Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Prison Visit

After 8 1/2 hours in the car, I ended up back where I was. That feels like a good metaphor for a prison visit. The visit was successful... in that we all got in to see Jorge. 
We did run into some problems:
My wonderful friend who had to change shirts. Twice. Once because her shirt was “transparent.” Her shirt was white with pretty embroidery and in no way transparent. At all. None. Also, the poorly photocopied rules that they referenced say that you can wear a tank top as an undergarment if the outer shirt remains on at all times. But then it says that clothing cannot be layered. Not sure which trumps the other.
Her second choice shirt was navy blue. They say not to wear blue denim and not to wear “blue that can be confused with inmates’ shirts” which are light blue. So still don’t know what the navy blue problem was. The shirt was neither blue denim nor light blue.
So she had to go borrow an ugly extra large shirt for the visit. I’d show the picture but our picture got confiscated because you couldn’t see all of our hands. This was confusing because several guards saw us taking the picture and OK'd it.
Apparently It’s a rule buried in the essay of photo rules and we didn’t know. And the guards were NOT nice about it. I get that working in that kind of place changes you and I don't think I could do it every day, however... 
They kept telling me the rules were in my "visitor's pamphlet" which I think is this poorly photocopied paper below. I don't see the rules in there; just in the corner of the visiting room, where I would have never seen it if I hadn't gone back in to look after they told me.
Just getting in is more of an ordeal than before. They’ve ramped up security so you have to check in and show pockets, belt, etc. Then you have to take off all jewelry and hair bands and shoes and belts and go through the body scanner. Then the metal detectors. Which seems redundant, but we did it with no complaints.
After checking, you go through a bunch of little cages with razor wire and barbed wire both. Then walk down a long pathway to the visitors center where you’re checked again. I had an interesting conversation with a woman walking down the pathway. She was visiting her ex-husband because "he has nobody." She said she could have just washed her hands of him, but a person needs human contact and needs hope.
The staff almost didn’t allow Jorge's sister to come in because when their grandma got the custody paperwork, social services messed up on the sister’s name and switched her first and middle name. I explained and they let us go in but not happily. That's a process I'm helping Abuela correct and will blog about soon. 
The actual visit was wonderful. Jorge is happy and hopeful. He's reconnected with a young woman who he knows from elementary school and she visits him once a month, which is a lot for an 8-hour round trip. He's studying to be an electrician now, which is a very useful skill and I'm excited for him. I told him that people are waiting for his voice in this book we're writing and he promised to start writing again. He looked joyful.
As always, my favorite part of the visit was seeing Jorge and his sister interact. It seems so... normal. They tease each other just like siblings do. They argue over what to get out of the vending machine. They both make fun of the other's love life. Sibling bickering has never been so beautiful to me.
The visiting rooms are probably one of the better parts of the prison and they are so institutional. There are some halfhearted efforts to make them cheerful: kids' toys and games, etc. And there is a lot of love in the room along with the sadness. The families have to concentrate their love into just a few hours and you can feel it.
You know the smell of that one communal microwave at work that has never been cleaned, ever? That's what the whole visiting room smelled like. Between that and the claustrophobia of not being able to open a door for yourself or ever put your hands out of sight, it took me hours to stop feeling slightly nauseated. I can't imagine living or working there.
Also, I can see a difference in his Abuela between when we leave (anxious but stoic) to after we visit (a little sad to leave but joyful and relieved).
My friend and I left after a bit to give them family time and we visited Jorge's previous cellmate who is now in another yard. We didn't have his prisoner number memorized so the guards gave a great heaving sigh and said, "Now we'll have to look it up and this could take a while," when we already didn't have much time left. I explained that we had it on our phone and just couldn't bring our phone in. Mostly I was just trying to make small talk and treat us all like we were human. She said, sarcastically, "You could *memorize* it." I made a joke about how it's harder to memorize things the older you get and she just stared at me like I was saying something totally ridiculous. 
Then, after the deep sigh and warnings about how long it would take, they had us write down the name and looked it up. That's all that the "look up and take a while" process meant. My friend pronounced the last name slowly for the person looking it up, saying "My handwriting isn't great," and the guard just said, "I REALLY do not know why you are pronouncing it for me." 
Again: this place is not good for the human heart. Not for workers, not for prisoners, not for visitors.
It was good to see the former cellmate. He speaks very very quietly and in Spanish, so it's hard to understand him but honestly, he just wanted to be listened to. He has no one to talk to. He has a very sad story full of violence until he came to prison. He converted and spends his time reading the Bible and praying now. I believe he's serving a life sentence, and his life won't be a lot longer... terminal lung cancer. 

