Monday, July 31, 2006

The "N" Word

I feel like I am set up to learn a lot about race and acceptance in my future years teaching in Brooklyn. And I also think I’ll have my heart broken due to race-related slings and arrows of prejudice. What credibility does a white girl have walking into an inner-city high school where the students are mostly black with a dash of latino? How do you react when calling a student African American gets you looked at like you’re speaking another, slightly offensive, language? My students aren’t African American; they see the word as an invention of white folks to make them more relatable. Like politically correct pets. But I get the idea they don’t want to be supported on the white world’s words. They rather be black on their own terms, in their own community than be African American and beholden to “the white man.”

So where do I fit in, the white educator?

Case in point: Today during class I was reading to the group the beginning chapters of River, Cross My Heart, by Breena Clarke. It’s an Oprah’s book club type of book, and it takes place in a black society in Virginia containing many of the issues African Americans face, including racism. So, I’m reading a passage about a prejudiced woman who is both white and in poverty and reading straight from the book I say the word nigger. Now, it wasn’t my word, and it wasn’t directly from me, but one of my students shot up and demanded I apologize. I was kinda stunned, but not terrible so after the initial shock with the Sha-sha incident. I asked Ramel what the problem was, and his response was that nigger was an offensive word, and that I should say “The N word” whenever it comes up in a book.

I tried to explain that nigger was only a word, that it only had the power a person allowed it to have. I also mentioned that editing the book in that way because it was offensive was censorship. It was a roadblock to the liberal inside of me; it killed me that a student could be stopped in his tracks because of a word. Sticks and stones, I thought ruefully. How can I, as an educator, explain that making the word nigger taboo by having it referred to as "The N word" only gives it more power? What kills me is that I doubt the issue would have come up if I were black. I’m not part of the club, and I can’t borrow the language even if I’m reading a novel about black people that is written by a black author. My smartest move, in the end, was letting it go. I can’t change what offends someone; I can’t even enlighten them if they don’t want to be.

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Friday, July 28, 2006

A Teacher, officially.

The rain is positively dumping outside as I walk the block and a half from subway stop to walk-up apartment. I’m coming home from a four hour workshop on Positive Behavior Structure and Autism, and I’m getting drenched. However, I am pleased because I have ended my sixth week in the Fellowship’s educational boot camp. And this week was the hardest, all the fieldwork observations and written analysis were due along with a huge new teacher work-folio project and a unit’s worth of lesson plans based on a third grader’s need to learn about the microscopic world. On top of all that the whole Sha-sha thing…It’s Friday and I’m officially pooped.

On the bright side I can really see myself shaping into a teacher and authority figure. The confrontation in the classroom really forged an authoritarian I didn’t think I was…and I’m glad I have that in me. I also feel like I’m building up my readiness, mentally standing on the balls of my feet and preparing to pounce on a perpetrator…er…student.

And the exceptionally good news is that I’ve been interviewed and offered a job at the field site I’ve currently been working at. After weeks of my dropping less-than-obvious hints about my desire to work in the school, and damn near begging the assistant principal to hire me I was finally scooped up. And I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that all the other fellows assigned to PS 371 Lillian l. Rashkis all called in “sick.”

It’s not a very cushy position, they warned me. (My initial reaction was to ask if there were any cushy jobs as far as special education students were concerned, but wisely kept my yap shut.) The school is the same, but it’s in a different location, and while it’s right next to the first school the building was converted from offices and the classrooms are very tiny, and there’s neither a gym nor a crisis room. (For those of you who don’t know what a crisis room is…it’s where you send violent, crazed students where they can’t harm anyone. Many crisis rooms are padded.) I’ll be teaching alternate assessment students ages 14 to 21 years old and I’ll be accompanying them on vocational training once or twice a week.

Now, when you’re talking about special education students there are two types: Standard assessment and alternate assessment. Standard assessment students are responsible for taking the same standardized tests that normal, general education kids have to take…they only are placed in 12 to 1 to 1 classes in order to give them the extra supervision and help they may need, whether they are learning disabled or emotionally disturbed. Standard students have the cognitive ability to be tested on that level, despite setbacks.

