Monday, February 26, 2018

Needs Vs. Wants

Most people have an idea of what they consider to be basic human needs. In an excerpt from my book, Literally Unbelievable: Stories of an East Oakland Classroom, a classroom of first graders had a surprising take on "needs versus wants."

Like many people, I sometimes overuse the word "need." I have a tendency to say that I need the new iPhone or I need a pedicure, even though those are clearly just things that I want.

My greatest lesson on distinguishing between wants and needs came with my first grade class during my first year of teaching. Volunteers from the business world came to our school through the Junior Achievement program to teach for a day. As a new teacher, I was overwhelmed and relieved to not be responsible for lesson plans for one day. However, I was nervous about how an idealistic businessperson would deal with twenty extremely needy first graders living in one of the most violent parts of Oakland.

The woman who showed up at my class was clearly unnerved to be in this particular neighborhood. When she walked in, she was shaking slightly and she stammered the first few times the kids asked her a question, But she collected herself quickly enough, and taught in an enthusiastic and respectful manner after that. She went over the official Junior Achievement curriculum, which included basic map skills and identifying the different essential parts of a city.

Then she got to "needs versus wants."

I don't remember exactly how it fit into the lesson as a whole, but I can picture the images she used: cut-outs of an ice cream cone, roller skates, a house, a plate of food, a t-shirt, etc. The class was supposed to vote on whether each item was a "need" or a "want" and the picture was then taped to that side of the board. For some of the items, there was clear consensus. Everyone agreed that while roller skates and bicycles were nice to have, they were definitely not necessities, so those items went on the "wants" side of the board. Others required some explanation. Ice cream was supposed to be a "want," as it's a treat, but the plate of food represented food as a whole, which went under "needs."

The businesswoman seemed happy with the class discussion and the decisions the kids were making as a group, right up until she got to the picture of the house. The class collectively decided it belonged on the "wants" side. The guest teacher looked confused and then clarified that this image included apartments also, which was quick thinking on her part. But the kids were still not sold. "That's a want," many insisted. The woman looked at her notes and clarified that it was supposed to be a need. "People need homes."

One six-year-old saw her confusion and helpfully jumped in with an explanation. "My uncle don't have a home," she said. "And he still alive." Other kids started jumping in:

    "My friend live in a shelter' she don't have a home."
    "Some of my family members homeless."
    "My mama used to live on the street, but when she had kids she moved to my auntie's house."

One after another, at least half the class shared their anecdotes about homelessness and they all agreed: homes are a "want."

My guest was taken aback -- this had not fit into the cookie-cutter script she'd been given. These kids were young enough that most of them were not fully aware how shameful mainstream society considers homelessness to be. They definitely didn't like it, but for them it was a normal part of life.

After school that day, the guest teacher stayed to talk to me and began to cry. She said she had never thought about this kind of poverty existing in the Bay Area. She pointed out that none of the students "looked homeless," as they were all clean and wearing nice clothes. She was also confused why I hadn't corrected them; she thought they should know that homes were a need.

I didn't agree though. I thought the kids had a good point.

Monday, February 12, 2018

“If Their Parents Really Cared...”

This is a sentence I have heard from many, many people with regards to my students.

“If their parents really cared, they’d come to parent-teacher conferences.”

“If their parents really cared, they wouldn’t let their kids join gangs.”

“If their parents really cared, they’d feed them better.”

I’ve heard this from very well-meaning people, including co-workers. We all want our students to have what they need, and to have the best chance possible in life. But this particular phrase makes me angry, and it has since the first time I heard it.

When I was a new teacher, I was in a collaboration meeting with the other third-grade teachers and one of my colleagues was talking. I had some excellent colleagues but this guy was not one of them. Actually, he was an excellent teacher to a certain group of students, but only those he chose to teach. He frequently tried to trade his Black students for my Asian students because he was “supposed to” be the teacher for the immigrant kids. I often let him because if he was that opposed to having Black kids in his class, I didn’t really want them to suffer.

