Thursday, December 27, 2012

Public Vs. Private

I've been wondering for a while why people spend so very much money on private schools (you can spend $35,000/year on a private ELEMENTARY school around here).  I've tutored a lot of kids from private schools and they vary just as much as public schools.  There are some very, very good public schools and some not safe or not good ones.  There are some very, very good private schools and there are some with totally inept teachers and laissez-faire curricula that have given me significant amounts of work trying to catch kids up from 6+ years of these schools.  In fact, at least in California, the official criteria for teachers is more stringent in public school than private.

So, why do people continue to pay for private school instead of sending their kids to the really good public schools that are often really close by. 

I found a good explanation here.  If you're paying the money, you have a vested interest.  Read it; very interesting.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

A Wonderful Story

That's the name that my student gave to this exerpt she wrote in her 8th grade creative writing class.  I think it sums up writer's block quite well.

Trying to Write

I held the pen in my hand. The feel of the clean, smooth surface of the wood against my skin. I stared at the blank crisp sheet of pure white paper, which sat on my desk waiting to fill. My mind is blank as always. I could never think, it was as if my ideas float away out of my mind and into the world to get blown away. Crumpled sheets of paper litter the floor with my dark blue pen marks on it.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

The Best Compliment

I started tutoring two sisters a few weeks ago in Spanish.  They're both very intelligent in different ways and they're both having trouble in different ways.  I'm really enjoying both of them and, as always, kids can tell when you really enjoy talking to them and being with them.  Kids know when you're faking it so it's best to be sincere.

I was working with the younger child when she ran to show me something.  As she went out of the room, the mother's partner said to me, "This is the first time I have ever seen her be herself in an educational setting.  She is finally completely herself while she's learning."

I didn't and couldn't have prepared to do that.  Honestly, I think that is why I love teaching - it's not the teaching- it's the getting to know the child as an individual, valuing her for her own unique traits, and being privileged to see how that gives the child an opportunity to shine.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Guns Don't Kill People... Oh Wait, They Do.

I don't know anything more about this story than is told in the article.  Unknown gunman shooting at a house, hit a sleeping 11-year old, expected to survive.  However, I know this much: this is not a unique occurrence.  It made it to the news because it injured an innocent kid.  Sometimes those stories don't make it.  Sometimes they miss the kid and everyone just goes on with their lives.

In my second year of teaching, I got a note that said, "Please excuse my daughter from not doing her homework.  The gangs was shooting and she had to sleep in the closet."  Other kids would talk about sleeping in the bathtub in case bullets from drive-by shootings went through walls, they probably wouldn't go through the bathtub too.  I was so shocked that I didn't even know how to respond. 

These kids live like this.  Not once in their lifetime, but many, many nights, they hear shooting and they are afraid, they sleep in the closet or the bathtub to give the bullet more obstacles, or (maybe the worst option), they just keep sleeping because they are used to it.  This is not in an official war zone, not in the Third World, but less than four miles from some of the most affluent houses I tutor at. 

There are so many things wrong with this, I don't know how to begin.  The fact that we have this kind of poverty so close to extreme wealth.  The fact that gun rights people keep talking about how guns don't kill people and they're just a tool (no one is seeing drive-by knife throwings!).  The fact that my family, my friends, and my own self don't ever have to think about this, ever, because we have enough money to not live in an area where we might accidentally be shot in our sleep, but my Little Sister doesn't.  Or that in what I think is still the most prosperous, powerful nation in the world has children who are completely used to the danger of being ACCIDENTALLY SHOT IN THEIR SLEEP.

I don't even know what to say or do. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

How To Outsmart a Teenage Boy, Part II

I often tell people that my strength isn't teaching, per se, it's my ability to have a relationship with my students.  Part of that relationship is getting them to do what I know they need to do, and as any parent or teacher knows, this involves a fair amount of manipulation, for their own good.  I don't mean pathological manipulation, I mean healthy manipulation.

