Thursday, August 31, 2006

Ms. C's Got (A) Class!

It’s almost 10PM, and I sit at my computer sipping some cold Ovaltine, reflecting on sore feet and a very long day. I expected the first day of classes to be hectic and troublesome, but not the day which teacher return to the classroom to setup and gather for workshops. I am a wreck, seriously exhausted, but dying to get back into the classroom and do it again tomorrow.

I spent an hour last night, slowly poring over my wardrobe, wanting to wear something professional, but allowing my comfort and stability for moving around my new classroom and setting up shop. Helpless to the impulse to impress, knowing how difficult it can be, being the new kid on the block.

The day began with teachers flocking to the cafeteria for free bagels and gossip, moving toward an hour long speech by our principal and a 90 minute power point presentation on blood-born pathogens. Fun! You honestly don’t know pleasure until you sit on a lunch bench for 3 hours…my ass felt like hamburger meat fresh from the grinder.

But after all that state-mandated chuff I got to the fun part: working on my classroom! Except I walked into my class, and the floor is littered with shards of glass from several broken windows. A chilly, late-summer breeze flowed casually through the empty casements. Wonderful. There is a completely disconnected sink still attached into the wall, and murals of peeling paint mixed with the snowy white blotches of joint compound on the walls. Welcome to New York City public schools.

(A photo re-enactment...not actual classroom)

I’m sure how the principal felt when I complained about the glass and lack of bulletin boards. Something about the tender-foot green teacher without so much as a certificate or a backbone…but honestly, how could I feel comfortable teaching students in a class that was, as I learned later, broken into? Happily enough I got moved to a new room, in much better shape.

The next few hours flew by as I papered and bordered bulletin boards, put up my standards, my motivational pieces and my word walls. I met not one, but my two paraprofessionals who will be with me in my class, guarding my teenage denizens against themselves and others. Hopefully, it will work out for the best between the three of us. Ms. J seems very kind, very helpful and a hard worker and Ms. W can be described as strong to the point of willful. (I can’t really hope that they maintain helpful and cooperative attitudes more than I can pray from my own assertive stance.)

One interaction of note was with my principal; I asked her if the school had extracurricular activities like a book club or drama guild. She guffawed loudly, perhaps at the very thought, and walked into the main office. Fabulous. Can we say work cut out for me?

Tomorrow: Ms. C gets keys to her classroom! Buys a padlock for her closet! Gets the results of her tuberculosis skin test that she took on Wednesday! Takes pictures of her classroom!

Stay tuned!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Shakespeare Just Ain't Cool (And Teachers Can't Be Hip)

I am a first year teacher, but I have an anecdote that I feel I will be telling new teachers for years to come. About a week ago I realized the inevitable: Teachers cannot under any circumstances be cool. I don’t care if you’re a teach who wears jeans, or if you never give out homework…by becoming a teacher, you give up the cool. Any teacher who thinks they are hip, or cool, or “down” with their students are incredibly deluded in their role in their students life. A teacher will be an advocate, will hold a student’s hand, will uplift a student…but being defined as hip just isn’t going to happen.

My realization came hard: I was in Barclays, a teacher supply store in Brooklyn, NY. Visions of chalk holders and construction paper danced in my head as I wandered the aisles and gazed at all the opportunities and potential just waiting to happen. My passion would shine through, I’d get kids excited about learning…they’d come to love books and reading and academics as much as I did! I saw a life-sized cut out of William Shakespeare, and fell in love. Only, how could I justify buying it? I wondered.

I know! I could put a hip hat like the kids are wearing these days on him, and then Shakespeare would be really cool, or rad, or neat, or fly as the kids would say.

WARNING! WARNING! The bells in my head went off at that moment, and they were loud. It was at that moment exactly, that I realized I’m never going to be that cool teacher I always pictured myself being. Shakespeare with a hat is still a 200 year old dead white guy, and kids don’t relate well to stuff like that all the time. And, I though, I must not relate well to the students because while Shakespeare decked out in Homie-Wear may be an awesome SNL skit, I’m working with an audience who may not know what SNL stands for. I’m the adult, the authority figure, and worst of all, and academic…Cool just isn’t on my page.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Free Goodies from Staples, and Blog Links

You know, Staples does pretty good by teachers. I went to Staples somewhat near my apartment, mainly because they were giving out teacher goodies, but also because I wanted to finish up my supply shopping. Reminder to self: save those receipts!

