There's things I didn't expect to deal with as a teacher, like all the paper work and girl on girl drama between the 17 girls in my class. And then there's the things I really didn't expect to deal with as a teacher. Like having a parent threaten to kick my ass if I bring the kids out late again. This was in front of several students and parents and I had to just stand there and wait for it to be over. Does the man honestly think I want to take my time getting my kids out at the end of the day? Like I get some thrill out waiting fifteen minutes for a student to pack up their damn stuff and get out of the classroom. Nothing to dwell on, but demoralizing nonetheless. I hate to say it, but if it wasn't obvious before where most of these kids learn their problem-solving "skills", now I know.
Thursday, February 28, 2008
There hasn't been too much action this week. I guess it's typical of the week after break where there's a micro Honeymoon period with the kids. Aside from a near clash of the titans between Chandrella and Woman-Child, this week's been pretty uneventful. Just lots of test prep and getting back into the grind.
Meanwhile I feel myself loosening up a bit. I really think I can attribute a lot of it to the seasons. It's no longer dark when I leave for work and the cold is starting to let up a bit (except for today). Seems like Spring isn't far off and of course that means spring break and then before long it'll be June and... well, I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, and I'm trying to turn that into a positive outlook instead of a distraction. Still, overall, a good effect on my attitude.
In spite of the amount of time still being wasted on transitions and talking, I do feel myself finding a rhythm and getting a grasp on things. I've introduced several incentives that have worked amazingly well. Offering computer time for example, for students who read quietly during SSR has cut down drastically on the chatter. It's great to see positive reinforcement work so well whether it's just praise (I like the way so and so is listening right now...) or points or prizes. It's reassuring to know I don't need to resort to yelling and punishments, because ultimately they're not very effective techniques.
In a conversation with my Aussie math mentor she was giving tips on how to relieve stress in the kids going into the math test. One thing she mentioned was asking the kids to think about how much they've learned since September as a way of building confidence going into the exam. Then she suggested trying the same thing ourselves. I know I have so much work to do, and it can be overwhelming at times. But looking at my teaching and how it's developed since September, I've got to admit I feel pretty damn good.
Posted by ruben_b at 7:36 PM
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Since as far back as October I have suspected that not all was right with two of my students. One I introduced earlier as Bambi, a quiet (practically mute), wide-eyed girl. Her number sense is limited at best and many times she seems completely lost when presented with an independent task. The other was a student I described watching during the ELA exam. I mentioned my frustration and sadness at the time, knowing he will very likely fail the exam. I knew this because the boy reads at first grade level. It is likely he will fail the math exam next week, because his math skills are equally limited. In spite of glaring deficiencies in both students, I am just now getting help in referring them for evaluation of special needs. The question, as usual, is why? Why did it take so long?
There's two answers I can give. The one that lets me off the hook a bit is that I asked several people about both students when I first assessed them in the fall. At every turn I was given the impression that getting a special ed referral was very difficult, if not near impossible. "Don't waste your time," seemed to be the general idea. In order to get the referral I was told I needed a long paper trail and had to prove I had tried numerous academic interventions that had failed. I think the saddest part is the impression I got that I should accept the deficiencies of these students as part of the overall problem of teaching at a school like mine. In other words, just because a student was reading three grades below level and struggling with basic addition and subtraction was no reason for red flags to go up.
Now the second explanation is one where I accept more of the onus. The truth is it shouldn't matter what I was being told. I knew, even as a novice, that these students needed some sort of evaluation. I should have been more persistent and pursued an evaluation much more aggressively. The year is more than halfway done and who knows how much longer it will be before the process of evaluation is complete. That is just wasted time for these students. Time that they could have spent either getting extra help outside the classroom, or maybe even learning in a self-contained classroom if necessary. A teacher is first and foremost an advocate for their students. It's too bad I didn't speak up for them sooner.
Of course the truth is probably somewhere between these two explanations. I didn't really know what I was doing back in October and I felt I was getting mixed messages. Furthermore, these students have had many other teachers before me, and nobody else bothered to say something. I know that doesn't absolve me, but at least I can hope these two students will finally get the kind of help they need.