I first wrote about outsmarting teenage boys here.  I had another episode with a boy I'm tutoring and I was very proud of myself.

Me: I need you to read your writing aloud so that you can catch your mistakes.

Him: That is too embarrassing.  If I do that, I will be embarrassed.

Me: Is that a picture of you in a TeleTubby costume on the wall?

Him: Fine, I'll read it.

This is what I mean by "healthy manipulation."  We could have wasted the whole session arguing.  Instead, it took 20 seconds, he caught his mistakes, he realized how to edit his own writing, (and I think he liked the attention of me noticing that photo as well).

Monday, August 27, 2012

I Didn't Write This But I Love This

Please read this about seeing all kids as our kids, from Teaching Tolerance.

I'm so thankful I'm not the only one that feels this way and I'm praying that more and more people will feel this way.

You can read about what I think about my kids, and about all the kids belonging to all of us.   Nothing will ever get better if they don't.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Ain't No White Kids

I went to the Big Brother Big Sisters picnic with my Little Sister a few weeks ago.  I want to say right away that I love this organization and think it serves a very needed purpose, especially for boys who often have no strong (or really any) male figures in their lives.  But I did notice one thing that disturbed me.  Not something about the organization, but rather about the demographics and socio-economic status in the area: almost all the mentors (the "Bigs") were white or Asian, while almost all the children (the "Littles") and families were black or Latino.  This was not without exception, but was true of the vast majority of the people there.

It reminded me of my first year teaching, when I was brand-new to the area, and still fairly naive about the racism and segregation that was (and is) present.  I started teaching in January of 2000, so I was trying to get to know the students at a time of year when most teachers can tell you more about their students than the computer database can. 

One of the projects we did that first week was a first grade-wide "I have a dream speech" for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday.  I was trying to explain the bus boycott and segregation in general to first graders, which is no easy task.  At one point, I think I oversimplified and said something like, "He helped make it so black kids and white kids could go to school together."

I didn't know why the kids were looking at me so incredulously until one little girl spoke up.  "But, teacher, black kids don't go to school with white kids."  All the kids agreed with her.  That's when it dawned on me that she was right.  There was not one single white child at that school.*

Another time, I overheard a conversation that I mentioned here.  

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.

I've been thinking about this for 13 years now and I'm still not sure how to respond to it.  My Little Sister is very intelligent and very observant.  I'm sure she noticed the demographics of the picnic and I'm sure she's noticed the demographics of her school.  How do I explain that to her?  Or do I just do what we all mostly do and try to pretend this inequality doesn't exist?  I don't feel like that's the best way but I haven't really thought of a better one yet.

*There were two white kids once; they were Bosnian refugees.

**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.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


The best principal I ever had (and I had quite a few) had a novel idea when it came to children who were being discipline problems.  She urged her teachers to realize that there was a reason for their behavior.  She wasn't condoning fights, disrespect, or any other of the myriad behavior problems we dealt with on a daily basis, but just pointing out that there are reasons behind their behavior.  She explained further by saying, "Many of these kids have been through things that none of you can even imagine."  That has always stuck with me.

It's easy as a teacher to say thoughtless things like "I don't know why you do this," or "You should be ashamed of yourself," or "Why can't you be good."  Some teachers try to be aware and compassionate and avoid things like this, while others are so frustrated/uncomfortable/unhappy/afraid that they don't try any more and just yell at kids about being stupid and bad (I've worked next door to some of those teachers).

This is what got me to create the feelings paper that I've talked about, although I wish I had done it earlier, and I've certainly been guilty of just reacting.  Having kids look at why they are reacting the way they are is invaluable - you get an insight into them and, more importantly, the child takes a moment to think about what's going on, making them less of a prisoner to their feelings. 

