Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Indulgent Rant re: Pitfalls of Teaching

I’ve kept this blog “strictly business” for a good long time, so allow me to indulge in a moment of melodrama:

Sadly, I am three inches away from despair in my teaching. This week after Thanksgiving has been nothing but insanity, indignity and insolence. In three days I have had the following:

--One student coming to class with a black eye and scabs on the side of her head where her mother kicked her. Yeah, this happened so close to Thanksgiving that the student wasn’t allowed to go to the Thanksgiving dinner because the bruise was so bad. I had to fumble with four different people before I knew what I was required to do in this case to appease the whole Mandatory reporter scene.

--My finger slammed in the drawer of my front desk by an unwitting student. (I’ve started rewarding hard workers by letting them sit at the teacher’s desk while finishing an assignment.) And it still stings right under my fingernail.

--I had to break up a hand lotion and milk fight, sacrificing my clean slacks in the bargain.

--One of my students was moved to another class because his anger issues distracted from his performance in my class…and the student cajoled the A.P. into thinking it was my teaching, and not his flipping desks that led to his academic misfortune. Apparently, he also told the A.P. that I assaulted him and he needed to go to the hospital for the broken ribs. (Yup, in front of God and everyone.)

When my assistant principal stopped by the room to break the removal to me the following last words on the subject were said on both our sides in front of the A.P:

Ms. C: “Eric, I hope you do well. Good Luck!”

Student: “Fuck you.”


--I had a student light up a cigarette in my classroom yesterday, right in front of the class and myself. Since that student’s mother yelled at the A.P. he did not get suspended and spent all of today gloating that he’s allowed to smoke in class.

--My file cabinet got broken into and a mass of candy stolen.

It’s driving me crazy…and I know my kids are acting out because of Thanksgiving break, but it’s been impossible to teach them anything and I’m frustrated and getting slightly snarky with some of them. (Which I don’t want.) I’m know that I am being pretty self-centered right now, that I should be more worried about the broken homes my students hail from, and that being the reason for their actions…But this week I feel like I’m losing my mind.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Giving Thanks

I hope everyone’s Thanksgiving was kind with family and gentle on the waist-line.

Wednesday I gave my students the wildly creative assignment of writing what they are thankful for. Some may say I’m cruel to ask the harshly underprivileged kids what they feel grateful for while I feed them pizza and cookies. The finished product of my kids brought me close to tears, their thanks were sweet and funny, and filled with the truth of youth.

Here are a few excerpts, with unchanged spelling and sentiments.

“I am thankful for my mother, for care and love and food. I am thank for my sister for help me when I was little”

“I am thankful for god, I am thankful for my family. I am thankful for being free.”

“I am thankful for food and my grandma who makes food and stores that have food.”

“This year I am thankful for making it to high school. I’m thankful for having the talent to play basketball.”

My best to you and your classrooms this Holiday.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Turkey Day Lesson Plan

…Is it corporal punishment to make teenagers trace their hands into turkeys?

It’s the countdown to Thanksgiving Break…should I expect any students to do work tomorrow? I’m flirting with the idea of throwing in a movie, feeding them pie and leaning back to plan my own Thanksgiving dinner the day after.

Googling “Thanksgiving Lesson Plan” gave me awesome results…if I were teaching elementary school students. But then again, how do you teach those with so little in the ways of comfort and love to be Thankful?

So it looks like I’ll give the kids a break, toss in ”The Wiz” and feed them some pizza.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Costco Field Trip: Let the Weave Hit the Floor!

Let me start by saying that the field trip was a general success. No one got killed, no one got caught shoplifting, and no one got hit by a car. But not for the lack of my students trying! For a first trip, it went swimmingly…and that’s including all the drama.

Drama: My very tall, very loud 14-year-old, Latrinia mouthed off to some older, angrier girls in the school. Four of these girls jumped my student 25 minutes before my class was leaving for the trip. I sent my para to find Latrinia somewhere in the school and she was found on the third floor hallway. After we gathered everyone, I headed out with my six students and two paras. About a block away from the school we noticed that a herd of girls from out school were following us, cutting class so they could jump Latrinia AGAIN outside of school walls. My para was very practical and stopped a cop card driving down the street to give them the skinny on the gaggle of chicks following us.

