Saturday, April 2, 2011

Room 228 - I think I'm really cool

I have a secret to tell you:
...I think I'm really cool.
I'm sorry I have to say it like that.
But if it wasn't true, why would you listen to me?
I mean, honestly...
There has to be something about me
to keep your attention all the time,
to think I have information that you want and need,
to get up in front of people everyday
and act like a "weirdo,"
and jump up and down,
and read loudly with expression
and create things you have to do
and decide what things you have to know
and judge your products/work
and whether it's good enough,
finished enough,
accurate enough,
"cool" enough
for me.
Obviously, I think I'm really cool.
Recently, though, they told me I'm wrong.
They said
I'm not actually that good.
I'm not doing a good enough job,
and that the reason you are failing and not listening
is because I actually am NOT really cool.
Apparently, I'm actually pretty...uncool...
An overpaid, lazy, unqualified, gettin'-summers-off, too burnt-out, uninspiring, lackadaisical, doesn't-understand-your-culture-or-generation kind of uncool.
So, now what?
I can't get up in front of you and act like I know what I'm doing,
because they said I don't.
And I can't get up in front of you and show you how to be an ethical, moral and educated adult,
because they said I take advantage of the system.
And I can't judge your work and products
because they said I don't understand your culture or generation.
And I certainly can't teach you to work hard for your compensation
because they said I was lazy, spoiled and spend most of my time figuring out how to get out of my responsibilities.
So, what can we do
for 58 minutes
6 times a day
180 days a year?
I'm embarrassed...
Apparently, I can't help you
(even though I once thought I could),
and I'm sorry that you once had faith in me,
that I once wrongly convinced you
that I was really cool.
I guess I got confused between
confidence and
I pretended to know what was best for you because
I was around you so much and
had studied and schooled so hard to help you.
I dedicated everything I had to you, so
how could I be wrong?
But, they must be right.
We asked them to lead us.
We should let them decide.
After all, I realize now,
they are the ones
who are really

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Room 358

Overheard between students

God, I am so sick of Mr. Fisher (name changed to ensure privacy).
I like Fisher.  He’s a good teacher.
Yeah I guess, but he never teaches.
Yeah he does.
Yeah but not Math.  He spends half the period trying to teach us life lessons.
Ha ha ha ha … true

I relayed this story moments later to the teacher.

Who was it?
I don’t remember.  I was busy helping some other students and I overheard it.
Ha! That’s fantastic. Sometimes I look at the board and wonder ‘is this really what these kids need’?
I know.
I mean somebody has to teach them this stuff.  They aren’t learning it at home.

have had the pleasure of witnessing Mr. Fisher educate his students on
a number of occasions and I often find him take a 20 minute tangent
from his scheduled lesson plan.  Now as teachers in a failing school we
have learned that we are not allowed to deviate too far from our
‘anchors’, unit plans and lesson plans.  Every detail of our students’
education has already been established. Heaven forbid if we deviate
from geometry to instill the importance of professionalism.  But what
happens when our students ask why?  Why must we learn personal finance?

an adult, it seems clear to me that any student about to graduate (or
leave) high school would greatly benefit from the advantages of
understanding personal finance.  And as students growing up in a city
that is riddled with debt, homelessness, joblessness and a slew of
other financial deficiencies, one would think that it is obvious why
one should learn personal finance.  Sadly it is not.  A large number of
our students have a different perspective.  For a glimpse into that
viewpoint I would like to focus on an incident that occurred in a
different math class with a different teacher.

Stacks, how much you make a week?” a young student blurts out as class
ends.  Mr. Stacks returns a quizzical smirk with no verbal response.
 The student, eager to show how much more money he makes than Mr.
Stacks, whips out a wad of one hundred dollar bills.  He starts fanning
through the stack asking “This much? This much? This much?”  

“Put that away”, Mr. Stacks replies.  
“It prolly takes you all year ta make dis”.  
Mr. Stacks agrees.  The student puts his fistful of dollars away
looking satisfied that he makes more in a weekend than a teacher can
make in months of hard work.  Who needs personal finance?  Sadly that
student ended up in jail a week after that incident.  And that is when
we as teachers know that we need to teach kids life lessons and
geometry, to teach students manners and biology, persistence and