Posted by ruben_b at 8:17 PM
Monday, February 25, 2008
Time for an obvious realization: teaching is not what I expected it to be. This is something I can accept. It makes sense considering how little I knew about the reality of teaching when I enrolled in the teaching fellows program.
That said, I also had a certain idea of the teacher I wanted to be and the classroom I wanted to run. The idea of being a Teaching Fellow, or even just a young teacher in general, is in large part motivated by a desire for change. I didn't want to be the same old kind of teacher I had growing up or the same kind of teacher my students are used to having.
Inevitably this idealism was bound to meet reality. The reality is that I have five school days left until the state math exam. And my kids aren't ready. So, yeah, I told myself I would never let myself teach to the test. But, the reality is I want my students to be ready and I will get them ready by any means necessary. If that means teaching math four periods of seven for the next week, so be it. Still wish there was a way to reconcile my original plan of action with the realities of high stakes testing.
Posted by ruben_b at 10:28 PM
I knew the week would fly by, but I still can't believe I'm going back to work in seven hours. I'm a chronic procrastinator, so I shouldn't be surprised that I put off a good deal of my work until Sunday night. Doesn't mean I'm not a little pissed at myself, but no use dwelling on it now. Would have been nice to have focused on finishing compiling my assessment binder instead of finishing the third season of Lost, but I guess I just wasn't trying hard enough to break out of my vacation mindset.
I feel rested, but I'm not sure if I feel ready to go back. The truth is I feel nervous. I can almost feel the physical reaction to the frustration and aggravation I'm sure I'll encounter. In spite of that I'm excited to be going back and hoping that I can find a good rhythm quickly. And of course there's only 39 school days left until my next break. They may sound like I hold a negative opinion of my job, but really as much as I'm come to love it, I also survive by keeping my eyes on the days off that serve as the light at the end of the tunnel.
Posted by ruben_b at 12:07 AM
Saturday, February 23, 2008
Sometimes we forget that we're still living in a system of separate, but not equal. There's as much of a disparity between Riverdale and the South Bronx as any two schools in this country. At least integration is happening some places.
Posted by ruben_b at 2:32 AM
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
I'm in the middle of a week long break. Nice to have the time to just relax and take a holistic deep breath and regroup. I'm somewhat surprised at how productive I've been. Of course productivity is relative. I'm not catching up on grading or lesson planning per se. But I've watched half a season of Lost, bought a new pair of shoes, went to the Mac store and wandered around the East Village and the Lower East Side (twice). So, since lately the standard for being productive means just leaving my apartment, I feel I've been very productive. I really have been enjoying the break though and the chance to recharge. Tomorrow I'll set out to get some real teacher-type work done so I won't be hating myself come Sunday.
Posted by ruben_b at 3:20 PM
Thursday, February 14, 2008
In honor of Valentine's Day I decided to give out valentines to all of my students. I had to be careful. I wanted something that hopefully both boys and girls would like and that would be perceived appropriately. I settled on one pack of Pirates of the Caribbean and one pack of Shrek 3. Seems like a pretty safe bet.
Then I went through and took out any that could be remotely construed as romantic. Then I went through and took out any cards that a girl would assume was for a boy or vice versa. I just wanted to choose some cool cards and make a nice gesture without having any of the little arguments that seem to arise when a child thinks they've been slighted in some way.
In spite of all this preparation, I didn't completely outthink my kids. Lil' Miss Stay Puff came up to me with her POTC card and said, "Mr. B, I got a boy's card." It was a picture of Capt. Jack Sparrow that said, "I hope you have an adventurous Valentine's Day!" I guess it goes to show no matter how hard you try to think things out, you can never really guess how a kid will interpret something you say or do. And if it's true for Valentine's Day cards it's definitely true for every other aspect of my teaching. Maybe next year I should just make my own cards.