Costco was pretty fun, the kids wanted to touch everything…and they did. I only had one instance where I had to remind a student not to steal, and that was while he was eating grapes out of the produce section. Luckily, no one saw him. My students enjoyed the store, and the samples…one of the best moments was Latrinia posing with a sample of quiche exclaiming loudly to boast: “I got quiche, ya’ll!” It was ghetto-fabulous to the max. (And let me say…nothing has gotten me acclimated to working with kids in an urban setting like watching Flavor of Love. Ghetto is a whole ‘nother language.)

And speaking of ghetto-type teenagers, you’d be surprised how they all melted in the toy aisle. Gone were the world-weary smirks, and rough demeanors of my thugged out students. They were smiling, holing boxes of Legos. One of my girls likes Dora the Explorer. All my kids squeezed the enormous stuffed sheep dog. It made me remember that as tough as my kids act and all the burdens they may have to shoulder, they are still kids.

We ended the trip with cheap soda and pizza for everyone. My students complained that the pizza was “awful” but I figure that’s how they say thank you. It was certainly better than anything they’d get in the school, and I was happy to splurge on them. (Costco is pretty cheap…I ended up with a full pizza pie and 6 refillable sodas for $17.)

The second Drama: We knew those girls would be looking for Latrinia, so my para walked her an extra 8 blocks to the next closest subway stop…not wanting her to run into those other girls on the way back to school. As far as I know she got home safe.

Within two blocks from the school we saw the flashing lights of police cars and students fighting in the street. All but two of my students ran into the street toward the fight, dodging cars. As we approached the pavement was littered with weave. (If you don’t know…weaves are hair extensions) and there were several girls fighting with eachother, security, and cops. One of my students, Isabelle was standing on a police car, fighting with people trying to grapple her down. She was the only female with hair intact.

I dismissed class amidst the fighting, there was still 30 minutes to the school day. One of my students, Ron, refused to go home. He said it was because he wanted to catch the same bus he always took home where he was pals with the driver, but I sensed his anxiety to go out in the fray.

Also, and this is key, Isabelle is his girl.

Ron and I sat in the classroom, I was silently marking papers, waiting for the young man to start the conversation. I had a feeling that the fight was bugging him, but didn’t want to press him. (I would loathe to become that chipped teacher that must fill every moment with countless invasive queries.)

“Man, I don’t know if I can stay with Isabelle,” he said, sitting on a desk halfway across the room.

“Why not?” I played it as cool as I could, mentally thrilled that I was getting a student to confide in me.

“She’s always fighting, man. She wants her man to stand up with her and fight. I don’t wanna fight no one.” Rom said, fixing his car at a jaunty angle. All I could think was “Oh my god, am I having a near-adult conversation with my student?”

“Have you talked to her about it?” was all I could lamely ask. Isabelle was a very pretty girl, and Ron certainly saw something in her…but Ron was definitely not a fighter.

“Nah, she wants a man like LaTanya’s…who gets in the fight with her, I can’t do that man.”

I didn’t have any real answers for Ron, as happy as I was that he came to me. I told him to keep communicating with Isabelle, and I agreed that fighting is not the best option. But I didn’t mislead Ron to believe he could change his girl.

I haven’t seen either Ron or Isabelle, or even Lavinia for that matter, since Friday. I hope they are ok.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Mad Props to My Talented Students!

So my class had a little riot today, kids throwing books, standing on chairs, stealing shoes and shouting at the decibel level of a shuttle launch. I think the kids were a little keyed up because there is a field trip tomorrow, their first. And I promised if it went well (meaning no deaths or shoplifting) we could go see Happy Feet in a few weeks.

But all craziness aside I really have to give it up to my students…we had a Biology project due on the 5 Classification Kingdoms of Living Organisms, (plants, animals, monerans, fungi and protists) and many of them really came through academically.

