Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Beautiful Christmas in the Ghetto

My Christmas was pleasant but fairly uneventful, except for one thirty-minute period. That period of time probably would have seemed uneventful to most people but to me, it was a beautiful Christmas miracle.

The kids that my friend and I work with, who have had such a hard, hard year, have been sort of MIA for the last few weeks. We've tried to take them out to eat and set up the times, only to have them flake. One of them changed his cell phone number so he was impossible to get ahold of.  And rude when we did get ahold of him. The other only answered when he wanted. They go through this sometimes, so I didn't think much of it, except to be a little annoyed when I drove across town to get them and they weren't there.  I have no idea if they're going to school or really anything else about what's going on right now.  I'm pretty constantly worried about them but try not to because there's nothing I can do.

We thought for a while about what to get them for Christmas.  They're 11 and 14 now, which is a hard age to buy for if you don't have much money to spend  (which I don't) and they're kind of in between toys and adult.  I wasn't sure that anything we got them would be received well.  We finally decided on McDonald's and In-N-Out gift certificates, because although that is not helpful to their health, it will make them happy.  And we take happiness where we can find it with these kids.  At the last minute, my friend got ahold of two remote-controlled cars and brought them along.  I was skeptical that the cars would be received well because I thought the boys would be in their "we're too grown and cool for that baby stuff" mode.  I was even more nervous because the younger kid kept texting us asking where his presents were so I thought it would be way overblown and he'd be disappointed.

We picked up one kid and drove him a few blocks to his auntie's house.  The older boy was there.  They are so tall now - the older one is almost as tall as me (and I'm 5'8") and the younger one is growing tall and slimming down.  They are also both heart-breakingly beautiful (I'd never say that to their faces!) with deep brown eyes that are hard to look away from.  It's easy to forget sometimes - especially with the older kid - when their faces look so hard, but they are beautiful children. 

The older kid came out of his auntie's house and said everyone was asleep.  We decided to do the presents right there in front of the apartment building in the ghetto in the dark.  The kids got the remote control cars and did what any brothers would do - started driving the cars into each other.  The cars went in the road  and fell off the curb and crashed into each other - and eventually the older kid realized he was trying to control the wrong car which led to all sorts of hilarity.  Then we gave them the Christmas cards with the gift certificates.  The kids read every word of the Christmas cards - I could see them moving their lips - and asked if they really got to get food from McDonald's and In-N-Out.  The younger one said "How'd you know I like McDonald's?!?" like we had just read his mind.  The kid's only been asking for McDonald's every time we saw him for the last four years...

Then, we gave the kids the gingerbread houses.  A friend had made them and bought the decorations, having a bunch of people over for a decorating party.  We had a couple of extras to bring to the boys but a dog (not mine!) ate those.  So, I decided to bring the decorated houses to the boys along with extra frosting and candy so they could make another layer if they wanted.

They took all the loot inside and a few minutes later, we got a text from the older boy asking if we could make a gingerbread mansion.  A gingerbread mansion!  That is not a tough mean kid from the ghetto waiting to go to juvie talking.  That is the kid I know and have known for 7 years.  That is the kid getting to be a kid - wanting candy and wanting to make a giant gingerbread house.  This kid - who has left me voice mails cursing me out more than once, who has hung up on me, who has told me to get out of his life, who has been arrested probably more times than I know about, who stole his mom's car and went drunk driving - texted me and said "Thank you for the gifts."  That thank you - which definitely didn't come because his mom told him to - meant more to me than any thank you note I've ever gotten.

Then he told me he was eating the gingerbread houses and could we please make a mansion gingerbread house.  I wish there was a good way to explain how happy that made me, and how beautiful it was to see him crashing his toy car into his brother's car and looking honestly content, happy, and at peace, just for a minute.

When he gets up tomorrow, he probably won't be thinking about gingerbread mansions.  He'll probably be worrying about how his mom will make enough money for food and if she's going to get drunk and if he's going to go to juvie and if his girlfriend is pregnant.  None of which a 14-year old should worry about, but all of which they very commonly do worry about, at least in this neighborhood.  But now I've seen the loving side of him again, even if just for a minute.  I think that will get me through another six months of his heartbreaking, justified anger and despair, because I know that he has good memories too, and that he knows that there are people who love him.

And I'll plan on helping him with that gingerbread mansion.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Difference 20 Years Makes - Guest Blog

