Archive | September, 2012

You Run With the Devil

28 Sep

Authors Note: This post was originally much longer, more detailed, and more a work of genius.  It got deleted when I went to publish.  Welcome to my week.

2:30 a.m., the streets of crown heights are rain-damp and quiet.  Occasionally a car speeds down Bedford, or a man stoops over a garbage can looking for bottles and cans.  The lights of the Homeless Shelter for Men on Franklin blaze, some 100 panes of furnace-fire light shredding the mist and clouds that obstruct the view of the tops of skyscrapers in Manhattan.  It is the first night that I cannot see the many-colored peak of the Empire State Building.  Two policemen patrol their beat on the street below me.

I am thinking–for the first time–in six years, about the question I suppose I have been running from: is this all a waste of time?  Are some students so broken by the adults in their lives, by the lives they have been given, or chosen for themselves, too young to know better, that they are simply beyond help?  Is my career a task even Sisyphus would let roll away.  I am hoping, at 2:30 to look out into that mist, those empty streets–and, I suppose, find some kind of answer.  A light, blurred by rain, flashes from red to green.  A man walking one way, makes a sudden turn for no apparent reason.  Someone–even at this hour–is jogging along the sidewalk.

One of the characters in Samuel Beckett’s odd and perplexing novel Waiting for Godot said in a moment–among many similar moments–of frustration, uncertainty, and existential crisis: “I must go on.  I cannot go on.”  I wonder if indeed, these six long years I have merely been Waiting for Godot.

I felt last night as if I had been run over by a train.  As if, for the first time in six years, I was clearly seeing the impossibility of the mountain I have chosen to climb, the sheer absurdity of such a trip to the summit.  I stared at the ceiling, and listened to the rain, steady at first against the windows, and then intermittent, then gone, as it turned to mist and fog.  What am I doing, why am I doing it? Is this pointless? Am I an awful teacher? A fraud?  And then I found myself standing on the roof, watching the lights of Manhattan shimmer in the haze.  Down Bergen, a few blocks off, a light went off on the steps of an apartment building.  A block closer, another turned on.

How does one respond to a week like this? How does one go on? Fights, a student with a medically diagnosed mental disorder tearing my room apart.  A stapler flying past my head.  More fights.  Explosions in the hallway.  Police, police, police. Horror stories of home lives.  Homeless lives.

A 16 year old student comes up and says, “Mr. I don’t mean to act up in your class, it’s just…I don’t want them to know I can’t read.  At all.”  I cannot go on. I must go on.

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They Fightin’!!

27 Sep

Back when I taught in the secure facilities, there was an ancient and eccentric old lady who taught Career and Life skills named Ms J. Ms J was a bit of an oddity on the staff, old school, a shrill disciplinarian, and though perhaps the students never made the connection, she always saw herself as a wise grandmother figure to them. She was also, I must mention, crazy. The woman would do things like writing skits for the students to perform at assemblies (she wrote them, not the kids) in which the young men grew up to be successful lawyers, doctors and businessmen, returning years on to buy her a Jaguar and a Mansion in Long Island. The kids would grudgingly read the lines at assembly, other students snickering, while she cackled and slapped her knees with delight. Some days I would pass her room and the students would be doing word-searches, only to hear her proudly telling a rookie teacher about her lesson-planning and classroom management skills. Then, like clockwork, she would be spotted the next period running out of her classroom screaming: “They fightin’!!” at the top of her lungs, hair frazzled, bangles chiming as she tossed up her hands and just screamed it over and over while at least two boys were, indeed, fighting in her room. Everyone who worked with me those years, and everyone who has ever worked with Ms J (I feel confident assuming) has a “They Fightin’!” story. Whether it was the time she literally crumpled in a heap outside her room while wailing it, or the time she disrupted the entire floor with one of these fits, only to find out she had actually just seen two students “play fighting” in another classroom. Some of her fits were epic, each unique from the others.

There are people in education who will tell you every fight can be avoided. That given better instruction and more effective intervention on the part of the teacher, no fight would ever break out, even in a school designed for court-involved kids. Even in a school in jail. Those people are wrong, and have never worked full-time in that environment, and never lived in the neighborhoods that perpetuate the populations that fill those environments. They are idealists, and there is nothing wrong with idealism, unless of course it blinds you to reality.