That is why I liked this article so much. 
The kid was ready. Ready, man! For an anger blast to his face….”How could you do that?” “What’s wrong with you?”…and for the big boot out of school. But he was NOT ready for kindness.
Obviously, they picked one of the better reactions to document, and some teenagers would ridicule anyone who asked them anything about their feelings.  But if you look at the suspension statistics, it seems to work.  Imagine that.  Not reacting in anger but trying to figure out the root cause of behavior. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Connections to Tragedy

A teenager was killed in Oakland last week.  It made the news - as most homicide victims of that age do - but not for long.  It was one of seven murders in seven days, with the victims ranging in age from 15 to 84 years old.  Six out of the seven homicides happened in East Oakland, where I used to teach.

Hadari was a friend to several of my former students who I'm still in touch with.  He was also related to my 9-year old "Little Sister."  She told me this, adding that she had no feelings about it and didn't want to talk about it.  Ever.  I don't know the reason behind the killing, and I'm not sure it matters.  The consequences are the same.

I've been facing these situations since I started teaching 13 years ago and I still don't know how to deal with them in the best way.  For eight years, I taught in what is the most violent neighborhood in Oakland.  Most years, the majority of the kids in my class knew someone personally who had been murdered.  All of them knew of someone who had been killed.  Far too many of them had actually seen someone shot.  There were so many of these situations that I don't remember most of them, but  few stand out.

My second year of teaching, one of my third-graders saw her cousin (a teenager) shot in the face by a rival gang member outside their apartment complex.  She came to school the next day because there wasn't a better option.  She spent the whole day shaking uncontrollably and I had no idea what to do about it.  Of course, we didn't have a counselor at the school to help out.

About four years into teaching at that school, one of my students' dad was killed.  He was stabbed to death in his apartment.  The student, who didn't live with his dad, but visited him often, came to school and never mentioned one word about it.  I think there were two sentences about it in the newspaper.

In my second-to-last year teaching there, we were reading a story about a cowboy who owed some people money and got out of it by playing dead and scaring the debt collectors.  The reading program we had emphasized making connections — connecting real life events to what happened in the story.  One of my students told me that the connection he had was that his uncle was killed that weekend, in broad daylight, by someone trying to collect on a debt.  Not the sort of connection you want to hear in third grade.

I still have no idea what to do when a kid loses someone to a violent death.  It's easy to get complacent and start thinking of it as "normal," while of course, it's a tragedy every time.  I'd like to end this with some kind of call to action, but I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what can be done.  None.  At all.  Totally at a loss.

By the way, for those of you who know me and are worried about my safety, here are some disturbing statistics.

Oakland is 28% black and 34.5% white.
Homicide victims in Oakland are 77% black and 3.2% white.

There's a tiny bit of inequality here.  I'm benefiting from the inequality, which doesn't making it any less wrong.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What I Didn't Learn

Last week, I went to visit the school I used to work at, where my Little Sister attends school.  They had just finished standardized testing, and the very wise and probably exhausted teachers at that grade level were giving their students and themselves a bit of a break by having some theme days.  One teacher had a Hawaii luau theme.  That class called the classroom their hotel, wore leis and sunglasses, and read on beach chairs and towels.  (The teacher also told them there was no fighting in Hawaii and that seemed to work!).  Another teacher had a camp theme with baseball caps, fake campfires, flashlights, and other fantastic props.  The kids seemed so happy and relaxed to have a day out of the ordinary and I honestly wished I had thought of it.

I was talking to a couple of the teachers I knew from when I was there (I left 5 years ago next month).  We were talking about the differences between now and then.  The biggest difference is that the school is much, much calmer.  There are a number of differences.  I was there almost eight years (I started mid-year the first year) and we had 8 principals, plus one who had left the month before I came.  I think we had 5 superintendents/state administrators.  Our normal turnover for teachers each year was over 50%, with some teachers leaving after only a week.  Counselors and support staff changed frequently, when we had them.  Even the custodians and lunch servers didn't remain the same for long, although they usually outlasted the teachers.  By the time I was 31, I was the teacher who had been at the school the longest.