Alternate assessment students do not have any standardized testing. Instead they have to complete data-folios which they hand in for a special education diploma. This means the students do not have to follow a strict curriculum in the classroom, rather the teacher comes up with (On the fly, I guess) lesson plans on daily living skills and the general aspects of life the educator thinks students may need. The assistant principal who interviewed me gave the example that I won’t be teaching my class about the Bill of Rights or Constitution, more like I’ll be teaching them the fact that they have rights. Simplification, getting them ready for the vocational tract so they can at least get a job. Or, at least that’s the idea.

So, let’s recap: I have a job, but it’s in a claustrophobic classroom. I have a class, but I have no curriculum to guide my teaching. I’m going to keep a smile on my face, because I haven’t even seen the classroom yet, and there are rumors of a rec room in the basement…and I maybe if I’m lucky the previous teacher who is taking off with little warning will leave me some idea about what I’m supposed to be teaching.

But on the bright side...I'm not just a Teaching Fellow now! I'm a teacher! Officially! Hired and ready to put up some bulletin boards!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Sha-sha Saga

This week has offered me the challenge I knew I would have to face eventually, but illogically thought “Nah, it won’t happen to me!” Currently I’m dealing with a student who has chosen me as a specific challenge, and is enjoying her attempts to terrorize me. Allow me to show you my week:


First off, I never recommend putting yourself in the presence of feisty youngsters if you haven't had more than four hours of sleep.

Sha-sha, who I have mentioned earlier to be a thorn in my foot, is now officially announced herself as my enemy. At least she thinks so. That's right, she. You see, I made a mistake by assuming that she looked like a boy, acted like a boy, spoke like a boy, dressed like a boy, and was treated by the boys like a boy…that she was in fact a boy. Ah, how confused teenagers are these days as they journey forth in search of identity.

Monday started with Sha-sha, a.k.a. Raquel walking and laying over both my desk and the neighboring desk lined up next to mine. I made non verbal eye contact: "Yo, miss, why you up in my grill?"

Ah! Confrontation! They taught us about that in class. Ok, you're a teacher, I thought to myself, show no fear! "You're on my desk. Right in front of me. Of course I'm going to look at you." I tried to keep my breathing eve, tried to keep the blood from flowing to my face. I was well aware as the adrenalin pulsed through my veins…I was being directly confronted and how I handled this now would direct my interaction with the student until I left.

“Shit, you a cracker, snow white.” Sha-sha said before slapping at the hem of my dress shirt. She rolled over and feigned sleep.

“Sha-sha, open your book and read aloud from page 136” I said, keeping my voice stern. I didn’t watch her, rather I looked down at my book.

“Fuck you Miss C.” She said, loud enough that another teacher overheard and chastised her. Sha-sha sucked at her teeth and turned to me. “Fuck you.” She said, more quietly.

I let it slide. What could I say that wouldn’t escalate the situation? I let her lie over the desks, sprawled like a cat because she was reading. I pick my battles.

Minutes later when the cooperating teacher asked for an “N” work that represented community (we were doing an acronym project) I offered neighbor.

“”NIGGER! Miss C said Nigger! Cracker bitch! Ms. B…she’s rascist! Oh! Oh! Whyyou call us niggers?!”

Okay. This I was not prepared for. I was ready for the slings and arrows thrown at me, and ready not to take them personally. But I did not expect to have words put in my mouth, and especially not when they accused me of being prejudiced. I was shocked, which was Sha-sha’s intent, I’m sure. That half second that took me to respond really cost me. I floundered out: “I most certainly did not say that. I mind my language.” My emphasis on certainly covered my reeling emotions from the situation. I could feel my face growing hot and red.

Ms. R, the cooperating teacher backed me up, “Sha-sha you sit down in that chair and leave Ms. C alone, of my the blood of Jesus…” I recovered my compsure, but shared many meaningful glances with Sha-sha from across the room. And by meaningful I mean menacing. It was fifteen minutes later when I caught Sha-sha going though my bag while I was helping another student with reading comprehension. She was elbow deep and pulling out my purse. Mind you, it’s my own fault…I should have left my bag locked up somewhere…but I was tired and stupidly trusting. Well, it’s a lesson learned well. But I was aghast that she’d be so blatant about the situation.

