Monday, August 30, 2010

Academic Language

In my previous post about "Chantal," I mentioned that she said she had never been to "no restaurant."  Actually, I think she may have said "I ain't never been to no restaurant."  A couple of people expressed surprise that a high school graduate who is now attending college would have said something that grammatically incorrect, and I realized that I haven't explained academic language.

While Chantal may not have received the best education (except in third grade, of course!), she did get an education, she did well in school, and she's a smart person.  I haven't seen her high school papers, but I'm sure she knows not to use double negatives or the word "ain't."  There's (probably) a difference between how she writes and how she speaks.

The interesting part about this is that many people are aware that there is a difference between Black English Vernacular ("ebonics") and academic language.  So we know that we need to teach black kids how to write and speak in academic English as opposed how they talk at home or "on the street."  (I'm not sure why that phrase is always used).  The thing I don't understand is why we don't focus on how nobody speaks the way they write.

When I was teaching third grade, the kids would write something like "I'm fenna* go to the store" or "I lost a toof."  I think the automatic reaction of many people is to point out that it's not right.  I never liked this, I think partly because I was really uncomfortable with the idea of the white suburban teacher coming in and teaching the poor black city kids what was right and what wasn't.  Instead, I would tell them that how we talk is not the same as how we write.  We might say "toof" or "fenna" but we write "tooth" or "going to."

Usually, the next thing I would explain, is that we're not actually writing in a "white" way.  If you think about it, most white people don't speak entirely in academic language either.  When I listen to conversations with my white friends (and myself), I notice us saying "like," "um," and "gonna."  We don't write these things.  Some of my friends use the word "dude" a lot.  It doesn't make it into their writing.  None of us (well, very few) write the way we talk.  We just have this idea that "ebonics" is less educated than white slang.

I'm sure I'm not explaining this very well -- I'm not a linguist.  But I get concerned when "correct" English is equated with sounding white.

Four years ago: The First Day of School

*I learned, upon beginning my teaching career, of the word "fenna," also spelled "finna."  I believe it's short for "fixing to" and is used as I use "gonna."  It can also be "fit to" as in "I'm fit to lose my mind."  Interestingly, my white Southern friends and the black kids at my school both use this term equally.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


I just saw my former student "Chantal" who's now a student at a community college.  I was telling a friend who is also a former volunteer in my classroom about what a hard time Chantal's having and she and her husband decided to help her out a little.  Another friend gave her a laptop which was a huge stress for her because it's hard to get time in the computer lab to type her assignments.  I've had some generous people read this blog before so I'm going to put it out there - if you want to sponsor her for a class or a textbook or whatever, anything helps.  She's still trying to figure out this financial aid mess that her parents will not help her with by giving her nay of their tax information that she needs and she's pretty determined but it's hard.  Let me know if you want to help and I'll give you details.

Anyway, it was nice catching up;.  She's a beautiful tall young woman who presents as tough and confident and loud but is actually quite shy and insecure inside.  She used to be extremely angry - and for good reason - and has that a little more under wraps now but has just had to deal with too much.  Most of the kids in this city have.  Just one example: Chantal's boyfriend was walking home from her house on Wednesday night and passed a 13-year old who seemed scared to see the boyfriend and picked up a broken bottle from the street to use as a weapon if needed.  The boyfriend just kept walking and found out the next day that the kid was shot and killed two blocks after he had seen him.  And Chantal knew this kid - he was related to a friend of her mother's.  She said "He was thirteen - who wants to kill a thirteen-year old?  It's just too much."

It is too much.  Our reminiscence went kind of like this: "Remember that teacher who got caught for child molestation?  Remember that kid who was almost kidnapped?  Remember when that guy with the gun came and I was scared and ran outside to get my little brother?"  It reminded me of this bit in the graduation speech. (scroll down to the blue part).  This shouldn't be something children have to deal with!!  It should not be part of the elementary school memories!

Other than that, it was lovely to chat with her.  She's still desperately looking for a job so we're going to work on a resume next week.  I said I'd take her to lunch so that we could work on it and mentioned that she should think of a restaurant she wanted to go to and she said: "Restaurant?  I've never been to no real restaurant.  Except I think Sizzler one time."