I was proud of my longevity.  I thought of myself as a survivor and someone who had stuck around for the kids when other people had let difficulties drive them away.  At the time, I didn't realize how detrimental this setup was to my own personal growth as a teacher.  I knew that the stress was making me sick, but I didn't realize that I didn't really know how to be a good teacher.  I had missed all the collaboration; all the learning from more experienced professionals; and all the learning, fun, and goals that can be accomplished by working with other talented people.  There were, of course, talented teachers, but they either left quickly or only concentrated on their own students (usually both) because, like me, that was the way they would survive.

Now it makes me sad.  I wouldn't trade the time I had with my students for anything but I really do wish I had had the chance to work with people.  I left the school feeling relieved and glad that it seemed to be in better shape and jealous that I hadn't been around to be a part of it and that I wasn't learning from and working with the people who are there now.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Feelings Paper and Anger

A couple more pieces I wrote for Teaching Tolerance:

My favorite thing I ever made, the Feelings Paper.

One of my favorite and most difficult students ever and his anger issues.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Guest Post - Frightening Black Men

A friend wrote this about her experience and thoughts about racism in the United States.  She makes an excellent point: "I believe that black men in the United States are considered particularly frightening by many, many people and black boys are men in training, so they are scary too."

I am a women of African origins and have lived  20+ years in the United States.  Over the years, one thing has been patently clear; living in the United States as an African American women is way easier than living here as an African American man. 

At some point in the past few years, I decided to sign an on-line petition through a website called  I receive periodic updates on petitions being circulated, like the one earlier this year on a $5 per month account fee Bank of America wanted to charge or something like that.  The petitions don't often catch my attention.  While I don't think Bank of America should start charging a new account fee, honestly, it isn't going to change my life one way or another.  So why don't I just un-subscribe?  Because of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. 

Recently, I received a petition pushing for the arrest of the black boy's killer.  Trayvon had been returning by foot from a convenience store near his father's house in Florida with some Skittles candy in hand when he was shot by a man who felt Trayvon was acting suspiciously.  More than 1 million people signed the petition and there has been national attention on this case, on the NRA-backed law that allowed the state not to immediately arrest someone who clearly killed an innocent boy, and I hope on an underlying issue: why a 17-year-old black boy is automatically considered suspicious?

I believe that black men in the United States are considered particularly frightening by many, many people and black boys are men in training, so they are scary too.  Trayvon would not have been shot if he was a white boy.  I don't think Oscar Grant from Oakland California would have been killed by the young, scared white BART officer if he had not been black because he just wouldn't have been considered as threatening.

So how do we change a culture that considers it acceptable to be afraid of black men and that to shoot them when you are afraid? I genuinely believe that Trayvon's killer was afraid. I don't know for certain but we need to start by challenging the existing paradigm that allows people like Travyon's killer to walk free.

A childhood friend of mine is from south India and, like many south Indians, has very dark skin. As he became "follicularly challenged" at a relatively young age, he shaves his head.  With this combination, in the United States, he is often mistakenly identified as African American and so has become sadly familiar with how people react to black men. My friend kindly shared my first apartment in an upper middle class neighborhood in the university town we were living in when I needed a roommate to pay the mortgage.  He told me that many days, when he was walking up the hill on his way home, white people would cross to the other side of road to avoid the potential danger that he represented to them as a perceived black man.  He said his heart would sink every time this happened.  Imagine how it would feel to think that people were afraid of you every time you walked out the door? 

Change has to start somewhere and while I hope that the change will eventually be in people's hearts, it needs to start with no tolerance for unjust laws and and for people who hide their racist actions behind them.

Saturday, April 28, 2012


This is a poem written by a teenage boy I know who doesn't have a very easy life and is struggling to pass his classes in high school . He said I could share it.  I don't have anything very profound to say about it except I love it.

(The assignment was to write a poem in Spanish so he wrote it in English and tried to translate it with Google Translate.  Of course.)

