Monday, May 30, 2011

Racism within the Black Community

Many white people are not aware of how greatly the white standard of beauty has affected the black community.  In my opinion, hundreds of years of racism - legislated and otherwise - have made it so that even within the black community, the whiter you look (skin color, hair texture, facial features), the more beautiful you are.

I didn't know this was a problem until I started teaching in Oakland.  I heard black kids say over and over to other black kids that they were "burnt-up looking," "too black," "African," "a burnt cookie," and more.  All of those things were definitely insults.  The first time I heard one kid call another "a burnt-up cookie," I couldn't believe it.  I had somehow thought that racism was only white people against black.  It's way deeper than that.

Four years ago: More Old Faces

Five years ago:Un-Wired
                       Eighth Time's the Charm?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Art Does Make a Difference

The school I used to work at and now volunteer at has historically been a pretty dirty, bare looking place.  At one point we got some trees planted, which made a big difference (although they are a little scrawny).  My friend Robin painted some murals which were beautiful and also helped. 

I walked into the cafeteria last week and it was totally transformed.  The kids had made it into an art museum and the whole feeling of it was changed. 

It does make a difference.

Two years ago: Update and Help Needed

Four years ago: Open House

Saturday, May 28, 2011

What Could a Teacher Know?

Very interesting piece (thanks, Brandon) about teacher blaming. 

Now, I am going to start this with saying that at times the teachers' unions certainly do not act in the best interests of students or teachers.  And that I have worked with people who use their tenure as an excuse to not teach.  But those teachers (the lazy "dead wood" are certainly not the ones stepping up with ideas on how to save education.  They can't even be bothered to teach.  I've been in meetings with them - they aren't spending extra energy trying to fix the system.  They're just waiting to retire. 

Teachers who are writing letters to the editor, who are serving on committees, and who are trying to make life better for kids are not trying to make their own lives easier.  They're trying to help students.

I thought it ironic that our schools were judged inadequate by people who haven’t set foot in them, so I wrote a letter to my local newspaper. Predictably, my letter elicited a deluge of comments in the paper’s online forum. Many remarks came from armchair educators and anti-teacher, anti-public school evangelists quick to discredit anything I had to say under the rationale of “he’s a teacher.” What could a teacher possibly know about education?

The author goes on to talk about how in no other profession would experience count as a liability.  He says it better than I am, so just go there and read it please.

Five years ago: Speaking of Tolerance

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Easier to Ignore

A lot of kids get killed in Oakland.  I've known one of them personally (he was 13) but there have been many, many more.  Some are in gangs or involved with drugs, and others are actually just in the wrong place.

I've noticed two things about these news stories.

1. People really really seem to want to blame the victim.  I suspect this is because they're scared.  If This Other Kid got killed and he wasn't doing anything wrong, then their own children are in danger.  But if This Other Kid was to blame, then our own children are safe.

2. It's much much easier to ignore these stories.  We all feel helpless and a bit hopeless about it.  If there's nothing we can do, why bother to talk about it.  It'll just make us feel worse.

I try to remember these kids in this blog because - even though I feel scared and hopeless - they deserve to be remembered and acknowledged. 

Ditiyan Franklin was killed in the middle of the day, two weeks before graduation.  He was supposed to present his senior project tomorrow.  The topic of the project was gang violence.

One year ago: Saving Baby Pandas

Four years ago: The Future

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Time Traveling

Wow, am I glad I don't have to deal with this anymore.
Thursday, May 25, 2006

Time Travel and Foolproof Logic

The District has reached a new low in logic. For the last few years, we’ve had these things called “Buy-Back Days.” They are professional development days but because of the contract or because the district is cheap or something, they’ve been optional, and only the people who go to them get paid. Then the people who want more money can go, some of us can sleep in, and the district doesn’t have to pay for everyone. Then, to make things a little more confusing, our school is in the “intensive Support Network" and we have three more optional professional development days. For most of these days less than half of our staff showed up, not because we don’t want the extra money, but because we’re generally exhausted. I went to two of them, but I don’t know if they were district-wide or particular to our school.

Now things get interesting. We just got a new contract, as I mentioned, and it’s retroactive to the beginning of the school year. Under this contract, the Buy-Back Days are mandatory and we are compensated for them. Unfortunately, the Buy-Back Days have all passed. They might put one at the end of the year for people to make up, but that’s unclear, and it’s also one day, not three. So the District is telling me that I need to have gone to a training in October of 2005 in order to fulfill my contract. As much as I would like to do that, there’s really nothing at all that I can do about it, as my time machine happens to be broken at the moment.

