Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Elmo and Gang Signs

Tickle Me Elmo hands?

OK, whatever, I find Tickle Me Elmo vaguely creepy, but in this shot from the commercial, it appears that the thing to do with Tickle Me Elmo hands is to throw up gang signs in the 'hood? Except it's the 'hood with Elmo and big fluffy Elmo hands? Two of those kids definitely have the gang sign posture.

I have a picture of my first graders my first year of teaching complete with gang signs which I didn't realize until after the photos were developed. Freaked me out a little, as a 24-year old teacher. I'll have to find that one.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


I'm going through about four years of writing and making sure links still work, editing, etc. Only, it's really slow going because I didn't realize how emotional is would still be for me.

Some of it I really miss. I miss beautiful, funny, intelligent students who are just starting to think critically like this girl. I miss funny stories with deeper meanings about how the kids think I'm black. I miss their amazing descriptive writing - how do you beat "My dog smells like junk"? Oh, and crackers sound like rocks when they break; have you ever noticed? I miss students being able to come into my classroom in fourth and fifth grade to visit. Or coming to visit from middle school or high school. I miss the incredible relationships that can happen with students' families regardless of all socioeconomic and racial differences only after they really really get that I love their kids.

Some of it is a relief. I'm not tired all the time. (Well, I am because of my cough, but it's different). I don't have my heart broken on a daily basis because of what the kids have had to go through. I'm not spending a ton of money that I don't have on school supplies.

But I'll never forget all of these things. I'll never forget the many times I've had to call child protective services and why. I'll never forget kids putting their heads down and saying "You can't help me, nobody can help me. I should just die." I'll never forget getting notes saying "Tricia couldn't do her homework because the gangs was shooting and we was hiding in the bathtub." I'll never forget kids asking me why their dad doesn't love them or why drugs make their mom forget she has a family. Or seeing the meanest, hardest, dirtiest, rudest kid in the third grade care for a rat in the way that the child should have been cared for.

And now I can't do anything to help those kids. I'm working with my two kids I work with, and I am not underestimating that. That is one tough situation and takes a lot of energy and perseverance. And I know I can't save kids - there's a part in the Bible where God says "I am the Lord and apart from me there is no Savior." I remember how exhausted I was for eight years and how very very sick I got at the end. But there are kids who need to be helped and it hurts my heart that I can't do more.

Everyone knows the sappy story about the little boy who goes walking on the beach after a big storm or something and sees thousands of starfish washed up on the beach. He starts picking them up and flinging them back into the ocean (except aren't starfish tidepool dwellers? Am I overthinking this?) when a cynical adult comes along. The cynical adult says something like, "There are thousands of starfish. You'll never make a difference." The kid says something like "But I've made a difference to this starfish."

Sweet. Heart-warming. But there are so many starfish left. And kids aren't starfish. The starfish, as far as I know, aren't suffering emotionally, even if they dry out and die. The kids suffer. The kids learn that they are unlovable, unworthy, and have no chance of success. They learn to hate themselves more than anyone else could ever hate them. And I don't think I've gotten most of them back in the water - maybe closer, but not all the way in.

That's why I write this blog. Maybe if people see how many starfish are still washed up, they'll help throw them back. Maybe people will see each of these kids as a person and think about how that teenage thug that looks scary with his hoodie and his pants down to his knees and his thug friends was a little boy, and maybe a little boy who asked me why his dad didn't love him. If enough people can see that, maybe it will make a little tiny difference.

Monday, September 21, 2009

But Those People Have Such Funny Names

It's always nice when someone else writes a post for me. So much less work than doing it myself.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Letter to a Juvenile Delinquent

Dear "Jorge,"

I've known you since you were 8 years old. You have always been a very special kid and there are many people who love you and want to help you. Your second grade teacher cares very much about you and put you in my class specially because she knew that you were a smart, good kid and she believed in you. You were the only kid in my third grade class who I gave my phone number to because I trusted you and I wanted to help you if you were in trouble. Both Mr. Smith and I love you like you were our own kid.

