Thursday, March 30, 2006

No News Is Good News

The teacher's union voted to authorize a strike last Wednesday and we haven't gotten the phone call (they have to give us 48 hours notice) saying that we were actually going on strike. We haven't gotten any news actually. The union website doesn't show anything after the vote and we haven't gotten any phone calls. So I've been reading the paper every day, and feeling rather silly about having to read the newspaper to find out if I'm about to be on strike. There was a story today, but all it says is that the strike talk gets serious, which is what they've been saying all along. So we still don't know anything! Except that San Francisco Unified is about to go on strike too. Strikes all around! What better way to celebrate César Chávez Day?

Speaking of César Chávez Day, I am trying to keep this just about the kids and not about politics, but the Bush admininistration, Congress, and our school district are all conspiring against me. This HR 4437 crap, for example. Now, I haven't studied it extensively, and I'm not denying that there is an immigration problem. But I am tired of mean-spirited meaures being proposed to "solve" the problem. In the 1990s, it was Proposition 187, which denied health care and public education to illegal immigrants. Now it seems that we have another shot at trying to make teachers, doctors, etc. into honorary members of the Border Patrol.

In 1994, when 187 passed, teachers overwhelmingly said that they would not report which of their students were in the country illegally. There's no reason to believe we're going to start doing it now. Apparently there's a chance that teachers would be included in those who could face jail if they were caught helping illegal immigrants. Why don't we just make them wear little Mexican flags on their sleeves too? Stop them from going into stores, riding public transportation, that kind of thing.

Like I said, I realize the problem of illegal immigration is extremely complicated and, unfortunately, not morally black and white. But I believe there has to be a respectful, reasonable way to deal with it. As for me, I will continue to teach all the kids in my class - legal or illegal - and you all just might have to come visit me in jail someday.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Subject/Verb Agreement

OK, here's an example of a worksheet from our reading program. Let me know if any of you think you'd understand this if you didn't speak "standard English." Or if you think an 8-year old can follow this without getting bored and hitting the person next to them.

A singular subject requires a singular verb, and a plural subject requires a
plural verb. Sometimes the verb changes its form depending on whether the
subject is singular or plural.

Rule: If the subject is singular, the present tense form of the verb usually ends in -s or -es

Example: He saves his money in a cookie jar.

Rule: If the subject is plural, do not add anything to the verb to form the present tense.

Example: They invest money for a living.

Rule: If the verb ends with a consonant and y, change the y to i and add -es to create the present tense.

Example: hurry + es = hurries

Rule: In the present tense the irregular verbs be and have change forms to agree with their subjects.

Example: Danny is responsible with money, but his friends are not. Danny has $10 but his friends have only $1.

No problem, right? Totally holds their attention.

(Oh, and by the way, they think 'singular' is spelled wrong - to them, it's a phone company!)

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Car Thieves and Bad Neighborhoods

This is not entirely school related, but I had my car stolen two weeks ago. Not from my school, but from in front of my house in Alameda. Apparently, according to our neighbors the rat-sitters (ok, it's really a doggie day care, but they're all bite-size yippy dogs, so we call them the rats, and hence, the rat-sitters), it's the 4th Honda to be stolen off our block in the last two weeks. Would have been more helpful information to me BEFORE it was stolen, but...Anyway, after a huge headache and a lot of worry, I got a new (to me) car, which the kids have named Shelby. I don't know why they named it Shelby, but they all seem to agree.

Having my car stolen gives me something in common with a lot of the students' families too. Not my favorite way to find common ground.

The kids are acting crazy this week and wearing me down. A lot of it is because of the shooting this weekend - even for kids who are used to this kind of violence, there have been more murders lately, this one was right close to us, it was a relative of two of the kids just in my class, and of course, it was during the day, which is unusual even for our neighborhood. Their parents are worried, the kids who are aware are worried or scared or sad or all mixed up, and everyone is acting out in a kind of plea for attention and security. It's exhausting me.