Schools like mine, and like the much less functional schools I have worked in previously, exist within a culture that, unfortunately, has redefined the meaning of the word “Respect”. I don’t just say that in a bourgeois, pseudo-intellectual way. I literally mean it. When I asks my students how they define respect it is entirely different from the definition I think most people my age have. In its meaning in their lives, “Respect” has no sense of being a mutually given and received sense of reverence, but rather it is an earned item that has the value of having proven that I am your superior. Elijah Anderson describes this much more thoroughly in his interesting book Code of the Street.

Anderson provides a much more in-depth (and more clearly articulated) description of this theory, and its ramifications in that book.  But the short and long of it is this: respect has been redefined as something that is not to be bestowed upon others who deserve it.  Rather it is a force to be waged on someone, often with physical force.  It is no longer about “Respect those who came before you,” but “You gonna learn to respect me!”  Furthermore, because of the value and status it carries in geographic areas otherwise depleted of monetary wealth, it becomes a false economy.  This is a dangerous proposition for two reasons:

  • First, if, indeed, respect is a force that is leveled upon others, and is also a commodity of great value, it stands to reason that we are going to practice force to establish it, and do so over and over and over.  This means violence is We are, after all, a greedy species.
  • Secondly, as a false economy, and given our tendency to celebrate “success,” it stands to reason that one thing is inevitable: when people “fight” to establish respect, its going to become a spectator sport.  If we watch bad girls clubs to watch them pull one another’s hair out, why shouldn’t we enjoy it as much when our classmate’s pull one another’s hair out.

I wish I had audio of the moments leading up to every fight.  The fighters all say the same thing: “You gonna learn to respect me.” “Fuck that, she gonna find out I’m not pussy.” “I don’t respect you, anyway.” It’s the same lines over and over.  It’s like the pre-fight version of a TV laugh track.  It sounds exactly the same no matter who says it, because the truth is all fights are about the same thing.  You DISrespected me, and I DISrespected you, now one of us is going to make the other (and everyone else watching) RESPECT my shit.

So what does this mean for teachers who choose to teach in an environment where this false economy and false celebrity are firmly established; with students whose lives have been altered by it–schooling devalued, credits lost, freedom arrested (literally) for periods of time that interrupt their education and social maturity?  Well it means two things largely: first, it means that in a classroom with 25 students, more than 15 of them have not been in a formal classroom in a year or more.  Therefore even the best instruction and classwork may not keep their attention and address their needs, regardless of whether a fight is brewing.  Second, it means you had better be prepared to see a fight.  Simply walking through the doors of a school-building is not going to undo a behavior–or lifestyle–that has been borne years prior, and reinforced daily, for all those years.  A teacher can plan the best unit in the world, piece together a fabulous lesson plan, and practice every strategy and intervention in the world.  But when you are in the middle of group work, and a girl you don’t know charges in your room barking about “respect” and throws a crate full of notebooks at a girl in your class, before flipping over a desk and grabbing her by her hair–well, it’s your 5-minute mini-lesson about an ancient text (the most ancient text we have, ironically enough, which happens to be about violence and vengeance, itself) vs. a world and a lifetime of learning.

So what do you do next?  If you are Ms. J?  You run down the hallways and scream and kick walls: “They fightin'”.  If you are me, you wonder if perhaps the walls of school are just too thin a barrier from the heavy push of the world outside.  Then you hope you’re just having a bad day.  And post a blog, I guess…

Bricks, Waves, Waging War

21 Sep

“And here comes a wave. Here comes a wave. And here comes another wave.” –The Decemberists

Not every day is perfect. I have received two sage nuggets of wisdom, early on in my career, that I like to share with new teachers. “Not every day is perfect,” a wise man once told me, resting a hand on my shoulder. And another: “If you ever lose the ability to laugh with these kids, hang up the clipboard and walk away. You’re done.”