I debriefed later in privacy with Ms. R, who for the record can’t stand Sha-sha and would have her expelled by this point if she could. I was told I handled it well, mentally I added the unsaid, for a white girl. That was the issue…I was the only white person in the class, students and teachers included. And while I wasn’t going to let it be a problem, and the students didn’t seem to mind it was a big, hairy deal for Sha-sha who wanted to fight me as

1. An authority figure.
2. A white person.
3. A younger person without the dignity and respect wrinkles bring.
4. Another woman.

The fact that race had become such an issue flabbergasted me, I wasn’t ready to defend myself in that way, but I wasn’t about to let one student spoil my whole teaching experience.


The interns from United Way who have been running the Freedom School in the classroom decided that in order to instill a stronger sense of community in the class they would completely trash the room. Desks and chairs flipped over, papers, forks, minutia strewn everywhere…It was a good job done doing a bad thing, so I thought. The interns, Ms. B and Ms. T played dumb about the whole thing while asking sneaky questions about how the room made the students feel, and what they planned to do about it.

“Go bust a cap in someone’s ass!” a student replied.

Sha-sha had no desk to lay one, so paced the messy room like a caged lion. And then she really got up in my face. “Make the white bitch clean it up, she be our slave now! She’ll be a fucking maid, and shit.”

Ah, the race card. I was ready, having licked my wounds from the previous day. I calmly, and quickly replied: “I will not be held responsible for something that may, or may not have happened to you ancestors.” I was busy mentally high-fiving myself when Ms. B, the intern, took Sha-sha out in the hall for a “private consultation.”

Now, in PS 371 the doors all lock from the inside, so in order to get back in I had to open the door for them. This illicited the response from Sha-sha that “I was already her servent because I was getting the door.” I rolled my eyes like a teenager and left it at that. Ms. R, my cooperating teacher did not.

“Sha-sha, you better keep your mouth shut and sit down.” She gave Sha-sha her confrontation back 100%. It was showdown time, because I knew Sha-sha was not going to let the teacher have the last word.

“You fuckin’ fat gorilla, your fuckin’ ugly feet, fucking don’t tell me shit about what I gotta do (sound of teeth sucking)” etc.

“You don’t RESPECT yourself, you gotta go because you don’t LOVE yourself, Rocky. Blood of Jesus, girl!” (If I never mentioned it, Ms. R is a large, sassy black woman in her early thirties who is highly religious, very strong, and unafraid to voice her opinions. She’s a beloved stereotype, and I’d never be where I am without her knowledge and strength.)

It was at this point Sha-sha, a.k.a. Raquel, a.k.a. Rocky, a.k.a. Bang Boy got sent out for the day. I breathed a sigh of relief. Today, in some small way, I had won.


Today I realized it’s all a game, all of it. The fronting, the threats, the cursing, the behavior. It’s a testing of boundaries. I walked into the class, and said good morning to Sha-sha, as is my wont. She smiled.

After I settled, I watched her from the corner of her eye approach me. I readied myself for the onslaught. “Miss C! Miss C, today I ain’t gonna bother you. Today is Miss T’s turn.” I didn’t think about turns, I didn’t think about the idea that someone else had to deal with the crap today, I didn’t allow myself to sigh in relief..I had to take control of the moment.

“Free at last, free at last, Hallelujah, free at last!” I’m not sure if she got the refrence, but her eyes widened as I stood from my seat, raised my hands to the heavens and shouted with glee. I got her attention, at the very least. And, true to her word…she did not give me a single problem the entire session.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Dog Tired

There have been some very interesting developments with this Sha-sha character during my student-teaching at the field site. However, since I have thirteen enormous projects due tomorrow I've been spending nearly every waking moment this week doing school work. But I promise you I'll tell it all. To tide you over, I'll let you in on a secret: a girl.

And she also tries to kiss her teacher's aide on the lips.