Monday, March 27, 2006


As if we needed reminding that we're in the ghetto:

My student's uncle was killed this Saturday. In broad daylight, as they say. Right by his house, less than a mile from our school. Apparently he owed someone money. This is the 33rd homicide this year in Oakland, when last year at this time, there were 14. Great. We're on a record-breaking pace. Oakland's not a very big city - 33 homicides by now is a LOT. Or maybe it just feels like more when I know the kids affected.

The story we're reading right now in our reading curriculum is called Four Dollars and Fifty Cents. It is the story of a cowboy who, in an attempt to evade the debt collectors, plays dead, gets taken to the graveyard, gets caught, scares a bunch of robbers away and gets an reward. The reading program is big on "making connections" - finding bits of the stories that are like events in their own lives, characters that are like people they know, etc. So this kid busts out with, "This is just like what happened to my uncle, except they really did kill my uncle when he owed money.

What do you say to that?

Sunday, March 26, 2006

I Love to Read

I don't mean I like to read, I mean I LOVE to read. I need to read. You know how some people say they feel naked or incomplete without their cell phone or watch? I feel that way if I don't have a book in my bag. Even if I'm going to meet a friend or something, you never know what's going to happen and you just might need a book!

Thomas Jefferson once said, "I cannot live without books," and although I've never really felt that he and I would have been best buddies, I understand that part of him well. I have books stacked by my bed, probably in my bed, on my desk, floor, tables, bathroom - I read on BART, while brushing my teeth, in the bath, sometimes while walking, and if there was a way I could read in the shower, I would. I just bought 36 books at our church book sale for $9, and 15 books from a homeless guy in the Mission District for $10. Oh, and checked out 7 more from the library next door to our school.

I am very different than my students in this way. Many of them didn't really have books in their house until their teachers started sending them home. They look at reading as something to be avoided, something scary, and in too many cases, something they are bad at and will always fail at. I'm sure reading experts would have a lot to say about the best methods to teach reading, and I'm sure I learned many of these methods at one point, but it seems that for a lot of these kids, what they need is encouragement that they can do it (it is AMAZING what saying "You're a smart kid," to them 4 or 5 times a day can do), finding books that are interesting, and showing them how much I love reading.

I am by no means the best teacher I know, or even one of them. I don't think teaching is my gift, necessarily, but I do think that relationships with difficult kids is. I love sharing my life (up to a certain extent, obviously) with them, and they feel so important when I tell them how my dog dug through the trash or some innocuous little detail like that. So, I've been trying to make a point of telling them how much I like to read, and how I read at every opportunity, and how many books I get from the library, and how I read more than almost anyone I know... and it totally works. They're getting all into it because that's what they're teacher does.

They have pointed out that maybe I should stop reading when I walk though, especially if I want to avoid spraining my ankle again.

Friday, March 24, 2006


I'm on a lunch break from a workshop right now. The kids have no school today so that we can have a professional development day - optional, but we're being paid twice as much as our normal hourly rate - I have no idea why. Speaking of getting paid, the consultants doing the workshop get paid $150 an hour and I have to say that I do not know why.

Resiliency is a tricky concept. While there is truth to it - kids do survive the most atrocious situations, and often seem to recover from illness, abuse, loss, etc quickly, I think it's dangerous. People throw around statements like, "Oh, kids are resilient - he'll be fine." I think in many cases, children are not recovering from these situations as much as they are simply surviving. And that's totally different. They are not thriving, they are not growing or succeeding like they should. It's often used as an excuse for not taking action. "Sure, he's seen his father stabbed, his mother's on crack, and he's been through six teachers this year, but kids are resilient." Kids knowing how to survive should not excuse us from doing everything in our power to help them recover.

I heard a statistic - which will be totally invalidated by the fact that I have no recollection of where I heard it - that 40% of kids in this city's public schools are suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). I think it's probably 75% of my class. This workshop isn't helping us with any of that. All the presenters are doing is telling us that kids need supportive people in their lives to succeed. And that they're resilient. Come look in the eyes of some of these kids and see how much resiliency they have left.