This is the paperwork that you have to read before a prison visit to make sure you are not doing/bringing/wearing anything wrong. Can you imagine being a non-native English speaker and trying to figure this out?

Saturday, September 07, 2019

The Day Before Prison

Tomorrow is a prison visit to Jorge, the student who is in chapter 10 in my book.
I always dread these.
It goes like this: I get up earlier than I want to and find something to wear that doesn't involve blue, khaki, or forest green. Red is not expressly forbidden but it is discouraged, because of gang connotations. I can't have a scarf and a rain jacket must be clear. I have to measure the length of my shorts or skirt if it's hot weather.
Then I drive to east Oakland to pick up Jorge's family, then drive to Orinda and meet a wonderful incredible generous friend, who then drives us 3 1/2 hours to the least beautiful part of California.
We then go in and get treated like we’re not people by the guards, and if they’re feeling particularly spiteful, they insult or his sister or grandmother because they know they can get away with it. Last time they leered at his sister and made fun of her for wearing a "see-through" shirt. (It wasn't at all.) This gave them an excuse to have a discussion about how inappropriate it was (it wasn't) while looking at her chest.
They count our earrings and rings, make sure we don’t have any other piercings, turn our pockets inside out, and send us through a metal detector barefoot. Then we wait in a metal cage to be buzzed through to walk along the walkway with razor wire to the visiting area.
Then we get to visit and it’s incredibly wonderful to see him. But it’s also dehumanizing and demoralizing. The inmates can’t touch the vending machines, the whole place smells like a middle school cafeteria, the guards are watching your every move, and they sometimes just stop all prisoners coming into the visiting room for reasons we don’t know.
Then we leave his family to visit a little longer and we either go visit his former cell mate who is dying of lung cancer and has literally no visitors ever except for us, or if his walk is on lockdown like last time, we go to McDonald’s, which is the only place to go in town. And I mean the ONLY place to go.
Then we go back and pick up his family, which is always interesting because they can’t use cell phones to call us when they’re ready to be picked up and we can’t wait in the waiting room, so if we move the car we have to sort of hope we see each other. I’ve seen people just waiting aimlessly out there before, looking panicked because they have no way to communicate with the person who’s picking them up.
Then my friend drives us 3 1/2 hours back to Orinda and I drive his family back to east Oakland.
I dread it every time. I wouldn’t be able to go without my friend, I don’t think. And at the same time, it’s so wonderful to see him and such an honor to be a part of this person’s life and now a part of his family’s life. It is a privilege to be trusted.
But my life would be so much easier without it, and I selfishly think that the night before every prison visit.
Then I think how much harder it would be if it were my child, parent, or partner.
Then I think how much harder it would be if I didn’t speak English or had been in the prison system before.
And I struggle between gratitude that I’m able to do this and help this family and hopefully encourage this young man, and anger that it is so hard even for me, a person with so much privilege, to do this.
So, that’s my day tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

A Cobra Trap

This is a cobra trap. You can tell it's a cobra trap because it says "cobra" on it. (It was later amended to say "no cobra.") It is an emery board (standing in for a cobra because although he knew I didn't have a cobra lying around, he was still a little disappointed). Then there are 7 newspaper bags around it, since, "You need seven layers, because if it escapes from one layer,you have to make sure it still doesn't get out." Later, a parachute was added.

The creator is my nephew, a wonderfully imaginative 6-year-old we'll call T. T is smart, creative, sometimes relentless, and funny. He's also really fortunate. He gets to learn AND gets to be creative. He goes to his neighborhood public school, in a good school district, and loves the teachers he's had so far.

T is an example of why creative play is so important. He teaches himself through play -- whether it's with maps, science experiments, or designing robots. He's fortunate to have parents and teachers who encourage him and teach him about what he's doing when he creates. It can sometimes be a little frustrating to find your butter in the microwave, dog toy in the freezer, or (recently) a giant concoction of dish soap, flower petals, and water all over my kitchen sink. "It's a science experiment!" But the frustration fades when I realize how much he's learning. (Also that I can give him back to his parents!)

