Thursday, June 29, 2006

There Will Aways Be...

It's almost 11PM, and I just finished the reading homework and a journal assignment for tomorrow's Fellowship class. The classes have really been working me hard, and I can't remember the last time I picked up a book of my own. Today's assignment came out of Dominic Belmonte's book: Teaching from the Deep End. And the journal assignment was to fill in three endings to the following sentence:

Regardless of what occurs in my life or in my school, in my classroom there will always be…

I really get a sense of where I've come from the last few weeks; I refuse to identify with those who idealize the concept of "marching into the trenches" of New York City Public Schools. The Angelina Jolie's of the educational field, if you will. Believe me, I've run into quite a few of them... and it makes me want to compulsively bathe. What's funny, is that even though I'm trying to play ice queen and be cool about helping out impoverished students with special needs I really do know how important this program is that usheres bright (if inexperienced) teachers right into the schools that need them most. Below are my responses. (and a long glance into my motivation to teach)

There will always be structure. In fact, structure is pivotal in maintaining order and productivity in the classroom on those gross Tuesdays, those my-cat-just-died-and-I-have-no-more-sick-days-left-but-I-rather-be-home-sobbing-on-the-couch Thursdays, or just your average headachy Mondays. With a solid lesson plan, months of procedure and routine drilled into the class, and structured activities at the ready, a potentially terrible day can at least be an OK day. (And sometimes OK is the best you can ask of anybody)

There will always be extra writing utensils and paper in my desk for students. No, I wasn’t a member in the Have-not’s poverty club growing up, but I was certainly forgetful: homework folder on the kitchen table, notebook full of paper thrown under my bed, pencils lodged into the crevice between floor and fridge. The teachers who could lend a pen and offer a sheet of paper for notes often saved me from the embarrassment an empty desk. Now, I’m realistic enough to know that I’ll be dishing out some cash upfront to stock my classroom, knowing full well that education tax dollars may not take into account that students can’t all bring the bare necessities to class. However that scritch-scritch of a busy borrowed pencil is infinitely more pleasant than the silence of a student who would do the work, if he only had the materials.

There will always be hope. I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t join the NYC Teaching Fellows as a lovey-dovey hippie wing nut. My dad taught in the Peace Corp before I was born, so I feel like my family has paid its liberal dues; I’m not going to be chaining myself to a tree anytime soon, or boycotting tuna fish. But that doesn’t mean students in low-income neighborhoods shouldn’t have someone who wants to teach them. A good teacher doesn’t just teach the lesson, but gives a student hope; even if it’s just a red-pen-scrawled smiley face on an improved test.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Group Work (The More Things Change...)

Group work, I hated it as a kid and I loathe it even more as an adult. For children I can understand the social-learning that can occur when students attack an issue and learn through their interaction with each other. And as an adult, I also understand how arranging the Social Development class into groups for projects can help teach what’s best for the class we may be managing in a few short months. But still, I hate having to work closely with others.

In group work you have one of four individuals in your assemblage:

The Distracter
The Distracted
The Boss
The Catch-all

Now, no matter how large the group is, you’re guaranteed to have a mix of the above ailments.

The Distracter is normally the class clown, (or bully) quick with a joke (taunt, or threat) or an interesting impersonation of the instructor…This gets narrowed down into two fields: either they want to get the assigned work done and just get sidetracked or wrapped up in tangents, or more often, they disregard the work and rather do something “more fun,” (like tie your shoelaces together when you're not looking.) The Distracter's main goal is to be showered with attention at all times, and group work time is his chance to work with a smaller, more intimate audience.

The Distracted works in perfectly conjunction with the Distracter in able to fully hobble the group from attempting to get an assignment done. If the group has an absence of Distracter, there is a higher chance of work completion; however the Distracted can easily be sidetracked by noises, open windows, stains on the ceilings, or in the adult world, cell phones.

Having a Boss in your group is a double-edged sword. They may take the form of a task facilitator, quelling the Distracter with scowls and keeping the distracted’s attention on the work on hand. With threats, micromanagement and generally bossiness the Boss can keep control of the group and complete work through sheer force of will. No one really likes this person, but they are tollerated in groups that have some desire to get through a project. In adult group work Bosses don’t exist as often, graduate students tend to have an inner facilitator and also don’t want to make the faux pas of pushing their peers around. God forbid you tell the chick on her cell phone that she needs to hang up and get her portion of a presentation finished.