Guest post from Matthew Goebel.  I'm looking for guest bloggers - if you have any opinions or experiences regarding education to share, please let me know!
 I live and work in the Bay Area of California.  I have a ten year-old daughter who lives with her mother in Kentucky where I grew up.  Recently I had the privilege of taking my daughter to and picking her up from her elementary school in Waco, Kentucky.  Waco is a very small town outside of Richmond, Kentucky, which isn’t a large town either.  Most of the area is rural.  Richmond has Eastern Kentucky University which doubles the population of the town when it’s in session. 
As I think back to when I was in elementary school I am shocked at how trusted I was to get to school, come home and do homework.  My mom and dad sent me off in the morning, rain, snow or shine to walk the 7-8 blocks to the school.  No questions asked, we were allowed onto school property and into the school.  Classes started at 8 A.M. and we were out of school by 3 P.M.  The same hike home and we’d do our homework then play the day away.  The silly thing is, we-meaning myself, my brothers and ALL of our friends did this very thing.  Five days a week, from mid August to the last week of May. 
The week before Thanksgiving week this year, I was staying at my parents’ house with my daughter.  Mom and  Dad live a good 15 miles away from my daughter’s  school, so there would be no walking to school for her.  (Her mother lives about the same distance in the opposite direction.)  Parents can choose to send their child to any of the public schools in Madison County.  If a child is going to a school outside the bussing district for that school it is up to the parent to deliver and pick up the child or get the child to a bus stop within the bussing district for that school.  My ex does just that, she drives my daughter daily to a bus stop inside the bussing district for Waco Elementary and then waits for the bus to arrive.  Then she picks her up from the same spot in the afternoon.
If you don’t want to do that, then you must be to the school by a certain time before class starts so you can “check in” your child.  What this means is at 7:20 A.M. I was in line (only of about 20 cars) with other parents waiting for the front doors to open so that I could let the school officials see my daughter get out of my car and enter the school.  There was a woman at the doors checking that every parent matched the child.  The car at the front of the line would let their child out after getting the confirmation from the school official that they had seen you and your child.  Then the next car in line would pull up to the front doors and repeat the process. 
 We didn’t have to be in that early if we really didn’t want to be.  We could have shown up at 7:40 A.M. and she could have gone straight to class instead of having a school provided breakfast of cereal and milk, a piece of fruit and maybe some OJ. 
Before I was even allowed to drop my daughter off at school I had to go after school was out to meet the principle, her teacher and the school officials who would be at the entrance to the school confirming my presence and there for taking custody and responsibility of my daughter.  I also had to have someone other than my daughter (and preferably someone they knew) say to them-Yes that’s her father. 
The afternoon pick up was much the same.  I got into line at 2:45 P.M. and waited until 3 for the doors to open.  Then all the children who were being picked up came out and waited for their parent to pull up so they could get in the car.  Once again, it was after visual I.D. that the child was even allowed to approach the car. It is amazing how unrelaxed we are after twenty years.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Stuffed Animals

There are several much more serious stories I was going to share, but I'm not in the mood to be made sad tonight, so I'll tell you all about the stuffed animals.  This is a post that needs images so someday when I have or borrow a working scanner, I will add the photos.

A few years into teaching, I joined Freecyle.  For those of you who don't know Freecycle, it's a group of people in any given community who are on an email list to get rid of their old stuff and get stuff from other people.  It's a fabulous form of recycling. Somebody posted that they had a huge bag of stuffed animals in good condition to give away and I decided to grab it for my class.

I thought that some of the kids would like the stuffed animals, but I certainly didn't think they'd all be into them.  Kids grow up really fast in that neighborhood, and when you have six-year olds talking about how they walk to school alone because their parents say they're "grown," and how they're going to jump other kids, you certainly don't expect them to want a stuffed animal.

I laid out the stuffed animals on the carpet where we have storytime, and each kid got to pick a number.  That number determined the order in which they got to choose the toys.  These kids were so excited.  They didn't even fight about the order because they were so happy at the prospect of picking out a stuffed animal.

There were all sorts of stuffed animals.  Big fluffy teddy bears and lions, little fish, turtles, and cats, giraffes, everything.  Each kid had a favorite and they actually didn't fight.  There were a couple times where a child said "Oh, I wanted that one... but I like this one even better!"  Everyone named their animal and put it on top of their desk for the rest of the day.

The love for the stuffed animals kept up for a while.  Some kids took theirs home and slept with them and told me all about how much they loved them and took care of them.  Some kids left theirs at school to stay on their desk or in their desk and keep them company during the school day.  Sometimes they gave them to me to take care of for an hour or two.  Sometimes they took them out to recess.  If they were nervous about tests, the stuffed animal sat on the desk with them.

It was amazing.  These kids grow up so fast and so inappropriately that it felt like some sort of miracle to see this kind of childlikeness in them. Kids who routinely hide in the closet or the bathtub because "the gangs be shooting" loving and caring for a stuffed animal was really beautiful.

So, thanks to the anonymous freecycler with the Hefty bag of stuffed animals. 

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Things You Hope You Never Hear From a Third Grader

1. "My mama says I need to bring energy drinks to school so I can have more energy!"
2. "I don't need no Kleenex."
3. "I don't have a bedtime cause I'm grown."
4. "My mama says I'm only in trouble cause you don't like black people.
5. [looking at a display of an exploded meth lab] "Hey!  That's my uncle's house!"
6. "The pee just came out!  I didn't know it was coming."
7. "He WANTED me to hit him!"
8. "But it was only a little bit of a stick and I really thought it would go over her head, honest!"*

and finally...

9. "Teacher, I don't feel so good..." ... "Hey, look, I can see what I ate for lunch!  Cool!"