Kids need creative play. You can find article after article (after article!) about how important creative play is, but we often don't give kids the space for it, either because of academic standards that don't always match with developmental milestones, or because teachers or parents are overwhelmed and don't have the bandwidth to facilitate this kind of play. And some underperforming schools are so pressured to focus on academics only that there's just no time for anything else.

I don't know statistics, but thankfully, I've seen more of an understanding lately that kids need to play to learn. I personally know many teachers who are adamant that their students get the creative play they need. Remember, cobra traps may just be a precursor to inventing something that the world truly needs!

Sunday, August 18, 2019

My New Favorite Teacher!

This is Stephanie! If Stephanie looks familiar to you, it's because I've featured her in my blog over the years. I helped fundraise for her a few times years ago, so that she could make it to some leadership conferences. Then two years ago, I saw her at her college graduation celebration. Well, she is now in proud possession of a master's degree: from Johns Hopkins University!!! And, as if that weren't enough, she's going back for another master's, this time in public health. Did I mention that she's been teaching full-time during grad school? This young woman is amazing and I am so proud to know her.

We had lunch this week, and shared stories about teaching in a high-need, low-income area. She's teaching in Baltimore and her stories sound just like mine from Oakland, if not more so. She had three principals her first year and has quickly become a teacher leader just because things needed to get done. It really resonated with my 8 principals and 5 superintendents in 8 years and becoming the senior teacher at age 31.

We have a lot in common, but significant differences in our backgrounds as well. While I certainly had good intentions and went into teaching with my whole heart, I had to unlearn a lot of implicit bias and come to terms with white middle-class privilege. We talked about that too - the bias in education and the devastating inequity between majority-minority schools and majority-white schools. 

Stephanie is a phenomenal person and I have no doubt that she's a stellar teacher. But she's still contending with what all teachers in underserved areas have to deal with: 8th graders who can barely read, middle schoolers who are pregnant, CPS reports, lack of supplies, overcrowding, and so so so much need.She's doing the hard work, but we can help by fulfilling her Amazon wish list! Please donate!

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Teacher Self-Care

I was honored to give a talk on teacher self-care recently at Delta Kappa Gamma's state convention in San Francisco.

This was my first time speaking on this topic but I promise it will not be my last! It was a small group because it was early in the morning (and let's be honest, part of self-care is sleeping!) but it was such a great group.

I was able to use my story as a cautionary tale (if you don't know it, check out my book, Literally Unbelievable: Stories from an East Oakland Classroom). I burned out, hard, and it was avoidable.

We talked about how none of us have EVER had a professional development on self-care. And how most teachers don't make it five years. How we give absolutely everything to our students, at the expense of our families, our friends, and ourselves.

It turns out that the old cliche about putting your own oxygen mask on first is true. We cannot help anyone if we are not healthy. Yet we're expected to put ourselves last. When I sprained my ankle and taught on crutches, I tried to take an afternoon off for a doctor's appointment. My principal said, "Well, I suppose you can take it off, I mean, if you're not really here for the kids..." for a doctor's appointment. For, incidentally, an injury sustained at school. Every one of us has similar stories. We were expected to teach with strep throat, with the flu, with sick children. We expect it of ourselves and pride ourselves on never being out sick. It's unsustainable.

If we want teachers to stay, and if we want teachers to be good teachers, we need to work on this. It was a wonderful experience, and I hope to do this talk many, many more times.

Teachers and their students deserve it.

Monday, May 13, 2019

It's Not the Teaching

My favorite thing about teaching is not teaching. I'm sure there are teachers who love that part of it - who live for the moment that a lightbulb goes on in a student's mind and who are fascinated by pedagogy -- who stay up thinking about different ways of explaining a math problem or a grammatical concept.

I don't mind those things, and I like some of them. And, of course, it is wonderful to see that light bulb go on. But that isn't why I personally teach.

For me, the reason to teach is the whole child.

I love dealing with their brains. Their brains are so different at different ages and stages of development! Sometimes students are absolutely infuriating but it's totally developmentally appropriate. Sometimes you can almost literally see the neural pathways forming, like when third graders start questioning why Native Americans are called Indians, and I want to cheer them on: "Yes! Think things through! Taken nothing for granted!"Sometimes they are so impulsive that I wanted to spend the entire day teaching them self-control, and throw out the math and spelling lessons. Kids -- of any age -- have FASCINATING brains.

