Thursday, June 14, 2018

What it Means That They're Still "My Kids"

When I was teaching third grade, I told my students that they would always be "my kids." I didn't really think any of them would remember, but I'm so glad they did. I am hesitant to list the time I've gotten to spend with former students because it wounds like I'm bragging, but believe me, every single one of these interactions has been more of a gift for me than for them.

In the last few weeks, I have been able to help find a criminal lawyer for a former student (a wonderful woman is paying for it) and take his grandma (along with a dear friend) to get proof that she is the legal guardian of her granddaughter.

I was honored to give the keynote address for Faith Network of the East Bay's annual gala - talking about my experience teaching and all the wonderful work that Faith Network has done to support kids and teachers in Oakland.

I heard from a former student who's going to be a dad and asked me to knit a blanket for his baby daughter. He didn't have a dad and is very excited to be a dad to his daughter. He was so excited that he just sent me the sonogram in Facebook messenger, with a lot of exclamation points.

I had breakfast with another student who is a first generation college student and wasn't sure he would ever even graduate from high school. He told me, "I'm trying to have a steady diet of right decisions." He is thinking about being a teacher, saying that he doesn't like the idea of the low pay but that he loves working with children and that we really need more Black men in the classroom. He told me he doesn't like school because studying is hard, and then went on to tell me all about his anthropology and African American studies classes, his face lighting up as he explained everything he loved about the classes.

Today I had lunch with a former student who is now older than I was when I taught her. She is pregnant with her third child and is a wonderful mother. Her kids love learning and are super excited about their baby sister coming, telling their mom that they're going to read to her and teach her "her ABCs and how to clap." Every decision she makes is for the good of her children and it shows.

And finally, my Facebook memories showed me a college graduation that I was privileged to attend - a first generation college student who graduated from UCLA and was in my third grade class many years ago.

This week has been overwhelming in a good way. As a teacher, you don't get many monetary rewards. You don't always get to see any results from your work. This week, I have been able to see a flood of them.

I am not special when it comes to caring this much about students, and I think that is important to say that. I am the one who write about this, but there are teachers doing so much more. I know teachers who have had former students in their wedding and become godparents to former students. There are teachers who by groceries for their former students' families, who babysit, and who tutor kids for free in the summer. I know teachers who feed their students every day and some who take students' clothes home to mend. I know teachers who pray for their students every night.

I know many parents are already grateful to their children's teachers, but I have to say, you probably don't know everything the teachers do. We love your kids and we are so glad you share them with us.





Monday, June 04, 2018

Miracles and Warrior Women

I have been trying to write a post about Abuela, the grandmother of my former student, Jorge, who's currently incarcerated. (Read the links if you want to catch up!)

The reason it's been so hard to write is because it has been so incredibly discouraging. Abuela has been trying to get custody of her granddaughter and it has been a mess. The social worker didn't give her the right paperwork, then the social worker quit, she's been calling and no one spoke Spanish, etc. etc. It felt hopeless.

She asked me for help and THAT felt hopeless because I don't know the first thing about the legal system. In addition, I don't have the Spanish vocabulary to deal with "legal guardianship"and "foster care."

But our friend Mitali and I prayed and researched and asked for help. And help came.

First of all, an extremely generous person, who I don't know well, has offered to not only connect Jorge (in prison) with a good criminal lawyer, but to pay for it! I couldn't believe it. I actually thought I had dreamed it and had to ask her again to make sure it was real. She's really going to pay for a criminal lawyer for Jorge.

I talked to this lawyer, and she has hope. I don't understand any of the terminology or details, but she thinks that if we bring up all the trauma he had as a child, his sentence can be lessened. There is more to it than that, obviously, but I'm not going to go into it on a blog!

Then we tried to figure out the status of Abuela's granddaughter. She had a social worker for the case (the granddaughter was put into her custody by child protective services) but the social worker left the agency and they didn't assign her a new one. She had some paperwork from the social worker but it didn't have the official seal so it didn't officially show guardianship. We just didn't know what to do.

Things turned out MUCH better than any of us thought.

First of all, it turns out that grandparents can get official copies of birth certificates! So I'm sending in that paperwork for her tomorrow.

Secondly, and most important, we found out that she IS the legal guardian of her granddaughter! But no one told her so. Her child protective services case was closed in 2016 and her dad lost all parental rights. (Her mom died in late 2016). That automatically made Abuela her legal guardian. But somehow the notification got lost.

The social worker I spoke to was very impatient and condescending but thawed a little when I told her that Abuela didn't read or write and thus needed my help. She said, "Oh, that's hard."

We're going to go to court on Monday to get the paperwork with the official seal that is needed. Then Abuela will be able to prove that she is the legal guardian, without a doubt.

Thank you to everyone who prayed, who was pulling for her, and who donated money toward her court fees. Thank you, THANK YOU to the person who wants to stay anonymous who is paying for the lawyer. Abuela can't quite believe it. There were a lot of happy tears today.

This isn't a great picture of me, but I'm putting it up anyway,because if you want to know what a warrior looks like, look at Abuela. Don't stand between a grandmother and her grandkids. She may not be able to read or write, but she is extremely wise, and she is a fighter.



Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Lockdowns are Nothing New

I just wrote a piece about lockdowns on Medium! Please check it out!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

When One of "Your Kids" is Locked Up

Since I've written Literally Unbelievable, I often get really uncomfortable with people thinking that I'm a really wonderful, caring, selfless person... all the time. I'm really not. I definitely love my students and former students, and I'm passionate about giving them a better chance at life, education... everything.

But of course, I'm still human. I still get frustrated with kids. I still get impatient and try not to yell and feel lazy, just like everyone else.

So I thought I'd share my process of making appointments to visit my former student, "Jorge," in prison. When I'm not in the process of making the appointment, I'm very excited to see him! I think about how wonderful it will be to catch up, how excited I am to be able to give his grandma the chance to see him, and what a relief it must be for him to get out of the cell and have visitors. I will admit, I do sometimes feel a little self-congratulatory and maybe grateful that I have the chance not only to see someone I care about, but also to maybe show the world how wonderful I am.

Then I have to make the appointment. Last time, I had to call over SEVENTY times before I could get through. This time, I made the appointments on the computer and had to make several different accounts before it can work, get photos of the IDs of everyone I'm bringing, make sure everything matched, wait while their website went down again... and again, and finally get the appointment confirmed.

Next, I did the math on the timing. The latest appointment I could get was 11:00 am, which means we all have to meet by 7 am at the latest. My wonderful friend Mitali is driving us and I'm picking up Jorge's grandmother, so I have to pick her up around 6:30 am. On a Saturday. I'll spend eight hours in a car on Saturday, and the rest of the time inside a prison.

At this point, it's pretty hard to be self-congratulatory because I kind of want to blow off the whole thing and sleep in on a Saturday instead.

Until I called Jorge's Abuela. Tenemos una cita para 7 abril. As soon as I told her that, I could hear, over the phone, her relief. She let out a long sigh and said, Gracias a Dios. Thanks be to God.

She raised this kid, to the best of her ability, for most of his life. She doesn't drive, she doesn't read and write, and she doesn't speak English. She has no control over when she can see Jorge. 

And suddenly... that four hours each way on the road didn't seem that horrible anymore.

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.