Friday, March 23, 2012


I'm sure everyone has heard about Trayvon Martin by now.  He is the young black man who was killed by a neighborhood watch captain, in Florida (where apparently neighborhood watch captains carry guns?)   Trayvon was a teenager who got hungry while watching a basketball game on TV and walked to the corner story to buy Skittles and iced tea.  George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch of the gated community where Trayvon's father lived, called the police (for what?  Because a black teenager was in a gated community?) and was told to wait for police.  He didn't, and accosted Trayvon, ending up shooting him.  He said that he did so in self-defense, so the police let him go.  Apparently it didn't matter that Trayvon was unarmed and 100 pounds lighter than the white man who attacked him.

I don't have much new to say about this except that, even never having met this young man, I am broken-hearted.  I have thought about the chance of this kind of thing happening to one of my former or current students, especially when I've heard kids joke about running away from the police.  The reality is that if I ran away from the police, I'd probably get in a lot of trouble.  If a black man or boy did so, he'd probably be dead.  If I walk down the street in a hoodie, people assume I"m cold.  If they do it, they're dangerous. 

Here's some more reading about it.  Honestly, I'm too sad to have a lot of coherent thoughts.

Trayvon Martin Could Have Been One of My Kids

Why is it All Right for a Neighborhood Watch Captain to Shoot an Unarmed Black Teenager? 

Trayvon Martin case: George Zimmerman, mystery gunman

Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, and the protection of 'police murder' in America

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Racism Hurts Everybody

In the last week, I have seen  this photo that's made it around facebook and heard about an acquaintance saying something about someone acting "like a typical black kid" - meaning, of course, that the child was being a troublemaker.

Obviously, these both make my heart hurt for a number of reasons.  The first thing I thought of was my Little Sister.  She is an ideal student and friend: thoughtful, caring, loyal, hard-working, and careful to think the best of everyone.  This is a girl who told me that we should give a homeless person her granola bar because the man didn't look like anyone treated him well, and everyone should be treated well, even if they're homeless.  She is also black.  I often think about what her reaction would be to either hateful racism, like this bumper sticker (and as snopes points out, whether it's real or not doesn't really matter, as you can buy plenty of products just like it online), or to ignorant racism like someone mentioning a problem child "acting like a typical black kid."

I feel like her reaction would be the same in both cases: stunned and extremely hurt.  This girl doesn't buy into stereotypes for the most part, and she understands that both she and the wild student in the corner of the room are both black but both individuals who have completely different personalities and temperaments.  When I see or hear of racism like this, I am heartbroken for my Little Sister.

However, recently, I have started thinking about the effects of this kind of racism on children who aren't black.  My almost-two year old (and extremely verbal) niece just got a doll with brown skin and black braids.  My niece is intrigued by the braids and wanted to comb the doll's hair, like she does with her other doll.  Her mom explained to her that the doll's hair was in braids so they weren't going to comb it and later told me that it impressed her that she's so little that she doesn't really know about the differences that the world believes about different kinds of people. 

My niece seems to be much like my Little Sister in many ways - very sensitive and already quite caring.  She talks about the people she loves and told a squirrel in the yard, "Have a nice weekend, squirrel!"  She likes interacting with my Little Sister and her doll with braids and has no idea that there are people in the world who would classify them differently than they would the people who look like us.  One day, my niece will also hear something either said in hatred or in ignorance about another group of people, and she will have to weigh that against what she knows.  It probably won't make a lot of sense to her.  She'll know my Little Sister who is gentle and caring, her cousin who is creative and friendly, and any number of other other people with different colors of skin, and she'll have to see that they're the target of stereotypes and discrimination.  And I think that will probably break her heart as well.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


I have noticed - in an extremely unscientific survey - that most of the white children I know have only white dolls.  I mentioned this to someone recently who wondered if all children tended to have dolls that looked like them.  In my (again, very unscientific) observations, however, children of color (in the US) tend to have both dolls that look like them and white dolls.  This makes sense, as there is a wider variety of white dolls than other colors, of course (in the US).