Staples goodies:
-2 pens, one black, one red
-1 box of multi-colored paperclips
-1 note pad that says: “Time For a Quick Hello!” on it
-1 “doo-doo brown,” as my one-and-only calls it, canvas shoulder bag with STAPLES emblazoned on the side
-1 “color explosion” red marker, from the package it’s supposed to make “colors magically appear” on special paper.
-1 very flimsy Teacher Planner that states “Because I have 52 weekends to plan.” Who thinks this stuff up? This is a cruel joke rubbing it in my face that I’ll be using my weekend working on class planning. Bastards.
-3 generic pink erasers
-1 index card box. ??? How is this useful?
-1 small plastic-wrap package of tissues.
-6 Staples Brand pencils
-9 flyers to promote Staples or products that Staples sells.

At the end of the day, though, I’m glad I picked up the stuff and I can appreciate a company who sees teachers as a market to be catered to.

Next point of business: look right and you’ll see a list of links I’ve updated. I’ve been looking around for the most helpful blogs that give info to new teachers, or teachers new to NYC. I feel like we need to band together, Us vs. Them and all that. (Them could mean students, it could mean parents of students, or it could mean administration…I’m leaving this open.) Feel free to browse, I often look at other blogs just for another point of view. And there are a few personal blogs that I browse for my own pleasure-reading...they are high quality and fun.

Also, notice my addopt a classroom button...If you're a big business who wants to help a special needs classroom, or another teacher who could use the help...please click the link.

Link plugging is officially over.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

My Emergency Racism Lesson Plan

If you’ve been reading my blog somewhat regularly you are aware of the racial issues I have had while student teaching. This has given me pause for MUCH thought, because I have never been so shocked as the day I was called out in class as a racist…not because I did or said anything in that manner…but merely as an attack and shock tactic. So for months I’ve thought of how to handle when (not if) that situation comes up in my own classroom, and I’m well aware of how touchy a situation it is; I mean how can I not seem preachy when it’s a young, white teacher talking to a room of black and latino students in poverty speaks equality and against prejudice. Sounds like I’d be trying to save my own ass, and a big case of “The Queen doth protest too much,” if you know what I mean.

Ok, so how to broach the subject without either being condescending/preachy, or a doormat when it comes to student disrespect and racial views? I know for a start I can’t make it student vs. teacher when it comes to prejudice, that could make me seem desperate and defensive. What I came up with was my:


OBJECTIVE: Students will explore provocations of prejudice and discover that many prejudiced actions stem from cultural issues rather than skin color.

MATERIALS: Paper, pens, paint swatches from a hardware store


1. Students sit together in an open forum for discussion.

2. Teacher passes out paint swatches to students and requests that each child finds the color that matches their skin. The instructor also matches his/her own skin color.

3. Each student goes around and reads off the paint color that most closely resembles their complexion, i.e. coral cliché, rolling hills, pepper spice (I’m closest to blanched almond)

4. Teacher begins discussion among students about race vs. culture, asks “If we all have different shades of skin color, how can it be categorized into so few…black, white, and so on?”

5. Students speak, give answers and teacher writes poignant concepts on the board.

6. Teacher asks the class what the difference between race and culture is.

7. Teacher creates a T chart on the board and fills in each side with student help.

8. Students are asked to write or draw a situation in which they were prejudiced against someone, or someone was prejudiced against them.

9. Lesson is closed by teacher speaking about respect and the power of diversity as a tool of learning. “I think all cultures can learn from each other, and that kind of education can empower all people, not just those who seem powerful now.”

I feel that this is the best lesson plan concerning race I’ve been able to come up with so far, I want to focus in difference of culture as opposed to difference in skin color because I think that’s where most misunderstandings or anger stems from. I also think that taking race out of it diffuses the situation more. There’s no longer black and white, nigger and cracker…instead we have dusty canyon and moonscape. At the very least I hope it will get the kids to laugh and think a little about the way the act with other cultures. And of course it goes without saying that I hope it saves my butt a lot of trouble.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Motivational Teaching Poster

For a bit of fun I played around with the "Make your own Motivational Poster" site linked here:

Note: This is meant with a sense of humor…these mock motivational posters do not reflect the opinions of the blogger.

These are my favorites:

By the way, you can click on the posters to make them bigger, and more readable.

New Teacher Week!

Let’s hear it for New Teacher Week! The New York Department of Education offers a two day workshop that gives new teachers their “last bastion of hope” for preparation before classrooms of hellions are unleashed upon them. All in all, it went ok. There was so much repetition, which was good and bad. Bad because it was a snoozefest and all the work was interactive so you couldn’t just turn off and drool while you stared into space, and good in the respect that so much that the state was teaching was taught by the Fellowship. What was odd that they were throwing new teachers from the Fellowship in along with 4 year traditional certification, and I felt as prepared as these carreer teachers were. Which is not very prepared at all, or as prepared as one can be before facing the day of reckoning.