I know that you're really really angry right now and you feel out of control and like nothing is fair and like you're going to explode. You have seen some horribly messed up things and you had a lot of time when you were just a little kid and no one was taking care of you. Nobody should have had to live through some of the things you've lived through. We can't change that. But right now, there are people who want to help you and you won't let us.

Think about it - who knows what jail is like? Your friends or your mom? Your mom has been there and she's scared of you going because she knows how bad it is. And you know that both skipping school and not getting your court date are both things that will make sure you go to juvie. Staying in school and doing well is something that the judge might consider and let you off more easily.

And who knows what it's like to get a job as an adult? Who knows how important school is? I went to college and worked really hard and that's why I got to choose which job I wanted. Mr. Smith waited a little longer and tried to get good jobs but found out that he had to get more education to do the job he wanted. He worked hard and now he has a job that he likes and that you have said you would like. Your mom and grandma didn't get to have that kind of education and they want you to be able to live better than them when you are grown. I think that you know that too but you're so mad that you want to keep fighting us and not doing what we think is a good idea.

I am so proud of you when you make decisions that are good for yourself that will make your life better. You worked so hard at your new school last year and you looked happy and liked learning. I think you could do that again this year but you're the only one who can do it. When you make decisions that you know are bad and you know will hurt you, I am so sad. I'm sad not for myself, but because I want your life to get better, not worse.

Jorge, you have so many people who care about you and want to help you. Your mom, your grandma, me, Mr. Smith, Ms. W., Mr. G., all the people at your school last year, all the people at your school this year, and all the people at camp this summer want you to be happy and be able to do what you want. That's a LOT of people wanting good things for you! You have had really bad things happen to you, but we really want to help you turn that around. Only, we can't do that when you fight us.

Can you please do me a favor? Can you think about who it is in your life who has been around the longest and showed the most that they cared about you? Can you not listen to your friends or even your girlfriend, just for a minute, but listen to the people who have known you since you were a little kid and always wanted good things for you?

Remember I said that once you start making good decisions, you can do things like choose your own school, get a job, and all the other things you want to do? We are waiting for you to make those good decisions every day. Your school has more help for you than almost any other school. Camp wants to pay for you to come back.

Please think about what you really want and call me if you're ready to start trying to change things and make them better. You know that I would do anything for you but I can't help you unless you start wanting help.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Oh, another example

I can't believe I almost forgot the best guilt-inducing story!

Well, first there's my personal one about being very very sick.

Then there was a coworker of mine. Really good teacher and experienced. She cared about her kids. When she'd have to take time off (which was rare) she was very well-prepared and made sure the kids had the best possible experience.

Her mother-in-law, with whom she was extremely close, was horribly burned in a house fire. The teacher flew back East to be with her, which was the right thing to do, especially as the burns turned out to be fatal. A pretty horrible way to die, and she lingered for a few days in massive pain. The teacher called the principal and explained the situation and how important it was that she be there for her funeral, and how upset she was. The principal assured her that nothing was more important than family and that she take all the time she need. He/she (don't want identifying factors! I've only had 8 principals, you might figure it out) was very sweet.

Two weeks later, the teacher got back. The principal came to observe her less than an hour after she got back in the classroom. Now, you teachers are already appalled. Right? A formal observation less than an hour after coming back from not only a personal tragedy but two weeks of the kids having a sub? Everyone knows you have to have at least a day to get the kids back to being used to you and get over being mad for you leaving. She asked him if she could reschedule and he said something about well, if she hadn't been out for so long... Compassion over.

I'm so glad I've visited some other schools and heard about good things so far this year. Schools like this make me not quite lose all my hope in this district.