When having these conversations, I can't help thinking of the doll experiments performed by Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s.   These were the experiments cited in the Brown v. Board of Education case that eventually led to the desegregation of schools.  The experimenters provided children with two dolls that were identical except that one was white and one was black.  They asked the children (ages 6 to 9) things like "Which doll is the  nice doll?" and "Which doll would you like to play with?"  They also asked which doll was ugly, and which was bad.

Sadly, the results are predictable.  Most of the children - black and white - said that the black dolls were ugly and bad, and that they'd rather play with the white doll, which was nice, good and pretty.  This was used as evidence that segregated schools hurt the psyches of black students.

The saddest part, to me, was that the experiment was repeated in 2006 with extremely similar results.  We just haven't come that far.  I think of this when I find that white children tend to only have white dolls.  I don't think it's that their parents are racist ,but having dolls representing a variety of ethnicities kind of normalizes different racial groups.   It's just my opinion, but I think it probably helps children to see that people come in different colors but they're all people.  Again, there's no guarantee that children will grow up without prejudice because of the toys they had, but I think it's a good beginning.

My niece is an example of how kids start out before they learn that they're supposed to think a certain type of person is pretty, good, bad, nice, etc.  She is a (very) white toddler, and has a white doll with red hair, a brown doll with black braids, and several beige-ish tannish dolls that are ambiguous.  She loves them all and carries them around in the crook of her arm.  She likes to comb their hair and was confused about the fact that she couldn't comb the braids, but it didn't affect how much she liked that doll.  She still has no idea that there are different races and ethnic groups, and - although I often wish she could stay in that phase - I do think it's possible her to learn the differences without assuming that one group is better.  And, as silly as it seems, I think that having dolls that reflect the people in the world is a good first step.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

The President's Hair

I've talked before about how excited I was when Barack Obama was elected - not just because I thought he was the best candidate (I did and still do), but also because he's black.  And he has a black wife.  And black kids.

The city where I worked is a disturbingly segregated city for an area that considers itself progressive and diverse.  I have often heard statistics cited to show how racially diverse Oakland is, ignoring the fact that in many neighborhoods - especially the poorest and richest ones - there is virtually no diversity.

The kids in my neighborhood felt this acutely.  When I brought up the idea of desegregation of schools, one of them scornfully pointed out that black kids and white kids don't go to the same school - and in her experience, she was right.Although none of these kids - or even their parents - had ever experienced segregation due to laws, certain ideas were so foreign to them that they assumed they were legally prohibited.

I took the kids on a field trip to UC Berkeley most years, thinking it was important for them to actually see a college since most of them didn't have relatives who had been to college.  I didn't realize exactly how important it was though, until one of my students stopped when I pointed out that we were on the college campus.  He looked at me and said, "I thought they didn't let us come here."  I asked him what he was talking about and he just kept repeating, "I thought they didn't let us come here."  I finally got out of him that he had always assumed that African Americans weren't legally allowed to go to college.  As someone who had always assumed that I would go to college - that it was just inevitable - this made me realize what a different world I had grown up in.

Another eye-opening experience was when we were doing a unit about money.  I had the kids design their own money and aside from some  nice comments about how I should be on the money because I am important and care about people, I don't remember much.  The thing that stood out to me the most though, was the anger of one little boy.  He wanted there to be a black person on the money and he said that would never happen.  He was so angry and he told me that all the presidents and all the people on the money would always be white and that it wasn't fair.

I thought of that boy the night that Obama was elected and I wished it could have happened earlier, before this boy had lost all hope.

I saw this photo on the Internet recently and read the story behind it.  The caption is: "The youngster wanted to see if the President's haircut felt like his own."  If I were in the classroom now, kids would know that people who looked like them could go to college.  They would know that people who looked like them could even be president.  For a group of children who have felt so much like the "other" - apart from power and success - I think this photo says a lot.

I'm so glad he let the little boy touch his hair.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

A Father's Affection

In the classroom, I didn't have a lot of interaction with my students' fathers.  There were a few, but I remember them clearly because there were so few.  Most of them were not around, incarcerated, or just not involved in life at school, preferring to leave those responsibilities to the mothers and grandmothers.

