figured I should invest some effort into making a perfect, motivational back-to-school playlist that will get me going and get me thinking as I pedal my way back to my students next week.
But what to include? I decided there had to be some songs representative of my own time in the public education system, some songs I was into as a young, idealistic student teacher, some songs that represent my attitude in the classroom, and some songs that always come through and never fail to make me feel empowered.
With that, I give you my 2014 list. PLEASE share suggestions and comments because, let’s face it, it sure beats updating your syllabi.
1) Flashdance…What a Feeling- Irene Cara
2) Check Yo Self- Ice Cube
3) Ain’t Nothin’Ta F*&k Wit- Wu-Tang Clang
4) Flawless- Beyonce
5) Eye of the Tiger- Survivor
6) American Idiot- Green Day
7) Hot for Teacher- Van Halen
8) They School- Dead Prez
9) Teach Your Children- Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
10) Another Brick in the Wall, Pt.2- Pink Floyd
11) Fight the Power- Public Enemy
12) Fight For Your Right- Beastie Boys
13) Hard Knock Life- Jay Z
14) The Final Countdown- Europe
August 1st is the day I go back to work. Every year I give myself July off. I might (okay, I do) plan a bit. And sometimes I will go to a training or workshop. But mostly, July is time to spend with my family and friends. Especially my toddler nephew, whether he likes it or not. My birthday is at the end of the month and then I buckle back down. Get my game face on. Make it happen.
Part of the annual back-to-school routine has to do with setting up my classroom: readying my boards, arranging my desks, and decorating my walls and desk area. This year I have been thinking a lot about this task. It is a fine balance, really, between pragmatism and personality. How much should this place be a reflection of my increasingly eccentric inner weirdo and how much should it be as ascetic, academic, and non-distracting as possible?
Like the great Mr. Cash, I walk the line.
In the interest of practicality and ambiance, I have tried every arrangement of desks imaginable. And I have a confession to make. I love rows. I know, I know, that makes me THE MAN. But rows are awesome. I can see everything and get around quickly and come up to any one student and help him or her individually. I can walk behind everyone and make sure they are not on social media when they should be doing research. I can separate chatty couplings and reward good grades with “sitting in the back” privileges. The rows stay.
So, too, do the posters my students have drawn for me over the years to represent the great topics of literature: love, hate, oppression, hope, insanity, etc. They are interesting to look at and helpful to refer to throughout the year. Plus, they remind me of the talented teens who have passed through my classroom in the past.
Around my desk I keep the wall of fame photos. I am not going to lie, after twelve years, not every photo is still on the wall, but there are dozens and dozens of former students represented there, many of whom are now teachers themselves, presumably making their own decor choices right around this time of year. These familiar faces make me smile. And they convey to my students how much I might someday love and remember them.
But the tough call is about how much of myself, my personal, non-Ms.-S-self do I allow my students to see? This is the perennial question. It becomes an even more obviously necessary choice when I literally mean what they will see. When I am making actual choices about the way to decorate my room I need to think about how what I put on the walls says a lot about who I am.
Over the years I have found that students respond better to teachers who allow a little of their personal lives to seep into their classrooms. For that reason, I allow myself to wear my Boston Celtics lanyard (we will be great again!) and to keep a couple of student drawings of baby aliens (the cutest creatures ever imagined) around my room. On my computer I keep a picture of aforementioned adorable nephew. And on the wall above my desk, I keep one photo of my boyfriend. This way students know I am a human, which I believe allows them to be humans while they are in my room, too.