Some did raps:

“I’m a fungi and I’m a fun guy, I can’t make my own food, but I’m a real fun dude”


“One cell, no nucleus…I’m gonna make you move to this! This rhyme you’ll be honorin’, this is what I call a moneran”

And who could forget…?

“Animals…they are cannibals! If you don’t live in the jungle they are no fan of you. Animals move, run, and breathe; Humans go to the zoo, feed and leave”

One student made a play (a la Jerry Springer) where the five groups started insulting each other. ‘What you sayin’ Moneran? You ain’t even got no brain!”

But the best project was a crazy-awesome poster done by a fantastically funny student duo…once it was done I marched them down to the principal to show off my talented kids…and the principal was laughing so hard. (and my kids made me look good. Lord Bless them!)

So, here are a few photos of the FANTASTIC A++ efforts my Special Ed kids made:

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

How Distruptive Students Escalate Disorder...

I think I just read the best article so far in my graduate career. I have to admit that the classes I am taking through the Teaching Fellows program are pretty basic and filled with busy work…but “How Disruptive Students Escalate Hostility and Disorder—And How Teachers Can Avoid it” is a great article that really gives insight on how tough it is to manage the behavior of Special Education students. If you are starting a job with emotionally disturbed's is essential reading because you cannot treat ED kids like you would general ed without getting into trouble. I suggest you google it, or if you can get your hands on the Winter 2003/04 copy of American Educator, seek it there.

If you want a taste of the graduate work expected of Teaching Fellows, read the following personal article response, handed in today for a grade.

The article “How Disruptive Students Escalate Hostility and Disorder--and How Teachers can Avoid it” by Walker, Ramsey and Gresham is the strongest I’ve read in regards to behavior management in a 12:1:1 Ed classroom of high school students. The majority of my students are labeled as disruptive, and sometimes a good day is when all the desks stay upright and no one gets hurt—let alone I get through an entire lesson! The article addressed the biggest problem I have, one student’s disruptive behavior spreading throughout the class, creating a cacophony of chaos that makes teaching impossible. One student is causing a ruckus, repetitively slamming a book on a desk…I feel like I have a timer on that students, because if I don’t get him to stop his behavior in a few minutes it is only a matter of time before the rest of the crew get sidetracked into the disturbance. And that amount of time changes at whim.

But, you can’t treat these students like general ed, or even like ED fourth graders, because they “carry residual anger” and they are mostly bigger than me. Asking that a student who is slamming the book on the desk to “please stop so the rest of the class can learn” would more likely than not fuel that student to not only continue hitting the desk, but faster and louder as well. The “seemingly innocuous request” is just enough attention focused on the students to feed their behavior. That is what makes teaching ED students such a challenge: “The Teacher’s direct effort to stop the students from engaging in acting-out behavior is the very thing that strengthens and maintains it.” Walker, Ramsey and Gresham hit the nail on the head with that one statement! The more I ask that student to stop disrupting the class, the longer and louder and more distracting it’s going to be!

So how do you handle young human beings who don’t react well to requests and commands? The article is right, that you can’t “handle them with kid gloves.” Try to ignore it when you can, when they aren’t killing anybody else, and don’t let the students see that they are getting to you! Oh boy, and definitely don’t get into an argument with the student. I think that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned in the first year of teaching, and it’s hard, being able to let go of control of the class or the student. Nagging the student makes things a lot worse, and draws the attention of the other students away from their work. With the help of an experienced paraprofessional I have a rule of thumb when a student is being a disturbance: I ask once, and only once, for the student to stop. I then try as hard as I can to ignore that student. Cool as cucumber, thinking to myself “I don’t hear you, you don’t bother me.” It’s tough because my first response is to shut that kid up as quick as possible before I lose the attention of the rest of the class. But, I had to change my way of thinking: My stopping the lesson in order to shush up a student is sometimes even more distracting than pen-tapping, or book slamming, or rapping lyrics in class.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And, I’ll admit, it doesn’t really help keep the rest of the students on track. (Teachers might be able to ignore distracting behavior, but other students won’t) I’ll often gather the attentive students to the table in the back of the room, away from the distracting student, and maintain the lesson there. Sometimes that’s the best I can do. Sometimes I just give up on the lesson for that period, rather than fight the class or shout.