But I also love being trusted with their emotions. There is no higher honor for me than a child trusting me with their difficult emotions. And there are so many of them! I was working with a 6th grade tutoring student recently and, in a one-hour session, I saw him cycle through sadness, crying, embarrassment over the crying, worry, relief, happiness, anger, and more. Because that's how it is when you're in sixth grade. Sometimes they ask me for advice or say they want to talk, and sometimes they just start to act out or cry and I have to figure out what happened and if I can help.

Sometimes I'm involved in the emotional trauma. These are two apology notes I received from sisters who had noticed my bowl of quarters (laundry money) and helped themselves to some. I noticed some money missing, talked to a few parents, and it turned out that several parents had noticed their kids coming home with extra quarters. It was too much temptation for impulsive kids. These two were really afraid to apologize because they thought I would hate them. They wrote apology letters and paid me back and we talked about times that we had all done things we knew were wrong because the temptation was so strong. They thanked me for not being angry and letting them apology and they gave me extra-strong hugs that day. Their mom thanked me later for helping them with valuable life lessons and being a good teacher and friend to them, which made my heart happy.

Because it's so important to get to know kid as whole people and not just brains or academic machines, I look for all sorts of connections. My dog, Ruby, is one perfect example. I now tutor mostly out of my home, and the students adore her. We recently had a birthday celebration for her ninth birthday (what I'm going to do when this dog leaves us, I do not know, because she has almost 30 best friends now), and she got presents, hugs, a doggie cake, and many many notes like the one up above.

Another way to connect with kids, and one that I can do easily working out of my home, is to feed them. Kids come to me after school or in the early evening and I always offer them water and often a snack. Some of them are comfortable enough with me that they'll ask for a snack and I tell them I'll share if I have something but I won't always, and they are comfortable with that. But I always try to rustle something up, even if it's just sharing a cut-up apple, because there is something very special about sharing food with people.

It's an honor to work with kids, and it is even more of an honor to be trusted and loved, and yes, even taken for granted by them.

Monday, February 11, 2019

A Different Perspective

(this is a photo of my classroom one year. Yes, that says "rape." No, the district did not come to repaint it until I threatened to do so myself. Yes, that means third-graders had to walk by "rape" on their classroom for weeks.)


I am fortunate in having stayed in touch with many of my students. They have provided me with positive feedback about the book I wrote about us: Literally Unbelievable: Stories from an East Oakland Classroom. It's been eye-opening to hear their perspective on their elementary school years now that they are grown. One of the most common things I hear is that I protected them from a lot of the issues when they were kids. I hope so. They deserved to be protected - much more than I ever could.

Since the book has been published, I have been able to talk to a few people who grew up in East Oakland, went to schools very near the one where I taught, and had parallel experiences to my students. If they had lived a few blocks east or west, they would have been at my school.

Their reactions have been even more interesting and frankly, it's been an honor to see. I met with a woman last week who went to elementary school near where I taught, just on the other side of the McDonald's in our neighborhood. I knew people who taught at this school and knew that it was very similar to our school.

We were talking about our experiences and I told her about what it was like to be a year-round school from the teacher's position. It is detailed in Literally Unbelievable but to summarize, the kids were divided into four tracks, by language, because there wasn't enough room for all of the students at once. I was telling her about how I had to teach in the auditorium and once in the auditorium lobby and she was remembering the places where she had to try to pay attention and how distracting it was to keep moving classrooms.

Then I told her about our four tracks: Track A was "other Asian" and was a sheltered English (ELL) track. Track B was English-only and we called it the "Black Track" which always bothered me but came from 100% of the students being Black. Track C was the Spanish-language track and Track D was the Vietnamese-language track. She stared at me. She said, "I was track B. This makes so much sense. The Black Track."

I went on to explain my concerns with the kids being racially segregated and how my principal brushed off my concerns with "We don't separate them by race, we separate them by language," but I could tell she was still processing.

It hit me. What would it be like as a Black woman to realize that you were literally in a segregated class and that your teachers may have referred to your group as the "Black Track."

The truth is that I have no idea. I still have white privilege in that I can be outraged about this, but I wasn't one of the kids involved.