Three years ago: Shortage of Teachers?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Four Hours with a Second Grader

I spent the afternoon with my Little Sister today and I am exhausted.  She seemed perfectly chipper as I dropped her off, but I came home and fell asleep at 4 pm.  This was our schedule:

Pack a picnic
Go to A&W to buy root beer floats
Drive to Tilden Park (about 30 minutes from her house)
Picnic on the grass with the dog (I forgot the picnic blanket so we sat on a yoga mat)
Tie up the dog
Ride the old-fashioned merry go round twice.  Once on a giraffe because it's a giraffe but it didn't go up and down so she had to go on a horse (with a rose because it was the prettiest) after that which did go up and down.  And I had to go because "it's not fun by myself!"
Go to the Little Farm and feed the farm animals celery
Go to the park and look for blackberries to pick (there weren't any)
Drown the disappointment about the blackberries by finding a very tall concrete slide with lots of pieces of cardboard to use for sliding down it
Do that over and over and over
Drive past UC Berkeley to see what a college looks like
Go home

Wow.  I'm tired.

But remember getting on carousels with belts like this so you didn't fall off?  And having your feet not reach the stirrups?

Two years ago: Black Names

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Test Scores, Blood Pressure, and Good Teachers

I was going to write a post on why we're not measuring the right things with standardized testing, but it seems that two people have already done it for me.  They're very interesting reads - please check them out!

First, a retired Oakland teacher shows how easy it can be to have the wrong benchmarks for both health and education.  Also, I love the title: My high blood pressure and test scores: The connection is not what you'd think.

Second, insight into how Los Angeles public schools are ranked and how that doesn't measure teachers' merits or students' learning, but instead just measures who is in the schools.

It's true.  We're going about it all wrong.  And we're spending a lot of money on doing it wrong.

Two years ago: Three Things to Remember...

Four years ago: Getting Ready

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Tips for New Teachers

I wrote a new article about tips for new teachers, and I'd love for people to take a look and let me know what I've left out (I'm sure I've left something out!) so I can update it.  Feedback is always good.  Thanks!

Three years ago: NCLB: The Jim Lehrer News Hour, Part III
                          What's Wrong With Our Priorities?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Job Conditions

This is the fourth year in a row I am not setting up a classroom in late August.  There's a tiny bit of me that is sad but very little.  Mostly, it's a huge relief.  This was my least favorite part of the year.  Usually the classroom isn't clean and ready for me to set up, the supplies are insufficient, the class lists are not made, there are a bunch of inane meetings detracting from time I could actually be getting ready, the staff isn't completely hired, and the textbooks are not in the correct classrooms.  And I'm lucky - I always knew which grade I was teaching beforehand.  Some people don't even know that.

One year I got a new classroom.  I was teaching third grade and the classroom was previously for first grade.  There is a big height difference between the two ages.  I had three days before school started and all the desks were the wrong height and the chairs were the wrong size.  There were still first grade books in the classroom and not all the third grade books.  No one knew where I should get the new books or put the old books. I couldn't find the supplies I needed.  I didn't have a class list so I couldn't make a seating chart or label anything.  I had an awesome idea for a collage with the kids' names (their first impression of the room is huge and nothing draws them in like photos of themselves or their own names) but no one knew when I would get a class list.  I had meetings every day and couldn't spend any time into the classroom setting up.  When I asked the principal if I could stay late to do it, she said no bescause she didn't want to stay late.

Finally, my parents and a couple of friends who were not teachers came and set up my classroom for me.  If they hadn't, the children would have come in a to classroom that had a pile of desks in one corner, a pile of wrong-sized chairs in another, and the wrong textbooks.   Can you imagine what would have happened if I had not had help?  And no one seemed to care -- except for the other teachers who were in similar positions.

A friend posted this blog on facebook.  It's an excellent look at what many -- way too many -- teachers face at the beginning of the year.   This guy isn't exaggerating.

This is why I'm still catching myself worrying about these set-up days - over three years after I quit full-time teaching.

Three years ago: NCLB - Jim Lehrer's New Hour, Part II

Four years ago: The Streets Got Him First

Thursday, August 19, 2010

More on My Kids

My Little Sister (from Big Brothers Big Sisters) and I went to get our nails done yesterday.  She clearly got the better artist and is very happy with her flower and glitter.  Every time I hang out with her, I am amazed by how much she trusts me.  She's seven years old and has had many, many adults let her down, and yet she is completely trusting in someone she's known for all of two months and seen maybe six times.  She climbs up into my lap, holds my hand, hangs onto me in the swimming pool, and jumps up on me if a strange dog comes near her.  There's no hesitation at all.

I've talked before about how I believe that all these kids are ours.  I don't have children of my own, but I have all the kids I've ever worked with.  When I say that, I often get the response, "Oh, wait until you have kids of your own - it's totally different."  And I'm sure it is, in many ways.  I don't have full-time responsibility for any of these kids (although I would have taken it if I could in many cases).  But, for me, I don't care so much about the "own kids" thing because any kid who I've told is mine in any way is my own kid. 

