Thursday, April 27, 2006

Move Over, George Washington!

A student (actually, the same student who told me 20 times yesterday that he hated me and I was why he wasn't coming to school any more after today) decided that I'm important enough to be on the dollar bill. He made his own dollar bill, and it has a picture of a lady with crazy hair (thanks a lot!) and says, "I think my teacher should be on the dollar because she never gave up on nobody and never will."

In other news, the kids have decided that when I stand in the sunlight, I'm white like paper.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


We have a tentative agreement for a contract that we're voting on - of course there are troublemakers who are disappointed that we didn't get to strike - one of the union executive board members sent out a flyer full of phrases like "the community has proved they hate the superintendent" and "the district can exploit new teachers to the max," "Deal a death blow to the state takeover..." and exclamation marks. No better way to get people riled up than to use a lot of exclamation points and capitals. Please keep praying for the union not to CAUSE drama, but to actually be doing good things and making good decisions.

It makes me crazy.

Also, our computer teacher got placed on administrative leave. I don't ask why, because you don't want to ask things like that. But now is the time that my computers decided to stop working - probably minor problems, but I have no idea how to deal with them, and we can't use the computer lab either. Anyone know a computer geek who wants to come look?

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Roving Classrooms (Or New Teacher Hazing)

I like to think of it as new teacher hazing. Then it would appear to have some purpose instead of just being another example of an incredibly incompetent educational system. And it would just be a better story to say that all the new teachers have to go through hazing. So I've decided to refer to it as a hazing ritual from now on.

"It" is roving classrooms, a practice that I believe is now obsolete in all of Oakland, due to declining enrollment. (I knew there was something good that had to come out of the mass exodus to private schools!)

When I started teaching in January 2000, I think we had something like 950 kids at our school. This was far too many children for the existing classrooms, but not what the district considered full capacity. I think full capacity at that point was considered to be something like 1100 students. So what many schools did was to go year-round and have "tracks." At our school, there were four tracks, and one track was always on vacation. This made for a ridiculously complicated schedule: there would be three weeks when tracks A, B, and C were in school and D was on vacation. Then D would come back and track A would be on vacation, so tracks B, C, and D were in school. It went like this all year.

Besides the obvious logistical problems, this also had other ramifications. One quarter of the classes (two, maybe three classes per track) had no classroom. They had "roving classrooms." This meant that every three weeks, the teacher had to pack up ALL his or her stuff, all student work, EVERYTHING, and move to another classroom, whose teacher was on vacation. And the school would give you an hour of paid time to do this. Any other time was on your own. Also, there were so many teachers in this situation - and the ones who weren't were trying to make room for people to move into their classrooms - and everyone was so stressed out by the lack of support and the crazy schedule, that no one ever helped other teachers move. Ever.

Another thing about teachers - and this is not to put down my colleagues; this applies to all teachers - they are very very territorial about their classrooms. And they're not about to share with other teachers. They were supposed to provide storage space, and I think one teacher once gave me most of a drawer. But they wouldn't let me hang anything up, put anything in cupboards, use bookshelves, nothing. And in addition, I was not to use their things. One teacher (who was known to be really grouchy old lady) yelled and swore at me every time she saw me because she was so upset about me being in her classroom. She even came in during her vacation to sit at her desk and glare at me and yell at my students all day.

I said that there were only three fourths of the students in school at any one time. That is not exactly true. It would be true if the people could count days. However, the person who set up the schedule of the tracks apparently couldn't count, so all the tracks were short about two weeks. These days had to be made up when other tracks were in session, in any space available. Once I had to teach in the auditorium, once in the auditorium lobby, and I counted myself lucky for not having to teach in a broom closet! The best part about teaching in the auditorium was that there were no desks, no heat, hardly any light, and during rainy day recess, they put all the upper graders in there with nothing to do (this was about 450 kids) and I was supposed to teach at the same time.

This roving classroom year was the year I taught first grade. The poor kids never did get the schedule down or remember what classroom we were in at the time. We'd line up to go in and they'd make their way towards three different classrooms. The other teachers would have to call me and say that one of my confused children was in their classroom.

Another time I'll write about the racial problems caused by having tracks based on language. Big problems.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Kids Say the Weirdest Things

"Teacher, if you're still living when I graduate from college, will you come to my graduation?" (keep in mind that I am only 30 years old!)