Behind every successful group stands the Catch-all. He is the kid who takes the project home with him over the weekend to “finish it.” The Catch-all is in it for the grade, and rather than take the roll of the Boss, he is more passive and takes the project as his own. He is normally the quiet kid who doesn’t speak up when the Distracter is blabbing on about the new sneakers her mother bought, or the Distracted doodles a raunchy sketch into his textbook. The motto of the Catch-all is “if you want something done right…you have to do it yourself.” Adopting this role keeps the Catch-all, who may be a geekier student, from being picked on and may even reach celebrity status within the classroom. In more rigorous assignments, when students pick their groups, the Catch-all may be chosen as a team-member as a security measure to make sure something decent gets handed in. Truth of the matter is, the Catch-all would rather die than get a failing grade.

Sometimes you get a mixture of roles in a student; the Distracter is also very easily Distracted (combining to make a Distraction) and wants to take other students in his group into the same experience. (Whether if this is in order to level the playing field so no one in the group doesn’t do work and he’s not the only student admonished, or he just wants the attention is never certain.) Or on a more positive route the Boss is also the Catch-all, (combining to be an Editor) who delegates the work to her group-mates and fine-combs the finished product to make sure it’s kosher to hand in.

Back to the task at hand: I am currently in a group assignment for my Child Development in Education class, and I abhor it because the same issues and processes that occurred in k-12 classes return with a vengence. And since it’s a group grade, everything has to be perfect no matter who does it. Right now I’m in a group with two Catch-alls and a Distracted. Now, it could have been worse…A Distracter could really harm the group’s dynamic, but the two Catch-alls (myself included) have to do the work of three because the Distracted of our triad is not to be found. We think she may have annexed herself to some pals in another group, or fallen down a well. Personally, I hope for the well.

In the end I know the finished product will be up to par, as Catch-alls tend to recognize and trust that passive hard-working quality in each other. Sometimes we dream of being an Editor, but Distracters and Distractions never took us seriously in grade school(and by not being taken seriously, I mean picked on us and made us cry,) and we dare not overstep our usefullness in the class. (I still have nightmares of such social suicides.)

Honestly, learning to be a teacher shows me that the more things change, the more they stay the same. We never grow out of being those kids we were in Junior High. While how we interact may become more sophisticated, we’re still those class clowns or worker-bees we grew up as.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

On the completion of the first week of my educational boot camp I am ready for a sigh of relief. It’s been one hell of a week, and it’s all gone by so fast! Heading for Pace University in downtown Manhattan before 8AM, home around 7:30 PM…all the knowledge (both practical and philosophical) all the homework! For the first time in a very, very long time…academics are my life. Even as an undergrad I slept until noon, skipped classes, let the emotions of interpersonal relationships cloud the purity of education. Just think: seven weeks to learn everything that teachers take 4 years to know. It’s a kick to the brain, filling me to the brim with so much knowledge that I shut down at the end of the night, falling asleep without a problem around 11:45. I feel challenged both on an intellectual level, and on basic level (how the hell am I going to stand in front of a class, let alone a special ed class?) Classroom management, paired with understanding the cognitive development of children.

One down, six weeks to go…In two months I’ll be a teacher, not just a grad student.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Downfall of a Cynic (?)

Today I sat in attendance with 1900 other New York City Teaching Fellows, a captive audience before the orientation assembly in Lincoln Center. A Necessary evil, at best, but more likely three hours of bureaucratic speeches about the worth and value of teachers, while the widespread low compensation of public school instructors is silently and cheerfully glossed over. Call me bitter, but doesn’t putting on a whole shin-dig in the Lincoln Center for nearly two-thousand, complete with tuxedoed ushers, cost a pretty tax-payer’s penny? And I can’t help but feel a scant ounce of vinegar when I know I’ll only be given $150 for the school year to supply my students, but whatever, there’s nothing I can do about it. This time.

So, the auditorium is packed, folks even on the balcony, and the show begins. And what a show it is. It starts out innocuously enough with a few stuffed-well wishers. A constant refrain of how we are joining the “noble profession.” This from plenty of folks who aren’t teachers, the president of Wachovia Bank included.

But, gradually there was a change in me. Whoever planned this whole Welcome Ceremony was very slick. They brought out The Big Guns, starting is PS7’s Cheerleader squad, fresh out of Harlem. And while I’m not impressed with *any* cheerleaders, this troupe were amazing with their earnest joy of movement…and knowing that the only reason why the Red Tigers had a cheerleading squad was due to a Teaching Fellow taking the initiative to stay after school for training and fundraising for costumes. I felt a small crack in my collectedness.

It gets worse. The South Bronx choir, led by a first year Fellow sang What a Wonderful World with the style and sass that only an 11 year old from the Bronx could. “And I think to myself. Mm, What a wonderful world.” Complete with a saucy stance and gesticulation, I nearly lost it at that point. But I would lose it later; all my cynicism, coolness, and realism would crash around me and I’d join the ranks of the hopeful and (god help me) idealistic.