*Thanks, Linda!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Reflections on Public Education

I stumbled across this blog just when the author was talking about her frustrations with her son's teacher.  She has written some very thought-provoking posts, and I would strongly, STRONGLY recommend reading this one.  Please.  It is thoughtful and she has the unique perspective of being a parent of a public school student as well as a former public school teacher in the inner city.

Let me preface this quote that I am going to share with saying that I have worked with many fantastic teachers.  I know teachers who are extremely gifted, dedicated, respectful, and just all-around wonderful.  One of my eight principals was incredible (and continues to be incredible, just in another district).  Most of the teachers I know spend lots of their own money, bring the children food when they need it, spend hours and hours and hours of unpaid time on preparation in order to do the best for their kids.  And, to these teachers, the students ARE "their kids."

But.  Then there's this.

In the previous school year, most of my 3rd grade students had had a teacher who ate in class and then SLEPT on her desk. No wonder they all failed! Some of the kids confessed to me that they'd stolen money out of this woman's wallet while she dozed on her desk. I was secretly glad that they did so because I was so angry that such an incompetent, shiftless and immoral person could appropriate the title of "teacher".

I wish I could say that this shocked me.  But I've worked with a few of these.  One of them was next door to my classroom (out in the portable classrooms which are on the yard so people hardly ever come near them) and would shriek (and I mean shriek) at her students: "Why are you so stupid?!  Stupid! Stupid!"  She let them have PE all the time so that she didn't have to teach and took at least a day off a week.  The kids would come into my classroom and literally tell me that they felt safe there.

Another one ran a catalog merchandise business from her classroom when she was supposed to be teaching.  She didn't like standing up (she was also extremely unhealthy which could have something to do with it) and generally ate her McDonald's lunch at her desk during math time. The kids often had coloring pages instead of work to do.

Those were definitely the exceptions, but there was always someone like that.  There shouldn't be that kind of exception.

More common were the people who had started off as good teachers and got jaded and cynical.  Which is very easy to do and I think I would have gotten there if I had stayed.  It is so easy to start thinking that the parents don't care, that the kids won't succeed, that that you're fighting a losing battle.  It is discouraging to see kids drop out in middle school, parents drop off their kids while they are drunk (the parents, not the kids), and to be cursed at when you try to tell a parent what is going on with their children.

However.  I learned a lot during my time teaching in this particular neighborhood.  The first thing is that parents do care.  They do.  But often, they can't deal with their own stuff, much less their children's.  Or they're working three jobs.  Or they're struggling with addiction and can't be a parent.  Or they had a kid at 13 and never knew what to do.  But it is absolutely unacceptable for any teacher to say that a parent doesn't care.  You don't know what they feel!  I'm sure I've been guilty of it when I've gotten frustrated and I wish someone had called me on it.

Also, children of different colors are treated differently by many, many teachers and administrators.  I don't think most people do it on purpose and I'll write a post soon about that.  But - and I'm saying this as a white person - I think that the blog author is not overreacting when she sometimes expresses concern that her black male children are not being treated the same as other children, or aren't getting the same quality of education.  Ten years ago, I would have thought that was a paranoid reaction.  It's true.

In addition, the behavior described above would not be tolerated in many schools.  It shouldn't be!  But it is in the inner-city.  I can't think of another reason except that all children are not valued the same.  Whether their parents are addicts or not, on welfare or high-powered attorneys, Black or White or Latino or Asian, educated or not, the children are valuable.  I think most people would agree with that sentiment, but it is not acted upon.  I wish I could fix that.  Any ideas?

The purpose of this post is not to make teachers look bad.  It's a difficult enough job that I quit at age 32.  But parents and teachers absolutely must work together, have communications, and have high standards for each other as well as the kids.  All kids. I don't know how to implement that.  If you have any ideas, please let me know.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Two Steps Forward...

...three steps back.

For the last 5-7 years, this district has had a major focus on "new small schools."  These small schools were going to totally transform the district (and may have done that if they had been given a chance) by offering smaller classes and schools with more parent-teacher-child interactions, less room to fall through the cracks, more ability and special programs to meet students' needs, etc.  Sometimes it felt like small schools were being pushed and rewarded at the expense of us larger, more traditional schools.  It was hard to hear the district administrators say that they didn't have money for whatever particular program/supplies we needed when I knew they were spending a lot more to start these new small schools.  Many larger schools were divided up into small schools since that was considered to be the best model.

Now the district has decided that small schools cost too much money.

According to staff’s calculations, the minimum number of students needed for a school to “break even” on its fixed costs and teacher salaries is 317 for elementary schools, 476 for middle schools and 602 for high schools. And that’s assuming average class sizes are 27, 32 and 32, which is about six students larger than the current averages.

Twenty-nine of the district’s elementary schools (48 percent), 12 of its middle schools (71 percent) and 15 of its high schools (83 percent) are smaller than that — in some cases, by design.

All that time, planning, and money spent on making small schools the focus of the district and now we're going to un-small them?  Many of them haven't even been in existence long enough to give them a fair trial.