This particular teacher was talking about parent-teacher conferences. He said, “If their parents really cared, they’d come to parent-teacher conferences, but they don’t.”  I’d come to find out that he frequently started sentences in this way.

I said, “Of course they care about their kids.” He just kept talking over me, ranting about how frustrated he was. I understood his frustration. We’d all have an easier time of it if the parents came to conferences. But there were many, many reasons for parents missing them, and none of them were because they didn’t care about their children.

Yesterday, I faced this comment again, and this time, I was ready for it. I was speaking at a church, and got many very thoughtful questions and comments. People were really ready to partner with public schools, which was very exciting.

One man, however, had this question, which was more of a statement or condemnation. He said that he knows it’s hard when parents are working multiple jobs like I had mentioned but that parents who care will always make time for their kids. So why hadn’t my school had a PTA? If the parents really cared, they’d find time to be a part of this.

I was so glad this question came up, since I know how many people think it.

“I will politely and strongly disagree with you,” I said.

I went on to explain: I had kids with parents who worked two — or even three —  full-time jobs. How many hours a week does three full-time jobs add up to? ONE HUNDRED TWENTY. You can’t do anything else. You don’t even get to sleep. You’re a zombie.

Even in a less dire case, if a parent is working two full-time jobs, they could be going to work from 6 am until midnight. Where can they fit a PTA meeting in? And would we do it? I wouldn’t, no matter how much I cared about my child. The human body can only do so much.

In addition, there are many other reasons a parent or guardian might not be able to participate in these events and activities.

Many of our parents didn’t speak English. If there wasn’t a translator (a luxury), they can’t understand what’ going on, and it would feel pointless to be there. Some undocumented parents were afraid to go to any activities, trying to keep a low profile.

Many of our parents were young parents and their school days were not far behind them. If they had had bad experiences in education — and many of them had — they may actually feel traumatized and not feel welcome at the school.

Some parents had drug and alcohol problems. This is true for any population but is often harder to hide when you have the added stress of poverty and violence nearby. If meetings were held at night, it might not feel safe to go out of their houses, and if they weren’t held at night, parents would likely be working.

In some cultures, volunteerism is just not as common as it is here. Many parents were from cultures where the family was one context, and then the parents handed the kids to the teacher (who was often highly respected and much better paid than in the United States) and the teacher and school would do their own thing. In many parts of the world, it is unheard of for parents to tell the teacher what to do, and that’s what a PTA would feel like. The school has to be very intentional and inviting, and cultural understanding is a slow process.

In addition, many of my students’ guardians were older: grandparents, great-aunts, or even great-grandparents. These guardians had already raised their own kids but for various reasons, were now raising younger kids in their family. They would tell me, "I'm tired. I thought I was done raising kids and I'm just so tired."

The man who asked the question was very quiet after that. I hope I had given him a lot to think about.

Addendum:  A friend pointed out something I am missing. It is incredibly dehumanizing to even consider the possibility that such a huge portion of the human race doesn't care about their children. OF COURSE THEY DO. It just might look different than we expect.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

What Kind of English is "Correct"?

First of all, if you search Google images for "ebonics," this is the only thing that comes up that is not totally offensive. I don't recommend doing the search.

The ebonics (more correctly called African American Vernacular English or AAVE) debate started when I was in college, and wasn't talked about in those terms when I was teaching, but was definitely discussed, usually in derogatory terms.

"Why can't they use proper English?"

"I'm so tired of hearing "axe" instead of "ask"!

"It's not "bafroom," it's "bathroom""!

Usually there was some eye rolling and muttering about how uneducated people were, and even sometimes the expression "those people" which I hate.

I'm not going to explain how AAVE evolved but if you're interested, check out John Rickford's work, which is fascinating and very informative. Even a quick search on Wikipedia can acquaint you with the history of AAVE, which was influenced by slavery, the South, etc. I am not a linguist, so please forgive me if

I am going to tell you about how I dealt with this in my classroom. I didn't get any training on this, and only a very little bit on how to help kids who spoke other language. So I had to improvise.

