Are you sure?” Pancho is asking me this for the third time. He genuinely wants to know.
But I am losing it. I am answering this for the third time. I answer again, but I am glaring at him this time. This time, I am running out of patience.
“Pancho!” I say, rather more sharply than is advisable. “Look at me!”
He looks, sighs, resigned. He knows what is coming. He did something wrong again.
“Tell me, who wrote this assignment?”
“And who is going to grade this assignment?”
“Then tell me, Pancho, how could I not be sure about what I want you to do?!”
“Okay, okay,” he mutters. But he doesn’t believe me. He genuinely thinks I might be holding back.
How does this happen? How does a kid get to a place where he does not believe instructions that are printed on the paper, projected on the board, and explained by the teacher? How does he get to a place where when it seems easy enough for him to complete, he assumes he is doing it wrong? And how does he get to a place where he does not believe a teacher would tell him the truth, would rather conspire to make him fail instead? How do things get to this point?
Take a kid like Pancho. Or like the dozens of other Panchos in my classes this year and for the past decade. Pancho has failed some classes. Heck, he failed mine last year! Pancho has cut some classes. He has smoked some weed. He has smoked some cigarettes. He has been in some fights. He has been caught. He has been punished. He has been chastised, ridiculed, marginalized. This is what he expects. He expects to feel dumb. He expects to feel lost. He expects me to be angry at him. He does not expect me to help. He does not expect me to believe in him. I get that. But does he really think I would lie? Or is his distrust of adults, of people in authority, so deep it has become instinctual?
He is asking, am I sure? Do I really want to leave it the way it is right now? Am I holding out? Well, someone, somewhere must have been. Or at least it seemed that way to him. Wherever the lines are drawn, in Pancho’s mind, I am on one side and he is on the other.
And that bums me out. Because I am sure. I am sure I know what I want on this assignment. I am sure I want Pancho to get it, to improve, to graduate, to succeed. I am 100% positive. What I am not sure of is how I will ever get him to believe me.
I love you. I love you so much. Of all my loves you are the loveliest. You and me, me and you. 4-Eva
Thank you interwebs for making it possible for me to teach two classes at once. Literally.
Without you, dearest, there is no way I could have convinced myself that it was possible to teach one class in person and another online, with two totally separate curriculums, AT THE SAME TIME.
Without you, beloved, I would have had to pay complete attention at the training I attended yesterday. I could not have divided my time so subtly between learning new strategies and trying to revise a poetry lesson for Monday. Because of you, I was able to smile politely at the nice lady trainer, while secretly writing comprehension questions AT THE SAME TIME.
Interwebs, my sweet, without you I could not possibly grade any time, anywhere. Before I learned to grade online, I was limited in my weekend responsibilities by what I could carry on my back. Now, no limitations! I now never even know how much work lies ahead of me. It can be limitless. SO EXCITING!
Perhaps the greatest gift you have given me, light of my life, is the ability to be consumed by blogging, Facebooking, and Wording with my friends when there are myriad other things I ought be doing. Now, since you have come into my life, I never have to focus solely on my responsibilities, even while I am sitting at my desk, literally surrounded by them.
Yours ‘Till Eternity,
In my classroom I have become fond of shouting the chorus to a certain ubiquitous Disney anthem in answer to all manner of questions. It is ridiculously appropriate in so many scenarios. And singing off-key at the top of my longs is strangely liberating. If you have not tried it, I recommend making it happen as soon as possible.
But I have always been one to believe we ought practice as we preach. And if I want my students to do something, I should definitely be doing it myself. So, what am I letting go?
I am letting go of forcing students to pass.
I know, that was not what you are expecting.The truth is, though, they do have the right to fail.
In my fourth period class this week we read Julia Alvarez’s story, “Daughter of Invention.” In it, she discusses her mother’s struggles with grasping American idioms. We did a little idiom project on Tuesday, so the students are familiar with the term and its useage.
I discussed with them how I was going to let them work in pairs on their questions and Venn diagrams. And then I gave them this example of idiom, “Give a fool enough rope and he will hang himself.”
“What do I mean?” I asked. A lot of blank stares.
I explained to them that I was letting them choose their partners and that if they were not productive, I was letting them fail. I admonished them not to be fools. Then I sat back. I answered questions. I went over to the desks of the students who beckoned. I gave out copies of Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” for the comparison section. I even advised a young man who asked that NO, it is definitely not okay to be puking up blood.
But when I witnessed two boys in the back, passing a phone back and forth, clearly watching a video clip, I did nothing. When I noticed A checking his Instagram for the 40 thousandth time, I did not politely remind him that no one needs his attention that often.
I let it go.
This is not entirely without context for this group. Last week they got a new seating chart. And a vocabulary assignment. I moved everyone away from their friends, then gave them work to do. To a one, they were able to accomplish the assignment in half the time it used to take them to do the exact same model of assignment in their previous seats. Then we processed this phenomenon.
“Why do you think this happened?” I asked. And they knew. Oh, they knew.
And now they must learn again. The idiom most used around my house when I was growing up? “There is no better teacher than a bad example.” After that? “Some people just have to learn the hard way.”
Yeah, they do. I can monitor, chide, cajole. But at some point, my students will have to realize for themselves the relationship between cause and effect, between slacking off and losing points. Between working hard and hardly working. I cannot teach them this if I never let them make mistakes.
The good news is, most of them have learned already. There were some great literary discussions going on in my room. And some students asked if they could just work alone. I let them.
As for that precious few who still do not realize they and only they are in charge of their own educations? Well, I am just going to have to let that go…at least for now.
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.”