"Robert, why is your desk not clean?" "Because I'm making little frogs! See? Little frogs."

"If this was X-Men school, I'd sign this letter: "Sincerely, Nightcrawler."

And one of them gave me a sticker that says "Eat Up: Snot Noodle Soup."

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Lockdowns and Fractions

We've had a lockdown at least once a year since I've been at this school, for various reasons. A lockdown is when something dangerous is going on outside the school or in the school, so all the teachers lock the doors, pull down the blinds, get the kids away from the door, and wait for instructions. Depending on the principal, some of them have tried different codes so the kids won't be scared: the most popular is "Mr. Keys is in the building." Aside from the kids who thought that must be Alicia Keys' father, they wouldn't have caught on, except that there are always so many new teachers that this has to be followed with, "So please lock your doors, don't let children out, move them away from the doors and windows..."

Most of them don't last that long. I think my first lockdown was because some bank robbers from San Francisco led police on a high speed chase which ended in front of our school. Once it was because of a custody battle, during which a father called and said if we wouldn't give him his child, he was going to "come start shooting." (The police refused to respond to that one, but that's a different story). A couple times it's been because of a shooting in the neighborhood. The longest one was a few years back and lasted for about 3 hours, and involved someone setting a carburetor shop (or something similar) on fire, I think killing the owner and threatening to throw grenades at police. At least, I think that was what happened.

The one we had a few weeks ago showed me that I am way too used to these things. You've got to keep the kids focused on school or else they get scared - rightfully so - and start wondering aloud if their mom was shot, etc. So, I was teaching them fractions and when one of them interrupted to say he was scared I said, "You know I would never let anything happen to you - the door's locked, the outer door's locked, and I'll take care of you anyway, because you're my kids." Kept teaching. A different kid who likes to cause problems started talking about the first kid should be scared, and I kind of lost it. I went over to the antagonistic child and said, very seriously and calmly, "You know that you don't need to be scared of anyone getting in because I won't let them. But you might want to be scared of what will happen if you don't start working on your fractions in my classroom when I have both your parents' phone numbers."

The whole class sat up straight, folded their hands and paid attention. Apparently I have more authority than a man with a gun. When I apologized, one of the kids said, "Oh, we know it's cause you love us and you not playing when you want us to get an education."

I realized that night that I was obviously too used to lockdowns because I never even though to ask what the situation was. I'm from Petaluma. Never thought that would be the kind of thing to get routine.

Note about fractions: doesn't matter what area you're teaching in, kids learn fractions better if you turn the fractions into desserts. For example: "If you have a pan of brownies and divide the pan into four big brownies..." "If you have a pie and cut it into three pieces..."

Friday, April 21, 2006

Off Topic: My Art

I've been wanting to put my paintings up on a website for a while, so here goes. They're not all up, but I'm adding them a few at a time... By the way, if you have one of my paintings that isn't up, will you send me a photo please??

I'm a little nervous to have people see them, so I might take the site down if I don't get over that, but for now... here goes.

Strike Aftermath and Fallout

The strike didn't happen (thank God!) but I have a few observations to make about the aftermath.

  • If the union can have the automated phone system call me and leave vaguely threatening messages about what will happen to me if I cross the picket line, they can damn well have the automated line call me and tell me the strike is off so I don't have to find out from the news in the middle of the night.
  • I don't care what a jerk the state-appointed superintendent is, nobody has any business following him to his office and spitting on the ground near his feet. That's absolutely unacceptable.
  • The district website is the most ghetto thing ever. Get on it. Try to find something - say the Gifted educated department. Or the salary scale. Or try clicking on one of their announcements on the main page. It's seriously pathetic.

We should find out the details of the contract in the next couple of days and vote on it withing two weeks. This is what the Tribune has to say about it - we'll see if it's true. I hope so. I could do with a retroactive pay raise!!

Past and present teachers from my school went out for a Happy Hour after school today. It's always interesting to hear people's stories. One man - who I don't know well - said that he used to work at juvenile hall. When asked if juvie or our school was tougher, he had to think about it and ended up saying he wasn't entirely sure.