I tore a muscle (coughing) in my side so this won't be long. But it reminded me of trying to teach on crutches. I sprained my ankle in my 5th year teaching and had to be put on crutches for a few weeks. I didn't get workers' comp even though it happened at school because it was my own dumb fault. I tried my best to teach on crutches (almost impossible to teach 3rd grade on crutches). I took as few days off as possible.

However, one should never underestimate the guilt trip potential of educational administrators. If you're sick and you take a day off, you are sometimes told to get better but more often than not asked if you're really sick and if you really need that time off. (people in other districts have experience with that or no?)

So, I tried to schedule all my doctor's appointments for after school but of course we had meetings. So sometimes I had to choose between missing school and missing a meeting (always miss the meeting if possible). Which then entitled me to a lecture about how I really needed to be committed to these kids. When, by the way, I was the (at that point) second teacher in seniority at age 28. Right. No commitment to the kids.

Also, the administration wouldn't help me with anything. I still had to teach PE on crutches (no matter that there were teachers who volunteered to do it for me). I still had to walk them across the playground (the big empty "playground") even though there were teachers and aides who would do it for me. And when I did take a couple of days off because I was experiencing so much pain in my arms and back from trying to do everything on crutches, I got another nice lecture.

Anyone else have experience with this or was this just my school/district?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


Another killing in this city.

Which by the way, lasted one day on the front page. Really? I'm sorry to continue sounding cynical, but if this had been a white 17 year old girl it would still be on the front page and people would be shocked. But then, if Hurricane Katrina had hit a mostly white area, that would have been dealt with differently as well.

If it gives me any more credibility, up until I began to work in the inner city I would have been adamant that race had nothing to do with media coverage and that people didn't value black kids less. I think I was wrong.

I have advice for anyone who's going to tell me that race has nothing to do with media coverage and people don't value black kids less, or any version of of course she was killed, what was her family thinking living there (yes, people say that, like she deserved it).

My advice:

Don't open your mouth if you have no experience with it.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

He Ain't Supposed to Be in My Class

Actually, it was "He ain't posta be in my class," but that looks a little confusing until you read it aloud.

The segregation stories of today are about tracking. If you aren't in the education field, you may be unfamiliar with tracking. It can either refer to tracking kids by ability: the college prep track, for example, or by some other means, often language. The laws now on who can have their children educated in which language in California are very complicated and I don't pretend to understand them. Although I don't believe that Ron Unz, who started the instruction in English-only thing resulting in Prop 227 knows anything about elementary education or bilingual education. But I digress.

The school I worked at used to be severely overcrowded, resulting in roving teachers, and students without assigned classrooms. Only 3/4 of the school was in session at any one time, and 1/4 of the kids didn't have an assigned classroom, but used whichever classrooms were vacant at the time.

Not only was this a recipe of confusion and disaster (every teacher out there knows how important it is to have your own space, your own classroom, to set up the way you feel is best for the students. The other thing all teachers know is that teachers don't share well. At least, they don't share their space well. But I digress. See the link in the previous paragraph if you want to read the roving teacher rant.

The school was divided into four tracks. Track A was "Other Asian/sheltered* classroom," Track B was "English Only" (and somewhat irreverently called the "Black Track" - not PC but true), Track C was the Vietnamese language track and Track D was the Spanish language track. Fortunately, this system only lasted for my first year.

I would imagine that most people can see the inherent problems in this. After all, wasn't it over 50 years ago that the US Supreme Court decided that separate wasn't equal? When I pointed out to the principal that year that I was uncomfortable with the kids being segregated by race, she said, like it made sense, "They're not segregated by race, they're segregated by language!" Really? When was the last time you met a black kid who spoke Vietnamese?

So most of these kids had never been in a classroom with children who looked different from them, with the exception of the Vietnamese kids, who had some black kids in their track because there wasn't a high enough Vietnamese enrollment any longer. My second year of teaching, the kids were more mixed. There were still Spanish language classes and English-only classes, and sheltered classes, but all the kids went to school together. Furthermore, in the sheltered classes, there were usually a mix of ES and English-only kids. I got most of the Spanish-speaking kids whose parents didn't want them in a Spanish-language class because I could communicate with the parents.