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Room 228 - The Mirror

As I get older, I'm starting to realize how much of a challenge it is to watch students who stay the same age (not literally, of course, but because I teach roughly the same age every year) and for me to continue to grow older.  When I first started teaching I was extremely young:  22.  My biggest fear then was that I was going to be too close in age to the kids and they wouldn't respect me, or know where to draw the line.  Or, worse yet, because I'm a woman, I would have to deal with the whole 16-year-old hormone thing.  But as the years pass, I have started feeling less worried about our similarities and more worried about our differences.  It seems that there are less similarities and more differences as time goes by, and that is scary for me, not only professionally, but personally, as well. 
I mean, there will always be core similarities between me and the students I teach.  And one of the things about being a teacher is finding that link between you and the child so that you can pull on it and leverage it to promote learning.  But at some point, the generation gap increases and there are new things I don't understand about their culture.  Scarier yet, there are old things, I remember understanding at some point in my life, that I don't understand anymore.  One of my students said to me the other day, "Do you go to bars?"  I always try to respond truthfully and maturely so I said, "Yes, but I doubt the bars I go to are the kind of bars you are imagining." Feeling really hilarious, the student said back, "No, Miss, I said BARS not BARN.  I wasn't talking about Pottery Barn."  While I then proceeded to laugh hysterically, not only because of the yuppy implication, but also because of the jab, I thought to myself, "You know what? I actually really like Pottery Barn!" 
I guess the thing that I have been thinking about as I retell my student's funny moment is that the older I get, the more split I feel.  There is a part of me that wants to be the adult in the room and buy furniture for my house and get married and have children and go through all of these societal markers of maturity.  I have a drive to be successful in everything I do and that drive doesn't end with work; I need to accomplish the expectations that others hold for my sex and my class and the "American way of life" to find satisfaction - it's just part of my personality to want that ideal happiness. But then there is another part - a part that is sitting with the students at their desks, laughing and planning the weekend like it is the most major event that will ever happen, and feeling like the only thing that could possibly be important is the next relationship or drama that comes into my life.  I remember sitting there full of hope for all the options that are available to me and the million things that I could accomplish in my life or that will happen to me before I decide to settle down.  So, I find myself split between being in that "settling down" place and rebelling against it, because I see both of them so clearly, every day.  Being with kids at the age of possibility is inspiring and, unfortunately, depressing. 
I know that people refer to that feeling as "nostalgia."  But, to me, inherent in that word is a positive connotation - that nostalgia is that "happy" feeling that you get when you reminisce.  People even go so far as to say "bittersweet."  But honestly, it is so much more bitter, than sweet.  For me, I want to be there again.  I want to get to choose another road, not because I don't like this one, but because I want to know what the others were like.  I want to make different decisions and have more options and make more mistakes.  People always say, "I wouldn't want to relive that age again.  It was so difficult." Or maybe, "Only knowing what I know now, would I go back." I think that is a way for them to cope with the fact that inevitably, as you age, you realize how much you missed out.  That's what makes it so bitter.  I didn't get to try every option.  I didn't get to have a different personality or identity in high school.  I didn't get to try playing a sport or talking to that group of girls I never liked.  I didn't get to try to do something bigger with my life or go on some fantastic trip or even just move somewhere else.  And my students are all sitting there, making little individual choices that they will someday feel bitter about too.  They are going to wake up one morning and realize that they were happy and at one point in life had more possibilities and, even if they liked the way it turned out, they are going to be upset that they don't get another opportunity to just try another road because they are too far down one already.
I don't mean this to seem morbid.  I don't really think it's that desperate of a situation.  It's just one of those things that you are constantly reminded of when you work with 150 students that live and breathe that energy and hope in your classroom throughout the day.  They set up a mirror, where I see myself as a young adult again, but I see my future too, and I can't decide sometimes what brings more happiness or more pain.  I guess, ultimately, it never goes away.  There is always a simultaneous existence of hope for the future, regret for the past, bitterness for the roads not taken, and remembrance for the times you wouldn't have traded.  It must be that within this multi-faceted existence I somehow continue to reach my students, and hopefully always will, simply because of that split, not in spite of it. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Room 228 - Target Practice

I suppose in any industry, any occupation, any school, any area, there is a percentage of people who always attempt to find the easiest way to do their job, get paid, go home, get on with life. My mom calls this, "get in, get on, get off, get out," and although she applies it to multiple circumstances, usually involving things that everyone hates that just need to be done (like the dentist), I think it applies particularly well to that section of educators that parents and the news tend to focus on and that burns a familiar reputation about teachers into the mindset of many noneducators.  Let the truth be known!  Guess what, there are educators that don't want to work hard or any harder than the cranky person that takes complaints all day over the phone at Comcast and gets to leave exactly at punch out time.  The news was right!  However, here is what most people who don't work in public schools don't realize:  many times, those people are not always and not just the teachers that work with their children every day.  There are so many people that work within a school to keep a building running and all the way from the top paid (administrators) to the bottom paid (janitorial and office staff) there are people who never really valued a "career" or a "calling."  Honestly, we can't expect everyone to.  There are people who are burnt out, and rightfully so.  There are people who feel like they have put in their time of "hard work" and are ready for the good life.  There are people who don't feel they have to sacrifice their personal lives in order to make money and have a valid and legitimate career.  And, most importantly, there are people who are workaholics, who are leaders, who spend their own money and time (unpaid) for the sake of the students who walk through the building.  Realistically, these people are not the same people all the time.  There are cycles.  People get motivated, inspired and then get tired.  People start out fresh and young and then get older and overworked.  People have trauma and suffering in their personal lives and careers have to take a backseat for a period of time.  People get sick, have babies, get married, get divorced, go to school.