A bunch of other teachers have left our school and gone to better schools or better districts. They were talking about it tonight, and I was sort of thinking that maybe I should do that. They say it's easy - they don't get as tired, they're not scared of violence in the area they work in... the parents don't threaten to kick their asses. But then, I think I might get bored. Besides, I'm going to write a book one day and make a zillion dollars. That's my current plan. Anyone know a publisher willing to pay me a zillion dollars?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Strike is Off!

And who says that God doesn't answer prayer?? I know some of you will think I'm crazy for attributing this to people praying, but this got to be so messy - the collision of two huge egos, neither of whom has been known to back down or compromise, and had so much potential for disaster - I am completely convinced that God listened to prayer and intervened. Call me crazy if you want, but the only thing that's going to happen is that we go one day late in the summer - not bad at all.

Here's the article.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


Oakland just had its 42nd homicide of 2006. Last year at this time, I think there were 18. The tribune ran a story about last year's homicides that is interesting - also one about the families of some of the victims.

One of the people killed is the uncle of a student in my class. He owed someone money, so that someone killed him. I have not yet known any of the homicide victims in the years that I've been here, but I have no doubt that I will eventually. That is not to say I haven't been affected by the violence - most of the students I've had have had a relative or neighbor killed, and many of them witnessed it. One child saw her dad shot in the face when she was six years old. One boy's dad was stabbed to death - luckily the kid wasn't living with him at the time. Another victim a few years back was an honors high school student - the shooters meant to get someone else. Once someone's uncle was killed because he was Mexican. Someone else's cousin was shot in the head (in front of her) by the rival gang from down the street.

Most of these kids come to school the next day because they don't have anywhere else to go. It's not like they're going to get grief counseling, and everyone else is just as traumatized so they can't really help the kids. It's a strange mix of being such an everyday occurrence that it seems normal and no one having any idea whatsoever of what to do. So many of the kids are here with PTSD trying to learn - or just sitting in the chair shaking, as the case may be. And I don't know what to do. Except just be there.

A side note: the teachers' union scheduled a strike for tomorrow. (I'm not striking - I listed my reasons here). The district was hiring subs for $300/day, saying that they would not stop the children from coming to school. Today, AFTER SCHOOL, they decided that we just won't have school tomorrow. But since they didn't decide until after school, parents don't even have one day notice to find somewhere for their kids to be. So many of them will be on the street or at home alone. I can't decide if I'm more upset at the union or the superintendent, but I certainly don't think anyone around here is putting the kids first like they all claim to.

So, if you pray, please pray for this situation.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Writing Improvement!

I thought I'd share a success story - this is about a kid who got held back in first grade and convinced himself he was stupid (his word) and fairly worthless. He's actually very smart (one of those who is too smart for his own good) and understands higher-level concepts than most third graders, but I think he may have some sort of processing problem that makes it harder for him to read and write. Anyway, he finally started believing that he could do the work and working at it and after much hard work and patience, he got the most improved writer award for the last trimester!

Here are samples of his writing from October, January, and March. Look at the picture, even the handwriting is like it's from a different child. Each writing sample was supposed to be a paragraph.

to mack a friend isto be nice and to shar and to play with thim sumtimes give thim toys

It's adout a place where a lot of ducks lives. The boy told his dad and thay wint to the wood ond the boy wated to tall hisfriend odou want he sow it was a lot of baby ducks. and the story the dad was biger thin the mom

The author wanted us to know, that your family is more important than money, because you would not be in this wrld and you not be, at a fun ealss like thas school and as much fun in thas Grass thas, so fun! to be in and you can Read and rite and do math and it as a lot of stuffto do.

Yes, we still have a lot of work to do, but it's SO much better.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Imminent Strike

The union has planned a one day strike for Thursday, April 20. I'm crossing the picket line. I'm not at all excited about crossing the picket line - I want to support my co-workers, I want to be paid more and have cheaper health care, and I think it is incredibly offensive to teachers and regular subs that the superintendent is willing to pay subs (many of whom are unqualified) $300 a day to sub during a strike. But I can't leave my kids and I'm going to practice explaining my rationale for crossing the picket line.