When we were having a lockdown one year, one of the students was crying because he was afraid of the man in the hall with the gun (reasonable reaction).  Another student said, "But you don't have to worry because the teacher will never let the man with the gun get to us."  This wasn't naivete: this kid had known plenty of people who were shot, and some who were killed.  It wasn't because I was showing bravado: I've never been in front of a gun in my life and I had many nightmares after that episode (and no, I didn't even see the man with the gun).  I don't know how to explain it, but somehow I think that God made sure that if I did nothing else right in all my years of teaching, I was able to make those kids feel safe and assured that I would do anything possible to keep them that way.

Maybe my dog and I have more in common than I think.  

One year ago: Giving it to God (Or: The Truth in the Trite)

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Year Ago on Being Light Skinded

I don't have time to write tonight but for your reading pleasure:

One year ago: Back to School

Three years ago: No Child Left Behind - Jim Lehrer's News Hour, Part I

Monday, August 09, 2010


Quick tip for anyone who teaches, or works with kids in any capacity: Choices.

If you want the kid to do reading and math during a tutoring session, you don't tell said kid the plan.  Instead, you offer it as a choice - do you want to do reading first and math last or the other way around?  Do you want to do reading today and writing tomorrow or start with writing? 

Simple, but all of a sudden you're not giving orders, you're letting them choose.  Most of the time, they forget that they didn't want to do reading or math and get excited that they get to pick.  It might work with adults too.

Friday, August 06, 2010


I had some of the most overqualified volunteers ever in my third grade class.  This may have had something to do with the fact that I shamelessly begged my friends to help in any way possible.  I think there were a few friends who I asked to come as soon as I met them, before I was entirely sure of their names.  Some of my volunteers included:

-Someone with an MFA helping kids read
-a PhD candidate in chemical engineering from Stanford helping with math
-a PhD candidate in civil engineering from Cal helping with math
-several PhD candidates in engineering from Cal teaching about construction (several years in a row) and helping with a field trip
-my extremely talented brother bringing his drums several times
-a friend from Pixar who got us tours three different years, once when they were no longer giving tours - and came to the class to sign the kids' toys from Cars.
-a physical therapist (who I think has a masters') who helped the kids with reading
-many athletes from Cal who did PE with the kids and helped them in a variety of subjects
-A special ed teacher who organized my whole classroom for me
-Mrs. Dwyer (who gets her own post)

There's definitely more who I can't remember (email if I forgot you!)

There are some good people out there.

Three years ago: A Learning Tool

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

New Plan

How's this for a plan:  I'll just be independently wealthy so I can spend all my time helping my former students go to college, volunteering in the neighborhood I used to teach in, and maybe making private loans for them to go to college. 

Any takers?  Only one flaw that I can see.

Three years ago: The California Report, Murders, and Other Violence

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Succeeding Against All Odds

I got a phone call from a former student yesterday - I'll call her "Chantal."  Chantal was in my third grade class during the 2000-2001 school year and she is now 19.  She just graduated from high school - with a 3.83 GPA.  This was a girl who was very angry and had good reason to be.  Her dad was 60 when she was born and her mom was in jail and then just uninvolved.  She describes her older brother as a "stupid crackhead" and is really upset with him for resorting to drugs.  She decided in middle school that education was her only way out of the area and the situation.

I was so excited to hear from her but things are still tough.  She desperately wants to go to college and got accepted to Cal State Hayward, but she has absolutely no money.  She's been to the financial aid office at a community college and was told that she had to get her dad's information in order to get any aid, but when she asked her dad, he said he wasn't giving her any information.

It's been 18 years or so since I filled out my financial aid forms, but I seem to remember that you had to put down your parents' information even if they weren't going to help pay, at least up until a certain age.  Her dad's income (none) won't disqualify her but I'm not sure what she can do if he won't give her any information.  In addition, there's the problem of work.  Chantal is intelligent and hard-working, but there just aren't any jobs available for a recent high school graduate.  It probably doesn't help that she sounds "ghetto" as the kids say.  She wants to move out of the projects, which are a bad environment for her on all counts, but no one's hiring.  I'm sure this is a common frustration with most young people looking for jobs right now, but as she says, "How am I supposed to get the experience that's required when no one will hire me?"  She's applied for everything from warehouse jobs to child care and found nothing.

This is when I wish I was rich.  I wish I could pay for her college - either outright or as a loan - but I can't even pay for her to go to a community college unless *I* find more work.  I wish I had a business and could hire her.  I wish I had more resources.  This girl is one of the best investments possible and I just don't have the resources to make the investment.