I am, however, getting some quality time with coworkers who I don't know very well, and that's been fun. Most of these teachers are new and are fun, intelligent people. We've bonded so far over a couple of things. In the Power Point slides, there are little clip art kids - white ones on the "Kids Succeeding" slide and brown ones on the "At Risk" slide. If I can find a scanner, I'll post the slides from the copy I have. I'm not one to be oversensitive and feel that we have to have included in every picture ever children who are black, white, Asian, Latino, and in a wheelchair. But come on - this is a little extreme. It was the black teachers at our table who noticed and then all of us got mad. I think we've been labeled the "difficult" table.

Also, we took issue with the motivating little story - it's been passed around on email and in Reader's Digest - about a teacher who had a kid named Teddy. She didn't really like Teddy and tried to stay away from him - he was stinky, poorly dressed, mean, caused fights, talked back, etc. Then he gave her a broken bracelet for a Christmas gift and told ehr she looked just like his mom and she found out that his mom had died. She looked in his file and found that he was a model student before his mother had died and she started loving him and totally changed his life and walked him down the aisle at his wedding or something. Basically something totally sappy and tear-jerking like that.

But what we all wanted to know is WHY did it take her that long and a Christmas present to realize there was a reason he was acting like this? Kids don't just act out because they like it. There is always a reason. And if a child is coming to school dirty, badly dressed, hungry, mean, and rude - well, it's just criminal for a teacher to not try to figure out what's going on, if that kid's OK and what they can do to help. This isn't a motivating story, and we shouldn't be urged to try to be like this teacher. Obviously she got it together eventually, but... We had a principal last year who was AWESOME and who I'm still more than a little pissed at for leaving after a year who would say that we should never ever ask a kid why they were acting a certain way unless we wanted to hear the answer. None of this rhetorical, "I just don't know why you are being like this!" She would say that their behavior is not acceptable. But - and this is important to understand - these kids have been through more than many of us can even imagine and they can't walk away from it. Of course they're having trouble controlling their anger and violence. As the kids would say, "Why you couldn't figure that out your ownself?"

Thursday, March 23, 2006


OK, maybe today I am replaceable. It was one of those days. Probably I'm reacting to the possibility of a strike, not getting enough sleep, having a lot of friends and other people in my life that I miss, and being cold. And partly the kids were just... challenging today. But i had trouble standing up and teaching. And sitting down and teaching just doesn't work (as I learned after I feel down the stairs and had to teach on crutches-the kids called them 'crunches'- for over a month).

So, it wasn't really a day that I feel was enormously successful. But no one hurt each other. No one even said they wished they were dead, which is something in my class. A couple of kids said they used to not be able to read and I'm taking that to mean that they realize that now they can. Another boy made me promise to come see his volleyball game Monday night (anyone want to come?) But overall, not the greatest day. That's the problem with this job. If the day didn't go well, you can't really leave it at the office. You can't really leave it at the office no matter what. The kids are too important. I can just hope that the long weekend does good things and that Monday is a better day.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Winter of Our Discontent

Yes, I know it's spring. But the heat hasn't worked in my classroom for at least two weeks. The heat works in all the other classrooms in the building. Just not mine. And being that it is a 100 year old building in California, there is no insulation. So it would be basically the same temperature inside as out if there weren't 18 little energetic bodies warming it up. Even with that, I'm teaching with my coat and scarf on. The thermostat guy has been out to see it but left again and there's still no heat. I'm afraid he's taking lessons from the clock guy.

And the union just voted for a strike. Or, not necessarily a strike, but likely. Without getting into district/union politics, which I have plenty of opinions on, I just need to say that I can't go on strike. I mean, morally. I also can't really afford to, but that's another story. I have three kids in my class who have had both parents abandon them and are living with grandparents. I have another who lives in fear of his abusive parents, and the majority of the rest of them have had one parent leave them for one reason or another. As scary as it may seem, I am the most stable adult in many of their lives and definitely the adult who gets the most waking time with them. They won't understand the strike as anything other than another adult who said they loved them leaving.

