Monday, June 26, 2006


I'm going to Mexico for two weeks to visit my good friends (second family) who run an orphanage there. In honor of that, I thought I'd share a little essay one of the kids wrote:

My dad told me about when he was a soldier in Mexico. When he was a
soldier he went on a helicopters to go where they told them to go and keep mexico safe from other armys. He told me his life as a soldier. He said life as a soldier wasn't easy so he said don't go to the army.

soldado means soldier in spanish. for my little mexico.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Surviving By Meanness

One of my kids from last year, Juan, was knocked off his bike while he was riding to the store and thrown on the ground. The kid is ten years old, and he now has a black eye and a puffed-up lip, and his whole face generally looks like he was in a prize fight. He says the boys who did it were teenagers and that there wasn't a reason for it. He's scared but doesn't want to show that so he's just acting a lot meaner.

I want to find the teenagers that did it and get them arrested or beat them up or something. Until I remember that they're not that much older than him and the exact thing probably happened to them. And that I can see in Juan's eyes that he's learning to do the same thing to smaller kids and he'll probably end up right in the same position. Then I just want to cry, because he's figured out that to survive in his neighborhood, he has to be mean. There are a lot of characteristics inherent in this child - he is creative, loving, loyal, and hardworking. He is not mean. But you better believe he's going to learn to be, in order to survive. Just like a lot of the older kids around him, meanness is going to become a quality that defines him.

Free Lunch

Question for you all: I've been told (usually by liberals) that there are people "out there" (usually said to be "those Republicans") who want to do away with the elementary school free lunch program because it's not effective or because it's demeaning. Anyone else heard this? Is it true? Could people really think it's ineffective or demeaning??? Am I listening to crazy people?

Last week of school... finally...

Thursday, June 15, 2006


Number of School Days Left (with kids): 4
Number of School Days Left (for teachers): 5
Number of Total Days Until School's Out: 7

Number of Lockdowns So Far This Year at School: 3
Total Number of Lockdowns Covered by the Media: 0*
Total Number of Lockdowns Effectively Dealt with By Police (in my opinion): 0*

Population of Oakland (2000 Census): 399,484
Total Number of Homicides in Oakland in 2006: 61
Number of Homicides in Oakland in 2005 (at this point in the year): 35
High School Graduation Rate of Oakland Public School Students: 35%

*To be editorialized upon in a future post.

Lockdown today - a little frightening and frustrating, although everything turned out all right.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Exploratorium, Continued

Actually, this is the after the Exploratorium part...

As it turns out, these kids have never been to the beach, except once with another teacher. So we were planning on taking them to Ocean Beach. I asked if they wanted to build sandcastles, and the older one said, "I don't know how to build a sandcastle." They didn't know how to build a sandcastle! We had to stay there for a while - building sandcastles (is that one word or two?), digging moats, writing their names in the sand, racing with Austin (my brother, who met us there).

After we all finally became exhausted, we drove home. At this point, Warren asked me if they were going to get dinner. They called home and the answer was no, so Warren stopped to buy them dinner. If he hadn't, it would have been a hard call for me because I want to take care of them in the worst way, but I had already spent a lot of money on them that day, and it's hard to know where to draw the line.

I was very grateful - not just for the time and money a friend of mine was willing to spend on kids who he had never met before, but for the bigger picture. I have been so blessed this year by people who have no responsibility for my kids but want to get involved. I'm sure that Warren had other things he could have been doing on a Saturday, but he was totally there with the kids - playing, explaining, and generally making them feel special. He hasn't been the only one this year. I'm going to be writing a lot more (as soon as I have time!) about our wonderful athlete volunteers, about Ameshia my intern who signed on for an extra semester without school credit, Ellen who prays for and volunteers with the kids, sitting with the most difficult one to make a card, my brother and sister who both came to see how this class was and what they were like, Anna who chaperoned a field trip that no parents came to, Kathy who comes in once a week - and her visits are the highlight of the kids weeks! Also all the people who pray for the kids, who write to them (when our Internet connection works), who donate stuff, or even wonder how the kids are doing.

The thing that astounds me about all these people is that none of them have any responsibility for these kids. They are all choosing to be a part of the kids' lives in a direct or indirect way out of the goodness of their hearts and because they value the kids - without even knowing them - and that is a radical difference from what these kids are used to. It makes me believe that there's some hope for these kids still, and that God is showing me - and hopefully them - that he will provide people to care for them, even if it is not the people who are supposed to be doing it. So, if you are any of these people, just know that you are making a difference - absolutely, no doubt in my mind!

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Exploratorium

A few weeks ago, Warren and I took a couple of kids to the Exploratorium in San Francisco. The kids are brothers: Jorge and Luis (not their real names, but what I call them), finishing up 4th and 1st grade, respectively. Jorge was in my class last year. He is an incredible, intelligent, beautiful child who has the misfortune of being the most responsible "adult" in his family. His father is somewhere else and his mother is generally either in rehab, jail, or living with whoever her current boyfriend is. His grandmother is officially taking care of him, but she's pretty hands-off as far as child raising (and by the way, is only 40 years old - grandmother of an about to be 11 year old). She also doesn't speak any English and is illiterate in English and Spanish. Jorge is the oldest of four children.