For the most part, these children in my class this year do not have stable adults in their lives. I could go down the class list and tell you who was abandoned by their mother as a baby, who has never met their father, whose mother complains every day about being stuck with a child, who's being abused, etc. Most of them can't go visit their old teachers who have moved on. Two of them have had a relative shot and killed in the last month, and many of them are discovering for the first time that they are worthwhile and possibly even smart. It doesn't matter how many completely legitimate reasons I have to strike; this group of kids will take it as one more adult who leaves them.

Part of it is completely selfish. When they fall apart - for example, when I'm sick or have a meeting and they have a sub - it takes days and days to get them back to a semblance of normalcy. I will admit that part.

Part of it is also because I don't trust the union as far as I can throw them. I've seen them do some pretty rotten things over the years and I've NOT seen them help anyone out. The union president is the master of incendiary language, so every statement he makes or letter he writes sounds like a declaration of war. And not just any war, but an extremist holy war. Also, we're not fighting over a living wage here. We're fighting over health care going up. Yes, it sucks, but it's happening to a lot of people in a lot of professions and I am not going to put the kids' education on hold for that.

But also - I know that I can't save the kids - I've been trying to remember Isaiah 43:11, which says "I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no savior" and pray for the kids and trust that God will take care of them. If I try to save them, ain't nobody in the classroom going to be sane. However, I did take them on and I do love them, and I'll do what I can, even if it means being a scab.

On a totally different and lighter note, I'm on spring break. I got into a fight with a Mojave yucca plant in Joshua Tree National Park. It stabbed me without provocation. I showed it though.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

I Heart My Students

My students seem to be inordinately worried about me getting married. An unfounded fear, really, considering that I haven't exactly been inundated with marriage proposals lately. They ask me sometimes, "Teacher, you getting married? You fenna change your name? We have to call you something else? Teacher, you going to move away? Can I come to the wedding?" Keep in mind here that they know I don't have a boyfriend! Apparently that's not enough to keep them from worrying that I'm going to get married and leave them.

I was telling this story to some friends and someone said something like, "Oh, that's so cute that they think they'd be invited to the wedding." But the reality is that the kids are that important to me - I would love to have them and their families come if I ever do get married. Yes, I realize that theoretically, there would be someone else who would have an opinion, and between now and if/when i get married, I might change my mind. But the kids make a point of telling me that I'm like their family, and I love that.

The kids were talking about how family is more important than anything. One student asked me very seriously, "You and me is family, right?" Having been in East Oakland long enough, I knew exactly how to answer it - both the right meaning and the best way to phrase it. I said, "We're family in our hearts." It was one of the few times I've had exactly the right answer.

History For Children

I've been thinking lately about children's Bible stories. Does it seem strange to anyone else that we take stories - which often have a lot of grief and scandal - and make them into puppet shows for children? Noah's ark for example - happy smiley pairs of animals with happy smiley bearded Noah. Oh, except it was an attempt to wipe out human evil and start over - almost exterminating the human race. That wouldn't fit very well in a puppet show though, so it's a good thing God promised not to do it again. Lots of death in the parting of the Red Sea, not usually shown in the kids' books. Christmas pageants don't usually talk about Herod slaughtering all the infants of a certain age and ethnicity to try to avoid Jesus being born.

I'm not saying that children should face all these difficult issues at a young age - just that I object to stories being dumbed down, or sort of cartooned down. Bible stories were important for me as a little kid but there's something about just skipping over the unpleasant parts that I think does kids a disservice. They are more complex than we think. (Both the kids and the stories)

There are parts of history taught in school that lend themselves to the same type of selective teaching. Often slavery and the Civil Rights movement is taught just by singing the praises of Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. But we don't take time to see if children understand what these people were fighting against. They know that there was slavery, and there were some bad laws, but - without creating despair in kids - isn't there a way to appropriately go deeper into why those situations were so bad and why we admire these people?

The catalyst to this train of thought was this worksheet I found for Black History Month. It's not special - I've seen many like it - but this time when I was looking at it, I just couldn't quite believe it. Help the runaway slave find the safe house in the maze?? The Underground Railroad isn't about doing mazes and worksheets! The kids need to begin to think about how frightening it would be to be a slave choosing to escape and depend on the help of strangers. Or to consider if they really would have helped out as a white person when it was so much easier and safer to look the other way. I don't really think we can appreciate historical heroes without understanding a little of how much courage it took to stand up to injustice.