But I also want to be recognized for what I do. It would be nice to be paid what I'm worth, but I'd settle for it being acknowledged. In case of a strike, the (largely unqualified) subs will make $300 a day. Over twice what most teachers make (although without benefits) and fewer hours. The superintendent says that education will continue. Really?

Are these $300 a day subs going to go to kids' games, karate tests, birthday parties and churches? Are they going to dream about the kids, pray for them, make lists of the good things about them, find their favorite books, search the Internet for the one subject that interests that kid, feed them, and use up their cell phone minutes calling their parents for good and bad behavior? Will they beg everyone they've ever met to volunteer or donate, worry that they've ruined the kids' lives forever, pull out their hair, explain that repeating first grade does not make you stupid, listen to descriptions of relatives' funerals, make up funny nicknames for each kid, know that 'white kid' means Latino, scold them in Spanish, know the names of kids in other grades, or tell the kids they love them even when they yell? Are the kids going to know that these subs love chocolate and reading more than anything, frequently check out so many books from the library that they drop them all over the playground, can catch them swearing in Spanish, know which streets not to drive down, want to have beautiful brown skin, dye their hair, fall down stairs because they're reading, or have a dog who takes cheeseburger wrappers out of trash cans?

I have a lot to learn still about both teaching and loving these kids, but even for $300 a day, you can't replace me.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Knives

Yes, that's right, the knives. I forgot about the knives.

I had a parent conference with a mother last year whose daughter had come in late during the year - apparently she was either expelled from her previous school or the mother had pulled her out because she thought the school was fit to expel her soon. The girl had ripped down bulletin boards, started a lot of fights, and cut off a girl's ponytails with her mother's knives.

I kind of didn't know where to start with this because this particular girl, although being very... well, what we call "ghetto," hadn't really started fights or anything in my class and in fact was really smart and we hit it off really well. I asked the mother what she had thought of the previous school and she got really upset and started complaining about how they wouldn't even let her bring her knives to a parent-teacher conference. And when she said "knives," she measured in the air with her hands about two feet apart. These were not pocketknives she was talking about.

The rest of the conversation went like this:

Me: Knives?

Mother: Yeah, my knives (same hand gesture). I was sergeant-at-arms in my bike club [note to suburbanites - she doesn't mean like Tour de France cycling on the weekend, she means a motorcycle gang] and you's required to be armed at all times when you's sergeant-at-arms.

Me: [a little shell-shocked] But I don't see your knives.

Mother: Yeah, I'm president now, so I'm not required to carry arms.

Me: [in my head: Thank you Jesus!] OK. Well, I haven't seen your daughter start fights or attack anyone or destroy any school property. She's really good at math and she likes helping out in the classroom.

Mother: Yeah, she like you. She didn't like her last teacher. She made her quit. If she don't like you, she be real bad. But she like you.

That was one of my more memorable parent conferences. But some day I'll write about the various parents who have threatened to kick my ass in different sorts of ways and the parents who have taken off their belts, handed them to me, and told me to use them on their child if their child got out of line.

On a different note: I looked around the classroom today and realized Oh my God, I'm the only adult in here! I mean, I knew that, but... I'm the only adult in here! I don't know if I can (or should) explain any more how sort of disturbing that was!

Monday, March 20, 2006

What Time Is It, Anyway?

I'm remembering all sorts of things that have happened now that I've started the writing process. Like the time the clocks didn't work.

Actually, there are a lot of times the clocks didn't work. Many of you remember school clocks - there's no second hands and the minute hands kind of clicked backwards for a second, then clunked forward (like they needed the momentum to go forward or something). And they're all on one system. So after daylight savings time, all the clocks in the school would be off for an hour until someone in the office reset them, whereupon they would noisily move forward an hour - noisily because they would do that click-clunk thing 60 times in a row to go forward an hour.

Well, I used to be in a portable classroom, which just had a clock run by a battery hanging on the wall. I mean the clock was on the wall. With the battery in it. And I could change that at will. It even had a second hand which was useful. Now that I'm in a 'real' classroom I'm at the mercy of whatever central Big Brother clock system exists. A disclaimer before the rest of this story: I am not entirely sure how much of the part I did not witness is rumor and how much is true. I don't want to be sued by a disgruntled clock guy. You'll see.