I seriously feel like a rookie cop whose never seen action, or the fresh meat in the military being sent over to the Middle East: I vaguely know what to expect,
I know what is expected of me, and I’m pretty sure I have an idea of how it could all go wrong. What I’m not prepared for is the day-to-day. Everyone says that the first year of teaching is the year I will learn, oh, and that I shouldn’t plan to have a life. Lovely, since I don’t have a life anyway.

Aside from teaching school, I’m all registered up at Pace University for my class this fall, Tuesday nights after class. And let me say that between Pace paperwork, Teaching Fellow’s paperwork, AmeriCorps stuff, paperwork for the Department of Ed, and for my transitional B certification…I feel like I’ve filled out so much crap, so repetitive…and I never really felt on top of it. There was a small emergency last week where I needed to send something out immediately because it was overlooked in all the madness. I’d complain more about it, but from what I’ve heard I’ll have an avalanche of paperwork once I’m teaching and filling out IEPs.

“My entire weekend was lost to creating lesson plans and planning the week ahead. I spent all my times after school working on the student’s IEPs.” This is a direct quote from a DOE teaching mentor in friendly warning. Fabulous.

To offset all the drama and worry I have continued binge-shopping for school materials. I’m trying REALLY hard to keep it under $100 for now, but I went to Barclay (Teacher Store) and just *had* to have a nice chalk holder, and construction paper, and sticky tack for hanging motivational posters, and of course the motivational posters themselves.

A word on motivational posters: I think the idea is kinda hokey…little positive sound bites that students will slag endlessly, as I remember I did…even as a good student. However, I find them important because it shows the personality of the teacher, and creates the “print rich environment” that schools and administration look for. I could only find one in the entire store that did not make me gag or instantly hate myself for buying: It’s a poster with a photo of a chicken about to cross the street with the caption “Know the reasons for your actions.” It wasn’t very preachy or corny, and taught something that I as a person, not just a teacher, find crucial: taking personal responsibility. I also thought the chicken was cute. Oh, and one more thing…I don’t know if it’s Barclay’s in general or most teacher stores but the number of religious posters and signs were almost more abundant than the regular inspirational posters. Maybe it’s a NY thing, with all the private schools and churches? But it creeped me out. (Full disclosure: I consider myself to be Christian and spiritual, but would never force religion on anyone, especially students who haven’t fully formed their own identities yet. Frankly, I find folks who would do so to be disturbing.)

Friday, August 18, 2006

Shopping Soothes the Soul of a Freaked out 1st Year Teacher!

If you’ve noticed I’ve been away for a while, it doesn’t mean I’ve given up on teaching, or thinking about teaching, or writing about teaching. I have been on a mental vacation, trying not to overload my head with worries about getting in the classroom; visiting some family, cooking some meals.

The problem is that I’m facing a very large change in my life, and as much as I would like to relax, I’m getting anxious. I’ve been out of the classroom for a few weeks now, and while I was pretty confident while I had the kids in front of me…I am now making mountains out of mole hills. It doesn’t help that I just watched the movie 187 where Samuel L. Jackson plays a teacher who gets attacked in his Brooklyn school for flunking a student. The students then go on to trash the class room, kill a pet dog, and eventually the film ends in death. Cheerful. There’s this great, positive part where the teachers are chatting about another teacher who was 7 months pregnant and pinned down by a bunch of students…she ended up kicking a student to get free and was being sued for assault.

So I’m worried about what I’m going to actually be teaching. How am I going to teach it? What if the students don’t even come into my class? What if they find out where I live? Should I be afraid to fail a student? How do I get these kids to respect a young, white, female teacher? What if I get attacked? How do I not get confrontational if a student gets in my face? What if I can’t teach these kids anything?

And I know it’s all about structure, procedure, firmness and kindness…what about when all of that fails?