Today was a calamity. And then there is this: as my fourth period walked out of class today (and let’s be super clear, “walked” is a tremendously generous adjective) I mumbled only loud enough for myself to hear, I thought, “Congratulations guys, you just provided me with the most frustrating 50 minutes of my career.” The response was universal. Literally almost every kid laughed and put a hand over his or her mouth, pointing out the others and claiming “He just violated y’all.” Everyone in the room was so blind to his part in the chaos, they were blaming someone else. Myself included.

I get a moment at the end of a long day to sit back and reflect, after venting and eating, and I see it: everyone is entitled to a bad day. Myself included. The handful of students who are typically great but were confrontational rude, and darn near despicable today, included. Today we all stunk.

The nice thing about working in education is it’s not really a career of streaks. Unlike athletics, economics, business, and even typical corporate jobs, things don’t trend neatly. The pattern and rhythm of schools are interrupted and changed and rock back and forth rapidly because there are too many people with too many different concerns, balancing too many different elements for every period or day or unit to follow the pattern of the one before it (regular readers know I refuse to accept the “school in a bubble theory”.) This means (and it is a blessing and a curse) the rhythm of schools is more like that of a pounding of waves than a smooth changing of tides. Had a great class? here comes a bad one! Had a rough day? here comes a great one! Just heard wonderful news? GET READY! Here comes a wave.

Todays number: 78. That is the percentage of students at my school who placed at an elementary reading level on entrance exams (6th grade or below). I knew and anticipated that number. And I chose not to handle it with kid gloves. I chose to swim against it. Our first book is the Iliad. I want my students to begin World Literature the way world literature began, despite that number. Maybe it was a tragic flaw. I hope not. Today’s lesson was on one of the major themes: “Free Will vs Predetermination.” While I tried to follow a pre-determined path, they exhibited their free will. GS this is borig. GS nobody cares today, it’s Friday. GS give me a pen and shut up. GS stop breathing or existing in real time and space, it’s bothering me. And so we clashed like the Greeks and the Trojans. Monday’s lesson? Conflict and resolution.

So get ready kids, Mr GS is breaking out the loud speakers for “Another Brick in the Wall” on Monday morning. Here comes another wave.

When It Gets Hot People Get Shot: One (and more) Reasons This Charter School Teacher is Supporting the Chicago Strike

12 Sep

I decided to take the summer off blogging for several reasons, not the least of which is that I spent my summer hours thinking about education far too much, as I worked to develop a brand new English Department, and the culture of a brand new school…in between attempts to catch a big fish.  I was out of Brooklyn for much of the summer, away from internet and the mindset that trends me towards blogging: that is the mindset of work and educational philosophy.  When I was back I was hard at work applying that philosophy to something mildly bigger than my menial blog: the development of a brand new charter school targeting students I have taught throughout my career (over-age-under-credit young men and women involved in court systems and/or group and foster housing.)  It is a feat that is going to continue to require tons of hours.  It is also, as I mentioned, mildly more important than this blog.  Throughout the summer, both while I was fishing up north, and working on curriculum and planning in Brooklyn, the heat became deadly from June through Labor Day Weekend.  Not like people having sun stroke deadly, but the kind of deadly that kids refer to when they shrug and share the age old adage: “When it gets hot, people get shot.”  The same week school started for my students, a young man was shot right down the block from me, while attending a house party.  He died on his way to the hospital.  Alan Shulman’s fantastic article in the link, which mentions some of the victim’s intellectual pursuits, and improvement in school in the months leading to his murder is a potent afterthought to the conversation I had with my principal during the first few days: “that damn well could have been one of ours.”