The final nail in the coffin was the Essay Readers. Students who spoke on what made a teacher memorable, and how their instructor’s touched their lives. I was broken, I was warm, I was One with the other 1900 idealistic, save-the-world hopefuls who had come to NYC to make a difference. And horrified, I figured I could make a difference too. I had not only infiltrated the hippie compound, but have fallen under its spell.

Tomorrow starts classes, and I begin the three year push to my MA. I don’t miss Corporate America at all. (Well, maybe the free coffee.)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

So, you think you're "special?"

Today was my first foray to the battle lines of special education as I spent the morning observing P721X, The Stephen D. McSweeney Occupational Training Center in the Bronx. It was a vocational high school, with outside work service…and I was genuinely nervous. I felt like I was finally getting my hands dirty; running into the fray. Being a Fellow in the NYC Fellowship program, and having my Master paid for by the government looks great on paper…but I’ll admit I’m as comfortable as most folks around those with disabilities. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be at the front of the line to condemn any abuses or damage served to those with special needs; but with the urge to protect comes a sense of pity, of otherness. My biggest fear is to stand in front of my class, poised and prepped, ready to learn…and letting my discomfort show. So my plan today was to immerse myself in the class, and sink or swim.

“What’s your favorite Muppet?”
“What’s your favorite Southpark Character?”
“What’s your favorite Southpark episode?”
What’s your favorite Muppet’s episode?”

The barrage of questions came from a teenage boy, a foot taller than me with functional autism, Sonny. His teacher (and my tour guide), Laurie, who was introducing me to her class, smiled at the boy. I couldn’t answer each question fully before his next query overlapped my words.

“What’s your favorite Muppet?”
“Gonz-“ I began.
“What’s your favorite Southpark Character?”
“Kenny, bec-“ I uttered.
“He’s dead! What’s your favorite Southpark episode?”
“The Lord of the Rings one-“
“What’s your favorite Muppet’s episode?”
I think I said something about Muppets in Space because it’s been years since I actually watched a Muppet Show episode.

“I’m not a Shrimp. I’m a King Prawn.”

Seriously, Sonnie is the Rainman of Muppets and Southpark info. He knows ALL the names of episodes, and minute details of each show. And, he wasn’t creepy…Just very excited.

Laurie, who is a second year Fellow, and has been through the whole rigmarole, was an absolute godsend. She would explain the diagnosis of each child, her words compassionate and wry, and she knew each student; what they were like, how they learned, what set them off. Her classroom ran the gamut between highly functional’s like Sonnie, and non-verbal’s like Andy. Ages were between 15 and 19, some kids were working on division and multiplication, and Andy worked on memorizing how to spell his name and recognize his address.

I won’t lie and say I was comfortable with Andy, in fact out of all the kids I met today…he was the one that made me really think about the choice I am making. Andy is 19, 270 pounds, 6 foot 4, and aggressive. Laurie fondly call him a linebacker, but seriously, this kid could play for the Jets. The guy is huge, and I began to ask questions about teacher safety. Yes, students get aggressive. Yes, Laurie has had scary situations in the past. No, she wouldn’t choose another job.

In the beginning of the school year Laurie had a run-in with Andy. Apparently he wanted a gummy candy from the closet, but being non-verbal and unable to ask or explain his desire he rushed Laurie and knocked her down while scrambling to where the candy was kept. She was very nonchalant telling the story, but I was a little chilled. Even without bad intentions aggression is dangerous in the classroom.

Thankfully there was resolution. A clever machine with large buttons with symbols painted on. The symbols were reflecting everyday needs, a toilet to represent bathroom, a plate of food to show hunger, and a piece of candy to reflect, well, candy. While Andy can’t actually speak and ask for candy, he can carry his “talker” up to Laurie, push the button and the device will state Andy’s wants. “I have to go to the bathroom,” or “I want candy” And it’s completely programmable, with options suited to his specific needs.

The most striking part of the entire experience was the realization of how much my thinking needs to shift. Such a huge part of teaching students with special needs is changing how you think about teachers. I’m more aware of how I’m not going to be like the teachers I had in school…I will have to shift my cognitive drive with students, and change my goals with those I instruct.
I asked Laurie today about her levels of frustration dealing with kids who don’t, and may never read or speak. She countered my question by stating her pride in Andy: He’d been practicing the memorization of his name since January…and he gets it 50% of the time. But he no longer spits at people, or sticks out his tongue. And most of the job is teaching what you can, and being happy with the smallest of results; as they are often the greatest accomplishments in the eyes of the student.
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