Ok, so I had a good case of the new-teacher-psyching-myself-out-blues. So, I did what any person would do in my case: SHOPPING! Staples had an amazing sale where I picked up Crayola crayons for $.15 a box, and 10 piece marker sets for $.99…AMAZING! And these great mini gel pens 24 for $5.00! I feel more at peace with facing a class of students because I’m a little more prepared. Even if it’s just school supplies, it’s one more step in the right direction…and that makes a bit less freaked out.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Learning to Teach By Watching Movies

I have two weeks of downtime ahead of me before new-teacher week, and the opening workshops for my new school begin. In two weeks I’ll be bracing myself for the onslaught of students, lesson plans, bad attitudes and paperwork. But right now, after the mile-a-minute tendencies of the previous seven weeks, I am flat out bored. I miss the twelve hour days, early mornings, and the work…it gave me purpose; and if I had a choice I’d leap head first into teaching tomorrow.

However, here I am with my two weeks and I decided to be practical and spend my free time watching “educational” films. My Netflix queue is chock-full of movies based around, you guessed it! Teaching! I figure that even if I don’t learn anything, at least I’ll stop missing the classroom.

This weekend showcased two films, Stand and Deliver and Dead Poets Society. Two educators “teaching against the odds,” played by Robin Williams and Edward James Olmos. I’ll start out by saying that I found more practical teaching advice in Stand and Deliver, which was based on a true story.

My main issue with Dead Poet’s Society is how romanticized and heroic the whole idea of teaching is. There’s a point in the film where a “cynical” administrator mentions that it’s misguided to teach sixteen year old boys to learn to think for themselves, and to the extent Robin William’s character attempts to uplift his students, I believe it’s true. Call me a realist, but you have to teach students the rules prior to teaching them how to break them; you have to show the kids how to think, before turning them loose to think for themselves. When you unleash the power of free thought to students without guidance you create a monster that will inevitably destroy itself, or others. I also disagreed with Robin William’s as the teacher/hero/god, it simply left a bad taste in my mouth where I should have felt inspired as he reigned above his disciples…literally. Just remember that you can lead a class without being a “captain.”

Even though any movie that claims to be “based on a true story” should be watched with a pound of salt I really connected to Stand and Deliver. The basis on inner-city Hispanic kids and raising the bar of their education…that’s what the Teaching Fellows is all about, the culture of excellence. Seriously, one of the main points my coursework has drilled into my head is that as a teacher I cannot lower my standards, just because the students come from a culture of less opportunity. And, most importantly, the characterization of the teacher played by Edward James Olmos didn’t rely on the lofty goals of education merely for educations sake, but worked with the students in their trenches. Yes there’s the different of situations, predatory students compared with the kids of L.A…but the point remains: You can’t merely preach at students and expect them to learn, you have to work with them and for them, not just hand them a pile of ideals.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Senseless Lesson

I learned about Danielle on Thursday, but have been completely at a loss to document it. Even though I waited for the experience to wash over me and to gain higher wisdom from it, I can’t find a way to write this that makes it okay, or understandable. Danielle (name changed, of course) was stabbed last week, along with her brother in what is speculated as a gang-related incident. Her lung has collapsed, and she is in critical condition.

There’s no way to be glib about this, or to talk senseless shop about changing the world. I can’t even say “what a shame,” because it wouldn’t be saying enough. In fact, I’m throwing useless words in the air as it is.

I only met Danielle a few times, her attendance was infrequent, and she was neither a student I was writing observations on for class, or a student I took a particular interest in. But I had seen this young woman, had spoken with her, and had known her face. She’s becomes something I had only heard about prior; a statistic, surely, but more like the mythos that surrounds inner-city teaching. In this moment, it is all very frighteningly real.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

"I don't have to, I'm Special Ed."

It’s the kind of frustration that stops you in your tracks. The momentum of education is chugga-chugging along at a reasonable clip and you’ve stopped looking at the clock. You have students putting answers on the board, students jotting down notes, and even the kid who normally sleeps is asking questions. There is a single statement that throws an wrench into the works. “I can’t do that; I’m special ed.”

Excuse me? You were just able to find the mean, median, and mode a minute ago…why are you putting your head down now? “I’m special ed, I can’t do math.”

I hear this, and it simultaneously breaks my heart and burns a rage inside me. These kids are at the last stop in their educational career, District 75 is the most restrictive special education program, the Alcatraz of behavior management. And these kids aren’t oblivious enough to not know this. In fact, they have incredible cognitive ability. They are fully aware that somewhere along the way they slipped through the cracks; foster care, promiscuous sex, parents that refused to advocate for them, abuse, neglect, and a million other reasons why students who should be in high school get sent to PS 371. And they don’t have to work for a diploma here, because they are special ed.

Is this a manipulative excuse?
Is it something they really believe?