I really shouldn’t be surprised though; this is the district that put June 31st on the official calendar. And I’ve seen the signs displaying our “Suspension Reduction Targets” (admirable) and “Attendance Reduction Targets” (slightly less admirable. They might possibly mean to reduce absences and not attendance. Although one never knows.)
While we’re at it, we might want to question the business model of firing all the first-year teachers, alienating them with the ridiculous re-application process, spending a ton of money to try and recruit new teachers, and then wonder why we can’t get all the vacancies filled. Hmmm…..

Four years ago: Time Travel and Foolproof Logic
                          Teaching Tolerance

Monday, May 23, 2011


In my second to  last year of teaching, I had a student who missed over 70 days of school.  I forget exactly how many, but it was more than 70.  There are only 180 days in a school year, so that was about 40% of the school year that she missed.  Absolutely nothing was done because the child wasn't failing.  She was pretty close, but she wasn't failing and she wasn't a behavior problem so no one wanted to do anything about it.  I begged administrators to take notice but no one would. 

Apparently she's not the only one.

One year ago: Overly Protective

Four years ago: Countdown

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sitting Still

It is difficult to sit still.  Very difficult.  I can do it if I have my knitting with me, although it's debatable if that actually counts as sitting still. 

I was volunteering in a classroom the other day and a 7-year old who has a VERY hard time sitting still and he was doing a great job.  Just a little leg wiggle here and there, but he was really doing a great job.  He twisted just a little in his seat and his teacher yelled, "It's not that hard to sit still!"  Then this teacher went on to berate him, talking about how he never does well enough.

I didn't know what to do.  It's not my classroom and I wouldn't appreciate people walking in and critiquing me without knowing my relationship with the student.  However.  It is hard to sit still.  It is very hard to sit still and this child is 7.  And showing remarkable improvement.

Sitting still is an achievement for a lot of kids, even with a little leg wiggle.

Five years ago: Another Sub Bites the Dust                   
                         Staplers: the Bane of My Existence

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Again With the Library Closures

Almost ten years ago, my third graders and I wrote letters to the Oakland City Council about how important it was to keep the libraries open.  The plan was to close a bunch of branches - I can't remember how many - and they were all in the poorer sections of Oakland.  I've mentioned before that the city is quite segregated and the kids are aware of this.  I showed them on the map where the closing branches were and a child pointed out "but those are all the ones near us."  We also looked at where the branches remaining open were and someone pointed out that they were near the white people with money.  It was true.  We had an interesting discussion during which they asked me why people who have money to buy books needed libraries more than them "But we got no books at my house!"  They wrote some passionate letters to the mayor and city council and the libraries stayed open.  I think they may have believed that our class saved the local library.

Apparently, this is happening again.  There are 17 library branches in Oakland.  Oakland is broke.  There are now three options, ranging from closing THIRTEEN of the branches (that's 76% of the branches.  CLOSED) to a parcel tax that will keep them running, mostly.  Of course, the branches that will close will be in the - you guessed it - poor areas.  The ones without books. 

Please HELP.  Please.  Here are some ideas on how to help.

These kids need books.

Four years ago: Former Students

Five years ago: We Have a Contract!!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

To My Teacher Who is a Woman


Most people I've talked to about my experience teaching are aware that fathers, especially nurturing, consistent fathers, are rare in the inner city.  Not as many people are aware of how many children lack mothers.  For some of them, I mean that metaphorically -- that their mothers were 13 or 14 when they had kids and just didn't know how to be mothers.  However, for many of them, this lack of a mother was literal.

I had student after student being raised by an aunt, a grandmother, a great-aunt, an older sister, or even a great-grandmother.  This could be because their mother had a drug problem, was in jail, was with a boyfriend or new husband who didn't want their children around, or had left them for an unknown reason.  Now, I'm not saying that the lack of a father is something that's easy to get over.  I think it is extremely damaging and that children need fathers or father figures.  But, in my experience, the kids whose mothers left them were in the worst shape.  It seems like there's nothing that can mess you up like your mother walking out when you are two months old.

Because of this, Mother's Day was always an issue.  The first year, I didn't do much for Mother's Day - mostly because I forgot about it.  The second year, it quickly became apparent that there was going to be a problem.  One of the kids had a mother in prison and was really upset about it.  (And really, that is the appropriate reaction to being eight years old and having your mom in jail!)  So, in a moment of panic, I made it "Women's Day."  The rule was that they could make cards for any woman who had been important for them and helped take care of them.  This seemed to be a big relief for them -- instead of the anxiety they had before, they started chattering about who they were going to make cards for.  It was one of the greatest honors of my year when one of the little boys made me a card.  It said "To my teacher who is a woman Happy Woman's Day. Thank you for taking care of me."