More later...stay tuned.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The First Worst Day

Until now it's been pretty breezy at PS 371, teaching emotionally disturbed high schoolers. They have such character, and they tend to behave if you act reasonable. However, I had my first worst day. It made me sick to my stomach on adrenaline and fear, made me feel useless and unproductive.

Yesterday was the kind of day that shakes one to their foundations and makes them ask the question: Do I really want to imprison myself in a classroom with a dozen monsters who lather at the mouse and would chew their own leg off to get at you with a switchblade? Student teaching was a complete bust: nothing got read or learned, behavior was off-the-charts awful, and I had my first student-teacher confrontation that chilled me to the bone.

Students were sleeping, most just with their heads on their desk; but one of my students, Sha-Sha, decided to brazenly steal someone's shirt from the closet and use it as a pillow as he sprawled out laying on top of three desks. I was working without a "real" teacher in the room, only an intern younger than even my 23 years. And I had only an eyelash worth of authority with the kids.

"Sha-Sha, please get up and read from page 128." I asked, my voice loud in my own ears. No reply, feigned sleep.

"Sha-Sha! Get up." I was standing over him at this point, I saw the curl of a smile on the student's lips.

I yanked the makeshift pillow out from underneath Sha-Sha's head, and he was up like a shot.

"What you do, miss? You ain't no real teacher. You leavin' for class. Ain't it time for you to leave?" he then moved over to lie across 4 chairs, arm slung impudently over his face. The intern, Miss Tisha did nothing.

I read aloud from the book we were studying Bang, by Sharon Flake, an inner-city shoot-up coming of age story that the kids didn't find too dry. There were a lot of loud parts of the book, where I would shout BANG! And I made sure to be near the snoozing student whenever I had to be loud. The other students laughed when Sha-Sha jumped. And Sha-Sha most certainly didn't appreciate it.

He came at me, advancing slowly and with menace. I made eye contact.

"What you lookin' at?" Ack! No! Confrontation! I can't win this, I'm going to get shot like in Dangerous Minds, my ma was right!

Without stammering I told him to sit down. He did. On a desk. But I didn't trust myself to go any further with the student, knowing he was looking for a way to get into trouble.
When I had to leave the class for the day to head to my own classes Sha-Sha held the door. Like he owned the room. I attempted to turn it around and thanked him for being such a gentleman. My heart was in my throat. I could hear the rush of blood in my ears. I was so glad to get out of that class, away from the pressure. I can only hope I put on a better show than how I felt.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Teacher's Rush

I’m coming down from a fantastic high. Today I was asked to lead a lesson for my 9th grade emotionally disturbed class who I’ve been recently observing in PS 371 in south Brooklyn. Man. Now I know why teachers do it, not for the summers off or the absolute power, but for the RUSH. If you’ve ever acted in a play, or been a public speaker it’s a lot like that; you’re up in front and you have that connection and you’re asking questions, they know the answers, or you’re working the answers out with them.

There. Is. Nothing. Like. It.

What did I have to teach? Cross multiplication. Stuff like:

x 715


It’s been ten years since I had to do that kind of math manually. I mean, my computer was equipped with a calculator for a reason, right? So I had to think fast, it’s damn near impossible to teach what you don’t know. I had a student show me. I “acted” like I didn’t know how to do it, and coached a boy into teaching me (and the class.) After a minute it was clicking for me in a large burst of “oh yeah…” and I led the class.

Superstars, all of my kids. I don’t know if I was expecting them to boo me out of the classroom, or shoot me, or denounce me as the fraud I sometimes feel…but they were good. They’re good kids! I was stunned! Here I am hearing all this trouble from other teachers and administration, and I didn’t have very much trouble, even the students who weren’t crazy about the lesson were at least quiet so I could teach the others.

After the lesson, and my return to university for my lessons the high is still with me. It’s satisfaction that I didn’t choke up, didn’t let my nervousness control me (and don’t think for a second I wasn’t nervous!) and that I might have gotten through, a little bit, to some kids.

Now I know why teachers stay teachers: the addictive teacher’s rush. It’s like a drug!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

You want me to teach WHAT?!