I haven't fully thought this out, and it's one in the morning, so I don't know if I'm making much sense. I guess, given the kids I work with, I want them to understand how much people sacrificed for them. I want Black History Month to be more powerful - and to be all year long - which I think won't happen if they don't know more about the legacy of unbelievably brave people standing up to unacceptable situations. I want them to be proud of their history, and I don't think runaway slave mazes are going to do it.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Class Pets!

Yes, those are lizards in my hair. We have anoles again. Four or five of them - I'm not sure, because - well, they camouflage. And I haven't looked that closely. But they are again a very big hit and again seem to have an affinity for being on the top of people's heads. The kids love to hold them, watch them, feed them, and watch them breathe (when they breathe, you can see the outline of their tiny little ribs). They (the kids, not the lizards) also love to talk about how much the anoles love them. The poor little animals are probably scared to death if they feel any emotion at all, but I'm very happy to have the kids think they are loved by lizards or by anyone else.

We haven't named this batch yet. The last batch included one anole named "Jumpy" and one named after me. No kidding, in the last 6 years, I've had fish, lizards, birds, a rabbit and many dolls named after me. Almost a dog too. Almost. That would have been too much.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The End of an Era

The Mother's Cookies factory in our city is closing.

The bakery and distribution center have been in this neighborhood (on 81st Ave, right by a crack house if I have my streets right) for 92 years. All sorts of Oakland officials are sad to see the iconic factory go because it's been a part of Oakland's history for so long. And because it cuts jobs.

We will notice because one of the few constants since I've been at this school is the smell of Mother's Cookies. About twice a week, the morning air smells just like what you'd imagine Circus Animal cookies baking smells like, only stronger. The kids walk around sniffing and saying how good it smells, while any adults who are not aware of the factory's close proximity are really confused as to why the air smells like cookies. Very very strongly.

It's a little sad - over the last seven years principals have come and gone, over 120 teachers have left, we've lost teachers' aides, the projects have been rebuilt, kids move away, cafeteria workers and janitors get reassigned, we've had three district superintendents, and two playground renovations... but you could always count on the air smelling like cookies at least twice a week. Although I never really liked the smell, I'm going to miss it.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Dark Angel

Meet Dark Angel. Dark Angel is not his real name; it's his boxing name. He is a professional middleweight (I think) boxer and the father of one of my former students. (Hence the poster in the photos - never thought I'd have a boxing poster up in my classroom!) He is also one of the best fathers I have seen in my almost 7 years teaching in Oakland.

His daughter is now in fifth grade, at ten and a half years old. She is almost as tall as me, beautiful, intelligent, talented, and confident. I've known her since she was in first grade and have been privileged to see the time and care her dad invests in her. She still comes to visit me every day - sometimes she helps out, sometimes she comes to talk, and sometimes she comes to do her own research for her fifth-grade reports. One day, when she had a substitute and I had lost my voice, she ran my class (efficiently!) for two hours. She gave and corrected a spelling test, she answered all the third graders' questions, and she kept them on task.

I was able to have a conversation with her father last week about how well she's doing. I mentioned that she's become the star of the basketball team and seems to be a very talented athlete in general, possibly taking after her father. He said that he's happy that she likes sports, but academics is the most important thing, and as long as she focuses on her academics, she can play all the sports she wants. He said that he tell her it doesn't matter what grades she gets - as long as she's doing her best, he'll be so proud of her, no matter what her grades. (Any wonder she's getting top grades?) He goes to all her games, all her speeches, and is at school at least 3 times a week to check on her, help her teacher, see what's going on at the school, whatever. Every time I talk to him, he tells me how much he loves his daughter and how he prays for her to be able to succeed. Then he usually starts thanking me for everything I've done for her. Which is very very little compared to the value of having this kind of relationship with her father.

The first thing you'd notice about this girl is her smile. Although she's lived in East Oakland her whole life, her parents aren't married, she faces a lot of the same problems the other kids face, she has the most joyful smile I've ever seen and she smiles a lot. I don't worry about this one. Once you see her smile, you know she's going to be OK, which is not an assurance I feel about most of my kids. It's amazing what having a loving dad in your life can do.