As for Father's Day - well, let's just say, it was a good thing that school was always out by Father's Day.  I would have needed trauma counselors.

One year ago: The Problem With Mother's Day

Five years ago: Actual Appreciation

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Best Teacher Appreciation Ever

I got this note from a client's parent when she sent me a check.  I think I might frame it.

Three years ago: Strange Ways to Prepare for Tests

Five years ago: Teacher Appreciation Week

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Make Sense

OK, for the second of my comprehensive two-part program to improve the district I used to work in, I propose that we all try to Make Sense.  If you think that is an obvious point, you clearly have not worked in this district.

1. The person in charge of subbing shouldn't sign people up for jobs and then not tell them about it, making it impossible for them to show up.
2. More than one person in the district should know how to reset the clocks.
3. The district should not require time travel in order to get all professional development days completed.
4. If you want kids to do projects using the Internet, you have to provide computers and Internet access.
5. It rains sometimes.  We need a plan.
6. Assessing children on math concepts that haven't been taught yet makes no sense.  And is incredibly frustrating.
7. If you build a playground and then don't let the kids play on it, they get sad.  And parents get angry.
8. Why would you spend a ton of money to open small schools  all over the district just to close them again?
9. It's not that hard to get names of schools right on signs.
10. More time travel required.

I welcome any other suggestions on either this or the Be Nicer post.   Again, this is not universal - there are very nice people who make sense.  However, there are enough people who are not nice and make no sense that make a lot of us crazy.  And then we have to leave to get un-crazy.

Four years ago: National Day of the Teacher

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Being Nicer

In my hypothetical plan to improve the district I used to work in, the number one priority is to be nicer.  Yes, I know that sounds simplistic, but when everyone is rude and grouchy - the custodians, the principals, the HR clerks, the sub coordinator, the lunch ladies - it really wears on you.  A big, big part of why a lot of teachers leave is the simple lack of human decency. 

Now, I hope that has changed.  I haven't worked there in several years and I really really hope that is not longer true.  But just in case it still is true, here are some tips:

Being Nicer:

1. The person in charge of subbing shouldn't get to call and yell (and yes, I mean yell) at subs who get sick.
2. The person in charge of special ed shouldn't get to yell at a mother and tell her that it's her fault her child is emotionally disturbed, when the mother is doing everything she can to help.
3. The HR people shouldn't be perpetually scowling and actually snatch documents out of your hands.
4. Teachers shouldn't spit at the feet of an administrator, no matter how upset they are.
5. Being appreciated on Teacher Appreciation Day is nice.  Telling the public you're appreciating teachers when you're not... not as nice.
6. Don't treat teachers like children.  Ever.  Unless you want them to act like children.
7. If you tell people you're going to pay them more for working longer, then you need to do just that.
8. Don't treat people badly when they've just had a family tragedy
9. How about you don't call me ornery just because I said something isn't true.  And was right.
10. If you say you'll write me a letter of recommendation, do it.  If you aren't going to, don't say you will.
11. If a brand-new teacher asks where her classroom is, and you're the principal, don't say you're too busy to show her.  The day before school starts.
12. If you're in charge of school supplies and you don't have enough, don't try to act like the teacher is an idiot for asking for scissors.
11. Do not, I repeat, do not, spend a teacher's entire first year of teaching saying that you can have her job any time you want.  Or that everyone should dust off their resumes.  This is not motivating.  Nor is it nice.

Sadly, I have so many more examples.  SO MANY MORE.  I don't want to ignore all the wonderful people who did help and who were supportive, but when the entire infrastructure of the district is so... not nice... even the incredible people who went above and beyond and helped me, donated, worked with me, prayed for me are not enough to keep people in the district. 

Therefore, my number one change I'd make to the district would be to mandate niceness.  Custodians, superintendents, teachers, principals, district personnel: all of them would have to treat their coworkers, superiors, and subordinates the way they would want to be treated.  Think of all the amazing teachers who wouldn't have left because they were tired of being abused.

Four years ago: Oh Dear

Five years ago: Kindergartners

Sunday, May 01, 2011

What Needs to Change

A wide variety of people have asked me recently what needs to change in the district I used to work in.  Although it is one of the most improved school districts in the state, it is notorious for being difficult to work in and having a ridiculously high turnover.  Each time, I think my answer boiled down to two things:

1. Be nicer.

2. Make sense.

These may seem too simplistic, and I think people were expecting more of a sweeping pedagogical approach, but I really think these two things are key.  I'm going to work on some examples for the next couple of posts.

Three years ago: Art Gallery

Five years ago: My Beast Friend
                        Teacher Appreciation Week 
                        Magic Pencils