Posted by ruben_b at 6:26 PM
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Today was something of a day off for me. Because of the rain I had eight absences which included five of my most challenging students. So, it gave me a chance to teach in an ideal setting - smaller class, little to no distractions. I was able to give much more attention to the students and keep a much better eye on everything going on. Now, if they could just get classes down to this size for all classes all year round we might be on to something.
In spite of the decreased stress I was already getting kind of worn down midway through the day. I'm fighting off a cold and when the heat is actually on in my classroom it turns the room into a furnace. By lunch I was just plain sick of talking and sick of hearing my voice. I asked a math cluster teacher to come in and help out my kids during afternoon AIS and luckily he was free to help.
All the kids love this particular teacher, and for good reason. He acts like a crazy person in the classroom which is to say he's funny, dynamic and engages the kids in a way nobody else would dare to. Some of his approach is shocking even to me, but whatever works right? And if it means calling out kids who aren't getting a concept in an unorthodox way that gets their attention, so be it.
In the course of 45 minutes this teacher kept the kids' attention while explaining the concept of rounding. I had tried and failed to explain the same idea a couple of hours earlier. What impressed me most was the way this teacher was able to connect to the kids and help make math easy to relate to. Whether he was talking about having your grandma over for dinner, Jimmy Neutron, Nintendo DS, or Yu Gi Oh, he found a way to connect the math to the kids everyday lives, and it never felt forced.
It was the kind of experience that gave me hope that teaching isn't just about being a certain archetypal role model or following a strict workshop model. The only question that really matters is did the kids learn something? At the very least it gave the kids a break from listening to me, which was enough to make a difference.
Posted by ruben_b at 10:26 PM
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
After a long break, my mentor from the UC Santa Cruz New Teacher program came back for a second five-week consultancy. And with her visit I got a chance to answer my questions about how my classroom looks to an outside observer. Today was a decent day overall, aside from the usual problems with the usual characters . So things might have looked better than usual. Still, it felt good when she said she saw vast improvement. I'm tired of my preoccupation with classroom management, I know it's shown on this blog. It's nice to think that moving forward I can focus on actual teaching - lesson planning, guided reading, writing and math, differentiation, etc. 86 days left. 86 days to get it right with these kids and to figure things out for the next batch.
Posted by ruben_b at 7:00 PM
Monday, February 11, 2008
Another milestone reached. Today was a decent day overall. I've got a week off next week. It can't come here fast enough, but I just have to stay focused on this week. "Teach in the now" I guess you could say. Meanwhile we've got just three weeks until the state math exam so I'm really starting to feel the pressure to get my kids ready for yet another three day ordeal. One day at a time I guess though. That's gotten me through 100 of them already. Just 87 left to go!
Posted by ruben_b at 9:34 PM
Friday, February 8, 2008
It can be hard to look past the cursing, the fighting, the sometimes overt displays of sexuality and see these students as the young children they are. Ranging from age 9 to 11 in my classroom, none of my kids, in spite of their environment are that mature. And in spite of exposure to drugs, alcohol and sex at such a young age, most of them have largely retained their innocence.
Starting a new tradition today, I had lunch in my classroom with the students of the day and student of the week from the past week. "Will you give us multiplication problems, Mr. B?"
"Oh man," one of my brighter and truly kind boys said. "I was going to tell you about my dog."
I started drilling them on their times tables and they were anxious to get the answer first. Later just taking care of some things in the classroom before picking up the rest of my students the same student followed me around. "I don't know what I would do without my dog." He had found his opening.
The language and attitude coming from these kids can be shocking at times. But you give them a chance and they will be plain old kids. Kids who like to draw and play with stamps and talk about animals. Kids who are deep down eager to learn and eager to please their teacher. Even if they say they hate me or some other vile thing they can think of, it doesn't change that fact.
Posted by ruben_b at 6:40 PM
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
It's been a while since I've introduced more of the characters who make up my classroom. It's not much, but for now I want to introduce you to two more of my students.
The Woman-Child (TWC): Similar to Chandrella, The Woman-Child is very dark skinned and twice the size of most of her classmates. This means an exciting handful of issues. She's self-conscious. She's a bully and at the same time extremely sensitive. She's also very intelligent (or at least shows the potential for high performance), but does little to no work. She shows no awareness of boundaries, neither in terms of student/teacher or boy/girl.