This phenomenon alone is not the problem that we face in so many struggling schools, even though it seems to be the only one that is fixed.  The things that always seem to happen in failing schools are the following: new professional development comes along to help the teachers, more accountability is created so that teachers can't "get away" with not working so hard, parents come and complain about unfair practices, laziness, and absences, administrators start observing more and being more stringent, more teachers are written up and more are chastised.  What is so ironic about all of this is that the educators in these buildings end up being held more accountable than educators in "successful" schools, and yet they have less resources, less motivation, less commitment, and are given the benefit of the doubt MUCH less by administrators and leaders. In fact, one major premise of NCLB in its original form (No Child Left Behind) is that schools and children that are behind are going to be given less money.  More criticism, less money.  Don't get me wrong, there is much more to it than that - and throwing money at a problem is not a way to fix something. 

But here is the point:  When you create a desperate situation full of fear, lack of resources, and overwhelming obstacles, people will begin to turn on each other. The whole building becomes a field for target practice.  Typically, relating back to what I was saying, two factions develop - the people who consistently are overworking and the people who are consistently looking for the easiest way to do their job and go home; the overworkers and the underworkers; the people cleaning up messes and the people making them.  And they are all shooting at each other.  Friends become enemies, teams fall apart, collaboration is impossible, adversarial relationships between administration and staff develop, relationships between the varying pay levels disintegrate, no one shares, no one helps, no one cares about anyone else, everyone covers their butt, everyone points the finger, everyone calls people out on mistakes and incompetence, everything suffers. 

And we teach and raise children in this environment, every day in my building.

I can't begin to explain the pettiness that occurs as a result of this scenario.  Everything is so passive aggressive: an administrator "casually" copied in on a email here, a sly reminder that someone has failed to provide what they are legally required to document, a short comment to a parent on the practices of another teacher - the strategies and semantics that are involved are really quite extraordinary.  And it weighs on a person.  It holds a person down, causes that little patter of tension in your heart when you think of the underlying "confrontation" that will occur between-the-lines as you say "hello, did you get those books in yet?" to your principal in the morning on your way in.  It takes so much calculation and worry and hushed discussions between union reps and co-workers.  So many "Quick, close my door. I have to tell you something" moments that build these walls between the adults in the building.  And then we turn around, and we teach your children to be real, to communicate effectively, to form positive relationships with role models and to value things like honesty, integrity, and hard work.  It breaks a person's heart and spirit.  It makes a good person want to stick her finger through the fissure that has been created down her spine and pull those two parts of her body apart, step out, sit down cross-legged, close her eyes and just breathe clean air.

So what do we do?  We stand our ground, or we roll over.  We send that email and copy in one more person, or we just answer it.  We call people out on that mistake, or we ignore it.  We feel, or we're numb.  We see things, or we're blind.  We breathe in get ready, or we breathe out and forget.  We make decisions, or we are stagnant.  We overwork or we pass-the-buck.  We go home, or we stay late.  We overthink, or we go to sleep.  We do this, do it all, keep doing it for the kids regardless of the emotional and physical toll it takes on us...or...we don't.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A word from the creators

Welcome to Memoirs from a failing urban school.  This blog has been created with two clear intentions: to show the undeniable and persistent spirit of the students who will become the future leaders of our country, and to expose/critique/commend the public school system that is currently struggling on a national level to service these children.  This blog is one attempt to convey the immensity and severity of the current educational situation that is going on in our country at this moment.  In many ways, education has not been a serious priority in comparison with other national issues, and this lack of attention has created a plethora of problems that are only tentatively being resolved.  The task that many of the students, teachers and staff are facing in schools across the country (urban schools in particular) is one that is so large, and yet the importance of this task is drastically overlooked by most citizens with the power to make the necessary change.  The people who walk through the buildings of our urban schools every day do nothing less than regularly create unpublicized miracles.  This blog is an attempt to record and share these miracles, as well as the multiple setbacks that occur beforehand, making these miracles all the more unbelievable and rewarding.  Unlike many other texts on urban schools, this blog will be multi-faceted in that posts will be written by a variety of members from these communities, in a variety of formats.  Ideally, this blog will function as a "collage" or "zine," bringing a rawness to the information available on urban schools by blending the funny, sad, trivial, momentous, fantastical, honest, intuitive, enlightening and regular occurrences that create the daily experience of working and attending a failing urban school.  It is my personal hope that someday the appeal of these words will be in their historical worth rather than their unfortunate (but inspiring) reality.