The electricity went out a couple of months into the school year. It went out for three hours and they wouldn't let us send the kids home even though it was way dark outside, but that's another story. The long term problem now was that the clocks were wrong. Now, one might think that the clocks will be reset after a problem like that, but one would be wrong. The clocks were about three hours behind. The minute hand was close to correct though, so we just added three hours - at 8:25 it was lunchtime, at 11:50 the kids get ready to go home, etc.

Then the minute hand got off. I don't remember if the electricity went out again or if someone attempted to fix the clocks and they got worse, but now there was no correlation at all. We were trying to add three hours and 26 minutes or something like that, which is just too much brainpower for someone trying to deal with 20 children in a room.

By this time, our secretary (who is AMAZING and saves our lives approximately 7 times a day. Each.), has put in numerous work orders for "the clock guy" from the district to come reset the clocks. No one at any of the school sites knows how to do it. Well, apparently, the clock guy retired. And no one else in the whole district knew how to do his job. The rumor is that he was mad because he was forced to take early retirement or some program got cut or something so he was rebelling by taking his clock knowledge (and his toys) and going home. No idea if that's true, but it is just strange enough to be possible. So no one knew how to reset the clocks. And when someone finally learned (don't know if the clock guy repented or someone figured it out on their own), they had about 40 schools to go to, and there was only one new clock guy. We finally got the time changed but for weeks, you heard from kids (who don't have much of a concept of time anyway), "Teacher it's 8:30, it's time to go to lunch!" "It's 6:20, does that mean it's time to go home?"

Lesson 1: Schools are not businesses. Anyone who's surprised at the inefficiency of having only one person who knows how to set clocks has NOT worked in a public school.

Lesson 2: Anyone of my generation who went to school in the US knows exactly what I mean by the click-clunk sound of the ubiquitous school clocks.

Lesson 3: Never piss off the clock guy. He has more power than you think.

Bits & Pieces

  • *The kids love to sweep and vacuum in class. They love to clean off the desks with 409. They beg to be allowed to wash my car. (I do not, in fact, let them. I'm sure that's a violation of many laws.) How much do you want to bet that doesn't happen at home?
  • *For anyone who missed why it is 'light skinded' instead of 'light skinned' - the kids were reading aloud today and every single child said 'lookded' instead of 'looked.' We had to go through the word sound by sound to see that there is only one 'd' sound. That's just not how you say things here.
  • *One of the kids came to me in tears today to tell that another kid was calling him a 'buck-toothed beaver.' I realize that that would be hurtful when you are 8 years old, but it was really really hard to not laugh at him, especially when he kept repeating 'buck-toothed beaver.'
  • *Because of the No Child Left Behind law (don't believe it, we're leaving children behind left and right and I have a hard time talking calmly about it), our school was reconstituted and next year we're going into incubation to be a new small school. I could explain what those mean, but really, don't those words make you think of frozen orange juice and baby chickens? Who says schools are 'reconsituted' and 'incubated'? For that matter, who declares 'sanctions' against elementary schools? Your administration, that's who. I don't take credit for them. I've decided to be Mexican.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

For the Love of Children

So, after writing the last post, I was thinking about if I actually help the kids. Sometimes I think I do more harm than good because I get so frustrated and overwhelmed. (and short-tempered and judgmental, and... these kids try my patience so much that most of my not-favorite qualities come out with them). So I've decided that what I can do is tell them, every day or even several times a day, that I love them. And even if I yell at them, I still love them. Sometimes I'll say, "You are driving me absolutely crazy and I am very very upset with your behavior but even if I'm sending you home, I still love you."