The only issue I had with the article is that it assumes I have great administrative back-up and students who care about their Power of Choice. I’m not in a school where I can send students out of the class if they are acting-out, we don’t have a crisis center, and most classrooms are islands as long as the student isn’t hurting anyone. So, then what?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Seven Stages of Amazement

When I work up Thursday morning and spied that my blog was picked up by the LA Times blog I went through the seven stages of dealing with startling news.

1. Hooting and hollering. I woke my beaux out of a sound sleep at 6AM, jumping on our bed and punching the air.

2. I felt like I was clutching a garish gold award at a ceremony…like I should have been making a teary speech: “I’d like to thank the LA Times and New York Educator, School Gal, and everyone…this isn’t for me, it’s for the children!” or something just as hokey.

3. Bragging rights. I wanted to tell everyone, I wanted to shout from the roof of my school. Of course, that lasted all of four minutes because, well, I run a somewhat anonymous blog and needed to keep it hush-hush.

4. Warm, fuzzy and grateful. I can’t say that the LA Times post brought me support, because that support was already here for me. I’ve found a community that has helped me through scary, rough times…more guidance and sympathy than I’ve been offered by either school or union. Honestly, I was pretty freaked out by the ordeal, but I never felt alone. You teachers backed me up. (And here’s a shameless plug for you to look on the right side of the blog at new blogs I’ve linked to.)

5. A mix of pride and hope. I felt proud that I could put my feelings to text and draw some attention to a pretty awful situation that shouldn’t be allowed to happen to any teacher, in any school. Prevention, support and accountability would serve the teachers of NYC (and the United States) very well.

6. Fear and paranoia. I imagined my lil’ ol’ blog would stay under the radar for the most part, and now I’m thanking my lucky stars that I had the forethought to keep the blog as anonymous as possible. But what if I’m not anonymous enough? I hope I haven’t been undiplomatic enough to lose my job, or get sued. I scanned back though all my posts, making sure no real names of students, teachers, or administration were used and I think I’m clean. But if you see something questionable in my blog, please do me a favor and let me know.

7. Acceptance. I thought for a minute about taking my blog down, if only to save my own posterior. And then I realized, this blog is saving more than my butt…it’s keeping me sane, and giving me both a soap box and a community. Though I wouldn’t be happy working for a school who would fire a new teacher over a blog, I’m not exactly excited about losing a job. So, you can call me a chicken, but names will continue to be changed and addresses kept secret. And again…if you can think of any other ways to protect myself without selling out and ditching the blog, your opinion/ideas/thoughts and concerns are welcome, as always.

I remain grateful to all teachers and visitors, readers and sympathizers… Next time, I hope all this to-do will be under better circumstances.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Foenician Fieldtrip

When I decided to become a teacher I was pretty well prepared for all the behavior management and lesson planning I was going to be expected to do. Once I started special education I got a good sense of the IEP process and all the paperwork that involves.

But I didn’t know it would be close to impossible to take my students on a fieldtrip. Mind you, these are the kids who take personal field trips every day when they decide to cut class.

Form after form, bus details, lunch details, info for parents, justification for the trip, academic reasoning, lesson plan for the trip, expected follow up work for the kids after the trip.

Ok, I just want to take my kids two blocks down the street to the local park, and then to the Costco (It’s like Sam’s Club and BJ’s) another block down to get them lunch. (I am not-so-secretly appalled by their school lunches) I want to get my kids out of the classroom and outside before it gets too cold. The trip will also work as a trial run with my kids, so I can plan more field trips, academic and otherwise.

So how am I going to justify a “community walk” with my class? I am forced to get creative the “justification” inquiry of the paperwork. Otherwise known as BS.

It turns out the whole trip has to do with the Phoenicians. Who knew? We just ended a Global Studies chapter on the Phoenicians, those happy folk from Canaan who started building the first boats and trading all over the world. (They are also known for changing the alphabet from 500 and some characters to about 22.)