You may all be aware that I’m taking an intensive boot-camp of teacher training to start educating in September, but you might not be aware that I currently have no job. That’s right, I’m going to classes for 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, and I’m not even sure where or if I’ll be teaching. I keep mumbling to myself “providence provides, providence provides.”

Today I gave my resume to Dr. Scope, the principal of the school I’m doing my field work in. She has a deep German accent and Freud-esque spectacles, and is stout as a teapot. Her response to me: “I see you have a social studies and English background, would you teach physics?”

…Wha? How could I respond to that? I took Physics in high school, and amazingly passed it. (barely) But how could I even think about teaching it? Not that I turned it down, mind you. I left everything nice and open-ended…but I think it was obvious that I don’t know physics from a fruit roll-up. There was more math in physics than my 12th grade math class. And even if I were to teach in the world would I teach something that dry to kids with behavior problems? They'd never sit through a lecture on bloody ohms.

Well, the doctor now has my resume on file, and also a lovely cover letter that took me an hour to write. Now all I can hope is that a current teacher resigns, retires, or gets West Nile. Or you’ll see me on the side of the road with a cardboard sign: Will teach for Food!

Saturday, July 08, 2006

What do politics have to do with education?

The problem with instructing educators how to teach is that you’re bound to come across conflicting theories on how to manage the classroom. I think if the education teachers knew how confusing it was for a teacher-to-be to hear two completely contrary methods of instruction they would realize that contradictory info is a very bad idea and should be completely abolished before the teachers-to-be go nuts and resign from the teaching profession in order to take up bonsai sculpting career in order to keep their blood pressure low. I’m not saying that teachers shouldn’t change their methods to suit their personalities or their class population. But when we only have seven weeks before we are expected to be responsible for teaching a class full-time it seems like a better idea to give one theory on how to teach, and instruct others once the teacher has a grasp of how to stand in front of a class and not get spit wads shot sniper-style at your head.

I’m constantly juggling these two specific educational techniques in my head these days: direct manner with students, and a more liberal touchy-feely kind of instruction. The issue here, besides the clear-cut differences between both processes is that I really don’t consider myself either. I am blunt enough that I won’t be extra super sensitive to students just because they’re special ed, they are kids! And nothing is more resilient, crafty, and adapting than a youngster in their teen years. On the other hand I’m not a shouter, and I’m not comfortable being mean.

I have one professor telling me that “students are people too” (well, duh!) and that class rules should be more positive. For instance instead of saying “no running” as a rule, you’re better off with “Please walk.” And it gets even better when you’re handling rules once their broken. During a teaching workshop we were told that once a student has broken a stated and posted rule the best course of action is the ask him or her what she’s done wrong. If a student throws a book out the window I’m going to ask: “John, should we really be throwing school property out the window?” I can just see how well that will work. If you start asking students questions like that, you’re just baiting them to start wise-mouthing you. Once one student is in mock-the-hippie-teacher-mode others will most certainly join in, and you’ve lost any control over the class.

On the other hand, like the more conservative guardian angel on my other shoulder the theory of more direct behavior control is being uttered. (And by the way, my conservative guardian angel speaks with a German accent.) The idea is that students need to be treated the way their parents or guardians manage them at home, more of a tough love idea. Newsflash: the majority of emotionally disturbed students do not have the best home life, including a severe amount of physical abuse. Should I be taking my whuppin’ stick to class now? Of course I’m being sarcastic about it a bit; the theory has more in mind direct instructions. And to some extent, it makes a little more sense to me than the liberal view that diminishes the authority of the teacher and glorifies the student by walking around them on egg shells. My cooperating teacher Ms. R pulls it of perfectly, while she says you have to give up some control to truly keep the class under control she’ll be quick with a raised voice to boom “Don’t you dare write on that desk!” and she commands instant respect, or at least the rule-breaker’s attention. The only problem is that I’m not a tall, imposing black woman who can stop kids in their tracks with a withering “Oh no you didn’t!” glare.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The student becomes the teacher. Literally.