As I've been tutoring in students' homes, I still don't see many fathers.  I primarily deal with the mothers, and often don't meet a student's father until a year or more into our tutoring relationship.  Other fathers are present but let their wives deal with scheduling, feedback, and payment. 

Many of these men seem to be somewhat shy about getting involved with their children.  I don't usually get the feeling that they consider themselves above being interested in school, but often that they don't really know how they fit in. 

I've notice with one man, particularly, that he seems to be really proud of his middle school daughter and how hard she is working, but he doesn't really know how to tell her.  He often deals with this by telling her through me: "Do you see how well she's doing?  She's really improving."  Never directly to his daughter, but he always waits until she's in the room so she'll hear it.  She lights up when he does this.

I'm glad she knows how her father feels but I'd like him to be able to tell her directly.  I don't yet have the relationship with this man to tell him this but I've tried being sneaky.  I usually say, "Oh, show your dad your grade on your test and I'll be right back," then go to the bathroom or get something out of the car, forcing him to react directly to her.  His approval means so much to her and she's so excited to show him her work.  Last time, I came in as he was telling her directly how proud he was, so hopefully my trick is working.

Monday, February 06, 2012

For the Want of a Home

My latest Teaching Tolerance blog is up, talking about the difference between wants and needs.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

More Regrets

I talked briefly about some of the regrets I have here but I've thought of more.  Fortunately, there are many, many things I do not regret (like the feelings paper), but there are a few things I would like to do differently.

Most of my regrets have to do with adult bullying.  I think many people wouldn't classify it as such but I would.  For example:

I regret that, when I was volunteering in a class after I stopped teaching, that I did not stand up to a bullying teacher.  She was a fantastic teacher - for any student who was willing to sit still, behave the way she wanted, and learn by direct instruction.  However, when children had learning difficulties, behavior problems, or emotional trauma causing them to act out, she shamed them.  Sh called them names, she told them that they would never do well, and she almost mocked them.  I don't remember if she ever used the word "worthless" but that was certainly what she was calling several children, whether she said it directly or not. 

There was one child in her class who clearly had severe emotional problems, although I didn't know any specifics.  He had such a hard time, just in daily life.  One day, he was sitting very very still, with his hands folded in that way children do when they're trying to "be good."  He was still wiggling a little but was clearly using all his willpower to stay as still as he could.  The teacher walked over toward him and snapped, "It's not that hard to sit still."  The child's face fell. 

I should have said something.  Not necessarily in front of the kids, but I should have said something afterward.  Something like, "Actually, it's very hard to sit still, and I'm 36, not 7."  Or "Take a look at this child.  He is trying so hard to please you and you just broke his heart."  That sounds a little dramatic but it was also true.  But I didn't.  I justified it by telling myself that this teacher wasn't going to change because I said something (probably true) and that I was just a volunteer and it wasn't my place to tell her how to run her classroom.  But I should have said something. 

I said something to the child, so I guess that was better than nothing.  I whispered to him that I thought it was really hard to sit still and that I can't sit still for very long.  Then I said that I thought he was doing a really good job.  But he should have heard that from his teacher and I should have stood up for him.

Another time, when I was teaching, some people from the curriculum department came in the classroom to check for compliance with the reading program.  These weren't our reading coaches who were generally really helpful - these were people from the district who I didn't know, who were - or at least this is how I read it - looking for teachers who were messing up and didn't have the proper components up on the wall.

I had the class - as scheduled - on the carpet, discussing the story we were reading.  The curriculum folks came in, continuing their conversation (which was not about curriculum) at a normal to loud level of volume.  They didn't try to be any quieter when they came into my classroom, and they didn't say "excuse me."  They just kept talking loudly, making it impossible for the children to continue their conversation, which was part of the curriculum.