I think it's sinking in because one kid told another, "You know she still love you even when she mad." I hope it's sinking in. I don't know what else I can do - half the time I'm convinced that absolutely nothing I teach them will be retained for more than 30 seconds. But if they come away from this year knowing that one adult loves them unconditionally, that's something. And if there's any way - by God's grace and without me crossing legal separation of church and state lines - that they can understand that it is actually because Jesus loves me and them more than they can imagine (sounds crazy to many of you perhaps, but I'm convinced it's true), well, that's probably the greatest accomplishment I could have in my life - much better than success on the standardized tests.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Needing To Be Wanted

I was watching Law and Order SVU (or more accurately, I was in the room while Law and Order was being watched and trying to ignore it), and one of the characters was a brutal murderous member of some horrible prison gang who showed no remorse for anything he had done and continued to make threats to kill people. Anyway, I was trying to not watch that and the realization came to me suddenly: This man was a little kid once - innocent and lovable - and this is how he's turned out. (Yes, I realize Law and Order is fiction, but unfortunately there are an infinite number of real-life examples). I've had these kinds of realizations before, but this time it hit me so hard that I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.

There was a quote I read once in my credential program by some educational behaviorist someone who said that as he was looking at the "Wanted" signs at the post office, it ocurred to him that if these criminals had been wanted when they were children, they wouldn't be wanted now. Sounds trite, but it's true. It's hard for me to not take this all on and put the responsibility on myself for their entire future. But it's also frightening to realize that not feeling wanted/loved/approved drastically affects people for THEIR WHOLE LIVES.

I think the reason why the Law and Order episode hit me so hard is that one of my students from last year is trying (fairly successfully) to start a gang. He's only in 4th grade, so the gang right now consists of getting a bunch of kids who need to belong or be noticed and go around to other kids, saying things like "That's a nice coat. You want to keep that coat, you'll have to give me $3 every day." It is small now - although mean-spirited - but I can see exactly where this kid's going to end up and it terrifies me.

There are any number of reasons why this particular student is "at-risk": he was out of school for two years because his mom didn't have it together enough to enroll him, she's working as a prostitute, she's got substance abuse problems, she's in abusive relationships (every time I saw her, she'd have a new black eye or a tooth knocked out), he was being raised by his disabled grandmother who couldn't handle him, his dad is in and out of his life as he is on and off drugs, he was abused... and he has turned into a mean-spirited manipulative cynical bully. At age ten.

I got to see into this kid's heart a little last year on a field trip. We were at the Lawrence Hall of Science observing some animals, including a dove, a snake, a bearded dragon lizard, a chinchilla, some other stuff I don't remember, and a big rat. None of the kids wanted to go near the rat - we have rats aplenty in East Oakland and everyone agrees that they are NASTY - and this child, this big, mean, dirty child who no one likes and is mean to everyone... he worried that the rat would get his feelings hurt.

So he stood by the rat for an hour, talking to it, and telling me periodically that he thought the rat had probably taken a bath, so people should not say that it smelled, that it probably just needed attention. He cared for that rat like he was its mother. This kid was showing the rat the kind of love and security that he needed and he wasn't getting. It's not hard to see why he started him a gang. And he'll continue to go down that road until he's locked up or dead. I know that's hard to hear/read, and I appreciate that some people won't want to hear it. It hurts my heart to write it.

Forget prisons and rehab centers - everyone (especially men, please!) go find one kid who doesn't think anyone cares about him or her and mentor that kid. Tell him that you love him no matter what he does or doesn't do. And mean it, because they know when you're not genuine. Find the local Big Brothers/Big Sisters, or find a teacher or pastor in the inner-city and ask them where you can find one of these kids. Unfortunately, there's way way too many of them. No kidding, if we helped them all feel wanted, we really wouldn't need the Wanted lists any more.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

One More Thing to Buy

Playground equipment. I forgot about that. That adds up fast. And it breaks and pops and gets tossed on the roof and gets lost so at the moment we don't have any.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Money! (or Lack Thereof)

This entry is dedicated to Warren, who--upon hearing that the fancy pull-down maps in the classrooms dated from the late 1940s or early 1950s ("Teacher, why they put Germany on here twice? What country is Ussr?")--said - quite earnestly, "But the school will buy you new maps, right?" Anyone who doesn't understand why I find that so funny has not spent time in the California public school system. I can still make myself laugh thinking about that statement. (I bought the map shown in the picture, by the way)

People always talk about how little teachers get paid, but that's not the real problem. We don't get paid what I think we're worth, but I'd take it. However, I don't know anyone (unless they're self-employed) who spends more money on their profession than teachers.

