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.