I wish I had called them on it.  I wish I had just said, "Excuse me; we're having a lesson here - do you think you could talk a little more quietly?"  Or "Since you're so concerned with the curriculum, you might notice that we're trying to follow it and that it's very hard to do so when four adults are talking loud enough that the children can't hear each other."  I wish I had found out their names and emailed them later - cc'ing the superintendent - to let them know that their behavior was unprofessional and that if they were going to walk into my classroom to check on how professional I was being, that they could at least shut their mouths long enough to avoid taking away valuable learning time from my students. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


When I was working in the inner city, I noticed that the kids were rarely unaware that they had less than other kids.  When we went on field trips, they would ask me, "Is this where the rich people live?  These house look like rich people houses."  They would often point out that white people in the grocery stores buy more food than their family was able to, and that other people didn't have to live where there was shooting most nights.

As I've been doing private tutoring, I have obviously been working with many students whose families are much better off financially than my former students' families. One of the interesting things to me is that many of them are not aware how fortunate they are.  At one point, a student who goes to a prestigious private elementary school asked me if I tutored any of my former students.  When I said no, she asked me why.  I simply said that most of them couldn't afford tutoring - didn't explain further.  She looked at me for a minute or so and said, tearing up, "That is so sad."  She wasn't being sarcastic or petty; she was serious.  She had no idea that some of these kids didn't have enough food - not being able to have a tutor was enough for her to get visibly sad.

Another student who goes to a very good middle school in a fairly wealthy area asked me why so many people eat at McDonald's.  Her family is big on whole grains, vegetables, and homemade soups.  She likes to really understand things, so we talked about how fast food is easy and fast and somewhat addictive.  She kept saying that she still thinks it's gross and that people shouldn't feed fast food to children.  I told her that I agreed but then tried to explain the concept of a food desert, and how some people don't have cars to get to grocery stores, don't have grocery stores in their neighborhoods, and don't have enough money to buy food, so the dollar menu might end up looking pretty attractive.  She's a smart girl and she got it.  She had never realized this before and asked me a few times if I was sure there were neighborhoods without grocery stores.  I described the neighborhood where I had taught and told her that a lot of the families were only able to shop at liquor stores.  She took it all in and said, "I wish there was a way we could get good food to them."  Amen, sister.

The last conversation I've had about this subject was this week, with another private school student.  She was looking through the photos on my phone and commenting on my dog and my niece and how cute they are.  She happened upon a photo of me with my Little Sister and asked who she was.  She was confused because my Little Sister is black so "she isn't related to you, right?"  I didn't explain that families can be interracial (thought of that later), but told her she was a girl I volunteer with.  She asked me why and what did I mean and I sort of explained the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.  I was not prepared to explain as much as I did, but she kept asking me more.  Why did the kids need people to volunteer with them?  Did they all have only one parent?  What did it feel like to have one parent in jail?  Do kids with parents in jail know why their parents are in jail?  Do they think their parents are good people even if they're in jail?  What do I mean some parents don't have cars?  How do they get their kids to appointments though?  Don't they get to go on vacation?  Some people don't make enough money to go on vacation?  What do they do if they need help in school and can't afford a tutor?  What if they need to go to the hospital and they don't have a car?  So, the things I do with my Little Sister are just things that she does with her own parents?  Why do I spend time with this girl when I'm busy?  

She ended with: "Can you write down the website for this program?  I think I'd like to learn more about it."

It astounds me that none of these kids had any idea about how the other half lives.  These aren't celebrity children and none of them live in gated compounds.  They have just never been around poor children.  And they could easily spend their whole lives having no idea that there are people who are struggling to get enough food - not even two miles away.

On the other hand, the kids in the low-income neighborhoods are totally aware that there is an "other half."  They may have many misconceptions about them, but they know they exist.

I feel like this needs to be addressed.  I'm not sure how, but I'd love to hear ideas.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Burnt Cookie: Skin Color in Third Grade

another of my posts got published in Teaching Tolerance!

I really liked this paint chip lesson so please read and tell me what you think!