While I'm just now introducing TWC, I have mentioned her many times already. Since the removal of ALP, TWC stepped up as his heir - testing, trying and disrespecting me daily. It was TWC who accused me of not liking black people. And it is TWC who I found writing extremely sexually suggestive notes.
TWC frustrates me to no end. But, naturally her situation is among the most saddening. The wasted potential and her inability to maintain relationships with her peers is tragic. She told me once that she hopes to grow up to be a pediatrician. I often try to appeal to this dream, because it is really a dream of mine too.
Bambi: Bambi is one of the "best" students in my class. What this means is that she is essentially mute. Even when I am sitting right next to her I usually can't hear her. I've dubbed her Bambi because of the wide eyed, deer in the headlights look on her face that she sports all day, everyday. She represents one of my greatest challenges. She is a student who needs that extra push and show of attention. I'm am pushing her to find her voice and participate. The students think she is one of my "favorites" because she never causes problems. But because of her silence she is also almost a ghost in my classroom. And if I let myself get bogged down in the misbehavior of Bambi's peers, I worry she'll never get the help she deserves.
Posted by ruben_b at 9:43 PM
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Teaching in this era of data-driven instruction can be a bit overwhelming. Whether you're a twenty year veteran struggling to keep up with changes in pedagogy and technology or a first year teacher stunned by the sheer volume of assessments and paper work, the fact remains it's difficult. More than that, the emphasis on data can be somewhat off-putting for a group of idealists (or former idealists). The emphasis on test scores and data has also created a shift in the entire focus of schooling. Perhaps this isn't true everywhere, but I feel it acutely at my own school.
You see, you have to understand a bit about the immense pressure my school's administration is under. Because of test scores that have failed to rise my school has been identified as a School In Need of Improvement (SINI) and it also received a D in the first round of Bloomberg's new report cards. The D grade and the SINI designation were almost completely based on a lack of improvement on test scores and so the entire focus of our school has been forced towards raising test scores.
Which brings us to the simple question (with a complicated answer): How? One answer seems to be with materials. My students have plenty of textbooks. For math alone they have their Everyday Math Journals, Everyday Math Study Links, Everyday Skills Links and Math Steps. Those are all for class and homework. On top of that we have test prep books published by New York State to prepare for the ELA and Math exams. And then today the smartboard arrived.
Don't get me wrong. I'm ecstatic to finally have a smartboard of my own. Even if I'm not sure where it'll fit in my classroom I know that it will open up a whole new array of learning options for my students and me. And considering that most suburban schools have had this technology for a number of years I think it's essential to helping my kids keep/catch up with their better heeled peers.
What I do wonder is whether we can really hope to improve my students scores with a smartboard and test prep booklets when my students don't really even have a well balanced classroom library. Or a set of classroom dictionaries and thesauri. Or, and this is what I've been thinking about a lot lately, access to regular counseling.
Off the top of my head I can think of four students who need, and I mean need, regular counseling. If I really knew the home situation of all my students that number would probably be higher. And yet in a school of 1,050 students we only have one full-time counselor. Will the NYS approved text on fractions and decimals sink in when my student is struggling with genuine post traumatic stress disorder? Is a smartboard going to help my students make the leap from a failing grade to a passing if they don't have anyone who's there to listen?
At a "high-need" school like mine there's a long, long list of needs. And it's hard to distinguish where one need is greater than the others. And it's very hard to find funding for all, or even half of them. But in the end which will provide the greatest gains? Technical support or emotional support?
Posted by ruben_b at 5:18 PM
Monday, February 4, 2008
I know I was quick to dismiss the comments of my student who accused me of not liking black people. Perhaps it was just a self-defense mechanism, easily triggered by a student who disrespects me constantly. But even though I didn't pursue the matter with the student, beyond vehemently shutting her down, the conversation's stayed on my mind.