Most of my kids spoke in AAVE, no matter what their race, because that was the dominant speech pattern of the neighborhood. Like many people do, they referred to "Standard English" as "talking like white people." If someone spoke in Standard English, they'd say they sounded white. When I corrected their writing, they referred to it as "white people talk."

I didn't really like this idea of white people being correct and so I tried to phrase it differently. Again, remember I had no training on this, was young, and was working alone.

I told them that everyone writes differently than they talk. Everyone! They objected, saying that white people talked the way they wrote. I said no, think about me! I say "like" way too much. I say "you know" and "gonna." I don't write that way!

They thought about this.

I told them that if I were talking to the President (not our current one) or was in a job interview, I would talk the way I wrote. That's what we call "formal." But normally, I speak informally.

The light bulb went on.

"So, if I SAY toofbrush, I should write it without the f? And if I meet the President, I should say it how I write it?"

It worked for me. I'd be curious, if any other teachers care to share, how you dealt with this? And go read Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. It is well worth reading.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Only Allowed One Ring

My friend Mitali and I went to visit Jorge in prison again, this time, much farther away. As I explained before, the visitor appointment system leaves something to be desired. But we finally got appointments and got to bring Jorge’s Abuela also.

The trip down was long. Very long, and very dull, driving down I-5 with nothing to see. Abuela only speaks Spanish, even after over 35 years in this country, so Mitali and I were trying to speak Spanish, which requires a lot more concentration for both of us than speaking English! Probably because of this, we missed the exit.

Unfortunately for us, I-5 didn’t have another exit for almost 20 miles. Fortunately for us, we were running early. But when we pulled up to the guard gate and weren’t sure which yard to ask for, I think we all got a little nervous. I remembered writing “D” on his letters and asked for D yard, which turned out to be correct.

Getting in to see him was more difficult than before as well. They took an inventory of all our jewelry for us to carry with us, to make sure we didn't give anything to an inmate. There were limits. For example, I could only wear one ring. Fortunately, Abuela was not wearing any, so she wore one of my rings for the entire visit so I could get in. I'm not sure what danger that second silver ring posed, but the limit was one.

There was a much longer walkway than in the other prison, but it wasn't raining this time, so we walked for what seemed like a very long time to get to the building with the visiting facilities. Once we got there, we handed our jewelry inventories and IDs to another guard, and sat and waited. And waited, and waited. We had an appointment and they knew when we signed in and were checked at the first processing center that we were coming, but they don't.

I get the feeling that inconvenience for families is not something that anyone in prison administration cares about.

As we waited, I could see Abuela looking every time a door opened. Finally Jorge came in and walked over to us. When they hugged, I was so glad we had brought her and so ashamed that I hadn't thought of it, but that Jorge had to ask me.

Talking to him was wonderful, and Mitali and I talked to him about his cellmate (he doesn't get any visitors, not any, ever. Apparently he's a pretty positive person), and writing, and more. We left after an hour to let his Abuela have time with him.

She was a whole different person on the way home. She didn't seem to mind the drive, or her tiredness, or spilling soda on her jacket. She was so happy to have seen Jorge. I imagine that it's quite the roller coaster - being happy to see him and then missing him and worrying about him, but at least they got to have time together.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Prison Visits

The paperwork that I got from the prison where Jorge is incarcerated mentions that visits are essential for inmates' morale and rehabilitation. One would think, then that they might make visits feel a little more... possible.

I've been trying to set up a visit for myself, my friend who graciously drove me last time and will do so this time (3.5 hours one way!! She's a saint), and Jorge's grandmother, who hasn't been able to visit him since he moved to the prison farther away. She was his guardian for most of his childhood and it's breaking her heart that she can't see him.

Trying to get all three of us to visit, I called the prison's visiting appointment hotline. It is only available for three hours a week (Tuesday mornings, 7-10 am) and you can only make appointments two weeks in advance. If you don't make an appointment, you can show up for "open visiting" but it seems to be first-come first-served (I can't get a straight answer on how it works) and as it's 3.5 hours away, that's not idea.