On the first day of school, two kids walked in the door at about the same time. One was black - we'll call him "Mark," and one was Latino - let's call him "Fernando." Mark looked at Fernando and didn't say a word, but punched him in the nose. Hard. Blood got all over the classroom floor (a great visual for parents dropping off their kids on the first day) and Fernando cried. As I tried to clean up the blood (we'll talk later about why the custodians didn't clean it up), I asked Mark why he did that. His response? "He ain't posta be in my class."

I tried to understand - "Why is he not supposed to be in your class? And why does that mean you hit him?"

Mark answered: "He's Mexican. Ain't supposed to be no Mexicans in my class."

That was enough for him.

*Sheltered classrooms are for mainly English language learners, and use specific teaching techniques for the students to have basic comprehension of the material.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Segregation in the Schools

I recently heard a woman interviewed on the radio. I forget her name, but she was part of the Little Rock Nine - the group of students who were the first black students at Little Rock Central High School and the subject of many protests and threats. I knew that the US National Guard was sent to protect the students, but I hadn't realized that the Arkansas National Guard was first deployed to keep them out of the school, until Eisenhower sent the US National Guard. I can't imagine what it must have been like to try to go to school and have one set of troops trying to keep you out and another trying to get you in.

But I can imagine segregated schools. Actually, I don't have to. I worked at one for 8 years. In California. In the 21st century. It wasn't segregated by law; it was what is called de facto segregation. Or to quote the students, "Ain't no white kids." They didn't mean just in the school, they meant ain't no white kids anywhere near. The city I worked in is extremely segregated. You have the flatlands, which are near I-880 (where the air is the worst because the trucks can go on that freeway), and the hills, which are usually above I-580 (no trucks on that one - heaven forbid the hills air should be contaminated). There are also the in-between areas, which I don't think have a name.

In the hills, you find white children, and a few Asians. There may be black or Latino families who live in the hills, but I've never heard of them. The schools tend to be mostly white, and there are very few children who don't speak English as a second language. And their test scores are much higher.

In the flatlands, you don't find white kids. You find black kids, Latino kids, and Asian kids (mostly Southeast Asian). I think my school fluctuated but usually had about half and half black and Latino kids - with some Asians. There used to be a much higher Vietnamese population but not as much now. But there aren't any white kids.

In the in-between areas, I think it's pretty mixed. I really only have firsthand knowledge about the flatlands, so that's what I'm going to stick to.

There aren't any white people. Except for social workers and teachers, of course, who usually don't last long. After I was there for two years, I was totally accepted because I had been there "forever." The lack of white people is so extreme that the following exchange took place when I was teaching first grade:

First student: There are three kinds of kids.

Me: What are the three kinds of kids?

First student: There's black kids, Chinese kids*, and Mexican kids**.

Second student: What about white kids?

First student: Silly, there's no white kids. There's only white teachers.


But the thing is, she was right. There were some very light-skinned Latino kids, who could pass for white but definitely do not identify as such. There were two white kids once; they were Bosnian refugees.

Same class - my first year of teaching - on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We were talking about the civil rights movement, etc., specifically desegregation of schools. One of the kids looked very confused and said, "But black kids don't go to school with white kids." She had never seen it.

I have two more stories for tomorrow on this theme.

*In first grade, to these kids, all Asians are Chinese. The funny thing is that I don't think any of the Asian kids at the school were actually Chinese. Cambodian, Tongan, Samoan, Vietnamese, Laotian, Hmong... but not Chinese.

**In first grade, to these kids, all Latinos are Mexican. They were mostly Mexican, but there were also Guatemalans, Salvadorians, Nicaraguans, Cubans, etc.