This week I began the true transformation from plain-old E to Ms. C and began student-teaching a summer school. I spend at least ten minutes everyday now, trying to find the perfect “teacher face.” Contorting, twisting, and frowning my eyebrow muscles until they warp into the perfect approximation of facial wrath that drives an unruly student into a trousers-soiling seizure of terror. I am preparing for educational battle.

My new school is a District 75 high school. District 75 can be described as the most restrictive schools in the NYC educational system with full inclusion classes. The first thing that thrilled me, was that the school was very close to my home, on the yellow train line, and on the way to my University for classes afterwards. The bad news, is that my day starts an hour earlier. Now I’m students teaching from 8AM to noon, and classes from 1PM until 6:30PM when I drag my way home.

I was assigned to a standard assessment Emotional disturbance class, and that jargon means that even though the students have a disability and are in a 12 to 1 to 1 class setting, they are responsible for the same standardized tests of normal high school kids. That might not seem like a big deal, until you throw in behavioral problems, parental neglect, and the emotional disturbances themselves like Bipolarity or even schizophrenia. And the fact that these kids are growing up poor in the city tosses in the ever-flavorful street-smart hustler aspect of their blooming identities.

Was I nervous walking into a class room of 14 and 15 year old students with behavior issues? Does a homeless man poop in an alley? Of course I was anxious! I mean, here I am: Miss-twenty-three-from-Upstate-NY-suburbs-white-girl. But, here’s the catcher: I feel lucky because I’d be a heck of a lot more uncomfortable around autistic students. Why? Because even though an autistic child won’t be in-your-face about things, and their behavior is pretty controllable, it’s difficult to impossible for reasoning with an autistic child. Behavior management for the autistic is based around positive reinforcement, better known as bribery.

Anyway, I was brought to my assigned teacher and classroom by the principal, who had only been working at the school for three days. Already we’re off to a great start! C’mon, the principal just started, so of course the students would be running the school. I was instantly put at ease by the cooperating teacher Ms. R who is the quintessential black matriarch. Though I am a touch uneasy with the term matriarch because she could be older than thirty. Large, beautiful and tough-looking, with a don’t-fuck-with-me attitude that the students responded to, I was instantly impressed by the repore that Ms. R had with her students. Every child was “baby,” and she kissed cheeks and squeezed shoulders without any fear, though she was just as quick with snapped fingers and a growled demand to “pay attention.” This woman is a queen, and I feel in safe hands.

Since it’s summer school the classes are small by design. Also since it is summer school attendance is very dismal. My first class was on Wednesday and two students showed up. And two students were in class on Thursday, except one arrived late and the other have to be dismissed early to make a probation hearing.

However, for the most part it’s going well. I am as surprised as you. Ms. R is fine with my constant questioning, she lets me read through past lesson plans and work sheets and is very helpful with enormous amounts of insight. The students (when they are there) are warming to me, and that’s definitely boosting my teacher confidence. It helps that I bribe them (both teacher and students) with donut holes.

What I found interesting is that on my second day when I brought the glazed orbs there was only one student in class, Ericka, and she refused to take the donut holes. After I shyly offered, and even when Ms. R asked. However, when Ms. R helped herself Ericka got mad. It was about territory, the student was angry that I was “stealing” her teacher by offering her treats. Mind you, I’m sure it wasn’t so sophisticated in Ericka’s brain, but it offered me a lot of insight into my situation. Eventually she relented and started stuffing her cheeks like an ebony chipmunk and a bond was born.

Many teachers and educational theories denounce food rewards for good behavior, pointing to the advanced rate of obesity in disabled students (thought all child obesity is on the rise.) Now, I see the point and the evidence, but I can’t help but remember the idiom “the way to a man’s heart is through is stomach,” and for a student, the comfort foods don’t merely reward, but create a bond and also comfort. I doubt Ericka would have been fond of me proffering her some yams or pinto beans. Positive reinforcers like stickers or small dollar-store knick knacks may work with swaying the actions of younger kids, but you have to keep in mind who you’re teaching. The minute you start treating your 9th grade inclusion class like a 4th grade class is the minute your students resent you, and thus anarchy is born.
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