There are three important truths I must acknowledge as a white teacher in the Bronx. One is that my reasons for being there are based on a deep belief in equality and a desire to find racial injustice in this country. I truly believe that this country still operates under a segregationist education system, and by attempting to teach in a "high-need" school, I am fighting to close the achievement gap between the poor and the privileged.
The second truth is tied to my conception of what I view as a "separate, but unequal" school system. Because I am a product of that very system, I have had access to countless advantages and privileges denied my students and generations of students like them. So even while trying to fight racism and its systemic effects, my position in life is really a result of racism at the same time. Recognizing that fact means that although I work very hard towards the cause of equality in my classroom I am in some ways a representation of our society's inequalities.
Thirdly, while I told my student that, "I hate racism with every part of my body. It disgusts me," this does not mean I am immune to racial bias. Consciously or unconsciously I make judgments and decisions that are likely influenced by the culture and color of my students. It is an uneasy realization, but accepting it means I am more likely to fight its influence.
It's unfortunate I can't have a conversation like this with my students, especially the one who leveled the accusation towards me. Still, by understanding that I am a beneficiary of racism and that despite my best efforts I am ingrained with racialist thinking, I can hope to move my thinking and the culture of my class beyond issues black and white.
Posted by ruben_b at 9:47 PM
Friday, February 1, 2008
Everyone is telling me to crack the whip and bring the hammer down and use whatever other disciplinary metaphors exist with my class. Lord knows something needs to change to get everyone focused and put an end to the countless minutes (hours?) wasted to idle chatter. Still, today in spite of some extraordinary disrespect, especially on the part of Gary Coleman Jr. I tried a different approach. A quiet, calm conversation.
GCJ came into class this morning and was throwing a tantrum right away. First period Fridays is my prep and is usually gym. This week there was a change, because one of the gym teachers was absent so instead we had art. Never mind the fact that because of a ballroom dancing program "gym" has been held in my classroom, this change of plans was an unforgivable affront to the students of my class who crave consistency (and perhaps more so, 45 minutes of de facto free time).
I pulled GCJJ out of class after he came in cursing and slamming his stuff around. "You can't always get what you want," I explained, ripping off the Rolling Stones. "That doesn't give you an excuse to throw yourself around and disrespect me and Ms. D [the art teacher]." I counted slowly down from ten and had him take deep breaths while I counted. In spite of this touchy-feely approach to discipline GCJ didn't really get his act together.
Throughout the day his behavior just seemed characterized by an anger and at lunch time when I talked to him again he admitted he was angry about gym. Still. It doesn't make sense to me how a child can hold so much anger inside him and let it throw off his whole day so completely. With GCJ and another problem child I tried to have conversations and get to the root of the question, "What's wrong? What's bothering you so much that's keeping you from being the best student you can be?" Maybe it's too tough of a question to expect a 10 year-old to answer honestly. But I made an attempt and, even if it didn't yield better behavior, at least it felt better for me than yelling and screaming.
Posted by ruben_b at 7:49 PM
Everyone's heard the analogy of the frog in the boiling water. If you drop a frog in water that's already boiling it will hop right out. If you put the frog in the water then slowly raise the heat it will stay in the pot until it's cooked alive.
When it comes to the chaos of my classroom I sometimes feel the same way. If a random observer were to walk into my classroom they would probably shocked and appalled by what they saw. For me, I've become acclimated to it. Even a "good" day like today probably wouldn't impress anyone, but me? I'll take what I can get.
I don't get too angry with the kids anymore. At least not at the end of the day when I'm reflecting on what went right and wrong. I just get angry at myself and the situation, because I know there's a limited amount of time and we are not using what little time we have. I want my students to learn, because I can see a future for them that they can't. It will be one of two paths and this is my only shot to guide them towards the one that leads to college and hope.
In the meantime I'll take my "good" days when I get them. Even if they're not true successes. The other day walking my class down the stairwell I heard the voice of another teacher screaming, "Shut up!" And this was a veteran teacher! I felt horrible for her class and (I'm sorry to say) relieved that maybe I'm not completely incompetent, relative to the other teachers at my school.
Posted by ruben_b at 12:24 AM