It took me a while to get everybody's drivers' license information, and I had it ready and called shortly after the window opened on Tuesday. Busy signal. I tried again. Busy signal. I had to call SEVENTY-FOUR TIMES before I could get through and make the appointment.

This leads me to a number of frustrations:

The three-hour-a-week time period to call doesn't work for anyone who works Tuesday mornings and isn't allowed to make a phone call.

If you are allowed to make a phone call from work Tuesday mornings, it's highly unlikely that you'd be allowed to stay on the phone for over an hour hitting redial.

If visits are important for rehabilitation and morale, shouldn't they be, well... important?

I'm furious, but we got the appointments. Now I just have to call Saturday morning to make sure the prison isn't on lockdown. If anything happens, we will have made the whole drive for nothing.

Monday, December 04, 2017


My student who is in prison, Jorge, has a very dedicated grandmother. We’ll call her Abuela. Abuela took over raising him when his mother couldn’t, and like all of us, she’s made her mistakes and had her struggles, but there is no doubt that she loves Jorge and her other grandkids and will do anything for them.

Abuela came to the United States as a young woman; I believe about 18 or 19, with a toddler. I may be a little off on the ages, but I know that Jorge’s mom would be 38 if she were still alive and Abuela is only 54, so she was a young mother.

I don’t know much about her history before she came to the United States, but I know school was not a part of it. Abuela was not taught to read or write in any langugae. She cannot speak English, although she can understand some, and she cannot read and write in Spanish. She is an intelligent woman who never had the chance to study.

When I had Jorge in my class, he forged his grandmother’s signature on permission slips because she couldn’t write her name. I knew this, and I just didn’t know what to do. I’d call her to make sure she knew about the trip and would get verbal permission in my not-great Spanish.

I’m now trying to help Abuela go see Jorge in prison. The prison he got moved to has a very difficult appointment system, that is hard for me to understand, and Im’ a native English speaker with a college degree and a teaching credential.

In trying to make appointments for us, I had to get her state ID card number, which she has memorized and was able to get to me. I had asked her the day before and she had time to prepare. But when I asked her how to spell her first name (there are two possible spellings), she paused. She told me to wait a minute, and went and got her granddaughter. Her granddaughter had to spell her grandmother’s own name, because Abuela didn’t know how.

I say this not to shame her, but for the exact opposite reason. The fact that this woman has been able to survive and raise children in a country that does not welcome her, where she doesn’t speak the language, and without ever having been taught to read or write: THAT is bravery. She is a hero.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Talking to Teachers

I had the distinct pleasure last weekend of speaking to the Yuba City area chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma, a professional society for women educators. I was a little intimidated because in this group of mostly retired educators, there were literally hundreds of years of experience altogether. And here I was, only having spent eight years in the classroom, talking to them! I felt like I should have been the one seated and listening.

The experience, however, was amazing. I was so honored by the compliments on my book, because I knew that these people understood. These were not empty words of flattery from people who say, "Oh, I could never do that!" These were people who had been in the trenches themselves, who knew the exhaustion of teaching, the feeling of finally maybe not being tired on your LAST day of vacation before you go back. They understood what it's like to not be able to sleep because you're so worried about a child who's not related to you, or to dream about your students every night.

I've spoken in Yuba City twice now, once at a church and once at the Delta Kappa Gamma meeting. I knew someone who invited me to speak at the church, and I liked her, but I wasn't sure how it was going to go - if they'd be shocked at the conditions in Oakland or if they just wouldn't be able to relate. (If you don't know, Oakland is extremely urban and Yuba City is extremely NOT urban. It's in between Sacramento and Chico, surrounded by a whole lot of beauty but not many people or cities).

What I learned is that we've all taught kids in poverty, and kids dealing with urban poverty and those dealing with rural poverty have more in common than different. We've all had students who don't have enough to eat, who have been abused, who have been neglected, who don't know people love them, who think they're stupid, or who think they're bad. In this community that is so different from Oakland, the teachers are the same. We all got up every day trying to make a difference. It was such an honor to be able to talk to others who have done this.