At the beginning of the year each year I spend hundreds of dollars on supplies. The school provides the basics (or at least limited numbers of them) but if I think the children might use more than 4 pencils and one box of crayons over the year, it's up to me to get them. I usually buy crayons, watercolors, markers, colored pencils, notebooks, erasers, rulers, folders, scissors, and glue for all the kids. Then I have to buy electric pencil sharpeners, because the one mounted in our room doesn't work. (The electric ones don't work any more, so I have to go buy more, which I can't really afford right now). We got a globe for the first time this year but I had bought my own a few years ago. Many of the books that I use to make homework are mine, as are the posters, stickers, paper towels and cleaning spray. Oh, and the printer. And the stool that I use to sit on at the front of the classroom. And 90% of the literature in the classroom outside of textbooks. And all the videos and games.

Now, keep in mind that I have had more things donated than anyone else in the school, so I actually got lucky. I didn't have to buy the fans (the room gets to be about 95 degrees in the spring), the computers, the laminator, the plants, or the reading chairs, because they were all donated by people. Through DonorsChoose I have obtained an abacus for each kid, hand sanitizer, Kleenex, class pets, flashcards (I've bought a TON of those), timers, and spelling dictionaries.

I don't want to sound ungrateful. The school is getting better under this principal about providing supplies. People have been very generous to me over the years in helping me buy stuff. But at times it just feels like too much. I just bought a small pencil sharpener for each kid (they're not expensive, but it adds up!), and am going to have to buy an electric pencil sharpener, the plastic things to use in the laminator, soap, replacement scissors, glue, and dry erase pens, and books for literature circles in the near future.

Then there's the problem of food. Many of the kids do not eat breakfast - in some cases their parents don't have money for food, in some cases it's neglect, in some it's that the parent is so overwhelmed that they can't possibly get everything together in the morning, or even get the child here for the (usually really unhealthy) school breakfast. Occasionally I get some that haven't eaten dinner the night before either. I've been teaching them to use their words and tell me what's wrong instead of just acting out. When they manage to, half the time it's just that they're hungry. A lot of the time, a granola bar makes the difference. But then the other kids see it and they want some too, and... well, I can't afford to feed breakfast to 20 kids. My former students come back too - and I know which ones have been faring for themselves and probably haven't eaten since dinner the night before or even since the previous day's school lunch.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Loyalty and Authority, Part II. And Attachment.

First of all, of course right after I write about how the kids respect me and I have authority, they all decide to act a fool and make me a liar (as we say around here). Of course, it was raining all day and they were too hyperactive... just goes to show that kids are never predictable! But still, I have it much easier than I would without 6 years in the community behind me...

OK, back to my loyalty, authority, and attachment theme.

Crazy days where kids are out of control notwithstanding, they do usually know that (in their words) I don't play. And even when they're off the hook (that means acting crazy), I can always remember that if I didn't have relationships with them and they didn't respect me, it would be all over.

I had a friend comment on that after he graciously chaperoned a field trip last week. (I have had many friends-to who I am extremely indebted-chaperone field trips. I'm never sure if they know what they're getting into or regret volunteering, but there are field trips that would not have been possible without them) I don't remember the exact conversation, but it was something along the lines of how he would have no standing at all with the kids except that they knew he had my recommendation.

It's interesting to me how this works. This particular friend was very good with the kids - a good mix of showing caring and respect while being firm and not backing down, which is where a lot of people have problems. (In fact, the kids had the best possible mix of comments about a chaperone - either he was their new best friend or the meanest person ever. In fact, I think it was the same kids who said both! That's a sign you're doing a good job with this group!) Also, I got my favorite chaperone quote ever today - we were at the Lawrence Hall of Science with its new dinosaur exhibit and my friend says with a totally straight face: "Get out of the dinosaur eggs before I count to three..."