All this means that Jorge is in charge of signing all forms (his grandma can't write her own name), dealing with everyone over the telephone, getting his brother and himself to school and through school, and often feeding himself and his siblings. He carries tension that no 10-year old should have - you can see it in his face and how he carries his head and shoulders. He also worries about his mother. I think she was 15 when she had him and he adores her, and also feels responsible for her. One day he told me he had stayed up all night because she had gotten in the car drunk and not come home, and he didn't know if she was hurt, in jail, sleeping somewhere else, or dead. He tried all night to figure out if he should call the police or if that would get her in more trouble. I told him to memorize my phone number and call me - any time of the day or night - if he's ever in a dangerous situation and needs a way out. He's the only child I've ever told that to - partly because I know he'll only call if he really needs to, and partly because something just makes him different for me.

Anyway, we took the two of the to the Exploratorium and it was tons of fun for all four of us. Two adults to two children is the perfect ratio, especially because the two boys moved at such different paces. The 7-year old wanted to run from exhibit to exhibit (which he called "games") and the 10-year old wanted to spend time at each exhibit, asking questions and determining how each of them worked. I mostly stayed with the little one, while Warren patiently explained things to the older one - I think they were pretty equally intrigued by a lot of the exhibits.If you've never been to the Exploratorium, they have all kinds of things - light, sound, engines, cows' eyes, weather, water, colors, optical illusions, everything a kid could ever want to play with and learn from. We stayed there until we were all completely saturated.

Then we fed the ducks outside (these kids don't get to do fun kid things much, so everything is new and exciting for them). After that, we decided we wanted ice cream and went in search of that. They were easy to please - Jorge wanted vanilla and Luis wanted chocolate (which he pronounced carefully with three syllables: "Choc-o-late). We ended up at Mel's in San Francisco, where they got their ice cream and I got a chocolate Coke. (All three boys decided that it was a weird girl thing to want chocolate Coke.) They learned to use jukeboxes, and got to color all over the paper placemats with the crayons provided.

It's my bedtime, but I'll continue the story tomorrow because it was a really special day with these kids!

Recycled Sculpture

We went on a field trip last week to MOCHA (Museum of Children's Art) in downtown Oakland. MOCHA is a great place - I haven't looked into where they get their funding or anything, but I've taken about 7 or 8 field trips there in my time teaching here, and each one has been a thoroughly positive experience, with teachers who know art and know children. Also, with all the focus on reading and writing in school, we're barely teaching math - you're not about to see art in schools. The kids thrive even just during a one-hour class. It's obvious that they need art.

MOCHA offers a variety of classes. I have in the past taken kids to book making, color theory, clay sculpture, painting, and this time we did recycled sculpture. I think this one is my favorite. Each child gets a hot glue gun, a pressed wood base, and access to all sorts of recycled materials: water bottles, wood pieces, crocheted fruits, cinnamon sticks, pine cones, plastic tops, and things that I couldn't identify.

This field trip was a resounding success because for an hour and a half, the kids just glued and created. They didn't glue each other, they didn't burn each other with hot glue guns, they didn't throw things at each other, put each other down, or even call their own sculptures stupid. We did have problems getting the sculptures back on BART - next time, I need to get a chaperone to drive to MOCHA just to get the sculptures back unbroken. The kids got many, many compliments from passers-by. I think there's some hidden talent in my class!

One of my biggest regrets was that I had to leave children at school. Three children acted up so badly during the few days before the trip that I couldn't bring them. One of them - let's call him 'Alan' - completely fell apart all week, and the other two got into fights the day before. I only had two chaperones (three other parents canceled last minute), so I just didn't feel that it was safe to bring children who needed an adult all to themselves. Especially on raised BART platforms: electric third rail and all that.

Alan is a child I worry about. I looked in his file today and say that when he was born, his mother was 15 and his father was 17. Also, they've been chronically homeless, and he's been 'habitually truant' each year since kindergarten. He's got a lot of odds against him. He usually refuses to do work, and when I sit with him and try to work one-on-one, he just repeats that he hates himself. One time he said it again, "I really hate myself." I said something like, "I know what it's like to feel bad about yourself sometimes." He looked at me more seriously than I've ever seen him and said, "Not sometimes, all the time." It shut me up. I'm hoping to bring him on the field trip next week. I have several friends who are volunteering to chaperone, and one of them - who knows this kid and knows what he (the friend) is getting into - has volunteered to have just Alan in his group. A group of one. And trust me, that's going to be the hardest group on the whole field trip.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

What's Normal To You...

The remarkable thing about my students – or any students from an area like this, I suppose – is what they consider normal. We went to a park downtown (to eat lunch after a field trip), and when it was time to clean up, I said that each kid had to pick up their own trash and ten extra pieces. Then I clarified that they were to leave the beer cans and the cigarette butts. They looked at me strangely, because they didn’t seem to see anything wrong with picking up beer cans and cigarette butts. In fact, a few of them kept picking up the cigarettes even though I kept telling them not to. But the leaves and sticks freaked them out. Almost every child came up to me with a leaf or a stick and asked, “Does this count as trash?” “No, that’s nature.” “Teacher, how that nature? That trash!"

Thursday, June 01, 2006


I don't remember what time I went to bed when I was eight years old, but I feel like it was some reasonable time, like before nine o'clock. The trend with my students seems to be that they are in charge of setting their own bedtime. Think about it. What eight year old in their right mind will go to bed any earlier than one a.m.? Especially when there's wrestling to be seen... There are not words to express how much I dislike WWE.

For anyone who wants to support Stephanie in going to the People to People Forum in April - here's the website where you can learn more. Any amount helps - she has to have the majority of the money in by the end of July or something like that... email me for where to send the check. You'd be helping a really incredible girl.