Well, Phoenicians had to do with trade…and Costco sells stuff. There you go.

“This fieldtrip will be an investigation into the modern form of trade in comparison with one of the first forms of international traffic introduced by the Phoenicians.”

Long story short, when I ran it by my Principal she was gasping in laughter. She made phone calls reading my creative justification to others.

But, in the end my kids get to go and have a nice afternoon out, and that makes it worth it.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Parent-Teacher Conference

I’ve only been teaching for ten weeks but I feel like I’ve been exposed to so much:

--The worst language I’ve heard anywhere.

--Constant drug use INSIDE the school.

--Assault. And how powerless I feel when the administration backs up the students and not me.

--Plummeting academic expectations due to a rude shock of what my student’s reading level was. (I was naïve, but I was planning to teach Othello to my 9th grade class. The ones who CAN read are limited to Goosebumps books.)

--Gross amounts of apathy-from students, from counselors, from administration…and worst of all, from teachers.

--The just plain gross: I spent fifteen minutes today scrubbing a full container of dried yogurt off my wall. (It was raspberry.)

But the absolute low-point (so far) was tonight’s parent teacher conferences. I was prepared for the worst: angry parents, parents disgusted with students failing grades, the degrading looks as they saw their child’s young and white teacher. Yeah, I was expecting to be cursed out, or at the very least to have to defend my standing on how their student was progressing in my class.

I didn’t expect an empty classroom.

From 5:30PM until 8PM I sat at my desk with only the hum of the heating system to keep me company. Not one of my thirteen students had a parent show up. Not after all my calling, my cajoling, my coaxing and mailed letters home.

I returned home stunned, hollow, and a lot more wise about why my emotionally disturbed students may have such intense behavior issues.

Some of my colleges blamed the rain when I asked them why the turn out was so small. (11 parents all together) But I can’t stop the despairing, and perhaps naïve, question that blares in my head:

Why does no one love my kids?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Darkening Bubbles on the Report Card Scantron

You’d think I have enough going on in my classroom and my school (Finishing the UFT paperwork, looking into an order of protection.) that I wouldn’t have other fish to fry.

I’ve been getting slammed with paperwork, report cards and I had my first observation (more on that atrocity later on, I promise) and tomorrow is parent-teacher night. Oh jeez…when it rains it pours!

So report cards came out pretty creatively. Only two students out of thirteen were passing any of my classes based on test, journal, and project grades (I teach ELA, Biology, Global Studies, and Music to my homeroom class.) What was I going to do, fail 80% of my class? Mind you, for the most part I like my students…warts and all. And I think if I gave them all F’s for all of their classes there would be a mutiny and these delicate individuals would give up completely on their studies.

I ended up asking around the school, trying to get a temperature of the school culture and found out that effort gets you really far in my school, and that grading is pretty subjective. So I took a good, hard look at each student, and the work they did in each of the classes I taught, and ended up passing most of my morning ELA class. It’s usually the first class of the day, and the students usually hand in something, which is way better than the circus you’d catch if you stopped by my Biology class after lunch. I figure a D in ELA is supportive and can be scaffolded with effort on the part of the student into a golden C. D’s can be wake-up calls, without filling the students with apathy. Hell, a D might be good enough for a student that the kid will do just a little bit more work in order to maintain that passing grade. Or at least I hope. And it looks better on the report card than a row of F’s.

Do you remember back when you were in school, and you may have had that teacher you felt took special glee in giving you bad grades on your report card? I have to admit I felt the lure of that power. A few of my students really know how to push my buttons, and it would have felt so good (for about 30 seconds) to fail them. While I was staring at those little bubble sheets I was really tempted to not be gentle with my kids and their grades. I can only admit to those vindictive feelings because I didn’t act on them. And as a reward I got to witness the shock and chagrin on the faces of my students when they found out that my school doesn’t hand report cards to students, but rather mails them directly to parents. I had quite a few kids in whirling tizzies over that.
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