However, even though he seemed to relate well to the kids, and to respect them and enjoy time with them, as a white person, it should have taken a long long time for the students to accept him at all, let alone accept him being "the boss of them." (As in "You're not the boss of me.") But because they knew this was a person I trusted, many of them attached on immediately. I think 4 or 5 kids asked him to come home and be their daddy, and while that sounds kind of freaky, it makes sense. Most of them don't have any safe men in their lives - so someone who their teacher trusts must be inherently safe. And because I love them, anyone I bring to them must love them too. So, even though I think this friend may have had to resort to threatening to get me a few times, most of the time the kids - although they whined and complained - obeyed. (I think.) I've seen the same response when my brother and sister come in to the school. It's interesting to me, especially since it took me SO LONG to win their trust and loyalty. Apparently I now have sort of an umbrella of authority now. And that is pronounced UM-brella (emphasis on the first syllable) around here.

One thing I can say about kids in the ghetto though - once you have their loyalty, you REALLY have their loyalty. It can't possibly be cool for an 8th grader who's trying to dress like 50 Cent to stop by the elementary school and say hi to his white 3rd grade teacher while she's stapling up bulletin boards. But they do.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Kids are Strange

  • One of my students starts every sentence (and makes every sentence a question) with "Dontcha know?" Try it one day. It's hard. "Dontcha know, I'm done with my test?" "Dontcha know, can you hold my money?" "Dontcha know, I like your hair, teacher?"
  • Kids push to be at the front of the line no matter where they're going. They could be going to the dentist to get all their teeth pulled and they'd still push to the front of the line. They push to be at the front of the line to go to recess, which makes sense. But then they push to be at the front coming in. And to the principal's office. And probably if they were lemmings, they'd push to be the first off the cliff.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

My Sister is Brown Like Me

"My sister is Brown like me. She is nice sometimes. She was in my teacher's class last year. She has short and kind of short hair. She smells like soap. She helps grandma clean up the house, because she likes cleaning up the house. I love my sister. My grandma loves my sister. I do too. My sister is the best. THE END"

No, I didn't write this, and my sister is not, in fact, brown. This is one girl's descriptive writing assignment. I was going to write more about the loyalty and authority but I'm kind of overwhelmed right now (I can't keep up with my own paperwork and mess, let alone the paperwork and mess of 20 children) so I thought I'd share the kids' descriptive writing. The assignment was to pick something and describe it, using as many senses as possible. The things the kids picked to describe ranged from people (by far the most popular: me, their mom, a sister, a baby, themselves), to flowers, dogs and cats, a Game Boy, and crackers. (Did you know crackers "sound like rocks when they break"? I'm going to pay more attention from now on!)

A few of the more memorable excerpts:

RL: I have a dog that is brown, cool, and hot with fleas. We give him food. We give him flea baths. We keep him away from cats and birds. He smells like junk. He feels like a hairball.

BE: My dog can bark very loud because he is 22 years old. He smells like mud and is as soft as a pillow

JS: My dog Fluffy has little legs and sharp teeth. He is the size of a toy. Fluffy is fluffy. [At this point, the student realized that he had made a play on words and started giggling - amused himself for about 30 minutes.]

And my personal favorite in its entirety:

AJ: My teacher smells like perfume. She is light skinned. She is skinny. She is the tallest woman in the school. She sounds loud and quiet. Her hair is light brown. My teacher hair is so soft. Her eyes are green and beautiful. Her bones in her hand feel bumpy. She wears glasses because she has bad vision. She sprained her ankle because she fell down the stairs and she had to use crutches. My teacher is the best teacher in the world.

A few notes: I neither wear perfume nor am the tallest woman in the school. I do not have brown hair or green eyes. However, I am flattered by the description! In the first draft, he said I was light skinded, with the extra syllable, but he also said that "She sprainded her ankle and wears crutches sometimes because sometimes she falls down the stairs." I almost left it just because I liked it, but I thought it was probably better to teach him how to write correctly.

I was also proud because we have been working very hard on descriptions and he definitely has some description going on there!