I think it’s a bit a both. You can’t look into the abyss without the abyss looking back into you, as Nietzsche said. So how can you work and learn within the special education system without feeling the stigma you’re branded with as a student? And if teachers treat a student differently, handing them with kid gloves or roughing them up…the kids aren’t oblivious to the perception adults have of them.

So how do you walk this tightrope between cannot and will not? What magic words wake a student whose been hypnotized by other’s opinion of what they CAN and CANNOT do?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

My Last Day of Student Teaching

Today was my last time of teaching at the school as a Fellow. September I return as a teacher, no longer observing or teaching with supervision.

I gave my cooperating teacher and para great thanks for leading me through these weeks, and teaching me so much more than the course work. The cathartic debriefing sessions, and the plethora of questioned they answered for me were crucial to my mental health and preparation for teaching. When I return in the fall, I will be on the same floor as my mentor teacher, for which I am grateful.

Reactions to my departure were mixed. Scarfing down the cupcakes I brought Sha-sha told me flat out that I would miss her. The jokes on her, I will. She shook my hand when I left, and I thanked her for the experience of knowing her and all I learned from it. The student, she who gave me the biggest run for my money laughed at that! But I was genuine, nonetheless. Sha-sha was my greatest challenge, and she kept it interesting (to say the least.)

The school was dismissed early because of the heat and impending power outages, so Ms. C the Teaching Fellow went out with a breeze of humid, hot air more than a bang.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Possible Sha-sha Solution!

My solution is in the early stages. Those of you who have followed my adventures with the young lady, Raquel may know her better as Sha-sha, the purveyor of desk-top confrontation. (Litterally laying on or across my desk in the classroom and giving me her best Whatcha Gonna do now, huh? Look.) And while the past few days have been quiet, today she was back with a vengeance.

Now, I’ve been asking nearly everyone I came across what to do in the situation. Was it really a race related controversy? Could it be about attention, or even territory? And the advice I got back spanned the spectrum:

“You should come into the class and sit on the desk yourself so she can’t sit there.”

“She obviously wants attention, so ignore her.”

“Send her out of the room. It’s inappropriate behavior.”

“When you teach special ed kids you have to pick your battles. As long as the student isn't killing anyone, let her sit on your desk.”

“If she sits on your desk, stand and go to another desk.”

I appreciated the advice, both the interesting bits and the helpful parts; but nothing seemed right for the situation. I felt that yelling at the student was counterproductive, but if I just ignored the situation it could be construed as weakness on my part. All I knew is that I don’t know this girl’s motivation, but I eventually wanted to break her desk-sitting habit.

And in order to do so I broke a cardinal teaching rule: I touched the student. That’s right, I laid hands on Sha-sha…because desperate times call for desperate measures.

I used the Mr. Miyagi method of wax on, wax off hand motions, lightly rubbing Sha-sha’s back.

“What the fuck ya think ya doin’, bitch?” She looked down, and over her shoulder at me.

At first I didn’t respond, not deeming to acknowledge the language. I counted to three very slowly in my head, but did not stop the circular rubbing.

“Yo, stop touchin’ me!”

“You’re sitting on my desk, obviously you wanted me to give you a massage. It’s ok, really, I can understand if your back is sore. I do give great back rubs.” Sha-sha sucked her teeth. Perhaps in agitation? I kept rubbing, lightly. The truth is I was scared to stop, to give up. But I felt pretty uncomfortable touching someone I didn’t know that well, and was threatening my life a week prior. Talk about rubbing the student the wrong way! (Har, har!)

I could sense it working. My tone was nonchalant and wry enough that I think Sha-sha took the situation in the right way. So either she’d move from my desk because I was invading her personal space, or she’d stay because she enjoyed the rub and I could use that as a reinforcement or calming motion later in the game. I felt confident in the plan, even if I wasn’t completely at ease with the touching itself.

SMASH! The cooperating teacher sitting next to me attempted to tip the desk so Sha-sha would have to slide off or choose to fall. Except the desk tipped over spilling Sha-sha butt first to the floor and the desk crashing over onto its side. Inwardly, I sighed. The fall did work to quell the student, however I felt it was in a negative manner. I know that the fall was a mistake of physics and gravity, but mistakes like that can make a teacher look bad or even violent. If Sha-sha had broken her tailbone or cracked her head I could see a very strong case for a lawsuit. And on top of that I really want to figure this situation on my own, because a month from now I won’t have someone in my class to fish me out of deep water.

I’ll try to rubbing technique again next time the situation calls for it. I think if I’ve learned anything, it’s to not be squeamish about creative behavior management plans…and that advice is great, but it’s not one size fits all.
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