There is a rising sentiment, as I have lamented time and again in posts prior, among the American public that teachers are whiny babies.  That they don’t appreciate the summers off, complain about uninvolved parents, unmotivated kids; while they bitch about weak administrators and glad-handing politicians and lean on strong unions to skate by and under-educate our youth, particularly the ones who live in neighborhoods like mine.  Anytime public sentiment leans so strongly in one direction on nearly any issue, there is almost always a truth to the bluster.  Where there is smoke there is fire, so the saying goes.  As a teacher who supported his union and paid union dues for 5 years, I can attest that some teachers surely do espouse some of these beliefs from time-to-time in moments of frustration.  A small few even fit the caricature.  They tend to be black sheep.  Outcast even by other teachers as poisonous, they typically bounce from long-term replacement job to long-term replacement job, speaking the sound and fury of fools that exist in any industry.  A good few of them are certainly lining the pickets in Chicago, but from my experience working with good union-represented teachers in a city not unlike Chicago, I can guarantee they are outnumbered ten-fold, by people of moderate tempers, with high aspirations for their students, troubled by the disrespect the kids are being showed by politicians who surely have no idea what it is like to sit in a room with 35 students or more, facing a myriad of challenges that the politicians themselves have been historically unable to fix for these young people: decrepit living environments, hunger, single-parent homes, gang pressure, needing a new damn pair of sneakers, abuse, long rides to school, adults around their community giving up on them way too soon.  And now we ask the few people who have not given up to just deal with bigger class sizes; with being judged by results on unfair and often meaningless tests that cannot possibly reflect what goes on in the bubble of a classroom.  The vast majority of these “union thugs,” get up and go to work and say, “today I choose to believe in educating these kids despite all the crap people are saying about me, because it’s what is right.”  And people just tell them: “Damn right you will, so stop complaining and get on with it you laborer, you! Oh AND DO IT IN ROOMS WITHOUT AIR CONDITIONING.”

I know, I know.  Of all the complaints the teachers have this seems like the most trivial (even if the simplest for Rahm and Co to acquiese) but it is a symbol and more.  The reality, as I discussed with my father over the weekend, is the VAST majority of the people clamoring for these teachers to shaddup and get back to work, have NO idea what the inside of an urban public school is like, particularly an average, or below average performing school.  It’s not just like your children’s school, only the teachers suck, so the kids don’t learn.  Schools do not exist in a bubble.  And for schools who educate at-risk and troubled youth, it is a constant battle to keep the pressures of the outside world from bursting any bubble that may exist.  You cannot turn off a child’s reality just by having him walk through a door (and a metal detector.)

The very people who sit on the board of my school–well-meaning and decent people, who made it their MISSION and charter to serve and help fund a school for the most challenging population in Brooklyn (kids who are behind in credit, court-involved, and living in group or foster homes, or homeless shelters) sat in awe, with jaws dropped, as my principal shared some stories of the struggles our students bring with them to school everyday: extreme hunger, poverty, fear, violence, uncertainty and distrust.  The idea of educating students in despair is so much prettier than the reality of what it requires.  The reality, despite the fact that it doesn’t mold to the agenda of many politicians, pundits, and citizens, is that poverty and urban decay (and all the ugly conditions attached) are not excuses liberals conjure up to blame for poor education, nor are they overblown issues.  This is a truth that these students–and the teachers who serve them–have to contend with every single day.  And when the schools that are supposed to provide children with an equal opportunity at success as their suburban and rural counterparts–and even as their peers in elite schools in their own city–are overcrowded, and underfunded, something as small as an airconditioner seems like a gesture that one would make without blinking.  With classes exceeding 35 students, and behavior management issuses, and overworked teachers, it seems an equity-minded politician would buy those airconditioners out of pocket.

I tend to doubt it, but maybe Rahm Emmanuel and the rest of the anti-teaccher crowd would happily agree to have their children attend a school for a year where class sizes exceed 35 students; where many or most students are hungry, desperate for a change of clothes, and struggling against the pressures of poverty, single-parent families, gang violence, street violence, disease, and drugs; where teachers are stressed by evaluations, not happy to be creative and supported to do better; and where administrators are handcuffed to enact change by politicians who still don’t seem to see the importance of a balanced and equally supportive education system.  I imagine if he would do that, send his kids to one of those schools for a year, and could still look his constiuency in their eyes and say, “These schools dont need more support and funding; the teachers should work for a barely-livable wage, and be evaluated by how well the students do under their ONE YEAR of tutelage, regardless of their inherent realities; oh, and the overcrowded classrooms definitely dont need air conditioners,” then perhaps he could work equal amounts of wizardry and convince the teachers to believe in that fantasy, and get back to work, as well.  More likely, his kids would come home unhappy, undereducated, drenced in sweat, and trembling in fear, with a new swagger, and a different dialect, proclaiming: “Yo, Dad, that school is hot.  And when it gets hot, people get shot.”